Whateley Academy September 7, Thursday
The big day had finally arrived. Jade didn’t think it was possible to be more nervous. It would have been bad enough if this were only the first day of high school. Of course, it always added to the anxiety when you start at a new school, in a new town. And on top of that, there was the whole “super powers” thing. Every student and many of the teachers had some sort of weird power. And on top of that, she and she alone had the major problem that she was still, physically, a guy.
Her morning shower proved just how much of a problem this was. Everyone had finally moved in, and today they were all trying to get ready in time for the special morning assembly. Jade had noticed problems yesterday, but the implications hadn’t really hit her. It all had to do with how the showers were set up. The bathroom was claustrophobically small to be shared by fifteen different girls. This was obviously one of the reasons why the top-floor seniors did their best to “squeeze” as many people as possible into the lower floors. Fewer girls on their floor meant better bathroom access. One side-effect was that this bottom floor was always completely full.
There were three modest-sized showers crammed in the very back of the bathroom. Each shower had its own curtain allowing her to shower in privacy. She’d been clever enough about hanging her panties within reach. Between that and using Jinn-in-the-panties to give herself a perfect tuck, no one had seen her naked, and no one had realized that she carried the gross deformity of having guy parts down there.
But now that the floor was finally filled, she was seeing how girls used the changing area. This was a tile floor with benches and shelves just before the shower area. And, unlike the showers, this area was completely open. And while the girls weren’t trying to flash each other, there was nowhere else for them to shave their legs. Which is how she’d come to know that Tennyo was most definitely female (as if having a period wasn’t proof enough).
The problem was: Did Jade need to shave her legs? She kind of wanted to, just to feel more girlish. But she probably didn’t really need to, yet. Another advantage of being pre-puberty. And while a couple of girls wore panties while shaving (always to hold their pads in place, she noted covertly), most did not. Hard to give yourself a bikini trim, if you’re wearing panties.
Jade gulped. It wasn’t a problem yet, but it might be soon. Why couldn’t she have just been born the proper gender?
Back in the room, she contemplated her luck in escaping exposure once again. She’d been living as a girl full-time for a week now, and it was fabulous! More than ever, she was convinced that this was the right choice. But her physical problem sapped her confidence. She compensated by dressing properly, so that she was constantly reassured of her real gender no matter what her stupid body thought. For example, she didn’t actually need her training bra, but it did wonders for her self-image. And today, on her first day of school, she was careful to wear her school uniform. The tailored outfit had finally come in. She was in love with the pleated skirt, and the way it swished, and how it felt on her legs. It was more than warm enough. In fact, she really appreciated having bare legs. Since it was still (technically) summer, she wore short socks with the outfit. The blazer was a little too warm, but the way it was cut in at the waist gave her the illusion of a figure, so she was loathe to take it off despite the heat.
Jinn wore a second uniform. This one was off the shelf, not tailored, but it was sized for Jinn’s body – six inches taller, and two years older than Jade. Jinn wore her black body-suit under the uniform. The cost of double-wardrobes was horrible, but Jade hoped her new job would ease the problem quickly. She still needed to buy a couple more uniforms.
She thought she’d finally worked out how to coordinate her Jade-schedule and Jinn-schedule. Jinn could last sixty-seven minutes on a charge. Most classes were fifty minutes long, with ten minutes to get to the next room. That meant that Jade needed to meet Jinn at least once between every class. A quick touch should be enough to “charge” Jinn, but if they didn’t touch, Jinn would fade just before class started.
This worked fine at the beginning of the day, and they shared their last class – martial arts. Even if that was way over in Laird Hall, they’d be heading there together. In fact, all their morning classes were right there in Shuster Hall. But during lunch Jade would eat while Jinn (who didn’t need food or rest) would get in an hour’s worth of maintenance work. That meant that she (Jade) would need to stop by the maintenance room and charge up gloves or something, before lunch. She hoped that Stan and Morrie wouldn’t smell bad enough to ruin her appetite.
After lunch, Jinn could just pack herself away in the maintenance room (they didn’t need to meet), but Jinn had Powers Lab, which was underground in Arena ‘77 or a large classroom just adjacent to it. Fortunately, both of their next classes were still here in Shuster hall.
Jade and Jinn both carried backpacks as they left for breakfast. The two of them looked around at the other girls (and Hank). Fey, Tennyo, and Hank seemed to have echoed her idea, wearing the uniform for their first day. She noticed that Fey’s uniform seemed different somehow, and more tailored. That was before she remembered the problems the fox-faced girl had with synthetics. That entire uniform was probably custom made. Jade wondered whether to be jealous of Fey’s high-end wardrobe, or sympathetic for the incredible expense the elven girl had to spend, just to dress normally.
Tennyo looked like someone who was trying to pass as normal, meek, and inconsequential. Unfortunately, with her oddly colored spiky hair, prominent ears, and cat-slitted eyes, the effort was pretty much doomed to failure.
Jade thought that she herself looked completely normal, and Hank was the perfect picture of a skinny freshman boy.
Toni had dressed fairly conservatively, for her. A sheer, black sleeveless v-neck top and a matching knee-length skirt. A gold belt and bracelet completed the image.
“That’s a pretty mild look for you,” Tennyo commented.
Toni shrugged. “Way I figure it, this whitebread New England school is going to have enough trouble coping with a sister. No sense going all radical on them, day one. Besides, wearing a uniform on my first day would be like saying that I’m jealous of the whole WASP culture and identity; I’m just another vanilla freshman.” She suddenly spotted the uniforms on the other three girls, none of whom fit in the “mainstream white” category. “Well, I mean, no offense.”
As they headed out the door, Fey asked, “So are you ever going to wear those uniforms you bought?”
“I’ve got to really feel like I’m part of the school before I can wear the uniform. Doesn’t that make sense to anyone?”
“No,” Jade said. “I’m Japanese. We enjoy standing in lines and being part of a hive culture. We also enjoy racial stereotypes and simplistic generalizations.”
Toni looked at her out of the side of her eyes. “Nice sarcasm, kid. Didn’t know you had it in you.”
Jade bobbed her head in an abbreviated bow. “Thank you, Sempai.”
Scowling, Ayla brought up the rear. She was the other girl out of uniform, wearing ripped jeans and a T-shirt with enough holes to give occasional peaks at her lacy bra. “Does it bother anyone else that ninjas always attack on a school night? How are we supposed to get any sleep, when we’re being attacked by psycho-spies and professional assassins.”
“You’re just mad that we lost our lead on the blackmailers,” Fey commented.
“Hell, yes! No one threatens me or my family!”
The assembly meant that everyone had to be early, because it came before their first-period class. Jade marveled again at the deep, dark, richly polished wood at the entry of Shuster Hall. But this time, it was filled to the brim with students. Some heading in or out of Crystal hall, some waiting by one of the two huge fires that blazed at each side of the oversized entry. A good percentage of the students wore the official uniform.
Jade felt a bit like she’d stepped into one of the Harry Potter movies. That was the only thing she’d seen where students wore uniforms and attended a boarding school. She blushed anew at the pure pleasure of being a girl in this fantastic scene, of wearing that wonderful pleated skirt, and feeling the cool morning air whisper up her bare legs all the way to her panties. She breathed in the magical scent of her first day of high school, buoyed by the beautiful girlfriends that surrounded her. It felt absolutely fantastic to be taking her proper place in life.
There were other similarities to the Harry Potter movies. The polished oak and mahogany gave the hall a look of timeless splendor, from some era that was centuries past. And while Crystal Hall was more of a high-tech cafeteria than a grand dining hall, it was reminiscent of the grandeur of Hogwarts. But, the difference stood out even more clearly.
First, Shuster hall was a brick building, not a stone castle. And the classrooms tended to be either very modern or rejects from the fifties, badly in need of remodeling. There were, sadly, no stone dungeons, potions rooms, or gothic-style cathedral windows.
And the variety of students at Whateley was far greater. She scanned the crowd in the great hall, studying the oddities. There were several students covered entirely in hair – one that looked like a werewolf, another that looked like a cat. There was a boy that had to be over seven feet tall and looked like he was made of smooth, gray stone. A girl with inhumanly large, pure green eyes, and fairy antenna. And one student that floated over them all in cloud shape (Jade couldn’t tell if it was a boy or girl).
Keeping carefully beside the other girls, she followed them into the main auditorium for the assembly.
Afterward, they split up and scattered, as everyone raced to get to their own locker before the crowd got too thick. Jade managed a last wave for her friends, as she headed up the stairs to the second floor.
“See you,” Tennyo said, confidently. “Let’s meet here for lunch.”
Jade nodded as the others waved, before heading off in their own directions. Now it was just her and Jinn, heading for their side-by-side lockers. They moved to the far right edge of the wide wooden staircase. Jade held onto the handrail, despite the fact that it was six inches wide and far too big for her hand. She gave a quick glance over to Jinn.
“Glad,” she said to her other self, in their abbreviated personal communication. She was really saying, I’m glad you’re here. It’s lonely and a bit frightening, as I feared, but you make me feel better, so I’m glad.
“Sister?” came the reply, meaning, Should we go with the earlier plan we thought of, introducing me as your older sister?
They finally located their locker, which was difficult in the crowded hallway. The locker two over to her right was being used by a mature-looking blonde girl. As Jade opened her own locker, the other girl turned to look at her. Jade gasped. It was Headmistress Carson! She’d just seen her giving the talk in the assembly! But – why was the headmistress shorter looking? And why was she suddenly wearing a student’s uniform? As she watched, the other girl turned to look at her. Now Jade saw that it wasn’t the headmistress at all. In fact, her hair was dark, almost black.
As Jade watched, the girl staring at her suddenly turning into an image of her! The taller-Jade stifled a cry and went running off before Jade could say a word.
Shrugging, she reached over to give Jinn a last charge, then rushed off to class while Jinn did the same.
“Now class, who can give me a reason to wear a costume.”
There was an immediate deluge of shouted answers.
“To protect your secret identity!”
“It’s a contrast, so that when they see you in civilian clothes they don’t make the connection.”
“To show off a killer bod!”
“To hide a deformity.”
“A uniform, so the police and public can recognize you.”
Mrs. Ryan smiled. “Very good. And all of these answers are correct.” She adjusted her thick horn-rimmed glasses. “Can you think of any others?”
A nerdy-looking boy in the front row raised his hand. “For armor. Protection. In fact, maybe the costume IS your power.”
“Uh, freedom of movement. I mean, street clothes might be kind of cumbersome, if you’re making fast moves.”
Mrs. Ryan nodded. “Exactly. Which explains why miniskirts are so popular among female costumes.” It was a bit of a shock hearing her say this, since she looked to be in her eighties and had both an ankle-length print dress and a shawl over her shoulders. You didn’t expect a woman like that to be talking about miniskirts. “Every so often the news goes on a bugaboo about exploitation and role models for young girls. Honestly. They don’t expect policewomen or female troops to wear long dresses. Why should a superheroine? And if a young girl wants to show off a bit, well, so long as it isn’t vulgar, I say what’s the harm in it?”
She blinked briefly, and Jinn saw a flash of embarrassment-orange. “In this class – well, to be frank, I’ll insist that ALL your costumes follow this. Some of you mentioned showing off, some mentioned protection. This last discussion, about the news and exploitation, reminded me.” She cleared her throat again. “Costumes for the girls will be… padded in certain areas. To protect those areas that are vulnerable. But it will also tend to emphasize certain things. And you boys, well, I must insist that your costumes contain a cup. Which will be somewhat flattering, while guarding against embarrassment, and offering very useful protection.”
There was a murmur around the classroom at this. Jinn looked at Ayla, beside her, who just shrugged.
“Now, can anyone think of any other reasons to wear a costume?”
Jinn debated, then finally raised her hand.
“Yes, the blonde girl in the sunglasses.”
“To look normal and blend in.”
“Excellent!” Mrs. Ryan nodded happily. “All the costumes we’ve spoken about until now are meant to stand out. They deliberately attract attention. But there is a completely different kind of costume. As you can see from your fellow classmates, many of them have slight differences. Something that noticeably sets them apart from the common press of humanity. In some of these cases, a cleverly designed costume can conceal the difference, allowing the person to walk unnoticed among ordinary people. I have a particular fondness for these costumes, since they pose a greater challenge to the seamstress.
“Let me tell you – tailoring in America today is a dying art form. Certainly in the more upscale clothiers of New York you will find plenty of tailors, drawing a decent wage. But there was a time when everyone used a tailor. They didn’t expect to find something off the rack that fit ‘well enough.’ They wanted it to fit right, and make them look good.
“Of course,” she added primly, “that was also before it became fashionable to wear pants that were five sizes too large, before it was popular to show off your underwear, and before t-shirt and jeans became the sole wardrobe for an entire nation. But I digress.
“Who would like to be my first volunteer? Who feels they don’t fit in, and would like to have a costume that lets them walk among a normal crowd?”
Many hands went up, including Jinn’s.
“You there! In the last row. Yes, the rocky-looking lad. What’s your name?”
“Igneous.” The man in question was about six and a half feet tall, and broader than a football tackle wearing pads. His skin was smooth gray, and looked like it had a stone-like quality. And although he had a shape similar to a bodybuilder, it really only resembled the contours of human musculature. It was more slab-like, that almost coincidentally gave definition to the pectoral and abdominal muscles of a human. Jinn guessed that the fellow should probably be classified as being still a boy, still, but given his size and rumbling sub-base voice, it was hard to see him as anything other than a grown man.
“Igneous. Well, if you don’t mind my saying so, I think that’s a poor name. Too close to ‘ignoramus.’ You muscle-types have to fight a constant battle to appear intelligent. Just an example of stereotypes working against you. Instead of choosing a name which associates with stupidity, you should go for a different association. Perhaps ‘Granite’ – which I feel associates with Cary Grant, a fine image.”
“Well, perhaps ‘Hudson’, and let people think of Rock Hudson.” When her target didn’t respond, she continued. “Now, your current set of shorts can’t help but emphasize your difference, both in physique and in dress. May I ask why you didn’t wear a standard school uniform today?”
“Tailors are still working on it.”
“As soon as you can, I’d like you to wear your uniform to class. Now, if you could come up front to model for me, briefly.”
Reluctantly, Igneous moved to the front of the class. He was clearly putting effort into walking carefully, but his tread could still be felt throughout the room. When he reached the front, he stood there in strained cut-off shorts, with neither shirt nor shoes.
“Now in your case, young man, there’s no need for a costume to stand out. Either for recognition or protection or showing off. Am I correct?”
“Instead, what we need is a way to make you ‘fit in.’ It’s really more ‘fitting in’ rather than ‘blending in.’ You can’t help being noticed wherever you go. So, rising to the fashion challenge, our task is to make sure that the statement you make is both a positive and comforting one. You will be noticed, but in a positive way. Now, class, who can suggest ways that we might accomplish this?”
“A policeman’s uniform.”
“A doctor’s white coat.”
“Excellent. All good examples. Now, to some segments of the populace, any of those suggestions might possibly be threatening. But by and large, these people are accepted and stereotyped as both helpful and predictable. People will see you, judge you by your clothes, and make certain assumptions. For example, in the suit, they will expect you to be cultured, reasonably polite, and prone to solve problems in a social manner rather than a physical one. The trick is to look like a businessman, rather than a gangster.
“As for a doctor’s lab coat, I happen to have one right here. Let’s try it on, and see how it changes your look.”
And although they didn’t get back to her at all, Jinn found the class fascinating.
The rush between classes was chaos. The strange students didn’t make up a huge percentage of the population, but they added more than their share of disruption. It only took a couple of seven-foot-tall figures to mess up a hallway, and wings took a lot of room. As Jade squeezed through on her way to her locker to meet Jinn, the elevator dinged ahead of her. She saw the door open, and a load of extremely non-ordinary types step out. It was almost impossible not to stare at the boy who seemed to be oozing slime, or the skeleton in the Whateley uniform. The skeleton had glowing red coals for eyes, but seemed to have invisible flesh that made his uniform fit correctly.
Jade didn’t really appreciate the new entries. Not so much because of appearance, but because they made the hallway that much more crowded. And as one of the smallest and lightest people in the hallway, it was sometimes hard to make progress. Fortunately, she could sometimes duck around into small openings that the larger students missed.
Finally, though, she made it to her locker. Jinn was already there, holding the books for both of their next classes.
Jade looked at her other self in jealousy. Jinn had been to the exciting Costume class, while she’d had to sit through beginning English. Exciting, mostly because it was her first high school class, but still.
They looked at each other.
“Share?” Jade asked. You want to come here and share the memories of costuming class with me?
Jinn didn’t even bother to nod, she just put the books down and deflated.
Even as the wash of memories flooded her, Jade was touching the drooping outfit and restoring Jinn. They grinned at each other, as the memories of opposite classes settled in, then headed off in their own directions once more.
Professor Filbert Quintain was the lecturer for Powers Theory. He spoke in a monotone that seemed designed to put people to sleep. Initially, Jinn thought he was doing it as a joke, but as class progressed, she realized with horror that this was his normal voice.
“You will please notice,” he told them, “that there is a set of three lights below our classroom flag. These duplicate the flag colors on the main flag flying on campus. Today, of course, the light is red. Were it not red, I would welcome you to adopt a decorum that was more appropriate to your individual situations. Many students enjoy hovering in mid-air, or sitting upon the ceiling. Still others will prefer to curl up on the floor, like a dog or cat. I assure you, however, that our floors are quite sanitary, since they are cleaned regularly every evening. Ha ha.” He forced a smile at that last, letting them know that he considered it a joke.
With his brief introduction out of the way, he launched into his main lecture. Jinn found herself simultaneously fascinated and repulsed. The information was fascinating, but the tone was driving her nuts. She had already noticed a yawn traveling across the room – an affliction that she was fortunately immune to.
“Super powers, mutations or mutant abilities, or perhaps simply ‘The Power.’ Yes, all these labels have been used to describe people with abilities such as your own. There is evidence that such people have existed throughout recorded history. However, with lower population densities, mutants were correspondingly much rarer. And without training or a basis for understanding their situation, many mutants thought themselves rewarded or bedeviled by supernatural forces.”
He spoke a bit more about ancient history. He promised to cover a little each class, then moved forward in time, discussing how Hermann von Helmholtz became the first scientist to study mutant abilities, spurred to interest by the blind esper Maria Stoklasa who could sometimes “see in the dark.” He described in excruciating detail how Helmholtz had used his own invention, the ophthalmoscope, to verify that Stoklasa was not using her eyes in any way and that this new sense operated by unknown physical phenomena.
“Based upon his work with Miss Stoklasa and four other espers that he was able to visit, in addition to historic accounts, Helmholtz created what is still used today as the levels of esper reliability and controllability.” Using a squeaky piece of chalk, Professor Quintain laboriously wrote on the blackboard:
Level 1: Flashes, unpredictable
Level 2: Some controllable periods
Level 3: Completely reliable, totally controllable
“Miss Stoklasa was, of course, a level 2, which Helmholtz defined as a mutant who can trigger the sense deliberately, or who could control the duration once an unpredictable flash began, or who could steer and target the vision once it began. In other words, a mutant who had some element of control over the vision. In Miss Stoklasa’s case, anxiety was the trigger for her vision. A simple concern for not seeing where she was going. During such periods of anxiety, she would sometimes have her ‘eyes opened’. This phenomena would persist for several minutes, during which Miss Stoklasa could shift her viewpoint to anywhere within a five-mile radius. But once her eyes ‘closed’ again, she was unable to reopen them for at least several hours. Let’s review then. In what way was her vision controllable? Hands please.”
This was particularly interesting to Jinn, since her preliminary classification had been as a Level 3 esper.
“For the different types of senses, Helmholtz hit a wall. With the research then available, all he could do was to list the various types of senses described, and to postulate that these were all aspects of some sort of ‘super sense’, or ‘divine perception’ as he called it. He felt that the esper senses were surely some lesser example of God’s omniscience, perceiving the world directly without passing through the gross physical mediums of the body.
“Today, after examining literally thousands of espers, we have made little headway on Helmholtz’s original listing methodology. Superficially, there would seem to be little relation between a precognitive, a water dowser, and a person who ‘smells’ areas of good and bad luck. Are these all just specialized examples of the precognitive senses? If so, what about those who can see waves of magnetism? And what about empathy, which is still classed as an esper senses, rather than with telepathy.
Quintain continued. “We are fortunate to have in class a student who is a level 2, and as with many espers, has a unique never-before-seen, ha ha, sense.” He held a hand out to a boy in the third row.
The kid had a backward baseball cap, long stringy blonde hair, and an oversize T-shirt and jeans. Slightly embarrassed, he waved at the class. “Uh, hi.” He waved again. When Quintain beckoned him forward, he stepped shyly. “Uh, I guess you want to know about my sight, right? Well…” he reached into his backpack and pulled out a tennis ball. “I can see ricochets. I mean, I have to wind up and hold it.” He did so, holding the ball behind him, ready to throw. “And I have to concentrate just right.” He scowled. “And usually… ah, there it is.” Squinting, he began to describe it to them. “I see, I dunno, spots sort of on everything in front of me. Okay, there’s a good one. It’s like there’s layers. If I hit right there, the ball will bounce back, hit the corner of the desk, hit the ceiling light fixture sideways, carom off the opposite fixture, and drop down into my hand again.”
He threw the ball hard against the wall, and it bounced exactly as predicted, landing in his outstretched hand.
“Now,” Professor Quintain resumed, “why is this sense considered only level 2, and not level 3? And can we classify this as a pure esper mutation? It seems impossible to throw with such fine control without some other element in the mix, such as telekinesis. Chaos theory alone would predict…”
And the class settled slowly back into their doze.
Jade tried to make her way between algebra and bio, but she had to meet Jinn on the way to give her a charge. She was sure she’d get the schedule down soon, but for now she needed both her schedule list and the diagram she’d made of where her route crossed Jinn’s route. It was easier when they both passed by their lockers – they could just meet there.
The hallway was crowded at the best of times, but right now she was being pushed around with almost no control. She was the smallest person in the hallway, and most of the other students seemed to be in as much of a rush as she was. She was shoved again. Like most of the other shoves, there didn’t seem to be anything personal in this, just another big student pushing through the crowd. Jade was shoved into the side of a taller blonde girl.
“Sorry,” she mumbled.
“What? Why you!” The girl turned to look at her. “What do you think you’re doing, you greasy little urchin!”
“I said I was sorry.”
The blonde’s friends suddenly clustered around. Jade quickly noticed that although they all wore the school uniform, their uniforms were tailored. Her experience with Jinn’s uniform and her own had shown her how tailoring was required for the better fit. And Tennyo, Fey, and Ayla had shown her that there were different levels of tailoring. The basic (like Jade’s) adjusted the fit modestly. The more advanced tailoring jobs slightly customized the outfit, or (in extreme cases) even used finer fabrics. That kind of job cost many times as much as one of the regular, cheaper uniforms.
These girls all wore uniforms that spoke of the most expensive tailoring.
“I don’t know why such a prestigious school insists on letting in dirty little foreigners.”
“What?” Even as Jade said it, she understood. She’d heard the same thing often enough in Topeka. It was almost always Anglos, who seemed to believe that they were the only true natives. It had made Jade a bit more sympathetic to the plight of the real Native Americans, whenever Anglos claimed some sort of special ownership or native status. But back in Topeka, she’d found there was no really good comeback to this type of ethnic prejudice.
“Really!” one of the brunettes said. “If they can’t learn to be polite, at least they should learn to keep their distance.”
“I was born and raised in Kansas!” She began, knowing it was pointless.
“Come, girls,” the redhead said. “Don’t let the urchin drag you down to her level.”
The four of them hurried off.
“Those of you who signed up for Word Processing have lucked out. You’ll be the first students in the freshman class to receive your laptops. Headmistress Carson was supposed to tell everyone during the morning assembly? Good. Now, today we’re going to practice the very basics. You’re going to write a document, swap laptops, and then wipe the hard drive of your companion’s laptop. Don’t worry! The real lesson is how to format a system from scratch. That and the importance of backups. Now, to begin…”
In the hallway between classes, Jade was even more nervous. She’d gotten plenty of pushes and shoves as she made her way through the halls. Now that she was carrying thousands of dollars worth of laptop in her backpack, and she was afraid that someone was going to shove her onto her back, and she’d break the phenomenally expensive computer she was now carrying. Luckily, the route to her last class took her away from the crowded corridors of Shuster Hall.
Their martial arts class was in the new “Eastman annex.” Jade quickly met up with Jinn, and the two of them followed the other students as they filed into a large room covered with thick gymnastic mats. One wall was mirrored, like a dance studio.
It was easy to spot the experienced students. They immediately lined up and dropped to sit in seiza position, along one edge of the mats. No one wore a gi, everyone was in street clothes. There were some shoes by the door, and Jade added hers to the pile. She also saw a pile of backpacks in a protected alcove, and gratefully added her own backpack to the group, having Jinn float up to place it in the very back, where it was least likely to get fallen on or grabbed by mistake. That location had to be safer than carrying the expensive computer into the dojo.
She and Jinn moved in to sit seiza at the edge of a mat. Although they were both in street clothes, Jade carefully arranged her skirt as she sat on the floor. Jinn prepared identically, sitting beside her. Someone else sat by her other size, and she looked over to see Toni. She smiled at the black girl just as the bell rang.
The instant the bell stopped, the far door opened and two people entered.
The first was a tall African-American woman. Her frizzy hair was done in two large pom-poms, one to each side of her head. She was slightly over six feet tall, and had a killer figure. Not dressed in a gi, she wore a skintight black bodysuit. She looked like she had just stepped off the poster for an action-adventure movie. Behind her was a short, almost elderly Japanese man. He looked like he was perhaps an inch or so shorter than Jade. He wore the wide legged hakama pants that sometimes looked like a skirt to westerners, the wide-sleeved montsuki top, and was adorned with a mon crest that Jade didn’t recognize – a set of three white raindrop/teardrop shapes in an inverted triangle, over a deep blue background.
The black woman stepped forward, radiating a no-nonsense attitude. “I am Amanda Tolman. Everyone who wishes to remain in this class will purchase a gi for practice. Unless otherwise notified, you will change into your gi before class. When the bell rings, you will begin in seiza position, lined up as you see with the more experienced students here. We will practice in a variety of situations, including street clothes, costumes, and real-life situations. However, most classes will be taught here, and you will be wearing gis. Any questions so far?”
The class was silent, merely nodding at the rapid-fire information.
“The students in this class have a wide variety of skill levels and an even wider variety of powers. This will require the use of some unique training tools. Some classes will be taught in the combat arenas. Some will be taught outside. In the dojo here, we will use a variety of tools and weapons. Everything from a simple bo stick –” she held out a hand and the older man swung a quarterstaff toward her that smacked into her hand “— to the bokken to simulate a sword, similar substitutes for knifes, explosives, gas, even guns. There will be many training tools that you have never seen before, such as the capture cage.”
At this, she gestured to the far corner. The elderly Japanese man pulled away a curtain to reveal an outlandish set of bars and contraptions, all painted fire-engine red.
“The capture cage is a simulation for a device that can nullify your powers. I don’t care how that would be done or whether it is even possible. You will act as if it’s true. Once in the cage, you are caught, dead, gone, lost. In some of your training, the object will be to get someone else into the cage, or to keep yourself out of it. Any questions?”
A student in back finally raised his hand. “You talked about different powers. I can make a force field around myself.” He paused, and barely visible oval appeared around him. “Nothing can penetrate it,” his muffled voice came through. “So how can martial arts help me? What do you have to teach me?”
“Excellent question,” Tolman sensei replied. “The single greatest benefit of this training is that it teaches you to think. You will be constantly planning ahead, assessing danger, planning escape routes or attacks. You will study tactics, learn to sense weakness and danger, and change your view of the world. This training is more important than the hand-to-hand skills. You will also learn that any power and any technique has holes.
“This is a good time to mention waivers. By virtue of the fact that you are here at Whateley, I know that your parents have signed damage, injury, and liability waivers. That means that I am not responsible if you get hurt in this class! And you WILL get hurt, every last one of you. This is a rough class – but it is also worth it.
“You should know that conventional gym, with its own forms of combat training, is still open. You may transfer out of this class and into gym anytime through next Wednesday. After that, you will simply receive a ‘FAIL’ in this class. There are also many more advanced martial arts classes, taught by a wide variety of instructors, in a wide variety of disciplines. You may ‘graduate’ to those classes, once you have mastered the basic concepts of this beginner’s class.
“Now,” Tolman Sensei focused her eyes on the boy behind the force field. “A classic mistake is to assume a ‘citadel mentality.’ To assume that your powers cannot be breached. Remember, even a perfect defense will never let you win a fight. And I have yet to see a perfect defense.”
She snapped her fingers, seemingly casual. Aside from a sudden tightening around the eyes, she betrayed no signs of taking action. But a moment later, the boy behind the force field collapsed to the mat, unconscious. His force field vanished.
“Remember,” she continued, “what you don’t know, can hurt you.” She suddenly stepped up to a person in the front row. “You! You’ve just been given a magic power-neutralizer gun. You’re fighting a scrawny kid whose only power is massive telekinesis. Does the gun let you win?”
“Uh… no? I mean, I don’t know.”
“Good answer. You don’t know enough, yet. For example, is the scrawny kid levitating a safe over your head? If so, you may not want to neutralize his powers. If you’re going to instigate the fight, you’d be wise to learn as much as you can ahead of time.
“Which brings us to our first demonstration. Allow me to introduce my sensei, Tatsuo Ito.” She bowed deeply, then stepped into the background.
The man who stepped forward looked to be in his late fifties, with thinning white hair. He had just finished using a cord to tie back the sleeves of his oversized shirt as he stepped forward to face them.
“I am Tatsuo Ito.” His voice had a slight British accent, and he spoke to them crisply and directly. “You may call me either ‘Ito Sensei’ which means ‘teacher Ito,’ or ‘Soke’ which means that I am a founder of a new school.
“I was formerly a Hanshi in the shin-shin toitsu school. However, my exposure to mutants has led me to seeks something much more ambitious. I am now attempting to blend together radically different techniques. The goal is to allow normal humans – well trained but normal – to successfully stand against powerful, though untrained, mutants. And to allow trained mutants to be more than capable of taking care of themselves. Allow me to demonstrate.”
He came walking forward, directly toward her, Jade thought. Could he have recognized her skill, just from how she sat? She’d really only had a few years, but she’d always enjoyed working in the dojo She was preparing to be both flustered and embarrassed. She settled for embarrassed, as he stopped in front of Hank.
“Mr. Hank Declan,” Ito Sensei announced. “My study of the records indicates that you are most likely the most powerful new student in this class. You are a level three exemplar with strength and reflexes above the human norm, even mine. In addition, you are a powerful telekinetic, and nearly invulnerable. You can lift about five tons, and recently fought successfully against a small army base. Correct?”
Hank nodded, not sure where this was leading.
“However, you are untrained. I am completely human, ordinary in every way except that I am highly trained. I wish to fight you, to demonstrate what my techniques can accomplish.”
Hank rose slowly to his feet, slowly shaking out the stiffness. Even at five-foot six, Hank was taller than the small elderly man, who was about Jinn’s height.
“I don’t want to hurt you by accident, Mr. Ito.”
“Call me sensei.”
“Good. You may attempt to simply restrain me, if you feel that is more appropriate. If you succeed, you have won the match.” He held out a hand and the bo stick seemed to fly to him. A moment later, the students realized that Tolman Sensei had been waiting to throw it to him.
“Since you are a new student, or kohai, let me explain that we begin on opposite side of the mat, here and here. We bow to each other – but don’t take your eyes off me – then we wait for the referee or Tolman Sensei in this case, to begin the match by saying ‘hajime.’”
The two of them faced each other across the mat. Hank looked powerful but unsure of himself, while the old Japanese man looked confident and moved with a strangely smooth grace.
“Hajime!” Tolman Sensei said, abruptly.
Hank stepped forward cautiously. Ito Sensei was more aggressive. He moved to almost within grappling range. Then, a moment later, he was behind Hank (it wasn’t clear exactly how he’d accomplished that). Quick strikes with the spinning staff struck Hank behind each leg, sweeping his feet forward. The stick struck with a surprisingly loud “clack.” It sounded as if striking Hank’s leg was like striking a piece of rock.
With his legs suddenly swept forward, Hank began to topple backwards. He started to spin to land in push-up position, but the blows struck his arms, chest, and then head. Hank flailed wildly with his hand, striking the older man almost by chance. Ito sensei was knocked aside as if he’d been hit by a piledriver. Tucking into a roll and flipping back to his feet, the older man seemed briefly shaky. He moved back in, closer to Hank.
The class collectively blinked, realizing the first skirmish was over. Hank lay on the ground, but was completely unhurt. Ito Sensei was on his feet, but had taken a powerful blow.
The old man took the moment of calm to explain. “I only struck for the head once I was sure he wouldn’t be hurt. Note that I physically dominated, but Mr. Declan hasn’t really lost anything yet, while I have taken a hit. Consider that appearances are not always what they seem. Also ask yourselves whether you would have fared so well as Mr. Declan.”
Hank had risen to his feet again.
“I’m surprised that I could sweep your feet from you, kohai. I thought you could fly. That would prevent a leg sweep from succeeding.”
Hank blinked, then lifted silently into the air.
Ito Sensei struck quickly with his staff, to the chest, groin, and top of the head. The staff moved in a blur, and the sound of contact was like a bullet hitting a boulder. Hank blocked the first shot. While the second two hit, they didn’t seem to do any damage. Ito Sensei began backing away.
Hank moved forward move aggressively now, flying at the old man. There was another strike, and this time Hank tried to grab the staff.
Toni leaned toward Jade. “Sensei just started to use his ki,” she whispered.
Ito sensei raced around behind Hank, striking again, three times, each strike faster than the last. On the third strike, Hank grabbed the staff and wrenched it away. He looked at it in satisfaction for a moment before throwing it away.
But the staff had been a distraction. With Hank’s attention momentarily occupied, Ito sensei seemed to blur. One moment he was in front of Hank, the next moment he was against the wall. A white cord spun out and settled over Hank’s right hand. Before Hank could react, the cord had tightened.
Hank pulled back, hard. The result was that Ito Sensei literally flew toward him, holding the rest of the cord. Before Hank could do more than blink, the sensei had rocketed past him, spinning, unwinding, wrapping, winding more cord around Hank. The sensei reversed the instant he touched down, racing back toward Hank in a blur and striking at Hank’s feet. This time, the goal wasn’t to sweep those feet out of the way, it was to set a floating target spinning. Before Hank could respond, he had spun heels-over-head in mid-air, and a dozen move twists of rope had bound him. His legs were bound together and only his left arm remained untangled. As he reached over to begin pulling the ropes free, Ito Sensei took the other end of the cord – a loop – and made a perfect cast into the bright red bars of the ‘capture cage.’ The loop settled over a hook which suddenly retracted, and began to reel in at high speed. Still stunned by the speed of the entire encounter, Hank was suddenly pulled forward.
With a look of surprise on his face, Hank gave up his attempt to loosen the loops of cord. Instead, he concentrated, using the full strength of his flight ability to pull away. But the cord wouldn’t break, and the winch motor was too strong. Somehow, the cord had been looped or tied so that it wasn’t unwrapping at all, but was pulling tighter instead.
And within moments, Hank had been pulled inside the cage.
Ito Sensei stepped forward, careful to stay out of Hank’s reach. “Do you yield?”
Hank glared, then slumped. “Yes, sir.”
Immediately, Tolman sensei stepped forward to begin releasing Hank.
Ito sensei faced the class. “The winch motor was useful, but not essential. Likewise, the capture cage was not necessary. Tying him up, in itself, would not have sufficed. He could have flown at me, as an intelligent but blunt projectile. I had to use techniques not merely to ‘rope him’, but also to tie him down.”
“You have just seen a highly trained human gain advantage over an extremely powerful mutant. Did I use tricks? Of course! That is one of the things my school will teach. There are many tricks to be aware of. Gas, poisons, flashes of blinding light, ropes, smoke screens, and the ubiquitous gun. Do not be contemptuous of ‘ordinary humans.’ I hope to teach you that any of you, all of you, can be vulnerable.
“I also hope to teach you speed and control, bare-handed techniques, planning, awareness, and naturally, how to create your own arsenal of tricks and techniques.
“But before that, we will begin with the basics. Tolman shihan will instruct you, while I examine you individually. Shihan…?”
It was at the end of class that the real crisis came. Martial arts is a sweaty and physical process, and like all high school gym classes, it ended with a shower. Since they hadn’t changed ahead of time, Jade was caught by surprise. Tolman sensei led the girls into the locker room, assigned them each a locker, and gave them a combination lock.
“Jinn and I can share the same locker, sensei.”
Sensei nodded, handing Jinn the lock, along with a slip of paper that had both her combination and locker number on it. “I suppose you’ll only need a single towel, as well.”
“Hai, sensei,” Jade reflexively bowed, but her heart was suddenly beating a mile a minute, and her skin had gone clammy.
Jinn looked at her with a blank expression, but Jade knew that to Jinn’s vision, she had suddenly exploded in yellow. Not needing to converse, the two of them worked slowly at the locker, while the girls around them disrobed for the showers.
It was easier for Jinn to survey the crowd. Although her eyes subconsciously followed the direction of her gaze, she wore dark glasses, concealing her attention. In any case, she actually “saw” with her entire face (with her entire body, when necessary), so it was far less obvious that she was studying particular people.
Many girls in the class were freshmen like herself, and many of them seemed similarly reluctant to disrobe in a public place. On the other hand, the older girls seemed to have little reluctance, and that example pushed the younger girls on.
It was nice to see that there were several other girls who had about the same figure that she had (or rather, that Jade had). That was to say: none. Little or no breast development, no curves, no pubic hair, and a training bra worn more for hope than necessity.
There were also girls at the opposite end of the spectrum: D-cup busts and lush figures, completely adult except for age. And there was everything in between.
More important was surveying the crowd to search for colors of suspicion, or the ultra-violet purple that signaled mutant powers such as a mind-reader. Such a disaster could be quite literally life-threatening in this situaton. Fortunately, that didn’t seem to be the case here.
She noted the care that some girls were taking with their sanitary pads, carefully but inconspicuously wrapping the pads up, for deposit in the trash on the way to the showers. The oh-so-casual arrangement of panties, concealing both the crotch of said panties (and any tell-tale stains) as well as hiding the new pad that waited there. It seemed there was an art to making your period as unobtrusive as possiible, and at the same time deliberately not noticing the periods of other girls.
More and more girls had left for the showers now, and the situation was becoming critical. Jinn finished dropping and folding the last of her “self”. She had already packed away her dress, wig, face, and bodysuit. There was nothing left but gloves now. And far worse, her unusual situation had drawn attention, making it even more difficult for Jade to escape notice. And she didn’t have a clue what to do.
Jade had been slowly undressing, and growing more and more panicked. The panty trick wouldn’t work here! She couldn’t wear panties to the shower. And if her gross little wiener was exposed to the other girls – she didn’t want to think about what would happen. If only there was some way to keep tucked in. When she was tucked, she didn’t look much different from the other pre-pubescent girls. But what could she do? It wasn’t like Jinn could hold her.
And then an idea came to her. What if Jinn could hold her?
At that moment, the gloves dropped onto Jinn’s pile, and the memories filled her.
Jade was already down to bra and panties. It was time for the moment of truth. She could charge Jinn into just about any physical object. What if she cast Jinn into her own wiener? Then Jinn could hold the disgusting thing up in a tuck, so that she’d look like a proper girl.
With the guise of preparing to remove her panties, Jade reached down inside her underwear and touched herself there. A moment’s concentration, and she activated Jinn.
For Jinn, there were two ways she could come into existence. She could be created as a “person”, in which case she felt like she had a physical, ghostly body. She shifted the pieces of material around so that they became congruent with her skin. As she did that, the items would appear to inflate, as the began to react as if she were physically inside of them. The advantage was that she felt like she had an actual body, and could move and react normally.
OR, instead of holding her body solid and forcing the items to conform to her, she could let her body flow like liquid, and fill the item, conforming to it. She usually did this when she was charged into something like a sheet or blanket, or perhaps a tool like a brush or mop. This took much more mental effort to coordinate her movements, and she wasn’t as graceful or dexterous, but she could often use her “body” much more effectively, and in ways that didn’t mimic normal human musculature.
Now, she discovered something of a third style, a blending of the two. Cast into a physical appendage, she flowed and spread, coursing along Jade’s skin until she occupied the entire surface. Her shape was human, but she was not. She was a shell, with a “grip” on every aspect of Jade’s skin – and at the same time, she filled Jade’s body – and yet, she was Jinn, not Jade.
And yet, she was Jade, too.
First things first. Controlling the surface of her skin, she took the offensive appendage and tucked it out of the way, firmly pressing it into the waiting crease until almost nothing showed. The annoying little spheres that were her testicles were gently pressed until they flowed back into her body cavity (where they belonged). The empty sac of her scrotum turned out to be surprisingly useful. Stretching it out, pulling, spreading, it folded back over the tucked position of her nasty organ. The excess flesh of her scrotum could be pulled and positioned until it formed a set of fleshy lips, covering her nasty thing, and giving the appearance of a normal girl’s labia. Her all-around vision confirmed that the appearance was correct… provided that she didn’t do something absurd, like spreading her legs wide and giving a view straight up her crotch. She was judging by the girls she’d seen shaving her legs in Poe. Judging by that, this disguise looked pretty good.
The thought positively sung with ecstasy. She’s done it! I’ve done it! I’m a girl!
Except that it wasn’t her thought! That is, it was a Jade-her though, not a Jinn-her thought. Can you hear me?
What? Can you hear me? She answered herself.
She never really thought of herself as “Jade” or “Jinn.” Those were labels that allowed her to converse with other people. But she herself never had a problem keeping track of herself. There was her-here and her-there, whichever form she was in. Soon enough it would all be just-her, all the memories and events joined together again. So she didn’t really think of herself as having a Jade-half and a Jinn-half. It was all just different versions of her. But to hear the thoughts of other-her … that was weird.
Particularly since there was leakage across all her senses. She could see in color, but it was only in the forward direction. She had her normal gray “vision” all around, and the colors associated with emotions, but it was a different sense from vision, and it didn’t go away when she blinked.
She could feel her skin – two different ways. There was the pressure awareness of being Jinn, bound to every contour and fold in that skin. Then there was the actual feel of being Jade, and being inside the living flesh.
And her thoughts kept running into each other. It was like she was thinking for two people at once, but they were very close to one another, thinking almost the same things.
She tried to move her hand, to take off her bra. At least she could finally take a shower properly. None of the other girls would look twice at her.
Her hands flopped spastically behind her back, controlled by two separate sets of impulses.
Okay, I can do this! She concentrated, and both of her moved their hands together. It was a little awkward, but she accomplished unhooking her bra. Slipping out of the panties was easier.
It was magnificent to be a girl (almost). To walk naked into the showers with the other girls, unafraid of how they’d react, the hatred they’d show her. And although it still felt a little odd to be tucked into place down there, having the proper contours, finally looking like she was supposed to look… it was such a thrill that she practically felt like she was walking on air.
A moment later, she realized she was. Her feet were an inch above the floor. She was totally puzzled until she realized that as Jinn, she only pretended to walk. In actual fact, she floated along at ground height. And being lifted by every single inch of skin was almost exactly like what it felt like to float in a pool.
Getting back down on the ground was easy, but confusing. She had completely lost track of which ‘her’ was which. There were definitely two of her, but they both saw and felt with both senses, and being so closely connected mentally, they both had some access to the other’s motor skills. Thoughts and emotions bled back and forth between then so that she neither knew nor cared who had thought what. She/they just worked on looking as natural as possible, as she stood there naked, waiting for a shower.
Fortunately, none of the other young girls seemed inclined to talk. They were, all of them, taking in the entire scene with wide eyes. Most of the freshmen like Jade let their hands fall casually, covering their private area. Jade did the same, almost glowing with the joy of feeling feminine.
Unlike the freshmen, the older girls were speaking and renewing old acquaintances.
“Look like a good class this year?”
“Might be some challenge to it. I liked that black girl – she looked pretty damn good.”
“Maybe. I liked the strong guy. I could beat on him all day long.”
“If he’ll let you. I think he’s still getting the hang of things, but a couple of times he moved pretty damn fast. I swear, this time I am finally going to master this class and move up to one of the advanced courses, like Beaumont’s karate class.”
“Fitzgibbon’s Shao-Lin kung fu is cooler.”
Jade’s turn finally came and she reveled in the experience, shampooing her hair, soaping her body up, being just another one of the girls. She could feel the dream. This was her identity, this was what she needed. Oh, there were so many other things she wanted, so many things to do and explore and accomplish, but first she needed to achieve this for real.
That was the heartache mixed with her joy. A part of her knew that, however good her disguise was, she wasn’t really what she was supposed to be. She was a freak, an ugly disgusting freak.
But, her other half said, thinking in parallel, is my problem any worse than others have? Even with her head covered in shampoo, she could still see through her spirit-vision. The shower was a tall stainless steel column in the center, with four shower heads. To her left and right were a blonde and brunette (so her memory said, with eyes closed they both had gray hair), chattering away about the class. They were obviously upperclassmen, and both had been fairly experienced in class. And directly across from her was another freshman (she thought). The girl had large, expressive eyes, bright blue with no whites. Her skin was beginning to show signs that it was turning to scales, and naked in the shower, it was obvious that she was also beginning to grow a tail. Her fingers and toes were growing more pointed, and her entire head had the first hints of an upcoming wedge shape, with a pointed chin and widening forehead. In other words, a true freak.
How can I be so concerned with my own minor problem, when other people have REAL issues?
But her problem didn’t seem minor. It was a need that burned inside her, always and forever. At times, like now, the dream seemed so close she could taste it, and so far that she would never arrive.
She vowed to herself that she would learn from this. The world is full of people whose outside doesn’t match their inside. I need to remember how I feel, and treat others with the understanding and compassion that I’d ask for.
After dinner, everyone on the floor seemed to gravitate toward the sunroom to do their homework. Jade was filling out the brief page of English homework (identifying verbs and nouns) while Jinn was reading ahead on physics.
The sunroom wasn’t really large enough, particularly considering how some of the boys liked to sprawl out. Since most of the students were gay, Jade had expected things to divide up with a guy-side and a girl-side, and maybe the TGs in the middle as a buffer zone.
Instead, there was the TV-side and the study-side. After a little conflict, the TV-side was sent to the sunroom on the next floor up (which had a bigger TV anyway) and those left behind set up for full-time study. Shortly after that, a few sophomores and juniors wandered down, abandoning their own sunroom when the television crowd took over.
Jade was getting to know a few of the other students, but she tended to hang around “Team Kimba.” The problem was, the sunroom wasn’t nearly large enough. Fortunately, they’d come to an arrangement that only took up one medium table and two chairs.
Tennyo floated upside down. It wasn’t that she defied gravity so much as ignored it. Her hair didn’t pay any attention to which way was up, and neither did the rest of her. So she either stood on the ceiling or floated upside down in a half-sitting position as she did her reading or wrote out homework. Her only problem was that she had no place to rest her books or papers.
Hank followed Tennyo’s lead. He was far and away the strongest flyer, but he didn’t have it down to an unconscious act, the way Tennyo did. So he tended to drift around a bit, and as he got engrossed in his work he drifted back down to the floor. This tended to drop him into Toni or Fey’s lap. Although both girls complained, it seemed to Jade that they were really treating it more like a game.
Toni and Fey were both hopelessly grounded. They took the two chairs and spread out over the table.
Jade spent a while wondering how she’d fit in to the cramped space, but realized that (as Jinn) she didn’t need to be in human form to read. So, bringing in an extra sheet (and speaker disk, of course), she charged Jinn into the sheet. Jinn used two corners of the sheet to hold the book, and the rest of the sheet folded into a soft chair for Jade that floated in the airspace above their table. It was nice because whenever she got tired of the chair, she could twist around and stretch out on a virtual bed.
This made for pretty strange study group, even by Whateley standards. And while Toni and Fey were ground-bound, they still weren’t normal. The black girl was idly fiddling with her pencil as she studied, and it could be immensely distracting to watch the wooden pencil as it spun and twirled through her fingers in a display that would have made Houdini envious. Fey appeared more passive, but one had the sense of dark clouds or bright glows forming and vanishing around her head and hands as she became engrossed in her work. There was nothing actually visible, but there was the sense of something almost visible.
Oddest of all this strange bunch, though, was Ayla. She had the corner room, which shared a wall with the sunroom. Ayla’s power allowed her to phase, becoming intangible. Furthermore, she could do this to just a portion of her body, such as a hand or arm. If she lost concentration she didn’t solidify in the middle of another object, causing a catastrophic injury. Instead, she began to “disrupt” whatever she was phasing through. This caused different effects depending on the nature of the target. On her own side, it was apparently uncomfortable, but not severely harmful. It also meant that if she accidentally relaxed, the mounting discomfort quickly reminded her to pay attention.
For the study sessions, this meant that Ayla left most of her body in her own room. While lying on her bed (in her room), she let her head and arms protrude through the wall and onto the table. As necessary, she’d pull a book through the wall and back into her room, then bring out another one. An even worse problem was that she wore headphones for a truly atrocious band. Discordant and using individually varying rhythms, the music that leaked out of Ayla’s headphones was pretty nasty. And since the headphone cord passed intangibly through the walls the actual stereo was back in Ayla’s room, no one else could turn down the volume.
“Hey, Jinn,” Tennyo called, upside down. “Could you hold a book stand or something for me?”
“Yeah, I suppose,” the sheet answered. “You need a writing board, too?”
“Well, I didn’t want to sound greedy.” The spiky-haired girl grinned. “Besides, it isn’t really fair to tire you out like that.”
“No, it’s okay,” the sheet said. “I keep telling you guys. I don’t get fatigue. It’s not like I’m using muscles or anything. The only problem is finding enough corners on the sheet to hold things – oh, what an idiot!”
One corner of the sheet twisted itself up in an odd gesture. “I don’t need to use the sheet to hold the book. It’s better if I just be the book. Then I can hold it much more easily. It’s easier to turn the pages, too.”
Tennyo gave a brief cross-eyed look. “So if you did that to the book you’re reading, would you be reading yourself?”
“Well, it’s a matter of where I spend my concentration…” The sheet floated down to the floor and forced Jade into a standing position.
“Huh?” the young girl said, having ignored the conversation.
The sheet suddenly dropped, and Jade simultaneously perked up. “Oh! Of course. Just a minute!” She ran off to their room and came back with a pair or large workbooks, both about 9 x 12 inches.
“We can write on these,” she told her roommate. “Hey, give me your pencil too, so that it won’t fall if you let go. And your book, and my book…” She concentrated for a moment, then the objects all floated back into the air. Jade climbed back into her “chair”, but this time her book floated in front of her, held in place in mid-air. At her right side was a workbook with paper, pencil and pen, also held stationary in mid-air.
“Yeah, I can manage this,” the sheet said. “The trick is, you can’t pull your book or pen or anything too far away.” Both items floated to four feet above the chair. “This is my limit. If you pull them farther than that I’ll have to let go. All the pieces of ‘me’ have to be in about a six-foot globe.” For her own part, the book that had been held by the sheet floated now under the sheet. It appeared to be being read by no one, pages occasionally turning. Beside the book, a pad of paper floated, and a pencil occasionally wrote brief notes on the paper.
Tennyo took up station to Jade’s left, floating upside down again. This time the book hovered wherever she placed it, and held itself open and set to the proper page. Tennyo would occasionally pick her pen up (from mid-air) and fill in a bit of her workbook (also floating).
“Hey,” Hank said, floating over, “That looks really handy. I don’t suppose you could hold my laptop, could you? That’s the hardest part of levitating while doing homework. If I want to type, I need to rest it on something.”
The sheet gave a sighing sound. “Sure Hank. Anyone else?”
Ayla looked up from where her head and hands were propped up on the table. “Well, if it isn’t too much trouble, I could really do with a reading lamp. I’ve got one in my room. Oh, and I’ll probably need an extension cord.” She pulled back into the wall and vanished.
“How about me, too?” Toni asked. “I don’t really need it, I just think it would be cool to hang my book in the air like that.”
“Yeah, I guess,” the sheet answered. “Why not? But remember, everything has to be in a six foot radius. And I only have the strength to hold one person up. Well, another eighty pounds after Jade.”
Ayla’s head poked back through the wall. “What an idiot! Sorry, I only brought one lamp. I knew I should have packed a few more.” Passing intangibly through the table, she plugged the small desk lamp into a socket on the floor.
Fey squinted. “Ugg. Halogen? Isn’t that a little… harsh?”
Ayla snorted. “Figures. Miss Sensitive doesn’t like halogen.”
Fey blinked, drawing attention to her unusually large eyes. “Well, it isn’t uncomfortable or anything, just a little, I don’t know, glaring.” She thought for a moment. “You know, if you held my books and things too, I think I could arrange lighting for everyone.”
Ayla gave a sharp laugh. “This isn’t going to electrocute us or anything, is it? Or spontaneously create a swarm of homework-devouring killer beetles?”
“No,” Fey said seriously. “There shouldn’t be any problems with this.”
She made a strange gathering gesture with her hand. In a moment, she held a velvety golden ball, the size of a ping-pong ball. The ball danced and pulsed with a beat like a flickering flame, but the light it gave was steady and seemed to have a color closer to sunlight than the artificial lights in the study room. Fey lifted the ball and placed in the air just above and behind her chair. The ball remained in place.
“Who else wants one?”
Of course, everyone wanted one.
“Wow,” Jinn said. “I can actually see that!”
“Yeah. Except I don’t see light. I think you left behind a little tangle of mutant energy, somehow. It’s like a knot of glowing purple string.”
“You know,” Toni decided, “it just isn’t fair that you guys get to float around in mid air while the two of us” she gestured toward Fey “are stuck on the ground like this.”
“Well,” Fey admitted, “I can cut the lines of gravity that connect to me. I did that last night, when those pesky ninjas were bothering us. But – I don’t know. Using that much power left me feeling kind of strange.”
“How about a hammock?” Ayla suggested. “Aren’t you elves supposed to be sort of arboreal? I saw Lord of the Rings too, you know.”
“I’m not an elf!”
Ayla waved a hand dismissively. “Whatever.”
“Besides, it’s not like I’ve got a hammock.”
“Oh, that’s no problem,” Ayla tossed off. “I brought a half-dozen. I thought I might fix up my room with them, and silk rolls up so compactly that –”
“Yeah, it’s pretty durable.”
And before they knew it, one thing led to another. Study was briefly disrupted while they got permission from Mrs. Horton to hang a few items. Ayla used her abilities to feel through the walls and locate studs and support beams. Hank pushed nails in with his thumb or twisted in hooks with his bare hands. Not only did Ayla end up with hooks to hang hammocks in her own room, but one corner of the sunroom has been permanently reserved as the “Kimba Korner.” Everyone objected to the spelling, but it still seemed to stick somehow. And this time, when they finally settled back in to study, no one was trapped on the ground.
Jade sat or stretched out in the middle, lying on a sheet that was supported by nothing. Hank and Tennyo floated, their books and laptop computers floating around them in just the right position. Wherever they placed something, it stayed. Ayla was half out of the wall again, but this time she was halfway up the wall, like some bizarrely mounted trophy: “Student, caught at study.” A half dozen glowing orbs were positioned just right, providing light for everyone. Fey reclined in a hammock up at the seven-foot level. As she worked, she would occasionally pick up her drink and sip through the straw, then set the drink back down in the air beside her hammock.
Toni was too energetic to stay in any one position for long. She would alternate between the other two hammocks or drop down to the ground to sprawl in a chair. Her favorite position, though, was hanging upside down like Tennyo. Only she didn’t ignore gravity, she played with it. From the ceiling hung a trio of ropes, with loops in the end. Toni would dangle upside down, suspended by one foot through a loop. Or she would “stand” upright, her feet in two different loops making perfect splits while she toyed with the third rope for balance and read a mid-air book.
They had finally settled into deep study when the flash went off.
Mrs. Horton smiled as she lowered the camera. “Just had to preserve that for the scrap book. I think I’ll call it, ‘Team Kimba settles in to study.’”
When Toni got up to exit the room, leaving all her study materials behind, Jade quietly slipped out of her chair to follow. She followed Toni out of the sunroom and into the girls’ bathroom across the hall. Knowing what she planned to say to the other girl, she couldn’t help seeing how incredibly feminine Toni was. The shape of her hips, the way she walked, the movements of her legs. Perhaps “feminine” wasn’t the right word. It had some side connotations of delicacy and passivity that were completely lacking in the black girl’s manner. No, Toni was more like a panther. Graceful, female, dangerous, but not a bit demure.
Jade followed Toni into the bathroom, but stopped at the sinks while the black girl headed into a stall. Jade quickly checked – there was no one else in there. Then she stared at herself in the mirror.
She really loved this uniform. The blazer and pleated skirt went so well together. She pulled back her hair, studying the small jade studs she had in her ears. They looked okay, but they didn’t exactly go with the outfit. Then she looked at herself.
It was okay when she glanced at the mirror and avoided looking at her face. At herself. Then she could imagine that there was just some other girl over there in the mirror. The joy of being able to dress like this, like a girl, to live this life and be what she was supposed to be – it still thrilled her. But when she looked at her face, she couldn’t help seeing him. Jared Reilley. A name she’d tried to blot out of her mind. The poor girl in the mirror had a pretty uniform. Nice hair, a little plain perhaps. Her earrings were okay. No figure to speak of, naturally, although the blazer seemed to give her an okay waist. And then there was that boy’s face. His face. Jared Reilley. How could she dare to go out in public with that ugly boy’s face ruining everything?
Maybe she could use makeup to hide that ugly face. But she didn’t know how, really. She was a little too young to use much, and doing it wrong only brought more attention to her ugly face. And she didn’t know how to do it right.
She was willing to learn, though. She’d study for hours, days, weeks. She’d put in whatever work was necessary to learn how to be a girl… if only she could be one for real. Was that too much to ask for?
The flushing of the toilet a moment later signaled an end to her introspection. It was time.
Toni came out and washed her hands, then critically inspected her perfect face.
“Sempai…” Jade couldn’t raise her eyes to meet the other girl’s gaze.
“Yeah? What’s up?”
Jade had to force out the words. She’d practiced it to herself, but now the words were getting all jumbled up. “Back when we were all introducing ourselves, you said that you’d gained all sorts of abilities with your ki. And you also said that your ki flows had changed, well you sort of said that, and that it was those changed flows that were turning you into a girl.”
Toni seemed to think for a moment. “Yeah, that’s about right, I guess. Although the explanation of how I’m changing was in other conversations I think, and had more to do with my body template influencing the ki.”
“Uh, right.” Jade plowed on, regardless. “Well, you said you can see the ki flows in other people, and I know that move you pulled on the ninja last night was a ki move, so you can change the flows in other people, too.”
“Sempai… could you somehow change me? Change my flows? I need to be more – I need to be a girl. I have to be.” It was hard to hold back the tears, but she’d never be able to finish her request if she started crying. “I don’t care how much it hurts. I guess it might be a little dangerous. But I don’t care! Please, Sempai, can’t you help me?”
There, she’d finished. Now it didn’t matter so much if she cried. She held back on the sobs, but she felt the tears starting to fall.
“Um, Jade… Man, how do I explain this?”
Still looking at her feet, Jade felt the other girl reach over for her shoulders.
“Look, I didn’t alter things deliberately. I, well, I mean, I would have if someone had given me the choice. Believe me, I know exactly what you’re feeling. But what I’m saying is that I don’t know exactly how my change happened. I know why my template is for a girl’s body, I just don’t know how it got that way. And the ki flows are different, but is that cause, or effect?”
Somewhat tentatively, the taller girl hugged Jade. “And I can’t just change your ki flows. First off, triggering a pressure point is a lot different from changing a flow permanently. I sure don’t know how to do that. Second of all, even if I could, it would be unbelievably dangerous. Sort of like severing all your blood vessels and rearranging them, then connecting them back up. And hoping that things still worked. I could poke around and try, but there’s about a thousand percent higher chance that I’d make your kidneys fail or something like that. This is very delicate stuff we’re talking about, and we’d have to get it right the first time.”
Jade found it surprisingly comforting how the larger girl was gently rubbing her back.
“Anyway, you don’t need to worry about your ki flows yet,” Toni continued. “The sure aren’t masculine.”
“Really? My ki looks like a girl’s?”
“Well, not exactly. Like a kid’s really, but at least it doesn’t flow like a boy’s.”
“Thank you, Sempai.” The words were whispered.
“Sure.” Toni released her. “And don’t worry. You have years ahead of you. We’ll figure something out, I’m sure of it.”
“Homework, please. Hand it to the student in front of you, and pass it up to the front of each row.”
“I see that some of you apparently didn’t bother with your first night of homework.”
There was grumbling from much of the class, but no one gave a real response. The teacher waited, as if expecting something. Finally, she said, “Well, isn’t anyone going to tell me that they have super powers now, and they don’t need to study stupid stuff like nouns and verbs?”
There was more muttering, but no one actually confessed to having that exact belief.
“Oh, come on. There’s always one.”
Finally, a short, thin boy in back raised his hand.
He cleared his throat. “Excuse me, Miss Devlin, but we have super powers now, and I don’t see why we need to study stuff like nouns and verbs.”
The teacher gave him a wry smile. “Thank you. Perhaps a touch lacking in sincerity, but I appreciate the effort.” Turning to look at the class at large, she said, “Even if no one said it aloud, I’m sure many of you believe this. I – oh, heck, I’m just going to play the tape. You can see for yourself.”
She stepped over to the television, hanging in the front left corner of the room, and pressed “play” on the VCR under the TV. After the static cleared, the picture showed a classic live-news scene: a caped superhero facing off against a villain. In this case, the caped hero was a large white man, in a red and orange costume with a bright red cape. He was floating in mid air. The villain, on the other hand, wore a pinstripe suit in midnight blue, and carried an accompanying top hat and briefcase.
“This was taken sixteen years ago,” Miss Devlin explained. “The one in the cape is ‘The Flying Bulldozer’ and he’s facing ‘Doctor Debt.’”
On the TV screen, they began speaking. The ‘Flying Bulldozer’ spoke first. “You don’t got no chance of gettin’ away from me this time, you stoopid Doctor.”
The man in pinstripes carefully set his briefcase down. “If you’re implying that my intellect is unable to match your brawn, then I must disagree. As you must be expecting by now, I have made further improvements in my flight shoes. In addition, I have a delightful collection of other devices that I’m simply dying to try under actual stress conditions. My ‘chances,’ you deluded dimbulb, statistically seem to be running about 68% in my favor.
“However, I recently encountered an actuary who has suggested a less risky and more profitable approach. I’m going to surrender.”
“Dis better not be some kinda trick!”
“Of course it’s a trick, you idiot. However, it happens to be a trick of jurisprudence.”
Miss Devlin shut off the tape.
“Officially, the battle was won by the Flying Bulldozer. Doctor Debt gave up and came along passively. Of course, he did have a trick up his sleeve. Back in those days, the insurance laws were a bit different. The Flying Bulldozer was always rather enthusiastic of his pursuit of wrongdoers, and generated quite a bit of what we’d call ‘collateral damage.’ As a result of the lack of damage this time, Doctor Debt received a modest award from the insurance company, which actually made it more profitable for him to give up. This was one of many cases that helped shape our current laws.
“But I digress. The true battle was fought in the court of public opinion. When that segment was shown on the news, how do you think people reacted? How did you feel?”
Hands went up, and Miss Devlin began calling on people.
“Well,” one girl said, “‘Flying Bulldozer’, how stupid is that name? And he really did sound dumb.”
A boy in the front row added, “The Doctor was sharp! Is he still around? I mean, cape-boy came off like the total fool, man.”
“No, the Doc was deliberately using all those big words. And FB – who’s going to use his real name? – he might not have done so well, but look at the muscles. I’ll bet he’s got no shortage of chicks.”
As the consensus passed around the class, most people did agree that the ‘hero’ had sounded fairly ignorant. Pointed questions revealed that, yes, this would probably affect the amount of respect he received, and impact his career.
Miss Devlin took control of the conversation once more. “The best part of this story, though, is that the Flying Bulldozer was a graduate of Whateley. Well, a Whateley student. He flunked several classes, including this exact English class, back when it was being taught by my predecessor. He felt that with his powers, he didn’t need to know anything about language or writing or parts of speech. And you should see his written communications – unbelievable!
“So,” she asked, peering over the class again. “who still believes the original statement? Who believes that with super powers, you don’t need to know anything about nouns and verbs? Hands, please.”
The outcome was obvious.
After charging Jinn into a pair of gloves for her noon job, Jade headed up for lunch, hoping to meet up with at least some of the crew. She’d missed them in the crowd yesterday.
Entering, she was struck again by the magnificence of the faceted crystalline dome and the garden-like interior with its trees and plantings. Unfortunately, the splendor of the dining hall didn’t add to the quality of the food. Cafeteria food was dreck, the world over. At least Whateley had a better selection than they’d had back in junior high. She lifted up her lunch tray and looked around. Then she spotted Mary and Juanita sitting together. Mary gave her a wave and indicated the seat next to her. Apparently they were taking the ‘little sister’ bit seriously. She was almost at the table, when Toni came hurrying into the hall.
Toni looked around and spotted Jade. “JADE!” She hurried towards the smaller girl, carrying a textbook in her arm. “DUDE! Dudedudedude!”
Jade, mortified, hissed under her breath. “Toni!”
“Okay, Dudette! I got good news!”
Angel looked up, interested. “Oh? What is it?”
Toni looked at the two upperclassmen and then at Jade. “Uhm, I’m gonna tell Jade in private, and then let her decide what she’s gonna tell you.” She led Jade off to another table.
“So, what is it?”
“Well, I started thinking about it after your little meltdown the first night, but last night in the bathroom clinched it. I mean, I know how you feel.”
Jade looked at the beautiful girl. “How could you possibly know how I feel?” It still brought tears to her eyes. How could her sempai be so condescending?
“How? Jade, you keep thinking that I was always like this. But three months ago, I was just like you: on the outside, looking in, desperately wanting to be able to be beautiful and free, like my sisters.” She lowered her voice and moved in close. “Jade, three months ago, I was a guy.” She leaned back and spoke normally again. “It may not show on the outside, but I still feel it on the inside. I lucked out. My mutation saved me. But I also know that I lucked out BIG TIME.”
Jade blinked. “But – I thought that you were always saying ‘Stuff happens, deal with it, and get on with your life.’”
“Oh, that? That was just for Fey and Tennyo. They’re taking all this the wrong way. But you and me? We know better.”
“I would,” Jade grumped, “if I were changing into a beautiful girl like the rest of you.”
“Ah!” Toni grinned. “But you could be!”
“You could be. Listen up, there’s this really weird girl on campus, they call her ‘Jello’.”
“Yeah, you’ll probably see her around school. The thing is, she’s sort of an ‘anti-exemplar’; her power affects her body like an exemplar, but she doesn’t have the body image template that other exemplars have – nobody seems to know why. As a result, she sort of looks like a wax doll that somebody left next to a hot stove. Her face sort of sloughs around and her arms and legs kind of dangle. She can pull herself together so that she looks normal, but she has to think about it, and she sort of loses her grip on it and then it starts slipping again.”
“ICK! But what does all that have to do with me?”
“Well, I asked a teacher about her condition, and the teacher told me to check out this book at the library.” Toni held up the book. Its title was ‘SUPER POWERS AND YOU: Understanding the Nature of Mutant Abilities’.
“Anyway, I started reading it, and I found this-” Toni opened the book to a part well in the middle.
Jade stared in awe at the huge tome. “How did you read all of THAT? It must be four hundred pages thick!”
“It was back while I was waiting to be fitted for my school uniforms and I had some time to kill. I just sort of slipped into speed reading mode. Anyway, listen up- ‘Many scientists believe that the ‘exemplar’ and the ‘shapeshifter’ conditions are just different applications of a single mutant trait that allows the mutant to control their body at a molecular level. There are very few mutants who exhibit both the exemplar and the shifter traits. Those rare few that do tend to exhibit very high power levels in both traits. The current theory is that in the exemplar trait, the body form is tightly controlled by the mutant’s Body Image Template, or BIT, which is fixed and unchanging, while in the shifter trait, the BIT is open ended, allowing the mutant to consciously adjust the Template, and thus their body form. The rigid control of the Body Image Template that the exemplar trait has, allows the body control to give the mutant the superhuman strength, speed, vigor, and intelligence that defines the exemplar, while the shifter trades the advantages of that definition for plasticity’.” Toni looked up, her eyes asparkle.
Jade looked at her askance. “Huh? What was all that?”
“Okay, it’s a little thick, but is was written by an academic – anyway what this guy is saying, is that mutants with the trait that causes either exemplar or shifters, control their body using this Body Image Template thing. This poor girl ‘Jello’ somehow doesn’t have a Body Image Template, so her body control power is sort of stuck in ‘wet clay’ mode. I understand that she has to sleep in a form fitting tub of water, so that her brain doesn’t get squished by her own weight.”
Jade tried not to look down at her gravy on mashed potatoes. “That’s all very – icky – Sempai, but what does it have to do with me? I’m not an exemplar OR a shifter.”
Toni grinned. “Oh? Aren’t you?”
She tried not to lose her patience with the older girl. “If I were an exemplar, do you honestly think that I’d still look like a twelve-year-old?”
Toni’s grin almost split her face. “You would, if that’s what your Body Image Template was set on. It would even keep you from getting superstrength and all the other stuff, ‘cause all of that isn’t part of the Image.”
Jade’s eyes blinked. In her mind’s ear, she heard the sploink, sploink! sound effect, as the pieces fell into place. “You mean – I could be keeping myself from growing up? This ‘Body Image Template’ that I’ve got in my head is keeping me at twelve years old?”
“That’s what occurred to me.”
The thought was too good to be true. “But, Sempai, what do I DO about it?”
“Well, the entire point of the ‘shifter’ bit of my info-dump was that the Body Image Template can be changed. Maybe one of the doctors or the mentalists here at the school can help you with that.”
“But – but what if they change the template, so that I can grow up, and I start turning into a boy?”
Toni laid a reassuring hand on Jade’s shoulder. “You’re missing something important here, Jade- look at yourself. Do you look like a boy? Even a twelve-year-old boy? No. You look like a twelve-year-old girl. I think that your Body Image Template was already at work, but then something happened when you were twelve or so, and the shock of whatever it was traumatized you into locking your Template at twelve.
The grin slid off of Toni’s face, and she suddenly grew very serious. “Now, Jade, this is very important. If I’m right, there’s more at stake here than your gender. If your Body Image Template is keeping you from maturing at a normal rate, then it may be putting a lot of stress on your body. That can’t be healthy for you. I want you to go to the doctors ASAP, and ask them about it. That’s an order from your Sempai, am I understood?”
She saluted. “Hai, Sempai!”
She spent another day braving the crowds between class. As Jinn, it never really bothered her. As Jinn, she was as strong as an average junior or senior boy, she couldn’t be knocked down, and she never felt any pain. Equally important, she felt confident in herself (since Jinn she was a proper girl, even if she didn’t have a body), and Jinn’s emotions were often oddly muted. Jade assumed that was because Jinn didn’t get any of the biological parts to emotion. For example, she never felt the classic “adrenaline rush” as Jinn.
But being Jade was an entirely different proposition. First of all, as Jade she had no powers. None at all. All she could do was make Jinn, and Jinn was elsewhere. So Jade was left powerless. Second, she was always a bit underconfident, since she knew she wasn’t a real girl. Third, she was probably the smallest and weakest person in school.
The path between civics and word processing was a tricky one. That’s where she passed the blond wookie. He was way over seven feet tall, two or three times her weight, and everyone always gave him plenty of room. As he passed, he knocked Jade sprawling. She brushed herself off and hurriedly tried to gather her books. Another girl, she looked like a sophomore, helped by grabbing the farthest book.
“What did he do that for?” Jade complained.
The brunette shrugged as she handed Jade her book. “I don’t think he even saw you. Guys like that, the brawns, they don’t even bother themselves watching out for our type. Us brains have to out-think ‘em. A lot of times that means keeping to the edge and out of their way.”
As the girl hurried off, Jade thought a lot about the comment. She obviously wasn’t a fighter-type. Did that mean that others would automatically assume she was a telepath or something?
And what should she do to keep from being bowled over by the bigger and rougher kids? Was she going to have to start slinking along the edge, the way the other girl had suggested?
“Long day today,” Morrie told her. “We’re going down below. Here’s waders. Those small overalls are on the hook where you left ‘em. You can change in the bathroom there. Pretty soon, you’re gonna have to buy a couple pair in your size.”
She worried about today’s test. From the warnings they’d been giving her the last few days, it was obviously a test. But she resolved to handle it, no matter how rough it got.
Stan was just locking up an extremely heavy cupboard when she came back. “What about Jinn?,” she asked.
Morrie moved his mouth like he was chewing something unpleasant. “You can, like, zap her into stuff whenever you feel like it, right?”
“Well, I wait for her to come back before I zap her into something new, but yeah, that’s about right.”
Morrie nodded at Stan. “Then let’s wait till we get under. I think a set of gloves would work pretty well today.”
“Right,” Stan chimed in. “Less to clean.”
With that disturbing assessment, Stan pushed the cart, and they opened the back door of the basement maintenance room.
“These are the ‘physical’ tunnels,” Morrie explained. “We don’t do much work here – it’s pretty much the guys from the physical plant. Sometimes the stringers. We just use ‘em to get to a sewer connect.”
The tunnel was a square concrete passageway, originally ten feet on a side. Most of that space was taken up by pipe and conduits that stretched out of sight. Overhead was lit by sodium lamps in protective metal cages. After perhaps fifty feet, they came to a wider junction. Here there was a thick steel door set at an angle into the wall. The door itself wasn’t quite vertical, it was tipped back at about a 45-degree angle, like an old-fashioned cellar door.
“Okay, let’s suit up,” Morrie said. He put on a miner’s helmet with headlamp, then flicked the lamp on. He began clipping items to his clothes, such as a separate flashlight. Finally, he handed a second helmet to Jade. “Here’s the gloves for your friend.”
“Thanks.” Jade slipped out a speaker disk, then charged up Jinn. A moment later, the gloves inflated, then rose to waist height.
“You ready?” Morrie called back to Stan. He was kneeling by the hatch, ready to unlock the huge padlock that held the massive doors closed.
There was a click-click, then Stan announced, “Ready.”
Jade turned to look, then looked again. Stan was holding a huge shotgun-like rifle. That is, there was a huge shotgun barrel, but also a more futuristic barrel mounted above that. Stan tossed an identical rifle to Morrie.
“Round chambered?” Stan called.
“Chambered.” Morrie echoed, working the rifle.
“Then let’s move!”
Morrie finished unlocking the padlock then sprang back and leveled the rifle at the hatch. “Okay, you two girls open it up. We’ll cover you.”
“Cover us?” Jade was pleased that her voice hadn’t risen to a shriek. “From what?”
“Oh, whatever. Alligators, fugitives, slimies, velociraptors.”
“Real velociraptors are bigger,” Stan reminded.
“Yeah? Lay off, Professor.”
She thought she was being set up, but still – “What about MY rifle?”
“What?” Morrie looked confused. “Aren’t you underage? You have any experience with heavy caliber shooting? No? Then leave it to the experts. We’ll cover, you clean.”
Jade thought for a moment, but she was determined not to get scared off by some stupid practical joke. She forced herself into a vestige of calm, then yanked open her side of the door while Jinn (the empty gloves) yanked open the opposite side. The doors were heavier than they looked, and pulled back with a slam that reverberated both ways down the corridor.
Before she had time to look, Morrie and Stan had sprinted forward to jump into the opening feet-first. They landed with a splash in the passage below. An instant later, the vile smell struck her like a solid, reeking wall of corruption. She almost threw up. Instead, she gathered her courage and followed them in. It was a moment before she realized that the gloves had grabbed her around the ribs, almost under the armpits, to steady her and help her descend.
The passageway was pitch black except for the light provided by their helmet lamps. The water came up knee-deep on the men, but about thigh-deep on Jade. Fortunately, she didn’t slip or fall, thanks to the hands steadying her. It would have been easy enough to lose her footing. The unseen floor was slick with slime and occasional rock-like lumps.
The entire tunnel was egg-shaped, perhaps six feet tall and four feet wide. There was a wide area and a landing here, so that they could get back to the door.
It took her a minute to force herself to move. Right now, all her willpower was devoted to keeping herself from being sick.
“Quick shot to light things up?” Stan called.
“Right,” Morrie replied. “On three. One… two… THREE!”
Jade realized that they’d put her in the middle. One ahead of her in the tunnel, one behind her. Now both of the men fired a single shot from their rifles. With a fweeee – CHUMP sound, the rifles shot out a bar of glowing red energy that traveled relatively slowly up the corridor. It looked for all the world like a blaster shot from a science fiction movie. After a moment, both men seemed to relax a bit.
“Now the problem we got here,” Morrie said, “is whacha call in the business a ‘combined’ system. Septic and storm sewer, all in one.”
“Whateley isn’t the only place to make this mistake,” Stan interjected. “Pittsburgh decided to keep a combined system as late as 1910, which isn’t too far from the date of Whateley’s system.”
“Thanks, professor. Anyways, tip your head back. ‘Bout ten o’clock there. That’s a grate. Those fill up with leaves, and we gotta clean ‘em out, or else the storm sewers don’t work. That’s where Jinn, here, is gonna come in real ‘handy’. She’s gonna do us a nearly perfect job of cleaning out the trap on the other side of those grates. They’re really hard to get to.”
“And what do I do?” Jade asked.
“You see how the grate is hinged at the top? It’s supposed to swing open when there’s enough debris behind it. Didn’t work, of course. Anyway, you use the hook on the end of the broom there to hold it open while your partner cleans it out. A two-man job.” Morrie chuckled. “Two girl job, I guess. And when you’re done, you use that push-broom on the wall all the way around the grate, and on the patch from the water level up to the grate. Clean off the guck.”
“Okay,” she said slowly, not quite understanding. “But why do you have a grate there at all? Why not let the water pour straight into the sewer?”
The two men snorted. “Well, it’s like this – there’s snakes down here. Let’s call them snake-like. Even with the grate, if there’s enough guck on the walls they can slither up and through the grate. Then they come pouring out of the storm sewers, up top. And we don’t get no bonus that year. Or even worse, they come slithering out of the toilets, and we don’t get any bonus that decade.”
“Yeah, snakes. Right.” But there were grates. Why else did they have them?
Figuring that it was part of the test, Jade used her push broom to scrub the walls and swing open the grate whenever Jinn called. Jinn went to work scraping out the trap and pushing the debris out through the grate. The two of them soon fell into a pretty good rhythm. The men just continued to patrol and watch, holding their silly-looking guns.
“Man,” Stan marveled, watching Jinn work. “This is going to be fan-tastic! She can really get in there, can’t she?”
Jade turned to look at him, about to ask about the grate again. She idly noticed that more junk was floating down from upstream, but she definitely did not want to think about the floating gunk. Not the little brown lumps, and not the big white log. Stan still hadn’t noticed, when the log opened its mouth and approached him from behind.
Jade screamed, suddenly recognizing the alligator for what it was.
Stan spun and fired, orange-red shots hitting the water, the beast, and all around the passageway. The alligator thrashed, then darted in. Jade screamed again, then there was an echoing BOOM. The sound was so loud it rattled her skull. She heard the reverb travel down the passage, fading as it went.
The white alligator was hit by the rifle round and knocked back (and over) by six feet. That gave Stan and Morrie time to rally. They peppered the thing with blaster shots. Seeming to think better of this venture, the alligator turned and swam desperately back upstream.
“You see me blast that sucker? It’s heading home to die.” Morrie called in triumph. “Gawd damn, I love shootin’ them things!”
Jade felt like her eyes were as large as dinner plates. “I – I thought you were just trying to trick me!”
“Naw. We got a real alligator problem down here. That’s part of the reason we got yer grates on every inlet. Well, that and those nasty little lizards. And the slimies.”
“Don’t forget the rat-swarms,” Stan added helpfully. “Or the floating puffers.”
Jade blinked, slowly coming out of her daze. “Wait a minute. I thought the albino alligators were in the sewers of New York.”
“Naw. Common misconception. See, really most of our problems come from downstream. It’s all ‘cause of the so-called waste disposal plant they got at the far end of the pipe. Damned spook show. But whaddya gonna do?” He looked at Stan and they gave each other mock salutes, spinning their rifles about.
“We fight the good fight,” the said in unison. “We are… the Maintenance Army!”
From above, Jinn used her speaker-disk for the first time. “Now I know I’ve gone off the deep end.”
“Naw,” Morrie said. “You’re just catching the edge of the proudest profession around. The maintenance crew at Whateley is a special breed. The post was started by a pair of legendary plumbers, and we carry on their noble tradition.”
Jade had a sudden suspicion. “Legendary plumbers? But that wasn’t real was it? Or was it first programmed by a deviser from Whateley?”
Morrie shrugged. “All I know is that we do our best to follow the example of our predecessors… Mario and Luigi.”
Whateley Academy September 9, Saturday morning
It had been a relief to get out of Poe that morning. Between the weather systems in the hallway, wet floors everywhere, and the other girls all sharing their secrets on feminine hygiene, Jade had been eager enough to slip out.
But now she was thinking that jumping out of that frying pan might not have been the best idea.
“Alright, Miss Sinclair, if you’ll just change into this gown, I’ll be back to complete your medical tests in a moment.”
With the door closed, she nervously began to undress, slipping out of her shoes and sliding off her tube skirt. She folded all her clothes carefully on the small chair, until she was down to bra and panties. This was the hard part. Fortunately, Jinn wasn’t out. Using the trick that she’d discovered in gym class, she sent Jinn into her own skin, and quickly felt herself being pulled up and back, and wrapped around, until she was as feminine looking as possible. With that, she was able to take off her bra and panties, and put on the open-backed gown.
A few minutes later, Dr. Traekham stepped back in, engrossed in reading Jade’s medical folder.
“Poe… yes, that would seem to fit. So, tell me, Miss Sinclair, how long has it been since you’ve began living full-time as a girl?”
She looked down at her feet. I’ve never once painted my toenails, she realized. “Um, full-time? Only when I started the trip to Whateley, sir. A little over a week. But I’ve been dressing properly part time for um, a month and a half, I guess.”
“So recently? Well, you do seem quite young. Is this birth date correct? Are you, what, thirteen?”
“Fourteen. Last spring.”
“Hmm, you look more like eleven or twelve.”
She nodded. “I’m… a little worried about that. I haven’t changed at all in the past two or three years. I haven’t grown a bit.”
“Really? Interesting.” He made a few notes on her chart. “Aside from your gender issues, of course. Speaking of which, when did you first notice the … um … gender issues?”
“The first time I used my power, sir. There was this burst of – I don’t know, energy or something – and I was standing there, and I was a girl. I didn’t figure that part out right away, but what I did notice was that I suddenly felt really right about myself. Like something that was wrong was suddenly right. I don’t know if that exactly makes sense. It took me a while to understand it myself, but I finally figured out why I’d always felt uncomfortable about my body. It was that. I was supposed to be a girl.”
“And suddenly you were.”
“Yeah, at least when I was being Jinn.”
“Alright. Now, you haven’t been a girl until recently, so you may not have gone through any of this before. I’m going to ask you to take off the gown and sit up here. I’m going to start by examining your breast tissue. I’ll also be showing you how to do your own breast exam.”
Blushing furiously, she let the gown slide forward, off her, and folded it up to put it on top of her clothes.
The doctor gave her a brief puzzled glance, then indicated for her to hop up on the bench.
“Not much development, but don’t worry. That’s completely normal if you’ve only been a girl for a few months. Well, normal for an ordinary person. I suppose I’m getting used to some of the girls at Poe. A decent lad one day, and the next day he’s already developed a B-cup. Seeing someone develop at a normal pace is almost surprising.”
He placed his hand on her chest and began to stroke in a circular motion. “Tell me if this hurts. I understand that a young girl’s breasts can be extraordinarily sensitive. Now, follow my motion. I’m feeling for any lump or oddity. As a rule, mutants tend to be far healthier than the general public, but problems can be quick and catastrophic. That’s why early detection is so important.”
He pressed firmly in against her nipple. “Is that sensitive? At all?”
Blushing strongly again, she said, “Well, I can feel it, but it doesn’t hurt or anything.”
“Unusual. I’m not seeing any signs of breast development yet. Well, let me set up the stirrups, and we’ll see how far along you are.”
Not understanding, she watched him set up odd pole hangers at the two corners at the foot of the bench. She was surprised when he maneuvered her onto her back, raising her legs until she was spread wide open for his view. It happened before she realized quite what was going on.
“Okay, let’s see. Well, that’s odd. Alteration of the scrotal sac to form labial tissue, but the penis seems to be…” She felt his rubber gloves touching her… down there. As Jinn, she saw his expression and watched him take on a pinkish glow, as his puzzlement spread.
“Doctor,” she wanted to DIE of embarrassment “I should probably let go of things, shouldn’t I?”
“What? I– Yes, you should.”
She/Jinn released the hold on her wiener and sack, and let things move back into their sickening old boy-position.
“Good lord. How did you do that?”
“TK,” she said in a mortified whisper.
“Hmm. Well, I’m not exactly used to examining boys in this position, but…” Again she felt his gloved fingers touching her, squeezing her disgusting little balls, where they lay in her wrinkly sack. Poking her behind her sack, as if searching for an opening, lifting and examining her wiener.
“Good, good, stand please.” He poked a finger into her sack, reaching up inside her. “Turn your head and cough. Hmm, perfectly normal. Alright, bend over, please, I need to check your prostate.”
He stuck a greasy finger into … well, she hadn’t expected it, that was for sure.
Finally, “Well, the good news is that you’re perfectly healthy. The bad news is that I can’t see how you can claim to be a girl. There are no indications at all of any sort of change – not even the first hints. What changed when your power started up? Are you a shapeshifter?” He glanced at her chart again.
Jade’s face was still red, but it was red with shame and humiliation. “I… Let me show you.”
She fetched a speaker disk from her purse and added a set of gloves to the pile of clothes. Then she charged Jinn into the clothes she’d been wearing. It was like Jinn slid right off her skin and into the clothes. The clothes rose into the air and then inflated, as Jinn slid them into place. She was wearing Jade’s outfit, with the hospital gown on the outside. There was no head, no arms or legs, but Jinn’s figure was apparent.
“You see?” came from the disk at the neck of the invisible figure. “I’m a girl.”
“That’s my inner self,” Jade explained.
He looked back and forth between them. “Just when I think I’ve seen everything. Well, miss, I’m not sure how I can examine what I can’t see.”
“You should be able to feel me just fine.”
He looked at the chart again. “Ah, yes. The autonomous telekinetic construct. It makes sense now. Your inner self, you say? Very well, take your position on the bench.”
Quickly, Jinn was down to the gown, panties, socks, and gloves, while Jade re-dressed in her clothes. The doctor, for his part, seemed quite surprised.
“Astonishing. I’m sure no high-schooler would have such a thorough knowledge of anatomy, but I can feel everything. It’s like there’s a real person under me!”
“I am real,” Jinn said. “Just different.”
“Well, your breasts are perfectly developed for your age,” he said. “Exactly what I’d expect for a fourteen-year-old girl in the early stages of puberty. And I can’t find any trace of lumps or abnormalities, not that I know what that might mean in your case.”
He considered. “I’d like you to removed the panties. I know I won’t be able to give you a complete gynecological exam, but if I sprinkled talcum over you, would I be able to perform a visual examination? This is purely for scientific reasons – to be honest, I’m not sure that a medical opinion would even make sense in this case.”
“That wouldn’t work,” Jinn began, as Jade said, “I’d have to re-charge her, using the talcum powder.”
Then, as Jade thought about it more, the idea began to seem extremely interesting. “Doctor – could I borrow the whole container of talcum?”
He scowled briefly. “Well, I suppose.”
“Jinn –” but her other half was already back with her. Jade took a breath, and then reached out and charged the entire shaker of talcum powder.
The results were dramatic. The plastic shaker lifted into the air and popped its top off. The powder inside exploded upward, like smoke from fireworks. Then, as the empty jar fell to the ground, the cloud of powder completely condensed. It spread out to form a surface, a seemingly solid layer of the white powder. And between one breath and the next, something magic occurred. What had been a fuzzy cloud, six feet high and three feet wide, suddenly snapped into place on a complex surface.
Jinn stood before them, every element of her naked body rendered in perfect accuracy.
Her hair was long, straight, and hung down to her ankles. It was also powder-white. Her eyes were almost identical to Jade’s – perhaps slightly larger. Her face was nearly identical, except for the powder-white complexion. It was slightly more feminine. It was odd to see the featureless white of her eyes, as Jinn blinked her white eyelids.
Likewise, Jinn’s shoulders, arms, hands, fingernails and cuticles were rendered in perfect precision. Her breasts were small, but firm and high on her chest. To Jade’s critical eye it looked like she had about an A cup. Jinn’s navel was small, but slightly oval – slightly different from her own.
Jinn had no pubic hair. But she did have a cleft.
The doctor stared at her with wide eyes. “My God!” He sounded very excited. Then he gestured to the table. “Do you mind? May I continue the exam?”
Jinn nodded, silently. Jade realized that in her haste, she’d forgotten the speaker disk.
Jinn began to awkwardly clamber onto the table, then smacked herself in the forehead and gracefully floated up, and back down into place. Jade kept expecting her to leave powder smudges on whatever she touched, but that didn’t happen.
Actually, Jade wasn’t really thinking coherently at all. The best she could do was stare at the other girl. I – I’m so beautiful!
With Jinn lying on her back, legs in the stirrups, the doctor began to examine her, as Jade watched in rapt fascination over his shoulder. He turned his powerful exam light on Jinn, and Jade realized that she could see through the other girl. The powder didn’t make a perfect surface, and she could see the inside of Jinn’s back.
“Have you taken any anatomy course?”
“No, not yet. Should I?”
“Just curious. Watch a lot of pornography? Dirty pictures?”
“No!” she was scandalized. “Never!”
“Before now, have you ever taken a close look at a woman’s private areas?”
“Uh, well, I’ve seen the girls in the shower, when they’re shaving and stuff. Why, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” he said. “That’s just it. She’s absolutely perfect. You see here? The lips of the labia majoris – demonstrating perfectly the mild swelling appropriate for early pubescent development. And here,” he used a pair of small tools to spread Jinn’s white ‘flesh’ “the labia minoris, showing some extension and growth, but not yet the fully adult bloom. Clitoral hood, all perfectly in place. Damn! I’ve just got to use the speculum!”
He hopped up, grabbing an odd instrument off the counter, then quickly sat again. He redirected the light, then placed the instrument at the outer part of Jinn’s opening. “I’m sorry, this may be a bit cold.”
“Don’t worry about that,” Jade told him. “I can’t feel hot or cold when I’m Jinn. For that matter, I can’t feel exactly what a real person would feel when you touch those parts. No pleasure or pain, mostly just pressure and texture.”
As the doctor pushed the instrument deeper into Jinn, the talcum powder seemed to flow inward as well, coating the surfaces as they were exposed.
“Fascinating. All right, I’m going to open… yes! See that?”
Jade looked, utterly entranced by the mysteries of her female self. To her displeasure, she seemed to be malformed. She might not know all the anatomy stuff, but she was pretty sure that a girl’s vagina was supposed to go deeper than that.
“Oh,” she said, suddenly depressed. “I’m not quite normal, am I? Real girls are deeper, aren’t they?”
“Wrong,” the doctor said, in something like glee. “That’s her hymen! That is EXACTLY what a normal fourteen-year-old girl would look like.”
Jade felt a fluttery happiness inside her chest.
Finished with his pelvic exam, the doctor pulled out his other tools, and returned to examining Jinn’s eyes, ears, nose, and throat. Again, there was the sight of the powder rolling inward, to coat surfaces as they were exposed.
Finally: “Good Lord,” he exclaimed. “This is big!”
“Well, she is physically, textbook perfect. Exactly right for her age, and shows modest signs of physical improvements. If I had to guess based on this, I’d say exemplar one or two. Certainly not three. Her form is obviously not set by either your conscious or subconscious knowledge, since she exhibits anatomical traits that you’re ignorant of. But she exhibits perfect examples of those traits. Clinically ideal.”
Jinn cocked her head silently, while Jade asked what was on their minds. “What does that mean?”
“Have you ever heard of a Body Image Template?”
“Yeah, a little bit.”
“It has been a theoretical idea, until now. There’s never been a way to actually pull it out and show people. Until now! If I’m right, this girl IS your body image template! For the very first time, we can demonstrate the concept in the flesh, as it were! My God, I’m going to be so famous!”
He gave her the bottle of talcum powder. With work (and two extra charges of Jinn) they finally got all the powder back in the bottle. Jade was buzzing with excitement. It had felt really different being powder-Jinn, knowing that she was nude and that every bit of her was exposed. And when the doctor touched her down there, it had been disturbing, but also uplifting. On the one hand, this strange old man was touching her in places that she’d never even touched herself. On the other hand, he was confirming her dream, step-by-step. She WAS a girl, a real one! This was more than just some quirk of her mind – she was a real, anatomically correct, no-doubt-about-it girl! And the knowledge was ringing in her mind so loud that it was hard to hear anything else.
“…so I’ll be scheduling several more appointments in the coming weeks. It’ll fit in with your assessment tests. All the freshmen undergo those anyway, so there shouldn’t be anything too odd about it. No problems with class, for example.”
She shook her head, trying to come back to normal. “But Doctor, if Jinn really is my template, then why don’t I look like that? Why do I still look like this?” She gestured in dissatisfaction at her current body.
“How should I know? I’m a Doctor. Specifically, a family practitioner. My main practice is in Dunwich, with a side consultation to Whateley. Usually I just give the physicals, before the scientist types start poking away at you. But this is different – I’m not going to let go of this one. This will get my name in the textbooks!”
She could see where this was going. She charged Jinn up, so her other self could help give her a little confidence for the face-down.
“I hear you, Doctor, and I’ll cooperate. But I need you to do something for me, in return.”
He turned to her, suddenly suspicious.
“I need you to help me achieve my true body image. It feels like I’m stuck like this! Promise me that you’ll do everything you can to help make my body image real!”
He thought for a moment. “Yes, you’re right. That’s the ultimate test, isn’t it? If that really is your body image, you should be moving toward that state. Stuck, you say? Fascinating. It’s actually a convenience for the first few weeks, but a hindrance afterward. And you’re exactly right. Achieving the body image would provide proof of the theory.” He suddenly spoke louder and more decisively. “You’re right. I’ll do it! I’ll do whatever I can, pull in whatever help and consultation I can get, in order to help you bring your body image into reality.”
She nodded. “Then you’ve got yourself a guinea pig.”
He beamed at her. “Miss Sinclair – and I now feel full justified in the gender title – I hope perhaps that we understand each other’s needs quite well. I hope to help you. Even more importantly, what we learn may eventually help every mutant with body image issues.”
He reached out to shake her hand. “To the start of a productive partnership!”
“What the hell has gotten into you?” Morrie hollered.
What did he call it? A speculum? But she said nothing aloud, she merely scrubbed away at the pungent grime that clogged the sewer outlets. Humming merrily to herself, all the while. And up in the outlet pipe, she could hear Jinn humming the same tune, in harmony with her.
“Gawd. Women. Who can understand them? They start out weird as girls, and grow up to be even weirder women.”
The guys had finally rigged up a curtain around the chemical-spill shower, allowing Jade to get the worst of the grime (and smell) off her before she got dressed again in her “street clothes.” As always in the shower, she had Jinn cast into her body.
The doubled-thinking and extra perceptions took some getting used to, but she was starting to get it under control. For one thing, when she had a thought she no longer bothered to wonder whether it had come from Jade or Jinn. They were both her, and in this state their thoughts ran twisting through each other. Both of her could feel Jade’s emotions and feel her physical senses, like touch and smell. Both of them could see the gray world in every direction and see the colors of emotion. Directly ahead (when her eyes were open) both of them could see in color and stereo detail.
And when they thought, the thoughts were clearer and sharper than they were in either separate form alone. Each thought was echoed then briefly cross-checked and confirmed, sometimes being examined in unexpected ways.
But while her mental world was coming together nicely, her physical world was still a disaster. Following the latest revelation about Jinn, she was trying to “shape” Jade’s body to be more feminine. This meant using TK to help squeeze in her waist (slightly), pulling on the skin of her chest to give her a modest bosom, and keeping her tucked in down below (that part still galled her the worst).
She passed her hand down over her “breasts” sighing. They were all pointy, and they felt wrong. Not that she knew how breasts were supposed to feel, but she didn’t think they were supposed to feel like someone had attached a pair of suction cups to your chest. But… stroking her skin was interesting. A lot more interesting than when the doctor had touched her as Jinn.
She shut off the water, then sighed and closed her eyes. In a moment, the water exploded off her skin as a sheen of fog.
She didn’t have a “hold” on the water, but if she vibrated her entire skin the way she vibrated a speaker disk, most of the water came right off, turning into fog in the process. She was only peripherally aware of the choral hum that was created as she exercised the effect.
Hmmm, could I use this effect on its own to get clean without a shower? As always, the thought was snatched and examined by both halves of her, dissected and recombined: Yes, she could try. The grime, being part of her when she had “charged” in, was actually under her control. The trick was her hair. Another trick was grime-fog. How was she going to step out through that? Or could she walk through it? What about exfoliating outer skin layers?
Dropping her hands and splaying her fingers, she closed her eyes and tried the effect again, this time with the anti-grime, exfoliant variation. Again there was a choral hum, and she saw (through spirit-vision) a fine smoke of grime and skin powder ejected from her body. It quickly settled back on her, but she pulled the shower handle again, giving herself another dousing of cold water.
Not bad. It certainly eliminated most of the sewer smell.
Then she ruined it by tripping as she exited the shower. She only saved herself at the last second, realizing that she could hold herself floating off the floor.
She was still grossly uncoordinated in this double-mind arrangement. It was like both of her were telling the muscles how to move, but the messages were way out of sync with each other.
She redressed in the blouse and tube skirt, pink vest, and her rhinestone purse. The spastic movements were really getting to her. Finally, with a sign, she let go of her Jinn-half and was just herself (singular) again.
She climbed up out of the basement room, only to be confronted by a man in a suit just outside the door.
Immediately she jumped back. Her hands slapped the back pocket that held her gloves, then she was in a ready stance. It didn’t look like a combat stance, but she’d be able to move when she needed to. If this pervert thought he had her at a disadvantage, he’d learn to regret it.
“Miss Jade Sinclair?” he asked, politely.
“Who wants to know?” She slightly regretted not having Jinn’s wrap-around eyesight. But the terrible dis-coordination would have been a lethal hindrance. She let her eyes move naturally, not betraying her tension, as she studied her surroundings and plotted moves.
“I’ve been sent by the administrator’s office,” he said. “Work-study records indicated that you’d be getting off-shift at 4:30. I’ve actually been waiting here for five minutes. Your, er, co-workers said that you’d be out in a few minutes, so I waited.”
“What do you want?” She didn’t relax her guard. Instead, she tried to see up the stairway behind him. Did he have backup?
“It’s just that we noticed that you’re rooming with Billie Wilson. She has been classified as lethal and uncontrollable. I’m just here to deliver this.” He held out a letter. “And to record your signature that you’ve received it.”
Jade was cautious moving forward. This might be a ploy to get her to drop her guard or distract her attention. Fortunately, she had extra eyes.
“Let me see.” This was the moment of danger. She reached out casually, as if completely unguarded. But inside she was as tight as a spring.
She’d been half expecting it, but only half. The letter came free with no struggle. He handed her the clipboard. Again, there was no problem. Jade took it, then moved away, back into the room. “Oh, I’ve got a pen in my purse.”
“There’s one on the clipboard…”
Her ploy was to gain more distance. She read the clipboard quickly – just a legal acknowledgement of receipt of the letter. She signed quickly, then stepped forward again to return the clipboard.
“Make sure you read the letter.”
And that was all. The attack was actually no threat at all, simply the letter delivery it appeared to be. But Nakamura sensei would be proud that she continued to apply his lessons. The real skill of his training wasn’t learning to punch someone with a stunning impact. The skill lay in being alert, ready, in planning for trouble and mapping out options. It was a different way of looking at the world. A paranoid way, perhaps, but a way that tried to be prepared for trouble.
It was clear that she needed to change her routine. She came out of the maintenance room too regularly. She needed to find alternate exits. She also needed to be more cautious on exit. Maybe she should have Jinn exit first. But how – as gloves? As a speck-of-sand spy, too small to notice? As a normal girl? She’d have to think it over.
She refrained from reading the letter on the walk back. Late Saturday afternoon didn’t have enough crowd to feel comfortable in. She waited until she was back in her room before looking at her strange message. Once she was secure, she sat down on the bed and opened the letter.
Assessing powers is always a difficult task. Some students have abilities that are beyond their control, through no fault of their own. That is why Whateley is here – to train those students and grant them some measure of control. But until then, some small minority of those students must be classified as “uncontrollable and dangerous.” This means that they may, through no fault of their own, accidentally cause severe or lethal damage to those around them.
If you are receiving this letter, it means that either your or your roommate has been classified as “uncontrollable and dangerous.” For the “uncontrollable” roommate, you will be relocated – either to a single room, or to a cottage better prepared to handle your condition. For the other roommate, unless backed by parental informed consent waivers, you will be immediately relocated to another room, with a less dangerous roommate. The move will be made as close as possible, to provide minimal disruption.
We apologize for any inconvenience,
– Whateley Administration and Operations –
Jade’s mind was spinning. She was puzzled that anyone considered her either dangerous or uncontrollable, until she realized they were talking about Tennyo. Which meant … they wanted to give Tennyo a single (or worse, move her out of Poe). And Jade would be moved … where? In with Ayla? But … Ayla had a thing! She’d seen the bulge in the other girl’s pants.
She suddenly realized how totally hypocritical she was being. Ayla was at least partially female, while she herself was still (technically) 0% female. It was definitely the pot calling the kettle black. But she didn’t want to room with Ayla, she wanted to room with a girl!
More specifically, she realized that she really wanted to room with Tennyo. Okay, the girl was a bit odd. She’d sometimes disappear in the middle of the night to go sleep who-knows-where. And sometimes she wasn’t really overtly feminine (although that might change). And when she was angry, her voice could cut like a buzz saw. And, having seen Tennyo’s energy blast on the night of the ninja attack, Jade was sure she didn’t want one of those aimed at her…
But she really liked the older girl. And Tennyo (well, Billie, but she always thought of her as “Tennyo”), she had a no-nonsense attitude sometimes that was really neat. A sort of “If I put my mind to it, I can do anything” attitude. Jade really admired that. Plus they both liked a lot of the same things, like animé.
Plus, Tennyo didn’t listen to Brass Monkey. Jade wasn’t sure what the other girls thought, but personally she thought Ayla’s favorite band was horrible.
She had to fix this somehow, but what could she do? Parental consent waivers? She shuddered at the thought of somehow approaching her father.
There was a noise at the door. Not a knock. Just a noise.
Jade got up, ready for anything from a bucket of water to a set of over-amorous guys.
What she saw instead was Tennyo, half crumpled against the door. The older girl wasn’t crying, but she looked close to it. In her fist was a crumpled version of the same letter Jade had just read.
Tennyo inhaled, and her voice had that shaky quality. “They’re going… to transfer me into Hawthorne.”
Jade just grabbed her and hugged hard.
Whateley Academy September 9, Saturday evening
Someone had the idea to talk to Zenith. Angel had recommended her a few days before, saying that Zenith was a T-girl who had “had the good taste to go lesbian.” She was also up on the fourth floor, which meant she was a senior. It was a daunting prospect, but to keep Tennyo from moving out, Jade was willing to go along with it and brave the dangers of the fourth floor.
In typical fashion, before Jade had even finished working up her nerve, Tennyo had already blasted up the stairs. It looked like she’d forgotten to keep her feet on the ground again. Jade moved quickly, but not as quickly as her airborne roommate. By the time she got up to the fourth floor, Tennyo was already talking to a knockout blonde in a sweatsuit.
Jade caught her breath for a moment. Not so bad, she thought, judging the effort to run up two flights of stairs. About how I feel when I summon up Jinn.
“And who’s this?” the blonde asked, peering over Tennyo’s shoulder.
“This is Jade, my roommate. Jade, meet Zenith. She thinks she might be able to help us.”
“Whoa, hold on a moment! I don’t know that I can help you yet. Let’s step into my room and get the details.”
Jade took the opportunity to study the fabled “Executive Wing” – the floor reserved for seniors. For rooms that were the same size and shape, there was a world of difference between the freshmen and senior accommodations. It was all in the subtle details. The paint on the walls was higher quality, and had much more subtle shades. The furniture was vastly nicer, and in greater variety. Zenith’s roommate had a canopy bed, while Zenith herself had a waterbed that had the deep finish of hand-rubbed oak.
Apparently Zenith and the other seniors had noticed the fight with the ninjas, a few days before. They felt they owed something to the team for saving old Edgar’s head and “protecting Poe.” Jade wasn’t sure whether Zenith meant the cottage or the bust. But by the time Tennyo had her story out, Zenith was ready to leap into action.
“Sounds like they’re trying to railroad you,” she decided. “Quick! We need to hurry and catch Ms. Hartass… I mean Hartford, before she leaves her office tonight!”
In seconds, they were flying back down the stairs. Tennyo was pulling her so fast that Jade summoned up Jinn, so that she could float as the flying girl dragged her along. They were barely in time as Zenith caught up with the Administrator, who was just leaving the main office.
Plainly, Zenith was a well known adversary of the stern young administrator. The two women argued for a few moments, before Ms. Hartford conceded, “Very well. You can have your hearing. Tomorrow, at 4:00 PM. But be aware, you’re responsible for anything that happens due to your refusal to follow the safest course.”
“Save it for the hearing. We’ll see you there.”
“See that you do.”
The walk to dinner was much more somber, as Zenith explained how discipline worked at Whateley. “Read up on it in your introductory packet. It’ll be in the disciplinary section. Meanwhile I’ll need to talk to Chief Delarose and Adam and get more details. You two better get going for supper. And be careful! I don’t trust old Hardcase for a moment. She’s got something up her sleeve. I half expect her to try something before the hearing.”
The splendor of Crystal Hall was enough to distract them from their troubles briefly. As usual, the place was packed. For Saturday’s dinner, the lights were turned down. Instead, there were moving, twinkling lights that were either mobile Christmas lights or colorful 10-watt fireflies. Whatever the mechanism, the colorful, twinkling lights drifted through the shiny steel lattice that supported the glass panes of the geodesic dome. Between that and the fact that Saturday was steak night, Tennyo was soon in a much better mood.
“Let’s get a table that’s not so noisy,” Jade suggested.
Tennyo looked around skeptically, unconsciously floating up a few feet to get a better view. “Where?”
Jade pulled her roommate back down. “I don’t know. A corner somewhere?”
“It’s a ROUND room!”
“How about on the other side of the planter? Hey, Tennyo, what flag was up today?”
“Amber this morning, but they changed to green sometime during the afternoon.”
“Oh, cool. Hey, want me to cook your steak for you? I was going to have Jinn do mine.”
Tennyo glanced toward the far wall, where the grills were. There was a fairly thick crowd there, with the powers of the students, it made a strange scene. Some students were hovering above the grills, some were standing back and just staring at their food. Some of the tougher looking students were cooking up more than one steak at a time.
“Yeah,” Tennyo agreed. “If I need to stay out of trouble, I’d probably better avoid that crowd.” By now they had made their way through the line, and they both had trays with salads, drinks, and their raw steaks. “Hey, you can cook, can’t you?”
Jade grabbed the plates, pulled out a speaker disk, and charged them up. Immediately, both plates floated up into the air.
“Sure,” came the voice from the small coin that floated between the two plates. “Want any sauce on it? Medium, rare, well-done?”
“Medium, I guess. Lots of pepper. Just these to start with,” she said, gesturing at the three raw steaks on her plate.
Jade was slowly getting used to her roommate’s voracious appetite.
“Okay.” And the plates floated off toward the grill.
The area on the far side of the planter was only a little quieter. The dome over their heads was beautiful, but it also did strange things to the acoustics. Which meant that you often found yourself listening in on a conversation at the far side of the dome – whether you wanted to or not. Jade and Tennyo tried to make small talk, but they were both subdued by the thought that Tennyo might be leaving tomorrow.
Soon enough, two plates came floating toward them, bearing piles of fresh-grilled steaks and fries for Tennyo, and a baked potato for Jade. Following the plates with some bemusement was a junior who pulled up a seat and joined them.
“Oh, hi. Join us?” Tennyo asked, belatedly. “Jade, this is Mindbird. She’s one of the ‘Betas.’ Last I saw, they were sort of helping security. Mindbird, this is my roommate Jade.”
Jade was thinking about how much she’d be willing to pay for a figure like that.
The green-eyed blonde nodded to her. “We met at the grill, although this is the first time we’ve met in the flesh.”
Tennyo seemed to trust the girl, and immediately started explaining her problem. The older girl listened attentively and gave suggestions where she could. Perhaps it was her presence, perhaps not, but nobody bothered them that evening.
Later, on the way back to Poe, they bumped into a lanky russet-haired girl whom Tennyo introduced. “This is Thunderfox, another of the Betas.”
Jade got the point, and resolved to keep her own close eye on Tennyo.
Sunday morning, Jade explained the situation to Toni. She figured the black girl might have the easiest time keeping Tennyo out of trouble. That left her conscience clear for abandoning her roommate for the morning. Although what she could do that her super-strong, flying, regenerating, energy blasting roommate couldn’t handle was an open question.
It’s a matter of control, Jade decided. Subtlety. Tennyo was as powerful as she was brash. She had a real style about her that made her as noticeable as Fey, but in a different way. It was part of what Jade liked about her. But staying out of trouble was probably not going to be one of Tennyo’s stronger points.
On the job, Morrie and Stan were arguing. In what seemed odd for them, the argument had a serious undertone to it.
“…I’m just saying,” Stan continued, “that the weather’s been clear for the last couple of days. We could flame out the gateway this week, instead of two weeks from now.”
Morrie was adamant. “No way. First, we already told the stringers we’d meet ‘em in Access 14. They’re expecting us. Second, we already have the pipe loaded. But mostly I don’t want to be going down to that hell-hole any more often than I have to.”
“Bad job?” Jade asked
Morrie gave a sharp nod. “It isn’t the work, it’s the place. Gives ME nightmares. You’ve done pretty well in the main sewer, but I don’t think you’re ready for this one. We’ll probably have you sit out that Sunday.”
“What? No way! Sunday is overtime AND time-and-half. It’s my favorite day!”
“Yeah, and you’d get hazard pay on top of all that. They used to balk at all the multipliers piled on each other, but there’s no way I’m doing that job on anything but a Sunday. I may not be all regular religious, but…”
Jade thought for a moment. “I haven’t gotten my first paycheck yet, but am I pulling hazard pay for work down in the sewers?”
Stan grinned. “Naw. That’s just the regular rigors of workin’ at Whateley. Heck, it’s probably safer than being up top, some days.”
While they talked, Morrie unlocked a new staircase and led them down to a familiar area.
“Hey, it’s the underground!” Jade realized.
“That’s right!” Stan was obviously in a chipper mood. “There’s a lot of extra rooms down here, so we’ve appropriated some of them for storage, shop rigs, stuff like that.”
Morrie rolled back a large door to reveal a small underground warehouse filled with crates, pipes, metal panels, and a host of other equipment. He started up a small electric golf-cart vehicle that was towing a trailer loaded with a huge rack of pipes – each six inches in diameter and about ten feet long.
“Hop on,” he said. “We’re supposed to meet the girls up in access 14 in less than five minutes.”
As they drove, Stan explained the system. Each “access” was a small side passage that ran in parallel to the main tunnels. The access tunnels held the pipes and ductwork that ran to each cottage.
“Wasn’t always like that, of course,” Morrie said, taking over. “The tunnels were dug back in ‘74. They added the access passages at the same time, along with about a hundred miles of other passageways that I don’t even bother trying to keep track of. Most of those are off the net, of course.
“Anyway, the cottages used to have regular pipes laid in trenches and stuff. You ever lived on a residential street and you know how that goes. That old stuff is still there – we use some of it as backup in case the main goes out. Water pipes are no good, but the power lines are holding up okay. Can’t have too many redundancies on this campus. It’s the net and sensor cables for security that probably matter most. That’s more in the girls’ line than ours. But almost all of the new work is done in the access passages.”
Jade was about to ask about “the girls” when they began to slow. The passage was stark concrete nearly ten feet wide, but there were obstructions every few feet. The ceiling was a maze of pipes and cables. These would frequently drop down into large armored boxes of various designs, usually mounted on the right-hand wall.
As they slowed, Jade saw another pair of overall-clad workers up ahead. One was on a ladder, working in the top of one of the armored boxes. Another was fetching equipment out of another golf cart, thoughtfully pulled into a side alcove. The one on the ladder looked up and Jade realized that it was a woman. She had frizzy, light brown hair, freckled skin, and looked to be in her mid-thirties.
“Morrie! You’re late, you fuck-up!”
“Amanda. Nice to catch you in a good mood.”
“Can it.” Amanda leveled a glare at Stan, but he seemed not to notice. She then turned to stare at Jade. “Huh, you’re just a li’l bit, aren’t you? Don’t worry, I won’t bite. Not like these louts. Hey, fuck-up, you explained the deal to her yet?”
Morrie looked like he wanted to spit. “Yeah. Well. Here’s the plan, Jade. We’re laying the new steam pipes between Poe and Hawthorne. We already laid the pipe from Melville to Poe, and now that we’ve drained the old pipes, the girls want to string cable down it.”
Jade scratched her head. “Why do you need to string cable down a pipe? Couldn’t you just run it along the ceiling, like those other cables?”
Amanda smiled and nodded at her. “Good question, kid. Yeah, we could. We did that for some stuff, a couple of years back. Two problems. First, there’s the interference. You got your power lines in here, various high-frequency emissions, crud like that. Even worse is all the damn kids, no offense, who are what-you-call-it energizer types. They’re shooting off bolts and filling the airwaves with all sorts of transmissions. About twenty years back, the FCC actually considered shutting us down. They claimed that Whateley was violating all sorts of broadcast and emissions standards. Our main saving grace is that we’re located smack dab in the middle of Bumfuck, Nowhere.
“That’s why we’re sitting here in the twenty-first century and the damn cottages STILL can’t keep a network up and running for more than three days at a time. You know how hard it is to run a network, when the kid down the hall suddenly lights up like a five megawatt transmitter? Hell, we’re lucky the fargin phone lines work.
“So anyway, not only do we use mil-spec coax, double-shielded and grounded, we run the cable down the middle of a thick metal pipe, and that’s regularly grounded, too. And that brings me to the second problem.”
“Collateral damage,” her partner said, stepping forward. She was a svelte woman with black hair and nearly black eyes. Jade thought her ancestry might be African, but the woman’s skin was that café-au-lait color that could be anything from a light black, to Hispanic, to Caucasian with a good tan. Internally Jade shrugged. She didn’t really care that much about racial differences, except when people were discriminating against her.
“Hi, I’m C.J.,” the woman said, offering her hand. “Some of the arguments around here get a little over the top. We do our best to keep them out of the access tunnels, but if they blast a hole in the side of the main passage, it’s liable to cut in here. And the bare cables are usually too fragile to stand up to that sort of punishment. The pipes usually survive, though.”
Stan snorted. “If they don’t, we leave the cottage without power or water for at least three days, AND let all the kids know who it was that blew out their services. We haven’t had a big problem for, oh, what…?”
“Six and a half years,” Morrie supplied.
“Yeah,” Stan agreed. “That ‘Force Bolt’ kid. He knocked out Melville, Poe, and Hawthorne in one big blast. Took us five days to get their water and toilets running again. I think every single one of them let him know how they felt about it.”
“I heard he moved to Australia once he graduated,” Morrie added.
“So anyway,” Amanda said, climbing down the ladder, “we’re going to try running network outlets to the dorm one more time. Melville comes first, of course. A couple of the rich daddies offered a grant if their little darlings could send ‘em regular emails.”
“What do I do?” Jade asked.
“When we feed the cable bundle, it has to go up into that hole there,” she pointed to an open pipe end in the ceiling. “It’s a tight fight, and C.J.’s arms are too big to get the best angle. I’m in the same boat, not to mention the guys.” She said the word like a slur. “But you, Li’l Bit, you should fit in there just fine. You feed the cable in, making sure that there’s no kinks or scrapes and that everything flows just right. I’ll be at the other end pulling. And meanwhile – Stan was saying you do a TK thing, too?”
Jade nodded. “Yeah. I can make another ‘me.’ I call myself ‘Jinn’ when I’m like that – I’m completely independent. They’ve been calling it an ‘autonomous TK construct.’ I can’t just think and levitate something, I get cast into something and then it comes to life. Sort of my body-out-of-body.”
Amanda laughed. “Not bad, kid.” She held up a set of strap constructions. “These are ‘grips.’ They let you grab a hold of a cable bundle and pull. Can you do that?”
Jade took the grips, added a speaker disk, and created Jinn. The grips suddenly floated up into mid-air, wrapping and unwrapping as Jinn flexed her new body.
“How’s this?” came from the nickel-sized disk.
C.J. raised her eyebrows. “Not bad. You’re really a separate person?”
“Yeah, until I evaporate. Then my two separate memories join up again.”
The black woman gave a wry grin to Amanda. “She’s going to have one interesting love life when she gets a bit older.”
The other woman looked shocked. “Don’t you ever think of anything else?”
She could certainly hear the two guys and C.J. working much farther down the hallway. She could barely see Amanda at the far end, and Jade close behind her. It seemed that her distance vision wasn’t quite as good in this form as her as human vision. On the other hand, she could see close details far better. There were other advantages as well. She moved her focus from the outside of the pipe (where her speaker disk hung) to the dark inside, where she was holding the cable bundle.
“Ready?” Amanda shouted. “I’m going to start the pull in three… two… one!”
Jinn lifted the bundle she held and pulled forward, adding her strength to the middle, while Amanda hauled on the far end. Apparently the women had figured correctly, because the bundle slid forward smoothly.
It was strange to be in two places at the same time. Well, in a different way than normal. In this case, part of her was inside the pipe, while another part was definitely outside. In retrospect, it made send that if her “body” was immaterial, the pipe wouldn’t restrict her. It was no different from someone poking a stick or sword through her, which never caused any problems. But this felt odd, psychologically. And there were other odd aspects of her condition that continued to surprise her. For example, since part of her was inside this pipe, she could easily see inside it. But she couldn’t see inside the other pipes around her, even if she stuck her head into them.
“Keep going! Keep going!”
She turned her full attention back to the work.
For lunch they adjourned topside, moving through a side corridor to a junction, then up to a manhole cover. That left them on a bench beside the walkway from Melville to the campus.
“So,” Amanda said around a mouthful of sandwich. “How is it that you guys have time to be fitting pipes? Don’t you still have windows to fix? I figure that blast from last week must have blown out half the windows on campus.”
“Where’d you hear that exaggeration?” Morrie asked.
“Common knowledge. Those blasts Wednesday night must have set off a dozen car alarms. And between the two blasts, I know some windows must have been taken out.”
Stan smiled. “Only three. And with Jinn lifting the glass into place, it didn’t take hardly anything to fix.”
“And it wasn’t our fault!” Jade protested. “It was those darned ninjas!”
Amanda and C.J. both stared at her.
“Ninjas? Man, do I hate ninjas!” Amanda agreed.
“And how. Domestic or imported?”
Jade blinked in confusion. “Uh… imported, I guess. They were from a place called the Yama Dojo, in Japan.”
“Uh huh,” C.J. agreed. “They had a team that tried to hit us about four years back. Dropped a pulse thingy onto our cables and tried to blow the security network.”
Amanda nodded. “As if! Hell, our networks get hit by bolts of lighting practically every week. And they didn’t figure we’d have isolators and cut-outs? What a bunch of losers. Hell, the accidents around here are worse than their sabotage was.”
“Still, we had a lot of routers to replace after that.”
“So you two do more than stringing cable?” Jade asked tentatively. “‘Cause the guys were calling you ‘the stringers,’ and I thought…”
C.J. started laughing. “Oh, that’s right! Hey, it’s a good day when we get to string some new cable. No, we spend most of our time maintaining the network. Replacing burned out switchers, upgrading firewalls, swapping out the PBX. The whole damn system. We could really use another two or three people, but…” She shrugged. “I mean, it helps out a ton when we get a student like you with some useful powers.”
“Not that stupid ‘fly and lift trucks’ crap,” Amanda muttered. “Remember that kid with the laser eyes? What the hell good are laser eyes?”
“I’ll tell you who was useful,” Morrie said. “It was back before your time, C.J. Hector Moliere. Remember him?”
“Oh, yeah!” Stan shouted. “MoleFinger!”
“God, yes!” Amanda agreed. “You hear he’s working for the New York City Public Utilities? He’s pulling down seven figures.”
Jade and C.J. just looked puzzled.
“MoleFinger,” Stan explained. “He was a specialized telekinetic, maybe some other stuff mixed in. Dumpy little fat kid, about five-foot-six. All he had to do was touch the ground, dirt or rock, either one, and he could make a hole. If he kept concentrating, he could make a tunnel that would twist and turn in any way he pictured. As wide as he wanted, but near as we could figure he could tunnel about three cubic feet per second.”
“Yeah,” Amelia added fondly, “we’ve still got cable in the back-up systems running all over the place – mostly in Moley’s little tunnels.”
Jade was slowly figuring it out. “He’s making a million dollars a year?”
Morrie snorted. “Hey, whaddya expect? He’s going to fight crime with a power like that? Besides, better to have him working a legit job, rather than figuring out how to tunnel into Fort Knox or something. Still, I’m surprised the kid did so well. Last I heard, he was having problems with the unions.”
Amanda shook her head. “Naw, he got that cleared up through some hot-shot telepath negotiator. Now he’s actually working with the unions. See, the utilities can’t contract him directly. They have to hire out all the regular work to the union, at normal rates. The unions then guarantee completion date – which they never used to do – and if there’s a hold-up, li’l Hector moves in and solves the problem for them. If he’s called in, he’s got some fancy sliding scale the union set up. Protects the workers from undue competition, gives ‘em a break when they need it, and the city always gets delivery on-time and on-budget. Everyone’s happy.”
Amanda stood up, brushing the crumbs from her overalls. “Well, back to stringing. We ought to be done by two. You up for it?”
Jade nodded. “I have to be at a meeting by four.”
“Plenty of time. How’s the pipe-laying going?”
“Have you seen the new pipe they’re putting in?” C.J. asked in awe.
“No. What’s the deal? Pipe is pipe.”
“You HEATHEN!” Stan said, in horrified disbelief. “This pipe is SACRED!”
“Yeah, I gotta agree,” Morrie said. “It’s part of an alumni grant from WATW. They’re hoping to get the WP stamp.”
“Huh?” Jade asked, eloquently.
“Crap, this is going to take a while. I’ll explain while we walk,” Morrie said. “See, there’s a lot of different grades of construction materials. Commercial grade or Industrial quality is decent stuff. Even better is ‘meets all international codes and requirements’. Better than that is ‘mil-spec’ or ‘meets military specifications.’ You buy that and you know you’re ready for a rough ride. But there’s one grade above that: ‘WP’. Most people think it stands for ‘Worldwide Premium.’ It actually stands for ‘Whateley Preferred.’ It’s basically whatever our maintenance crews put down for ‘this is our first choice for replacement and upgrades.’ You’d be surprised at how much wear and tear this school can put on its equipment. It kind of snowballed. A couple of the guys started listing particular products as ‘WP’ back in the early seventies. After a while, some of the outside companies began to notice that some products were carrying the ‘WP’ identification, and they were the best of the best – the top of the line – and they began to call for it in contracts. Our suppliers made up some crocked-up story, and now it’s a standard.”
Amanda was skeptical. “I still say pipe is pipe.”
“You’ll have to back down on this one,” C.J. told her.
“It’s… the greatest pipe the world has ever seen!” Stan still sounded like he was having a religious experience.
“Yeah,” Morrie agreed. “It’s pretty good. Stainless steel core, wound with a fiberglass-and-resin shell that acts as both thermal and electrical insulator, shock absorber, and dramatically increases strength. That’s clad in a conventional steel shell, with an outer wrap that’s a half-inch of synthetic rubber. I mean, these things are strong – same principle as one of them-there glue-laminate beams. And the joints have full connections for grounding straps, so they’re electrically isolated. And with the stainless steel core, we’re going to be using ‘em to pump steam from the reactor. They’re rated for up to 600 degrees C. I think we just may have found the holy grail of plumbing. If some yahoo energizer can bust up these puppies, I’ll shake his hand personally.”
Jade was in awe at his description. “And someone just donated this to the school? Who?”
“WATW. Officially, it’s ‘Wilkinson Advanced Technology Weaponry.’ Privately, we all call them ‘We Arm The World.’ One of your nastier international arms dealers. A handful of former Whateley students, and what you’d generally call ‘black hats.’ But they’re an okay bunch, in my book. I mean, you have to see these pipes.”
Amanda had been right; she was ready in plenty of time for the hearing. Jade even had time to shower and change into her formal uniform. She followed Tennyo into the converted classroom, then sat in the back, out of the way. Tennyo and Zenith sat in front, and there was a table had been raised up at the head of the classroom. The staff that sat behind it were clearly sitting in judgment.
Jade took a seat next to an old woman in back. She briefly wondered how the old woman had gotten in. Jade herself had only been allowed because the hearing was about her roommate.
Tennyo and Zenith both looked extremely good in their uniforms. Tennyo’s had been custom tailored for her, and did an excellent job of emphasizing her bust. At the same time she looked like a completely respectable young schoolgirl – demure, innocent, but with a touch of mischief.
Zenith, on the other hand, was a knockout. Now that she was out of her sweatpants, the blonde senior was stunning. It wasn’t just her looks, it seemed like every movement she made illustrated that she was a young woman of confidence and poise, with a slinky sensuality that had to be gaining some sympathy from the men sitting in judgment.
In the front of the room, Ms. Hartford, the stern young administrative woman, began trading snide comments with Zenith. Although older and more mature, she was clearly outmatched by the senior’s sheer presence. Still, Ms. Hartford looked confident, while Zenith seemed to be doing her best to recover from an unpleasant surprise, as she viewed the selection of ‘judges.’ That’s when the room door swung open again to admit a middle-aged man in western wear.
Ms. Hartford seemed annoyed. “This is a closed meeting! What is the meaning of this interruption?”
Several others followed the newcomer in, as the man said, “Sorry to break in like this. I had to pick up a few people on the way back. I thought we would have a little more time.” He headed confidently toward the “judge” table.
“What’s the idea, coming in like this?”
“I AM one of the Supervisors, and I did receive a message to attend this meeting if I could.”
“You were in California. How did you get here?”
“A friend gave me a lift. I’d have changed to something a little more appropriate, but I didn’t have much time. The message had been a little delayed before it got to me.” He moved to take his seat at the head table.
Once the distractions were gone. Ms. Hartford launched into her accusations. She might have looked modest enough, but her vindictiveness came through in her presentation. “We are here today to determine the best method to assure the safety of our students and properties. More specifically, the best means of containing the dangerous tendencies of one Billie Wilson, sometimes known as Tennyo.”
As the discussions continued, Jade slowly began to realized how spiteful the woman was being. Her respect also grew for Zenith. She didn’t know how the blonde was doing it, but Jade knew that she wouldn’t have been able to keep Tennyo quietly in her seat.
Zenith stood to counter Ms. Hartford’s accusations. “I was unaware that the need to do this had already been determined. What has been done by Miss Wilson that would require such extreme measures?”
And that began a long recitation of various events that had happened in the last few days. Jade thought it was monstrously unfair. After all, most of these kids were training to be superheroes. Were they supposed to just roll over and play dead when they were attacked by ninjas?
The narration came to the night that Tennyo had gotten home late. She hadn’t said much about it at the time, only grumbling enough to frighten Fey (which was a trick and a half, but that was before Fey got her period). Now the details were coming out. Ms. Hartford described it as, “Her assault on two technicians Thursday night.” She went on to describe Tennyo in a berserk fury destroying a laser test range.
Go for it, roomie! Jade thought to herself.
It occurred to her that this was a perfect time to do some of her homework. She’d been assigned to write a paper on how she saw things with her esper abilities. So, calling up Jinn into her own body, they were able to look around and study the emotions of everyone present.
Tennyo was glowing in a firestorm of red anger. Ms. Hartford was looked like a Christmas decoration. There were red wisps of anger, but an almost emerald green. That took a bit to decipher. It wasn’t the pea green of horror, or the lime green that Ayla had when she was grooving to music. This had a different taste. It seemed more like… intense frustration.
The western guy, on the other hand, had tight tendrils of ultra-violet. He had powers, and was keeping them under control. But occasionally a line would drift out to touch one of the other participants, such as Ms. Hartford.
One of the judges, a man in a minister’s suit, was the most interesting. His emotions were seething like a cauldron. A boiling red-anger, next to an intense vein of pure fear. The most interesting part was that the emotions seemed completely contained, as if held in check by an iron will. Jade wasn’t sure what Tennyo had done to trigger such a violent reaction, but she was sure that nothing said today would sway him.
She took careful notes of colors and reactions, so that she could write it up for her homework later.
Zenith was a white of either serenity or clear concentration. Jade decided that it must be the second. “I think it would be wise to look into these accusations more closely first,” the senior said.
Ms Hartford sneered, glowing with a brown aura. “What more could be added? The facts speak for themselves.”
“I’m afraid that you apparently don’t have all the facts yet, Ma’am. I think that once the rest of the facts are known, you’ll find that the current proposal will not be for the best for either the students or the school.”
They went on to talk about a whole PILE of incidents that Jade had never heard about. She was definitely going to have to get better at pumping her roommate for information, particularly when the girl had a bad day. They talked about the ninja attack again, and finally moved on to the big secret.
“That’s all very well up to that point,” Ms. Hartman practically yelled. “But what about the incident at Range Three? Her response to that was hardly a reasonable response. Look at her! Can you tell us honestly that she was in such danger that the destruction of very valuable equipment and the threat to two employees was justifiable?”
Zenith was now glowing a golden white, as she sprang her trap.
“Yes. I have medical testimony from the doctor who treated her afterwards, that the only reason she is here with us today and not still in medical care, is because her healing factor is incredibly high. In fact, Dr. Polland states that he has not seen an unassisted healing factor that high before.”
“Further, he states that from his examination of Miss Wilson at the time, the wounds he examined were serious and potentially fatal in other circumstances.”
Jade felt pretty low. Her roommate had been practically killed, and she barely even welcomed her home!
“…I can show that Miss Wilson was in extreme danger of her life. And only the fact that she was able to neutralize that danger saved her, and probably many more potential victims of that trap.”
There was an exchange of personnel, as the school’s security chief came up. Jade recognized him from the ninja attack.
“The information you are receiving now is confidential and anyone caught giving out this information before it’s authorized for release will be in serious violation of the law and will be punished. Anyone who feels that they can’t keep this secret should leave now.”
Jade wasn’t ABOUT to leave now!
“Very well. We know everyone here, and by staying here you have agreed to this policy.”
“As you may or may not know, the two technicians in the control room were actually going to broadcast a demonstration of powers by a Miss Tennyson. One of our upperclassmen who was getting extra income by starring in fights against both live and mechanical opponents. Fortunately for her, she broke her leg in gym the afternoon of her next broadcast.”
“How can you be so sure of this?”
“She’s been cooperating with us ever since she found out about the existence of these games. She’s actually an agent of ours and was gathering evidence for us when this happened. We think that someone may have found out, and was arranging an accident to finish her off.”
Jade was gleeful. This was what school was supposed to be like! Well, a school for superheroes. Life and death battles, hidden plots, secret agents.
Ms. Hartford’s red was turning to the pink tones of curiosity. Jade decided that the woman must have some respect for the security chief.
“That’s all very interesting Chief, but still doesn’t explain how a safety system I helped design could possibly be used to kill or even seriously injure a student. I assure you, I know computers, and I don’t see how it could be done.”
“It would be very difficult and I believe almost impossible, and under most circumstances I would agree with you Ms. Hartford. I know how good you are with computers. With the time and equipment they had I don’t think they could have done it. Besides, we’ve questioned them thoroughly, and don’t feel that they intended any harm to anyone. They were simply doing their job.”
“Then how can you say that they or Tennyo here was in any danger?”
“Have you ever heard of a Palm?”
The emotions were like a flashbulb. A moment ago, Ms. Hartford had shown colors for curiosity, with minor shadings of both frustration and anger. But as the security chief mentioned the word, Ms. Hartford’s aura exploded out like a flashbulb. It was sudden a revolting twist of yellow and green, as fear and horror writhed within her like angry snakes.
“A…a Palm?!? That’s impossible! He’s dead!”
“So you know what a Palm is?”
“Y…yes. I know what a Palm is. B…but he’s dead! I saw the body! They were all destroyed!”
The Chief nodded his head, glowing the color of satisfaction.
“You’re THAT Hartford then. I kind of thought so. I would appreciate your help after this to make sure we got the whole thing out of the system. Your firewalls are good but there was still some penetration. At least enough for it to try and kill Miss Wilson anyway.”
They went on to talk in round-about fashion about these “Palms”, which were obviously some computer thing that caused stuff to go haywire. People obviously thought it was important, but it didn’t seem to have swayed anybody’s side. Then the vote was finally tallied out loud. Sure enough, Jade thought glumly, nobody’s changed their vote. It was a three-to-three tie.
That’s when the next surprise came out. The old lady next to her stood up. “It’s a good thing I’m here then. It’s the duty of the local village council representative to cast the deciding vote.”
Jade looked at her. Her emotions were bright and cheerful. The old woman rambled for a moment about consequences and precautions, but Jade could tell things were going well because of her aura. Then the woman turned to HER!
“It seems that someone has neglected to ask you how you feel about this and if you have an alternate solution. Would you care to share your ideas with us?”
Jade had seen this coming. She tried to be as polite and respectful as she could. “Ma’am, I want to keep rooming with Tennyo.”
“You aren’t afraid that you might be hurt by your roommate?”
“No Ma’am. I can’t believe that she’d ever hurt me.”
“Not even accidentally?”
Jade considered how to answer. There was the truth, and there was what she wanted. How could she put it? “This is Whateley. There are going to be lots of accidents. But that doesn’t mean we should close the school. I think it’s worth the risk. And the same way, I think that rooming with Tennyo is worth whatever risk there might be.”
Ms. Hartford’s aura now held the sickly silver shimmer of hatred. “We have been entrusted with your welfare by your parents,” she said in her smarmy way. “Unless we have their permission, we can’t take any chances. We MUST have that to prove that we can not be held accountable in case there is an accident.”
Jade felt a jolt of fear. They couldn’t contact her father, they just couldn’t!
“And THAT would require a signed permission form from her parents or guardian would it not?” Zenith asked.
“Yes, it would. We have not had time to contact this child’s parents yet. I’m sure they would have a dim view of the risks she would be taking.”
Zenith’s aura was triumphant.
“It so happens that I was able to contact Miss Sinclair’s father last night. I informed him of the situation and was able to get the necessary paperwork signed and faxed here. So you needn’t worry about that. If Miss Sinclair wants to room with Miss Wilson, there is no problem with her doing so.”
Jade’s mind was awhirl. They’d contacted her father? And he’d AGREED? She was terrified that he would come and drag her off.
“Was he truly informed of the risks that his daughter would be taking? And was her mother informed as well?”
“If you had looked into this a little more closely, Ms. Hartford, you would know that Mr. Sinclair is a widower. And, I took care to record everything. I think you will find that I was very thorough in my description of the risks.”
Wait a minute… “Mr. Sinclair?” What was going on?
While she tried to think it through, the trial finished up around her. Tennyo explained why she wanted to stay in Poe, and before long, the case was over. The little old lady from the village had decided in Tennyo’s favor, ending the case. Jade was distracted with thoughts of her father, but something nagged at her. The old woman, Mrs. Potter, had something odd about her aura. It wasn’t obvious, but it was irritating. Jade tried to memorize the look of the aura – maybe she’d figure it out later.
She finished packing away her paper and made her way up to Tennyo. Even if her father was coming for her, (especially if her father was coming), it was good to have her friends around her. She went to congratulate Tennyo, who was now crowding around with the western-dressed man and Mrs. Potter.
“Jade,” Tennyo said, giving her a quick hug, “this is Mr. Lodgeman.”
Everyone was glowing the warm gold of happiness, so it was obvious the feelings were genuine. After a while the group began to break up. Mr. Lodgeman led her and Tennyo into another room, when Tennyo began to practically jump in excitement.
“Mr. and Mrs. Tanaka!” Tennyo practically flew into their arms.
The reunion went well. Jade was still joined with Jinn, so she could see that Mrs. Tanaka was infused with the ultra-violet of mutant energies all through her body, like a network of circuitry. It was similar to the effect she’d seen from Juanita, who’d been a speedster. Mr. Tanaka, on the other hand, had a glowing nimbus around his skull. But neither of them overtly displayed the slightest signs of power, so she let it pass.
Mr. Lodgeman explained that he had sealed Jade’s records behind a deeper level of security than Ms. Hartford could access – “Meaning that the file is written on good old-fashioned paper,” he said, laughing. “Amelia can make a computer sit up and beg for treats. Paper, though…”
He went on to explain that he’d used personal contacts in the Kansas Department of Child Welfare, to ensure that they signed the proper forms granting Jade permission to undertake “any and all risks necessary”, providing that they were pursuant to her education and development at Whateley.
“I had it written as broadly as possible,” he explained, “since I wasn’t sure what Amelia was up to, then I forwarded the information through to Zenith. I’m hoping that I can trust you to act responsibly, and not endanger yourself recklessly.”
Jade nodded vigorously. “You can trust me, Sir. So my real father won’t be coming?”
“No. So far as we know, he has no idea where you are, and no interest.” The man clapped a hand on Jade’s shoulder and led her to a more private corner of the room. “How much do you know about your father’s work?”
Jade frowned. “He worked for a bank. Freedom Security Alliance. He’s a loan officer.”
Charlie Lodgeman sighed and sat down heavily. “Jade… I’m afraid that’s not quite the truth.”
She knew what he was talking about. Her father had never once taken her to his office. She’d never met any of his co-workers. And her father strongly discouraged any questions. Even when he came home, beaten and bruised. “That’s… that’s what he always told me.”
“Jade, your father was a small-time loan shark. He worked for a local crime boss. He was arrested, and earlier this month he was convicted of racketeering. They have already confiscated your house and everything inside it. Your father was sentenced to five to ten years, with parole possible in three. Since his crimes were primarily financial and not violent, he was deemed a low-risk prisoner, but apparently during his transport outside forces intervened to free him. He is currently a wanted fugitive. Believe me, the last thing he’s interested in is tracking down his child.”
She couldn’t answer, right away. The thought of her father, gone. Her house, sold. She hadn’t had many possessions, but there were her mother’s kimonos. She’d brought all the important pictures with her already.
Why hadn’t anyone told her?
“They apparently mailed you a record of the actions, but there was a mix-up at the records office. Your name change and …other… details are only recorded here at Whateley, so the mail was bounced back. I’ve taken care of that.”
He waited quietly for another few moments.
“Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“No.” She shook her head. “I just need to think about this.”
“Contact me if there’s anything I can help with.”
Jade dragged back to the cottage while Tennyo floated (literally, some of the time). Normally, the thought of skipping along in her pretty uniform was enough to perk her up, but the news about her father kept derailing her thoughts.
She’d only been at Whateley for a week. It had been completely joyous – in being able to be her true self, in having friends who valued her, even after learning her disgusting secret. She’d found something she’d never expected – people who were going through the same sort of things she was. Almost. And there had been so many girl-things going on! Talking about clothes. She was going to learn how to do makeup for real. Being part of the group while the other girls talked about their periods.
But her father. She’d never been “Jade” back at home. Whenever she pictured her father, she could only picture herself as she had been with her father. She was Jared. She was a boy. Like she still was, physically.
Each time she thought of her father, she realized that she was just a boy in a dress. She was just pretending. HE was just pretending.
She shivered. She could scarcely bear to think of herself with that other pronoun.
Still… there’d been that medical exam yesterday. As Jinn, she’d gotten a real pelvic exam. Even the doctor had confirmed it. She was a girl – a completely accurate, fully formed, no-other-explanation girl. Now if only her physical body would figure that out.
It had only been a week, and she’d made so much progress! She had a real doctor, who was going to be working full-time to help her become a girl!
But until then…
Her nightmare was that her father would come to the school. Sure, she was dressing differently, and her hair was different, and she had the earrings, and a little makeup. But the rest of her was exactly the same. Exactly. What if her father came – and he recognized her?
She had a nightmare of her father finding her. At first, he wouldn’t recognize her, but then he’d spot her and stare in disbelief. Then he’d come and hit her, so she couldn’t get away. And he’d start ripping off her pretty uniform, tearing her blazer, ripping her blouse apart. And she was on stage, like during the assembly. The entire school was watching her as she stood there in shame, finally clad in only her underwear.
And then her father would rip those away, too, so that everyone could see her. Him. They’d realize that he’d been a boy all along, and they’d laugh, and point, and never, ever let him have a place at the academy again.
If she were really a girl, none of that would matter. Her father might recognize her, but if he tried to do anything like that to a real girl, everyone would think he was a monster. He’d be lucky if there was enough left of him to throw in jail. No one would be laughing at her, or hating her, they’d be sympathizing and protecting. If only she were a real girl.
“Gods!” Tennyo exploded, slamming the door shut, “at last I can peel out of this stupid uniform!” In seconds, she had pulled off her skirt (hovering with both feet in the air, which made the job even faster), and was pulling off her blazer and blouse.
If I only looked like that, Jade thought, no one would ever mistake me for anything other than a real girl.
Tennyo hovered about a foot off the ground, clad in only bra-and-panties, socks and shoes.
“I swear, this is absolutely the worst thing about being a girl!” she fumed, as she fumbled with her bra. “Having to put up with this damned TORTURE harness!” Finally unfastening it, she flung it harshly onto her bed. “It chafes me in the absolute WORST spots, and God does it itch!” She seemed intent on illustrating the point by using both hands to scratch herself on both sides at once.
Jade couldn’t stop herself from watching. She wasn’t sure whether to giggle or blush or turn away in embarrassment. If she were a real girl, it wouldn’t have been so bad, but what would Tennyo think of her if she knew that some sicko little boy was staring at her and trying to figure out what was wrong?
Jade frowned as she thought about it. She’d seen enough naked girls by now, between the girls’ showers at Poe in the morning, and the gym classes in the afternoon. And the way Tennyo was scratching under her breasts and sort of jiggling – there was something odd about it in the same way Tennyo’s hair was odd.
“Oh!” she suddenly exclaimed. “That’s it!”
“What?” Her roommate looked around. “Something wrong with my tit? That damn bra leaves lines all over me. I swear, it must have shrunk in the wash or something. What? What’s wrong?”
Jade was giggling for real, now. “Oh, the other girls are going to kill you if they find out!”
Jade moved around her fuming roommate, studying her from the size. “Yeah, sure enough…”
“Jeez, no need to get worked up over it.” She walked over to her desk. “Okay, you’ve heard of the ‘pencil test’, right?”
Jade handed her a pencil. “Some of the girls were talking about it in class. It’s a test to see how much you sag. You put a pencil under your breast. If you’re sagging, you kind of droop over the pencil and it stays, even once you let go. But if you’re firm, the pencil just falls.”
“Yeah, so?” Tennyo took the pencil and tried holding it up under one breast and then the other, but it kept falling.
“Well, think about your hair. When you’re right-side-up, does your hair lie flat?”
“Of course not!” Self-consciously, the girl ran a hand over her spiky hair, smoothing it down for a moment before it sprung back into position.
“But your hair isn’t stiff, like porcupine quills, is it?”
“No. What’s your point?”
“And it isn’t stiff like if you used too much spray or gel or mousse, is it?”
“Uh, no.” Worried now, the nearly naked girl was feeling her hair. “When you were combing it the other day, you said it was soft.”
“It is!” Jade insisted. “Softer than normal hair. Your boyfriend’s going to be really lucky. I’ll bet once he finds out how soft your hair is, he won’t be able to stop touching it.”
Tennyo was starting to blush pretty intently now, and the red traveled down her chest. Jade knew that the girl still called herself “Billie,” but Jade could only think of her as Tennyo. Billie seemed like too much of a boy’s name, and the girl in front of her was clearly, obviously, definitely not a boy.
“Uh, thanks, I guess, but what’s your point?”
Jade smirked. “So your hair doesn’t fall down when you’re right-side-up, does it fall up when you’re upside-down?”
“No, of course not!” The spiky haired girl shook her head in emphasis, sending the free-floating strands swishing back and forth in a truly enchanting display. Actresses would have killed to achieve that effect in real life.
“Well, it’s simple! You keep saying that you’re levitating, but that’s not really it. I think it’s subconscious, and you can’t turn it off, even when you sleep.”
Tennyo crossed her arms and tapped her foot in mid-air, unintentionally emphasizing the point.
“I think I realized it before, I just never put it together,” Jade said. “You have your own personal gravity. That’s why your hair is like that – it’s falling the way gravity pulls it. Only not the earth’s gravity – YOUR gravity. Your own personal version. That’s why your hair’s so soft, but no matter which way you turn, it always falls the same way.”
The other girl reached up and patted her head, experimenting. Unconsciously she drifted over to the mirror to watch herself.
“Well, maybe. But there might be other explanations, too. How did we start talking about this, anyway?”
Jade snickered and pointed at her roommate’s chest. “Your hair isn’t the only thing immune to gravity. You don’t sag. I mean, not even a little. I don’t think you’ll EVER sag. You can’t, ‘cause you’re immune to gravity.”
“What? No way!” Tennyo was now deliberately jiggling herself. Still floating in mid-air, she suddenly spun around upside down, noticing the way her breasts didn’t look any different.
“Take a look in the showers,” Jade told her. “All the girls – I mean the ones who are as big as you – they all have a little bit of droop. I mean, they’ll pass the pencil test, but they can’t ignore physics. But not you! You’re probably going to be miss perky-breast forever.” Her voice dropped menacingly. “And if I tell them, they’ll probably murder you out of jealousy!”
Tennyo’s eyes grew wide. “Hey, do you know what this means? It means I don’t have to put that stupid bra back on!” She slid through the air toward her dresser and grabbed a T-shirt. Pulling it on, she spun toward Jade. “How’s that?”
Jade’s mouth hung open as she watched the oscillations slowly diminish. “Uh, I think I’ve just figured out that there’s more than one reason to wear a bra.”
“What?” Tennyo peered at herself in the mirror. “You were right! No sag.”
“Yeah, but don’t turn around too fast. Otherwise, the boys at dinner won’t be watching Nikki, they’ll be watching you. And they won’t be looking up at your face, either.”
Tennyo stuck her tongue out while she grabbed a pair of pants. “Oh, like I believe that! Anyway, there’s no way I’m strapping the torture garment back on. Come on, it’s almost time for dinner.”
I’ve created a monster, Jade thought. But her bad mood had completely vanished.
Whateley Academy September 11, Monday morning
School was fascinating. She knew that high school was supposed to be some sort of hellish experience for most people, but she was having a great time! Most of her classes were interesting and useful. She would have bet on at least a couple of the classes, such as beginning English, as dull. When so much of her curriculum was devoted to superhero training how could English be interesting? But Miss Devlin had made her point with the very instructive “Flying Bulldozer” tape, and now everyone was making an effort to sound sophisticated. Even if that meant they had to learn the parts of speech.
Physics continued to cause her a bit of trouble. She attended that one as Jinn.
“I don’t get it,” she said. “How can it be ‘work’ if no energy goes into it?”
“Energy is going in,” her teacher explained. “In the book’s example, any time an object is lifted. But more generally, any time a force is used you can see work being done.”
“But it doesn’t feel like work,” she explained. “It doesn’t take me any effort to lift something, or turn something. In this form, I don’t get tired. It doesn’t feel like I’m exerting any effort.”
“Ah,” he said, in sudden understanding. “Once again, you’re confusing the mundane equivalence of ‘painful, exhausting effort’ with the physicist’s concept of ‘work.’ The two aren’t the same. Furthermore, the mechanics of mutant effects can be particularly mysterious.”
She still didn’t quite get it. “So where does the energy come from? I can’t believe it comes from my brain, each time I summon up a TK-body. The brain doesn’t have that much energy, does it? I mean, I can do a good hour’s worth of whatever before I fade. And besides, I never get super-hungry, like my roommate does. I mean, not in my real body.”
The teacher nodded. “It does seem strange, I’ll grant you that. But if you inherited a strange car from an eccentric uncle, you wouldn’t claim that no ‘work’ was being done as you drove up a hill, would you? Even if you didn’t understand the engine or the gasoline?”
She thought about it. “Are you saying that my TK-body is like that strange engine, and we don’t understand what fuels it?”
“Perhaps. We understand a little about powers, but there’s a lot more we don’t understand. Some students seem to draw power from magnetic fields, or strange lines of power they see in the air. Perhaps the power comes from another dimension. We don’t always understand where the power is coming from, but we do understand how to measure its effects. And the effect is what we call ‘work’.”
“But if there’s so much we don’t understand,” another student asked, “what’s the point in studying this junk?”
The teacher smiled. “If you ever do find out where someone’s power comes from, you know how to turn him off.”
You could hear the jaws snapping shut. Suddenly, everyone got it.
Dr. Traekham had warned her that she’d need to be hypnotized for Thursday’s session on her body image template. She was definitely leery about letting a stranger hypnotize her. It was odd. She’d let a stranger give her an extremely intimate physical exam, but she wouldn’t let the same man hypnotize her. She finally decided that it had something to do with social conditioning. Or maybe with the fact that she had been overjoyed to have independent proof of her gender. Whatever the explanation, she didn’t feel at all comfortable with getting hypnotized by him. At the same time, she’d do almost anything to become a girl for real. Even that, if it came down to it.
By Monday evening, she decided it was time to do some research. She tried to think of some other avenue, but Fey was the obvious first approach. She crossed to the far side of the hall and tentatively knocked on the door.
“It’s me, Jade. Can I come in?”
For a heart-stopping beauty, Nikki was looking decidedly under the weather. The stacked redhead had dark circles under her eyes, and her mouth was drooping at both corners.
“Jeez, Fey, are you okay? Rough cycle?” It wasn’t much of a risk mentioning that. By now, everyone in the cottage knew that Nikki was starting her period. The thunderstorms and lightning bolts in the hall had been a significant tip-off. It was the kind of thing that got people talking.
“Yeah. Trust me, kid, periods are no fun. I just wish that was all that was going on. Those stupid chanters better give it a rest or –” She glanced up and noticed Jade’s look of confusion. “Never mind. Bad dreams. And they better stop, or I’ll give someone a real nightmare.”
“Uh huh.” Jade wondered for a moment if Fey was planning to fight someone in the land of dreams, or if there were some magical technique to protect your sleep. She was tempted to ask, but decided she needed to remain focused. “Look, I’ve been seeing a doctor about my … problems … you know? Anyway, he’s really keen to help me work on this whole body image template stuff. Thanks for the advice, Toni! Anyway, he’s convinced that Jade is my body image template. The first thing he wants to do is try some hypnosis, and see if he can influence things that way. But I really want to do some research ahead of time –”
“What?” Toni and Nikki were both suddenly in her face.
“You’re going to let some weirdo put you in a trance?” “You’d trust a stranger with that?”
“Guuuuys! Jeez.” Jade scowled at them. At least, she gave the twelve-year-old equivalent to a scowl. “That’s why I’m here for research material. Now are you going to help me, or not?”
The other two girls quickly nodded. Nikki began to search through her rather esoteric collection, while Toni grilled her.
“So, what’s your plan?”
“I was thinking that if Jinn were cast on me – I found out I can cast her into my body, and then it’s like we’re both there. She can use her powers to move my arms and legs, or even lift me up. Except I’m totally uncoordinated, with both of us doing things at once. And we can talk to each other, like telepathy almost. So I figured that if she were cast into my body like that, then she could watch as I get hypnotized.”
“Yeah, unless Jinn is vulnerable too, and the connection ends up hypnotizing her, too.”
Nikki finally brought out a small stack of books. “Okay, here’s some junk on the British Psychical Society. Kind of wacky, but they cover most everything. And this one is a history of well-known mystics. I remember reading about Mesmer in it. Pretty much of a loon. When he invented the term ‘animal magnetism’ he really thought that you could somehow magnetize a dog so that … well, let’s just say that it was about as stupid as his earlier idea on ‘animal gravity.’ But his work seemed to operate more like he was manipulating ki or something like that. But that’s more Toni’s field than mine…”
Toni was now looking at the book with interest. “Uh, Jade, when you’re done with that…?”
“What you want is Alan Gauld’s A History of Hypnotism. I don’t have that, but the library might have a copy. Also, a couple of my books have referred to The Science of Hypnotism. I think it was printed back around 1920. Probably a bit strange, but a lot of people refer to it.”
Nikki was able to supply four books with some useful material, and references for several more.
“What I don’t get,” the elven girl admitted, “is when you’re going to find time to read it all.”
Jade eyed the heavy pile of books, briefly regretting that Jinn was across the hall studying. “Well, the key to my plan is drinking four big glasses of water, right before I go to bed.”
The other two girls looked at her in puzzlement.
“Well, it’s obvious, right? With that much water in me, I’ll be getting up to pee every hour or two. And Jinn never gets sleepy or hungry or anything – I don’t think she can sleep. So each time I wake up to pee, I’ll just zap her up, and she can go to work. She’ll be in our room, and nice and quiet. And she won’t even know if the lights are out. And another thing, she can keep an eye out for anything weird happening in the night – which is far too common around here.” The other girls nodded a bit too enthusiastically. “She’ll probably fade before I wake, but I should get an extra four hours of reading each night, easy.”
Toni slapped her head. “Damn! You know what I could do with an extra four hours a day?”
Nikki just rubbed her eyes. “Wish I could go without sleep.”
The first night’s study went almost on schedule, unless you counted the minor interruption of Fey flying out in a rage in the middle of the night, and zapping a bunch of dream-chanters (or some such thing – Jade was still a little puzzled by the whole ‘magic’ thing).
Following a visit to the library, she was set for the next night’s reading, and the night after that, too.
On Tuesday, her Powers Lab instructor singled her out. After peering inside and determining that Jinn was, in fact, nothing more than an empty set of clothes, the instructor came up with a starting set of tests and exercises.
“Okay, here’s the deal,” the older woman said. “Those are free weights. I want to see how much you can lift, what combinations, what conditions. Are your legs stronger than your arms? Is it different if you stand on the ground or fly? How about pushing, or bending? Those two machines will measure that. One hand or two. How about a shoulder lift? We have the modified nautilus over there, once the bricks are done. Your assignment for the rest of the week is to measure your strength in every way you can.”
To Jinn’s surprise, the answer turned out to be quite simple. She could produce 188.6 pounds of force. It didn’t matter whether she was using one hand or both, one foot, her shoulder, “standing” or floating, or any other variation. Her limit was 188.6 pounds of force, total, or any smaller combination of efforts that totaled to 188.6 pounds. By experimenting back in the dorm, with Jade, she determined that she could work in unconventional ways, as well. She could turn a spinning shaft to run a generator. She couldn’t move quite as fast if she was pulling her full load, but even so she could life the full weight up to the top of the cottage (about 50 feet up) in just over four seconds. Reading ahead in her physics book, she finally decided that her “power” (for some reason, it didn’t count as work) was a little over 4 horsepower, or about 3000 watts.
It took her the entire rest of the week to document it, though.
By Wednesday night she had her plan.
“Okay,” she explained to everyone, as they sat together in Ayla’s room. (It had the most space, and was the best spot to hang out together, provided that someone didn’t offer to “share the great sounds of Brass Monkey” with them.) “Here’s my plan.” She held out two foam-rubber earplugs. One end has some aluminum foil stuck on, the other end was colored a dark brown.
“First, I stick the earplugs in, then charge up Jinn. She’ll be in the earplugs. So she’ll hear the hypnotist, and relay the words to me. The foil on the inside will act like a speaker disk. And maybe she’ll change the details a little, when she thinks it’s appropriate.”
Toni nodded. “Interesting. But what if Jinn gets hypnotized, instead of you?”
“Then I won’t hear a thing, so I won’t be in the trance.”
“What if you need to escape?” Tennyo asked. “I don’t want to start sounding paranoid, but…”
“Experience is a harsh teacher,” Ayla offered.
“Okay, I could charge Jinn into my clothes, too. Worst comes to worst, she can pick me up and levitate me away.”
“I don’t know,” Toni said. “It still gives me the creeps. Do you have to go through with this?”
Jade gave the black girl a look. “You know I do.”
“I still don’t have to like it.”
The name on the office door read “Dr. Alfred Bellows.” It matched her directions. She’d been given a pass to get out of her afternoon classed in order to undergo the treatment.
Knocking on the door, a rich voice invited her in. The Doctor himself was a kindly looking man in his fifties. Something about the man, or perhaps the comfortable furniture and warm earth tones of his office, immediately soothed Jade’s suspicions.
“Come in, Jade. It’s very good to see you. I must say, I’m quite fascinated by Dr. Traekham’s theory.”
Jinn relayed the words through the earplugs. <Come in, Jade. It’s good to see you. I’m fascinated by Dr. Traekham’s theory.>
The words were a little out of sync with his mouth, which made her smile a bit.
<He’s got ‘the glow.’ Clearly some kind of mutant. It seems to be a head-power. Telepathy maybe?>
Dr. Bellows peered at her. “Pardon me for asking, but I sense an unusual duality in your emotions. It’s as if there are two of you – one trusting and one suspicious. Is that correct?”
“Are you a telepath?”
He smiled benignly. “Hardly. I have a touch of empathy – a useful tool for a psychologist – but that’s all. I assure you, there’s no need for suspicion.”
“I’m not suspicious, Doctor. Jinn is here, too. She gets to be the suspicious one, and that should let me be completely accepting. I understand that’s important for a good hypnotic subject. Only … wasn’t Dr. Traekham going to be here?”
“We won’t be doing much today, just the bare beginnings of your hypnotic training and getting you started on a self-hypnotic regimen.” He paused, then reached up onto the shelf behind him. There was an ornate bottle there. “Before we do the actual hypnosis, would it be possible for me to meet Jinn? I understand she was able to manifest through talcum powder for Dr. Traekham.”
“Uh…” She felt a little weird about this. Glancing around, she noticed several degrees on the wall, including an actual M.D. Still, she didn’t want to be posing nude for every strange man that came along. “Is this really important?”
“Well, I would like to get a chance to speak with both you and Jinn before we begin. Particularly if she’s going to be monitoring things. Oh! I understand.” He stood and headed for his closet. “I seldom use the couch, but people sometimes feel a bit chill there. I have a blanket that she can wrap around herself, to maintain her modesty, if she’d like.”
<That sounds okay. It would probably be a good idea to talk to him. I’m going to ease the plugs out of your ears. Hold on.>
Jade reached up, ostensibly to scratch an ear, and subtly took hold of a pair of foam earplugs. A moment later, she felt Jinn return. “I guess that would be alright. Where’s the talcum powder?”
The doctor handed her the blanket, then also handed her the strange, antique bottle. It was a dark purple, with gold detailing. The base bulged out in a thick disk, before tapering and rising in a long, tall neck. There was a stopper in the top. “It’s in here. I’ve actually got a slightly different powder in there – a cosmetic base that’s a bit more flesh-toned.”
Jade took the strange bottle with the puzzled feeling that she was missing something. Then she cast Jinn into the bottle-and-blanket, remembering to add a speaker disk at the last moment.
Immediately the bottle floated out of her hands. The stopper popped out and a cloud of pink powder came shooting out of the bottle like a cloud of smoke. It began to coalesce into a young girl, but before her figure took on any definition, the blanket wrapped modestly around her. A moment later, Jinn was there in front of them, and she handed the bottle back to Dr. Bellows.
He looked at her, then at the bottle in his hand, then collapsed back in his chair. “Simply incredible!”
Jinn tapped her foot on the ground. “Care to let us in on the joke?”
The doctor gave a wry smile. “I take it you aren’t a big fan of old 1960’s TV shows.”
“Take a look at the show, ‘I Dream of Jeanie.’ I know the library here has a couple of episodes on tape – I’ve insisted upon it. There’s a character in that show who, coincidentally, shares my name. I’m more a psychologist, but I’m also licensed as a clinical psychiatrist. And of course, there’s the title character. A magical genie named ‘Jeanie’ who appears from a bottle like this in a cloud of pink smoke. I found this bottle on ebay and thought it made a cute joke, but I never dreamed…”
“I see.” Jinn held out her arm, peering at it. “Well, that mix is better than the talcum powder, but we aren’t quite there yet, are we?”
Jade noticed that Jinn’s face was much more animated and lifelike this way than with the Madonna mask on, but the mask looked more real, with the proper coloration and real hair.
“So,” the doctor continued, “how did you come to take the name ‘Jinn’?”
“Well, it fits, doesn’t it? One of the elemental spirits of the air?” She rose up smoothly into the air and turned to face him.
They discussed things for a few more minutes until Dr. Bellows was comfortable with both Jinn and Jade.
“I normally don’t allow other visitors during a patient’s hypnotic sessions, but this is obviously a special case. If you’d like to remain, Jinn, you’re welcome to. The only thing is, I understand that you both are the same person again, once you recombine. I’m not sure how that would affect the hypnotic session, but if it helps make Jade more trusting and receptive, I’m willing to give it a try.”
“Thanks, Doctor, but I’d feel safer if I was with Jade. Not in contact with her exactly, but holding her clothes, that sort of thing.”
“Whatever you like best. I’m not sure that I understand, but whatever makes you feel the most comfortable.”
“Okay. Uh, sorry, but I don’t think I can get all your powder back into the bottle.”
During the discussion, Jade carefully tucked the foam earplugs up behind each ear. Once Jinn had released herself and collected all the powder into a large garbage bag, she flashed back into Jade’s mind. It was a bit fatiguing to do the cast-and-release thing several times in a row, but she’d be getting a chance to lie down in a moment, so this shouldn’t be too bad. She immediately re-cast Jinn – into her clothes and into the earplugs tucked behind each ear. She tried to not give any outward cues, as a pair of foam earplugs scrunched themselves up and then slid deep into her ears.
“Alright. Make yourself comfortable on the couch there. Lay back. Be relaxed, but not so relaxed that you fall asleep. The object is to help you set up a self-hypnotic routine. Eventually you’ll be able to use this in a variety of ways – to help overcome pain, to push yourself beyond your limits, or simply as a study aid. For some people, it becomes a sort of master tool of the mind. For others, it has little effect at all. We’ll see.
“This session isn’t intended to accomplish anything – it’s just to get you started. If all goes well, then in next week’s session we may begin to see whether we can influence your body image template. But for now, I want you to begin learning the tool.
“The first step is relaxation. We’re trying to achieve a very specific mental state here. For that, you need to be alert, focused, and completely relaxed. Different symbols work for different people. I’m going to use several of the traditional techniques: an object of visual fascination, and a dialog.”
He pulled out a metal disk on a cord. It had different rainbow-reflective hologram patterns on each side, and the doctor slowly swung the disk back and forth like a pendulum, while twisting the cord with his fingers, so that the disk twirled as it swung.
It was quite interesting to look at, but also hard to focus on.
“Now, I want you to watch the disk as it spins. Keep your eyes on the disk. Track it constantly, as it swings back and forth.”
Jinn relayed this almost verbatim.
“As you watch the disk, I want you to imagine walking down a staircase. It’s covered with thick, plush carpeting. It’s very easy to walk down this staircase, the easiest and most comfortable thing in the world.”
They’d read about the staircase technique in their research. Instead, Jinn substituted in a set of images from animation, that had more meaning to her. <We’re relaxing, but rising,> she told herself, projecting her voice to the inside of the earplugs. She remembered to keep her voice especially quiet. The brief re-merge had been useful, since her voice had come through far too loud, inside her own ear. <We’re standing on a cloud – Goku’s ‘flying nimbus’ cloud. At our wish, it will rise upward, pulling us away from the earth and into a spiritual realm. We will sit in full lotus on the cloud, as it speeds along on our journey. The entire time we will be awake and alert, noticing everything, but reacting to nothing. No reaction is needed. Our purpose here is to observe.>
<We’ll be traveling to your hidden fortress – the giant crystalline starship ‘Jinn.’ It hangs suspended between the various forces, locked in place on the edge. Crystal clear and invisible to everyone except for you. A giant diamond in the sky. I’ll be tracking you as you approach, ensuring that the way is safe and that I’m ready to receive you. When you reach me, I’ll open my porthole so that you, on your cloud, may smoothly glide inside.>
“Now,” Dr. Bellows said, “I want you to count down from 100 to one. For each ten numbers, you’ll be one step closer to being in a full hypnotic trance.”
Jinn relayed that exactly.
“Okay, begin counting. As you count, you will feel your eyelids growing heavy, until you can no longer hold your eyes open.”
<Okay, begin counting. As you count, you’ll feel your eyes growing heavy, until you can’t hold them open any longer.>
“100, 99, 98, 97, 96, 95, 94, 93, 92, 91, 90…”
“You now see yourself at the top of the staircase.”
<You are calling for your flying nimbus cloud.>
“89, 88, 87…”
“You have descended far enough to reach the first door…”
<You have flown high enough that you can no longer see people on the ground. You are above the clouds, not flying to space, but flying into the spiritual dimension.>
“83, 82, 81, 80…”
“You have now passed the second door. Your breathing has become deep and regular. Your eyes are completely closed.”
Jinn continued to insert her own description. The image of the ship was heavily borrowed from the crystalline cabbit starship from Tenchi Muyo – the animation that had made Tennyo what she was today. Only this ship was even more fantastic. It was Jinn, and every bit of it was alive. In an inversion of normal reality, the Jinn vessel contained Jade – and kept her safe and protected for the duration of her trance.
Throughout the session, Jinn followed the pacing of what Dr. Bellows said, stealing some of his vocal techniques and mannerisms, but substituting ideas of her own that had deep, personal meaning, or pictures that she’d particularly liked.
He tested the level of her trance – telling Jade that a balloon was attached to her hand, and it was pulling the hand upward. Jinn was surprised to see that it worked – Jade’s hand rose smoothly, as though pulled up by a string.
Likewise, Jade also passed the age regression test, recalling a happy day from school last year. Jinn was a bit more leery about passing on the post-hypnotic suggestion that Jade cough every time Dr. Bellows tap his pencil, but decided that would do no great harm. Finally, she debated a bit before echoing his command that Jade should forget everything that happened while under the trance. She’d have some discussion with him about that, after the fact.
Once Dr. Bellows was satisfied on the depth and quality of the trance, he described giving her a book that contained spells – a book that she would fill with spells of her own devising. The first spells being for relaxation, study, and sleep. Jinn recognized the technique, and had modified it. Instead, she told Jade of a pair of complex half-magical half-computerized gauntlets: The Gauntlets of Jinn. The gauntlets turned invisible and intangible, fading and merging with the skin of Jade’s hands.
Gloves had a deep symbolism for both of them.
But the Gauntlets of Jinn were covered with buttons – buttons that only she could press. One button above each knuckle. Outside of the spaceship, back in the real world, Jade would take her left hand and reach over to her right. Pressing on her first knuckle, she would whisper “Gauntlet activate: Sleep,” while pressing the first knuckle of her right hand. In her mind, she would hear the click, as the button clicked briefly in. And then she would quickly fall into a deep, refreshing sleep.
Dr. Bellows had two other “spells” that Jinn translated for Jade. The second was for a deep relaxation – 30 seconds or five minutes of “micro sleep” that would leave her recharged and refreshed at the end of it, fully awake again. And the third spell was for “study”. It would push her into heightened observation for an hour. She’d be extra observant – seeing, interpreting, remembering. It should help equally well in class, or when studying from books.
And, of course, there was a command that allowed her to re-create the trance at will.
“Now that you have that book,” Dr. Bellows said, “it can never be taken from you. It’s always there in your mind. And with that, I want you to finish your time in the trance and return to the waking world. You have a moment to prepare yourself, then we’ll travel the rainbow in the reverse order.”
After coming awake again, Jade coughed several times, after the doctor tapped his pencil.
“How do you feel, Jade? What do you feel we’ve accomplished?”
“Well, it’s only been a few minutes, hasn’t it? I mean, you barely got me started and then we were done.”
“No. Check the clock. You’ve been under for over fifty minutes.”
“No. You went very deep, particularly for a first session. I think your idea about having Jinn watch us so that you could be more trusting, worked out very well.”
Jade’s eyes bent to the side for a moment. “Uh, Jinn wants me to ask about something. She’s worried about the post-hypnotic suggestion, and the command to forget the details of the session. Is she going to mess things up when she re-joins me? Second, aren’t those both kind of dangerous? Couldn’t they be used against me?”
Dr. Bellows nodded thoughtfully. “The first issue is an interesting one. I would suggest that Jinn write up the details of what she remembers of the session. After she “re-joins” you, write up a new report. It will be interesting to see if the joining process causes her to forget anything, or if it opens up your memory. Frankly, forgetting the trance session isn’t important, it’s just a check to confirm the presence of a true trance. But I’ll be interested in hearing the results.
He leaned forward. “The second question is much more interesting. Yes, in unscrupulous hands, hypnosis could be used as a weapon or dangerous tool. That’s partly why we’re so cautious with it here at Whateley. Eventually, I’ll be giving you hypnotic defense techniques. You’ll be able to use your own trance and training to simulate a trance, while simultaneously protecting your mind from outside influence. You will actually become more resistant to hypnotic attacks, not more vulnerable.
“But if you have other questions, I certainly encourage you to research things. Here.” He handed her a small card. “Here are several volumes that you can get from the library. They should help you understand things.”
Jade took the card and smiled. She’d already checked out half the titles on the list.
It took them a little work, but when the re-merged, Jade remembered everything. Except – she only remembered the trance from Jinn’s point of view. She carefully compared Jinn’s memory against the notes she’d made before re-merging, and it was all there.
She couldn’t wait to try out the hypnotic “programs.” It finally felt like she was making some progress!
Things began to settle in for a while after that. School, study, and work. Jade tried to find time to improve her hypnosis. She decided that if she was going to practice hypnosis, she should do it in a full lotus. Frankly, it looked lots cooler, and her image and coolness needed all the help she could get.
She was also having all the problems a small young girl could expect in school. The good-looking rich girls never missed a chance to snipe at her, if they caught her in the hallway. She still got pushed around a lot between classes if she wasn’t constantly on the alert. And there was a very strange boy in a couple of her classes…
Bio was usually a lecture, despite the fact that they sat on uncomfortable stools at lab benches. But this was to be their first real lab work. She shared a table with three other kids: an incredibly pretty blonde (an exemplar), a gangly-looking devisor boy, and a black boy who could shoot photon bolts (an energizer). Their first assignment was to use the microscope to view pre-prepared and stained samples of single-celled creatures and to create and label their own illustrations.
Unfortunately, the black boy had instantly teamed up with the blonde, leaving her with the devisor boy who was always bugging her about something.
She turned to set up the microscope. As she was adjusting the light, she felt him plucking at her shirt.
She spun to face him, outraged. “Did you just snap my bra?”
He made a tragic face at her. “What are you going to do about it – cry?”
“I – huh?”
“That’s what little girls do, isn’t it? They cry!”
She had to fight the glow of pleasure. Every time someone called her a girl (even if it was “little girl,” said in a derogatory way) it was still nice to be properly recognized.
“No I’m not going to cry, you jerk! What do you think you’re doing, anyway? You don’t go around snapping girls’ bra straps!”
He just stuck his tongue out at her.
She complained about it at lunch.
“Sounds like the sprout has a boyfriend,” Ayla sniped.
“I do not want to hear about it,” Fey muttered. “You wouldn’t believe the problems I’ve been having with boys! I’d welcome an obnoxious one. Then I could do something. Something EVIL! Maybe if it was creepy enough the rest would back off a little.”
“Oh, come on,” Toni said around a forkful of spaghetti, “admit it. You’re loving it. Those boys are swarming you like bees after the last flower on earth, and you’re getting high on the attention.”
“I am not!” Fey countered, a little too loudly. After she realized how loud she’d been, she sunk down in her chair. Finally, “Your imagery leaves a lot to be desired, Toni. Although I’ll admit, maybe just sometimes, the attention is okay. And I guess some of them are kinda cute,” she blushed red and seemed to hurry on, “but how do I tell them to back off, without getting violent?”
Toni nodded. “Part of the whole ‘girl’ package. We’re all going to be working on that one. Any pointers, Hank?”
He shrugged. “On the base, we just threatened to call the MPs, or if they were too obnoxious, their parent’s CO.” He looked around at the uncomprehending faces. “I guess that wasn’t much help, huh?”
“Well,” Tennyo offered, “I found that wearing a bra cuts the rude propositions down by about fifty percent.”
Fey smacked herself in the face and seemed to be shaking her head in denial.
Toni leaned forward in interest. “What do you do for the other fifty percent?”
“Plant ‘em in the ground like a fence post.” Billie made a full-circle overhead swing with her fist, like swinging a hammer at the carnival strength test. “Pow! Right on the old cranium. Sink ‘em into the ground up to their waist, and they’ll usually back off for a while. It’s pretty effective against their friends, too, if they’re watching.”
“Tell me you’re joking,” Fey begged.
“Well, I wouldn’t hit ‘em like that if they weren’t bricks, but if they didn’t have a head full of rocks, they’d probably figure it out after the first lesson.” She glanced quickly at Hank. “Uh, no offense to you smarter bricks, of course.”
“Who me?” Hank said in his best ‘I’m an idiot’ voice.
It didn’t help that the same boy was also in her martial arts class. Today Jinn was off trying to come up with her own style, and Jade somehow ended up with this one boy as her sparring partner. At least she finally learned his name: Vincent. Vincent the Pest.
“Gee,” Jade observed, “they usually don’t set up the matches this unevenly.”
Vincent looked surprised, too. He was at least a half-foot taller than she was, and probably twenty-five pounds heavier.
“Boo hoo hoo. I’m just a weak little girl”
“Hey Vince, you had much Aikido before? Any martial arts?”
He stuck out his tongue again. “I don’t need any of that to give you a spanking.”
She considered for a moment. “You aren’t going to use any of your devisor gizmos against me, are you? That wouldn’t really be fair.”
“As if I’d need them! You look like you’re still in grade school!”
Jade glided forward. “Keen! For the record, I’ve had about four and a half years of Aikido.” A second later, Vincent was ‘meeting the mat.’
“And I don’t cry, and I’m not weak!”
He put much more effort into stopping her this time, managing to get a decent hold on her gi before meeting the mat once more.
“And I don’t like it when you snap my bra strap!”
“What was that, little Vince?”
He groaned. “I said, ‘then you shouldn’t wear that ‘Powerpuff Girls’ bra.”
Jade blushed and tucked her T-shirt and gi back in place, before slamming him into the mat again.
The end of the week was taken up by Toni’s spectacular fight against the man-mountain sasquatch named “Montana.” Jade was surprised to recognize the “blond wookie” who sometimes pushed her aside in the halls. She would have put all her money on Toni (against almost any odds), but payday hadn’t come yet.
It was also a perfect example of “winning the battle but losing the war.” The “honor” of the fight didn’t count for much when the end result was Toni in the hospital. They were reluctant to let visitors in, but Jade assured the staff that Toni would rest better with her stuffed lion there to comfort her.
Now she only had to sneak back for a quick peek every hour or so, to recharge Jinn.
It was the middle of the morning, Saturday, when Jade suddenly “remembered” that Toni was finally awake. She immediately raced to tell the crew.
“Oh, you BET I’m going to see her,” Nikki fumed. “How DARE she scare us like that? And they want me to take martial arts classes? No thank you! Not if it leads to the sort of testosterone-poisoned thinking my roommate was showing.” She looked around to make sure it was just the team. “I swear, you wouldn’t know she’d turning into a girl, with the size of the BALLS that girl has to swing around!”
“Ouch!” Ayla remarked. “That sounds more like me. You doing okay, Nikki?”
“Let’s just say that it hasn’t exactly been the best week of my life. I’m feeling a little cranky, okay?”
“How about you, Tennyo?” Jade asked, looking at her miserable roommate. “You coming?”
“How can I?” The other girl was holding back tears. “It’s my fault she’s there.”
The others tried to convince her to go easy on herself, but Billie seemed wound into a spiral of self-flagellation that no one could break her out of.
“You coming, Hank?”
The boy had a huge grin. “Nope. I’m working on ‘welcome home’ party. I’m going to push Hippolyta into running it – and there’s no way she can back down on it.”
The others rolled their eyes at the strange rivalry that was developing there, but turned to go.
Things had degenerated to almost normal, by Sunday, when Jade headed out to her job. She’d been a little curious, given Morrie’s mounting tension throughout the week. When she finally headed down the stairs behind the library, she found Morrie at the open weapons locker, and he looked a little tense.
“Hi, guys!” she called. “Another day in the stink?”
Morrie just gave a quick nod. Stan explained. “Twice a year we have to do this. It hasn’t rained in over a week, so we’d better get it now, while we can.” His delivery was oddly serious.
She smiled. “Come on, Stan, you blasted that worm thing a couple of days back. I saw you grinning. How bad can it be?”
Morrie silently handed her a bandolier of grenades. “Explosives sometimes work against them,” he said tersely. He handed her an odd strap-on chest contraption. “See that pin? Don’t pull it, ever. Pull the pin and the safety’s off. Then all you have to do is slap this plate and it goes off.”
Following his instructions, she put on her overalls and waders, then strapped the device to her chest. This really WAS a big day! It was the first time they’d let her carry anything like a gun. “So what’s it do?” she asked, as she strapped on the chest unit.
“It explodes and kills you.”
“Yeah, right, Morrie. Good one.” The look on his face stopped her. It slowly penetrated that he was serious. “Shit!” she shouted, moving to unstrap the lethal device.
“No, you HAVE to keep it. Look, you can back out of this. They can find you a new job. But they told us that if you’re going to keep doing maintenance, then you’re going down that tunnel with us today. And if you’re going to the end of the tunnel, you’re going to wear that thing.”
She looked back and forth between the two men. She’d never seen them like this. “You’re nuts! There’s no way I’m going to deliberately blow myself up.”
Morrie calmly strapped on an identical unit. Stan did the same.
“You’re right,” Morrie said. “Don’t even fool around with it. Believe me, you’ll know if you ever need it.” He seemed to gather his breath. “Look, last week, I wasn’t going to let you even come close to this job. But a new permit came through on your work forms, authorizing you for ‘any and all risks necessary’ for your job. Stan and I have been talking about it, and … you could really help out.
As if answering his cue, Stan pushed forward a cartful of equipment. “This is for Jinn,” he offered. “Think she can handle it?”
Jade looked at the cart. It was a strange collection of parts. There was an odd wide-barreled rifle connected to a backpack tank. There were lights and a car battery, a dozen glowsticks, a pair of machetes, and something that looked like a square metal box with controls in the top. There were two paint cans and rolled up sheets of paper.
“What is all this?”
Morrie explained. “That’s a flamethrower – special rig some kids here at the school made for us a few years back. Pulling back on the slide, here, is just like a focus. Wide fan, narrow squirt, your choice. I’ll check you out on it down below. Best part is, it doesn’t take a whole lot of training. We just gotta trust you to keep your head and not turn it on us.”
Jade gulped and nodded. After a week of scrubbing and cleaning while Stan and Morrie blasted monsters, she was glad that they felt she could keep her nerve.
“This ain’t no regular job,” he continued. “Worst part of this is hauling all the crap. That’s why we’re hoping that you ‘n’ Jinn can help out. If she can haul all the junk, then we can get in and out a lot quicker.”
Jade looked over the pile, estimating it to be maybe 100 pounds of equipment. A little over half her limit. “Yeah, I can carry it. Are you going to tell me what this is about?”
Stan just shook his head. “You have to see it.”
They took the electric maintenance truck. Dressed up as they were, none of the infrequently seen students gave them more than a second glance, and then, often as not, they seemed to be looking at Jade. The equipment rattled precariously in the back of the truck, and Jade wished that she’d already cast Jinn.
The cart headed out the main gates, down the hill toward Dunwich. Several miles passed, until Jade estimated that they were a little over halfway to the small town. Morrie turned off on a side dirt road, and headed slightly uphill. He stopped at a wide spot in the road. It took Jade a moment to spot the thick steel door built cleverly into the shadowing rock of the hillside. It was almost a shallow cave, except that it had a flat metal door. There were three different style locks, and an engraved warning:
Jade stared at the sign in shock. “Uh, are they serious?”
Morrie gave the first hint of a smile she’d seen. “You have your chest escape?” he asked, pointing to the suicide device.
“Then you probably don’t have to worry about the ‘or worse’ part.”
Jade shuddered and moved back to the truck. She reached out to the equipment and summoned up Jinn. The sight that rose up was impressive. Jinn was keeping the main collection of junk in the center, so there was a small floating cluster at about chest height consisting of the tank, the battery (held firmly a foot away from the tank), paint, paper, and box, the machetes and glowsticks. The equipment floated, held firmly in place so it didn’t rattle or jostle. The trio of headlights floated up above, swiveling around like strange eyeballs. The flamethrower was pointed forward, and seemed to be scanning from side to side.
“Huh,” Morrie grunted. “This might actually work.”
Morrie and Stan shouldered their rifles. Morrie placed the magnetic key disk over the matching pad, and inserted the plastic key in the large ceramic lock. Stan simultaneously twisted the regular key in the normal lock. With a dull click, three bolts simultaneously pulled back. Using the keys for leverage, they pulled the handle-less door open.
“Jinn,” Morrie called, “front and center.”
The collection floated briskly forward at the pace of a fast walk.
“Okay, I’m going to send you in first, since you won’t need the ladder. Remember I said I’d check you out on the flamethrower? Give it a try right now. A few shots into the hole there, then practice choking up on the focus.
The flamethrower erupted in a blazing swath of destruction, shooting a jet of flame into the black abyss of the passageway.
“Good, now choke up a bit for the stream. If we run into anything, you might want to hose ‘em down a bit.”
The cone of flames suddenly tightened up into a blazing shaft of pure white that shot straight into the hole. The light revealed a short passage beyond the door, about ten feet, which opened on to a typical tunnel below.
“I think I’ve got it,” came Jinn’s voice.
“Okay, you lead the way. Use the flame to clear the passage up and down, then Stan’s going to drop the ladder. If you see anything, get out. I know you think you can’t be hurt, but I wouldn’t take any chances with some of the things down there. Way I figure it, you’re some sort of free-floating spirit in that form. Wouldn’t be surprised if spirits were the favorite snack of some of the things down there. Anything comes after you, drop your load and go. The equipment doesn’t matter.”
Stan brought a ladder from the truck. Jade noticed that it wasn’t a typical metal ladder, but looked more like some sort of plastic or ceramic.
“Fireproof,” Stan mentioned, seeing her look.
“Okay people, let’s do this,” Morrie called.
With that, Jinn moved into the passage, shooting flame ahead of her. Stan came next, holding the ladder. Morrie covered Stan. Jade came last, watching behind them.
She suddenly didn’t feel so eager. She’d been looking forward to trying out the laser rifle they’d handed her. It was the first weapon they’d let her use. Morrie had claimed that it took the least amount of training, and another attack was always useful. Jade had felt like a tough little commando, strapping on the heavy backpack. Now she was just feeling scared.
The air must have heated by the flame, because there was a draft coming out of the passage. It carried the sickening sweet scent of decay. Not the healthy aroma of leafy compost – this was the stench of rotting meat.
Jade licked her suddenly-dry lips and moved forward.
Jinn was worried. She drifted forward, swiveling lights to cover each direction down the tunnel, while the third light illuminated the hole up high on the wall. She couldn’t tell if the lights were actually on, or where the beams were shining, so she tried to gauge based on the shape of the lamp.
Since she saw in every direction, there wasn’t really any direction that was “behind” her, but she thought of the flame thrower as her “front.” She set the beam on wide spray, and covered the walls of the tunnel in the local area, then sprayed up and down the tunnel, clearing a little over ten yards in each direction.
How hot is it in here? She had no way of judging the heat. If she worked too close to her own flame, she might ignite the fuel canister she was carrying. Not that it would hurt her, but she expected Morrie would be pretty upset if she messed up and exploded on him. Particularly considering how worried he was about this job. I ought to carry some sort of thermometer, she decided, wondering if she’d be able to read a liquid crystal display.
The flames were interesting to her altered perceptions. She couldn’t see the glow, but she could definitely see the rippling zones of super-heated air. That was fortunate, since it allowed her to aim and focus. And where the flames licked the wall, she could definitely see the slime and other growths as they charred and curled to ash.
Perhaps one of her instructors at the academy would be able to explain what she was sensing. She certainly had no perception of light, but she could spot differences in matter, or mass, or maybe material. She could sense different materials well enough to read the print in a book. But she hadn’t made a real study yet of what looked how. If she was presented with a dozen cubes of the same size and shape, she’d be able to tell which were the same and which were different materials, but she wouldn’t be able to tell the gold from the tin from the plastic.
Even so, she knew that the walls of the tunnel here were different. They weren’t anything she’d ever seen before. In texture, it looked like the tunnel had been crudely gouged out of rock. There were cuts that looked almost like claw marks. And the material was… gray. In truth, everything was gray to her, but this was somehow more so. The best comparison she could think of were the TV ads that had a black-and-white object in a color world. This was like that. Something that looked fundamentally different, but she couldn’t say why.
Plainly, the animals sensed it, too. From what she’d seen of the tunnels, there were creatures all through the normal tunnels. Rats and spiders at the very least. When she concentrated, she could see the faint glows of color that represented the life force and emotions of something as small as a large bug. But here … the same nutrient-rich sludge trickled along the floor. Once again she was thankful for not having a sense of smell.
Here, that same sludge didn’t seem to be nurturing any life at all.
Or rather … there were glows. She could see them faintly down the tunnel, past the zone that she’d burned clear. It was hard to tell from this distance. The glows were faint, but they looked wrong somehow.
She’d check later. For now, her job was covering the crew. She kept one light pointed up the tunnel, one pointed down, and one focused on the ladder. Morrie was already down, peering down the tunnel. Stan steadied the ladder while Jade climbed down.
It seemed odd to think of herself as a separate person, but she was getting used to it. She really wondered about the laser rifle. If Jade fired it, would she even be able to see it? She suspected that even something that powerful would be completely invisible to her. After all, it was just light.
They sorted themselves out, Morrie at point, Jade behind him, Stan at the rear, Jinn above and keeping watch in both directions at once. A hundred yards ahead of them was something that flickered like a strobe light. It was almost painful to watch, but since she didn’t have eyes she didn’t have the luxury of looking away.
“When we get there, don’t try to reach past,” Morrie warned. “There was a guy that did that, back in the early 70’s. Roy Pasternack. Just reached his rifle a little too far forward, poking past the ‘no man’s land.’ No one ever saw a thing on the other side, but the rifle got jerked forward and Roy got jerked forward with it. He got pulled past some unseen boundary or something. There wasn’t a thing anyone could do for him, they just had to watch…
“Anyway, that’s why we have the escape units on our chests. Standard practice after Roy. Worst part is, they say he kept coming back, for the next six years. Every time they came down for maintenance. And by then, explosives didn’t do any good. He was like a phantom or something.”
“Naw, not a phantom,” Stan corrected. “Remember? They said they was always blowing chunks out of Roy, just never enough.”
“STAN!” Morrie hissed. “Ixnay. We got a kid with us.”
“Hey,” Jade said, “I’m still only half convinced that you guys are on the level. I think this is some sort of hazing prank.”
Morrie turned back for a second so that Jinn could see his grim smile. “You just keep thinking that, kid. Remember, one step out of line and you fail the hazing. Got it?”
“It’s real,” Jinn told her other self. “There’s something about the walls here. They’re definitely not normal. And whatever they’ve got blocking off the tunnel ahead, it’s flickering. You know the way my senses work. Nothing flickers.”
Stan turned to look at her in shock, while Jade said, “What are you talking about? The tunnel goes on out of sight. There’s nothing blocking it off.”
“Are you nuts? Fifty yards ahead, it’s walled off! If you can’t see that, at least you can see that weird star-shaped pattern carved into it. I know it probably isn’t glowing for you, like it is for me, but it stretches across the entire passage. You must see something!”
“Uh, what exactly does this ‘star shape’ look like?” Morrie asked. His voice sounded a little too casual.
Jinn studied it, trying to make sense of things. “Uh, well, there’s a regular five pointed star – right side up, not like some satanic thing or something – and then there’s like, like a paper-clip shape in the lower left. It crosses over the star, but never reaches out to the double-circle that surrounds the star. But the other shape, sort of a ricochet, bing-bing-bing almost surrounds the star. It touches the inner circle on two sides, at the top it crosses the inner circle and touches the outer circle.”
“Oh, real good description,” Stan said, with uncharacteristic harshness.
“Can it,” Morrie corrected. “Keep focused. Sounds like a Sigil of the Gateway. We can check later. Jinn, that’s our destination. This is important. Don’t let anyone go across that.”
“But it’s solid!”
“Maybe solid like the surface of an oil slick. None of us can see your ‘wall’ or anything else there – it looks like the tunnel goes on forever. That’s why we have the ring of paint right before it. Okay, use them toasty flames to clear the way for us, kid.”
Moving to the front, Jinn opened up with her flamethrower once again, fanning the spray wide and coating the entire tunnel. “How’s the heat back there?”
“We’ll stay back a bit,” Morrie told her.
Jinn slowly advanced nearly fifty yards, burning everything ahead of her. The closer she got to the flickering wall, the sicker it made her feel inside. If she had a body, she would have said that she was feeling sick to her stomach. And Morrie was right. Although it looked like a solid plane of force – more solid than even the tunnel walls around them – she could see the turbulence of the flamethrower vanishing straight through the flickering barrier.
“Morrie…?” There was a quavering that she couldn’t keep out of her voice. “I think I have to move back. This thing is making me sick.”
“Look away from it, kid.”
“She doesn’t have eyes,” Jade said from the back of the group. “There’s nothing she can close or turn in another direction – she has to keep seeing.”
“Okay, fall back. You watch our back, Stan and I will handle things. Nice flaming, by the way.”
Jade was more than a little worried by the tone of Jinn’s voice. The other-her sounded close to the edge of panic. Jade wasn’t sure why. Morrie and Stan seemed to have the same creeped-out feeling, but she didn’t get it. It wasn’t like she hadn’t faced life-threatening situations before. Heck, in some ways, cleaning fourth-floor windows was more frightening. The rotting reek was still bothering her, but the closer they got to the “wall” that Jinn talked about, the safer she felt. It was like she could feel it there, an impenetrable wall of security. Maybe there was something on the other side, but she knew somehow, deep in her bones, that it was on that side, she was on this side, and never the twain would meet.
“You holding up okay, Jade?” Even Stan’s voice sounded a little strained.
She shrugged. “Yeah. What’s the big deal?”
Stan looked at her in alarm. “You see that shelf just on the other side? What’s that look like to you?”
She peered. The “other side” was obvious due to the ring of reflective red paint. There were enough irregularities in the gouged-out tunnel that there were occasional flat spots, like the shelf that Stan was pointing to. She stared, trying to figure the unusual blotch of slightly phosphorescent scum. The flames had missed it.
“Almost looked like one of those chalk outlines at a murder scene,” she decided. “You know – a ‘body fell here’ type thing.”
“That’s what I was afraid you’d say,” Stan quavered. “That’s supposed to be where Roy Pasternack fell.”
“Hey,” Jade hefted her laser rifle, “mind if I take a couple of shots at it? I haven’t even had a chance to fire this thing yet.”
“Later,” Morrie snapped. He reached into the cluster of supplies that Jinn was carrying. “You paste up the warnings. And watch the walls, in case something didn’t get fried. Stan and I are going to paint.”
The two men attached spray guns to the paint cans and began to spray a ring around the tunnel, just a few feet away from where Jade knew the “wall” was. She unrolled the paper and saw another warning like the one printed at the door. She recognized the heat activated fuse-on lettering, and spotted the worn and almost completely obliterated remains of an older sign on the walls.
“Sheesh, how often do you guys replace the signs?”
“Told you,” Morrie said, “every six months.”
Which was stupid. The paint on these signs got literally melted onto the wall. This was the way they laid out parking lines and other markings on the roads. It took a decade of weather and hard driving before those began to fade.
Jade spread the signs up on a relatively flat patch on each side of the tunnel. They stuck well enough on their own, but it would take heat to fuse them to the stone of the wall.
Morrie had been right, though. Some things had evaded Jinn’s flame. As Jade pasted up the second sign, a piece of now-crispy sludge peeled away. Protected underneath were creatures she’d never seen before. Perhaps three inches long, the shape of a diamond on a playing card, and looking like a flat piece of raw liver. As she watched, it seemed to slide a little toward her newly-applied sign.
Jade noticed the men were done painting. “Hey, I think I know what’s been wrecking your signs,” she called. “I’ll bet it’s these little buggers.”
Morrie glanced toward her and then seemed to pale. “Jade,” He enunciated very carefully, “step back. Slowly, smoothly. Don’t make any sudden moves.”
Shrugging, she moved back to the center of the tunnel. “What’s the big deal? They jump out at your or something?”
Morrie seemed to be breathing awfully fast. “Something like that. They can do a sort of flip thing. Range of about one foot. Thing is, if one of ‘em touches you, they stick. I mean, really stick. They’ve got filaments or something, and send those right into your skin. They don’t come off, they just sort of feed and pulsate, and you start to look more and more like ‘em. One touches you, the best you can hope for is to cut it out real fast. That way you don’t lose so much.” He made a sharp motion. “Jinn, could you use the flamethrower there?”
Jinn watched in growing disbelief as her other half became progressively more irresponsible. The maddening flickering was beating into her brain in an irregular rhythm that seemed to contain some terrible secret pattern. With an act of will, she forced her mind to concentrate on the task at hand. She paused to look at whatever it was that Jade had found. It took her a moment to spot it, then she felt worse than ever.
Bugs, insects, even many plants all had their own faint glow, if you looked for it carefully enough. Most of them were faint.
These flat patches sliding along the wall had a glow, too. It was a sickly yellow-green miasma. It was faint enough that Jinn had to concentrate to see it. And unlike a normal creature, the glow was not entirely confined to its body. The glimmer of its life energies (if you could call them that) surrounded it like a diffuse cloud, seeping into everything it touched. Jinn instinctively knew that she did not want to come in contact with that glow.
“Get clear!” she yelled. As the others scrambled for safety, she unleashed torrents of searing fire at the things that oozed on the wall. After a few seconds, she saw the yellow-green miasma fade and vanish. With a roar of triumph, she hosed down the entire end of the tunnel, concentrating on the signs and paint long enough to bake them into the walls forever.
“Whoa! Cut the power.”
Reluctantly, she let the flame gutter out.
“Good enough,” Morrie said, reaching for the box that still floated inside her. He began to pull it free and she released her hold on it. Stan, meanwhile, tried to hand her back the paint cans.
“Here, hang them on the machetes.”
Morrie carefully carried the box to the circle of paint, then set it down and fiddled with the controls.
“Okay, that’s ten minutes. Let’s go!”
“Ten minutes for what?” she asked.
“Incendiary bomb,” Stan answered. “Really cleans out the pipe, you know? The whole flamethrower bit is just a bit of early scouring. This baby will really blow things clean.”
“Oh.” She thought for a moment. “Doesn’t that damage the tunnel?”
“Hasn’t so far.”
It didn’t take them more than three minutes to evacuate the tunnel – ladder, equipment, and all.
Morrie was back in good spirits once they finished climbing out. He spent extra long checking each of them to make sure they hadn’t carried anything out. It was long enough to hear the explosion and feel the vibration through the now-locked door.
Jade herself wasn’t doing as well. In her mind’s eye she kept seeing a diamond-shaped piece of liver oozing along the wall, then dropping on her arm and sending hairy tendrils through her skin, as it fastened on and began to feed. It was like all the emotions she should have felt in the tunnel were only hitting her now.
It hadn’t helped that, just before they closed the door, the wind began flowing into the tunnel. To Jade, it seemed like some gigantic thing breathing in and out.
Then, as they finished packing away the gear, Jinn let go and returned to her.
Now she had two sets of memories of what had happened. The thoughts and images were too much. With a cry of despair, she toppled off her feet. She realized with shame that she hadn’t even been able to keep control of her bladder.
“Christ!” Stan muttered, sounding more like his normal easy-going self. “The kid pissed herself.”
“Good thing, too,” Morrie agreed. “I was worried for a bit. She did fine in the hole, though. That’s the fastest we’ve ever been through that job.”
“Here, kid, can you stand up yet? We’re going to put you in back. Don’t forget, there’s a shower back at the shop.”
“No kidding! It’s about a thousand times better when we don’t have to go hauling all that gear.”
“Yeah, and it’s pretty nice getting things cleaned out before you go down the ladder.”
The two men chattered happily in the front while Jade went into trembling shakes in the back of the truck.
“See,” Morrie was almost cheerful, after locking the door and starting the drive back, “there’s nothing much we can do to harm either the tunnel or the Sigil of the Gateway.” He help up a card with a complicated star-in-circle design. “This the shape you saw?”
Jade nodded, trying not to be sick.
“Pure supposition, up until now. Anyway, that little piece of … whatever … was here long before the college. Probably long before there were people on this continent. But back when they were building Whateley, some brainiac found it and decided that since there was already a drain, we might as well have our sewer system dump into it. Problem is, all the sludge seems to be fostering some weird growths. It’s not like the Sigil is ever going to fade, but I think it gets kind of leaky around the edge. Small stuff squeezes through. Stuff like those little diamond-shaped things. Maintenance crews have been dealing with this for a couple of decades, and we’ve found out that a good twice-a-year flame-cleaning keeps the stuff from working its way any farther up the tunnel.”
He paused for a moment, and the grim cast returned to his mouth. “That don’t mean we gotta like it.”
Jade was shaking from fear and humiliation and trying not to be sick. “You guys don’t have the slightest idea what you’re doing, do you?”
Morrie smiled as he gunned the truck. “Nope! There’s folks around that keep their eye on this sort of stuff. You probably don’t want to meet ‘em though.” He paused to spit out the side of the truck. “They’re loons.”
She was over the shakes by the time she got back to her room, but inside she was still quivering.
The gang might have noticed how quiet she was during dinner, but her roommate started in with the problems of holding down a job without it turning into disaster. Which was fodder for the still-convalescing Toni to talk about Montana and her big fight. And everyone wanted to hear more about the glamorous world of modeling that Nikki had started into. Although to tell the truth, it sounded like there was more hard work than glamour.
Hank tried a few comments to keep things lively. This week he was deliberately practicing being “ignorantly sexist.” He claimed it was a vital skill for any male to have.
And with all that going on, no one noticed that Jade was just a bit quieter than normal.
She was looking forward to having more time to think, when they attended movie night later on. With the extra work she put in during the middle of the night as Jinn, she was usually well caught up on her homework. So as eight o’clock approached, she slipped into her nightgown and headed upstairs to the third-floor TV lounge, where the big screen was waiting to show tonight’s feature: Casablanca.
The crew had their own huddle spot to one side, but Jade still wanted some time to sort her feelings out, so she feigned being sleepy, cast Jinn into a magic-carpet blanket, and took some unclaimed airspace about eight feet up.
Casablanca was a good movie, even if it was black-and-white. She remembered it distinctly, since she’d seen it only two years ago. It had been a tough time for her – her mother a year dead, her father becoming ever more volatile and aggressive. And the movie had spoken to her…
Her hero, of course, had been Rick – Humphrey Bogart’s character. He’d been battered by the world, betrayed in the worst way, and now they expected him to be a hero. She thought it would be a good film to see at Whateley. And Rick had shown an unbelievable style. He’d been the tough guy she’d wanted to be, two years ago. The man that swallowed the pain and just came back harder and tougher than ever. The survivor. The sharp operator.
But as the crisp black-and-white images came up on the big screen, Jade found it impossible to put herself into Rick’s position. Something had changed in the last two years. She watched Rick and couldn’t see him the same way at all. Instead of seeing the tough man, calloused and overcoming his abuses, she saw only his hurt and pain.
And when Ilsa appeared, Ingrid Bergman, something strange happened. Perhaps she was remembering the movie from two years before. But for the first time, she understood Ilsa’s dilemma. It was obvious as Ilsa looked back and forth between her husband Laszlo, and her lover Rick. It was so obvious. Laszlo was the man she worshiped. Pure and good and noble, and fighting for what was right and true. But … Rick was the man she loved. Not as saintly as Laszlo, perhaps. A good man, a tough fighter, but all too human. And full of passion and vitality and even weakness. Weakness that left room for a partner. Not to fix him or cure him of his humanity, but to help and share. To be a partner, and a lover.
By the time the movie was a half-hour in, Jade was quietly crying. First there was Laszlo’s scene. He was selfless, but distant at the same time. No human weaknesses. He’d been tortured in the concentration camps, and when they were poised to recapture him and send him back to those camps, he sacrificed himself so that Rick and Ilsa could fly to freedom. At least, he prepared to sacrifice himself. Throughout the movie, he was distant and perfect. The kind of man you admire and revere, but not the kind you love.
Then there was Paris. Jade saw, she believed, she understood how someone could fall for Rick. She understood Ilsa:
“Just a two line item in the paper: Victor Laszlo apprehended. Sent to concentration camp.
“I was frantic.
“For months, I tried to get word. Then it came. He was dead, shot, trying to escape.
“I was lonely. I had nothing. Not even hope.
“Then I met you.”
And Jade cried some more. Ilsa admitted the truth. So plainly that no one could deny it:
“It's about a girl who had just come to Paris from her home in Oslo. ...she met a man... He opened up for her a whole beautiful world full of knowledge and thoughts and ideals. Everything she knew or ever became was because of him. And she looked up to him, worshipped him with a feeling she supposed was love.”
And though Jade had never met a man like that, never fallen in love, she shook her head and promised that this would never, ever happen to her. This was the danger of Whateley – there were so many people here who embodied that perfect ideal. She would wait! That’s why you didn’t rush into marriage, no matter how exciting the love seemed. That was Ilsa’s dilemma: she married, and she would keep to her vows forever. But her true love was Rick!
“I know that I'll never have the strength to leave you again.
“I can't fight it anymore. I ran away from you once. I can't do it again. Oh, I don't know what's right any longer.”
And so Ilsa left the decision up to Rick. Jade tried to think what she’d do, if forced to choose between her husband and love, but couldn’t come up with any better answer than Ilsa had.
Ilsa told him, “You'll have to think for both of us, for all of us.”
And Rick replied, “I will.”
And in the end, Rick proved more heroic than anyone could have ever hoped for. Following the path of purity and nobility, while gunning down the bad guy and walking off into the mist. And … Jade knew she was about a hundred years too young, but she briefly wished that she were there, in Casablanca, waiting to meet the man. She wasn’t married to some too-good-to-be-true saint. She hadn’t made any stupid naïve commitments! She’d marry Rick on the spot, so they couldn’t get into any more stupid situations like this. And they’d fight the Nazis together, side by side.
After the movie, they shuffled off. A few of the girls had sniffles. Surprisingly, more than a few boys did, too.
As she lay in bed, slowly drifting to sleep while Jinn studied, she thought about the creepy tunnel.
The emotional turmoil of Casablanca seemed to have cleansed her system. The terror was still there, but it seemed more distant now.
Jade mused on the movie. How could she have been such an idiot, two years ago? She’d gotten everything wrong.
There were other, more profound realizations. She thought she could understand exactly what Ilsa must have gone through. She thought, or at least hoped, that she could have handled things better, somehow. She indulged in a brief fantasy, imagining herself in the Paris scenes. It didn’t seem the least bit odd that in her fantasies a cute Japanese girl replaced Ingrid Bergman. As she drifted off to sleep, she wondered if, perhaps, she might be a heterosexual. This was an odd idea, living in Poe, where girls loved other girls. She wasn’t completely sure, but she could imagine maybe loving a man.
And right now, her bed felt so lonely. Not for smutty stuff, of course, but for someone to hold and snuggle up next to. She pulled her pillow down, and wrapped her arms and legs around it.
As Jade fell asleep, wondering about the movie, and love, and her possible sexuality, it never occurred to her that she was still physically, 100% male. In her mind Humphrey Bogart was suggesting that they get married in Marseilles. Slowly he melted into another figure. Not an actor from the last century, but a boy whose features were still hidden. And as the train pulled away from the station, they shared a long, deep kiss.
The end of
Jade 3 – Being a Girl