Babs Yerunkle / Jade / Jade 8 - Exams
Jade 8 - Exams
By Babs Yerunkle
“Jade, for Pete’s sake, when are you going to go to sleep?”
The smaller girl tossed in her bed once more, twisting her nightgown tighter. She lay still for a moment, then exhaled in a loud huff. “It’s almost the end of the semester. It’s been almost half a year! That’s, like, forever! Have I done anything? Have I gotten any closer to what I really want? What am I doing here?”
Billie pulled her own pillow over her head, trying to drown out the talk.
“Am I just fooling myself?”
With an exasperated sigh, Billie sat up. “Okay, that’s enough. This whole thing is just stupid! I mean, what were you doing a year ago at this time? Look how far you’ve come since then!”
Jade sat up in the dark as well. The lights were off, but Billie’s night vision was excellent.
“Last year? I was living at home, with Dad.” The young girl shuddered. “I sure don’t miss him. It was my last year of junior high. I was wearing boys’ clothes, of course, and acting like a boy. Trying to be one.” She sighed again. “There was this girl, Ashleigh, and she was so pretty. She had hazel eyes, and she was just starting to try makeup. She wasn’t very good yet. I wanted to tell her. But she always had the prettiest dresses. I was so jealous. I didn’t understand it, at the time. I thought I was finally starting puberty. I used to help her with the ribbon she always wore in her hair. But she started hanging out with this guy named Mark. I wasn’t jealous of either of them, but I was kind of sad that she wasn’t around to talk to.”
She was quiet for a moment, and Billie waited.
“I was starting to get good in Aikido. I told Dad about Ashleigh and Mark. He usually didn’t care, he just ignored me. But this time he said I needed to beat up Mark, to prove to Ashleigh that I was willing to fight for her, and that I was a real man. I thought it was stupid. Aikido wasn’t about beating people up, or proving that you were tough. But Dad didn’t get that part. He just kept insisting, louder and louder. Every night it was, ‘Have you given that asshole what’s coming to him?’ and I was always, ‘I couldn’t find him today,’ or even ‘He ran away from me.’ Of course, I never even went near Mark, or Ashleigh either, for that matter. And after a week, Dad finally blew his top. ‘If you were even halfway decent as a man,’ he yelled, ‘that bastard wouldn’t be able to get away from you! This is how you do it!’”
Billie waited for a minute, but the smaller girl seemed to have stopped. A shiver traveled down Billie’s back, probably from the cold air in the room. Finally, she asked, “He hit you?”
“It wasn’t so bad,” Jade admitted quietly. “I didn’t need a cast, or X-rays or anything. And it’s not like it would even matter, these days. Thanks to you, I’ve got these great healing powers. If that happened nowadays, it would be no big deal. I’ve taken hits that hard in training. I’ve taken hits harder than those, since I told Ito-sensei about my regeneration and asked him to increase my challenges. I must have broken something in class three or four times.”
“Five times,” Billie corrected. “At least, five that were obvious. I don’t know how many times you’ve gotten a cracked rib in the last couple of weeks.” She was surprised that she’d kept a better count than Jade had.
Jade shrugged in the dark. “Like I said, not a big deal. Even the bad breaks are usually fine within a half hour. And using Jann-sensei, I don’t even need a splint.” She lay back down and pulled the covers over her shoulders. “I almost wish I could go back to my old Aikido class. If they wouldn’t freak out over me being a girl. After a couple of months of sparring against exemplars and energizers and stuff, I could whip everyone in class, I’ll bet. I know I’m hitting a ton harder, and I’m about a zillion times faster at dodging, and better at blocking. And it’s not because I’ve gotten any bigger or stronger. Toni-sempai’s training really helps. Chou’s too.”
Things were quiet for a moment, and Billie lay back down.
“If I had my gun and equipment and stuff, I could take all of ‘em together. Dad, too.”
“So… great,” Billie said, trying to keep the frustration out of her voice. She had a test tomorrow morning! The oddity of it struck her, and she looked around the dark room. There were Jade’s books and pencils, doing homework. Over by the closet, the laundry was gathering itself for the after-dark wash cycle. Billie hadn’t done her own laundry since September. Up near the ceiling, a two-inch high pixie was practicing what looked like whip work with a piece of thin string. And Jinn had gone down to visit Sara a half hour ago.
Wait a minute. That’s four of them. And Jade’s still awake?
“How many charges do you have going right now?”
“Why aren’t you unconscious?”
“I’ve been getting better. But I don’t think I could get out of bed right now. I sure couldn’t stand up.”
“So why don’t you cast number five, and go to sleep?”
Jade tossed in her bed again. “What if it’s too much? What if I lose so much energy that my heart stops, and I just die? I know, I know, I’m supposed to be a regenerator now, and that solves all sort of problems, but what if it doesn’t? What if I get hurt so bad that I can’t heal? What if it stays broken forever?”
Billie puzzled over this for a minute before she realized, “Okay. You aren’t talking about going to sleep, are you? What’s going on?”
Jade was still for a moment, then, very quietly, she said, “Winter finals. Combat finals. The matches are supposed to be completely random! I could be going up against anyone!”
“Aw, don’t worry about it. Most of ‘em are pussies. I mean – no offense those of us who have… uh, never mind.”
Jade continued as if she hadn’t heard. “What if Jinn has to fight an avatar? What if he won’t let me go this time? And the other classes have some really mean guys. Have you seen Buster? He just likes to hurt people! And Behemoth? What am I supposed to do against him? And there’s others that are even worse!”
“You know what Ito-sensei said. You don’t have to win the match. You just have to make the best showing you can. You know he’s going to adjust things if someone like you ends up fighting Buster. It’ll probably be worth an ‘A’ to last more than two or three passes. Besides,” Billie clenched her fist, cracking her knuckles one-handed. “Some of them… Counterpoint might be interesting. I wouldn’t mind facing him. And you spar with me sometimes, so by extension…”
“As if,” Jade said, dismissively. “Of course you could take Counterpoint. You’re … Tennyo. You’re… You could take any of them. Well, so long as you weren’t bothered by the collateral damage.”
Billie snickered. “Yeah, more windows to pay for. I’d kinda thought I had it made moneywise when they started to pay me for the energy I was saving them, but then I find out it’s mostly going to fund repairs!”
“And don’t even pretend that we’re equal when we spar. But it would be different if you hurt me. I wouldn’t mind.”
“I’d never hurt you, Jade.”
“It would be okay if you did. Even by accident. But some of those guys are scary!”
“I can be scary too, Jade. Tell you what. If anyone gets too rough, you can tell them that they’ll hear from me.”
“No Oneesan! You’d get expelled! Then I’d have to leave, too, to be with you!”
Billie snorted. “Then it’ll be just the two of us, on the road together. Maybe we can take up the wild life of a space pirate or something.”
Jade was silent for a moment before asking, “You promise, Oneesan?”
“Sure, Jade.” Billie smiled to herself at how seriously Jade seemed to take some of these wild conversations they had. “Now go to sleep!”
“Yes Mistress Pirate, dread stalker of the st…”
Billie waited for the final giggle, but instead she was greeted by a soft snore.
By the time everyone was seated for breakfast, Jade had a whole new set of aggravations.
“Ooo! I ought to kill that man!” In a rare burst of anger, she furiously crumpled up her letter and looked around. “Pyrokinetic… where’s a pyrokinetic? Why isn’t there ever a pyrokinetic when you want one?”
“I could blast it,” Billie politely offered, “except that I promised not to do any energy blasts inside glass buildings.”
Nikki arrived with her tray, tucking a strand of flaming red hair behind a pointed ear. “Did someone say something about a pyro?”
“Jade wants one. Bad letter.”
Nikki raised the delicate brows over her arrestingly large eyes. “Bad news?”
“Let me summarize,” Jade said, through gritted teeth. “Babe. Welcome to dumpsville. Population: you.”
The other girls gasped. “Thuban?”
Jade’s expression immediately turned to cheerful anticipation. “Huh? Where?”
“No, I mean, Thuban dumped you?” Nikki clarified.
“He did?!” For a moment, Jade had a look of horror, then she figured it out. “Oh… the letter! No, this is from that butt-head who was being my doctor. Dr. Traekham. Hmph. Dr. Butt-head is more like it! One or two tries, and then he blows! ‘Too tough for me, I’m outta here.’ Thanks a lot, Doc!”
Nikki finished arranging her dining silver with the air of a queen, eating at the high table. “Did he say why?”
Still fuming, Jade smoothed out the crumpled letter. “How’d he put it? Right, here it is. Let’s see… ‘exhausted the limits of conventional therapy’… ‘I am an ordinary General Practitioner’… But those aren’t the real reasons. Here it is. ‘As new evidence has appeared indicating that you are a shapeshifter, rather than an exemplar, it seems likely that any remaining difficulties are psychological, rather than physical.’
“Psychological?” Jade suddenly held her gun in her hand, and she waved it around menacingly. “I’ll show you psychological, you quack!”
Her tirade was interrupted by a small ball of paper that dropped from the ceiling and landed directly on the table in front of her.
Toni looked around. “Well, that was different.”
Jade unfolded the paper. As she did so, a single red rose seemed to come into existence. She immediately looked up and searched around the cafeteria for Thuban. She found him about a quarter of the way around the large dome. He met her gaze and nodded.
“What’s it say?” Billie demanded.
Jade smoothed the note and read it to herself, before sharing with the other girls. “ ‘Are you available for Saturday? Not a date, but definitely worth your while. T.’ ”
The girls speculated about this while Jade thought. She reached into her backpack and pulled out paper and pen… and surreptitiously pulled out something else. She was getting pretty good at this sort of sleight-of-hand. It was easy when you could simply charge up the backpack or purse and have the items in question fly themselves into the palm of your hand.
She wrote out a quick reply, while asking Nikki, “I hate to impose, but since his delivery was so flamboyant, do you think maybe you could conjure up one of your new pixies?”
Nikki thought for a moment, then nodded. “I suppose. I’m not so sure about sending an innocent little pixie flittering around our cafeteria, but I guess if things work out they’ll be public knowledge soon enough. Might as well give them some experience with the big-people world, hmmm?”
Jade nodded and handed the folded paper across to Nikki. For her part, Nikki accepted the folded page, placed it on the table in front of her, then held her closed fist in front of her while she began to gesture with the other hand. A lavender glow formed around her gesturing hand, and sparkles seemed to condense in the air around her fist. Rays of light suddenly speared inward, coalescing in a pinpoint of light somewhere within Nikki’s clenched fist. At the same time, there was the sound of tiny chimes tinkling.
Nikki opened her fingers slowly, like a rosebud coming into bloom.
Standing there in her palm was a two-inch high vision of Nikki Reilly. Except this version had dragonfly wings that sprouted from her back, and her voice (she was humming to herself) was in the highest soprano range and seemed to be accompanied by a faint wind-chime effect whenever she made a sound. The pixie was fussing with a towel around her flame-red hair, and she had another diminutive towel wrapped around her body. Sensing some change, her eyes opened.
“Oh! It never fails! Step into the shower for just one minute—! Hold on!” Again, the wind chime effect accompanied her voice.
There was a brief puff of white smoke, and when that vanished the little pixie was dressed in a red dress, red slippers, and was wearing a red Santa hat.
“Ready, my Queen!” She bowed, there in the palm of Nikki’s hand.
Attempting to stop the smile that was creeping onto her lips, Nikki said, “I want you to carry this letter to Thuban.”
“The scaly fellow at that table over there.”
“Gotcha! Should I wait for a reply?”
Grabbing one corner of the letter, the tiny pixie zoomed up toward the ceiling, then shot toward Thuban’s table.
“Wow! Did you finally gain control of your hobgoblins?” Jamie asked. “You must have done something big, ‘cause I can normally feel your hobgoblins, and I didn’t get much at all from that one.”
“Particular impressive,” Sara decided, “since your magic was so quiet. I barely felt anything beyond the light-show illusion.”
Nikki just smiled back at the demon, her sometimes rival.
“Unless…” Sara continued to muse “…of course! Let’s see, the anti-eavesdropping spell is on, so people can see us, but they can’t hear us. So, nobody turn to look at her. That was you, Jade, wasn’t it?”
Jamie almost turned to look, before stopping. “That was Jinn? No wonder. You’re getting pretty good at the shapeshifting.”
“Thanks,” Jade said, blushing. “Nikki and I have been practicing the last couple of days, but you weren’t around.”
“Wait a minute,” Hank said, leaning forward. “If that’s Jinn, she’s still just as strong as ever, right?”
“I assume so,” Nikki replied, since the question was directed at her. “Can you even make a weaker version of Jinn?”
Jade shook her head. “Nope. The pixie should be strong enough to move or lift 300 pounds.”
“Which is probably no big deal when she’s human sized,” Hank continued, “but when she’s pixie-sized, it’s like she’s got super-strength. It’s the classic problem that most bricks have to deal with. Her tiny hands can exert 300 pounds of force, but it’s too much pressure over too small an area. She can’t use her full strength.”
“Oh, that.” Jade waved her hand dismissively. “When I’m a pixie, I don’t usually use my hands, it only looks like it.”
“Come again?” Nikki asked, thoroughly confused.
“Well, I can manipulate various objects, right? I found this thread in one of the devisor labs. Carbon nanotubes, spun together into thread. You need a special diamond blade to cut it, and—” she looked up to notice that most of her audience was starting to look bored. “Well, anyway, it’s very thin and semi-transparent, so it’s hard to see. When I’m a pixie, I have six feet of the stuff coiled up inside me. When I want to grab something, I just shoot the thread out through my palms and wrap it around whatever I’m grabbing. So it’s actually me-as-a-thread doing the work, with a pixie body hanging on for the ride.”
Nikki boggled at that. “My pixies are super-strong?”
“Well, I don’t know that I’d say that. Three hundred pounds isn’t that much by Whateley standards.”
“It is for a two-inch pixie!”
Jade shrugged. “Okay then. They’re super-strong. I’m still trying to figure out what all I can do with the wire technique. I know I can spin it out into a flat disk for blocking hits. It doesn’t make a very good punch, since it’s only as fast as I can fly. Which is pretty fast when I’m that light, but not as fast as a real punch.”
Toni chortled. “I can just see it as Nikki, also known as super-fairy, goes to stop her first bank robbery.” She waved her hands in the air as she described the scene. “Nikki stays back, casting her strange magic. As the bank robbers appear, she gestures, shouting, ‘Pixie Patrol! Pursue and Punish with Pugilistic Power!’ And while the elf queen sits back, her hoard of insect-size minions grab the robbers, giving them flips, socks to the jaw, and carrying them off to the paddy wagon! What a triumph to see on the evening news, except for the fact that the pixies are too small to show up on camera.”
“ ‘Pugilistic Power’?” Nikki frowned at her roommate. “Sounds like someone’s aching for a little magic right now!”
Toni gave a sheepish grin, but didn’t look like she regretted it.
Thuban watched in bemusement as the two-inch high pixie came flying in, carrying a letter that was easily twice her size. He casually held out a hand to accept the note, then flipped it open and to it one-handed:
‘Are you going to be there? And, Demona’s not going to be there, is she? –J.’
“Demona? Why on earth would Demona be there?”
Using the same paper, he penned a reply: ‘No Demona. I’ll be there for most of it. –T.’
The pixie had settled down to the table, where she waited, tapping her foot. Thuban, however, handed the note to the normal-looking boy next to him.
“Ricochet, if you would.”
The boy wadded the message into a small ball, then threw it hard into the glass dome above them. The pixie immediately took off after the message, but it caromed off one support strut, was deflected by a pane of glass, and finally dropped down to the Kimba table, landing directly in front of Jade.
This time, when the pixie flew back with the reply, she had to dodge through a maze of anti-pixie fire. High-speed paperclips, subsonic spitwads, small lightning bolts, and the occasional laser discharge forced her to dodge and weave like mad during her return flight to Thuban. While he read the note, she collapsed onto the table, puffing to get her breath back.
Thuban read Jade’s comments: ‘What time? –J.’ and took out a small note card to write, ‘Let’s say, 10 AM to probably about 4 PM. –T.’
When he handed the card to the pixie, he said, “I tried to make it a bit sssmaller, in consideration of your burden.”
She glared up at him. “I don’t suppose you two could just sit at the same table and talk, like normal people?”
“Ah, but the exchange of notesss, particularly through a go-between, hasss sssuch a hallowed hissstory. Now, off you go!”
The pixie took a tight hold of the card, crouched down, then sprung into the air, flying her fastest and highest as she dodged the ever-increasing hail of missiles and beams. This time, small food items, particularly beans and peas, had been added to the suppressive fire. Still, she made it through with herself and her message intact. She practically collapsed in front of Jade and handed over the message.
A moment later, she was winging her way back. This time, she shot up to hover right at the ceiling, dodging between the white metal struts that supported the geodesic panes of glass. The extra height gave her more time to spot the incoming missiles and legumes. It also increased the distance, which decreased the enemy’s aim. Over Thuban’s table, she dive-bombed straight down, bringing the card to his hand.
“Are you (huff) just about done here? (wheeze) I don’t know if I can take (gasp) much more of this!”
Thuban unfolded the card: ‘Pick me up at Poe! –J.’ and penned his final message, ‘I’m looking forward to it. –T.’
By now the cafeteria staff had come out waving the traditional array of ladles and rolling pins (save for the chef, who was allowed to wield a massive cleaver).
“What’s the matter with you little punks? You never seen a little fairy carrying mail before? You! Don’t you dare throw that! Yes, I’m talking to you!”
The brave little pixie dodged and weaved, but eventually, given the density of the barrage, something was bound to connect. In this case, it was a laser beam. It was low power, relatively speaking, but a person who is only two inches tall cannot stand the damage that would be a minor wound for a person five feet tall. The valiant pixie gave a piercing cry of despair, then tumbled toward the ground, completely helpless, barely clinging to her precious message.
The savage audience, stunned by the event, held their fire and their collective breaths as she spiraled toward the floor, and what seemed to be certain death. Then, seconds before she struck the cafeteria tile, the pixie looked up again.
With a new burst of speed, she dodged and weaved under tables and between legs until she finally arrived at her destination.
She hovered for a moment above the Kimba table, grandstanding. “Neither foe nor pain nor boom of light stays pixie couriers from the swift completion of their disjointed rounds!”
The future elf queen scowled, as she was struck once again with punishing damage (and more importantly, caught without a comeback). “That’s it! Home you go!” Nikki grabbed the pixie in her cupped hands. With a flash of light and a small explosion of sparkles, the tiny creature was gone.
Sara looked around the table with a blasé expression. “So… anyone else want to die of embarrassment right about now?”
Toni just lay down on the table and covered her head with her arms.
Jade grinned, missing the exchange entirely. “I gotta date!”
“I have mentioned several times before,” Ito-sensei told the assembled class, “that we will begin holding the semester exams next week. Today’s class will be preparation for the exam. I will answer any questions you have, then we’ll do some non-contact work. While you attempt to put some final polish on your form, Tolman Sensei and I will circulate for anyone who needs some last-minute pointers.”
Another freshman raised her hand. “Sensei? I heard a rumor that we might be facing people from other classes.”
Ito-sensei nodded. “The combat exams are one-on-one, pooling everyone from the freshman and sophomore classes. That is: all martial arts classes, regular P.E., everything. Students are paired up completely at random. You need not win to pass, but you must make an ‘acceptable’ showing, as judged by the assembled instructors.”
Many hands had already shot into the air.
“You mean, the kids that didn’t take martial arts might be facing off against one of us?”
Ito nodded. “Well put. Whateley is intended, among other things, to help you survive if you find yourself fleeing from a lynch mob, or caught between two street gangs, or merely at the wrong place at the wrong time. You may walk away from the training we offer, but twice each year you will need to demonstrate that you can survive such perils. That’s why the pairings are random.”
“But… that’s not fair! I could end up fighting someone like Lancer! What am I supposed to do?”
“You are expected to do your best, and to survive. The tests will consist of a mission and an objective. It’s possible that you could accomplish the objective through means other than direct confrontation. Last spring’s objective was to rescue an unconscious victim, a dummy, from a piranha-filled lake. There may be ways to achieve your goal without combat, but they require either the right powers, or the most extremely clever plan.”
There were more questions, and the freshmen slowly came to the sinking feeling that they were being set up for a fall. The sophomores were mostly smirking, except for those whose powers were useless in combat.
“Sir? Isn’t this really, really biased against us freshmen? I mean, we’ve never been through this before. The sophomores have gone through these tests twice already, most of ‘em. A couple of other people have mentioned how unfair it is. Well, I don’t mean to be disrespectful, sir, but could you actually answer the question this time? Because it sure sounds like you have it in for us.”
Ito sensei clasped his hands behind his back. “Unfair? Most definitely. ‘Have it in for you?’ No. Quite the opposite.” He paused for a second, as if choosing his words. “Never forget that you are a mutant! Because I assure you, your enemies will not forget. Has anyone forgotten Halloween?” The group sobered at that reminder. “Unlike Halloween, most mobs are made up of over-emotional and under-trained fools. Some people have even described freshmen that way, though I would never stoop so low. And think: these sophomores, who as you so cleverly pointed out have had much more training and two previous tests, these sophomores are largely looking forward to the test. And that is the purpose of all of this. You freshmen, imagine next year when you are the sophomores. Imagine four years from now, when you are the seniors. I hope you will have learned much by then. I hope that when the emotional and foolish mob comes for you, you smile like these sophomores are doing. Because then you will have the training, and the experience, and the confidence to demonstrate to them the folly of their ways. It is for this reason that we deliberately make things tough, and unfair, and press you to rise to the challenge.”
He looked around and, seeing that there were no more questions, he said, “As a final incentive, those who pass the test will be eligible for next semester’s Team Tactics class. We have a new instructor this year – a former Navy SEAL who has spent many, many years in covert operations, before having what some call an ‘origin event’ late in life.
“I think you will all have much to learn there. Ambushes – both making them and surviving them, taking captives and hostages, keeping them secure, rescuing them. You will learn to assault fortified positions, to fight against a team of experienced foes, and how to create a truly effective team of your own.” His smile was truly nefarious. “But only if you qualify on the upcoming tests.”
Saturday, December 9, 9:47 AM
Saturday morning, Thuban was waiting in the entry of Poe Cottage. This time the car was not a limousine, but a sensible gray sedan. Jade didn’t know much about cars, so she couldn’t see how heavily the Mercedes had been reworked. From the outside, it looked like any other high-end car that might be on the road, aside from the tinted windows in the rear. And the inside … that was something else entirely.
She’d expected the rear compartment to be cozy, and had looked forward to sitting close to Thuban. Perhaps she’d hold his hand.
Instead, the door opened and she stepped through a black curtain. Beyond the curtain was an airlock. An honest-to-god airlock! It was seven feet high, and five foot square. Plainly, it was larger than the car they had just entered. At her back was a curtain and a car door with a tinted window. Ahead of her was a vault-like door. Thuban pushed her forward gently, as he came in and closed the door behind himself. It slammed with a solid sound that made her certain that the door was some sort of reinforced armor.
“What the heck?”
“Shhh. Wait until we are inside.” There was a mild lurch as the car began to move. The dragon-man pressed his open hand against a plate on the far wall. A hatch slid open, and he stepped through it. Jade followed him, marveling at what lay before her.
The inner chamber was huge. It was perhaps forty feet across to the far side. That was almost the width of Poe Cottage! The ceiling towered above them, twenty feet up. Although the center of the vast space was open, it became narrower and narrower at the top, like the interior of an A-frame. But it was clear that it wasn’t the roofline crowding in, the two upper floors simply overhung the space, with open balconies looking over the central shaft. At this level the main floor was a little over twenty feet wide. The “front” of the room (judging by where the front of the car had been) was dominated by a gigantic flat display screen, flanked on both sides by rows of smaller screens. Currently the screen was displaying a pastoral scene that looked like the mountains of ancient China. Jade recognized the conical straw hats of the peasant workers in the foreground, as well as the limestone mountains that seemed to be unique to southern China.
Two rows of chairs and couches made a semi-circle around the giant screen. There was a kitchenette, bathrooms, a set of bookshelves and a small library farther down. And against the far wall was another airlock, right next to—
“It that an elevator?” She couldn’t believe it.
“The next floor up is the medical wing. Sometimes, patients can’t climb the stairs on their own.”
“You have an elevator to take you between the three floors?” It was hard to keep her eyes from bugging out.
Thuban paused to give an uncomfortable cough. “Five floors, actually. The armory is downstairs, and the very top floor holds the mechanicals – electronics, communications gear, and the like. And that section there on the far side holds the vehicle bay.”
“The—” Jade had to start over to recover from the screech in her voice. “Vehicle bay?”
“An APC, another limousine, a few motorcycles, and a couple of jetpacks (in case things get really bad). Quite modest, really.”
She gulped. “I… see. Uh, who’d you have to sell your soul to, when you went to borrow this?”
“Oh, it’s mine. I may have to sell it soon, and I wanted to show off to you before I lost it forever.”
Jade blinked at that, completely out of her depth. She hadn’t known what to expect from today’s events, and Thuban had only said that he wanted to “surprise her.” So, with that in mind, she’d begged Phase for an outfit to borrow. Ayla was only three inches taller than her, so Jade could often wear the other girl’s outfits (not that she’d had reason to, until now). And Ayla was rich enough that she had more outfits than she could wear. This particular ensemble featured a simple sky-blue silk blouse, with a collared dark blue overshirt that was half-shirt and half-jacket. An elegantly simple black leather miniskirt and dark hose left her looking feminine (since her figure up top certainly wasn’t that interesting). Topped off with black suede ankle boots, a matching leather purse, and a beret, and the girls had pronounced her looking more like a sophisticated fourteen or fifteen, than her physical age of about eleven.
She’d triple-charged Jinn, which should leave her sister going strong at Whateley and let Jade stay out for six hours. Jade could still call up Jann-sensei, but that would leave her so weak that she’d be pretty useless.
Which meant that she was oh-so-casually dressed to the hilt, with a mysterious dragon-boy boyfriend, looking at his impossible mansion-on-wheels and not having the slightest idea what to do. Oh, and she was pretty much on her own.
“Should I go back for Jinn? We won’t need her along, will we?”
“No, I don’t think we will,” Thuban purred, placing his hand gently on Jade’s back. “Why? Is she going to be, er, rejoining you soon?”
She turned and found herself held in the circle of his arms. She looked up, way up, since he was more than a foot taller than she was. As he lowered his long head to look at her, she stared into his alien-looking eyes and decided that it was time to trust him.
“I gave her a triple charge,” she admitted. “She’ll be going strong for six hours. Unless something weird happens, I won’t be, you know, seeing her before then.”
“Triple charge? That’s new. And I thought she was good for an hour and a half.”
“I’ve gotten better.”
“Does it bother you to be so…vulnerable?”
She wrapped her arms around him. “I guess it matters who you’re vulnerable with. It’s hard to explain, but I kinda want to make myself vulnerable sometimes. With you. That’s why I told you about my real time limit, and the whole triple-charge thing. I usually try to hide all those details. You know, deceive the enemy?”
“And you’ve decided that I’m not your enemy?”
“I sure hope not,” she admitted, with more fear than she wanted to reveal.
His encircling arms crushed her tight for a moment.
“I know very well about withholding secrets and deceiving those around you,” Thuban rumbled in his deep voice. “I have a very hard time trusting. Very few people even know what my powers are. That’s part of why I brought you here – to show you.”
“Your powers?” She was puzzled. “You’re an exemplar. An exemplar four, right?”
“Yes,” he agreed “but that’s a minor issue. I am primarily a warper – one of the strongest ever identified.”
She frowned. “Billie’s a warper…”
“Not the same thing at all. She modifies gravity and acceleration. I suspect that her powers relate to the curvature of space. I modify space itself – specifically size and volume.”
She got it. “So you either shrink or grow things.”
He nodded. “Either. Both. Unlike many warpers, I’m not limited to my own body or equipment close to me. I can make the effect last for hours, or with considerable expense and effort I can make the effect permanent, like in this car.”
“So… you could go Godzilla, like JimmyT, or Sizemax.”
“I can reach twice her maximum height, but the effect works much differently for me. There is an ‘interface layer’ which makes my size useless for combat. At least, useless for direct combat.”
Jade boggled. “You do know that when she really tries, she can reach something like thirty feet tall?”
“Thirty-six feet, actually.”
She tried to wrap her mind around this new development. “Are you saying that you can make other things ten times bigger?”
“A little more. Ten times bigger, or ten times smaller. And I can walk away. The effect persists for several hours.”
“No wonder you keep it secret! Wow.”
“And now I’m trusting you. This is a very personal secret. I’m asking you not to tell your friends, or slip and let them know, or to even confirm their guesses.”
“Oh, definitely! I promise.” She huffed. “Of course, Jinn will know.”
“And she’ll be bound by the same promise, won’t she?”
They stood like that for a moment, then Thuban gave her a final squeeze and walked toward the kitchenette. “Can I get you something while we drive? A coke? Milkshake?”
“Yeah, sure.” She slowly walked after him, looking around at the huge building. “So this is all inside the limo?”
Thuban ran a blender for a moment. “Yes. It has a permanent twelve-times reduction on the exterior surface. That gives us about 1700 times the volume, when you work it out.”
“Handy,” she commented dryly, accepting the shake. “Hey, that’s how you squeezed the gargoyle in the cigarette pack, isn’t it?”
He nodded. “Exactly.”
“How about weight?”
“That adjusts proportionately with volume.”
“Wow, must be handy. You could have enough pockets to carry anything you wanted.”
“You begin to see why this is most useful when kept secret. I typically carry at least a motorcycle with me, as well as a plethora of tools and items. It’s one of my secret faults. I’m a bit of a packrat.”
She gestured around. “If it’s not too personal, how much does something like all of this cost? I mean, I knew you were rich, but… wow.”
“This little place? Not a dime.” Seeing her look of disbelief, he continued. “I have, through various hidden channels, created a few of these chambers for people with the money to pay for them. Lord Paramount, the United States CIA, the Queen of England. For Lord Paramount, this car and chamber were my payment. Of course, I had to handle the size adjustment myself, but he created the rest.”
“You trusted him with that? How could you be sure he wouldn’t put bugs or bombs or who-knows-what inside?”
“Yes, that was a risk. But he promised that he wouldn’t. Unlike the CIA, or even the Queen, I trust Paramount’s word. He may have his faults, but he’s always been fanatic about his personal honor.”
“Oh.” She was suddenly overwhelmed with the company she was keeping, even if it was only second-hand.
After a moment, Thuban asked, “What are you thinking? Is it so bad to deal with Lord Paramount?”
“Huh? Oh, it’s not that. It’s just … wow. Suddenly I’m in, how do I say it? I’m just a freshman. I’m just a kid. Even after something like Halloween, it’s hard to imagine… I mean, this is really the big leagues, isn’t it?”
“Does it bother you to deal with the rich and powerful?”
“Madonna is rich and powerful. Lord Paramount… he’s in another class entirely. The Queen of England? Heck, the entire CIA? I don’t even know where to begin!”
Thuban folded his arms inside the wide sleeves of his Chinese robe. “Would it be easier to deal with if you were also rich and powerful?”
“Me?” she snorted. “Get real! I have problems buying a spare set of underwear. And sure, I’m a mutant. That makes me powerful enough to stop bank robbers – some of them – or maybe to stop someone from holding up a Quickie-mart.”
“Don’t sell yourself short,” he cautioned. “If you wanted to go into espionage, I’ll bet you could name your own salary. Particularly if you can keep your ‘sister’ going for six hours.”
“But I’m talking about a more legitimate approach. Something that will benefit the entire world, and make you, me, and many other people richer than the wealthiest software baron.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Indulge me for a little while longer, and I’ll show you.”
Lily was helping them out by running the control booth. The underground “Arena ’77” was ugly and functional – exactly what you’d expect for a site that was used for pit fights these days. The walls had all the functional utility of shrapnel-scarred concrete. Powerful lights speared down from the distant corners of the room, illuminating every inch of the fifty-by-fifty foot combat stage. Ancient but serviceable force-field generators created a full cube around the stage. The fields only activated as matter approached within three feet, so sound and air were normally unrestricted.
Finally, the oversized stage was ringed with boxing-ring ropes, though no one expected those ropes to actually impede the combatants. The ropes served mainly as boundary markers.
Lily looked left, to where Bunny waited. The blonde girl nodded, saying, “As far as I can tell, the camera feeds are all deactivated.”
“I guess it’s not such a big deal,” Lily decided. “All this will be public when they take their finals. Filming them now would only be useful for giving pointers to their opponents. Or maybe for the point spread, on the betting.”
Bunny shrugged. “Like I’m a combat expert. I’m shooting for a grade of ‘survival’ myself.”
Lily turned and activated one panel, snapping on switches in succession. Below, the fields snapped into place briefly, sparking blue-white before fading to invisibility.
“Fields active,” she called down through the microphone. “Get ready and I’ll start the countdown.”
Arena ’77 received little use these days except for training and the most savage fights. It had none of the modern niceties – no holography generators, no terrain or obstacle systems, and no padded seats for the audience. It came from an earlier era, when the fight was everything and that fight consisted of two opponents pounding on each other until one of them dropped. On the up side, it was easy to reserve time on it.
“Get set! Here comes the count!”
Lily started their own monitor cameras. They wanted a post-fight analysis for all of these trials, though they planned to destroy the disks once they were done. She snapped a final switch, and a simple clock lit up – no different from the scoreboard in a thousand high-school gyms.
Jinn prepared herself. She couldn’t see the LED clock, but she could hear the clicks. She thought that if she could stand up to Hank, she’d have a chance at almost any opponent they threw at her. If she could stand up to Hank. That was the issue.
Instead of her normal equipment, she was using previous discards, rejects, and the like. She even had a small armored sphere in her chest to hold a clothes change for afterward. Her physical body wouldn’t be back on campus until that afternoon, and she had other things to do today. Hopefully, the sphere would be strong enough to survive the fight. Everything outside she could afford to lose.
Another beep of the countdown clock. Unconsciously, she crouched, ready to take to the air at the ‘go’ signal. On the far side of the ring, Hank did the same.
Another beep. She let the tattered cloak flare up, blowing in a non-existent wind. Chains appeared, crossing over her chest bandolier-style. Tatters of fabric began to rise along her cloak and clothes. A fog began to form in the air around her, as small clouds of white mist billowed at her feet. Across the ring Hank just cracked his knuckles and grinned.
They’d chosen each other for sparing partners because this way they could both go full strength. Hank could destroy her, but he knew he wouldn’t be hurting her. She could unleash everything she had against him, and she’d be lucky if she managed to raise a bruise.
The starting buzz was a harsh sound. She immediately launched in the air; Hank did the same. They met twenty feet up, over the center of the ring. Jinn had her arms out, cruciform, spinning like a propeller. The momentum would give her the power she’d need if she had any hope of cracking Hank’s protective layer. In each hand, she held a railroad spike, point forward.
Hank shot forward, stopped, and slid back just out of range.
He’s gotten better at controlling his flight, she realized. She shot forward. At the same time, she pulled in her chains. Just like an ice skater pulling in her arms, her body began to spin faster to conserve angular momentum. Coordinated with the forward lunge, it had a chance to catch Hank by surprise.
Instead, he slid back a few feet, flipping over backward and counterattacking with a blindingly leg sweep. His leg met her spinning arm at the elbow, and she screamed as her right arm was ripped away. The black skeletal metal, along with the spike it had held, flew like a bullet to the far side of the stage. The pieces passed over the rope boundary, then sparked against the force field that snapped into visibility.
Unbalanced, she spun to a stop, hovering in the air to look at her opponent.
“First blood,” he said, gesturing toward her missing limb. “And it looks like I’ve disarmed you.”
Jinn growled and looked to her right side. The free-floating dust that defined her ‘skin’ flowed like water, and a moment later her arm was restored. “I’m not so easy to hurt.”
“But there’s no metal, no mass inside. Without that you can’t hit hard enough to hurt a normal person, much less me.”
“Try me!” Her cloak swirled around her like it had a mind of its own, and the air began to fog.
“You asked for it!”
With a whoosh of displaced air, Lancer shot forward, leading with his fist. Jinn’s cloak swept aside like a matador’s cape, and she grabbed his back as he passed, trying to ride him. She raised the spike that remained in her left fist, to impale him vampire-style, but Lancer flipped and kicked, sending her up to smash against the field that roofed the ring.
“She’s doing better than I expected,” Bunny said. “I don’t usually think of Jinn as being that tough.”
Lily nodded. “Hank’s super strength, invulnerability, and flight make a great combination,” she admitted. “But he needs to be more aggressive. He needs to fight more opponents like this – where his strength and invulnerability don’t let him instantly win.” She grimaced. “The problem is endemic to high-end bricks. The decent ones, at least. They spend so much time learning to be careful of a fragile world that it’s hard for them to let go of those inhibitions and fight at full strength. See? He should have followed up that smash right there, but he’s hanging back to make sure she’s okay.”
He’s too good, Jinn realized. She was willing to sacrifice her training gear for this exercise, but she didn’t want to lose her regular outfit. She was using a backup “locker” that carried her gear for the rest of the day. If she lost that, if she lost her “grip” on her after-practice equipment, she wouldn’t be able to animate a body until Jade returned that afternoon. The inside of the locker was sprayed with cushioning foam, and the locker itself was a titanium-steel sphere the size of a water balloon. She held that in place inside her ribs, about where a living person’s heart would be. Even so, Lancer’s latest slam had thrown her against the force field hard enough to put a small crack in the titanium-steel sphere.
Time to start fighting smarter, she decided. She pushed off from the force field and taunted Hank.
“It’s not like you can hurt me. You can go ahead and use some strength, if you want.”
She’d been hoping that he’d get a little hot under the collar, and maybe get sloppy.
Instead, he smiled. “Okay, let’s say I fall for your bait. What are you hoping for, a headlong rush? Here it comes!”
In a matter of moments he’d adopted a classic “Superman” pose, leading with his fist as he flew toward her, spearing forward as fast as a car speeding down the highway.
Jinn metaphorically gulped as she backed toward the force field barrier. Meanwhile, she quickly rearranged herself. She looked frozen from Hank’s perspective, but she was anything but. Her “bones” and material components were being shifted back and down, forming a tight gray-wrapped bundle at her feet and hidden behind her cloak. Her chalk-white body appeared unaltered, but that’s all it was – appearance.
Hank rushed toward her, flipping at the last second. His feet swung forward, smashing through her chest with the force of a bulldozer. A bulldozer that was doing nearly fifty miles an hour. His arms snapped out to each side, ready to clothesline her if she tried a dodge to the left or right.
Instead, her gambit worked. Hank seemed to be taken by surprise as he passed harmlessly through the insubstantial chalk outline of her body to smash into the force field wall. Lightning crackled over the wall, but Hank took the impact on his feet, and sprang back toward her. He was fast enough to grab a handful of her cloak and rip it away from her. She was forced to let it go.
“And thus, I remove your best weapon!”
“It hides your movements. And I know about the reinforcing wires sewn into the very-deliberate tatters.”
“Damn!” She still had her outfit and chains, but he was right about the cloak. Quickly, she rearranged her bones and equipment back in place inside her body.
“In fact,” Lancer continued, “I think it’s time to end this. There’s nothing you can do to hurt me. And while you seem pretty invulnerable, I know your weakness.”
She backed away in mid-air. “Yeah? What’s that?”
His face was grim. “The best way to defeat you is to simply close in and rip you to pieces, bit by bit. You can’t hurt me, and once I throw any piece of you more than six feet away, you have to let go of it. Soon there won’t be anything left.”
She backed away faster. Okay, this is bad. I figured he’d take me down eventually, but there’s got to be something I can do to him!
He reached forward to grab the thin fabric of her top. “You weren’t expecting chivalry were you? Fear of touching the poor girl there?”
She opened her mouth to reply, but instead of sound, she breathed out a cone of liquid nitrogen, straight into his face.
Hank released her top to wipe his face. With his other hand he swung hard, connecting to her jaw. The blow was hard enough to snap her skull free and send it ricocheting off the far wall. Without thought, Jinn reformed her head outlined in white chalk, but there was nothing inside.
Hank was wiping furiously at his face and waving his hands. Jinn took the opportunity to go to pieces. It was hard to tell, but she figured they should now be inside a thick cloud. She couldn’t perceive it herself, but Hank should be nearly blind in the billowing white fog.
“I didn’t hurt you, did I?”
She made her voice issue from slightly ahead of him, while most of her pieces floated around behind him. In particular, she needed to arrange a certain high-tension cable. With scarcely a thought, one end tied itself into a slip-knot. Hank was thrashing, but she managed to slip the knot around his left ankle. She carefully tightened it, but deliberately held it away from his skin so he wouldn’t feel it yet.
Meanwhile, Hank finished wiping his face. “It didn’t hurt. I felt a moment of cold, but that’s all. What did you do?”
“Liquid nitrogen. The temperature plunged, and the water in the air condensed into a cloud. Which is why you can’t see a thing.”
“We’ll see…” he responded, ominously.
A second cable was now in place around his other foot. She had a small crank assembly that would amplify the mechanical advantage. Hank was fifteen to twenty times stronger than she was, but with the right equipment she could still beat him.
Hank reached into his left and right pockets and pulled out two flimsy lengths of paper, rolled up. He flicked out each hand and the paper unrolled, forming a cut-out shape like a sword.
“You’re going to hit me with a paper sword?”
“Not exactly. Have you seen me in class, beating on the other bricks with that baseball bat?”
“You ever wonder why the bat didn’t break?”
She couldn’t help herself. “If it did, you’d just throw the pieces at them. And I know you’re not the type to throw brick-bats.”
“Ouch. You’ve finally wounded me. But to explain how I’m going to get rid of this fog, you should know that the bat doesn’t break for the same reason my clothes are protected. Because my personal force field extends to cover my personal items. That is, so long as I’m in contact with them.”
Jinn waited in ambush, poised for the moment when he reached a hand up over his shoulder. “You have a length restriction?”
“Yeah. The effect is pretty common for us ‘range zero’ TK types. My maximum length is about three and a half feet. So, baseball bat okay, broomstick not okay.”
“So… those paper swords are protected by your nearly-impervious personal force field?”
“But how do you keep them stiff? The force field doesn’t affect stuff on the inside.”
He gave a weak smile. “It does a little. I’m slightly protected against acceleration and vibration. It’s a matter of training.”
He flicked the swords around in a quick martial display. It wasn’t as impressive as anything Chou or Toni might have done, but then, Chou and Toni didn’t have razor-thin invincible swords, either.
“That makes for a pretty nasty paper cut.”
“Yeah,” Hank agreed. “Even better, another aspect of the training was to focus my field to an edge. A sharp edge. I can’t do it just anywhere, it has to be ‘psychologically appropriate.’ My instructor has learned how to do a real ‘knife hand,’ but I’m nowhere close to being able to do that.”
As he spoke and gestured, he’d raised a hand up to shoulder height, but not quite into the proper position. Jinn clamped down on her frustration and tried to keep him talking.
“That’ll be nasty.”
“Yeah, that’s why I haven’t shown it off in class yet. But it turns out that ‘edge of a sword’ is a place that’s psychologically appropriate.”
“So in your pockets you carry around two swords that are paper-thin, stiff, unbreakable, and razor sharp.”
That meant that even if she did manage to hog-tie him, he could cut the cable. Could she get both hands at once?
“And as for the fog…”
Hank thrust his arms out to each side, holding the two swords even farther out. Then, he began to spin, faster and faster, twirling like a top.
This was an ancient trick to Jinn. She’d been doing the high-speed spin for months, practically since she’d arrived at Whateley. She could even keep a part of herself spinning (the two cables on Hank’s ankles) while moving the rest of her to one side, slightly under his feet. She was fine so long as she kept all of her pieces within a six-foot diameter cloud, but she didn’t want to get too close to the spinning blade of death.
Now Hank twisted the two blades slightly, so that they began acting like propeller blades. Jinn almost missed that, but she noticed the debris on the floor being blown to the edge of the ring.
“Uh… you can see me now, can’t you?”
Hank smiled and gave a flick to each of his ‘swords.’ They curled up and he stowed them back in his pockets. Before she could react, he dropped down to her height, reached forward and grabbed her remaining arm bone.
“One…” he said, yanking the bone out of her ‘grasp’ and hurling it to the floor below.
“That stings, you know.”
“Hmmm,” he decided. “That’s not the usual reaction I get when I rip someone’s arm off.”
“You rip a lot of arms off?”
“Well, I try not to. Only when it’s really necessary. Like now. Why? You think you can stop me?”
This was probably her last chance. She literally went to pieces, flowing in every direction around him. Rib bones went one way, leg bones another, clothes a third way and a cloud of chalk went in every direction. She briefly considered trying to blind him with a chalk cloud, but he’d blow that away the same way he’d handled the fog.
She coalesced again touching his back. “You can’t reach me if I stay behind you!”
“Ha! I’m more flexible than you think!” He reached both hands over his shoulders.
This was exactly what she’d been hoping for. Quick as thought, pre-prepared slip knots closed around his wrists and tightened. Each wrist was tied to the opposite ankle. Before he could react, she threaded the free end of the cable through her gear device and spun it.
“Damn!” he swore. “When did you get so strong?”
“Mechanical advantage,” she explained. “I’m getting just over six thousand pounds of pull, but I’m cranking like mad.”
She worked faster than she spoke. By the time her sentence was done, Hank had been trussed up tight, arms crossed up over his shoulders and legs stretched backward.
“I can still fly, you know.”
She unlimbered another length of cable. “I think I can handle that.”
Hank strained. “Admittedly, this is an awkward position, but my strength doesn’t come from muscles. If I can touch it, I can apply my full power. It doesn’t matter if it’s physically awkward.”
The cables hummed from the tension they were suddenly under.
“Those cables are rated up to twenty thousand pounds of tension,” she informed him. “That’s double your strength.”
Hank’s eyes gleamed. “Tension? How do they handle compression? Remember, if I can touch it, I can apply my full power.”
Taking his thumb and finger, he began to squeeze the cable that bound him.
“Oh, one other thing,” he mentioned. “Remember that edge I can create at psychologically appropriate locations? Well, I don’t have a lot of call to use my fingernails, but it turns out I can make them really sharp.”
He flexed for a moment, letting the cabled go the tiniest bit slack, then simply pinched it in half with his thumb and finger. To Jinn’s eye, the cable looked like it had been sliced with a knife.
Hank pinched through the other cable. After moving his arms and legs to limber them up, he reached across and pinched through the loops around his wrists and ankles. The fragments of high-tension cable fell to the floor of the ring.
“I think that’s enough playing around,” Lancer decided. “This might be my only chance to use my buzzsaw move, and I want to try it out.” He flicked out his paper swords once more and began to twirl.
Jinn decided that it was a good thing that she couldn’t feel pain.
“Bio-regenetics?” Jade said, reading the sign above the unassuming office complex deep inside Berlin’s industrial district. “What’s that?”
Thuban had not bothered shifting into his human form before stepping from the car, which was odd on the face of it. He never appeared outside in Berlin in his normal form. Also odd was his demeanor. She didn’t have any special senses at the moment, but Stephen seemed to have gone abruptly cold, or perhaps harshly professional, as they left the amazing car. First she’d stepped out of the mobile mansion to see that it looked like she was just stepping out of a car. Now she was having to deal with Stephen, who had been so warm and trusting before, to find that he’d suddenly turned hard and callous. She wasn’t sure what to think.
Thuban nodded toward the sign as they entered the building. “It’s a new biotechnology firm. The chamber of commerce thinks that it might help fund the rebirth of the city, as it moves from the old forestry-based industries of the nineteenth century, into the cutting edge industries of the twenty-first century. The top scientist at Bio-regenetics is a Dr. Igor Gellmar, Whateley class of ’83.”
“I wish I had access to his MID right now,” she muttered.
“Exemplar-1, devisor & gadgeteer-3, specializing in biochemistry.”
She nodded. “Makes sense, I guess. If Berlin has a natural resource other than trees, it’s access to the country’s best supply of mutants.”
Inside, the place was a chaotic mess of construction in progress. She could see where offices and a reception lobby were being constructed in front. More small offices were being constructed in back. And in the center – she wasn’t sure what was going on there. It was two stories tall, whatever it was, and had hoses, water, gas, and electric lines, as well as giant parabolic reflectors, all in construction, and all seemingly focused on a raised circular platform in the center of the laboratory. Technicians hurried about the platform, connecting equipment and checking machinery. Standing in the center, with his arms folded, an older man in a lab coat surveyed the work critically, occasionally barking an instruction or correction at the team.
As the man turned to them, Jade wished for her typical rider. She could summon up Jann-sensei, but her spirit-self would need to use TK to hold her upright. The exhaustion would make it tough to stand and impossible to walk. So for now, she didn’t have her regular rider, and couldn’t read the man’s emotions at all. That was a shame, because the frigid demeanor he gave off was more than a little intimidating. The man had narrow eyes hidden behind hard, oval glasses. He had an unruly shock of black hair, and a tightly trimmed black beard that came to a point, at his chin. There was no mustache, just a beard that outlined an already-sharp jaw line. He wore a tight black turtleneck with matching slacks, and had a white lab coat that fit loosely over that. And the impression he gave was that of an absolute ruler surveying his domain.
“Who are you? This area is forbidden—”as he turned toward them, he recognized Thuban’s distinctive form. “Ah, Stephen. Superb. Is this the… girl?”
Jade felt a spike of apprehension at the reference. Did he know her secret? Was it her imagination, or had his eyes widened slightly as he caught sight of her?
“Miss Sinclair?” Unfolding his arms, the man reached out to shake hands, while placing his other hand possessively on her shoulder. “It is pleasure to have you here at last. Come. The main facilities are incomplete, but examination room four is finished. It’s in the back. Follow me.”
Looking apprehensively over to Thuban, she allowed herself to be led into the back.
“Thuban?” She wanted to call him ‘Stephen,’ too, but it seemed to public here for the intimacy of his first name. “What’s going on?”
“Something of a surprise,” was all he said.
After they had all trooped inside the examination, the doctor pulled a small curtain open, indicating a changing room. He tossed Jade a hospital gown. “Now, undress in there. We begin immediately!”
Her eyes flashed from Thuban to the insane doctor. What a time to be down to her desperation charge! She was half considering powering up Jann, despite what it would cost her! “Uh…”
“Hurry up! I don’t have time to waste! You know what this is about! We haven’t got all day. Oh, if you’re concerned about my medical credentials,” he said the word with a slight sneer, “I assure you that I’m fully certified.” He gestured toward a set of medical diplomas on the wall. “There! See? I’m a real doctor. Now strip!”
“Actually, Doctor,” Thuban said, letting some hiss creep into his voice, “I haven’t told her anything about this yet.”
“What? Well why the hell not? We’re wasting time!”
“I was hoping to surprise her.”
Jade stood there, clutching the hospital gown, with her knees unaccountable slammed together, feeling more than a little vulnerable. “Surprise?” she croaked.
“It’s another attempt to solve your … situation,” Thuban explained.
“Oh!” That changed everything. She thought that maybe it also explained Stephen’s awkwardness, since he didn’t seem to cope well when dealing with the unfortunate truth about her physical condition. But the closest she’d ever gotten to achieving her dream had been Stephen’s last attempt – the BIT-slicer.
With a more positive attitude, she ducked behind the curtain, and had switched into the hospital gown in no time. “But… Stephen, I don’t want you to see me like this.” She only belatedly realized that she had used his true name, but given the situation he was hardly being exposed as much as she was.
“You think it will matter to me?”
“It might. I’m worried it might.”
“I’m not going to leave you alone with the doctor,” he said firmly.
“Then you can sit on the other side of the screen,” she decided. “And you have to promise not to peek.”
“But… that’s… don’t you trust me?”
“Of course I do,” she said, gaily. “That’s why I want you to promise.”
Thuban fumed for a moment, then traded places with her. “I promise not to peek,” he said gruffly.
She kissed the side of his mouth as they passed. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?”
Despite her lingering fatigue, she practically floated up to the examination table
“I hope you have a high pain threshold,” the doctor said, as he turned to his cabinet..
“It’s pretty good.” As the doctor approached carrying some strange cutting device, Jade tried to imagine a worse question he might have asked. She failed. Whoever this guy was, he wasn’t going to make his reputation on having a good bedside manner. “Could you tell me what’s going on? …Please?”
“I’ll try to make it brief.” He took her left arm, and sprayed something upon it, numbing it. “I need to take several blood samples. Then I’m going to excise a small patch of skin on your inner arm, a two centimeter square. I’ll be replacing that with a series of four different grafts – two female skin grafts, one male, and one foreign. Next, I’ll be making small incisions in your inner arm and inserting a variety of items and chemicals. Since you’re a regenerator, I expect you will build up an immunity to the anesthetic fairly quickly, so I’ll need to work fast.”
He was working on the skin at the inner side of her bicep, but it was numb and she couldn’t feel much of what he was doing. Occasionally, he would mutter comments such as “excellent” or “odd.” He grabbed odd instruments, and she felt the vibration of strange things happening on her arm.
“That should do for that arm. Now on the same area of your right arm, I’ll test a sequence of other techniques.”
Again he sprayed, and the arm went mostly numb, but she could feel him working. She bit her lip, as it became more painful.
“I’ve read the reports on your previous medical adventures,” the disapproval in his voice was clear “and I understand where a rank novice might think you’d run out of possibilities. The truth is that we are only limited by our imagination and daring.” The doctor’s voice rang with conviction as he said this. “I will approach the situation from an engineering point of view. We need to test, to find out whether your body will absorb or reject implanted substances and tissues, how it deals with your flesh folding back on itself, and how it deals with foreign biological invaders, both human and otherwise. My understanding is that, in addition to your regenerative abilities, your body also has a tendency to spontaneously ‘revert’ to its base state. There are numerous possible explanations and we need to narrow down that situation, as well as mapping the outlines and extent of the reversion process. For example, your hair length doesn’t revert, does it? Nor do your memories. All could form crucial clues.”
By the time he was done, Jade sat up and looked at her arms. Both of them felt physically raw. Looking for the first time, she gasped.
Her left arm had been tattooed in a checkerboard pattern, and there were cuts and lumps, where small beads seemed to have been inserted under the skin. Another patch was where her skin had been cut away, with new skin laid over the bare spot.
Her right arm was even stranger. Again there was a tattooed grid. A ring was clipped through her skin, like any other body piercing. In another location, a small tube had been stuck in, like a tiny straw. A pinch of skin had been pulled out and the fold sewn over. That pinched when she stretched her arm.
“Uh, I have a combat test next week. I’ll need this stuff out for that.”
“No problem,” the doctor muttered absently. “Now, I’ll need a blood draw, and we’ll want to get a baseline scan in the tomography systems.”
She resolved to cope with a long, extremely uncomfortable morning.
Occasionally, the cafeteria staff went above and beyond the call of duty. They were top nutritional experts and professional chefs, every one. Given the wide variety of dietary requirements, they pushed the envelope of conventional cuisine on a daily basis. Occasionally, they liked to just settle back and show off. They knew that the upcoming week would be stressful. Even though there were two weeks until the break, half the school had combat finals during the upcoming week. And the break itself would be stressful, particularly for many of the freshmen who would be returning home to deal with former friends and family. Whateley had a tolerance for the unusual that was easy to depend upon. The return home would be traumatic for some, especially freshmen.
For all of these reasons, the cafeteria staff had decided to show off a bit for Saturday’s dinner. They had taken delivery of some 2000 cuts of filet mignon.
It helps to understand exactly what’s implied by this. Filet mignon is the softest, tenderest, (and many believe) most flavorful meat on the animal. It comes from the tenderloin, a narrow strips alongside the spine in what would be the “small of the back” on a person. In cattle, these small muscles receive little stress or exercise and remain tender and succulent. But the area is tiny, and the meat that the Whateley staff had just ordered consumed the entire tenderloin production of nearly 300 cattle.
The narrow tenderloin strips were sliced into four ounce sections, “medallions”, and then further enhanced with a delicately marinade, a blend of spices, and a wrap of bacon. Finally, they were grilled over an open wood flame to bring out the peak flavor. These small steaks were then made available in either rare, medium, or well-done portions.
Fresh grilled vegetables, Kaiser rolls, and assorted garnishes were also provides.
The cafeteria opened, the staff watched, hoping for some appreciation from the student body for the effort and expense. And the first bricks came stampeding in, with a hunger that is difficult to accurately describe.
“Hey, look!” the leader of the slavering pack shouted. “Bacon burgers! All right, I’ll take ten to start with. Where’s the mayo? You got, like, chips or fries to go with these things?”
The staff, many of whom had left lucrative positions in five-star restaurants, quietly consoled each other. The tears would be shed in private. After all, one did not show weakness in the face of the enemy.
“Wow,” Hank said. “From what some of the guys said, I thought these were just burgers or something. But they’re actually little mini-steaks!”
“They’re called filet mignon,” Ayla said, acerbically. She took a delicate bite. “Not a bad job, either. You’d pay forty to fifty bucks for a cut like this in a good restaurant.” She looked critically at Hank’s plate. “Of course, if you’re going to order them eight at a time, the cost runs up pretty quick.”
He shrugged. “I worked up an appetite sparring full out against Jinn. Hey, look, bite-size!” With that, he managed to stuff an entire ‘mini-steak’ into his mouth and, with some difficulty, chew.
“That’s just disgusting,” Jamie said.
Toni nodded. “You notice that he did it before Lily got to the table?”
Nikki was looking at Ayla. “You pay fifty bucks for filet mignon? Where? I’ve seen it for twenty, sometimes even less.”
“Not at the best restaurants.”
“Oh, right. Forgot about the whole Goodkind thing. Money wasn’t a big concern of yours, was it?”
Toni turned to Jade. “You were sparring with Hank? Uh, how’d it go?”
“Not me, Jinn,” the smallest girl insisted. “It went okay, I guess. She lasted a couple of minutes against him and actually managed to slow him down once or twice. But… it turned out he was just goofing around.”
Jade reached over and dropped a small black rod of metal in front of Toni. It was a little thicker than a pencil, and about half as long. The two ends were cut at angles, not square, but the cuts were clean and almost mirror-smooth.
“What’s this?” Toni asked, turning it over carefully.
“You know those metallic bones that Jinn has? That’s from her arm.”
Toni looked at Hank with a bit more respect. “You sly dog! You’ve been holding back on us.”
He grinned sheepishly. “Hopefully, it will be just as much of a surprise to my opponent during the test. But it was nice to be able to really cut loose.”
“So to speak,” Jade muttered.
Lily set her tray down next to Hank’s, and reached forward to touch the glowing crystal hanging from the condiment rack. “Did I miss anything?”
“Naw,” Jamie said. “Just discussions of the price of meat, and Hank’s obscure reference to new combat techniques.”
“The price of meat?” Lily looked toward Hank, who was stacking filet mignon medallions on a Kaiser roll, making a super-expensive triple-layer burger. “Oh, got it. Eat civilized, Hank. Just because you are a brick doesn’t mean you have to act like one.”
He pointed across the table. “Why are you bothering me? Tennyo’s worse!”
Billie had concluded that she couldn’t fit two steaks in her mouth at once. The attempt itself was bad enough. Backing out of the untenable position was even worse. To distract the table from the disgusting pieces of half-eaten meat that she placed back on her plate, she quickly turned to Jade.
“So, uh, how’d the big date go?” At least, that’s what they thought she was saying.
Jade chewed delicately on her steak. “Well, it turned out to be not quite a date. He found me a new doctor.”
“Sure,” Toni quipped. “That’s romantic.”
Nikki smacked her roommate with the back of her hand. “Be nice!”
“Well, really, what kind of guy picks up a girl on a date and takes her to the doctor? Unless he’s got some freaky-weird medical condition we ought to know about?”
“I’m the one with the weird medical condition,” Jade said, quietly.
“So… uh… how’d it go?” Billie asked delicately.
“Well, Thuban had a really big success once before.” Her voice wasn’t wistful, just factual. “So I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. I don’t know about the new doctor, but his ideas certainly sound good. And Traekham didn’t do much for me. It’s probably just as well that he dumped me.”
By this point, everyone was burning with curiosity. Ayla finally gave in and asked the big question. “So, if it’s not too personal, what’s his plan?”
Jade pulled up the long, loose sleeves and displayed the inside of her arms. Toni and Nikki coughed; Hank actually started to choke and Lily began to pound him on the back.
“He calls it the ‘engineering approach’ – finding out what sort of techniques will and won’t work with my body.”
“Doesn’t that hurt?” Ayla wondered.
“Not really. Does an earring hurt?”
“A belly-button ring is probably a better example,” Nikki offered. “And I was kinda freaked the first time I saw one of those.”
“What has he done to you?” Toni leaned in for a better look.
“Well, there piercings, implants, grafts, tattoos… Over here he’s kind of playing with the skin.”
“Ah!” Nikki said in comprehension. “Implants. Yeah, I get it. That’s not a bad idea. If you can’t get everything you want in one fell swoop, at least you can get most of the way there and be a bit happier about your life.”
“Hmmm, implants.” Toni considered this. “You wouldn’t be restricted to ‘natural’ developments. You wouldn’t be tempted to – how to put it – go a little crazy, or anything, would you?”
Jade finally grinned a little. “After the problems at Faction Three? No thanks. I’ve done my time as the biggest girl on campus, thank you very much. No, Jinn has the proportions I’m supposed to have. If I can end up something like that, I’ll be happy.”
“Good,” Lily said firmly. “It’s nice knowing a few other girls who aren’t…” She trailed off as she tried to figure out how to word things politely.
“Stacked like Hollywood supermodels?” Toni offered. “Top heavy? Looking like success advertisements for a silicon infomercial?”
Sara arrived with a closed box.
Billie peaked into the box and commented, “More rats? I’m surprised that health regulations allow those into a food-prep area.”
Sara stuck her arm into the box up to her elbow. “I’d be surprised if the health inspectors had ever been to Whateley. But the rats aren’t as bad as you make them sound. The staff knows I won’t let them escape, and it’s not like I can catch anything from them. Now that they’re live-trapping their vermin, they have to have some way to get rid of them. This is just simple efficiency.”
“The words sound fine,” Lily commented, “but do I detect a bitter tone? I know that I’d be pissed if the bricks were getting filet mignon, while they served me a box of mangy rats.”
Sara shrugged. “Actually, rats are fairly interesting, particularly the ‘wild’ ones like these. Though you do raise an interesting point.”
“She does?” Nikki wondered.
“Just that the cooks work so hard preparing the main meal. For me, they throw some vermin in a box. What would a proper chef be doing to prepare my meal to the same standards? There must be something. Maybe I’ll have to ask Daddy.”
Nikki glared at Lily. “Thank you sooo much. I’ll probably have nightmares tonight.”
Billie turned back toward Jade, to continue with the earlier discussion. “So your new doctor is actually in Berlin? Is that okay with the school?”
Jade answered around the meat she was chewing. “Yeah, Stephen got it all cleared. Some sort of special deal between Whateley and the private company where this guy works.”
“Ooo! She called him Stephen!” Toni coo’ed.
“Who?” Sara wasn’t quite up to speed.
“Thuban,” Toni whispered.
Billie was still worried. “But your arms – that’s got to hurt. Are you going to be doing much more like that?”
Showing her arms to Sara, Jade admitted, “I got the impression I’d be doing a lot more like this. He wants to get a lot of readings on my regeneration.”
“I’m not sure I like that,” her roommate decided.
“If you want to complain, you’re in luck,” Jade said. “Both Thuban and the doc want to talk about it. Are you free tonight? They want to have a meeting with you and me and a couple of the other people involved in this.”
“ ‘Involved?’ I don’t know about that.” Billie scowled. “I mean, I’m worried about you, but isn’t this really between you and your doctor?”
Jade shrugged. “Just come to the meeting. Thuban said you needed to be there.”
“For all that I’m a brick,” Hank said, “I can’t imagine having that done to my arms. Doesn’t it hurt like hell?”
“The truth comes out!” Lily said. “I can see the headlines: ‘Big, tough brick afraid of pain! Passes out during ear piercing!’ ”
“The whole point of my force field is to stop damage before it penetrates my skin! Besides, look at her arms! That’s more than a little ear piercing.”
Jade held out her arms again. “It wasn’t so bad. There was this spray-on stuff that made everything cool and numb.”
Sara narrowed her eyes slightly. “But if you’re a regenerator, I’m guessing you adapt to poisons and anesthetics pretty fast.”
“Well… it was starting to wear off toward the end. But if I need to, I’ve been learning some self-hypnosis techniques.”
Sara looked more concerned upon hearing that. “Hypnosis, even self-hypnosis, is crude. It might be okay for the occasional crisis, but I wouldn’t rely on it.”
“Really?” This was the first Jade had heard about anything like that. “What’s wrong with it?”
Sara stroked her white chin, thinking of how to explain it. “Hypnosis is… it’s like one part of the mind grabbing the switchboard and just jumbling the plugs up. That’s not quite it, but it’s the best I can come up with on the spur of the moment. All the energy is still flowing, but it’s been diverted who-knows-where. All that pain is still flowing into your brain, but now it’s bottled up and hidden somewhere random. A couple of times is okay, but if you do it too much you’re just begging for decades and decades of therapy.”
“So what am I supposed to do?”
“Meditation. It takes longer to learn, but is a much better way to cope with pain. It’s good for other things, too – psychic shielding, martial arts, personal development.”
“’s true,” Toni agreed. “I’ve only scratched the surface with meditation, but I can watch people, like Ito-sensei, who are experts. It really smoothes the ki flows. Builds ki, too.”
“So I should ask Ito-sensei?”
“Doesn’t Chou meditate?” Nikki asked.
“She needs to meditate,” Lily decided “after the way she took Sharisha apart. It’s not that I can’t sympathize, but wow.”
Toni nodded. “She’s just started the meditation, but she’s already pretty good. I mean, you can see it in her ki. You want to know who’s killer, though? Chou’s new teacher – Rebecca. That woman lights up when she meditates. I mean, there’s like a physical glow around her. Man, if I had half the ki she does, I swear, I could take out Champion!”
“So,” Sara concluded, “that’s three good suggestions for meditation teachers. If you’re going to be coping with pain or stress very much, I think you should get on it as soon as possible. Hypnosis may seem to work, but it’s really just meddling, in the most random and uncontrolled way. Meditation, though, not only helps with the main problem, but it helps clean the whole system.”
“Great analogy,” Nikki chided. “You been watching advertisements much?”
“Watch it, elf queen. I eat your kind for lunch.”
Nikki licked her lips, slowly and sensually. “Mmm mmm. Filet of Old One. Sooo satisfying. I’ll take the tenderloin.”
“Don’t ask for it, if you can’t finish it.”
“Oh, I can be full and finished while you’re left gasping at the start.”
“Care to put your honey where your mouth is?”
“Uh… guys?” Lily interrupted. “Honestly, you two! I can never quite tell whether you’re making out or getting ready to call down Armageddon.”
“There’s a difference?” Sara asked, apparently sincere.
Lily just glared at her. “You lover must be either very dangerous, or very confused.”
“Hmmm,” Sara mused, apparently serious. “Now that you mention it, most of them are both.”
After dinner, Jade summoned up a fresh copy of Jinn to head back to Poe with the crew, while she and Billie broke off so they could attend Thuban’s discussion in The Underground.
“So what’s this meeting about?” Billie asked. “Weren’t you with Thuban most of the day? How come he wants to see us tonight?”
“I’m not sure,” Jade admitted. “But we went to a new medical facility in town. I mean, brand-new. They’re still doing construction. Oh, and the doctor’s an alumnus. Whateley ’83. He was a bio-devisor guy.”
They took the elevator down to the underground. On the way, they met another group, a trio of devisors that Jade knew well – the porcupine-haired Raphael Eagan, the large form of Knick-knack (who was walking with a pronounced limp), and the girl prodigy and part-time Spy Kid, Kew.
Jade felt an immediate burst of hope. “Was there a breakthrough with the BIT-slicer? Are we ready for another try?”
Knick-knack shook his head, sending his long locks flying. “No. I’m as puzzled by this as you are.”
Together, the mystified group of five headed to the locked room that had been reconditioned and set aside for the Faction Three meetings. Thuban met them outside and ushered them in, then locked the door behind himself.
“What’s this about?” Knick-knack demanded. “I have projects to work on…”
Thuban gave a smile of genuine pleasure. “Give me one hour, Jean-Paul. If you regret the time afterward, I’ll try to compensate you.” He gestured for them to precede him into the room.
Ahead of them, Jade saw that the meeting room had been reconfigured. The lights were down. Instead of the normal lighting, a large circular table had been placed in the exact center of the room, with a ring of spotlights focused down on it. Waiting at the table were Thuban’s roommate, and the doctor she’d met in Berlin.
Eagan was the first to recognize the man. He actually gasped in astonishment. “Is that—?”
The doctor stepped forward to shake his hand. “Dr. Igor Gellmar, at your service.”
Knick-knack’s attitude immediately changed. “What an unexpected pleasure!”
“Yeah, so?” Jade asked, looking at Billie.
Billie cuffed her on the back of the head. “You idiot! Don’t you know anything? This is the guy that cured the common cold!”
“Oh, him!” She wondered why a major scientific celebrity had been examining her.
“I didn’t cure the cold,” Dr. Gellmar corrected. “My formula Sneezix merely eliminates all major symptoms of nasopharyngitis. Of course, that was before we had the so-called ‘mutant flu.’ ”
“Same diff,” Kew said, taking a seat.
“Pleasant as this meeting is,” Knick-knack interjected, “what brings you here? And why talk to us? None of us specialize in biology.”
Tennyo made a quiet cough, but didn’t say anything so everyone ignored her.
Gellmar steepled his fingers. “I am here because of an offer that I recently received.” His eyes flicked toward Thuban briefly. “If successful, it will definitely, positively, absolutely clinch the Nobel Prize for me. Mutant or not. And for the rest of you… well, if we succeed, you’ll all be richer than rich.”
That brought the entire group to absolute silence and complete attention. Gellmar took advantage of the moment to pick a small remote control off the table. He clicked it on, and the large movie screen at the front of the room flashed to life. On it was a film of the BIT-slicer, as it spun two figures through a corona of crackling blue energy.
“A few weeks ago, you all took part in a small experiment. Ultimately, you did not achieve your main goal. What you did achieve was something that will be far more important, in the eyes of society. You achieved an accident. A magnificent, unplanned, unanticipated accident.”
“But…” Jade said it quietly. “it didn’t work. I went back to normal.” There were nods around the table.
“No you didn’t!” Gellmar’s voice rang out like a gong. “You weren’t exactly the same, were you?”
“She regenerates now,” Billie realized. “Which is cool, but … I don’t get it. There are enough other regenerators out there. Heck, I regenerate.”
“So you do,” Gellmar agreed. “And classifying you as a simple regenerator is an absurdity of the highest order.”
Tennyo blushed and quieted. Dr. Gellmar nodded and turned back to some equipment on a table. He played with the control for a moment, and the magnified image of a cell nucleus appeared, showing the chromosomes lined up in neat order like a row of little X’s, ready for division.
“This, Miss Wilson, is an ordinary cell. I’ll return to it later.”
He clicked the control. What appeared next was different enough that it took a moment to recognize that this, too, was a cell. But the main body of the cell was different somehow. And the chromosomes were lined up, but instead of being X’s they looked more like O’s.
“This is one of your cells, Miss Wilson. At least, as of six weeks ago. I’m told that they have altered further since then. You will notice additional organelles in the cell body. And the chromosomes – I use that term for want of a better one – are still recognizable, although they are assuming a ring shape. The scientists who have been working with you are puzzled by this, but they note that the cellular repair mechanisms are amazingly advanced. What a human would consider ‘hard radiation’ hardly bothers your cells. But perhaps that has become something of a necessary survival trait for you, considering that many of the cells actually seem to hold bits of antimatter – inside the cells themselves. Neither the biologists nor the physicists understand that one. Some of them have concluded that you have the worst case of GSD on campus, but it’s entirely on the cellular level.”
Billie blinked in astonishment at the picture, but said nothing.
“In any case, interesting as the cells are, they don’t have much to teach us. Or rather, they’d have an amazing amount to teach us, if the science wasn’t a million years beyond us. At the moment, your investigators aren’t even sure what questions to ask. You are what we in the business call ‘an enigma.’ ”
Everyone except for Jade and Thuban give Billie a very cautious look. Thuban had heard the data before, and refrained, while Jade just took it as more proof of her oneesan’s superiority.
“Given the essentially alien nature of Miss Wilson’s biology, only a fool would attempt to imprint such a pattern over a relatively normal human – or mutant.” The other devisors shifted uncomfortably. “However, and here’s the first part of the miracle, it worked. How and why are still mysteries, but it worked.”
“Only temporarily,” Jade said in disgust.
“Yes. You suffered a spontaneous, mysterious, inexplicable reversion.”
“Not entirely inexplicable,” Knick-knack pointed out. “We’ve seen the same thing with other shifters.”
“Yes, yes.” Gellmar waved aside the argument. “And in the middle of the reversion, Miss Sinclair was wise enough to collect cell samples of the reversion in progress, and pass them on to Mr. Lee and his roommate.” He glanced over at Thuban.
“So that’s where your amateur surgery ended up,” Billie whispered.
“I was trying to make a point,” Jade quietly replied.
Gellmar continued. “The … er … tissue samples showed an amazing sequence of changes occurring at the genetic level.” He clicked the control again. The first cells showed DNA strands curled into shapes like the letter “C”, obviously in partial mimicry of the cells taken from Miss Wilson. As the sequence of images progressed, the cells showed changes bringing them closer and closer to a normal appearance.
“This is even more interesting if we do a full genetic map,” Dr. Gellmar said, “and compare it against Miss Sinclair’s current genetic map.”
Eagan choked at that. “A full genetic map? The cost! The expense! The time!”
“Nothing, compared to what we stand to gain! Now look. Here is a map of the most ‘advanced’ cell. Let me highlight changes as we sample different cells in the preserved tissue sample.”
A strange pattern appeared on the screen, something like a bar code. Jade assumed that it had some meaning to biologists or geneticists, but to her it was nothing more than a complicated pattern. As the doctor clicked his control, portions of the map were highlighted in color and changed. She was watching mutation occur before her eyes, as her genetic code reverted back to normal. It was a bit sad, as she was reminded again of how happy she’d been being truly female.
Tennyo muttered, “Wow! I wish I had access to this kind of equipment.” Jade’s quick glance in her direction showed Tennyo with a rapt look of attention at what was being shown.
“And here is the final change, as the X chromosome reverts spontaneously to a Y.”
“Very interesting, I’m sure,” Knick-knack agreed. “I’m sure those maps took quite a bit of funding. I’m skeptical that they’re Nobel Prize material though, not in their present state. The do present some interesting insights into how the BIT-slicer works, and how complete its changes can be—”
“You don’t get it, do you?” Gellmar interrupted.
“It took all my prestige and influence to pry even one cell of Miss Wilson away from your science staff here at the academy. Fortunately, I have prestige to burn. And fortunately, it is routine to collect samples from all the students shortly after admission. I was also able to obtain such a sample from Miss Sinclair.” He clicked the control and a new bar code pattern appeared on the screen. “The ‘normal’ cell I showed earlier. Obtaining this was made even easier since her current doctor has dropped her case as ‘hopeless.’ ” He paused to chuckle to himself. “I am now her doctor of record. Whateley Academy happily handed me the single most valuable cell samples on the entire planet.”
Staring at the bar code image, Knick-knacks eyes suddenly opened wide in realization.
“He gets it. Do the rest of you?”
Kew shook her head. “Biology isn’t my strong suit. Tell us.”
Gellmar clicked the control. “Miss Sinclair’s genetic map, as of today.” He clicked again. “Her genetic map, as of September, when she entered school.” He clicked a third time. “The difference between the two.”
The bar code now showed several areas highlighted in green. Another click brought in annotations, pointing to particular areas of the bar code pattern. The labels made little sense to Jade, being phrases such as “telomerase re-initialization” and “stem cell reversion.”
“But now she regenerates!” Eagan shouted out.
“Exactly! What we have here is an exact map of the genetic changes needed to activate human regeneration! And not just any regeneration – we’re talking regen-five, capable of repairing spinal cord injuries, regrowing lost limbs, even renewing damaged brain structures! And for the first time in history, we have an exact genetic blueprint on how to do it!”
Thuban allowed the realization to wash over the audience. There was total silence for several seconds, as the group digested the implications. Thuban pulled out his own controller and clicked the picture forward. Now the large screen showed the exterior of the medical building in Berlin, with the logo out front reading “Bio-regenetics.”
“Recognizing the opportunity,” the lizard-man said, in far too calm a voice, “I immediately began to liquidate the majority of my personal assets, and moved on to call in family markers. Bio-regenetics is a Delaware corporation, with the trademark currently in process for international ownership. Since all of you have had a place in the accident that eventually lead to this happy discovery, it seemed appropriate to deal you in for shares. Of the initial one million shares that constitute total ownership of the company, the five of you will receive two point five percent, or twenty five thousand shares each. My roommate will receive one-half percent, for crucial observations he made, and Dr. Gellmar will receive ten percent in exchange for his work during the coming forty-eight months. Whateley regulations require one percent interest in any corporation founded by students, but in return we gain a variety of benefits including relaxed class schedules in regard to corporate activities, access to some facilities and equipment, and certain consultations. For my part in sponsoring and funding the BIT-slicer as well as funding the creation of Bio-regenetics to the tune of 73 million dollars, my family and I will receive 40 percent ownership. This leaves 36 percent or 360,000 shares available for raising further capital. I would suggest that further work in advancing the project, such as your continued volunteering as a test subject, Jade, would be rewarded with additional stock grants. Assistance in creating medical instrumentation,” he focused his eyes on the devisors “would naturally result in similar payments of unallocated stock, provided that patent rights to those devices are granted to the corporation.”
Thuban folded his hands and looked around the table. “I intend to keep this venture quiet for as long as humanly possible. Based on the current working capital, you have all just become modestly rich. With capitol of 73 million implying a share price of $73 per share, that would make your individual grants theoretically worth a bit over one point eight million. On paper at least, since the money is actually needed for R&D. I’m going to request that none of us actually sells any stock until it becomes absolutely necessary. And remember, if you can wait, if we can make this work, the implications are immense.” He stared at Dr. Gellmar. “A Nobel Prize, assuredly.” He stared at Billie. “A better understanding of your own genetics and biology,” turning to Jade, “and insights and perhaps a genuine cure for some of us.” Lastly he faced the three devisors. “And more bloody loot than you’ve ever dreamed of in your entire life.”
Jade and Billie were both more than a little loopy as they meandered back to Poe. By herself, Jade might have felt some concern, late at night on a dark campus where she’d been attacked more than once by enemies determined to kill her. But with Jamie the SpySpeck running high surveillance and Billie at her side, she felt no concern at all.
“Rich,” Billie kept repeating over and over. “Unbelievably rich.”
“Yeah, but not for years,” Jade pointed out. “Who knows how long it will take to turn it into something useful. I sure don’t. I wonder if Thuban expects us to add money to the thing? ‘Cause if so, we’d be even poorer, while we waited for it to pay off.”
“Didn’t you hear the man? He put in 73 million dollars! All the money you and I could earn together wouldn’t come anywhere near that.” Billie looked up in realization. “Oh oh.”
“Well, imagine the time when this goes public, but before the cash rolls in.”
“Well, we won’t be able to buy armored cars or castles or whatever. Not yet. But we will be rich on paper. That makes us a pair of giant targets.”
Jade thought a bit. “Might be worse than that. The source of this breakthrough is, face it, you and me. So if there are any competitors out there…”
Billie winced. “We’re their only shortcut to getting a jump on the technology.” She groaned. “Great. As if being kidnapped wasn’t bad enough, we’ll have to worry about being kidnapped for use in evil medical experiments.”
“But if they can make it work, think what it could mean!”
Billie flung out her arms and spun, lifting a few feet off the ground. “No kidding! They mentioned missing limbs, spinal cord injuries, and brain damage. And that’s probably just scratching the surface!”
Jade snickered. “We’ll do so much good that we’ll make Adam Ironknife look like a black-hearted scoundrel!”
Billie laughed. “Yeah, I can see it. Hey Adam! I helped invent—”
“Don’t say it out loud!”
“Oh yeah. ‘Hey Adam! I helped invent –you know—! What the heck have you done lately?’ That’d get him!”
In the middle of the night, Billie rolled over. As always, one of the Jade-lings was working on homework.
“An island,” Billie muttered.
The pencil picked up from the page and pointed at her, as if in inquiry.
“Buy my own island. Really nice one, too.” And Billie fell back asleep.
Sunday morning was Billie’s day to sleep in. So it was more than a little irritating to wake up at any time earlier than noon. In this case, the wake-up call came in the form of the super-villain-esque chortling that was quietly coming from her roommate’s closed mouth.
Billie levered herself wearily up on one elbow and peered around muzzily, finally focusing on the diminutive girl sitting at her desk, manipulating something on the laptop, and periodically chortling.
“What’s so funny?”
Jade looked up, and Billie could tell right off that there was trouble ahead. The manic gleam in the smaller girl’s eye, the slight ‘I’m not nervous’ twitch, the strained smile. Unless she could head it off, it was going to be one of those days.
“Funny? No, nothing’s funny. Go back to sleep!”
“Too late for that. What are you looking at?”
“Let me see!”
Billie hadn’t actually gotten up, but she had glided forward out of bed. Jade seemed reluctant to show her the screen, but finally gave in and turned the computer around.
“Sin d’Rome’s Mercenary Emporium? All your military hardware needs, under one roof,” Billie read, with dawning incredulity. “What is this stuff? Tripod-mounted Gatling laser? Nerve gas grenades?” Her voice rose in alarm. “What the heck is a napalm moat?”
Jade nervously twiddled her fingers as she spoke. “Well, we’re going to be rich, right?”
“Maybe. Some day. Not today.”
“…and we can’t get rich, unless I’m around for Dr. Igor to play mad scientist on, right? And he’s got all that money from the investments and stuff, and it won’t do him any good at all if I get killed during finals, so I thought maybe he might make a loan, and I could use the extra cash to maybe buy some stuff that could help out just a little.”
Billie pinched the bridge of her nose. “Look, I don’t think you’re allowed to haul in random junk off the street. This is supposed to be a test of your abilities and training. Yours! Not some pile of lethal junk you bought from some ‘mercenary emporium.’ Where did you even hear about this place, anyway?”
“Devisors. They said that some of the best stuff from last year’s test came from this guy ‘Sin.’ ”
Billie gulped. “You mean, people really did use this junk in a test?”
“To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure whether it was everyone, or just the seniors.”
“Well sh…oot. Look, give me a couple of hours to check into this. It can’t possibly be as bad as it sounds. I mean, I hope it’s not as bad as it sounds. Anyway, why don’t you go do something innocent and happy or something? Something that doesn’t in any way involve nerve gas. I’ll check up on the details about the test and get back to you, okay?”
“But I was just getting into the napalm-based ground interdiction system! What am I supposed to do now?”
“Don’t ask me! Go investigate meditation or something! Sheesh, it’s too early for this. I haven’t even had breakfast yet.”
Jade went looking for Chou’s mentor, branching out in three directions at once. She sent spy-specks flying off across campus, while she went to talk to Chou in person. Before she could even knock on the corner-room door, memories flashed back to her. One spec had spotted the woman (already!) strolling along the perimeter path around campus.
Jade slipped on a jacket and hurried out.
“Miss Stone? Can I talk to you?”
The woman smiled amiably and gestured to the path in front of her. “Be my guest. Do you mind if we continue to walk? I’m finding this simply fascinating.”
Jade looked around. The perimeter trail meandered a little, but it generally stayed just inside the low stone wall that ringed the campus. That wall was only four feet high – even someone her size could see or climb over it. The rough chunks of granite in mortar were kind of interesting, she supposed, but nothing she’d describe as ‘fascinating.’ Likewise, the forest around them was pretty sparse looking, with the leaves off all the trees.
The older woman strolled in comfortable silence, walking at a pleasant pace and making room for Jade beside her. It was more than just moving to the side on the path. There was a social and psychological feel to it. Miss Stone had made a space for her to be in, a comfortable and accepting place to walk by her side. Jade did so for a minute or two, enjoying the walk but not quite understanding whatever it was the Rebecca Stone was observing.
Finally, she broached her main topic. “So… I need to learn meditation, and I was wondering if you’d be able to teach me.”
The brunette smiled down at her. “You need to learn meditation. That’s a phrase I don’t often hear.”
“Well, it’s like this…” and she proceeded to explain about the surgery she’d be undergoing, being a regenerator, anesthetics, and how she’d been advised against using hypnosis.
“I can’t say I know much about this hypnosis stuff,” Miss Stone said, “but it was probably good advice to avoid relying on it. Hmmm, meditation as a form of pain relief. Or really, more of a combination of avoidance and acceptance, since you’d still experience pain, but the meditation would help to make that pain less important.” She walked a bit, and considered. “And here I was all set to refuse you.”
“Refuse me? Why?”
“Well, I knew of course that you wanted me to teach you how to meditate. Most people who meditate do so for philosophical or religious reasons, for example, seeking enlightenment. And I was set to refuse you because clearly of all the people here,” her expansive gesture swept across the campus “you are one of the least suited for that undertaking.”
“Huh? What do you mean?” Jade wasn’t sure, but she thought she’d just been insulted.
“Simply that enlightenment requires you to rise above your needs and desires. As I walk among the students of your campus, some are serene and tranquil, while most are enmeshed in the petty desires of normal life. A few fairly burn with some deeper purpose or need. Often the Tao flows very strongly through them. I suspect many of them have great destinies ahead of them – great or terrible, I’m sometimes not sure which. What they are not suited for is a quite life where they learn to minimize their impact on the world, as they separate themselves from the wheel. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Hmmm. Let me try it this way. One of the goals of Buddhism is to eliminate suffering. In the course of this great quest, the great sages and philosophers came to describe life and the endless cycle of incarnations as a wheel. Ever changing, ever cycling, there was no escape from it. To truly move beyond the wheel, to escape from the perpetual cycle of incarnations, you need to eliminate not only suffering, but most of the joyous emotions as well. You needed to eliminate desire. All desire, including the wish to eliminate desire.”
“But – that’s a paradox, isn’t it?”
The older woman smiled gently. “It has consumed its share of philosophic debate. But my main point is not about petty, everyday desires, like food, or greed, or wanting some new electrical toy, or things like that. There are some people who have huge desires, all-consuming needs. I suspect that even the finest instructor will not be able to divorce those people from the wheel. Not in just one lifetime. And you, young lady, have not merely one such need, but two.”
“Huh? Two? What are you talking about?”
Rebecca Stone turned to look at her, with those green eyes as clear as glass. She had a fairly ordinary face and figure, with the most extraordinary eyes. Jade couldn’t help but trust the woman, even as she demanded, “What is the one thing you want, more than anything else in the world?”
Jade had told enough people by now. She didn’t stop herself from saying it to Rebecca Stone. But she couldn’t raise her voice above a whisper as she said, “To be a girl. A real girl.”
“Hmmm. Explaining the need for surgery, I suppose. But I see another connection in you as well. Tell me, your roommate—”
“That’s the one. What if you had a choice? Never mind how or why, but you have to choose. Save Billie and forever lose your chance to be a girl, or become a girl and allow Billie to die. Just hypothetically. What would you choose?”
“To save Billie, of course.” The surprise to Jade was that there was absolutely no doubt within her. Not an iota of doubt. The answer was instant and overwhelming. Billie came first. Internally, she weighed the same question with her other friends. Always she came back with an iffy sort of fudging answer that said, ‘Well, it depends on the circumstances…’ It would be hard to tell. She thought that she’d do the right thing, but she might waver, and there would naturally be endless regrets later, no matter what happened. But the case with Billie was different. No hesitation, no regrets afterward. Everything else paled beside the thought that there might be a threat to Billie.
“Wow. You’re right. And I hadn’t even realized it.”
“Interesting. Tell me, have you been through any weird ceremonies? Did she have you recite any strange words or incantations?”
“Billie? Naw, not the type. That’s Sara or Nikki. Sara was almost sacrificed to Hell, but the demon that showed up turned out to be her dad. I did get into a spell to help a friend out. It was a witch I didn’t really trust, named Hekate, and she summoned a demon that almost got me. Billie rescued me from that, though I’m still not sure exactly how. She was pretty angry that I’d put myself in danger like that. Is that the sort of thing that you’re talking about?”
Miss Stone seemed a bit taken aback. “Maybe. Perhaps I’ll look into things. In any case, I’m afraid you’re not the best candidate for enlightenment, so I planned to refuse to teach you meditation. A waste of time, an exercise in frustration, and a recipe for grief all around.”
The older woman sighed. “Sometimes the Tao is not so easy to see, even for me. I think meditation is a magnificent tool, and the world would be a better place if everyone learned it, even if not everyone will be able to find enlightenment.”
“But the flows are so confused around you and your friends. I can see why the handmaiden was drawn here so strongly.”
“So you’re going to teach me?”
With another sigh, the taller woman admitted, “I suppose so.”
“Great! When do we start?”
“Ah, the boundless energy of youth.”
As they walked, a blur came zooming past them. Jade recognized a speedster, running along the foot-wide top of the granite wall that circled Whateley. She couldn’t identity whoever it was, they were moving too fast.
“Does that sort of thing happen a lot around here?” Rebecca asked.
“Yeah, pretty much. You also have to be on guard against stuff flying through the air.”
“Yeah,” Jade explained. “You know, broken glass, bullets, frogs, shuriken – that sort of stuff. Sometimes bigger stuff, like students.”
“I see. Well, thank you for the warning.”
After a few more minutes of quiet walking, Rebecca began to speak. “I find I need to explain about meditation before I can begin describing actual techniques. There are several different types. I use three, myself. The one you might be most familiar with is meditation based on movement. That’s why Chou performs T’ai Chi Ch’uan each morning. It is a form of meditation through motion. She spoils it when she engages in teaching, but we all must sacrifice for future generations.”
“I do aikido,” Jade said. “Could I use that for meditation?”
“Perhaps. The attitude matters, but the movements themselves are also important. For martial arts I often find that the soft styles are better for gathering or growing qi, while the hard styles are better for releasing it.”
Jade nodded. “In aikido, we call them ukemi and atemi, instead of soft and hard. I usually like ukemi better.”
“Good. Well, you can show me a bit later, and I’ll advise you with an eye toward meditation. But to continue, movement is one style of meditation. And I mentioned qi. That can also be a useful tool, in that it opens deeper truths and tools. At the same time, qi can become a trap if it tempts you to become too enamored of the physical world, or your own prowess. You can feel the Tao and walk in it even without any awareness of qi, but with more qi control, the doorway becomes wider.”
“Uh… okay, I guess.”
“The second type of meditation is still. It is what most westerners typically see as meditation – silent, still, indrawn. In Buddhist traditions, this style is ‘samatha.’ It is a concentration, a focusing of awareness, and at the same time, a sort of enforced tranquility. As a student progresses, it can be useful to challenge yourself, and test your focus against adverse circumstances such as hostile environments or pain or deprivation. Sitting under a waterfall is a bit showy, but it can be fun. Initially, samatha focuses on breathing. Once that has been mastered, you may move on to circulating the qi, which uses the same techniques. Finally, in the highest levels, these skills may be used to open perceptions and awareness, either inward or outward.
“This is the type of meditation which will help you in the surgery. It won’t eliminate pain so much as it will make you the master of your own pain. You will be able to override it with your will. Which sounds much more mystical and wonderful than it is in practice. Still, such a regimen may make you quite adept, fairly quickly.
“The last type of meditation is the most difficult to teach and learn. The Buddhists call it ‘vipassana’, and it attempts to overcome the weaknesses of the previous two techniques. Both of those can grant the most amazing abilities and insights, and thus, bind the practitioner ever tighter to the wheel. I recently heard a modern phrase that describes it well, ‘thinking outside the box.’ Vipassana attempts to get you to think in ways you never have before, to open you to insights which are unthinkable and unimaginable. My personal favorite technique involves meditating upon a gong-an, or a koan, as they call them in Japan. The benefits are as hard to describe as the problem, but when you succeed, it is as if you, the ‘I’, the self – it seems to vanish, leaving you trembling with the most amazing insights as if you were looking into reality from outside. The more practiced you are, the longer these insights can last.” She gave a wry smile. “Unfortunately, the understanding you gain usually has little utility for solving problems in this mire we call reality, but at the same time, it is more important than almost anything else in your life.”
“Uh, okay. Maybe I can save that one for last.”
Rebecca gave a small secret smile, but said nothing.
“So, when do we start?”
“We already have. But perhaps you could show me some of these aikido moves you were bragging about?”
One of the best things about being Jinn was that she could follow Billie’s suggestion, and do her own work, too. So while Billie was in the cafeteria, her toy cabbit came to life and scampered over to Jade’s desk. Grabbing a pencil, she began to make notes. There was already a piece of paper with several lines on it. She crossed out “mercenary emporium” and wrote a note beside it “not enough $”. The next line held a promising lead, though, so she hopped to the phone and dialed. As the phone picked up, the cabbit held it, speaking in Jade’s voice.
“Hi, it’s Jade.”
There was a low murmur of sound from the other end.
“Oh, not much. Just thinking about combat finals, you know?”
The murmur sounded like emphatic agreement.
“So I was wondering if there was any new stuff for sale from the labs? The Jedi ever get that lightsaber project working? Oh… really? That’s too bad. What else is coming up?”
That’s when Billie came back in the room. She raised an eyebrow, seeing her stuffed animal was on the phone.
“No, I’m looking for something new, kind of a surprise for whoever I face in the finals. And not just the same old rays and explosives, either.”
Billie just closed the door quietly, and moved into the room. “It’s my own fault,” she said to herself, “for having a pet that’s a part-time interstellar battleship.”
“Jinn!” The chesty redhead gestured in to the door room. “Come into my lair!”
Jinn was dressed simply, T-shirt, jeans, and a pair of super-cheap loafers (it wasn’t like she needed durable footwear). In contrast, Demona (or ‘Dominique’ as she called herself when in human form) was a bit over-dressed for a lazy weekend. The girl started with her naturally ‘big hair,’ matching that with a sheer red top and a brown leather miniskirt. She even had on hose and heels!
“Bit overdressed for a lazy Sunday morning, aren’t you?” Jinn suddenly stopped in embarrassment. “Oh! You’re not on your way out to Church, are you?”
Dominique snorted. “Right. Like they let my kind into church.”
“From what I’ve heard it isn’t a problem. Dunwich is supposed to be pretty tolerant.”
Dominique waved a hand dismissively. “It’s just that for the last year I couldn’t dress up at all. That, and I’m trying to get used to the new me.” She stepped forward and wrapped her arm around Jinn’s waist. “But you’re right, I’m sure! This is way over-dressed! Why don’t you help me pick out a more appropriate outfit?”
“Okay, I guess. I really came over to talk about the combat finals. What are you going to do?”
Dominique sported a leer. “You want to undress my top, or my bottom?”
“Uh, the top, I guess.” Playing dress-up with Dominique was kind of fun, but she shouldn’t get distracted. “So, you have any special plans for the finals?”
“I got an exemption this semester,” Dominique revealed, as she unzipped her tight skirt. “They allow those for things like ‘major life changes’. Since I got changed at the end of November, I qualify easily. I said I was willing to take the test anyway, if I could fight in my night form, but they turned me down.”
Jinn concentrated for a moment, busy unbuttoning the other girl’s blouse. This was difficult, since the top was so tight (which was entirely due to Demona’s over-endowed figure). It was also hard to fix the blouse without at least brushing against the other girl’s breasts.
Dominique’s nipples firmed visibly under the attention. “Oh, yeah, that’s what I’m wanting!”
“Aw, quit joking,” Jinn muttered. She was pretty sure that Thuban would kill to be in her position right now. That wasn’t an image she cared to imagine, her boyfriend pawing over Dominique’s large, perfect breasts. So as soon as she was done she stepped back and returned to her main topic.
“Well, how about next semester? You’ll still have to pass daytime finals in your human form, and you don’t really have any powers like this.”
“Maybe I’ll face a guy, and then I can flash him!” Peeling off the blouse, she rolled her shoulders to induce an obvious oscillation. “What do you think of this bra? Should I go with something lower cut and maybe a bit more revealing?”
“Do they make anything lower cut?” Jinn asked in exasperation. “You’d be completely exposed in your … sensitive bits.”
“Sure they do! Here, I’ll show you!” Clad only in lingerie, Dominique turned to her dresser. “I’ll bet I have something for you to try, too!”
“Uh… why would you have anything in my size?”
“Oh, you never know when it might come in handy.”
“I really shouldn’t…”
“But you know you want to!” The now topless girl turned around. “And I want you to, too.” She handed a lacy bit of nothing to Jinn. “Here, help me put this on.”
Grumbling slightly, Jinn helped fasten the hooks in back, and at Dominique’s insistence, even helped the other girl adjust how she set inside the cups.
“You know,” Jinn realized, “I hang out with a sex demon, and even she doesn’t spend so much time getting dressed and undressed. And come to think of it, Sara and I don’t spend so much time touching each other’s … uh … areas.”
“She doesn’t need to,” Dominique explained. “She’s getting plenty of it elsewhere. You watch out for her! I’m pretty sure she goes for other girls! I wouldn’t want you to fall victim to her wiles!”
Something about the way Dominique had said that bothered Jinn, but she had to admit to the basic truths. She knew about Erin and Hippolyta. Sara took off occasionally on “consulting trips” downstate, but Jinn suspected it was really to see more lovers. Although, she had to admit, Erin and Hippy seemed pretty pleased with the whole arrangement, so who was she to comment about it? Not that she’d ever reveal any of Sara’s private life, especially to someone like Dominique, but the Dominique’s main point was obviously correct, since clearly Sara did ‘go for other girls.’
“Anyway,” Jinn tried to continue, despite some distracting thoughts and images, “we were talking about your combat trials. What are you going to do when spring rolls around?”
Dominique clutched her from behind, wrapping her arms around Jinn’s slender waist. It was more than apparent that the other girl’s uncovered nipples were pressing into her back. It would have been obvious through the thin T-shirt, but since Jinn’s sense of touch actually operated on the outside surface of the T-shirt… it was even more apparent.
“Well,” Dominique mused, “in the cartoon Demona always seemed to have big guns.”
Jinn coughed at the terrible pun.
“What was that? Never mind. Anyway, I could be pretty effective and true to the original Demona both, if I had a pair of cannons to wave around.”
Jinn tried to keep her gargling sounds from being too obvious.
“The only problem is how to hide a pair of high-caliber heaters? Especially when you know that every gunslinger around is going to have his eyes focused right on your telltale bulges. And they won’t let you use anything on the test that you don’t carry in everyday life, so I’ll have to figure out how to sling those babies. And I’ll probably end up hauling them around for the rest of my life.”
“You might consider smaller, err, weaponry,” Jinn suggested.
“Naw. Size really does matter. And if I’m going to be a battlin’ babe, I want to command respect. The kind that comes from seriously oversized equipment.”
“You got that,” Jinn muttered.
“But enough about me! We were going to find some clothes for you to try on!”
Dominique crossed her arms in front of Jinn’s waist to grab the bottom of Jinn’s T-shirt. With a pull and an uncrossing, the shirt was stripped off Jinn and over her head. Fortunately, Jinn spotted the move just in time to fill in some ‘skin.’ She barely snagged the shirt before she lost her hold and sucked it back inside her chest locker.
“Plain white? Smooth cups? You’re not going to catch Thuban’s eye with that! Now I have a bra here that’s a lot more interesting.”
Jinn looked at the lingerie with deep suspicion. “Why in the world would you have a bra in my size?”
The redhead shrugged. “I collect a lot of things. Here, let me help you put it on…”
“…but of course, all of these will take time and practice to master,” Miss Stone concluded. “So, any questions?”
“Yeah,” Jade admitted reluctantly. “You know that whole ‘immersed in the Tao’ and ‘anticipate the attack’ stuff you did with Toni-sensei?”
“Well, I’ve got combat finals coming up this week. Is there any way that I could learn some of that in time for the test?”
Rebecca Stone just sighed.
Following the instructions they’d received last week, the entire freshmen and sophomore classes gathered down in the underground. Freshmen followed sophomores, who seemed to know where they were going. Jade followed her friends, and they all followed a group of third-floor Poe girls, who headed confidently down several twists in the corridors. Finally, there was a sign on the far wall proclaiming “Arena ’99” with arrows pointing left for “Arena Floor” and right for “Seats.” They turned for the seats, heading up a small concrete staircase. Again, a sign pointed downstairs for “Arena Floor.”
The seating area was larger than she’d expected. Four rows of plastic seats wrapped more than halfway around a central arena that was the size of a football field. The seats were just contoured plastic on a concrete base, but Jade sometimes looked at things in terms of the maintenance work she’d be doing on it later. This did look fairly easy to clean. She noticed that there was space enough for three times as many people as they had. Also, some kids at the far end were moving through a door.
“Where are they going?” Toni asked.
Nearby, Jody Cooms, ‘Plastic Girl,’ turned to answer. “That’s Venus, Inc. They’ve got a private box. Along with The Alphas, the Golden Kids, the Cape Squad, and some of the other more obnoxious cliques.”
“What do you know?” Nikki said. “My high school has an arena with its own skyboxes. Is this upscale, or what?”
“The Kimba Skybox,” Toni mused, speculatively. “It has a certain ring to it.”
They all got seats along the front row, to better see the arena ahead of them. The arena itself was set up in broad concentric circles of glowing white, reminiscent of the movie Tron. The center had an electric-blue platform raised a foot above the rest of the floor. As people finished taking their seats, a lone woman walked across the arena floor, heals clicking loudly as she headed for the central dais. The well known figure of Headmistress Carson was easy to make out. She stepped up onto the platform and turned to face them at precisely 8:30.
“Force fields on,” she ordered.
The open air just ahead of the stadium seats sparkled for a moment, and suddenly the headmistress’s voice was muffled to silence. A moment later, her voice came through even more clearly, routed through overhead speakers.
“Welcome to Whateley’s Arena ’99, and the beginning of winter combat finals. For those of you who are freshmen or new to the school, we have combat finals twice a year, in the winter and in the spring. Whateley is a private school, and we’re proud of our academic and scholarly programs. Still, this school exists for one reason that rises above all others: It is a dangerous world out there. Too often, young mutants find themselves in desperate situations. Hunted by hate groups such as Humanity First, targeted for blame by ordinary citizens, perpetually under suspicion by the very law enforcement groups that should be protecting them. Obviously, the worst problems will be faced by those students who appear visibly different from the normal populace. But all of you will face this problem, even if you are not technically genetic mutants. If you don’t believe me, try reasoning with the crowd, once a lynch mob starts chasing you. If your rational explanation convinces them to change their ways, I promise to offer you a full and profound apology over what you are about to face.”
There was mild laughter at that. Jade thought it was coming mostly from the upperclassmen.
“Life is dangerous for mutants, and so Whateley’s first and foremost challenge is to train you to be equally dangerous. We offer an unparalleled series of combat training classes, starting with Beginning Martial Arts, available to all students. Depending on your grade in BMA, you may qualify for more advanced classes in later semesters. For those of you who elected to take the ordinary physical education classes – well, I wish you luck. You may need it. Whether or not you take any combat classes at Whateley, you will be required to attend the combat finals, at the end of every semester you attend this school. These tests will be intense, personal, physical, and people will get hurt. We try to make sure that no one is crippled or killed during the test, but that has occasionally happened in the past. Every semester the nature of the test changes, and the details are not announced until the morning of the first test.
“In other words, right now.”
Mrs. Carson walked off the dais, her steps clicking loudly. Behind her, the concentric circles turned black, each circle shutting down with the loud “thunk” of some massive relay jolting open. Once the entire arena was dark, her voice came from overhead once more.
“Presenting the 2006 Winter Finals, a scenario we call, ‘Doomsday Device.’ ”
The light faded on again, and ahead of them was a mid-sized city. The buildings were two and three stories tall, the streets were two lanes wide. There was sparse traffic and groups of pedestrians traveling between the buildings of this shopping district. It seemed like a small city from anywhere in the Midwest. In the distance, skyscrapers could be seen in one direction. In the other direction, the city eventually gave way to fields of grain. The time seemed to be early in the morning, judging from the sun, and the fact that traffic was light.
Suddenly, a pillar of light blossomed, somewhere near where Mrs. Carson had stood on the dais. A bulbous, alien device appeared, glowing with purple and green energies. It was shaped like a ten-foot-high spool of thread, topped with a Kremlin-style onion dome. The entire shell of the device was partially transparent, and weird mechanisms could be seen rotating inside.
Mrs. Carson’s voice came up again. “In the center of the stage, you can see the ‘spindle device.’ We can’t tell you what it is or what it is for. Perhaps aliens have sent it to disintegrate the entire city. Perhaps you created it, to tap into the town’s computers and drain the city’s electronic funds. Perhaps it projects mind-control rays, or healing beams. The exact motivation is for you to decide. All you really need to know is that it has a keypad. Enter your student ID number, and type answers to the questions that will be printed and spoken. This should take exactly 30 seconds of uninterrupted concentration. At the end of that time, you win. You save the city, steal the bank funds, control the populace, or accomplish whatever other goal you set for yourself. You win.
“However, you should know that there will be at least two students for every run. By entering your code, by taking the win for yourself, you have also ensured that they lose. This test accounts for 30% of your class grade. Your teacher and several other experts will be judging your performance based against what we judge your potential to be. A sloppy win against a weaker foe may result in a failing grade. A close, clever loss against a stronger opponent might grant an A or a B.
“Last of all, you should know that in most cases, students are being paired up at random. This is to keep you on your toes. As with the real world, we want to prepare you to face any danger at any time. Due to the unusually large freshman class this year, we have 327 freshmen and sophomores. They will be paired at random for combat, and each combat should last an average of 15 minutes, including preparation time and clean-up. We expect the tests to run about 41 hours in total, which is why we have reserved the entire week for this. For those that are not called up for these first tests, you may wish to employ your time considering strategy and tactics. For those who have finished and survived their tests, you may leave, and do whatever you want with the rest of the week. Of course,” you could hear the humor in her voice “many students choose to stay and watch, since odds are, you’ll be facing these people again, in school or elsewhere.”
Jade noticed the students around her laughing at that, although some of the laughter had a tinge of bitterness to it.
“With that, I conclude the introductory briefing, and turn the tests over to Sensei Tatsuo Ito, head of Beginning Martial Arts.”
The city froze – every car halted, every pedestrian stopped in mid-stride. Sensei Ito walked into this stilled scene and turned to face them. “Some of you didn’t take martial arts, did you? Too bad! Now you are paying for your lack of preparation! My tears flow, but not so much as they flow when you are shot and killed by a mob of angry vigilantes!
“Those of you who were wise enough to take my class were briefed on the rules last Friday. No killing moves, no moves that will cripple or maim. You must begin in your normal street clothes, and you may bring with you anything that you normally carry on a regular day. The judges will know! You get extra credit for changing into your costume, if you have one. Credit is deducted for each bystander civilian who is injured by you. Double extra credit for saving bystanders endangered by your opponent. But do not let that distract you from the win! When the bomb blows up, where will the bystanders be then, eh?”
The diminutive instructor clapped his hands together. “Enough talk. First match. Kismet, vs. Charmer.”
In the air above the city, a 10-foot-tall image of Kismet appeared, a willowy blonde. An oversized MID card appeared in the air beside her:
|Ratings::||Warper – 3, Manifestor – 3, Esper – 2, Psi – 1, Martial arts – basic|
|Techniques:||Probability flux, Teleport, Mystic flame, Energy shackles|
|Weak vs.:||Strength, Speed, Flight, Psychic, Magic|
|Backup/Team affiliation:||Euro-promotional League|
Seeing the MID, Jade just about choked. “You’re kidding me! Look at all that! She can teleport? Shoot flames? How the heck am I supposed to fight energy shackles?”
“It’s not quite as bad as it looks,” Toni said. “I think she gave away too much on her MID interview. She’s not that good at most of it. I fought her, uh… twice. Beat her both times. If you can, make her teleport. Not only is she woozy, but her luck goes haywire just afterward. That’s when you hit her. You’ll either slip on a random banana peel, or knock her out in a lucky punch.”
“She’s not that good with the flames or energy bands, either,” Billie said. “If you’re tough enough, you can bust right through ‘em.”
“Oh, great!” Jade muttered sarcastically. “If you’re tough enough.”
Now Charmer’s image came up, a younger, shorter girl with violet eyes and wavy black hair. Her MID appeared next to her:
|Ratings::||Mage – 5|
|Techniques:||Blitz blast, Shield of Simeon , Rings of Rangoon, Golem Charm, Barricade Charm|
|Weak vs.:||Undead, Psychic, Endurance / long combat|
|Backup/Team affiliation:||Euro-promotional League|
“Ooo, tough one,” Nikki commented.
“Why? What’s up?” Toni wanted to know.
The elf explained. “I don’t know Kismet, but I’ve done a bit with Charmer. She’s just a freshman and she’s almost completely specialized into summoning, but she’s really great at her specialty. She’s got a collection of spells that she can call up like that!” Nikki snapped her fingers. “And worst of all, I know she’s pretty close to Kismet. They’re always hanging out.”
“Euro-promotional League?” Chou asked. “Is that…?”
“Uh huh,” Toni confirmed. “The Beret Mafia.”
“Odd thing is,” Nikki continued, “I know that Charmer was working on a ‘Dancing Sword’ charm. And I know she mastered it about two weeks ago. But I don’t see it there on her card.”
“Well, that’s the thing, isn’t it?” Sara commented quietly from behind them. “That card is your MID, directly out of the MCO’s database. You want as few details there as possible, don’t you?”
As everyone was talking, Jade noticed the two girls had gotten up and moved down the stairs in the direction of the arena floor. Shortly after that, Charmer’s card and image changed. The image morphed up to a tall, blond, blue-eyed guy, who was rather muscular. Then it changed to a short dark-haired boy, then to an image of Nikki for a moment, then back to the blond boy, then to another figure.
“Hey!” Nikki shouted.
The card also changed:
|Ratings::||Shapeshifter – 4, Martial arts – basic|
|Weak vs.:||Normal human vulnerabilities|
“Now that just sucks,” Toni grumped. “Remind me never to be the first victim up.”
“Are they allowed to do that?” Chou wondered, in alarm.
“Obviously,” Sara said. “I almost feel sorry for poor Kismet down there. She’ll think she’s facing her friend.”
“But if they hadn’t done it like this,” Nikki said, thinking it out, “then Bogus would have been useless. Have you seen the guy? Sure, he’s got shapeshifting, but he’s only good at copying other people. He doesn’t have any special attacks or abilities.”
Jade realized something else. “And this means that when any of us see our opponent’s cards, we might not be able to believe them.”
“Which is why they put Kismet and Bogus first,” Sara said. “To give that warning to everyone else.”
Down in the arena, the two girls had emerged onto the city streets, at opposite corners of the arena. The way the buildings were set up, they were just out of sight of each other, on roughly opposite sides of the spindle device. They stood where they had emerged, waiting for the signal.
Sensei Ito’s voice boomed from overhead. “BEGIN!”
Immediately, ‘Charmer’ began running forward. Kismet was more cautious. Her left hand flickered with blue energies held at the ready, while her right hand erupted in purple flames. As ‘Charmer’ came running into sight, Kismet prepared to attack her friend.
“Wait! Don’t shoot! The cards changed, just after you went downstairs!”
The blonde held off, as the shorter, dark-haired girl approached. The speakers overhead delivered the sounds of their movement and speech with perfect clarity.
“Keep your distance!” Kismet shouted back. “Remember, I know all your charms!”
“You didn’t see the new info! They turned it into a three-way! We’re in here with some guy named Nex! We have to work together, or he’ll get us both!”
“Isn’t he that invisible ninja guy? Is Nex a sophomore?”
Charmer came closer. “He scares me! That guy plays for keeps!”
“Why would they match us against—?”
“There he is!”
Kismet was obviously fooled. Just as she turned to look, ‘Charmer’ stepped in closer, pulling out something that looked like a blackjack – a more professional equivalent of the old sock filled with lead shot. The smaller girl raised her arm and swung, without the least pause or hesitation. It hit Kismet from behind, just where her neck met her skull. The taller girl crumpled like cheap piñata in a hail storm.
‘Charmer’ expanded and grew, turning into a tall blond boy with an arrogant expression.
“Idiot!” he muttered to himself.
He bent down and quickly snapped restraints around the unconscious girl’s wrists and ankles. Then he took his time, sauntering over to the spindle device and working at the keypad.
Nikki made a sound of disgust. “You know, sometimes life’s just not fair!”
Once Jade was properly dressed in her skimpy hospital gown and sitting on the examination table, the doctor began with his brusque manner.
“So,” he demanded “let’s see those arms.”
Jade presented both arms, which were then photographed and analyzed with various high-resolution medical cameras, while different colors of light illuminated the area of interest.
“Interesting, interesting. Some of the inerts have completely vanished. I’d say they were absorbed, if it wasn’t absurd to think a normal biological system could absorb an inert substance like Teflon. Well, any questions before we begin today’s session?”
“Uh huh. You know that combat testing started today? I thought I was supposed to have this junk out! I’m just lucky I didn’t get called up. You’re going to take it out now, right?”
“Yes, after a session of regeneration research. Based on the DNA deltas we’ve identified, we’re postulating twenty-three different messenger proteins. We’ll be testing for eight of them during today’s test.”
Jade had no idea at all what that meant, but she plowed on. “So… you’ll put my arms back to normal after the tests?”
“Exactly.” The doctor steepled his fingers over his lips and peered at her through his small glasses. “Several of the test patches seem to be well-tolerated by your system. However, high level regenerators have a phenomenon known as ‘system reset shock’. A sufficiently large trauma will trigger a … general housecleaning, I guess you’d call it. It often results in a sort of bodily reset operation. In at least two documented cases, a middle aged and elderly subject suddenly regenerated back to a prime, looking like they were in their early twenties. We need to see if our tests today will stimulate anything like such a reaction in you, and if that will further react with the test patches.”
“I… see.” Jade was suddenly wondering just how extensively they were going to work on her. Still, fools rush in, and so did she. “Well, I’ve been thinking about it, and doing a lot of research…”
“And when you fix my arms up, I was thinking that maybe you could make some improvements. You know, implants and stuff.”
“ ‘Implants and stuff,’ ” Dr. Gellmar repeated dryly.
“Yeah, well, there’s a whole section of implants marketed directly to regenerators in Devisor Underground—”
“I’m familiar with the publication.”
“And I’ve got these combat finals coming up. This week, in fact. And I was thinking that maybe I could have a set of razor sharp claws that pop out of my arms. See, there’s this comic book character, and he’s really tough—”
“Uh, okay. Well what about a built-in gun? Maybe like a blaster or something, and the main housing could be in my arm, so I could fire it out the palm of my hand—”
“A metal reinforced, unbreakable skeleton?”
“Out of the question.”
“How about just the taser implant? That way I could ‘Spock’ people! My bracer lets me do that now, but it would be so much better if it were built in. And I read about this implant with a small forearm housing and a teeny contact surface on my thumb and finger…”
“I know the unit. I will not implant it for you.”
“Well why not?” she finally yelled in frustration.
“First, I am familiar with the combat finals. Even if I had that equipment ready to install and available in this lab, none of those things would help you with the final. Most of those toys have better versions available in hand-held or portable models. You want razor-sharp claws? A sword is sharper, longer, more versatile, and its use is well understood and easy to teach. You probably won’t be using a sword, because you have no expertise in it. The ‘claws’ you were so eager to have are just a poor man’s sword. Without training they would be a complete liability, and I seriously doubt whether you could become proficient in their use in the next twelve hours.
“In addition, any bionic implant requires extensive training to even trigger it. We can’t re-route your nerve impulses. As a regenerator, the nerves would just grow back in the proper position. Which means that we can’t divert a minor muscle nerve to trigger a unit, you’ll have to do it with either an unusual biofeedback method or a learned muscle pattern. Again, those take time to learn.
“The only time most of those implants are useful is in a spy or terrorist scenario, where the superior hand-held weapon would be detected. Honestly! Blowing out the palm of your hand every time you need to fire a shot? Were you thinking at all?”
Much more subdued, she said, “What about the reinforced bones?”
“Idiocy. That sort of surgery will put even you in the hospital for months. And for what? You’re a regenerator! That means more than just growing back after a cut. It means that your body adapts, very quickly. Exercise improves your strength in minutes, rather than weeks. A broken bone regrows thicker and tougher. Diseases and poisons are dealt with much faster than normal. At the same time, there are a few corresponding flaws.”
“Uh, like what?”
“The biggest being that regenerators can still get cancer. It’s rare, but possible.”
That was a concern for her. “Have you checked me? Is there any chance that I have—?”
“No. In most cases, a regenerator cancer is fatal within hours.”
“Oooookay. Other problems?”
“Hmmm. Breast sag. Since the skin is elastic and adaptive, some regenerators develop serious sag in their mid teens. Of course, this can be counteracted and even reversed with proper support and sleeping in the correct positions. Another issue: occasionally you’ll get a serious regeneration that runs wild. You’ll notice that pretty quickly. Extra limbs, or even extra organs. A good doctor will check for extra organs at every checkup. We can fix things, mostly by pruning things back, but you don’t want to let something like that run unchecked.”
Jade shook her head, agreeing that it had to be stopped. She didn’t want to open her mouth at the moment, because she was suddenly feeling a bit queasy.
“Now,” Dr. Gellmar said, “If there are no further questions, we will proceed with our research.”
“Okay, I guess.” Jade was feeling a little nervous, since Thuban wasn’t there with her. On the other hand, Jinn was. In fact, she had two charges available, so she had plenty of flexibility.
“Excellent. I’ll just clamp down your foot. Do you have a preference on which foot we should examine?”
Confused, Jade shook her head.
The doctor fastened a disturbingly huge clamp over her left leg, and screwed it down to the rolling table. The cuff was padded on the inside, and fastened over her entire calf so tightly that she couldn’t move her leg at all. And the examination table she was on was also non-standard. It had clamp and equipment toggles along the outside. Underneath was rack after rack of electronic monitoring devices.
“Now, we’ll just wheel you to anesthesia, and then we can place the sensor probes.”
Wondering if she was being an idiot, Jade suggested, “Can we try doing it without the anesthesia?”
The doctor turned to her in surprise.
“Well,” she explained, “the anesthetics won’t work for long, will they?”
“So maybe we should save them for the worst stuff, right?”
“And, is tonight’s experiment or whatever going to be one of the really bad ones?”
“It should have some bad moments, but most of it should be fairly mild.”
“Then let me try dealing with it on my own. I’ve been practicing with both self-hypnosis and meditation.”
“If you insist.” He moved to the communications intercom in the corner of the office. “Nurses Smythe and Fenton to Examination Room B, we’ll be inserting the sensor probes.”
Once the nurses arrived, they each took a handful of what looked like small, thin knitting needles.
“You ready, Miss Sinclair?”
“Give me a minute,” she said.
She closed her eyes and reached for the meditative state. She’d only been doing this for a day now. But Jinn was able to help, by humming in her ear. Jade felt soothed knowing that she’d cast another Jinn into the leg clamp and some of the scalpels lying on a nearby table. If there was trouble…
“Okay…” she whispered.
Immediately after that, she began the meditation. She lay on her back, eyes closed. She inhaled deeply through the nose, then out through her mouth making a humming sound as she recited the crucial syllable. “Oahhmmmm…”
She felt the way the sound resonated, echoing first through her ears, then vibrating her entire skull. The comforting, regular vibrations traveled down her neck, through her shoulders, and penetrating her lungs. She inhaled through her nose again, gathering and drawing in the energy of serenity as she wrapped herself in a shield of power and intention, guarding her from the anticipated pain. She accepted the pain. She welcomed it, for the pain was her gateway to so many needed things – discoveries to help humanity, respect, wealth, and perhaps, achieving that grand goal of becoming a true woman. She could feel the power beginning to flow down her body and—
“Oh my GOD!” Someone was shoving a knitting needle through her foot!
Her head shot up, meditation forgotten, as she stared down the length of her body at the giant needle-like medical probe that had been “inserted” into her foot.
She slammed her head back down. She’d seen the other nurse preparing a new probe. “Oahhmmmm…” she began, with an edge of desperation.
The next needle came before she’d fully prepared. She tried not to flinch, but couldn’t help rising inches off the examination bed through sheer agony-induced levitation. All except for her left leg and foot, which were completely immobilized.
The hell with this! She reached over and pressed the knuckle that was her post-hypnotic cue. No pain! No pain!
The next piercing bolt didn’t raise her off the table. She felt it, but it was as if the pain was dumped somewhere. Or perhaps as if it was sent somewhere or somewhen else. She felt the agony as her flesh was punctured, but it flowed past her, sent off to be held by an elsewhere self. She could deal with this, somewhat, but she remembered Sara’s words, “that pain is still flowing into your brain, but now it’s bottled up and hidden somewhere random.” That made more sense now. And for Jade, who was sometimes composed of layer after layer of selves, it wasn’t a good thought. But one thought lead to another. She crossed her fingers, making the sign that Jinn should contact her.
Immediately one, then two telepathic contacts formed, as both Jinns touched fingers through her flesh and spirit.
I’m hoping the three of us will dilute it, she began. Hold on!
The next needle stabbed, and the pain was split three ways. Unfortunately for Jade, the human nervous system functions in a logarithmic fashion. A sound of 130 decibels is physically excruciating. Muffling the acoustic energy and dropping the power in half results in a sound that is still 127 decibels, still nearly unendurable. On the other hand, the same was true for pleasure, but she was a long way from discovering that intriguing fact.
“Having problems with the pain?”
It took her a moment to realize that Dr. Gellmar was speaking to her. She shook her head to clear it.
“I asked if you were having problems with the pain.”
“No, I … aaaAAAAAHHHH! I can handle it! I’m just – there’s techniques. I just need to figure them out!”
He nodded. Linked as she was to a pair of Jinns, she saw his emotions clearly. There was no trace of compassion or sorrow, only a clinical curiosity.
“I’m glad to hear that you’re coping. From the sounds you were making, I thought otherwise. Just give the word, and we’ll administer an anesthetic.”
That helped. It helped immensely, knowing that she had that power. With one word, she could call down a numbing relief. Having that power, that control buoyed her enough that she decided to continue.
The doctor nodded. “The foot is the only thing scheduled for today, but if you’re up to it, afterward I think I could begin the first stages of your cosmetic surgery.”
Cosmetic surgery? Does he mean…? She looked up desperately. “I’ll be ready! Believe me, I’ll be ready!”
“I’ll make preparations then.”
The next needle almost caught her off guard. Only by digging her fingers through the leather of the table did she keep from rising off it.
Her foot looked like a pincushion now, pierced with more than a half-dozen sensor-probe needles. Desperately she sought the key to controlling her pain, escaping the agony.
Casting enough charges would knock her out. Could she use that? Quickly she did so, casting a Jann-sensei into her skin and hair and garment. Immediately she felt the black veil claim her…
That was interesting to know, in an academic way. Being shocked awake was definitely worse than being braced for the pain. She could tell that she was only awake due to the pain, and unconsciousness was trying to drag her in again. But if that happened, she’d be shocked awake again, and again. She called Jann back to her, gaining enough energy to stay awake.
“Doctor? We’re getting depressed EKGs, followed by an arrhythmic pattern here.”
“Keep monitoring. She’s a psychic variant, trying to figure out how to manage the pain. I think we’re seeing side effects of that.”
“But these patterns look dangerous.”
“Keep monitoring. We will continue.”
The pain was making her think crazy thoughts. She couldn’t escape through sleep, but what if…? She hadn’t considered it so closely in months. Casting had become an automatic process. But in the course of it, she took her own spirit and forced it out of her body, pushing herself out and into an object. Once a certain threshold was passed, her spirit gave a kind of snap, and then there were two of her – the one outside her body, and the one that remained inside the body. She couldn’t escape her body – that was a process that she knew well. It only created two of her, and one of them was still trapped in the flesh. She couldn’t escape through sleep. But what if she only partially cast herself? What if she pushed herself as far out as she could, beginning a casting, but never finishing it? Could she pull her awareness away from her body and away from the pain? They were readying another needle…
As with Jann, moments before, she reached for all the non-living matter that touched her. Dead skin cells, dead hair strands, her hospital gown. She pushed herself toward them, fleeing her body, but not all the way. Just on the edge…
“Doctor! EKG is flat! BP dropping! EEGs – falling! All autonomics are gone!”
Oops. Perhaps that was too far out. She let herself slip back in, just until she could barely hear with her ears.
“Wait… systems are coming back. Pulse is still weak. I don’t like the BP.”
“Hold off on the next needle – just till she stabilizes.” That was Dr. Gellmar’s voice.
She had a moment to think. Everything felt muffled like this. It was an effort, like using her arms to hold herself in a chin-up on the diving board. It was like she had her legs into the pool, so she was technically in the water, but not far enough to relax and float. With great effort, she crossed her fingers, calling for contact with her other selves.
Jinn? Can you slip in enough to help my heartbeat? And… other Jinn… can you help there in the brain? The brain stem, I guess. Get the breathing, and everything else?
She felt herselves slipping in. Like three children linking arms and circling in a game of ring-around-the-rosie. Together they kept her body alive, but none of them was in very far.
“What do you think?”
“Her systems seem to be stabilizing, but I don’t much like the look of any of them. Look at the EEGs. That’s not a coma; it’s certainly not brain death. But what is it?”
“EKG and BP look strong.”
“Yes, but what about the rest of these readings?”
“Whatever it is, it looks stable. I say, insert the next needle.”
The expected jab came, but it was distant and ignorable. Heart-Jade didn’t feel it, nor did brain-stem Jade. Only the “just at the edge” Jade felt it. They were doing things, down on the foot so very far away. It was easy to ignore. It was even easy to look at. She watched closely, with a cool academic distance, as they positioned another sharp needle and then carefully pushed it through her flesh and into place. The pain was there, but faint and far away.
“That’s the last probe.”
“Integrity check!” “Check.”
“Position check!” “Check.”
“Imaging check!” “No good. Hold on… Imaging: CHECK.”
Dr. Gellmar began speaking aloud. “Recorders on. Regeneration Study One: Frostbite. Note that the subject may be engaging in some unknown form of psionic pain control, resulting in unknown brain patterns and distorted vital signs. This is not expected to impact the regeneration study. Nurse: prepare for the frostbite trauma.”
Jade diverted a portion of her awareness. At the far end of the room, a nurse was picking up something that looked like an old moonshine jug. She poured from that into a thick cup.
“Five hundred milliliters, liquid en-two.”
“Pour it on,” Gellmar ordered. “Slowly, try to keep the stream over the same spot. Aim for the mark.”
As the stream of liquid hit her foot, there came a burning sensation that made the previous needle stabs seem like little pinpricks. Even in her detached state, the pain was fierce. She could handle it, but if she’d been farther into her body she knew she would have been screaming in agony. The pain flowed like fire from the initial spot, flowing over the surface of her foot, and also penetrating in through the spot on the top of her foot. It was like boiling oil had been poured on her, and her foot was being cooked alive.
No, she realized. Not cooked, frozen.
But after the first wave of pain, the area seemed to go dead.
“Keep an eye on the monitors. This is what we’ve been waiting for.”
“Messenger activity in the ankle! Types A-1 through A-7, C, some H.”
As the experiment continued, Jade experimented with slipping farther into her body. She didn’t need three of her, but it helped having Jinn holding on to her heart. She slipped all the way back in. Her foot hurt, but it was a low, throbbing pain. She experimented with the meditation again, and found that this time, she was able to do it successfully. The pain served as a goad and incentive, pushing her to sharpen her concentration, focusing on the sound and vibration and the single syllable she breathed.
Being new to meditation, she couldn’t hold the state long, and experimented more with slipping partway out of her body. If she only went so far, she didn’t even need Jinn to manage her heart. She could lessen the pain without shutting down. It was a poor compromise in many ways, because she wasn’t far enough out to use Jinn’s senses. She couldn’t see or hear, but she could largely escape from the flesh. Which left the question of how she’d know when to come back. But that was solved accidentally, when Jinn touched her telepathically.
They seem to be done.
She let herself go, falling back into her body with a snap. She blinked her eyes open, then looked down at the foot. The needle-like probes were gone, and one of the nurses was disconnecting the clamp over her left leg.
“Are you done?”
“All done, honey. You were incredibly brave. I can’t believe you let them do that without any pain medication.”
“Is it safe to wiggle my toes?”
“Everything should be fine now. Go ahead.”
She not only wiggled her toes, she moved the foot all around.
“How’s it feel?” Gellmar asked from behind her.
“Like I’ve got a bad bruise. Maybe a couple of days old.”
“Interesting. And how are you doing, personally? You seemed to pass out partway through the probe insertion.”
“I wasn’t passed out. I was … dealing with things.”
“I see. Do you want to postpone the cosmetic work?”
“No! Do it now!”
Gellmar snorted. “Yes, you do seem motivated. Good. Give me a moment to clear away the scientific team. I have a specialized plastic surgeon who will be doing the actual work – under my supervision.”
She nodded, sitting up on the table. Gellmar turned back to her.
“Stand up, if you can. Then follow me.”
She hopped down, almost collapsing as her left foot stabbed at her, but she caught the side of the examination table.
“A pain in my foot, but it’s fading. I can make it.”
He lead the way into a nearby surgical room, and Jade limped after him. This table was set up with stirrups, for a gynecological exam, or perhaps surgery. He gestured for Jade to climb up, and she did, leaning back and settling her feet into the stirrups.
“We won’t be doing much today – prep work mostly.”
A nurse came in, and gently pushed Jade back to lay her down. Once that was accomplished, she lifted Jade’s gown and folded it back, then took moist cloths and began to wash the area around Jade’s small penis. It was intently embarrassing.
The doctor continued to speak throughout this. “We need to take care of your testes. You’ve already demonstrated that removal is ineffective. Instead, we’ll be moving them slightly, inside your body cavity behind the pubic bone. That will require stretching and extending certain vessels, but I believe your body will quickly adapt. We’ll also be tying off some vessels inside your penis. This will have the net effect of eliminating any possibility of erection.”
“I don’t—” she began.
“We don’t want to take any chances. Finally, we’ll be inserting some formable implants and stretching the skin, in preparation for your next visit. Do you understand?”
The door opened and a tall, dark-haired woman came in. “I’m Dr. Ingraham. I’ll be the surgeon for your labiaplasty during your next visit. We’ll just be taking some preliminary steps today.”
“I can’t believe this is finally happening!” Jade admitted.
“Okay honey.” She smiled. “Believe me, you’ll like being a girl.”
“I am a girl!” Jade insisted. “I just… need some adjustment.”
The woman turned toward Gellmar. “Have we settled the anesthesia issue?”
“I’ll be handling that myself,” Jade said.
“Honey, I don’t think you understand the kind of pain we’re talking about.”
Dr. Gellmar spoke with her quietly, and Dr. Ingraham looked up in surprise. “Really? Well, I haven’t ever worked with mutants or regenerators. I’m willing to give it a try. Are we finished with site prep?”
The nurse looked up from between Jade’s legs. “All clean, doctor.”
“Then, Miss Sinclair, I don’t know what you need to do, but I suggest you begin doing it.”
Jade grabbed the handles at the side of the table and lay back. She cast one Jinn into a speck, to fly around and observe from the outside. Another charge went into her skin, ready to reach in and control her heart. Then she lay back and began concentrating. She did a partial cast, slipped partway out of her body, and began the meditation. That was actually a lot easier to master than it had been before. She was only distantly in contact with her breathing, but there were no distractions.
As a speck, Jinn’s vision wasn’t great, but she settled on Dr. Ingraham’s brow, so she had a front row seat. It was hard to think of the body ahead as herself – in this position it looked so much like a boy. The legs were spread wide by the stirrups, and the penis, testicles, and rectum were completely exposed, as well as the area between them – the perineum. The doctor launched right into work immediately, making a quick incision behind the scrotum. Forceps quickly pulled the skin back, giving access to the testicles, which dangled like fleshy beans at the end of rubbery tubes. Another clamp held the testicles. The doctor connected a large weight to them, then draped them over a leg.
“If she were really awake,” Ingraham said, “that would hurt like nothing I can imagine.”
“She may be awake,” Gellmar replied. “I’m not sure what she’s doing to hold off the pain. A mutant effect, I’m thinking, probably psi-related.”
“So she’s a mind reader?”
“Devisor, actually. Electronic devices, I believe. But devisors and gadgeteers are both considered to be a variant of esper psychics. And of course, she’s also a regenerator, but that’s actually an accident. She picked it up from another student.”
“A bit more complicated. I’m not really at liberty to discuss it.”
“So,” Ingraham asked skeptically, “you really think that weight will be enough to extend the spermatic cords?”
“According to the literature, her class of regenerators can extend ligaments and other structures in a period as short as ten minutes. This should be similar.”
“Seems easier just to lose the testes.”
“She tried that herself. They grew back.”
“Really? So she’s somewhere on that line between extremely driven and lightly psychotic?”
By now, Dr. Ingraham had pulled the skin back, exposing the muscular wall of the perineum, the muscles at the base of the pelvis that held the organs in place. A slight incision and she had created a surgical opening through the band of muscles, and up through the opening at the base of the pelvis. A gloved finger felt inside the cavity.
“There seems to be room, under the bladder and adjacent to the prostate. How’s the extension on the spermatic cords?”
Dr. Gellmar leaned in. “To my eye, it looks long enough. I’m reluctant to touch them. Just the thought of a ten pound weight hanging from my naked testes is enough to give me nightmares.”
“It’s actually five kilos.”
“Please, no more.”
Taking the small fleshy ovals, Dr. Ingraham slipped them through the incision in the muscle wall, and moved them into place within the body cavity. Then, using forceps to pull open the gap, she began to carefully sew them into place.
“The tricky part is applying the sutures from this angle. You sure this thread will work?”
Gellmar grunted an affirmative. “She hasn’t absorbed it so far. It’s also hard to imagine how even a regenerator’s immune system could attack pure nylon. On the other hand, she adsorbed Teflon.”
“I’ll take your word for that.”
To Jinn, silently observing the procedure, it was miraculous. The hated boy-balls were gone! Now if only they’d stay gone! It felt like major progress.
Now the doctor was sewing something like a long eraser along one side of the perineal muscles.
“What’s that?” Gellmar asked.
“It’s called dermaform,” the woman explained. “It can be set to a consistency between nearly liquid up to the stiffness of cartilage. It becomes pliable under limited conditions, allowing me to mold it, and then let it set. This batch is set to a soft, rubbery consistency. I’ll use it in the next session to form the underlying shape and structure of the labia majora, but it’s purpose for now is to stretch the skin out, giving me the material I’ll need to form the labia.”
“Interesting. Recent invention?”
“Yes. It’s out of Japan.”
“What conditions do you use for molding it?”
“Simple AC current, about ten volts, 80 hertz. I need a pair of probes that I jab through the skin and into the dermaform. This stuff is going to revolutionize plastic surgery.”
She continued her work, suturing in another of the eraser-like structures on the other side. Finally, she took the flaps of skin and laid them back in place, draping them over the eraser structures. Sutures re-closed the cut skin, and more fine stitches secured the skin firmly to the underlying dermaform structures.
“You sealed off the erectile tissue in the penis?” Gellmar asked.
Dr. Ingraham nodded. “Based on your information, I sealed it permanently. I’ll be using a binding in the next session to attach the penis permanently to the perineum. Erection could be quite painful.”
“Then go ahead and finish up. Give a few minutes, and you should see the magic.”
Dr. Ingraham finished cleaning, tying off, and replacing her equipment. Then, looking back at her patient, she gasped.
“Amazing! The sutures are fading, the flesh healing – almost while I watch.”
“Incredible, isn’t it? That’s why conventional techniques won’t work. The flesh not only heals too quickly, it reverts to its natural state.”
“A serious challenge for vaginoplasty, but that’s a bit down the line, isn’t it?”
“Yes. You still need the data for breast implants?”
“No, I’ve got another idea,” the woman confided. “A long shot, but it may be worth it. I’ll need airfare and lodging though—”
“Hold on, she’s coming out of her trance or whatever.”
As she dropped back into her body, the pain in her groin swelled. She looked up at the pair of doctors who were staring at her most intimate parts. “Did it work?”
Dr. Ingraham smiled at her. “Phase one is just an intermediate step. We’ll be able to take phase two when you next visit. Right now we’ve merely relocated your testes, and done some other preliminary work.”
Jade groped herself, feeling how things had changed. Her despised balls were gone! She felt like jumping for joy. The penis was still there, but there were two strange ridges in her crotch – sort of like lumpy proto-lips. They might be a bit difficult to sit on.
“When can I come in for the next session? Tomorrow?”
Dr. Gellmar gave a greedy smile. “The next session promises to be even more painful, but we could do tomorrow, if you’d like.”
“Yes! Yes! As soon as possible! I have to be at combat finals till three thirty, but after that?”
Gellmar nodded. “I’ll make sure the limo picks you up.”
“Gimme the radio!” Toni hollered at Chou.
“No. It’s my turn.”
Toni held up her hands in fake-looking kung fu positions. “Don’t force me to use my mad skillz against you!”
“Just try it. I’ve seen how Rebecca Stone dodges around you!”
“Yeah, but you ain’t her.”
“Girls. Girls!” Nikki yelled. “What is the big deal? The next fight’s about to start. And what’s the big deal with the radio?” Her face fell, figuring it out. “Don’t tell me…”
“Yeah,” Toni admitted. “The Whateley Academy Radio Station is doing play-by-play and color commentary.”
“Since when?” Nikki’s voice was full of dread.
“Since the very first fight, yesterday.”
“And we just now found out?”
Sara leaned forward. “Apparently Greasy and Peeper think we don’t like them. They’re trying to stay far away from us. Which is a good thing. But they’re still talking. Which is a bad thing.”
Down in the arena, they were still clearing away the rubble from the previous fight. So far, things had been much more intense than anything they’d ever done in class. These people were playing seriously, and Jade was very worried that she’d get squished in the process.
“Tuesday’s fourth examination,” Ito sensei called, “Tisiphone.”
Tisiphone’s image appeared, ten feet tall and rotating above the arena. A generous person might call her attractive, in a heavy metal headbanger sort of style – scaly brick-red skin; black cloven hooves, claws, forehead horns, and leathery bat wings. Her studded black leather halter and miniskirt would have been right at home at any acid rock concert.
Tisiphone had been a perfect pinup candidate at the start of the semester, going by the name ‘Fireball.’ Then she’d had an accident, while trying to hurt Ayla Goodkind. After Ayla escaped and left Fireball in her own trap, the girl had apparently begun developing GSD. Her former friends, the Alphas, had dumped her like yesterday’s fish, leaving her to the tender mercies of those she had formerly mocked – Faction Three. What made it even worse was the fact that since Jinn and Demona had begun their three-sided courtship of Thuban, Alexis had decided the dragon-boy was fair game and had entered the picture as well. So far she hadn’t gotten any encouragement from any of the main trio, but she seemed to be turning her frustration largely toward Demona.
As Jinn, she’d talked to the girl a couple of times. She definitely had her own unique interpretation of reality. She was also practically a poster-child for the supportive social environment that F3 was supposed to be. Jade thought about all of that while studying the details of the girl’s MID card:
|Ratings::||Manifestor – 3 (fire)
Exemplar - 3
Martial arts – basic
|Techniques:||Flight, Rocket jump, Flame whip, Flame cage, Fireball, Flamethrower
|Weak vs.:||Cold, Psychic, Magic|
“And facing her – Shroud!”
|Ratings::||Class 3 entity - deceased, Strength class - 3, Psychic perceptions, Invulnerable, Martial Arts - Mid-level|
|Techniques:||Flight, Engulf, Horrify, Frost Breath, Chain fling, Tentacle wrap, Sword arm,|
|Weak vs.:||Psychic, Magic, Containment (pure physical entity)|
|Backup/Team affiliation:||Team Kimba
See also GENERATOR
Jinn turned to look at Jade, her other self. As the card came up, they heard the muttering running through the F3 members of the audience. The F3 attendees all knew about the romantic rivalry – that bit of gossip had become one of the leading conversation topics among members of the group in the last few meetings. Jinn tried to stay above it, but she couldn’t help overhearing a bit.
It was obviously that their romantic triangle was being closely watched by the larger F3 group. That stopped her from ever ripping into Demona too badly – she wanted to serve as a positive model for the rest of F3. Much the same way that Alexis was serving as a negative model. But what F3 gained in education and entertainment, Alexis had paid for in frustration and humiliation. The girl was sure to see this as a grudge match.
Jinn opened her locker and took out anything fragile or valuable, handing it over to Jade before she turned to head down to the arena.
On the stairs down, she came up alongside Alexis, also descending.
“Undead loser,” the batwinged girl said under her breath. “Better get ready to die a second time, ‘cause I’m wiping you out like a bad stain.”
“It’s just a sparring match, Alexis,” Jinn reminded her.
They entered the arena and moved to opposite sides. Jinn hadn’t worn her school uniform, which was fairly expensive. She’d worn cheap street clothes, along with her plastic skin. She wouldn’t be surprised if the skin melted, even after she stashed it inside her locker. It happened during high-power sparring. That was why she was wearing an old skin that was starting to show some wear.
“Same rules as the previous matches,” Ito sensei informed them. “Urban setting with innocents present. Start from opposite corners. Enter your code into the device, while preventing your opponent from entering hers.”
Everyone knew that Arena 99 was riddled with secret cameras. This fight would be recorded and broadcast, going to alumni, the MCO, hero and villain groups, and (it was rumored) a Las Vegas gambling center. This was the first time for the world (or at least the superhero community) to get a good look at Shroud and her moves. As such, it was an excellent opportunity to cement her background and cover story. Jinn walked down to the arena looking fairly normal – a pink-skinned teenager in a tank top, Capri pants, and sandals. But she’d been working on her transformation, and doing some serious prep work to enhance her ghoulish undead cover story. She crouched down in preparation.
Ito sensei’s voice carried to them. “Both students ready? Then… BEGIN!”
Jinn launched herself into the air. As she rose, her face and skin withered, a grape turning into a raisin. Fog formed around her as the local temperature plunged. Her cloak suddenly billowed out, wrapping around her like a cocoon. Behind that double shield, she swapped parts in and out of her locker. A moment later, she emerged, gliding forward, looking like a withered crone in a tattered gray outfit.
That ought to be worth some extra credit!
Under the surface, she still had metallic bones and cables. But she’d covered the bones with something she called “jerky slurry” – a pulpy mixture of desiccated meat in a toughened gelatinous suspension. Spreading it over her arms and skull gave her the withered crone appearance. It was even better in combat, as the flesh was eroded away to reveal the bones underneath. She expected that today. As a sort of ghoulish icing on her undead cake, she had added live insects to the slurry mix. This was her debut fight, so she thought a layer of mealworms under her “skin” would be a worthwhile touch.
She’d tested the look with the entire Kimba crew, to varying reactions. Billie had been indifferent. Nikki and Hank had gone off to barf. Sara had said it was “sexy” (she was probably kidding, but knowing Sara…). Erin had just said that she looked great, and licked her lips.
Finishing her transformation, Jinn wrapped the rusty chains around herself. She’d taken the idea from a comic book character called “Hell Spawn”. That character’s fighting prowess had been augmented by the demonically powered ribbons and chains that were part of his costume. Jinn’s TK powers were fast and dexterous, but her strength just couldn’t match most of her opponents. She was always searching for ways to leverage her strengths, while bolstering her image as a creature of the netherworld.
By now, Alexis was rocketing toward her, propelled as much by the jet of flame shooting out behind her as by the flapping black batwings growing from her back.
Jinn finished her rise into the air and began drifting forward. Her flying couldn’t match Tisiphone’s speed, but the other girl was rocketing straight for her, ignoring the spindle device and its control panel.
A fireball shot her way, and Jinn casually rolled around it. The main problem was seeing the fireball to avoid it. The trick was to look for the rippled distortion that signaled great heat.
Her flame can’t melt the metal of my body, Jinn considered, so she can’t beat me that way. But she’s faster. How do I beat her?
She pivoted around another incoming fireball, jockeying for position.
“I’m not letting you close enough to touch me, haunt,” the devil-girl mocked. She held out both hands, beach ball-sized orbs of distortion in each hand. Rippling lines of distortion stretched out from the globes, and formed a grid that surrounded Jinn.
This must be her flame cage, Jinn thought. I can’t feel it. I can barely see it. Maybe I should just drift straight through it.
Jinn just smiled, her power stretching the meat of her face into a rictus-like grin. “Is this supposed to bother me? What’s it going to do? Kill me?” She floated forward through the flames.
Parts of her cloak melted, but nothing critical. Large sections of the flesh on her head and arms seared, a few chunks falling free, still showing mealworms wriggling over the “decayed” flesh like maggots on a corpse.
As Jade, she’d watched Tisiphone sparring in class. She knew what the effects all looked like. But it took deliberate effort to spot the ripples that indicated heat distortion. That’s why it took her a moment to realize that the ‘flesh’ of her left arm was still burning. That and the slightly ticklish feeling she got as the meat underwent the chemical change of combustion. She opened her mouth and expelled some of the liquid nitrogen she’d prepared. As the speed she “exhaled” it came out like a thick fog. But between the frigid temperature and total lack of oxygen, it quickly extinguished the flames.
Could she get close enough to Tisiphone to breathe on her? She shot forward.
Alexis banked and circled around. “You think I’m going to let you touch me with those grody hands? As if!”
The worst part was that she knew Tisiphone was stronger than she was. About twice as strong, if she remembered right. Tisiphone flew faster, was stronger up close, and had a ranged attack. Jinn’s only real chance was to get close enough to chain the other girl up, without getting kicked to pieces in the process. But how? If the devil-girl managed to control her ego, Jinn wouldn’t stand a chance.
“I always wanted to do this,” Alexis gloated, as she circled around. “Every single meeting, whenever you pushed ahead of me or draped yourself over someone who was really just disgusted to feel your touch, I’ve wanted to teach you a lesson. I’m going to burn every last bit of your flesh away, then roast those stupid bones till there’s nothing left but ash!”
Jinn fumed. Ito sensei had trained them on mid-air combat, but Tisiphone refused to come within reach. What was she supposed to do?
Noticing her position, a plan came to mind.
The chains began to writhe around her, as if they had minds of their own. Three ends came free and began to spin, whipping up into blurs like transparent disks, three feet across. She’d need to strike hard and fast.
“What’s that, a new move? It isn’t going to help you.” The girl continued to fly literal circles around her.
But Jinn could see out of the back of her head. As Tisiphone circled behind her, into her ‘blind spot,’ she released the objects she’d been holding on the tips of the spinning chains. Links slipped loose and rocketed toward Tisiphone like rounded shuriken. Simultaneously, Jinn slid backward toward the winged girl, pivoting as she went.
One link clipped Alexis on a wing-bone, but didn’t break it. The other two links flew on, missing. Alexis twisted desperately and flapped, heading to the edge of the city to gain ground and re-group.
Immediately, Jinn dropped like a stone. She was almost directly above the spindle, and she dropped to the control panel and began to type furiously, inputting her assigned code. The spindle emitted the deep gong of a code sequence entry, and she began typing rapidly.
By the time Alexis realized her mistake, Jinn was eighteen seconds into her sequence.
It was a good thing the test machinery was built tough. Tisiphone’s return included a jet-assisted kick that slammed Jinn’s head and body into the keypad. Jinn was neither stunned nor damaged, and fortunately, neither was the test machine. The meat of her face was left plastered over the keypad, and she stood up, her head wobbling briefly on the top of her articulated metal neck.
“What does it take to put you down?”
If you weren’t such a coward, Jinn thought, a baseball bat would do it. Alexis wasn’t as strong as Hank, but she was probably strong enough.
The “maggot” infested meat was falling freely from her bones now, Jinn hissed a foggy hiss and extended her canine teeth, deliberately evoking a vampire impression. She flexed her fingers, showing razor sharp claws gleaming amid the decaying flesh. Wasting not a second, she leapt at Tisiphone. The devil girl spread her wings and soared up over her.
Which was what Jinn had been waiting for. She went to great trouble to promote the illusion that she was derived from something human, with a human body (or remains) and human movement. But nothing could be further from the truth. She was strong enough to lift (slowly) about 300 pounds. Her Jinn body weighed about sixty pounds, and she could be quite nimble in it. But like a racing car, the lighter the body became, the better the performance.
As Tisiphone spread her wings to leap over the onrushing body of Jinn, her body and spread wings passed over Jinn’s back. But Jinn had no front or back. That was part of the illusion. She saw in every direction, and was unconstrained by human movement requirements. The chains encircling her now acted on their own, striking with the speed of cobras. Three rusty steel chains pierced through the leathery membranes of Tisiphone’s wings. At the same time, the “tatters” of Jinn’s cloak lashed out like a hundred ragged black tentacles. Gleaned from the discard bins of Cecelia Rogers’ tailor shop, these ragged bits of fabric were woven with high tensile bulletproof strands and a grid of ultra-fine wire. They appeared to be cloth, but they were actually a space-age polymer-fiber mesh.
In a raw contest of lifting or pushing, Tisiphone could out power her twice over. But leverage can be more important than strength. Tisiphone screamed in shock as her wings were punctured, and froze for the briefest moment. It was enough. Cloth strips flooded over her, wrapping, binding, pulling tight. Chains continued their path around, encircling and linking, pulling tight and locking closed. Within five seconds, the girl was trussed up like a mummy and locked tight in chains.
Leaving the tightly wrapped cocoon on the ground, Jinn drifted quickly to the keypad and entered her code. The spindle flashed green and “powered down.” She had won.
At the center in Berlin, she could barely wait for the torture session.
“We’re going to be studying your other foot today, just to switch off. And this time, we’ll be studying your reaction to necrotic poison. We’re interested both in the initial combating of the poison, and in the regrowth that follows.”
“Fine, fine,” she said, rushing them on. “Let’s do it.”
Again, a painful sequence of sensor needles were inserted into her flesh. Again, her foot was put through burning, searing agony. Jade spent her time practicing the “out of body” meditation combination, and worked on lowering herself far enough down into her body that she could feel the pain, but still hold concentration and meditate. As she got better, she might not need to escape her body at all, which would be easier all around.
Soon enough, the experiment was through, and she limped to the alternate surgery room where Dr. Ingraham waited. Jade practically flew onto the table, strapping herself into the uncomfortable stirrups.
“Now, you understand that this might have permanent consequences,” Dr. Ingraham cautioned. “If you change your mind, we might not be able to fully restore male functionality.”
“I wish you could guarantee that,” Jade muttered. “Do it! Please do it! I’ve been waiting so long!”
“A few more cautions,” the doctor said. “First, we aren’t doing any vaginoplasty today. That will be quite a while off. There are serious issues there, what with you being a regenerator. Second, we won’t be constructing the labia minora – your inner folds. That will also wait for a future session. But the penis should be completely concealed beneath the folds of your new labia majora, and your external appearance should be perfectly female. We’ll re-route your urethra to the anterior portion of the penis, about halfway down the shaft. This will give you the approximate positioning of a normal female. That means you will have to sit or squat to pee, just like any other girl.
“Last chance to back out. Do you still want to go through with this?”
Jade sniffed a couple of times and looked the doctor in the eye. “You keep talking about these things as if they were bad, or disadvantages. Do you regret being a girl?”
The doctor smiled gently and shook her head.
“Then please fix me! Now! I can’t wait!”
And so, at the doctor’s direction, Jade tranced away again, escaping the pain while the doctor did her work, with Jinn secretly watching.
The major task was the binding of the penis and suturing it to the skin and muscle of the perineum. A small rubbery tube was spliced into the top of the penis, tapping into the urethra and erupting approximately where a real girl’s urethra would be – just ahead of the vagina. The skin had stretched far enough that Dr. Ingra was able to mold and shape the underlying dermaform, setting the shapes permanently in place. There were some interesting comments during the surgery that Jinn later passed on to Jade:
“I’m adding a very slight implant under the mons, to enhance her pubic shape. It’s not entirely necessary, but it does improve her overall contour, and help the neo-labia to look more realistic.”
“Of course, with her legs closed, and her labia closed, she’ll look like any other girl. With the legs open, anyone looking would see that there’s something different going on. Exactly what won’t be obvious. She’ll need to open her legs to urinate, but every girl learns that.”
And the extremely interesting: “Sensation? Well, she hasn’t started puberty, so we aren’t talking about real sex as you and I know it. There have been studies of pre-teens and sex. It happens, but more for comfort and affection than any sort of gratification. Please tell me that I’m not doing all this work to support pedophilia or something equally repulsive.”
“Not at all,” Gellmar replied. “And she’s actually fourteen. Her physical age is ‘stuck’ or something.”
“That’s still a minor, and still underage.”
“Well… you were asking about sensation? This uses all the homologous structures. The scrotum and associated skin has become the labia majora – that’s exactly homologous between the sexes. The skin of the penile shaft becomes the labia minora, which is where we have her tucked away. If we could somehow move the glans to the clitoral glans, and the foreskin to a clitoral hood, we’d be set.”
And then, it was time for Jade to awaken. Her first words were, “Yowch that’s sore!”
But she had to accept when Dr. Ingraham handed her a small hand mirror. Jade looked at herself with wide eyes, and slowly, a tear leaked down her face, followed by another and another.
“Is that really me?”
Taking her other hand, she ran it down herself, feeling the smooth contours, the slight mound of her mons, the swell of her padded lips, the soft and sensitive cleft that lay between. The mirror and her own fingers both revealed the truth.
“It is me!”
She carefully pulled herself off the table and tottered to her feet, and then flung her arms around Dr. Ingraham. “Thank you! Oh, thank you so much!” And with a more subdued voice, “Now, if only it can last for more than three days.”
“It should be the next best thing to permanent, honey.”
“You wouldn’t know yet,” Dr. Gellmar explained, “but she’s worried about this ‘reversion factor’ she has. Her body has some sort of reset mechanism that is triggered after three days. But we specifically used materials and techniques that our tests showed wouldn’t cause a reaction. We’ll see, but my gut feeling is that you’ll be fine.”
Dr. Ingraham added, “And you’ll want to stop touching yourself like that in public.
In the dressing room, she looked at herself in the full-length mirror. She was so pretty! Pre-pubescent, but female and pretty.
She pulled her panties on, then pulled them up, extra tight. It was plain and obvious, right there in the mirror. She had a camel toe. A moose knuckle. The too-tight panties showed off her slit for everyone to see.
She left the panties too tight, and stepped into her skirt. Maybe someone would peek at her, and get a cheap thrill upon seeing her girl parts.
She was deliriously happy.
If I don’t take off my panties, Stephen could feel me up. So long as he stayed on the outside of my panties, he’d never know. I’d feel like a complete and total and real girl. I could do it! I’m not going to, ‘cause I’m not that kind of girl, but if I wanted to, I could!
She realized that her grin was trying to split her head wide open.
Billie was on her bed, deep in thought. Well, not exactly on her bed, but floating a foot above it. She hadn’t realized yet that she was airborne and out of contact with the mattress.
Her mind was a jumble of thoughts. She had combat finals coming up, but that wasn’t a big issue for her. She just needed to be sure that she didn’t hurt her opponent too badly. She sometimes got a little carried away during competitions. The past several months had done wonders for her control, but she still had more strength and power than most people realized. And few of them understood what a burden that could be.
She wasn’t concerned about the other semester finals. With her transformation and the transfer into Whateley, she’d been bumped back a year. She was taking some accelerated classes, but school wasn’t a difficult challenge right now.
What concerned her most was Christmas. Last Christmas, Larry had made it back home. It had been the three guys together, hanging around, and being just guys. Even TB had been tolerable under Larry’s influence. But now… Everything was going to be different. Thanks to TB’s oh-so-clever prank, the middle brother was gone forever. And she wasn’t sure how her two siblings would react to their new sister. Would they be making bras-and-panties jokes? Would it be better if they did make the jokes, of if they carefully avoided that topic? For that matter, would she do better to wear a bra? It was hard to imagine a more feminine garment, except for maybe a tampon, which wasn’t a garment at all. If she did wear a bra, her brothers would either make fun of her or try not to notice. If she didn’t wear a bra, she thought both of them would try even harder not to notice, while sneaking peaks every chance they got. How did she even feel about her own brothers staring at her… stuff?
And would she get her old room? Last Christmas, Larry had bunked in her room, and that room shared a bathroom with TB. There had been incidents, she now remembered, when where one or more of them had walked through in the buff. No big deal at the time. But it would be different now, of course. Around Poe and around the gym showers, she had seen enough naked female flesh that it wasn’t really anything to notice these days. Maybe a side glance, subtly comparing her own figure to theirs. She suddenly realized that she hadn’t seen any naked men for … how long had it been? Even the thought of a man’s naked body made her almost blush in uncomfortable embarrassment.
She usually did a pretty good job of ignoring the change. Even the very feminine gown she wore to Ballroom Dancing was just another weird costume. More disturbing was taking the hand of a boy and letting him lead, but if she paired up with Harry (like she usually tried to do) that could be managed, too. She just worked on noticing that Harry was a werewolf, and not noticing that he was a boy.
She reluctantly realized that she’d made a habit of not thinking about her change. There were feelings and implications and a whole host of issues that she still wasn’t ready to deal with. Like the fact that all those nubile young girls in the showers weren’t exactly a turn-on. Denial seemed like a good thing. But it was going to be real hard, once she was back home with her brothers.
The door opened, providing a most welcome distraction. Jade came in, looking ecstatic.
“You get dinner?” Billie asked her. “What’s up? More sessions at the medical lab?”
Jade nodded, apparently unable to speak.
“So what did they do this time?”
The younger girl just gathered the front of her skirt in both hands and gently lifted, until she was displaying her panties.
“Oh, jeez!” Billie complained. “You’re showing! I can completely see your pubes!”
“Exactly!” Jade yanked down her panties. “Look!”
“Do I have to? Okay, I see, very nice. Wish I had one just like it.”
“But it’s me! I look like I’m supposed to! Or closer, anyway.”
Billie sighed. “Jade, you’ve been using the girls’ restroom and shower for how many months now? You always look like that.”
“But I’m not using any TK tricks this time! It’s real! Well, pretty much. And permanent!”
Billie reached out to hug the shorter girl. “Jade, I hope for your sake that it is real, and permanent. But don’t get your hopes too high. Remember what happened last time. Three days, and then Poof!”
“That was just ‘cause of Hekate’s spell, I think. Or maybe the reversion factor that Doc Gellmar talks about. But this time – I think it’s really going to work!”
Billie squeezed her again. “I hope so. Hey, you’re still set to come to my place for Christmas, right?”
“If it’s okay. I really want to, oneesan!”
Billie gave a gruff chuckle. “Good. That way I won’t be so outnumbered by my brothers.”
“With Jinn along, we’ll outnumber them!”
“That’s the spirit!”
“Hey, do you think we could, maybe, visit the mall? I really want to get some new underwear now – something pretty. Maybe we can force the boys to drive us.”
Lingerie shopping? Billie thought. Maybe this isn’t the best idea after all.
At Wednesday morning’s breakfast, Jade was torn between fear and happiness.
“…so I slept without any panties on, because you know, it’s important to get lots of air circulation down there.” Jade said earnestly.
“Well, duh,” Nikki agreed.
“’cept when you have your period of course,” Toni added.
“Yeah, of course.”
“Hold on,” Hank said. “You girls all sleep in the buff?”
“Of course not!” Nikki said. “We have nightgowns! What do you think we are?”
“But no panties.”
“Look,” Nikki said seriously, “if the even the slightest hint of this reaches Greasy or Peeper, there will be hell to pay. I promise you that!”
Hank looked suitably cowed.
“So are you happy or sad or what?” Toni asked.
“Mostly happy,” Jade said. “You know how much I’ve been wanting this. But we’re going to be sitting in that arena all day, and each fight I’m going to be wondering if it will be me, facing off against Counterpoint or something. I am going to get so creamed!”
Toni leaned forward. “I hate to bring this up, but what if your body reverts again, or something else goes wrong? It’s happened before.”
Jade gulped. “I’m trying not to think of that. Before, things always reverted within three days. So I figure I’ll know by Friday afternoon. And if things go back to … like they were … then I guess I’ll be pretty depressed.” She snorted. “Maybe that would be the perfect time to face Counterpoint.”
Everyone remembered what she’d done the last time she’d been ‘depressed.’
“Listen,” Billie said seriously, “every time you thought it was the end of all hope, there was always some new chance right around the corner, right? Maybe this will work, and if so, great! And if it doesn’t, you know that something else will come up. It always does.”
“Yeah, I guess. Doesn’t make it any easier.”
“Well, forget that!” Nikki said. “This is combat week! What strategies have you come up with?”
Toni looked at her suspiciously. “You know, we could end up facing each other.”
“What are you implying?”
“Nothing. You just seemed strangely curious.”
“Jinn already saw my strategy,” Hank admitted. “I’m going to use my two new secret weapons.”
Billie grinned, holding up two fingers. “First, I ask what’s the maximum damage level the arena can support. Second, I offer them a chance to surrender.”
“You’re not supposed to blow up the whole place.”
“Where in the rules does it say that?”
“You’re supposed to rescue the civilians! How can they be rescued if you blow them all up?”
“I don’t care. It’s been a hard semester. I deserve a little fun.”
Toni looked around the table. “The new plan – grab the highest, farthest seats in the arena.”
Nikki nodded agreement. “And also: sit behind Hank.”
Whatever calm Jade had possessed at breakfast had evaporated by lunch. Every match she just knew her name was going to come up. Then when it didn’t, she watched the two combatants, trying to figure out whether she could survive against them. Now, temporarily released from the grueling countdown, she was a nervous wreck.
After touching Nikki’s pendant, she began complaining. “I can’t believe my hair! It’s been, what, three months now? How long is it going to take to grow out?”
“How long do you want it?” Billie asked.
“Long enough that I can do a Godiva thing. You know, bring it around in front, and nothing but hair, but it still covers everything? That’d make Stephen take notice I bet!”
“Depends on whether you have anything worth covering,” Ayla snidely remarked.
Jade stuck her tongue out at the boy-girl, while simultaneously trying to eat one roll, while also buttering a second. With shaky hands.
“Get a little hyper when you’re stressed?” Nikki asked, rhetorically.
“Keep in mind that there’s hyper, and then there’s hyper,” Chou said, tipping her head in Toni’s direction.
The black girl approaching the table had all the dishes on her tray stacked one on top of the other, making a rather precarious tower. That wasn’t as bad as the silverware in her left hand, that had a fork on top of a spoon on top of a knife, all three balanced vertically on top of each other, end-to-end-to-end. Toni seemed intent in her concentration, but just as she reached the table she seemed to trip. The food, plates, and everything else came flying forward.
CLACK! Thunk thunk thunk thunk.
The tray landed first, then all the dishes and every meal came down in perfect position. The silverware landed last, exactly where it should be.
Toni landed in her chair, arms raised high in triumph. “Ta daaaaa!”
Billie gave a deadpan look in Chou’s direction. “I see your point.”
“Don’t show sympathy to her,” Nikki yelled. “I’m the one that has to live with her!”
“What’s up?” Toni asked.
“What’s up? What’s UP?” Jade replied, not having noticed the affair with the dishes. “I’ll tell you what’s up? I’m supposed to be a stupid devisor, and I never even THOUGHT to make up anything like a jetpack, or rocket skates, or … anything! I’ve got the mobility of a ROCK! What am I going to do, just sit there and take it?”
“She’s got it pretty bad, doesn’t she?” Toni asked.
“What was your first clue?” Nikki wondered.
“Maybe someone can advise me?” Jade asked. “I got three special loads for my gun, but I could only afford one shot each.” She pulled out three small spheres, like ping pong balls, but with small markings on them. “This is a firefighting foam. In case I run up against a fire type, like Jinn did. And a freeze-bomb. That was pricey. And I also have just one expanding glue-blob, but any sort of heat ruins it pretty quick. So what do I load? What do I do?”
“First of all,” Toni advised, “chill out a bit. Don’t completely change your strategy. A new trick or two isn’t a bad idea, if you have something, but 90% of what you do is going to be the same moves that you practice every day. The stuff that you have down solid. Remember, you don’t need to win, you need to survive. That means, you need to come through with a decent performance. The way I heard it, you might be better off facing a really tough foe. You’d look good just surviving someone like Britomart. On the other hand, there’s kids out there who have just no combat powers at all.”
“Hello!” Jade waved her hand. “No powers, sitting right here!”
“As if,” Toni countered. “Let’s see… missiles, little flying razor robots, regenerate any damage taken. You might not be Hank here, but you’ve got combat powers out the fanny.”
Nikki looked up. “Hey, I’ve got some English mentors. You know that ‘fanny’ means something completely different in England?”
“Not now,” Toni shushed. “Look, the hard part is if you face someone who’s got no decent powers at all. Like some of the esper-types, or one of the GSD cases that are adapted for environment instead of fighting.”
“Or that Timeless kid,” Nikki said. “He has, what, two powers? The ability to be stuck as a kid, no offense Jade, and the ability to be a creepy loner.”
“Hey! No picking on James!” Jade said defensively. “He’s okay!”
“What, are you looking for a boyfriend?” Nikki taunted.
Jade stuck her tongue out again. “Got one.”
“The point is,” Toni continued, “if you were to face James or someone like that, the teachers would expect you to totally trounce him, and they’d grade accordingly. If you’re not super fast and aggressive, they’re going to grade you down. And, sorry, those aren’t exactly your strong points.”
“I can be fast sometimes,” Jade protested.
“Nikki’s got a point,” Billie agreed. “For pain and damage, I’ll bet you soak up more of that every day at the clinic. Even if you get pummeled in the fight, just heal up a bit and you’ll be fine. You end up with a great survival score.”
“So I should look forward to getting a major beat-down?”
“That’s not what I meant!”
Chou nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah, I see it. You’ve been training all semester against tougher opponents. You might be stressed now, but in the arena you’ll do the right thing, and your powers pretty much ensure that you’ll get at least a passing grade. What you should be thinking about is the strategy you’d use to completely dominate a fight against someone who isn’t, well, Hank.”
Jade toyed with her food. “You mean, someone might actually be running from me? That’s pretty cool.” She had a bit of salad. “I could head ‘em off with a line of missiles, but I’d have to see them first. There’s a lot of cover in the arena. And if I went after them, they might even get around me and get to the gizmo. Damn, why didn’t I make a jetpack?” She chewed on more salad while she considered. “I could send a SpySpeck after them, to track them secretly, while I sprinted for the gizmo. Then… yeah, that would work! I sprint for the gizmo and punch in my code as fast as I can. Meanwhile, I’ll know where they are and what they’re up to, so I can avoid their ambush or sneak-attack or whatever. And if they ever get close enough to be a threat, a couple of missiles and a few shots from my gun would send them running for cover, and I could send the Kitty Compact to harass them while I finish punching in my code.” Her face lit up a bit. “That would work pretty well!”
Billie grinned. “It would just be bad news if you fought any of us, since you just gave out your whole strategy.”
“So,” Billie continued nefariously, “maybe the rest of us should share our strategies, too. I can figure the rough outlines for most people here, except for you, Nikki. What in the world are you planning?”
The elf smirked. “Well, I have been getting a lot of personal tutoring. I think I have some interesting surprises ready…”
Back in the arena, Jade’s confidence evaporated a bit with each fight. By two in the afternoon, she was a nervous wreck once more.
“What have I been doing all semester? I totally wasted my time! Why didn’t I make some armor? Or a force field? I’M SO STUPID! There’s got to be some way to make a really big gun that I can carry in my street clothes, right? I need a bazooka!”
Toni leaned toward Chou. “You know, I don’t think I want to fight her next semester.”
The Chinese girl nodded. “Devisors and mages are always the worst.”
Wednesday, December 13, 2:57 PM
“It’s the waiting that drives me nuts,” Jade admitted.
Billie leaned back, apparently relaxed. “You have to learn to go with the flow, accept whatever life chooses to give you.”
Chou had to add her own comments. “The coward dies a thousand deaths, the hero dies but one.”
“What if I don’t want to die any deaths?” Jade wondered.
“You should be the least worried of anyone,” Chou said. “You regenerate. Remember, the tests are non-lethal—”
“—usually non-lethal. Anything else, you’ll get better, right?”
“Yeah,” Billie said. “Who’s the worst you could face?”
Jade glared at her roommate. “You had to ask! Are you trying to get me killed?”
“Next contest,” came the voice over the loudspeaker, “Thuban!”
His picture showed him wearing his traditional mandarin robes. Of course, he looked fairly human with so much of him concealed beneath the encompassing robes. His MID was informative, but also incomplete:
|Ratings::||Exemplar – 4, Martial arts – advanced|
|Techniques:||Martial arts – all varieties, Concealed weapons, Exotic weapons, Quick draw, Poison gas
|Weak vs.:||Cold, Flame|
“Facing off against… Slab!”
The image that came up this time was even more disturbing. Slab was nearly two feet taller than Jade, and nearly as wide as Jade was tall. Whenever she saw him on campus she’d always given him plenty of room. There were some large bricks that everyone just moved aside for… Slab, Igneous, a few others. But Slab was one of the worst. He sometimes carried a really sour mood, and just being near him was enough to send a chill up your spine. And he wasn’t just big, he was even stronger than his size suggested.
The image showed a huge humanoid form, perfectly and utterly black, like a killer whale. Slab had the same sort of cushioning blubber layer under that armored skin, enhancing the ‘whale skin’ analogy. That gave him a shape that was both sleek and rounded. He was an exemplar, so the image must have come from somewhere within his own mind. The gossip circuit had speculated on the original source for that subconscious image. One idea was that Slab had been influenced by an old comic book called “The Omega Men.” Slab looked a lot like the warlike citadel race from the comic. Lately, though, there had been an alternate theory. The movie “Lilo and Stitch” had featured a giant, humanoid whale-alien named “Captain Gantu.” Jade often watched the cartoon, and laughed at Gantu, who was often called a “big dummy.” But she didn’t think Slab had gotten his image from the cartoon.
|Ratings::||Exemplar – 6, PK/Energizer – 2 (absorbs molecular motion)
|Techniques:||Wrestling / grappling, Boulder pitch, Earth fissure, Sonic clap, Near invulnerability|
|Weak vs.:||Psychic ?, Magic ?|
“Ouch,” Toni said. “I wouldn’t want to go against Slab. Adam Ironknife is an exemplar-7, but I wouldn’t bet on even him against Slab! You ever hit Slab’s skin? Nothing gets through! And you’d think a guy that strong would be slow, but he’s faster than you’d ever expect.”
Nikki peered at her roommate suspiciously. “It almost sounds like you’ve sparred with him.”
“Once, a couple of weeks ago. Sensei decided I needed a reminder about that whole Monty lesson. He brought in Slab. Slab just stood there, taking it, while I bounced all over him. I figured my only chance was some pressure points, which I still don’t know that well. But nothing I had penetrated his skin, even when I put major ki behind it! And it hurt to even hit him, ‘cause he’s got this force field like Hank’s. Well, not quite like Hank’s. It doesn’t stop stuff, it just slows it waaaay down. Like punching through quilted padding. Even the air is slowed down around him, so that it’s cooler. Not that the chill bothers Slab any, you can see that he’s pretty well insulated. But trying a pressure point on him was like trying to poke a finger through a mattress. A cold mattress. Then Slab says, ‘My turn,’ and it was like … BANG!”
“Well, when they were done peeling me off the wall they said I didn’t have any broken bones. So, yeah, I guess it came out okay.”
Down in the arena, Thuban had taken his position. His embroidered robes wrapped around him much the same way that Shroud wrapped her cloak around herself. Then, like a gunfighter preparing for a duel, Thuban slowly began unbuttoning the front of his robes.
Slab was visible on the far side, but only because of their elevated seating.
Slab began to jog forward, in a pounding gate that could be felt up in the seats. Fast as he was, Thuban was even faster. From the depths of his robes, the lizard man pulled out a four foot long missile, complete with its own launching rack! A moment later there was a whoosh of flame, and the missile shot up into the air above the arena. Thuban seemed to be holding some sort of gameboy-like controller. The missile reached the top of its arc and tipped over, orienting on Slab. At that point, Thuban dropped the controller and sprinted forward, moving fast. Not fast like an Olympic sprinter or basketball superstar, he was faster.
Slab looked up at the sky. “Oh, crap!”
Wasting no time, the slick-skinned giant altered his jog toward a nearby parked car. He grabbed it by the rear bumper, and straining desperately, tipped the car upward. This was no lightweight Volkswagen bug; it was a full-sized sedan. Slab quickly worked his hands down the undercarriage, then dropped his knees down and heaved. A moment later, he was holding the entire car over his head.
And that was when the missile hit. Of course, there was now an entire car in the way. Rocketing straight down, the missile hit the roof of the car and exploded in a fireball that filled most of the street. For a moment, car, Slab, and street were all lost to sight as the flame and shrapnel flew.
Thuban had reached the Spindle Device. He slapped something down on the control panel, and pulled an assembly from under his robes. It looked like a collection of coat hangers and fabric, but with a shake, it turned into an excellent facsimile of Thuban himself. It looked like a robed figure bent forward over the control panel. The real Thuban then took off in a new sprint, this time heading toward Slab. And his running was an odd dodging movement, zig-zagging from the left side of the street to the right. He stopped several times to fiddle briefly with the wall, before leaping up and continuing on.
“Power sockets,” Hank said aloud. “Some of the buildings have outside electric outlets. Thuban’s stopping at each of them.”
“But he already got Slab,” Nikki began. “Hell, that psychopath might have killed Slab! Uh, no offense, Jade.”
“I don’t think so…” Jade pointed to the fireball engulfing Slab.
‘Engulfing’ wasn’t the proper word any more. The fireball was being eaten from the inside out. A second zone was expanding outward, centered on Slab’s body. It was as if some invisible wall of force grabbed the flames and shrapnel and everything and said simply, “calm.” It wasn’t something you could see, you only spotted it because of the lack. Lack of flame, lack of debris, lack of any sort of explosive force. The outside of the fireball still rebounded, and dust and debris showered down on that devastated street. But as soon as anything approached within a foot of Slab it seemed to come to a stop. Then, the dust simply settled slowly to the ground, like fine rain.
Little was left of the car other than an engine block and a flaming chassis. Slab tossed that aside without a second thought.
“So? You want to play rough? I can handle that.” The words were oddly quiet.
Up in the stands, Nikki looked at her roommate and raised her eyebrows. “You fought that guy?”
“Well, it wasn’t much of a fight.”
“Look at his feet!” Hank urged.
Slab had begun his pounding jog again. This time, a white patch of frost was left each time he took a step.
Down in the arena, Thuban heard as well. He finished his strange side-to-side activities, and looked at the intersection around him. Behind him was the spindle. Slab was approaching the intersection, but not yet in sight. The corner buildings were all three stories tall – a concrete “Woolworth’s” building, a stone-sided bank, a wooden apartment building, and a brick building. Thuban dashed inside the brick building across the intersection, just before Slab came into sight. A moment later, the spindle gonged and lit with the brilliant green-and-purple glow that indicated someone was beginning to enter their code.
“I know where you are!” Slab said. His inflections sounded like a shout, but the sound was oddly muffled. He picked up the pace and skidded through the intersection Thuban had just passed through. Slab plainly spotted the robed figure bent over the control panel, because he scrambled briefly, before lumbering forward like a freight train that was gaining speed.
“I don’t like this at all,” Nikki said, up in the viewing gallery.
“Why not?” Toni asked. “Great fight, we’ve got front row seats, and best of all, now we don’t have to fight either of those guys. By the way, remind me to never to make fun of Slab. I hadn’t realized that he was quite that tough.”
Nikki snorted. “As if your mouth could ever be restrained. No, my bad feeling comes from the building Thuban ran into. I never noticed the sign before. It claims it’s the ‘Texas School Book Depository.’ I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
By now, Slab was halfway down the street and accelerating. Thuban finally emerged on the roof and moved to the edge. Spotting Slab, he reached into his robe and pulled out an absolutely huge rifle. The futuristic device was over four feet long, and seemed to be constructed of a ring of glass tubes bolted onto a turbine engine. Thuban shook open a tripod and began to adjust the now-mounted weapon. Below, the unsuspecting Slab raised both fists in preparation for his meeting with the motionless figure of his opponent, crouched over the keypad. Above and behind him, the real Thuban took careful aim.
“I’ll bet the judges hit him pretty hard,” Hank said. “There’s no way Thuban carries that junk with him on a regular basis. Missiles? Tripod-mounted weapons? His robes are pretty big, but get real!”
Jade said nothing, but she thought of a huge mansion concealed inside a car. With Thuban’s ability to alter size, that four-foot weapon could fit inside his robe as a four-inch toy. And there was plenty of room for more. If he regularly carried a motorcycle and jetpack, what else did he carry with him? She said nothing aloud though.
Slab slammed his fists together, demolishing the decoy. He spotted the odd device that Thuban had left perched over the keypad, and swept that aside, too. Instantly, the spindle powered down, as Thuban’s code-entry was aborted.
Slab looked around, not seeing any sign of his enemy. “Well, waste not, want not.” He began typing, and the spindle glowed to life again. The gong of a code entry sequence sounded.
Perhaps the gong sound distracted Slab, or perhaps his powers muffled sound in both directions. But while the audience could clearly hear the whine of Thuban’s turban-enhanced weapon spinning up to full power, Slab obviously missed it. The giant leaned forward to type, concentrating on the screen ahead of him. Thuban sighted, and pressed the trigger.
Crimson lightning flickered between them. Twice, five times, twenty times. A cloud of flesh and blood and steam erupted from Slab’s back, and then seemed to hang frozen in the air like a fluffy pink cushion. Slab roared in pain, but again, the sound was muffled.
“Aaaaaaa! That hurt! You fucking lizard, I’m going to get you for that!”
“We’ll ssssee,” Thuban said calmly. “You have to reach me, firssst.” Taking a control device from his sleeve, Thuban clicked a button.
The area under Slab burst into flames. The missile explosion had been nothing compared to this. The flames filled the area around the spindle, roaring thirty feet high and completely filling the street from one side to the other. A moment later, though, Slab walked calmly forward through the flames. The ‘calm’ area around him had grown. There was now an outline around him a foot-and-a-half thick where any flames simply ceased.
Hank made an ‘aha’ noise. “His field’s getting thicker!”
“No shit, Sherlock,” Toni snapped back. She wasn’t normally that rude, but at the moment they were all feeling a bit intimidated.
“I mean, it’s a positive feedback loop,” Hank said. “The more you hit him with, the thicker and stronger his field gets. And that means his field covers a larger area, so he absorbs even more power.”
“Then how do you stop him?” Toni demanded.
“Well, you could try and overload the field,” Hank said, skeptically. “It looks like Thuban is using that approach. Or you might try lasers. That worked last time.”
“It won’t work again,” Sara said, authoritatively. “Those lasers should have drilled right through him, but they didn’t. I think they hit his skin – the outer layer – and once that patch of skin vaporized, the field absorbed all the energy in it. And at that point, the vaporized cloud of skin becomes the perfect defense against future laser fire. It absorbs energy and pumps it into his field, while the tender flesh underneath is protected behind the cloud.”
Sure enough, Thuban fired his laser canon again. Slab took the hit, yelling throughout, but he kept moving and ducked behind a car. A swipe with one hand ripped the front hood off. Slab threw the hood like a jagged metal Frisbee. Thuban ducked for cover, but the laser on the tripod exploded in a cloud of sparks.
“Damn it!” Thuban shouted down. “That weapon cosssst me $40,000!”
Slab paused in the middle of the street. “My heart bleeds for you! But not as much as yours is going to bleed for me!” He began to jog forward again – slam, slam, slam, slam!
Thuban watched for a moment, then clicked another button on his controller. The wires leading to nearby buildings became obvious as they all briefly lit in lines of blue electric fire. Likewise, a pad under Slab’s feet erupted in crackling electric blue. Except near Slab. None of the electricity reached within a foot of him.
“Ah, tasty!” Slab walked back and forth over the electric trap. Wherever he passed, the crackling blue was wiped away. In his wake he left only still and silent frost.
Slab was apparently having such a good time that he slowed to a walk. He looked up and down the street, trying to spot Thuban’s traps. He obviously knew that taking the straight path to Thuban would be walking through a gauntlet of death traps. Smiling, Slab slowly began to do exactly that, sauntering forward as if he didn’t have a care in the world.
Thuban clicked. This time, the streets erupted in clouds of fog. Ice immediately coated the street, the cars, the sides of the buildings up to the top floor, three stories high. Snow condensed out of the air.
Jade suspected that this was liquid nitrogen. As Shroud, she’s used a small bottle of the stuff herself, and it was deadly cold. With Thuban’s ability to expand space, how much liquid nitrogen could he carry? Or was this some special devisor compound that was even worse the liquid nitrogen?
Predictably, Slab strode forward through the cloud. “Refreshing. Did you think cold would hurt me? Look at me! I’m built for the cold. I like it!”
Slab had now entered the intersection. The brick building of the book depository was dead ahead of him.
“Got any more tricks?”
“Just one,” Thuban said. He reached into his robe and pulled out a huge spear gun. It was actually more of a harpoon gun.
Slowly, unconcerned, Slab sauntered toward the brick building.
Thuban sighted carefully at Slab, as the black mutant approached.
“A harpoon? You don’t expect that to do anything, do you?”
“No, but thissss may.”
Thuban raised his aim, firing the harpoon across the intersection, where it impacted the concrete side of the Woolworth’s building. There was a jerk, and he was suddenly yanked forward. Simultaneously, he clicked the controller in his hand. The brick building under him began to expand. A moment later, the sound of a huge explosion reverberated through the stands. Almost in slow motion, the three story tall building slowly started to topple. It didn’t fall straight down, as in a classic demolition. In this case, it toppled forward, into the intersection. Directly onto Slab, who stood exactly at ground zero.
The harpoon cable pulled Thuban out of the way, his robes fluttering open behind him. Before he could hit the side of the building, he dropped free and leapt forward to cling to the side of the building. As fast as a gecko on a screen, the reptilian mutant scrambled down the face of the building. He looked at the pile of rubble in the intersection and shook his head sadly. Then the turned and headed toward the spindle.
Behind him, the pile of brick rubble shifted and fell aside. Slab rose to his feet.
Thuban looked back over his shoulder and actually gave a double-take as he looked again in disbelief. Then he turned to the spindle and sprinted. He’d been fast before, but he was noticeably faster now, as if desperation lent wings to his feet. He was crouching low to the ground, almost scrambling, his hands touching the ground almost as often as his feet. It was like watching a small lizard scramble across the road, only at hyperspeed.
Reaching down, Slab picked up a brick. He hefted it, then his arm blurred. The brick shot forward like a cannonball, only faster. It missed Thuban, striking a car next to the fleeing lizard man. The brick punched completely through the car, making a larger hole on the far side as it exited and vaporized into red dust. Now a dozen bricks came forward, and a dozen more behind them.
Those missed the wildly dodging lizard-man as well, but one of them clipped a light pole, which toppled toward the street. Thuban had turned to glance back over his shoulder and didn’t see. The pole slammed down on him, stunning him and pinning him.
Slab leaned forward into a crouch, then shot forward. It seemed impossible for someone of his size and bulk to be moving so quickly. This wasn’t speedster fast, but he was moving faster than Thuban’s best sprint. One swing of his huge hand and the light pole was swept aside. He grabbed Thuban by the back of the robe, heaving him up as he pulled back his other fist.
With a boneless wriggle, Thuban slipped free of his bulky robes. Immediately, the robes erupted into greenish smoke and a splatter of liquid. Where the liquid hit the street, vile smoke appeared and pit-like holes began to grow.
“Aaaaa! That’s two I owe you for!”
Slab dropped the robes and flung his arms back. Immediately, the force field zone around him became clearly visible. A layer of opaque white fog formed in a two-foot layer outlining his body. Slab was impossible to see through the thick mist. But the frost at his feet began to spread across the ground, growing as they watched, and snow began to fall in the area near the puffy white figure.
Slab smashed his hands together in an enormous clap, blowing away the fog that surrounded him. It also knocked free bits of ice and frozen material that clung to him. Nothing remained of the poison cloud or liquid acid.
Thuban scrambled farther back, but Slab lunged forward and grabbed him by the tail. Thuban’s hands were suddenly filled with a large quarterstaff. The staff spun so quickly it was almost invisible, striking Slab everywhere on his body – head, gut, knees, elbow, groin, face. One end of the staff seemed to produce small electrical explosions when it struck. The other end glowed with an unknown crimson energy. Neither had any effect. Slab ignored it all as he dragged Thuban to the side of the road, and one of the cars parked there. Reaching over, Slab ripped the door free and stuffed the lizard inside the parked vehicle. Then, reaching down to the chassis, he picked the car up in one hand. With the other hand, he reached around, folding the car in half like an oversized piece of bread.
As Jade looked on in horror, Slab proceeded to roll the car into a ball, squeezing it tighter and tighter until the ball was no more than three feet in diameter.
“Uh, he wasn’t that strong before, was he?” Jamie asked, from the row behind them.
“His force field absorbs energy from heat, and those bricks that fell on him,” Hank said slowly, figuring it out.
Sara finished. “And converts that energy into strength and speed.”
“How the hell do you beat a guy like that?” Toni wondered.
“Magic,” Nikki said, intently focused on the battle. “If I had five drops of his blood it would be easy. But I wouldn’t want to have to cast that spell in the middle of combat.”
“A mind attack might also work,” Sara mused. “A stun blast, or maybe even a sleep compulsion. Those are both relatively low-level. But if he’s got the Exemplar-6 mental package…” she trailed off in thought.
Slab tossed the crumpled metal ball over his shoulder. Up in the stands, Billie reached over to comfort her roommate. Jade had just seen her boyfriend butchered.
Slab slowly walked toward the waiting Spindle Device.
But… before he got there, he was hit with a powerful blast of water from a fire hose.
Thuban stood there, at the edge of the street, scraped and bloody. At his feet was a fire hose, already connected to the hydrant. Thuban pulled on the control valve, opening the hose up to full flow.
“What the hell does it take to put you down?” Slab asked, in his dangerously quiet voice.
“I wasss wondering the sssame,” Thuban admitted. “I’m afraid thisss iss my lassst trick.”
The water struck Slab and instantly froze. Any matter that came within two feet of the black giant has all energy sucked from it. The effect caused the water to cling to him, as if the very space surrounding him was somehow ‘sticky.’ In moments, Slab found himself wearing a two-foot thick suit of icy armor. He moved forward, cracking the armor, but more water was there as fast as he could crack the old. The icy layer grew thicker. And that ice was so cold that the water sprayed on it froze almost instantly. Thuban kept spraying. What had started as a humanoid ice sculpture became a rounded boulder, then a small hill. By the time Thuban finally shut off the hose, three minutes later, there was a small mountain in the street ahead of the spindle.
Thuban gave a sigh, and set the hose down. Gingerly, as if expecting the mountain to leap into action, he crept around to the spindle’s keypad, and began punching in his code. The lights flashed, the gong sounded. And the mountain cracked.
The audience above could clearly hear it as Thuban pronounced four or five words in Chinese that sounded very vulgar.
“Miss me?” Slab asked, happily. He shouldered aside ice boulders the size of small cars and clambered forward to the key pad.
“I sssurender,” Thuban offered.
Slab’s hand shot out, blindingly fast to grab the lizard-man around the throat.
“I don’t think so, not yet. See, I just now came up with a new battle cry. I want to test it out with you before I let you beg for your life. Here it comes.” Slab reached down and grabbed Thuban by the tail. He inhaled, and gave a disturbingly quiet bellow. “I got me some frustration to work out!”
With that, he began swinging Thuban around like a living mace, smashing ice boulders, the concrete sides of buildings, and smashing in the hood and roofs of nearby cars. He finally left Thuban, bleeding and unconscious, in the center of the street and turned, yet again, to the spindle’s key pad.
Thirty seconds later, it was announced over the speakers. “Winner: Slab.”
Ito sensei’s voice came on to announce, “The arena will now require a bit more than the regular service. Be advised that while this concludes the tests for today, tomorrow’s tests will begin on time. Class dismissed.”
It was a subdued group that filed out. For once, Jade’s thoughts were echoed by many of the students around her.
The matchups were random. That could have been me in there. And even if Thuban and Slab are both finished this semester, there’s always next semester. What am I going to do then?
They all had a lot to think about.
After grabbing a quick snack, Jade sat silently in the limo for the entire trip into Berlin. Her thoughts were more than enough to occupy her. And even if she felt pain tonight, could it be as bad as what Stephen was probably dealing with?
Dr. Gellmar met her, looking relieved to see her.
“You’re finally here. Excellent. The data are excellent – we’re making real progress in the models and protein simulations. We had entirely the wrong idea for the initial response, but now…”
She looked up hopefully. “So you’re getting closer to the answer?”
“Oh, definitely. At this rate, I estimate we’ll only need a couple of years—”
Her shock and disappointment caused her to miss what the doctor said for a bit. It was going to take years? It seemed like they’d said that, back during the “you’ll all be rich” briefing, but it hadn’t really registered. And she hadn’t quite understood that it meant that they’d be cutting her up for years. Mental discipline was a good thing to learn, but years of torture?
“—spin off products as early as spring, perhaps. Which leads to today’s experiment.”
Nervously, she asked, “What’s the plan for today?”
“We’ll need a large supply of your skin, as well as studying the chemistry as it regrows.”
She gulped. That did not sound good. “How – how large a ‘supply’?”
“Perhaps a square, a quarter of a meter each way. We debated on the best location. I think that your calf might be best.”
“You’re going to peel the skin off my leg?” She tried not to notice the way the fine hairs were standing up on her arms and neck.
“Not your whole leg, just one calf.”
At that point, Dr. Ingraham found them. She looked first to Dr. Gellmar.
“The plane’s on approach. They should be here soon.”
“You’re certain there’s no danger of passing the disease on?”
“On this continent? None. The life cycle require a tsetse fly.”
Jade wasn’t quite following this, although she did recognize the name of fly. As she recalled, it was a fly from Africa, though she couldn’t remember why it was important.
Dr. Ingraham looked at her. “I’m ready to try the next stage in your Sexual Reassignment Surgery, but I’d like to try something different. An experiment, which could pay off very well, I believe.”
Jade shrugged. “And it has something to do with a tsetse fly? Isn’t that associated with some disease?”
The brunette nodded. “African sleeping sickness. We’ll get to that in a moment. Uh, this may take a bit, and I think you should be kept up on the background that we’ve put together on your case. Let’s move to a briefing room. Perhaps you’d like a soda or something to drink?”
Dr. Gellmar nodded to his associate. “You brief her. I have a meeting in three minutes, then we’ll pick up Jade when you’ve finished.”
Jade shuddered, remembering what Gellmar’s intentions were. Had she agreed at some point to let him do that to her? It was hard to remember.
She following Dr. Ingraham into the briefing room and sat at a fancy wooden table. With only the two of them in the room, the doctor quietly closed the door, then flipped open a small computer console built right into the table and began typing. The wall at the far end of the room glowed to life, displaying pictures.
“So far, we’ve begun the very first steps,” Dr. Ingraham confided. “That’s holding up okay?”
Jade smiled. “Yeah, it’s great! I feel a lot more like … well, like I’m me. And nothing’s come undone or anything, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I’m asking.” The woman paused to brush her dark brown hair back. “SRS – sexual reassignment surgery – seems painfully extreme, but it’s really fairly minor in comparison to large operations like some of the transplants. Despite that, it has some of the most profound effects on a patient’s psyche. It’s something I specialized in partially because of my own SRS.”
Jade was astounded. “You?”
Dr. Ingraham smiled. “I was one of the lucky ones. I knew what I wanted early on, and my family supported me. I started hormones at age twelve, which really helped in the final result.”
Jade nodded emphatically.
“You’re the first regenerator I’ve worked on. Which brings up both challenges, and maybe someday if we can spin this off, opportunities for a whole lot of people who have the same problem we have.”
The doctor clicked, and images on a screen showed a surgery in progress.
“Regeneration changes the entire surgical equation. It’s much easier to cut, healing is faster, but often the healing returns to the original structure. Conventional surgery doesn’t work, of at least, not quite the same way that it does with non-regenerators.
“Then there is the strange homeostasis mechanism you have. Other high-level regenerators have exhibited a process dubbed ‘System Reset Shock.’ Under extreme damage, the entire system seems to trigger a complete bodily reset, resulting in a dramatic restoration of the entire body. Initially, your process seemed to be related to that. But modest study showed that it had to be something different. First, your mechanism operated long before you became a regenerator. Second, it’s sometimes triggered by very modest changes to your body. Dr. Gellmar has dubbed it the Broken Record Syndrome, or BRS, where you spontaneously revert back to the exact form you had at age eleven. I understand that you’ve had many of these BRS events in the past few months.”
“A couple. It’s sometimes hard to tell. After my hormones – or maybe my body was just adapting to the weird injections. There was after the BIT-slicer, but that might have been a magic spell. Life’s been pretty chaotic recently.”
Dr. Ingraham just nodded. “I guess so! Well, you gave Dr. Gellmar a pretty extensive interview, and he’s matched that up with your other medical records. You’d be surprised how much he’s figured out. First of all, he has confirmed that BRS is real. And he’s proven that it isn’t regeneration, but a completely new mutant phenomena. And while he hasn’t completely proven it, he judges it highly likely that BRS is what’s keeping you ‘stuck’ at the age of eleven.”
“Ah, but the question is: How? Does it hold you at an eternal eleven? Or do you age, and just get set back with each BRS event? And how often do the BRS events occur? It’s possible that they’re more common than you realize, and that you’ve only noticed them recently, because you normally don’t change that much. What if they happen every three days?
“In any case, we’ve collated several facts about the BRS. First, it is strange and inconsistent. Stretching and flexibility improvements seem to survive a BRS event. Memory survives, fortunately for you. Hair length and style are unchanged, and if you’re wearing earrings, the piercing holes are maintained. On the other hand, exercise doesn’t survive. This is particularly odd, since, as a regenerator, exercise should work for you in minutes instead of days. Exercise is, after all, a special variety of healing process. Stress tears the muscle fibers, and when they heal they grow in more densely. Regenerators have a single gym session and walk out significantly stronger. But not you.
“Also, your genetic map resets. With one, noticeable and inexplicable exception. The cell sample you passed on to Thuban and then to Dr. Gellmar had female cells that were in the process of being reset back into male cells. We’ve preserved them, in a sort of biostasis. Dr. Gellmar is hoping to grow skin, organs, and all sorts of medical products from them. Of course, he has to be able to turn off the regeneration process for that, otherwise they’d take over the transplant recipient, as in the famous Melissa James heart transplant case.
“Your cells reverted completely, except that they retained the code for regeneration, and apparently nothing else of Miss Wilson’s genetic code. We are still utterly baffled by that. It’s as if the BRS was intelligent, and tired of fixing up all the minor scrapes and alterations you’ve been exposed to. That’s a silly way to look at it, but not so inaccurate. Regeneration keeps you the same, biologically static in a way, and BRS is still around for the big changes.” She sighed. “It makes SRS a significant challenge.”
The wall display had kept up with all of these items as the doctor spoke. Now the image that came up was a girl’s naked crotch.
“Between your regeneration and BRS, I’ve had to be very conservative. We know that earrings work, and persist. The urethral re-route tube is mechanically a similar process, just in a different part of the body. So are the stitches that maintain your new form and structure. The only real change we’ve made is to relocate your testes, and that was essentially a repositioning.”
Now an image of a female breast appeared.
“For your breast augmentation, I feel that we could safely use implants. Dr. Gellmar has provided me with a list of substances that will be inert, even in your body. The implant procedure shouldn’t disturb your body – it’s not really any different from when he implanted those lumps of substance under the skin of your arm, a few days ago. You’ll heal quickly, and we can be done today.”
Jade felt the excitement growing within her. “Yeah? Why do I hear a big ‘but’ attached to all of this?”
“Hmph. The big butt is a later procedure, and it’s really only minor cosmetic shaping. Back to the breasts, I feel confident that we could use implants. They’re safe, well understood, there’s little risk. But we wouldn’t be doing anything to advance the science. More than that, I believe you can do better.”
Jade just cocked her head to look at the doctor quizzically.
Tenderly, the doctor cupped her own mid-size breasts. “A woman’s breasts – they’re so much of who she is, and how she sees herself. Sure, you can slap on some fakes to make a show for the outside world, but what does that do to the woman inside?”
“Yours—” Jade asked it quietly “—yours are real?”
“One hundred percent real. The hormones that created them may have come from a bottle, but this flesh is me. All me.”
“But hormones didn’t work for me. Well, they did for a couple of days, but then that stopped.”
“Well, yes and no,” Dr. Ingraham clarified. “Dr. Gellmar has you on hormones, correct?”
“And he’s been doing PET scans, and several other scans. Those show that the hormones are being taken up and processed by your brain tissue. Whether this leads to structural changes and feminization at the neurological level we don’t know yet. But you haven’t become ‘immune to hormones’ or any such nonsense.”
“Okaaay.” Jade wasn’t sure where she was going with this.
“Look – hold on.” Dr. Ingraham typed on her computer console, changing the picture display. “Regenerators. As a class, they adapt quickly to toxins, disease. They adapt to adverse environments. Regenerators at high altitudes have their lung structure change, similar to the adaptations shown by natives of that altitude. A regenerator can compete with Himalayan Sherpas. Likewise, regenerator blood composition varies profoundly over the course of a day, and even more over the course of a week. It thickens and thins, blooms with antibodies and white cells, or settles down to the efficient movement of food and oxygen. Other biological functions are also heightened and adaptive. Males recover more quickly after sex. Their ‘down time’ is typically less than 60 seconds. Females never lose moisture during intercourse. Aging seems to be retarded, perhaps almost halted. Not all regenerators volunteer to be studied, and those that have are still too young for us to be able to answer that crucial point.
“And then, there is regenerator blood itself. Transfusions were done, for about two decades. It was to cure serious diseases that the regenerator had acquired an immunity to. And occasionally that worked. In about 10% of the cases. Another 30% seemed to be cured, initially, but the recipient slowly began to ‘heal’ into a clone of the donor. That’s pretty common. In two thirds of those cases, the cloning goes off okay. The other third, the cloning goes okay, but the brain gets wiped in the process. You end up with a regenerating clone that has the mind of a newborn babe.”
“That leaves 60%. What happens to them?”
Dr. Ingraham shook her head. “Not pretty. Super cancers that grow over the course of hours, extra limbs and organs, two bodies or more trying to grow in the same space. And the only thing medicine can do is cut away more and more of the original patient, because the rogue regenerative cells are always, always stronger.”
“I guess I should keep that in mind.” Jade was feeling a bit overwhelmed.
“Yes. Your blood is officially a bio-hazard. Menstrual blood is okay – it’s long dead. Oh, right, that wouldn’t apply to you right now.”
Jade felt a thrill of interest at the ‘right now’.
“Basically, act as if you had AIDS. Make sure your blood doesn’t contact anyone’s open wounds, that sort of thing. If there’s a problem, show your MID to any official, that should be linked to the proper files and procedures. In actual fact, it’s a lot safer than AIDS. We’ve never actually seen a transmission that way – only through an actual transfusion or transplant. Still, everyone is being very careful. The worst-case scenario is pretty frightening, and no one wants to take a chance.”
Jade sat there for a bit thinking about it, and about how her life had just become more complicated.
“Well, thanks for the info,” she finally said. “I guess I ought to go see Dr. Gellmar.” Somewhere along the line, she’d decided to go along with the torture one more time.
“No, wait – I forgot to get back to my original point!” Dr. Ingraham pressed a button, and the picture of a naked breast reappeared. “I talked about regenerators and how adaptive they are, and bodily structures, and fluids. The last point is that no one is ever born a regenerator. The power shows up during puberty. In fact, you may be one of the biologically youngest cases.”
“Interesting,” Jade agreed. “How does that affect me?”
The picture now changed to show a mother nursing a child. Breastfeeding.
“A regenerative mother always gives birth to a baby that cannot regenerate. We now suspect there may be important biological reasons why that would be so, but that’s not the point. The baby can’t regenerate, and it’s as if the mother can sense that. As if in compensation, the mother’s breast milk is extraordinarily complex. Through scent and touch and a host of means we haven’t been able to map out, the mother senses the baby’s condition and needs. If the baby is sick, her milk becomes flooded with antibodies. If the baby has indigestion, the milk soothes digestion. And if the baby is hurt or bleeding, the milk is flooded with chemicals to heal and repair. It’s not true regeneration, but it’s the next best thing.”
Jade’s eyes were open wide. “But… if it’s such a healing miracle, then why isn’t Dr. Gellmar studying that?”
“He was, before he moved on to your case. That’s where most of my data are from. The problem with ‘regenerator milk,’ as it’s called, is that it is tailored to the biochemistry of whoever is being nursed at the moment – whoever the mother is holding in her arms. It’s a custom chemical cocktail created on the spot, and it doesn’t work when fed to anyone else. It’s simply too complex to duplicate in an industrial process. But an individual regenerator can create it, on the spot, if she’s lactating.”
Jade gave a disparaging laugh. “Well, that’s sure not me. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I don’t even have boobs, much less a baby.”
“No, but women can be triggered to lactate, with the proper stimulation – the scent of a baby, the sound of it crying, and so on. And there is even anecdotal evidence of men, in certain societies, being triggered to lactate. You have a female mind, you’ve been taking hormones. I’ve just told you how adaptable regenerator bodies are. I want to try triggering you!”
Jade looked at the woman like she was crazy. “Sure, you’re welcome to try, but—”
Dr. Ingraham’s finger jammed down on a button. A few seconds later, the door opened. A slender black woman was there, holding a tiny, sickly baby, who was crying desperately, but weakly.
“Unless you can feed this baby with your breast milk, he will die!”
“I don’t need this!” Jade yelled. “I’ve been stressed all week about getting my clock cleaned in the finals, I’m about to get in to tortured by Dr. Gellmar, and now you’re telling me that if I can’t do something impossible, this baby is going to die? What is wrong with you people? Why does everything happen to me?”
The black woman moved forward, holding her baby. “Please. Please! They have told me that you might be able to do this. My baby has no other chance. You are his only hope.”
“I’d like to help,” Jade said, trying to make this poor woman understand. “Really, I would. But there’s nothing I can do!”
“You could try,” Dr. Ingraham said. “Put the baby to your breast. Suckle him.”
Jade had tears in her eyes by now. “I don’t have breasts! What am I supposed to do? Can’t we take him to a regular hospital?”
Dr. Ingraham explained. “We’ve flown Mrs. Jimoh in from Ilorin, in Nigeria. She was being treated there, but the normal treatment is melarsoprol combined with – well, that’s not important. What is important is that the parasite that causes sleeping sickness can grow resistant to all our current drug regimens. Even if we did have a new drug to kill the parasites, it has already migrated into the baby’s brain. Conventional medicine has no way to heal the lesions. It’s very likely that regenerator milk can save him – eliminate the parasites and heal the lesions.”
“Look,” Jade pleaded, “I’m willing to try whatever you want, but I couldn’t stand it if you blamed me when it doesn’t work. I – how can you make me responsible for a baby’s life?” The baby’s weak cries were really starting to get to her. “Can’t you at least do something to calm him down? That crying can’t be good for him.”
The black woman took a step closer, stretching out her arms to offer the baby to Jade. “Please. Just start by holding him. He is hungry. They told me, at the end of the plane flight, that I was not to feed him. He needs other food, food that I cannot give him.”
Jade couldn’t take the child. “He’s sick! What if I drop him, or hurt him? He looks so weak!”
“You would not hurt him, I know it,” the mother said. “Please. Just hold him. You look like such a nice girl.”
Tentatively, uncertainly, Jade responded, reaching her arms out. “I don’t want to disappoint you. Please, don’t make me be the one who’s responsible for this baby’s life.”
The black woman carefully settled her infant into Jade’s arms. “You look like a nice girl. I know that you will do whatever you can. We ask a lot from you. I apologize. But if there’s even a chance – when you are a mother, would you do less for your children?”
Jade held the child. His skin was a deep, dark, black. Not the chocolate brown that is more common in America, but the almost purple-black that is found in equatorial Africa. The short fuzz of hair on his head was already tightly curled. The baby was crying, but not loudly. It was as if he wanted to cry more, but he was too weak for it. For a moment, he was silent, then his eyes opened. Large, rich, dark eyes, full of need and pain. They looked straight into Jade’s eyes, and she felt the baby’s need pierce her soul. She gently stroked his fuzzy head, crooning gently to him without quite realizing what she was doing. The scent of him filled her nostrils – fresh, innocent, but there was a smell of wrongness, too.
“You should kiss him,” Dr. Ingraham said. “It’s more than just affection, it’s taking the chemicals of his skin into your own mouth. His scent and sweat. You need to engage all your senses.”
Jade rocked the baby in her arms, trying to get him to quiet down. She kissed him, murmuring softly to him. “It’ll be okay. Everything’s going to be okay.”
“Now,” the doctor said “you need to change his diapers.”
“What?” Jade forced her alarm not to sound too loud. She couldn’t disturb the baby in her arms. “Where? How? I’ve never done this before!”
“You need to smell his stool. If your body is going to react to his needs, you need to experience, to sense every aspect.”
And so, there on the hard conference table, Jade changed her first baby while a doctor talked her trough it. It was smelly, and messy, and she had to wash her hands afterward, but she finished the job. She’d expected more reaction from the baby, but he maintained the same weak crying throughout. Finally, when her hands were clean and she held the infant once more, she found she couldn’t take it anymore.
“There must be some way to stop his crying! What do we do?”
The mother leaned forward. “He stops crying when he eats. He is very hungry. He needs to nurse.”
“Alright! Anything! Just… I can’t stand to let him cry!”
“First, you must remove your shirt and bra,” Dr. Ingraham explained.
This was the part that Jade had feared. Her bra was ever so slightly padded. It wasn’t much – the difference between flat and triple-A, which is to say the difference between nothing at all, and the barest imaginings. But without the shirt, without the bra, everyone would see that she was no girl at all.
“You were right,” the mother said. “You have no breasts. You haven’t developed yet at all. Is it possible to do this?”
“You have to teach her how to nurse,” the doctor explained. “Her body will adapt! It has to!”
“Very well. Here, you need to hold him like this. His head will rest just inside your elbow. That is why your breasts are located there. So that when your arm holds the baby, like that, his mouth will reach you there, and he can suck.”
Cradling the baby in her arms, following the instructions, Jade brought the baby to her chest. Her nipples were small and useless, but apparently the contrast of the darker flesh of her nipples against her lighter skin of her chest was enough. After a moments searching, the baby moved forward on his own, his mouth settling over Jade’s tiny nipple.
She felt his tiny, vulnerable mouth. He had no teeth yet, but he had a strong jaw. His tongue touched her, as if finding the proper position, and he began to suck her into his mouth. It felt very strange. She wished with all her might that she could help somehow, but she knew this was a hopeless task. Still, this baby needed her.
After a minute of effort, the baby grew frustrated and gave up, pulling back to cry again.
“Now you switch sides and try again,” the mother patiently explained. “Do not worry, I have taught many young girls how to nurse their first child.”
Jade flipped the crying baby around and began trying to nurse him against her right nipple.
“I’ve researched several suggestions,” Dr. Ingraham said. “I’m going to try some of them.”
She brought out a small cup along with a pencil-sized paintbrush. While Jade stood there, a captive of the desperately nursing baby, Dr. Ingraham began to paint her left nipple with a watery solution.
“This is sugar water. It will leave a sweet crust on you, and the baby will taste it and nurse harder.”
“Harder?” Jade demanded. “It already seems like he’s trying to suck half my chest into his mouth.”
“That’s because he is so weak,” the boy’s mother explained. “Normally, there would be no try. It can be painful, but it is also rewarding to be a mother.”
When the baby cried again, Jade switched sides again. This time, the baby obviously tasted something he liked. He kept suckling for nearly two minutes that time. But he figured out the trick when Jade switched sides again. He licked the sugar off, but refused to suckle further.
“Okay. Next attempt. Jade, sit here under this shelf.”
While Jade sat down, the doctor placed a large bottle up on the shelf. It appeared to be full of milk. From the bottle, two small, clear tubes came out. Each was smaller in diameter than a pencil, and they appeared to be siphoning the milk out of the bottle.
“We tape these to your chest. Each tube comes stops just above your nipple. The baby will think he’s nursing, but it’s really coming from the tubes.”
She clamped off the right tube, and taped the left tube against Jade’s chest, ending almost at her nipple. This time, Jade settled the baby and he began to suckle, and then immediately became more energetic, sucking her and chewing on her with more energy than before.
So, while she and the doctor and the mother sat and quietly discussed the problem, Jade began to learn how to properly breastfeed a baby, and she sat there for a quarter of an hour, holding the sick baby, touching him, smelling him, and wishing with all her heart that there was some way she could help him.
Finally, though, there was a knock on the conference room door. Dr. Ingraham quickly tossed a small blanket over Jade’s shoulders, cloaking her chest area.
“Dr. Gellmar says the team is ready. It’s time for the next experiment.”
Reluctantly, Jade loosened the baby’s hold, slipping her index finger between his mouth and her skin, breaking the powerful suction.
“I’ll see if I can come back afterward,” she promised.
Changing into her hospital gown, she rubbed at her sore nipples. The suction had left them somewhat distended, and her chest was sore on both sides. Both from the suction and the toothless chewing-type motion the baby had made, as well as from his small fingers as he clawed and grabbed to hold on to her. Spikes of pain stabbed into her, every few moments, as her chest healed up from the strange abuse.
She tried not to think of the poor baby, while she slipped into the skimpy gown. She found that her attention was more than captured by the thought of the upcoming flaying.
She slipped into her ‘out-of-body’ trance almost immediately. Even so, she could sense what was happening to her. The pain didn’t penetrate, not exactly. But she could sense the outrages that were being performed against her body, even while she wasn’t inside it. They were carefully peeling the skin off her, like you’d skin an animal. Then, to make it worse, they were sticking their probes into her flayed leg, as they studied how she heeled.
Normally, the ‘out-of-body’ technique would take her away from most of the pain, and then she could use meditation to mitigate the rest of the agony. Today, though, she just kept thinking of that poor baby. The pain in her leg seemed appropriate and deserved. It was her punishment for not being able to feed him. Never mind that her body was actually male, and that the whole concept was absurd. If she didn’t help this baby, who could? Who would? She told herself that when she figured out how to solve the problem, then she’d be rewarded, and her pain would vanish.
Then, Jinn returned to her, and she knew this session was done. They’d spent sixty minutes, and her leg (now wrapped in gel-coated bandages was still too sore to walk on. So once she was lowered into a wheelchair, she sent for Dr. Ingraham.
“Has Dr. Gellmar finished for today?”
Jade nodded, jerkily. “Leg still hurts like hell,” she admitted. “And on top of that, my chest’s sore from all the suction. But… I guess we can try it again. I mean, I don’t know how to do this, but I want to try everything.”
Hospital gowns weren’t made for opening in the front, but they managed to get it off her shoulders and pulled down to her waist.
“There are other clothes that make nursing much easier,” the doctor said. “Or so I’m told. I personally wouldn’t—”
“What’s wrong?” Jade asked.
Jade looked down at herself. Once before she’d seen this, the first time she’d been on hormones. Her tiny nipples had changed. They were twice as large as they had been, perhaps three times the size. And the areola was larger, double the diameter. It seemed thicker and harder, and as Jade pressed her fingers to her chest, it felt like there was a hard disk of callous under the areola.
“It’s happening,” Dr. Ingraham said, as if in disbelief. “I thought— the literature said— but I wasn’t sure.”
Moments later, the mother came in, holding her child. Her eyes focused instantly on Jade’s chest. “It’s true! It changes!” Her face was suddenly lit with the overwhelming force of a mother’s emotions. As hope and wonder rose in her eyes, Jade thought that she’d never seen a more beautiful woman. “It’s happening! You will save my baby!”
At the raised voice, the baby in her arms woke and began to cry again.
The sound was agony to Jade, piercing through her. And worse, she felt herself respond. Like a physical clenching, something changed within her. Looking down in puzzlement, she saw those two strangely-large nipples that were attached to her chest. Nothing had changed on the right. But on the left, one drop of pure white sweat seemed to be forming at the tip of her left nipple.
That’s not sweat, she realized.
“YES! My baby will LIVE!” The woman thrust her child forward, almost roughly. “Feed him!”
Once more, Jade settled the baby against her chest. She still fumbled with the unfamiliar task, but in moments the baby’s dark mouth settled around her much lighter flesh. She felt him pull her into his mouth as he began to suck. He must have tasted something he liked, because he went to work with more vigor than he had before. And it was like there was a whole tracery there inside her chest. Like a pattern of fine tree roots, or some strange network of vessels. She couldn’t feel it, exactly, but flashes of pain strobed through her. And there at the nipple, she felt something flow. Just drips and dribbles, but she knew what it was. She understood what was happening.
As she sat there in the wheelchair, she had no idea that her own face had transformed as much as the child’s mother. She held a small, desperately ill child against her breast, and she fed him with food that her own body was producing. She performed that act that is one of the defining moments of motherhood, and something changed forever within her.
The baby pulled off and began to cry.
“You aren’t producing enough yet,” Dr. Ingraham explained. “Switch sides.”
Jade did, and the baby began to nurse again.
“Wow,” she said. “That’s not entirely comfortable, is it?”
“One grows used to it. It will eventually bring a feeling of great comfort.” The woman was beaming now, with a comfortable, happy smile. “But no, it is not like when a man touches you. That is… quite different. But this nursing will make you even more sensitive than usual. You will have to tell your man to be extra gentle when he touches you.”
“I don’t have a man,” Jade protested. “Well, I mean, he doesn’t touch me there. Um, not yet.”
“Ah. Well, maybe not now, but soon,” the grinning woman said. “You will need him to. Otherwise, how will you get a baby of your own?”
“A baby… of my own?”
Jade looked down and the tiny innocent who was sucking so hard at her.
“Yes, of course. Now that you are feeding my son, can you tell me that you don’t want a baby of your own? Not today, maybe, but someday?”
Jade stared down at the infant boy nursing off her. She paused a moment to shift him to the other side, carefully lining him up to re-attach. She stared at the black baby at her breast and thought. This poor, sick baby, from another continent, of another race – he wasn’t her child. She didn’t really know him, or his mother, or even any of his people. But he was beautiful.
And she imagined someday having her own baby. Perhaps she wouldn’t be able to have a baby in the normal way, perhaps she’d have to adopt. But at least now she knew that she’d be able to feed him. A child of her own?
She gazed as the child and felt a tremendous swelling that had nothing to do with growing tissue.
A child of her own.
She didn’t answer out loud, but the expression of dawning wonder on her face told the other two women all they needed to know.
“…so I only ended up feeding him for, I think, less than a minute. It’s not like I really had any milk, but I had some.”
Billie and Nikki were the only ones in the room. Both of them had eyes as wide as if they were watching a horror movie.
“You’re telling me,” Billie breathed, with mounting horror, “that a girl could be walking by, and hear a crying baby, and she’ll… she’ll…”
“Start lactating?” Jade suggested. “Yeah, apparently. Although it helps if you’ve nursed before. It’s like it closes a switch in your brain, so you really know you can do it. And you know that whatever reason that baby has for crying, they’ll probably stop if they start nursing. Which makes sense. I mean, it’s not like they can cry if they’re sucking on you, right? It’s like a cure-all. Baby wants food or attention or just about anything. So he cries, and mom comes and nurses him. Then baby’s quiet.”
“Oh … my … GOD,” Nikki ground out. “I’m only starting to get used to the idea that I actually have…” she waved at herself “…boobs. And now you’re filling my head with all these insane ideas!”
Jade sighed. “It isn’t insane. What do you think those breasts are for? They’re more than just hood ornaments, you know. They have a function. They’re there for a reason.”
“The worst part is being lectured by a kid,” Nikki admitted. “I mean, I’m the one with the C-cup. Shouldn’t I be lecturing you?”
Jade had to pause to check again.
“Uh, not that we aren’t entranced by the show,” Billie said, “but why do you keep pulling your shirt up?”
“To see if they’re growing in yet! I keep getting these really painful pains. Like someone’s jabbing me with a needle. Sometimes right through the nipple! You ever get those?”
Billie shook her head in denial, but Nikki nodded. “Yeah, when my breasts were growing in. Mom said it was typical for girls. ‘Growing pains.’ ”
Billie shrugged. “That explains it. I got everything at once – one fell swoop. When you feel like you’re being burned alive, the little stuff sometimes escapes your notice.”
“So,” Nikki wondered, “regenerators are really adaptable, huh? They quickly respond to environmental changes?”
“What are you getting at?” Jade asked. “You want to carry a crying baby past a bunch of regenerators, and see if the girls get their shirts wet?”
Billie had her arms clutched over her chest. “Oh, I so much do not want to hear this!”
“What’s the matter?” Nikki leered. “Oh, that’s right. You’re turning into a super-regenerator, aren’t you? Wonder how fast you’ll turn the old faucets on?”
Billie stuck her fingers in her ears. “I can’t hear you!”
“Uh, I’m not sure if you want to do that, oneesan. At least not until you have your milk tested, to make sure it isn’t antimatter milk or something.”
Nikki frowned in puzzlement. “Is this a chicken and egg problem? Because how can they test it until she’s actually giving milk, and how can she do that until she’s nursing a baby, but she can’t nurse until they test, right?”
“Well,” Jade explained, “I think there are machines that can suck the milk out for you. Maybe she could do it that way.”
Unfortunately, the door opened right then. Toni, Chou, and Ayla walked in just in time to hear Billie yell, “No one is testing my milk!”
In the utterly embarrassing silence that followed, Ayla said, “Sheesh. I would have volunteered if you’d just bothered to ask.”
Thursday morning, Jade woke. She was fuzzier than usual. Jinn had shaken her awake, but hadn’t returned her memories yet. Jade forced herself to sit up, then, feeling groggy, stood and staggered out the door and toward the girls’ room. Inside she sat and did her business, smiling anew at the feeling and the rightness of her slightly modified anatomy. It gave her the confidence to sleep without panties. That was more convenient when going to the bathroom, because she just pulled up her nightgown and sat down. There was nothing to drop down to the dirty floor.
She staggered to the sink afterward, using the drinking fountain there. As she stood up, swishing the water around in her mouth, she idly glanced at her reflection. Bed hair. Face mussed. Small breasts tenting out her nightgown ever so slightly. No other figure to speak of.
She spit the water all over the mirror. Seconds later, she was racing back to her room. With a whoop of glee, she shucked off her nightgown and was looking at her full length mirror while feeling her new additions. “It worked! It worked!”
“Huh? Whasagraphel?” Billie rose up from her bed. That is, she rose upward while still lying down. Then she rotated around to settle, standing up, to floor. “Hey!” She pointed at Jade’s chest. “You got a visit from the titty fairy! What are those? Double-A?”
“I don’t know! I don’t know!” The smaller girl peered at herself critically. “They’re okay, aren’t they? I mean, it looks like I’ve got a pair of little funnels on my chest. Aren’t they supposed to be big and round, like yours?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Billie said dryly. “Like I said last night, when everybody was busy embarrassing me, I didn’t exactly get mine in the normal fashion. Why don’t you ask Nikki. Sounds like hers grew in more slowly.”
Jade wrapped a towel around herself and then went tearing across the hall to the room opposite. “Nikki! Toni-sensei! Look! Look! Hey, are these okay?”
By the time the other girls were awake enough to respond, they’d seen more than enough of Jade’s early-adolescent breasts.
“But they aren’t a weird shape or anything, are they? They’re kind of like little cones or something. Are my nipples supposed to be so big?”
“Look, they’re fine,” Toni said. “That’s a fine shape. For a lot of girls, they don’t start getting rounder until they’re a bit larger.”
Nikki took out a fabric tape measure. “Let’s check you out.” After getting Jade’s band and bust measurements, she decided, “Yeah, that’s what I’d call double-A.”
“But they’re so small! Are they supposed to be that small?”
Toni shrugged. “Rome wasn’t built in a day. Besides, how big do you want them to be?”
Jade thought for a minute. “Large enough to feed a baby, at least. Oh! I’d better call Dr. Ingraham! She’s staying in Dunwich with little Alhaji and Mrs. Jimoh.”
She tried to think of what to wear as she dressed. It was Thursday, so there was only today and tomorrow. Whatever she wore, it had better be good for the final.
She briefly debated with herself over wearing the Utility Coat. It looked like a regular white lab coat, but it was actually the Whateley standard devisor wear. The advantage was that it was insulated, acid-proof, flame-retardant, waterproof, and soil-resistant. Even the ‘thin’ version that Jade had was reputed to be slightly bulletproof, but most of the other devisors were skeptical. On the downside, she didn’t wear it often enough for it to really be “street wear” for her, and there was also the fact that Mrs. Jimoh might get confused seeing her in it and think she was some sort of medical doctor. She didn’t have any gear to connect to the anchor points. The pockets and loops on the inside would be moderately useful, but she could already carry most of her gear.
Instead, she decided to wear the school uniform that Miss Rogers had made. It was cut to allow for (and emphasize) a slight bust. The outfit had been interwoven with Zylor, so it should be as bulletproof as the utility coat. More important, the uniform came with a “free repair” guarantee.
She stepped into a pair of plain white panties, pulling them on a little too tight, as she’d been doing since Tuesday. She was proud of her new contours, and wanted them to be obvious. She didn’t plan on being an exhibitionist, but it made her feel better and more confident knowing that if anyone did get a peek under her skirt, they’d see clear evidence of her feminity.
She pulled on the knee socks – it was winter. Her black pleated skirt came just to her knees, which meant that the winter winds ended up chilling her thighs. She’d come to understand something much better in the past few days. She had typically gone around in a shameful ‘tuck’, with her boy parts pulled back so that her shape was an illusion of a girl’s contours. But having things surgically altered, being closer to the actual feminine reality, left her much less susceptible to the cold. Her thighs still got cold, but with the testicles gone she wasn’t bothered by it nearly so much. On the other hand, a full bladder now felt like someone was crushing her balls, but it was a price she was willing to pay.
Cecelia Roger’s bras gave the best fit, but they weren’t quite right. She thought that maybe if she had to go into Dunwich anyway for an early-morning feeding, perhaps she could get them adjusted. She debated going braless. Part of her wanted to show off, but she was a little insecure about her shape. Also, she occasionally spotted drops of white at the tips of her nipples, and she didn’t want to stain her blouse.
She clipped on her bracers. These days, she felt almost undressed without the titanium bands on her forearms. The black silk lining and wrap had white trim, in the Whateley style. With the full explosive load, they were a pound-and-a-half on each arm, and it wasn’t like she was getting stronger as she adapted to them, but the weight and drag were coming to be old friends. She could block a brick’s punch with them, and just the threat of that missile load had forced more than one jerk to back down.
Her vest buttoned up her waist, but leaving the top buttons undone helped emphasize her incipient bust. The blazer then concealed that, but it was winter.
Lastly, she slipped her Cobra 250 into the holster at the small of her back. It was concealed by her vest, though it left a noticeable bulge. It was much harder to spot when she had her blazer on, but it was still easy to reach and draw.
She finished fixing her hair and a put on a light touch of makeup, and nodded at herself in the mirror, satisfied with the reflection.
Every other day this week she had been almost shaking with anxiety at the looming threat of the combat final. Now, all she could think about was feeding a baby. Without even leaving her room, she called Bio-regenetics and asked for a car to pick her up.
“It’ll be on the access road in about five minutes.”
She thanked them, and zapped up a copy of Jinn to cover breakfast with her friends.
Ten minutes later, she was in Dunwich, heading into Myrtle’s Diner, and reaching out to hug Dr. Ingraham and Mrs. Jimoh.
The doctor’s eyes were shining. “So it’s working?”
“You sound surprised.”
“Well, the literature suggested… Medically I knew it had a good chance of working, but there was no way to be sure.”
“I’m about double-A now,” Jade admitted. “And I’m starting to feel a little, I don’t know. Sensitive, maybe. I think my bra might be too tight – I need to get it adjusted for my new size.”
Mrs. Jimoh handed her baby to Jade. He was in a new little outfit, black with white trim, just like the Whateley colors. It set off his skin tone perfectly, and Jade thought he looked simply adorable. She tried to conceal it, but a couple of times she had noticed strange bits of prejudice in herself. Toni-sensei was a close friend, so that was different. And she had initially had just the slightest hesitation in accepting Mrs. Jimoh, but as she took this black baby in her arms, she couldn’t remember ever thinking that he was anything other than beautiful and perfect.
She reached down to open her shirt, and then realized they were in public. Not only that, her shirt and bra were hardly designed for exposing her breasts in public. “How—? Where do I—?”
Mrs. Jimoh understood and came to her rescue. “This is my first time in your country. You people seem so shocked by the most natural behavior. I don’t know your American customs for this, but perhaps if we sit in one of the back booths, with your back to the door. If you’d like, I could cover you with one of the small blankets.”
“Yeah, thanks. Also, do you know how I should position my bra? How am I supposed to do this?”
Jade settled herself in the seat, and began to unbutton her blouse. Her bra hooked in back, so she wasn’t sure how she’d ever fix the problem without going into contortions. Fortunately, she had powers. Casting Jinn into her clothing, she felt things subtly slide and rearrange on her. Her bra unfastened and moved up her chest, just as her shirt and vest pulled themselves open.
The baby saw and practically lunged at her, mouth wide.
“Hungry, isn’t he?”
Mrs. Jimoh gave a tired smile. “I was told not to feed him last night. It was difficult, but he hasn’t been sleeping properly anyway. The sickness, you understand. Last night he actually slept solid for three hours.”
Jade couldn’t answer. She was too busy experiencing. Even before the baby lunged forward, she saw that telltale drop of white at the end of her nipple. It was as if her body knew what was coming, and was prepared. Now, as he took her into his mouth, he sucked even more of her inside his mouth. It wasn’t completely comfortable, but it was … fulfilling. In moments, his tiny jaws began to work at her, as his tongue squeezed her distended nipple up against the roof of his mouth. Combined with the suction he was generating, it was more than enough to get her milk flowing. She genuinely felt it this time. There was a warmth that reached through her entire breast, culminating in her nipple. And in the center, she felt something moving like a liquid tickle as it flowed through the center of her nipple. It wasn’t a continuous stream, but it came in spurts, as the baby suckled.
The uncomfortable tightness began to ease, at least on the left side, where she was nursing. She intently studied the baby feeding off her, looking into his eyes, stroking his head, smelling the scent of him.
“He’s different,” she decided. “He doesn’t look much different, but his scent has changed. Just a little.”
“It’s the regenerator milk,” Dr. Ingraham said. “Even the little bit he got yesterday. It’s healing him, maybe changing him. It should work faster, now that you’re producing more milk.”
“So long as he survives,” the mother said. “Anything so long as he becomes healthy once more.”
“I’ve got to switch sides,” Jade announced. “He’s not done on the left yet, but I’m feeling really full on the right.”
She did, though the baby wasn’t happy to be pulled away from his food. But he went to work eagerly on the right side.
“Now I’m leaking on the left. What am I supposed to do about that?”
“Nursing pads,” Dr. Ingraham announced. “They insert into your bra. They’re absorbent, to catch any leaks, so you won’t stain your clothes.”
“I feel like I should complain or something. But I can’t. This is such a fantastic feeling!”
And so the three women chatted with each other through a leisurely breakfast, while a small baby did his best to suck Jade dry. It took nearly 20 minutes, because each time Jade felt like there was nothing left, she would switch sides and there was just a little more. Finally, though, Mrs. Jimoh reached for her baby.
“If you don’t mind? It’s been nearly a day since he’s nursed off me, and it has become quite painful.”
Understanding completely, Jade handed over the baby, who now began to nurse off his mother. She looked on with new understanding as she studied the smiling woman leaning over her suckling babe. There was a bond, a connection that went far beyond the simple feeding relationship. Did I look like that?
The thought brought an element of wonder with it. For so long she had wanted to be a girl. Now, out of the blue, she had done something that was as purely female as anything she could imagine. She had been a woman, almost a mother. She was still trying to get her head around the experience, but she already knew that it would be a transforming moment of her life.
This was what she had dreamed of, and the reality was better than the dream. The way she felt while nursing the baby – she had no words to express it. She finally understood why breasts were so important. It was true that they made her look prettier, and she knew that the larger her breasts were, the more Stephen and the other boys would pay more attention to her. But that was nothing compared to the feeling and meaning and importance of nursing a baby. She wanted more of that feeling.
“Is this going to work?” Her question was directed to Dr. Ingraham. “Can I cure him?”
“We should know in the next day or two. Studies indicate that the effects are dramatic, particular with higher-level regenerators such as yourself. We can’t keep Mrs. Jimoh here indefinitely, but if things are going well I think we’ll continue this treatment for another seven days. That should be more than sufficient, and you’ll be in school until next Friday, right?”
Jade nodded. “Everyone will start to leave Friday evening, a week from tomorrow.” She sighed. “We have finals next week for everything except the combat stuff. That’s this week.” She glanced at her watch. “In fact, I probably need to get back to school. I’ll probably get tested today.”
Mrs. Jimoh looked at her in mixed surprise and alarm. “Your schools have tests for … fighting? I had heard rumors about American schools, but I never believed them.”
“No, no, not normal schools. Whateley is a school for mutants. It’s – how do I explain it? Being a mutant in this country is dangerous. You have to know how to defend yourself.”
“And a small girl like you can defend herself?”
Jade reached behind her back and pulled out her gun. She was careful to move in non-threatening ways and to make triple-sure that she neither pointed it at anyone, nor seemed to threaten them. But the gun she held there on the table was very strange and dangerous looking.
“Yeah, I can defend myself. I may not be able to stop some of the bigger jerks out there, but I can sure slow them down.” She gazed again at the nursing baby. “And I guess I can do things that they’ll never be able to do. It may not win the fight, but it’s just as important, isn’t it?”
Mrs. Jimoh shared her look. “Many mothers would like to think that it’s more important.”
Jade nodded thoughtfully. Her combat finals still loomed, but somehow they no longer seemed so threatening.
“You’re looking pretty good for a combat day,” Billie commented, as Jade took a seat beside her roommate.
“Miss Roger’s boutique. You shop there, don’t you? Did you get the free maintenance option?”
Billie’s eyes went wide. “I did! I completely forgot! Do you have any mailers?”
“Back in the room. A couple of them.”
Toni leaded over. “You seem to be in a lot better mood.”
“Morning nursing session,” Jade explained. “It … I can’t explain. Maybe it just put everything in perspective.”
“You look pretty mellow. You aren’t going to take a fall, are you?”
The youngest girl smiled, looking peaceful and content. “I’ll do my best to blow them to bits, even if I do have to face Counterpoint. And I’m starting to realize that I can take a lot of damage. It’ll hurt for a bit but – so what?” Her smile turned a little cocky. “Yeah, I think I’ll give a pretty good fight.”
As if on cue, the current clean-up finished, and Ito sensei came forward.
“Next examination,” he called, in a voice that was electronically carried to the stands, “Generator!”
The holographic system projected Jade’s MID into air above the center of the arena, thirty feet wide and fifty feet tall. The picture was from back when she’d had Billie’s figure – she’d have to fix that one of these days. In just a few, brief lines, it summed up the modest level of threat she presented.
|Ratings::||Regen - 5, Devisor - 2, Martial Arts - Basic|
|Techniques:||Cobra 250 linear induction pistol, 6-shot, Mini missiles, Taser / grapple, Vertigo strobe, Razor drone
|Weak vs.:||Normal human vulnerabilities, Regenerates|
|Backup/Team affiliation:||Team Kimba
See also SHROUD
She frowned at the accuracy of her equipment list, but stuck with her decision to let it all go public on her MID. She was playing this game for the long haul – graduation and beyond. She wanted to lock into people’s minds now that she was a devisor, and had a good but limited set of tricks. She’d be changing the mix next semester. Maybe she’d finally add that jetpack. And any real villains she faced, like during the Boston Brawl, weren’t likely to have her current list of tricks. And once she graduated, she’d tinker with tricks to her heart’s content. By then, people would be stuck on the devisor explanation for her powers.
Not that her mind wasn’t still boiling over with ideas. This morning she was thinking about mechanical tentacles, inspired by the Doctor Octopus look. It would be pretty easy, if she used Jann to power them. The only thing that held her back was that Doc Ock had super-strong tentacles. Jann wouldn’t be any stronger than normal. That would give her tentacles strong enough to fight regular folks, but it wouldn’t do her much good in the combat finals. How did Doc Ock power those things, anyway? She shrugged, dismissing the idea. Tentacles were too close to Shroud’s “creepy haunt-thing” look anyway.
And all the ideas in the world wouldn’t help her on the fight that would happen right now. Pleased with how steady her hands were, she rose from her seat and headed down the stairs toward the arena entrance. She paused just long enough to look as her opponent was announced.
“Generator,” Ito sensei continued, “versus Electrode!”
Now a second holographic card was projected showing Jackie hovering in mid-air, in her blue and white costume with the silver lightning trim. Her vitals were also shown:
|Ratings::||Energizer – 4 (Electricity, Magnetism), Exemplar - 3, Martial arts – basic|
|Techniques:||Flight, Force field, Electric arc, Blinding flash, Magnetic control|
|Weak vs.:||Psychic, Magic|
Jackie lived one floor up from Jade. They’d been skinny-dipping together. It was too bad that wouldn’t count on the semester final. Still, it felt better to be facing another girl, and especially another T-girl! Jade smiled. Even if she lost, this would be a good fight.
She gathered her confidence around her like a cloak, as she descended. She missed that. As Shroud, it was fun to play with the cloak, swirling it and wrapping it around her. But her physical body needed a completely different look. How could she manage that?
She checked her gun, making sure it was loose in the holster. An image struck her of a western gunfighter in his leather trench coat. That wasn’t a bad idea. A trench coat gunfighter. Maybe it was time to start dropping hints to Stephen about good Christmas presents.
She stepped through the wide, armored doors. When they slid closed behind her, the illusion sealed itself. She seemed to be standing on a sidewalk in the street of the anonymous Midwestern city. She knew that Electrode would be about two hundred yards away, somewhere beyond the lambent glow ahead. Her fingers rolled a small piece of grit – a speck large enough to cast Jamie into.
“You know the rules,” Ito sensei’s voice came from the speakers. “A small city, with many innocents moving through the combat area. Points deducted for harming innocents. First person to enter their code into the device wins. GO!”
Jade could have won immediately by cheating – charging up a small glove and secretly typing the code in while her physical body distracted Electrode. But that would give away all her secrets in one shot. A high grade in class wasn’t worth it.
She was definitely learning.
Jamie flashed back to her almost immediately. Electrode wasn’t hiding. Two hundred yards away, the girl rose into the air, surrounded by a crackling blue electric glow. A ring of blue-white fire flashed over her, and when it had passed, Jackie’s street clothes had changed into her costume.
That’s new! Jade realized. And definitely worth extra credit. Many of their teachers had stressed the advantages of fighting in your “official costume” – familiarity of tools and protection, a subconscious willingness to cut loose with your full power, and improved team coordination (even if they hadn’t studied that much yet). Jade didn’t have much of a costume. With a click on one hair barrette, a holographic targeting visor appeared over her right eye. It was entirely a prop created by Bunny, but it looked like good devisor gear.
Jade raised her shooting arm and fired a trio of missiles from her bracer cuff. Then she switched to her left arm and fired the grapple.
This was only the second week she’d used the grapple. Her right bracer held missiles, while the left had the grapple and taser assembly. The grapple shot out – a small mechanical claw propelled by a tiny rocket. It was actually Jinn (she needed a better name for her grapple-self). The flame was the same atmospheric exciter that was used in the Kitty Compact. Jackie could magnetically control nearly any metal, and one of her favorite tricks was to send a charge down a wire to shock her opponent. That meant that the Kitty Compact was useless, and the grapple line (which was a super-fine braided high-tension wire) was a nasty danger. But Jade had to reach the spindle fast!
The grapple connected with a second-story gutter bracket. As Jinn’s memories flashed in, Jade clicked the retract button, and the spring-wound bracer yanked her off her feet with a jerk. She could also send an electric charge into her hand or down the wire, but that would be worse than useless against Jackie.
Jade swung forward in a fast arc, controlling the cable reel-in / pay-out with her left hand as she reached for her gun with the right. Another control cut the wire, and she rolled to her feet and sprinted forward. She continued to consider strategies as she ran.
She was at a major disadvantage in purely physical combat. Electrode was a sophomore. She had a sixteen-year-old body to match against Jade’s eleven-year-old form. Even worse, Electrode had a year more training.
The grapple and taser were useless against Jackie. Her vertigo flashers were probably also useless. She’d used them too often in the halls of Poe. And using them now would make them useless against anyone on campus.
She had two charges she could use. She could use three and still have enough energy to fight, but one charge was already powering Shroud, sitting in the audience. Right now, a second charge was powering the three “missiles” she’d just fired off. That left her feeling like she’d finished a mile-long jog. She had a third charge she could use. She could fire another grapple shot, but where?
Her gun would be useless, she realized. It fired its loads through linear induction, the small spheres were designed to have a strong magnetic “grip.” But the chaos and confusion might be worth it…
As she ran she popped the standard clip from her gun and slapped in a secondary clip. This one alternated smoke clouds and sticky-web loads. In both cases, she could shoot to miss Jackie, and perhaps still manage to get good effect from the shot. Linked with Jann, she had no problem seeing through a smoke cloud.
Ahead, there were two explosions high in the air. Jade’s mini-missiles had plastic cases, so Electrode couldn’t deflect them with her force field. Unfortunately, Electrode flew faster than Shroud, so she could probably dodge the missiles.
But Jade had a plan. She’d fired three missiles: one explosive, one smoke cloud (the day-glo orange variant), and the third released a small cloud of knockout gas. The first two had gone off simultaneously, creating a dangerous explosion and opaque cloud directly ahead of Electrode. The third missile continued on, landing and settling just at the opening to the spindle’s keypad. It contained knockout gas, and would explode “on command.”
Electrode soared through the cloud a second later, flying over the top of a sporting goods store. Jade skidded to a halt and dropped to a kneeling stance on the sidewalk. With a two-handed grip, she fired off two shots from her gun, then rose to sprint forward again.
Sporting a look of fierce glee, Electrode pulled up into a hover and faced the oncoming shots. She held her palm out and made a brusque bushing-aside motion, magnetically flinging the oncoming loads away. Then, feeling the grip she had on them, she took on a look of triumph, and flung her arm forward in a pitching motion toward Jade. The spheres from Jade’s gun hung motionless in the air for one second, then shot back at the young girl, returning to their origin.
Pelting down the street, Jade’s eyes widened. She hadn’t expected that! This was where Ito sensei’s training came in, even if the two of them never closed to hand-to-hand range. Jade immediately jumped onto the hood and roof of a parked pickup and leapt as hard as she could. Behind her, the smoke and webbing loads struck the truck and wrapped it in a tangled mess of sticky threads.
This is going to hurt, she realized, coming down from her leap. High level regeneration and martial arts combined in an interesting way. Often, the trick was learning not only how to minimize the damage, but how to minimize the loss of mobility. She could hear Ito’s shout in her mind, “Maintain mobility, no matter how much other pain or damage you take!” After all, damage would regenerate, but a loss of mobility could be fatal. With that in mind, she curled forward to take a rolling landing onto asphalt, only noticing the oncoming traffic at the last second.
She twisted her roll aside, narrowly missing an oncoming cab. She felt her right arm snap, and lost her gun on the pavement.
Not worth going after, she decided. It’s no good against Electrode anyway.
She tumbled, soaking up other bruises.
Oh, DAMN that hurts! The broken arm was painful, but her new breasts really protested the rough treatment.
Even before she’d stopped moving, she managed to roll back to her feet, her right arm hanging limp at her side.
The spindle flashed with the brilliant greens and purples of sounds of someone inputting a code sequence. A second later, she felt Jann snap back to her, and raised her left arm, depressing the button that issued the ultrasonic trigger to exploded the sleeping-gas missile. Form and style were more important than reality in this case. Jann had lain in wait for Electrode to fly down to the keypad. Then Jann exploded, releasing the cloud of sleep gas. A bare instant later, Jade raised her arm and emitted a signal to make it look like she had triggered the missile-trap. Anyone in the audience who could hear ultrasonics would certainly think that. The fact that the ultrasonic trigger had come an instant after the explosion would be lost in the chaos of combat.
Jade raced forward again, holding her right arm to ease jolting of the broken bones as they ground together with each footfall. It was just coincidence that it also shielded her sensitive breasts.
The spindle was just up ahead, and Jackie’s form was crumpled on the ground.
“Yes!” She raced forward.
“Surprise!” Jackie rose up, at full power, both hands thrust forward as she fired a snaking arc of blue-white electric current, striking Jade square in the chest.
Jade didn’t have time to swear, didn’t even have time to charge Jann, as her body spasmed and she collapsed unconscious.
She skipped out on the afternoon fights in order to get in an early session in Berlin. She’d left Shroud behind to watch.
First aid provided a sling. They offered a splint or even a cast, if she wanted one, but she used Jann instead, casting her telekinetic essence directly into the bones of her arm. Looking from the inside, Jann pulled the bones back together, holding them in place and slowly moving the small loose chips back into position. It hurt like a demon, but she was able to cope with it, knowing that the pain was purely temporary.
By the time she reached Berlin, she could use her arm again. It was sore, but functional.
At the Bio-regenetics building she met up with Mrs. Jimoh for an afternoon feeding. The feeling of fullness had been growing, and the nursing was a welcome relief. More importantly, the baby was obviously responding to the treatment. His eyes were wide open, he was looking around, and he wasn’t crying. While she was feeding him, Dr. Ingraham came in.
“Alhaji’s latest blood tests are back. The level of trypomastigote parasites in the bloodstream is down considerably. Those present are less active, and seem to be dying.”
Jade blinked to hold back the tears, as she stroked the baby’s fuzzy head.
“You hear that? You’re going to be okay, baby.”
Mrs. Jimoh was also crying. “My baby… How can I ever repay you? I have no money, but… anything I have. Anything I own.”
Dr. Ingraham shook her head. “You were selected in the clinic partially because of your need, and partially because of your financial problems. This experiment was a risk – a wild chance. Bio-regenetics is picking up the bill.”
Mrs. Jimoh turned to Jade, with a questioning look.
“You’ve been teaching me how to nurse. That’s more than enough payment.” But it did bring up questions. Jade glanced at Dr. Ingraham. “Bio-regenetics located her, and then paid to fly her from Nigeria?”
The doctor nodded. “It’s my understanding that, in exchange for the volunteer work you’re doing with Dr. Gellmar, you’re receiving both stock and my help with your medical issues. They said something about your stock being reduced by my cost. This is part of that cost.”
“Okay, that makes sense,” Jade decided. “And frankly, Dr. Gellmar better be keeping me happy, considering what he’s doing to me. And I sure don’t regret helping little Alhaji here. But… all the way from Africa?”
“Regenerator milk is not well researched. The medical community treats it like regenerator blood, which is classed as a bio-hazard and internationally regulated by the MCO. The hazards are significant, and we needed a baby. A bad lawsuit could have stripped your company of every last cent.”
Mrs. Jimoh broke in. “Before they would fly me here, I had to agree to so many conditions. I signed my name, they had me on cameras. I told them again and again that I had no money, but I would accept any risk, provided there was a chance to help my baby. I already knew that there no other hope. I know that even now, things could go wrong. But it is worth it.”
“What happens when Alhaji goes home,” Jade asked. “If I stop nursing, will my breasts go away?”
“I don’t know for sure,” Dr. Ingraham admitted. “Probably. There are machines you can use. ‘Breast pumps.’ That should maintain your current size.”
“But what about the other sick babies out there?” Jade wondered. “Can I nurse them?”
The doctor sighed. “Not in this country. Not without a legal team behind you every step of the way. And we can’t afford to fly out new children from overseas.”
Jade began to understand. “You mean, now that you’ve convinced me that regenerator milk is a miracle cure-all, I can’t actually use it to help anyone?”
“Not unless you’re willing to risk the permanent financial well-being of yourself and your family.”
Jade scowled. “It’s not like I’ve got any family. But this is so stupid! I could help so many babies!”
Jade scowled. “So you’re telling me that some brick can fly in and punch a building, burying a hundred people alive. That’s okay. But if I breastfeed a baby to cure an incurable disease, the law says that I’m liable for anything that goes wrong. How does that possibly make sense?”
Dr. Ingraham shrugged. “Don’t ask me to explain it. There have been suits against heroes and the actions they’ve taken. The villains are on the run from justice anyway. The heroes have successfully banded together to set precedent and fight such legal judgments with everything they’ve got. I imagine, in a different world, the heroes might well have been shut down by lawsuits. Of course, that would probably only last until the villains got back into the act. When you think about it, people are going to accept an awful lot if they’re scared.
“Which is why it’s such an uphill battle with breastfeeding. It’s rare enough in our society anyway, and most childhood diseases are curable through normal means. They only need to convince one jury that you’re up to something weird and unusual, that you’re rich and can afford to be taught a lesson. Given what I know of this company and the stock you have in it, you’re going to be a pretty tempting target.”
Jade sighed. “Great. I’m not even rich yet, and it’s already causing me problems.”
“Welcome to America.”
“So I’ll have to use one of these pumps?”
“And it’ll pump the milk out of me, just like I was a cow.”
“Not exactly. We’re probably taking about a few ounces a day. Maybe as much as a cup.”
Jade had a weird look on her face. “I’m going to be making a cup of milk a day. What do I do with it?”
“Regenerator milk is internationally listed as a biohazard. You will have to dispose of it safely. The worst thing you could do would be to let anyone drink it – not if they might in any way take harm and sue you.”
“I see. Great.”
“You could mail it to my village,” Mrs. Jimoh offered.
“No.” Dr. Ingraham was clear on that. “Neither the mail or any regular mailing service will transport biological material. The especially won’t transport biohazards. You’d need to hire a medical courier. A very expensive medical courier.”
“Great,” Jade said sarcastically.
Later, back at Whateley, Jade sat in Thuban’s lap. They were snuggling together in Thuban’s dorm room. He was staring at her chest. She, obligingly, had worn a thin shirt that was almost too revealing for her young adolescent figure.
“So… do you like them?” he asked, far too casually.
He was practicing his human form. It didn’t leave him fully human – he looked more elvish than human, but he didn’t look reptilian. He mammalian hands were wrapped around Jade’s waist, and they were disciplined enough that they weren’t groping her small breasts. Yet.
“Do you like me like this?” she asked, with a mixture of coyness and insecurity. “I mean, I want to be bigger. Boys always like bigger, don’t they?”
“I think you look great,” he said, proving himself a superb diplomat.
“To answer your question, yes, I do like having breasts. I love being like this. I’m just scared that I’m going to go back to normal again.”
“It would be a shame to miss out on any opportunities then, wouldn’t it?” His fingers wiggled suggestively.
“I don’t know… Are you sure you’re feeling okay? You got pounded pretty hard by Slab.”
“Isn’t that the truth,” he agreed, focused on her small breasts. “But it wasn’t any worse than what we agreed on.”
“Mmm, good.” She snuggled in closer. “Wait a minute. No worse than you ‘agreed on’?”
“Er, did I say that?”
“Full story, buster! Right now. Or no touching privileges!”
He looked regretfully at her thin cotton shirt. She was nowhere even close to the size of someone like Demona. But still, Jade was his girlfriend, and her small, conical breasts had the delightful promise of a young girl in first bloom. Further, he considered the matter of her psychology. Jade seemed pre-adolescent, with little real understand of sex or lust or physical urges. But now she was beginning to develop breasts. How would her mind react to her first sexual stimuli? The idea of stroking her mind was almost more interesting than stroking her flesh.
“Well…” he decided he might as well tell her. “This isn’t for sharing with the Kimba girls. But you know that information is only of my specialties. I managed to find out ahead of time that I was being paired against Slab. Of course, I knew full well what his capabilities are. So I decided it would be well within our interests – both of our interests, to discuss things a bit beforehand.”
“You cheated?” she asked. “I thought you were carrying an awful lot of stuff.”
He shrugged. “How do you know that I don’t carry those things normally? You know what my real power is. No, we didn’t cheat. If anything, we fought harder and better for our agreement. It was a foregone conclusion that I would lose to Slab. My powers are better suited to support and work behind the scenes. Slab is superbly equipped as a fighter. In fact, he’s so well equipped that people have a hard time seeing him as anything other than a big, dumb brute. That’s a bit of what we discussed in planning. In the end, we opted for an approach that didn’t highlight his intellect, but didn’t make him look stupid. We mainly established that you could hit him with virtually anything, and it just made him stronger. That will serve him well. His past battles haven’t been enough of a challenge. He never got a chance to really show off.”
“And you? What did you get out of it, aside from bruises?”
“I don’t want you to think we choreographed the fight. We considered it, and decided that everything would look more genuine if we could legitimately claim surprise. I told Slab how hard he could hit me without doing serious damage, and he went right up to that limit. He ends up looking very threatening, and quite ruthless when necessary. Conversely, he also looked completely justified in hitting that hard, so he didn’t come off looking like a bad guy. His career options are open. For me, on the other hand, I got similar publicity. I expect that students will be a little more cautious about offering me casual taunts. Not only did I go toe-to-toe with Slab,” he grinned, “You see? His reputation already serves me. Not only did I fight him to a near-standstill, but I got to show off quite a bit, myself. That was one of the things I negotiated. I had a whole list of possible weapons: poison gas, corrosives, heat, frost, explosives, lasers, the strength of each weapon. I didn’t tell him how or when, just asked how big he could handle. Frankly, dropping the building on him was way under what he would have allowed. So not only does he come out looking absolutely invincible, I come out looking like someone who is absolutely deadly, when he has to be.
“That’s going to be pretty handy, the next time I need to intervene on behalf of Peeper and Greasy. I won’t have to work at being intimidating.”
“Oh? Do you intervene a lot on their behalf?”
Thuban growled. “More than I’d like.”
“I see. So if you don’t like intervening, what do you like?” she asked, coyly.
“You mentioned ‘touching priviledges’?”
“Well, okay. But you have to stay on the outside of my shirt.”
“It’s a thin shirt,” he pointed out.
“I’m willing to take that chance.”
Thuban smiled widely. “Wonderful. So tell me, how does this feel?”
Jade moaned, but it was a happy sound, filled with both surprise and wonder.
“What did sensei tell you in the after-class analysis?” Toni asked over dinner.
“He’s giving me a straight B,” Jade revealed. “He marked me way down for not webbing up Jackie when she was lying on the ground and playing possum. You know how he’s always been.”
“Do I ever,” Billie muttered. “ ‘If you think they’re down, if they stop moving for even a second, take a couple more shots to make sure they stay down.’ ”
“I’m surprised he didn’t drop you to a C,” Toni added.
“Well, he was going to, but he marked me up for not just charging Jinn into a glove and typing in the code that way.”
Toni raised her eyebrows at that. “He knows that much about your powers?”
“Yeah, apparently. Don’t know how he figured it out.”
“Sensei is wise,” Billie intoned.
“…but he started by asking me why I didn’t do it that way. I explained that I was trying to keep an edge, and that exposing myself in front of the class wasn’t worth the grade. That’s when he marked me back up to a B.” She looked at Toni. “So how’d you do?”
Toni gave a depressed sigh. “B.”
Billie and Jade both stared at her. “B? You got a B?” Jade was incredulous. “But… you fought one-on-three! I thought they said these things were random! I didn’t even know they did that until he called you out.”
“And you won!” Billie added, needlessly.
“They said it was random. I just happened to get three random opponents. And you know sensei. ‘I do not grade on relative rankings. I grade on achievement, versus your own potential.’ He said my form was sloppy.”
“But… but… I thought he’d abandoned forcing you into straight aikido forms?”
Toni nodded glumly. “He has. He says I’m free to integrate any different forms I want, or even to create my own if I like. But they need to be ‘smooth and clean.’ You know how he is about that.”
“Yeah.” “Oh, yeah.” The other two girls agreed.
“You’re going tomorrow?” Toni asked, looking at Billie.
“It’s the last day,” Billie said with more than a bit of apprehension. “Sensei said they had debated long and hard on how to test me properly. I’m scared to think of what he means by that.”
“You wishing they’d never gotten the Boston Brawl on tape?”
Tennyo nodded glumly. “How’m I supposed to live up to that?”
“Hi, guys,” Sara said, dropping a cage to the table. “You seen Rankings yet?”
“What?” Jade wondered.
“An underground student publication,” Sara explained. “Admin doesn’t go for it at all. Relative rankings. Who could take whom, one-on-one. They don’t start until the froshs have done their first semester duels, so they’re just starting the preliminaries now.” The pale girl handed over a printout. “I printed off a copy from last year’s graduation, too. There’s been a little shifting, but most of the upsets are due to new students.”
“Let me see,” Jade demanded. “We have, what, 327 freshmen and sophomores? Jade Sinclair…” Her finger ran down the list. “Okay, I’m not in the top 100. Here’s Risk, up near the top. I guess that makes sense – he did have a pretty impressive showing.”
Toni leaned in closer to see. “Hey, Scramble’s up there, too. How do they figure that? He blew up the spindle!”
“True,” Billie agreed. “But would you want to fight him? That’s all this list is about. And face it, Scramble was nuts. He might have flunked the final, but the guy is psycho.”
“Oh, man,” Jade whined. “Jinn comes in at 115!”
Toni was puzzled. “What are you complaining about? It could be a lot worse.”
“She’s underneath Bogus!”
“Isn’t he an Alpha?”
“First day, first test,” Sara reminded them. “Takes other people’s appearance.”
“Jinn’s under him?” Toni asked in disbelief. “Who makes these rankings?”
“Well… they do have a point,” Nikki decided, joining the conversation. “I mean, it’s all one-on-one stuff. ‘Could I take him’ stuff. So let’s say you could take Bogus.”
“Yeah, I think so!” Jade said emphatically. “As Jinn? No problem!”
“So then, the question is, what does he do to you the next day. Remember, he’s got the Alphas behind him. And he’s Bogus. So let’s say you take him as Jinn, and then the next day, Jinn is seen all over campus, kicking people, asking for fights, calling names, and generally being obnoxious. What do you do?”
“Uh… find Bogus, and pummel him again?”
“You’ve got no proof it was him. Maybe he deserves to be that high in the rankings.”
Jade continued searching the list. “I’m not getting a good feeling here. Let’s see… there’s Bugs. And I must be under Ebon.”
“Who’s that?” Toni wondered.
“She makes some sort of darkstuff – does a lot of different things with it.”
“Oh, her.” Nikki waved her hand dismissively. “I know who you mean.”
Erin had joined them, sitting next to Sara. “I think Ebon’s pretty impressive, actually. She’s really versatile.”
“I’m under Vox!” Jade said in anguish.
“Well, Vox does have that whole voice-of-command thing,” Toni pointed out. “And at least she’s a Poe girl.”
“I’ve seen better,” Jade insisted. “First mutant I ever met was this guy, Melodious Silvertongue. He was robbing a whole bank, just by ordering them around. Gave me my referral to Whateley.”
“I wonder where he ranked,” Nikki asked.
“He graduated back in the ‘80s, I think.” She finally spotted her own entry. “What? Number 263 out of 327? That stinks!”
Billie thought about it. “Well, this is entirely subjective, isn’t it? And you did okay in your fight, but look at you. You’re a fair bit under five feet tall, and you look like you’re still eleven. That’s got to hurt your rankings. It’s hard for them to take you seriously.”
“Who’s underneath you?” Toni wanted to know.
“The trick is keeping track of all the code names,” Jade admitted. “Let’s see… that guy’s a devisor that mostly does stuff on the net. Don’t remember his reak name. There’s also Skids – you know him? He’s at 266.”
“I know Skids,” Erin said, unexpectedly. “Completely useless, unless he’s driving something. Then he’s hell on wheels, almost literally. He’s like a non-stop maniac cross between a stunt man and a race car driver.”
“Interesting,” Nikki decided. “I can see where they’d mark him down for on-campus fight potential though. Unless he starts carrying a moped with him everywhere.”
“Okay,” Jade announced. “Bottom of the barrel. Here we go. Number 312: Glass.”
“She becomes transparent,” Sara explained. “Not invisible, just transparent.”
“Number 316: Lightweight.”
Toni nodded. “She can make anything five pounds lighter. Pretty useless.”
“You wonder how some of these guys got into Whateley,” Nikki said.
“Lightweight has other problems,” Sara pointed out. “She’s short, she’s a freshman, she’s a foreigner, and she speaks with an accent.”
“Which means that it’s just about guaranteed that the Alphas and half the people on the top of this list will be picking on her,” Jade realized. “This just gets worse and worse.”
“Don’t worry about her,” Toni advised, “worry about yourself. A rank of 263 makes you sound like easy pickings, and you’re a tempting target, since you hang with us. You’re going to have to prove yourself in at least a couple of fights next semester before they learn to back off.”
“Not next semester,” Sara said. “Now. There’s eight days left before people go home for the break. Keep your eyes open.”
“Where am I?” Billie wondered, reaching for the list.
“Number 49,” Jade said, sourly. “But that’s just a guess. See the asterisk? They’ll move things around tomorrow, once they finally see you fight.” She thought about it a bit more, and grumped, “It’s not fair. You haven’t even fought yet, and you get a 49.”
Sara snickered. “On the other hand, she did blow out all those windows on day one—”
“You weren’t even here for that!”
“Yeah, but I heard about it. And there were some early cafeteria fights that got her listed as a potential troublemaker with a temper. And, let’s see, she took down Hippy and got listed on the official ‘don’t you dare touch’ list. Oh, and there’s the Boston Brawl. Getting your face ripped off by the Arch-Fiend, then busting his chops on TV, that’s got to count for something.”
“You know what your problem is, Jade?” Toni asked, with a scowl. “You’re too nice to people. A good bully is like a torturer. He figures out how to cause lots of pain, without so much permanent damage. You don’t have enough of that casual cruelty to make the jerks scared of you.”
“But what about all of you guys? You aren’t mean and cruel.”
Billie snorted. “You remember back to the start of classes? Toni picked a fight with that walking carpet guy.”
“Monty? I’ve got to say, I’ve gotten to know him as Jinn. And while he’s hardly a friend, he really does fall into the ‘misunderstood’ category.”
Billie double snorted. “Yeah, right. Anyway, Toni got into a fight ‘cause she was defending me. And then she challenges a guy that’s about two stories taller than her, and then she gives him the beat-down of his life, mostly ripping pieces off his face, and then she humiliates him in front of everyone and ruins his rep for pretty much all time.”
Jade frowned. “That’s not exactly the way I remember it.”
“Maybe not, but it’s the way everyone else remembers it.”
Jade nodded. “Okay, so that’s you, and Toni, and Sara’s obvious. They don’t bother Nikki—”
“Because someday they might want to ask her for a date,” Toni said. “Either that, or they know that some guy would love to rush in and defend her.”
“Excuse me? Do my own skills and capabilities matter here?” Nikki asked, with some frustration.
Toni made an obvious attempt at thinking about it for a moment and then shook her head and with a dead pan expression blurted out, “Not really, no.”
“Yeah, yeah. Uh, they don’t bother Hank because they aren’t idiots. They don’t bother Erin because… why?”
The girl gave a predatory grin. “Because I’ve tasted human flesh. And I like it.” She licked her lips in emphasis.
Sara looked at her. “How sweet! You consider me human!”
“Well, you are what you eat.”
“My lawyer advises me to discontinue this conversation.”
“If you two are done flirting,” Jade said grumpily, “I need a suggestion on how not to be next semester’s target of choice.”
“That’s pretty easy,” Toni said. “Just be ready for that first hit.”
“Then you go psycho on them. I mean, beat them to a pulp. Hurt ‘em bad. It’s even better if you get a little bloody, because you’ll heal right up. And it’ll show that you aren’t afraid to get a little dirty and mix it up.”
Jade gulped. “But… what if it’s just a shove, or a trip or something. You can’t hit someone, just because they bump into you.”
“Sometimes you have to,” Billie said quietly.
“But that’s so stupid! Someone accidentally bumps me and I’m supposed to start punching them, or shoot them or something? That’s so stupid! We aren’t a bunch of animals, are we? I thought this was supposed to be, like, modern civilization!”
“Nope,” Toni said, definitively. “It’s high school.”
Sure enough, trouble started right after dinner. Due to an excessively grumpy attitude, Jade had fallen a bit behind the crowd as she walked back to Poe. Things were finally coming together on the physical side, she was slowly becoming the girl she was meant to be. And now it turned out that if she wanted to survive high school, she’d need to be a pushy, obnoxious girl. That wasn’t what being a girl was supposed to be about! In her mind, being a girl was akin to becoming a creature of wonder. You were pretty, and graceful, and polite, and loving. Everywhere you went, you made people’s lives better. You had a smile and a good word for everyone. You were a healer and a protector and a comfort to anyone who was hurt or sad. You got to wear the most beautiful clothes. You were an angel made flesh, like her mother had been.
Only it turned out that if you wanted to survive, you had to become the head bitch of the dog pack, wearing your spiked collar to scare back all the other dogs.
If she’d wanted a life like that, she could have stayed with her dad.
Discovering breastfeeding had been just about perfect. It made her into more of a girl, it gave her the prettiest breasts. Despite their odd shape and small size, there were still a secret delight. Best of all, her breasts meant that she could help people. She could feed babies and save their lives and be the absolute perfect source of nurturing and comfort and healing and protection.
That was how things were supposed to be.
“Out of my way!”
The shove would have caught someone else by surprise. Jann-sensei’s training for ambushes and surprise attacks was working, because she’d known he was there, in the back of her awareness.
Gabriel was a Poe boy, at the front end of her hall. He used his TK to create a shell/image/persona, like Marty did with Mega-girl. But Gabe was kind of bi-polar, and he’d plainly been messed up by religion. His TK shell was an angel form that took two different forms depending on his mood. There was a “bright angel” of white wings, white toga, and blond hair, or a “dark angel” of black wings, black hair, and a pretty sharp black leather outfit. Currently, he was being the dark angel.
“Listen up, little girl. You’re going to have to learn to step out of the way when your betters come along. I come in at 91 in the rankings. What were you? 300?”
“263.” She couldn’t help correcting him, but she knew it was a mistake as soon as she said it.
His fingers crackled with a deep purple corona. “Then stand aside for the Dark One!”
“Look, Gabe, we both know what you’re like when you’re in a ‘dark mood.’ You don’t have to be a jerk. You can be uber-cool, too. Why don’t you spread some of the cool around, or something.”
The dark angel clenched his fist, tiny electric bolts squeezing out between his fingers. “I don’t think so. Not for a 263. So… you going to step aside, or do we have to test the rankings?”
She considered it for a moment. The whole “PK-shell” crew had a pretty good power. It wasn’t quite as good as the “PK supermen” like Hank, but it had its own advantages, such as an instant costume and identity change. Gabe wasn’t close to Hank’s league, or even Mega-girl’s, but he was pretty good. She couldn’t beat him unless she came up with some really clever trick.
And at the moment, she just wasn’t in the mood.
Cussing under her breath, she stood aside and let Gabriel pass. Which he did, with a cocky smile and a gesture that flicked a non-existent hat.
Welcome to the first day of the rest of your high school, she thought.
Everyone knew that there was only one student left.
Less than a month ago, Billie had briefly fought Hippolyta. In anger, Billie had somehow concentrated energy in her fist, and nearly destroyed the larger girl’s soul. The immediate action of an ancient and powerful mage (Nikki Reilly, channeling the faerie queen Aunghadhail) combined with a master of bodily energy and ki (Toni Chandler), had saved Hippy’s life, and soul, leaving the large girl merely bedridden in intensive care for several days. Following the incident, the school had slapped a “no fighting” injunction on Billie.
Everyone on campus knew about the injunction, but they didn’t know the story behind it. There were rumors, some wild, some close to the truth. Everyone wanted to see for themselves. Now, in the final fight of the day, in the last fight of the week, the audience was growing, as juniors and seniors arrived to watch.
The lights in the city dimmed, and a single MID card appeared in the air. Next to it, there was a picture of Billie, using her energy sword to cut through a piece of armored metal.
I’ll bet that’s from back at the laser range, Jade thought. It’s a pretty good shot.
-- WARNING! --
EXTREMELY LEATHAL ABILITIES, SECTION 33, WHATELEY CHARTER IN EFFECT
NO COMBAT WITH STUDENTS IS ALLOWED!
-- WARNING! --
-- CAUTION --
ANTIMATTER ELEMENTS IN BLOOD / CELLULAR STRUCTURE. UNKNOWN RISK
OF EXPOSURE AND EXPLOSION
-- CAUTION --
MCO CLASS X TARGET
EXTREME MEASURES PRE-AUTHORIZED
|Ratings::||Class X Entity,Warper-5, Martial Arts- basic, Regen-7+
|Techniques:||Flight, Energy Blast, Energy Sword, Force field, Death Blow*
|Weak vs.:||Unknown at this time, but high collateral damage is expected.|
|Backup/Team affiliation:||Team Kimba, CIA|
Surprised exclamations raced through the crowd, as they read the information.
Billie swore. “Well, that’s just lovely! So much for keeping the whole antimatter thing secret.”
Nikki gave her a curious look. “CIA?”
“Another thing that’s supposed to be a secret. Thanks so much, MCO.” Then her eyes narrowed. “No, I’ll bet that freak Frisk is responsible. This smells like his meddling. He probably released the info on purpose.” She shrugged, then turned toward the stairs down. “I guess it can’t be helped now. Wish me luck.”
“Good luck, oneesan!” Jade called.
Once Billie was out of sight, Jade quietly asked, “Up there, where it says ‘Extreme measures pre-authorized,’ does that mean what I think it means?”
Nikki nodded. “I believe it does. Remember, these displays are supposed to be reading direct from the MCO’s database. And I agree with you – I don’t like it either.”
Above the city, at about the three-story level, a walkway and platform appeared in the air. Headmistress Carson came striding forward.
“By now, you’ve probably noticed that we schedule the most serious fights for the end of the day, to give ourselves time to repair the arena. That is the case for this fight as well.
“As we have mentioned several times, Whateley’s primary purpose is to protect you from society, to teach you to defend yourself. While that’s true for most students, there are exceptions. With the unfortunate case of Neurox, eleven years ago, his body gradually mutated into an organized, coherent cloud of nerve gas. Solvent, three years later, dissolved and digested any matter he came in contact with. There are numerous other examples. In these cases, our task is less protecting the student from society, than protecting society from the student. But unlike the MCO, we do this by training students to control their own abilities. Tennyo is one of these special cases. From the beginning, the challenge was not to bring her abilities to full strength, but to help her throttle and control those abilities, so that she didn’t destroy every window on campus while trying to swat an annoying ninja.”
There was laughter, as the gathered students remembered the way the semester had started.
“At times, Tennyo has been considered for the Ultra Violent list, and she’s spent much of the semester on security’s watch list. Not because of any particular problems or issues, but simply because her powers tend to leave a lot of damage.
“That changed last month.
“While defending herself from attack, Tennyo accidentally used a strike which we have since dubbed the ‘Death Blow.’ Our science staff is still puzzling over the explanation – they’re a bit reluctant to test it. The strike appears to alter space in a limited area, resulting in the destruction of those energy patterns that we commonly call the ‘soul.’ We don’t know how it works, we don’t know how limited the area is, there’s a lot we don’t know, and we aren’t planning to research it.
“In light of this, Tennyo was immediately slapped with a permanent injunction against any combat on campus. She will not instigate fights. No student will attack her. If any student does attack her, and if they survive,” the headmistress smiled grimly, “then I guarantee, they will come to wish they hadn’t. This goes for proxy attacks, hidden traps, and all the other clever details of second-hand aggression.”
The headmistress gave them all a very cold glare. “What I’m saying is, if she doesn’t destroy you, I will.
“Tennyo is not our first student is this category, and she won’t be the last. If you want some background, look up the post-mortem investigations for those who thought they could harass Neurox. The warning may save your life.
“However, in light of these rules, it makes the combat final a bit of a challenge. Who do we send against her?
“After much discussion, the staff decided to give Tennyo a special test, based on ideas for the upcoming spring test. Tennyo’s challenge is to survive, and to use minimal powers while doing so. Take notes and pay close attention, because you may be facing this test yourself in a few months. And unlike Tennyo here, your only goal would be survival.”
The headmistress made a grand gesture. “Presenting… All You Zombies.” And with that, she vanished.
The lights came up to full daylight brightness. Unlike the previous tests, the city streets were full. Instead of a quiet morning at 10 AM, it seemed like a busy afternoon at 3 PM. Crowds of people jostled, on their way too and from various city shops. Already the spindle device was active, glowing with a disturbing violet aura, while gears and mechanisms rotated within its transparent case.
Abruptly, the device issued a huge cloud of black gas. The gas billowed out, rolling as it grew wider and wider like an expanding smoke ring. Everywhere that it touched, the people glowed green for a moment. With one exception. One person glowed red, and it became instantly obvious that this was Billie, in the middle of the crowd, made plainly visible to both the audience and the residents of the city.
In eerie unison, the crowd gave a roar of rage and turned on the lone intruder. Yelling and shouting like the enraged mob they’d suddenly become, the people closest to Billie began to punch and claw at her – scratching, grabbing, and pulling her down. For just a moment, the teenager was buried under a dog pile of bodies.
“Get OFF me!”
The top three bodies flew aside, and through sheer strength Billie cleared a space around herself. She reached forward with her right hand, clawing the air. A pencil line of brilliant blue energy outlined her hand, making it almost too bright to look at.
The mob hesitated for a moment, then surged forward again.
“Tch!” Obviously disgusted, Billie flicked her fingers and the blue energy vanished. Instead, she reached behind her, plucking up a stop sign. Spinning the eight-foot metal sign like a quarterstaff, she turned and tried to make her way toward the spindle device.
The mob’s fury grew. Billie took one step, then another in the direction of the spindle device. She kept the sign spinning, clearing a six-foot space on every side and even behind her. Three men behind overcame their caution and leapt forward. The sign barely paused, as it swatted them aside with bruises and broken bones. Billy advanced another step.
The crowd’s fury grew. They began arming themselves with bottles, smashing them into makeshift daggers. In moments, every hand seemed to be holding a bottle or a rock. The first rock was thrown, then knocked aside by the moving sign. The deflected projectile struck a woman, who cried out. Instantly, a hundred rocks flew forward. Again most were deflected into the crowd, but some penetrated. And the sign slowed.
Ten men leapt forward, grabbing the sign, grabbing at Billie, clawing to hold her. The rest of the crowd surged forward, wielding their broken bottles. Some held knives. Before they could reach her, Billie kicked off the ground, like a high diver off a springboard. She soared twenty feet straight up, tipped over backward, then looped around and gracefully straightened to speed forward, skimming the air ten feet above the reach of the crowd.
And suddenly, everyone below her was drawing out a handgun. A first wild shot, followed by a hundred more accurate ones, converged on the flying target. Billie veered rapidly to the side, dodging wildly. Even so, she was hit once in the gut, and twice in the thigh.
“Shit! They’re using live ammo!”
Up in the stands, both Jade and Jinn were suddenly at attention.
“They shot her!” Jade said, in a low voice. She reached behind her and pulled out her gun.
“Whoa, settle down, Jade,” Toni advised. “I know it looks bad, but it’s a test, remember? Just a test. I’m sure they won’t hurt her for real.”
“They shot her!” Jinn said. At once, her human skin turned white, and a black cloak wrapped itself around her.
“This is bad,” Nikki muttered.
“You can’t interfere,” Hank said, moving in front of Jade. “That would ruin the test. They might fail her. You know Billie wouldn’t want that.”
“A little help here?” Toni called.
Sara moved up, the skin of her arms and shoulders pulsing strangely. “Sit back down,” she ordered Jinn. “We won’t let you ruin Billie’s test, no matter how worried you get.”
Jade and Jinn both sat, but Jade didn’t holster her gun, and Jinn continues to emit clinking and humming sounds.
“They better not hurt her again.” Jade and Jinn spoke in unison. Their voices were pitched differently, but they both had the same note of conviction.
Billie had dropped to the ground, twenty feet ahead of the mob. Still flying, she slipped around a delivery truck, sinking her fingers into the side as she passed. With one heave, she peeled the sheet metal from the side and wrapped it around her in a rough circle. Like a hot dog in an armored bun, she flew forward, listening to the shots ping off the outside of her protective cocoon. She was well ahead of the mob now, with the spindle device dead ahead. But suddenly, a line of uniformed troops stepped into the way. The city’s police force had shown up to guard the target. They all seemed to be armed with shotguns or rifles, and before she could react, they were firing at her.
Those were three shot bursts! she realized. Another minute and they’ll be using full auto!
Because of the shallow angle, the shots had deflected off the sheet metal wrap, but she had no confidence that her armor would last for long. Flexing her arms and legs, she burst free of the wrap, and stood in mid-air, hovering above a score of heavily armed guards.
“That’s it! Screw the gentle approach!”
Pulling her hand back, she suddenly held a baseball-sized globe of energy, glowing with a white light that was too brilliant to look at directly. Billie pitched it into the crowd below her, following up with a pitch from her left hand, then a right, then a left. Then she started hurling the orbs toward the approaching mob.
The orbs hit the ground and detonated. Each one flashed with a blinding light, brighter than a hundred flashbulbs. The sound was like the crack of a canon, deafening. And the orbs exploded with a rattling concussion, powerful enough to knock the police aside like so many bowling pins. The orbs rained down, exploding again and again until the police and the mob cringed on the ground, temporarily blind and deaf.
“I have had enough of you people!”
Billie dropped to the ground like a stone, coming to a halt instantly and impossibly. She picked up the first police trooper and chucked him through the air in a flat arc that carried him thirty feet into the sprawled mob. In moments, the rest of the troops had followed.
“Honestly! Is thirty seconds too much to ask for?”
She turned and punched her code into the device.
“Sit down, Jade,” Hank warned.
“But she doesn’t see the SWAT team! The simulation isn’t over until she answers all the questions!”
The police and mob were blind, but a team of SWAT snipers was setting up one block away, and drawing a bead on Billie’s unprotected back. In addition to snipers, they were preparing mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and tripod mounted, belt-fed machine guns.
“They wouldn’t shoot her in the back,” Toni said, not sounding entirely convinced.
“Maybe they’re counting on regen-7,” Nikki said, with growing concern.
“They’re going to SHOOT HER!” Jade screamed.
Billie punched in another quick answer, then looked back to the crowd. They were stirring, but not yet dangerous. She looked back to the screen and read the question:
“The lone mutant killed over 300 normals before being brought down.” In this sentence, the word “mutant” functions as:
* a noun
* an adjective
* an adverb
* the subject
* the predicate
Select all that apply.
She made her selection and pressed done and—
—watched her blood splatter the screen, as a bullet ripped the top of her shoulder off.
“AAAAAA!” Jade and Jinn made simultaneous movements, slapping a hand over their left shoulders. Of course, they were watching the events below with an obsessive focus, and everybody watching knew exactly how and where Tennyo had been shot.
But Jade and Jinn were unique amongst the audience, because they jerked into motion.
Jade looked up, seeing Hank in the way. Her gun was already in her hand and she fired it. Straight into the floor at her feet. The tear gas canister exploded violently, instantly forming a noxious cloud.
Nearly simultaneous, Jinn leapt forward, blades erupting from each hand.
And then Jade launched the missiles.
Billie dodged as she spun. The bullet had taken off a chunk of her shoulder nearly two inches in diameter. It was just at the most delicate part of the joint, at the “corner” of the shoulder. The bullet had shattered the ball joint, blasted away the upper acromion process of the scapula, and ruined most of the rotator cuff tendons.
“You want a piece of me? Here’s something that should really impress you!”
For a moment, the area near Tennyo seemed to grow darker. There is an effect, often drawn artistically in depictions of holy figures, where the body is outlined in a nimbus of light. The effect around Tennyo was the opposite of that. Darkness wrapped her, like a protection and threat, in one package.
Tennyo raised both arms, and each hand held a pulsing orb of pure energy. Each orb was filled with struggling filaments of neon red, clutched tight in her grasping fingers. The orbs were outlined in electric blue, and as she moved her arms, four foot long arcs of electricity jumped from the orb to ground itself against nearby bits of metal.
It didn’t occur to her until much later that she’d just taken major damage to her left arm, and she shouldn’t be able to move it at all.
Billie grinned, showing an expression of pure malice. She muttered under her breath, but parabolic microphones picked it up and piped it in clearly for the entranced (and ever more worried) audience:
“Let’s show our guests what they’ve won!”
With a flick of her fingers, one orb rocketed forth and struck a parked SUV. There was an explosion of lightning and the car was covered in blue fire. Meanwhile, the orb dissolved a hole in the side of the car that was three feet in diameter – larger than the orb itself. As the process continued, the car began to bend forward and around, folding around some sort of black hole or the world’s most powerful magnetic field. By the time the process finished, six seconds later, a white luxury SUV had been turned into an unrecognizable glob of white-painted metal, partially melted, and warpped into a lump that was barely five feet wide.
Tennyo made a twisting motion with her fingers, and a new orb instantly refilled her empty hand.
Hank was unaffected by the tear gas, but he had no time to restrain Jade. Instead, he was flying after three separate clusters of missiles, trying to catch and contain them all before they caused more damage. Toni held her breath and tried to ignore her watering eyes, while striking a pressure point on the back of Jade’s neck, knocking her out instantly. Nikki stepped back and conjured a wind to clear the air. Lily used a force field grab one cluster of missiles. And as for Jinn…
Jinn had erupted in knives, chains, ribbons, and cables, stretching out and writhing in a hundred directions. She had barely started though, when Sara moved to counter. The Goth princess had no arms and no legs. Where those human limbs had been were dozens of ropy black tentacles. For every cable and ribbon that Jinn launched, a black tentacle was there to grab it and restrain it.
Jinn was practically growling in frustration. “They hurt her! I’ll kill them! I’ll kill them all!”
Sara spoke calmly and firmly. “Vengeance is hers! Would you steal that from her? Look down there! Look at her now. Does she need you to avenge her? This is her time, and your duty is to stay up here, preparing her allies and protecting them from other threats. Not attacking those allies! Do you hear me?”
Jinn looked into the arena. She looked, and thought. A moment later, she relaxed and withdrew her extensions, just as Hank captured the last of the missiles.
Billie stood there, poised with an incandescent orb of pure energy in each hand, a shadowed figure illuminated by two stark points of light. For a moment she didn’t move, merely glaring forward as if contemplated which target to eradicate first. Then, she consciously shook herself.
“No! You can’t make me do that!”
She shook each hand to the side, and the orbs of energy were simply gone. They’d vanished like a magician’s coin.
“I just need thirty damn seconds!”
Billie swept both arms out dramatically, and there was a strangle ripple in the air. Like a drop of water in a still pond, distortion rippled out from her. Then, as if she hadn’t just been shot, she turned back to the control panel, turned her back to the snipers, and re-entered her sequence from the start.
The snipers took aim again and fired, but to no effect. The belt-fed machine guns took up the job, and the tracer bullets revealed what was happening. As bullets approached the area where the distortion had appeared, the bullets veered off in a new direction. They didn’t ricochet, they didn’t slow, they simply bent through a ninety degree angle without slowing, and flew off upward, or out to the side, or down into the pavement. No matter how heavy the attack, nothing could pass through that distorted zone.
The SWAT leader was already speaking urgently on his radio. Far down the street, a tank was moving in. Instead of sporting a conventional cannon it was topped with something futuristic and unrecognizable. In the distance, fighter planes were approaching rapidly.
But before any of those new players could join the fray, the final gong sounded, and the simulation was over.
The fighter planes rippled and vanished. The tank ground to a halt. It’s hologram flickered and faded, revealing a tracked hemisphere, armed with a weapon that was basically unchanged.
The hundreds of bystanders vanished. Most were replaced with crash-test style robotic dummies. Some, such as the police and swat members, had been operated by humanoid robots that looked much more sophisticated.
Then all the lights vanished, leaving only a spotlight on Billie, triumphant but tired. Then that light faded, too.
At the same time, a holographic bust of Headmistress Carson appeared floating over the arena.
“Thus ends the last fight.”
She paused for a moment.
“While you’re home for winter break, I hope you’ll think about what we just saw. As I said, we’re considering this for our spring test – putting every single student through that scenario, one by one. What will you do? Could you survive? Could you survive if the police included espers, mages, or other mutants?
“I hope that by now, you all understand how this test relates to Whateley’s main goal. In the real world, mobs don’t escalate quite so quickly, nor do they receive such quick backup. But everything you saw here was drawn from some mob, in documented, historic events. And there are other mobs that start with lethal sharpshooters, and work up from there.
“Think about it.
“This concludes the freshman-sophomore winter season combat finals. Class dismissed. And good luck, everyone, on your academic finals next week!”
Billie and Nikki both joined her for the walk into Dunwich. With combat finals out of the way, half the campus was feeling particularly mellow. At the same time, the juniors and seniors were bracing for their worst tests, in the week to come. It was a good time to be off campus.
The three girls were walking alongside the narrow tree-lined road that wound up a small hill and then down into the town of Dunwich.
“How are you feeling now?” Billie asked in concern.
“I never really noticed it before,” Jade admitted. “Not like this. Maybe I’ve just felt it enough that I know what it feels like now.”
“And what does it feel like?” Nikki asked, her eyes narrowed as if she were locked in intent study.
“Like there’s something … almost watching.”
“From where?” the elf demanded.
“Close? But far away, at the same time.”
“Inside you? Or outside you? Or what?”
“It’s like it’s part of me, but not. But it is. Does that make sense? No, I guess it doesn’t.” With her arms crossed defensively, Jade surreptitiously cupped her own breast.
No smaller. Not yet. She breathed a sigh of relief. This was what she’d been waiting for since Tuesday – the dropping of the other shoe. What Dr. Gellmar called the ‘Broken Record Syndrome.’ The sudden loss of her hard-won changes, as her body reverted to the same stupid state that it had always had. The state that she was apparently trapped in, forever.
“I’m sure you’ll beat it this time,” Billie said. “All you have to do is have your morning nursing session with little whats-his-name.”
“Right. It worked before. I’m sure it’ll keep on working.”
Jade just grunted rudely. “Well, anyway, thanks for coming. I’ll need to cut back on my maintenance hours next semester, but Jinn will keep her job. Right now, she’s making up for the hours I missed earlier this week. So I really appreciate you coming along. Especially after what happened in your match.” She looked at her roommate with real concern. “Are you sure you’re okay, Billie?”
Billie shrugged. “Awww. It’s nothing really. You’re a regenerator, too. You know what it’s like. I guess I healed up before I really noticed.”
“Well, I meant that, but also, are you okay with all the stuff that Carson said?”
Billie just shrugged.
Jade couldn’t let it go. “I can’t believe they did that! They made you look like a monster! Where do they get off, doing that? And … live ammo? You could have been killed! And why wasn’t a medic rushing out there the very second that test was over?”
Billie rotated her shoulder, remembering her worst wound. “I don’t know. Maybe ‘cause they knew it had healed already?” Unlike Jade, she wasn’t angry about things, more embarrassed by it.
But Jade was only starting her tirade. “And after all that … crap … they only gave you a B? I mean, they sent the whole city after you! They shot you in the back, with heavy weapons! What the hell were they thinking? And a ‘B’? I thought you were fantastic!”
It was Billie’s turn to shake her head. “Let it go Jade. They were going to give me a C at first. Too many innocents hurt in the panic fire. It didn’t help that I almost started blasting everything in sight. And Mr. Ito said that I took too long to realize that the simulation would just keep escalating, forever. I should have used more power, sooner.”
Nikki griped at that. “But we all heard the instructions. ‘Minimal powers,’ they said.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Billie agreed, “but it was a bit of a trick. I was trying to stay just a level above the crowd, power wise. And that was a mistake. If I’d used enough power, I could have finished things hard and fast. And that would have meant less risk to me, less risk to the crowd, and ultimately a lower total exposure than I finally ended up using. As they explained it, ‘minimal power’ still means ‘enough to finish the job fast.’”
She sighed. “Mr. Ito only raised me to a B because I’d managed to keep my flash bangs secret, and no one knew that I could angle my warp shield like that to deflect the incoming stuff. At least, no one knew until after the test.”
“He gave you points for concealing that?” Jade asked.
“Yeah. And he said if I hadn’t revealed that during the test he might have upped me to an A. He also mentioned they’d be changing my MID a bit, basically adding ‘Energiser 2’ to the Powers list and ‘Various Energy Effects’ to the Techniques.”
Jade felt a little of her tension drain. “I still don’t like it. What about the CIA and antimatter?”
Billie scowled. “They’re taking off the CIA part, but I told them not to bother with the antimatter. What’s the point? Everyone knows now, anyway. Maybe it’ll intimidate a few people.”
“Enough with the combat finals!” Nikki yelled. “They’re done, okay? We don’t have to think about them for six months!” She visibly composed herself. “I, for one, am looking forward to meeting this exotic African woman.”
Jade took the hint. “Mrs. Jimoh? She’s not that strange, really. Her accent’s not bad, and she even dresses normally. I figured that anyone from Africa would be wearing all these colorful wraps and stuff. But, no luck.”
“Well, we couldn’t let you go off on your own,” Billie said, with a note of finality. “Not with everyone’s mood following finals.”
“We still have regular tests next week,” Nikki pointed out. “Normal students worry about tests. Why isn’t anyone here worried about finals?”
“That’s different!” Billie said, then looked closer. “You aren’t worried about those, are you?”
“Not really,” Nikki admitted. “I’m more worried about running into random juniors or seniors. What’s wrong with those guys? It’s like they’ve all gone insane!”
“Like us, last week,” Jade reminded them.
“Maybe,” Billie allowed. “Jade, I know I’ve said it before, but if you don’t show a little backbone right now, you’re going to be the designated punching bag for the rest of the year!”
“I don’t want to beat people up. That’s not why I came here.”
“This is Whateley! If you didn’t come here to learn fighting, why the heck did you come?”
Jade just gave her roommate a look.
“Oh, right. Forgot what we were doing for a second.”
“Yeah, thanks for that,” Jade said quietly. “For a second, I forgot too.” She took a breath, obviously struggling to return to that distraction. “Look, there’s a big difference between learning martial arts, and beating people up. Sometimes it seems like most of the kids at our school forget that. I’ve always liked martial arts, and I think I’m going to enjoy a lot of the other combat classes that Whateley gives. But if the only way to get some people to stop being jerks is to become an even bigger jerk – then maybe it’s not worth it.”
“I’m not saying you have to turn into some huge asshole! I’m just saying that you need to be more aggressive about defending yourself.”
“Huh?” Billie was caught short by the question. “Why what?”
“Do I really need to react to every little thing? I’m a regenerator. You know what they did to me in the lab the other day? They cut off my foot! My whole damn foot! Then they stuck it back on and watched it re-attach. If I can handle that, don’t you think I can handle a few little shoves?”
“Okay, that’s it!” Nikki seethed. “I’ve had it up to here with you two and your secret lab. What the HELL is going on?”
“Not here,” Billie said. “Later. When your spell’s going.”
“I’ll hold you to that!”
“So do I really need to defend myself against every little thing? I can fight when it’s important. You know that.”
“Well,” Billie admitted, “I guess if you’re so against it, you don’t really have to, but still—”
Jade shrugged. “The little stuff is no big deal. I can take it.”
“Is that you talking? Or is it the abuse?” Nikki wondered.
Nikki explained. “You’ve told us enough. We know your dad was abusing you.”
“He wasn’t really— It was just—”
“So I have to ask you, when other abuse is coming your way and you just want to roll over and take it without causing any sort of fuss. Do you really feel that way, or is this just a pattern you learned from your father?”
They were silent for a minute, as the three of them trudged up to crest the hill. Jade walked, arms wrapped around her, thinking carefully. At last, she said, “I’m not sure. Maybe there’s a little truth in what you’re saying. But even so, this feels like the right thing to do. I know it’s the exact opposite of what Toni-sensei would say.”
“You’ve got that right,” Nikki said. “You should have heard her ranting in our room last night. ‘She’s got to learn how to swat those assholes on the nose! If she doesn’t, they’re just gonna push her around until something breaks!’ And she was ranting about losers, and how they try to convince you that you’re worthless, and on and on.”
Jade smiled a little. “I really do love her.” Her eyes started to tear up. “All of you. I’ve never had friends like this before. Ever.”
The three girls paused for a three-way hug. Billie mumbled, “You know, I wouldn’t have been caught dead doing this last year.”
Nikki nodded back.
Once they were on the way again, Nikki continued. “Toni had a point. Beyond all her ranting and attitude, she was afraid of something more serious.”
“Yeah. The little stuff leads to bigger stuff. And you do have friends. Friends who are going to want to step in to protect you. If the little stuff grows out of control and some of your friends decide to make a counter-statement… well, it doesn’t take much to turn that into an explosive situation.”
Billie grunted. “Exactly. I’m on the no-fight list—”
“That was made more than obvious yesterday,” Nikki interrupted.
“—and much as I want to step in some times, I can’t. If I do, they’re going to expel me.”
“And we got hit with the team-versus-team rule once already,” Nikki added. “If your bully has a couple of friends—”
“Which is likely, considering how bullies work,” Billie added.
“—then if any of us step forward, it suddenly turns into team-versus-team again.”
“I can stop it before it gets to that. If things get bad, I will stop it.” Jade promised.
Billie stopped her, placing a hand on the other girl’s arm. “Can you? Can you really start a fight like that? Not just sparring, but laying into someone and making them regret it? Making them scared to ever come after you again?”
“Yeah, sure. If I needed to.”
Billie forced the eye contact. “Can you really?”
“Hey, I’m the one who shot Tansy, remember?”
Billie snorted. “Yeah. That was pretty funny. Okay. But if things get even close to ‘too far,’ then I expect you to fight back, Jade. ‘Cause if you don’t, I will. And that’ll mean one huge dungheap of trouble.”
There wasn’t much to say to that, so they headed down the hill into the town of Dunwich.
“Should we stop at the Fabric Boutique?” Billie wondered.
“I should have brought my uniform from the fight,” Jade mentioned. “But I sent it in a couple of days ago. It hasn’t come back yet.”
“She probably gets a lot of work during finals,” Nikki guessed.
“I do need to get my bras adjusted,” Jade said. Then her face fell. “Assuming I don’t…” She couldn’t finish.
“Then we’d better get to the baby first,” Nikki decided. “Where are you going to meet them?”
“In front of Myrtle’s Diner. Some people get really weirded out by breastfeeding. I think it only gets worse when they see a pre-teen girl breastfeeding a black baby. Anyway, you’ve been to Mrytle’s. You know how she is.”
“Talk about a battleaxe,” Nikki agreed.
“So I figured she’d just put us in back again, and there’d be no problem.”
They rounded a corner and the three girls stopped in shock.
Dunwich wasn’t a large town. This intersection was practically in the center of town, and everyone just called it, “the light.” Because in a town the size of Dunwich, you didn’t need any other description. There was only one intersection that even had a light. On the far side was Myrtle’s Diner, and Myrtle was out front right now, standing on the sidewalk and trying to keep things under control. Near her was a black woman that Jade recognized, holding a small baby. A scattering of other townspeople, mostly farmers and loggers, were watching.
And in the center of the intersection, blocking all traffic (such as it was) stood two badly-costumed heroes. Or, as it became quickly apparent, costumed villains.
The first wore a costume and mask, all in pure white. This emphasized the fact that he wasn’t exactly in top-notch shape. In fact, he could stand to lose about 50 pounds. The logo in the center of his chest looked like a cold-medicine capsule, with wings. Lastly, in an offense to superhero fashion everywhere, he wore a white nylon fanny pack.
His companion wore an outfit that was opposite, in a stylistic sense. His skintight outfit was in plaid. A green-dominated plaid, and, emphasizing a Scottish background, he wore a kilt with a contrasting pattern (this one a red-and-orange plaid). On his head he wore what looked to be a beret-and-mask combo. Thankfully, both of these were a simple black. They did nothing to conceal his flowing red locks. Finally, in addition to the mask, he also wore a set of blinders such as a racehorse might wear, that constrained his viewpoint to look only directly forward.
“People!” the white one yelled arrogantly, “our demands are simple! Point us to the drugstore! Once we rob that, we’ll leave this pestilent little burg behind us forever!”
“Seniors gone over the edge?” Billie wondered quietly.
“They look older than that,” Nikki whispered back. “That Scottish one has to be in his thirties.”
“What are they doing here?”
“You got me. Everyone knows that you leave the town alone.”
“You!” The white one shouted, stabbing a finger toward Myrtle. “Where is the drugstore! Answer me!”
“Lord, give me strength.” Myrtle hawked and spat in the gutter. “I’m telling you, there’s going to be students along, pretty soon. Lordy. I’ve got meals to cook. Someone tell me how it comes out.” With that, she turned her back on the villains and meandered back into the diner.
“Ach! Ye people dinnae know what ye be dealing with here! We two are powerful mutants! Beings with powers far beyond yer meager ken!”
Jade noticed that Mrs. Jimoh was cowering back against the diner, holding her baby tight. If the woman wasn’t careful, her very fear would attract the pair of lunatics. Jade’s jaw set and her fist clenched, but she didn’t dare make things worse.
Slightly behind her, Billie noticed. As Nikki moved to take a step forward, Billie raised an arm to halt the elf.
“Enough stalling!” the white one said. “Witness the power of… Podcast!” Thrusting his hands forward, a bubble of energy formed between his open fingers. Simultaneously, an identical bubble formed across the intersection, engulfing a farmer’s pipe. An instant later, the pipe was in Podcast’s hands.
“I control space itself! With the merest thought I transcend distance!” Reaching into his fanny pack, he pulled out a small bomb. It looked like a miniature red stick of dynamite, only the fuse stuck out of the side, rather than out of the end. The mutant lit it, and a moment later both pipe and bomb vanished…
…only to reappear high in the air. The bomb exploded with a deafening bang, and scraps of paper and plastic rained down on them all.
“I can plant bombs like that on everyone standing here! There’s nothing you can do to stop me!”
There was a chuk-chuk sound, and one farmer came striding forward from the feed store. He was holding a pump-action shotgun, but not yet aiming at the men in the intersection.
“’Bout time you two move on, don’t you think? Before any students get here. We don’t want any trouble.”
“But ye’ve found it, haven’t ye? And don’t be thinking yer wee weapon can threaten Blinder! Not when ye still need to see, in order to aim!”
Blinder’s eyes glowed, and Jade suddenly lost control of her head. Helplessly, her head and eyes turned to look back toward Dunwich Feed and Supply. She saw the shotgun-wielding farmer, bystanders, everyone turned to look in the same direction.
“Yer guns mean nothing next to the power of unstoppable mutant energy!”
“All we want is your drugstore!” Podcast yelled. “We offered our services to The Syndicate. We are unstoppable! But they scoffed at us. They insisted on an initiation. ‘Sure,’ they said. ‘You can join up. Right after you rob the drugstore in Dunwich, New Hampshire.’ So here we are!”
Jinn had a double charge, back at Whateley. Jade could cast two more charges, but then she’d be too weak to fight. So for combat purposes, she really only had a single charge to work with. She cast it now, and linked with Jann. That gave her 360 degrees of vision, even if her eyes could only watch one way. She quickly saw that Nikki was staring at the feed store, and scowling in irritation. Billie, though, was just ignoring the effect.
“Jade,” Billie said quietly, “you have to act. Your friend and her baby are both in danger. If you don’t save them, what will happen to them?”
“But… you and Nikki—”
“It has to be you. You alone. Prove to me that you can do it. Prove that you can hold your own, when it really matters. Show me that when it counts, you can put someone down, and put him down hard!”
“You there!” Podcast had noticed the whispering. “Why isn’t your head turned like everyone else’s?”
Billie finished urgently. “You have to do this! Prove to yourself that you can do it!”
Jade nodded once. Billie was right. If the two of them weren’t going to act, then she had to. To save Mrs. Jimoh and Alhaji. To save the townspeople. To get on with her life!
Head still turned, she began to walk toward the center of the intersection. She had one charge and some gadgets. She needed a plan.
“What do you think you’re doing? Get back there!”
As Blinder turned to look at her, the head-control effect was broken.
“Oh, dear God. We warned him that students would be coming.”
With only one charge, Blinder was probably the most immediate danger. If she couldn’t see, she’d be seriously limited in what she could accomplish.
“She’s just a bairn,” the Scotsman said. “She probably does nae understand.”
“Get back with your schoolgirl friends,” Podcast ordered. “There’s serious, adult business going on here.”
With Jann providing eyes in the top of her head, she spotted the support girder under the water tank. If she moved just a little left… there. It was directly behind Podcast. She raised her left arm.
“Ye got a question, lass?”
A subtle click and the handle of the grapple-cuff came into her fist. She cast Jann, then distracted them with words.
“You were warned to leave Dunwich. It is seriously against the rules to make trouble here. I hope I won’t get in too much trouble.”
Podcast jabbered on. “You won’t be in trouble at all, if you—”
She shot the grapple. Before it even hit the tower, she had her Cobra 250 out and aimed at Blinder. Her current load was a gas grenade, a web shot, and then a taser. She fired twice, then the grapple connected, Jann returned, and the reel yanked her up and forward.
The smoke and web both hit Blinder. She had a moment to see him engulfed in sticky strands before the billowing orange smoke hid him from sight.
“Mother of God! What’s going on?”
“Blind her Blinder!”
“I (cough) – no good! The smoke!”
Podcast twisted toward her. “Give me that!”
A blue orb blossomed in her hand. The gun was gone.
“Try your own medicine!” Podcast fired her own gun at her, shooting wildly.
She judged her trajectory and squeezed to cut the cable. A thought and Jann was there, adjusting her fall. She passed just under the now-wasted taser-shot. It hit the side of the Dunwich Arms hotel, and erupted in a crackling globe of lightning.
She landed on her feet ahead of Podcast, then rolled forward. She had to get his belt pouch! Raising her right arm, she charged and launched three missiles: tear gas, flash powder, and explosive. The flight was fast, he was barely ten feet ahead of her. The flash and explosive detonated simultaneously, blowing him back by another ten feet. The tear gas followed, exploding in Podcast’s face while he lay stunned on the ground.
“Mother of God! Who are you?” It was from Blinder, who seemed to have forgotten his sporadic Scottish accent. The small explosion had dissipated the orange cloud that surrounded him.
Jade didn’t answer. Instead, she dashed toward him, activating her left bracer. A small pad flipped into her palm, while there was a brief whine from capacitors going on line.
“Don’t look at me!” Blinder said, trying to pull free from the web goo. “Look at… your friends!”
Against her will, her head and eyes twisted to look back at Nikki and Billie. Nikki seemed impassive, but Billie had a fierce smile.
Jade continued her sprint, swerving toward Blinder. She brought forth Jann, ‘seeing’ in every direction. While Blinder blinked, she used her left hand to grab him at the base of the neck.
“YeaAAaaAAaa!” He convulsed as the pulsed electricity shot through his head and body. A moment later, he collapsed to the ground.
Jade stood there for a moment, breathing hard. It was a mistake. Blue orbs blossomed around both wrists, and her bracers vanished.
“I don’t know who the hell you are, little girl, but you made a BIG mistake.”
Podcast climbed back to his feet. He looked at the two arm bracers curiously, then tossed them over his shoulder.
“I think I’ve learned something here,” she told him.
“Have you learned respect? Fear?”
“I’ve learned that white costumes look really dumb once they get dirty.” Then, just for spite, she added. “And what kind of name is Podcast? Were you trying to sound like an idiot?”
The man across from her didn’t say a word, he just reached into his fanny pack and slowly pulled out four mini-dynamites. One by one, he lit them.
Jade reached up and clicked her barrette. A targeting window appeared over her right eye. It didn’t actually do anything, but she thought it looked cool.
“Sayonara, punk,” Podcast said.
As the blue orb expanded around his hand, Jade launched herself forward. An explosion erupted just behind her. She used Jann to stabilize her flight, as she leapt and rolled, and then sprung back to her feet. Linked with Jann, she ‘saw’ two ultra-violet pinpoints form just ahead of her and begin to expand. She made a TK-assisted leap, clearing six feet and leaving the bombs below and behind her.
Podcast’s eyes went wide, then narrowed in concentration.
The last bomb appeared inside her blouse.
Moving before she could think about it, she reached in with her right hand and scooped it out to throw it away. It exploded before she could release it.
Time focused to a pinpoint, then expanded to a field of pure white. Bones shattered, blood sprayed, and she saw two of her fingers flying away. The pain was so intense that her mind, by now well practiced at dealing with unbelievable pain, simple shut it off.
And now, Podcast was right in front of her.
“Yeaaaaagh! You son of a bitch! I was trying to be NICE!”
Turning into a skid, her left leg shot out, striking him in the right knee. His eyes and mouth took a sudden ‘O!’ of surprise as his leg bent in ways that healthy legs never bend. Jade turned the kick into a spin, bringing her right elbow around in a thrust to his exposed ribs. There was a brutal crunch and they both screamed. Jade’s elbow wasn’t hurt, but bumping it jostled the mangled flesh of her right hand.
Further enraged, as she finished the spin, her left fist jabbed forward to hit him in the throat.
Podcast collapsed to the road, barely conscious and clutching his throat, doing his level best to breathe. Jade stood over him, cradling her right arm and heaving for breath herself.
“You god-damned son of a bitch! I was trying to be nice.” She repeated.
Belatedly, she reached into her purse and pulled out her pink compact. “Kitty Compact!” she ordered. “Guard the prisoners. If either of them tries to get away, kill them!”
Podcast’s eyes went wide as the pink plastic compact hovered on a small jet of flames. Two blades sprung out of the sides, and it began to spin there, hovering just above his face like whirling, lethal death.
Jade collected her gear, while Billie and Nikki sauntered forward.
“You going to be okay?” Billie asked.
“No!” Jade yelled back. “Look at my hand! It’s going to take hours to heal! How am I supposed to take care of a baby, when my hand’s like this?”
“I can help with that,” Nikki said. She reached forward, chanting softly in a fluid language, and sparkles began to condense in the air around Jade’s hand.
Billie reached down for Podcast. He had nearly mastered his breathing, at this point, and was now looking wild-eyed at the three girls. She lifted him easily, holding him one-handed, with a solid grip on the front of his costume. She let him stare into her alien eyes.
“Who are you people?”
“Hey, Nikki,” she called, ignoring the question. “You still remember the number for the MCO?”
“Yeah. Why, you think they’ll actually be able to do some good for once?”
“Well, it seems like the perfect opportunity, doesn’t it?”
Billie turned back to Podcast, looking at him with mocking sympathy. “The big, bad mutant. Good thing we only hit you with the weakest member of the group.”
The townspeople had begun emerging from the buildings. “We warned ‘em that students was going to be coming!”
“Yeah. They didn’t even seem to care!”
Billie chuckled. “Rob a drugstore in Dunwich. What an idiot!”
And that was probably the last thing that Podcast remembered, because at that point he finally passed out.
The three of them sat in the back of the diner with Mrs. Adetoun, while Jade continued nursing the baby. The African woman sat quietly, just watching, while the three girls chatted.
“How’s the hand now?” Billie asked.
“It’s only been seven minutes since you last asked,” Jade said. “I told you, it’s gonna take another hour or two to regrow the fingers. The rest of it – well, it’s strong enough to hold a baby.”
“Changed your mind about standing up to the kids in school?” Nikki asked.
“No. If anything, that just made me more convinced that I’m right.” Jade paused for a moment to study the baby nursing from her. “I’ve got a bit of a temper, don’t I? I certainly don’t look very Irish, but maybe those parts came through in other ways. That poor jerk Podcast – I could have killed him. A hit to the throat like that…”
“Do we need to mention that he was throwing explosive at you?” Nikki reminded her. “He teleported one inside your shirt. With only a second left on the fuse. If that thing had gone off…”
“Well, yeah. I guess.” She paused to adjust the baby, who was currently nursing about where things would have exploded.
“That still freaks me out,” Billie said. “Watching you nurse that baby. It’s just wrong! You’re an eleven-year-old girl! You shouldn’t be nursing a baby.”
“I’m fourteen,” Jade corrected. “And if I am a girl, it’s thanks to this baby.”
“About that…” Nikki mentioned, a bit too casually. “The whole ‘reset’ thing. What’s going on with that?”
Jade smiled and adjusted the baby’s mouth on her. “I think it faded away during the fight. I’m not sure why. Maybe Podcast did me a favor.”
“As if,” Billie said.
“Before everything, I could feel it, you know? It was like it was looming, ready to move, something. Then it just sort of faded away. Maybe it was the fight. Maybe it was getting hurt. Maybe I got Alhaji nursing in time.” Her smile became a bit wider. “So I’m still not that big, but I guess I’m big enough.” She bent her head down toward the baby. “Isn’t that right, you hungry man?”
Billie had problems believing it. “So one of your schemes is actually working?”
“Why do you sound so surprised, oneesan? You’re the one who told me to believe. Whateley is an incredible place, you said. Give it time, and we will find a solution. That’s what you told me. And I believed you. I still do.”
Nikki couldn’t seem to take her eyes off of Jade, and what she was doing. “So, do you like being a girl? Do you like … doing that?”
“I love it. As for breastfeeding…” her face took on a look of wonder. “Wow. It feels… it’s so indescribably… My body is making food for this little guy. Food, and medicine, and everything he needs. And I can feel it flowing through me. I can feel it as each suck pulls it through my nipple. You’ve got to feel it to believe it. How about it? Nikki? I’ll bet Mrs. Adetoun would let you. You’re big enough, I’ll bet you could.”
Nikki blanched and pressed as far back in her seat as she could. “Uh uh. No way! Not now, not ever! I’m not a… I couldn’t…”
“Coward. How about you, Billie? You’re a higher level regen than me. From what I understand, your body should adapt even faster. You might be producing milk within minutes.”
It was Billie’s turn to go pale and press back in her seat. She was near the top of the rankings chart, and she blanched at the thought of a baby’s touch. Then with a desperate smile she excused herself.
“Ummm. Might not be a good idea you know. Alien physiology and all. It might actually hurt him. Wouldn’t want to do that would we?”
Jade thought about it for a moment and then nodded. Then she took a breath and visibly braced herself. “I’ll tell you why I don’t want to be more aggressive at school.”
The other two girls rattled their heads, trying to figure out the abrupt change of topic.
“I’ve figured out what I want to do in life,” Jade continued. “I want to be a mother. I want to have my own babies, and nurse them. And I want to be a nurse, and nanny, and maybe even a wetnurse, too.” She gave a Madonna-like smile. Not the pop singer that she’d once owned a mask of. In this case, her smile was reminiscent of so many paintings of mother Mary bending over the infant Jesus.
“If you don’t want to nurse your baby, Billie, I’d be happy to do it for you. Don’t you get it? With my powers, I could be the perfect nanny! I can bring their toys to life, and keep my eyes on four kids at once! I can nurse them, and heal them, and protect them from bad guys. And I’ll fight as hard as I need to, to protect the innocent. But at the same time, I need to make sure that I don’t get angry or violent when the small problems and tantrums come up. And that’s why I can’t afford to go psycho when some jerk at school is just being a butthead. It’s training to keep my temper, when little baby-girl Billie accidentally blows up the kitchen. I can’t afford to get mad if she accidentally cuts off my arm with her teeny li’l plasma sword.”
After she was done boggling, Nikki said, “You know, that’s an image that makes a disturbing amount of sense.”
Jade smiled again. “It’s hard to feel sad,” she said, “when a baby is suckling on you.”
Nikki looked to her side. “You want to field that one?”
“No.” Billie was emphatic. “I’m doing my best to not even think about it.”
“I was so worried at the start of the week,” Jade continued. “Combat finals. I guess they work, don’t they? I’ll bet Podcast and Blinder would have been reasonably dangerous, if they’d had some training. They’d obviously never even heard of Whateley.”
Billie growled. “Remind me to thank the Syndicate for sending pests into Dunwich.”
“They’d probably be as surprised as we were,” Nikki said. “It’s hard to imagine genuine mutants being both that stupid and that ignorant.”
“So combat finals might be tough,” Jade repeated, “but I guess they’re worth it. By the time I’m a senior…” She smiled. “Maybe I’ll be good enough to protect your babies, while you’re out and about.”
“Can you imagine what we’ll be like as seniors?” Nikki asked.
“No way,” Billie replied. “I can’t even imagine what we’ll be like by springtime.”
“And I may not have achieved my big goal yet. Not entirely.” She looked down at the baby at her breast, and stroked his head gently. “But for now I’m close enough.”
The day had been already been plenty eventful for Nikki. After a week of end-to-end combat, the incident of Podcast and Blinder wasn’t even worth mentioning. The concept of breastfeeding, on the other hand, struck her anew, every time she caught a glimpse of her blouse and her own substantial figure. So she really didn’t need any new revelations from Sara right now.
The white-skinned Goth princess just touched her lips in silence, then led Nikki into the basement, and into the rather disturbing “Lovecraft Room” that was Sara’s personal room.
“I have wards and protections here,” the junior goddess explained. “I don’t want anyone to overhear.”
“Okay, what’s the crisis now?” Nikki asked, with more than a touch of sarcasm.
Sara wasn’t amused by the jibe. “Oh, nothing much, I suppose.” Her tone was cold as ice. “I just thought you might care that Jade has a demon mark.”
Nikki blinked, not quite understanding at first. Then, “How could you? I know she was begging you, but you turned her down! And after that, I was defending you! You’ve been going around stealing souls right and left, and I was stupid enough to defend you!”
For a moment, Sara’s anger blazed, volcanically hot. “Not another word! That’s just about the limit of how much blind faerie prejudice I can handle for one day.”
“You have to give her up! Break the mark! Undo it. If the others find out—”
“Undo it? You can’t undo a demon mark. It’s permanent. You’d have a better chance of putting a full-grown chicken back in its eggshell.” Now it was Sara’s turn for sarcasm. “And I resent your instant assumption that I was the one to mark her.”
Nikki stared at the demon princess, her mouth gaping open stupidly.
Finally, “Are you sure Jade’s really marked? A real demon mark?”
“Positive.” There wasn’t a trace of doubt in Sara’s statement. “I had my own doubts, so I took steps to fully confirm it. The mark itself is on her left buttock – a thin triangle trailing a dot.”
“But… if it’s not your mark, then who… what…?”
Sara just stared back at her. “You were at the end of combat finals. Jade and Jinn reacted in the exact same way, at the exact same time. Who? That should be obvious.”
Nikki’s eyes went wide in understanding.
The end of Jade 8, EXAMS