Babs Yerunkle / Jade / Jade 9: Sit In by By Babs Yerunkle
From the outside, the fabulous Kirby Building looked much like any other skyscraper. Perhaps the roof had an extra antenna or two; perhaps the top twelve floors seemed a touch more modern in style. But these were subtle touches, easily overlooked. More important to the local residents was the fact that the building was armored better than any modern battleship. Disks of immovable force appeared at need, protecting the historic façade from threats ranging from high explosives to interplanetary beams of quantum energy. Even with such protections, the Kirby Building had taken its share of damage over the years. Each time, it had been rebuilt under the direction of “Dr. Amazing”, the fantastically brilliant Dr. Amos Messing. The modern version of the Kirby Building looked much the same as that original building they’d moved into, back in the sixties, but inside it was vastly different. A honeycomb-mesh support structure was cushioned by electromagnetic fields, as well as stiffened and anchored by immaterial rods of pure gravitic force.
All of these facts were available from any tour guide or poster, and the Kirby Building was a prime destination for tourists.
What the guidebooks didn’t reveal was that few of the windows actually looked into the building’s interior. Instead, computerized holograms gave the illusion of residents and technicians working away, dimly glimpsed through the mirrored glass. But behind armored panels, devices esoteric and mysterious worked automatically, fulfilling the programmed orders of their creator.
One such device now flickered into electronic life. On F-Level, force fields sprang into existence. Projectors flared, positioned with atomic precision at the eight vertices of an imaginary cube. And in the center of all this activity, there was nothing. For a moment, the transit stage was empty. Then, as the projectors blazed more brilliantly, shapes appeared. Humanoid outlines. The famed “Excursion Cube” was working once more!
Now, their work done, the projectors dimmed. The outlines became more apparent. Three figures appeared, wearing distinctive, emerald-green uniforms. The black accents would have been recognized world-wide, even had the figures not sported that famous white triangle on their chests. Even if they had not worn that proud but simple insignia: the bold numeral 3! For indeed, this was the Amazing Three, returned from their latest expedition into the unknown!
“I don’t see why I have to carry the baby,” Melinda Martin complained. “Honestly, sometimes it’s like both of you were still stuck back in the sixties! There’s nothing wrong with a man holding a baby!”
Brock Simpson nervously rubbed at the beard stubble on his chin. “Well, I would, Mel, but I hafta be ready, in case demon-zilla back there wakes up. A thing like that could take off the whole top of a building like this, if we gave him a chance.”
Dr. Messing snorted, and tapped at the unlit pipe in his mouth. “I’d love to, honestly! But you heard Brock. I need to access the Quarantine Dimension as quickly as possible!”
“Oh! Men! I don’t know what I ever saw in either one of you!”
“Aw, don’t be like that, Mel!” Brock said. He had a build that made NFL linebackers jealous, but this woman had him almost whining. “I promise you, as soon as we get what-his-name packaged up, I’ll dig up by old football or something, and give the kid something to play with.”
“He’s a baby!” she fumed. “He doesn’t need a football, he needs a teddy bear.”
“Sorry. Can’t help you there.”
Dr. Messing, meanwhile, was punching instructions into a pedestal. Before him, a security portal clunked, then slowly slid open. The portal was an equilateral triangle, set in the thick, armored wall. Sliding on floor grooves, counter-matched slabs of a3-alloy-steel slid left and right, until triangular cut-outs aligned with the portal. Each slab was two centimeters thick, and even tougher than the walls they slid into.
“If you can get the lifter under him, Brock, we should be able to secure Phesclangorenthal in the Quarantine Dimension before he comes to.”
“Punch the demon, Brock. Heft the demon, Brock.” The large black man muttered to himself. “Sheesh. Don’t know why I even joined up with this chicken-feed outfit. Hey! Brains! Haven’t you heard of manumission? Why am I the one that gets all the lifting and toting?”
Dr. Messing seemed not to hear everything his larger comrade muttered. “What’s that? Oh, it’s just that you seem to have a knack with the lifter, Brighton. Probably because it’s your design, hmmm? I’m thinking that our scaly red friend here may provide fascinating insights into my theory on the relationship between magic and psi phenomena.”
Brock Simpson expanded in size, allowing him to easily heft the over-sized monster onto the hover-disk. “Keep telling him we need higher ceilings in here, but does he listen to me? Noooo. You know, Mr. Smarty-Pants, sooner or later you’re going to have to admit to the existence of things like magic and religion and what good ol’ country folk have known since the world began.”
Messing was now docking their exploration and recording gear in the proper receptacles, automatically downloading the accumulated data. “Superstition, old friend. I have yet to experience a phenomenon that can’t be explained as some extension of known psionic mechanisms. Occam’s razor. You know that as well as I do.”
“We just got back from a tour of hell itself, and you can talk like that?”
“On the contrary. Dimensional resonance setting K-971 was a fascinating place. I postulate that your ‘hell’ was actually the photosphere of a dwarf star. Readings seem to indicate that in that dimension, fusion processes and gravity were both correspondingly weaker, creating a surface temperature that was hundreds of degrees, rather than thousands. To find life in such an environment – well, amazing is the least I can say. Still, you have a point. If early psychics or clairvoyants had somehow glimpsed that realm… it might explain a great deal.”
Brock finished sliding the demon into the strange moonscape of the Quarantine Dimension and closed the doors. “Why’d you want to bring scaly back, anyway?”
“Our mystic friend did give us a run-down on what they’ve been calling ‘demons’ all these years. I need to double-check, to ensure that we’ve got the right customer. Also, a genuine scientific examination may reveal untold secrets!”
“I’m not sure I want to know.”
“I am postulating that these are not creatures at all, but more like some sort of artificially intelligent computer virus.”
Simpson rubbed his chin in remembrance. “It hit awful hard for a computer program.”
“Exactly! A tangled mess of computer code created by some ancient race of programmers? Scientists who could code directly in the medium of psychic energies, using manifested matter as necessary for physical interaction? If true, imagine the possibilities!”
Melinda Martin had finally calmed the baby to sleep, through gentle rocking and a crooning song. “Amos, I don’t know why you talk like that when you know full well that no one can understand you.”
But Brighton Simpson was musing, “A stable manifested structure? That would explain how he regenerated so fast.” Then, realizing that he’d been suckered into Messing’s discussion, he shook his head and forcibly resumed his preferred persona. “All I know is that was no place for a good Baptist boy like me to find himself!”
Dr. Messing smiled fondly at his old friend, not fooled in the least.
“True,” Melinda agreed. The blonde looked back and forth at her two long-time compatriots. “And neither of you has managed to explain how a human baby got there!”
Winter semester was a revelation to Billie.
She’d spent most of her break in exile and imposed isolation. It felt like a prison sentence, handed down as a “reward” for fighting the terrorists that had kidnapped her parents.
Campus hadn’t been completely deserted. There were still a handful of people around. There was always a skeleton staff, and some inhabitants, like Fubar, couldn’t leave. But most of them had work to do, or had long ago come up with useful things to do with this rare idle period. And even when Billie could visit them, eventually the time came to return to her room. A lonely room in a dead cottage. The normally bustling halls of Poe were cold and silent, empty of the light and life that made the place come alive.
It was even worse, since the punishment had been over Christmas. Instead of spending her time getting reacquainted with her parents, coming to terms with all her changes and forging new bonds with her brothers and family – she had been exiled. Even at Whateley she was different, not allowed to fight, forced to take a special combat test so she wouldn’t hurt other students. Her looks and powers didn’t earn her a place in Hawthorne or Faction Three, but she was definitely a freak among freaks.
And while the “Christmas Exile,” as she’d come to call it, hadn’t been intended to punish her, it ended up proving a point. She needed to control herself. She knew too well what the world was like, especially given the lesson of Christmas. There would be times in the future when she’d have to unleash her full power – she knew it. Just as she knew that she’d get pushed a little farther away from everybody, every time she revealed what she was really capable of.
And so, when her friends returned in what seemed like some grand invasion of joy, it brought a feeling to her chest that was almost too much to bear.
Billie didn’t think of herself as a particularly emotional person. But Toni and Chou arrived first. Toni was simply so bouncy and energetic that it was impossible to be glum when she was around. And Chou – Billie still tended to think of the transformed Asian as a bit dour, but maybe the vacation had done the girl some good. She was looking surprisingly relaxed and mellow. As always, she had that quirk of a smile that hinted at deep secrets no one else was aware of. Then Ayla was back, ranting and carrying on about her vacation, which was fascinating to listen to (even if it sounded like it had been painful to experience). Hank arrived next, with hints of romance in the air. Then Jamie joined him, also with hints of the odd romantic encounter – which befuddled everyone, since none of them could figure out whether the encounters had featured Jamie as a boy or Jamie as a girl. It did make a difference to most people.
But most of all, she had been waiting for her roommate. And that moment finally arrived.
Nikki strode down the hallway, apparently unaware that her movements and demeanor indicated that she was returning to her domain, the lands and properties which she alone bore control and responsibility for. Nikki’s initial appearance was often like a slap in the face. After not seeing her for a few days, you forgot just how powerful her presence was. The first thing that struck you was her preposterous beauty. She was so beautiful that it hurt. It hurt to know that there could be such perfection in the world and that you could not possess it; but at least you could protect it, and join those who would cherish it. As always, that strange mood faded quickly for Billy. But behind that, there was still the incredible complex tangle that was Nikki. Sometimes a girl, sometimes a woman, sometimes she moved with a perfection and grace that put Toni’s martial arts grace to shame. At other times, she was a typically gawky teenager. Sometimes she had a serenity and porcelain perfection, and the next moment, she had that shy and insecure expression that Billie recognized from her own mirror. There was a certain expression in the eyes for many of their crew of gender changelings. Every once in a while, the original boy could be seen looking out of the eyes of the beautiful new girl.
And behind Nikki’s immense presence, hidden to everyone but Billie, came Jade. The shorter girl looked rested, happy, and very, very excited. And when she spotted Billie, the look on her face almost made up for the weeks of exile. Jade was like a puppy that had just spotted its favorite toy.
The young girl literally flew down the hall toward her, zooming over and around the intervening obstacles. Jade slammed into her like a sack of wet cement, and would have knocked down any normal person.
“Ow,” the Asian girl muttered, from where her face pressed into Billie’s shoulder. “I think I bruised a boob.”
“I wasn’t going to say anything,” Billie admitted, her own mouth already quirking into a smile.
“Tennyo,” Nikki said curtly, arriving in time to grab Billie by a prominent ear. “My room. Now. It’s about … Jade.”
“I’ll unpack oneesan, and join you as soon as I can!”
Billie twitched her head and ear away from Nikki’s offending pinch. She felt a moment of bubbling fury. Didn’t this girl realize that she could flatten the entire campus? And that was followed by an instant flood of answering joy. Yes, Nikki doubtlessly did realize that. And despite that knowledge, she’d operate in the same high-handed, imperious fashion she’d drop on anyone else when there was something serious going on.
“Is this about Jade getting almost killed? Because we talked about that on the phone. Oh, sorry about the bills. I tried to initiate the calls from here whenever I could, but—”
Toni, in the background, was boggling.
“No. This is about something that could affect the lives of all of us who share this hallway.”
“The whole mind-slave thing, and defeating you-know-who?”
“No, no, none of that.”
Toni’s eyes were wide. “You fought Voldemort?”
Nikki smirked at that. “Hmmm, the bitch version. Yeah. But later. In private.” She fingered her pendent, the anti-eavesdropping necklace. “I… allowed something to happen. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I suppose that doesn’t help. I still bear the responsibility.”
“Jade grew up in Topeka, you know. I guess whatever newspaper they had there wasn’t a danger…”
“What?” Billie demanded.
Nikki’s face suddenly collapsed, and instead of the haughty queen, she was a frightened and haunted young girl. “Honestly, the Hello Kitty stuff was kind of funny, and a little cute. This is neither. It’s terrifying!”
In hushed whispers, Nikki revealed the horrifying new truth that was to rend the lives of each of them, perhaps leaving scars that would form a permanent blot on their very souls.
“Jade discovered … The Family Circus.”
Toni’s fear popped like a soap bubble. “That’s it?”
Nikki turned to her roommate, eyes wide in terror. “You don’t understand! Pin-up posters of Billie and little PJ! Dotted lines drawn over the room! I can’t take it anymore!” Nikki grabbed Toni by the collar and began to shake her like a maraca. “No more, do you hear me? No more! No more ‘Dress up like Dolly.’ No more quotes of ‘Not me!’ No more ‘What Would Jeffy Do?’ No more!” Still clinging to Toni’s collar, she collapsed into a broken, sobbing wreck.
Toni turned to look at Billie, deadpan.
“So. For Christmas vacation she fought Lady Voldemort, Jade nearly died, and the only thing she has to talk about is The Family Circus?”
Billie considered. She was better informed, due to the frequent phone conversations she’d had with Jade. “Well… she left out a few modeling adventures, but yeah. That’s about right.”
Toni rolled her eyes. “Someone needs some serious help.”
Billie just smiled. Less than five minutes, and things were almost back to normal.
Back in their room, Jade hugged her larger roommate tightly.
“I’m soooo happy to be back and at school, and seeing you, and everyone again!” the smaller girl bubbled.
If Jade’s mood was frequently sunny, currently it was positively incandescent.
“I thought you liked spending Christmas with Nikki?”
“I did! She was great! We even spent a little time with her brother, Troy. He’s pretty okay, but really a boy, you know? He’s at that age where anything that’s too girly might as well be poison.” She got sort of a crooked smile and cupped her tiny breasts. “He’s twelve, and since I look like I’m eleven… Well, he knows lots of girls my age. ‘Too many,’ he says. And he thought I was big!” She started to blush. “He kept peeking at me. It was… it was really neat. Of course, I had to yell at him. If he became too obvious then I had to catch him, and then I had to yell at him.” She smiled fondly, in remembrance.
“So, do I hear young romance budding?” Billie asked slyly. “Maybe with possibilities of marriage? Play your cards right, and you could end up as ‘Jade Reilly.’”
Jade snorted at the idea of regaining her estranged surname. “Ha! He doesn’t even spell it right. It’s supposed to have an extra ‘e’. R-e-i-l-l-E-y. Not that someone named Jade Sinclair would know anything about that!” She shook her head fiercely. “Anyway, I told him I had a boyfriend that was a giant mutant alligator who’d take any competitors and eat them alive. I don’t think he believed me.”
Billie fought to keep the grin from her face. Everything was back to the way it was supposed to be! “I don’t recall Thuban ever being accused of cannibalism.”
“Well… maybe not. But I don’t think he believed the alligator part!”
Billie shrugged. “Norms. Go figure.”
The giant body lay on its back. Scrambling over it, using stethoscope and psi-energy probe, Dr. Messing listened, observed, and took readings. He was encased in one of his trademarked suits of power armor, though this particular exoskeleton was fitted out with probes, sensors, depth scan systems, and entire suites of devices so new that names had not been created for them.
Accompanying him across the strange moonscape was Brock Simpson, or “Man-Mountain” as he was more commonly called.
“Any sign of life, Doc?”
“These readings are fascinating! I’m telling you, Brock, within the decade we will see useful metaphysical constructs based on some of the same principles I’m seeing here!”
“What are you telling me? This thing is a … robot?”
Dr. Messing scrambled up to the head of the twenty-foot-tall figure and peeled back an eyelid.
“Not a bad analogy. A robot body constructed, not of metal, but of psionically-stabilized mass analogues. Manifested matter. And the readings I’m getting are almost like an alien variant of control and detection circuitry, or perhaps motor and sensory nerves. But the central element is missing!”
“You’re trying to tell me that he’s unconscious.”
“Not just unconscious. His brain is literally missing! It’s as if you had a robot, and removed the CPU. More than that – the motherboard, data storage … other elements. Hmmm, but the ‘power supply’ is still here, as are most of the peripherals.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong, Amos,” Simpson began, “but isn’t your specialty physics, rather than magic?”
“There’s a reason they call it metaphysics, Brighton. Besides, I’ve told you time and again, there’s no such thing as magic, merely complex applications of psionics.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong, Amos, but isn’t your specialty physics, rather than psionics?”
“I did pick up a doctorate in psionic principles back in the seventies.”
“Gosh,” the towering black man said, “a whole doctorate! Wish I had me a couple of them! Then I wouldn’t have nothin’ to worry ‘bout.”
“Sarcasm doesn’t become you, Brighton. Besides, I’ve kept up with the literature. Well, mostly.”
“Uh huh.” The black man shrunk back to normal size and moved over to the sensor cart, which was collating the data. “Amos, you learned psionics back before they even had Pattern Theory, didn’t you?”
The older man sputtered. “That’s not – it shouldn’t matter! In any case, Pattern Theory has hardly received universal acceptance in the community!”
“Yeah, but the math works.”
“It works, but the implications!”
Simpson flipped off the display on the sensor cart and gestured as the massive, motionless body. “Why are you so fired up about this thing, Amos?”
The scientist sat down. “I’ll tell you. It’s because of Christmas. We were caught with our pants down, and frankly, I didn’t like that one bit.”
“Those snowmen things?”
“Exactly. There are obviously people out there who are ahead of the curve on this, and unless we can figure it out, they’ll hit us again the same way. I think those ‘snowmen’ were some type of psychic construct, perhaps using manifested matter.”
“Like gruesome here?”
“Precisely. And so long as we have a sample to study…”
“You’re gonna make the best of it.”
The scientist merely nodded, then turned back to his instruments.
Brighton Simpson thought deeply, effortlessly translating those thoughts into the simplistic-sounding dialog he loved to employ. “Hey, Doc, if you insist on studying something magic—”
“I told you, Brock…”
“—why don’t you get some help from the experts?”
Dr. Messing raised an eyebrow. “You know I never object to research. But I hate wasting time on supposition and superstition. Do you have a suggestion?”
“Well, for the question of the snowmen, you might consider consulting the Empire City Guard. I think Paladin might be a good place to start.”
Messing sighed. “I’m extremely reluctant to call such an obviously heroic figure ‘deluded,’ but…”
“But he’s worse than the original Champion, with his old ‘Olympian’ idea. Yeah, I know. But he might be your best lead.”
The scientist reluctantly nodded. “Let me just finish these readings.”
Jade was deeply happy. She was back with her roommate, catching up on the vacation, and all was right with the world. “So, I guess a giant spinning blade can be pretty gruesome,” she concluded, with a slight wince. “I mean, it was worse that chewing through people, back in Colorado.”
At hearing that, Billie winced in reply, as if shying away from the carnage that she and Jinn had created on their own adventure, a few weeks earlier.
“Christmas, bloody Christmas.”
Jade shrugged, then smiled. “Parts of it, I guess. But I got some really great presents, too! I wasn’t expecting any!”
Billie leaned back in the air in a classic movement that Jade found totally endearing.
“Well,” the older girl mused, “at least you’ve given up that weird pacifist kick you started, right before the break.”
“Oh, not at all!” Jade said, completely sincere. “If anything, I’m more determined than ever!”
She decided she’d have to explain it all again. Surely if she just explained it, her friends could understand. Couldn’t they?
“Jade,” Billie objected, “as a cabbit, you chewed through people. That’s not exactly the actions of a pacifist. And I’m glad you did, because you probably saved my life. You definitely saved my parents’ lives.”
“Aw, you woulda done okay,” Jade protested.
“Maybe. What I’m saying is that those aren’t the actions of a pacifist. And it sounds like you were at least as bad on your little romp with Nikki.”
“Um…” Jade could see where her actions might weaken her position of non-violence in the eyes of some people. “…but that was different.”
“Different how?” Billie demanded. “A pacifist believes that violence is never the answer, even when threatened with violence. Especially when threatened with violence. That’s not how you reacted at all.”
“Okay, okay,” Jade conceded. “So I’m not a classic pacifist. Call me an ‘NRA pacifist’ or something.”
Billie was rubbing her temple. “A what?”
“An ‘NRA pacifist.’”
“And what exactly is that supposed to be?”
“Well, you do your best to avoid violence. But when you absolutely, positively can’t solve the problem without violence, then… Overwhelming Force!” Jade put extra enthusiasm into that last bit, so she could be sure of getting the point across.
“I understand perfectly,” Billie said, perhaps a touch too sweetly. “On your left arm, you can wear the peppermint-striped armband of the campus pacifists, and become a member of the Born Losers Club. On your right arm, you can wear the Ultra Violent armband, and spend your time hanging around with Bloodwolf. You know, I think the two will go well together. Besides, it won’t matter at all, when they strap you into the straitjacket and cart you off to the loony bin!” Inexplicably, the larger girl began to bawl her eyes out. “And then I’ll never see you again! Waaaa!”
Jade felt a glow in her heart like a supernova turning on. Billie had missed her! She felt the tears coming to her own eyes as well, and wrapped her arms around her bigger roommate.
“I’ll never leave you! I promise! The only reason I went away this time is because you told me I should go with Nikki! You said it was a good idea. But you know I really wanted to come home with you. Tell you what! If you have to spend spring, or summer, or Christmas, or all of them, here alone, can I stay with you? Please? Please?”
It was unusual for Billie to be the one to initiate a clinch. Usually it was Jade that moved to hug her roommate, not the other way around. Jade was acutely conscious of the bigger girls’ needs, and (with Jann laced through her clothes and hair and skin) she could see the storm of emotions racing through the other girl. She felt terrible that Billie felt that way, but happy that she was helping.
“You’ll go away eventually,” Billie accused, sniffing. “Everyone will. And then I’ll be all alone again!” She clutched Jade tighter and began to give a hiccupping sob, as if she was crying, but trying to stop herself at the same time.
“I won’t go away,” Jade assured her. “I promise. I’ll stay with you as long as you want. As long as you’ll let me.”
Speaking the words, she felt them take effect on her. It was like feeling the light take hold of her during some sort of holy vow. And it wasn’t as if she were committing to a new course of action, it was that speaking the words make it clear that this was what she had wanted all along. She’d thought, several weeks ago, that she’d found her life’s calling in children. That was what had led her to a philosophy that seemed to utterly confound all her friends.
Now she knew better. Children were a calling, but not the calling. Her one, true purpose in life was clearly to… she wasn’t sure. It revolved around Billie. To make Billie happy. To protect her, and accompany her, and be her best friend forever. It all felt right, and she felt her life slide together and into place, as all the pieces moved a little closer.
Billie had missed her!
So many people, Jade realized, went through their life with uncertainty and doubt. They didn’t know their purpose or their desire. In one fell swoop, Jade realized the answer to both of those questions. It had been with her for months, but she only understood it now. Maybe the Christmas break had been a good thing. The separation from Billie had allowed them both to see things more clearly.
“I promise,” Jade repeated, in wonder this time, “to never, ever leave you. I don’t mean for a trip into town or anything. I mean, you know, going away, to live somewhere else, be somewhere else, and leave you alone. I won’t go, not unless you tell me to.”
“That’s sweet,” Billie said, sniffing again. “But the time will come… You’ll go to college. Or find a husband. Or a job.”
“Nuh uh. I promise. Never. We’ll go to college together. My sweetie will have to tag along. Or I’ll visit him or something. My job will be with you. Besides, we’re going to be rich together, remember?”
Billie squeezed her, and for Jade, it was as good as being held by her mother.
“You shouldn’t make promises you can’t keep,” Billie said. “I might hold you to them.”
“Perfect,” Jade insisted. “Hold me to them. I promise. You call, and I will come.”
“Okay.” Billie let go with one arm to reach into her pocket for a tissue. She blew her nose loudly, then, after getting rid of the tissue, she held out her hand. “Deal.”
Jade took the offered hand, and pumped it in an exaggeration of a guy-type handshake. “Deal!”
And all was well with the world.
The ever-stylish Galaxy strolled into the teleconferencing center, pushing a stroller that was composed of pure light. It was a glowing blue hemisphere, holding a nest of soft blankets and a quietly alert baby. The stroller handles were lighter blue, but of similar photonic construction.
“A carriage?” Brock rumbled. “Rather a come-down for the great Galaxy, isn’t it?”
“Hush, Brock!” Melinda admonished. “And you haven’t even commented on the color. I made it to compliment my new dress. What do you think?”
Dr. Messing nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, I see. Monochromatic wavelengths, corresponding to a narrow band within,” his steely-gray eyes narrowed in consideration, “300 angstroms, I’d judge.”
“Oh, you! You’re supposed to tell me whether you think it’s attractive! Honestly, I don’t know why I even bother with the two of you around.” Then she looked up at the giant teleconference screen.
The entire far wall was taken up with the complex holographic projector, but the results were worth it. The conference table was set right up against the wall, and seemed to continue seamlessly on the far side. However, from the logo on that table, it was clear that they were looking into the famed Empire Estate, the grand (and high tech) base of the famous Empire City Guard.
As they watched, a door on the other side of the screen opened, and the knightly figure of Paladin strode in. He nodded to the two men.
“Dr. Messing, Dr. Simpson.”
“Aw, I’ve told you often enough to just call me Brock. That or Man-Mountain. Or just, ‘Hey Ugly.’ Whatever does the job.”
Paladin gave a deep bow. “And I would be remiss indeed to ignore the lovely form of Galaxy.”
She colored lightly at the flattery. “Oh, go on!”
“May I assume the Amazing Three have some profound urgency which lurks behind this call?”
“Just trying to follow up on some ideas,” Dr. Messing stated. “I’m investigating the Christmas snowmen.”
Paladin grumped around in his seat for a bit. “Yes, that wasn’t exactly our finest moment, was it? If it hadn’t been for the Angel of Hell’s Kitchen…”
Messing nodded in regretful agreement. “Which is why I’m looking into things. Just in case we have to face anything like that again, you understand.”
“I understand perfectly, Doctor. How can I help?”
Messing drew out his pipe and began to fiddle with it. He hadn’t smoked it in more than a decade, but as a prop for his idle hands it was priceless. “It was my understanding that you had some insight into these things.”
“I don’t know where you got that idea. The only things I heard were second hand from Dr. Thunder.”
“Then maybe I should talk to her—”
“Hold on,” Paladin interrupted. “While I’m sure she’d love to chat, Dr. T was just passing on things that she heard.”
“Dr. Charles Lodgeman. Hard to believe he’s still around, isn’t it? And he doesn’t look a day older than he did…” Paladin trailed off as he stared at the Amazing Three. “Naw. I guess you three would have no problem believing that part. I’m not really sure where you’d find him, but I could ask around if you’d like.”
“Don’t worry,” Messing replied. “I know where to find him.”
“Really? Where, if you don’t mind my asking? After all, the Guard might have need for his advice some day, and once I’m elected leader…”
“These days, Charles Lodgeman is a trustee at Whateley Academy.”
“You don’t say! I guess that does make sense. Well, if there’s anything else I can do to help…”
The three shook their heads, and the call ended. At once, the far wall returned to a blank white tone.
“Ooo, Whateley!” Melinda cooed. “I haven’t been up there in a while. Do they still put up all those lights for the holidays?”
“Don’t think so, Mel.” Brock sounded regretful. “There was an incident a couple of years ago with hypnotic strobes.”
The blonde woman winced. “Oh, yes. Nasty business, with all those super-powered slaves. I remember reading about it in the newsletter. How’d they stop that again?”
“The star on the Christmas tree,” Dr. Messing reminded them. “That’s where the controller was.”
“Oh, yes! Insidious. Shame about the lights though. I’ve always loved lights, you know.”
The two men glanced wryly at the hovering photonic carriage, but wisely said nothing.
Melinda Martin dimpled as she smiled. “A quick hop up to Whateley might be nice!”
Saturday lunch was a large affair. When they’d first come in September, everyone had felt strange and alone. There had been a new school, they had new powers, and for most of this group, new genders and new bodies. Calling it stressful would be an understatement of the grossest kind. But through the experience they’d met others like themselves. Extremely close friendships had been formed. True, there had been differences. They’d fought with each other and at times against each other. They had faced combat, lethal danger, and high school social pressures. Now, after a break, they were coming back together again.
At the table was Team Kimba. Along with the core team, were members that weren’t in the core team, but were close friends for one reason or another. Riptide, Bunny, and Lily, sitting next to Hank.
Another team was also present – The Pack, as they’d secretly begun calling themselves. To the rest of campus, they were distant acquaintances that sometimes hung together. The truth was that Sara ruled The Pack, and the other girls were all linked to her in one way or another – Jamie, Erin, Hippolyta (who glared at Hank and Billie), a girl named Gypsy, the inky-black Jet. Even the new girl was there – the black-furred cat-girl Paige.
The Pack and Team Kimba had interesting relations. The Pack was a tighter team, clustering around a dominant central figure. And their idea of proper behavior and morality often sat oddly with some members of Team Kimba. Sara was an avowed demon, and had marked and bonded several of her friends. It was rumored that in private, some of them were lovers. Campus tales of the lust demon, her lesbian harem, and their perpetual orgy were always popular. Conversely, many in each team suspected that Chou might have been created as an assassin for Sara, should that become necessary. Created by whom or what was another issue.
Both sides had elements that stretched back thousands, perhaps millions of years, to the time before “the sundering,” when elves and other races had defended the earth against invasion by Sara’s kind. And both teams had members like Ayla and Hippolyta, who were aggressive (to say the least) about their own take on gender and sexuality.
The two teams had disagreements, to be sure. But they had their commonality, too. Sara and Nikki were mystically bonded through shared blood. Jamie roomed with Hank. Jet, Sara’s bodyguard/servant, was actually Jade. Or rather, she was one of Jade’s spirits like Jinn, now on something like an indefinite leave of absence. She was still Jade, but a Jade whose experiences had diverged wildly from the original in the last six weeks. The two groups were closely enough intertwined that they shared many of each other’s deepest secrets. On several occasions, combat necessity has created squads that mixed members from the two larger teams.
Both groups were mainly composed of powerful, beautiful, freshman girls. Privately, the rest of the campus was happy that the two groups spent so much time bumping heads. Should they ever join forces, they could be a force to rock the campus.
Now, under the protective umbrella of Nikki’s anti-eavesdropping pendent, they caught up with one another about the events of the break.
“...finally enough time to make my second pass on the team uniforms,” Bunny finished explaining.
Hank looked at the glossy picture in horror. “Uh… no offense, but this version is really, gee, how do I put it?”
“Gay?” Riptide suggested.
“You are not allowed to use that word, gender traitor!” Hippy growled, staring straight at Hank.
Bunny cringed slightly, and turned toward what she hoped might be a sympathetic audience. “How about you, Jade?”
Jade’s eyes were likewise wide. “I… uh…”
“You don’t like it?”
“It’s so pretty! But why yellow? I liked the pink you had last time! And metallic pink would be even better!”
“Well,” Nikki said, in an aside to her roommate, “we do have that team combat class coming up.”
“Have you heard what the upper-classmen call it?” Toni shot back. “‘Sniper Time.’ You want to go into a class named ‘Sniper Time’ wearing a day-glo outfit?”
“The concept is great, Bunny,” Hank tried to explain, “but the execution…”
“Well, they’d be totally kick-ass if you could do them in camouflage.”
“Oh.” The bubbly super-genius considered that skeptically. “I suppose I could try. It never really occurred to me. You know, we’re not that big on camouflage over in Las Vegas.”
Jamie, who’d been unfortunate enough to be drinking at the time, was forced to spray an entire glass of milk out through the nose.
Hank slapped his roommate on the back, as if that would help. “Hey, easy there!”
“The images,” Jamie whispered through coughs. “The images!”
“Camouflage?” Jade demanded. “Are you nuts? When did you ever see a superhero team wearing camouflage?”
“Well, there’s the Grunts,” Toni suggested.
“Thank you so much,” Nikki said dryly. “You may have just lost the argument.”
“What?” Toni demanded. “The Grunts are okay.”
“Sure they are,” Ayla agreed. “If you want to be a living monument to the thankfully-departed Punk movements. Or the idea of army life really turns you on. Or if you just get off on bayoneting people.”
“Well,” Hank said carefully, “they aren’t really like that…”
“Gawd,” Rip muttered. “I’m sooo glad to be back! Even with all the stupid combat junk.”
“Amen,” Jade agreed. “Vacation is waaay too dangerous.”
“Look,” Hank said, rallying, “what if they could change colors? Bright for superhero work, camouflage for infiltration.”
“I suppose,” Bunny reluctantly agreed. “Maybe if I took out the sound effects generators…”
Soon enough, Billie saw her chance and moved to bring something up before the grand assembly of friends.
“Can someone,” she begged, “help me convince Jade that she should not become a pacifist and ultra-violent simultaneously?”
That caught people’s attention.
“Have you heard about this?” Toni asked her roommate.
“I’ve been living with her for weeks,” Nikki whispered back. “My biggest fear is that maybe it’s not insane.”
“You’re a nut-job, Sinclair,” Gypsy called out cheerfully, from way down the table.
“People, people!” Jade stood up on her seat, “I am not a nut-job! And the voice in my head agrees with me!”
There was laughter at that, because everyone there knew that the voice in Jade’s head, often enough, detached itself and went roaming around.
“Just let me explain. Okay, what’s the most important thing in the world?”
“Money!” Riptide suggested.
“Love!” Bunny offered.
Jade shook her head at both.
“A really efficient encryption algorithm?” the cat-girl wondered.
Chou, predictably enough, stated, “Balance.”
“Dark energy,” Sara decided “and fluctuations in the weak nuclear force. That or the increasing curl in the interdimensional membranes.”
Everyone paused to stare at her for a moment.
“The return of the Ancient Enemy,” Nikki said quietly, “and the risk of a second Sundering.”
“No, no, no!” Jade shouted. “What’s wrong with you people?”
“Babies,” shockingly, that came from Hippolyta. “I mean – children.”
“Yes!” Jade said, jumping up and down. “Exactly! Children! So think about this, all you girls, especially! Don’t you think it’s possible that maybe someday you might have kids?”
The group was close enough that most of them knew each other’s big secrets. They knew that while there were plenty of beautiful girls around the table, most of them had once been boys. One and all, those former boys made looks of horrified disgust. Disgust, mixed with a fascination that they were still terrified to acknowledge.
“Now, let’s say you became pregnant and actually had a baby,” Jade continued, still standing. Her audience was, by now, utterly entranced by the subject. Repelled, horrified, alarmed … but fascinated. “So you’ve just given birth to your own child, carried in your own body. Is there anything more important in the entire world? In the entire universe?”
Most of the girls, to their horror, found themselves shaking their heads, “No.”
“Now, let’s say that for some reason you need to go somewhere, and you need to call in a babysitter. Someone like ME!” Jade proudly hooked her thumb back, pointing to herself. “Super Sitter! Ha ha ha ha! And I’m watching little…” Her finger speared out, to point accusingly at Sara. “Little Beelzebaby! The cutest li’l spawn ever!” She made cooing sounds. “And I’m watching him, and he is playing with my fingers, the little tyke. Only he’s got the sharpest li’l demon teeth. And he accidentally bites my pinky off. So! New Mom!” She pointed again at Sara. “Do I hit him? Do I spank him? Do I drive a stake through his li’l heart?”
Sara wasn’t merely intelligent, she was a super-genius of the type who broke all the tests. She obviously knew she was being set up. But, just as clearly, there was only one obvious answer.
“Of course not!”
“Oh? Tell me, mother and potential employer, what do I do to infant little Beelzebaby?”
“First,” Sara explained, “you hold him upside down while attempting to extract the finger from his throat. You don’t want him to choke on it! Then you hold him and talk to him firmly. It probably won’t do any good, but it’s good to start the habit now. You’re training yourself as much as you’re training him. You make sure that, in the future, you don’t let him chew on parts of your body, and lastly, you tell mom when she comes back that his teeth have all grown in.” She winced. “Since I’ll be nursing him.”
“Exactly! Even under intense provocation, I can’t hurt him. He’s just a little baby. I have to act almost like a pacifist. Particularly since, now that Beelzebabe has tasted human flesh, he’ll want even more of me! Heck, I’ll need a lot of restraint, won’t I?”
“Do you guys always discuss things like cannibal babies at the lunch table?” the new girl, Paige asked.
“Naw,” Jamie shot back. “But it’s the start of the semester. It’ll be a while before we get to the weird stuff.”
“So,” Jade bulled on. “How can I train myself to react appropriately, no matter how abusive the provocation?”
“Do we have to go through this?” Billie begged.
“By openly declaring myself a pacifist!” Jade announced triumphantly.
“But… but that doesn’t mean you just have to sit there and take it!” Toni said. “Once you give those idiots the idea that they can push you around, it’s just going to get worse and worse!”
“You’re right,” Jade agreed, more quietly. “But this is training, okay? I have to train myself to react in ways that are appropriate for dealing with babies. So long as I can do that, it’s okay.”
“But…” Toni seemed to be on the edge of pulling her frizzy hair out. “How the hell do you plan to do that? What if Bloodwolf jumps you again, with an eye toward ground beef? Your pacifism won’t mean a thing to him.”
“But it’s the same thing with little Beelzebabe. Some of these babies will be super-strong, or have other powers.”
Billie spoke, but no one seemed to hear her. “I keep telling you, most mutant powers don’t show up until puberty.”
“Being a pacifist doesn’t mean that I do nothing, it just means that I don’t use violence as a means for defending myself.”
Hippolyta almost spoke out then, but she settled back without speaking. She seemed particularly engrossed in the discussion.
“I hate to say it,” Hank said, “but cutting out all forms of violence is going to severely limit your options.”
“But it doesn’t eliminate them,” Jade insisted. “I already have my de-gravitator. I can use that as a ‘time out’ defense. A psi or mage could cast a sleep or confusion spell – maybe I can get some devises that will do the same.”
Sara inhaled and exhaled, as if loudly demonstrating that she could breath when she wanted to. “Okay, that’s not quite as insane as I first thought. I’m not convinced that you need training to keep yourself from going psycho on babies, but it’s your choice.”
“I kind of have these anger issues, sometimes,” Jade admitted.
“Like I said, it’s your choice. If you think you need that sort of training… So there wasn’t any truth to the part about being an ultra-violent?”
“Oh, that’s true, too,” Jade said.
That provoked double-takes from several at the extended table.
“Well, sure. Look, I’m going to be Super Sitter, babysitting for people like Champion, right?”
“I don’t think Champion has any kids,” Billy offered.
“You know what I’m talking about! So I’m babysitting for Champion. Well, it’s the ideal time for an old enemy to show up, isn’t it? He could grab the perfect hostage, couldn’t he?”
There was muttering around the table at that.
“I’m thinking, like, a devisor play pen, with force fields.” “Maybe mom and dad just never go out?” “How do the real heroes handle it?”
“Ahem!” Lily waited for her turn. “As the only person here who grew up as the child of superheroes, I think I can answer that.”
“Yeah?” “How do they do it in the real world?”
“Secret identity,” Lily revealed. “We never even knew that our parents were heroes until we were in late grade school. For us, it helped a lot that the team knew each other in their civilian identities. We never had a sitter, we just visited our friends. And it just so happened that their parents were superheroes, too. So if anything had gone wrong, there would have been at least one hero right there, usually two.” Then she looked at Jade. “But not everyone works on a team. Or has comrades they can trust with their families. You’ve got some interesting ideas. Some of them, at least.”
“Right,” Jade said, taking that as an endorsement of her plan. “That’s why I need ultra-violent training, too. Perfectly safe to the babies. Perfectly lethal to invaders.”
Everyone looked pole-axed by that combination, so Jade took the opportunity to climb down off her chair.
“Wait, hold it, HANG ON!” Toni finally managed to get out. “How do you even manage that? Are you going to be schizophrenic – you’re a pacifist, but Jinn is a killing machine?”
“Interesting idea,” Jade agreed, “but it’s not really a test for her. She doesn’t feel pain, and she doesn’t get angry the same way I do. And she can already be a killing machine, rather literally it turns out. So Jinn gets to practice acting like a normal person, so I don’t go too loony.”
“So far, so good,” Toni muttered. “So… what? You’re going to wear two armbands? Or keep everyone guessing? Or what?”
Jade just giggled. “Oh, come on! That’s just silly. One on each arm? Really!”
Toni let out her breath. “Good. Cause I was afraid—”
“I’ll just flip a coin in the morning, and pick my armband at random.”
This time it was Ayla who spit up her drink.
Dr. Messing did a double-take. “Weren’t you just dressed in blue?”
“That’s not suitable for Whateley!” Melinda exclaimed. “They must be practically snowed in, this time of year! What would Liz think if I showed up in something designed for the streets of Manhattan?”
“Didn’t I tell you?” Amos said, genuinely forgetful. “Whateley’s out. Seems that Charlie is off chasing some brouhaha on the west coast. Some sort of tribal thing, from what I understand. Probably involves secret native ceremonies or some such. He was actually concerned about us dropping in to visit him.”
“Why didn’t you just handle it over teleconference?”
Messing shook his head. “Bad signal. I think he’s out in the bush somewhere. You ever heard of Toketee Falls?” He shrugged. “In any case, a ballistic shot in the Trike should get us there in about forty minutes. Why don’t you go pack?”
“But I wanted to visit Whateley!”
The good doctor gave her a disarming grin. “How about once we get back? After all, we’ll want you to power the Trike, and frankly, I don’t feel too comfortable with a monster in the Quarantine Dimension. And we want to find the baby’s real parents—”
“The baby!” Melinda exclaimed. “You aren’t planning to take him up that rocket car, are you?”
“Uh, well, I… What other choice do we have?”
“You’re going to have to postpone your little trip until this tomorrow, at the earliest. As for the baby,” Melinda thought. “I may have an idea…”
It was Sunday morning, and Billie woke early. Something was different.
With a warm realization, she realized that everything was different. A thousand small sounds proved that the cottage was alive with activity, full of friends, and even foes. It was warm. There was more than just temperature involved. It was warm with the rich comfort of a living home, suffused with the aura of family.
Billie wasn’t a morning person. Often enough she had to wake up earlier than anyone else to attend flight class. She preferred to sleep in. But this morning, she just lay there, awake, eyes nearly closed, and absorbed the essence of things.
Jade, still sleeping, gave a “Snerk!” sound and rolled over.
And at the foot of the small girl’s bed, horror came to life.
Suddenly, Billie remembered back to when she was seven years old. He’d been called Billy back then, too. He had stayed up late, watching the movie Child’s Play, about a haunted doll that goes on a killing spree. Now, at the foot of Jade’s bed, something similar came to life.
It was a Cabbage Patch doll – a hideous mockery of a human baby. Its twisted, evil head rotated in a full circle, before it seemed satisfied that the coast was clear.
Billie’s hair would have stood on end, if it wasn’t already so spiky.
The evil doll rose to its feet and began to stagger up the bed, clearly heading for Jade’s vulnerable throat.
Billie continued to watch, through slitted eyes, giving the image of a peaceful sleeper.
“Sner-er-erk!” Jade rolled over onto her back, flopping about in her restless sleep.
The doll slowly pulled down the covers. Then, deliberately, maliciously, it took hold of Jade’s oversized nightshirt. It slowly pulled that up.
Billie realized what was going on! In the movie, the doll’s one weakness was that it had a living human heart. Somehow, this doll intended to take Jade’s human heart!
With a “smack!” the doll’s evil jaws sprang open. It lowered its head to Jade’s chest, and the jaws began to work convulsively, as it prepared to chew through her living rib cage! Jade slumbered on, oblivious.
“NOOOO!” Like a shot, Billie zoomed out of bed, striking the doll with her fist and knocking it across the room. “Leave her alone!”
The hellish doll rotated its head to stare at her in spite.
“What’s the matter, oneesan?” it asked. “Bad dream?”
“Uh…” Billie blinked in confusion. “I… you… feeding?”
Jade, the physical one, rose up onto her elbows, yawning. “Too much time sleeping in for vacation,” she mumbled. She stared down at her exposed chest, and the small swellings of her tiny breasts. “Any day now,” she suggested.
The doll floated through the air toward her. “Feed me!”
…to connect, mouth first, with the tiny pink tip of Jade’s exposed breast. The doll began to chew and suck with great vigor. “Mmmm!”
“God that feels weird,” Jade admitted. “Kind of good, kind of too-hard, and kind of just-weird, you know?”
Billie’s hair was definitely standing straight out now. “No I don’t know!”
“Huh? Oh, right, another thing I figured out at Nikki’s. Remember how, those last couple of days, I had to keep expressing milk, to maintain my breast size?”
Billie remembered, but she didn’t want to. Jade had been grabbing her own breasts and half massaging, half squeezing, trying to get milk out of herself. In the end, she managed to fill a coffee cup perhaps 10% full. It might not have been such an impressive feat except for a couple of things, as Billie saw it. First, Jade was milking herself. Second, she was actually a boy. And third, she was milking herself.
It hadn’t helped at all, when Jade mentioned that this was a skill that might be useful for a young mother to know, and that Billie could stand to learn it. She still got a goosebumpy horror-show reaction on her skin whenever she thought about it. Admittedly, she might not be a guy anymore, but there were limits!
“So on one of my shopping trips with Nikki, I found out how a breast pump works. And I thought, I can do better than that! I just needed a funnel, some plastic tubing, a squeeze pump, and a beaker. And sure enough, it worked great. A lot easier than the old hand expressing. I have to do myself at least twice a day, but you know what? It’s so worth it.”
By now, the doll had moved to the other side, and was busy working away.
“To be honest, I’d rather be a wet nurse than a sitter. But regenerator’s milk is a biohazard, and well…”
Billie was busy reviewing all the mental images of her fight in Colorado, deliberately dwelling on the blood and gore and terror. The soothing, normal gore. I will not be freaked out! I will not be freaked out!
The doll popped off. “There! How’s that?”
Jade squeezed herself. “Yeah, lots better.” As an aside toward Billie, she mentioned, “You start feeling really full after a while.”
“Uh huh.” In her head, Billie continued the mantra. I will not be freaked out!
The doll opened a Velcro seam that ran down its belly, and pulled out a small plastic beaker. It unfastened a tube-and-lid, and handed the beaker to Jade.
Billie stared at the small, transparent cup with a mixture of horror and fascination. The white fluid inside looked thinner than she expected, with the slightly bluish tint of skim milk.
“Is that … you?”
“Uh huh,” Jade said, with a touch of pride. “And since it’s classed as a biohazard, I’m not supposed to pour it down the drain or flush it or anything.” She looked at the beaker critically. “Oh well!” And with that, she upended the beaker and drank it.
Billie was mortified. She felt all the blood drain from her face. “I… you… that…”
“Oh, I’m sorry oneesan, did you want it?” The Asian girl gave an impish smile. “I like to think I’m rather sweet.”
While Billie completed her hyperventilating, Jade continued to muse on the somewhat titillating subject. “It’s kind of weird to be eating yourself, but, hey, this is Whateley, right? I’m probably not the only person here who regularly eats myself. Anyway, lately I’ve been thinking about making butter. It would be kind of funny, wouldn’t it? And if I used it to sauté or something, it should kill any possibility of regenerator cells, so it shouldn’t even be a biohazard. Though maybe I should ask the Doc about that, before I try it. So what do you think? Should I try making Jade-butter? It would be organic, and slow-churned, the old-fashioned way.”
Billie’s mind was frantically attempting to reboot, but all she was getting was a psychological blue screen.
“Not like I could even compete, if you or Nikki got in the act,” the young girl continued. “I’ll bet we could get either one of you going, pretty quick. I’ll loan you my doll, if you want. Jinn’s got the movement down solid.”
Billie blinked, not moving.
“Elf butter! You know that would sell! I wonder what it would taste like?” Then the little girl looked at her with wide, innocent, trusting eyes. “But you know what, oneesan? I’ll bet you’d taste best of all!”
Billie didn’t need to obey gravity, but it seemed like the easiest escape at the moment. She allowed the floor to come up and smack her, and then she didn’t have to think about it anymore.
At breakfast, everyone was talking about their classes. Juniors and seniors finished their schedule in December, but Freshman and Sophomores finalized their class list at the start of the new semester.
“Look, if you can just get your stupid tutors to let you take a morning class,” Toni was telling her roommate, “then we could all take Survival together in the morning session! Which means that we could take the afternoon Team Tactics, and I can still take Ito’s Martial Arts as my last class.”
“Doesn’t Ito teach, y’know, basic martial arts?” Ayla sneered.
“Don’t dis the man,” Toni warned. “He’s way cool. Besides, I still need some work on basic forms.” She winced as she admitted that last part.
“We have to take Team Tactics together,” Hank agreed, “but Survival is always an individual effort. No reason we have to take it together.”
“See?” Nikki responded to her roommate, displaying her tongue. “Besides, aren’t you a little combat-heavy? Did you remember to take some humanities?”
“Aw, give me a break!” the black girl grumped. “Read and memorize a dozen classics. Big whoop. I’ll handle the whole thing tomorrow afternoon.”
“It’s not just memorizing them,” the elven girl shot back. “It’s interpretation. Historical context. Influences, controversies, and links to other works.”
At this point, Jade came in, without tray, simply bursting with news. She touched the crystal and jumped into her seat, barely able to sit still.
“What’s up?” Ayla wondered. “They having a sale on animé model kits?”
“I got a job!”
“We know that,” Chou said. “Cleaning the sewers.”
“No, a babysitting job!”
“What?” “Who?” “Where?”
Jade took a deep breath. “I posted a notice on the bulletin board yesterday afternoon, and someone already sent me an email! Here, look, who’s got a laptop?”
Toni’s screen was displaying the class schedule. She punched a couple of keys and jumped to the campus bulletin board.
“Right. This has to be you.”
“Uh, huh!” Jade agreed.
Everyone else crowded around to look at the virtual ad:
BABYSITTING & CHILD CARE
Having problems finding a someone to care for your precious one? Is he prematurely advanced, and teething on steel? Or your sitter? No problem! Preternaturally intelligent? No problem! And we’re GSD-friendly! If baby is climbing the walls (literally) you need someone who can follow and help him down safely. That’s us!
No special immunity to mental blasts or mystic effects.
Combat and hazard pay add an extra surcharge.
“Billie helped me write it,” Jade admitted. “I really just put it up on the campus bulletin board as a lark. I was figuring to post in Dunwich. You know, they’ve got some strange folk there, and I thought—”
“Hold it, HOLD IT!” Toni interrupted. “What do you know about child care?”
“Well, I’ve been reading up a lot. The lady that called, she wanted to know if I knew CPR. And… I don’t. But Billie does, so I’ve convinced her to come along. She’s going to be picking us up after breakfast.”
Nikki wobbled her head in confusion. “Billie’s picking you up?”
“No, Mrs. Martin.”
Billie arrived, followed by Jinn and the usual several trays of food. Billie looked a bit shell-struck. “I wouldn’t have believed it…”
“So...” Chou drawled out, “Jade was just telling us about this babysitting job you’re going along on.”
Billie nodded, still a bit dazed looking.
“Well, I hope you’ve got your classes finalized,” Toni warned, “because the only hot spot they have in Dunwich is in Myrtle’s Diner, and if you’re babysitting, I don’t think you’ll be spending much time in the diner.”
“They said they had a connection to the campus net,” Billie whispered. “But what made you think it was in Dunwich? The job’s in New York.”
Ayla snorted. “As if. If you head down I-91, that’s like an eight hour drive. One way.”
Billie tilted her head back and looked up through the glass tiles on the geodesic dome of Crystal Hall. Still seeming a bit spaced out, she said. “I guess she wasn’t kidding. That must be her now.”
From far overhead, a dot was quickly descending. At first, only the red flames of the rocket’s exhaust were visible. As the unique craft descended, it was possible to make out the three bubble-topped thrust nacelles, and the central shaft of the main ship – all painted a bold, emerald green.
“That isn’t—!” Nikki began.
At about six hundred feet up, the rocket abruptly tilted sideways, and the nacelles reconfigured – two below in back, one forward.
“Sure looks like it,” Toni finished. “The Amazing Techno Trike!” She turned to Jade with an almost alarming intensity. “Babysitting? Mrs. Martin?! You didn’t tell us that you were talking to Melinda Martin!”
“Oh, didn’t I? Sorry, it’s just been such an exciting morning!”
“You’re babysitting for The Amazing Three?!” Chou screeched. Chou Lee wasn’t normally a screechy type of person. In fact, she seemed to take most everything in stride.
“What’s the matter?” Ayla said, in a honeyed voice. “The Tao let you down?”
“I can’t keep track of everything!” Chou fired back at her former roommate. “If it doesn’t affect me directly… but… The Amazing Three?”
“Heh heh heh!” Jade gloated. “You all scoffed! Oh, no, no babysitting for me! I want excitement! Well, ladies,” she also nodded toward Hank, “gentlemen” and she finally turned toward Jamie, “and… uh… never mind.” Recovering the thread of her gloating, she waved at the Techno Trike, which was smoothly descending into the central field, “I give you… Adventures in Babysitting!”
Washed and ready, Jade and Billie pushed through the crowd gathered around the Techno Trike. Contrary to her normal demeanor, Jade was being surprisingly pushy.
“One side! Babysitter coming through! Stand aside!”
Behind her, Billie wafted along in bemusement, with Jinn following beside Billie, similarly wafting.
Billie was wearing a normal outfit – a white dress shirt, black vest, and dark blue slacks that complimented her hair. Jade and Jinn both wore school uniforms, and Jinn wore human-pink skin. Jade looked a little cold, even though she was wearing her winter blazer. Billy and Jinn seemed unaware of the snowy crust on the ground. The three of them passed through the circle of admirers, and moved to stand near the Trike.
“Wait!” A pretty girl, from Dickinson, to judge by the tie on her uniform, pushed to the front of the crowd. “You’re telling us that you’re getting picked up by The Amazing Three to – to go babysitting?”
Jade folded her arms and nodded sharply. “It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it!”
“But… that’s not fair! I was sitting for three years before I got the change!”
“Did you advertise for sitting jobs on the bulletin board?” Jade asked, archly.
“Well of course not! I’m done with all that now.”
Jade nodded once more. “Well. There you go.”
“But this isn’t fair!”
The crowd’s murmurs were brought to a sudden halt by two figures walking forward from Shuster Hall. Mrs. Carson, as always, looked to be an intense and powerful woman in her early 30’s, and everyone on campus knew better than to get on her bad side. She was dressed in a typical power suit (board room, not battlefield), with a dark charcoal blazer, a ruby red blouse, and a tight sheath skirt that came down to her knees.
Melinda Martin, in contrast, had gone for the “Snow Queen” look, with a white gown that fell to her ankles, trimmed at the hem with white fur. A furry muff and cap complimented the look, and she looked more than warm enough. To judge by normal standards, she looked perhaps five years younger than Mrs. Carson.
“Liz,” Melinda could be heard saying, “it’s simply been too long! Why, we haven’t had a real get together since you and Owen were with us for the Barhaus conference.”
“Mel, I just felt so guilty. After Simon…”
“Yes, well. Perhaps we’ve both moved on, hmmm? Next time you’re down to the city, why not stay over? We certainly have the room.”
“I think I’d like that, Mel. I’ll call you.” Mrs. Carson looked up and saw all the students staring at the two of them. Her lips set in a line, and lightning slowly cracked up the length of her body, leaving a pair of glowing red eyes in the wake of the energy storm. “Don’t you people have someplace to be?”
The assembled student body decided that they did, indeed, have someplace better to be, and they scattered for the surrounding buildings.
The two women exchanged a hug, then turned to the three girls waiting.
“Oh, dear,” Melinda said, “I’m afraid the Trike only really has room for two passengers.”
“Oh, that’s alright,” Jinn said. She opened Jade’s backpack and then climbed inside. The last they saw of her was a hand reaching out the top to zip the pack shut again. The small and lightweight pack.
“Nice trick,” Mrs. Martin said, dryly.
“You’ll have to excuse my sister,” Jade said. “She’s not all there.”
Headmistress Carson focused her glowing gaze on Billie. “Ms. Wilson.”
“I’ve read the report of your … activities … over the break. While the rescue of your parents was commendable,” she leaned in close, “if you use the same trick and blow up the Kirby Building, it will go very hard on you!”
Billie eep’ed again.
“I wouldn’t worry about that,” Melinda soothed. “Amos has really beefed up the tower these last few years and—”
“Doesn’t matter,” Carson asserted.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Antimatter blood,” Carson snapped out, dryly. “And that’s just the start of it. Have Amos show you her file, if you’re interested. Let’s just say that you don’t want her getting enthusiastic.” She focused her eyes on Billie. “But I’m sure that won’t be a problem, will it?”
“No ma’am!” Billie snapped back, in fear.
“And you, Miss Sinclair,” Elizabeth Carson turned her eyes toward Jade. “Your teachers tell me that your control over your power is nearly perfect.”
Jade blushed. “They do? Well, I—”
“In which case, I can’t imagine that anything will go wrong, will it?”
“I don’t—I mean…”
“Amos Messing is not only a trustee of the school, but he, Melinda, and Brock are all very old and dear friends.” She turned toward Melinda. “Even if they apparently can’t find the designated landing field.”
Melinda Martin threw back her head and laughed. “Still the same spitfire as ever, Liz! Honestly, don’t worry. This is a simple babysitting job.” She gave her famous, glittering smile. “Really, what could go wrong?”
Jade felt her eyes actually stretching wider, as she gazed in wonder at the interior of Pod 2 of The Amazing Techno Trike. Each “pod” was a powerful rocket nacelle, with a small cockpit bubble on top. Her cockpit seemed roomy enough to hold Man-Mountain (normal sized, of course), which meant that she practically rattled around in it.
The controls were mostly deactivated, but it looked like a full airplane cockpit. She didn’t know enough about aircraft to understand that some panels applied to undersea or space travel, and weren’t normal flight controls at all.
A screen blipped to life ahead of her, showing Billie on one side, and Mrs. Martin on the other.
“Engaging stealth mode.”
Outside the bubble cockpit, the skin of the vehicle shimmered and changed, becoming the white of the snow they still rested upon.
“Give me a second girls. Once we’re clear of the trees, I’ll change mode and set the flight path, then we can talk.”
Jade felt a minor tremble of anticipation. The Dickinson girl from earlier wouldn’t be the only student wanting payback. Jade would be picking up a lot of resentment from this bit of showing off. Still, it was all worth it! It was so worth it!
Gravity seemed to increase for a moment, as acceleration pressed her down in her seat. Below, the campus she saw through the cockpit cowling dwindled. Abruptly, there was a sudden shift of hydraulics and gears, and the nacelle moved up and forward, as the Trike converted into its radially-symmetric rocket form.
She looked out through the bubble canopy. The cigar-shaped bulk of the main rocket body loomed above her, changing to match the blue of the sky. The three pods were now configured like rocket engines mounted on the rocket’s trio of tail fins.
There was a rumble from directly under her seat, and then, with a blast that shoved her backward, the rocket shot into the sky!
The public had been fed an image of Amos Messing as the scientist-adventurer, equipped in one of his famous Danger Suits. The baggy but effective Danger Suits were used the world over, ever since Messing had first marketed them for police and rescue work back in the seventies. But the public Danger Suits were purely protective. As any fan knew, Messing’s personal suits had vastly extended capabilities, from the exoskeletal enhancements to the Human Augmentation Controls.
As Messing stepped through the portal into the Quarantine Dimension, he wore a suit that few fans would recognize. This was his Science Suit – rife with sensors, detectors, sampling arms, collection tubes, and with a compact chemical laboratory strapped to his back!
Brock Simpson followed, jumping down easily from the portal’s edge.
The inside of the Quarantine Dimension, as always, was a jumble of cratered geography. At first, the mind identified this place as a moonscape. But the second look proved how inaccurate that image was. The sky overhead was black, but without stars, planets, or any other feature. The ground was a blasted landscape of grey and brown rock, but there was little dust. Instead, the rugged landscape looked as if it had just gone through a dozen earthquakes in quick succession. Which was nothing more than the truth!
The micro-planet’s strange, donut-shaped sun was on the other side of the planetoid, but that made little difference. This pocket dimension’s small size meant that light inevitably circled around the pocket universe to strike the “dark” side of the planetoid, providing a peculiar, featureless light that was omnipresent and eternal.
Laid out in the middle of a rocky plain was the motionless body of the demon Phesclangorenthal.
Brock Simpson kept back, holding a blaster cannon centered on the demon’s form. He’d had to grow to ten feet tall to cart around the cannon like his own personal rifle, but that was no problem for him.
“So why are you coming back here? I figured you’d want to study the energy readings…”
“Manifested matter,” Messing mumbled, bending down to snip off some shreds of cloth for his sample tubes. “Some of our foes use it all the time, but we know so little about it. Consider, old friend. We’ve seen illusions, ectoplasm, manifested matter, devised matter, and even solidified quantum flux – if we can take the word of Baron von Cosmos. Is there some common principle involved here?”
Using his exoskeletal muscles, Messing lifted one of the demon’s huge arms, delicately trimming pieces off of one claw.
“There. That should be enough to start with. I’ll start with the mass spectrometer, and also do a complete radiation check. Does this stuff emit normal decay products? Then, perhaps the atomic force microscope. Does it show an atomic structure, or is it just some semi-stable variety of force field?”
Making their way back off the isolated planetoid, they hurried toward the realm’s only escape. A single triangular opening that hung, impossibly, in mid-air, a dozen feet above the cracked ground of the alien asteroid. On the other side of that hole in space was Messing’s lab, and the warmth and safety of the real world.
Brock expanded larger, and placed a giant foot on the threshold, shrinking immediately afterward. He simply stepped up and forward, ducking slightly as he shrunk down close enough to normal height to fit through the twelve-foot-tall triangular hole in space.
Messing activated boost jets on his Danger Suit, making an assisted leap upward.
Once inside, he quickly punched the code into the wall’s keypad. Only when the massive steel doors slid shut did he breathe easier and flip his helmet open.
“I’ll tell you, Brock, I don’t like having that thing here any more than Melinda does.”
“I hear you. But at least it’s on that side of the door, instead of this side.”
Neither of them realized that they were being watched. A nefarious, alien presence was carefully studying their every move.
“If we all feel so bad about it, Brock, maybe I’ll set up a time-lock.” Messing’s fingers sped over the pad, as he rapidly encoded complex instructions. “There. Now the portal can only be opened on the half-hour, and only for sixty seconds at a time.
“After all,” he concluded, “it wouldn’t do for that thing to get out, here in the middle of New York.”
As the rocket soared upward, the sky darkened around them. The horizon was visibly curved.
“Reconfiguration solid. Optical, radar, thermal stealth active. Flight plan locked in and downloaded. Thirty seconds to ballistic free fall.”
Outside, things had gotten darker and darker, though it was still early morning. The hull kept pace, darkening to full black as they continued to arc upward.
Jade realized that she could see stars, and they weren’t twinkling like normal, but were hard pinpoints of brightness.
On the screen, Melinda leaded back in satisfaction. “We’re a little over fifty miles up,” she said. “Edge of space, depending on how you define things. Definitely sub-orbital velocity, though. So girls, what do you think of your first ride in the Techno Trike?”
By now, Jade knew that it wasn’t physically possible for her eyes to get any wider. “This is… FANTASTIC!”
“Actually, we prefer the term ‘amazing’ around here. And… Miss Wilson, is it? You look a little disappointed.”
“Oh, the Trike is fant— uh, amazing.” The tiny thread of regret was obvious in her voice. “It’s just…”
“Ever since my mutation, I’ve been pretty much immune to acceleration. It makes thrill rides a lot less fun.”
Melinda Martin laughed out loud. “Yes, there’s always a down side, isn’t there? Frankly, that’s why we’ve kept the old Trike around. Amos came up with a couple of other transport methods that are more efficient. The Excursion Cube can be used to transport to destinations on Earth, but it’s not nearly so much fun. And what’s the point of being in this business, if you’re not having fun?”
The wonder and responsibility suddenly weighed down on Jade, even as the rocket thrusters clicked off and they entered freefall.
“Uh, about the baby…”
“Little Jonny? At the moment, we’re calling him ‘John Doe.’ No, he’s not mine, though I’m not sure what the tabloids have been saying about me lately.”
Jade waved her hand in protest. “No, no, I never thought—”
“We rescued baby Jonny two nights ago. Amos is trying to map all parallel-dimensional realms which intersect earth. This was a place where the ground itself was like a flaming furnace, with giant scaly-skinned horned creatures, and man-sized beasts that Amos thought filled the same role as rabbits, here on Earth. We brought some specimens back, if you’re interested.”
Billie perked up at that. “Really? Extra-dimensional life? Wow, yeah!”
“Uh, that sounds really cool, just like I always imagined you guys doing, but what’s it have to do with the baby?” Jade wondered.
“I was getting to that! Strangest thing. So we were battling this demon—” She noticed their expression. “You have a problem with that?”
“No, no,” Billie assured her. “One of my friends is a demon princess.”
“Really? Whateley has gotten more liberal. But as I said, we were fighting Phesclangorenthal –that’s the demon I was talking about. Brock was doing his usual, you know, thirty feet tall, swinging away. I was blasting him with my beams. We were making real progress, but the demon would heal up as quickly as we could hurt him. Amos was studying the building. That’s what brought us there – a stone building in the middle of a land of fire. And inside, Amos found a human baby! His theory is that it was some sort of sacrifice actually sent from Earth! Well, apparently the poor child was being drained of energy or some such. As soon as Amos lifted the baby out of the altar, the demon started to weaken. A couple more blows and he collapsed completely.”
By this point, Jade was all scrunched up in her seat, with her hands wrapped, white-knuckled around the straps of her flight harness. “What about the baby? Is he okay?”
“He seems fine. Very energetic. We haven’t given him a full check-up yet, but he seems to have come through the ordeal with no harmful effects. Right now our main concern is to make sure the demon stays neutralized. I don’t know how much you follow the events in New York City, but we had a bit of excitement over the holiday.”
“The ‘Angel of Hell’s Kitchen’?” Billie asked. “Yeah, I followed that on the news. There’s a rumor she’s going to be at the school this semester.”
Jade shook her head. “Huh? I was in Kansas City over the holiday. I guess I missed it.”
“Tell you later,” Billie promised.
“Well, you didn’t see us on TV, but we were a part of that. And I’m afraid we didn’t fare too well. Amos is still rather burning over that, and he thinks he can learn things from this captive demon, so he’s all hot to go bustling off to look up another one of the Whateley Trustees.”
“Yes. Charlie Lodgeman.”
“What?” Billie yelled. “He sponsored me!”
“Oh? You’re quite the lucky girl, then.”
“Well, it was more because of some friends of my family. They knew Charlie, and got me in that way…”
“No, their name is Tanaka.”
Melinda’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh my, you do have connections, don’t you?”
“But what about the baby?” Jade insisted.
“You’ll stay at the Kirby Building and watch him for us, while we fly off to Oregon to look up Charlie Lodgeman.”
“But who’s watching him now?”
“I left him with Amos.”
“You got Dr. Amazing to be a babysitter?”
“Yes, dear. I know he’s a man, but he does have 20 or 30 doctorates. Surely a man that smart is clever enough to look after a single infant baby.”
Articulated robot arms swung the basinet slowly back and forth, in what had been computationally determined to be a “soothing motion.” Meanwhile, other arms overhead dangled a random selection of fuzzy, squeezy, and squeaky toys. Behind that was a flatscreen monitor, showing what seemed to be “Best of Screensavers, 2006.”
Brock Simpson watched the complicated dance with an impulse toward nausea.
“You know, Doc, sooner or later you’re actually going to have to touch the kid.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not. Melinda should be back soon. I find these things work better if we just let the women handle them.”
“What if you hafta change the kid’s diaper?”
“I’m praying that won’t happen.”
In Jade’s opinion, you hadn’t lived until you had plummeted straight down and backward toward a major population center, balanced on three pillars of flame. Even after sliding through the armored and flame-proof hatches on the roof of the Kirby Building, even after disembarking and seeing the (relatively) mundane area of the guest suite where they’d be spending all their time, Jade’s eyes were still stuck on “Wow!”
Billie, of course, was trying to act all cool and sophisticated, copping an “Oh, yeah, I meet the Amazing Three practically every day” attitude. It was just her bad luck that Jade could look past the surface attitude and actually see her emotions. Billie almost blazed with a flickering rose and sparkling yellow, interspersed with that white under-glow that indicated total focus and attention. Jade figured you could set off a hand grenade behind Billie and it wouldn’t distract her from the words of Dr. Amos Messing, Dr. Amazing himself!
They had just moved up to shaking hands with Brock Simpson, a man who’d been known to use a semi-trailer as a baseball bat, when Jade heard it. The thin but piercing cry of an infant in distress.
Even as she was rushing in that direction she felt a reaction in her chest. She’d nursed a baby before; she knew what would calm one down. Her brain and body knew this in a way that bypassed the conscious mind. As so now, whenever she heard a baby crying, her breasts immediately began to fill in preparation for soothing the child.
She rounded the corner to turn into one of the guest bedrooms, and found a basinet buried in a tangle of robotic arms, dangling a disturbing array of toys overhead. The baby looked up at the chaos and let out another wail.
Ignoring the arms, Jade reached in and plucked up the precious infant. She held him tight, his front to her front, his head nestling against her left shoulder. She immediately began to sway and croon to him, “Oh, there there there. No, there’s nothing to be afraid of. I’m here. I’m here to give you anything you’d like. Here, let’s see what you need.”
Her preparation time over the break had not been idle. She’d been creating away, while at Nikki’s house. This was one result – a flat LED display, thin enough to allow baby to sleep on top of it, but thick enough to provide a layer of piezo-powered glowing LED readouts that could be triggered through telekinesis. The black disk was three inches in diameter, and as thick as a sheet of rubber.
The trick, of course, was that she charged Jinn into the disk, the baby’s jumpsuit, and diaper.
She’d pulled the disk from her purse and gently pressed it onto the baby’s back, swaying and crooning as The Three followed her into the nursery.
“There, there. How’s baby doing?”
The disk vibrated like a speaker, producing a clear tone that sounded remarkably like Majel Rodenberry’s tones from the computers of Star Trek. “Working… Baby condition: acceptable. Diaper: dry. Pulse and respiration: normal. Temperature: normal. No indications of physical distress.” The back of the disk glowed to life with a green readout: “OK.”
Dr. Messing laughed. “It looks like our little screamer is in good hands.” He leaned forward to peer at the black disk. “And that’s quite an invention there, young lady! You’ll make a fortune selling those!”
Jade shrugged, carefully so as not to disturb the calming baby. “Unfortunately, it’s a devise. Doesn’t work for anyone else.”
“Oh. A shame.”
“Well,” Messing finished, “I won’t keep you from your work. We have to fly, if we want to catch Charlie. Brock? Mel?” He punched a quick code into a secured doorway, and headed deeper into the complex.
Melinda, of course, had a few last minute notes. “That man! ‘Screamer’ indeed! Baby’s been a perfect little angel.” She began to point around the room. “Now, once we go, the doors to the main labs will lock down. There shouldn’t be anything dangerous here in the guest quarters, so don’t worry. Feel free to use the fridge, kitchenette, or whatever. If you need out, the elevator over there, or those stairs will provide an escape route. ” She handed over several pieces of paper. “In case of trouble, here’s the number for our private physician. This is a hotline to police and rescue, but let them know the situation so they don’t panic too badly when they get a call from this building. Here’s the number for the Empire City Guard – a direct line – in case anything really bad comes up.”
She paused to give a quick hug to Jade and the baby. “We should be back by late evening. Take care!” And with that, she vanished through an armored door that clicked shut and locked behind her.
Jade was still holding the baby, pacing back and forth in front of the gigantic picture window that looked out on the bustling streets of New York City. Behind her floated three open books; one of them was slowly flipping pages. Actually, “books” was inadequate. Calling the thick volumes “tomes” would be more accurate. The first was an encyclopedic reference on infant health and medicine. The second was an equally thick manual on child-rearing practices, and the third was a slimmer but more practical guide for first-time mothers.
“Would you settle down?” Billie grumped. “Appreciate the view or something! Or finish your class schedule. I mean, look where we are! Enjoy it!”
Jade was worrying herself into a frenzy. “Yeah, but this is the first time I’ve ever done this! What if he has something serious, and I don’t spot it? Like maybe…”
“Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome,” the hovering medical encyclopedia suggested, in Jinn’s voice. “A connective tissue disorder resulting in fragile skin and joints. Prevalence: one in twenty thousand.”
“Oh my GOD,” Jade moaned. “What do I do? What do I do?”
“CALM DOWN!” Billie bellowed. “Jeez, get a grip! It’s just a baby. The little rugrats have been doing okay for thousands of years without you. They’ll manage okay for a few thousand more, without needing someone to panic every time someone coughs.”
Billie just glared at her roommate. Under that stern look, Jade finally lost a bit of her hyper edge.
“Feeling better now?”
“I guess…” The answer was grudging.
“Look, the monitor you have on his back even says ‘OK.’ You have to trust that, right?”
Jade giggled a little. “You know that’s just Jinn, right?”
Billie smiled, leaning back and propping her feet up on the air. “Yeah, I know. But she’s got to be at least as trustworthy as you, right? Besides, it probably doesn’t hurt that she gets less emotional.” She looked over at her young roommate. “Let me see… if the monitor’s got Jinn, and you seem to keep ‘Jann’ with you these days, then the books must be… Jamie? Or is it Jeanie?”
Jade blinked in confusion. “Huh?”
“Just trying to figure out which one is which.”
“But… they’re all just me.”
“Yeah, but which do you name what?”
“Oh.” Jade thought for a minute, then guiltily admitted, “I was having problems keeping track of myself, you know? Like keeping track of which M&M is which, while you chew ‘em.”
“Thank you for the delightful analogy.”
“So anyway, I’ve started calling them by job. Jann-sensei is the one who’s with me, working on training and stuff. Jamie’s the SpySpeck. Jet is… well, Jet. And Jinn is everything else.”
“You still don’t have a special name for cabbits?”
Jade gave a shy grin. “I guess I need one, don’t I?”
By now, lulled by the quiet conversation and gentle rocking, the baby had fallen asleep. Jade carried him to the guest bedroom and pulled out a thick, soft blanket. After a moment of careful maneuvering, the baby lay asleep on his back on the blanket, with a fold of the blanket gently tucked over the lower half of his body. Baby and blanket floated in mid-air and drifted after Jade as she walked out of the room and back toward Billie.
“Whoa!” Billie said. “The old floating blanket trick. Haven’t seen that in a while.”
Jade just smiled demurely.
“After all your panic earlier, aren’t you afraid we’re going to wake him up?”
Jade shrugged. “The books seemed to say that if he was sleeping deeply, regular talking wouldn’t disturb him. It might even comfort him. Anyway, I want to be there when he wakes up.”
“You’re really taking this babysitter stuff seriously, huh?”
Jade nodded. “How would you want me to behave if I was watching your baby?”
“That’s sooo not going to be an issue, believe me.”
But Jade realized that she’d found a weakness, and dug in for the kill. “Come on, oneesan! You’re probably the best looking girl on campus! You must have at least thought about it.”
Billie started to turn red. “Best looking—? You’re the only one who thinks so. And I have not thought about it. Nor do I want to.”
“Come on! You can trust me! I’ll bet Billie’s got a sweetie!”
“Do not! Don’t want one, either. Not that it matters, since everyone knows I’m just a freak. I’m too dangerous to fight the other kids at Whateley. What does that tell you?”
Jade got a mischievous grin. “It tells me that someone needs to have more fun!” She looked around. “Mrs. Martin told me we could use the phone as much as we wanted. You’re sitting here in the Kirby Building. Who do you want to brag to?”
Billie looked blank for a moment. “Well, all the girls already know…”
Jade was unrelenting. “You forget that I came with you on that little Christmas excursion. How about your bratty little brother?”
“TB? But they said I should restrict calls I made to anyone in the family. Calls from anything even near Dunwich get flagged on the CIA monitor list.”
“Yeah, but you’re not in New Hampshire, are you?”
Billie looked thoughtful for a second. “That’s true…” Slowly her eyes lit up. “And if I was going to brag to anyone, it would be TB!” With a growing smile, she reached for the phone. “Maybe a short little call wouldn’t hurt.”
It watched, planning its work carefully.
The human wizard had created new magics, spells beyond anything seen in a thousand years. Now its body was gone, seemingly obliterated. But for a few minutes, while the portal had been open…
With its resting body there, ready to go, it had almost given itself away. But the wizard watched, with an eye that saw everything. One warrior waited. That had not been a time for action, it had been a time for waiting and gathering strength.
But now, wizard and both warriors were departed, visiting a mage of the old school. A name of power, well known. Lodgeman would not be fooled by its deception. It had perhaps half a day’s time.
This was the time to move, to act. Care was needed, but it could still triumph.
Jade smiled as she attended to various tasks in the bathroom. It had been a month since her cosmetic surgery, and the thrill hadn’t faded. She didn’t need to use her powers or take any special precautions – she just looked like a girl all the time.
She wasn’t done with her transformation – not by a long shot. But she’d gotten a large part of the way there. Now she had the freedom to consider the next portion of her journey: What kind of girl did she want to be?
Her dreams were still a bit confused. She imagined that Billie was a space pirate princess. Jade made up Billie’s entire entourage – best friend, spaceship, pet, servant, and wet nurse for Billie’s baby. Together, the two of them traveled the galaxy, dropping in on their other girlfriends, fighting evil, and wiping out the occasional fleet of bad guys. And when they got tired of that, she’d drop by to visit her boyfriend/husband, and they’d do dinner, dancing, and then some sort of sex snuggling that involved them both being naked and sleeping in the same bed.
Jade wasn’t completely naïve. She knew what went where, and had a pretty good idea of what happened while Tab A was in Slot B. What she was missing was why someone would want to do that. But the “whys” weren’t important right now. That’s what girls did, so Jade planned to do it too… someday. Besides, she already knew about the reward for having sex. As a girl, as the lucky one, she would get to have a baby growing inside her, wiggling and squirming and growing, for nine full months. She’d need to be a bit farther along in her transition for that, but she had confidence that she’d get there.
Finished, Jade arranged her clothes and was about to leave, when she noticed the shower. It forcibly reminded her that she was in the home of the Amazing Three. For most people, the toilet-mounted tractor field, ultrasonic hand wash, or infra-red flash-dryer would be enough clue. Jade, though, had gotten spoiled by Whateley, and took such everyday marvels as a matter of course. The shower, though, with its double-helix scan-spray system… that looked interesting!
Hmmm, she thought, forming a crafty smile. Just the thing to relax Billie?
She used a technique that she was slowly gaining proficiency with, twinning herself to think about it in two different ways. Jann-sensei took one line of thought, Jade took another. After a moment, she split off another self to think upon additional issues. And then another self…
Jade took ten minutes in the bathroom, but in that time she held a full committee meeting, discussed alternatives, and fielded some wild brainstorming ideas. And when she emerged, she had a complete plan of attack.
And Billie, poor Billie, didn’t even suspect that a steam roller was headed in her direction.
“Sorry, TB, I think I have to go now!” Billie was gleefully yelling into the phone. “I need to make sure I’m ready… for my next trip into space! So long, now! Say hi to Mom and Dad!” And with that, she slammed the phone down.
“YES! In your face, Franken-shrimp!” She began holding both index fingers up in a “number one” position and dancing around the room. “I got into space first! I got into space first! And I met the Amazing Three, and toured their headquarters, and did more cool stuff than you can even imagine!” Then she spoiled any remaining dignity by cackling like a maniac.
“Feeling better, oneesan?”
“Then it’s time for me to give you my Christmas gift.” Holding it tightly in both hands, Jade offered a small wrapped package with a bow on it.
“Huh? You didn’t have to do that…”
“Take it, oneesan.”
“Well, okay. You got me a CD?” Billy unwrapped the package. “Huh? What’s this?”
“You can use it as a CD, but it also does karaoke on the proper machines.”
“Really? How ‘bout that? Tenchi Muyo, too, one of my faves. But I guess that was kind of obvious, wasn’t it?”
Jade nodded. “Have you seen the huuuuge screen on the TV in the next room? Let’s play it! You need to sing for me!”
Billie was suddenly blushing. “Oh, I don’t know…”
“Sing I Am a Pioneer! Please!”
Billie was already half convinced. “Sara sang that for you on Halloween, didn’t she?”
“Not that I could hold a candle to her. She was muy sexy up on stage, even with all the blood.”
Jade sprang her trap. “You’d be even better, if you wore this!” She gave a single twirl, and when she came back around, she was holding an outfit on a pair of hangers. Obviously, the weight of the outfit wasn’t a significant burden. “Merry Christmas!”
Billie was stunned. “An… outfit? For me? But…”
“Don’t worry, Nikki helped me pick it out. It’s for clubbing. According to Nikki, you’ll look… how did she put it? Oh, yeah! ‘Lethally hot.’ That’s what she said!”
“You don’t show off enough!” Jade insisted. “Honestly! You’re the best-looking girl on campus, and you don’t even act like it! You need some clothes that make people realize that they’re in the presence of a goddess!”
Looking over the outfit, Billie suddenly blushed a bright red. “There’s not very much fabric, is there?”
“Enough to kill half the boys on campus,” Jade pronounced, repeating something she’d heard Nikki say.
“I’m just not sure…”
Jade had prepared for this. “Aw, come on! What’s the matter? Afraid one of the boys will spot you?”
“So don’t worry! We’re all alone up here, right?”
“I don’t know,” Billie equivocated. “What if, like, the Empire City Guard shows up? Or some other superhero group?”
“Why would they drop by? To ask for a cup of sugar?”
“But… but… that’s a pretty skimpy outfit. I mean, what if it doesn’t fit?”
Jade released the outfit to hang in mid-air. For a moment, a light coating of dust and white powder pushed into shape. There was the transparent outline of a girl holding up the hanger and clothes. She was naked, but there was no mistaking that long spiky hair, figure, or the posture of that outthrust hip. It was a ghostly image of Billie herself.
“Oh, yeah,” Billie said, belatedly. “I forgot you could do that.”
The ghostly image puffed into invisibility.
“That’s right!” Jade asserted. “So I figure this outfit should fit really well! Please, oneesan? Please?”
“Oh… all right.” Billie snatched the hanger out of the air. “But don’t think I’d do this in public!”
“Of course not!” Jade said, with transparently false sincerity.
As Billie changed, Jade skipped around the room humming happily.
“Let’s see… if I was making the world’s greatest TV and entertainment system… aha!”
A few minutes later, Billy came walking back in. Actually, she wasn’t walking so much as “strutting.” The black leather ankle boots she now wore weren’t made for mere walking. It was almost impossible not to strut in an outfit like that.
“Wow!” Jade said, putting a lilt into her voice.
“Are you sure?” Billie asked nervously, futilely trying to tug the skirt lower. “This shirt is… really short.”
Jade stood back and admired the figure that Billy cut. The theme was a mixture of black leather and light blue. The blue was deliberate, to echo Billy’s incredible head of cyan hair. The leather wasn’t shiny, it had a matte finish, deliberately roughened. The effect gave it a look that was stylish, but look hard-used like a biker outfit. Panning up from her feet, Billy wore black leather ankle boots, with somewhat tall three-inch heels. This would be awkward and clumsy for some girls, but Jade knew that Billy only ever used as much gravity as she felt like, and watching her walk into the room only confirmed that. Billie strutted in those boots, stepping forward with an arrogant, unconscious grace that simply ignored the height of the heels.
Billie’s legs were bare. Jade had debated with Nikki about hose, but Nikki had held the line that any sort of hose would signal that Billie was an older, more mature woman. Bare legs emphasized that Billie was still a teenager, still innocent to the ways of the wicked world. At the time, Jade had shrugged and gone along with it. Now she saw that Nikki had been right.
In contrast, the skirt was anything but innocent. It rode low on Billie’s hips, and Billy would always keep it low, since pulling the skirt up so much as a centimeter had a chance to expose her. That would mean showing everyone that her panties were a perfect color match for her shirt, which of course echoed the her spiky mop of hair. Nikki had waxed poetic about the symbolism, but Jade hadn’t really understood.
The shirt was a crop top. A fairly extreme one, coming to barely below Billie’s bust. There was no bra, which would please Billie, and would certainly delight any nearby boys. The wide neck made it clear that Billie had no bra straps.
The black leather vest provided a touch of psychological modesty, but in truth it only served to emphasis the rest of the outfit, and draw attention to Billie’s upper body.
Finally, there were the accessories: A black leather hairband to keep that wild hair out of Billie’s face, a tight choker (just for fun), and a pair of fingerless black leather gloves, to give the hint to the “biker chick” image.
“Am I supposed to look tough, or sexy in this outfit?”
“Uh huh!” Jade agreed enthusiastically. “Both!”
“But… I don’t dare fly in this outfit. Everyone would see up my – it wouldn’t be modest!”
“You’re not supposed to fly when you’re clubbing. This will help keep you on the ground.”
“Jade,” Billie said with a sigh, “I don’t GO clubbing. I’m only sixteen!”
“Yeah, but in that outfit, no one would guess! I’m sorry I didn’t get you the accessories you need.”
“Oh, Nikki was all over me about accessories,” Jade explained. “Bangle bracelets. She though silver would be best, but frankly she’s a little moonsilver crazy, you know? Earrings, maybe some shiny hair clips. Maybe a belt. Another advantage with that outfit is that you can wear shades if you want to hide your eyes and no one would even ask you about them.”
Billie stretched out a long leg, admiring herself for a moment. “Well, it is pretty hot. But you’re nuts if you think I could ever wear this thing in public.”
Jade just smiled and moved to a new topic before the argument could start. “I checked the entertainment center. It’s everything you’d expect from Dr. Amazing. He had a headset mike, but sometimes it’s more fun to hold a big heavy mike, so you have something in your hands, you know?”
Billie pouted. “Do I have to?”
“Uh huh. Here!” Jade handed over the mike.
“Okay, but I’m quitting if we disturb the baby.”
Jade placed the new CD into the machine and started things up. On the wall opposite them, a gigantic screen turned black, then images of planets appeared. A moment later, they were seemingly zooming forward through space. At first the tune was a simple piano piece. Words appeared on the bottom of the screen, and Billie quietly began to sing the gentle tune…
Jade clasped her hands, thrilled at finally seeing the culmination of more than a week of shopping and hoping. She noticed that Billie’s eyes were closed, seeing neither the screen nor the displayed lyrics as she sung.
Suddenly, the song began in earnest. Guitars strummed in a heavy rhythm, the drums pounded, and Billie, eyes still closed in concentration, launched into the main song with power and enthusiasm.
It smiled in evil satisfaction. This was perfect! The two human children had created a distraction better than any it could have asked for. So long as the infant continued in its hibernation state, the two human females would continue their noise and thrashing. Under that cover, it could work with a will toward penetrating the lair of the Wizard Messing.
The first task was to escape from this sub-chamber. The walls and doors contained complex defensive magics, impossible to understand. But the action of rodents and insects could destroy the delicate pieces that were the material components of those defensive spells. If only the witless females would cooperate…
“Wow!” Jade clapped wildly. “You were GREAT!”
Billie shook her hair back. “Aw, it wasn’t that good. But I guess you’re right. It is kinda fun.” She combed her fingers back through her thick hair. “And I’ll deny it, if you tell anyone, but maybe there are some okay parts to being a girl.”
Jade grinning wildly. “You think?”
“Well… Singing in a high register is interesting. Not that that song went very high. And maybe…”
Billie glared for just a moment. “I’ll definitely deny this if you ever quote me, but moving like a girl, wearing these clothes, looking hot, being hot… it’s kind of cool.” That last admission came in almost a whisper.
“Ah HA!” Jade crowed. “Gotcha! I knew it! Now you OWE me!”
“Huh? How do you figure that?”
“Cause I had to push you so hard to do it. So in payment, now I want you to go along with my next idea!”
“The SUPER SPA!”
Billie rolled her eyes. “The what?”
“The super spa! See, I figure we got all these awesome powers. Well, they have to be good for stuff beside fighting people, right?”
Billie scratched her head. “I don’t see much logical connection, but go ahead.”
“Well, so the trick is to figure out what other great stuff we can do! And it should be something that you can have fun with, right?”
“Like babysitting?” Billie asked dryly.
“I don’t know how to break this to you,” Billie drawled, “but this whole babysitting gig is fun for exactly two reasons: The Amazing Three, and the fact that junior over there is sleeping. Although it’s a mystery to me how he can sleep through the racket of my singing.”
“Your voice is beautiful!”
“Whatever. My point is that it’s going to be pretty damn rare that you get a b-sitting gig from The Amazing Three or Champion or whatever. But next time you do, give me a call, I’d love to come along!”
“And once Junior wakes up, our playtime is over.”
Jade moved over to the hovering blanket. “Jinn said he was snoring. Well, so long as he’s still sleeping…” She flicked the controls, calling up the music library.
“I want to hear you sing,” Billie decided. “Pick something—“ Her head whipped around.
“What?” Jade asked.
“Nothing. Just thought I saw something moving, out of the corner of my eye.”
“Like…” Billie realized how stupid it sounded. “Like a shadowy black dog or something.”
“Trouble?” Jade cried out. “In the tower of The Amazing Three? This looks like a job for … Super Sitter!”
She reached a hand into her purse and snatched out two objects.
“Kitty Compact: Go! Spinner: Go!”
Then, her gun now in hand, she pumped her arm and Billie saw the missile ports flick open and closed on the younger girl’s right arm brace. Jade dropped back into a wide-legged shooter’s stance, in front of the baby. The two flying devices sped down the hall in the direction Billie had indicated.
“Uh, I could be mistaken,” Billie said lamely.
“This is the home of The Amazing Three! Where the extraordinary is a matter of course! I’ve been expecting something like this! Well, they won’t find me unprepared. Whatever is out there, do your worst! We’re ready for you! You won’t harm a hair on this baby’s head!”
“Really, it was just out of the corner of my eye…”
“I’m not relaxing until the drones have checked everything!”
“You ever heard of bi-polar disorder?”
It panicked. One momentary lapse, and it teetered on the edge of disaster! Rather than dissolving the summoned rat in one room and re-forming it elsewhere, it had simply sent the thing scuttling across the hallway. The older girl, the inconsequential one, had gotten the briefest glimpse.
How was it to know that the younger girl was a wizard? Or… enchantress, or whatever else they called themselves these days. The sorceress had sent her minions out instantly. If they searched low enough, they would find the “rat hole” that had been “chewed” through the tough walls. Even now, the two spinning things were approaching the danger zone.
It needed a distraction, and it needed one now!
“Oh no!” Jade spun around, stowed her gun. A moment later she was holding the baby, swinging him in the cradle of her arms and crooning to him.
Billie studied the pair, not even realizing the way she cocked her hips, or provocatively rested her hand on that same anatomy.
“Hmmm… Well, maybe you’ve got a point.”
“On what?” Jade still rocked the baby and made little humming sounds to him. After a moment, she brought out a fuzzy ball that glowed and blinked and bobbed gently in the air above the baby.
“The whole bi-polar thing. Maybe I can see some reason for the soft and brutal, together. Not today, of course, but I can see the possibility.”
“I think it’s the way girls are supposed to be!” Jade insisted. “You know, soft and gentle? But everyone knows that the most vicious animal is a mother defending her cubs.”
Billie smiled, giving in. “Okay, okay. It’s not as insane as it sounds. To everyone. Tell you what, you play with Mr. Poopy Pants, I’ll take a quick look around. Will that make you feel better?”
“Yeah, thanks oneesan.”
The baby seemed happy enough, so long as he had a steady variety of floating and animated toys. He even seemed to enjoy the karaoke, provided that Jade held him and danced to the music.
They sang and danced and played until they were tired of it, then Jinn made sandwiches from the ample supplies provided in the fridge.
“Not bad!” Billie complimented, tucking into one end of a three-foot submarine sandwich. “I was half afraid I was going to starve on this little excursion.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that!” Jade reassured her. “I learned my lesson on your flight to Colorado. So this time, I contacted the cafeteria, and brought along trail mix.”
“Good idea,” Billie said, through a mouthful of cold cuts, “but a handful of trail mix wouldn’t really help all that much.”
“Oh, it wasn’t a handful—” Jade suddenly looked alarmed, and went suspiciously quiet.
As if picking up her cue, Jinn bent over the baby. “Do you need you bottle? Do you want it to fly in like a plane?” The bottle rose up off the table and began to emit cheesy engine sounds.
“Nice try,” Billie said, swallowing more sandwich. “What are you hiding? Fess up.”
“Uh… hiding? Nothing… just that I brought enough trail mix for you.”
Billie narrowed her eyes. “Well, that might be good right about now. Let’s have some.” She pushed her plate toward Jade.
“Sure. You can just pour it onto my plate. Next to that end of the sandwich.”
Jade lifted up her purse – a slim and fashionable leather item – opened the flap and upended it over the plate. Trail mix began to spill out.
“How much do you want?”
Billie understood many things that Jade did not. One of these was Why women carry purses. Billie and Jade both knew that most women’s clothing had no pockets (or at least no pockets intended for use). What Billie understood was that there are certain times of the month when a girl had to carry many bulky items with her. Hence, the purse.
However, this association did not sit well with the idea of dumping food into one’s purse. In fact, it was only through her rigorous mental discipline, her knowledge that something was up, and her prodigious appetite, that Billie refrained from expressing her disgust through a spontaneous expulsion of her previous lunch.
“How much, oneesan?”
The purse was still pouring. About a cup so far, and the purse was not that large.
“That should be enough.”
Billie picked a rice chex piece from the mix and sniffed it. It smelled okay. And Jade didn’t have periods. Still…
“Everything okay, oneesan?”
Billie was almost afraid to ask. “You don’t… uh… carry napkins or anything in that same purse, do you?”
“There’s napkins on the table!”
“Not that kind! Other napkins. You know. Girl kind.”
“Oh.” Jade began to blush. “Uh, well, I wanted to be prepared, in case you or one of my other friends had an emergency…”
Billie pushed her plate away. “If it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll just skip the trail mix.”
“Oh!” Jade’s face cleared. “Oh, don’t worry! They don’t touch or anything! The napkins and tampons are all still in their boxes, and the trail mix is in a bottle! It’s all fine!”
Billie rubbed her temple. “Bottle? Boxes? Gimme that purse!”
Jade happily handed it over. The purse was smooth black leather, coordinating fine with the Whateley uniform that Jade wore. It had a single long leather strap – a loop a little over two feet long. The purse itself was fairly small, perhaps four inches wide, six inches tall, and an inch thick. It was all leather, with a flap that folded over the top and clicked shut with a magnetic clasp. It was really more of a wallet than a purse.
Billie shook it, then squeezed it. There seemed to be a hard case under the leather. Boldly, she flipped open the lid and looked inside.
“Hmmm. A compact. Some folded up Kleenex, a lipstick.” She pulled the money out. “Two dollars and fifteen cents in change.”
She turned her suspicious eye on Jade. “Okay, what’s the deal? There’s not even any dust in there. Where’d the trail mix come from, ‘cause you sure as hell didn’t hide it in your purse! And when did you start using lipstick?”
“Nikki convinced me to try some. It’s really lip gloss, but in a lipstick case.”
“WHERE DID THE TRAIL MIX COME FROM?”
Jade pouted. “It’s supposed to be a secret! Oh, alright. But you have to promise not to tell anyone!”
“Yeah, sure. Why is it such a – oh my GOD!”
Jade had reached into her purse and pulled out a bottle of trail mix. A five gallon bottle. The bottle had plainly been intended for bottled water. It was a specialty item, flatter than most bottles, but it was huge, and heavy, and there was no way that Jade could lift it like that or that it could possibly fit inside that small purse.
“How’d you do that? Gimme that purse again!”
This time, Billy felt inside, poked and prodded. Everything felt normal. Except that right at the mouth of the purse… there was something odd. She couldn’t put her finger on it. It was like she was reaching through the surface of a pond.
“Okay, I give. What’s the deal?”
“It was a Christmas gift,” Jade explained, beginning to blush again. “From Stephen.”
“Ooo, she’s calling him ‘Stephen!’ So he sent you a purse?”
“Uh huh. I don’t know all the details, but he wants it kept secret. This is one of the items he trades in. You should see what he can do to the inside of a car! Anyway, there’s a fake interior, just inside, just the size of a normal purse. That’s got my decoy stuff. The real purse is bigger, but only on the inside. There’s… it’s sort of a transition layer, at the opening.”
“Can I see the real inside?”
“Look again,” Jade suggested.
Billie flipped open the top again, and looked inside. “That’s… that’s huge! How big is it? And how do you do that?”
“Jann’s inside. She flips the decoy bag out of the way, and hands me whatever I need. I measured it. It’s actually four foot by six feet, by one foot. Fairly narrow, but if you’re going to be fashionable, what can you do?”
“That’s not a purse – that’s a closet!” Billie looked harder. “Wish I had a flashlight – oh, thanks, Jann. Jeez, a clothes change for both of us. Those child-care books! I was wondering how you carried those! Is that a bottle of water? Hey, an extra roll of toilet paper. You are prepared! Do you think you’re carrying enough guns? I think that’s enough ammo to hold off Pancho Villa.”
She practiced reaching into the purse, watching as her arm seemed to vanish into the tiny bag. “I’m not sure how anyone else would even use this. I can’t reach the bottom.” Then a thought hit her. “Hey, back in the Combat Finals, that’s how Thuban carried all that junk! I’ll bet that he’s got one of these things, too! Maybe a couple of them! Crap, that guy could be carrying around an arsenal!”
Jade bit her lip and nodded. “And that’s why you have to keep it secret. He doesn’t blab about our secrets. We don’t blab about his.”
“Right. Got it. But you’re going to need some new tricks if you want to keep the secret. That ‘pouring food out of my purse’ trick will get people suspicious in about three seconds flat.”
“Okay. Any suggestions? And, is there anything I should be carrying, just in case you need it somewhere?”
“I’ll let you know.” Billie mused, idly munching on the now-safe trail mix. “How to disguise it… Well, the main trick is to never let the purse even come up as an issue. Do everything out of sight, like when you got the books.”
“Okay, but sometimes I can’t do that. Like someone needs water, right now!”
“True, true.” Billie thought some more. “So what you do is give them an alternate explanation. You’re a devisor, right? So you make…uh…you make a matter replicator! It’s got a light, and some sort of fog effect, and it’s just like a magician. Let’s say I need a new blouse. You unfold your compact little misdirection device, and while the light is attracting everyone’s attention, and the fog is hiding the details, the shirt gets flown out and set on the target stage. Then there’s a ‘ding!’ or something, and the fog clears, and … voila!”
Jade nodded. “Yeah, that could work! And you’re right. It might help me look more like a devisor, too.”
“You’re changing him again?” Billie asked in disbelief.
“Of course. I just fed him.”
“What is this kid, a tube?”
Jade pouted. “Be nice! He’s just a baby.”
“Hey, here’s a challenge for you,” Billie taunted. “Change him yourself.”
“But… I have been.”
Billie shook her head, looking smug. Or maybe she just liked the way her hair swished, it was hard to tell. “No, no, no! I mean, no powers. The amazing self-changing diaper is fun to watch, but I want to see you do it!”
“Okay, I will!”
To tell the truth, Jade was having the time of her life. Holding this baby, rocking him, singing to him, it was all affecting her strongly. She thought she’d probably gained about a cup size since this morning, just from the pressure alone. She kept sneaking off to the bathroom to “relieve the pressure” (which was nothing more than the truth), but there was always more. The process of caring for an infant flipped some switch in her brain that told her emphatically that this was what her life’s purpose was.
“See?” Jade asked. “Clean and dry. I even powdered him this time, though I still say you don’t really need that. I mean, he doesn’t have a touch of rash or red, does he?”
“Okay, okay, I guess you can walk the walk.”
“I’ve been thinking,” Jade admitted. “I mean, about my powers, and attacks and stuff.”
“Well… poopy diapers.”
“Ick. I mean, poisoned daggers and demons and stuff, that’s okay. But you’re thinking of flinging poop around?”
“Well… it’s non lethal. It would make people run away.”
Billy snorted. “Or kill you. Look, if I get what you’re doing, your non-violent attacks will be discipline actions that you would be happy to use on a baby, right?”
“Oh, yeah,” Jade remembered. “I probably don’t want to teach baby to throw poop, do I?”
“Good. I’m glad we settled that issue!”
“No, I mean, check it out!” Billie called. “Messing has got everything on here. You want to watch the original Godzilla? Japanese or English?”
“You could play with the baby.”
“Aw, he screams every time I get near him.”
That was true, Jade had to silently agree. Even when the baby was looking the other direction, he seemed to have an uncanny ability to sense Billie’s presence and begin screaming.
“And I’m not complaining about the view,” Billie added. “But when you come right down to it, we’ve just been hanging around an apartment for most of the day.”
“Okay,” Jade agreed. “We’ll watch something. But afterward you have to let me give you the spa treatment.”
“What do you want to see?” Billie asked.
“Do they have Spider-Rats From Space? I mean, the black-and-white original? I saw Spider-Rats V with Nikki, and she freaked. I swear, we were seeing spider-rat hobgoblins for days. Those things were all over the place!”
“Will the baby be okay with that on?” Billie wondered.
“He can play down behind the couch. That way, he can’t see the screen. And Jinn will play with him, since she couldn’t see the screen anyway.”
Billie nodded. “Let’s do it!”
It had created an additional pair of eyes to float, hidden in the bookshelf.
Through their modern sorceries these wizards projected a remote viewing upon a simple curtain. At first, it had viewed this with the thought that military intelligence is always useful. Later, it viewed because the techniques were both amusing and creative. Perhaps it should use a summoning spell to form entities into the shape of these “spider-rats.” That would get a reaction from the females! And it was gratifying to see that others shared an appreciation of the culinary value of humans.
Its witless minions were nearing completion in their task. Just a bit more destruction and the doorway spells would fail, granting access to the inner sanctum.
The end credits flickered to life, and Jade and Billie realized that they had their arms wrapped tightly around each other. In acute embarrassment, both released the clinch and seemed to teleport to opposite sides of the couch.
Billie gave a forced laugh. “Ha ha! Pretty stupid, wasn’t it?”
“Oh, yeah,” Jade agreed. “Not the least bit believable.” Her eyes scanned the shadows in the far corners. “Spider-rats! What a stupid idea!”
“You said it! There’s no way that real teeth could be that strong! And what kind of animal explodes when it dies?”
“Right!” Jade strove to make her voice sound believable. “Totally stupid. Like I’m so sure that the face is the most delicious part of the body.”
“Well, so much for the movie,” Billie said with an overly cheerful voice. “Maybe we should turn on some lights in here!”
“I’ll do it!” Jade volunteered, a bit too quickly. Bits of lint and fluff zoomed out of her hands, flying out to turn on the lights in every room of the guest suite. “Boy, you should have seen Nikki though. She got so scared by Spider-Rats V that she was unconsciously popping out spider-rat hobgoblins without even realizing it!”
“Bet that made you jump,” Billie drawled.
“I had to change my pants twice,” Jade admitted. “But only because I was, you know, startled.”
“Right. Sure. Hey, speaking of rats, how’s the rug-rat doing?”
“Let me check.” Jade touched the motionless baby. “He seems to have drifted off during the closing credits.” She touched the baby again, sending Jinn back into the jumper. “Maybe we should leave him here and move into the other room where we won’t disturb him.”
Billie leaned closer, making sure to stay more than three feet away. That was the distance that seemed to set the baby off.
“He won’t roll off the couch or anything?”
“Not with my patented monitoring and controlling system,” Jade replied smugly. “You know, this is the perfect time for the spa thing! Have you seen that shower?”
“Big deal. A good spa is a lot more than a shower. I think. Haven’t ever really been to one, myself.”
“Well, come on!” Jade urged. “I’ve got some stuff I want to try out!”
“This isn’t going to involve any ‘funny stuff,’ is it?”
“Does a massage count as ‘funny stuff’?”
“Eh… probably not. I mean, coming from you. If, say, Peeper was involved, almost anything could be bad news, you know?”
Their voices trailed off, as they headed down the hallway.
At last, the moment had arrived! The minions reported success in the walls of the wizard’s tower. Now that the stupid females were gone, it could move forward to re-energize its body. And the first step would be to remove the magical talisman which protected the ‘infant.’
Pausing to savor the artistry, it summoned a trio of spider-rats, identical to those from that delightful viewing.
There was a swirl of black mist, and when that cleared three rat-creatures had appeared. Each was six inches long, not counting the tails. They had eight jointed, insectile legs, mandibles like a beetle, and compound eyes that glowed ever-so-faintly red. The trio scuttled forward.
Phesclangorenthal exerted the power of his mind, honed for untold centuries. Like all minor summonings, these had independence within the constraints of their creation. But it wouldn’t do for their target to be nicked, or bitten, or to shed its precious blood. Not now, when things were so close…
It tightly focused on their sub-minds, controlling them utterly and directing their actions with the precision of a surgeon.
Jinn’s job was a dull one, but she didn’t mind. Particularly as Jann, she had trained to passively watch and observe, only giving hints or advice on infrequent occasions. It was a skill that would serve her well, should she become either a sniper or an astronaut.
In this case, she simply floated in her physical vessel, a soft jumper with associated pieces – a diaper and an LED display on the back. She’d expected to take action if the baby rolled off his perch on the couch, or to lift him and fly him into Jade, if he woke up crying.
Instead, she watched in total surprise as her normally black-and-white world was touched with color. Three small whirlwinds of crimson red appeared on the far side of the room. As they condensed, they coalesced into unmistakable gray shapes – spider-rats!
The impossible creatures looked exactly like the psychotic vermin from the movie, only these were physically real!
Her options were limited. She could let go completely – flashing instantly back to Jade to alert her to the menace. But that would leave the baby unguarded. Or, she could fly the entire baby back to Jade. With luck, the little guy wouldn’t even wake up. Jinn had control over every part of his jumpsuit. She could make it feel like he was still lying on the couch.
Only… where had this threat come from? She’d understood when Nikki began to spontaneously summon hobgoblins. Nikki had been unconsciously creating small mystic animals since she’d first developed her powers.
But Nikki wasn’t here. Neither was any other mage. Or so Jinn thought. Perhaps she should observe silently, just in case…
“Okay, sure, it was a great shower. So what?”
Jade was thrilled. Billie didn’t seem to be the least bit bothered that she was there in the bathroom with her. It wasn’t surprising, considering that they were roommates, and saw each other in the buff often enough, or that the showers in Poe seemed almost designed to enforce a certain amount of nudity. Still, with Billie being this casual it would be a lot easier to go spa on her and to get her to ease into the relaxation.
Jade stepped forward with towels, which rose up and wrapped themselves around Billie. “What’s up is that I want to try some experiments. I have some ideas on stuff that might be really great, but I need to charge into the body of other people. I haven’t really done that since Tansy.”
“Right. Guess I can understand your reluctance.”
“So I wanted to try it with you first. I know there’s nothing bad that you’d ever do, and even if there was an accident and a part of me got stuck with you forever, I can’t see how that would be so bad.”
Billie looked a bit less comfortable with that idea, but decided, “Well, as I recall, way back when Nikki said that if she looked, she could see your ‘threads’ or some such thing. She said she could tug you right out again. I guess I’ll have to trust to that. So… gimme your best shot.”
Jade reached forward to touch her oneesan on the arm. Seldom had she been so eager to leap out of her body. The thought of joining with her oneesan, physically and mentally, was almost grander than she could contain.
For Jinn, it was like plunging into a cool, refreshing pond. From the surface you saw only the small pool, thinking it to be shallow and muddy at the bottom. But once inside, you realized that this was actually a cenote, or sinkhole. What appeared to be a puddle was actually a gigantic shaft, sinking unknowably far down into the unseen depths.
If this were anyone else she’d be afraid. But with Billie… she trusted Billie completely. Billie could stab her in the heart, and she would trust that there was a good reason for it. If that happened, Jinn’s main concern would be how to help Billie deal with the guilt.
So Jinn stood there hovering above incredible unseen depths, holding herself to the surface.
It was a surface that she knew well, almost instinctively. The pattern of Billie’s body had been indelibly imprinted upon her. She could take Billie’s shape, duplicating it down to the organs, to each cell, if necessary. But only in chalk, or some other telekinetic medium. Here, for the first time, she felt that same body in a living, breathing form.
It was different. Really different. The surface appeared much like her own. Under the skin, though, things got interesting. Jinn knew the organs of her own body. She knew the organs of Billie’s body, at least as of late November when she’d been imprinted. But Billie’s living body … that was a wonder that caused all others to recede into unimportance.
First, there were the strange organs. They had changed since November. There were developments happening there that Jinn had no way of understanding. All she could do was accept and cherish. Billie was … different. A primary heart there, and two secondary hearts, there and there, much smaller and less powerful, but perhaps enough to maintain life in an emergency. Lungs, but with other structures in there. Digestive organs that were almost unrecognizable, and other complex constructions that were entirely beyond Jinn.
Still, it wasn’t her job to understand. She was tasked with helping and soothing. She consciously returned to the skin, taking a telekinetic grip on it. She sensed the presence of Billie’s aura, like a sperm whale in swimming hole. Should that presence even shrug, she’d be ejected faster than she could blink (metaphorically at least, since she didn’t have eyelids).
First was the drying. She waited for Jade’s prompt, listening through the tympanic membrane of Billie’s skin.
“…just out of the shower, the first task is to get you dry, and perhaps at the same time do a little exfoliation. Now, don’t use your powers.”
“Okay,” Billie agreed.
Jinn acted on her cue, raising Billie up gently. Providing an even pressure on the entire skin, it should feel to the larger girl as if she were floating buoyantly in water. Jinn then “hummed” Billie’s skin, shaking it at several hundred hertz.
“Whoa! Can you do my hair, too?”
Jinn acted on the spoken wish, shaking each hair like a guitar string.
“I like the tone. Sort of like a choir.”
Jinn was already in motion. Now she had a task that took her ability to handle dozens or hundreds of objects simultaneously. Taking a telekinetic hold on each hair, she pushed them to gently braid themselves.
“You want to consider hairstyles? Maybe a braid?”
Listening to her physical self, Jinn rotated her floating oneesan so that Billie could see herself in the mirror.
“Maybe a ponytail?”
“Interesting,” Billie said. “Maybe later.”
Jinn obediently put each hair back where it belonged.
“Now,” Jade instructed, signaling the next phase, “for the massage.”
Jinn rotated Billie face-down, performing the floating towel trick. Actually, she was just holding the towel in place for modesty. She was holding Billie up through her skin. And it was this same contact she used to begin the massage technique, drumming and rubbing on the larger girl’s back.
“Oh, hey, that’s not bad!” Billie said.
“I’m thinking that if we went all out and did a group spa, that Toni would do this part. Can you picture the martial-arts mistress, doing some super-fast beat down on your back, and using her ki senses to figure out where the tight and sore muscles are?”
“OooOoo yeah,” Billie moaned. “No offense, because you’re pretty decent, but Toni would be awesome enough to make it obscenely good.”
“Uh huh. And you want to talk about the spa or shower itself? Think of what Rip could do. Your own private cloud would come in and rain on you.”
“What about me?” Billie wondered. “Doesn’t seem like my powers are good for much more than blowing things up.”
The words were spoken with a flat, matter-of-fact tone, but Jinn could see her roommate’s emotions. At this level of bonding, she could almost feel them herself. And Billie was feeling more and more alone, less and less wanted.
Fortunately, her physical self took up the discussion.
“Well, I was wondering how much control you had over that plasma. Could you … shave with it?”
“Huh? I’m not sure. I never tried to do anything that fine.”
“Cause if you could,” Jade rushed on, “it would be great! That’s the thing at spas – the waxing. It pulls hairs out by the roots, you know. So they grow back thinner and fainter, and it lasts forever – like a month or two! What if, instead, you burned the hair out with a some sort of plasma? How long would that last? It’s like a sort of half-electrolysis, right there. Isn’t your plasma like some sort of electrical fire? And face it, it can’t be any more painful than waxing.”
“Well, calling plasma ‘electrical fire’ is sort of right, if a bit simplistic. But I don’t know…”
“Anyway, you should think about it. Maybe experiment a little.”
“So what’s everyone else do?” Billie wondered.
“Well, Fey is obviously the last step. Glamour. Clothing, makeup, that sort of stuff. Although if she has any sort of magic that increases fat burning, or even blood flow to the proper regions during exercise…”
“Yeah. I got that. Bunny?”
“She does the décor, the props – everything has to follow the same theme, whether it’s faerie magic or high tech. She can do some awesome mood effects for each of the rooms.”
“How about Hank?”
“Well, I assume we don’t want to cater to guys.” Jade made a face. “So Hank probably spends his time out front, as receptionist and bouncer. Maybe we put him in a muscle shirt, so the customers remember what they’re coming in for.”
“Hank’s not exactly ripped,” Billie commented, then flushed with the orange of embarrassment. “I mean, not that I look or anything.”
“He’s not ripped yet, but he’s getting that way. Every day he’s looking a bit more like an exemplar three.”
“If Hank’s there, you know Lily will be there too. What does she do?”
Jade puzzled for a bit. “I’m not sure. I think she’s having some new developments for her powers. Maybe those will affect things.”
Billie nodded. “I’m not convinced, but it’s a fun idea. How about Chou and Ayla?”
“Yoga is big in spas. Tai Chi would be too. Ayla – you wouldn’t know it from the way she dresses, but she’s soaked up a ton of upper-crust fashion knowledge. Also, I’m thinking that she and I can do some specialty massage. It’s sort of what I wanted to experiment with.”
“Okay. I’m game.”
“Well, over vacation I found out that I could do a lot more inside the body – things I’d never even thought of. So I experimented on myself. Massage is basically stretching and squeezing the muscles from outside the skin. But I can reach inside the skin, and maybe Ayla could too. So for the first time, I’m going to try it on someone else…”
Jinn went to work with a will, moving through the muscles in Billie’s right shoulder. First she kneaded the muscles, squeezing them out, then she gently stretched them, then more kneading…
“Bad? Should I stop?”
“Good! Reaaaaalllly goooood.”
The infant had finally been pried loose from that cursed protection spell. It was furious over the time that had been wasted. Who knew how long it had remaining before the Wizard Messing returned, with the accursed Lodgeman in tow?
Even the pair now present were dangerous, since the youngest was a sorceress. The protection spell she had cast on the baby had been quite subtle. Fortunately, that was now a thing of the past. It could begin the final stage of its plan.
But first, it needed to ensure that the two girls wouldn’t interfere. It would leave them in ignorance for as long as they remained locked away in the other chamber. Then, when they opened the door…
It had taken two dozen minor summonings to foil the protective spell. What would two girls require? It decided that this was not the time for caution, and invested a portion of its hoarded power. This time, the summons wasn’t two dozen, or six dozen, it was four hundred. Four hundred things summoned from the psychedelic imaginations of one of hell’s name-rank entities.
If the girls were wise, they would stay in their chamber.
It turned and headed for the portal, moving as fast as it was able.
The massage had proven surprisingly effective. Tennyo’s resistance had melted, along with her tensions. She had allowed Jade to do things to her that no one else had ever done before. Lying on her back, her eyes rolled back in her head.
“Oh! Don’t stop!”
Jade suspected the comment was directed to Jinn, who worked her delicate touch on Billie’s damp and aching interior. But Jade had her own tasks. Licking her lips, she leaned forward and applied her clever fingers.
“Oh, Jade, don’t tease me like that!”
“Do you like the regular motion better?”
“Yes, please.” Billie begged. “Besides, with my body, I don’t think I can stand the teasing.”
“True,” Jade agreed, feeling the delightfully thick hair. “Okay, back to straight combing. I’ll undo the parts I teased. And as you said, you already have plenty of body.”
Jade playfully bounced Billie’s buoyant hair in her hands. It was so fun, she could play with her oneesan’s hair forever! Just then, Jinn returned to her.
“You were right, oneesan! That sore spot when you breathed was actually a piece of rock! How did you get a rock splinter inside your lungs?”
“Eh, that last explosion in Colorado was pretty bad.”
“You might have handled it in time. The rock was half melted. Though I guess we can’t be sure whether that was you or the explosion that did that. But it’s out now so it shouldn’t be a bother anymore.” Jade paused in thought. “You know, I’ve never seen the inside of a lung before. Pretty weird. You think other spa customers will want a lung cleaning?”
“No doubt. Especially the smokers.”
“Hey, that’s odd,” Jade suddenly said.
“There’s a red glow coming from under the door.”
Billie leaned her head over farther backward. “I don’t see anything.”
“Oh,” Jade said after a moment. “I’m not seeing red through my eyes. It’s Jann. That’s the color of magic.”
“I thought that was octarene,” Billie mused to herself.
But Jade had already risen. “Why would there be something magical on the other side of the door?”
Tragically, Billie had just undergone an experimental spa treatment, the lung wash. Because of that, at that particular moment she half choked, half coughed on an excess build-up of phlegm. She was temporarily unable to shout any of the lines that rushed into her head at that precise moment. Lines like “You idiot, this is the Kirby Building!” or “With the Amazing Three, expect the unexpected!” or “Let me get some clothes on first!” or the most important, “Don’t open that door!”
But she didn’t say any of those. And so, when Jade did yank open the door, she was in midair, flat on her back, and barely covered by a single towel.
And she and Jade both learned what was on the other side of the door.
Hundreds and hundreds of starving black spider-rats.
“Eeeeee!” Jade began to scream, jumping up into the air and staying there. Then, it was as if a switch was thrown. “The BABY!”
Her hand darted into her purse, emerging with the Kitty Compact and a flat, triangular sheet of metal. “Kitty Compact: Go! Spinner: Go!”
The compact ejected two knife blades, spun up, and zoomed around the corner and down the hall, The metal disk also spun up, then dropped low to the ground and began doing lawnmower duty on the incoming tide of rats, rapidly turning them into a grisly spray.
Heedless of her nudity, Billie kicked her legs up, spinning up and around 270 degrees while adding in a half twist. Had any gymnastics judges been present, they would have scored it as a perfect three-quarter back aerial half twist (nude). Tragically, the feat went unwitnessed.
Billie also managed a perfect landing, each foot squishing a rat. The creatures instantly splurched into dissipating, gooey ectoplasm.
“Huh?” Billie dropped to her knees. Her hand lashed out, grabbing another biting, clawing rat-thing. She idly squished it into goo.
“They’re ectoplasm…” She reached for another. (Squish) Idly, she licked the goo off her fingers.
Jade fired off a couple of more quick shots from her pistol. “I definitely need a gun with a bigger magazine! But I think we’ve got them, oneesan! They’re starting to flee!” She turned around to look at Billie and screamed.
Tennyo, the terror of Whateley, was on the floor on her hands and knees. Around her were the broken and mangled bodies of rats, many of them slumping into piles of goo that resembled nothing so much as steaming, fetid entrails. Her arms and legs were coated in the mucous-like slime, and her eyes had a slight glow. Perhaps worst of all was the hind section of a rat, which still protruded from her mouth.
Jade screamed again.
Feeling a sudden rush of horror and self-revulsion at her strange and inexplicable appetite, Billie tried to talk around the object in her mouth.
“‘S not like it’s a real rat,” she defended. (Her garbled words came out more like “weal wat.”) “’S more like a … gummy rat. Yeah. Lovely, lovely candy.”
Billie made this worse by quickly chewing and swallowing the hind quarters, then slurping the long pink tail into her mouth like a strand of spaghetti.
“See? All gone!”
Jade just gibbered in shock.
“Oneesan, how could you!”
Billie tried in vain to use the big-eye defense to justify her ghoulish appetite. “But… they’re so good!”
Jade was almost in tears. “But we just finished washing you off!”
Billie blinked in confusion, not realizing that she was licking off her fingers. “Wait. You’re upset because I got dirty? Not because I’m eating ghost rats?”
Jade looked back with a look of stern, eleven-year-old disapproval. “Honestly! Sara’s appetite is much worse, and that doesn’t bother me. But I wanted you to have a nice spa, and now…” She began to sniffle.
Billie felt an overwhelming rush of relief. “Oh, is that all? It’s just ectoplasm. It evaporates in a couple of minutes.” She looked at the carnage that surrounded her. “Man, I wonder if we can get the cafeteria to serve some of this?”
Jade stared at Billie. Billie stared at Jade, and tried to wipe off one slimy hand. At the door, a tsunami of spider-rats paused, staring at them both.
Billie stretched her hand toward Jade. “Uh, care for a rat?”
“Ew! No thanks! But don’t let me stop you.” She reached into her purse. “Ketchup?”
“You know, I am feeling really … hungry!”
The rats in the doorway blinked as one. Billie lunged forward. Each and every one of the spider-rats … turned and fled!
Jade pelted down the hall, a flood of mystic black rat-creatures fleeing before her.
Billie dithered. Should she dress? Should she fight? She wanted to pursue, but she was stark naked! The decision was made for her, as Jade took off. Billie snagged a towel and flew after her small roommate.
Jade herself was finding it tough slogging. Her “spinner” had been there ahead of her. The ectoplasmic rats had a nasty bite, but they weren’t a significant threat to what amounted to an intelligent, self-propelled, spinning scythe of death. Consequently, the floor was liberally coated with rat chunks, which quickly degenerated into ectoplasm. And this particular variety of ectoplasm resembled nothing so much as green and black gobs of nasal mucous. Wood and carpet were easy to run on, but this wasnot.
Jade skidded into the television room like an awkward ice skater.
“He’s gone! Where is he? If you stupid rats have hurt him, YOU’RE GOING TO PAY!” Waving her gun wildly, she fired off a couple of shots (taser loads) which were surprisingly accurate given her flailing and sliding.
The rats scrabbled wildly, making their retreat through a door which had been previously locked.
“Stupid damn towel!” Billie muttered, flying up. “Hey, nice job mowing down the rats! Is that the Kitty Compact? ‘Bout time you started using that thing!”
“Uh, no.” Jade looked sheepish. “Spinner: Come!”
A circle of spinning death zoomed toward them, stopped, and dropped into Jade’s hand. It was a piece of sheet metal roughly a foot in diameter, cut out in the shape of the trefoil that warned of nuclear radiation.
“It’s a work in progress,” Jade explained. “See? More weight on the outer edge, so more momentum, then I sharpen these edges here. I did this at Nikki’s, but it’s just cut from the hood of an old Chevy. Now in the devisor lab—”
“Wait a minute,” Billie said, cutting her off, “when did that door open? You didn’t blast it, did you? We’re going to be in so much trouble!”
“I didn’t blast it!” Jade protested. “It was like that when I got here!”
“That must be where the spider-rats came from,” Billie realized. “And now they’re returning to their dark master!”
“But…” Jade was torn. “We aren’t supposed to go in there! The Amazing Three – that’s their labs and stuff! If we cause trouble in there…”
“Oh my god!” Billie realized. “Carson’s gonna KILL me!”
“The BABY!” It wasn’t even a full sentence, but for Jade it was more than enough explanation and justification. Without further pause, she sped into the forbidden rooms, following the tide of rats toward what she hopped was the missing infant and a miraculous rescue.
The darkness of the passages was relieved by the glow in Billie’s hands. Ball lightning was a phenomenon that conventional science was only beginning to understand. Plasma was better understood – a phase of matter that went far beyond “gaseous.” When you heated something so hot that it didn’t merely vaporize, but had the outer electron shell completely stripped away, you attained a plasma. It was easy enough to call it a superheated gas, but that was like calling a nuclear fireball “an expanding bubble of hot gas.” It completely missed the point. Billie’s hands, holding captive ball lightnings, were engulfed in a writhing, coruscating energy that flickered madly between red and blue. This was an illusion due to human vision – the peak energy output was up in the ultra violet. Along the outer “surface” of each orb, snakelike tendrils of raw electricity crackled and sparked, seeking access to the highly charged atoms within.
Billie had summoned them unconsciously, without considering what she was doing. Fortunately, she hadn’t lobbed any yet. When ball lightning impacts precision scientific instruments – well, those instruments usually require serious re-adjustment.
“Hey, I’ve seen pictures of this room!” Billie shouted. “Isn’t that the--? It is! It’s the Excursion Cube!”
Suddenly drowning her out, there was an immense “clank”, followed by the scrape of metal-upon-metal. In the far wall, immensely thick plates slid open.
“And that must be the Quarantine Dimension!”
“The what?” Jade asked, heaving for breath.
“You know! The pocket dimension? It can only be entered or exited through that one single, triangular portal! The Three captured it from Emperor Brainard, the Science Dictator of the ExoGlobe Empire!”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Jade gasped out. “And look! The baby, and Jinn!”
Sure enough, the tide of rats was leaping through the triangular opening to the cratered surface a dozen feet below. The triangular portal had finished sliding open. At the edge, teetering at the precipice, was the infant baby, somehow standing on his own feet. The child was thrashing and flailing, perhaps fighting some unseen spirit. And it was clear that the baby’s fabric jumper was fighting just as hard. Unfortunately, several of the spider-rats seemed to be still under the control of their demonic master. They clawed and bit at the shreds of cloth that still shrouded the baby. With a rip, the entire garment tore free, carried backward by a dozen rats or more.
At the same time, issuing a high-pitched cry of either glee or terror, the baby toppled forward through the portal.
“NO!” Jade raced forward.
But Billie was faster. She flung her hands back, and plasma erupted backward like the flames of a rocket’s exhaust. The naked girl squirted forward, like a bullet from a gun, her towel carried belatedly behind her in the slipstream.
On the other side of the barrier, things were much different. The sky was an undifferentiated black, flat and featureless. A night sky with no stars. Below was the grey-brown cratered surface of a large asteroid. And above hung a donut-shaped yellow-white sun. Oddly, despite the sun being overhead, the sky was not blue, nor did it hide the night sky. But then, that was perhaps the least of your worries in a pocket dimension with no stars, a donut-shaped sun, and a single asteroid-sized planet.
On this side of the dimensional barrier, the triangular portal hung in mid-air, a bit over ten feet off the ground. The naked baby tumbled over the edge, accompanied by a waterfall of black rat-creatures. Billie shot through after him, then immediately pulled an Immelmann, a downward half loop that flipped her around so that she was flying back the way she’d come, but barely skimming above the rocky surface. With eighteen inches to spare, she caught the baby.
She made another, more leisurely loop-turn back, and caught up with Jade, who was drifting slowly toward the ground.
“Oh, thank you, thank you, oneesan! You saved him! And maybe you should keep him, since both of you are dressed the same.”
Billie looked down at her state of undress, which now perfectly matched the baby’s. “Arggg! Where’s my towel?”
As if in answer, the towel came wafting through the triangular portal and fluttered toward the ground.
“Here! Take the kid!” Billie shoved out the baby and zoomed toward her only hope for decency.
“Hey… he’s unconscious! Did he hit? Is he okay? What happened?”
A massive voice boomed out in answer. “What happened is that you are too late!”
A slight distance ahead of them, a figure sat up. Even sitting, it was twelve feet high. The thing was humanoid, but with a scaly red hide decorated by the occasional tuft of coarse black hair. Horny spikes protruded out from its forehead, shoulders, and elbows. Oversized needle-teeth prevented it from closing its mouth completely. Other than that, it had a baboon-like face, with a left eye scabbed over in an old wound, and a wide, bloodshot right eye. It wore crudely made armor – stiff pieces of red leather strung together with sinew, and decorated with vulgar mystical symbols.
“I AM PHESCLANGORENTHAL! And I will be your DEATH!”
“Gonna have to catch me first, ugly!” Standing upright in the air, Billie slid to the side, drawing the creature’s attention to herself, and away from Jade, the baby, and the portal back to their own world.
“Oneesan, why did you call this the ‘Quarantine Dimension’?”
Billie cursed to herself, as Jade pulled the monster’s eye back in the wrong direction. She grabbed the towel, and whipped it around theatrically like a matador’s cape, before fastening it around her hips in a makeshift shift.
“Because this is where the Amazing Three keep the stuff that’s too ugly or dangerous to be allowed on Earth. I mean, duh! I figure that butt-face here was ditched until they could get around to dealing with him.”
Billie placed her fists on her hips and took a wide-legged stance of defiance, standing in mid-air, arrogant and topless.
“But what does that have to do with us? We’re just supposed to be babysitting!”
In Jade’s hands, the baby suddenly squirmed to life. Its head rotated 180 degrees. It opened its eyes to look at her, but now the left eye was scabbed closed in an old wound, and the right eye was wide and bloodshot.
Then the baby spoke, in the monster’s voice. “Haven’t you figured it out yet, stupid meat-creature?”
Jade yelled and almost dropped the baby, but she retained enough sense to cling to it, though only with her left hand. The baby, for his part, tugged forward through the air, as if attracted to the monster like an iron filing to a magnet.
“Jade, look out!”
In truth, Jade had already seen. Behind her, a greasy black cloud erupted. Rising out of it was a humanoid/insectoid creature. It had a shiny green “skin”, but also wore strangely articulated armor, cast from a lavender, alien metal. Instead of hands it had huge pincer-sheers, like gigantic scissors. It now reached for the baby.
Jade wanted to flee, but the baby wouldn’t budge. He was being pulled forward too hard…
“Jade, LET GO!”
The insectoid knight reached out with a shear-claw.
“I can’t! I have to save the baby!”
SNICKT! The claw lashed out and snapped shut on Jade’s wrist, severing her left hand completely!
Back on Earth, at the portal’s threshold, an empty infant jumpsuit watched helplessly. Jinn was still cast into the garment, and she watched as her physical body suffered under the blows of demonic assailants. She wanted to help, but she wasn’t sure how.
Things had started out so calmly. The baby had been sleeping, and she’d been cast into the jumpsuit as extra safety and protection. But once Jade and Billie left for their “spa experience”, strange events had begun. First, someone had cast magic, summoning a trio of ectoplasmic creatures – “hobgoblins” of the type that Nikki summoned unconsciously. Except that these hadn’t been cute-but-demented squirrels, they’d been spider-rats, exactly like those in the horror movie the girls had just watched.
Which meant that a powerful mage had been spying on them. Which meant that Jinn needed to lay low, until she could figure out what was going on.
The three summoned rat-creatures had crept up while Jinn waited, ready to whisk the baby to safety. But to her surprise, the rats had seemed to move intelligently. Taking care not to harm the baby, they had used teeth and claw to pry loose the “sensor disk” that Jade had stuck onto the baby’s back. This disk was a complete prop, allowing Jinn to speak in a computerized voice, and display messages like “Baby OK” or “Baby WET”. But the rats, or rather, whoever controlled the rats, had been taken in. So Jade continued to watch, as the sensor disk was tossed aside and legion after legion of new rats appeared – poised and waiting outside the bathroom door.
Jinn had almost let go at that point, flashing away to warn herself. But she told herself that the baby came first.
And, unsurprisingly, developments quickly came on that front. With a wave of magic that looked like a wash of red paint to Jinn, the baby changed. His surface appearance seemed the same, but he suddenly stood up and moved with adult coordination.
She realized that he was possessed, and decided to bide her time.
The baby tottered as fast as he could down the hallway, trailing a regiment of monster-rats straight out of a horror movie. Impossibly, the door to the inner labs hung open, and the baby tottered through. Eventually, the baby came to a complex lab, and moved to the pedestal in front of a huge triangular archway. At that point, the baby turned and walked up the side of the pedestal, and then punched a code into the panel there.
There was a clunk of bolts being released, then huge metal panels slid aside to reveal the strange asteroid dimension. Then the baby prepared to jump in.
That’s when Jinn acted. Through her hold on the jumpsuit, she levitated the child up and away from the open portal. But the rats figured it out, leaping up, clawing at the fabric of the jumpsuit. She was brought to the ground, and then, finally, stripped away from the baby’s vulnerable body.
And just when all hope seemed lost, Billie and Jade had appeared, and leapt through the portal to save the falling baby.
Leaving Jinn behind, to watch, helplessly.
As she considered, two of herself sped past, through the portal and in to help. The Kitty Compact, and the Spinner flashed through the arch, rocketing downward to come to Jade’s defense.
Jinn was about to follow, when a beeping sound caught her attention. She realized that she was the only one left behind. She finally determined that the sound was coming from the control pedestal –the same pedestal the baby had worked on.
Was there a blinking light? She couldn’t tell. Jinn was unable to see light. There was a keypad on the pedestal’s sloping top, but to her perceptions there was no display or read-out. All she knew was that there was a beeping, like a bomb or self-destruct counting down. And there wasn’t a thing she could do about it!
She wanted to bang her head against the wall, but she didn’t even have a head!
If only she could perceive light, she would have understood it all. She would have seen the holographic warning lights, and the huge translucent display in mid-air which clearly indicated:
“Portal closing in 16 seconds… 15… 14…”
Jade screamed as the claw snapped shut, snipping through her left wrist and completely severing her hand. The baby, unrestrained now, flew toward the demon like a baseball into a glove.
“No!” Jade cried in anguish. “Don’t hurt him!”
“You pathetic fleshy worms can’t even appreciate my genius!” the demon thundered. “I am Phesclangorenthal, demon noble, Under-Baron of the Smoking Chasm! Listen, as I regale you with my cleverness!
“When the three strange humans invaded my realm, I was delighted. Humans so seldom enter our realm, in much the way that fish don’t jump into a skillet. But who was I to refuse such a boon? But I was tricked! These were no normal humans, but the group of mages that you humans call The Amazing Three – the arch mage Messing, his giant ally, larger than any giant of yore, and a genie of pure light who chooses to cloak herself in human form.
“Surprised by their deception, I was temporarily overcome, but only temporarily! I safeguarded my essence, storing my intellect and power in the created shell of a human infant. I knew your wizards would be taken in by this stratagem, and indeed they were! Although crippled in that form, since I could only summon the most lowly of servants, that proved more than sufficient for a demon of my obvious brilliance!”
“Okay, you won!” Jade shouted. “Let the baby go!”
“You still don’t understand, do you? There never was any baby! Only me.”
The twenty-foot tall demon now stood, holding the baby in the palm of his hand. The baby looked up with an expression of malice, and then simply dissolved, from the head down to his feet. The severed hand which had been holding him, dropped, falling into the giant palm.
“At last! My true self is restored! And I even have a snack for my troubles!” He raised his palm up, spilling the severed hand toward his gaping mouth.
“PORTAL CLOSING IN TEN SECONDS… NINE…”
“What?” the demon thundered. “Who said that?”
“The portal?” Jade realized.
“I’ve got to get out of here!”
The gigantic demon turned, unmindful of the tiny hand that had been falling toward his mouth. But that hand didn’t fall straight down. Instead, it drifted strongly in one particular direction as it fell. The fingers and thumb curled into a fist, save for the index finger, which thrust out. Then, the severed hand performed a move worthy of a world-famous trio. Not the Amazing Three, but an older group known as the Three Stooges.
“Aaaah! My eye! My only eye! Who did that?”
The hand was flung free, and fell to the ground. As it did, it uncurled and flipped palm side down. It made a neat landing on its fingertips, and immediately began to scramble away like a spider.
“Ow, ow, ow!” The large demon blinked open his eye, even more bloodshot now, and saw the escaping hand. “That’s not possible!”
“Whoa, feel woozy,” Jade said. “I need my hand back… Here girl! Come on!”
The skittering hand paused at hearing that, rotated, and began to scramble toward Jade.
“And try not to ruin my nail polish!”
“Insectoids! Kill that girl! And her little hand, too! Oww, my eye still stings!”
“Is that thing still going?” the demon demanded. “Why hasn’t someone…?” His expression turned to utter horror as he realized what was happening. “Oh NO!”
The demon rose to his feat and began to sprint toward the small (to him) triangular opening that hung in mid-air.
Phesclangorenthal reached the triangular opening just as heavy metal plates slid closed. The twenty-foot-tall demon pounded his fists against that impervious metal barrier, then the metal plates faded like fog under the noon sun. There was nothing to mark the location of the former portal.
The immense monster spun in his tracks. “You! You…human…females! YOU did this! And I’ll make you PAY!”
Billie usually reacted very well in combat situations. But this time, she took two massive shocks. Either one might have unsettled a normal person. Both, together, brought her to a full pause for several seconds.
The first thought was watching her “little sister” (as she sometimes thought of Jade) being maimed. Some sort of insectile thing had snipped off Jade’s hand the same way you’d snip the tip off a carrot, and with just as much concern. This was made even worse by Billie’s acute eyesight. She could clearly see the viscera, during that moment of separation. She saw the bone, the severed muscles and tendons, the gaping tubes of arteries and veins. And then the blood came pumping out of both sides in a crimson spray.
Seeing that happen to a girl she had known and come to care for, a girl now permanently mutilated, Billie froze for just a moment in horrified shock.
Then, there was the announcement of the portal closing.
Billie was a fan of the Amazing Three. Who wasn’t? She knew about things like the Excursion Cube, and the Quarantine Dimension. But that distant intellectual knowledge was not the same thing as knowing and understanding something in your gut. Now, hearing that mechanical voice counting down, her gut realized what was happening.
She would be cut off. Trapped. Trapped by herself in a pocket dimension with no escape, no contact with the wider universe, and no way out. Trapped forever. Alone and starving, forever.
And all at once, she was faced with a full-blown panic attack. For those who have never suffered from a true phobia, it is difficult to understand how totally overpowering they can be. Billie saw that heavenly triangle hanging in the air; she knew what it was – escape, freedom, safety. And she saw Jade, there on the ground, with demons around her and some sort of demon lord wanting her dead.
Her eyes flicked back and forth, convulsively. Triangle. Jade. Triangle. Jade.
People with strong phobias are unable to cope, unable to be rational, unable to control themselves in the face of a horror which literally overwhelms them.
It took every ounce of self-control that Billie had, not to abandon her friend. Even as the count reached two, she knew she could apply all of her speed and still make it through that triangular opening. And if she moved so much as an inch, she would be lost.
So she stood there, perfectly still, as those doors slid closed and the portal vanished.
It would have been far easier to let someone pry her ribcage open and fill her chest with burning coals. It would have been easier to gouge out her own eyes out with a rusty spoon.
Once the portal was gone, there was no possibility of abandoning her friend.
She let go.
The demon lord was muttering a series of vile obscenities that occasionally drifted into decipherable threats.
“You are going to pay as no one has ever paid since the first word was spoken! I will tear you limb from limb and rub salt in every wound! I shall use spells of supernatural vigor to preserve your life as I rip the heart from your body and drain away your very life’s blood! You will languish for an eternity of screaming agony as your still-living carcass is slowly devoured by insects!”
Jade listened with half an ear while she tried to reload her gun one-handed. Finally, she just shrugged and had it reload itself. Then she chose to respond to the threats with taunts of her own.
“Oh yeah? Same to you! You stink! ‘Cause that’s what you are, a big stinky-head!”
“And as for your friend,” the demon-lord continued, “she shall pleasure me! No human can survive the gift of my mighty member, but my magic will ensure that she lives at least long enough to feel my caustic seed within her. I shall take her in every way imaginable, and whether she dies when I rip her open, or when she chokes to death on my magnificence, she will die all the same, impotently cursing my name as I explode within her!”
“Poopy head! Poopy poopy poopy head!”
The twenty-foot-tall demon gestured in a complex fashion. “Minor servants: swarm the small female!”
Instantly, the “spinner” descended and cut a swath through the front ranks of the spider-rats.
“No, even better – her flying friend has dropped to the ground. Swarm her!”
“That might not be such a good idea,” Jade warned.
Billie had come down to the ground. Indeed, she’d been standing there, unmoving, for quite a few seconds. She was still topless, clad only in a towel-skirt, and her fists were clenched at her sides. But she wasn’t moving. Even her eyes were closed.
Jade was easily five hundred yards away, but even so, she began to back away, looking for a boulder to hide behind.
The spider-rats swarmed forward, like a thick black tide that covered the rocky ground. That tide had nearly reached Tennyo…
…when her eyes opened. The energy leaking out those orbs would be enough to give a sunburn at close range.
A pinpoint of blue-violet energy appeared, somewhere near Tennyo’s navel. As she gave her scream of inarticulate rage, the sphere ballooned out, passing through her skin and towel like a ghost. The globe grew – five feet in diameter, ten, fifteen, twenty. It was impossible to tell whether it was plasma, pure energy, or something even more exotic. But the interior of the globe was filled with violently swirling purple energy, and the skin of the bubble was a pure, high blue so sharp it hurt the eyes to look at it. At the peak of Billie’s shout, the bubble was twenty-five feet in diameter. As it touched the ground, that matter simply ceased to exist, like whipped cream falling before the oncoming blade of a bulldozer. As Billie’s wordless shout ceased, the bubble popped, blinking out like it had never existed. Underneath Billie was an empty hemisphere, void of all matter, with microscopically-smooth sides. Billie continued to stand above, as if unaware that the ground had vanished under her feet.
The rats that remained, scattered like stones leaving a slingshot.
The demon lord looked at her, his one eye wide in fear. “Oh… dear.”
“You know,” Jade observed, “maybe you shouldn’t have said all those things about my friend. I think she might be upset.”
“Something’s going to DIE!” Tennyo shouted to the sky.
The demon began waving his hands and chanting in an alien tongue. More and more of the green-shelled, purple-armored claw-soldiers began to appear.
“Eep!” Jade strategized. “I’m outta here!”
The spinner came in to cover her retreat. It sliced into the neck of the first soldier, which toppled silently. The next soldier blocked with his armor-clad arm. Against that the spinner could only strike sparks and emit the sounds of dinging metal. It backed off and spun down to a stop, revealing that the leading edge was too bent and battered to still serve as a weapon. The spinner spun back up in the opposite direction, then moved off in search of a more vulnerable target.
Jade was making huge moonwalk-hops now, despite the Earth-normal gravity.
Jade zipped past Tennyo, who still stood above her own personal crater.
“Watch out for the purple soldier guys!”
Tennyo turned, saw the advancing force, and a look of unholy glee lit her face. “For me?”
She reached out, and an orb of plasma filled her hand. As she squeezed, the ball bulged out at the top and bottom, lengthening into a magenta rod of light that vaguely resembled a sword. Tennyo slid forward through the air like a downhill skier, calling out her battle cry: “This is starting to piss me off!”
She came to the first claw-soldier and made a vertical slice downward. The rod of light passed through him intangibly, with no apparent affect. The rest of the soldiers stopped to watch, because Billie’s sword swing had set her chest to oscillating, and the topless girl was a sight to appreciate.
Then the front solider, the one “unharmed” by the light sword, toppled. Each half began to fall in a different direction. Billie was still oscillating, but the watching soldiers didn’t find her quite so amusing as she’d been a moment ago.
“Not so fast!”
Even as the light was fading from the dead thing’s eyes, Tennyo’s hand lashed out. Her fingers seemed to close around something intangible, roughly where the claw-soldier’s chest had been. For a moment, there was still a spark of life in its eyes, fading but still present. Then Billie clutched at … something … escaping through the air.
The new population of the small asteroid hovered in horrified fascination, entranced by the scene that was playing out before them. Something was happening. It wasn’t obvious to any of the physical senses, but Jade (and her several incarnations) felt it. So did the oncoming soldiers, and the demon lord.
Then Tennyo’s hand clenched, and it was like there was a “SNAP” in the air.
The soldiers and demon blanched. Jade just felt a click, as if something right and proper had snapped into place.
Tennyo smiled. “Ahhhhh! The chewy center!”
The green-shelled insect soldiers were looking a bit more gray, all of a sudden.
“Forward!” their lord shouted. “She can’t stop you all at once! Swarm her!”
“Hey, Mr. Poopy Head!” Jade shouted at him. “I want to compliment your troops on their bowel control.”
“Well,” the demon boomed back, in his normal speaking voice, “strictly speaking, my species doesn’t really digest matter as you think of it, so the point is moot.”
“No way!” Jade responded. “I changed your diapers! And they were plenty wet!”
The demon looked pained. “Do we have to discuss that in from of my troops?”
The gigantic fiend rolled his one good eye. “What’s to explain here? In one end, out the other. Your friend had it figured out.” The he shook himself and scowled. “And for forcing me to admit that, prepare to die!”
Outside the portal, everything was quiet. One slightly shredded infant jumpsuit hovered in front of the keypad panel on the portal’s access pedestal.
He was wearing me, Jinn reminded herself. I was watching closely. I memorized every keystroke he made. So why isn’t this working?
Grimly, she started over, beginning with the “RESET” button. She punched the long code sequence, ending with the button, “OPEN.”
And once again, the portal failed to open. Instead, the pedestal emitted an error tone, but gave no indication on what had gone wrong.
She had no way of knowing that this was one of Dr. Messing’s more advanced designs. The pedestal emitted a beautiful holographic status display, which plainly indicated, “TimeLock Protocols invoked. Portal may next be opened in 28 minutes.” But Jinn couldn’t even sense the holographic display, much less its vital message.
Maybe I got one of the digits wrong, she decided, trying again.
The spider-rats had long since learned to flee from the lethal blades of the Spinner. Even for a near-endless sea of rats, there was no benefit to swarming a self-propelled lawnmower blade.
In much the same way, the armored claw-soldiers had learned that the tactic “Dogpile on Tennyo” was not an effective one. Lately, she had taken to merely maiming them, muttering in a semi-insane fashion, “Don’t waste the food… don’t waste the food!” So she would use her plasma sword and lop off perhaps an arm and a leg, then move to the next target, all the while muttering her new battle cry under her breath.
Morale was not high amongst the claw-soldiers.
Jade, meanwhile, was keeping her distance from the “under-Baron” demon-lord. She’d maneuvered to re-unite herself with her hand. It had gleefully leapt back onto her wrist, where Jann was holding it in place with a telekinetic cast. Unlike the plaster casts of yore, Jann’s telekinetic cast was able to line up all the major blood vessels, tendons, nerves, and other structures, and to hold them in contact while healing occurred.
The demon-lord was looking more and more concerned. He kept attempting mystic spells, only to have them fail. Each time a spell failed, he looked up to see Tennyo, a little more gore-stained, and a little closer to finishing off all his troops.
“Why can’t I reach my home plane? I can’t summon anything!”
Finally, it was too much. The twenty-foot tall demon panicked, and came scrambling toward Jade in a mad rush.
“Help me! You have to help me! She’s going to kill me!”
Jade scrambled back in tremendous moon-walking hops. “Keep your distance!” she warned. “And I’m not surprised she’s mad. That threat from earlier, alone, was enough to send any girl over the edge.”
“But I didn’t think she’d be so…”
“Tough?” Jade suggested.
“You know, if you don’t mind my saying so, for one of the dukes of hell, you’re pretty much of a wimp.”
“Well,” Phesclangorenthal equivocated. “It wasn’t exactly hell. In the adverts, we call ourselves, ‘Halfway up to your own little slice of Purgatory.’ And I never said I was a duke. I’m actually the brevet under-baron, pro tem.”
“YOU!” Tennyo shouted in their direction. “I’M COMING FOR YOU!”
“Save me!” the demon begged. “Save me from your unstoppable creature!”
“Wait. Hold on.” Jade’s mind took a moment to finish boggling. “You think that she is my creature? Boy, when you get it wrong you really get it wrong, don’t you?”
“You didn’t summon her from the ninth circle?”
“No. And she’s not my creature. Actually, I’m her pet.” Jade giggled, thinking of cabbit adventures.
“Ohhhh, no! Dark Father, who aren’t in heaven—”
“Stop that!” Jade ordered, interrupting the anti-prayer, or whatever it was. “Follow my instructions, and I just might get you out of this. Might! But no funny stuff.”
“I’ll do anything! Anything!”
“Oh, really?” Jade crossed her arms and smiled.
The gigantic demon was on his knees and begging at this point. Of course, Jade wasn’t very tall. And the demon on his knees was still about twice her height.
“Well…” Jade began, “I was hired to watch a baby. I don’t know what I’m gonna tell Galaxy Girl when she comes back and there’s no baby. ‘Ooo, it disintegrated!’ ‘Ooo, it turned into giant demon lord!’ Naw, that’s not gonna cut it! When stuff like that happens too often, believe me, you don’t get invited back for any more sitting jobs. And this is my first job! I was hoping for a recommendation!”
“You want me to go back to being a baby?” the oversized monstrosity asked, stunned. “You’re trying to get revenge on me! You’re just mad because I cut off your hand!”
“Naw.” Jade waved her other hand dismissively. “I wouldn’t hold a little thing like that against you! Honest.”
“Don’t make me do this!” the evil demon begged. “Please!”
“Baby. Right now, or no deal.”
“Aw, fustimekregar!” The demon swore, using a word that was so blasphemous that it might have ignited the air, in anyplace other than a pocket dimension. “Okay, hold out your arms.”
Jade reached out, lovingly, and the demon closed his eyes. There was a spark of light, like a brilliant pinpoint with a thousand radiant beams shining from it. One moment, the pinpoint could be seen behind the demon’s single eye – the next, the pinpoint was in the cradle of Jade’s arms. A naked baby seemed to condense out of the very air, and Jade was suddenly holding her infant charge, once more.
“There,” the baby grumbled, in a cute juvenile voice that somehow conveyed the merest trace of a Bronx accent. “I kept my part of the deal. Now you keep yours!”
The promise was just in time, for just at that moment Tennyo was flying toward the gigantic prone form of the demon-lord’s unconscious body.
“Lovely, lovely fighting,” she was crooning to herself. “I can fight and fight and fight, and I don’t have to worry about where we are! No siree! Just fight and fight and fight—” She raised her plasma sword to carve into the motionless giant.
“Can’t stop, Jade! Can’t stop! It’s cold and dark out there. I have to keep fighting, so I don’t have to think about it.”
“Oneesan, you can’t chop him up. I promised. He gave up, see?” She held out the baby.
The baby stared at Tennyo. Tennyo stared at the baby. She licked her lips. The baby began to wail in terror.
“Ow, ow, quit it!” Jade shushed at the baby. “That hurts!”
“But she’s so scary!” the baby said.
“Tennyo! Billie! Sit down! Stop scaring the baby!”
“But… I…” Trembling slightly, Billie looked around fearfully. With a guilty look at her hand, she extinguished her sword.
“See? It’s out. Not even an explosion!”
Billie hopped down lightly, then tried to sit demurely next to Jade (never mind that there wasn’t a seat under her). “See? I can be good.”
“Fine. No more scaring the poor demons.”
Billie blinked at this. “Poor demons? Poor demons? They— they cut your hand off! They threatened to rape me to death! They trapped us…” she looked around at the sky, fearfully “…in this terrible place!”
Jade lifted the baby, coo’ing at it. “Yes, but li’l monster is sowwy now, isn’t he?”
The baby spoke back in a voice with the proper tones, but an incongruous vocabulary. “Oh, yeah. I’m deeply regretful.”
“You better be!” Billie hissed back.
“Scary!” The baby began to cry again.
“Oneesan! Quit it! That hurts me!”
“Huh?” Billie was jolted back to her normal attitude. “Sorry.” Then she got confused. “Wait a minute. How does scaring a baby hurt you?”
“Um,” Jade gestured at her chest. “Up top, you know? The pressure… Whenever he cries, I kinda sorta … fill up. And by now, it’s kinda starting to hurt.”
“Oh.” Billie blinked a few times. “Right. Uh, you could just nurse him, I suppose.”
“No, I’m not supposed to! Biohazard, remember? It’s too dangerous for any real… baby…” Jade suddenly got a crafty look in her eye.
“What?” the baby asked. “What are you looking at me for?”
“Have you ever done any breastfeeding?” Jade asked, a little too casually, as she began to pull up her shirt.
“Oh, suuuure,” the baby agreed. “In fact, that’s sort of a problem for me. Human females are wandering by all the time and shoving their tits in my mouf—” He suddenly found himself unable to speak, due to his mouth being full.
“Ahhh,” Jade sighed in relief. “Hey, none of that! No biting, or I hand you over to Billie!”
Billie, at that moment, was trying to scrunch herself into the tiniest space imaginable. “You—he—demon lord! His mouth—!”
Jade smiled lazily. “Yeah, he’s doing something tricky with his tongue, but it isn’t getting much milk. Okay, there he goes. That’s better. Wanna hear? You can hear him swallowing.”
Billie refused to un-scrunch. “No thank you!”
“So what happened to you, oneesan? You sort of went off the deep end there. I didn’t think his threats were that bad. I mean, for a demon and all.”
“Oh, right,” Billie grumped out. “Like you’ve dealt with all that many demons.”
“It’s being in this place,” Billie explained, almost whispering. “Can you feel it? How small it is? How empty? What if we’re trapped here? Forever? Starving, slowly dying but never able to die, alone forever. Promise me you won’t leave me alone, Jade. Promise me!”
Jade looked to her roommate. Her face shining with joy, she spoke, “I promise you, Billie, Tennyo. I will always be with you. I will never leave you alone.”
“You’re scaring me again,” the baby spoke into Jade’s breast.
“Hush, you. Why don’t you take some pressure off the other side?” She shifted him.
“You know, this stuff isn’t half bad!” the baby said. “You’ve got sort of a sweet, creamy gwop!” Again, his mouth was filled.
“Let me know if you get hungry, too, Billie.”
Billie’s eyes went wide, even as her body unfolded. “What? I don’t do that sort of thing! That’s just too freaky!”
Jade giggled. “Just checking. You did say you were starving.”
“Oh. Yeah. Not now. In fact, right now I’m feeling pretty full.”
Jade nodded, not seeming overly concerned. “So have you started eating souls, like Sara?”
The baby lifted his head from the breast. “You guys know a soul eater?”
“Sara,” Billie confirmed dryly. “Well, you’d probably know her as Kellith.”
“Uh oh,” Jade said. “Baby made a stinky!”
The demon lord didn’t react to that, as he was still writhing in shock from hearing one of those names.
“Oh good, just some gas. We have got to get you a diaper. Thank goodness I prepared ahead of time!”
Jade’s purse opened, and a disposable diaper flew out and wrapped itself around the infant.
“Um, I didn’t eat them,” Billie said, meekly.
“What, the diapers?” Jade was confused.
“No! The souls! I just sort of… set them free, I think.”
“Set them free? Of what?”
Billie shrugged. “You know. The wheel. Existence. The universe. I think.”
Billie relaxed. Apparently, Jade wasn’t going to hate her. Although she wasn’t sure that the younger girl really understood the implications.
“Oneesan? If you could free them from the universe, couldn’t you free your soul from this one? If you had to?”
Billie paused, momentarily flummoxed. “No,” she concluded, after a moment of self-examination. “It’s not…” What? Possible? Allowed? She finally settled on, “It doesn’t work that way.”
“Oh. Good, ‘cause I’d miss you.”
So they innocently chatted about the nature of existence, while Jade nursed a baby that wasn’t. Gradually, Billie’s fear eased a bit, even if it never completely disappeared. And then, there was a grinding sound and a triangular portal appeared in the air, not too far away.
“Well, about time!” the empty jumpsuit said from the opening. “Hurry up, before this stupid thing closes again!”
And the two girls and one baby lost no time in making their escape.
“Don’t worry about it at all,” Melinda Martin comforted. “Once Amos calms down, he’ll write you a glowing recommendation. Why, having the ‘demon’ there and functioning as an active participant should speed Amos’ research substantially. And honestly, I don’t know what he expected. We certainly didn’t intend to leave you sitting for a meta-powered baby who was inhabited by an alien intelligence! Why, I think you did a splendid job!”
“Thanks,” Jade said, but there was clearly a lot of stress in her voice.
“So what’s wrong?”
“I forgot to fill out my class schedule!”
The Three stood ready, prepared for treachery, disaster, or simply the unexpected.
Galaxy held the baby, and moved closer to the motionless form of the demon’s true body. “Okay, I think we’re ready for you to transfer back.”
“Right. About time.” The baby scrunched his face in concentration. “I can’t. I can’t! I’m stuck!” In his panic, he briefly lost control of his still-infant body. The sound was the classic “whoopee cushion” effect.
“Phew!” Melinda commented. “That one’s pretty vile!”
“I told you before, lady, this is a summoned body. It doesn’t digest anything. I just pass it on through!” Then he caught a whiff himself. “Hey… that smells like the genuine article.”
Messing stepped closer, dialing his scanner to provide a detailed reading on the infant. “Hmmm, interesting.” He reached up to stroke the unlit pipe in his mouth.
“I’m trapped here! Something’s got me trapped in this stupid body, and won’t let me go!”
“Although the majority of your body still registers as manifested matter,” Messing deciphered from his read-outs, “many of the cells lining your alimentary canal scan as living human tissue. And apparently, they’re spreading.”
The baby was stunned. “But… that’s impossible! How could something like that happen?”
“Wow,” Melinda mused, “I’d heard that regenerator’s milk had amazing properties, but I’ve never heard of anything like this!”
“The…milk?” The baby’s eyes opened wide, and tears formed in the corners of his wide, blue eyes. He seemed to be remembering a delightful experience that involved sucking and fondling and being held in comforting warmth, and sweet, creamy goodness. “I’ve been betrayed! Waaaa!”
Melinda Martin sighed. “Nap time for someone. Here’s your bottle.”
The demon Phesclangorenthal eyed the approaching bottle. It wasn’t nearly as good!
“They’ll pay for this! Both of them! I’ll get you—uglmph!” He began to suck and kick vigorously.
“I must say,” Dr. Amos Messing complimented, “you seem quite adept at handling that ‘demon lord’.”
“I’m a woman, Amos. And didn’t you know? Babies are all little demons.”