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Diane Castle / Ayla / Ayla and the Blackmailer

Ayla #2: “Ayla and the Blackmailer”

A Whateley Universe Tale

By Diane Castle (with a ton of help from the entire Whateley crew!)

Monday, September 4
Whateley Academy

“With our ass in the air and our heads in the ground
There’s no sense of despair, without sight, without sound
We hold our ears and shut our eyes
Distant screams morph into lullabies
We beat indifferent drum, we pound it till we’re numb!”

I yawned and stretched, as NOFX rocked out, screaming “We March To the Beat of an Indifferent Drum” on my stereo system.

It was an expensive little system, but it was worth it.  It had quadraphonic sound and a sub-woofer, all in a package smaller than an old boom box.  It played songs off my MP4 player, and it re-charged the player, and it let me cue up playlists on a four-week schedule.  The playlist/schedule feature was why I had shelled out the money for it.  The playlists in conjunction with the schedules meant that I could have NOFX as my alarm clock Monday through Friday, while letting me sleep in on the weekends, as well as playing Brass Monkey during scheduled study times…  Plus a few hundred other possible arrangements if I wanted to put in the time to micro-manage my own life.

The stereo system did a lot of other tasks also, but frankly it wasn’t optimal for everything.  For example, my computer was better for playing movies and videos.  I had splurged before I left Gracie and Janet, and purchased a high-end laptop computer with a holographic screen and a fold-out ergonomic keyboard.  It was going to be arriving today, along with the accessories I had ordered.

Well, in theory it was going to be arriving today.  As we say in business, “the difference between theory and practice is that, in theory, there isn’t any difference”.  You’d be amazed at the number of academics and analysts who don’t understand that.

It was strange.  I was worth 300 million dollars, and I still felt poor.  Yesterday, I had met a slew of kids who had nothing, and yet I was the one who was worrying about purchases for school. 

Jade had really made an impression on me, even if I didn’t want to admit it to anyone.  She had no family (that she would want to claim), almost no clothes, and little else,  Her big treasures seemed to be a stuffed toy and a small stack of comic books.  She had invented herself and acquired her few clothes over the summer.  She was literally a self-made woman.  And yet she seemed less concerned about bank balances than I was.

Vanessa and Sharisha were both inner-city black girls.  Vanessa’s mom was working herself into an early grave just to keep them going.  And Sharisha’s situation was even worse.  What was I worrying about?  Buying an expensive laptop and a high-end portable stereo system.  I really felt like such a prick.

Sometimes I really hated the way I felt.  But I couldn’t help it.  Just a month and a half earlier, I had been one of the wealthiest people on the planet.  I had been looking at a 12.5 billion dollar inheritance.  Now I was looking at about two percent of that.  I had been part of a family whose net worth worldwide had been pegged by Forbes at 750 billion dollars.  Now I wasn’t even a part of that family any more.  My big sister Gracie and I had carefully invested the full 300 million I had gotten from the family, and I had easy access to several million dollars over the next twelve months.  But…

But I still felt poor.  I felt like I had to scrimp and save, even though I had more money available that very second in just my liquid accounts than the people around me might earn in a lifetime.  That made me rich, according to everyone around me.  But I just felt poor.  I felt like I had so much less than I was used to.  So much less than I ought to have.  Two months ago, I wouldn’t have thought twice about buying a private jet for myself.  Now I was worrying about spending eight hundred dollars on a portable, programmable, stereo system to go with my old MP4 player.

I climbed out of bed, feeling groggy.  The three-hour time difference was going to take some getting used to - not that I was ever one of those early-morning people.  I had to push myself to get going early in the morning, and if I didn’t get enough sleep the night before, I was a slug.  A grouchy slug who needed at least two cups of real coffee.

I had a mental to-do list that I needed to get to while the other ‘freshthings’ were still getting moved in.  I wondered if many kids other than Beltane played GURPS enough to get the origin of that word.  Still, this was Mutant High, so anything was possible.  There might be dozens of devisers who not only played GURPS but who routinely whipped up new games that made GURPS look like Chutes and Ladders.

First on my list was the standard matutinal list, beginning with a shower.  There was no way I was going to pass up a shower.  Not when I was now getting to shower with the girls.  I mean, this was the only good thing about my otherwise sucky physical appearance.  If I had to be ‘cute’ and have breasts and a girl’s bubble butt, then I was damned well going to get the perks out of this too.  At least until enough girls hammered me with their mutant powers that I couldn’t walk to the bathrooms anymore.

I slipped out of my pajamas.  I slipped on my silk bathrobe and shower clogs.  I had nearly worn a hole in the carpet back at Gracie’s, pacing back and forth while debating whether to splurge on a bathrobe, even if it wasn’t even the most expensive bathrobe Pierre Cardin made for men.  I took perhaps fifteen anguished minutes before I finally ‘went wild’ and bought it on-line.  It wasn’t close to the quality of my old one, but it was far nicer than the terrycloth thing Gracie still wore.

I grabbed my toiletries kit off the back of the door, snagged one of my new towels, and headed out.  Walking into the bathroom this time was different from last night or yesterday afternoon.  Before, the bathroom had been empty, or empty enough that a hottie taking a shower had been able to ignore me.  It wasn’t empty now.  All four shower stalls were occupied.

I brushed my teeth and flossed while I was waiting for a shower.  Vanessa and the tanned blonde were out before I finished.  I watched in amazement as each one wrapped a towel around her hair before drying off.

The blonde dried off in a blur of super-fast motion that had her boobs and butt jiggling like jello.  Wow.

Vanessa dried off her front…  All of her front…  Those luscious breasts, with those perfect tips, jiggling sensuously as she dried them…  That delicious torso…  Those gorgeous hips…  That perfect little…

And then she looked up.  “Ayla.  You’re staring.”

I had to swallow before I could talk.  “Uhh, sorry.  I.. uhh…”  Okay, so I still couldn’t talk.

She looked down from my face.  “And you’re, umm, pointing.  That’s not okay in here.”

I looked down and realized that I had a tent.  My robe was jutting up and out as if I had a flagpole hidden in there.  “Oh crap.”

The tanned blonde looked, and finally spotted the problem.  “Hey how come she’s gotta thing sticking up like a guy or something, and how come I don’t know her, we met all the girls yesterday, right?”

Vanessa closed her eyes in exasperation.  “Jay Jay?  This is Ayla.  Ayla?  Meet Jay Jay.  Jay Jay was with me on the tour, and she’s a speedster.  Jay Jay?  Ayla was with Belle and the redhead you thought was so hot.”

Jay Jay babbled, “But they said that was for the TGs and Ayla’s a girl isn’t she?  And…”

She stared down at my tent again and finally figured it out.  Okay, so she wasn’t a speedster between the ears.

She gasped, “Ayla!  You’ve got a dick!”

I admitted, “Yep.  It’s the one I was born with.  The rest of my body is all due to my mutation.  So I look female, except between my legs.  So I’m supposed to use the girls’ showers.”  All right, maybe that last part was a fib.  But I was pretty sure Jay Jay wouldn’t figure that out any time soon.

Vanessa kept on drying off, which was frankly mesmerizing.  She said, “Then maybe you ought to use the girls’ showers instead of just watching ‘em.”

I gulped, “Right.  Sorry.”

I grabbed my toiletries kit, hung it outside the shower Vanessa had been using, hung up my robe, hung the towel where it wouldn’t get wet, and started showering.  But I could hear everything in the bathroom.

Jay Jay insisted, “But I look at the other girls, and you do, and we all do, I mean, we’re all lesbians, Rosalyn talked about this yesterday, and she said it was okay to look, as long as you’re not pushy about it, and…”

Vanessa said, “I know, Jay Jay.  But Ayla’s sort of flaunting her.. interest.  Or didn’t you notice she had a hard-on you could’ve hung a flag on?”

I was washing my hair, but I still had to butt in, “You just wish!”

She snickered and said, “Be quiet, Ayla.”

I rinsed my hair and said, “I’m sorry, all right?  I just… Well, you two are gorgeous.  I was just going to take the next open shower, but then you started drying off, and…”

Someone else said, “What’s she complaining about?”

Vanessa said, “It’s nothing.”

Jay Jay burst out, “It’s Ayla, she’s really cute but she’s got a dick, I mean a real wiener, a big one, and she had a hard-on!”

I put conditioner on my hair and said to the throng outside the shower, “Okay, so I really like Vanessa.  And she’s hot.  So sue me.”

Someone said something I couldn’t catch while I was rinsing the conditioner out of my hair, but Vanessa insistently replied to her, “Look, I told you yesterday!  I’m bi.  I like Ayla.  She’s cute, and smart, and nice.  She likes me.  So lay off!”

So I added, “After all, you wouldn’t want me hanging around you, when I’ve got a trouser snake.  Right?”

Whoever it was just said, “ICK!”

Jay Jay, however, was curious.  “So, like Nikki and Toni are both TG and they’re both turning into girls and they don’t have, you know, what you have, anymore, right?  So are you gonna lose yours?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted.  “The doctors I talked to aren’t mutant experts, and the one expert who looked at me is the last person in the world I’d trust.  So I don’t know.  But I’m hoping not.  I liked being a boy.  I wish I was still a boy.  I don’t want to look like a girl, and I’m probably still changing, so I have no idea how things are going to work out.  Maybe I’ll find a way to go back to me, and I’ll get moved out of Poe.  Maybe my mutation will get much worse, and I’ll get moved out of Poe.  For right now, I’m here, and we have to live together.  Okay?  Jay Jay?”

Vanessa said, “She’s long gone.  She sped out of here about sentence two.  Don’t waste your time giving her a five-page lecture.  She won’t hold still for it.”

A voice I didn’t recognize laughed, “Don’t waste your time giving her a five-word lecture!  She won’t wait for the end of that one either!”

Someone else laughed.  A bubble-headed voice fussed, “That wasn’t nice!”

“Oh knock it off, Bunny.  You heard Jay Jay yesterday.  Did she listen to Rosalyn for more than three words at a time?  No.”

I stepped out of the shower and slipped on my robe as hastily as I could so everyone wouldn’t get a flash of my package.  I just happened to emerge as ‘Bunny’ was stepping into the next shower.  Holy crow!  I mean, HOLY CROW!

Bunny was the ‘bimbo number one’ from the train depot.  The one with that airhead voice.  And she was built.  Majorly built.  I mean, there was no way a fourteen-year-old norm could have curves like that. 

Between Bunny and Vanessa and a lot of the other babes here, I was going to be permanently ruined.  I was going to spend the rest of my life going, “Nah, that Playboy Playmate of the Year is a dog.  I went to high school with a hundred babes WAY hotter than her.  And I saw a ton of them naked, too.  Not interested in this bow-wow.”

In the meantime, I was just going to enjoy.

Oh, by the way, the hot Hispanic with the red stripe down the middle of her hair?  It wasn’t a dye job.  It looked like it was part of her mutation, because she had a matching red stripe right down her bush.  Which was very nicely trimmed.  VERY nicely trimmed.  I looked to make sure.  Then I had to leave the bathroom and get back to my room, because I was tenting again.  In a major way.

My throbbing boner made it impossible to tuck it back between my legs, like Gracie always wanted me to, or even to put on a gaff and hide The Evidence.  I finally gave up and just got dressed.

I put on a white satin bra and hooked it in back.  I was never going to get used to wearing a bra.  I was never going to get used to HAVING to wear a bra.  I was never going to get used to being stuck with a pair of boobs, even if they were A-cup mounds instead of the gazongas that some of the girls on the floor were slinging around.

I was never going to get used to having the wrong body.  Period.

Even if I still had Mister Happy And His Luggage between my legs, everything else about my body was wrong.  I had a feminine face that everyone kept telling me was ‘cute’, and I had a female body.  I had girls’ hips and a girl’s butt.  I couldn’t even fit in boy’s clothes with anything approaching a degree of comfort.

I was never going to get used to wearing girls’ clothes.

I told myself that repeatedly, as I slid on a pair of satin panties, pulled up a pair of pre-distressed designer girls’ jeans, and shrugged myself into a couple pre-ripped tops.

And I was never, ever, EVER going to adjust to the fact that I liked wearing silky lingerie.  It didn’t matter that I had always liked silk pajamas and silk sheets.  It didn’t matter that I had worn silk Pierre Cardin boxers back when I was Trevor James Goodkind, scion to billions.  Wearing girls’ underwear just had to be wrong.  Liking to wear girls’ underwear just had to be a perversion.

I was living on a floor with four transgendered girls.  And I liked all of them, and they didn’t seem to be perverted or weird.  At least, not in that way; they had plenty of other weird things about them.  I didn’t mind that they wore lingerie.  I just minded that I did.

It didn’t bother me that Toni was happy that she had turned into a girl.  It didn’t bother me that Jade was desperate to have her body fixed to what her brain wanted: I was almost the converse of her sitch, so I sympathized more than I wanted to admit out loud.  It didn’t bother me that Billie had been transformed almost instantly into a girl and seemed okay with the change.  But it terrified me that Nikki was getting used to being a hot redhead.

If she had been a normal boy, and in less than a year had changed internally to the point that she was almost used to being a girl, then what could happen to me in, say, one school year?  I didn’t want to turn into a girl!  I didn’t want to end up being an attractive chick who was good with that.  I wanted to be a boy again!

I tied the laces on my Doc Martens and told myself that I was going to find a way to get changed back to a boy.  I was at Whateley Academy now.  If there was anyone who could help me, that person was likely to be here.

I was just leaving my room when I saw Toni and Nikki moving from their room toward Billie and Jade’s room.  Toni asked me, “Ready to get the rest of the crew?”  I grinned and nodded.  It felt strange to be a part of any ‘crew’, especially any crew with girls like Nikki and Toni and Billie.  Frankly, they were so hot that Victoria’s Secret models would be bingeing in jealousy.

Of course, Toni was the one who zipped up to the door, bounced to a halt, and actually knocked.  Billie opened it right away.  The three of us invited them for breakfast almost simultaneously.

“Let’s go eat!” Toni insisted.

“Are you hungry?” Nikki asked.

“Are you interested in breakfast?” I asked.  Holy crow, that sounded so stupid compared to everyone else.  I needed not to be so stilted and nervous around people who were likely to become some of my closest friends.  Or maybe my only friends, once everyone on campus knew I was a Goodkind.  I wished I could be as casual and relaxed as Toni.  Not that I was going to tell her!

“Ravenous,” Billie answered Nikki’s question.  Considering the amount she had packed away at dinner the night before, I didn’t think she was exaggerating.

Jade was reading away.  She looked up from her information packet and asked, “I was about to ask if anyone minded if I brought Jinn along, too?”

Toni said, “Actually, we were hoping to meet her.”

I was sure Toni was hoping for that.  Even after last night, I wasn’t completely sure.  I mean, from what Jade had said, Jinn was just a ‘copy’ of her.  Just a PK construct with a copy of Jade’s mind.  And Jade was nice.  So far, I’d met Jinn as a crazy cabbit (or was that a cwazy cabbit?), a mischievous stuffed lion, and a fuzzy blanket.  So why was I so edgy about this?

Jade nodded. “That’s right. I promised you last night.”

I pointed out, “You need to invent some new pronouns.”

Jade wisely ignored me and reached over to a small pile of clothes.  She touched them.  I was expecting a flash of energy or something, but there was nothing I could see.  Nikki twitched, so maybe she could see something happening.

The clothes rose up into the air and re-arranged themselves in the order you would expect if you had just walked out of them.  Then suddenly, they popped outward as if they were inflating at high speed.  And it was over.  The clothes were filled out as if an invisible girl were wearing them.  Well, an invisible girl wearing the clothes, and a rubber Madonna mask, and a wig.

Everybody else watched as if this were a simple bit of excitement.  But it really freaked me out.  Did Jade need to touch something to stick Jinn into it?  How much material could Jinn control at once?  How strong was Jinn when she was cast into something?  What if Jade could toss Jinn into my clothes from thirty feet away?  What if Jade could cast Jinn into every brick in Poe Cottage?  How long could Jinn stay in something, and how fast could Jinn move while holding something, and how far away from Jade could Jinn go?  Depending on her limitations, she might be anywhere from ‘minor practical joke’ material to ‘biggest threat on campus’ material.

“Sorry,” the other girl said, rubbing her hands against the mask to smooth it into place. “Let me just get my face on.”

“You know,” Fey said, “back in the olden days that meant something very different.”

Everyone else chortled, but I was having a hard time coping.  I was having some pretty horrific mental images to overcome.  Jade pointing at someone and sending Jinn into their body, then making them move helplessly like a marionette.  Jade lobbing Jinn into someone’s clothes and then watching as Jinn shot straight up at 200 miles an hour until the victim was beyond the pull of Earth’s gravity and was launched into deep space.  Jade touching a pond and animating all the water in it, to drown an entire squad of opponents.  Jade slapping a building and ‘possessing’ every brick and girder in it, to bring a five thousand ton golem to life.

You know, all of this would be a lot easier if I hadn’t been raised my whole life to think of mutants as fearsome and dangerous.  How do you un-learn an entire lifetime’s worth of experience?  I was going to have to work on that.  Or at least I was going to have to work on pretending better.

We strolled off to breakfast, Jinn cavorting about with Toni and Nikki.  I walked along with Jade.  I tried to sound casual as I quizzed her, “So tell me, how much stuff can you animate at one time, and how long does it last?”

Physical contact needed?  Less than two hundred pounds total?  Around an hour?  Limited speed?  Her answers were a big relief.  Assuming she was telling me the truth.  But there was still no reason she couldn’t slap someone my size, cast Jinn into their body and clothes, and launch them into outer space.  If Jinn could fly at maybe 25 miles per hour and go straight up, and last for about an hour, that would leave some poor schmuck 25 miles above the Earth’s surface, with no oxygen and one hell of a long fall.  Anybody who could survive that wasn’t in Jade’s weight class: they were in Champion’s weight class.  I could go heavy enough to defeat something like that, and she probably couldn’t touch Hank through his PK force field, but it looked to me like there were lots of kids around here who couldn’t beat an attack like that.

Breakfast was about what I expected.  After the previous evening, I was expecting food for one army, with some subtle opportunities for better dining.  There were enough scrambled eggs to fill four warming trays, each of which would cover a computer desk.  There was enough bacon and sausage to make the domestic pig go extinct throughout New England.  There were slices of ham ranging in size from ‘delicate eater’ to ‘dinner for one tiger’.  There was a swimming pool of coffee, in a series of coffee urns the size of hipbaths.  There was an enormous spread of fresh fruit.  There was a bakery’s worth of rolls, muffins, sweet rolls, biscuits, croissants, and tea-rings.  You name it, there was fifty pounds of it somewhere on that long line.

Billie proceeded to tear through the line like she was trying to grab enough food for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  Nikki went straight for the vegetarian option.  Toni went for what I would guess was the ‘standard American girl’ fare, with reasonable amounts of a nice variety of foods.  Jade worked her way after Billie with a look in her eyes that I wasn’t used to seeing.  It was a sort of amazement, and a disbelief that it was all real.  I wondered how long it had been since she had decent meals cooked for her.  Seeing the look in her eyes made me rather uncomfortable.

But I still did as I had planned, and looked for the wheat amidst all this chaff.  I grabbed one of the whole-wheat croissants with some unsalted butter, a small slice of what looked like a real Swedish tea-ring, and some fresh fruit.  I supposed that Billie needed those calories to fuel her powers, but she was missing out on some quite good cooking by opting for the volume approach.

The hall was a lot more crowded now.  Some of the kids were obviously eating with parents.  I saw a few other kids who were packing it away like Billie, but this was a ‘red flag’ day, so there weren’t any overt displays of mutant weirdness to terrify the baseline parental units.  I had a feeling that by the next evening’s dinner, the place would be full to the gills.  I also had a feeling that, once we had a green flag day, everything including gills would be out on display.

After we finished eating - well, all of us except Billie were finished - I headed off for my first task of the day.  This was something I had carefully scheduled once I knew I was coming in on the third, instead of later in the week.

I walked into admin and was helpfully directed to the counseling office.  Someone whose nameplate informed me that she was ‘Valerie’ pointed me to a chair and told me that Mrs. Hawkins would be ready for me in just a few minutes.

Father always judged people like Mrs. Hawkins by their promptness.  A doctor might have a reason to be hours late due to a medical emergency.  But counselors and lawyers and accountants did not.  I waited for fifteen minutes.  I checked, and there was no prior person delaying Mrs. Hawkins.  She just couldn’t be bothered to be prompt.  Strike one.

Mrs. Hawkins opened her door and ushered me into her office.  She was around sixty, with white hair put up in a prissy style.  She had an expensive ergonomic chair behind a nice computer desk, which was carefully oriented so that I couldn’t see the computer monitor.  That seemed particularly unhelpful, given the reason I was here.  The chair for me wasn’t very comfortable, which seemed just plain mean, given her chair.  Strike two.

Mrs. Hawkins looked at me, “Hello, Miss Goodkind.  May I call you Ayla?”

“Of course, ma’am.”  I was going to treat her politely.. right up until she demonstrated that I was wasting my time being polite.

“Thank you.  And call me Sarah,” she insisted unctuously.  Oh God, she was one of those.  The people who see a Goodkind, and dollar signs instantly flash in their eyes.  “It’s really so interesting to have a Goodkind here at Whateley, you know.  I’m sure you have all kinds of questions about mutants that I can help with.”

Yep.  I wondered how many counseling sessions she’d wait before springing some idea that would ‘help both of us’.  Or was she the type who tries to spend enough time with me that she can ask for a mink coat at Christmastime?  This was strike three, plus perhaps an additional ten or twelve strikes.

I carefully said, “Actually, I’ve made some friends, and they’ve been very helpful with that.  I was hoping to get my class schedule organized.  That’s why I made the appointment.  I think that you should have my school records from Chilton, and my other educational records as well.”

She pursed her lips smugly, “Excellent.  I knew you were going to be an excellent case.  Focused, academic…  You’re all paid up for the school year.  I assume that you won’t need to look for a campus job?”

I shook my head with a small smile.  “I really don’t think that’s necessary, unless there’s a job opening for high-end financial planners.”

She said, “This is excellent.”  She was starting to sound a little too much like Montgomery Burns for me.  “Are your parents going to be spending a lot of time checking on your progress here?”  She didn’t sound like she would enjoy that.

I admitted, “No, they’ll never check.  They disowned me when I manifested my powers.”

She almost grinned at that.  “All right…”  She obviously couldn’t care less if I had been kicked out of the house by my parents and hideously mistreated, as long as I paid my bills on time.  She just didn’t want to deal with troublesome parents or mentors or sponsors.  Okay, that was definitely another strike against her.  A strike the size of the Teamsters.

She said, “Now let’s get right to it.  You’ll want to take some placement tests so we can put you in the right classes.  Right?”

I nodded, “Yes.  That’s why I scheduled this meeting and came in first thing this morning.”

She pulled a thick sheaf of papers out of her desk drawer.  “Good.  We’ll begin right away.”

I started to object, and then I realized that this ‘pop quiz’ approach was probably better than the approach at Chilton, which often led to kids cramming with tutors to prepare for the placement tests, so that some of those kids got in over their heads within weeks.

She led me to a small study desk in a quiet room next door to her office.  “I’ll just pull out the relevant papers, and let you get started.  And please, don’t tell anyone else about this.  You wouldn’t want everyone else to get an advantage over you, would you?”

Hmm.  That was one way of looking at the issue.  “I won’t.  I don’t think it would help anyone to be stuck in a class that was too advanced for them, would it?”

She looked a bit surprised at that.  “Umm, no, that wouldn’t be good either.”

‘Either’?  With that attitude, she just picked up another strike.  This woman was not exactly earning my trust.

Even with my school records on her computer and all the time she had wasted before calling me into her office, she didn’t have a complete set of tests ready for me.  She pulled out tests for English, English and American Lit, math, French, Latin, classical Greek, world history, general science, and German.  That seemed like enough to keep me busy for the morning, but hardly enough tests given all my prior coursework.

I focused on the tests, instead of the counselor.  The English and Lit tests were really easy.  Honestly, didn’t people read anymore?  ‘Name three of the Canterbury Tales and describe the essence of each tale in one sentence.’  It would serve her right if I chose the Miller’s Tale and the Reeve’s Tale.  The world history test focused mainly on American and Western European history, which suited me just fine.  I suspected that some students from other countries found that bias rather annoying.

The math test was easy, at first.  I had already taken Algebra I and Geometry at Chilton.  But the trig and calculus questions were obviously beyond me, so I stopped right there, with just a very quick glance through the rest of the test to see if there was anything else I knew.  What was the point of looking at later questions on things like ‘Ito integrals’ and ‘Brouwer degree’, whatever the heck they were, if I couldn’t do the calc parts?

The language tests were simple.  In my opinion, you can’t test languages adequately with a written test.  You need oral and aural parts.  So I zipped through them.  I mean, I had been going to French Camp and German Camp for long enough to speak both languages fluently.  So the basic vocabulary and grammar questions were just a waste of my time.

I saved the general science test for last, since I didn’t know the breadth or depth of the material I would face.  It turned out to be largely basic science.  I had taken biology and physics courses in junior high, so I did fairly well until I got to the advanced science sections.  Did they really have entering freshman students who understood the ‘stoichiometry of the vadose zone’ and ‘tensor calculus for string theory’?  I didn’t even know what the ‘vadose zone’ was.  It sounded like something out of Marvel Comics.

It was still well before lunch when I stopped.  Mrs. Hawkins had been marking my papers as I worked, so it only took about twenty minutes before she was ready with my results.

She sat down at her computer and began slapping my schedule together.  “Now first of all, since you have so many required courses covered, you would do well to start with Introduction to Superpowers, which has a theory class and a lab.  Also, I think that you’ll need Costume Shop I, and Basic Martial Arts…”

I stopped her, “I’d really rather focus on academic requirements and move toward college placement courses as soon as possible.  I don’t think I need a costuming class or martial arts.  I’m not planning on becoming a superhero.”

She looked shocked that I would question her obviously superior judgment.  Great.  I could tell how this discussion was going to go.  “No, dear.  This isn’t for being a superhero.  You need these courses right now.  Your records mention your intersexed state as a possible ‘visibility’ issue, and I could see that as soon as you walked in the room.  You need to learn how to alter your clothing so that you’re not constantly being pointed out as a target for gay-bashers and deviants.  I’m definitely putting you down for Costume Shop I.  First period.  And you certainly need some martial arts training.  In case you hadn’t noticed, you are a Goodkind.  Almost everyone on this campus has either been harassed by Humanity First! or knows someone who has been.  You need to learn to defend yourself.”

I tried again, “I have a power that’s well-suited to defense.  I can become immaterial, and walk away through the nearest wall.  Or I can just walk through the bully and leave.”

“No, no, no!” she fussed.  “It isn’t that simple on a campus like Whateley.  There are people who will attack you from hiding.  There are people who can launch mental attacks or energy attacks.  There are people who can suppress powers.  There are people who can build gadgets that can do things to you.  You need Basic Martial Arts!”

“But you’re filling my schedule up with mutant courses.  I won’t have any time left for academics!  That’s what I care about.  I want to work towards a Masters in Business Administration, with an emphasis on financials.  That means Accounting, Business Administration, and Mathematics courses.”  I held up the curriculum book I had already read through.  “I want to take these three courses.”

I showed her the particular specialty courses I had marked.  “World Literature: Special Topics” with guest lecturer Dr. Paul Zinn of Yale, which was a special class on Saturdays from 8 to 12 am.  “Superpower Law I” in fifth period.  “Stock Market Options as a Realization of Stochastic Processes” in third period.

She looked something up on her computer.  I couldn’t see the monitor from where I sat, so this gave her an extra sense of control.  She firmly said, “Oh no.  “Super Law I” is a junior/senior only class.  You won’t be allowed to take that.”

I pushed, “Why not?  I have extensive background in international legal and financial issues.  I’m probably better qualified for that class than ninety percent of the people in it.”

“Rules, dear,” she said smugly.  “You cannot take a junior/senior class unless you are officially a junior or senior.”

“Can I talk to the instructor and see if he’ll make an exception for me?”

She shook her head no, “Not at Whateley.  We have too many students who can make you change your mind, one way or another, regardless of the ethics involved.  So we have a strict ‘no exceptions’ policy.”

She was enjoying this way too much.  I was going to remember this.

She went on, “The stock market course is a seniors-only course open only to gadgeteers, devisers, and exemplars who have fulfilled the prior coursework.  You’re not even close on that.  You’ll need.. let’s see.. trigonometry and pre-calculus, calculus I and II, real analysis, complex analysis, probability theory I and II, and several other prerequisites.  If you were a baseline, this would be a third- or fourth-year course in math grad school.”

“All right, that seems reasonable,” I pretended.  “But what about the ‘World Literature: Special Topics’ course by Professor Zinn?  It’s on a Saturday, and I don’t see any prereqs.”

“I’m sorry, dear.  It’s only for students who have previously taken American Literature and either European Literature or English Literature.”  She obviously wasn’t sorry.

I pushed, “But I have.  I believe my test results demonstrate that I have an excellent background in these areas.”

“Really, Ayla, you should trust my judgment.  I have been doing this job for far longer than you’ve been alive,” she smarmed.

I tried again.  “I’ll make you a deal.  We’ll go with your schedule, if you’ll put me in Zinn’s world lit class.  And then we’ll talk about these ‘personal study’ courses in the curriculum.”

“Oh, all right,” she sighed dramatically.

So we argued a bit more, and I finally ended up with a schedule that she liked, and that I could tolerate until I could get someone else - someone rational - to change it.

“So.  Let’s see…  You have Costume Shop I first period, followed by Spanish I and Powers Theory.  After lunch, Basic Martial Arts, then Powers Lab, and finally that trigonometry/pre-calculus course you’re insisting on.  For personal study courses, you have Civics, and you have Business Accounting I.  Civics (personal study) has an optional meeting time of four to six Wednesday afternoon.  Business Accounting (personal study) has an optional meeting time of four to five on Tuesday and Thursday.  Plus your Saturday morning class, ‘World Literature: Special Topics’.  I think you’re going to be back here in a week asking me to let you drop a couple of these classes…”

“I hope not,” I said.  I didn’t say what I was actually thinking.  But how hard could this be?  I already knew business accounting, and Civics was trivial.  A lot of my classes weren’t even academics.  What, I was going to be assigned extra homework in Costume Shop and Martial Arts?  I didn’t think so.

I left her office as quickly as I could without being rude - she wanted to ‘chat’ with me about my being a Goodkind and also a mutant - and I hurried off to lunch.  The crowd was even bigger than at breakfast, and there was even more food laid out.

Chef Marcel ‘casually’ strolled out when I moved up to the food line, and managed to place a small bowl on one of the tables just as I reached it.  I gave him a smile and took the bowl.  Man, was this what I thought it was?  I picked up a salad and a sandwich too.  Arguing all morning with a jerk was hard work.

I took my repast and sat down with the gang.  We seemed to have acquired our own table, well off from the center of the dome, so that we had a great view of the outdoors.  It looked like the ‘power elite’ were taking over the central tables, so we were likely to be allowed to sit out here in the wastelands.

Billie was wearing a new outfit, and it really looked good on her.  I mean, Billie was a hottie to start with, but those jeans-and-flannel-shirt outfits weren’t doing her any favors.  She looked way better in this.

I took a careful bite of my ‘surprise’, and closed my eyes with pleasure.  Tuna ceviche!  Man, was that good.  And the onion was marvelous.  What was it?  Vidalia?  Walla Walla Sweet?

I still made sure to catch Billie’s comments.  She had her new clothes done in a matter of minutes at Rogers’ Fabric Boutique in Dunwich, thanks to a bit of direction from one of the superintendents of the school. 

One of the school superintendents just took her on a little trip?  And he was a friend of old family friends of hers?  Billie had pull that she didn’t even understand.  I needed to explain the facts of life to that girl.  Assuming she’d listen to me.  But that sort of conversation should be done in private, not in the middle of a cafeteria.

Especially not in a domed cafeteria like this.  There was some sort of weird sound channeling going on.  Every once in a while, you could hear little pieces of conversation that were apparently from no one who was nearby.  I wondered if this was like some acoustically-engineered rooms I had seen, where, under the right circumstances, you could hear a whisper from the other side of the room.  I made a mental note to avoid having the really private conversations in here.

In the meantime, I made sure to get the phone number for Cecilia Rogers’ business.  An expert seamstress was more valuable than gold, even if not many people realized that.  An expert seamstress who could use mutant powers to put together an ensemble like Billie’s in a matter of minutes was probably worth her weight in plutonium.

After we finished eating and chatting, I made sure to walk past the lunch line and thank Chef Marcel.  I was right: he had used Vidalia onions in the ceviche.  We had a quick discussion in French, during which he let me know that Chef Peter was going to have something special for the teaching staff at dinner, and Marcel would make sure there was a little for me as well.

He insisted in French, “But you cannot tell anyone else!  One cannot cook a three-diamond repast for 3000, and a number of the students here can eat as much as ten normal people!

Okay, I had to agree with that.  Billie and Hank alone could probably eat the entire output of a French three-diamond restaurant with thirty covers.

Once I was out of the cafeteria, I pulled out my cell phone and dialed a number I had just heard.

“Rogers’ Fabric Boutique!  How may I help you?”  The voice sounded young and cheerful.  I was guessing from what Billie had said that this was Cecilia Rogers herself.

“Hi, is this Miss Rogers?”

“Yes, yes it is.  Can I help you with something?”

I grinned, even though she couldn’t see it.  “I certainly hope so.  I’m a new student at Whateley, and I just saw what you whipped up for my friend Billie.  I was hoping that I could come by in the next day or so and maybe get a few new outfits, starting with a couple school uniforms.”

“That sounds very nice dear, but if you’re not a senior, you’ll need a chaperone or else a pass to ride the school shuttle into town.”

I said, “Thanks for the information.  I’ll see when I can get into Dunwich.”

So now I had a couple new items for my to-do list: getting a pass into Dunwich, arranging shuttle transportation, and meeting with Cecilia Rogers.

I walked back to Poe and found Vanessa, who was lying on her bed looking over the options her counselor had given her.  Vanessa lying on her stomach in just a t-shirt and shorts?  Definitely worth finding.

We talked about her schedule, and she opted for fourth period Basic Martial Arts and Business Accounting I (personal study), since I would be in them too.

I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.  I knew that meant lots of private study time together.  I knew business accounting inside and out already, so I was figuring this was an easy ‘A’ for me, and a chance to show Vanessa what I knew.  Okay, a chance to show off for Vanessa.

I got back to my room and started thinking about my afternoon agenda.  I wanted to get all my textbooks while the selection was still good, but I wanted to get to Dunwich to check out Rogers’ Fabric Boutique.  I was expecting that the uniform selection at the Whateley store would leave a lot to be desired.

Someone was knocking on my door.  Someone small and sort of timid, based on the hesitant little taps.  So that pretty well ruled out Toni and Billie.

“Ayla?  Are you in there?”

Oh.  It was Jade.  I opened the door and gave her a smile.  “You can knock louder than that.  I won’t mind.  And if I have my music going, I might not hear anything too quiet.”

She looked hesitant.  “Could you come over to Toni and Nikki’s room?  We need to talk.”

Oh crap.  They’d talked it over as a team, and decided that they didn’t want the hassle of a Goodkind rep dragging them down.  I knew it was too good to last.  I gave her a nod and followed her next door.

She finally spoke in little more than a whisper, “Look, someone delivered a note for you.  They slipped it under our door.  They got the rooms wrong.  It’s.. it’s a blackmail note.”

WHAT!?!?!  I nearly exploded right there.  I looked around to see if anyone else might overhear, and I decided to hold off for a second.

Jade tapped softly on the door, and we slipped inside.

I demanded, “Where’s the note?”  I almost channeled Janet and asked for ‘the fucking note’.

Billie pointed to Toni and Nikki, who were poring over an ordinary page of white paper.  I was too pissed to be sociable, and I nearly ripped it out of Toni’s hands.  I read it twice before I could even calm down enough to unclench my hands.

Missing your family much?

Don’t worry.  However far they may be from your heart and mind, rest assured that they aren’t far out of our sights.  Particularly that so-called sister of yours.  Play things right and we give both you and her a wide berth, and never talk to you again.  Play things wrong and the very least that will happen is that those innocent young girls you’re living with will find out that their sorority sister used to look a lot different.

We’re looking for someone else, not related to you.  All you have to do is get the name and address of every girl living in Poe Hall.  It should be easy.  Right now, everyone’s moving in.  They all have addresses on their luggage.

Write the information down, fold the paper up, and leave it under the bust of Edgar Allen Poe in the entryway to your cottage.  Wednesday, exactly at noon.  No tricks.  Complete this successfully and we will never again bother you or yours.

Don’t play games with us, Trevor.  We mean business.

Goddamnit!  Somebody was going to pay for this!

I finally realized that everyone else was talking.  Jade was whispering, “It’s just bad handwriting, and it was supposed to say, ‘Trevor’.”

“Trevor Goodkind,” I confirmed, pointing a thumb back at my chest. “And someone is going to pay for this!  I’m going to tear somebody apart…  Once I find out who’s doing this.”

“I can understand that,” Billie nodded.  “I’ve been threatened a lot lately, myself.  But that just brings us back to Jade’s question.  What do we do about it?”

“We?”  I looked around.  I realized that I had been standing there, planning on going it alone.  Planning on being alone for the next four years.  And the crowd around me had different ideas.

We,” Toni insisted.  She looked around as everyone else agreed with her.  “We’re all new here at Whateley.  We all have gender issues to deal with here.  And we’re going to be together for quite a while.  So if one of us gets in trouble, the others need to help out if it’s at all possible.  That way we have our own support system here.”

“Makes sense to me,” Nikki nodded, then put her arm about my shoulders and moved so we sat together on the bed.  She said, “Look, all of us have problems here, some worse than others.  And we all need to stick together, it just seems like the right way to do things, doesn’t it?”

“Not only pretty, she’s got a brain,” Toni grinned at Nikki.

Nikki stuck her tongue out at Toni and gave me a quick squeeze.  I had to concentrate on the extortion note to keep from getting a raging erection.

“So,” Jade piped up.  “We thought we might make up a false list, you know use silly names and stuff that might actually be true given where we live right now.  Then stick it under the bust and keep watch to see who comes for it.”

“A plan!” Toni agreed with a bounce.  “We have a plan now.  Let’s do it!”

“Umm, a thought here.”  Nikki quietly tapped Billie on the shoulder.  “Could these people be looking for you?  With what you’ve told us, I think that might be the case.”

“Damn!” Billie frowned.  “I hadn’t thought about that.”

I thought that Billie was only one of the potential targets.  She had told us about those assassins.  But Hank had some mutant-hating soldiers who might be looking for him, and probably had some sympathetic higher-ups.  Jade had Melodious Silvertongue, who might want to make sure that she never came back to his hometown, not to mention that creep of a father.  From what Vanessa had told me, it might be some super-powered thug from New York City looking for Sharisha.  Or the target could be any of the Poe people whom I hadn’t met yet.

“All the more reason to find out who’s behind this,” Toni answered.  “So we can figure out what exactly it is that they’re after.”

“Right.”  Billie’s eyes had taken on a rather frightening reddish tinge, but they returned to her more normal look as she calmed down.  “So let’s get started on this fake list, shall we?”

I finally used my brain for more than a microsecond and said, “Good plan.  Let’s meet in my room in ten minutes.  I need to do something first.”

I needed to do what I should have done first.  What Father would have glared at me for forgetting.  I went down to Mrs. Horton and got a large ziplock baggie.  The note and envelope went into the baggie as evidence.

I looked over the envelope and letter.  Not a lot of visible evidence, unfortunately.  The name on the envelope was hand-written, but obviously disguised to the point of near-illegibility.  The paper looked like it had been printed using a decent laser printer, so that probably wasn’t going to be traceable.  The envelope and paper looked like ordinary stock.  Still, they went into the envelope in case there were usable fingerprints or DNA.  Or something.

If I had still been a member in good standing of the Goodkind family, I would have turned this over to Goodkind Security and let them run forensics on it.  But I couldn’t be sure who I could trust around here.  Would going to Security here be a help or a hindrance?  Could it tip off the extortionist or extortionists?  I had no way of knowing.

Then I took the evidence into my room and hid it where no one was going to find it.

I rolled up the baggie-protected envelope into a tube and put a rubber band over it.  Then I held it in my fist and very carefully went light.  I put my hand through the wall directly underneath the light switch and five inches above the floor.  Then I let go of the baggie and slid my hand back out.

Perfect.  No one was going to look inside the walls for that evidence.

There was another basic problem.  As far as I could tell, there was no point in believing ANYTHING in that note.  They knew about me, and they knew about Gracie.  But they weren’t asking for money.  Yet.  Just information.  Or so they claimed.

If they knew about the Goodkinds, then why weren’t they worried about the standard approach the Goodkinds would take with extortionists?  Did they have a spy watching me?  If so, then why didn’t they use that spy to get the information on the people in Poe?  There was something fundamentally wrong with this picture.

And everything in that note was probably a lie.  There might only be one blackmailer, claiming to be more than one person.  There would probably be a much larger demand if they got away with this: there was no way I was believing that ‘we will never again bother you or yours’ routine.  Extortionists never worked like that.  They bled you and bled you, until even Count Dracula couldn’t get a drop out of your veins.

And there was something drastically wrong with the larger picture.  How could anyone put Gracie and Trevor together with me and Whateley?  When we filled out my Whateley application, we hadn’t mentioned Trevor Goodkind, just my new name.  The only people who could know this much information were the people I told my story to yesterday afternoon…

…And anyone who could overhear that conversation.. and anyone who could use magic or psi to eavesdrop…

But the people who listened to my story all knew the truth about Poe, so they knew the extortion attempt was doomed to failure.  So how could I track down some non-Poe person at Whateley who had eavesdropped on us?

Before I could stew over that too long, people began knocking on my door.  First, it was Nikki and Toni.  Then Hank showed up, looking sort of embarrassed about going into a girl’s room.  Man, that kid sure wasn’t a girl anymore.  Billie came long a bit later, after Toni got us started on our list of names.  We had sixteen double-occupancy rooms to fill up with pseudonyms for each floor except the penthouse.  There were only maybe twenty-one new kids on our floor, but I had heard that there were several sophs being left back on our floor too.

Hank grinned, “Okay.  Room 216.  I.P. Freely, Yellowfalls Montana.”  I think everyone else in the room groaned.

I said, “Room 202.  Margaret Simpson, Springfield Oregon.”

Nikki giggled out a cracking, middle-aged voice, “Ho-MER!”

Toni grinned and said, “Doh!”  Then she said, “Okay, Marge’s roommate is…  Umay Kmee Wan, Dubuque Iowa.”

That got plenty of snickers.

Nikki said, “My turn!  Room 215.  Merle Lynn, London England, and her roomie Gwen Nevere, same town.”

Hank flopped back in his chair and groaned, “Ugh!  Pun damage.  I may not be able to move for three turns.”

Toni bounced on the bed, “My turn!  My turn!  I’ve got two more!”

And so, what had started out as utter fury turned into utter silliness.. and a kind of bonding I had never expected.

Once we had the names all written down on a sheet of paper and ready for our trap, we started talking about how we would set things up to ensnare my extortionist.

Before we got too deeply into that, Mrs. Horton was at my door.  “Ayla?  Your packages are here.  Would you come down and sign for them?”

Toni asked, “Packages?  What, you gettin’ more clothes?”

I almost smiled.  “No, it’s my new laptop with all the accessories I ordered.”

Hank said, “This ought to be good.  What does a Goodkind order as accessories for a laptop?”

Nikki suggested, “A hard drive the size of a Cray?”

Toni grinned, “A voice dictation system that comes with its own steno pool?”

I teased, “A monitor the size of the wall.”

Hank grinned, “Okay, now I have to see what you got.”

“Me too!”

So we all trooped down Mrs. Horton’s office, and I didn’t have to carry anything back upstairs.  I unpacked and checked everything out while my peanut gallery admired the gear.

The laptop was souped up even beyond the standard high-end equipment.  But what made it all worthwhile were the full ergonomic keyboard, and the visor for the holographic screen, and the security system.  I could type at my maximum speed - which seemed to have improved a lot over my old forty words a minute - while looking at a more-than-full-sized screen.

I put on the visor and tried out the keyboard with the holographic screen.  I gushed, “This is going to be great for writing papers.”

Toni insisted, “Oh, come on!  Don’t tell me you got that for schoolwork!  Where’s Duke Nukem and Halo?”

Hank asked, “And Leisure Suit Larry at the Playboy Mansion?”

That boy was all boy between the ears.  No doubt about it.  I carefully gave him a look that meant ‘great idea’.  What the girls didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them…

After I put all my new toys away, we grabbed the rest of the crew and trekked off to dinner.  Oddly enough, as I slowly moved along the main dish line, Chef Peter just happened to walk out and set down a plate that had a four-ounce filet of fish, drizzled with a translucent orange liquid.

He whispered to me, “It’s a filet of arctic char with a pistachio-orange vinaigrette.  Don’t tell anyone.  It’s supposed to be for the staff only, tonight.”

I took the small plate back with me, along with a small casserole of what was probably baked fall veggies, and a tossed salad.  The fish was obviously a carefully prepared filet.  I could see the finely-chopped nuts and orange peel in the light vinaigrette that was poured over and around the filet.  I took a bite.

“Mmm,” I moaned.  I think my eyes fluttered closed.  Oh, that was perfect.  Now I just had to eat it without looking like I was having an orgasm.  The fish was perfectly prepared, and the vinaigrette was a vivid accompaniment.  The pistachio taste in the vinaigrette had a rich, long-lasting finish that I didn’t think came just from the chopped pistachios.

After I finished dinner, I walked back to the steam tables.  Chef Marcel and Chef Peter casually strolled out and pretended to clean up a bit.

I complimented Chef Peter on the char en vinaigrette, and even I took a guess, “Did you use pistachio oil in the vinaigrette?  Because the finish was amazing.  Really rich and long-lasting.”

Chef Peter blushed with pride and admitted that he had used pistachio oil and fresh orange zest.  Chef Marcel definitely made the ‘rubbing thumb against first two fingers’ gesture, telling me they had bet on my tastebuds, and he was expecting to be paid.

Then Chef Marcel started to tell me how to get the good coffee at breakfast.  Just as he was in the middle of his explanation, he looked up and stopped.

A supercilious blonde walked up and began speaking French with us.  “Oh!  It is such a pleasure to find someone else who speaks something other than American English.  What a hideous mélange it is of everything you have ever heard!

Chef Marcel instantly dropped the foodie bit and went into a talk about Paris, as if that was what we had been discussing all along.  “But the Rive Gauche is no longer what it was when I was your age…

That told me something about the blonde, and what Chef Marcel thought of her.  I played along with Chef Marcel, chatting in French about Paris, until he had to get back to work.

The blonde said to me, in a fussy little tone, “I am Kismet.  I am from Belgium.

Oh!  Where in Belgium?”  I had been to Belgium.  And if she wanted to chat in French, I was fine with that.  She was attractive, with a willowy shape that her European-styled dress made the most of.

Antwerp.  Have you ever been there?  It is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.”  She led me away from the food line, and toward a group of people who might as well have been a painting by Manet: ‘Europeans turning up their noses at their bourgeois surroundings’.

I had been to Antwerp, and it was a nice place, but I wouldn’t have listed it in my Top Five European Cities.  However, I wasn’t going to say that to a Belgian.  Especially not a pretty Belgian girl.  Most especially not a pretty Belgian girl who might be able to blast me into the next state if I pissed her off.  “Oh, I have been to Antwerp with my family.  I really enjoyed it.  You have some marvelous restaurants.  I particularly enjoyed ‘t Fornuis and In de Schaduw van de Kathedraal.

And where are you from?” she pushed.

I waited just a second so that her whole table would hear me reply in my best French, “Oh, I am from New York state.  I am an American.

One of the girls at the table looked up at me and smiled.  She said in French, “Oh, now you are teasing.  You have a Parisian accent.

Oh, I would have been happy to tease that one.  She was a gorgeous brunette with long, intricately-styled black hair and a lovely oval face.  She looked to be about my age, and curvy for fourteen.  She wasn’t as curvy as Vanessa, but it was pretty obvious that she was going to have a dynamite figure in a few years.

I am Charmer.  I am from Monaco.  This is Charge.  This is Automa-tech.  And this is Cytherea…

If Charmer was hot, then Cytherea, the blonde sitting next to her was HAWT.  Blond, with tresses that looked like they trailed almost down to the floor when she sat.  A luscious face with pouty lips.  A body with all the right curves.  She smiled at me, and I could feel an allure that…

Oh.  Right.  A glamour, like Fey had.  Frankly, Nikki’s was noticeably more powerful.

Charmer said, “And you are…?

I continued in French, “I am Phase.”  And, since everyone I knew was finding out, I went ahead and spilled the beans.  “My real name is Ayla Goodkind.  Yes, I am one of those Goodkinds.  That is why I have spent so much time in Europe, and why my French is.. adequate.

Apparently, this time it was the right thing to say.

Kismet laughed, “Adequate?  You sound like a true Parisian.  I know Bretons who do not speak French nearly as well as you do.

Charmer smiled, “I know Parisians who do not speak the language as well as you do.

Cytherea just purred, “How interesting.  A Goodkind.”  But her eyes had that ‘dollar sign’ look to them.  I’d have to watch out for her.

Charmer grinned and then said something that I was pretty sure was Italian.  It might have been a question about how well I spoke Italian, if I had to guess based on my knowledge of Latin.

So I guessed, “I’m sorry, but my Italian is dreadful.  However, my German is quite good, and I am learning Spanish.

Charmer happily reverted to French and said, “My father is in the wine export business.  Villabianca Wines.  Goodkind Import/Export is one of my father’s major clients.

I smiled, “Ah, yes.  My brother Paul met with your family the last time we were in Monaco.  It’s a very lovely area.  Unfortunately, I had to settle for a lovely dinner and a moonlight swim while my parents went to the casinos and conducted a little business with the Prince.

Charmer gave me her best attempt at a regal smile.  “Ah, Prince Rainier.  I have been presented to him and the Princesses.  In fact, I am here by Royal Decree, and they are my sponsors.  Someday I shall be the Royal Wizardess of Monaco.

Ah, yes.  The nouveau riche who had aspirations of becoming part of the royal court.  I recognized it at once.  I’d certainly seen it enough when the ‘royal court’ was only the Goodkind inner circle.

Judging by the faces around me, everyone at the table had heard this story more than enough times already.  Kismet and Cytherea were more than happy to derail the conversation by introducing me to the rest of the table, who all just happened to be from Western Europe.

On my way back to our table, I heard some upperclassman mutter at me, “Gonna start hanging out with the Beret Mafia, kid?”  I managed not to laugh at that until I got back to our table and shared the joke.

When we got back to Poe, Mrs. Horton was rounding up all the freshmen for a big announcement.  Tonight and the next night were going to be Poe parties.  Video games and partying down on the first floor, and discussion groups on the next three floors.  While “welcome to Whateley” sounded really useful, and “being a sexual minority” would be relevant, the one that caught my attention was the “graduation, careers, and legacy” discussion up on fourth floor.

I checked with Vanessa to see what she wanted to do.  But she didn’t look too good.  She moaned, “I’m really sorry, but I have a rotten headache.  It’ll be gone by tomorrow or tomorrow night.  It’s just something I get every month.”

I kissed her on the forehead and said, “Okay.  How about I tuck you in bed and get out a heating pad for you?”

She said, “I don’t have one.”

I smiled, “But I do.  I’ll go get it.”

Without Vanessa to dance with, I figured I would skip the dancing part of the party.  I wouldn’t want to dance with any guys, and all the girls I knew were lesbian or TG.  The lesbians wouldn’t want to dance with someone packing pork, and asking a teammate like Billie or Nikki to dance just seemed.. well, weird.  Besides, who in their right mind would want to dance with me?  I was probably too angry and too nervous to go dance anyway.

I decided to go up to the senior sunroom and get in on that ‘graduation and careers and legacy’ talk.  But first I made a detour to my room to get some supplies.

I walked up the stairs and into the fourth-floor sunroom.  I noticed that it really wasn’t any nicer than the sunroom we had down on our floor.  Okay, the paint was newer, and the furniture was a bit better, and the television screen was a bit bigger.  The ceiling light was more expensive, but too tacky for my taste.

Everyone in the room looked like a junior or a senior.  At least.  A couple guys looked like they were college-age, and one of those guys looked like a junior or senior linebacker for a major university football power.

The tall blonde from the train station was there, and…  Holy crow, she had wings!  Real, angel-type, feathery wings!  She looked so much like a real angel that it was freaky.  No wonder she wore those bulky coats in public.

Next to her were a hot, willowy redhead, and la crème de la crème of all blondes.  I mean, this blonde was like the dictionary definition of ‘exemplar’, and she was dressed like a mallrat.  If she looked this hot in an old hoodie and grubby jeans, then when she put on a sexy minidress and heels, she probably caused cardiac failures in hetero men within a hundred-yard radius.

Man, I was going to have an erection 24x7 if the women around Whateley looked like this blonde and Nikki, not to mention Billie and Toni and Vanessa and Bunny and…  Well, the list was pretty enormous before I even got out of Poe.

The mature-looking linebacker spotted me and growled, “Hey kid, are you sure you’re on the right floor?”

It wouldn’t do any good to lose my temper when I wanted to appear rational and businesslike.  So I just said, “As long as this is the graduation and careers discussion, I am.”

He frowned, “And who are you?”

Oh crap, this was where everything always went south.  But there was no getting around it.  They would have to know sooner or later, and the sooner they knew, the less likely it was that anyone would feel I had deceived them.  “I’m Ayla Goodkind.  You can call me Phase.”

The room temp instantly dropped about twenty degrees.

The redhead snapped, “We’re not interested in going to work for the MCO.”

I sighed, “And neither am I.  I’m not recruiting for Goodkind Research, or the MCO, or anything like that.  I’m not even a Goodkind anymore.  I was kicked out of the family when I manifested my mutation.  I’m here on my own.  I want to hear about the careers aspect, because regardless of what you go on to do, you’re going to need an expert investment counselor.  Right?  Someone to advise you on legal issues related to lawsuits.  Someone to arrange your financial structure so you’re less vulnerable to legal problems and financial crises.  That’s what I plan on doing as MY career.  So I’m looking for potential clients already.”

Someone muttered, “Oh great, it’s Gabriella Guzman Junior.”

The linebacker growled, “So what kind of cred do you have, shorty?”  Man, had this guy taken a course on how to win friends and influence people? 

If so, he should ask for his money back.

I calmly said, “I currently manage nine figures worth for myself and a few others.”  That was literally true, if you considered that I was managing my money for Gracie and Janet too.

“Nine figures?”

“She means hundreds of millions of dollars, dummy.”

“Crap!”

“No way!”

I just smiled, “Way.”

The ultra-blonde in grubbies stared at me intently and asked, “What type of investments are you looking at?”

I just got this weird feeling that she was doing more than staring at me.  I said, “The highest profit-to-risk ratio issues over the next six months are all based on my knowledge of Goodkind International business dealings.  Nothing that would be considered illegal trading according to the SEC, but still information you couldn’t get, unless you spent the next month poring over Goodkind International subsidiary portfolios and reports.  New products and technologies they plan to release soon, the products that are more likely to succeed, and the competing companies I expect will take hits due to that kind of market impact.  Companies that might benefit from future reorganizations or target-audience changes in other Goodkind International subsidiaries.  The easiest way to profit by that sort of information is through arbitraging.  I prefer put and call options, because they’re simple and less affected by external financial issues and SEC investigations, like some of the more complex derivatives.  But longer term, I’m currently recommending arbitraging of international currencies.”

The angel asked, “What if we only have a couple thousand to invest?”

I answered, “Then first, we need to look at your entire financial structure and see if you should be investing at all yet.  If you’re going to need liquidity in the near future, then lots of financial tools are simply not going to do what you want.  Think about yourself and your significant others first.  Are you going to be buying a house in the next three years?  Do you even know where you’ll be in three years?  Do you need life insurance or ADD insurance so that your family will be provided for in the event that you run into Deathlist or something?”

“ADD?”

“Accidental Death and Dismemberment,” I explained.

“Ugh.  That sounds an awful lot like the full-fledged superhero package to me.”

I smiled, “Actually, that’s for your everyday baseline too.  Goodkind International makes an effort to make sure that every person working for them has sufficient medical and dental and vision care, plus life insurance, ADD insurance, and 401Ks or IRAs or one of their private G.I.K. retirement funds.  You don’t have to be a superhero, or even a mutant, to need ADD insurance.  How many non-mutants do you know who got seriously hurt through no fault of their own?”

“And what would you get out of this?”

“Good question,” I said.  “That’s exactly the sort of question you need to be asking everyone who purports to be a financial adviser or investment expert.  And the more perfect the opportunity sounds, the more you need to investigate it more closely.”

“So?”  Persistent bugger, wasn’t he?

I carefully explained, “I would get the standard broker’s percentage if I was managing stocks and bonds and derivatives for you.  I would get the standard real estate agent’s percentage if I were finding a house for you.  I would get the standard contractor’s percentage if I were modifying land or a house to meet your needs.  I would get the standard agent’s percentage if I were negotiating a book deal or a movie deal or a commercial or a personal appearance.”

The linebacker growled, “That’s a lot of money for a kid.”

I pointed out, “It’s a lot of money, regardless of the age of your money managers.  That’s why you need a money manager you can trust, who is also effective at making your money help you.  And the one money manager you can trust absolutely is the one who has so much more money than you do that it would never be worth the effort to cheat you.  So that’s either me, Giles Walcutt, or Warren Buffett.  I doubt you can afford to hire Giles or Warren.”

“Don’t kid yourself, frosh.  There are tons of genius kids around here, and a ton more out there who already graduated from high school.  And college.  And grad school.”

I nodded, “I am aware of them.  I’ve worked with some of them.  I’ve even fired some of them.  You don’t need the brightest mind on the planet.  You need someone who understands how financials work in the real world.  You need someone who understands how to invest, and where to invest, and when to invest.  You need someone who understands your personal financial structure, and how that works with your life.  And you need someone who isn’t going to screw you over because you’re a mutant.  If you don’t think I’m the person for that, then don’t hire me.  But it will be your loss.”

The linebacker got on me again, “Look pee-wee…”

The uber-blonde cut him off, “Ahem!  Before this turns into something unpleasant, let me intervene.  Why don’t we give Phase a chance to demonstrate her financial skills?  She can come back in, say, six months, and show anyone who’s interested how her system performed against, say, the market average and the top forty mutual funds.”

I smirked at her, “Excellent suggestion.  In fact, that’s almost exactly what I’m proposing.  Here’s my card…”  I handed out a few ‘smart’ business cards I had paid good money to have created.  “…You can plug these into any smart-card reader.  On each one you’ll find my resume and my proposal for the next six months.  You can see ahead of time where and how I’ll be investing, and what the top fifty mutual funds are currently selecting for that time period, and you can follow along for yourselves if you want.”

We looked at each other, and I knew damned well she hadn’t picked that timeline and that proposal at random.  She was some kind of esper, and she had plucked it out of my head.  But had she done more than that?  She had certainly seemed a lot more confident about financial advising by the time I finished.

She looked at me and said, “If you’re done with your sales pitch, we were going to discuss graduation first, careers second, and legacies third.  If you want, you can stick around.”

I nodded, “I want.  I’m interested in all three.  Even if I’m not graduating in the next two years.”

She smiled just a little, “Then I’m Zenith.  This is Angel, and this is…”

The rest of evening of the talk went more smoothly.  A couple people including Zenith led the discussion about graduation and careers.  Interestingly, the two people that I had pegged as superhero material (one of them was the linebacker) were both uninterested in a career in spandex.  I found out in passing that Zenith was a junior and the dorm fixer.  Hmm.

The legacy discussion was more argumentative.  Apparently, the class of 2007 had to decide this term what their ‘legacy’ was going to be, so they could do the work next term.  Zenith tried to moderate the discussion, while everybody put in their own two cents about what their class’s legacy ought to be.  Frankly, I thought most of the ideas were poorly thought out.  Did Whateley really need more miles of tunnels?  Or a new concert hall?

Apparently, Beltane wasn’t the only Poe person who thought someone ought to upgrade the heating systems for the outlying cottages.  It seemed to me that it would be a lot simpler and more effective to look into devises or gadgets that could improve the insulating qualities of the walls and windows.  I guess that didn’t sound sexy enough to be a Whateley legacy.  I could imagine the discussions already.  “The Class of ‘99 built this incredible holographic arena!  And we upgraded some insulation??”

I finally got bored with the lame ideas, and left.  I went downstairs and checked in on Vanessa.  Sharisha was still off at the party.  Vanessa was happy to have someone sit beside her and hold her hand and talk to her for a while, as she lay in her bed with my heating pad over her forehead.

I went to bed before Sharisha came back from the party, and I fell asleep just thinking about Vanessa’s smile.

Tuesday, September 5
Whateley Academy

We are Rome, Aztec Mexico, Easter Island paradigm
We are followers of Jimmy Jones, cutting in the kool-aid line.
We are Animal Farm Pigs, we are a Terry Gilliam film
We are fear Oligarchy, we are wolves in wolves’ clothing,
We are this planet’s kidney stones.

This morning, it was “Wolves in Wolves’ Clothing”, another of my favorite old NOFX songs.  I took off my pajamas, slipped on my robe, and grabbed my toiletry kit.

Then it was off to Paradise.  AKA the Poe girls’ showers.

Billie was on her way out as I arrived, but Bunny was drying off.  Wow.  Riptide was sitting on one of the benches, shaving her legs.  All the way up.  WOW.  Vanessa was slipping off her nightie and standing there naked as she adjusted the water temperature.  WOO HOO!

Fortunately, another shower came open before every girl in the bathroom realized I was packing some major wood.

When I stepped out, I saw the Latina that I had spotted at the train station.  She was undressing and getting into another shower stall.  She still had that gorgeous long black hair, and that killer body.  But now her skin was green!  She also had a second set of arms and a tail, which I guess she was able to hide under her regular clothes.  Rip said something to the girl in Spanish, and I caught enough to know that the girl’s name was Pilar, and Spanish wasn’t her native language.  Was she Brazilian or Portuguese?  Everyone else in the room was treating Pilar’s appearance as normal, so I was guessing that they had all seen this before.

After I dried off and put my robe back on, I took care of my face and my teeth.  I took a few more ogles into the mirror at the hotties behind me.  Then I went back to my room and got dressed.

The crew straggled off to breakfast this time, with me arriving after Billie but before Jade and Toni.  Chef Marcel strolled out while I was in the food line, and with a few subtle pointed fingers let me know where to find the good coffee and the real cream.

By the way, whoever was baking the coffee cake left it in the oven a few minutes too long.

I walked back to Poe and found that I had some mail.  It was from Anderson, Perelman, and Howard.  I recognized the company at once.  They were a large investment group in New York City.  And they were responsible for administering the Hilton trust fund that had paid me $150,000,000 not that long ago.  If they were going to try to get that money back, they were in for the fight of their lives.

No, that wasn’t what the letter said.  But it was nearly as annoying.  I had been trying to get an equal amount out of them as Gracie’s inheritance.  But apparently, there wasn’t any money there.  After Greg had left home to become Gracie, Father and Mother had talked Mother’s side of the family into re-writing the conditions of the trust, so that Gracie was completely cut out of it.  How could they?

So Gracie still didn’t have any money.  But I’d paid off the mortgage on the house.  And Gracie was living with someone who had enough money.  I decided.  Gracie was going to get a Bentley for Christmas.  And I was going to hire someone to find one that looked as much like her old Bentley as I could manage.

After that, I decided to have a little talk with Mrs. Horton and find out if there were any security cameras or monitors that would tell me who had slipped into Poe the day before to deliver that extortion note.  Not that I was going to tell Mrs. Horton why I was after that kind of information, when I didn’t know her well enough to trust her yet.

I raised my hand to knock on her door, and before I could tap she said, “Come in, please.”

Well, I think that answered my question about monitoring.

Mrs. Horton was sitting behind a sturdy oak desk.  It looked like it had seen better days, but was still doing fine in middle age.  Like Mrs. Horton.

“May I sit down?”

“Of course, Ayla.  What can I do for you?”

I bit on my lip as I tried to think how I could word this so I could get what I needed, without giving away more than I wanted to release.  “Can you tell me if there are any security systems or monitors that let you know who isn’t supposed to be coming into Poe?”

Of course, she wanted information.  “And why would you want to know that?”  She had this look in her eye, like she was expecting me to admit that I was planning on sneaking hookers into the dorm at night.

I tried not to sigh.  “I don’t want to know how to sneak people in or out of the cottage.  I just need to know if there’s any way to tell if someone who wasn’t supposed to come into the dorm sneaked in, say, around lunchtime yesterday.”

She frowned and thought for a moment.  “Yesterday noon?  Definitely not.”

Not?  “Are you sure?”

“She insisted, “Yes, I’m sure.  Let me explain a little something, Ayla.  Whateley, because of its rather unusual status, has some very exacting rules about what we house parents can and cannot do.  So all we can have around Poe are some passive wards.  Magical wards, I mean.  I can tell whether someone came in or not, or if someone has been skulking around the dorm.  But the wards are very minimal, for a lot of reasons, some of which you are not entitled to know about.”

“Magical wards, huh?” I wondered.  “Then would Nikki see them?”

“Perhaps.  But probably not.  They’re designed to be unnoticeable to mages and psis.  Still, someone as powerful as Fey can tear gaping holes in a significant ward without even noticing.  They’re not a hundred percent proof of anything, in any case.  But they have to be subtle enough that the students don’t even know they’re there.  Conversely, that subtlety and faintness makes them less useful.

“But we have to have some minimal wards up, because we cannot admit we are the LGBT dorm.  So we need some minimal screening to keep other psis and mages from reading everyone in the dorm who would be susceptible to that.  We tell others that this is the dorm for those with mental problems, who are otherwise functional.”

I groaned, “Oh.  So I’m nominally in the Loony Bin.  Given my feelings about my body, that seems brutally appropriate.”

I went up to my room and thought.  Unless things were far more complex than they looked, the note could NOT have come from a Poesie, or from one of the admin people.  They already knew the secret of Poe Cottage.  The secret of Poe Cottage?  Great.  Now I was sounding like Nancy Drew.

But if it didn’t come from a Poe person, where did it come from?  Unless Mrs. Horton was lying to me - and I didn’t think she was - it would take a mage of considerable skill to pull apart her wards, sneak in, sneak back out, and repair the wards so carefully that Mrs. Horton couldn’t tell.

I didn’t see the admin people as being a reasonable source for the leak, anyway.  When we filled out the Whateley admissions forms, we had put down ‘Ayla Jane Goodkind’.  Even the admin people shouldn’t have been able to come up with Trevor James Goodkind.

That was the key point: the extortionist had to know Ayla was also Trevor; but the extortionist also had to be too stupid to see that a Goodkind would not submit to this sort of extortion without drastic retaliation.  What was my blackmailer up to?  There was no way to know until I had more intelligence about the goals of the blackmailer.  So we needed to go through with planting the fake list, and see who picked it up.

Could the information linking Ayla with Trevor have been picked up when I told the others about my history?  I needed to talk to Beltane about this.  If I could trust her.  She looked trustworthy.  But I had learned the hard way that when a lot of money was involved, most people were simply not worthy of trust.  And if this was extortion and blackmail, then eventually this might be a demand for a few million dollars.  Hmm.  Maybe I had better wait until after we sprang the trap for our blackmailer, just in case.

I trekked over to the Whateley campus store.  Which was far larger than any campus store I had ever seen.  It was larger than the campus store at Yale.  It was more like a Wal-Mart than a campus store.

As I walked around and saw some of the stuff that was for sale, I revised my opinion.  Throwing knives?  Brass knuckles?  Body armor?  Supplies for mages?  Was that really ‘eye of newt’ in a four-ounce jar?  Okay, this wasn’t a Wal-Mart, it was the local Evil-Mart.  About all they were missing was “Henchman in a Can”.

I went to the uniforms section.  Ugh.  Pleated skirts and knee socks for girls?  Gag me with a spoon.  I looked through the selection, and I even tried a few things on.  Which was miserably depressing.

The boys’ shirts and blazers didn’t fit my shape well.  No, they were all cut for someone built like Hank.  Or an NFL running back.  And the boy pants didn’t come close to fitting me well, but I was NOT going to buy one of those skirts.  Unfortunately, pants that were the right length and large enough in the seat didn’t fit me around the waist and looked wrong in the leg.

The girls’ blouses and blazers fit me reasonably well, but not what I would want to be seen in.  The materials weren’t first-rate either.  And there was no way I was going to walk around in those skirts and knee socks.  An optional beret?  Oh, give me a break!

I looked over the selection and decided that I would be happier with two uniforms that were each half girl and half boy.  Like me.  A girl’s blouse and blazer, plus a boy’s pants and socks.  That ought to give the administration a headache.

But I wasn’t pleased with the fit or the material or the non-existent tailoring.  I decided that I would just see what Cecilia Rogers could do instead.  So I would have to wait until it would be reasonable to get a pass into Dunwich.

After that, I went back to Poe, to hassle Mrs. Horton some more.  She wasn’t thrilled to see me, but she certainly seemed willing to have me drop in some more.

I smiled, “This time I hope I’ll be causing less of a problem.  I’d like to know if I can hire someone.  I’d like to get someone who can help me out weekly by doing my laundry and cleaning my room.  And I’d like to hire someone for a more immediate task.  I’d like to pay someone to help me renovate my room.  I’d like to paint it, turn the two beds into bunk beds, and do a few minor things like upgrade my studio cooler and hang a couple hammocks.”

She pursed her lips a bit.  “Bunk beds are no problem.  We have several sets of bunk bed connectors in the storage room.  You can check one out.  I would need to see the paint color choices before you paint.  And I would want to see where you would put the hammocks, and how you planned to hang them up.  We’ve had students who hadn’t thought that part out, and they ended up tearing big chunks of plaster out of the walls instead of getting their bookcase or knick-knack shelf up.”

I smiled, “That seems eminently reasonable.”

She nodded at my apparent cooperation.  “And, you wouldn’t be the first student who wanted to pay someone to do your personal tasks.  Most of the kids who do that are over in Melville or Dickinson.  But I have a list of Poe kids who have said they were interested in a little extra income.”  She reached into a drawer and pulled out a sheet of paper.  She looked it over and asked, “What about Jade Sinclair?  She’s…”

I stopped her with a raised hand, “I don’t think so.  I like Jade.  She’s probably going to be on a team with me.  I don’t want to make things awkward between us with this.  Believe me, I know about stresses between social strata.”

She looked at me with an appraising eye.  I couldn’t tell whether that was good or bad.  She looked back at her list and said, “What about Jody Cooms?”

“I don’t know Jody.”

“Good,” she smiled.  “I think you’ll like Jody.  Everyone does.  Her handle is ‘Plastic Girl’.  Lots of the other sophomores call her ‘Plass’.  She just put her name down on my list yesterday afternoon, so she’ll be happy to get such a quick result.  She’s a very hard worker.  So I expect to hear that you’re not taking advantage of her.”

I stared in astonishment at Mrs. Horton.  “Why on earth would I do that?”  She gave me a puzzled look, so clearly she didn’t understand.  “Hiring someone and then mistreating them is the best way to ruin a productive relationship.  It’s also the best way to end up screwing yourself over, if you’ll pardon my French.  You hire someone who can do the job.  You pay them what they deserve.  You let them do the job.  You don’t pull a Naomi Campbell and browbeat them or throw things at them.  That’s just begging them to mistreat you in turn.  You earn their loyalty at the same time that they earn yours, or there’s little point in hiring them in the first place.”

I would never understand some people.  If you hired people and treated them like Leona Helmsley did, you got exactly what you deserved.  If you hired good people and treated them properly, you got what you deserved.  Was that so hard to figure out?

She added, “And I expect that you will pay minimum wage.”

I shook my head no.  “I don’t pay minimum wage.”  At her shocked expression, I explained, “Minimum wage is for kids flipping burgers.  It’s for kids who don’t care how things look afterward.  I pay enough that my employees feel they have a vested interest in keeping me happy.”

Mrs. Horton gave me this look like she had never seen me before.  Then she said, “I think that you and Jody will manage just fine.”

It turned out that Jody was one of the sophomores who had been asked to stay on second floor.  Not only was she a very helpful sort who made a natural adviser for the newbies, she also did a ‘Plastic Man’ thing where she could bounce off of kinetic impacts, so she wouldn’t get hurt when the uncontrolled froshes rammed into her by accident.

Jody wasn’t in, so I went further down my to-do list.  I went back to the bookstore for books and supplies.  That was more interesting.  I picked up a karate gi for Basic Martial Arts: woman’s gi, man’s jockstrap with cup.  Sometimes I really hated my stupid body.  If I ended up staying in some form of martial arts class - yeah, sure - I’d need some extra gis.  But I was planning on getting out of basic martial arts as soon as I could, so I was going with the bare minimum.

Then I browsed the books.  My books weren’t all that interesting, except for all the epic poems and the background texts for my World Lit class.

But there were a ton of cool books for other classes.  I spent a couple hours reading through books on business management and business math.  I was going to need calculus for a lot of this stuff.  Then books on avatars, and introductory magic, and advanced powers theory, and on and on.  Several of those books lost me in the first ten pages.  There was a book in the ‘powers theory’ area on the mathematical physics of pattern theory.  Yowsers!  That one lost me while I was still in the preface.

I had dinner with most of the gang.  Toni was bouncing off the walls in anticipation of another night’s partying.  Jade looked wide-eyed as she talked about some of the people she had met.  Nikki was grumbling about her father not adjusting to her changes.  I was trying not to talk at all.

I walked out of the cafeteria and went around to the outside of the crystal hall.  I stood a couple feet from the glass dome and stared in at the ravening horde.  How was I going to find my extortionist among this crowd of kids?  I watched, hoping to find someone eyeing the gang suspiciously.  All I got for my efforts were a huge number of guys drooling over Nikki, several black guys giving Toni the once-over, and a few weird kids peeking at Billie.

I heard something behind me.  It sounded like high heels on the brickwork.  I didn’t turn around.  I had already noticed that I could see a faint image of myself on the glass, so I just stared until I could spot the person coming up from behind.

Oh Jeez!  It was that ultra-blonde from the cafeteria Sunday night.  The one who looked like she wanted to gut me.  I started preparing.  I went as heavy as I could, and I prepared for a sneak attack from behind.

She stopped about two yards behind me, and she just stared at the back of my head.  Then I felt it.  It was like a shove.

It was like a shove inside my head.

It felt like she was pushing me right between the eyes, only about two inches inside my skull.  I’d never felt anything like that before.

Oh crap, it was a psi attack.

I didn’t know how to defend myself from a real psi.  I only knew what I had been taught by Mother and Uncle Theo.  I concentrated really hard on something that occupied my entire mind.  I focused on stock reports and tried to mentally analyze the market fluctuations.

I must have blocked whatever-it-was well enough, because the blonde took on an expression of furious frustration.  I felt the ‘shove’ lessen and then vanish.

Just about then, I heard a couple nattering girls ambling up the nearby walk.  One of them called out, “Tansy?  Are you over here?”

Tansy?  No way.  No fucking way!

The angry blonde behind me whirled around and rushed over to rip into the other girls.  I turned and stared.  The other girls were two more hot blondes who had that ‘pack’ look.

One of the girls whined loudly enough for me to hear, “But Tansy, you told us to meet you, we’re just doing what you said…”

The other one interrupted, “And anyway, you’ll never guess what happened to Majestic over the summer!  Let me tell you…”

I stood there, feeling like the blonde had just hit me over the head with a brick.  I walked numbly back toward Poe, although I wasn’t really aware of my surroundings until I reached the cottage.

Was that Tansy Walcutt?  Had ugly, tubby, creepy Tansy Walcutt gotten the uber-blonde genes?  Had she gotten the mutation that no one like her deserved?  Was that really Tansy Walcutt?  How did a vicious bitch like her luck out so much, when I was so screwed over?  No, life isn’t fair.  I already knew that.  But, karmically speaking, this was insane.

This was just what I needed.  The girl who had done her best to make my life hell since second grade was now one of the beauty queens of my high school, and was out to get me again.  Only this time, she had psychic powers or something that she was going to use on me.

On the upside, Vanessa was feeling much better, and she wanted to dance with me at the Poe party.  So we danced for a long while, and then we went up to my room for some private time.  We necked for a long time, until I thought I was going to go off like a firework. 

Man, that woman was going to kill me.

But what a way to go!

Wednesday, September 6
Whateley Academy

It’s ok, allow yourself a little hate
Hatred is not so bad when directed at injustice
You can turn the other cheek, just don’t turn the other way
Enemy of the planet we finally have a common aim
a reason to forget about our differences
and stand as a united front
It’s up to us, we must expose,
Humiliate American errorists
We’ll start with one
The war has just begun

NOFX was shouting out “American Errorist” and hurling me out of the bed.  At least I had gotten a good night’s sleep.  Well, other than having to get up and change my pajamas after one especially wild dream about Vanessa that…

No, there’s no way I’m ever telling about that dream.  Don’t even ask.  File it under ‘N’ for ‘nunnayerbizniss’.

Then it was off to the showers.  Ahh, the girls’ showers at Poe.  I was smiling before I even walked in.

And it was more crowded than I had expected, with a roomful of naked and near-naked girls all ignoring me as they chatted wide-eyed about the big news.

Vanessa and I had slipped out too early.  Two fundies in the pay of Angel’s father had tried to kidnap her right from the middle of the party.  From what I gathered, the would-be kidnappers had mutant powers too.  If it hadn’t been for Jinn’s non-human senses and Mega-Girl’s strength, the bozos might have gotten away with it.  As it was, all they got away with was several hundred bruises and a few broken bones.

So Mary’s father is The Reverend Goodhope the televangelist?  Man, that sucks.  I guess that a lot of people at Whateley have family problems like I do.

On the upside, everyone was so busy talking about the incident that nobody noticed that I was staring at them.  And there are a lot of stare-worthy women on this floor.  No normal bathroom of fourteen-year-olds was ever going to be like this.  Hell, no normal bathroom of eighteen-year-olds was ever going to be like this!  I had a tent you could have sold to Ringling Brothers by the time I finally left the room.

After breakfast, I finally managed to track down Jody.  She was busy being helpful, apparently.  I didn’t butt in, but it sounded like Jody was trying to get Jay Jay to be more considerate of her roommate, and Jay Jay was interrupting after every two-point-four words to zoom off on some crazed tangent.  But Jody stuck it out.  That girl had the patience of a saint.

I gave Jody a half hour to recuperate from that before I bugged her.  Her door was open, so I tapped on the frame.  “Knock-knock!  Are you Jody?”

“Sure.  But I don’t know you.”

“I’m Ayla.  I’m one of the changelings.”

“Oh!  Mrs. Horton told me you might need some assistance!”

I grinned, “That’s me.  Come on over to my room, and we’ll talk.”

Jody grinned and hopped to her feet.  She walked with me, and I sized her up.

She was only two or three inches taller than I was, but she was kind of chubby.  She had a round, cute-but-not-gorgeous face under short dark-brown hair.  She needed a better haircut for her facial shape, but I wasn’t going to say that until I knew her well enough that I could say that to her as a friend.  She had ordinary brown eyes that smiled easily.  She could pass as a norm better than anyone on the floor, except maybe Jade.

Oh yeah, Jade had certain ‘passing’ issues of her own.  Somehow, I kept forgetting that.

We sat in my room, and I outlined what I would want her to do for me.  “I figure the main tasks would be cleaning the room weekly - you know, dusting and vacuuming and some polishing here and there - and doing my laundry weekly.  You could do your laundry when you do mine, and use my laundry detergent and stain removers too.”

Jody had some suggestions about what I might like for cleaning, and how to handle the laundry tasks.  I let her run with it.  She’d be happier doing it her way, and I couldn’t see that there were any drawbacks to her ideas.  Not only was she a lot friendlier than a bunch of the upperclassmen I had met, but she had lots of energy, and she just naturally had that let-me-help-you attitude that would make her an enormous success in a field like public relations or personal services.

It occurred to me that she could make a fortune as a personal assistant to someone like Lindsay Lohan or my sister Heather.  Not to mention that she could double as a secret bodyguard.  And she could soak up a lot of punishment if some dimbulb starlet threw a frying pan at her or something.  Not that Heather would ever let a frying pan come within a yard of her perfectly-manicured nails, but I had heard plenty of stories about rich-bitch temper tantrums.  Jody would never have to worry about getting hurt if, say, Lindsay Lohan got drunk and tried to run her down with a car.

Then we talked about what I wanted for upgrading my room.  When I talked about painting the room, she grinned and showed off.  She stood up and did a ‘Mister Fantastic’.  She stretched her arm out until her fingertips touched the corner of the room at the ceiling, and she whisked her hand back and forth like she was painting with a small brush.  We decided that I would get the paint before lunch, and then she would get started on painting my room right after lunch.

She hopped up and trotted out of the room, telling me that she had some old overalls that would be perfect for the painting work.  Oh.  Okay.  But if her overalls got ruined, I was going to buy her a new pair.

I watched her leave, and it occurred to me.  She had a nice smile, and was very likeable, but she wasn’t sexy or striking, like most of the girls on the floor.  That must really suck at a place like Whateley.  She was the epitome of the ‘she has a great personality’ blind date.  And teenagers weren’t exactly known for their perspicacity when it came to girlfriends.

Take me, for instance.  I had latched onto the babe with the biggest hooters on the floor.

Okay, Vanessa had a ton of other great things going for her.  But if she had looked like Jody, would I have given her the time of day?  I just didn’t know.

While I beat myself up about my potential shallowness, I walked to the campus store.  I already knew exactly what I wanted, so it only took me a few minutes while they mixed up my paint.  I went a little heavy and easily lugged back three one-gallon cans of paint and a shopping bag full of painting supplies: a paint roller with three roller brushes, three paint trays, half a dozen small brushes, three disposable paint edgers, edging tape, enough clear plastic tarps for everything, and a painter’s cap to keep splatters out of Jody’s hair.  Plus a bottle of Liquid Glove, so the paint would come off her skin easily when she was done.

Mrs. Horton was quite pleased with my color choices.  Apparently, a lot of the kids pick vividly-colored paints that look fine on a paint chip but are awful for an entire room.  She said the kids last year who wanted yard-wide vertical stripes of coral and dark brown weren’t the worst she’s seen.

I lugged everything up to my room, and still had time to tag along with Nikki on the way to lunch.  Chef Marcel had a stuffed croissant for me.  Oh, man!  Chopped ham and roast butternut squash, with just the right amount of garlic and rosemary to make both of them vividly lush on my tastebuds.  If Chef Marcel ever opened up a restaurant with my family’s sous-chef Hermione, I would be eating in there three meals a day.  At a minimum.

At lunch, I mentioned that I was planning on getting a pass into town.  Billie’s eyes tightened angrily, and took on a scary red tinge.  And when Billie looks angry, she becomes Tennyo.  Everyone except Jade sort of leaned away from her.

She snapped, “Lotsa luck with that, Ayla.  You have to get a pass from the ‘Assistant to the Headmistress’.  Amelia Hartford.  And that bitch is going out of her way to make life miserable for everyone.  So there’s no point in even trying to go through that creep.  If it wasn’t for Mister Lodgeman, I would never have gotten my luggage.”

I thought it over.  I suspected that someone in that position was probably a mutant, like a bunch of other people I had met.  She’d probably REALLY want to stick it to a Goodkind.  Or she’d expect all kinds of perks from helping me out this once.  But there were always alternatives, if you understood how the system actually worked…

So, after lunch, I walked back to Poe and knocked on Mrs. Horton’s door again.  She called for me to come in, and when I opened the door I could tell by her expression that she had known it was me.

She not-quite-sighed, “Ayla, is there a problem?”

“No, ma’am,” I said,  “I just wondered if you could authorize a pass so I could go into town this afternoon and visit Rogers’ Fabric Boutique.  As you know, I do have a few issues related to clothing and my appearance.”

She made a quick phone call.  “Hello, Amelia?…  Oh no, that was fine…  I just want to know if there’s room on the shuttle for one of my girls…  Oh no, there’s no problem with that…  Yes…  Yes…  Oh, that would be fine...  Thanks!”

She signed a slip of paper, and handed it over.  “Now Ayla, there’s room on the two and three o’clock shuttles only.  But you’ll need to be back by the four-thirty return shuttle, because the five-thirty and six-thirty shuttles may be over-crowded.”

I smiled, “Oh, that’s no problem at all.”

I got up to my room, and the door was open.  Jody was in there, dressed in grubby overalls, already bustling about.  She was putting edging tape along the windows and moldings.  She was stretching her legs, so her head was at the level of the top of the window and she could see as she rolled out the edging tape.

I showed her the paint colors that Mrs. Horton had okayed.  Pure white for the ceiling.  ‘Citrine’, an off-white with a slight green tint, and ‘aloe’, a barely-darker green with a hint of blue in it, for the walls.  The citrine would go on the window wall and the opposite wall, and the aloe would go on the walls perpendicular to the window.  That would give it a subtle style that ought to be attractive, yet easy on the eyes.  I wasn’t interested in a color scheme that I would be sick of in a month.

She grinned, “Those will be great!  I like the light colors.  I’ll do the ceiling first, in case I make a mess.  Then the walls.  The green-blue first, I think, then the light green.  Okay?”

“Sure,” I said.  I wasn’t really concerned about that.  A ‘Mister Fantastic’ type wasn’t going to have any trouble getting paint rolled on the ceiling and in the corners, and the paint edgers I had picked up would make things that much easier for her to edge the walls and ceiling.

I went heavy and moved my bed to the middle of the room.  Then I let her set up the bunk bed connectors before I picked up the other bed and lifted it into place.  We talked about careers she might like, while I held the upper bunk in place and she tightened the connectors.

Then I helped her move everything else to the middle of the room, so she could tape plastic tarps over everything.  That was pretty easy, when I could lift anything in the room, and she could stretch enough to wrap and tape anything I had.

She smiled a quick ‘thanks’ and got to work, while I left for a couple hours so she could do her job and then air out the room.  As I stepped out, she was starting on the ceiling, dipping a roller into the white paint and then stretching to roll the paint smoothly over the ceiling.

Jody obviously had things well in hand.  I figured that now would be an excellent time to go see Cecilia Rogers in Dunwich.  Assuming I could behave like a human being instead of jumping about in unbearable anxiety while I stewed about that extortion note.  I walked to the quad and arrived just a couple minutes before we could board the shuttle.  I thought that was good timing on my part.

I was mistaken.  A dorky-looking student type walked up with a sheet of paper in hand.  “Ayla Goodkind?  Is Ayla Goodkind here?”

I just had a bad feeling about this one.  I sighed and walked up to him.  He sort of moved away from me, as if he had the personal space bubble of a Norwegian bachelor farmer.  More likely, he just wanted to avoid someone named Goodkind.

He showed me the paper.  I was supposed to go to Schuster Hall to meet with Ms. Hartford first, before taking the shuttle to Dunwich.  Okay, I had an hour until the three o’clock shuttle.  I was still okay on scheduling.

I walked with him to Schuster, and he was quickly assigned to some other menial task, while I was shown to a chair in a side hall.  Great.  So I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

An hour and a half later, when it was far too late to catch either one of my shuttles, one of the admin secretaries finally walked over to me with a clipboard.  She read off the sheet with an expression of puzzlement.  “Trevor Goodkind?”

“That would be me.  The name is Ayla Goodkind now.”

“Oh.  Okay.  Sorry.”  She read more from the sheet, “Ms. Hartford had another appointment, and you’ll have to come back another day.”

AAARRGGHH!!

I didn’t say that out loud.  I just gave her a bland smile and said, “In that case, have her make an appointment with my secretary first.  I’ll try to fit her into my schedule.”  Then I did my utmost to stroll out casually.

I was so angry that I got all the way to Poe before I realized.  The message from Ms. Hartford had been for TREVOR Goodkind, not Ayla Goodkind.  She knew Trevor was Ayla, and she had obviously made an effort to fuck me over on something trivial.  That suggested a motive for getting at me in some malicious way.  Maybe I had a suspect for the extortion note.

Since my room was still being cleaned up and aired out, I borrowed a little time on one of Bunny’s computers.  I had learned from Nikki that Bunny only looked like a bimbo; in fact, she was a genius inventor.  Okay, Bunny sounded like a bimbo too.  It was decidedly freaky to hear a bubbly airhead voice lecturing me on technical details of computer security.  It was kind of like casting Paris Hilton as Q.

I did a quick search for Amelia Hartford.  I found dozens, of course.  But one ‘Amelia Hartford’ was an alumna of Whateley Academy, and was one of the Rhode Island Hartfords, who were old New England money.

Hmm.  If that was the Hartford with whom I was dealing, I had gone to school with two of her nieces.  One of those nieces, Melissa Hartford-Blaisdell, had been in Heather’s grade.  If Melissa hadn’t been one of Heather’s A-list buddies, then Hartford might hate Goodkinds on principle.

But if the person blackmailing me was one of the wealthy Hartford family, what was she after?  If my extortionist was Ms. Hartford, she already had access to all the names of everyone in Poe.  AND she knew the truth about Poe, so she knew I wouldn’t feel threatened.  Which would mean that the extortion note had to be part of a much more convoluted plan than I had realized.  Suddenly we were moving from “The Bourne Ultimatum” to “Mission Impossible”.

And if my blackmailer was the Assistant to the Headmistress, I was going to have to come up with utterly unbeatable evidence before I even said this out loud.  Before I even thought it over in public.  Hartford was a Whateley grad, so there was no telling what her powers were, or who her contacts were.  She could be a psi or a mage, so I couldn’t tell anyone else who might be vulnerable to a little ruthless mind-raping.  She could be a deviser or a gadgeteer, and have all sorts of cameras or bugs tracking me.  She might just have lots of contacts in Security so that she could watch me through every camera and security device that Security operated.

If it was Amelia Hartford who was behind this, I was utterly screwed.

I was so tense at dinner that I didn’t even remember what I ate.  Which was a sin, when people like Marcel and Peter were preparing the food!  I think I snapped at everyone within twenty feet of me.  The whole caff was probably glad when the gang dragged me back to Poe.

I paced madly up and down in my room, until I heard the chatter next door.  So I went next door, and paced madly up and down there.

It was well after dinner, and the blackmailer still hadn’t shown up.  Jade was keeping Jinn going with a charge every hour, and so we had the perfect spy.  We just needed the extortionists to step into the trap.

The tension was bothering me.

Okay, it was making me absolutely insane.

Are you happy now?  I was foaming at the mouth.  If I’d had Goodkind Security handling this, I would have been okay.  Maybe.  Okay, probably not.

But I didn’t have Goodkind anything at my disposal any more.  I didn’t have Goodkind Security forces, and I didn’t have Goodkind power, and I didn’t have Goodkind family around me.  And that was really driving me up the wall too.

I was depending on mutant powers for monitoring purposes, and I was depending on mutants for those mutant powers.  I was dependent on the very people I had been trained my entire life to fear and avoid.  That was REALLY making me insane.  How could this be any more stressful?  Maybe if I was having to leave my wiener under the bust of Poe and having to trust that some extortionist would eventually give it back?

I stomped up and down the narrow space in Nikki and Toni’s room.  “They threatened my FAMILY!  I’m going to hurt them so bad!  They’ll learn not to mess with a Goodkind!  I was learning how to deal with blackmailers and parasites back in second grade!  You hear me?  Second grade!”

Everyone else was calm.  Or bored stiff with my tirade.  I really had to learn to bottle this kind of stuff up better.

Jade tried to relax me, “Well, don’t worry.  Jinn’s watching everything.  We’ll know as soon as they make a move.  So calm down.  We have hours.”

That was just our assumption, of course.  The extortion note had said to put the information under the bust of Poe at noon, but none of us thought the blackmailer would try anything until after dark.  I was figuring that our perp wouldn’t move until well after curfew, just to minimize the risk of being seen.  If our criminal really didn’t know about Poe cottage, I was fairly sure that he or she didn’t know about Mrs. Horton’s magical wards.

Billie leaned down from where she was floating on the ceiling and asked, “Did you put Jinn into old Edgar’s head?”

Jade looked up at her and answered, “No.  The ransom note was so clear about us slipping our answer under the bust that I thought they might have it bugged or something.  But do you remember the opposite side of the entry?”

Most of the rest of the room shook their heads no.  Oh come on, wasn’t anyone paying attention around here?

Obviously, Jade felt the same way.  “Come ON!  It’s got a niche, too.  Big book.  Giant stuffed raven perched over the book.  Does any of that ring a bell?”

“I was always looking at the bust,” Billie confessed.

Jade looked at her chest, and then at Billie’s.  Then she gave her roomie a glare that could have set a norm’s hair on fire.  “Remember those words, Tennyo.  Remember them.”

Billie couldn’t help grinning, her fangs poking out at both sides of her mouth.  “I love you too, Jade.”

If I hadn’t been so busy being angry, I know I would have laughed like a hyena.

Then Toni tried to get everyone interested in a game of darts.  Well, a game of darts HER way.  If you can call it darts when the dartboard is the size of a silver dollar, and the darts are the size of sewing needles.  And she tried to convince us she missed some of the time.  Suuuuuuure.

I was too angry and too upset to sleep, but after a while, everyone else began dropping off.  I was most worried about Jade falling asleep, because I would lose my monitoring system an hour after her last charge into Jinn.  On the other hand, I couldn’t bring myself to keep her up, when she needed her sleep and we had an early assembly the next morning.  Even though she was fourteen, she still had the body of an eleven-year-old, and she was going to need her sleep tonight.

An hour or so after that, Nikki and Toni chased us out of their room so they could go to bed.

Okay, they chased me out.  Jade and Billie were already on their way out the door.  So I went to my room.  Toni and Nikki needed to undress.. and shower.. and put on sexy nighties…

Oh God, now I was too angry and too horny to go to sleep!

After stomping around in my room for a bit, I decided to get something useful done.  I grabbed my toiletry kit, and went to brush my teeth and scrub my face.  And while I was brushing my teeth, Nikki came out of the shower.

Whoa.

There are not words to describe the sight of Nikki Reilly stepping naked out of the shower.

How could the Fae have gone extinct if their women looked like this?

Toothbrush frozen in my mouth, I watched in the mirror as Nikki closed her eyes, tilted her head back, focused, and did something.  The water leapt off her hair, leaving it perfectly dry.

I didn’t even realize that Billie had already strolled into the bathroom and stepped into her own shower.  But Billie stepped out - stark naked, mind you - and spotted Nikki’s magic trick.  Let me just say that Billie Wilson naked is an incredible sight too.  Not only does her hair always look like Ryoko’s anime hair, but she’s always got those perfect anime boobs, too.

By then I had a tent you could have put a three-ring circus under.  I watched in the mirror as they chatted about something that my brain didn’t bother to process.  Let’s face it, I was strictly focusing on visual inputs at the time.  They strolled out and went off to bed.

I finally realized that toothpaste was drooling down my chin and all over my hand.  I was so throbbingly erect that I could hardly walk back to my room.

Okay, the next few minutes are none of your damn business.  Don’t even bother to ask.

I wasted the next couple hours reading “Introduction to the Modern Theory of Mutant Powers, a Whateley Press textbook” by Filbert R. Z. Quintain, M.S., Ph.D., F.A.A.S.  Maybe it was my tension, or my tendency to peek out the window way too often, but that book seemed more boring than a Joseph Conrad novel.

I particularly disliked the section on how density-changing warpers passed through solid materials, which took five pages to essentially say “uhh.. I dunno how it works”.  There was a lot of hand-waving about extra-dimensional vs. inter-dimensional theories.  But I didn’t know how it worked, and neither did Dr. Quintain, and the primary difference between us was that he had a much longer list of research areas that needed serious investigation to understand how someone like me could walk through a brick wall.

Then I heard the noise.  It sounded like Jade next door, yelling at Toni and Nikki.  “Hey!  Wake up, you two!  Stuff’s happening!”

Holy crow.  This was it.  I was so nervous that I nearly went light and fell right through my chair.  I grabbed my trenchcoat and cap, checked the lacing on my boots, and I was out the door.

I scowled as I realized that everyone else was in their jammies.  They were going to realize that I had been too upset to go to bed.

On the other hand, those were some nighties!  Nikki was wearing a long, flowing, white nightgown that revealed at least as much as it concealed.  Toni was wearing a shimmering red sleepshirt that only came down to her thighs, along with a kimono-style dressing gown that might have hidden her nightie if she had gotten it closed.  Billie was wearing not much besides a short bathrobe.

Man, this was the best team ever.

Okay, I’m skipping Hank’s boxers.  Ugh.  And Jade’s Hello Kitty nightshirt.  I think that actually damaged my retinas.

Toni was answering either Jade or Nikki when I came over.  “Naahh, it’s just those nin-jerk wannabes trying to prove something at our expense.”

Ninjas?  Now ninjas were involved?  Or ninja wannabes?  There were ninja on campus?  When did Toni find this tidbit out?

I didn’t say anything, but I doubted this was just coincidence.  If the extortionists had gone to this much trouble, I wouldn’t put it past them to hire a few ninjas to retrieve the info out of Poe.  If the extortionist was Amelia Hartford, then she certainly had the money to hire ninja hitmen to do this job.

But Toni pressed on, “Let’s go show ‘em what it means to mess with Poe cottage!”

Nikki pointed at herself, and then at Toni’s wardrobe.  “Like this?”

But you can’t slow down Toni.  Not without heavy machinery.  And several tranquilizer darts.  “No time to get dressed now!”  And she was herding us down the stairs.  “We need to catch ‘em and get that bust back!”

I tried to help rush everyone down the stairs, but no one was actually hanging back.  Not even Jade.  Hank was spoiling for a fight, Billie was ready for action, and Toni was her usual self.  We got down to the common room, and it was empty.  The front door wasn’t even closed.  And the entire bust of Poe was gone.

They had taken the bust?  That made no sense whatsoever.  Neither did the fact that they had defeated all the alarm systems, and then just left the froont door wide open.  There was something going on here that didn’t mesh with an extortion note.

Jade gasped, “I put Jinn in my toy lion.  She must’ve followed ‘em outside!”

Toni took charge, of course, “Okay!  Let’s split into pairs and track ‘em down.  Jade, you with me.  Hank and Fey.  Ayla and Tennyo.  That way we all have someone who can move fast, and someone to give them trouble from a distance once we get close enough.”

I hadn’t realized that Toni had been studying superhero tactics.  Probably from the great experts.  Like Stan Lee and John Byrne.

Tennyo - I normally thought of her as Billie, but she was definitely Tennyo right then - grabbed me around the waist hard enough to squeeze the air out of my lungs, and said, “Hang on.”  Then she rocketed up into the air and off in the direction Toni had pointed for us.

When I said that she rocketed into the air, I wasn’t exaggerating.  I think she went from zero to a hundred in about a microsecond.  It actually felt like the acceleration was pressing the air down into my lungs and making the blood flow out of my brain.  I couldn’t get a decent breath.  I think my vision grayed out for a second.  But that girl was strong.  Despite that acceleration, she had no trouble at all hanging onto me with one arm.

I had to cover my mouth with my hands in order to be able to talk against the rushing wind.  Damn, it was cold!  And I was fully dressed.  Didn’t she get cold?  Maybe she was just too excited to notice.  With my hands over my mouth so I could breathe and talk again, I yelled, “Hey!  We won’t be able to see them in the dark!”

“I can.”

Damn, she could see in the dark too?  Was there anything she couldn’t do?

As things turned out, the one thing she couldn’t do was pick a good direction.  We were way off over the trees, maybe a mile out, when we heard a “KIIIIII-AAAAAAAIIIIIII!!!” that made my eardrums throb.

Okay, it didn’t take Ellery Queen to figure out who was behind that.  Or that we had to have gone in the wrong direction.

Tennyo figured it out just as fast as I had, and she executed a tight looping turn that would have torn the wings off an F-16.  As it was, she had a rib-crushing grip around my waist, so she didn’t lose me.  But it felt like some of my internal organs stayed behind.  My dinner nearly came up, too.

She turned fast enough that we got a view of a gigantic net flaring a vibrant blue over the main campus, and then vanishing.  Was that something Nikki just threw together?  Holy crow!  Because mages were supposed to need years of training, and then hours of conjuration, to do something like that.

Tennyo zoomed toward the flash at what felt like a jillion miles an hour.  I didn’t know what her top speed was, but we were tearing past treetops at speeds that made me think of my brother Paul’s Lamborghini.  A hundred miles an hour?  A hundred fifty?  We were hauling.

But she had already moved us so far away from the battle that we were long seconds from being able to help.  My levels of frustration were soaring.  They were fighting those stupid ninjas, and I couldn’t do anything except hang onto Tennyo’s arm.

By the time we got close enough to see what was going on, things had gone to hell already.  Fey was soaring through the air in a coruscation of light and wind.  Toni had apparently knocked one of the ninjas senseless, but another one was going for her with a ninja sword that was glowing with energy.  And little weird things were running all over the place.  Huh?  Were those really ‘chattering teeth’ toys on little legs?

Tennyo spotted Glowy-Sword Boy and yelped, “Can I drop you?”

“What?”  Oh.  Rescue time, before Toni got sliced and diced into julienne fries.  “Of course!  I can float down on my own.”

She dropped me instantly.  We were maybe a hundred feet up, but she had a long way to go - all the way across the field of battle in front of the observatory - to get to Toni.  Even at Tennyo-speed, I didn’t think she could make it.

I floated down as fast as I could without going solid and just dropping.  From where I was, I could see that Toni was kicking ass over there.  I mean, those ninjas were good, and the guy with the sword was just plain nasty.  But Toni was like Bruce Lee.  On amphetamines.

Still, there was one big fat guy who was way closer to me than the rest of the tag-team fighting Toni.  I targeted him.  I had a lot of anger and frustration to work out, and he looked like a perfect target.

Then Toni was flipping out - literally - and Tennyo was zooming to the rescue over there.  So I took off my cap and threw it like a frisbee.  One thing about these mutant powers, my aim has gotten WAY better than it used to be.  My cap hit Tubby in the back of the head.  He jumped like I’d just tried to use ET’s anal probe on him.

He spun around, and I smiled, “Hey ugly, think you can handle li’l ol’ me?”

I tossed my trenchcoat aside and prepared to get some frustration out of my system.  As soon as I touched the ground, I went heavy.  I went heavy enough to start sinking into the ground.  This pinhead was in for a rude surprise when he tried some of that karate crap on someone like me.  I went as heavy as I could, and waited for him to break his hand on me.  I didn’t even try to dodge as he lashed out with a fist aimed right at my jaw.

Ow.

You would think that I had learned my lesson back when I fought Sparkler.  But apparently, I was too stupid to learn from merely getting hit and kicked and pummeled repeatedly, including one major shot to the balls.

I had assumed that I was tough enough.  But this loser hit like Champion.  I was heavier than a lead statue my size, and he knocked me thirty feet backward into a brick wall.  Not against a brick wall, but into the brick wall.  Which hurt too, although not as much as that punch in the face.

As I pried myself out of the brick wall, I decided.  Next time, I wouldn’t stand there like a dork.  Maybe I had just learned my first life lesson at Mutant High.  “Don’t forget to duck.”

Maybe I was going to have one hell of a bruise on my jaw, but I wasn’t going to give up that easily.  I ran as fast as I could to get back in the fight.

But the fight seemed to be running away from me.  The lard-ass ninja was running towards the woods, screaming like a little girl.  It sounded like he was screaming “Ghost!” in Japanese.  Huh?

Oh.  There went my coat and cap, chasing him.  That had to be Jinn.

Tennyo had Glowy Sword Boy on the run.  Toni and the tall ninja were both down for the count, even if Toni was still twitching spasmodically.  And Jade was lying on the ground with a girl ninja gently holding her.  What the…?  I was going to have to get the story behind that one.

Meanwhile, I had a big black-clad tub of lard to chase down and pay back.  And he was pretty fast for a fat boy.  He kept, well, sort of flickering.  One second he’d sort of fade out like a ghost until he was translucent, and the next second he’d be heavy enough to leave dents in the ground. 

Oh!  He was a density changer, like me!  Only I couldn’t do that almost-invisible bit when I went light.  Could I learn that trick?  And, if he was a density changer like me, and he had all that super-secret ninja training, could I fight him without getting my ass handed to me?  I wasn’t exactly ahead on points at the moment.  For that matter, I was closing on him, but not quickly enough.  He might get away at this rate.

Just to prove my point about his being a density changer, Fatso ran right through a ninja I hadn’t even seen, who was wrapped in a bunch of components so he almost looked like he was wearing part of a Tinkertoy jumpsuit.  The components had to be electronic, because they erupted in a shower of sparks when Tubby ran through them.

Electronics-Boy turned and fled, screaming at Fatty in angry Japanese.  I had to laugh pretty hard at what he was screaming, even though that slowed me down.  That guy had a pretty creative vocabulary.  Fatty was going to get ripped a new one if Electronics-Boy caught him.

Glowy Sword Boy was almost in between them, with Tennyo bearing down on his ass.  That was definitely not a position I ever wanted to be in.  Tennyo had a glowing blue rod that looked like what lightsabers wanted to be when they grew up.  When she caught up with Glowy Sword Boy, he was going to be in trouble.  And if he had injured Toni, he was going to be Hamburger Helper when Tennyo caught up with him.

Wait, Tennyo could fly half a dozen times faster than this bozo was running.  She was just herding him somewhere.  What was she up to?

Right about then was when I found out.  Fatty ran right into a wall.  It was impossible, but Fey had just whipped up a huge wall of mystical force that stopped a guy who could run through walls.  Remind me not to get Fey pissed off at me either.

He hit the wall face-first, it flexed a little, and then he bounced back like a cartoon character.  I really had to laugh then.  He flew backward maybe thirty feet before he landed on his back with a silent splat and a pathetic squawk.

Glowy Sword Boy wasn’t paying attention, because he ran right into the magical wall too.  By that time, I was close enough to see it better.  Wow.  Where he hit, the wall went from invisible to an eerie green, and the pattern was almost a fractal, with fern-like green shapes overlaying each other and branching out bizarrely.  Tennyo pulled up sharply, as if she had planned the whole thing.

Skinny Tinkertoy Boy actually used the wall.  He ran up the wall like it was solid, and smoothly reversed his field.  That didn’t do him a whole heap of good, since Tennyo was right there with that energy sword.  So was Jinn, in my trenchcoat.  Hank caught up about the same time I did, from a different direction, so Skinny was definitely penned in.

Skinny looked like he was toast, so I went after Fatty.  Chubbikins was just trying to get to his feet when I got to him.  I smirked, “Well hello, Big Boy.”  Of course, there was no way a guy from Japan was going to get a ‘fat kid from an American hamburger chain’ ref.

And I went as light as I could before I kicked him in the shin.

Well, he was obviously ‘light’, since I could almost see through him.  So going heavy wouldn’t help, and might give him the advantage.  Staying normal would mean I couldn’t touch him.  So it made sense to try going light to attack him.

Still, I didn’t expect it would work as well as it did.  He screamed like a girl and nearly fell over as he grabbed his shin.  His head came down as he grabbed his leg, and I could see the back of his neck.  So I chopped him on the neck like they always do on TV shows.  It hurt my hand a little, but he reacted like I hit him with a hammer.  He went head-first into the ground, phasing through the grass.

I laughed in surprise.  This was a ninja with super-secret karate training?  My sister Connie could put up a better fight than this loser!

I kicked him in the butt, and sank his front half deeper into the ground.  Since that worked way better than I expected, I did it some more.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  By the time I stopped, his entire upper body was sub-grade, and nothing except his flabby butt and flailing legs were above ground.  I plopped myself down on his butt to enjoy the rest of the show.

But I had missed everything else while I was dealing with Lardboy. 

Skinny’s components were sparking pathetically.  Fey had appeared from the other side of her magical wall and done something that was making the plants around Skinny snake up and ensnare his legs.  Holy crow!  And  this was when she was still untrained?  I did not want to be on her bad side in a couple years when she was fully trained.

Tennyo was about ready to hack Glowy Sword Boy into sushi, and he wasn’t handling that too well.  Tough.

Hank and Jinn were guarding Skinny.  Hank was squeezing a rock the size of a baseball.  He looked really frustrated.

Holy crow, Hank was crushing that rock in his bare hand!  Oh yeah.  PK superman.  He could put five tons of force into that one-handed grip.  Remind me not to get on Hank’s bad side either.

Just after Skinny surrendered, Fatty stopped flailing.  He stopped moving.  Oh shit.  I got up, grabbed his immaterial ass with my immaterial hands, and heaved upward.  He came up like a plucked tulip.  And he was unconscious.  I dumped him on the grass, and he slowly went back to normal density.  He was still passed out, but at least he was breathing again.  I did NOT want to have to give him mouth-to-mouth.  Yuck.

Whateley Security came rushing from all over, and we just held our prisoners until they had the Bad Guys wrapped up.  Still, Fatty’s fate had unnerved me.  I hadn’t thought enough about this.  I could breathe when I was passing through a wall, or even when a steel beam was rammed through my chest.  As long as my face wasn’t blocked and air was on my face.  According to the textbook, Dr. Quintain thought that people like me and Fatty were actually moving inter-dimensionally, or were moving the other material into alternative dimensions.

But Fatty was unable to breathe when his face was fully buried in the ground.  Even if his body was moving an equivalent volume into another dimension, his power wasn’t moving the material outside his body anywhere.  God, I had nearly suffocated the fat slob.  Could that happen to me?  If I stuck my face into the ground would I be unable to breathe?  How long would I have before I lost consciousness and died like that?  Could I accidentally kill myself by using my mutant power in some weird way?  I was scared to find out.

I was going to have to find out.

And the only way to find out was going to be experimenting on myself.  Great.  I shuddered just thinking about it.

I was so busy staring at Fatty’s limp form and worrying about my powers that I missed the big firework finale.  Tennyo couldn’t get her energy sword to shrink back down or whatever it was supposed to do, so she threw it straight up into the air, where it exploded like a mortar round.  It was stunningly loud underneath the blast, and the light hurt my eyes when I wasn’t even looking at it.  If that was what the ‘energy sword’ did, I didn’t think I wanted to find out about the ‘energy blast’.

But the fun didn’t stop there.  At that point, we had to spend some ungodly amount of time being debriefed by Campus Security.  The head guy was there too.  Security Chief Delarose, according to his namebadge.  I didn’t think it was a good sign that the head of Security was on this case.  Maybe it was because the invaders were a team from the Yama Dojo (according to the Security jocks).

And how did the Yama Dojo get involved?  I’d heard of them.  Father had hired special security the last three times we had been in Japan, because there was a possibility of an attack from them.  The ‘Mountain Dojo’ or ‘Devil Dojo’ (depending on your emphasis) trained ninjas and sometimes took in mutants as ninjas-to-be.

It looked like those nin-jerks (thanks for the name, Toni!) really were counting coup on us by stealing Poe’s bust.  But when we got back to Poe, there was no sign of our note.  Had the blackmailer gotten away with it?  Had someone else, not knowing what it was supposed to be, walked off with it or thrown it away?  If the blackmailers didn’t get it, would they think I had double-crossed them?

However I looked at it, this was not good for me.

And, on top of everything, we got a chewing-out from Mrs. Horton for running out of the dorm in the middle of the night, even if we were trying to protect old Edgar.  By the time she was done, any adrenalin I had once had was gone, and I was drooping.  Plus, my jaw hurt.  And my toes hurt from kicking Tubby.  And the whole back half of my body was sore from crashing into the brick wall.  And I had a huge bruise diagonally across my ribs from Tennyo’s iron grip on my torso.

So we all trudged upstairs.  Everyone else looked fine.  Even Toni seemed to have recovered from that spazz-out or whatever it was that she did.  Do karate whizzes have spazz-outs?

Toni insisted, “I dunno about you guys, but I need a shower!”

“Ooh, good idea.”

“Yeah, me too.”

And so all five of us headed for our rooms, and then the girls’ showers.  I had the most clothing to take off, and I was damned if I was going to just walk out of it and risk ruining half of it.  Although I considered it when I had trouble getting a knot out of my boot lacing.

So I was last into the bathroom.  By a long shot.  All the showers were already going, and there was a big discussion going on.

Billie insisted, “Look, I don’t care how much you like your little Kimba, it’s not my choice for a team name.”

Jade said, “But it’s anime!  That’s you.  And it’s mine, so it’s got me and Jinn.”

Toni chipped in, “I say, we call ourselves TEAM Kimba!  It’s got style!  And no one else has a name like that!”

I added, “For good reason.”

Toni said from under the water, “Oh, Ayles!  I was wonderin’ where you were.  Well, this lion is white as a ghost, and that’s got you covered.”  I could hear her smirk from the other side of the bathroom.

“Yeah, just call me Snow-girl,” I groused.

But Jade was on a roll now.  “And he has a lion roar, like your kiai shout, Toni, and he lives in a kingdom that’s like the Faerie, and.. and he’s a boy like Hank!  That’s all of us!”

I tried again, “Oh come on!  You can’t be serious.  Team Kimba?  We’ll be laughed out of Whateley.”

Jade stepped out of her shower and wrapped her towel around herself.  Then she gave me The Big Sad Puppy Dog Eyes routine.

And I caved in again.  I swear, we have got to get her tested to see if that’s a mutant power.  “Oh.  All.  Right.” I groaned.

Toni smirked from under her showerhead, “Thank you, Daria!”

Billie muttered something that sounded like “…if she’d give me time to think of a better name…”

Then Billie, Toni, and Nikki all came out of their showers at about the same time.

Naked.

Jiggling as they dried themselves off.

Holy…

I ducked into Jade’s now-empty shower, before the rest of the room realized I had a boner the size of an ICBM just from looking at them.  I heard them tramp out while I washed up.  Once I had the entire room to myself, I turned the water colder, trying to make my erection go away.

Just about the time I finished washing the shampoo out of my eyes, a voice almost over my head purred, “Thank you, Ayla!”

“Yack!”  I think I threw the washcloth hard enough to put it into geosynchronous orbit.

Fortunately for our satellite program, the wet washcloth hit the ceiling with a smack and fell down to splat on top of my head.

A white stuffed lion with a vicious gash across its side giggled wickedly and flew off.

I muttered to myself, “One a’ these days, Alice, POW!  To the moon!”  No one heard.  Not even a stuffed lion.

I was pretty sure that everyone else was quickly falling asleep.  I needed sleep too.

Unfortunately, my mind was not ready for sleep.  It wanted to stew over the information I had, which was so incomplete that there was no way to come to a resolution.

It just wasn’t possible for a Whateley agent to interface with the Yama Dojo, if everything I had ever heard about the ‘Devil Dojo’ were true.  The Yama Dojo was heavily anti-Western, and was supposed to be out to get anybody and anything associated with any other mutant schools.  Goodkind Security had made a formal presentation on them to Father.  Paul and Connie and David and I had all attended that.

So what kind of insane coincidence was this?  But clearly, this was either a coincidence of the most bizarre sort - the Yama Dodos picking the one thing in all of Whateley that was being intensively monitored on the one night it was being watched - or else it was a conspiracy so involved that it was insane.

Anyone at Whateley who had deliberately led the Yamas to that statue on purpose would be an instant target by every ninja assassin the Devil Dojo could muster, for as many years as it took to kill said betrayer.  No one could be that stupid.  On the other hand, if anyone – say, that Hartford bitch - simply up and vanished by morning, I would have a good suspect.

And this could not be part of a plan that included a Yama Doofus team deliberately getting caught.  Not when they had that Variable Interface widget that the Security tech-guys and several student devisers were drooling over before they even had us debriefed.  That was obviously too secret to lose.  Besides, if the point of the plan was that the Yama Dodos had to get caught, then why use us?  How could anyone know that a bunch of untrained freshmen would whip the behinds of a Yama Dojo team that was probably out on a graduation exercise?

But if this wasn’t planned, then this would have to get marked down as the most bizarre mutant-related coincidence since Herr Hair and El Calvo decided to rob the same New York City museum on the same day at the same time, using the same elevator shaft as their entry route.. only from opposite directions.  They had managed to get wedged against each other when the elevator car slipped, and Herr Hair’s hair-growth ray interacted with El Calvo’s epidermis-growing-chemical sprayer and they trapped each other there until the Empire City Guard cut through several hundred pounds of hair and skin cells to haul them off to the super-pokey.  The pics - Herr Hair denuded and covered in so much epidermal cell growth that he couldn’t move, El Calvo covered head to toe in fur a yard long so he looked like a Bigfoot in need of a haircut - pretty well ruined their reps too.

I was entertaining myself thinking about the hilarity of those photos, and somehow, sleep snuck up on me.

Thursday, September 7, too damn early
Whateley Academy

Take two placebos, then you can call me lame
Walk some in my shoes, then tell me to fuck off
My oversized hat won’t fit your humongous head
I’ll trade a hundred days for one inside of you!

NOFX roared away on the MP4 system, ordering me to get the hell out of bed.  I hadn’t had enough sleep, and even “Take Two Placebos and Call Me Lame” from their “Pump Up the Valuum” album wasn’t enough to get me going when I needed about five times the amount of sleep I had actually managed.

I dragged my body out of bed and tried to get moving.  Man, I needed a pot of hot coffee.  Instantaneously.  If not sooner.  I didn’t think I could last for as long as it would take to get dressed and walk to the cafeteria.

I brushed my teeth with the extra-minty toothpaste that I kept for just this sort of crisis.  If you’ve never had to pull an all-nighter in school, just store this one away.  Brushing your teeth with an unbearably minty toothpaste gives you at least thirty minutes of uncomfortable wakefulness.

My jaw still hurt.  But there was hardly a bruise visible on my face.  At least I healed up faster now that I was a mutant.  The only other serious pain was the greenish-yellow bruise across my ribs, which was courtesy of Billie’s grip on me.  Remind me not to wrestle with that girl.

I staggered back to my room, grabbed some clothes without thinking about them, and got moving toward coffee.  I wasn’t alone.  Most of the floor was there, trying to get to the caff just long enough to grab something before moving over to the first assembly.

I knew I was griping about not catching the blackmailers until everyone else was sick of it, but I just couldn’t let it go.  “Does it bother anyone else that ninjas always attack on a school night?  How are we supposed to get any sleep, when we’re being attacked by psycho spies and professional assassins?”

Fey pointed out, “You’re just mad that we lost our lead on the blackmailers.”

“Hell yes!” I growled.  “No one threatens me or my family and gets away with it!”

I watched with a fair amount of resignation as Jade scurried ahead to intercept Hank.  By his head-shaking, I could tell he was trying to say ‘no’ to Jade.  I could see by the sag of his shoulders the very second when he caved in to The Big Sad Puppy Dog Eyes.  Dang, that girl was a menace.  If I hadn’t been so unbearably tired, I would have made an effort to argue for some other name.  Something better.  Maybe something like Team Alpha Super Awesome Cool Dynamite Wolf Squadron.

I was hoping that breakfast would be the moment when everyone else realized that naming ourselves Team Kimba was just going to be embarrassing and stupid.  But there was something even more bizarre.  Toni had a pile of CIA brochures and recruiting materials.  I mean, there was everything down to the dental plan and optional vision care.  Some guys had confronted her while she was out running an hour earlier.

Out running?  Couldn’t she at least be utterly exhausted after a night fighting ninjas?  That girl was wearing me out, and I’d only known her for…  Oh God, I was so tired I couldn’t figure out how many days I’d known her.  I needed more caffeine.

Anyway, she had beaten the crap out of them before she found out that they were CIA recruiters.  Which would have been hysterical, if I hadn’t been so tired that I could hardly get my spoon into my coffee cup.

I looked through a couple of the brochures, after I noticed the little logo of the company that created them.  Obviously, some government official had paid the Goodkind, Richards, and Stearns Advertising Company a hefty fee to make working for the CIA look like a decade-long James Bond movie.  Roger Moore era, definitely, right down to the gadgets and the sexy female agents.  Belle referred to it as being ‘rushed’, as if the CIA were just another frat.

Well, this was Whateley…

Then we were summarily herded into the assembly area in Schuster Hall.  Toni wanted to play MST3K, when all I wanted to do was catch up on my sleep.  I was trying to tune them out, but finally they were too wrong to ignore.

“I’m sure she’s gonna have tons to say!  Important stuff, like how to have real superhero fights and stuff!”

I couldn’t let that go by.  I took another swig of coffee and explained, “Nah, I’ve been to a bunch of these schools.  They never just come out and tell you the really important stuff.  The thinking is, if you’re smart enough to understand the really crucial lessons, then you’ll figure it out on your own.  If you have to have them spelled out for you, then you’re too dumb to bother with.  To be honest, they just throw in the stuff about the sciences and humanities to keep you busy while you’re being trained to be part of the machine.”

“Well, I dunno about that,” Hank said, “But Ayla’s got one thing right: ‘getting with the program’ is what they really teach you at boot camp.  Everything else is nice, but if you don’t get into the army headspace, the rest is just wasted effort.”

“Oh, yeah!”  Tennyo sneered, “I can just see what the academy motto probably is: ‘be all the mutant that you can be!’  I just hope that she gives us the ‘one big family’ speech, and not the ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ speech.”

“Oh, yeah,” I tiredly agreed, “I’ve heard my share of those, too. Especially at places like Chilton, where they really push the ‘we are the elite’ deal.  Yeah, at Chilton they were very big on the idea that you had to learn Cato the Elder, so that you’d be better than the unwashed masses.”

Toni looked shocked.  “Y’mean, they really think like that?”

I shrugged, “Oh, they never come out and SAY it, but from day one, you know that that’s what they really mean.”

The house parents filed us in by cottage.  Hawthorne first, then Twain and Whitman, then us, then the ‘pretty people with no problems’ cottages.

Man.  Back on Sunday, I had been wondering where the scaly, tentacled freaks were.  Now I knew.  Holy crow!  There was a kid who looked like a seven-foot-tall granite pre-Colombian statue of a human.  There was.. oh my fucking God, that was a werewolf!  And if that wasn’t bad enough, there was a Naga.  I mean, she was a girl who was six feet of upright snake-girl and a dozen feet of slithering snake-tail afterward.  Right behind her was a girl who looked she was part-deer.  Around half the kids from Twain and Whitman, plus a goodly chunk of the Hawthorne kids, had cases of GSD.  Some of them had GSD like I had never imagined.  Maybe I had some GSD, but at least I could walk around in public without causing people to bolt for the nearest Humanity First! headquarters.

Headmistress Carson walked up onstage and started her big spiel.  I wasn’t all that interested.  I was tired, and I was worried about extortionists and/or ninjas, and I hadn’t brought enough coffee.  I should have asked for the thirty-two gallon Bladder-Buster, instead of the sixteen-ounce mug.

She looked tall and attractive, and maybe mid-thirties.  Wait.  That couldn’t be right.  The grad degrees listed for her on the Whateley website went back decades.  She had to be way over sixty.

Oh.  Duh.  Mutant physiology.

But why did she look so familiar?  Could she be one of the mutants that Father had emphasized as important international figures?  I could scratch all the supervillains.  I was pretty sure Whateley wouldn’t have a wanted supervillainess as a headmistress.  Too problematic.

Tall and fit.  Long oval face, with regular features.  Full lower lip.  Shiny blond hair.  She moved like a tiger.  A very graceful tiger, but someone who knew they were large and in charge.

She turned to address another section of the audience, and it hit me.  I was sitting there looking at Lady Astarte.  Elizabeth Amelia Carson was the secret identity of Lady Astarte.

Which was impossible.

Or was it?  The more I watched her, the more I was sure that was her.  Okay, she wasn’t waving that scepter around.  But I needed to get on my laptop, pull up a few dozen videos of Lady Astarte in action, and check.

Wait a minute.  Lady Astarte wasn’t that old.  Lady Astarte was a recent superheroine.  If Carson was in her seventies, what was Carson doing before Lady Astarte came on the scene?

Oh.  Right.  That was easy for everyone who had ever watched ‘Smallville’.  You had to be someone before you became a fully adult Superman.  Did Carson have a couple other superhero aliases lurking in the background?  Was there an ‘Astarte Lite’ out there somewhere?  I’d have to think about how I could track down something like that.. and whether I should even consider doing it.

About then, I realized that I had missed most of Toni’s MST3K routine.  I only had time to toss in one or two snotty comments before Mrs. Carson talked about the school laptops and wrapped things up.

As we got to our feet, Toni looked at her watch and smiled, “Perfect!  Now we have just enough time to meet with Chief Delarose before we have to get to classes!”

Ugh.  Couldn’t she at least pretend to be tired?  Well, we’d better make this one fast, or I was going to cut out.  I needed a lot more coffee before first period.

I let Toni and Jade drag me in to see the trophies in the glass case.  Of course, it wasn’t really glass, and the trophies weren’t even in the case but were optically projected from their new home inside a vault.

Chief Delarose informed the whole gang that the ninjas really were from the Yama Dojo, and that the Devil Dojo was probably not going to invite the six of us out for a soda anytime soon.  Of course, Toni perked right up at the idea of fighting ninjas again.  I had to get that girl some Valium or something.  He also confirmed what the devisers had said the night before about the ‘variable interface’ on the ‘modular component harness’.  I still thought the stuff looked more like Tinkertoys.  And then the juggernaut that is Toni and Jade ran over me with the Team Kimba name. 

Great.  Now we were officially the most embarrassingly-named team on campus.

I gave up, because I needed more caffeine.  Maybe I could go back to the cafeteria and walk off with one of those coffee urns.

Bottom line?  We had stopped some ninjas.  We had kicked some serious ninja-booty.  And it hadn’t helped me a bit.  There was still an extortionist out there, trying to get at me, possibly even trying to use me to get at Billie or Jade or Hank.  And Goodkinds don’t complain.  They fix things.

I was going to find myself an extortionist, and FIX him.

Fin