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Diane Castle / Ayla / Ayla #4: "Ayla and the Tests" / Part 1

Ayla #4: “Ayla and the Tests” 

- a Whateley Universe Tale

by Diane Castle (with oodles of help from the whole Whateley crew!)

CHAPTER 1 - The Lernean Hydra

Monday, September 25, ~5 pm
Whateley Academy

After classes, I was back at my room.  I ended up doing my half-in-the-sunroom bit and studying with Jade and Billie and Toni.  I was still a little sore from martial arts class, so lying on the bolster wasn’t that comfortable right then.

Ito soke seemed to feel he wasn’t doing his job unless I got whacked around, preferably a serious pounding.  I never got to spar with Glass, or Mechano Man, or Rhiannon, or any of the other kids I could take without even using my powers.

No, I was always getting matched up against Golden Girl (who really seemed to have a major hate-on for me), or Prism, or Phobos, or Silverwing, or Adamantine.  Once in a while, Kismet, or Charmer, or Britomart, because I usually beat them.  Okay, I could take pretty much everyone else in the class half the time or better, unless I was supposed to fight them without using my powers.  I was just lucky that I didn’t have sixth period aikido, which had most of the real badass freshmen, including my teammates Toni and Billie and Hank.

So, Ito soke had paired me off against Golden Girl, largely because he was a sadistic, conniving old bastard.  He knew perfectly well that she always seemed to go postal on me when we sparred.  This time, she’d managed to get a force field up just as I dove forward and put an arm disruption-light through her body.  We’d knocked each other out.  I guess I was lucky I hadn’t accidentally disintegrated a huge chunk of her chest.  I’d been out for ten or twenty seconds, while Jayne was still out after Ito ended all the sparring for the period.  I was still sore all the way through my chest where that force field had caught me.  I mean, everyone’s heard of sore ribs, but can you have sore lungs?  I think I had a sore diaphragm too.  Maybe a sore liver.

I finished studying for my Spanish test, and I got ahead on trig homework too.  I made more progress than usual, because the usual big distractions, Toni’s gymnastics and Nikki’s glamour, weren’t there.  I had learned to tune out Jade floating on a talking blanket and Tennyo ignoring the laws of physics.

Fey was off ‘at work’, meaning she had modeling practice.  Wow.  Tough gig.  Learning to walk back and forth, while hanging with the dozen hottest babes in the entire school.  That sounded just unbearably hard.  Not.  And Hank was ‘escorting’ her.  Really chivalrous of him.  Well, with Hank, it probably was chivalry.  With me, it would have been an excuse to stare at Poise and Fey and the rest of Venus Inc.

And Chaka was just quieter than usual for some reason.  According to Tennyo and Jade, Ito had really ripped into Chaka about her performance in her big fight with Montana.  I thought she had been awesome.  I had no idea what his beef was.  Given the way he was always on my case, he probably wanted her form to be perfect, and her attacks to be ten times more powerful.

It was a ‘green flag’ day, so Jade was letting Jinn do something weird.  Well, weirder than usual.  We walked off to dinner, and Jinn went without the mask and wig.  And she was ‘the object’ instead of ‘the person’.  I thought I understood what she meant, but I wasn’t positive.  Still, it was freaky walking to dinner with some empty clothing.  It was like hanging out with Judge Doom after the steamroller flattened him.

I wasn’t the only one who thought so.  Hank and Fey walked over to us, and Hank grinned, “Whoa, looking a bit flat, Jinn.  New look?”

Of course, Jade and Jinn had to take that seriously.  Jade frowned, “We’re trying to learn to switch between being a person and being the object.”

Jinn chimed in, “Yeah.  There’s a lot I can do in this form that I can’t do as a person.”

Chaka snickered, “Yeah, you can look a LOT more skinny.  Damn, I’ve never seen such an effective diet.”

While the rest of us tried hard not to laugh out loud, with varying degrees of success, Jade glared at Chaka.  Jinn floated up to her and tried to wrap her arm up in fabric.

Chaka pulled against the material, dragging Jinn with her.  “Might be a good way to tie someone up, if they aren’t strong enough to rip lycra.”

Jinn unwound herself and went off to experiment, while the rest of us went after some dinner.  And what I found was some dinner.  Some excellent dinner.  Chef Peter had a main course for me.  Brandied-peach pork chops.  Two perfectly grilled pork chops, with a brandied peach sauce over the top.  The sauce had shallots and thyme and peach slices.  It had to have some peach preserves in it too, and some really high quality peach preserves at that.  Plus some really good brandy that had been used as a glacé for the meat juices, and then burned off.  The sauce was rich and sweet, but not too sweet to be cloying, and it had a really satisfying finish.  It really framed the succulent meatiness of the pork.

While I was chatting with Chef Peter about his brandied-peach sauce, the usual center stage performance was going on in the caff.  This time, it was someone else being pissed off at The Don.  It was Mindbird, who I had met because of Tennyo’s problems.  Mindbird even threw her drink in his face, but Cavalier, one of his lackeys, did a PK bit and shielded him.

Now, that guy I had heard about.  Cavalier was now one of the Alphas, and apparently sucked up to The Don like sycophancy was going to become an Olympic event soon.  Kismet and Automa-tech and a couple other Beret Mafia types were still bitching about him.  Apparently, last year he and his girlfriend Skybolt had been happy Beret Mafiosos and potential Cape Squaddies, with Cavalier actually in some sort of rivalry with The Don, when all of a sudden Cavalier and Skybolt got a better deal from the dark side of the force, and went all Anakin Skywalker on the Berets.  Cavalier now was such a close buddy of The Don that they were rooming together.  Apparently, this had been about as likely as Lady Astarte deciding to start dating Cataclysm.  So many people had been concerned about it that the school had even had to bring in some telepaths to check for psychic intrusion.  The psis found absolutely nothing, which apparently made everyone within a mile shit their pants for fear of what The Don might do to them if they pissed him off.

Whatever The Don had done to turn two of his enemies into his lackeys had made him the alpha Alpha since then.  He had Hekate as his ‘queen’.  From what the Berets said about her, she was best avoided entirely.  Not only was she one nasty Psi, but she was majorly into the kind of magic that’s perfect for Really Evil Revenge stuff.  And then there were my buddies Aries, Icer, Hamper, and Damper.  And a couple other Alphas.  Like Kodiak, who was one of those guys who were always pushing other people around.  Plus literally dozens of Alpha-wannabe’s who would gut their own roommate with a tablespoon if they thought it would get them near The Don’s inner circle.

I came back from my chat to find the gang checking on yet another one of those accidental sound leaks from somewhere far off in the dome.  I had no idea what they’d heard.  There was probably a really sophisticated snooping set-up possible using the sound properties in this place.  I was definitely not going to mention that idea to any of the devisors I knew.

I had hardly sat down before we were back to codenames.  Were they going to bug me about a codename again?  I hoped not.  I already had one, and the more names I heard around Whateley, the more I liked ‘Phase’.

Jade admitted rather unwillingly, “I was thinking of something like ‘Clothes Ghost’.  What do you think?”

Case in point.  “Oh, puh-leez!  ‘Clothes Ghost’?  Why not ‘Haunted Laundry’ or ‘Creepy Cleaning’?”

She fussed at me, “Well, it’s a start!”

Yeah, a start into utter embarrassment.  As if ‘Team Kimba’ wasn’t bad enough, just also pick out a codename that makes criminals fall over laughing until they wet themselves.

We thrashed around some codenames for a bit, with Tennyo really making Jade sweat by suggesting that the J-Team needed two codenames, one for Jade and one for Jinn.

On the way out the door, I nudged Hank.  I murmured quietly, “If she wants something clothes-oriented, how about ‘The Martinizer’?  The one-hour superhero!”

He snorted with laughter, and we walked off to find Jinn.  Pardon me, ‘Clothes Ghost’.  Maybe she could find some sidekicks named Jan and Jace.

Of course, it’s only funny until someone pokes an eye out.  We found Jinn.  Or rather, we found the objects Jinn had been inhabiting, and Jinn was gone.

Jade burst into tears, “She never came back!”

We hurried Jade back to the common room and tried to make her feel better, but Jinn didn’t ever ‘come back’.  We waited until the upper limit on her charging time, and nothing.  No Jinn.

Jade ran into her room, threw herself on her bed, and began sobbing, “I’m dead!” over and over.  It was kind of frightening.

I had never really thought about how Jade saw things when she was Jinn.  I knew that when Jinn’s charge was done, she ‘vanished’ and her memories got merged with Jade’s in Jade’s head.  I knew that Jinn was a separate copy of Jade’s mind, with its own thoughts and ideas.  But I hadn’t understood that Jade really saw herself as ‘alive’ in both places.

What if Jinn never came back?  What if Jade couldn’t cast her ever again?  Would she be considered to have ‘lost’ her power?  Would she have to leave Whateley?  And where would she go if she didn’t have Whateley?  She couldn’t go back to that psychotic asshole of a father.  Okay, I wasn’t going to let that happen, no matter what, even if I had to make Gracie and Janet adopt her.

We tried our best to make her feel better.  Chaka and Fey had to virtually throw Tennyo out the door to make her go to dance class, instead of being here for Jade.  But, as more than one of us pointed out, Tennyo couldn’t do anything for Jade that we couldn’t.

And, of course, you couldn’t really throw Tennyo out the door for real unless you got cooperation from her first, because you’d end up with no door, and no door frame, and no building, and no city block, and no…

Okay, I wasn’t all that sure about the “Tennyo couldn’t do anything for Jade that we couldn’t” bit.  They were really, really close.  More like sisters than two kids who had been rooming together for a couple weeks.  But if an empath like Fey couldn’t help Jade, I didn’t know who could.  After an hour of sitting in Nikki’s room, with Fey holding Jade like a child and saying exactly what Jade needed to hear, Jade was calm enough to be ready to tell Tennyo that she was glad Tennyo had gone to dance class.  I didn’t think Jade needed to say that, but I figured Tennyo needed to hear it.

Of course, we hadn’t figured on that little plan going to pieces in the first couple seconds.  Tennyo brought a guest along.

Her ‘pal who just happened to be a school superintendent’ wanted to meet Toni.  I was in my room, so I missed the first part of it, but I could hear Tennyo in the hall next door.  There’s no mistaking Tennyo.  That Ryoko ‘drill sergeant’ voice is unmistakable.

“Jade!  Mr. Lodgeman’s here, and wants to meet the hero of the hour, and be introduced to the rest of the team.  Is everybody here?”

So I got up from my study desk and opened the door into the hall.  There was Billie with a middle-aged American Indian guy in a cowboy version of a suit.  The guy looked almost like a stereotype of the ‘native American’, with his weathered skin and stocky build.  This was Mister Lodgeman?

Oh.  Stereotype.  Right.  Probably an Exemplar.

I walked back into my room and cut through the wall, so I missed what apparently was a funny crack at Hank’s expense.  But Jade was chipper enough to handle this.  I was glad, because she needed a distraction after what had happened.

She whisked open the door and gave it her best M.C. performance.  Believe me; you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen an eleven-year-old girl trying to be Ryan Seacrest.  It was pretty hard not to laugh.

She bowed them in and announced, “Ladies and Gentleman!  May I introduce the inestimable Mr. Lodgeman.  Mr. Lodgeman, allow me to introduce Team Kimba!  You already know Billie, who is known as Tennyo.  This young lady over here is the hero of the hour, Toni.  And this young beauty is the great Fey, whom we know as...”

Jade’s voice tapered off.  The entire room was staring at the scene before us. Mr. Lodgeman and Nikki were staring at each other.  This wasn’t just staring.  This was so intent that it was painful to watch.  He was staring at her with an agonizing turmoil of emotions tearing across his face.

“Sherry...  No!”  He spun on his heel and took off at astonishing speed.

Apparently, Tennyo knew something about this, because she reacted.  “Toni!  Jade!  Take care of Nikki!  Ayla!  Out back now and see if he goes that way!  Hank!  You’re with m..”

I didn’t wait to hear the rest.  I dove through the wall, cut through the next room and the floor, and went through the outside wall.

Mister Lodgeman still beat me out the back door.  And he was way too far away from Poe for me to consider chasing.  I’d never find him in the dark, and I was willing to bet that he was running three times faster than I could manage.  I mean, he must have run down the stairs at eighty miles an hour, which was getting up into Scrambler’s range.

Man, he was way too fast for a baseline.  And way too spry for an old-timer.  I should have known.  I mean, a school superintendent who hung around Whateley?  He had to be a mutant too.  A high-end super-impressive mutant, at that.

Billie barked instructions at us, and went tearing after him.  Well, she could see in the dark and fly probably a hundred fifty miles an hour.  If any of us could catch Mr. Lodgeman, it was Billie.

I got back up to Nikki’s room, and gave Jade Billie’s instructions to call the Tanakas.  She knew exactly who to call.  The Tanakas?  Wasn’t that Billie’s old karate teacher back in Colorado?  What was the point of calling someone in Colorado about a crisis here at Whateley?

Within minutes, an old Chinese couple and a weird 60’s couple just ‘showed up’ at Poe.  The Tanakas and the Felders, ‘old friends’ of Mr. Lodgeman.  Okay, you didn’t have to be a genius to guess that one of these guys was a major warper.  And, when they met Nikki, they were all freaked out too.

I was going to have to find out what the heck was going on.

We hardly had time to make introductions and move to the sunroom before Billie was back, with Mr. Lodgeman in tow.  Dang, that girl was fast!  She walked in with Mrs. Horton, and a couple security guys who apparently had Secret Squirrel as their leader.

Oh, great.  What did she do THIS time to bring Security into it?

The Tanakas and Felders then proceeded to make Commander Chipmunk look like an even bigger dimwit than he already was, which was painfully funny, and then Mrs. Horton chased those bozos out.

After that, we actually heard real intel.  Apparently, Fey looked like the twin of Lodgeman’s late wife Sherry, who was Cirque.  Cirque?  THE Cirque?  That almost certainly made these guys the remnants of The Mystic Six.  Huh.  And they called their group the Mystic Corporation.  Really top-secret security codenames there.

But that would mean that Charlie Lodgeman was the secret identity of the old superhero Totem.

Which was impossible, because these people weren’t old enough!

Wait.  If Lodgeman was old enough to be a contemporary of Cirque, then he wasn’t aging normally either.  And the 60’s couple, Nathan and Lisa, looked a lot younger than that, so they would have to be aging really slowly.  I mean, Lodgeman would have had to be twenty back in the 40’s, if not earlier, which would put him in his 80’s or 90’s now, at a minimum.  Was this a normal thing for mutants?  I needed to research The Mystic Six a lot more.

Another thing that really bothered me was the supposed ‘coincidence’ issue.  How was it that Billie just happened to be taught martial arts by someone from the Mystic Six, before she manifested in a way that no one could have possibly predicted?  How was it that Nikki was being joined with an ancient Sidhe who just happened to make her into the spitting image of Cirque?  And how was it that these two impossible things ended up happening to two kids within a year of each other, and these kids ended up on the same Whateley team?

There was something really freaky going on behind the scenes.  I didn’t like the feeling that there was a lot more I needed to know.  I didn’t like the feeling that some of the stuff I needed to know might be unavailable to mortal man.

I had a long talk with my girlfriend Vox afterward, even though she was obviously hoping I’d make it a short talk and let her get some sleep.  Stuff like this just seemed to happen to Team Kimba all the time, while nothing like this was going on for most of the rest of the students.  Vox was having a nice, normal high school experience.. other than hanging out with me.  I kissed her goodnight and let her go get some rest.

I didn’t like the H. P. Lovecraft-like thought that sneaked up on me after I was in bed that night: that the knowledge I wanted might be something so far outside the understanding of humans that my uncovering it might drive me insane.  I had Lovecraftian nightmares that night.

Tuesday, September 26
Whateley Academy

“GAAHH!”

I sat up in bed, trying not to think of the nightmare that had just ripped me from my sleep.  I really didn’t want to think about it, because the many-headed Lovecraftian horror that had been chasing me had faces that looked way too much like Billie and Nikki.

Then, as I sat there in bed, catching my breath, my MP4 alarm clock went off.  And this morning, it was Metallica, which startled the heck out of me.

“GAH!”

I slapped the alarm clock off and stomped out of bed.  God must be an iron.  You know the old Spider Robinson line, right?  If felons commit felony, then irons commit irony.  So God is an iron.

I needed something uplifting and spiritual after that.  So I went to the showers.

Man, if the girls’ showers in Poe aren’t a spiritual experience, I don’t know what is.  The only problem I had was that a part of me got way too uplifted while I watched Fey shower and Bugs dry off.  I had to stand against a sink and brush my teeth for way more than two minutes before I could turn around and not have girls growling at me again for ‘going camping’.  You know.  Standing there holding a tent.

Then, just when I thought I had myself under control, Tennyo and Vox came in to shower, within a minute of each other.

Vanessa…  Naked...  Walking into a steamy shower...  Soaping up that nubile form…

Oh God, I’d done it to myself again!  Fortunately, Jay Jay only needed a few seconds to shower, so I hopped in after she got out, and no one saw I was sporting yet another chunk of morning wood.

I had to wonder.  There were several powerful receptive empaths on the floor.  Fey and Punch, to name but two.  Did they know I was erupting in horny emotions every morning in the bathroom?  Or were they just overwhelmed by the lustful emotions of all the horny people in the showers each morning?  After all, everyone in our bathroom loved to stare at hot girls.  Well, everyone except Jade, who even seemed to think prepubescently a lot of the time.

I did my usual power-assisted drying, covered up with my bathrobe, and casually held my shower kit so that it draped down in front of my groin.  I was off to get dressed before anyone realized that I still had a boner on which you could have hung your towel.

Then breakfast was weirder than usual, which was saying something for us.

Jinn was back.  But she wasn’t.

Jade insisted that this was Jann, and Jinn was still dead.

I manfully resisted making some Old Star Trek “she’s dead, Jim” jokes.  Not only were Jade and Jann NOT in a laughing mood, but Jade’s grasp of culture - outside of comic books and Hello Kitty - was woefully incomplete.  She probably wouldn’t even get the refs.  And then she’d bug me all day and all evening to explain the references to her.  And then, by the time I explained enough for her to GET the refs, no one would have been amused.  Better to just let it drop.

Fey was having a whole-grain muffin and fresh fruit, while trying to ignore Tennyo, who was eating a slab of cured ham that was slightly larger than Arnold Ziffel.  Nikki focused, “Well, you sure don’t look any different, either normally OR mystically.  How do you know you aren’t Jinn?”

Interestingly, Jade answered.  At times like this, it seemed obvious that there wasn’t any difference between them, except for the skin-and-bones vs. PK-energy-field thing.  She said quietly but intensely, “I just know!  There’s a place where her memories ought to be.  She should’ve come back.  But there’s nothing.  And if I can be killed once…”

“…I can be killed again,” finished Jann.  I guess it was Jann.  I still wasn’t convinced.

Jade turned to her and wondered aloud, “It might’ve been the exercises.”

Jann(?) didn’t bother to turn her head.  “Yeah, well I’ll try those again, but only while you’re watching.  That way, we’ll know for sure.”

I didn’t think so, even if I didn’t say so out loud.  If she did the ‘exercises’ and managed to make herself vanish without returning to Jade, they would know.  But if nothing happened, they’d never be completely sure that Jinn hadn’t tried something unusual in an odd place, and gone poof.  Proving a negative is usually impossible, except in math.  And Ellery Queen novels.

I took Fey aside while everyone else finished breakfast.  Okay, it was going to take Tennyo and Hank another twenty minutes to finish their meals.  “Look Nikki, you were talking last week about your magic homework, and you said something about ‘scrying’.  Can you do something like that around that bench and ‘see’ what happened?”

She pursed her lips, which on her looked scrumptious.  “I tried that already.  This morning, just before breakfast.  But either I’m just not good enough at it, or the big showoff stunt Majestic was doing in the Quad this morning completely obliterated any trace.  It sure messed up the ley lines all over the Quad, so it could’ve been that.”

Majestic.  Great.  The world’s worst combination of super-hot babe and incredible insano.  She actually thought she was the reincarnation or avatar (or something) of Hera.  I still had to put up with her in World Lit classes for the rest of the term.  At least I now knew how to drive her up the wall.  She just about went postal in class anytime someone cited an epic where Hera or Juno was being the Bitch Supreme.  Which almost made me look forward to reading Lucan’s Pharsalia so I could torment her about the Roman Gods some more.

I hurried off, so I could walk with Jinn/Jann to Costuming class.  Just in case.  I didn’t know if I could do anything if something else happened, but I wanted to be there.  Still, with Jann acting exactly the same as Jinn always did, right down to the annoying ‘not turning her head to focus on stuff’ bit, it was pretty hard to think that this wasn’t Jinn, just with some sort of mutant identity disorder.

Oh my God.  What if the problem was that Jade had gone nuts?  Diedrick’s Syndrome wasn’t the only mental disorder that had been identified with mutants.  Jade certainly wasn’t showing any of the classic characteristics of Diedrick’s Syndrome.  But what if she had Quinzel-Osborn Disorder?  Or one of the many baseline neuroses or psychoses that mutants could also get?  Did I need to go have a talk about her with Dr. Bellows?  Would everyone else on the team see that as ratting her out?

At lunch, Chef Marcel gave me a nod.  Somehow, just as I got to the soup area, one of the Whateley students who worked in the kitchen area brought out a bowl of soup for me.  And this was some soup!  The garlic-scented chicken broth had a load of perfectly-cooked orzo in it, along with coarsely chopped escarole and sliced baby carrots.  And three gorgeously-arranged meatballs.  Only these weren’t your ordinary meatballs either.  To complement the orzo and escarole, these were baked turkey meatballs with fresh parsley and coarsely grated Parmesan cheese.  Real Parmesan cheese.

I had to go back and chat with Chef Marcel and the student.  He introduced us.  The girl’s name was Jana.  I’d seen her around.  She was hard to miss, since she was a real, live centaur - only this time she was wearing a hairnet and a chef’s jacket over her human upper half.  Apparently, Jana was working part-time as one of the sous-chefs, since she had practically grown up in a restaurant kitchen.  I thanked her.  She had an accent I couldn’t pin down.

Then the little kid I’d seen working in admin showed up with a message for me.  It was from the powers testing bozos.  I had an appointment for my powers testing.  It was scheduled to start right at the end of first period tomorrow.  I grinned to myself.  At long last, I had a real excuse to skip Costume Shop I.  Well, part of it.

Martial Arts class was weirder than normal.  Ito soke had me and some of the other bricks acting as ‘bad guy threat’ for several of the other students to practice on.  So I was supposed to use my powers, but not my aikido skills.

Of course, the bad guy threat line-up was the tougher fighters in the class.  Me, Silverwing, Golden Girl, Adamantine, Britomart (after manifesting her armor, which she really didn’t like to do), Prism, and Phobos.  Tolman also had Golden Girl beam a ton of energy on Blot until he was strong enough to play one of the bad guys.

That got a few smiles around the room, since just the week before, GG had sparred with Blot and had stupidly tried to blast him silly.  No, nothing dumb about hitting an energy absorber with tons of energy.  Especially an energy absorber who gets stronger as you feed him more energy.  She had loaded him up with a ton of energy, while failing to hurt him at all.  By the time she gave up and tried going hand-to-hand, he was way stronger than she had expected, and he had been able to slam her to the mat and get her in an armbar she couldn’t escape.  Every time she blasted him with her golden energy bursts out of her unpinned hand, it just made him stronger.  Phobos and Gila had both given him high-fives for that, even if neither of them had a normal five-fingered hand to use.

So, with eight brick-ish bad guys, we each had three or four students to face us.  I had Anna, Rhiannon, Gila, and Ash.

Ash was a known goofball.  I’d seen him work before.  He really went for the whole Pokemon theme, right down to those plastic ‘poke-balls’ he carried around.  Then he’d manifest a little artificial ‘Pokemon’ out of the ball, and order it around.  Sometimes it did what he wanted it to do, and sometimes it even went after the person he wanted to attack.  So far, I’d seen him whip up a Pikachu (of course - what did you expect when he called himself Ash?) and a Bulbasaur and a Pidgey.  By the way, Ash looked nothing like the anime character.  He was a normal-sized freshman guy, African-American, with eyes that were really dark brown all the way across, with no white.

Gila was one of the GSD kids.  He looked like he was half Gila monster, right down to the bead-like scaly skin and the thick club-like tail sticking out of the back of his pants.  I knew from watching sparring that Gila was an Energizer and could generate a realm of heat within a meter or so around him.  He was still working on being able to push a blast of heat at an opponent.  He was getting better at it, but he had a long way to go.

Anna and Rhiannon were two of the Underdogs.  They mostly hung with the other low-power low-aggression kids.  Anna was an Avatar, and had the spirit of the squirrel.  Could be worse.  Over in Whitman, there was a girl who had the spirit of the hamster, and had grown fur and big cheek pouches.  Anna was pretty cute, if you were using a baseline scale instead of the Whateley scale.  She was stronger and faster than a norm, too.

Rhiannon was one of those plain-but-nice girls who always ended up as blind date material.  Her power was the ability to shoot a burst of silver and gold sparks out of her hands.  That was it.  No fire, no explosions, no force fields.  Just some sparks.  She looked completely normal.  She would have been just fine staying at home and going to a normal school, so I had to assume that either she couldn’t control her power and couldn’t be around norms without getting outed, or else her parents had acted like mine and gotten The Evil Mutie out of the house as quickly as possible.

I looked over at Tolman and Ito, organizing the other groups, and figured we had two minutes or so before we had to get to work.  I said, “Okay, as you’ve probably figured out, I’m the Bad Guy here.  I’m Phase.  Or you can call me Ayla, if you want.  You’ve seen what I can do.  But for today’s work, I’m only going to be heavy.  I won’t do any tricky stuff, no going light and knocking people out.  I’m just a one-ton brick.  So don’t hit me directly, unless you have really hard hands.  Okay?”

Anna grinned and said, “I’m Anna.  I don’t really have a codename.  People only call me Squirrelgirl ‘cuz there’s a “Squirrelboy” cartoon.”

Rhiannon said, “I’m Rhiannon.  I was thinking about going with Sparkler, and…”

I interrupted, “Ooh, bad idea, there.  Sparkler’s a supervillain who’s going to be getting tried for multiple counts of first-degree murder and other badness.   You don’t want to be associated with her.”

She stopped, “Damn!  I really liked that name!”

I tried, “How about ‘Kamuro’?  It’s a style of Japanese firework I’ve seen in Tokyo.  You’ve got the gold and silver sparks.  That’s a lot like a Kamuro firework.”

She shrugged, “Well, it’s better than Ell-Ee.”  And she glared at Anna.  Anna just gave her a chipper little shrug.

Ash introduced himself as Max and shook everyone’s hands.

Gila said, “I’m Tyler.”  He had a bit of a Hispanic accent.  He wasn’t sure whether or not to try shaking hands, so I stuck mine out and shook his.  His skin felt just as rough as it looked.

Rhiannon twitched a little bit when she shook his hand, and he apologized, “Sorry.  It’s not a power or anything, but the texture of my skin gives lot of people the creeps.”

Before Tolman could show up and start getting on my case, I got my four ‘victims’ to try defending against simple attacks from a one-ton brick.  Anna was the only one them strong enough to try anything except ukemi techniques.  And, since I weighed so much while I was heavy, I had to be pretty careful not to fall on anyone.

So I showed them everything I’d thought of while watching them spar.  I showed Rhiannon how to fire off her sparks in someone’s face to blind them, or at least distract them.  I showed Tyler how to use his field of heat to make it hard for an attacker to grab him.  I showed Max how to use one of his ‘poke-balls’ as a distraction, since everyone always figured the attack would come from the ball, not the kid in the baseball cap.

I had seen Chaka do this impossible run-right-up-your-front-and-down-your-back move to get behind an attacker, so I got Anna to try it on me.  Dang, that girl really did move like a squirrel.  She went up my front like I was an oak tree.  Then, when I turned to see where she was, she used my movement in a hip throw.  I was worried my weight would break her leg, but she still managed to toss me to the mat.

Rhiannon laughed, “Way to go, Anna!”

Gila agreed, “Nice move, Squirrel Woman.”

Anna sort of frowned at him, so I asked, “What’s the matter?  He’s trying to be nice.”

Anna admitted, “There’s a Squirrel Girl in Marvel Comics.  The girls on the floor have been making fun of me about it.”

I shrugged and thought it over.  “How about going by Aquerna instead?”

She worried her lower lip with her two front upper teeth, as she thought it over.  I hadn’t ever realized how squirrel-like her teeth were.  They weren’t huge bulging incisors, but they were bigger than normal, giving her a little overbite she probably tried hard to hide.

Rhiannon asked, “Aquerna?”

I nodded.  “Yeah.  A-Q-U-E-R-N-A.  Middle English for ‘squirrel’, from the Old English ‘acweorna’.”

Ash asked, “How the hell would you know that?”

I admitted, “I’ve read Middle English and Old English lit for school.  Chaucer, John Gower, Sir Thomas Malory.  You know.  I went to a prep school.  And I remember stuff.”

Tyler grinned, “Hey, now I know whose paper to copy off of in English class!”

We stopped snickering just before Tolman came over to bust us for messing around on the mat.

After class, as I was showering, Tolman came by.  She didn’t do that as regularly as she used to.  She waited until I dried off and started getting dressed.  Then she said, “Phase, soke was pleased with your work today.”

I adjusted my utility belt and told her, “I didn’t think I did much.”

She said, “You were given some of the students with the least threatening powers.  You found creative approaches for their abilities.  That was what we wished to achieve in this exercise.”

I figured that was as close to a “great job!” as I was ever going to get out of her.  Was she always like this to every student, or was it because I was a rich white kid?  Maybe she just couldn’t get over that whole ‘Goodkind’ thing.

That evening, as I passed through the dinner line, I saw Chef André.  He gave me a wink and pointed at one of the women at the serving line.  I wasn’t sure, but I thought her name was Paloma.  She gave me a little smile and handed me a small plate of a vegetable dish.  I couldn’t wait to try it.

I murmured, “Gracias, Paloma.”  Her eyes went wide with surprise and pleasure that anyone even knew her name, much less would thank her for something.

Holy crow, didn’t anyone know how to treat people around here?  I mean, what was the point of hiring really top-notch servants, and then treating them so badly they wouldn’t want to work for you?  I was never going to understand regular people.

I sat down and examined it, then took a thoughtful bite.  It was broccoli rabe, steamed and chopped coarsely, then sautéed in olive oil with bulgur wheat and walnuts and shallots.  It had real Parmesan cheese grated over the top, too.  Not that ‘sawdust in a can’ crap that most Americans seem to think is grated Parmesan cheese.  Normally, broccoli rabe was fairly bitter.  But the bulgur and nuts did a superb job of balancing out the bitterness of the rabe.  Oh man, was this good.

I was going to go right over to the food line to give my compliments to Chef André, but I got sidetracked.

Jade showed up for dinner, packing heat.

She was showing us this devisor special when Tennyo showed up fresh from her new job in the library.  Somehow, the idea of Tennyo The Librarian just seemed weird.  Kind of like Cataclysm working as a hospice nurse.  But, from what Billie had said, she had been kind of a nerdy bookworm before her change, so maybe this was actually a good fit for her.  At least until she accidentally blew up part of the library.

Tennyo, of course, dealt with the sitch in her traditional, meek manner.  “IS THAT A GUN??”

I rolled my eyes and said, “Could you speak up?  I don’t think they heard you over in New Zealand...”

On the other hand, at least she was worried about Jade getting a firearm.

Toni was busy being witty.  She went into the whole homegirl routine, with the accent and the ‘tood and the gestures and that movement I can’t even describe where she moves her head from side to side.  “Who’d ‘a thunk it?  Our li’l girl is all grow’d up an’ carryin’ her own piece.  Next thing ya know, she’s gonna be runnin’ drugs and cappin’ rival dealers, just lak home…”

Okay, it was really, really funny.  Fall-off-your-chair-and-pee-your-panties funny.  That girl should be doing stand-up.

Fey gave her a glare that could have wilted my broccoli rabe.  “You said you lived in an upscale suburb.”  Okay, maybe Fey was as worried about Jade as I was.

Toni paused and pretended to remember, “Oh yeah!”  Then she tried a sort of Maxwell Smart voice.  “Would you believe.. that I was having a flashback to my brother?”  She gave a little shudder, as if ‘brother’ was synonymous with ‘blood-sucking fiend’.  She added, in a surprised voice, “Who’d have thought I’d occasionally miss the dumb jerk?”

I could sympathize.  I had gone through some minor problems with ‘Day’, my younger brother David.  But they had been of the ‘brother picking on brother’ sort that everyone has.  Not like Toni’s thuggish big brother, or Billie’s obno little brother.  I actually missed my siblings.  Not my bitchy “I’m too sexy for my shirt” older sister Heather, but everyone else.  It really hurt, knowing that they not only hated me, but they actually thought of me as some sort of alien threat.

Jade was actually excited about the firearm and its loads.  She sounded more like a devisor than a manifestor, as she ran on about the Cobra 400 linear induction weapon and its loads.  It was pretty interesting, to tell the truth.  All the loads were these perfectly-balanced, identically-sized, identically-weighted little spheres less than an inch in diameter.  It sounded like she had deliberately gone for non-lethal loads, since she had skipped the incendiary and explosive loads in favor of taser and webbing loads.

I actually felt a lot better about her mental health after hearing her getting excited about non-lethal loads.  Maybe I wouldn’t rat her out to Bellows yet.

We sauntered back to Poe and spent a while talking to Jade about the gun, and the loads, and gun-related stuff, like her aim.  Or the lack thereof.

After a while, I went to my room and studied with Vox for a while.  Mostly that consisted of answering accounting questions for her so she could do her homework, and getting in some ‘martial arts’ if you know what I mean.  I got her in a hold and kissed her senseless for a while.

She finally got up off the bed.  “Honey, I have to go, before I melt all over your room.”

She was having trouble?  I was about to explode!

Wednesday, September 27

Ahh, the showers at Poe.  What more need I say?

Riptide was doing her super-jacuzzi trick, which always caught the shower curtain up in the rushing waters, so she just left it wide open.  If only Fey would do that too.

Bugs was sitting on one of the benches naked while she shaved her legs all the way up and gave herself a bikini trim.

Toni was standing there naked, eyes closed, focusing, until suddenly she shivered and all the water just flew off her body.  A very cool ki trick.

“Goddamnit Chaka!  You fuckin’ boy-bitch!  Not bad enough you gotta stand there like a fuckin’ move star, you gotta throw water all over everyone else too!  I just got myself dried off!  Course, a boy wouldn’t care about anyone around him…”

Umm, it would have been a very cool ki trick if she hadn’t flung water all over half the room, and nailed Tempest right after Sharisha dried off and put on clean underwear.  I didn’t mind.  She could fling a spray of water on me anytime, as long as I got to see her stand there stark naked and shimmy like that.

Vox had one towel wrapped around her hair, while she dried herself off with another towel.  Wow.  Just wow.  And she was singing too.  Well, she was siren-ing.  She was singing the latest Alicia Keys hit, but she was also ‘singing’ all the instrumental parts too.  It sounded like Alicia Keys was performing live in our bathroom with her entire backup band.  No wonder it was so crowded in there.

I walked out with Vox and complimented her on her singing.  I got a big kiss as a reward.  So I was in a very good mood as I got dressed for powers testing.  I didn’t bother with the uniform, since I was guessing I was going to get some medical examination too.

I couldn’t help shuddering as I thought about some of the ‘medical exams’ I had gotten over the past few months.  Anything they did here had to be light-years better than Emil Hammond torturing you half to death.

I went with a few ripped tops (so I could hide my utility belt under the outer one) and my favorite pair of ‘pre-distressed’ jeans.  Instead of my usual Doc Martens, I wore a pair of sneakers with the laces undone.

Plus, I knew I had lots of time for breakfast, since I was skipping Costuming class.  I finally had powers testing!  I finally had some progress in my future!  I was finally going to find out what steps I could take to get my body back to ‘boy’ from the freakish intersexed state in which I was trapped.

There was a new girl in the caff at breakfast.  I didn’t know every kid in school on sight, but this girl I would definitely have remembered.  Nobody else was wearing a latex catsuit under a white blouse and way-too-short school skirt.  She looked like she was wearing ultra-goth makeup, too.  She was going for the whole ‘urban vampire bad girl’ look.

Great.  I’d had trouble with the goths around here, and all I needed was one more of them.

She went over to the ‘special service’ line and walked off with a cage holding a dog.  A live dog.  A good-sized Labrador Retriever.

Okay, now she had my complete attention.  Was she going to eat a live animal here in the middle of the caff?  That ought to have an interesting impact on meals around here.

I was expecting some sort of vampiric bite on the dog’s neck.  I was totally not expecting her to sprout tentacles and suck the life out of the dog in about a millisecond.  The dog just turned into a blue powder, which fell to the bottom of the cage.

Holy crow!  I mean, I’d heard of mutants with vampiric abilities, and even unconfirmed rumors of real vampires, but I’d never heard of someone that could do that.  Was that like the Old Star Trek bit where a person was turned into nothing but a tiny pile of constituent salts?  I didn’t know that was even possible.  And those tentacles.  Freaky.  Were they sure she was human?

She split after that.  Apparently, she wasn’t interested in making new friends.  Just eating them.

I had to admit that my appetite was definitely affected by that little performance.  I didn’t finish my yogurt or my cereal.  And that was saying something, because it was a bowl of Chef Peter’s homemade granola.

Then the new kid was sitting right in front of me and Jinn/Jann in Costume class.  Close up, she looked.. well.. odd.  That wasn’t white makeup, because it was her skin color right up through her hairline.  And then she turned around to see what stupidity Superior - yeah, that was M.K. Uberman’s codename, apparently, even if the only thing about him that was superior was his attitude - was babbling this time.  And I got a good look at her eyes.  Yikes.  Were they sure she wasn’t a demon?  Those were some scary eyeballs.  Jann didn’t appear to notice, but with Jann you couldn’t always tell.

I slipped out of class before Superior had a chance to demonstrate any more for the new girl what a dork he was, and I headed off toward the powers testing facilities.  Based on what I had heard from Fey and Vox and Tennyo and Scrambler, Whateley had a bunch of different testing facilities to test different kinds of kids.  The biomed facilities were all over by the clinic, so they could share expensive medical testing equipment.  Then they had specialized testing areas for Avatars, Warpers, Energizers, Mages, Bricks, Psis, and so on.  A bunch of the specialized psi testing areas were supposed to be WAY underground and heavily shielded, so that they could test for really fine control or really detailed perceptions.  Or really powerful abilities that required a lot of shielding so you didn’t accidentally hammer most of New Hampshire with them.

I had medical testing first.  Great.  I could hardly wait.  Putting on one of those hospital ‘gowns’ and being told ‘turn to the left and cough’ was never going to be one of my favorites.

After the nurse helped me with my clothes and left me to change, she came back in with Dr. Raul Tenant.

He smiled at me, “Well, Miss Goodkind.  It’s nice to see you when you’re healthy, for a change.”

I frowned, “Yeah.  Getting sliced into sushi in martial arts and getting beaten senseless by school bullies?  Not my favorite activities.”

He nodded, “Mine either, if it comes to that.  Now, since you’ve been in here several times in the past couple weeks, we don’t need to repeat the basics we’ve already done.  We just want to perform another full MRI, and get a PET scan.”

I indicated the off-white hospital gown.  “So why am I in this grocery bag with no back?”

He grinned at my comment.  “Oh, that’s just so we can get a good MRI and PET off you.  Clothing tends to have metal here and there, and some of the clothing around here has special properties that interfere with scans.”

Like my utility belt and its contents probably would.  Good point.

The actual MRI scan was boring, and annoying, and tedious.  It was nearly as bad as one of Quintain’s lectures.  Only longer.

The PET scan was the Whateley devisor-adapted version of the standard PET scan.  I had to inhale some sort of radioactive gas from a tube that led to what I was guessing was the Ronco™ Pocket Cyclotron, patent pending.  Then I had to breathe briskly into another tube and walk on a treadmill for twenty minutes to get the radioactive isotopes moving through my system.  Then I had to hold still for nearly half an hour of scans.

While they let me get dressed behind a privacy screen, I asked, “Do I need to worry about my urine or my saliva or anything being radioactive?”

The nurse said from the other side of the screen, “Oh no, none of the isotopes they use here have a half-life of even five minutes.  Even the longest-lived of the isotopes was essentially gone from your body by the end of the scans.  They stop scanning when they can’t get any more positron readings, which is an indicator that all the radioactive isotopes they use have broken down into safer isotopes.  So you’re just fine now.”

Dr. Tenant came in and told me, “Now, you need to grab a quick lunch, and then be at Testing Lab W by one.”

“Where’s that?”

“It’s downstairs from here.  You know how to get into the tunnels from here?”  I nodded.  “Follow the signs toward Arena 77.  You’ll see the Testing Lab area.  Just go in there and they’ll direct you to Testing Lab W.”

“W for Warpers?” I guessed.

He thought for a second.  “Maybe.  Actually, I was told that they just started with Test Labs A and B back when Whateley was founded, and they’ve been dropping labs, building new ones, and so on.  But each lab is supposed to get the next letter of the alphabet.”

“And they have 23 powers testing labs now?”

“Not quite.  They have about a dozen now, I think.  But most of the old labs have been replaced with newer, larger labs that have better equipment.”  He grinned for a second.  “You should check out the Homer Gallery sometime, if you’re interested, and ask Mrs. Linford to show you some of the testing gear they used back when the school first opened.  They actually have the original dowsing rods that Ideomotor used to classify students back in the late 60’s.”

I managed not to snort in laughter.  Dowsing rods?  A mutant powers testing guy named Ideomotor?  Gimme a break.  I could see how they might need a bigger testing facility if they started out with a room just big enough for a guy with a couple dowsing rods.

Since it was already well after noon, I made a dash to the Crystal Hall for a to-go lunch, and then I found the atrium for the Testing Labs before I looked for a place to eat.

The guy sitting at the secretary’s desk was wolfing down his own lunch while reading a book he had propped up on what was obviously a widget.  He would scan a page, blink, and the widget would turn the page for him.  Sweet.  With that thing, you could actually read a book while taking a bath, or eating really messy foods.

I stepped forward, and the guy looked up.  He was probably a senior, and he was wearing the usual Whateley labcoat with widgets in the pockets and on the clips.  He reacted by trying to talk with his mouth over-full of noodles. “Wuh.  Oo uss ee iss oo-kyn.”

Very smooth there, Casanova.  I resisted the temptation to mimic him as I said, “Yes.  I’m Phase.  My testing is at one, I believe?”

He suddenly realized that he was staring at me with a mouth full of food.  He held up one hand in a ‘wait’ gesture while he frantically chewed and swallowed.  Then he hastily wiped his mouth and apologized, “Uhh, sorry.  I’m Jim Hewley.  Triaxial.  I’m just filling in for Sarah while she gets some lunch.  My dad’s…”

“Doctor Hewley,” I cut in.  “I know.  Fey and Tennyo and a couple other of my friends have talked about the powers testing guys.”

He got ‘that’ look in his eyes.  “You know Fey?”

Okay, he had met Fey, and she’d made an impression.  Well DUH!  She made that impression on every hetero male on the planet, plus every bi or maybe-bi person of either gender, plus every lesbian, plus people like me, plus - as far as I had been able to tell - some of the straight girls and gay boys out there.

“Yeah, she’s on my training team.”  I re-directed him, “Did you build that book holder?”

“Yeah, it’s still in beta-test, since I’m designing a new feature so it will track the eye movements and automatically know when to turn the page for you.  But the high-level Exemplars still read too fast for it to track.”

I asked, “Is it a gadget or a devise?”

He smiled, “A gadget.  I’m not a deviser.  I’m strictly a gadgeteer, with an emphasis on micro-electronics and normal-scale physical systems.”

I said, “Good.  Stop the development cycle.  Don’t try to design this for Exemplar 6’s.  They don’t need it anyway, and there aren’t many of them.  Design it for baselines!  I bet it already scans eye movements just fine for someone who reads at maybe one or two hundred words a minute.”

He frowned, “Sure, but who reads that slow?”

I pushed, “Oh, no one…  Except 95 percent of the planet!  You want to mass-market this for normals, not for the two Exemplar 6’s in the world who would actually consider buying it!  Look, I’ll send you some forms for getting this into the patent process, and I’ll work up a contract between us.  I’ll work as your agent and lease or sell the patent rights to a couple companies that market this general category of hardware.  I’ll keep 15% as your agent, I’ll get you properly incorporated, probably in the state of Delaware (they have the most convenient incorporation laws in the U.S. right now), and I’ll make sure your corporation gets taxes paid as the companies pay you.  This type of arrangement typically will put you in a bracket where you’ll need to pay quarterly taxes, but you’ll be making enough that it’ll be easy.”

He blinked a couple times.  “Whoa!  Slow down there, pardner!  You’re getting way ahead of me!”

By the time I explained what I wanted him to do, and how I was going to work as his agent on this invention, it was past time for me to go to Testing Lab W.  I still hadn’t eaten my lunch.

Jim led me back to the lab, and introduced us.  “Phase?  This is my dad, Dr. Hewley.  Dad?  You know how you’ve been bugging me to find a fix for my auto-reader?  Phase figured out where I was going wrong, and she’s going to help me file for a patent.  Oh, and Phase?  This is Dr. Shandy.  He’s nice too.”

I shook hands with Drs. Hewley and Shandy.

Dr. Hewley grinned, “Thanks for helping Jim out.  He’s been working away, trying to step up the motion recognition features to the point where he was satisfied with the results.  How’d you solve his problem?”

I grinned, “By convincing him he didn’t need to.  He doesn’t want to market to people who read an entire textbook in half an hour.  He should be marketing to baselines who want to sit in a tub and read a book while they soak.  Or college students who are eating a greasy pepperoni pizza while studying for tomorrow’s exam.”

Dr. Shandy said, “I guess you really are a Goodkind.”

I took that to be a compliment.  I said, “Two of the things I do are investment portfolios and venture capital.  But I think this will work well as a patent-rights issue.  Triaxial isn’t going to want to oversee a company that builds these and sells them; he’s going to want to lease patent rights to personal electronics companies.  I’ll just make sure that he gets what his inventions are worth, instead of what company lawyers would try to knock him down to.”

Dr. Hewley said, “I hate to stop this, but we have testing to do, and it’s going to be recorded.  So, from now on, only use your codename.  Got it?”

“Got it.”  I hoped Jinn wasn’t on record as ‘Clothes Ghost’.  “By the way, why was I so far down the testing queue?  It didn’t take you three weeks just to test Tennyo did it?”

Shandy and Hewley exchanged looks, but Shandy answered me, “No, we originally had you scheduled to start testing about the 8th or 11th.  But we got the messages from Admin on you, so we delayed things for you.”

“What messages?”

They looked at each other again, only this time in puzzlement.  Hewley replied, “The messages that you needed some personal leave, and you needed to be put at the bottom of the testing queue.”

I growled, “Those were lies.  I never asked for a delay.  In fact, I’ve been complaining that I wanted to get tested sooner.”

Dr. Shandy cautiously said, “We did hear from Raul, and from Zenith, but we didn’t think they knew about your need for personal leave.”

Well, it was nice to know that some people had been going to bat for me.  I groused, “I’ll bet those notes from Admin were signed by Hartford.”

Dr. Shandy frowned and asked, “Do you have a problem with Miss Hartford?”

I tried not to sound angry as I replied, “No.  Not yet, anyway.  But she has one with me.  I think that my older sisters were bitchy to her nieces at their private school, and she’s holding a big grudge against me.”

Dr. Hewley plainly didn’t think anyone would do a thing like that.  “You may be reading too much into things”

Yeah, like I was reading too much into blackmail notes.  And blatant attempts to screw me over, like that stunt Hartford pulled with my shuttle pass.

I realized that Dr. Hewley was just a happy, chubby, geek-in-a-labcoat kind of guy.  He seemed to be the type of guy who was a nice guy and just assumed everyone else was like that.  I hoped he didn’t ever get crushed like a bug because he was trusting someone too much.

They introduced me to the two assistants who would be helping them out.  Sean Clark was an intern who was working on a grad degree in biophysics, specializing in mutant biologies.  Hillary Newman was a Whateley staffer who worked in the testing labs as an assistant, and as a nurse’s aide when they needed one.  I hoped that meant that she drew blood and checked reflexes, and not that she was the one who patched people back together after hideous powers-testing accidents.

She asked cheerfully, “Should I draw some blood, or should we use the samples we already have?”

Dr. Shandy said, “I think that we’ve drawn enough blood from Miss Goodkind over the past two weeks.  You can start the lab boys with what we already have, and if anything interesting comes up, let us know.”

Then Dr. Hewley had me demonstrate ‘going heavy’ and ‘going light’.  They had me stand on a test apparatus with all kinds of measurement devices aimed at me, while I repeated this about four dozen times.

“What is it, Clark?”

“There’s definitely something unusual going on with the electromagnetic reflectometer readings.”

“Hmm…  What about the intra-dimensional gluon generation?”

“Practically nil.  I can’t see anything that couldn’t be standard background fluctuation.”

“REALLY?  Let me see!”

What was so great about that?

But, whatever it was, Dr. Hewley was really excited about that.  “Jared!  Take a look at this!”

Apparently, Jared was Shandy’s first name.  Because he rushed over and proceeded to ooh and ahh over the readings too.

Hewley said excitedly, “We’re going to have to use the anti-gluon generators and the quantum chromodynamometers.  This is GREAT!”

I said, “Would someone care to explain to me why this is so interesting?”

Dr. Hewley and Dr. Shandy set me down in a chair.  They sat opposite me, while Sean Clark hovered behind them.

Dr. Shandy started, “Do you have any idea how your power works?”

I shrugged, “Not really.  I read in the textbook that there are extra-dimensional and intra-dimensional theories on how density changers work, but the author seemed to be pretty confused about which one was right, and how to find out.”

Dr. Shandy laughed out loud.  “I’ll have to tell Filbert that!  And he thought that section was well-written.  Rich, you want to handle this?”

Dr. Hewley took over.  “The thing is, well, there are two different theoretical structures, because there are two different kinds of ‘density changers’.  At least, as far as our current understanding of the biophysics goes.  Intra-dimensional density changers really do change their physical density when we look at it from our little 3-dimensional viewpoint.  They displace some portion of their mass out of our hyperspace, so that they appear to have changed their density.  Or they collect additional mass through some sort of baryon exchange - at least that’s the most reasonable theory currently - and make their 3-dimensional form seem much denser and heavier.

“But when they do that, there’s an immense amount of gluon exchange across the intra-dimensional hyperplanes that represent their convex hull in our three - or maybe four - dimensions.  That last bit is still being argued.  So the gluon measurements skyrocket.  Have you met Lemure?”

“Who?  No.”  Lemure?  What a weird name.

He smiled again, “She’s another density changer here at Whateley.  But she’s an intra-dimensional density changer.  That means that she can pass through solid objects, and she can increase her ‘density’ until she’s quite strong, but she can’t do what you can do.”

Mister Clark added, “We think you must be an extra-dimensional density changer.  That’s very rare.”

Dr. Shandy grinned, “But that’s how we think you can achieve the disruption and disintegration effects that you have noted.”

I said, “It can’t be that rare.  What about that fat blob of a ninja I took down the night before school started?”

Dr. Hewley smiled and shook his head, “Oh no, we checked him out.  He was most reluctant, but he cooperated a few times for us.  He’s definitely an intra-dimensional density changer.”

I disagreed, “But I saw him short out some electronics by running through them.  He has to be an extra-dimensional guy.”

Mister Clark grinned, “Oh no, I got a look at that equipment.  Believe you me, prying it out of the hands of the devisors here was only slightly harder than squeezing blood out of a stone.  It’s a devise.  They think it uses intra-dimensional antiquark confinement theory to increase its possible bandwidth by several orders of magnitude.  So when that ninja ran through it, it was his intra-dimensional hyperplane that intersected the antiquark throughput and blew it out.”

Dr. Hewley was practically rubbing his hands together in excitement.  “This is going to be great!  We’ve had half a dozen density changers at Whateley since we got the conflexive anti-gluon generators and the matching quantum chromodynamometers, but we haven’t had a chance to use them for this.  There just aren’t that many extra-dimensional density changers.”

Dr. Shandy added, “Of course, you’re not REALLY a density changer.  That is, as far as we know.  What you are is still classified as a density changer according to the current codification, although we may argue for a modification in the near future.  What you really are is a warper who alters the dimensional structure of your immediate reality.  According to current theory, extra-dimensional density changers don’t change their density as much as they change the location of superlocated matter.  We think that you essentially trans-locate your mass across dimensional boundaries, and when you phase through something, you basically move it into a different hyperplane of our decidimensional universe as well.  So when you then.. umm.. solidify, you leave the other matter-energy constructs in the other dimensions, thus appearing to disintegrate it.”

Dr. Hewley cut in, “But we haven’t been able to test that theory very well.”

Mister Clark cut across him, “You mean: not at all.”

“Well, yes,” Hewley admitted.  “The last Whateley student who might have been an extra-dimensional density changer was Tinsnip, but he graduated in 1996, well before we even had these theories.  And, since he’s, umm, an international assassin wanted in about eighteen countries, he’s not likely to come in and let us run tests on him.”

“Tinsnip?” I asked suspiciously.

Sean Clark had all the details.  “Oh yes.  Tinsnip.  Warper 4, Manifestor 3, with some GSD too.  Well, technically, his GSD was really MATD, but that usually gets lumped in with the other GSD syndromes.  Not only did he tend to disintegrate things by phasing through them, but he also manifested a metallic outer armor that usually had twin swords jutting out from his forearms and covering his hands.  His signature move is he uses them like giant scissors.  And his GSD was that some of his skin and muscle became metallic.”

Yuck.  I could see how he’d be one hell of an assassin.  Phase through anything or anyone, disintegrate the target, and phase away afterward.  I hoped I didn’t ever have to run into him.

“So there are at least two of us extra-dimensional density changers?” I asked.

“Well, we think there may be a couple others out there too.  But no more than two to five of you worldwide.  It’s very unusual.”

I grimaced, “So you can’t wait to examine me and see what makes me tick.”

“Or rather, how you make other things tick.”

“Great,” I sighed.

The phone rang, and Sean got it.  “Mmm…  Mm-hmm…  Okay.  Thanks.”  He hung up and turned to us.  “They can have the generators and chromodynamometers set up in Lab R in another hour or two, and they should have them calibrated before five.”

Dr. Hewley grinned like a little boy who had just been told he could take daddy’s big cardboard boxes and build himself a fort.  “Great!”  He turned to me and said, “Phase, we’ll work some more on your powers with what we have here.  Then we’ll adjourn for a few hours.  Meet us in the reception area at five thirty, and we’ll get to work with the anti-gluon generators.”

I growled, “I still haven’t been allowed to eat lunch, and now you want me to skip dinner?  Are you trying to make me anorexic or something?”

“Umm, no…”

Dr. Shandy interceded, “It’s okay.  Sometimes Rich just gets so carried away that he forgets about things like food and sleep…”  He grinned at Hewley, so apparently this was a long-standing joke between them.

Hillary demonstrated that someone in the room had some social skills and abilities unrelated to labwork.  “Dr. Shandy, how about if I get some hamburgers and fries and drinks, and we can all eat while Phase gets tested?”

“Good idea, Miss Newman,” he replied.

She beamed at him like he’d just told her she was the prettiest girl on campus.  He didn’t even notice.

Oh.  Let me guess.  She had a huge crush on him, and he was utterly oblivious.

Hillary made sure she had everyone’s order - I asked for a grilled chicken breast sandwich with lettuce, tomato, and no mayo, plus a Henry Weinhard root beer - while the rest of them went back to testing my powers.  They brought in some more electromagnetic generators and receptors, and scanned me while I went light and went heavy.

Finally, Sean Clark admitted, “There’s definitely something going on with warping of the generated E-M frequencies, but I don’t know what.  We need some more precise measurements, and maybe some checking that this is really a Warper effect, and not something else.”

Hewley nodded in agreement.  “Well Phase, you’re really quite interesting.  I wish we’d been able to get you in here a couple weeks ago.”

Shandy said, “Hmm, maybe we ought to see if we can find anything with the positron splitters…”

By the time they were done with me, I had missed all my classes.. including the ones I actually wanted to attend, which was a real pain.  So I went back to Poe.

Study group was ideal for me.  I could get the Powers Theory and Lab assignments from Tennyo; since she was a Warper too, her Lab assignments were pretty close to mine.  I could get Spanish homework from Toni, and Costume assignments from Jade or Jinn.  Or was that really Jann?  At any rate, all four of them were there.

Jann had a new costume, too.  It was a definite improvement.  She had that hood and cape made of devisor ultra-black, but now she had a matching black maillot swimsuit for a body, plus cuffed gloves and boots.  She had done something interesting with the interior of the cape, too.  Her arms and legs and face were chalk-white.  Okay, she was adamant that it was bone-white, since that sounded creepier.  And now she had a face and eyes and hair that looked exactly like Jade’s.

Well, Jade’s face if she went goth and made her face completely dead white.

“Not there yet,” Toni judged, “but definitely a lot better.  How’d you get the face?  It looks so real.  And that white isn’t such a bad effect on you.”

“It’s Japanese,” Jade admitted.  “Geisha makeup, kabuki, and all that.  Pure white makeup is pretty popular in classical Japan.  I wanted something that was a little exotic, but attractive, but I kind of changed my mind in the middle, too.  I’m trying for a shadow/ghost thing, as well.”

I objected, “Yeah.  Right.  You want to throw in a few more themes, maybe?”  On the other hand, she’d dropped the ‘Clothes Ghost’ bit, as far as I could tell.

Tennyo was floating in the air, examining Jann so closely that she probably hadn’t realized she was about to float up Jann’s nostrils.  “How’d you do your face?  It’s perfect!”

“Thanks,” she said.  “But it’s just talcum powder.  My doctor gave me the idea last week.  But I need the black fabric behind it, otherwise my skin ends up being transparent.”

Toni shook her head.  “You need some makeup.  And you still need accessories.  Still too plain.  How are you doing on a name?”

Jann floated upward a bit, so that she was obviously levitating in mid-air.  “I want something that talks about my connection to fabric.  And I want it to imply shadows, or gloom, or spookiness.  That’s why my first attempt was ‘Clothes Ghost’.”  She glared right at me, but she didn’t really have a glare.  “Some people thought that was silly.  I tried ‘Cloak’ but that was copyrighted.  ‘Cape’ was too super-heroic.  I’m feeling a bit more morbid.  I think I’ve got one, though.”

I waited impatiently for this one.  It had better not be ‘The Martinizer Zombie’.

She said, “Shroud.”

Wait a mo.  That was actually good!  I liked that one!

Toni nodded too.  “Yeah, that does what you’re talkin’ about.”

Billie broke in.  “What’s with all the spook imagery?  Please tell me you’re not suddenly going Goth on me!”

Jann shrugged.  “I don’t have enough style yet to be goth.”

Whoa!  She thinks goths have style?  I need to have a loooooong chat with this girl.

She added, “But I’m probably the weakest member of our little group.  I think I need to look for advantage wherever I can get it.  One way to do that is by choosing a name and a style that confuses my foes, and doesn’t give away my powers and weaknesses in one single word.  I’m not going as ‘Telekinetic Fabric Girl’ or anything.  That would be just stupid!”

Good.  She was finally getting it.

Toni hunched over and rubbed her hands while cackling.  “Besides,” she hissed, “criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot!”

I had to bite the inside of my mouth to keep from laughing.

“Mostly,” Jann admitted, “I’m just hoping I can scare the piss out of SOMEone, SOMEwhere.  If the spookshow will help, I’m all for it.”

Apparently, she wasn’t counting the ninja version of Fat Bastard, whom she had scared so badly that he ran screaming like a little girl.

Everyone rushed off to get their studying stuff.  I only had to step back through the wall and grab a book from my room.  So I was the first one back, and I had to be the defender of the turf when Gabriel and Michelangelo came over to study at the table.  Crap.

I loomed through the wall and said, “Hi, guys.  Sorry, but this area’s already taken.”

Gabriel was in his ‘bad guy’ form, which I had heard was a PK shell.  I definitely did not want to fight a PK superman, especially not here in the sunroom, where major damage would be looked down upon by the rest of the dorm.  Michelangelo was routinely in bad-guy mode, with his gangsta clothes and gangsta act and gangsta knit cap pulled weirdly over his head.  I had never seen him without that cap.  I mean, did he shower with it on?

Neither one of them wanted to take my word for it.  So I dropped the nuclear bomb of threats on them.  “Okay, fine.  But when Tennyo gets back here in a minute, she’s not going to be happy about this.”

They decided to go elsewhere.  Man, I hated the fact that I wasn’t even as intimidating as Tennyo’s name.

Just as we were settling in for study time - I was contributing a few halogen lamps, since Fey was off modeling again - Jade popped in.  She had changed clothes.

She beamed, “And this is my costume!  What do you think?”

Hmm.  Khaki cargo pants, a tube top that didn’t do her any favors, a multi-pocketed fisherman’s vest, and a headset with antenna and monocular computer screen.  Plus her gun, in a holster on her right hip.

At Whateley, that was hardly even a costume.

“Uhhh...  You look like some sort of devisor,” Tennyo said.

Thank you, Captain Obvious.

“Of COURSE I look like a devisor!” Jade hollered at her.  “That’s the whole idea!  I’ve got my gun here, I’m going to have to collect more stuff over time.  Half of it will be stuff that I can TK-charge, if necessary.  I’ll bet I can fake a lot of devisor gizmos by substituting with Jann.”

Ooh.  Good idea.

Toni pointed at the headset.  “What’s that?”

“Well, right now it’s just a plastic mock-up from costuming props.  I figure it’s a good idea to have a radio link to Jann, especially in combat.  We need to coordinate better.  So once I can afford it, this will be a walkie-talkie.  She’ll have her own unit, but it’ll be inside her where you can’t see it.  As for the eye-piece, well, it looks cool.  Sort of Dragonball, don’t you think?  And maybe someday I can actually make it do something...  Oh yeah, and for my code name, I couldn’t decide between ‘Central’ and ‘Generator’.  I think I’m going to go with Generator.”

Billie nodded.  “Yeah, that sounds like a devisor.”

“Yeah, but it’s also accurate, since I’m the one who generates Jann.”

“Confusion to your foes, again,” Toni said.

Jade nodded.  “Exactly.  And life preservation, too.  I’ve noticed that people zap the gadgets really well, but they don’t waste too much energy on the devisors themselves.  After all, the devisors are usually just normal people.  I want to take advantage of that habit.”

Billie thought for a second and suddenly laughed.  “So now I’m rooming with a ghost, and a geek!”

Jade waved her petite fist in the air.  “Take that back, you goof!”

Everybody laughed as they got down to studying.

Although it could be pretty damned hard to study with Toni in the room.  I tried to think of it as ‘training in concentration’.  That day, Toni was studying hard - for her - while simultaneously flipping back and forth between splits on the two rope loops and an inverted leglock on the third rope.

Then she did this utterly impossible move where she wrapped the end of the rope around her waist and spun like a horizontal top, actually rolling herself up in the rope until she was near the ceiling.  Whoa.  I mean, I’d like to see even someone like Billie or Hank try that!

As if that wasn’t enough, Toni then spun the other way, unrolling and descending to the end of the rope.  Then she kept spinning in the same direction, and rolled back up to the ceiling on the other side of the rope!

And she wondered why I kept getting distracted from my trig homework.

Nikki came back from modeling, looking like she was mad enough to turn someone into a slug.  Or a malpractice lawyer.  Whichever was lower in the evolutionary tree.  Toni rushed over to get the down-low, and pretty soon Billie and I were in there too.

And it was a juicy story, too.

Nikki ranted, “So I’m wearing nothing but these leaves.  I’d had an actual outfit earlier, but the photographer suddenly wants to go all artistic.  I mean, what do I know about this stuff?  So he’s talked me down to just my underwear…”

Wow.  I’d love to know how to talk uber-babes like Nikki out of their clothes.  But I didn’t say that out loud, of course.

“Luckily I’d worn a beige set that was pretty close to skin color – and I’m draped around this tree and I’m supposed to be smiling like I’ve just swallowed the universe’s best chocolate malt…”

Oh yeah.  I could envision that.  And I was willing to bet serious money that the photographer had been thinking of Nikki swallowing something very different from a chocolate malt.

“And he’s placing the leaves on me.  ‘Artistically’ he says.  And just as he’s at the camera, ready to take the shot, what happens?”

“The wind,” Toni guessed, snickering.

Oh my God.  I could see that in my mind’s eye.  I was imagining it way too clearly.  I was going to have to leave the room if I couldn’t keep my flagpole under control.

“Damn right!  But he’s already shooting!  And does he stop?  Hell no!  So I stand up to go stomping up to him, but that makes it even worse, of course.  So I do my thing, you know.”  She waggled her fingers.  “And pull up a bit of wind.  If there’s going to be wind around, it had better be doing what I want it to do!  So I pick up the leaves, ‘cause they’re about the only covering there, and they’re swirling around me like a little dust devil, hiding what you better believe is supposed to be hidden!  And – I don’t know – I guess I’ve got a pretty fierce expression on.  That’s what the other girls told me afterward.”

Maybe she’d never looked in a mirror when Fey was out in all her fury.  Nikki did an angry look that made my sister Heather’s temper tantrums look like a Prozac overdose.  Of course, she still looked scorchingly hot even when she was angry.  Not that I was going to say that out loud.

“But this guy doesn’t even budge.  He’s just fussing over his camera and clicking away as I come stalking up to him.  And finally, just before I’m ready to deck him, he starts cussing and saying things like, ‘Damn, out of film!’ “

We were all in hysterics, but I was also having to bend over to try to get Mister Happy under control.  How could Fey not notice this?

“And before I can kill him, and his little camera too, he starts babbling about how it was absolutely perfect, and that I could hit him all I wanted to, but please don’t damage the film.”

“How.. how’d it finally turn out?” Toni gasped as she laughed.

Nikki shrugged.  “Dunno.  He still has to check the film.  He said if it was anything like he’s expecting, we might do best by offering an exclusive poster deal to the Sierra Club.  ‘Nature – beautiful, but fierce.’  Something like that.”

“God, I’d pay for a poster like that,” I blurted out.  Oh my God, had I said that out loud?

Oh crap.  Judging by half the faces in the room, I had.

Fortunately for me, there was something else going on.  Jade had walked in, and Nikki was suddenly acting really odd about her.

It turned out that it was Jann, doing a Jade imitation.  The J-Team just keeps getting weirder all the time.

As we were talking, I suddenly realized that I’d spent so long listening to Nikki that I was going to be late to powers testing.  Damn!

“Gotta go!”  I dashed down the hall, then dove through the floor and into the basement.  I sprinted at the west wall and took a deep breath.  Then I flew through the wall, the ground, and the wall of the Hawthorne tunnel.  I went normal and sprinted the length of the tunnel to get to the powers testing areas.

I was only a few minutes late.  I sprinted in and almost ran into Dr. Hewley, who was hanging out in the reception area waiting for me.

“Sorry!” I panted.  “Was with my training group and I forgot about the time.”  Okay, I was lying by omission.  I hadn’t been training with Team Kimba; I’d been sitting around listening to the hottest babe in North America telling a story about being photographed in her lingerie.

He just smiled, “How are they?  Dr. Shandy has had some very interesting things to say about Tennyo’s powers.  And Fey and Chaka were very interesting testing subjects.  In fact, all the girls of Team Kimba have proven to be really interesting subjects, you included.”

I didn’t say anything about that.  I did debate asking him not to call me a girl, but there was no point in bothering until I could fix my GSD and actually be a boy again.

Dr. Hewley led me off to a different testing room.  The room didn’t look different, other than the fact that the room itself was larger.  That, and two of the walls and the floor were obviously made of something weird.  Maybe a meta-ceramic.  Definitely not wood or metal or an ordinary plastic.

The gadgets in the room were different.  One of the larger machines on the far wall looked like it had been drawn by M.C. Escher.  It had several armatures and components that seemed to change how they were juxtaposed.  It was like the pieces couldn’t decide which one was supposed to be closer to the wall, and kept rearranging their order.  Frankly, it didn’t look like it would be safe to handle the thing, much less stand inside it.

Maybe testing lab ‘R’ meant that the R stood for ‘Reality’.  Or ‘Really freaky’.

Fortunately, the thing they had for me was something else.  It was a small chamber with weird energy generators and equally weird measurement devises on each side.  All I had to do was stand in it wearing nothing but my underwear, and go heavy, then go light.  Over and over again.  Reeeeeeeeeeally slowly.

I got a break for a bit while they showed each other the test results.  Dr. Hewley was so excited he could hardly eat his double cheeseburger and extra fries.  Sean Clark was eating three burgers, as far as I could tell.  If he didn’t watch it, he was going to end up shaped like Hewley as well as acting like him.

Hillary helped me slip my tops and my pants back on, “Come on, Phase.  They’ll be busy for a few minutes.  Let’s eat.”

So I sat down with Hillary and had my chicken sandwich.  It was pretty decent.  The chicken breast was grilled well, and the bun was a toasted Kaiser roll that was pretty fresh.  I thought the chicken needed some sort of finish, the sandwich needed a better variety of lettuce, and the chicken would probably do better with some sort of stone-ground mustard on it.

She was having a salad, of course.  With ‘lite’ dressing.  And bottled water.

I really wanted to ask her what it was like having a huge crush on someone you worked with every day, who was utterly clueless about it.  But I didn’t know her that well.

Instead, I asked her, “How long has he been divorced?”  He had long fingers, and his ring finger still had that dent that guys get from wearing a wedding ring for years and years.

She looked shocked that I had spotted her, but she admitted, “Five years.  Phyllis was really nice.. but she got tired of him wanting to spend all his time in the lab, and never remembering their anniversaries, or any of that stuff.”

Yeah.  What a selfish cow.  Imagine, wanting to have an actual husband, instead of some science wonk who sometimes showed up and wanted room and board, like you were his landlady or something.

Of course, the fact that I didn’t have to name the person - she just automatically thought about Shandy - was easy confirmation of my deduction.

I said, “And you know he’d be exactly the same now.  Maybe worse.”

She just sighed unhappily, and stared at him with eyes that might as well have had big cartoon hearts inside them.  Man, if I ever got that goofy over some unattainable girl, hopefully Tennyo would just whip out that big energy sword and polish me off.

After we ate and they geeked out over quantum chromodynamics, they sat me down and told me the great news.

“This is terrific!  We only hoped to get something like this!”

“Yeah!  Readings like this could substantiate our theories on how extra-dimensional warpers alter our deci-dimensional reality!”

“Rao and Karowitz might have to re-think their variant tensor mathematics for superstring theory, based on these data!  This is great!”

“Yeah.  Definitely.  And we’ll need you back.. oh, let’s see.. tomorrow at eight ay em.”

I complained, “I do have this thing called school, you know!”

Shandy insisted, “But this is rare!  Quintain’s going to want to see these data!”

Well, okay.  As long as I get to cut Costuming…

I figured that I was done for the night.  I must have forgotten that I was at Whateley.

I got back, and went looking for teammates, so I could bitch about the powers testing guys.  No one.

“Hey Bunny, where is everyone?”

She flipped her ponytails from side to side and bubbled, “Well, Sara, you know who she is, the new girl?  Well, Jade spotted that Sara was being kidnapped, and Beltane told everyone to stay put, and Nikki knew which way all the ley lines were going, so they all took off to rescue Sara, and…”

I didn’t wait around to hear the rest of the story.  I could tell how it ended.  I phased through the outer wall and went looking for major backup.  I nearly ran headfirst into Beltane, who was with a couple other upperclassthings, including Mirror, who looked like the T-1000 had come to visit and had stolen some jeans and t-shirts and stuff first.  I mean, his mirrored surface was flowing over his clothes, almost like…  Holy crow, I bet that’s what Hank’s PK field would look like if it reflected light!

“Belle!  They spotted the direction.  Just find where all the ley lines are going, and…”

Beltane didn’t wait for the rest of the story.  She just turned her head a few degrees, reversed direction, and then sprinted off like someone had just announced chocolate was about to be permanently banned on campus.

She was pretty darn fast for a non-Exemplar.  I had to work to catch up with her as she cut through the trees.  We burst into a clearing with a bizarre scene going on.  There was a hillock, with a really creepy-looking altar atop it, and a really hideous rift-in-time-and-space thing slowly closing.  Almost all of TK (except me) was up there.  Down below, there were a ton of cultists, all dressed like they were looking for Mister Jones and the Kool-Aid.  Well, they would have been dressed like that, if Chaka and Riptide and Harry Wolfe weren’t busy beating the holy crud out of them.

Crap.  Once again, I missed out on the important team stuff.  They’re going to think I’m ducking them.  I just know it.  I mean, if everyone including Jade is mixing it up with all the bad guys, they’ve got to wonder where I was.

I headed up the stairs, passing the groaning bodies of my pals the Goth punkers.  Oh crap.  Don’t tell me that that Marilyn Manson wannabe Bloodworm is mixed up in this shit.

It turned that he was.  Right up until Sara knocked him into the hideous rift in reality he had conjured up.  From what Fey said, Bloodworm was probably facing eternal torment, at the very least.  Holy crow!

From what Sara was saying, we were lucky Whateley was still in one piece.  That Bloodworm dork had summoned something called Gothmog, a major lust demon?  And Gothmog just HAPPENED to be Sara’s dad?  So Sara was claiming to be at least half-demon?  Yick.

The really amazing part was later, back at the dorm.  Sara told us her entire story, including the fact that she used to be the horror author Michael Waite!  Somehow, that seemed rational.  She spilled a lot of beans: eating people, being attacked by the pawns of supervillains, meeting hot Exemplar babes at ARC, and running afoul of both the Goths and the Whateley Martial Arts Cheerleaders all in one day.

All right.  Anybody who’s on the Yellow Queen’s shitlist is okay by me.  Even if they are a demon.

Thursday, September 28

I had to get going, so I couldn’t spend as much time in the bathroom as I wanted.  But I was stuck doing more powers testing at eight, and I needed some breakfast and a lot of coffee first.  That was really unfair, because Nikki was sitting there naked, shaving her legs, and really making a good, slow, careful time of it.

I might have gotten distracted and been late to my appointment, but Tennyo helpfully jabbed me in the ribs with an elbow that must have been adamantium-plated, and reminded me, with that drill-instructor voice of hers, that I was staring.  And tenting.  And drooling.

I was so not drooling!

Breakfast was good.  Not as good as the showers, but good.  Chef Peter had a large to-go cup of the good coffee (no sugar, just real cream), and a bag holding two cherry almond twists.  But the twists were really ingenious, since they were clearly made with almond paste instead of just being decorated with almond slices.  The rich almond scent wafted out of the bag even when it was closed.  And the ‘cherry’ was a homemade cherry preserve with just enough lemon rind and cardamom to spice up the cherries and make the almond pastry flavor melt in your mouth.

Oh man.  I was definitely drooling as I rushed off to powers testing.

And I made sure to eat them while they were still warm, and before I walked into the reception area.  I didn’t want to share them with Hewley or Shandy, or even Hillary.  So I’m a selfish, spoiled, egocentric brat.  So sue me.

Plus, I was hungry and cranky and under-caffeinated.  I mean, it was still 7:50 in the morning, I’d only had a sip of my coffee, and I was going to have to put up with hours of testing.  Again.

Besides, they got to eat in the staff dining area, so they probably already ate theirs.  Assuming they knew what was good, as plenty of kids at Whateley clearly didn’t.

I walked into the reception area, and the secretary sent me right back to lab R.  I walked in, and before I could say a thing, Hewley sniffed hungrily, “Those almond things with cherries!  Did someone bring some more of those in?”

I hastily wadded up my paper bag and threw it into the nearest trashcan.  I knew one person who’d already had too many cherry almond twists.

I walked over and said, “Doctor Hewley, I’m here.”

He smiled, “Great, Phase.  Have a seat right here, while we wait for the rest of the crew…  Oh, by the way, was someone walking down the hall with some pastries just now?  I’m supposed to be on a diet, so don’t tell Jim.  But there were these cherry and almond things in the staff dining area this morning…”

Shandy walked up behind us, “Ri-ich!  You’re not supposed to be eating those pastries.  Do you want me to tell Alma on you?  Or Dr. Tenent?”

Hewley grinned at him in a way that told me he knew his good ol’ buddy Jared would never do such a thing.  He said, “Oh, come on, I only had one…”  Jared just gave him a stony stare.  “Well, two maybe…”  Jared kept staring.  “Okay, three!  But they were really good!”

Jared rolled his eyes.  “Rich, you’re supposed to be eating the oatmeal for breakfast.  You know what they said about your HDL and LDL levels.”

Hewley sort of sagged at the shoulders.  “Yeah.  I know.  But do you know how hard it is to eat even really good oatmeal fifty days in a row, when there’re these incredible-smelling warm pastries just a couple feet away?  And Filbert was shoving one in his mouth right in front of me, asking about Phase’s anti-gluon readings…”

Shandy finally sighed, “Okay.  I won’t tell on you.  This time!  I mean, I had two of ‘em, myself.  They were awesome.  I’m going to be playing an extra game of racquetball this evening to burn off all the calories.”

“All what calories?”

I recognized that dry voice.  It was Dr. Quintain.  He apparently hadn’t noticed the crumbs on his blazer and tie.  But, judging from his tie, he regularly had stains that he didn’t notice.  Maybe he was one of those guys who was so focused on his big passion in life that he didn’t notice unimportant stuff like food and clothes and breathing.

Mr. Clark popped up conveniently, with a stack of printouts that had to weigh fifteen pounds.  “Dr. Quintain!  I’ve got all the readings you asked to see!”

Quintain sat down on a low table, apparently not noticing that he’d missed the chair by several feet.  Then he became completely lost in the papers.  Occasionally, he’d mutter something like “…amazing…”  or “…this completely refutes the Petrovsky-Takahoshi hypothesis…” or “…never expected to see this sort of albedo with these levels of lepton diffusions…”

Finally, he stood up, looking excited.  “Well, young lady…  Wait, do I know you?”

“Yes sir, I’m in your third period class.”

He wrinkled his already-wrinkled brow in thought.  “Phase…  Phase…  Ah!  Yes!  You’re…”

“AHEM!” Shandy cut in.  “Bert, we’re in testing.  Codenames only, please.”

“Ah yes, yes, of course, Jared.  Sorry, don’t know what I was thinking…”

Of course, from the rolling eyes around us, this was obviously way too common.

Quintain turned to the instrumentation and said, “Now, this morning, I think we need to first repeat the quantum chromodynamometer results, and then we’ll want to bring in the gluon irradiation screens so we can definitely rule out Petrovsky and Takahoshi’s hypothesis on charmed quark de-cavitation.  After that, we’ll see if we have time to evaluate the extra-dimensional interfaces and study the convex hull of the warping phenomena in more detail…”

What all that meant for me was a morning spent standing there in a skintight, part-spandex, gray bodysuit that wasn’t quite the right gender for me.  Hillary had gotten me one of the female super-suits to cover up what Gracie called ‘the girls’, but that suit didn’t have quite enough padding where Mister Happy bulged out.  So I was wearing a padded ‘cup’ under the bodysuit, so I looked slightly less like a completely freakjob.

Quintain had me working with a clock, trying to make my shifts from normal to light or heavy take exactly the same amount of time every time.  He wanted uniform twenty-second changes.  Which just wasn’t possible.  I was giving him changes that were roughly around twenty seconds, but he wasn’t happy with that.  So I was having to give him about thirty density changes for every time he adjusted his entire set of auxiliary variables.

Quintain was so lost in the testing process that Shandy had to run out to cover the Powers Theory class himself.  Quintain forgot about lunch too, until Hillary made Dr. Hewley step in and interrupt the testing.

While I was hastily changing back into my clothes so I could grab a fast lunch and run to BMA, it occurred to me that there was something I could do to repay Hillary.  I asked, “Do you play racquetball?”

She said, “Yeah, but I’m not as good as some people…”  Her goofy smile told me who she was thinking about.

I told her, “Look, this is your big chance.  Jared’s going to be looking for an extra racquetball game this afternoon or evening.  Let him know you’re looking for a match, and let him ask you to play.  Then really try hard.  You know you won’t beat him, but don’t let him win by a mile, or he won’t want to play you again.  Be competitive.  If you play him close but you only beat him one out of every twenty or thirty times, he won’t feel threatened.  Aim for a regular game with him every couple days.  Then use that as a starting point, so you can get him to see you as an attractive person outside the lab.  Give him three weeks, and if he hasn’t asked you out to dinner, let me know.”

Her eyes were big and starry.  “You really think it might work?”

Well duh.  Of course I thought it ‘might work’.  Why would I suggest an idea that I thought was an utter disaster from the start?

I raced through the caff and grabbed something from the to-go area.  I stuffed a pretty lame cheeseburger down my throat as I ran to BMA, I walked out of my clothes instead of taking them off the usual way, and I got changed fast enough that I got to the mat just seconds after the bell rang.  Tolman didn’t glare at me too hard.

I was paired up with Phobos for most of the class, as we learned a couple new combinations.  Apparently, I learned these new moves nearly as fast as Phobos, so I was a decent match for an Exemplar-4.  Of course, I had the added advantage that the moves were designed with human legs in mind, and she no longer had human legs.  On the downside, she could block with more than two arms, and she was a little quicker than I was.

After class, when I was on my way to the instructors’ showers, Anna made an effort to catch up with me.  “Hey Phase, thanks.  I think I will go with ‘Aquerna’.  One of the dolts on my floor thought it meant I had water powers!”

I grinned, “And you should look up Squirrel Girl.  She’s awesome.  If those bitches give you more shit about being ‘Squirrel Girl’, tell them that Squirrel Girl beat Dr. Doom and Thanos, and none of their superheroes could do that.”

She looked at me in shock.  “You’re shitting me.  Thanos?  That guy in Marvel Comics who’s a god who can take on all of The Avengers?  And he lost to Squirrel Girl?  No way!”

“I swear.  Scout’s honor.”  Not that I had ever been a scout or anything.

At study time in our spot in the sunroom, Jade was telling me about Sara’s performance in their martial arts class.  “So then, Sara says to Tolman sensei, ‘I love books more than I love breathing.’  And then…”

I interjected, “Wow.  That’s quite a statement for a girl who doesn’t breathe anymore!”

Tennyo snorted into her math textbook.  Jade glared at me and said, “Oh, skip it!”

I never did hear the big wrap-up on Sara and the aikido class.  One of these days I’ve got to learn to keep my mouth shut.

Chef André must have missed me at lunch.  He had something extra-special for me at dinner.  A dessert that was to apple cobbler what Fey was to high school girls.  The rich filling was obviously his take on a true tarte tatin, with apples caramelized in a rich mixture of butter and sugar.  But he added Calvados and macerated raisins to it.  Then he replaced the standard pastry with carefully-baked biscuit rounds to make it almost an apple shortcake.  He topped the rounds with turbinado sugar, assembled it into a little masterpiece of apple cobbler, and then artistically drizzled a thickened cream over the top.  Oh man, was that good!

Apparently, I was enjoying it too much.  Nikki finally whispered to me, “Ayla, knock it off.  You sound like you’re having an orgasm!”

I gave her a bite.

Her eyelids fluttered closed, and she moaned erotically.  Wow!  I mean, getting to watch Fey have a near-orgasmic experience like that gave me a boner like you wouldn’t believe.  I had a sudden impulse to promise her every one of my special desserts for the next decade.  I had to shake my head to get myself under control.

She finally gasped, “Oh my GAWD!  You weren’t kidding!  Wow, and all I had for dessert was a pear!”

Billie looked over and blithely said, “Oh, there’s lots of dessert.  I had chocolate pudding, three pieces of pumpkin pie, tapioca, the carrot cake, a couple bowls of ice cream, a couple servings of blueberry cobbler, and thirty or forty cookies.”

Nikki looked at her and sweetly said, “Never mind!”

After dinner, Vox and I did accounting homework.  What that really meant was I told Vox how real accounting worked, and how she had to learn this stuff so she’d understand why real companies did what they did.  Not to mention that she’d never understand how companies like, say, Hollywood production companies, fudged their books if she didn’t know how normal people did their books.

She rewarded me for my efforts with some serious necking that went on until…  Well, that part isn’t any of your business.  Although Vanessa did think it was pretty funny that I was so worried about what Jody would think when she washed my panties.

That night after I was done with my homework, I was looking up more Squirrel Girl stuff for Anna, and I hit something unexpected.  Crap.  I was going to have to tell Jade about this in the morning.

Friday, September 29

The morning showers were their usual inspirational performance.  But I didn’t enjoy them as much as usual.  I was feeling down because of what I was going to have to tell Jade.  Well, also Vox and Bugs and Fey weren’t in there when I was.

Then it was off to breakfast.  There wasn’t even anything special for me that morning.  Man, was I spoiled rotten.

I looked up from my granola when Jade sat down.  I reached over and slapped a print-out from my laserjet down in front of her.

“What’s this?” she asked.

I said, “Details on a comics character.  A trade-marked, copyrighted character.”

Jade finally glanced over it and groaned.  “Oh, no.”

I nodded unhappily.  “Uh-huh.  ‘Shroud’.  Been taken for years and years.  And get this - this guy runs around in a completely black outfit with a long black cape.”

Jade groaned some more.  “No fair.  Anyway, Jann’s arms and legs and face are white now.”

That, in itself, wasn’t going to be good enough to get around the copyright laws.  “Oh, it gets better.  Turns out that this Shroud guy is blind.  He sees with some sort of mystic vision.”

Jade gave up and put her head on the table, covering herself with her arms.  “And it was such a good name, too!”

I shrugged.  I mean, I’d thought it was pretty darned good.  Light-years better than ‘Clothes Ghost’.  “You might as well keep it, at least for a while.  ‘Shroud’ suits you to a T.  I mean, suits Jinn.  Jann.  Whatever.”  Besides, the Whateley handbook was pretty specific on this stuff.  She didn’t have to get a copyright-safe codename until late her senior year.

“Where is Jann, anyway?” Fey asked.

Jade mumbled from the tabletop, “I’m studying for my algebra test, right before lunch.  The rest of her is in my backpack.  I’ll zap her up just before class.”

Toni suggested, “Ya know, you really should learn to use pronouns the way everybody else does...”

I bit down on my granola to keep from snorting with laughter.  Jade just frowned.

Once again, I got to skip Costume Class to go be tested.  Mrs. Ryan probably wouldn’t remember what I looked like by the time I was back in there.

We were back in Lab W, and Dr. Quintain was off writing up several research papers based on yesterday’s test results.  Apparently, I was a font of biophysics weirdness.

Well, I had made a strategic error the day before, when I had told them that I had a utility belt from Möbius, and that it didn’t fail when I wore it.  So this time, I was wearing the gray spandex super-suit, with the utility belt over it.  And my utility belt pockets were stuffed with testing gear and recorders.  So I was going heavy, and going light, and going heavy, and going light, and on and on and on.  I mean, it wasn’t THAT interesting, was it?

After wasting my entire morning like that, they were insistent that they needed to study my utility belt without me in it.

I complained, “Come on!  You’ve already tested Möbius, haven’t you?  This is just one of his devises!”

Dr. Hewley scratched his head, “No, it’s not that simple.  You see, the inter-dimensional pockets in this are simply not breaking down under the extra-dimensional stresses you put on items.  This is really interesting!”

I argued, and fussed, and even whined a lot.  I still ended up having to leave my utility belt with them for further study.

I really didn’t like not having my holdouts with me, after some of the stuff I had gone through lately.  If I got beaten up over the weekend by an Alpha hit squad, those guys were going to be hearing from me!

My weekly session with Dr. Bellows was just plain frustrating.  He seemed to think I was ‘blocking’ about how depressed and angry I was over my intersexed mutant everybody-hates-me status.  I disagreed with him.  I was just trying to function, and trying to find out how to get turned back to my old male self.  What was I supposed to do?  Go curl up in a ball and cry all day?  I had stuff to do!

At least there was some entertainment to cheer me up when I got back to Poe.  Hank had finally chosen a codename, and the girls were teasing him mercilessly over it.  ‘Lancer’.  Okay, it could have been worse.  But Toni was doing this hip-pumping, forearm-pistoning hip-hop dance, and singing in a lewd voice, “It’s LLLAANN-cer!  It’s LLLLLLLLAN-cer!”  Hank was red as a beet, while half the sunroom was rolling on the floor in hysterics.

I swear, that girl ought to be doing stand-up.

Saturday, September 30

I had my morning all planned out.  So, of course, everything got derailed.  In a major way.

I had an 8 am class every Saturday morning, but I wasn’t the earliest riser on Saturdays.  Billie had this Flight class at half past Insanely Early that ran most Saturdays.  I had a suspicion that she used it as an excuse to sneak in two mammoth breakfasts.

So I knew that Billie was up long before my alarm clock went off.  I was budgeting enough time to ogle hotties in the bathroom, before I walked off to grab a to-go breakfast and headed over to World Lit class.  I was just about to slip off my pajamas when Jade started screaming.

“SHE’S ALIVE!!  SHE’S ALIVE!!  SHE’S ALIVE!!”

What the hell?  I figured I’d better find out, and fast.  I went light and ran through the door, down the hall, and through their door.

I still only beat Toni by about a millisecond.  Even though Toni had to open the door, since I had phased through it, leaving it shut.  Damn, that girl was fast.

“What’s going on?  Are you okay?”

Wide-eyed, Billie handed me a letter.

Jade, it’s me Jinn.

I was captured by an avatar – Tansy Walcutt.  Dickinson

cottage.  Working on a way back.

Don’t worry.   – Your better half.

Tansy Walcutt?  That fucking bitch who’d made my life hell for years?  And she was the one who’d put Jade through this torture all week?  I was so angry I couldn’t see straight.

I’d been really angry at a lot of bullies.  I’d wanted to hurt Emil Hammond.  But for maybe the first time in my life, I really wanted to kill somebody.  When I thought about the agony that poor Jade had gone through, for days… All because some evil little bitch had kidnapped Jinn for sick, self-absorbed purposes…

“Tansy?  TANSY?  She… is.. so.. dead!”

Then I realized that Toni was trying to pry the letter out of my hands, but it was so tightly crushed in my fists that she couldn’t work it free.  She said, “Hey, don’t crumple the letter.  Some of us haven’t had the chance to read it yet.”

Nikki yawned sexily and asked me, “You aren’t talking about Tansy Walcutt are you?  She’s been on my case all week in modeling.”

I stared at her in shock.  “You know Tansy Walcutt?”

She asked the exact same question at the same time, so we came out sounding like an oratorio.

Jade pompously declared, “Not as well as I do!”  Of course, it’s tough to be pompous when you look eleven.  She corrected herself, “Well, not as well as JINN does.”  She held up the second letter, which was much longer.  “Okay, listen to this...”

By the time she finished explaining about Tansy and the Alphas, I didn’t just want to kill Tansy, I wanted to get in a little Hannibal Lecter’ing first.  That fucking bitch!

In Tansy’s case, that was pretty much literal.

I wasn’t the only one who was pissed.  Billie’s eyes were started to glow red.  She growled, “Look, it’s no problem, right?  If she’s DEAD, then Jinn goes free, right?”

I snapped, “How the hell can you be so selfish?  Did you ever stop to think that maybe somebody ELSE might like the opportunity to gut her?  She’s been on my case since we were in GRADE SCHOOL!”

“EXCUSE ME!”  I turned to see Jade yelling at us.  She was standing on her bed to be the same height as Billie, who had drifted off the floor.

Jade insisted, “You seem to forget that I was the one kidnapped.  So I think I should get first dibs.  Besides, I seem to be the only one who doesn’t want to kill her.”

I finally realized that Jade was holding her new gun.  And she was stroking it in a way that would have made Travis Bickel nervous.  She grinned maniacally, “I only want to shoot her a little.”

And I was so damned angry that I actually wanted to see her shoot Tansy.  Maybe thirty or forty times.  I mean, they were non-lethal loads.  Did she happen to have a load that stung like a couple hundred fire ants?

I was too mad to think things through.  Which was why I was surprised when Toni cleared her throat and said, “But this time, we get dressed first!  No more Negligee Nightingales this time!  Got it?”

Nikki looked down at the semi-sheer ecru nightgown she was wearing.  “Eep!”

Toni snapped, “Meet at the sunroom in three.  Got it?  And be dressed!”

I cut through the wall and headed back to my room.  I had no idea what I was going to wear.  I just grabbed yesterday’s clothes and yanked them on.  And I went with my Doc Martens, instead of the unlaced sneakers from yesterday.

By the time I stepped out of my room, everyone was assembling in the hall.  Billie was in her ‘fisherman’ outfit of jeans and plaid shirt and boots.  Toni was dressed like she was on her way to class or something.  Jade opted for her deviser costume, and Jann was dressed as Shroud.  Hank went for the urban camo badass look, right down to the camo muscle tee and the army boots and the fingerless gloves.

Nikki was dressed to kill.  Assuming that she was planning to kill by causing men in the vicinity to have erections so massive that they died of low blood pressure.  I mean, WOW!  She was wearing pants and a sleeveless top of leather so tight that I was surprised she could walk.  Not that I was complaining.  I doubted I could complain, since I didn’t seem to be able to make my mouth work properly.

She fussed, “Hey!  My DAD sent me this!  I didn’t ASK for it.  He said to wear it when I saw trouble coming, and if you ask me, this business sure looks like trouble barreling down on us really fast.”  She gave one leg of her ultra-tight pants a pat and grinned.  “It’s got some kind of armor for a underlay, and that’s lined with silk…  What?  I’m not wearing high heels with it!”

Toni murmured, “Uh, Nikki, you would be trouble coming in that outfit.  At least for any girls with boyfriends they wanted to hang on to.”

“I can’t believe my dad sent me this...”

Holy crow.  Her dad must not have known what she’d look like when she was wearing it, or he’d have sent a matching burkha along with it.

Toni called everyone to attention.  “Okay, we’re ready to go.  What’s the plan?”  She stared at Jade.

“Uh… find Tansy and hit her until she lets go of Jinn?  Okay, I don’t have much of a plan.  The only thing I can think to say is that apparently Tansy thinks that Jinn is my sister, and I’d just as soon not give away any extra info.”

Toni looked to the ceiling, as if she’d expected more.  “A little skimpy on details.  Where do we corner her?”

“Dickinson?  That’s where she lives.”

“Crystal Hall,” Billie offered.  “There were a bunch of Alphas coming in, as I came up to Poe.  It hasn’t been very long.  They should be done with breakfast in a while.”

“That’s it, then,” Toni decided.  “The green outside of Schuster Hall.  We’ll wait for Tansy to finish breakfast and head for Dickinson, and stop her there.  Jade, you can confront her.  Fey, you should see whether you can help somehow, magically.  You’re about the only one of us who might.”

“I want in on that confrontation, too!” I insisted.

Everyone looked at me like I was nuts.  Even Jade and Billie.  Maybe I was kind of furious.

Toni said, “No.  Too much old blood, too many side issues.  Afterward.  Somehow, I can’t see this confrontation going down without interference.  Not with the entire breakfast crowd wandering out.  Hank, Tennyo, you’re our strongest, try to keep the crowd away, PEACEFULLY.  Make it clear that she’s a kidnapper.  Talk to them.  Jann, you can do the same.  Talk about your sister.  If you have to face up to someone, go for an energizer, since they won’t be able to hurt you.  Ayla, you and I are backup.  Sound good?”

No.  It didn’t sound good.  But everyone else bought into the plan.  I spent a lot of the walk complaining about getting cut out.  Everyone else thought I was going to go postal on that bitch if I got her within arm’s reach.  What?  Did I look that upset?

Right about the time that I was trying - for the tenth or twentieth time - to talk everyone into letting me in on the face-off, Tansy walked out.  With the entire Alpha gang, except Hekate.  I looked at Aries and Icer and Hamper and Damper, and I immediately remembered something.

No utility belt.  I hadn’t even packed any of my toys into my pockets.  I had been so focused on ripping Tansy’s lungs out that I hadn’t prepared for a fight.

Crap.

And I hadn’t warned everybody about what those dickheads could do, either.

Double crap.

But it was too late.  The rest of the team was already spreading out into their assigned positions, and Jade was already yelling at Tansy.  Toni was pushing me off to where she wanted me to go, even as I was trying to tell her that we needed to watch out for the Alphas.  She seemed to think I was just trying to get in on the action and start a fight.

That was when I heard a girl scream bloody murder.  And then that voice - damnit, it was Tansy - screamed, “Nice job, fairy!  You’re pulling her apart.  You’re about to kill your own friend!  Hey, don’t blame me!”

I turned to look at what was going on, and I saw Tansy facing down Jade and Nikki from across the green.  Nikki yelled back, “Bitch!  We aren’t finished yet.  I promise you that much!”

And then everything went to hell.  Suddenly, Jade was shooting Tansy.  Tansy was convulsing and screeching like she’d been hit with a taser.  Alphas were coming out of the woodwork.  And Tansy got back off the ground to scream “LOOK OUT!”

That bimbo Skybolt soared into the air and fired lightning bolts at both Nikki and Jade.  Jade dove out of the way, but that jerk Cavalier smacked her with his shield.

Where the hell did he find a shield?

Toni shouted at me, “I’ll take the swordsman!  Can you help Fey?”

“I’ll try!” I yelled to her as I turned and went light.  I flew right at Skybolt.  I didn’t dare try my go-heavy-then-leap-then-go-light trick.  I was working on it, but lately, I wasn’t getting it to work right.  I was afraid I’d go spinning off out of control, or end up a half mile past Skybolt, unable to help Fey.

I was pretty sure that bolts of lightning would hurt just as much as force fields while I was light.  But I didn’t have a lot of options right then.  If only I’d had that damned utility belt!  I was going to kill those powers testing wonks!

No, it was my own fault I hadn’t thought enough to stuff anything into my pockets on my way to face off against Tansy.  I had been too mad, and too unfocused.  And Fey was about to get hurt because I had screwed up.

I got up close to Skybolt, but she spotted me coming and zipped off to her right.  Crap!  She was way faster than I was, and way more maneuverable.  This was a problem.

Skybolt fired off a shot at me, and I just went heavy.  I dropped like a one-ton boulder, and the lightning bolt went searing over my head.

As I fell, I saw the little bitch take another shot at Nikki.  Crap!  I was going to have to risk it.

I hit the ground, still at maximal density.  I hit hard enough to make a little crater and sink a foot into the dirt.  No sweat.  I was going to have to try the leap-and-go-light bit.  Okay, focus, don’t add in any weird angular momentum…

I jumped up, and then went light.  My speed went from ‘lame standing jump’ to ‘rocket man’.  And I was on target.  She was toast.

Unfortunately, Skybolt was paying attention, and she had a lightning bolt ready.  She blasted me while I was light and zooming right at her.

CRAP!  That hurt!

She nailed me right in the chest with her best lightning bolt.  I went bouncing off at an angle, like she’d hit me with a Humvee.

It felt like she’d hit me with a Humvee.  I hurt from my toes all the way up to my hair.  There was a throbbing, burning pain right at my left pec.  If I’d been normal density, that might have stopped my heart.

And Skybolt was winding up for a major lightning strike on Fey.  Damnit, I’d never get to either one of them in time!

But I might be able to get in between them, if I was willing to take another lightning bolt…

I flew for a point on the line in between them.  I never thought geometry would do me much good in the real world, but I needed it then.  I dove in between them just as Skybolt let loose.

I went heavy.  The bolt hit me, and hardly even tickled.

I dropped to the ground and hit hard enough to sink in almost to my knees.

I looked over, and Nikki had just turned into Fey.  I mean, energy was crackling around her.  Her hair was whipping in a wind that no one else felt.  She was lifting off the ground under her own power.  And she had a look in her eyes that told me that Skybolt was about to get a taste of her own medicine.  I looked to the side…

And what to my wondrous eyes should appear?  But a vicious little bitch in a hot Versace number.  Tansy.  Not fifteen feet from where I had landed.  She was SO dead.

The bitch spotted me coming.  “Wait Ayla!  It’s me, Jinn!”

Yeah.  Sure.  “I’m not falling for that!”  I stomped forward, heavy enough that my feet were sinking into the ground and each stomp was creating its own little micro-tremor.  I pulled back one fist so I could show her, up close and personal, what I had learned in aikido class.

She held up her hands in an oddly familiar gesture.  “Really, you’ve got to believe me!  Uh… umbrellas in the hallway?  Chasing stuffed animals?  Our study corner?”

That was Jinn.  And the arm movements were definitely Jade.  “Damn.  Jinn?”

“Yeah.  Tansy got knocked out, so I’m in control while she’s in la-la land.”

I growled, “I really need something to hit.”

“How about that huge guy, who’s starting to get up?”  She pointed off to the side, and I saw Kodiak trying to get to his feet.  I’d missed that, but it had to have been Hank.  Nice work, Lancer!

Target acquired.  Even Toni’s distant KI-YAI shout didn’t slow me down.  Okay, it did make my vision blur for a second.

Remind me never to be the intended target for one of her ki shouts.

Kodiak was big, even for Whateley.  About six and a half feet tall, and maybe two and a half times what I weighed.  But I’d heard about him.  He was the Avatar of the bear.  And when I was heavy, I could eat bears for breakfast.

He was struggling to get to his feet as I stomped up to him.  Either he didn’t see me coming, or he didn’t see me as a threat.  Didn’t the Alphas talk about the kids with whom they were having fights?  Apparently not.

He was still bent over and slowly rising when I got to him.  I went as heavy as I could and gave him my best atemi.  I hit him in the jaw hard enough to put him flat on his back.  He didn’t get up.

Damn, that was satisfying!  If only I could have punched Tansy instead…

I turned around in time to see Tennyo floating to the ground, an unconscious Skybolt in one arm.  But Tennyo launched one of her energy blasts at some Alpha wannabes who were edging toward the fight, and suddenly an entire bench was exploding like a truckload of dynamite.  Holy crow!

Nikki was flying to the rescue, putting up magical shields to protect everyone else.  I turned and stayed heavy as I ran over to see what I could do.  The shrapnel and stuff that were flying everywhere made it way too dangerous to even consider going normal.

I got in between a couple rubberneckers and a flying clump of brickwork.  The bricks hit me dead center and shattered against me, instead of squashing half a dozen nerds who might or might not have working force fields up.

“THAT’S ENOUGH!  STOP THIS NOW!”  Great.  The fight was completely over, and now the Wild Pack was showing up.  Stormwolf, the No Humor Man, was doing his staunch superhero bit in the middle of the green, while the rest of his team took up positions around the battlezone.

Stormwolf commanded, “Who started this?”

And that bitch Tansy sashayed forward.  Crap.  That sure wasn’t Jinn’s walk.  “SHE started it!” Tansy yelled, pointing right at Jade.  “She SHOT me!  Right here!”  Oh, definitely Tansy.  I wondered what happened to Jinn.

“ENOUGH!”  Stormwolf took a look at Jade, and suddenly went into ‘protective parent’ mode.  Wait until she hits him with the Big Sad Puppy Dog Eyes.  Come on, Jade.  Spot his attitude.  Use it.  Do the winsome little girl act and let him lower the boom on Tansy.  Come on…

Stormwolf gently asked, “Is any of this true?  Did you really shoot her?”

Come on, Jade.  He thinks you wouldn’t hurt a fly.  Be cute and winsome, and tell him what he wants to hear…

“You bet I did!  And I’d like to do it again!  She kidnapped m– my sister!  She’s still got her!”

Crap.  Damnit Jade, you had him in the palm of your hand, and you blew it!

Tansy screeched, “You underage little fuck!  I’ll see you DEAD!”

And then Nikki was jumping into it.  “Hey!  All we did was ask the bitch some questions.  Then these others jumped us!  I was dodging lightning bolts before I realized anything was happening, for crying out loud!”

Crap.  I just wanted to put my hands over my face and groan.  We won that damn battle, and now we were losing the war!  I made a beeline for the Wild Pack guy who did The Human Torch bit, to explain what had really happened.  But those frigging Whateley Martial Arts Cheerleaders beat me to him and were moaning and groaning about us freshmen launching a sneak attack on their beloved Alphas.

And then Security was showing up from every direction.  I recognized Lieutenant Forsyth and about four other officers from my little scrapes over the past month.  Crap.  As soon as they saw me with Team Kimba, they’d just assume it was another Goodkind-vs.-the-world fight.  I really hoped my mere presence wasn’t screwing things up for the team.

And Tansy was off to the side with a Security guy and Mindbird, doing something nefarious.  I couldn’t tell what it was, but there was no mistaking her unholy glee.

I couldn’t stick my nose in it, because officer Bellinger (by his nametag) was interrogating me.  I was trying to explain exactly what had happened, right up until those jerks jumped us.  But he obviously didn’t believe me.  He kept asking me if I really thought that juniors and seniors in the Alphas routinely got steamrollered by untrained froshes, and if I really thought a group of people on their way to a picnic would start a fight, and on and on.

It was pretty obvious that he thought we had just launched a full-scale sneak attack on the Alphas.  Apparently, nobody short of the entire Wild Pack was supposed to be able to take out these guys.  Which made us look phenomenally guilty.

By the time I got back over to where the rest of Team Kimba was standing, Hank and Sara were having it out about Sara’s not coming to the rescue.  Like we needed rescuing.

And then, just to cap it all off, officer Haskins walked up to us, holding an armload of black fabric and weights.  “I can’t find your other teammate, the girl named ‘Shroud.’  This is all we could find.”

Jade stared at the costume in horror, and then finally, agonizingly, reached forward to touch it.  “Not again,” she wailed.  “Not again!”

It was agonizingly obvious what had happened.  I looked over at that smiling, happy bitch.  “That’s the last straw.  This time, she has to pay,” I growled.

“Excuse me,” Fey said in a cold voice.  “DIBS.”

We both looked over at Tennyo to see if she was about to go ballistic.  I was surprised to see that she was busy being motherly.  She was holding a sobbing Jade and gently rubbing her back.  Wow, that was surprising.

Lieutenant Forsyth came back and glared at all of us.  “Well, I’m not going to sugar-coat this.  You’re in big trouble.  You admit starting this.  You attacked as a group.  And you deliberately launched a premeditated attack on another student.  The only thing in your favor is that no one was permanently injured, and there wasn’t too much property damage.  But we can’t let this go.”

“What’s going to happen to us, sir?”  Hank asked.

“One of the administrators will decide on your punishment.  You’ve got an appointment Monday morning with Ms. Amelia Hartford.”

Hartford?  HARTFORD?  My arch-enemy Hartford who was trying to blackmail me and who already had it in for Tennyo?  CRAP!!  We were so incredibly screwed!

Forsyth added, “We’ll send notes, excusing you all from your first-period classes.”

CLASSES?!?!

OH CRAP!  I’d completely forgotten my Saturday class!  Zinn was going to kill me!