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Diane Castle / Ayla / Ayla #4: "Ayla and the Tests" / Part 3

Ayla #4: “Ayla and the Tests” 

- a Whateley Universe Tale

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

CHAPTER 3 - The Ceryneian Hind
Thursday, October 5

The morning showers were their usual blissful vista.  Mmm…  Vox showering.  Fey magically drying her hair while standing there naked.  Riptide shaving her legs while wearing absolutely nothing.  Bugs excitedly chatting with Jade about weird gadgets, to the point that she forgot to slip on her bathrobe.  Tennyo and Chaka and Verdant and…  The hits just kept on coming.

As I watched Verdant slip off a sleeping bra without taking off her nightie first, I suddenly had a deeply warped and disturbing idea for how to use my new ability.  Well, I was a Warper…

I could hardly wait to try it.

The only problem was that I was going to have to find a way to practice a lot first, or else I might accidentally do something hideous to someone.  I just wanted a really good practical joke, not ripping the heart out of someone’s chest by mistake.

Jade was really late to breakfast for some reason, but I had something for her when she finally got her little butt over to our table.

As she wolfed down breakfast just before we needed to go to first period classes, I handed her about twenty sheets of paper.

“What’s this?”  Well, I had to guess at what she was saying, since she said it through a mouthful of Lucky Charms cereal.

I said, “You’re now a deviser, right?”  She looked around cautiously, and then nodded.  “So you have to have whacko deviser explanations for how your stuff works.  Here’s a hundred or so possibilities.  I downloaded a ton of weird explanations for gadgets and things from the Golden Age of sci-fi.  So you’ve got weirdoid explanations you can use for whatever you want.  I pulled stuff from Theodore Sturgeon, A.E. van Vogt, Hal Clement…  A bunch of old sci-fi authors I’ve read.”

She gave me a huge grin, which wasn’t quite so appealing with those marshmallow bits all over her teeth.  “Fanx!”  A chewed-up marshmallow ‘clover’ fell out onto the table.

“Don’t thank me,” I replied.  And I really meant it.  I didn’t need to see more chewed-up cereal erupting out onto everything in sight.

On my way to first period class, I also made a couple phone calls into Dunwich.  Cecilia Rogers got me a lead on four old mannequins that she hadn’t wanted.  She also pointed me toward a woman who had a bunch of Goodwill clothing that was just lying about.  Then I found a guy who would truck that junk up to Poe for me.  After that, I had to warn Mrs. Horton about the junk I had just bought.

Lunch with Team Kimba was always an opportunity for endemic - if not epidemic - weirdness.  So I didn’t leap out of my chair and run for my life when Harry Wolfe showed up with Tennyo.  Tennyo introduced him to those of us who hadn’t met him face-to-muzzle yet.  That included me.

It was one of those “which of these things just doesn’t belong” moments.  Huge, hairy body.  Massive wolf-like form.  Growling voice.  Friendly smile and banter.  A big part of me just wanted to go light and dive through the floor.  Another part of me kept saying, “He’s a friendly teenaged boy.  Everyone says so.”  Plus, there was the fact that Tennyo was hanging on his arm like she wanted him to ask her out on a date.

Harry had stuff for Jinn.  Armbones.  Well, a gadgeteer’s version of a functional skeletal structure, rather than a detailed construction of human bones and ligaments.  And what he gave Jinn might actually work better than a reconstruction of human bones.

Even knowing that Jinn wasn’t human, watching her take those ‘armbones’ and shove them into her chest cavity was just plain gross to watch.  Jade had to re-charge her so she could get a grip on the armbones too.  I’d read a little bit on how scientists like Quintain thought the PK ‘budding’ and time of instantiation worked, so this made sense to me.  But Jinn had another trick up her.. umm.. sleeve.

She stood up, dressed completely as Shroud.  Her cloak rose up around her as she rose, and it wrapped her up like a pupa in a cocoon.  The cocoon spun several times, and opened to reveal the equivalent of a butterfly: a cute Japanese girl who looked like a junior.  Whoa.  Whatever the J-Team was using now really looked like skin.  And Jinn looked completely human.

Except for one major thing.  She retrieved a couple school items from her storage inside her torso.  But she did it by shoving her hand into her chest cavity and pulling the stuff back out.  Holy crow, that was worse than watching Jinn shove armbones into herself.

Tennyo just said, “You’ve got to find a way of doing that move that won’t make people sick.”  Not that she was sickened in any way.  She proceeded to eat about four more plates of food, including enough pound cake to make Sara Lee have to run back to the ovens.

Harry left the cafeteria.  I made myself go up to him.  Alone.  With no one around to help me.

I was facing a werewolf.  The fact that he seemed like a big, friendly guy didn’t keep me from being afraid.

But I went anyway.  I needed to do this, for more than one reason.

I waited until he was catching the elevator to go down into the tunnels, and I stepped in with him.

He looked at me and said, “I’m going down.  I’ve got Workshop next.”

I looked him in the eye as best I could, and I said, “If you’re going down, then I am.  I have something to tell you.”

He just raised his eyebrows, which looked rather canine.

I said, “Look, I…”

But the elevator had reached the tunnel level, and we needed to step off quickly.

The elevator went back up, and I started again.  “Look, I want you to track your hours that you’re putting in for Jade.  I know you told her you wouldn’t charge her except for parts, but I want you to bill ME instead.  And never, ever tell Jade.  She’ll get upset if she finds out I’m paying for this.”

He thought for a second and asked, “Why?  I said I wouldn’t charge ‘em.”

I told him, “You need to get paid for all this work.  I want you to continue to have a vested interest in this, and I want you to be able to afford to keep working on this.  I want to make sure that you don’t get sick and tired of being used.  Jade can’t afford to do that.  So bill me.  That makes it a win-win situation.”

He frowned, which was frankly terrifying on his face, and he asked me, “What’s in it for you?”

I admitted, “I dunno.  I just know I want to.  It’ll make me feel better about not being able to protect Jade.  And besides, I have plenty of money.  Someone besides me ought to get something out of it.”

When I got back to Poe after sixth period, there were two notes on my door to go see Mrs. Horton.  I had no idea what the second one could be.  I rushed down to her office.

I knocked, and Mrs. Horton invited me in.  Four female mannequins that had seen better days, three mannequin stands, and two shopping bags of Goodwill clothing were tucked in the closest corner of the room.

Mrs. Horton cleared her throat, then said, “Phase, I don’t know why you wanted these things, but I’d like you to find a place for them.  And it had better not be in your room, because your long-overdue roommate is finally coming.  The girl’s sponsors notified Whateley that the girl will be arriving on foot sometime tomorrow.”

ON FOOT?  What kind of roommate were they giving me?  Captain Derelict?  The Hoboken Hobo?

I promised that I’d have the mannequins out of the room by tonight.  Then I hauled them up to my room and set up three of the mannequins on the stands.  I had to dress them, too.  Undies and dresses.  That was all I needed for practice.

I also looked around to make sure the room was ready for someone.  That was really pretty easy.  I just had to move some of my stuff from the closet back into storage.  The place was clean and tidy, thanks to Jody.  I swear, that girl was only supposed to clean up once a week, and she probably checked on me every other day.  I had to find her a really nice Christmas gift or something.

As I moved some clothes out of my closet and into one of my steamer trunks, I thought it over.  What kind of roommate were they giving me?  Surely they wouldn’t dump another Nikki or Toni in here.  I mean, I got plenty of people around the floor complaining about my guy parts, as things were.  But if they had another Hank, surely they’d put him in Hank’s room.  So what were they going to give me?  Another intersexed troublemaker like me?  Hey, maybe I’d be able to give him a heads-up on all the stuff to watch out for around campus.

And then it was time to get over to detention.  Most of the team seemed like they were looking forward to it.  Jade was talking about Jello and Frank.  Chaka was chattering away about Compiler and Dr. Heavy.  I swear, that girl would be upbeat about cleaning the sewers.  Nikki was talking about Spoof, the guy who cranked out so many hobgoblins that her little ‘oops’es looked insignificant by comparison.  Tennyo was talking to Hank about Dr. Heavy, and Chaka was laughing about how Heavy wasn’t heavy anymore.

I managed to admit that I was hoping I got to help Frostbite with her homework again.  Of course, almost anything would be better than Fubar’s pool or those bio-hazard toilets.

Mrs. Cantrel delegated chores, sending Chaka down to Fubar’s pool, and Jade off to help Jello again.  I had warned everyone about the Foob’s pool last night, hadn’t I?

Mrs. Cantrel sent me up to second floor, to help Static Girl with cleaning and then homework.

I knocked on the door and said, “Avon calling!”

A girl grumpily opened the door and stared at me.  “What is it?”

I told her, “Mrs. Cantrel sent me up to help you with stuff, and then work with you on homework.”

I looked her over.  She was maybe 5’3”, so she was a couple inches taller than I was.  She looked like a junior, but she wasn’t wearing any makeup, like a lot of the junior and senior girls were doing.  And she could use the help.  She had plain brown eyes, in a face that was somewhere between ‘plain as mud’ and ‘kind of cute’.  Her chestnut brown hair was almost as short as mine, but it stood out like the quills of a porcupine.

Oh.  Right.  Static Girl.

She was wearing a t-shirt and a mid-length skirt, but her clothes looked like the worst case of static cling ever.  Oh right, it WAS the worst case of static cling ever.

I went heavy before I walked into the room.  I still felt a tingly sensation all over my skin, as if there were a static charge that could light fluorescent tubes from forty feet away.  It felt like the time Father had taken us to a science museum and I had watched the guys demonstrate what you could do with a 20-foot-high van de Graaf generator.  And I was feeling the same intensity of charge, when I was heavy.  That was some static charge she was carrying around.

I looked around the room.  The lightbulbs were special industrial lights, in heavy mesh cages.  The papers on her desk were all stuck together.  The dolls up on her shelf had really embarrassing static cling.  The sheets on her bed weren’t even fabric, and they had static cling.  On the far wall was a large metal knob with a heavy cable attached.  The cable was probably more than long enough to reach every point in the room, and it was coiled up on a metal stand beside the metal knob.  The knob and the cable were inside a protective cabinet of plastic, as if they posed a danger to someone in the room.

Oh.

I asked, “You can’t use that cable and ground things out by yourself?”

She shook her head miserably.  “I can’t touch it for more than a second.  I generate this static field, right?  And I can’t turn it off.  And if my body’s charge drops below about six million volts, I usually pass out.  One time I accidentally grounded myself and passed out on a grounded metal grating, and I went into a coma.  They think I would’ve died if the static charge from my body hadn’t melted the metal pipe that was grounding the grating.”

I opened the plastic cabinet and got out the cable.  She nervously moved to the far side of the room.  I said, “Well, that sucks.  Can they build you some sort of spacesuit so you can get around without charging everything around you?”

She looked even more miserable.  “They’re trying.  It turns out that if I’m in a contained suit like that, my bodily charge builds up, and eventually I either blow the suit in a huge flash, or the suit holds up and I knock my own organs out.  Last year, I spent three months in that bed, waiting for my heart to heal enough that I could walk around again.”

Holy crow!  And I had thought there were downsides to MY powers…

I started discharging everything on the side of the room away from her.  She kept looking at the cable like it was a spitting cobra, so I was guessing she’d had some bad experiences with it.

I stayed heavy.  I walked around touched the cable to her clothes in her closet, and all her books, and her papers, and her doll collection.

Then I rolled up the cable and let her sit at her desk.

As I did the other side of her room, I asked, “Have they tried some sort of power-draining walker, like they have for that guy with the aerials sticking out of his body?”

She shrugged, “They’re still working on it.  They had one, year before last, that they thought was good, but it blew out three times in two weeks, when I was just trying to go to classes!  They never did figure out what was going wrong, and then last year I spent most of the year in the clinic or lying in bed, but they say they’re building something new this year.”

I had to wonder if Alpha pranksters were responsible for those blowouts.  It just sounded so like what The Don and Hekate would enjoy doing.

She pouted, “I really hate this.  Most of the people I want to talk to can’t even come in here without getting shocked senseless about every three seconds.”

I asked, “What about visiting other people?”

She really looked miserable then.  “They won’t let me visit Puppet anymore.. because I accidentally shocked some of her control systems and knocked ‘em offline.  It was bad.  Really bad…”  I thought she was going to burst into tears.  “She could’ve died.  And it was all my fault!”

I shrugged, “Well, you can talk to me.”

I got a big frown for my troubles.  “Yeah?  You’re one of the pretties.  You don’t talk to Thornies.”

God, I hated having to explain this.  “I’m not one of the pretties.  I’m a boy.  I’ve just got a really weird case of GSD.  So now I’m intersexed.  Part girl and part boy.  Every gay-basher on campus has tried to beat me up in the past month.  And since I don’t look like a lizard or a rock or something, the other GSD cases won’t talk to me either.”

I put the cable away and closed up the plastic cabinet.  She breathed a big sigh of relief.

I asked her, “Did you have some homework you wanted help with?  Mrs. Cantrel said something about that.”

She sagged, “I’m doing okay this year, in everything except trig.  But you’re like a frosh!”

I smirked, “That’s ‘super-frosh’ to you, pal.”

She almost grinned for a second.  “Be serious.  You can’t help me on math, can you?  Or are you one of those gadgeteer geniuses too?”

I said, “I probably can.  I’m in Mrs. Bell’s sixth period trig/pre-calc…”

“Me too!  That’s my class!”  Then she sagged back into depression, “But I have to take it remotely.”  She pointed at a big monitor screen by her study desk.  “And I’m really having a hard time with this stuff.”

I told her, “Well, let’s look over what you’re doing, and we’ll see what I can do to help.  Okay?”

She nodded miserably.

We spent a long time going over her trig homework.  It took me a while to figure out what the problem was.  She had missed some important stuff in geometry and algebra, and those gaps were crippling her ability to do the trig homework.  So I started out by going over each of the algebra mistakes, and working with her on those points…

We were still fixing problems with her algebra background when Mrs. Cantrel threw me out.  As she ushered me to the front door, I said, “Can you get her a math tutor?”

Mrs. Cantrel gave me that evil grin and said, “I thought that’s what I was doin’, Goodchild.”

I rolled my eyes.  “She needs help.  She missed a lot of math from the last two years, and she needs to get that under her belt so she can do the trig.  I can come over here and help her every day this week, but that may not be enough.  And I still haven’t gotten Frostbite caught up!”

She considered it, “I’ll see what I can do.  Just don’t you think it’s gonna git you out of any tutoring work.”

“Honestly!  Why would I want out of tutoring?  It’s so much easier than cleaning Fubar’s pool, or scrubbing floors, or anything else around here!”

She just stared at me like she was trying to figure out what con game I was running on her.  I swear, I am never going to understand regular people.

Dinner was its usual weirdness at the Team Kimba table.  I learned that Fubar had launched a snot-bomb at Toni but wasn’t fast enough to nail her.  I heard that the immense jet-black guy was called Slab, and could really soak up impacts.

And I heard that Tennyo stayed late to help clean up Fubar’s pool again, since he had managed to muck it up in about an hour due to sinus problems that I really didn’t want to think about.  Plus, when Thornies were cleaning his pool, there was some real attention to detail and to health concerns.

I heard that Frank - the kid with the huge unwieldy helmet - was a major projective empath, and had a terrible time being around other kids without overwhelming them with his emotions.  I heard that Fey was really getting tired of Spoof’s ‘hobgoblins’, which she thought were actually manifested matter instead of magical constructs.  Toni ‘helpfully’ revealed that some of Spoof’s new spoofs were naked giggling Nikkis.  Man, I could hardly wait to see that.

And Hank had spent a bunch of time working with Dr. Heavy, trying to teach him how to use his gravity-warping ability to fly around in zero G, without a ton of success.  But they’d had a lot of fun doing it.  Apparently, they’d accidentally caught Dr. Traherne up in the zero G local field when he came down to watch, and he’d floated around upside-down until he lost his cookies.  Which was pretty messy in zero G.  Hank was still laughing about it.

After dinner, I rushed back to my dorm room.  I had my mannequins set up, and I started practicing.  It took a while until I could reach through the dress and feel the difference in density between the dress and the lingerie and the body.  That was important.  Then I spent a lot of time just practicing getting a ‘grip’ on the lingerie and extending the region of low density to all of the lingerie.  After about an hour, I could do it consistently.  And quickly.  That was really important.  Once I could do that, then I could reach through the dress, make the lingerie go light, and whisk it off the mannequin.

Okay, so some of the time, I missed.  A couple times I walked off with half the bra, or half the panties.  A couple times, I walked off with the bra and most of the mannequin’s ‘breasts’.  Ugh.  I didn’t dare try this for real until I didn’t have to worry about ripping the boobs off someone.

It took me perhaps another hour - an hour of occasionally ruining cheap lingerie and dresses and even a couple of the mannequins too - before I really got it down.  I could feel the density difference between the panties and the dress and the ‘flesh’, and I could alter the density of just one of the objects.  The hard part was sort of ‘extending’ my lightness so that I could get all of the bra, or all of the panties, without taking anything else too.  I mean, stealing some snotty bitch’s bra would be funny; accidentally ripping out her lungs would be A Bad Thing.  Unless it was Tansy Walcutt.

After enough practice, I could make my arm go light, and then steal the lingerie off the dummy, right through the dress.

I practiced again, swiping my arm through the dress and the dummy to steal the panties off the thing.

Of course, at that moment Toni walked right in without knocking, and caught me holding the panties from the mannequin.  “I don’t wanna know, I don’t wanna know!”

I winced, “Toni, come on back, it’s not what it looks like…”

And, of course, just to make it extra humiliating, Vox walked in right then, wondering what was the deal with Toni.  She stopped and stared at me.  She said, “Good God, you look like a pervert!  What are you doing?”

I grinned, “Watch this.  So, tomorrow or next week, someone like Glissade gets in my face again…”  I focused, reached through the dress, and.. stole the bra off the mannequin.

Vox stared at the bra, and then snickered, and then snorted, and then doubled over laughing.  She was so loud that we drew a crowd, mostly from Boy’s Town.  I had to put the bra and panties back on the dummy under the dress, and demonstrate about five more times.  To about half of the floor.

ALL the guys wanted to see it.  Even Kenny and Jeff stood in the doorway and peeked.  Gabriel and Flux and Risk seemed the most interested.  Well, Flux and Risk were both pretty notorious as practical jokers.  Lancer couldn’t stop staring.

Michelangelo leered, “If you steal Walcutt’s panties off her, I’ll take ‘em.”

The general response to that was “ICK!”  But really, who’d have thought that Gerald the gangsta wannabe had a thing for Solange-style sleaze?

Vox giggled, “Ayla, you really are a perv.  Who else would think of this?”

Of course, after a few more demos, I had to get the two still-intact mannequins down to the basement, and the rest of the stuff out to the dumpster, before my new roomie showed up and thought I was a huge pervert.

Okay, as soon as she saw me ogling girls in the shower, she’d know I was a pervert.  But I didn’t need her to think I was a huge pervert.

Not yet, anyway.

Friday, October 6

The morning showers were both good and bad.  Good part?  Fey was shaving her legs again.  Stark naked.  Really slowly and carefully.

Bad part?  Tennyo and Vox grabbed me, marched me back to my room, and chewed me out for staring like a fourteen-year-old boy.  Well, what did they expect?  I AM a fourteen-year-old boy!  I’ve got enough testosterone in my system for TWO fourteen-year-old boys.  I just happen to have girl parts sticking out.  Of course, they were mad about the boy part that was sticking out.

If I’d said any of the things I was thinking, one or both of them would have killed me.  So I just kept my mouth shut and pretended to be sorry that I was staring so much.  Frankly, the only thing I was sorry about was that I got caught staring so much.  But I had enough sense not to say that either.


That afternoon, I walked back from my weekly meeting with Dr. Bellows – scheduled early so he could berate me for getting detention, just before I actually had to go to detention - and found that my new roommate had finally shown up.  There was a tiny amount of stuff on the floor, and an antique sword on the other desk.  I really wanted to check the sword out, but I figured that was a sure-fire way to piss off my new roommate before he or she even found out what a pain I could be.

I sat down at my desk and got some trig homework done.  Then a HOT Oriental girl came walking in, looking like she’d just taken a long shower.  I mean, she wasn’t up in Nikki’s class, but she was definitely babe-o-rific.  She had beautiful, almond-shaped eyes that were a vibrant jade green, instead of the brown you would expect.  She had gorgeous, straight-black hair that she was trying to dry with a completely inadequate towel.

Wait a moment.  She was doing something wrong.  It took me a couple seconds of impolite staring to figure it out.  She was drying her hair like me.  Like a guy.  Her hair was trailing sexily across her shoulders, but she was drying it like a guy who was used to short hair.

Okay, definitely a changeling.

Still, she moved in that graceful way that I had come to associate with martial arts.  Or maybe I hung around Chaka and sensei Ito too much.  She had a slender, sexy build, and yet she looked quite athletic.

She looked at me and asked, “I am Chou.  Are you Anya?”

I grinned, “Ayla.”

She thought out loud, “That sounds oddly familiar.”

I winced and admitted, “Clan of the Cave Bear.”

Her eyes opened wide.  “Oh!  Darryl Hannah!  She was hot in that!”  And then she remembered that she was a girl, and she blushed furiously.

I waved it off, “Hey, all us changelings hit little moments like that.”

She looked at me.  “You’re the second person today to use that word.  Is it common?”

I smirked, “Only if you hang around Belle.  Is that who told you?”

She paused and said, “No.  I am supposed to get a tour from Belle later?  I heard the word from Toni.”

I smirked, “Oh.  Chaka.  You survived the whirlwind that is Toni Chandler?  You’re tougher than you look.”

She almost grinned.  “I believe I know what you’re talking about.”

I added, “And don’t worry about the tour with Belle.  Her codename is Beltane, as in Celtic magic stuff, so a lot of people shorten that to just ‘Belle’.  The tour’s pretty useful.  She’ll show you where a few important things are, and she’ll show you the Homer Gallery.  That’s got some pretty cool superhero things in it.  The school’s obligated to show you Lord Paramount’s picture on your first day.  He’s a major contributor, and sort of our own private Doctor Doom.”

She got that ref.  A comic book nerd.  She sure didn’t look it.  “You mean, with armor, and…”

“No, just everything else.  He has his own country in eastern Europe now, and he’s supposed to be a major supervillain.  Plus, he’s supposed to be a really bad dude in a straight-up fight.”

She had a ‘wow’ look in her eyes, but she didn’t say anything.

I looked at her, then at the sword, and guessed, “So, are you one of the martial arts kids, like Toni?”

She shrugged, “I suppose so.  But I am learning other things that I can do with my Chi.”

I nodded, “Well, if you really want to learn martial arts, the sixth period Basic Martial Arts class has some impressive people in it, including Toni.  If you want to slack off, I’m in fourth period BMA, and it’s pretty lightweight compared to sixth period, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

“Why would you say so?”

I tried to explain, “Fourth period?  About the toughest opponent there is me.  Or Silverwing, or Golden Girl.  Nobody except the instructors have any serious martial arts training.  Sixth period?  You’ve got Toni, who’s like the goddess of martial arts.  You’ve got a couple indestructible bricks.  I’ll have to introduce you to Hank and Evvie.  They’re both on this floor.  Hank’s one of us, and Evvie’s one of the lesbians.  Hank’s got years of martial arts background from growing up on military bases.  Let’s see.  Billie.  Super-strong, flies like there’s no such thing as gravity, regenerates faster than Wolverine, major energy blasts, an energy sword that makes Star Wars lightsabers look wimpy, sees in the dark, you name it.  Umm, you’ve got some serious martial arts people.  You’ve got Jinn, who’s absolutely indestructible.  Blitz, who’s into martial arts and also is one of these Energizers who can hit you with a few thousand volts if you touch her.  Sara, who’s an unkillable demon with tentacle attacks.  Some psis with psychic attacks, et cetera, et cetera.”

She thought for a few seconds and said, “It sounds like I would benefit from being in that class.”

I shrugged, “Hey, I probably would too.  Except for all the bruises and broken bones I’d get.  But I need sixth period for my trig/pre-calc course.”

She looked surprised at that.  “Pre-calculus?  I thought I would be on the freshman floor.”

I said, “You are.  There are a couple sophs stuffed down here with us, but we’re mostly freshthings.  I just happen to be taking some advanced stuff because I went to prep schools before I came here.”

Her eyes lit up.  “Like Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville?”

This girl was from Nashville, Tennessee?  She sure didn’t sound like it.  She sounded like she was from Hong Kong.

Hmm, Montgomery Bell Academy sounded familiar.  I think Chilton’s debate team had faced off against them in Nationals last year.  Pretty tough for a bunch of Southerners.  Not at all what I had expected.  “Yeah, like them.  Are you from Nashville?”

She thought for a second.  “No.  I am from Knoxville, which is hours away from Nashville.  But our school has played Montgomery Bell Academy in football.”

Weird.  A high-end prep school like that, playing regular high schools in sports?  That just didn’t sound right.  Chilton was part of an intermural league of prep schools and magnet schools.

She looked around at the room.  The bunk bed was pretty ordinary, since my silk sheets didn’t show underneath the comforter.  The hammocks and beanbag chairs were a bit unusual.  The fridge plus pantry plus microwave plus coffeemaker was probably a bit much.  She asked, “Are all the rooms this nice?”

I grinned, “No, everything here is mine.  I had the walls painted.  We did the hammocks one time when we were re-doing the sunroom on the other side of that wall.  I bought the other stuff too.  Anything in the fridge is up for grabs, unless you write your name on it.  That includes treats for visitors and friends dropping by.  Same for the pantry.  Use the microwave whenever you want.  But the coffeemaker is pretty tricky: if you want some coffee, ask me to make it for you.  Most people just hike over to the cafeteria and slug down the stuff they make.”

She cautiously asked, “Do you have tea?”

I shrugged, “Sorry, no.  The coffeemaker isn’t really geared for making really good tea, anyway.  But the caff carries some fairly decent teas, mixed in with the usual cheap crud.”

I could always pick up a good tea set, if she was really interested.  The key things would be the quality of the water, and finding some really good teas.  There wasn’t much point in making tea in the room if you were going to use the tap water from the bathroom and those little teabag things.  That was why I had a gallon jug of purified water to use in my Krups.

I looked at my desk and realized something else I’d better get in.  “Oh, and my laptop isn’t Whateley standard, either.  The school will issue you one.  If you want to use mine, I’d like you to ask me first.”

She frowned in thought.  “Why would I want to use yours if I have one of my own?”

I explained, “Mine is a lot more powerful than the school laptop.  And it’s a lot more ergonomic.  And it can have games on it.  Yours isn’t supposed to.  They’re really picky about that.  So, if you want to play games, you’ll want to use mine.  And if you want to run a complicated simulation or do programming or something, you might want to borrow mine for that too.  And since mine is ergonomic, you might want to borrow it if you need to type a thirty page paper over a weekend.”

She thought it over without saying anything.

I was going to have to get used to having an inscrutable, partly-silent roommate.  I wondered if Ito had a roommate that he drove nuts with this routine.

I said, “Take a look in the fridge and pantry.  If there’s nothing in there you’d want to eat, write some choices down on the sheet on the side of the fridge.  Jody’ll pick them up when she gets my stuff every weekend.”

She looked stunned.  “You have a servant who comes in and fills your fridge and pantry every week?”

I explained, “Jody’s not really a servant.  She just makes some pocket money cleaning my room, doing my laundry, running a few errands, you know.”

“No.  I don’t know.  You make it sound like you’re a billionaire like Bill Gates or Bruce Goodkind or something.”

I blushed uncomfortably.  “I am.  We didn’t get around to last names, did we?  My last name is Goodkind.  Bruce Goodkind?  He’s.. my father.”

Her jaw dropped open.

I was afraid I was going to get the “dollar signs in the eyes” look, or the “you evil mutant hater” look.  Instead, I got the “shock and awe” look.

She said, “No wonder you have a single.  I didn’t know!”

I almost laughed.  “No, it doesn’t work that way around here.  I got a single because Nikki and Toni had already picked each other, and Billie and Jade had picked each other.  I just happened to be odd man out.  And believe me, I’m pretty odd, even for here.”

She looked me over, like she was seeing something that I couldn’t see.  Maybe she was an esper as well as a martial artist.  She pursed her lips, “Your Chi is.. odd.  Very unlike that of most girls.”

I winced a little.  “That’s because I’m a boy.  I was Trevor Goodkind until a couple months ago.  When I manifested my mutation, my body changed.  I still have guy stuff between my legs, but everywhere else I’m girl-shaped.  Which I’m not very happy about.”

She actually sighed in relief.  “We can talk about this?  Because I was a boy, until I was given the sword.  It changed me into a 100% girl.”

“Periods and everything?”

She nodded uncomfortably.

Yep.  Used to be a guy.

She looked around and said, “Are we allowed to discuss this everywhere?  Toni came right out and asked me if I was a changeling, in the common room downstairs!”

I smiled, “Sort of, and sort of not.  Poe Cottage is the ‘alternate sexualities’ dorm.  But we pretend that most of the people are put in it because they’re nuts.  Okay, some of the kids in Poe are nuts.  But there are more transgendered kids than usual this year.  The girls are all lesbian or bi.  The boys are all gay or so bi that it’s a problem.  And us changelings.  Normally, they have one, maybe two or three TG kids in a whole year.  I think there are only about eight total in the three upper grades.  This year, we started with six changelings, and we’ve picked up three more just since the start of September.  From what I’ve heard, this is way too many changelings for normal years.  But the whole freshman class this year is abnormally large too.  So everyone in the dorm knows what’s what.  No one outside the dorm does.  Feel free to talk with anyone in Poe.  Don’t discuss this with anyone outside Poe, unless you’re willing to risk a gay-bashing that could destroy most of the Eastern Seaboard.”

She smiled, “There isn’t really anyone around here who’s that powerful, is there?”

I warned her, “Oh yeah.  After Hank manifested, he had to fight off a squad of heavily armed anti-mutant soldiers.  He busted up a couple jeeps and a tank getting out of there.  Apparently, the tank put a round right in his ear.  Exploded like two feet away.  Didn’t even trash his clothing.”

“Wow.”

“And he’s not the toughest kid on the floor.  Actually, he’s probably the nicest guy you’ll ever meet.  But Billie?  She looks like Ryoko.  You know who that is?”  Chou nodded.  “She’s that powerful.”

“Wow.”

“Then there’s Fey.  Nikki.  She’s a mage.  She’s already more powerful than I think most of us can understand.”  I added, “And that’s just the changelings, just on this floor.  There are some real bad mamma-jammas on this campus, and some of them are major gay-bashers.  Do NOT give anyone a reason to think you’re not a nice, normal girl.  Not unless you’re ready to fight major super-shits a couple times a day.  Trust me on this.  Everyone on campus knows about my being a Goodkind, and everyone on campus knows I’m intersexed.  My first couple weeks here, I was in more fights and confrontations than you want to hear about.  And every damn one of them was against super-powered mutants.”

She quietly said, “You must be very powerful.”

I could hear the question she didn’t ask.  I shrugged, “Not as powerful as a lot of people around here.  Maybe more flexible.  I can change my density.  I can get really dense, until I weigh over a ton and I’m diamond-hard.  Like that, I get super-strong, even if I’m not as strong as Hank or Billie.  And I can go the other direction, and become immaterial, so I can walk through walls and fly and stuff.  That makes it easy to get away from major jerks.  I can do a few other things too, but that’s the bottom line.  I’m a Warper who changes density.  How about you?”

She carefully explained, “It is all Destiny’s Wave.”  She indicated the sword.  “Destiny’s Wave gave me these powers.  I can do some martial arts, and I can sense Chi, and I can do some other things like that.”

“Hmm.  Sounds like you need powers testing more than I do.  Maybe you’re a mage, and the sword unlocked your potential.  Maybe you’re an Avatar or something.  Heck, maybe you’re really a baseline who got ‘Imbued’ with the spirit of the sword somehow.  I dunno.  But the powers testing guys are gonna have a field day with you.”

Maybe I didn’t put that too well.  She looked pretty discouraged at the idea.  I tried again, “Look, it’ll be a good thing.  You’ll learn stuff about yourself and your mutation that’ll really help as time goes on.”

She looked at the sword and said, “Perhaps.  But Destiny’s Wave has already provided lots of help.”

What?  Did the sword sit around and tell her how to use her superpowers?  I didn’t think so.

She finally broke the silence with, “Oh, you told me your name.  I am Chou Li.”

I snorted.  “Sorry.  It’s just…  Well, that’s a pretty lame pseudonym.”

She frowned, “I did not have a lot of time to choose one.  My old name was Alexander Farshine, and that no longer fits me.”

Alexander Farshine?  Yikes.  Okay, Chou Li it is.

I covered up the slightly embarrassing moment by jumping to another topic.  That’s me.  Mister Smooth.  “Do you spell that L-I or L-E-E?

“L-E-E.  Just as in the comic book.”

What?  There was a comic book covering the “Chou Li” of Confucianism?  I had to see that.  Or was the comic book something completely different?

“So.  Are you an early riser?”

She finally admitted, “Yes, I have been getting up early every morning to practice my Tai Chi.”

I was afraid of something like that.  Toni woke up in the mornings like she’d just been given an espresso enema.  Nikki had complained a number of times about having the Energizer Bunny bouncing around in her room way too early in the morning.  Of course, Toni had complained more than once about having a comatose lump lying in bed growling at her, and occasionally popping off hobgoblins in the process.

I said, “How about I take the top bunk, so you can wake up and get rolling without stepping on me on your way out?”

She had to think that one over.  “Are you sure you want to give up your bed?”

It didn’t seem like that big a sacrifice to me.  I told her, “It’s no big.  Here.  Let me fix things right now.”

I went heavy and tossed her the top mattress, complete with the spare sheets and comforter that were already on it.  Then I scooped up my mattress and flopped it into place on the upper bedframe.  I slid her mattress onto the bottom frame, and we were all done.  I turned to her and in my most dead-faced Arnold imitation said, “No problemo.”

She actually smiled at that.

Maybe she was just being polite.  It wasn’t like I could do an Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonation anymore, not with my stupid voice.  I had liked having a decent guy voice, and I had looked forward to getting a deeper voice, like Father and Paul.  Now I was stuck with a voice that was pitched more like Hilary Duff.  Ugh.

She peeked under the comforter and said, “I have a blanket.  You do not need to give me yours.”

I looked over at the junk she had in her pack, and I told her, “First, this blanket is one of my spares.  Remember?  Billionaire family?  I’ve got plenty of stuff.  And I’ve got several trunks of stuff in storage downstairs.  Second, you’ve been sleeping on the ground for weeks.  You need to wash all that stuff in antiseptic and insecticide before you put it on a clean bed.  So use my stuff until your stuff is ready.  And third, you really need to get new stuff.  The Whateley store has plenty of things like bedclothes and towels.  The stuff you’ve been using is maybe okay for roughing it in the woods, but it’s silly to live like that when you don’t have to.  Fourth, I have lots of spares, plus someone who does laundry for me, so if you can’t get new stuff, you can use mine this year.”

She thought about it for several seconds.  I just clenched my jaws and kept still.  This was almost like negotiations.  You had to suit your style to your situation, and you couldn’t let the other person get you to jump ahead and give up all your advantages.  If she needed time to think it through, I needed to show some patience.  I mean, I didn’t have a single room anymore.

“That is a very kind offer.  But I believe my sponsors have left me well-provided, so I will not need to use all your things all year long.”

I took the opening and asked, “So who are your sponsors?  Mrs. Horton didn’t tell me.”

She paused for a moment, and then asked, “What do you know of the Tao?”

I didn’t know where she was going with this, but she had a magic Chinese sword, so there could be a connection in here somewhere.  I was willing to play along.  For a while.  “Last year, we read Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching, but we also read Kirkland’s criticisms of that kind of translation, so my understanding is likely to be pretty skewed.  Let’s say that I got some pretty basic concepts out of it, and leave it at that.  Like the idea that the best approach to life is not action or inaction, but rather a harmonization of one’s personal will with the natural harmony of Nature.”

She smiled.  “That is not.. unreasonable.  Actually, much more than I expected.  Now do you know how the Tao relates to the Eight Immortals?”

I knew that one too.  Well, I knew one Western preconception.  “They’re a group of legendary xian from Chinese mythology.  They’re revered by Taoists as if they were real people.”

She smiled more.  “They are real.  Two of them accompanied me for most of my journey.  They are my sponsors.  They know that I will be safe here at Whateley from The Demon Lord of the Hell of Fiery Immersion.”

Whoa.  After some of the stuff I’d seen here, I could definitely believe the bit about ‘pursued by a big demon’.  I doubted that she was the only one ever sent to Whateley for that kind of protection.  I’d heard rumors about a couple other kids.

I said, “Okay.  Well, hopefully your sponsors supplied you with plenty of cash.  But I’m going to go ahead and ask Jody if she’ll do your laundry too.  Okay?”

She stared at me in shock, as if I was going to ask Jody to commit seppuku right in the hallway.

I said, “Relax!  Jody can always say no.”  I mean, I didn’t want to take advantage of Jody.  And she was really helpful.  Surely she’d tell me if I was asking her to do too much.

Or would she?

Dang, I so didn’t want to put too much on Jody.  I mean, she had enough trouble just keeping everything under control on the floor.  Between Scrambler ignoring everything her roomie and her friends told her, and Gabriel going all bi-polar on you at the drop of a mitre, and Michelangelo being his usual troublesome ‘gangsta wannabe’ self, Jody was dealing with a lot before she even got to the usual ‘my roommate is bugging me’ stuff.  I was going to have to make her tell me the truth about handling extra work for me.

And then there was the fact that Chou didn’t look like she owned more than three or four days’ worth of clothing, so she might need to do laundry a couple times a week until she could buy more clothes.

I mean, she did have sponsors.  And she said they were the Eight Immortals.  So she was going to be able to afford clothes and food and stuff, right?

But she had been forced to walk to Whateley, hadn’t she?

Maybe I’d better find a way to keep an eye on her, just in case.

I moved away from that touchy topic by telling her, “And you probably have your own tastes in music and stuff.  Here’s my favorite.  They’re called Brass Monkey.”  I played a little bit from one of their best songs, “Military-Industrial Convex”.

She politely refrained from puking.  I mean, she had this horrified rictus across her face, like I had just told her she had to go kiss Fubar on the mouth as an initiation rite.  Why does everyone hate Brass Monkey?

Like she could talk.  She liked Country-Western, and Coldplay, and Kelly Clarkson!  Ugh!  Trace Adkins?  Keith Urban?  I thought I was going to vomit.  Man, she didn’t sound like a hick from Tennessee, but she sure used to be.

We looked through my MP4 player and found some areas of compromise.  She liked Nickelback and The Fray and Fall Out Boy.  I could live with that.

At least it wasn’t gangsta rap, like Gerald listened to.  You can’t spell ‘CRAP’ without R-A-P.  If she’d told me she liked Fifty Cent and Twista, I would have dragged Toni in here and let Chaka get medieval on her ass.

I got her to look through the fridge and the pantry.  Frankly, it took some major tooth-pulling to get her to admit that she even ate, much less what she liked.  But I added some fresh fruits and veggies to the weekly list, along with some Japanese rice crackers I remembered seeing at the Whateley store.  I hoped she’d like the crackers.  If not, I could find something decent on the internet.

Toni knocked on the open door and bounced in.  “Hey, Chou.  You didn’t have to listen to Brass Monkey, did you?  Other than that, Ayla’s not too awful.”  She grinned to show she was teasing me.  I grinned back, but I wasn’t sure how Chou was going to take it.

Chou looked at me, tilted her head towards Chaka, and lifted one eyebrow in a silent “is she always like this?” question.

I grinned even wider.  “No, most of the time she’s worse.  Wait until you see her study.  It’s like the Cirque de Soleil showed up in your study hall.”

Chou looked worried.  I’d let her see for herself.  It was pretty hard to describe.

Toni looked at me and said, “Move it, Ayles.  Don’t wanna be late for another fun trip to Hawthorne!”

I got up.  “Look Chou, make yourself at home.  We’ve got detention over at Hawthorne for a couple hours.”

She suddenly got a look on her face like I’d said we were going over to Hawthorne to sacrifice babies.

Crap.  Okay, next I needed to convince her she hadn’t been assigned to room with the Emperor Palpatine.

I waved her toward us.  “Come on and walk with us.  I’ll explain the whole thing.”  We headed down the hall.  “We were just trying to rescue a girl from this Avatar named Tansy Walcutt who kidnapped her.  But Tansy was on her way off to a picnic with the Alphas.  You know the group in your school who was too cool to talk to anyone else?”  She nodded.  “Okay, imagine those kids but with stomp-on-your-face superpowers.”  She winced.  “So they attacked us.  And we kicked their asses, which froshes aren’t supposed to be able to do, so we got blamed for a premeditated, planned attack.”

Chaka bounced excitedly, “You see, our friend isn’t really a person.  She’s more like a PK energy field who’s still got a copy of the mind of the girl who created the field.”  She looked at the flummox on Chou’s face and started over.  “Okay, we’ll introduce you to Jade and Jinn.  Then it’ll make more sense…”

About the time that Toni was explaining how she beat an unstoppable PDP with a psi sword and shield, who could read your mind as you planned your attack, and who had major PK abilities, we reached Hawthorne and sent Chou back to Poe.

“Dang, Toni!  You wanted to block an Esper, so you just ‘blocked’ him?  Just like that?”

“Well, I’ve been doing my homework, ya know.  According to Taoist philosophy, you can close the brow chakra and block the pathway that Psis use to read your mind…”

I just shook my head.  “It’s not that easy.  At least, for most of us.  Maybe Chou can do it.  She’s got that whole Taoist thing going for her.”  I thought for a second.  “Do you think you could teach it to me?”

Toni actually frowned in thought as we walked into Hawthorne.  “I dunno.  First, you’d have to get in touch with your ki, and you’re a long ways away from that.  Then you’d have to ‘awaken’ it, and that could be pretty dangerous.  Then you’d have to learn how to do this one thing, and hone the skill, which might take you a couple years.”

I sighed, “But you just thought about it and did it.”

She grinned, “But I’m not exactly normal, right?”

I muttered, “I’ll say.”

“HEY!”

Mrs. Cantrel zoomed up on her flying wheelchair, and gave us her shark-like grin.  “I was wondering if you two were going to be late.”

Chaka bounced, “Me?  Late?  I love coming over here!”

I said, “I just got a roommate, and we needed to show her some stuff.”

Mrs. Cantrel looked at me and said, “I hope you’re not showing her how to become a troublemaker.”

That was so unfair!  I wasn’t the person who made trouble around here.  I was just the person who got the trouble dumped on his head!

But there was no point in arguing with the woman who got to assign the tasks.  That was self-defeating.

Cantrel gave me her evil grin.  “Phase, for you, I think we’ll start you out with Diz.  Help her clean up, and then maybe you could do something with her.  Like.. oh.. I dunno.. how about Scrabble?”

“Sure thing,” I said.  I really wished I knew why I was getting her evil grin over a Scrabble game.

“Better you than me,” Chaka muttered as I walked away.

What the heck was that all about?

Mrs. Cantrel pushed me up to a room with a nameplate that said ‘Diz Aster’.  Oh, nice.  Who stuck this kid with a name like that?

The massive, reinforced double doors looked like they were misplaced, and The Hulk was walking around wondering what happened to his doorway.

Mrs. Cantrel buzzed on a doorbell, and after a few seconds, the doors SLAMMED open.

Oh.  Right.  The girl Chaka was talking about whose PK field wouldn’t shut off.  Everything she did had eight tons of force behind it, including opening her doors.

I went heavy and walked in.  The room looked like gadgeteers made it to hold The Hulk, all right.  But then there was stuff for an eleven-year-old girl.  If the eleven-year-old girl was The Hulk.  Well, if she put out eight tons of force with every movement, a real My Little Pony™ doll would pretty quickly become My Little Basashi.

The room didn’t need much cleaning up, so I was done about the time Diz had the Scrabble board out.  I was worried about picking on a little kid, so I took it easy at first.

Big mistake.

Then I tried using everything I knew.

That kid was a Scrabble shark.  She knew exactly which foreign words were in the ‘official’ dictionary, and which ones weren’t.  She wouldn’t let me use anything that wasn’t in her mammoth Scrabble dictionary.

The little poop.

So, after I lost three straight games of Scrabble to Diz, Cantrel yanked me for other duties, telling Diz that Toni would be up to see her in a few minutes.  Diz really perked up at that, which made me feel about as wanted as a burning paper bag full of dog shit.

Mrs. Cantrel shooed me off to other tasks.  “You just git on up to see Frostbite.  She wants some more help with geometry homework.  And when you’re done there, Static Girl needs more math help too, so you can go to her next.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Frosty ushered me into her toasty-warm room.  This time, she was warm enough that she wasn’t even wearing her parka.  Just a flannel shirt and a couple sweaters.

After we got a few more homework problems completed, she asked, “So where were you before me?”

“Diz.  She kicked my ass in Scrabble.”  I don’t think I managed to keep the disgust out of my voice.

Frostbite giggled, “Oh, she kills everyone at Scrabble.  How’d you do?”

“Well, I thought I was being nice and taking it easy on a little kid…”  Frostbite snickered.  “…so it took me a couple turns before I realized I needed my A-game.  First game, she beat me by 132 points.”

She looked shocked.  “And you weren’t trying hard?  That’s really good!  I don’t play her anymore, because she always beats me by like two hundred points.”

I shrugged, “I still didn’t win even when I was trying my hardest.  My other games, I lost by 42 and 29 points.”

She looked impressed.  “29 points?  That’s about the best anybody’s done against her in a long time.  She even beats the Foob, when he plays her.”

“I still don’t like losing.”  Especially to a kid.

Frostbite was in pretty good shape homework-wise, and didn’t need more than about half an hour of geometry tutoring.  So, once she was good, I headed back to second floor to Static Girl.  I discharged everything in her room, and then we spent the rest of my detention working through algebra problems, as I tried to get her caught up enough to do the trig problems that were her actual assignments.

After detention, as we were about to leave Poe for dinner, Belle showed up to take Chou on the requisite tour.  Belle patted Chou on the shoulder and said, “Come along, freshthing.  This won’t hurt a bit.”  Of course, being Belle, she said the last sentence in the tones of a dentist about to perform root canal.

I ruthlessly told her, “And don’t worry, Belle.  No one’s done the Whateley-as-Hogwarts joke yet for Chou.”  I pretended to look abashed as I said, “Oops!  I hope I didn’t ruin the joke!”

Belle gave me a look that promised a hideous revenge some time when I least expected it.

Like she hadn’t already played quite a few practical jokes around here.  The ectoplasm ‘door’ that wouldn’t open had been one of her best.  She had opened Tennyo’s door, and then put into the doorframe an ectoplasm ‘door’ that looked like a real door that was closed.  Tennyo had struggled with it for long seconds, as she valiantly tried to get it open without tearing the doorframe to shreds.

As they walked out, I said, “Just bring her to the caff when you’re done.  We’ll wait for her, and I’ll show her the food line.”

So, while we waited for Belle to give Chou the short version of the tour, the rest of us were having one of the usual whacko dinner conversations.  This time, instead of having to watch Fey and Tennyo do the flirting-competition thing with Hank, we had Fey and Tennyo fussing about losing Hank to another woman.  It turned out there was a new Poe girl named Lily, and Hank was having dinner with her.

Jade finally worried out loud, “So, did you ever think that this new girl, Lily, might be, I don’t know, working for Tansy?”

Fey asked, “Are you sure you aren’t turning paranoid?  Sure, Tansy’s a mega-bitch, but it’s hard to believe she’d be that obsessed about us.”

I snorted, “Oh, you obviously don’t know Tansy.  Still, the timeline doesn’t quite fit.  I mean, the call for roommates went out on Friday, right?  The ‘breakfast battle’ didn’t happen until the next day.”

Jade argued, “But the new girl moved into the room right above ours.  Coincidence?  Tansy already had Jinn, and she knew where Jinn was rooming.”

Hmm…  Could Tansy have gotten that intel out of Jinn?  It seemed like all of the information transfer had gone the other direction.  And could Tansy have arranged to get a pawn into the room directly above Jade?  Well, sure she could if she wanted to spend enough money.

I thought about it for a few seconds.  Assuming she restricted herself arbitrarily to a budget of $50,000 for the task, could she do it?  Yes.  She only needed to find a way to get Juanita out of Angel’s room for the rest of the year.  I’d heard from Electrode that Juanita went home because her uncle had cancer.  Okay, $5K to Nex to find out everything there was to know about Juanita, $15K to a sleazy private detective to find a likely target in Juanita’s family, and then a $30K bribe to Juanita’s uncle to fake the ‘dying of cancer’ bit for five or six months before getting a ‘miraculous’ cure.  So it was feasible.

Feasible, but stupid.  If she was inserting a pawn into Poe, she didn’t need to stick the pawn into the room directly over Jade.  That was pointless.  It would be far better to put the pawn on the same floor as Jade, so that they’d meet constantly in the hallway and the bathroom.

But, in order to manage the insertion, the person behind the scheme would have to know about the ‘alternative sexuality cottage’ bit, otherwise any new kid would get shunted off to some other dorm.  And Tansy was still clueless on that point.. as well as on a few thousand other important points.  So I didn’t see how Tansy could have been behind it.

Now Amelia Hartford was a different story.  But Hartford didn’t need to plant a pawn in the dorm in order to get as much intel on us as possible.  And Hartford would have planted a new girl in a much subtler way.

So I was going to say ‘no’.

I came back to the conversation just in time to hear Tennyo growl, “If the new girl is working for Tansy, someone’s gonna have to rearrange her face for her.”

Oh crap.  Now I had something else to worry about Tennyo doing!

I got up from the table when I saw Belle walking Chou into the cafeteria.  Chou had that ‘deer in the headlights’ look that told me Belle had hit her with way too much information.  That, and the Crystal Hall was pretty over the top.

Chou looked around at the fountain and the plants in the middle of the domed hall.  She looked at the trees inside the dome.  As I walked up, she said in an awestruck voice, “This is your cafeteria?  It is nicer than the Knoxville Convention Center!”

“Welcome to Whateley,” I smirked.

After she’d done the “kid at her first World’s Fair” bit for a few more seconds, I said, “Come on, close your mouth, I’ll show you where all the vegetarian fare is.”

Whateley had enough people who didn’t eat meat, or couldn’t eat meat, that they had a pretty decent selection of other stuff.  Pastas with non-meat sauces, rice pilafs, bean-and-veggie burritos, and on and on.  Plus the salad area, the fruit table, and the vegetable table.  Not to mention all the desserts.

Chef Marcel saw me, and casually strolled over.

I introduced her, “This is my new roommate, Chou.  Chou, this is Chef Marcel, who’s one of three excellent chefs here at Whateley.”

“Enchanté,” he said smoothly.

Chou actually blushed.  Well, you didn’t have to be French to know what he had said, or what he had meant.

He looked at her and then back at me.  He stuck to English, for her benefit.  “It is most fortunate that you picked tonight to join us, as I have two pieces of André’s pear and walnut tart.”

Chou looked at me in shock, but didn’t say anything.  I took one slice and put the other slice on her tray.  Then I walked her down the food line.

She finally asked, “You have the chefs prepare special food for you?”

I murmured, “Not exactly.  The chefs prepare special food for the staff and teachers.  I just have a little arrangement, so some of the really good leftovers come my way.”

She stared at me with a stunned look, as if I had just told her that I could spin straw into gold, but it wasn’t that big a deal, because I didn’t do it all that often.

We sat down, and I did the introductions.  “Everyone, this is Chou Lee.  She’s stuck with me for a roomie, so be nice to her.  Chou, this is Tennyo, Fey, and Jade.  Chaka you’ve already met.”

Chou stared at Fey for long seconds before she could blink and tear her gaze away.  Chou stared at me with a question on her face.

I couldn’t help smiling.  “Yeah.  She used to be just like you.  But she’s got a Faerie glamour that makes her even more attractive.  That’s what you’re feeling.  You’ll get used to it.  Go ahead and eat.  We’ll talk with everyone in my room after dinner.”

The tart was excellent.  Hand-toasted walnuts, pear slices glazed in a sugar syrup with just the right touches of rum and lemon juice, and a perfectly-browned piecrust that was flaky and light.

I didn’t have to watch Chou to know when she got to the dessert, because there was a “Mmm!” noise that sounded like she was enjoying something that was indecently good.

Tennyo needed fourths - well, maybe that was fifths, since I wasn’t counting - so Chou actually finished a little before Tennyo did.  Then we all walked back to my dorm room.

Make that our dorm room.  I didn’t have a single anymore.

Jade sent Jann off to find Hank, while Jinn showed up in girl-form, with those skin pours that looked just freakily realistic.  We crowded into my/our room, with Jinn and Tennyo floating around, Fey and Jade in hammocks, Toni in a beanbag chair, me on my bed, and Chou nervously sitting in her desk chair.

When Jann came back in cabbit form, leading Hank by the hand, Chou’s eyes nearly bugged out of her head.  I had to clench my teeth to keep from snickering.

We spent most of the evening just getting to know one another.  I thought Chou’s eyes really would bug out when Hank mentioned wrecking a tank and a couple jeeps in the same way that most people would describe accidentally breaking mom’s window with a baseball.

And Chou’s story was really interesting.  I was amazed by the sword.  A real, talking, magical sword!  Holy crow!  I guess the sword really had been teaching Chou how to use her powers.  Freaky.

Sometimes it used Chinese words when it didn’t know the English words.  Once in a while, I sort of wondered if my Chinese might be better than Chou’s.

Saturday, October 7

I woke up when the alarm suddenly started playing Nickelback.

“JEEZ!”

It took me a minute to realize that it was still on the playlist I’d set up for Chou.

Man, maybe I ought to just buy that girl an MP4 player of her own, with noise-cancellation headphones.  Then I could play what I wanted on mine.

Ugh.  I hopped down and climbed out of my pajamas.  Then I slipped on my bathrobe before Chou walked in and saw Mister Happy.  I mean, I’d told her that I was intersexed, and that I still had a johnson, but having it shoved into your face was a very different thing.  If I could avoid that, I would.

Chou was already drying off in the bathroom before I got in there.  She looked at me and asked, “I thought you said you slept late?”

I yawned, “I’ve got class this morning.  Besides, you have to get up early enough to get breakfast, even on weekends.”

Chou looked around at the other girls in the bathroom.  She had a question in her eyes, but she didn’t ask it.

I got going on my shower, since Chou was already slipping on a robe and no one better-looking was about to get naked.  I mean, I like Punch.  She’s a real sweetheart.  But she’s just not Fey or Bugs or Tennyo.

Of course, I had to use up all the time I had budgeted for ogling naked hotties.  I walked to the caff, ate a couple still-warm croissants, and got the biggest to-go cup of the good coffee.

Then it was off to World Lit.  I had already sent in my paper on Milton’s Paradise Lost.  I wrote on what I thought was the key role of Raphael in the epic.

I walked in and sat down.  Silver Serpent turned and smiled, “What, no dramatic battles with villainous upperclassmen this week?”

I grinned, “No, we got that taken care of last night.”

Someone behind us snorted with laughter.  Bubble let out a high-pitched giggle.

Pendragon leaned forward and said, “Phase, could you wait for me after class?  I’d like to ask you a couple questions about your fight with the Alphas.”

I shrugged, “Sure.”  I mean, if more people wanted intel on the Alphas, I was good with that.  It also meant that the Cape Squad was going to owe me a favor, and it gave me an opportunity for some two-way information exchange.

Professor Zinn walked in, and of course he zeroed in on me.  “Well, Miss Goodkind, it’s so considerate of you to grace us with your presence this week.  Are you sure there’s nothing major you need to do this morning, like battle Galactus?”

I wasn’t going to let him intimidate me, so I smiled back and said, “Oh no, we’ve got that covered.  My teammate Tennyo can take him all by herself.”

He harrumphed a bit, and had Grad student Jeff hand back last week’s papers.  I got an ‘A’.

No ‘A+’.  Rats.

No having to write another journal article!  YAY!

Although maybe he just downgraded me because I was really late to class last week.  After all, Pendragon was supposed to be the head of the Cape Squad, and you didn’t see him having battles royales all across the campus.  Maybe that kind of thing wasn’t supposed to be happening at all.  If so, why was it happening to us just all the time?

For next week, the assigned epic was the Faerie Queene.  I already knew my topic.   I planned on focusing on references to the culture and power of the Sidhe in the epic.  Funny I should think about that, huh?

Plus, I knew that Nikki had an entire reference library’s worth of material on the subject, just sitting idly on her bookshelf.

As I walked out of the room after class, Pendragon was making a joke to Stunner.  Apparently his SO in the Capes was named Glorianna.  Funny.  Between Uther Pendragon and Glorianna, he was going to have a lot of possibilities for self-reference in his paper.  At least he seemed to have a sense of humor about it, unlike that crabby cow Majestic.

I waited for a moment, since Pendragon wanted to talk with me about the Alphas.  I knew he really wanted intel on how we beat the snot out of them, but I was good with that.  The more people who knew how to put them in their place, the happier I’d be.

I should have known that talking about this in class would open up a whole crate of worms.  Stunner and Silver Serpent wanted to hear the scoop on the Breakfast Brawl too, and a couple other people tagged along as well.

So I focused on the basics.  Tansy was a secret Avatar and a ruthless kidnapper.  We were utterly unprepared to take on the Alphas, we just wanted to give Generator and Fey a chance to persuade Tansy to cough up Jinn.  The Alphas jumped us when most of our team was preparing to do crowd control.  They seriously underestimated us.  And Tennyo mopped the floor with them once she dealt with Aries.

Pendragon asked, “And what would you have done differently if you were preparing for a battle?”

I didn’t think this was a secret anymore, so I wasn’t worried about showing him.  I lifted up my jacket to reveal…

“A utility belt?” Silver Serpent gasped.

Stunner said, “Right-o.  I saw it when she kicked those guys’ asses a couple weeks ago.  She took out a whole Alpha hit squad after they bushwhacked us.”

Pendragon shook his head slowly, “Phase, you’re making some very powerful enemies.”

I grimaced, “It wasn’t my choice.  They started it.  But if they don’t have enough sense to quit while they’re still in one piece, they’ll find out I’m capable of finishing it.”  Goddamned Alpha assholes.  “Anyway, that’s why I always wear a utility belt.”

Pendragon looked it over and said, “It just doesn’t look like you could store anything bigger than a postage stamp in there.”

I grinned, “Devisor toy.”  While everyone watched, I stuck my whole hand into one pocket and came back out with a throwing knife.

“Wow.”

“Impressive.”

I put the knife back in its scabbard inside the pocket.  I wasn’t going to admit that the knife was just about the biggest thing I could get into that pocket.

I said, “Check out Möbius.  He’s a freshman devisor.  Tell him Phase sent you, and you can get a 10% discount on one of these.”

Stunner asked, “How much is one of those gonna run me, if I need a discount?”

I said, “The current going rate is about four K.”

“Four thousand American?  That’s bloody steep!” she squawked.

I agreed, “Yeah, but they’re worth it.”

Silver Serpent quietly pointed out, “Phase, for you that is a trivial amount.  For many, that is their life’s savings.”

I admitted, “Yeah, I know.  But Möbius is entitled to make a living too, you know.  And most of us won’t need anything like this until we graduate and go pro.  Once you’re hooked up with a superhero group, getting the money to buy one of these utility belts won’t be a problem.”

As we broke up, I quietly told Pendragon, “If there’s someone on the Cape Squad who needs one of these now, and can’t afford it, let me know.  I might be able to help.”

He nodded, “Thank you for the offer, Phase.  I may mention it to a few people.”

Then it was off to lunch.  Pendragon peeled off to go hang with the other Cape Squaddies.  Stunner was off to sit with a group of other black kids.  Silver Serpent disappeared somewhere I didn’t see.  Well, it was a big enough cafeteria that you seldom saw everyone who was in there.  No matter where you sat, a huge percentage of the tables were screened from your sight by the big fountain-slash-planter in the center, and several other areas of greenbelt.

Anyway, I was concentrating on the people behind the lunch line.  Chef André was peering out the doorway, and he reacted as soon as he saw me.  He hastily ducked back into the kitchen.

By the time I got a salad and made it through the line up to the main course tables, he was strolling casually toward me with a sandwich on a plate.  He slid it into the sandwich area just as I got there.  I grabbed it and took a quick peek.

It looked a lot like a corned beef on rye sandwich.  But the bread was grilled and still piping hot, and the cheese wasn’t Swiss.  I rushed back to the Team Kimba table to eat.

Mmm.  The Jewish rye bread was grilled, like a grilled cheese sandwich.  The cheese was a high-quality Fontina, and slices of Vidalia onion were grilled in there too.  The stone-ground mustard was a perfect accompaniment for the dense bread and perfectly-prepared corned beef.  Man.  This was to ordinary corned beef sandwiches what Bugs was to ordinary devisors.  I had to go back and discuss the cheese selection with André.

Detention started out fairly normally.  I spent some time helping Static Girl with her math.  I finally broke through her shell enough that she admitted her real name was Claire. 

I shook her hand - which tingled quite a bit even though I was heavy at the time - and said, “Nice ta meetcha.  I’m Ayla.”

She got the ‘shock and awe’ look in her eyes.  “Yeah, everybody knows who you are.  You’re a Goodkind.”

I shrugged, “Sort of.  I was disowned and kicked off the estate when my mutant powers popped up.”

She said, “Yeah, I’ve heard from some other kids what creeps they are, with Humanity First! and mutant hating and all.”

I couldn’t help defending my own family.  “It’s not all their fault.  My Mother is clinically mutophobic.  She’s so afraid of mutants that she can’t be in the same building with one.  I had to leave.”

“Mutophobic?  Isn’t that just an excuse to hate mutants?”

I insisted, “No, it’s real.  Just like arachnophobia or aquaphobia.  When my mother was a six-year-old girl, she and her older sister were kidnapped by two supervillains.  Maelstrom and Tearaway.  Maelstrom generated this enormous fear aura, and manifested monsters.  Tearaway was worse.  He looked like he was half Komodo dragon, and he ate human flesh.  He…  He ate my mother’s big sis alive.  In front of her.  My mother was in an institution for three years after that, and she’s still on anti-phobic medications and still seeing a shrink.  It’s not her fault.”

Claire looked away.  “Sorry.  I didn’t know.”

I patted her on the shoulder, getting a bit of a shock in the process.  “I know.  It’s okay.  The Goodkinds have made life hell for a lot of mutants, including a lot of mutants who are at Whateley now.  I get a lot worse than that every single day.”

Claire opened up a bit after that.  It turned out that she was Claire Pierce, from Livermore, California.  Her mom and dad both worked at Sandia National Labs.  Her dad was a high-energy physicist, and both her parents were still really worried that something about their jobs had caused her specific mutation.

She admitted sadly, “I really wanted to grow up and be a doctor.  But there’s no way I could go into medicine now.”

Just as I was about to commiserate, Mrs. Cantrel was at the door.  “Goodchild?  Get over to Frostbite’s room right away.”

I went, even though I didn’t see what the rush was.  I mean, geometry homework isn’t usually time-sensitive.

I got to Frostbite’s room, and found her in the hallway, bundled up in a full snowsuit and still shivering.  Next to her was a technician who was working on the door.  Ice and snow littered the floor around the door, and ice encrusted the entire doorframe.

I asked, “What happened?”

The technician explained, “The sprinklers were set off…”  At my glare, he insisted, “Yes, sprinklers, we have to have fire safety in the dorm you know.  So anyway, there’s a thick layer of ice over everything, and I can’t get the door open.”

Frostbite asked hopefully, “Can you do something?  I mean, you can be super-strong or else going through stuff, right?”

I frowned in thought.  “Yeah, but I’m not sure that either of those is a viable option.  Let me see…”  I went heavy and took a pull on the door.  I could feel that the latching mechanism was frozen solid.  Literally, in this case.  “Uh-oh.  I don’t think I can get the door open without ripping the handle off.”

The technician smiled, “Thanks for being careful.  Most of the bricks around here yank first and ask questions later.  I’m Ernie.”

I went normal and shook hands.  “Phase.  Nice to meet you.  So tell me.  If I go light and phase through the door, what could I do?”

He asked, “You don’t, by any chance, have any gadgeteer skills, do you?”

“No.  Sorry.”

He asked, “Could you phase me and my toolkit through the door so I could work on the electronics inside there?”

“Definitely no.  I might be able to phase your whole toolkit through the door with me, but not something the size of a person.  And there’s no way I want to risk leaving half of you behind.”

He grimaced.  “Uhh, I think I’ll pass on that one.”

Frostbite moaned, “Then I’m stuck out here!  There’s no way to get that door open and get Ernie in there, and there’s like a foot of ice on everything!  That damn Oly!”

Had she said ‘Oh-lee’?  Who or what was Oly?

Then it hit me.  “Wait a minute.  We have two excellent options, here in Hawthorne right now.  Let me see if I can find Chaka or Fey.  Chaka does this funky martial arts ki stuff…”

“Ooh!  I heard about her fight with Montana!”

“… and Fey’s probably the most powerful mage on campus.  If one of them can’t solve this problem, I’ll eat my hat.”

Frostbite smiled a tiny bit, “You don’t wear a hat.”

I smirked, “No problem.  I’ll get the chefs to make me a pita-bread derby, and I’ll eat that.”

Then it was time to play Leonard Nimoy, In Search Of.. wiseass mutants.

I lucked out.  In a matter of seconds I came across Chaka, mopping away in a hallway.  I called out, “Hey Tone, I need a hand.”

So, of course, she leaned the mop against the wall and clapped.

I gave her a glare, which just bounced off.  “Very funny. I need help with a room.”

“What’s the matter?” she asked.

“It’s frozen,” I explained.

“Then get Cantrel to unlock it for you.”

Okay, so I hadn’t explained.  “No, I mean FROZEN. As in sealed shut with ice.”

She stared at me for a long second, before she reacted.  “Oh.  Right.  Whateley.”

I led her up to where Frostbite and Ernie were waiting. “Hey.”  They both turned and looked in surprise, since they probably hadn’t expected me to be back in under a minute.  “Frostbite, this is Chaka. Chaka, this is Frostbite.”

Chaka instantly showed her usual keen sense of tact.  “Lemme take a wild guess.  Ice powers?”

Frostbite grimaced and gave her the tech-talk version.  “Well, to be accurate, I have a psychokinetic talent that’s attuned to water molecules.”

Chaka’s eye lit up, “Oh!  Do you know Riptide?”

Frostbite nodded, “Rip?  Oh, right, she’s in Poe, isn’t she?  Yeah, but part of my talent is that I use the heat energy in water to propel it.  When I move the water, I translate the heat energy into movement, and the water loses heat.  Problem is, once the ice sets, I can’t move the water anymore.  I can shape the water into a form, but once it freezes, that’s it.”

Chaka asked, “AND you can’t turn off your ‘freeze’, right?”

Well, duh.  Why do you think she’s in Hawthorne?

Frostbite said, “Yep.  And I’m not immune to the cold that I create, either.  It’s not as bad as it was last year, but every so often, it still goes out of control, especially when I’m dreaming.  Then, I wake up in a Winter Wonderland.”

Chaka said, “Yeah.  The snow on the floor was sort of a giveaway.  So, what do you need me for?”

Frostbite complained in anguish, “I’m frozen out!  That idiot Olympia came into my room and started ‘dricking out over something.  Not only did she short-circuit the heaters and the dehumidifiers in my room, but she set off the freaking sprinklers!  Everything in my room is covered in ice a foot thick!  I barely got out with my snowsuit!”  She clutched her arms over her chest and shivered. “Gawd! I’m freezing!”

Chaka looked at me.  “Okay, and why do you need me?  Can’t you phase through it, or get heavy and just force the door open?”

I shook my head, “What would I do, once I was inside?  I can’t get Ernie there inside to fix the heater, and I don’t know how to do it myself!  And the latch is filled with ice.  If I tried to force it open, I’d probably break the mechanism.  We were thinking that you could do your kung fu mojo on the ice, like breaking a board or something, but not break the metal.”

Chaka hemmed and hawed for a few seconds about how complex it really was, but it only took her one try to shatter the ice so the door swung open.

Inside, it was like a freezer.  A freezer that hadn’t been de-iced since the Harding administration.

Frostbite ran in, almost slipping a couple times on the thickly ice-covered floor, and wailed, “My bed!  My electric blanket!  It’s ruined!  Ohmigod, my homework!  My books!  Oh, no… MISTER MEW-MEW!”  She sobbed as she clutched an ice-covered furry cat plushy to her chest.

As Ernie explained about safety regs and budgets, and checked over burned-out electrical components, Frostbite gave up and headed to someplace warmer.

She didn’t make it out of the room.

The door swung open, and a tall, sleek brunette stepped into the doorway.  She was wearing gold power armor that covered all of her except her hands and head.  She had the face of a classic Mediterranean beauty, but she was flat as a board.  She copped a super-pose and pointed at us.  “You!  You will STAY AWAY from MY MAN!”  She had a thick accent that I couldn’t place amidst the yelling.

Crap.  Had Chaka been seeing other guys, behind Thunderbird and Riptide’s backs?  I went heavy, just in case.

Frostbite groaned, “Oh kee-rist, this again...”

I looked at Chaka, but she was already looking blankly at me.  I asked, “Is this one of Thunderbird’s girlfriends?”

She shrugged, “If she is, then they’ve been holding out on me.”

Power-Dork in the doorway yelled, “Thunderbird? Who is Thunderbird?  I am talking about LANCER!”  Her accent was getting worse as she got angrier.

Chaka, of course, made everything worse by asking, “Does Lily know about this?”

Power-Dork screeched, “Lily?  Who is Lily?  Is she the redheaded whore?  Or the tramp with the blue-dyed hair?”

Okay, if this bitch gave us any more trouble, I was going to tell Fey and Tennyo what she said.

Chaka shoved her other foot in her mouth, “Errr…  No.  She’s Hank’s girlfriend.”

“WHAAAATT?!?!”  Power-Dork totally lost it.  She started screeching in what sounded like Greek, or maybe Turkish.  Not that I understood any of it.  Well, if it was Greek, I was pretty sure one of the bits in there was Greek for ‘your mother’.  And suddenly electrical arcs began sparking all up and down her body.

“Oh, not AGAIN!” Frostbite yelped. She grabbed one armored arm and hollered, “Dammit, Oly, we just got this place open again!”

Oh.  Right.  Oly.  Olympia.  Olympian ideal for the feminine form.  Got it.  Probably an Exemplar.

Olympia didn’t stop screeching Greek imprecations that probably would translate to something that would make Grandmother Goodkind pretend to faint.  She casually shook one arm, and Frostbite went flying across the room to whack against the wall over her bed.

Crap.  I was still heavy, so I strode over and grabbed her.  I didn’t want to hurt her, or make her lose it even more.  I figured I’d just restrain her until Chaka could walk over and knock her out with some ki trick.

But she was strong.  A lot stronger than I was.  Absolutely no technique, but really strong.  I could have tried a couple aikido throws on her, but I couldn’t see that doing that would help anything.  And I wasn’t going to go disruption-light and phase-KO her until all that electricity calmed down.  I’d already had my buns fried enough times this year.

So I just hung onto her, waiting for her to calm down, while she blasted lightning all over the room.  I was wondering what I was going to have to do with her, when suddenly an ice-covered plush kitty came flying out of nowhere and caught her right between the eyes.

I’m still not sure whether that was a good thing or a bad thing.  Olympia screamed, and began giving off more electricity than a power station.  I just hung onto her for a few seconds, putting up with the electricity arcing along my arms, and then it stopped.

She stopped.  She went limp, and fell backward into the hallway, utterly unconscious.

“Nice job!” I heard from behind me.  I turned to see that the electric assault had melted all the ice, and Frostbite was doing her thing with the water.  She was pulling all the H2O in the room into a big mass in front of her, and dropping the room temp by another fifty degrees in the process.  I could feel the room getting colder, and I was as hard as diamond.

When Frostbite was done, there was a ball of ice maybe four feet across, just resting on her floor ready to roll.  Of course, her door wasn’t four feet wide, so that was going to be a small problem.

Chaka looked at the unconscious body and asked in a worried tone, “Is she okay?  I didn’t hit her that hard...”

Ernie said carelessly, “Oh, she’s okay.  She just ‘dricked out.  She’s gonna go bye-bye for a while.”

And, just to prove his point, Olympia started snoring.

I had to ask, “Dricked out?  What the hell is dricked out?”  And why did it sound so familiar?

Inquiring minds want to know, and all that.

Ernie explained, “She’s a Diedrick’s Syndrome case.”  Oh.  Now I got it.  ‘Drick out’ was just a rude bit of slang.  No wonder I hadn’t heard it before.  He asked me something that I missed, and Chaka shook her head no, so I did the same.  As a result, I got the full ‘Diedrick for beginners’ lecture.

Still, when Ernie said, “Y’see, using some mutant powers upset the chemical balance in your brain…”

…I couldn’t resist giving Chaka a big smirk.  “Oh, so THAT’S what’s wrong with you!”

So Olympia ‘crashed’ after going manic.  And they called her ‘Dozer’ behind her back.  As I watched her snore, that seemed really appropriate.

It turned out that the ‘power armor’ wasn’t.  It was a power suppression frame because she had trouble controlling her strength and her temper and her electrical bursts.

Chaka just had to ask.  “Then howcum it looks like a weapons harness?”

Ernie locked Oly’s frame and flipped out two casters, so it turned into a dolly to wheel her around.  He answered, “Only way we could get her to wear it.”

“Yeah,” said Frostbite.  “In case you haven’t noticed, Dozer here isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed.  Do everyone a favor, and don’t tell her?  God alone knows what we’d do if she ever figured it out and stopped wearing it.”

I let Chaka split the big sphere of ice with a single ki-powered karate chop, and I took the bigger piece off to the closest washroom.

When we got back from detention, Chou was sitting cross-legged in the hallway and meditating (or something) while she waited for us.  She gracefully rose to her feet and asked, “Were you all in classes?”

Toni reminded her, “Hey, remember we got detention?  That’s where we were.”

Chou frowned in thought.  “But Ayla had classes today, and I just thought…”

Nikki waved her concern away, “Nah, that’s just Ayla.  No one else is dumb enough to take a class early Saturday morning.”

“Hey!” Billie shouted.

Nikki looked at Billie and remembered about her Saturday morning Flight I class.  She amended, “Okay, only Ayla is weird enough to take an early Saturday morning geek class on something like ‘the hardest books to read in the entire world’.  She’s just like that.”

I muttered, “Thanks, so much.  Just remember you said that, when you want my help on an English paper.”

Chaka grinned and put an arm around me.  Then she switched into a really-sucking-up voice, “I didn’t say that.  And we’re best buds, aren’t we?  You’re my best pal ever, aren’t you?  And I’d never say anything bad about the classes you take.  You’ll help me out with my English papers, right?  Right?  Oh fountain of paper-writing wisdom…”

I had to laugh.  It took Chou a few seconds to get that Toni was kidding.

It was well after dinner before I checked my mailbox.  There was a letter.  No postmark, and no return address.  I rather doubted I was getting mash notes from lovelorn campus girls.

I took it up to my room and laid out a sheet of plastic on my desk.  Then I put on rubber gloves and a surgical mask before I opened it up with a scalpel.  I was sure that everyone else would have laughed at my precautions.  But if it was another extortion note, I wanted to preserve any fingerprints, as well as any possible DNA, that might be there.  The letter hadn’t been hermetically sealed - there were little gaps at the corners where it had been folded - so I figured I didn’t have to worry about poison powders and biological weapons.

I opened the note and read it.

     I have information about Tansy Walcutt that you really

     need to know.  I’m willing to sell this information to

     you for $1,000.  I’d prefer it if we kept this between

     ourselves.  Meet me at the cafeteria loading dock at

     10 PM.

I shook my head sadly.  This was so pathetic.  The authors might as well have written “I’m planning an ambush!  Please show up and get pounded.  If you can’t make it, please RSVP before 10 PM.”  Morons.  I mean, who did they think they were dealing with?  Paris Hilton?

And the amount was just insulting.  One thousand dollars?  What kind of idiot has valuable information for which they only charge a thousand bucks?  If I were the sort of weasel who had valuable information on a Walcutt, and I were selling it to a Goodkind, I’d be asking for ten million, at a minimum.

I went next door to ask Nikki to try scrying the target area for traps.  But she and Toni were out.

Oh, right.  Nikki had some modeling thing.

So who was available for backup on this?  It would have to be someone whom I could trust.  Someone tough enough that I wouldn’t spend the whole time worrying that they might get hurt.

Hank or Billie would be perfect.

But Toni and Hank were off showing Chou around the campus, and talking to her about what classes she ought to take.  I’d be really surprised if she didn’t end up in sixth period aikido with them.  Didn’t anyone besides me realize that this was a high school, and we had real classes we needed to take in order to be able to do something after high school?  At least Vox got that part.. which was one of the many sterling qualities Vox had.

So who was around?  Billie was off working at the library.  Apparently, she really liked it.  I still had a hard time seeing Tennyo The Destroyer as a nerdy kid who used to spend lots of time in the library.  You know, someone like me.

Jade was off doing late detention, because she didn’t want to miss out on hours spent slaving away in the sewers.  Ugh.  So there was no way I could get Shroud as my backup.

I even walked downstairs to check with Sara, but she wasn’t in.  Or else she wasn’t answering her door.

I was running out of options.  I trusted Bugs enough, but she wasn’t a front-line fighter.  Who did that leave?

I checked upstairs, but Electrode wasn’t in.

Some of the other people who came to mind were friends, but not people I trusted so completely that I’d drag them in on something like this.  Particularly when there were far too many people on this campus who would chew their own arm off for a chance to join the Alphas.  Automa-tech and Kismet badmouthed the Alphas every chance they got, since the Alphas had stripped half a dozen important members from the Beret Mafia.  But I had the feeling that either one of them would leap at the chance to be in The Don’s inner circle.

Who outside of Poe did I trust enough not to fall into the ‘secret wannabe’ camp and/or be utterly outside the group that would ever be accepted, and also wouldn’t stab me in the back because it was convenient, and ALSO were tough enough that I wouldn’t worry about them getting hurt if this exploded in my face?  The people who came to mind would never help out a Goodkind.

Okay, I’d go it alone.  I loaded my utility belt, made sure I was dressed for a fight, and headed out to do a little scouting around before ten.  I wasn’t really worried about the trap.  After all, the letter writer had already demonstrated a severe deficiency between the ears.  So I was pretty sure I could handle anything this moron planned.  And if I couldn’t, we were going to be at the loading dock of the cafeteria.  I could phase through the wall into the kitchen areas, or just dive through the asphalt and come up again in the Crystal Hall.  How hard could this be?

I came up through one of the tunnels and looked around.  Nothing.

I floated up into the treetops, and scouted the area.  Still no one.

I sank back down into the ground, and popped up just far enough to get air and check for signs of life.  I worked my way all around the entire loading dock area.  It was deserted.  It was largely isolated from the rest of campus, since they wanted truckers to be able to haul groceries in without seeing tons of mutant weirdness.

Man, they should have put up signs saying, ‘No Ambushes Between The Hours Of 4 PM And 10 AM’.

At a couple minutes to ten, I palmed a weapon and strolled as casually as I could into the open area.  There was a small box just lying there in the middle of the oil-coated blacktop.  It was a box wrapped in gold foil, with a big blue bow.

Was this supposed to be ingenious?

Oh well, might as well get it over with...

There was a note on top of the box, tied to the ribbon: ‘Eat Me’.

Wonderful.  Someone thinks that they’re being really clever.  Great, I’ve got a Joker wannabe on my hands.

Just in case, I went heavy and took a deep breath before opening it.  There was no telling whether it was rigged with something.

No bomb.  But inside the box was a large gift-wrapped lollipop that had ‘SUCKER’ printed on it in gold lettering.

“A sucker for a sucker!”  The voice came from the cafeteria roof.

I looked upward and spotted a figure standing on the edge.  It looked like a hot Exemplar babe with fire-red hair.

Fire red?  Oh, please don’t tell me.

The babe burst into flames, while copping a lame pose.

Why do I always get the crazy Firebitch types?

She dropped from the roof to the ground.  She fell a lot slower than normal, so I figured her fire manifesting gave her flight, or at least some sort of lift.  She extinguished herself just before she hit the ground, and she yelled at me, “And you’re a sucker if you think that you can get away with dissing the Alphas!”

I watched her intently as she dropped.  She was pretty hot-looking, but not up in the Bugs class or the Chou class.  Definitely not anywhere near Fey.  So it was time to see what intel I could get this moron to leak.  I asked, “You mean, the Alphas set this up?”

“Sure ‘nuff!” Firebitch gloated.

I had to see if I could push her buttons and get her to spill.  I snarked, “Man, am I relieved!  I heard that the Alphas were slick!  If this is the best that they can do, then I have NO worries!”

That pissed her off, which was my intended goal.  Now let’s see her hold it together.

She fumed, “Hey, listen up freako, I’m plenty slick!  I was slick enough to maneuver you out onto a surface that’s coated with grease.  If I ignite that grease and you try to go de-solid and pass through it, the fire will burn you inside and out.  If you go super-dense, my manifested fire will still burn you and you’ll choke on the smoke.”

Obviously, Fire-for-brains had never heard of the exciting, new concept that people called ‘holding your breath’.  I might or might not get burned by going light, but I certainly wasn’t going to get burned as long as I stayed heavy.  I’d learned that the hard way from Sparkler.

I was starting to wonder if she was a Diedrick’s Syndrome case.  Could I get her so upset that she just started yammering about everything she knew?  And would I be able to believe anything that she said, if she did?  All the ‘I this’ and ‘I that’ bit told me that she had planned this herself, even if she might have been psychically conned into doing it all.

Firebimbo suddenly manifested two fireballs, one in each hand.  From those, two lines of fire shot out, and encircled me.  Lines of fire reached out from the circle and formed a domed cage over me.  Everywhere except where she stood was manifested fire.  Which made things easy for me.

“Well, freako? How’s THAT for slick?” she asked proudly.

I calmly folded my arms across my chest and tried to get her to tell me what she didn’t plan to tell me.  “Oh, admit it! Tansy came up with this entire plan for you!”

“No, she did NOT!  She doesn’t even know that I’m doing this!”

I raised one eyebrow at her.  “And exactly what information did you have about Tansy to sell?”

She frowned, “What? How dense ARE you, Weirdo? I just said that to get you out here!”

I checked again, just to make sure.  “So, you don’t have any information to sell me.”

“What are you talking about?”

I sighed, “Just making sure.  Well, I don’t need to be hanging around here anymore.”

“Yeah? Let’s see you get out of THIS!” Fireball started to shrink the cage.

“Before we do this, there’s just one thing that I’d like to say to you.”

“Oh? What’s that?” she asked archly.

In the words of Janet….  “You’re a fucking idiot.”

I went disruption-light and walked right through her.  She gave out a tiny “eep!” and crumpled in a heap.  Her fire vanished, which was good, because otherwise I’d have had to haul her ass out of here so she didn’t get burned.

I looked down at the idiot. “Tsk!  Talk about a complete waste of a good evening!”

I started walking back to Poe.  As I walked back, I looked up at the sky and asked aloud, “Why do I always get the crazy Firebitch types?”

Oh well, at least it wasn’t someone powerful and also competent, who would beat the shit out of me…

I got back to my room, only to find Chou waiting to usher me down to Sara’s room.  She explained, “We were really worried when you weren’t in, and there was no sign of you!  The Alphas sent hit teams after Billie and Jade and Nikki, and we thought that maybe you were lying hurt out there, somewhere…”

Crap!  Half the team got hit, while I was out playing with The Human Torchie?  This was not good.

We all lay in a circle on Sara’s huge quilt, which was spread out over the floor.  We had our heads together while our feet trailed outward, which seemed metaphorically relevant to me.  Or else I’d been reading too many epics lately.

And we talked the whole thing over.  The attackers had figured that Jade was an easy target, and that Fey was vulnerable to close-in attacks.  But Tennyo?  If the Alphas had decided that Billie was an easy target, then their intelligence network sucked rocks.

Hank decided, “Okay.  So whoever is behind all this is either massively uninformed, or monumentally stupid.”

I snarked, “Which has Tansy written all over it...  But seriously, when we’re putting the clues together, I don’t really count.  The dweeb-head who targeted me admitted she was doing it on her own.  She was just trying to score points with the Alphas.”

I also wasn’t going to admit that I had a potential intelligence resource inside the Alphas, and I was reasonably sure Aries would have dropped me a quick warning if they had targeted me.

Maybe.

Hmmmm…

I was going to have to have a talk with that boy.

“Oh, I really believe that,” Jade said sarcastically.  “I’ve told you how Tansy does her hypnosis, right?  She probably slid up behind Miss Dweeb-head and started dropping suggestions, like ‘The Alphas would be sooo impressed if I just wasted Tansy’s number one enemy Trevor.’  Come on, Ayla.  You know that girl is completely obsessed with you.  Now that I think of it, I’m starting to wonder whether she might have been the one who dropped off your blackmail letter, way back on Ninja Night.”

“No way!” I nearly shouted.  “That’s just stupid!”  I mean, why on earth would a Walcutt bother with blackmail, when...”

The extortionist hadn’t asked for money.

Tansy had been in the cafeteria that first night.

“Tansy wouldn’t have tried...  Well, I mean, why would she?  Hmmm.”  I looked over at Jade, “You think she might have done the blackmail letter?”

I think that was a sign of my utter confusion and mystification.  I was asking an eleven-year-old girl for advice on a subject like this.  Okay, she was our Tansy expert now.  And she wasn’t really eleven.

Oh yeah, I kept forgetting.  She wasn’t really a ‘she’ either.

I had to think about this.  A lot.  Because Tansy should NOT have been in the caff that first evening.  That was the real clue.  That was the one piece of evidence that didn’t fit anywhere reasonable.

Jade shrugged, unaware of all my inner consternation.  “She could have.  Keep her on your list of suspects.”

Or, more realistically, I was going to have to move her onto my list of suspects.  I had been so focused on Hartford as my main suspect that I had been walking around wearing metaphorical blinders.  I had somehow let my ‘list of suspects’ shrink down to one spiteful administrator.  I had to think this one through.

I really needed to think about the extortion note and Tansy.  But everyone else was haring off on other topics that I couldn’t afford to miss.  Like strategy and tactics issues.

Damn, Hank was really on top of that.  He wasn’t trained in politicking, like I was.  He didn’t have a brain like a roomful of Einsteins, like Sara.  But he had the right background, and the right training.  I was definitely going to have to go to Hank for military strategy and tactical ops stuff in the future.

Then we were off on communications networks.  Then revenge hits, like we were Italian mobsters or something.  Ugh.  I was going to have to keep an eye out that none of Team Kimba went unilateral on that.

Then we hit the REALLY important stuff.  Jade taking deviser hormones without even telling us!  The size of Nikki’s hooters.  How hot Bunny was in the sack.  Toni making out with Rip.  Wow.  And with Thunderbird.  Ick.

Somehow, I slipped up and admitted that a lot of the babes around campus gave me raging hard-ons.  Even Majestic, who was really a huge pain in the class.  Everyone except Sara and Hank thought that was definitely in the TMI category.  Sara looked like she was hoping for explicit details.

Dang.  The girls really weren’t boys anymore, were they?  Well, Toni and Jade never really had been, had they?  Hank wasn’t a girl anymore, that was for certain…

Somehow, it turned into a sleepover.  I stayed.  I even dozed off on the floor with everyone else.  Although I really wasn’t all that comfortable about hanging around a lust demon’s bedroom all night long.


I woke up.

And I screamed in terror.

I was lying on Sara’s bed, and I was stark naked.

Worse than that, I was female!  My dick was gone!  Completely gone!  I had a slit between my legs!  “NOOO!!  OH GOD NO!”

And worse than that, I was pregnant!  My stomach was bulging out like I was maybe four months along, and I could feel something alive, wiggling inside me!  “NNOOOO!!”

Sara sat on the bed next to me.  Devil horns had sprung out of her forehead, and she had grown to twice her previous size.  She was naked too, but she wasn’t a ‘she’.  Between her legs was something out of a nightmare.  Or a tentacle porn movie.  It had to be over two feet long, and it was nearly two inches thick.  It was writhing and snaking around, like it was looking to get inside me.  I looked again at my swollen belly.  Make that ‘back inside me’.

I whimpered, “Please, you can’t!”

She grinned at me, her fangs leering horribly from her mouth.  “I already have, Ayla.  What did you think would happen if you slept in the lair of a lust demon?  It’s only a matter of a few months before you bear my spawn.  And, since they seem to like growing inside you, I’ll make sure you survive the birth.  Then I’ll impregnate you again, and again, and again…”

“NNOOOO!!!”

And suddenly another Sara was sitting on the other side of the bed.  This was the usual Sara.  Clothed, petite, looking as if she were about thirteen.  She stroked my hair and said, “It’s okay.  You’re just having a nightmare.  Just wake up now.  Come on, you can do it…”


I sat up abruptly.  I was okay.  I was still in my clothes.  I was still on the floor of Sara’s room with everyone else.  I patted frantically between my legs, and found that I still had Mister Happy and His Luggage.  Whew.

I looked over, and Sara was sitting at her desk staring at me.  And she had the exact same expression she’d had in my dream.

Oh holy crow.  The real Sara had been in my dream.  She had just walked into my head and interrupted my dream.  She had known what I was dreaming, and she could just insert herself into my mind when she felt like it.

Oh crap.  That might be worse.  Just thinking about that was freaking me out.

Sunday, October 8

The slumber party broke up when people awoke.  I waited until Nikki got moving, so I could be in the bathroom while she showered.

After breakfast, I sat down in my room and  I spent an hour thinking it all over from every angle.  Then I walked over to Dickinson and talked to Anna.

She remembered, “Oh, sure, Solange was there on our first day.  I remember, because Mrs. Nelson - our housemother - was really mad at her.  Solange wasn’t helping with opening up the dorm.  And she wasn’t one of the sophomore and junior girls who took us on our tours.  Why do you want to know?”

I stomped my way back to Poe.

Goddamn that Tansy Walcutt!  She had been at Whateley too early for when Dickinson opened, and she wasn’t there to perform the usual ‘older student’ assistance, like Belle and Jody had been.  She already knew I was Trevor Goodkind before she saw me at the caff.  Which meant that she had to know I was Trevor before she got here.  She was the only person outside the changelings who knew Trevor was Ayla, or who knew about Gracie.

And, if she had known before she got here, then there was only one reasonable way she could have gotten that information.

But she had been too stupid to come up with a decent strategy, and instead had just been trying to fuck me over with that extortion note and drive a wedge between me and everyone else in Poe.  But she hadn’t known about Poe, so that had failed spectacularly.

Uh-oh.  There was a problem with my theory.

Tansy couldn’t have delivered that note into Poe herself.  Not with Mrs. Horton’s magical wards around the dorm.  And Tansy was a psi, not a wizard, so she couldn’t even see those wards.  Which meant that she had a pawn in Poe who actually delivered the note.  We had a traitor in our midst.  We had a traitor who didn’t know that I had switched rooms with Billie and Jade.  That ruled out Mrs. Horton, Belle, all the changelings, Vox and her roomie Sharisha, Bugs and Rip, and who else?  Oh yeah, Jade’s friends upstairs, Angel and Juanita.  Anyone else was a suspect.  And, since kids had been moving in that day, that left just about all the rest of Poe.

But Tansy had those evil little psychic ‘knacks’.  What if she had slept with one of the bi upperclassmen and had him wrapped around her finger?  Well, I didn’t have to worry about her sleeping with one of the dorm girls.  Not when she was such a basketcase about lesbianism.  What if she had just done that thing she did to Cavalier and implanted a suggestion that fit in with his natural inclinations?  Christ, we might have a mole in our midst - a mole who didn’t even know he was a mole!  I was going to have to play this gambit especially carefully.

I had the letter and the envelope.  Even if Tansy had been smart enough to wear gloves, so she hadn’t left any fingerprints, there was a chance she had left some DNA on the envelope or letter somewhere.  But both of them were contaminated by most of Team Kimba, and any DNA of Tansy’s could be claimed to be a plot by me to get her in trouble.  A better bet would be magical scrying or having a specialized esper handle it.  A clairvoyant or psychometrist ought to be able to tell who wrote my name on that envelope.

But would that be enough evidence?  Threatening another student’s family was an expulsion offense.  Followed by having the MCO sicked on you, and having most super-groups worldwide - both good and bad - looking to tear you a new one.  So there would have to be fairly incontrovertible evidence on this one.  I wasn’t going to move forward on this until we could find Tansy’s mole.  That would be the REAL evidence that it was Tansy.  Then her ass was mine!

…But did I want her to get expelled?  Her family could probably protect her from pretty much everything once she left Whateley, starting with legal dealings with the MCO that they could stall out for the next forty years.  What if I could find enough evidence to blackmail her in turn?  She could be my information source into a lot of places in Whateley.  And she’d really hate having to be my little puppet.  I needed to think this over really carefully…

I went into my room, locked the door, turned on the stereo MP4 player to provide background noise, and called Gracie.

“Ayla!  What a nice surprise!”

I pushed, “Hi.  I know this is kind of a rush, but I just found some stuff out.  When did you tell Paul that I was going to Whateley?  We didn’t even know until after Sunscreen did my powers testing.  Which was Monday, August 21.”

“Are you sure about the date?”

I insisted, “Yes.  I’m VERY sure.”

She tried again, “How do you know I called Paul?”

I explained, “I figured out how an extortionist here knew about me.  It had to be through an esper attack on a Goodkind.  But this psi didn’t know ahead of time about you living out in California.  She would’ve had to mind-rape one of our family in Westchester.  There’s no way you’re talking to Father, and there’s no way he’s talking to you.  Mother would go apeshit if you called her to talk about her mutant child and Whateley.  So you had to have called Paul.  And it had to be on August 21 or later, but before September 3rd, because the information was about me going to Whateley!”

She thought for a few seconds.  “Let me think…  That was over a month ago, you know…  I think I called him the night I starting playing jazz guitar for Chris, down at the…”

I interrupted, “Okay, that was Wednesday night.  The 23rd.  That’s all I needed to know.  I’ve got to go now.  I’ll call again another day, when I’ve got time to chat, okay?  Say hi to everyone for me.”

I hung up.  Then I called Paul on his private cell phone.  The one I wasn’t supposed to be calling anymore.  But I could remember the phone number, and also the five-digit code to get through the automatic messaging system.

He fumed, “Hello?  Who is this?  This is a private number, and you can be prosecuted for misuse of…”

“Paul, it’s me.  Trevor.  Ayla.”

He snapped, “You’re not supposed to be contacting any of us!  You know that!  I don’t know what you want, but I…”

I cut him off.  “No.  this is Goodkind International business.”

He growled, “You can’t do company business anymore.  You know that.  I can’t help you, because…”

“Stop it, Paul!  I’m not calling to get help.  I’m calling because you need help.  I’ve got inside information that you need, to protect the family and the company.”

“From whom?” he growled suspiciously.

I sighed at his tone.  “From the Walcutts.  And a mutant menace they have at their disposal.”

“WWHHHAATT?!?!” he exploded.

I tried to sound calm.  “Sometime between, oh, Wednesday night, the 23rd of August, and Saturday, September 2nd, you were at a party or a meeting or some kind of get-together.  You met an unbelievably hot blonde.  Just Playboy Playmate of the Year hot.  Long, wavy, golden-blond hair in a really expensive style.  Perfect blue eyes.  About 5’9”, and built like a brick shithouse.  A perfect 24-year-old’s body on a seventeen-year-old babe.  And she had this “I’m too sexy for my shirt” vibe, like Heather.  Maybe you saw Darryl or Marissa Walcutt talking to her.”

He sort of sighed as he recalled it all.  “Oh yeah.  Her.  I remember her.  At the Mathersons’ big soiree.  A Saturday night, I think.  Mother and Father refused to go, as usual.  But Biff Matherson called me up, and I hadn’t seen him in a couple months, so I went.  She was there with Old Man Walcutt, even though she’s way too young for him.  Man, she was smoking hot.”

I just wanted to hit him on the arm.  “Paul, that was Tansy Walcutt.”

“What?  No way!  That fat little uggo with all the pimples?  The one Connie and Heather were always badmouthing?”

I groaned, “Yeah.  THAT Tansy Walcutt.  She’s a mutant, remember?  She got the Exemplar genes, and she changed from an ugly duckling into a swan.  A super-swan.  Only she’s a psi.  And one of her psi knacks is an ability to make you think she’s the sexiest thing since Eve.  And if she fucks you, she can get her hooks into you and make you do pretty much whatever she wants.”

He leered through the phone, “And how would you know all that?”

“Don’t be gross.  Tansy Walcutt?  I’d rather fuck a pig.  I know all this because she’s also an Avatar, and a completely ruthless mutant menace.  She kidnapped one of my friends here.  But this friend is a non-corporeal entity, and so Tansy Avatar’ed this girl and held her prisoner in Tansy’s body for about a week.  Best part?  We can’t even prove that she did something illegal.  So.  DID you fuck her?”

I could feel his frown all the way over the phone connection.  “No.  Biff Matherson did.  He took her out into the gardens, and came back about an hour later, looking like the cat that ate the canary.  He said she was the best lay ever.”

I groaned, “Crap.  That’s one of her powers.  He’s been brainwashed now.  And did she talk to you?”

“Oh yeah.  For maybe…  Jeez, you know, I can’t remember how long we talked.”

I cursed, “Oh CRAP!  Paul, you’ve got to have the company psis sit you down and see what else she got out of you.  I bet Old Man Walcutt took her along with him to use her as an industrial spy.  But she got the connection between you and Trevor and Ayla and Gracie and Whateley.  She ripped it out of your head that night.  I bet you were really stewing about Gracie calling you a couple days earlier and telling you that your freakjob gene-filth younger sib was going off to Mutant High in New Hampshire.”

Goodkind International had a worldwide staff of maybe thirty or forty baselines who were psychic experts, including six on permanent staff at our main headquarters.  So I knew Paul could get serious help on this, and right away.  Tomorrow at the latest.

He cleared his throat.  “I.. umm.. might have been worrying about you.  And you being stuck with all those mutants around you.  But I talked it over with Biff, and he had some pretty helpful advice.  His younger sister goes there…”

“Yeah.  Brenda.  I know her.  She was pretty pissed at me for a long time, because Mother and Father won’t go to anything her family does, now that she’s manifested.  Oh, by the way, if you ever see her, don’t piss her off.  She’s one of those PK super-bricks.  She could squash you like a grape.  And she’s almost as good-looking as Tansy, without your having to worry that she’s stealing every Goodkind International secret out of your head just by talking to you.”

He thought it over.  “Damn.  Well, I’ll get some of our HQ psis on this right away.  Maybe I can get a couple to come out to the estate this afternoon.”

I insisted, “And put out the word all over, about the hot blonde mutant mind-rapist.  And warn any company with whom we’re on friendly terms.  Walcutt’s probably trying to get every industrial secret anybody’s got, while the getting’s good.  Expect another visit from Tansy this Christmas.  Maybe not for you, but perhaps a couple of our vice-presidents or department heads.  And warn the Mathersons to get Biff checked out by psis.  They don’t have an anti-mutant attitude, so they may have some psis who are way better than ours are.”

“Hey!” he defended, “Goodkind International hires only the best!”

“Only the best baselines,” I stressed.  “I’ve met some mutant psis and espers here who make our best people look like a kid with a blindfold, playing ‘pin the tail on the donkey’ after someone spun him around until he puked.”

He said, “I don’t want to argue this point…  Look, Tr- I mean Ayla.  Thanks.  Thanks for calling, and thanks for being concerned about us.  And about the company.  I really appreciate it.  I’ll get on that bitch’s case and make sure we circulate flyers on her all over.”

I smiled, “Good.  Here’s a picture I took of her.  Use it, so people will recognize her.”  And I sent off a pic of Solange I’d taken with my camera phone some time earlier.  I finished up, “Oh, and keep me informed about David.  I want to know if he gets the meta-gene complex too.  And if he does, he may need to talk to me about what’s happening to his life.  I’ll be ready to help him.”

Paul ended the call, “That’s really good of you.  Thanks.  Thanks a ton.  See you…”

Then I needed to contact Unicorn and give her the fabulous news.  She was going to be SO thrilled that her big brother got targeted by Tansy Walcutt.

I headed over to the caff to catch her.  She wasn’t there yet, so I spent about twenty or thirty minutes lounging around, hoping she hadn’t picked today to skip lunch.

She finally showed up, chatting away with four of her BFFs.  I stepped into their path.  They all glared at me like I was a cockroach.

I said, “Unicorn.  Sorry to interrupt the big trek to the caff and all that, but I’ve got something I need to talk to you about.  In private.”

One of the other girls smirked, “Ooh, I bet it’s really important and secret and stuff.  Need someone to tell you how to use a tampon, little girl?”

The rest of the crew all sniggered wickedly.  I just gave them a nasty glare.

“Brenda, it’s about your brother Biff.  And Matherson Industries.  It’s important, and it won’t wait.”

She told her buds she’d meet up with them in the caff, and she stomped off the path to a private area.  “Okay Phase, this had better be good.”

I took a breath.  “Oh, it’s good all right.  You know your brother Biff is still buddies with my big brother Paul?”  She shook her head no.  “Biff invited Paul to a Matherson soiree a little over a month ago, and Paul went.  Guess who showed up, mind-raped Paul, and fucked Biff until she ripped industrial secrets out of his head?”

She stared at me in shock.  “No way.”

“Yes way.  I got this from Paul not an hour ago.  Old Man Walcutt showed up with a fabulous seventeen-year-old blonde on his arm.”

“SOLANGE?” she shrieked.

“Yeah.  She took Biff out in the gardens and had him there for an hour.  And one of her psychic knacks is sinking her claws into a guy while he’s balling her.  Biff’s been brainwashed.  If he didn’t tell her a hundred crucial industrial secrets, he probably spilled some major family secret that’ll make someone ripe for extortion.”

She hissed, “That BITCH!”

I agreed, “Yeah, and she got to Paul, too.  And Christ only knows how many other people.”

“I’ll KILL that bitch!”  She really looked like she was going to go choke the life out of Solange.

There was only one drawback to that.

I wouldn’t have a record of the entire event on DVD.

I walked into the caff, smirking as I thought about the surprise that Tansy was about to get.  I should have known that I wasn’t going to be allowed to savor my small triumph.  The Whateley Martial Arts Cheerleaders spotted me and quickly surrounded me before I could even get to the food line.

As usual, Patti, the Yellow Queen, did the talking.  “Look bitch, you and your friends got the Alphas a week of detention.  A lot of people are gonna remember that.  You think you’re so tough!  Well, you haven’t seen anything yet!”

I looked them over.  Well, looking them over was never a hardship, even if they were annoying as hell.  All of them except Little Bee were just plain hot.  Maybe Little Bee would be pretty steamy too, once she grew up a bit more.  Patti was wearing a tight yellow top with a really short black cheerleading skirt so you could see her color-coordinated cheer briefs.  Ginger wasn’t wearing that tiny a skirt, but she was wearing a really tight, really light-colored pastel top so it was easy to see her taupe bra.  The other two I ignored.

This was so perfect they might as well have picked their clothes out to help me.

I warned them, “You really don’t want to mess with me again.  Last time you got hurt.  This time, it might be worse.”

Patti got in my face, as usual.  She loomed over me, “Tough talking, Phase.  You wouldn’t dare try anything here in the cafeteria.”

Interestingly enough, the caff was exactly the perfect place for what I had in mind.

I concentrated hard.  Then I phased an arm through Patti’s lower torso and the other arm through Ginger’s chest.

Suddenly they both realized that they were less clothed than before.  And that I was holding Patti’s panties and cheer briefs in one hand, and Ginger’s bra in the other.

Then they realized that everyone seated nearby was getting to see more of Patti and Ginger than either girl had expected.

Patti squealed, “EEEEKK!!”

I couldn’t help smirking, “Way to keep from drawing the attention, Patti.”

Patti frantically clapped her hands over her tiny skirt, trying to cover her crotch from both the front and back.  Ginger gasped as she crossed her arms over her breasts.  But everyone around them was laughing and pointing.

I spun Patti’s panties and briefs on my index finger.  I said, “I’ll leave these somewhere for you.  Maybe the second-floor showers in Twain.”

A guy sitting behind me, with a much lower point of view than I had, suddenly burst out, “Hey!  Patti’s a natural blonde!”

The Yellow Queen turned an impressive red.  She and Ginger bolted, frantically trying to keep their personal property from being seen by everyone else in the caff.  Little Bee raced out after them, trying to get them to stop long enough that she could ‘port them to safety.

I threw the panties and briefs and bra into the air.  I was figuring that guys would grab them after they hit the ground.  Of course, that didn’t happen.  This was Whateley.  Two fliers leapt out of their chairs and snagged the bra and panties.  A Shifter stretched his arm out and grabbed the cheer briefs.  None of the clothes got within ten feet of the floor before they were snapped up.

The guys around me were all laughing and gabbing about the floorshow.  So I bowed, and then I strolled over to the food line so I could get down to serious business.  I could see that Chef Marcel had something special for me.

He handed me a Chinese soup bowl and whispered, “It’s my version of shih tzu tou.  Do you know what that it?”

“The lion-dog?  Oh.  Gotcha.”  The soup was a large meatball which smelled like pork, intricately decorated with stir-fried Napa cabbage leaves so that it looked like the head and upper body of a Shih-tzu.

Team Kimba was long gone, since I had taken so long to find Unicorn and give her the news about Solange.  So I sat with the Beret Mafia.  Apparently, I was the only American who wanted to sit with them, and who was also allowed to sit with them.  Automa-tech and Dynamaxx were having a quiet argument over something to do with Spark and Charge.  Cytherea was permitting some lovestruck swain to fetch and carry for her.  From the rolling eyeballs in the vicinity, this was a regular occurrence.

Kismet and Charmer wanted me to sit with them.  Kismet excitedly asked in French, “How did you do that?  I did not know that you were a mage!”

Charmer said, “That was a very nice piece of magic for a beginner, Phase.”

I admitted, “It was not magic at all.  I can change my own density.  But I can change the density of objects, make them immaterial, and then carry them off.”

Charmer thought out loud, “So…  You would be able to reach into a devise and walk away with the battery power?”

I nodded yes.

Kismet got a really alarmed look on her face.  “And you could reach into a man’s chest and walk off with his heart?”

I switched to English.  “Yuck.  I’d NEVER do a thing like that.”

Charmer looked impressed as she said, “It is no wonder that the Alphas avoid fighting with you now.”

I went back to la langue Francaise“I believe that they just grew tired of the detentions.”

They both grinned.  No one except the Alpha wannabes liked these Alphas.  Actually I suspected that the Alpha wannabes didn’t like them either, but didn’t have the cojones to try to knock the current top dogs out of the manger.  The Don and Hekate had most of the campus scared spitless.

And the “lion-dog’s head” soup was delicious.  Not only was the presentation beautiful, but the pork meatball was full of shiitake mushrooms and scallions and sliced water chestnuts.  There was enough ginger and soy sauce and toasted sesame oil to give the pork a rich complementary finish.  And the pork broth was rich with the flavors of the meatballs and the cabbage.  Man, that was excellent.

After lunch, I walked outside and walked most of the way to Melville with some of the Berets before diving into a tunnel and hurrying back to the Crystal Hall.  I didn’t want anyone to know that I was around, much less that I was hanging around waiting for someone in particular.  I floated up through the ceiling to the main floor, and then up another floor so I could be unseen as I watched out a window.

When the Alphas finished lunch, they split up.  The Don walked back toward Melville with his lackeys Cavalier and Skybolt.  Hekate walked off toward the Magical Arts department with two of her peons.  I was pretty sure one of them was Conjure, but I didn’t know the other one.  I needed to improve my intel.  Aries and Icer detoured so they could harass a few Underdogs first.  What assholes.

I drifted through the outer wall of the building and slipped into the crown of a tree, so I could watch unobserved.  After a few minutes of verbally abusing kids who didn’t dare fight back, Aries moved on.  He walked down a side path that would curve a bit before taking him back to Melville.

Perfect.

I stayed light and dove into the ground.  Then I held my breath and flew underground to get ahead of him, and I floated up about five yards in front of him.  Which was actually better timing than I thought I could manage.

“You!  What the hell do you want?”

I calmly said, “What I want is a nice, quiet, private meeting with you, and no one else finding out about it.  So how about we step over here, where it’s nice and secluded?”

Aries didn’t want to be seen with me, of course.  But he was willing to step into the small glen and chat for a minute.

He finally admitted, “Yeah, I knew about the Alpha plans.  Tansy was told to hit Tennyo, Fey, and Shroud.  She agreed.  So what?  No one was gonna target you, so I figured there was no point in sticking my neck out.”

I didn’t bother to tell him that someone outside the inner circle of the Alphas had launched a unilateral strike against me.  Instead, I bitched about the attacks on my friends.

He snorted angrily, “Get real.  Buster on Tennyo?  I hear stuff.  Cavalier has all kind of contacts, and he reads minds when he doesn’t get anything from his contacts.  Tennyo fights major hitters in martial arts class, people like Arianna and Punch, when Ito has her NOT using her powers.  There was no way a loser like Buster was gonna take her.  Nex against Fey?  He thinks he’s really hot.  But PK loses to magic every time.  Learned that from Hekate herself.  Bloodwolf on Shroud?  Not a frigging chance.  He’s tough on humans, ‘cause he regenerates so fast.  But he can’t take anyone he can’t hurt.  Didn’t see any reason I needed to let you know.”

I stared at him, “And now?”

He just shrugged.  “Still don’t.  The Don’s too dangerous, and Hekate’s even worse!  Hell, Walcutt’s hiding under her bed, peeing her panties and hoping Hekate doesn’t voodoo her into oblivion!  I’ll tell you this.  You need to stay away from them.  They’re DANGEROUS.”

I nodded, “Yeah.  I got that already.  Thanks.  For nothing.”  I walked across the grass until I was over one of the tunnels, and I sank down through the ground into the tunnel.

Detention that afternoon started off being pretty ordinary.  For detention at Whateley, anyway.  I spent a long time with Claire - I mean, Static Girl - after I finished doing all the discharging that she needed.  She really needed a lot of help on math.

Then Mrs. Cantrel fetched me for something new.  A girl named Puppet.  For ordinary - even ordinary super-powered - detainees, that meant MOPP protocols.  For cleaning the floor in Puppet’s room, that meant MOPP level 4 protection.

This was not good.  I knew what MOPP levels were.  Goodkind International had a military division that made - among many other items - MOPP suits for the U.S. armed forces.  MOPP level 4 protection was for serious CBW environments.

The suits they had weren’t really made for 5’0” shrimps, but I put on the smallest one they had.  There was a whole closet full of them opposite Puppet’s room on the third floor.  And the closet had sprayers with detoxifying agents, to automatically clean the suits up afterward.  Which meant that whatever was in Puppet’s room was considered to be nasty, with a capital ‘N’.  I put the overgarments on over my shirt and pants, then added the boots, gloves, and full-head gas mask.  Which was soooo comfy.  Not.

Mrs. Cantrel sent me in with a warning.  “Goodchild, that green stuff is Puppet’s blood.  It’s very toxic.  If you get any of it on your skin, you press the big red button on the wall for emergency help, you hear?”  I nodded, and she went on, “Once you got all the tiles cleaned up, and the wastewater poured down the special bio-hazard chute in the MOPP closet, you can take off the overgarments and mask.  I want you to keep the gloves and overboots on, just in case.  If anything springs a leak while you’re not fully at MOPP level 4, you get everything back on as fast as you can.  Got it?”  I nodded again.

Man, this sounded like it was going to be as much fun as Fubar’s pool.

If you added in an attack by Doctor Bubonic.

I trudged in.  The room made me think of some sort of hospital room.  The cheap linoleum tiles covered the floor and went halfway up the walls.  The rest of the room was painted a blah white, as if no one cared how the resident felt about it.  The center of the room had a huge pump with containers of hideous green stuff, all on a system hooked up to a big winch.  Tubes ran from the pump to the backside of the girl in the backless chair.

The girl was intently watching a big monitor screen that was obviously showing some late-afternoon personal-study class.  From what the teacher was scrawling on the whiteboard, I was guessing European History.  Tubes were hooked up all down her back, down the backs of her arms, and down the backs of her legs.  There were even a couple metal tubes that hooked into the base of her skull.  It was like looking at a scene from “The Matrix”.  Only she was green.  Well, if she had green blood pumping through her, that was hardly surprising.  And she rocked forward slightly with each downstroke of the pump.  Frankly, it was nauseating just watching her.  I couldn’t imagine the horror of being her.

She didn’t turn from the screen.  She just growled, “Get the hell out of here!  I’m busy!”

I muttered, “Detention.  Mrs. Cantrel sent me in to clean up.”

“Well, just don’t make any noise, okay?” she snarled.

I got to work.  There was already a bucket and mop against one wall, and the bucket was full of a nasty-looking yellow cleaning agent.

As I mopped the floor and the wall tiles, I listened to the teacher.  “Then the armies of Henry the Fifth and Charles the Sixth met at Agincourt.  Who knows when?”

“October 25th, 1415,” I whispered.

She turned her head and glared at me.  She wouldn’t have been a bad-looking girl if she wasn’t green.  With fifty tubes plugged into her.  Her soft brown hair was scraggly, as if she couldn’t be bothered to do anything with it for weeks at a time.  Her patrician face reminded me of plenty of relatives and girls with whom I’d gone to private schools.

“Yes.  October 25, 1415.  That’s correct,” said the teacher.  “But the army of Charles the Sixth was not helmed by Charles, because he was incapacitated.  Does anyone know who was leading the French armies?”

I whispered, “The constable Charles d’Albret.”

Puppet glanced hastily at me and pressed a button on her desk.  “The constable Charles d’Albret.”

“Yes!  Very good, was that you, Puppet?”

“Yes sir.”

“Well done.”  He went on, “d’Albret was merely Charles’ constable, so there were many important noblemen of the Armagnac party who were also running things.  Now then…”  I took the bucket of toxic waste out, and I poured it down the bio-hazard chute.

By the time I got back in, the class was ending and Puppet was turning off the monitor.  She slowly turned and asked me, “How the hell did you know all that?”

I took off my gas mask and told her, “European History camp, in Paris.”

She snorted, “You sound like some of my cousins.  Who are you anyway?”

“Phase,” I replied.  “Most of the campus already knows I’m…”

She suddenly stared at me in horror.  “You’re a Goodkind?  You’re the Goodkind kid who just manifested?”

This wasn’t going well.  I reluctantly agreed, “Yeah…”

“Which one?  Uncle Herb doesn’t have any kids…”

Uncle Herb?  She was a cousin of mine?  I stared at her harder.  Oh my God, I was pretty sure I recognized her.  Melissa Thurber-Goodkind.

I cautiously asked, “Missy?”  She reacted like I’d smacked her in the face with a dead halibut.  “It’s me.  Trevor.  I go by Ayla now, because my body…”

“GET OUT!  GET OUT NOW!  GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!!  I DON’T WANT YOU IN HERE!”

I stepped out, only to find Mrs. Cantrel furiously zooming up the hallway.  She yelled, “Goodchild!  What did you do to my girl?”

“I didn’t do anythi…”

“The HELL you didn’t!  Puppet wouldn’t be hitting her emergency button if you hadn’t done something to her!”  She looked into the room, but Puppet was just sitting there, crying into her hands.  “When I find out what you did, the Headmistress is going to fry you!”

“I didn’t do anything!  Look, she’s upset because of who I am!”

She exploded, “Sure you didn’t do anything.  Just get the hell out of my cottage!”

“Please, just talk to Missy.  Have Fubar check this out.  I didn’t DO anything!  I swear!”

She still booted me out of the building.  While everyone else had a great dinner, chatting about the kids they’d met in Hawthorne, I just sat there morosely and wondered how much trouble I would be in by tomorrow.

That night, Team Kimba (and friends) had a meeting with all of the Wild Pack.  I had to burn several favors to get Stormwolf and all his cohorts to come talk with a bunch of troublesome froshes.  But this was something crucial.  Chaka led the meeting.  As if anyone would have been able to get her to shut up otherwise.  But the meeting quickly devolved to Stormwolf’s ‘the good, the bad, and the vigilante’ world view.

I tried to tempt him into making a misstep by making it sound as if we were in the ‘goodguy’ camp, but being seriously tempted toward the Dark Side.  “Oh come on!  Surely you sometimes get the urge to pound the snot out of those creeps!”

Instead, Robert Shih offered some advice I remembered.  “Oh, yeah, we’ve been there.  Hey, group-against-group fights are fine, so long as they’re supervised and don’t end up destroying a lot of property.  You can schedule through phys ed.  They’ll set up a holo arena, supervisor, and everything.  Pretty fast response, too.”  Some of that was in the Whateley Handbook, but knowing how it worked was likely to be important for a group like TK.

Nikki looked pretty upset.  “So, what are we supposed to do?  How do we protect ourselves against these jerks?”

Stonebear, AKA Theo Waller, had the best advice.  Become an auxiliary to Whateley Security.  Downside?  We had to complete a full semester.  We were months from being at that point.

I pointed out, “Sounds great.  If we live that long.”

Finally, Jade had to spill her guts about the whole avatar-snatching scheme that The Don had his greasy fingers in.. up to his elbows.

And still the Wild Pack wasn’t going to help us out.  They told us to be good little girls and let the grown-ups handle it all.  Which meant that we were not going to get the chance to smack the crap out of Tansy and The Don and their assorted sycophants.

I complained, “You have got to be kidding.  This is going to be big!  We want in on it!  We deserve to be in on it, after everything we’ve gone through over those stupid damn Alphas.”  Since Stormwolf was being so ‘boy scout’ about team-on-team fights and Security regs, I just refrained from pointing out that we were undoubtedly going to be facing those jerks again, and the sooner we could legally pound them into wallpaper paste, the better.

But Adam Ironknife ran the Wild Pack, and he was too focused on being the straightest straight arrow since the first Champion.  They left without giving us any real help.

Monday, October 9

I knew I was stressing about the whole ‘Puppet’ deal when I woke up ten minutes before my alarm clock would have gone off.  Not that Chou noticed, since she was already up and out of the room.  She had probably been up for an hour or two.

Sure enough, I had hardly walked into the caff before someone from Admin was handing me a note that I had to be in Carson’s office at twelve sharp.  That pretty well ruined my interest in breakfast.

Costume Shop and Powers Theory seemed to drag on even longer than usual.  Then I rushed through the to-go line, grabbed a sandwich and some milk, and I was off to be chewed to shreds by Lady Astarte.  I could hardly wait.

“Send Miss Goodkind in, please.”

I rose and walked into the Headmistress’ office.  I sat down in front of Carson’s desk.  I wondered if I ought to have a special chair made for me, since I was in there so much.  I sat there, waiting for Carson to lambaste me about Puppet.

“Miss Goodkind, do you know why you were summoned here?”

It was far too early for self-incrimination, even if I hadn’t done anything wrong.  “No ma’am.”

“You don’t remember causing another student to lose consciousness around ten o’clock Saturday night?  Or are you so busy having battles with other students that you can’t keep them all straight on your appointment calendar?”

This was about Firebitch?

She ruthlessly pressed on.  “You look surprised.  Did you think we didn’t have Security cameras covering the loading docks?  Or did you think that what you did wasn’t cause for concern?”

Cameras, huh?  Okay, I could work with that.  I took a breath and composed myself.  “Since you have Security footage of the incident, then you already know that some nutbar flame manifestor attacked me and tried to entrap me.  I didn’t fight her.  I merely knocked her out and left.”

“MERELY?” she growled.  “Then I take it you would be surprised that Fireball never regained consciousness from your attack?  That she is in the clinic right now, having a partial burnout?”

“WHAT?  That’s not possible!”

“Unfortunately, it is not only possible, it is happening right now,” she insisted.

I sagged miserably, “What happened?  All I did was the phase-KO thing I’ve done to maybe fifty other people…”

“FIFTY?” she exploded.

I shrugged, “Well, I figure I’ve done it to most of my BMA class at one time or another.  One day, sensei Ito had me do everything while disruption-light, and everybody who touched me either got knocked out or was in really severe pain…  I think he was trying to teach everyone a lesson in avoiding fights whenever possible.  So it can’t be what I did…  Can it?”

She snapped, “While I’m sure it would be very convenient for YOU if it was not what you did, the doctors and the powers testing staff are fairly sure that it is.”

Crap.  I just put my head in my hands and tried not to give away how upset I was.  Had I really done this to that flaming fruitcake?  And if so, how?

I was still stressing about things when I got to Hawthorne for detention.

Mrs. Cantrel pulled me aside and sent everyone else off to their assigned duties.  Then she sighed, “Ayla, I need to apologize to you.  You didn’t do anything to that poor child.  I did.  I should’ve put two and two together, and guessed that you might be related…”

I told her, “Look, the Goodkinds are NOT kind to mutants.  So I’m sure she’s had a crappy time of it.  I have no idea if any of her family are even speaking to her.  But I will.  If you want her to have ANY relatives who will talk to her, you’re going to have to start with another mutant.  Me.”

Cantrel leaned back in her enormous non-wheelchair and thought it over.  “You go on up and help Claire for a bit, and I’ll see how Melissa’s doing today…”

So I went up to see Static Girl.  After I discharged everything, I sat down and we worked on remedial algebra for what seemed like an entire afternoon.  It was slow going.  And frustrating.  And she was obviously feeling humiliated and frustrated and stupid, because she was having to re-learn some of her freshman algebra material.  It wasn’t her fault that she’d missed all that stuff.

It was nearly time to leave Hawthorne when Mrs. Cantrel swooped by and sent me over to Puppet’s room.  “The room’s been cleaned up, so you only need gloves and overboots, but take a gas mask in just in case.”

Static Girl grabbed me by the hand and said, “And tell her I miss being able to drop by and talk.  Okay?”

I went right over to Puppet’s room and knocked.  “Missy?  It’s me.  Ayla.  Can I come in?”

“If you have to,” she growled.  She glumly said, “Mrs. Cantrel told me I have to apologize for getting you in so much trouble yesterday.”

I stopped her right there.  “No.  You don’t.  You were really upset.  Cantrel’s the one who went overboard.”

She frowned, “Mrs. Cantrel’s nice.  She comes and visits me, when no one else will.  If it wasn’t for her and the Foob…”

“Well, Claire would come a lot, but they won’t let her visit you anymore.  She said to tell you that she misses dropping by and talking.”

She just cringed.  “That was awful.  My pump shorted out, and I…  I thought I was going to die.  And Claire was pounding on the emergency button and screaming for help, and I passed out.  I really thought I was a goner.  And you know what the dumbest part was?  After all the time I thought about killing myself or something, when I was actually dying, I was terrified.  I really didn’t want to die.  Especially not if Claire was gonna think it was her fault.”

I looked at the pump and the tanks of icky green fluid.  “So you have to have this running all the time?”

“Yeah,” she said sadly.  “They tell me it’s my BIT instead of GSD, but it’s pretty awful either way.  My body chemistry changed so much that I need this stuff instead of blood.  And it’s toxic to pretty much everything else that has red blood cells.  My heart stopped a long time ago, and my lymphatic system crapped out too.  So I have to have the pump going all the time, pumping this ‘blood’ through me, and pumping out the stuff that my lymph nodes ought to be handling.”

I sort of changed the subject.  “Do your family ever talk to you?  Because when I manifested, my family disowned me.  They let Emil Hammond dart me and experiment on me for a couple days, before they threw me away.  Now I live with my big sis, who also got disowned, but for something else.”

“The supermodel?”

“Oh, GOD no,” I groaned.  “Heather?  She’d rather kiss Paris Hilton’s butt than have anything to do with her gene-filth brother.”

She asked, “Are they still fighting?  Because I remember when I was a kid, there was some big family event on dad’s side of the family, and all of you were there, and Paris and Heather were having a screeching fit at each other about some stupid thing.”

I almost laughed.  “Oh yeah.  Grandfather Goodkind’s ninetieth birthday celebration, at the estate.  Paris was trying to be the big grown-up, since she’s seven years older than Heather, and Heather wasn’t having any of it, since she was twelve going on adult, and they got into a big fight over something stupid.”

“One of them threw food on the other’s evening gown,” she recalled.

“Was that it?” I laughed.  “I knew it had to be something stupid.  I was off trying to get cousin Jerry to talk to me, and I missed most of it.”

She suddenly grew really sad, “Yeah, I miss all that.  I manifested a year and a half ago, and no one ever comes to visit.  Mom and dad didn’t disown me, but dad and my brothers won’t even talk to me anymore.  Mom talks to me on the phone a couple times a week, but only when dad’s not around.”

Her dad was a Goodkind, while her mom was a Thurber.  A marriage of two of the great silversmithing families in American history.  But her dad had the standard Goodkind feelings about mutants and the dangers they posed.

We sat and talked about Heather and Paris and Melissa’s big brother Ivan, and a bunch of the other family members we could live without, until Mrs. Cantrel showed up to tell me that everyone else had left, and I needed to get going to the cafeteria for dinner.

As I left Hawthorne, I asked Cantrel why they didn’t set up those remote monitors for the classrooms so Claire and Missy could talk together whenever they wanted.

She started to tell me something, and then she froze with her mouth agape.  She paused for a second and then said, “Ya know, there’s not a damn reason why not…”  And she shot off down the hall in a tearing hurry.

At dinner that evening, Team Kimba was off on its usual weird conversations.  It turned out that Nikki was going to go out on a date with Stalwart, the dork who had been driving her crazy.. and she hadn’t talked this over with Bugs.  Not to mention that we ALL knew what had happened when Chaka had started dating Thunderbird right in front of Riptide.

Billie deflected the ensuing verbal violence.  “What we really gotta be thinking about right now, is what we’re gonna do about the Alphas!  I mean, they sent freaking hit men after us!  We can’t just let that go!”

I decided that I’d better correct her, even if we were still in the caff.  “Actually, that’s exactly what we should do.  Act as if nothing happened.”

Billie didn’t get it.  She insisted, “But if we do that, we’re basically saying that it’s okay to try and jump us, anytime that they feel like it!”

“No,” I explained.  “If we do nothing, then we’re saying that we’re not afraid of them.  We’re saying, ‘That’s your best shot?  Big Whoop.’  If we make a big fuss about it, then we’re saying that they almost got us.  That we’re worried.  That it’s a good idea, and they should give it another go.  As it stands, they came at us, and we’re still here.  They might try something else, but if they do, then they’re admitting, first, that they failed the first time, and second, that we’re a threat.  I mean, I just walked away from the halfwit that they sent after me.”

Not that I was ready to admit in public that I actually knew the inner circle of the Alphas hadn’t sent Firebozo after me.

Tuesday, October 10

The morning showers were their usual treat.  Except that Toni whispered something to Nikki before Nikki hopped into the shower.  And when Nikki stepped out and dried off, she specifically looked over at me.  I was one of several people staring at her, but, eyes sparking and hair crackling, she glared at me.  She slipped on her robe and pointed out into the hallway.

I went.  I may be miserably horny walking around here, but I don’t have a death wish.

Nikki chewed me out for maybe five solid minutes.  Of course, she was Fey.  And she was wearing nothing but a semi-sheer taupe silk peignoir.  Not even panties.  And she was still fairly damp, so that peignoir was clinging to every inch of her.  Man.  I would have let her chew me out like that for another week, if I hadn’t needed to get some coffee and breakfast.

Nothing for the rest of the morning compared with that five gorgeous minutes of being yelled at.  However, when I walked through the lunch, something lovely came my way.  Two thin slices of smoked salmon pizza, with a sous-chef holding it.  Okay, Jana’s pretty cute too, even if I’m not really into the whole centaur thing.

The pizza was excellent.  I’d had Wolfgang Puck’s smoked salmon pizza when the family was in Los Angeles some years ago, so I had a good idea from where the basic recipe had been lifted.  But this was really good.  The hand-made pizza dough had been rolled out, topped with a sprinkling of slivered Vidalia onions, and baked first.  You could tell, because it wasn’t soggy.  On top of that came a layer of dill cream, topped by thinly-sliced smoked Nova Scotia salmon.

Of course, I didn’t get to sit and savor it.  Halfway through my first piece, James - that kid who seemed to work in Admin about forty hours a day - showed up with a note for me.  I was to meet the Headmistress at Room 202 of the hospital.  NOW.  If not sooner.

I gulped down my pizza on the way to the hospital.  I was not going to toss away an epicurean treat like that.  The Headmistress was standing in the second floor hallway in a power suit, looking like she was ready to rip me a new one.  Great.

I smiled blandly, “Why Mrs. Carson.  We have to stop meeting like this.”

She was not amused.  She angrily pointed at the window set in the wall of room 202.  I looked into the room and choked.  Fireball was changing into a THING.  And they thought I had done it to her.  Heck, I thought I had done it to her.  I stared at what had once been a hot Exemplar, and I had to go puke my guts out.

Carson stood there imperiously while I vomited into a trashcan, and coldly asked, “I take it you’re not thrilled with what you did?”

“Are you kidding?” I choked.  “This is awful!  Can they fix her?  I mean, she was going to burn me and permanently scar me.  But I didn’t want this!”

Carson just pursed that pouty lower lip and said, “No one here seems to be able to help her.  Her BIT has been radically destabilized.  Our doctors can’t stop it.  Our mages can’t stop it.  Our devisers can’t stop it.  The only person left who might be able to stop this is YOU.”

Oh God.  It felt like my heart suddenly stopped dead.

I nearly wept as I admitted, “But I can’t stop it!  I don’t even know how I started it!  I just phased through her.  I’ve done that to lots of people!”

She insisted, “I want you to go in there with me.  Our records say that you can go less than fully immaterial and be able to feel the differences in densities of various solids.  I want you to feel around her and inside her, and see if you can find anything that feels like you might be able to ‘adjust’ it.  You’re probably our last hope to restore her.”

“Oh God.”  Crap.  Did I say that out loud?

Fireball was unconscious, but it still was uncomfortable and stressful.  And having Lady Astarte looming over you like she might blast you if you pulled anything funny?  Not reassuring.  I took my time and really tried hard.  But I had walked right through her body that night.  The problem could be anything, anywhere.  It might not even be inside her body, for all I knew.  I worked from her hair down to her toes, inside and out and I didn’t feel anything that might be useful.

Finally, Lady Astarte said from behind me, “Thank you for trying.”

Dr. Ophelia Tenent had come in at some point, while I was concentrating so hard I hadn’t even noticed.  She nodded, “Yes, thank you, Phase.”  She sighed, “I didn’t really have much hope this would work.  I already tried scrying for some sign…”

After that, I was totally distracted in aikido class.  Of course, Ito took that as a sign that I needed to have my ass kicked.  So I concentrated harder for the rest of the day.

And then it was time for the final day of detention.  You’d think that I would be thrilled to be done.  Oddly enough, I wasn’t.  Static Girl asked me if I’d come by and help her with math once in a while.  Frostbite told me I was the best geometry teacher ever, but she was obviously too afraid of a snub to ask me to come back.

Even Puppet asked me to come back and visit.  She pouted, “I hardly ever get visitors, unless you count technicians and doctors…”

After detention, I went back to Poe to check on Chou.  I walked in and tried being cheerful, for a change.  She didn’t even look up.

Uh-oh.  I took a closer look.  Not good.  She’d been crying, and she’d been in a fight.  That looked like a foot-shaped bruise on the side of her face.  Time for emergency measures.  I went straight for Chaka.

She was with Tennyo.  I sent Chaka over to my room, while Tennyo and I rounded up as many of the team as we could find.  I even found Sara down in her room, at a time when she wasn’t busy molesting hot exemplars; well, it’s not like everyone in the dorm doesn’t talk about who’s doing whom.

We got up to my room, to find that Toni was trying to cheer Chou up by dressing her up like a hot chick, including makeup.  Maybe not a good idea, even if she did look great.  But I could have predicted that she’d look hot.  I mean, I saw her naked almost every day.  Still, Chou was talking to me at night before we fell asleep, and I knew she was not any happier about her new shape than I was about mine.

I shooed everyone else out, so Chou could change back into the usual top and pants.  Then I checked, “Are you okay?”  I wasn’t really sure she would tell me.  I mean, she was still mainly Alex inside, and Alex would have shrugged and said ‘sure’.

She frowned, “I should be.  I’m still dealing with this change.  It’s hard thinking about the fact that I used to be a boy, and now I look like.. this.”  She waved a hand down her body, as if I couldn’t figure out what she meant.

I shrugged, “Yeah, I guess we’re all trying to deal with this.  I really didn’t want this, either.  It really hasn’t made my life easier.”  Wow.  Talk about an understatement.  But she didn’t want to hear me bitch about my life right now.  “You had this just thrust on you, and all it’s brought you is loss.  That would make anything hard to deal with.”

She finished dressing and admitted, “I know.  It’s just that.. I’m always crying!  It’s making me crazy.”

I grinned, “Well, that’s what we get for being girls.  Hormones.”

She just looked at me, since we were the only two ‘girls’ who really wanted to go back to being boys.  And then she laughed.  That was better.

I could tell what really helped her.  Dinner sitting next to Molly.  Molly was pretty cute, even if she went out of her way to hide behind her glasses and hair.  I didn’t mind.  I didn’t need everyone in the world to be like Chaka.

I went to the library to read some literary criticisms about Orlando Furioso.  Since I was going to be missing Saturday’s class, I figured that I had better get a really good topic for the following week’s discussions.

I got back to Poe, and strolled into the room to send off an email to Professor Zinn.

I walked in on Chou.  She was doing something weird to Jade, who was lying face up on the bed in nothing but panties.

“Crap!”

Jade yelped.  Chou jumped.

I leapt back into the hall and slammed the door behind me.  What the HELL was that about?

I heard snickering and fussing, and finally some talking.

I knocked, and peeked inside.  In my best ‘Doctor Christian Szell’ voice, I whispered, “Is it safe yet?”

Jade hurried out, looking really embarrassed.

I had to ask.  “What was that about?  Isn’t she a bit young for you?”

Chou smiled, “Do not be ridiculous.  I’m trying to adjust her meridians so that I can let her form change itself to what it should be.”

“Whoa!  You can do that?”

She nodded, “Yes, with much help from Destiny’s Wave.”

I thought it over.  For about a nanosecond.  “Could you do the same thing for me?”

She frowned in thought.  “I do not know.  Your case is very different from hers, and your Chi is very different.  But if you would hold Destiny’s Wave, we could see…”

Like I wouldn’t take a chance on this!

I sat at my study desk and held the sword.  At first, nothing happened.  Then suddenly it felt like there was electricity flowing through me where I was holding Destiny’s Wave.

The sword actually spoke to me, “Your Chi is very strange.  It is as if one could take the Chi from several different people - most of them women but some of them men - and stick pieces of them into one body.  I would not have thought that such a thing was possible.  It might be possible to redirect some of your Chi that is flowing the wrong way, but that would almost certainly lead you to becoming fully female.  That is not what you desire, is it?”

“No!  Definitely not!”

The sword actually sounded sad, “Then I am sorry, but I cannot help you.”

Crap.

I must have looked really depressed.  Chou actually gave me a big hug.

Wednesday, October 11

The day started off with a bang.  Assuming that the bang is going off inside your sinuses.

I didn’t drag myself out of bed until Chou came back from the showers.  And when I dragged out of bed, I had a major tent going, from a hot dream I’d been having.  But I didn’t realize it, because I was still so sleepy.

I went light and floated down from the upper bunk.  Chou took one look and gasped.  Then she turned away so fast that her hair flew around her face.

What?  I looked down at myself and realized that I had a boner like an ICBM launch.  Crap!  I grabbed my bathrobe and shower stuff, then I dashed out.

When I got to the bathroom, Fey was talking to Bugs.  They turned and stared at me, then spotted my erection tenting my pajamas.  They both whirled away.  Damn.  Bugs gave up her spot in line for the showers, so I would get in the shower and not have a chance to ogle anyone.  Three guesses what they’d been talking about.

I made an effort to get back to the hospital over my lunch hour.  Maybe I shouldn’t have.  Fireball had grown scalier.  And ickier.  She was growing a hideous pair of bat-wings from her shoulderblades.  What the hell had I done?!?!  Oh God, I had turned a hot Exemplar with a mental problem into a hideous monstrosity.

Oh, and the doctors talked to me.  They figured her mental problem would get a lot worse.  Great.  Just what I needed.  An insane fire demon who blamed me for how her life had gone down the toilet.

Why do I get all the crazy Firebitch characters?  Did I diss a fire god in a former life or something?

I felt the urge to do something constructive instead of destructive, so I walked over to Hawthorne and asked Mrs. Cantrel if I could help Claire with her math for a while.  Then I dropped in on Missy - oh, I’m sorry, she only goes by Melissa now - just to see how she was doing.  It was pretty obvious that neither had believed I would ever come back of my own free will.

Man, do I have a great rep, or what?  Next, they’ll start making me wear a big scarlet letter on my clothes.

I got back to Poe just before dinner.  I peeked into my room and pretended to be worried, “Any surprises in here?”

Chou actually laughed out loud.  “Not today!”

At dinner, Chef André had a square of lasagna for me.  But it wasn’t ordinary lasagna.  Instead of ground beef, it had a rich Portobello mushroom mixture.  The red sauce had a luxurious mixture of fennel seeds and browned onion and fresh basil leaves.  The noodles were obviously homemade from real durum flour and eggs.  The ricotta cheese was mixed with a nutty, tangy Parmegiano cheese.  Mmm, was that good.

Once Chou got back from ‘studying’ with Molly at the library, we dragged her into the sunroom and made her sit there while we argued about a codename.  I suggested ‘Sticky Pokey Girl’, but for some reason, Chou wasn’t thrilled about it.  Heh.  We finally all agreed on ‘Bladedancer’.

When Chou and I went to bed that night, we talked for over an hour about her getting a codename, and what it meant in terms of Team Kimba, and how she felt like she was fitting in.  Mostly Chou talked, while I made sympathetic noises.  Oh, and she talked for a long time about how Molly made her feel all gooshy inside.  Like we all didn’t know that already.

Thursday, October 12

I spent the day back in Lab W, doing powers testing crud.  Except when Carson came and took me to see Fireball in the hospital.  Fireball had stabilized.  As a fucking demon!  She was a scaly, bat-winged, clawed fire-demon.  I suppose you could think of her as still hot, if you spent all your time flogging the dolphin to old issues of “Heavy Metal”.

After more than six hours of testing, as I went disruption-light through everything they could think of, the powers testing guys still couldn’t figure out what had gone wrong.

But they were insistent that I not do this anymore.

I yelled at Shandy, “Are you nuts?  OF COURSE I’m not ever doing this again!  I just destroyed someone’s life!”

Dr. Hewley tried to calm me down.  “Now now, Phase.  We know you didn’t want to hurt anyone.  But we have a hypothesis.  We don’t have a reasonable way of testing it, but it fits all the data.  We think it’s your extra-dimensional phasing.  Under just the right conditions, you could pass through someone’s extra-dimensionally-structured BIT.  So the disruption attack you use that can knock people out and disrupt electronics could also distort someone’s BIT.”

“Oh God,” I whimpered.

Every Exemplar or Shifter I had ever phase-KO’ed could have ended up like that.  And the list of people I had phase-KO’ed was huge.  Sparkler.  A ton of people from BMA.  Aries, and G-Force, and Bravo and Long John, and…  Oh God, I could have turned half the school into nightmarish freaks!

I had to go vomit again.

Then, after all that, I had to go see Carson again.  Of course, she chewed me out some more for trashing Fireball.  Like I’d done it deliberately.

I finally snapped, “So why did Admin yank my powers testing?  If I had KNOWN that something like this could happen, I’d never do it in a million years!”  I couldn’t help it.  I burst into tears, “What am I supposed to do now?  I can’t fix her.  I can’t help her.  She must hate me.  Like everyone else around here.  I didn’t know anything like this could happen!”

Then, just to top off an already suck-tastic day, I got back to Poe and found out that all hell had broken loose, and I hadn’t been around to help.  Well, neither had Tennyo or Hank.  But I should have been there to help out!

There was a bushwhacking on Fey and Generator by parties unknown.  Then Toni and Chou got involved, and Molly summoned some sort of giant other-dimensional panther-demon.  That Fey just happened to know personally.  Sometimes Team Kimba is too weird to believe.

A speedster and a giant and a brick were definitely involved, along with someone who could do explosions, and someone who could do something shadowy.  But that was all Nikki and Jade could tell me.  That helped just a ton, since that ruled out.. almost nobody.  There were more speedsters and giants and bricks at Whateley than you could count.  And the rest of the stuff?  Between Manifesters and Espers and Devisers and Gadgeteers and power-armor jockeys, the list of suspects was in the hundreds.

Plus, Nex and Toni had mixed it up all up and down the outside of Poe Cottage, while the Whateley Nin-jerks fought it out with a handful of Poesies.  Apparently, Toni had beaten the crap out of Nex and made him look like a loser, without resorting to any of her big tricks, like her ki-ai shout.

Dang!  Was there anything that girl couldn’t do?  I’d ask if she could walk on water, but everyone was telling me that she had run up and down the side of Poe as if it were a track oval.  According to some of them, Chaka had run up the side of Poe while carrying a girl bigger than she was!

I felt like I had to explain why I wasn’t around to help anyone.  I had to admit that I had turned Fireball into a monstrous fire demon, and that apparently I could shred BITs under the right circumstances.  The team took all that in stride, which was more than I could do.

Tennyo just said, “That ought to teach a lot of jerks around here to stop messing with you!”

I sagged, “Like I could ever do that to anyone ever again.  I mean, what if they have a BIT?  What if I shred it?  What if I turn them into a monster?  Or they die from it?”

Lancer insisted, “Then you just have to find out who the Exemplars and Shifters are around here, and who aren’t.”

Chaka gave me her leopard grin and added, “So you don’t want to go out there and shred some asshole’s BIT.  Who says you can’t threaten everyone with it?”

Oh!  Right!

Friday, October 13

I had to go see Mrs. Carson again.  Why didn’t they just put me on her schedule permanently?  “Regular 12:30 pm appointment: ream Ayla Goodkind for her latest malfeasances.”  They could have an assigned chair for me, and everything.

Carson waved me to a seat before her Big Desk Of Authority.  “You’ll be glad to know that Fireball is out of the hospital.  We’ve had to move her to Hawthorne until she can control her powers again.  Dr. Shandy thinks that may be as little as five to ten days.  Once she regains control, she will be moving to Whitman.”

Right.  She was a scaly, bat-winged, insane fire-demon.  She’d never be able to go back to Melville.  I was willing to bet that her old Melville friends wouldn’t even speak to her anymore.

Carson frowned, “I wanted you to see this.”  She turned her computer monitor so that I could see it, and pressed a couple keys.  A recorded video feed from the hospital popped up.  The datetime stamp told me that it was only a few hours old.

It was Fireball, the raving, maniacal fire-demon.  She was being helped to her feet by two interns in flame-retardant suits.  Every time she got angry, fire erupted from her clawed hands, or fireballs exploded beside her.  She screamed, “I’m not Fireball!  Fireball was a sexy Exemplar!  Look at me!  I’m a monster!”

One of the interns tried to calm her down, “Take it easy.  You don’t have to go by Alexis if you don’t want to.  How about…”

She interrupted him, “I already got a name.  Tisiphone.  How do ya like that one?  Got it out of my homework!”

Carson stopped the recording.  “I assume you understand the allusion?”

Of course.  I replied, “There are two different Tisiphones in classical Greek mythology.  Obviously, the salient one here is the sister of Alecto and Megaera.  She is one of the three Erinyes, or in English, the Furies.  Tisiphone was the Fury who was responsible for punishing the crime of murder.  And I’m sure she sees what I did as the murder of Fireball.”

She nodded, “It’s always a pleasure dealing with a classically-educated student.”

Yeah, sure.  She always seemed SO happy to see me.

Carson started the recording again.  ‘Tisiphone’ spent the next fifteen minutes maniacally raving about me.  How all of this was my fault.  And how she was going to get even with me, if it took her the rest of her life.  How she was going to rip me to shreds, and burn me alive, and dance on my grave.  That was pretty much it, except that she repeated herself a lot.

Carson told me, “I suggest that you avoid meeting with Miss Waldner until she calms down and we can find a medication regimen that helps her find stability.”

Oh, right.  Like I’m going to go look her up right now and blow a few raspberries her way.

She added, “Mrs. Cantrel told me that you chose to visit some girls in Hawthorne.  Miss Pierce, and your cousin, Miss Thurber-Goodkind.  That’s very commendable of you.  Not many would do that.  But I would like you to stay away from Hawthorne, until Miss Waldner is no longer in residence there.”

Carson sent me on my way with a warning to be careful over the next few days.  I just trudged out and made my way back to Poe.  I had another major enemy now.  Any connections she had formerly had at Melville or in the Alphas were probably going to be gunning for me, too.

Oh God.

Why do I get all the crazy Firebitch types?