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Diane Castle / Ayla / Ayla #4: "Ayla and the Tests" / Part 6

Ayla #4: “Ayla and the Tests” 

- a Whateley Universe Tale

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

 

CHAPTER 6 - The Stymphalian Birds

Monday, October 23

I woke up when my alarm started playing Brass Monkey’s “Stab My Eyes with Synesthesia”.  I’d stayed up late working through my list of options.  But I felt energized at the very idea that I had options.

I just had to find one that actually worked for me.

I knew that some of the options for Jade wouldn’t work for me.  I’d already checked with Chou and Destiny’s Wave, for instance.  But that still left a bunch of things I needed to try, starting with hypnosis.

I was definitely going to try the hypnosis first.  There was no point in going for the painful, hideously risk-filled options if something less dangerous would work for me.

Okay, hypnosis wasn’t completely risk-free either.  But I now knew I could trust Dr. Bellows.  And we had learned from his work with Jade that we could trust him with hypnotherapy.

Okay, so I’d also had him checked out by Trin and Macintyre, Planetary Investigative Agents.  He had a spotless record, really impressive credentials, and a history of top-notch recommendations.  Plus, he was actually a lot younger than he looked.  Man, sometimes Exemplar BITs are so incredibly bizarre.

Then it was off to the showers.  Man, the farther from last Monday I got, the brighter things looked.  I knew that was because I had been so frighteningly depressed about things.  It really scared me to realize just how down I had been.

I walked into the bathroom just as Tennyo was stepping out of her shower.  And she was using her towel to dry off her back, so her breasts and pubes were totally exposed, and she was jiggling.  Holy crow!

She spotted me staring at her boobs.  I expected her to yell at me.  I totally didn’t expect her to be glad to see me ogling her.

“Ayla!  Christ, I’m glad you’re doing better!  Having you slinking around like you didn’t care about naked girls?  That was just plain scary.”

Vox took off her bathrobe to step into the now-available shower, and turned back to look at me.  She said, “Yeah, we’ve been pretty worried about you the last few days.”

I was going to say something back, but I couldn’t talk.  Vox.  Stark naked.  Facing away from me so that perfect backside was on display.  Turning to her left to look at me, so her full breasts jutted out like a pin-up in a Playboy.  Those perfect curves on perfect display.  I was going to remember that image for the rest of my life.

She hopped into the shower, and I came out of my trance.

A giggle at my right got my attention.  Bunny was grinning, “I guess you’re pretty much back to normal, huh?”

I smiled, “I was pretty miserable for a couple days there.”

Sharisha finished drying off and added, “If you ask me, you’re always pretty miserable.. just like a boy.”

I found myself laughing.  “Sharisha, maybe you haven’t noticed, but I am a boy.  A boy with a really weird BIT, so I look like this and I have to pass myself off as a girl.  Every time you call me a boy, it really cheers me up.  Thanks.”

She glowered ferociously, since the last thing she wanted to do was make any of Team Kimba feel better.  She grabbed her shower kit and stormed out.

Bunny said, “Well, everyone else was pretty worried about you.”  She even gave me a big hug.  Then she jumped back in shock.

“Sorry,” I murmured.  Well, it had to be a rude shock to go give a girl a big hug and have a huge boner end up pressing against you.  Between Tennyo and Vox, I had a hard-on that was about to make me keel over.

She winced, “It’s my fault.  I should’ve.. looked first…”

“Before you leapt?” I added.

Riptide stepped out of her shower and grinned, “Before she somethinged.”

I said, “I’ll just go ahead and shower, so I won’t be ogling everyone.”

The whole room was good with that.  Not that I stopped ogling, of course.  After I washed off, I went light and dropped the water off me, then slipped my bathrobe back on.  After that, I went to an available sink and did all my morning chores, which I managed to stretch out to nearly twelve minutes.  That gave me enough time to: watch Vox dry off; see Nikki undress and get in her shower; catch Pilar shaving her legs while stark naked; and then get a perfect mirror reflection of Nikki magically drying her hair before toweling herself off.  Man, after all that, I had a hard-on you could have used to drill for oil.

I went to my room, feeling much better already.  Incredibly horny, but feeling much better.

As I dressed, Chou walked in, drying her hair.  She was still drying her hair like a guy with short hair who didn’t give a shit what his hair looked like when he was done.

I had to get Vox or Jody or someone to show her how she ought to be drying her hair.  She had gorgeous hair.  Just stunning, straight, jet-black hair that ought to get treated better than that.

Chou smiled at me, “It is good to see you doing so much better.  I was really worried about you.”

It occurred to me that a lot of people had been worried about me, and had been taking care of me.  All of TK had been there for me, and so had a lot of girls on the floor.  Maybe some of the guys, too.  Risk and Flux hadn’t been their usual prankster-ish selves, either.  I was going to have to figure out something really nice to do as a thank-you.  I mean, something in addition to the huge thank-you the girls were going to get at the end of January when Hydroflux put in some hardware to brighten up their days.. not to mention their nights.

Chou pulled on her same old outfit of yoga pants and mandarin-collared top.  Then she asked, “Would you like to walk to breakfast with me?”

I smiled, “I would, but I have a couple things I have to do first.  You go on.  Tell everyone I’ll catch up with them at breakfast.”

She nodded and left.

I turned on Brass Monkey, and played it loud enough to mask what I was going to do.  Just in case.  Destiny’s Wave was still in its holder on Chou’s desk.  But, fortunately for me, the sword didn’t object when I played Brass Monkey.  And it didn’t have eardrums, so it didn’t care how loud I played my music.

Destiny’s Wave was the only person in the whole dorm who didn’t object to Brass Monkey, and it wasn’t even a person.  The one time that Chou had discussed music with Destiny’s Wave had been hysterical.  Chou had been trying her best to explain why Brass Monkey was horrid.  But Destiny’s Wave didn’t ‘get’ any music that wasn’t the music she had heard when she was alive, thousands of years ago.  As far as the sword was concerned, almost all music was interesting, and yet no modern music was viscerally appealing.  It just made Chou want to scream in frustration that her own sword was just as satisfied with my playing Brass Monkey as it was when Chou was playing her favorites.

Then I put on my headset to call Trin and Macintyre.  I had a few more research jobs for them.

Once I was done with the phone call, I turned off the music and hurried to catch up with my teammates.  I wasn’t too worried.  It took Tennyo and Lancer so long to eat that I could have showed up half an hour later and they would have still been chowing down.  Sometimes I thought that Tennyo and Lancer would have to keep me on their team when we were adults, just so the team could afford to have enough food on the table at mealtimes.

I figured my first approaches would be simple.  The first ten items on my list were:

  • research from Trin and Macintyre
  • talk with Nikki about magical approaches
  • talk with Jade about all the things she looked into
  • talk with Mega-Girl about how her PK shell was changing her body
  • talk with Dr. Bellows about hypnosis to fix my BIT
  • talk with Dr. Tenant about medical and surgical options
  • talk with Zenith about any other resources
  • investigate available deviser drugs
  • check with Beltane about using ectoplasm to alter my form
  • if feeling desperate, talk to Sara too

I was going to wait until the reports came back from Trin and Macintyre before I moved on to anything major.  But there was no reason I couldn’t get started on simple stuff.

I took my time going through the breakfast line.  Chef Peter’s granola cereal was always worth getting, but I was hoping for something more.

Et voila!  Chef André just happened to stroll out of the kitchen as I moved toward the baked goods.  He smiled at me and set down a slice of a galette made of puff pastry.  It looked like it had a layer of some sort of cream through the middle layer, and it smelled like either the puff pastry or the cream had almond in it.  I could hardly wait.

I ate the granola first, so I didn’t ruin my appetite.  Then I enjoyed the tart.  The puff pastry was baked to perfection, and the rich cream in the middle was redolent with the flavors of almond and vanilla.  Mmm.

Nikki gave me an elbow while I was enjoying my galette.  She murmured, “Another special treat from your personal chefs?”

I smiled, “Want a bite?”

She shook her head no.  “It looks great, but I already finished.”

“Oh come on, one bite won’t make you bloat up.”

She smirked, “You pushers are all alike.  Heroin, cocaine, pastries…  Sure, you say the first taste is free, but then once I’m hooked, then things get pricey.”

I snickered.  “Yeah, that’s me.  I start you off on the light stuff.  Puff pastry.  Layer cakes.  Then, when you’re hooked, I lure you onto the hard stuff.  Caramels.  Brownies.  Hot fudge sundaes.”

She clapped her hands to the sides of her face and gave me the Macaulay Culkin “Home Alone” face.

It wasn’t until I laughed that Tennyo noticed we were up to something.  “Whatcha talking about?” she asked from across about three pounds of bacon.

“Desserts,” Nikki answered.

Billie shrugged, “Hardly ever any good desserts at breakfast.  I wait ‘til lunch and dinner.”

I helpfully added, “And mid-morning snack, and mid-afternoon snack, and after-dinner snack, and…”

She fussed, “Why does everyone pick on me?  Hank eats a lot too!”

I grinned, “Good point.  I’d better give him some grief too.”

She rolled her eyes, but didn’t say anything.  Mostly because she was stuffing a chunk of ribeye steak with gravy into her mouth.  And when I say ‘chunk’, I mean something that only passes as ‘bite-sized’ if you’re feeding sharks and orcas at MarineWorld.

I made sure to be finished with breakfast before Nikki got up.  We walked out of the caff, and she led me to a secluded area near the Quad.  She asked, “What do you want?”

Right.  Receptive empath.  Duh.

I started, “Remember when I thought my problem was GSD and I asked if you could help?  Now we know my body problem is my BIT.  So now I’m asking around about something a little different.  Can you magically adjust my BIT?”

She frowned, “I’ve been looking into transfigurations of BITs, you know, because of Jade.  It looks reasonable on paper.  But they never seem to work properly when the mage actually performs the spell.  Even when the transfiguration goes right, something else goes wrong.  So this is an area of magic that’s supposed to be completely off-limits.  No one’s supposed to be trying this stuff, because the results can be pretty awful.”

“Worse than Firesnake?” I had to ask.  I mean, that sounded like it was as bad as it could get.  Firesnake had probably had GSD so that he looked like he was half-snake.  An attempt to cure him magically had turned him into - not a normal-looking mutant with fire manifestation powers - but a giant thirty-five foot spitting cobra demon-thing.  That ate anything warm-blooded.  Including maybe the mage who tried to help him.

She shrugged, “Maybe.  I don’t know all the really awful stuff that’s happened.”

I tried once more, “Well, would you set up another quick chat between me and Circe?  The last one went pretty well, even if it wasn’t what I wanted to hear.”

She nodded, “Okay.  Circe thought you were pretty decent, for a non-mage.  I think it really helped that you took her advice, even though it was exactly what you didn’t want to hear.  Hardly anyone does that.  So I think I can set something up.”

I put my hand on her shoulder, “Thanks, Nikki.  Thanks a ton.  I really appreciate this.”

She gave me a worried smile.  “Just remember, Ayla.  This is a banned area of magic.  It’s a really dangerous area of magic.  Don’t expect she’s going to jump up and down with excitement at the chance to turn you back into a boy.”

I frowned, “Yeah.  I know.  It’s probably going to be the same as when I asked about GSD.  But I have to try!”

She nodded, “I know.  Back when I first realized what was happening to my body, I think I would’ve tried anything to go back to normal.  Just don’t try anything.  There are a lot of really bad things that have happened because someone was so desperate that they were willing to try absolutely anything, no matter how dangerous or evil or insane.”

I wondered aloud, “Have you had this chat with Jade?”

“Yeah.  So has Billie.  And Sara.  And probably Dr. Bellows and a dozen other people.  She’s pretty desperate.  You probably understand her better than any of us.  Me and Billie?  We have someone inside us who’s helping us adjust and making us feel okay about changing.  Hank’s fine with his change.  Toni?  Hell, she’s ecstatic about it.  The changelings upstairs?  Megs and Delta Spike and Electrode and Belle?  They’re all happy to be girls.  You and Jade and Chou are the ones who’re stuck, and really upset about it.  Just don’t do something insane, like what Elaine did.”

“Gotcha.”

I wasn’t that desperate.  I hoped.  Elaine had done the dumbest thing possible.  She had tried changing from boy to girl by getting a mad scientist to grab her and slap her into his transformation chamber.  She was just damned lucky she was alive.  And female instead of something horrifically weird.  And not a bimbo mindslave to Dr. Pygmalion.  Even worse, Elaine had apparently learned from that experience that she could try absolutely anything without thinking through all the consequences.

Then I had to rush off to Costume Shop.  I couldn’t cut that class any more.  Hopefully, there was something interesting going on now, instead of having to endure morons like Superior continually demonstrating that they had no style, and they couldn’t grasp simple fundamentals like color theory.  Clearly, being an Exemplar didn’t make you smarter, even if it hyped your reading speed and memorization ability.  Well, Tansy Walcutt was clear evidence of that.  Along with that idiot Bubble in my World Lit class.

I walked into Costume class and sat next to Jinn.  It was a ‘red flag’ day.  Jinn was wearing her skin pours, so she looked like a cute Japanese girl who was way too normal to go to Whateley.  Except for the fact that she kept forgetting to turn her head and look at where everyone else was looking.

Mrs. Ryan was dressed in yet another floor-length granny dress and color-coordinated shawl.  She looked around the room and spotted me.  “Phase?  Could you please see me at the end of our class?  Thank you.”

Then she spent most of the class period talking about ‘color psychology’.  What colors mean to people, and how that affects the way you use the colors of your costume to achieve psychological effects.

“Now who can give an example of a superhero, either real or fictional, whose costume is designed with color psychology in mind?  We’ve already discussed heroes whose colors are built around flag motifs, so we needn’t bring them up today.”

One of the Goth kids raised his hand and supplied, “Well, there’s Batman…”

Mrs. Ryan smiled, “Yes.  Perhaps the classic example.  Black and grays exemplify night, darkness, and threat.”

Some else ventured, “Power Girl?  I mean, the other Supergirl?  The one with the really big.. umm…”

Mrs. Ryan cut him off before he really put his foot in it.  “Which one, dear?”

“I, umm, well, I was thinking of the white costume with the.. umm.. big hole in the front…”

M.K. in the back row supplied, “Ya mean the hooter window?”

Mrs. Ryan glared, “Mister Uberman, that will be enough.”

But the kid kept on trying.  “Well, that, but the more I think about it, her old costume which was all silver and gold.  ‘Cause silver and gold mean value, and importance, and richness, and all that stuff.”

Mrs. Ryan said, “Very good.  That’s exactly the sort of example I want us to think about.  Power Girl’s white uniform exemplifies purity and truth, among other concepts.”

The interesting color was red.  Mrs. Ryan had costume examples where the red color in a uniform obviously meant danger, examples where it clearly meant a demonic threat, examples where it meant drama or excitement, and examples where it obviously meant emotions like love.  So the design of the uniform and the color interacted in interesting ways.

Someone in the back row couldn’t keep his mouth shut, of course.  “That’s why my costume is all red.  ‘Cause I’m a looooooove machine!”

Mrs. Ryan pursed her lips and said, “Mr. Uberman.  Please see me after class for your detention.”

When class ended, I moved down front to speak to Mrs. Ryan before that dork Superior could get in.  I cheated, too.  I went light, in case anyone tried to block my way.  No one did.  Maybe I was getting a rep too.

Mrs. Ryan was writing on a notepad when I walked up.  She looked up and softly said, “Are you doing better now, Phase?”

I smiled, “Thank you for asking.  I am.  I had a really bad week last week, or I wouldn’t have missed class.”

She said, “We all know what it means when a counselor like Dr. Bellows writes a student note, rather than one of the physicians.  And Miss Sinclair has been bringing in your homework.  I’m very pleased with your work.  Your last designs - the ones you did using the computer figures - look good.  This week, we’ll work with your colors a bit.  I think that you can improve your design.”

Superior strolled up at that point.  Mrs. Ryan ripped the top paper off the notepad and held it out to him without even looking at his face.  He took the paper, stared at it in horror, and blanched.  But he didn’t say anything.  He just turned and left.  Quickly.

Man, that must have been some detention notice.  Maybe I was underestimating Mrs. Ryan.

Mrs. Ryan went on in that same sweet tone, as if nothing had happened.  “Now then.  As I was saying, once we tweak your color scheme a bit, I also think there’s room for improvement in the way you blocked your colors out on your figure.  So in the following weeks, I think we’ll look at some options there too.  All right?”

“Yes, ma’am.”  I just agreed with her.  Then I rushed to my next class so I wouldn’t be late.

I got to Spanish class about a minute before the bell.  I slipped into a seat behind Toni and Rip.  Toni was busy bouncing in her seat and describing something wild to Rip.  So it was exactly like every day.

“…so I just centered myself, and when he tried to hit me with that honkin’ metal fist, I flowed right through his attack.  But he had this big ol’ battery pack mounted on his hip, so I hit it hard enough to break it, and his entire power armor seized up.  I left him there, frozen like a statue, trying to yell for help behind his stupid armor helmet.  If no one’s helped him by this afternoon, then I’ll…”

A strong voice spoke in Spanish, “Please pay attention, class.  It is time to start.  Does everyone have their homework?”

I was way ahead on homework, and way ahead on vocabulary, so I did just fine in class.  After class, I had to go down front to talk with Señor Ramirez.  And he even wanted to have THAT discussion in Spanish.

“Phase, I am pleased that you are back in class again.  Are you feeling better?”

“Yes sir.  I had a very bad week last week, but I am better now.”

“Good.  Chaka has been bringing in your homework, and I have been very pleased with your progress.  Your in-class participation today was very good.  I hope that you do not have further problems.”

“As do I, sir.”

And then it was off to A Year Of Sensory Deprivation, more commonly known as one extremely boring period of Powers Theory.

I walked in.  Both Möbius and Charmer waved me over.

Möbius grinned, “Guess what?  A couple guys from the Cape Squad are interested in utility belts too!  This is great!”

Charmer went right into French: “Ayla, I am very glad to see that you are looking better.  We have been very concerned.  You seemed to be so depressed last week, and you missed all the Theory of Powers classes and also the practicals.”

I chatted with them for most of the class, since Dr. Quintain was boring the class into a coma with his lecture on extra-dimensional and inter-dimensional density changers.  That, and I was a week ahead on my Costume Shop homework, and two weeks ahead on my Spanish homework, so I didn’t have any work to do.  At least Filbert didn’t ask me to come down for one of his little demonstrations.

Lunch was a bright little star in the day, since Chef André had a dessert treat for me.  He called it his ‘American-style caramel-walnut upside-down banana cake’.  I could see from the way the toasted walnuts were baked into the caramel sauce that it probably had been baked upside down.  And it smelled fantastic.  It was redolent with the scents of banana and caramel and vanilla and - I was pretty sure - some rum.  Or at least some good-quality rum flavoring.  I rushed through my tortilla wrap and salad to get to it.  And it was worth the hurry.  The banana cake was remarkably moist, rich with vanilla and what I was guessing was a good dark rum, plus what was probably sour cream to give it just the right tang.

I made sure I had time to talk with André before I had to rush off to aikido class.  Marcel strolled out to join in the chat.  I told André in French, “That was really superb.  Was that dark rum and sour cream in the cake with the banana and vanilla extract?”

He grinned, “But yes.  I knew that using our best dark rum and vanilla was going to be worth it with a gourmet like you sampling the cake.”

I smiled, “Flattery will get you nowhere.  Other than the first-class round-trip Air France tickets for you and your wife and son to visit your parents over Christmas.”

Marcel had already told me about André and Peter’s Christmas plans.  Well, I had asked.

André looked at Marcel, then at me, and then he was actually too choked up to speak.  That’s really saying something for a Frenchman.  He nodded and disappeared back into the kitchen.

Marcel explained, “He really did not feel that he would be able to afford to take Genevieve and Paul - his wife and son - this year.  You did a very nice thing for him.”

I walked off to class, still wondering about that.  Didn’t anyone else see how great these chefs were?  Didn’t anyone else think that they deserved something that told them they were appreciated?  Did middle-class people just treat their chefs like short-order cooks?

I was never going to understand ‘regular’ people.

Aikido class was pretty much normal, since I hadn’t missed a class.  Not that Ito and Tolman were ever going to say ‘good work’ or anything to me.  But Powers Lab was more of the ‘you have been gone for a week’ stuff.  Mrs. Bohn’s assistant Dr. Yablonski took me aside once I had done my weightlifting measurements.

Dr. Yablonski was one of those teachers who really looked like he was a retired superhero.  He looked like an Exemplar, right down to the Captain America build and the Batman jawline.  His right arm and most of his right leg were cybernetic constructs, like he had been forced to retire from superheroing due to really hideous injuries.  But that was all speculation on my part.  I was guessing that he wasn’t a deviser or gadgeteer, or he’d be down helping out in the Workshop.  His teaching style was more the Batman-esque ‘stern dark teacher of justice’ style than Mrs. Bohn’s friendly style.

He frowned, “Phase, you missed some important labs.  If you’re going to be a Warper, you need to understand how the ability works in more than your own area.  We had both Stonebear and Holdout in here for one day during last week, one on Tuesday and the other Thursday, demonstrating their abilities.  You’ll need to make up those labs…”

He went off on a detailed discussion on how ‘size’ Warpers don’t really change their size (or the size of other objects) as much as they alter their relationship with the rest of the deci-dimensional universe around them.  I had read the textbook - along with two library books by Dr. Quintain that went into more detail - but interactions with Dr. Yablonski always went better if you gave him the chance to be Mister Exposition first.

An internal size warper like Stonebear could do both the ‘shrink’ and ‘grow’ effects.  (Lots of internal size-warpers could only do one of the two, and Stonebear was a rarity in that he had another warper ability too.)  But Stonebear’s ‘giant’ form wasn’t really a six-ton giant with a volume that would generate more heat than he could expend over his surface area, thus causing him to overheat and die; he just looked that way.  And he seemed that way in a lot of real-world situations.  If he hit someone, it would feel a lot like a six-ton giant had punched them.  But what actually hit the person was a warp displacement field.  That also meant that a giant might be able to take more kinetic force than you would expect, because the kinetic force would be impinging on the displacement field, and not directly on the giant himself.  On the other hand, the larger the giant could go, the more the displacement field separated him from the ‘real world’.  An eighty-foot size-warper giant would have a displacement field so intense that he couldn’t really hit you effectively, even if you had all the muscle of Jade.  To be effective, he’d have to hit some other object and knock it at you.

An external size warper like Holdout could shrink other objects.  From what Tennyo had told me about the lab last week, he was called Holdout because he could carry dozens of major holdouts around with him, and keep them shrunk down for hours and hours.  Man, I bet he’d be a bitch and a half to fight, what with all the things he might be yanking out and restoring and then shooting at you.  He could take a two-hundred-pound tripod-mounted Gizmatic Lightning Launcher™ and ‘shrink’ it down to something he could hide in a large pocket.  But the object was still the same mass and volume it had been before.  It just appeared to be about the size and weight of a ten-inch cast-steel replica, because the real object was displaced inter-dimensionally.

Tennyo had brought copies of the lab assignments home for me last week, and I had done them, using resources off the Whateley intranet.  So I handed them in as soon as Dr. Yablonski stopped lecturing.  He sternly looked them over, as if I were dumb enough to copy someone else’s labwork in a school where Exemplar teachers had near-perfect recall and could spot plagiarism in a millisecond.

He couldn’t find anything to complain about on the lab assignments, so he said, “And you were also supposed to find a real-world application of one of those warping abilities.”

I showed him my utility belt with the apparently-useless pockets.  Then I reached into one and pulled out a throwing knife.  I went heavy with it, and handed it to him.

“Hmm,” he stalled.  He held the knife as if it were twenty-five ounces when I handed it to him, instead of twenty-five pounds.  Definitely an Exemplar.  After about a second, the knife reverted to normal weight.  I could tell by his reaction.  He said, “So this is the ‘portable throwing axe’ you were writing about in your density-changers assignment.  This is good.  I didn’t give you enough credit on that.”

That was Dr. Yablonski.  Tough but fair.  The stern teacher of justice.  If he dressed up as Batman at Halloween, I wouldn’t be surprised a bit.  I had a naughty temptation to ask him to say the line “my parents are DEAD”.

But he wasn’t done being stern.  “I did have an extra-credit assignment for you, but you weren’t present.  Dr. Quintain thinks your extra-dimensional phasing ought to let you interfere with inter-dimensional warper abilities, and maybe even subsume the displacement field.  I wanted to see what you could do with Stonebear’s displacement field.”

I winced, “I don’t know about that.  After Fireball, I’m trying not to affect other people.  What if I did something really awful to his displacement field and it hurt him?”

He frowned, “Dr. Quintain doesn’t think there’s any risk of you damaging a person by interacting with his displacement field.  The worst that should happen is the displacement field would collapse, causing the person to revert to normal size.”

I frowned back.  “Dr. Quintain didn’t think there was any risk of my shredding an Exemplar’s BIT and turning them into a hideous, insane monster either.  Until it happened.”

He frowned harder.  “It’s only an extra-credit assignment.  You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to.”

You can’t win against The Stern Teacher Of Justice, any more than you can win against The Bat.  Besides, Politics 101 tells you that in a sitch like this one, you should always let the boss think he’s won.  I just said “I understand, sir” and got on with my labwork.

After that was trig.  I made sure to turn in all my homework before class started.

Mrs. Bell gave me a smile and said, “I’m glad to see you’re back, and you’re obviously keeping up with your homework.”  She hefted the stack of papers and said, “Or maybe getting well ahead of the lecture with your homework…  So often, when students are out for a long time like this, they fall far behind, and then things get.. difficult.”

Then I went and sat with Electrode and Unicorn.  Unicorn grinned, “Electrode was filling me in on what I missed yesterday.  I guess I left too early.”

I said, “Yeah, we could’ve used your help.  Things got sort of nasty there for a bit.”

She said, “Yeah, I hear Delta’s done that a lot this year.”

Well, she must have, if her nickname around Workshop was ‘Explosion Queen’.

Electrode sat there with an ugly expression on her face while she waited for us to finish talking about Delta Spike.  One of these days, I was going to have to get the lowdown on that one.

After class, Unicorn made an effort to walk down the hall next to me.  I made a guess about that.

When we weren’t surrounded by people fleeing last-period math, she murmured, “There’s another meeting of the Golden Kids.  Same time, this Saturday night.  Can you make it?”

“Of course.  I’ll be there.”

She gave me a nod and left.

Electrode walked up and asked, “What’s that about?  You going to the Golden Kids shindigs these days?”

I nodded, “Sure.  They’re just like the kids I used to know.  In a couple cases, they ARE the kids I used to know.  I mean, I actually went to prep school with Glitch.  And my family company’s done business with the families of a lot of them.”

She wondered, “What about Tansy Walcutt?  Isn’t she one of the Golden Kids?  I thought you two hated each other.”

I had to grin at the image that popped into my head.  “Yeah, if Solange was still in the Golden Kids, I think the first meeting of the year would’ve ended with the two of us having a fight to the death.  Preferably hers.  Although I’m pretty sure Dynamaxx would’ve been standing over us, cheering us on as long as it looked like a catfight.  But she ditched the Golds last year when she ran for higher ground.  They like to think they blackballed her, but she dumped them for the Alphas.  And she deserves the Alphas, just like they deserve her.”

Electrode headed back to Poe, while I went over to the clinic.  I’d called over in the morning and arranged a quick afternoon meeting with Dr. Raul Tenant.  As I walked over, I called on my cell phone and checked to see if he was going to be delayed.  At a place like Whateley, a big emergency was always probable.

I was in luck, for a change.  Dr. Tenant was able to see me only a couple minutes after the time I had scheduled.  That was good, because I had an appointment with Dr. Bellows in less than half an hour.

I was shown into a small, well-lit room that was Dr. Tenant’s office.  He was studying a computer screen that I assumed was displaying my medical records.

He waved me in and pointed me to a chair on the opposite side of his desk.  “Phase.  Please, come in and have a seat.  I’m just looking over all your test results and medical records.  You do have a lot of them.”

I asked, “You do know why I’m here, right?”

He nodded.  “I read over your meeting request.  It was quite clearly worded, which is a pleasant change I might add.  You want to know if medicine has any solutions for you.  You don’t have GSD, but you do have a BIT that’s causing you to take on a form not to your liking.  I wish I could say that was a rare thing, but a great many of our Exemplars have BITs which are causing them trouble.”

“And is there anything you can do?”

He sighed, “I don’t think so.  I see that you’ve healed completely from some serious injuries, including those slashes on your upper arm.  Not even a scar.  So you have enough Regen in you to cause problems.  It’s pretty clear from your injury recoveries this fall that you’ll have reversion syndromes if we try any sort of plastic surgery.”

I knew what that meant.  “So, if I had a double mastectomy…”

He looked grim.  “Please don’t do anything like that.  Your body would heal faster than a baseline’s would, but not by a great amount.  And then your breasts would almost certainly grow back.  Since you’re still young, and possibly still changing toward your BIT ideal, your breasts might grow back even larger than they are now.”

I winced.  That was definitely not what I was after.

He finished, “So hormones won’t help you.  Surgery is contraindicated.  I wouldn’t recommend any deviser drugs, either.  That’s not really my field of expertise, but you could research that area if you wanted.”

“I’m already doing that,” I told him.

He said, “You might look into hypnosis.  But if you don’t have any success with that, then the standard medical options are pretty well exhausted.  There are non-Western medical approaches like acupuncture and acupressure, as well as herbalism.  My magical adviser has told me that mages won’t want to touch this kind of problem, so I don’t really have any news that you want to hear.”

Well, at least he was honest.  I knew from talking with Chou and Destiny’s Wave that the ‘non-Western approaches’ he mentioned weren’t going to pan out for me, either.  Fortunately, I’d started with a long list of possibilities.

I stood up and put out my hand.  As we shook, I said, “Thank you for being honest.  That’s what I really wanted.”

He gave me a little smile.  “That’s not what patients really want.  That’s just what patients have to settle for.”

So I was in a less-than-marvelous mood when I got to Dr. Bellows’ office.  Valerie showed me in.  As usual, he was right on time.  I had a feeling he was using his mutant abilities to figure out who was going to need extra time in their sessions, because he never seemed to be running late, even late in the day.

He welcomed me in, and led me over to his armchairs so we could just sit and talk.

After we had talked about how I was feeling, and how my first day back in class had gone, I brought up the subject of hypnosis.

He thought for a second.  “That’s right, Jade Sinclair is on your team, isn’t she?”

“And her sister Jinn,” I added.

He smiled knowingly.  “I understand that Jade doesn’t want everyone to understand how to counter what she does, but I’ve seen her instantiate Jinn into objects.”

I said, “Well, I’d appreciate it if you kept that to yourself.”

He replied, “I don’t think that falls under doctor-patient privilege, but I don’t see any reason why I would need to discuss that with anyone.  Still, her actual powers are on the computer records.”

I nodded, but I didn’t see any reason that I couldn’t get those computer records changed at some convenient time in the future.  All I needed was a contact with sufficient access.  I could work on that.

We talked some more about the hypnosis trials we would try on Friday.  He stressed, “This is not going to be a magic bullet, you understand.”

I told him, “Right.  After all, not even salvarsan, the original ‘magic bullet’, was a magic bullet.”

He blinked a couple times and then said, “Oh!  It took me a moment to place your reference.  I wouldn’t have thought a fourteen-year-old would know about salvarsan.”

I shrugged, “I read a lot.  Back in elementary school, I read a number of books on the history of medicine, and doctors in general.”  I admitted, “Back then, I really wanted to become a doctor.  But I knew that wasn’t practical, since I was obligated to prepare myself to go into the family business.”

“Hmm,” he temporized.  “Did you ever feel that this was unfair?  That you should have been allowed to become a doctor?”

“Oh no.”  I explained, “We’re Goodkinds.  We have responsibilities.  People depend on us.  And not just the people in our family.  Millions of people all over the globe depend on us.  Father wanted to be a baseball player when he grew up.  Uncle Herb wanted to be a musician.  But they both knew that they had important things to do.  They couldn’t just ‘run off to join the circus’, so to speak.  They had a lot to learn.  They had to be prepared to take over the family businesses from Grandfather.  Of course, I could have ignored that obligation and focused on becoming a doctor.  My sister Heather essentially did that.  She ignored her responsibilities and became a model.  Now she thinks she’ll be the next Angelina Jolie.  Since she has the brains of an ice cube, she’ll probably end up being the next Gia Carangi.  Still, it would have been good if she’d accepted her role in the family empire.”

He wrinkled his brow in thought.  “So how hard has it been for you, knowing that all that training is going for nothing, since you can’t go back into the family businesses?”

“I try not to think about that too much,” I admitted.  “Knowing I can’t be the person I spent my life training to be…  In a lot of ways, it hurts just as much as knowing that my family despises me because I’m a mutant.  Or being trapped in a body I really hate.  But I guess it could be a lot worse.  There are plenty of people here at Whateley who have it worse than I do.  And I’m doing my part to help all the people around here who obviously need decent financial advice.”

“Obviously?” he checked.

Obviously,” I insisted.  “It’s painfully clear that Whateley spends a lot of time educating their gadgeteers and devisers in the Workshop aspects, and completely fails to educate them on the important aspects of life: the financial and legal side of life once they build their creation.  It’s no wonder so many devisers go crazy or evil, when they’re probably getting ripped off by every corporation with which they deal.  All these madboys trying to steal millions with their devises could make a lot more money if they just worked with decent financial advisors!”

Eventually, Dr. Bellows got us back on track, and explained what he would be doing in the hypnosis sessions.  “I won’t be putting you in a trance and commanding your BIT to magically fix itself.  This doesn’t work like that.”

“I understand.”

“Good.  What we’ll be trying to do is to train you in hypnosis, so that you can work on a self-hypnosis regimen.  Then I’ll guide you, while you do the real work.  Studies have shown that when the patient performs self-hypnosis, the patient is far more likely to get useful results out of it.  I personally think there are lots of reasons why, but I’ll give you two: you’ll always trust yourself more than someone else; and if you’re doing it yourself, you can reinforce the hypnotic commands a lot more regularly.”

“That makes sense.”

He nodded, “Good.  But here’s the most important part.  Hypnosis is not a magic panacea.  It may not work at all.  It may not work to any noticeable extent.  And even if it does work, it may take months or years to get any improvements.  You shouldn’t expect that this is going to fix your life in a week.  In fact, you should be telling yourself not to expect much at all.  It’s important not to get your hopes up too high on something like this.  Okay?”

“Okay.”  I understood completely.  What he really meant was that HE didn’t think this would work for me.

We wrapped up, and I left his office.  I could have gone back to Poe and joined the usual study group, but I was feeling fairly discouraged.  And I didn’t have a lot of studying to do.  I was done with Civics and Accounting I.  I was well ahead on homework in all my other classes, and I was nearly done with my paper for World Lit.

I decided to go do something constructive that would make me feel better.  I headed over to Hawthorne.

Mrs. Cantrel met me at the front door.  “Goodchild, you don’t have detention today.  Yesterday was your last day.”

I smiled, “I remember.  I just thought I’d drop by and see if Claire wanted some math help, and maybe Melissa wanted to chat a bit.”

She just shook her head and smiled.  This wasn’t her usual ‘shark looking at helpless swimmers’ smile.  This was sort of a surprised smile.  “You Kimbas just keep surprising me.”

“Oh?”

“You’re the fifth Kimba to drop by today.  Fey came by, then Tennyo, then Chaka, then Lancer, and now you.”

“I take it detention cases never drop by just to see people.”

She slowly shook her head.  “Lord, no.  Most people see this as the worst punishment detail on campus.  I’ve had people volunteer to work in the sewers, or shovel sidewalks in the middle of winter, instead of having to work at Freak House.”

“It’s not my fault most teenagers are as.. umm, jerks.”

She smiled broadly, “No, it’s not.”  She stared off into space for a few seconds, and then said, “Louis thinks you ought to start with Claire.  She can really use the help in trig.  And my old math skills aren’t good enough to be tutoring her.  I’ll come get you after a while, once we’ve got Puppet’s room cleaned up, and you can go see her.”

“I could help with the clean-up,” I volunteered.  Not that I really wanted to, but if it was something that needed doing…

She slowly shook her head no.  “I don’t think so.  Not today.  One of her major tubes ruptured, and there’s toxic blood everywhere.  We’ve got a full MOPP 4 team in there now.  It was pretty handy having that Sara girl around last week for things like this, since she’s not affected by it.  You don’t know how much I worry about exposing most of you kids to Puppet’s blood.”

She turned her head, “Dean?  Dean!  Could you please take Ayla up to see Claire?”

Slab got up from one of the oversized couches in front of the television and lumbered over.  “Yes ma’am?”

“Dean, would you escort Ayla up to see Claire?  And keep an eye out.”

He gave her a nod, and then walked off without looking to see if I was following.

I walked along behind him.  Of course, since he was way bigger, he had a much longer stride, and I had to walk quickly to keep up.  I asked, “Dean, what…”

“Slab.  Call me Slab.”

“Okay.”  So much for Mister Sociable.  Well, lots of people around campus went by their codenames instead of their real names, so it didn’t really mean much.  And he didn’t have much reason to trust a Goodkind.  “You can call me Ayla if you want, or Phase.  Whichever…  But what are you supposed to be keeping an eye on?”

He finally decided to answer, while we were going up the stairs.  “Spoof.  He’s taking a nap now, and sometimes, when he’s asleep…”

“Oh.  Right.  Nikki told me about his projections.”

He frowned, “She had it easy.  Some copies of her?  Big deal.  You should see it when he has a nightmare.  After the last couple, no one in this whole building’s ever gonna let him watch a horror movie again.”

I didn’t bother to correct Mister Sensitivity about Nikki’s feelings, and ‘how easy’ she had it when Spoof’s copies of her were running around naked.  I suspected she would have rather faced one of those nightmares.

Claire was really surprised to see me.  “Phase!  What’re you doing here?  I mean…  Don’t tell me you got detention again…”

I scowled, “No!  Of course not!  I just thought I’d come by and see how you were doing, and give you some more math tutoring.”  Damnit, why does everyone figure I’m the Wicked Witch of the West?  I bet not one single person said that to Tennyo or Lancer.

I watched as Claire’s face went through shock, then disbelief, then amazement, then realization…

I went heavy just in the nick of time, as she suddenly threw herself into my arms and burst into tears.  Static electricity crackled all around us, and her tears shimmered with their electrical charges.  She sobbed, “You came back…  Everyone said you wouldn’t…  You stopped coming the last time…  I didn’t know what to think…  I wanted you to…  But no one comes back…  Everyone thinks we’re freaks…  And you’re rich…  You didn’t have to…  You’re a Goodkind and everything…  And you stopped coming after the last time…  But you came back…”

“Girls.”  Slab shook his ponderous head.  He didn’t get what was going on, and he was obviously smart enough to know that he was never going to understand women.  He just scooted us into Claire’s room so her burgeoning static charge didn’t wreck the hallway.

Then I just held Claire while she babbled and cried.  Her tears had such a massive charge that every drop which fell on me was like getting a big electrical shock.  Even though I had already gone heavy.  I didn’t want to think about what her static charge would do to a baseline, or someone like Jade.

Once I got Claire calmed down, she sat on her bed and wiped her tears away while I took care of the static build-up on everything in the room.  She wanted to chat, instead of working on math, but that was okay by me.

Apparently, a third of Hawthorne was talking about visits from Team Kimba.  Chaka was regularly coming by to chat and give Tai Chi lessons to a couple kids - like you’d be able to keep Chaka from chatting away.  Tennyo had some regular deal going with half a dozen Thornies, including some girl named Fire Forge.  Jade was dropping by to see Frank and Jello and a couple others.  Nikki was coming by regularly, and every guy in Hawthorne was eagerly awaiting her next visit.  Lancer was dropping by on some weird schedule so he could avoid Olympia.  Even Carmilla and Bladedancer were doing it, and they hadn’t had as much contact with these kids as the rest of us had.

I explained, “Sorry about the last time, but the headmistress told me not to come over here anymore until Tisiphone was moved out again.  You met her?”

Claire nodded.  “She was nuts!  She said she used to be beautiful, and you turned her into a monster.  But you’re not a wizard or anything.  And she said she was gonna rip you apart and stuff…”

I admitted, “She was telling the truth.  The Alphas put hits out on half of Team Kimba, a couple weeks ago.”

“You’re shitting me.”

“No, I wish I were,” I sighed.  “Fireball set up a little ambush for me.  She was going to burn me and permanently scar me.  Or worse.  We’ll probably never know for sure.  But…  Well, you know I can go heavy or go light?”

She nodded.

“I can go not-quite-light.  I have this level I call disruption-light.  If I go that density and I pass through electronics, they fry.  Or I pass through people, and it knocks them out.  That’s what I did to her.  But we found out - way too late if you ask me - that if I disruption-phase through an Exemplar’s BIT, I can trash it too.  I ruined her BIT.  I turned her into that.. thing.”

“But it was an accident!  You didn’t know you could do that!  And she was trying to kill you or something!”

I groaned, “But I still feel bad about it.  And there’s no way I can ever make it up to her.”

She gave me a big hug, and then grinned.  “You know, when you’re heavy like this, hugging you is like hugging a steel statue.”

I grinned back.  “Sorry.”

“Hey, don’t be sorry.  If you couldn’t go heavy like that, you couldn’t come visit me!”

We kept chatting about Team Kimba and the people in Hawthorne, and we never did get to the math tutoring.  Before we stopped talking, there was a knock at the door.  A red light flashed above the door.

Claire winced, “Okay, the red light means whoever it is probably can’t handle my static field.  You need to slide the mesh screen over the doorway and check that it’s grounded, before you let ‘em open the door.”

“Got it.”

I got the high-conductance mesh over the doorway.  It clicked into place when it was positioned properly, which seemed like a good design.  I unlocked the door, and it opened to reveal a hopeful-looking Frostbite.

She grinned, “You ARE here!  Oly was complaining because she never can find Lancer – oh, I wonder why – and she said ‘even that Goodkind – well she called you a bad name – is here’ and so I checked with Mrs. Cantrel, and you are here!”  She stopped and waved to Static Girl, “Hey Claire!  Isn’t this great?  People are all afraid to come over and visit, so the only time I ever get to get out and see people is when it’s hot and bone dry outside, and even then stuff can go wrong…”  She sagged in sudden discouragement.

Claire said, “Hey, come on, it wasn’t your fault that hydrant wasn’t turned off all the way.”

Frostbite frowned, “Yeah, but when I turned that water to ice, it burst the pipes, and then everything went to hell, and…”

“It wasn’t your fault!” Claire insisted.

Frostbite said, “Doesn’t matter.  I still did it.  I am gonna be so glad when I get outta here.  I think I’m gonna move to the Mojave Desert.  No water, no cold, no water pipes, it’ll be great.”

I left with Frosty and we chatted as she led me over to Puppet’s room.  She stopped me as I was putting on overboots.  “You are gonna come back again, aren’t you?”

“Sure I am.  Why not?”

She shrugged, “Well, people don’t like coming here.  It gets pretty lonely.”

I gave her a hug and said, “Well, I like coming here.  Especially now that I’m not getting hit in the face with a five-gallon ball of snot.”

“Eeeeww.  I heard about that.  Sorry.”

I grabbed a gasmask and went in to see Puppet.  “Melissa?  Got time for visitors?”

She looked up from her notes on her desk and smiled, “Ayla!  Sure!  Come on in.”

I smiled, “How are you doing?”

“Okay,” she said.  “But I’m studying for a European History test.  Would you help me out?”

“Sure.”

So I spent most of my time going through their textbook and asking questions, like “How long was the Hundred Years War?”  We were still doing question-and-answer when Mrs. Cantrel came by to tell me I needed to go eat dinner.

At dinner with all of TK, we were having one of our usual wacko conversations.  Sometimes I wondered if anyone were eavesdropping on us.  But I knew the typical conversations we had would either drive a snooper insane or scare the crap out of him.

This time, the talk was about Sara.  She was up and around, but now her room needed some care.  Apparently, she had a spare head that her dad had incinerated, along with the rest of her room, before he fixed things for her.

“Well, two heads are better than one!”

“We did that joke already.”

“It needed to be said.”

I think it said something about the way life was going for Team Kimba that the half-demon chick had been decapitated, her head had grown back but the severed head hadn’t died, Sara had engaged in a life-or-death battle with The Kellith, a Great-Old-One demon had been in the basement of Poe setting fire to stuff, and what everyone was worried about was the lumpy things in the meatloaf.

Okay, I wasn’t worried about the meatloaf.  I was having some cassoulet with a rich confit d’oie, courtesy of Chef André.  Tennyo wasn’t worried either.  She ate about eight helpings of the meatloaf before she moved on to the next main course, pretty much like locusts clearing off an entire farm before moving on to the next fields.

Chaka interrupted, “Okay, but what I wanna know, is who went to Hawthorne today?”

Hands starting going up.  And up.

Everybody who had gotten detention, except Sara and Jade, had their hand up.  Well, Sara had been having a lot of trouble with everyone from Admin on down, and Jade was fresh off her job helping those guys in the sewer.  Although I’m not sure you can use the words ‘fresh’ and ‘sewer’ in the same sentence.  Especially given the sewers around here.

Jade pouted, “I have a job, you know!  We were going to sneak over there after dinner, while I was studying in my room.”

I groaned, “Pronouns, please!”

Nikki pointed out, “Well, now you don’t have to sneak.  It looks like we’re all going over there.”

Toni shrugged, “What’s the problem?  I had a great time over there.  I like going back.”

I tried to explain, “We’re apparently the only people who ever got detention there who wanted to come back.  You know the Alphas wouldn’t go back.  You know the campus bullies don’t want to go back.  And you know badguys who get caught doing stuff around here aren’t going to want to go back.  Who else besides us ever gets detention at Hawthorne?”

Hank said, “When Lily’s friends and I got in trouble for busting into a restricted area to stop the Masterminds, we got extra Security duty.”

Jade said, “Stan and Morrie said that Bronco and Silo bust stuff all the time, but they just keep getting assigned to Maintenance to fix the stuff up again.  Stan said they’re getting really good at working construction.”  She broke into a grin.  “Morrie said it’s a good thing, because they’re not smart enough to become plumbers.”

Bunny chipped in, “Lots of times, when guys in the Workshop get detention for breaking the rules, they get assigned to outdoors stuff they really hate, like raking leaves, shoveling snow, cleaning the Quad…  That kind of thing.”

Sara supplied, “Last year, when the Intelligence Cadet Corps broke into Schuster to stop that gang of Masterminds, they were assigned to the third shift of Security for two solid weeks.  That must be brutal if you still need to sleep.”

Chaka summarized, “Okay, so we’re the only people to do anything bad enough to get detention in Hawthorne, and not be the bad guys, and also be tough enough not to get trashed by the Thornies.”

Nikki added, “And there are a lot of nice people over there, and they need our help.”

I pointed out, “I believe that’s the point.  People like you never get detention at Hawthorne under normal circumstances.  The good samaritans are off helping others, not getting in massive superhero battles that endanger half the campus.”

After dinner was over, I made a tactical error.  I asked Nikki, “Hey, remember when you loaned all those books on hypnosis to Jade?  Well, we’re going to try hypnosis to correct my BIT.  I’d like to borrow them all.  Is that okay?”

The tactical error was that I asked her while we were all walking back to Poe, and the rest of TK jumped on me.

Chaka got in there first, of course.  “Ayles, are you sure that’s a good idea?”

Hank added, “Weren’t you one of the people on Jade’s case about this the last time?”

Tennyo growled, “At least Jade had some protection when she went in and tried this.  He could have done anything to her while she was under hypnosis!”

Jade chipped in, “Yeah!”  Then she turned to Tennyo and frowned, “Hey!  I’m not completely helpless here!”

I put my hands up in surrender.  “Look, we’ve been through this once already.  But now we know Bellows is trustworthy…”

Jade grumbled, “There was that thing about coughing whenever he tapped his pencil.  I didn’t like that.”

“…and I have a plan,” I continued, ignoring her complaint.  “I’m going to have Jade cast Jinn into my clothes just before the meet, and then if anything goes sideways, Jinn can just fly me out of there.”

Jade grinned, “We can do better than that!  I’ll cast Jinn into your clothes and your skin!”

I winced, “Isn’t that what you did to Tansy?”

“Oh no,” she shook her head.  “Nothing like that.  But if Jinn’s in your skin too, she can control your eardrums!”

Hank stuck in, “Yeah, then she can talk to you by vibrating your eardrums.  But it’s kind of loud if she doesn’t have the volume right.”

And then I got it.  “And she can hold my eardrums rigid, so I can’t hear a suspicious hypnotic command!”

Jade made a little hop and exclaimed, “Yeah!  That’s exactly what I was gonna say!”

Toni muttered, “I still don’t like it.”

I told her, “I’m not thrilled with it, myself.  But if someone you trusted had come to you when you were ten and said that hypnosis might help you fix your body to what you needed it to be, would you have done it?”

I could tell by the look in her eye that the answer was ‘there is no way in hell you could have stopped me’.

I sighed, “Look, you all know this.  I have to try it!  I can’t live like this, stuck half-and-half, the biggest freakjob on campus…”

“You’re not a freak.”

“Yeah.  Ditto.”

“Same here.”

“Thanks,” I added, “But I hate my body.  I’ve got to try this.  And having someone I trust watching out for me would let me relax during the hypnosis.”

Jade looked wide-eyed at me.  “You really trust me that much?”  She gave me a huge hug.

Nikki reluctantly led me into her room to get all the books on hypnosis.  She muttered, “I didn’t like this when Jade was doing it, and I still don’t like it.  BITs are dangerous things to mess with.”

“I’ll be careful, mom,” I teased.

She showed her superior maturity by sticking her tongue out at me.  Of course, I didn’t mind.  Fey sticking out her tongue at you is somewhat sexier than, say.. the centerfold in last month’s Playboy.

She pulled books off her shelf and stacked them in my arms.  “Okay, here’s the stuff on the British Psychical Society…  A history of famous mystics, Mesmer’s in there…  I bought Gauld’s “A History of Hypnotism” after Jade read it, here ya go…  I don’t have “The Science of Hypnotism” but Jade said the library had about six copies, can’t imagine why, it’s outdated, and really lame…  Okay, here’s “Hypnotherapy: Theory and Practice”, that one’s a little too ‘hypnosis for dummies’ for my taste…  And you’ll want to read this one, it’s got two decent chapters on the subject…”

I ended up with six books, plus a couple references I could look up in the library this week.  Then I read Nikki’s books during our usual study group.  It didn’t take that long.  A couple of the books were pretty short, two only had small chunks on hypnosis, and none of them were technical.

But Jade kept pestering me about costume stuff while I was busy reading Nikki’s books.  I was trying to get through all of them before study group wrapped up.

“Oh come on,” she insisted.  “We all agreed we were doing a Tenchi Muyo theme…”

I muttered, “I didn’t agree on it…”  Not that anyone had paid any attention to my objections.  As usual.

“…and I’ve got a great idea for a costume for you!”

“It’s not Kiyone or Mihoshi, is it?” I asked fearfully.  I was definitely not ready to be walking around in high-heeled boots and a miniskirt.

“Oh no, it’s nothing like that.  It’s from the later stuff.  It’ll be great.”

I had no idea about some of the later Tenchi Muyo stuff, except for the fact that it was spun off of the Tenchi-and-Ryoko stuff.  But the group had decided to do a Tenchi Muyo theme, since we already had an exact Ryoko copy - except for the costume.

Nikki said, “Jade came up with a great idea for my costume.  I’m really looking forward to it.”  She suddenly had an evil grin.  “Especially the accessories...”

I gave in ungraciously, “Oh all right.”

I should have been more suspicious.  A lot more suspicious.  I let her take my measurements, and I thought I was off the hook.  Doh!

At least she let me finish reading Nikki’s books.  Not that there was a lot of substance in those texts.

I put them back on Nikki’s shelf and wondered aloud, “Did I actually learn anything from those books?  Other than the fact that Mesmer was a raving loony?”

Tuesday, October 24

The alarm went off, playing some of the gorgeously polyphonic part of Brass Monkey’s “Defective Invective Detective”.  I thought about slapping the snooze button, but I ended up lying there and listening to the whole song before I got out of bed.

I didn’t drag myself out of bed as much as I phased out of bed.  I went light, and sank out of my pajamas, right through the bunkbed.  Once I was standing on the floor, I went normal and put on my bathrobe.  I grabbed my kit, and it was off to Eden.

And the morning showers were their usual little slice of heaven.  Between Fey and Vox and Bugs and Scrambler and Riptide, the whole room was resplendent with pulchritude.  I did my now-standard ‘rush through the shower’ routine so it looked like I wasn’t ogling everyone.  Too much.  Then I commandeered a sink and spent as long as I could there, staring into the mirror at gorgeous hotties who weren’t noticing that I was taking a ridiculous amount of time flossing my teeth.

Then breakfast was a treat.  Chef Peter had two orange rolls for me.  Each one was about two inches across, so they weren’t the usual overwhelming clods of pastry that Tennyo and Lancer always seem to be stuffing into their maws.  These were sweet but tart, with a rich yeast bread rolled up with a filling like a homemade orange marmalade, sliced into spirals, and topped with a drizzle of royal icing laden with orange zest and orange juice.  Man, I could have eaten those until I exploded.

Then Powers Theory was sort of a downer.  Filbert DID have me come down for a demo.  Rats.  I thought I had escaped that yesterday.  The zombie-like voice caught me moments after I sat down next to Charmer.  “Phase?  Could you please come to the front of the room to assist with a demonstration of our current topical material?”

Möbius whispered, “Better you than me!”

I left my stuff and floated over the desks to my right so I could walk down to the front.  “Yes sir?”

He said to me, “Please step up on the dais with me, and let Mister Clark wheel out the equipment.  This will be quite simple.”

Then he began talking, while Sean rolled a table full of junk up behind me.  “Now apparently there is some confusion about the difference between extra-dimensional density changers and inter-dimensional density changers.  Phase here is an extra-dimensional density changer, and we will be able to demonstrate a few key points of interest here…”

He talked a bit about differences between the two types of density changers, while most of the class sank into helpless comas.  Then he had me go disruption-light and pass my hand through several sets of electronic toys.  Each of them fizzled and sparked as I shredded them.

After that, he had me go light, stick my hand into a block of Lexan, and go heavy to disintegrate a chunk out of it.  It stung, but I did it.  Then I went light again and extracted my arm, leaving an Ayla-sized hand imprint eaten out of the plastic.  Since the Lexan was a clear plastic, the entire class could see the effect.

After I was all done, Dr. Quintain said, “So this has applications in the real world.  An important difference between the extra-dimensional density changers and the inter-dimensional density changers is in how they interact with, say, an opponent in power armor.”

Sean Clark stepped into the hallway for a second and came back in with someone in what looked like an old Roosevelt-class MCO power armor suit, complete with shoulder-mounted gatling gun that looked like it would be firing shells the size of my thumb.

That got everyone’s attention.

The powder-blue armor turned to face me.  I went light, just in case.

Quintain explained, “We all face the potential threat of attack.  Someday, any of us could be assaulted by opponents in power armor, whether or not we have done anything to deserve it.  This is a somewhat-outdated suit of power armor donated by the MCO that was part of an information exchange brokered by the school.  However, it is still potentially lethal to most of the students at Whateley.  Few mutants are bulletproof at this level of firepower, and few of us would want to have to fight a man in power armor.  The inter-dimensional density changer who can become immaterial, if given time to prepare, can easily pass through the armor, or let the weaponry pass through him.  Or her, in this case.

“But the extra-dimensional density changer can do substantially more.  Phase will now demonstrate.  She will first pass a hand through the controls for the gatling gun, disabling the power armor’s firepower.  Then she will pass an arm through the power armor and operator, disabling the armor and rendering the operator unconscious at the same time.”

Wait!  I couldn’t do that!  What if the guy inside had a BIT?

Sean Clark must have known what I was thinking.  I doubt that I was the Great Stone Face at that moment.  He leaned forward and whispered, “He’s a volunteer from Security.  He’s not a mutant, and doesn’t have a BIT.”

I sighed in relief.

Dr. Quintain looked over at me.  “Phase?  Are you ready?”

“Yes sir.”

“Then begin, please.”

Okay, so I showed off a bit.  I was already fully light, so I leapt through the power suit to get behind it.  I went disruption-light before waving my hand through the control cables leading to the gatling gun.  Sparks flew, as the subsystem dramatically shorted out.  Then I waved an arm down the back of the power armor and through the operator.  The battery system shorted out in a big flash of energy – which frankly stung a lot - and the power suit froze.  It slowly toppled onto its back.  I went heavy and caught it one-handed before it smashed into the floor.  There was no point in letting the unconscious guy inside it get bruised up too.

After I lowered the power suit to the floor, Mister Clark murmured, “Could you help?  I need to get him up on the table so I can wheel him out of here and off to the elevator.”

So I stayed heavy for a little longer.  The power armor plus wearer was only about a third of a ton, so I had no trouble picking it up and setting it on the cart.  Sean wheeled the stuff out, and I went back to my seat.

Möbius whispered, “Damn!  That was WAY more impressive than Harrier’s demo last week!  Are you sure you need a utility belt?”

Charmer slipped into French, as she was wont to do when she wasn’t thinking about it.  “I must agree!  That was very impressive.  It is not surprising that you are one of the most powerful fighters in aikido class.  Once again I am glad that I seldom have to spar against you.”

But she smiled as she said her last sentence.  I had sparred against her enough to know that her physical skills were minimal – Jade could have taken her with one hand tied behind her back – but her magical skills were pretty hot.  Not up in Fey’s class, but pretty darn good.  She had a barricade charm that put up a magical wall I couldn’t get through (although I could dive through the floor and go under it, or go light and fly over it).  She had a golem charm that was pretty effective, even if it wasn’t strong enough to stand up very long to me or Prism or Golden Girl.  She had half a dozen other charms that she could whip out at the drop of a chapeau, and she was working on more spells.  Maybe she wasn’t ready to fight the top four or five in our aikido class, but she was definitely in the next tier.

When I got back from classes that afternoon, I found an envelope in my mailbox.  Not only was it marked as being from Trin and Macintyre, but it was hermetically sealed.  And the inner envelope was covered in magical runes.  I guessed that those were to prevent anyone from snooping in the contents or stealing the contents out of the envelope.

Easy way to test that?  Me.  After I took out the papers, I went light and tried to phase through the envelope.  Nada.  I couldn’t pass through the rune-covered envelope.  It was almost like trying to reach through Nikki’s magical wall of force.

The papers were two of the reports I had requested.  The first paper was known deviser drugs that affected primary and/or secondary sexual characteristics.  The second was known mutant intersexed people throughout history, and how they resolved their physical problem.

Apparently, there were two drugs designed to turn normal males into shemales: Anlage, and the black-market drug Fem-Gen.  Neither worked on anyone with a BIT or significant Regen abilities or reversion syndromes.  And both of those were only for males who wanted to become shemales.

Crap.  I didn’t want to turn into a she-male, I already was one!

Anyway, I already knew way too much about Anlage, since that was the drug Gracie had taken to become a she-male.  The effects of the Fem-Gen supposedly only lasted for a couple days, forcing users to become ‘addicts’ who need another fix every day or two.  Then there were Lutinase and Androgenyet, two deviser drugs that had a history of limited successes on male mutants wishing to become female.  There were two known cases of mutants with BITs that had done well with Lutinase - they had changed to fully female and still hadn’t reverted after a couple years - but there had been a far larger number of failures.  Unfortunately, there was nothing out there for a M2FM like me who wanted to become a male again.

The second document was even more discouraging.  There just weren’t that many known mutants who were intersexed or hermaphroditic, other than ones who were in that state as they passed onto something else.  Like Hank.  He was still a bilateral hermaphrodite, even if he was steadily moving toward solid guy-ness.  Hardly anyone anywhere had ever had my problem, and none of them ever got fixed.

Trin and Macintyre had documentation on two intersexed mutants who died trying to become their original sex again, and two who committed suicide when they couldn’t fix their condition.  There were short reports on three intersexed supers - one of them was passing as a sexpot supervillainess - who were brutally killed and/or gang-raped when caught by their enemies.  Then there were two others who just vanished, or went into hiding, or somehow killed themselves without leaving any sign of their bodies, or something.  But they had never been seen again.

The last case was the worst.  I was astounded that Mother hadn’t fixated on it at some point.  The South American superheroine Mujer Fuerte.  She was intersexed but posing as female, just like I was.  She was one of the leaders of Los Conquistadores, the South American superhero team.  She tried using magic to fix her body.  She went completely female, and went utterly insane.  AND her powers jacked up several notches too.  Oh My God.  She had literally gone ‘Dark Phoenix’ on her team and a large area outside of Rio de Janeiro.  She had to be put down by…  Oh Jesus.  It took all of Los Conquistadores, and the Brazilian army, and two full dropships of the Knights of Purity, and also two major supervillains who were long-time enemies of hers and took the opportunity to snuff her legally.

At the thought of going ‘Dark Phase’ on everyone I cared about at Whateley, I had to go toss my cookies.  God, if I went insane or evil and also became powerful enough to go through force fields, there’d be nothing left around here except pieces of dead bodies.

After reading those reports, I was so discouraged that I just sat in my room and listened to REM for the rest of the evening.

Wednesday, October 25

At breakfast, Fey had news for me.  “It looks like Circe will meet with you at noon.  I’ll take you there.”

“Great,” I said.  But I was suspecting it wouldn’t be great.  Actually, I was figuring it would be pretty damned depressing.  But I needed to find out, one way or the other.

I was nervous all morning long.  Man, I wasn’t this nervous the first time I had dinner with Warren Buffett.  I pretty much lost whatever Mrs. Ryan was saying about the costumes she was reviewing.  I had a hard time concentrating in Spanish class.  I completely tuned out Dr. Quintain – but that was completely normal, and may not have had anything to do with Circe.

I ate a quick lunch, and Nikki led me over to one of the classrooms used by the Magical Arts department for intro courses.  Once again, we entered a normal-looking classroom with a big whiteboard at the head of the room, and an unobtrusive door beside the whiteboard, presumably so that the teacher could make a quick exit and not have to deal with students in the hallways.

Circe looked just like she had before.  But this time I could see her for what she was as soon as we walked into the room.  It was the way she stood.  The way she moved.  The power and authority in her every movement.  It was almost like watching a human version of Aunghadhail.

I tried a polite smile.  “Circe.  I wanted to thank you for taking the time to speak with me.  I hope I’m not interrupting your lunch or anything.”

She nodded, “Not at all.  Fey spoke highly of you, and at our earlier meeting I saw that she was correct.”

I tried, “So…  I assume you already know what I want to ask.  It turns out that I don’t have GSD.  The problem is my BIT.  My question remains much the same.  Can you magically change my BIT so I’d go back to me?  Back to a guy?”

She sadly shook her head no.  “There are rules about that.  Really strict rules.  And those rules are in place for very sound reasons.  Mages and psis have tried altering people’s BITs, with essentially no complete successes, and a number of truly hideous failures.  Even the partial successes usually have something drastically unpleasant happen.  The classic example of that was The Gator, a superhero of the 1990’s who was, by your current system, probably an Exemplar-5 and looked like a gator-man hybrid…”

Oh God.  The Gator.  I knew where this story was going.  Everyone knew this one.  It had been in all the papers for days, back in 2001.  Mother had fussed about it for months.

She continued, as if she hadn’t caught my huge flinch.  “He talked Doctor Homunculus and Magistare into trying a spell to change his BIT, and it was a disaster.  They did change his BIT.  They changed him so that he looked like a handsome, six-foot-tall man.  But he changed into a man with the strength of an Exemplar-5, the appetite of an Energizer-6, and the mind of an alligator.  He went on a cannibalistic rampage through Miami and Fort Lauderdale that ended with his being killed by two teams of the Knights of Purity just as he was about to break into a dorm of college girls in the middle of the University of Miami campus.”

Yeah, I already knew a ton about The Gator’s infamous rampage.  Thank God for Uncle Herb and his Knights of Purity.  It was reassuring knowing that there were some good guys out there.  Even if nothing about the magic issue was reassuring.

I sighed, “I was afraid of something like that.  I mean, after the point you made the last time about repairing people’s GSD, I figured there was likely to be something like this, or the Magical Arts Department would have been fixing every weird BIT on campus.”  I tried to keep my shoulders from sagging too much as I said, “Thank you for taking the time to talk with me, even if I am a Muggle.”

Circe didn’t reply.  She just stared at me.  I’d seen a cat watching a field mouse like that, so I didn’t think it was a good thing.  Still, as long as I had Nikki in the room, I wasn’t too frantic.  I figured that Circe was a really powerful mage, but I’d seen Fey in action enough to know that nobody was ever going to be pushing her around, at least magically speaking.

Finally, Circe spoke.  “You should take the magical curriculum.”

WHAT?

She waited.

My first thought was “what the hell have you been smoking?”  That was closely followed by “I don’t have time for this crap, I have a real academic curriculum to plan out!”  Of course, I didn’t say either of those.

Instead, I thought.  This wasn’t some sleazy carny act.  This was Circe.  This was a font of wisdom most mortals would cut off their right arm just to meet.  And she had just given me advice.

If I ran into Alan Greenspan again at one of his wife’s parties, and he gave me advice on economic trends, would I ignore him?  Of course not.

If I bumped into Warren Buffett again and he gave me some stock tips, would I ignore him?  Hell no.

If I had lunch with Bill Gates again and he gave me some advice on future directions in computing, would I ignore him?  No way.

So why was I even thinking twice about this?  Okay, so my schedule was already pretty crowded.  So this wasn’t one of my strengths.  So I didn’t know what I would be getting myself into.

I cautiously said, “But I’m not a Wizard.”  Then I checked, “Am I?”

She smiled slightly.  “No, you are not.  But you have all the characteristics I always looked for in a potential student.”

For some reason, my knees suddenly felt really rubbery.

She explained, “First, you must understand something.  You do not need to be a powerful mage like Fey…”  She stared at me, but she was seeing something else.  “…Or Majestic.. in order to learn magic.  I always required several things in my apprentices.  A thirst for knowledge.  A will of iron.  Strong morals which had already been tested.  A fundamental understanding of your small part of the world.  A willingness to take advice even when you are used to being too smart to listen to those around you.  Some of my finest pupils didn’t have an iota of Fey’s power when they started.

“You think of yourself as weak to magic, and yet you have no trouble seeing Fey as a friend and teammate.  You recognize Aunghadhail within her, and The Kellith within Ms. Waite.  You are already accepting precepts which invalidate the world you were raised in.  And yet your understanding of your own small part of the universe is so intense that you are already on your way to becoming a billionaire in your own right.

“You have been tempered in fires not of your own making.  You have learned the lesson of the wizard who lost his magic.  You have learned the lesson of the apprentice who had to face dragons.  Your moral courage has not failed you.

“You may never be Merlin or Morgan le Fay, but you can learn more about magic than you believe possible.  You can learn the precepts and skills.  You have the will power to force the magic to do your bidding.  And you have the wisdom to know who you should listen to, and who you should ignore.

“One more thing.  You currently feel that you are weak to magic, and weak to psychic powers and weak to other powers.  You seek ‘holdouts’ to protect you in times of crisis.  Learning magic could someday give you more support than you are currently prepared to grasp.  Just as learning martial arts is teaching you more than you currently realize.  Some day, you may need magical abilities, and not your mutant powers as a Warper.”

I swallowed hard and asked, “So is there an Intro to Magical Arts course next term?”

She smiled, “Spring term.  There will be enough interest for a single class.  It will be held third period.  On the days when I am asked to give guest lectures, I will expect you to ask intelligent questions.”

She rose from her chair and strolled out through the teachers’ door before I could make my legs work again.

“Oh.  My.  God,” Nikki whispered.

I cleared my throat and said, “Yeah.  Me too.  Did I just hear what I thought I heard?”

She murmured, “Uhh, yeah.  I think you might even have a mentor, if you want to try and get serious about it.”

I told her, “I’m not going to start it if I’m not going to get serious about it.”

She winced, “I figured that much.  But.. Ayla.. there’s something else you need to know.  Circe hasn’t personally mentored a student here for a long time.  Maybe she’s not offering to mentor you now, but it sure sounded like it to me.  People talk about stuff like this in the MA Department.  The last student Circe mentored was a Wizard-2/Manifester-2 named Wight, back in the late 80’s.”

“I don’t like the way you said that.”

She pursed her lips.  “You shouldn’t.  Wight didn’t survive her senior year at Whateley.  She went home for Christmas, and ran into.. something.  No one knows exactly what.  But whatever it was, it gutted her like a fish and used her disemboweled carcass in some sort of necromantic ritual.  When word got around campus that Wight was dead, people realized something important.  Circe had already taken Wight’s name off all the Magical Arts course rosters for the winter and spring terms.”

“How did Circe hear about her death before everyone else?” I asked.

Fey stressed, “You fail to understand.  Circe took Wight’s name off the rosters during fall Combat Finals.  Two full weeks before Wight was killed.  She knew what was going to happen to Wight.  She knew Wight was not going to come back.  A lot of people think that Circe chose Wight as an apprentice during Wight’s sophomore year, because of what Circe foresaw was going to happen to Wight two years later.”

I tried, “Okay, but that’s an isolated event.  In my family, we have a saying.  Once is chance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action.”

She frowned, “Then I’d better tell you about the apprentice before Wight.  According to Earth Mother, in the seventies, Circe came to Whateley and within two days picked out an apprentice.  Gleaner.  An Exemplar and genius gadgeteer who didn’t have any magical abilities.  In three years, Gleaner became known as one of the rising stars in a couple fields of magical arts.  During Gleaner’s senior year, he tangled with something that erupted out of a cave about ten miles from here.  His coat and shoes were found.  They weren’t too badly damaged.  It looked like he managed to banish whatever was trying to escape.  The rest of Gleaner was never found.  The Magical Arts department has his coat and shoes locked up in a vault.  It’s been over thirty years, and psychometrists still can’t touch those items without going insane, or at least being driven into a temporary coma.”

“Uh-oh.”

She pressed on, “That’s right.  According to Sir Wallace, in the 1930’s, Circe chose an apprentice in England and trained her for years.  The woman went up against some of the Thule Gemeinschaft during World War II.  She was awarded the OBE by Churchill.  Posthumously.  Her skull was all that they ever found of her.  It was given a burial at sea, because no one could contain the magical after-effects of whatever was done to her.”

“Oh God.”

She took a deep breath and insisted, “Phase, you have to understand.  Circe has mentored God-knows-how-many apprentices over the centuries.  The legends about them all have them fighting evil.  And dying horribly.  Having Circe want to mentor you is not regarded as a good thing around here!”

Oh crap.  I realized that my knees had given out, and I was sitting down in a chair.  I thought out loud.  “So I have two choices.  I can accept what she’s offering, and probably end up being destroyed by horrific monsters.  Or I can refuse the offer, and end up being boned by the same things, but being utterly unprepared to stop them from getting any further.”

Fey murmured, “It’s not that simple.  There are most likely other options.  This isn’t black-and-white.  Depending on a prophecy - much less depending on your personal interpretation of a prophecy - is notoriously uncertain.  And we don’t even know that Circe has seen any kind of augury.  Your case may not be like the others.  But you need to know.”

I snorted.  “Yeah.  ‘Know enough to be afraid.’  That’s the motto of Transylvania Polytechnic University in the webcomic ‘Girl Genius’.  I guess I’d better get started learning enough to be afraid of the right things.  Spring term?”

“Spring term,” she winced.  She took my hand and said, “But remember.  Wight and Gleaner and all those others?  They were alone.  You’re not.  You’ve got a team that’ll be alongside you when you need it.  Maybe somebody like Wight wasn’t up to the task, but you’ll have me.  And Sara.  And Billie.  And the rest of TK.”

“Thanks.  Thanks a ton.”  And I hugged her.  She gave me a big squeeze.  Right then, I really needed a hug.

And then I had to focus again before I went to aikido class, so I wouldn’t get my ass kicked all over the dojo.

After trig class, I dropped in on Hawthorne again.  Static Girl and Frostbite both wanted help with their math.  Of course, they also wanted to chat.  Well, that was why I was dropping by regularly.  Then I visited Puppet for a bit and talked with her about the upcoming Golden Kids meeting.

She groaned, “Man, I really wish I could get out for things like that.”

I promised, “Well, since you can’t, I’ll come visit on Sunday and dish all the dirt.”

She grinned, “Will there really be dirt?”

“Oh, probably.  I bet there’ll be half a dozen people who want to tell stories about someone else around here.”

That evening, after dinner, we were all studying in Kimba Korner, except Jade.  She kept dashing off to get more piecework for people to try on.  For me, she had a tapered, loosely-fitting shirt for me to try on.  She said I’d wear one of the usual supersuits under it.  Okay, that seemed workable.  She also had something that was like a longer version of the top from a karate gi, and something like a kimono.  She said she’d have the rest of the outfit ready soon.

I backed through the wall into my room, and she came around the corner to meet me there.  As she checked the fit of the pieces, I talked to her about what she’d already tried to fix her BIT.

She said, “Well, you know about the hypnosis.”  I nodded.  “And the Lutinase stuff.”  I gave her a nasty glare.  I still couldn’t believe she hadn’t talked to us about taking a potentially dangerous drug, and that she hadn’t realized how the drug was screwing with her emotions.  “And Chou.”  I nodded on that too.  I already knew that none of those were viable options for me.  “Let’s see, what else.  I talked to Nikki.  And I talked to Mega-Girl about how her PK shell was changing her physically.”

“Okay, I didn’t know about that last one.”  I did have it on my list, but I hadn’t realized that Jade might have been way ahead of me on it.

She shrugged unhappily.  “Marty pretty much told me to kiss off.  She told me not to bother talking to her about it until I’d been trying to change for as long as she had.”

Hmm.  That didn’t sound like Megs.  Maybe they’d just misunderstood each other.  Or maybe Jade had caught Marty at a bad time.  At any rate, I figured I could do a little better than that.  I had an ace in the hole there, since Delta Spike owed me a big one.  Or two or three big ones.

I told her, “Look, I’m going to go talk to Marty, and if I find out anything encouraging, I’ll let you know.  Okay?”

She smiled, “Gee, thanks!  Thanks a heap!”

She hastily made a couple adjustments on the fabric over my shoulders and at my waist.  Then she measured the distance from the hem to the floor.  She made a couple notes on a scrap of paper, and took off again.  Man, she was way too serious about this costume thing.

I decided that I might as well go up and talk to Marty.  Or at least give it a shot.

I got up to ‘Damnation Alley’ without Hippolyta charging over and confronting me.  I figured that was a good omen.  I knocked twice.

“Come on in!”  That was definitely Marty’s voice.

I opened the door onto a scene that I would have told people was a caricature of Marty and Elaine.  Marty was sitting at her desk studying.  In full superhero regalia.  Did she sleep in her Mega-Girl outfit?  Elaine was hard at work at her desk, working with a soldering iron and some small electronics.  While dressed like a bimbo.  She was wearing a crop top that was cut so high the bottoms of her boobs were peeking out.  That went with a low-riding pleated plaid miniskirt and a pair of high-heeled pumps.

Well, it didn’t really go with the skirt and heels, if you know what I mean.  Elaine may have managed to turn into a girl, but she hadn’t figured out a devise to upload fashion sense into her brain.

Not that I was going to say so.  Even if it wasn’t rude, I didn’t want to be responsible if she actually TRIED to build a devise that could upload skills like that into her brain.

Marty and Elaine both turned to greet me.  Okay, so they weren’t style goddesses.  But they were scorchingly hot.  Marty had that whole ‘bubbly blond Hollywood starlet with serious breast implants’ look going for her.  Elaine was more the ‘steamy brunette Playboy Playmate’ look.

It suddenly dawned on me.  Next year, I’d be a sophomore, and be living on this floor.  Marty and Elaine would be juniors, but might still be on the floor.  I might actually get to shower next to them!  Woo-hoo!

Okay, they weren’t as hot as Vox, much less Fey, but still, they were smoking.  And they were easily distracted, so I might get lots of opportunities to ogle them while they were naked in the shower room.

You know, life’s hard when you live in Poe.

Delta started off, “Oh!  Phase, I never did thank you for what you did at the Weapons Fair.  I don’t know why these things always seem to happen to me...”

I was pretty sure everyone else did.  Not that I was going to say so, when I was about to be pestering her buddy for a favor in a few seconds.

“…but it was a total disaster.  I didn’t make a single sale, and everything I had was a total loss.  Even my power harness.”

I chipped in, “Yeah, I think you’re lucky that you didn’t get quick-fried to a crackly crunch yourself.”

“Well, I did pick up a few burns, but they’re mostly healed.”  She demonstrated by standing up and pulling up her crop top until her breasts lunged out.

It was about all I could do not to let my eyeballs pop out.  But there were definitely red marks on her back.  The burns were almost healed, but they must have been pretty painful for a while.  “Oh.  I see why you’re wearing that crop top.”

She nodded as she gingerly tugged her top back into place, “Yeah, some of these spots on my back are still pretty uncomfortable.  But I’ll have my new power harness ready in a couple days, and this time I’ll have an ablative plastic in my costume to absorb excess heat in case the harness burns out again.  Hmm…  Ablative coatings…”

And suddenly she was lost in Devisor-Land, making hasty entries into her PDA and muttering to herself.

Marty bubbled, “Give her a few minutes, she gets like this all the time.”

I grinned, “That’s okay, because I came by to talk to you.”

“Me?  I can’t help you with gadgets and stuff…”

“Marty, that’s not why I’m here.  I wanted to ask you how your PK shell works.  I hear it’s changing your body from male to female.”

She pouted, “Yeah, but it’s taking just forever!  And I’m trying to stay babed out like this all the time now, because my skin itches like crazy if I drop my PK for more than a few minutes, and it’s really expensive buying new clothes, and Feral says I don’t know how to put together an outfit, but Dee-Ess says I look just fine, and…”

She babbled on like that for another two minutes.  I politely sat there and nodded at appropriate moments, as if I were really interested in hearing how hard it was to shop for baby tees in her size at the Whateley store.

I finally butted in, “Look, if you’re really interested in good clothing that’ll look good on you, you ought to try Rogers’ Fabric Boutique in Dunwich.  You’ve seen the newer stuff Tennyo’s wearing, right?”

“Ooh, those sailor suit styles were so CUTE on her!”

I managed not to roll my eyes.  “Well, Cecilia did those for Tennyo.  And she’s got a mutant power over fabric, so she whipped together those outfits in about ten minutes.”

“Wow!” she exclaimed.  Then she paused.  “But I’ve got a budget I have to stick to.  Dad’s really not happy about me turning into a girl, and I’ve got a bunch of icky stuff from when I was a boy, so I can’t spend a ton on new clothes.  I mean, it’s totally not fair, because…”

And then she was gone again.  She rambled on for a while about how all these other girls in Poe had really incredible clothes, like Fey and Bugs and Quake, and she was stuck with stuff in her closet that she really hated.  Well, I could sympathize with that.  If all I had to wear were outfits like what Elaine was wearing that very second, I’d be tearing my hair out.

It took me a while to get her back onto my topic.  “So how exactly is your PK shell altering your body?”

“Oh!  That.  I don’t really get it.  Elaine’s explained it a bunch of times, but I don’t know the science stuff enough to follow what she’s saying.  But somehow, my PK shell is attuned to the patterns or something in my body, so the more I keep it up, the more it’s changing my body.  What I hate is that it’s gonna take maybe another year before I really look like a girl underneath, and maybe three or four years before it turns me into a girl totally.  Then I’ll look the same, whether I got my PK shell up or not.  All this’ll be ME!”

“So do you think you could make a PK shell like that around someone else, and attune it to their biological patterns?” I asked, trying not to sound too desperate.

That was when Elaine came out of her fugue state and stuck her cute little nose in our conversation.  Every time Marty tried to give me some advice, Elaine stuck in her own two cents.  In Elaine’s case, that was more like a whole mason jar full of pennies.

She cut across Marty and said, “Oh, you couldn’t do that directly.  First of all, Marty’s a Manifestor, but she’s a MAN-4:a.  You know what that means?”

“Actually, I do-”

“It means that the PK shell forms at distance zero.  It has to be touching her.  So she can’t form a PK shell around anyone else.  That’s what your little friend Jade was asking about at the start of the term, wasn’t it?”  She didn’t let me get a word in edgewise.  “Well, even if she could do that, it wouldn’t help.  The other thing is that Marty’s not an Exemplar.  She’s a faux-Exemplar, since her body’s re-forming under the control of her mutant power.  But if she was an Exemplar, then her BIT would keep fixing her body back to the way it was before.  Since she’s not, she doesn’t have a BIT to mess things up, and she can use her PK shell to fix her body.”

“Thanks for the expla-”

“Oh yeah, and her PK shell only does this because her manifestation of it makes it attuned to her biological patterns.  She can’t change the appearance of the shell, and she can’t change the fundamental frequencies of her PK shell, and so it can only affect HER body.  But I’ve been studying it a lot, and I really think this is the wave of the future.  You know, if I had some venture capital, I could really get started on it in a big way.  It’s only a matter of time before we unlock the secrets of biomorphology, and then EVERYONE’S going to want to jump on the bandwagon.  It’ll be the next big thing!  Once we can modify people’s bodies to match their personal view of themselves, the world will be knocking down our door to get it.  Every person on the planet will be wanting to morph themselves…”  She finally stopped and took a breath.  “What do you think?”

I said, “I think it has potential.  But lots of people once thought that about the personal flying car, and you know how that turned out.”

She frowned in thought.  “Well it could still work.  We have the technology.  The cost isn’t too unreachable.  The biggest problem is still power generation…”

I contradicted her, “No, the biggest problem is that people can’t drive worth spit in a simple 2-D world with traffic lanes and traffic controls carefully laid out to contain the drivers.  Give a million L.A. commuters flying cars, and you’d have thousands of mid-air wrecks a day, with major fatalities in every crash.”

She thought for a moment.  “It seems simple to me.  All we have to do is tell people what the rules are…”

I insisted, “Says the girl who broke all the rules to become a girl in the first place!  Think about it.  Everyone would break the rules if they could, and if they didn’t think there would be real consequences.  People do it all the time in cars.  How many drivers do you know who have never broken a speed limit, never done a rolling stop at a stop sign, never cut through a parking lot to beat a line of stopped cars at a traffic light?”

“Well…”

“If people had flying cars, they’d cut out of official ‘traffic lanes’ at every opportunity, figuring no one would get hurt. And as soon as a million fliers are cutting around the official routes, nowhere in the sky would be safe, except possibly the official routes!  It’s what some people call The Law of Unintended Consequences.  Other people call it what it really is: bad strategic planning.  This applies to your biomorphology idea.  If you don’t figure out all the potential consequences, then you’re in real trouble when those consequences occur.  For biomorphology, the biggest consequence for your hypothetical start-up company?  Lawsuits.  Multi-million dollar lawsuits, as soon as anything goes wrong, or anyone gets turned away for a reason they won’t accept, or everything goes perfectly, but the person decides afterward that looking like Elvis was a really bad idea after all and it’s your fault for not talking him out of it.”

“I don’t think lawsuits are gonna be a problem…”

I stressed, “Elaine, in business we have a saying.  ‘The difference between theory and practice is that, in theory, there isn’t any difference.’  That means, among other things, that you have to plan for the unexpected.”

Marty batted her lashes and said, “I still don’t get it.”

“Look, it’s fairly simple, y-”

But Elaine just drove right over me.  With a steamroller.  “Oh I know I can get it working just right, that really won’t be a problem.  Even if my trials haven’t gone that well so far, and Knick-Knack won’t let me into his workgroup.  I asked Sonex if he’d put in a good word for me, but it hasn’t helped.  And I just know I could really make some progress there…”

“Elaine-”

“And this is really important!  I just know that biomorphology is going to be the next big thing, and if we don’t get in on the ground floor, we’re going to be locked out…”

“Elaine-”

“I just need some decent funding sources - I really think you could help me a lot there - and a little better luck in the workshop.  And maybe figuring out those galvanomorphs, that would really help a lot…”

“Elaine-”

“So it really comes down to the funding problem.  If I could just get out of hock to the Workshop and be able to work on this.  I know I can get it working with enough funding.  And maybe, if your family has some MCO contacts who could help me get a look at Dr. Pyg’s transformation equipment, that would really help…”

Yeah, right.  Like that was ever going to happen.

“ELAINE!”

“What?  You don’t have to shout, you know.”

“Look, if you want serious venture capital, then you’ll have to write up a full proposal, just like everyone else who’s lobbying to get venture capital from me.”  Okay, that was a tactical lie, since no one else was trying to get venture capital from me yet.  Although I had hopes.

She pressed, “Well, who else is trying to get venture capital?”

“It would be unethical of me to tell you that.”

Which was strictly true, but still a lie, since it sounded like I actually had potential clients whose identities I was safeguarding.  But I was either going to have to lie to her, or tell her to her face that the thought of giving her large amounts of capital scared the hell out of me.  I just had these mental images of even bigger and more damaging explosions erupting out of the Workshop.

I got out of there in one piece.  It only took me another ten minutes, spent explaining what would be required in a full proposal for venture capital outlays.

Then I went downstairs to see Jade.  I reluctantly gave her the bad news.  I told her that there was no hope with Marty’s PK shell.  And I warned her that she needed to watch out for sales pitches from Delta Spike.

Thursday, October 26

The morning started off pretty well.  I woke up to a rousing chorus of Metallica.  I got to watch hotties undressing and showering and drying off.  My ‘working at the mirror’ ruse was still holding up, even if I had to slip out of the bathroom when no one was looking, because I had a hard-on that was doing its best to rip a hole in my bathrobe.

Breakfast was its usual lunacy at the Team Kimba table, with Tennyo eating an entire sty’s worth of cooked pork products while arguing with Jade about Halloween costumes.  I mean, did it really matter which Ryoko costume Tennyo wore?  Apparently it did to them.  But Tennyo’s mouth was full of food most of the time, and anytime Jade had a mouthful of Count Chocula cereal, her backpack took over her end of the argument.  So Tennyo was having a heck of a time not losing the argument.

In Costume class, Mrs. Ryan worked with my costume design, as well as four others.  The other students had artist’s renderings in colored pencil.  Mine was a 3-D mannequin done on my computer.  I had the image overlays saved on a memory stick, in addition to the printed pictures I turned in.  Mrs. Ryan had compatible software on her laptop, so she actually manipulated the colors in real time to show what could be done.

All she did was fiddle with the colors and build in gradations of the colors in some areas, like down the arms and legs of the figure.  But frankly, she made some major improvements to my design, in just five minutes.  Which made me feel like my skills as a costume designer absolutely sucked.  At the end of class, all five of the day’s guinea pigs were assigned more work on our costumes: at least four new versions of our costumes, using what we had talked about in terms of color schemes, due next week.

Okay, that wouldn’t be a problem for me.  I just had to doodle a bit and figure out what tweaks to make.  Then I could slap the new color schemes onto my 3-D mannequin in minutes.

Not everyone was as appreciative of my creativity.  While a couple people told me my computer-generated figure was pretty cool and they’d think about doing it that way on their own costume, several people figured it meant that I was cheating.

“Fucking rich-bitch Goodkind.”

“Should’a known she’d pull some crap like that.”

“Probably paid some artist a few thousand bucks to do her work for her.”

And, just to top off a miserable few minutes listening to angry jerks, Superior and his pals got in my face as I was trying to leave the room.  He sneered, “Nice computer graphic of you there, faggot.  I bet you got a bunch more, of you naked, getting fucked up the ass.”  His jerkface pals snickered at me.

I snarked, “Applying personal fantasies to others again?  Why don’t you go put on your Captain Pimple costume and go troll gay bars in Berlin?  Like your dad does every weekend?”

That got him.  His face turned an angry red, and he growled, “Shut the fuck up, faggot!”

“Or what?  You’ll demonstrate that I can kick your ass and the ass of every one of your buddies, without breaking a sweat?  Maybe you’d better get the hell out of my way, before I give you what I gave Fireball!”

That shook him, even though he didn’t want to admit it.  He stepped back and said, “Come on guys, I wanna get away from the fag before I catch something from him.”

Great.  Now I was having to threaten people with something so awful that I couldn’t even make myself do it.  That was sure going to win friends and influence people around here.

I stood there until I could unclench my fists, and then I made my way off to Spanish class.  At least nothing happened there, except that Chaka regaled Riptide with another story.  And she was so excited about it that her Ki almost pushed my notebook off my desk.

At least lunch was a bright spot.  Chef Peter had a marvelous puree of pumpkin soup for me.  The fresh pumpkin taste was made even more vivid with the subtle nuances of the freshly-ground nutmeg and the allspice, which were usually overdone in soups like this.  The soup was rich and thick, without the usual stringiness of pumpkin.

I had to go talk to Peter about the soup.  He said, “Are you sure you want to know the secret?”

I knew what that meant.  It meant I might not like the answer.  Sort of like asking someone how they made sausage.  I grinned, “I’ll risk it.”

He quietly told me, “It’s not pumpkin.  We use golden Hubbard squash, imported from California and Oregon.  It’s sweeter, with a more intense taste, and it isn’t stringy like pumpkin.  Fact is, the junk people buy in cans for canned pumpkin?  It isn’t pumpkin either.  The entire canned-food industry uses golden Hubbard squash instead.”

Well, I couldn’t say I was surprised.  After all, pumpkins are just big squashes with a really good PR campaign.

Afternoon classes went really well.  Phobos and I had a good time working on combinations.  Well, to be honest, a big reason why we had such a good time is because we were watching Golden Girl have a miserable time doing the same with Haywire.  Haywire was abnormally highly charged, and kept shocking GG even though she had already gone golden.  And she was really whining about it.  A couple times, I thought Phobos was going to break out in giggles.

Then Powers Lab and trig went well.  I was far enough ahead in the homework that I understood everything Mrs. Bell said, and I didn’t even need to take notes.  I hoped the afternoon classes were a good omen, because next I had that Accounting I open session, and I’d told Mr. Marley that I’d be his Teaching Assistant for the rest of the term.

I still wasn’t sure I was up to it.  But I walked over to the Business Accounting I open session.  Vox met up with me, and we walked over together, chatting about how our day had gone.  She had spent aikido class working on combinations with Aquerna, and she had sore shoulders and a couple bruises to show for it.  Anna was stronger and quicker than she looked.

I really appreciated Vanessa’s support.  I really wasn’t sure how this was going to go.  I mean, I knew the material cold.  But I was worried about how everyone else would deal with an evil mutant-hating Goodkind as a TA.

I walked in with Vox at the very last minute.  There were already eighteen other students in the room.  I knew from Mr. Marley that there were only thirty-two students enrolled in the course, and two of us had already completed the course requirements.  Several people recognized me, probably from the first meeting of the open session.  None of them looked happy to see me.

I let Mr. Marley introduce me, “Good afternoon everyone.  I have good news.  It’s been pretty crowded in open session with all the questions people want to ask, so I have a TA for the rest of the term.  Now you’ll have two people who can answer questions, and lots more people will get help.  Our TA is going to be Phase, who has already completed all the course materials, and is popularly believed to be way ahead of this class.”

I looked around the room.  No one except Vox looked pleased by the news.  Several people looked appalled, Aqueous among them.

Crap. 

I stood up.  “Hi.  I’m still Ayla Goodkind.  Many of you know that I’m now using the codename Phase.  Mister Marley asked me to work as a TA in this class because I’ve already completed all the assignments and optional assignments, and I’ve already earned an ‘A+’.  So I don’t have an agenda in here.  I already got the grade I wanted.  I’m not out to screw anybody over.  In fact, it would make me feel pretty darn smug if I got every person in here up to at least an ‘A-’.

“Most of you probably know that on day one Aqueous was pretty pissed off at me, because of my family name, and I haven’t been back to open sessions since.  And most of you probably know that dozens and dozens of people have been a lot more pissed off at me for one reason or another, all term long.”  A few people even grinned at that.

“So, if you don’t feel comfortable coming to me for help, I’ll understand.  Just keep going to Mister Marley.  But if you want to give me a try, I’ll do what I can for you.  I’m not going to be a jerk, and I’m not going to give you a hard time.  If you’re still not sure, you can ask Vox whether I’m any good as a teacher on this stuff.  So…  Anyone want to come down here and ask me some questions?”

No one wanted to be first.  One of the girls called out, “Hey Vox, is she really any good as a tutor?”

Vox turned around to look at her.  “Are you kidding?  Phase is great.  He knows this stuff like the back of his hand, and he understands how it really works in the real world.  I’ve been going over to his room for help all term, and he knows stuff about accounting that you’re never gonna learn in a classroom.”

Some snot in the back of the room - a guy who looked enough like a young Justin Timberlake to be an Exemplar - sneered, “How much you pay her for the advertisement?”

Okay, now I had an agenda.  I was so not going to help that dork.

Mr. Marley boomed, “Mister Preston!  That was completely uncalled for, and extremely rude.  Even for you!  Now either apologize to Miss Jackson at once, or else you may leave.”

“Sorry,” he said, in the most insincere voice known to man.

After that, Mr. Marley tried to get the room split up into people who would ask him questions, and people who would talk to me.  But it was pretty clear everyone was hoping to get into his group, rather than mine.

I watched as Aqueous pleaded with Mr. Marley, and - by the fluid slump of his shoulders - didn’t get what he wanted.  He reluctantly trudged over to me and gargled, “Mr. Marley said I should talk to you about this.  I knew the pretties would get him…”

I groaned, “Look Philip-”

“Aqueous.  I like Aqueous.  I don’t really like ‘Phil’ anyway.”

“Why not?  Phil’s a good name,” I said.

He glowered, “I’m named for my Uncle Phil.  And when I manifested…”

I finished, “He’s a mutant-hating jerk.  Right?”

Aqueous nodded unhappily.  “Why am I telling you this?”

I tried, “Maybe because you know my family’s full of mutant-hating jerks too?”

He stared at his feet for a couple seconds and said, “Phlegm says you’re a pretty good guy, and you’re like the only person who ever goes to visit Puppet.  And Jimmy T says you’re friends with some of the Underdogs.  I figured…”

I guessed, “That I’d be a mutant-hating asshole, like a lot of my family?  Frankly, six months ago, I probably was.  Goodkinds like to think of themselves as not hating mutants, just recognizing the threat that mutants pose.  Which is still being prejudiced and horrible.  But I manifested, and my family threw me out, and let a mad scientist experiment on me, and stuff like that.  And my body did this.  You think of me as one of the pretties, but I see myself as being horribly deformed.”

He admitted, “Phlegm said you’re really a guy, and your body’s just all screwed up.”

I shrugged, “Could be worse.”

He said, “Yeah, around here, there’s always someone else who’s got it worse than you.”

I agreed and then said, “So what can I do for you?”

He winced, “Look, don’t dump on me or anything, but I don’t get this.  Why do we have to learn two different accounting methods?  The cash method makes a lot more sense to me than the accrual method.”

A couple other people had gathered around me, and one or two of them agreed with him.

I said, “Sure, you can use the cash method.  Lots of small businesses use the cash basis for accounting.  But it gives you a distorted picture of the business.  So it’s bad for anything other than maintaining totals for tax purposes, and it can be slightly problematic for that in some rare cases.”

A girl I didn’t know asked, “How’s it gonna give you a distorted picture of what’s going on?  I mean, you have the same profits and losses either way.”

I grinned, “Now you’re getting down to the secret.  The real difference between the two methods is nothing but the timing.  Let me make up an example like some of the on-line materials.  Let’s say you’re keeping books for a devisor - let’s say it’s Jericho - who just got a patent on ‘applied phlebotinum’.”

“That’s a Buffy ref, isn’t it?”

I grinned, “Yeah.  Now in October, you bill Joss Whedon for $30,000 for his use of your patents on phlebotinum.  You get a check for $15,000 with a promise of the rest of the money next month.  But you also get billed $13,000 by Knick-Knack for the components he built for your phlebotinum, so you write him a check for $9,000, with a promise of the rest as soon as your customer pays up next month.  He’s good with that.”  Everyone nodded, since Vanessa was writing this up on the whiteboard beside me as I talked.  “Now we move to November.  Mister Whedon pays the remaining $15,000 and you write Knick-Knack a check for his $4,000.  How are we doing, if we use the cash method?”

Aqueous took Vanessa’s magic marker and drew a quick grid on the whiteboard, then filled in the numbers.  “We did good both months.  We have revenues of fifteen K both months, but we have a much larger profit in November.”

I pointed to the numbers.  “Do we really have an $11,000 profit in November when we have the same revenues?  Did we institute cost-saving measures?  Or is this completely misleading?”

A guy I didn’t know volunteered, “It’s like totally misleading.  We didn’t do squat in November.  All those numbers are just holdovers from October.”

I grinned, “Exactly.  If we use the accrual method…  Vox?”  She added to the grid and whipped out the numbers in a few seconds.  It was nice to see that she had this down cold.  “Okay, now we see that we really had an $18,000 profit in October, and we just sat on our butts for November, when we should have been out there trying to get Roland Emmerich or someone to buy more phlebotinum.  We got a completely misleading picture of our finances.  And that cost us the chance to do something useful in November.  Now we’re stuck with zero revenues for the month.  That’s bad.  Using the right accounting method helps us understand what’s happening with our business, and that lets us figure out what we should be doing with sales, manufacturing, the whole company.  That’s why we want to use the accrual method most of the time in the real world.  Of course, if you’re doing the books for your Cousin Larry’s three-person business and he wants you to use the cash method of accounting, there’s nothing wrong with that.  Just be aware of how that might distort the appearance of the profit/loss structure.”

“Okay, that makes sense.  So does that go with the ‘revenue realization’ concept?”

“Yes!  Yes it does, that’s exactly what revenue realization means,” I explained.  “It means that companies should record their revenue when it’s realized - meaning actually earned.  So they record the revenue at the time the widgets are actually sold, or the services are actually provided.  In that way.…”

About an hour later, I finally got out of there.  Somehow I ended up talking about how understanding the accrual method can help in basic forensic accounting, and everybody just stayed, like I had something valuable to contribute.

Vox and I walked back to Poe, just holding hands and smooching when no one was in sight.  She purred, “You were such a good guy with everyone.  I didn’t know how you’d do when they asked really stupid questions, but you were great.”  And she kissed me again.. until we nearly walked into a tree.

It must have been really romantic, because it wasn’t until I walked Vox to her room and left her that I realized we’d been walking in miserably-cold rain, and I was soaking wet.

After dinner, I decided that it was time to see if Zenith had any ideas.  I walked upstairs and knocked on her door.

For the first time I could remember, Shrike didn’t open the door.  Instead, Zenith did.  She looked a little flushed.

Sitting on her bed was Sahar.  While Zenith was an ultra-hot Exemplar blonde, Sahar was pretty damned stunning herself.  She was obviously Arabic, with gorgeous olive-toned skin and long, lush brunette hair, and eyes that would have been on the cover of a fashion magazine if the gorgeous irises hadn’t been ringed with a bright red.

Sahar was a little flushed too.  And when she turned, I could see her blouse was unbuttoned.

Oh.  Oops.

“Damn, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you two were.. umm.. busy.  I’ll come back later,” I apologized.

Zenith was about to send me on my way, but Sahar insisted, “No.  Phase, please come in.  I would like you to talk with Zenith.”

Okay, Sahar was well-known around campus as a psychic of pretty scary power.  Not up in Fubar’s category, but a major psi, who had psychically taken advantage of maybe a dozen psis.  Psis who should have been too powerful for anyone to take advantage of them.  So she had probably picked up whatever I was radiating, and she already knew what I was going to ask.  That had to be significant.

Sahar turned to Zenith and said, “Zoe, I want you to talk to Ayla about this.  You’ve been avoiding this for far too long.”

What had Zenith been avoiding?  A couple possibilities came to mind.  If I hadn’t ever met Fey and Chaka and Tennyo, one of those possibilities would have seemed far too outlandish to consider.

I tried to smile.  “Well it seems that everyone in the room already knows what I’m going to ask.  But I’ll say it anyway.  It turns out that I don’t have GSD.  I have a weird BIT.  I’ve already talked to a lot of people about options, so I know that no one in the Magical Arts Department will touch this with a ten-foot pole.  So I wanted to ask if you had any ideas on the subject.”

Zenith closed her eyes and sighed.  “Phase, you aren’t going to want to hear this, but my recommendation is simple.  Give up.  Just face the consequences of being stuck as a girl for the rest of your life.”

What the hell kind of advice was that?!?

Neither of them needed to look at my face to know what I was thinking.

Sahar said, “Zenith is not being cruel, or uncaring.  She is simply being realistic.”

Zenith groaned miserably, “As I learned the hard way, over the last two years.”

As SHE learned?  Oh.  Got it.  I guess one of my ideas wasn’t so far-fetched after all.

She looked like she was going to cry as she said, “I was born a boy, just like you.  And when I realized that my mutation was turning me into a girl, I thought I was going to lose it.  I’ve been getting closer and closer to fully female since before I came to Whateley.  I’ve been slowly sliding into the Gurlzone no matter what I tried.  I’ve been fighting tooth and nail to stay a guy.  No luck.  I even still had a working dick, up until late last winter.”

Sahar smiled wickedly, “It was very nice, too.  I quite enjoyed it.  But I’m quite happy with Zoe the way she is now.”

I stared in shock as I realized something horrible.  No wonder she was so freaky about us changelings.  No wonder she dressed like she did.  Was this what I was doomed to become?  An ultra-hot babe who didn’t want to be female?

She stared at the floor and whimpered, “I’ve tried everything.  I have this knack that I call my ‘Database’ technique…  Do you need me to explain what that is?”

“No, Chaka gave us the lowdown on that one.”

“Good.  Well, it lets me grasp the skills of the people I talk to and also put them into a usable context.  So I knew what the options really were, just as well as the experts I was pestering.  I knew the options, and how they worked, and what could go wrong.  There isn’t anything left to try that’s not way too dangerous.”

So, after trying like hell for at least two years to stay a boy, she had given up.  Man, did that depress the crap out of me.  It obviously didn’t cheer her up any.

I tried being nice about it, even if I really felt like screaming.  “Look Zoe, I understand how rotten this is for you.  I probably understand better than anyone else around here.  Which is saying a lot, for Poe.  I know you’ve got Sahar to talk to about this, and I don’t know about Shrike, but if you ever want to vent about this, come down and talk to me and Chou.  Okay?”

She gave me a brittle smile, “Okay.  Thanks.  I doubt I’ll take you up on it, but thanks anyway.”

Sahar stepped in before things got sticky, “And speaking of taking you up on things, Zoe has told me that you’re a financial wizard...”

Oh, she had?  What happened to the ‘why not let Phase try for six months first’ routine?  I looked at Zenith and asked, “Have you been tracking stocks like I recommended?”

She nodded, “Yeah.  And Shrike’s been tracking stocks daily since you re-invested her money market funds.  A couple of those stocks have skyrocketed since then, and the stocks where you exercised put options all nosedived, so she made a big profit on all of them too.”

Sahar looked at me intently, probably trying to yank the understanding out of my head.  Zenith gave her an elbow, probably to make her stop it.  So Sahar asked, “I don’t understand.  How can you make money when a stock goes down?”

But before I had to explain put and call options to her, she got this look in her eye.  An ‘oh I get it now’ look.  That ‘Database’ technique was pretty amazing.  Too bad I couldn’t pick it up.

She thought out loud, “Very well…  I see how that works…  But I don’t see how I can invest money if I’m starting out with nothing.”

Zenith explained, “Semi can use my ‘Database’ technique, but her version isn’t as powerful as mine is…  And she really has nothing to invest.”

I told them, “Yeah, Chaka sort of explained about Beirut and Sahar’s parents.”  From what I had gathered, Sahar literally had nothing.  No home, no family, nothing but what she had saved up from treating Tansy like an ATM.  And a lot of that was probably going to pay off the portion of her bills and Whateley tuition not covered by her sponsor.  Which was the CIA, if you can believe that.

Hmm.  Zenith and Sahar were extremely powerful figures on campus.  I wanted Zenith’s help to become the next Poe Cottage fixer.  I said, “I tell you what.  We can work something out.  Tell me what you have, and what your debt looks like, and what your assets are, and then lay out where you want to be in twenty years…”

Friday, October 27

Mrs. Horton waited until I had showered and dressed before she flagged me down.  I was glad of that, because I’d gotten to watch Rip do her open-shower jacuzzi trick, and I’d gotten to watch Nikki drying off, and I’d gotten to watch Vox give herself a shave all the way up to her pubic triangle.  Wow.

Mrs. Horton handed me a sealed cardboard mailing envelope from Trin and Macintyre.  “Ayla, I knew you’d want this.  A warper just delivered it.  Now I know you can afford to do this, but I’d really be happier if you’d stick to regular mail in future.”

I sighed, “I’m sorry, but I can’t do that.  As my business dealings become more valuable, I’m going to have to use protected services more and more.  We both know that nobody’s mail is safe at Whateley.  I can’t afford to let that happen.  And if there’s, say, a thirty million dollar contract in an envelope lying about in a Whateley mailbox, we both know the odds that someone will be able to use an Esper talent to detect it, and that someone else will be able to teleport it away before I even know it’s there.”

She frowned, “I don’t really like having warpers dropping in on school grounds unannounced, and particularly here at Poe.  You know why.  But I do agree that campus mail is not all that safe.  It wasn’t that long ago that Hippolyta had to stop an Emerson boy from stealing something right out of Jade’s mailbox...”

I decided that this was important enough that I should skip breakfast.  I waited until the dorm quieted down a bit, and I opened the envelope.  There was a cover letter:

Dear Ms. Goodkind:

Pursuant to your original requests, we have put together two lists.  The top thirty bio-devisers worldwide, with a particular focus on their work with BITs if known; and the top thirty wizards worldwide, with similar focus.

It has repeatedly been brought to our attention that no reputable mage would even attempt to alter someone’s BIT, after a long series of failures in this area of magic over many decades.  We have enclosed the list, but we strongly recommend that you do not attempt to alter your - or anyone’s - BIT through magical practices.

For that matter, most of the bio-devisers to whom we spoke strongly recommended against this without a great deal of prior work.  You may wish to consider making this a long-term research project.

Yours,

Crystal Macintyre

I hated to say it, but that was pretty much the conclusion I had already reached.

I read over the file on the wizards first.  Wow.  That was comprehensive.  They even included dark mages and known wizard supervillains.

Holy crow, how had Fey already made the world’s top thirty mages?  Someone must have pegged her as the mage who kicked the crap out of the Necromancer in Boston.  That was probably a BAD thing, as it made her a lot more high-profile than a high school freshman ought to be.  Okay, so nominally she should have been a sophomore.  That wasn’t the point.

Of course, not all of the badguy wizards had contact numbers and addresses where they could be reached.  I wasn’t sure that I wanted to know how Trin and Macintyre got cell phone numbers for The Black Wraith and Converso.  And I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what would happen to someone who called those numbers.  Could you get hit with a hex over a phone connection?

Okay, if they had come up with a cell phone number for The Necromancer, I would have turned it over to Sara and every top-notch phreaker on campus.  Even if it only meant that he had to hang up on telemarketers eighty times a day.

But every reputable or even semi-reputable wizard on that list had indicated that they would not be willing to attempt to alter anyone’s BIT through magic.  Even one of the dark mages had said he wouldn’t be willing to mess with people’s BITs: there were occasional nasty rebound consequences for the mage as well.  And there was no way I was calling up The Black Wraith and asking him to screw up my BIT for money.

The list of bio-devisers was even more complete, since Trin and Macintyre included factoids on each of the devisers, including relevant research work and current employers.

I started at the top, of course.

Well, maybe not at Number 1.

Number One on their list was one of the most notorious supervillains on the planet.  Doctor Bubonic.  Trin and Macintyre noted that he ‘apparently’ escaped in 2004, after Dreadnought, Power Damsel, and the entire West Coast League stopped him when he tried to hold the whole San Francisco Bay area hostage.  But he hadn’t been seen since.  So he might not have survived.  As you might have guessed from that description, no current phone number or address.

Okay, I started at Number Two.  Nucleic.  Igor Gellmar, Whateley class of ‘83.  M.D., two Ph.D.’s, twenty-seven major bio-patents, the inventor of the PRKL gene-sequencing system, and the developer of Sneezix, to name but a few of his accomplishments.  He had far more impressive creds than the last 10 Nobel Prize winners in medicine, but he was being blocked by the Nobel Prize Committee because he was a mutant.

Man, I had really changed in just a few months.  Back in June, I would have been supporting the Nobel Prize Committee on that one.  I would have been urging Father to back them.  Now I was seeing it as a strategically stupid decision.  Maybe Father was right: mutants really did look at the world differently than Goodkinds.

I would have felt a lot better if I’d been sure that I was in the right.

On the other hand, being utterly sure that I was right was probably a bad thing.  Stormwolf was so busy being Mister Straight Arrow that he was letting a lot of bad guys get away with a lot of bad stuff on campus.  Crucible was so busy being the ‘Test Under Stress’ supervillain that thousands of people had died in his attempts to prove his points.  Living with self-doubts was probably good for me.

It took me ten minutes to get Dr. Gellmar on the phone.  He finally turned on what was obviously a speakerphone.  I could tell by the increase in background noise.  “Who are you?  What do you want?  I’m extremely busy right now!”

Wow.  I bet his bedside manner was swell too.  I calmly said, “My name is Ayla Goodkind.  As in ‘my father is Bruce Goodkind’.  I want to hire you for a project.  I happen to be an Exemplar, and I need an expert to devise a way to restructure my BIT.  I’m willing to pay…”

“I do not work with BITs.  People stupidly assume that because I’m a bio-deviser that I deal with BITs, or even have an interest in them.  BITs are NOT biological, and NOT bio-mathematically quantifiable.  I do NOT work with BITs in any way, shape, or form.  I suggest you find another deviser.”  And he hung up on me.

Oooh-kay.  That didn’t go too well.  Two down, twenty-eight to go.

Number Three.  Chromatic.  Dr. Elwin Ferber.  Author or co-author of seven major textbooks on genetic diseases.  Developer of in utero gene treatment systems for 8 different genetic disorders.  Regarded as ‘the man who cured preto-uremic cystitis’, saving the lives of hundreds - maybe thousands - of babies and young children every year.

It only took me two minutes to get Dr. Ferber.  Maybe he wasn’t as self-important as Gellmar.  I mean, really.  What’s the point of providing an instant contact point for time-sensitive information, if you’re going to blow everyone off and waste that time anyway?

“Hallo?  May I ask who is calling?”

I started, “Yes, Dr. Ferber.  My name is Ayla Goodkind, an…”

“One of THE Goodkinds?”

I tried, “Yes Doctor, one of THE Goodkinds.  My mother is Helen Goodkind, the director of…”

“Goodkind Research.  I am not interested.”

I pushed, “Wait a second, I’m not affiliated with my mother’s institute.  I’m a mutant, and I need your help.”

“I would rather receive a five-quart Ebola enema than help a Goodkind.  Good day!  And do NOT call me again!”  Click.

Wow.  These calls were getting better and better.  I could hardly wait for the next one.

Okay, Number Four on the list.  Influenza.  Another supervillain.  Started out in Rome, and apparently a major pain in the kiester for most of the European super-groups.

Number Five.  The Prionator.  Yet another supervillain.  The Prionator’s last major move was trying to avenge himself on some British superhero by attempting to wipe out all human life in the U.K.  Man, what was it with these bio-devisers and being a supervillain?

Number Six.  Nucleotide.  Professor Heinrich Liebler, working at the Austrian Institute for Higher Studies, and developing new pharmaceuticals for Bayer.  Credited with the development of four of the latest six big breakthroughs for them.

He was simple and direct.  In German, he stated, “I already have a job.  In fact, I have two.  And my job with Bayer precludes working with any other outside groups.  If I leave Bayer in the next twenty years, I will consider your offer.  Good day.”

Crap.

The hits just kept on coming.

Number Seven.  “Surely you do not expect me to believe that you are really working with the best interests of the mutant community in mind.  You are a Goodkind!  I have to expect that you would turn any developments into potential anti-mutant weapons!”  Click.

Number Eight.  “I do not work with BITs.”  Click.

Number Nine.  Another supervillain.  Ugh.

Number Ten.  “Goodkind?  As in Humanity First! and the MCO?  I’d rather turn myself into a coprophage!”  Click.

Man.  This was going SO well.  That put me down the list at #11 worldwide, which was...

Jobe Wilkins?!?

Jobe Wilkins, the freshman nerd here at Whateley?

Apparently.  The précis for him included the fact that at fourteen, he already had a phenomenal track record.  He had multiple bio-patents a year, going back to when he was nine.  NINE?  He couldn’t have manifested as a mutant that early.  Which meant that he was a bona fide child genius, on top of being a brilliant bio-devisor.  And an insufferable asshole.

Jobe Wilkins was the sick fuck who had genetically engineered the razorspinner.  What a warped POS.

The next line made me sit up and nearly spit my coffee across the room.

He had developed a new, far more effective vaccine for dysentery.  It was projected to save maybe six to eight hundred thousand lives.  Per year.  Holy crow!  And he had donated it to the Gates Foundation.  Gratis.  Gratis?!?

The Gates foundation was already distributing it internationally, even if there were unsubstantiated rumors that Jobe might have tested the vaccine on convicts back in Karedonia.

Now, that I believed.  Particularly, after hearing what he’d said to Greasy at the Weapons Fair.

But Jobe was the creepy weasel who had screwed up Phobos and Deimos so badly.  Were Trin and Macintyre sure he wasn’t a supervillain?  I mean, everyone and their grandmother knew his father was Gizmatic.  So I checked further down.

Number 12.  Dr. Pygmalion.  Currently serving a sentence of 200 years to life in a federal meta-human lock-up.  Oh.  Right.  The sicko that Delta Spike had caught.  But the bio-devising that Dr. Pyg liked to do was turning talented young male mutants into bimbos.  Big-breasted, long-legged, Playboy Centerfold-caliber bimbos who thought that Dr. Pyg was Jesus Christ.  Except sexier.  Definitely not interested.

Okay, let’s see.  Number 13.  Nimbus.  Another frigging bio-deviser super-villain.  And this one was apparently a recent major player, as in ‘now a big honcho with The Syndicate’.  My God, why couldn’t these guys get into a Doctor-Doom-vs.-Magneto thing and kill each other off?

Okay, the next couple on the list weren’t supervillains.  I started calling again.

Another ‘drop dead you fucking Goodkind’ response.

Another ‘I do not work with BITs’.

“I am busy with other projects.  Try me again in eight years when my current agreement expires.”

“My NDA does not allow me to undertake outside projects.”  I didn’t work in the pharmaceutical industries, but I knew enough about their business models to know that an NDA was a Non-Disclosure Agreement.  So, by definition, he wasn’t going to be disclosing any more than that.

Another couple supervillains.

Number Twenty-three.  Knick-Knack.  Jean-Paul Alivares.  Okay, I knew him.  I’d even bought a devise from him at the Weapons Fair.  But he was a student at Whateley too.

I worked my way through the rest of the list.  Two more supervillains.  Two more ‘drop dead you fucking Goodkind’ responses.  Another ‘I do not work with BITs’, and two more ‘I am busy with other projects and check again in umpteen years’ responses.

Holy crow!  I had worked my way through the entire list, and my only remaining options were two other Whateley students.  Two people who lived within several hundred yards of me.  Either I was the luckiest guy on Earth, or the most seriously screwed.

If Jobe and Knick-Knack also rejected me, I was going to have to re-think this approach.  I was starting to get down to bio-devisers whose work wasn’t anywhere near reliable enough for me.  At that point, I’d be talking to lunatic devisers who were no better than Delta Spike and Greasy.  I didn’t want to be worked on by nutbars who were more likely to turn me into a wooden marionette than to turn me back into a real live boy.

After all that rejection, I was almost late to lunch.  Fortunately, I wasn’t late to BMA, or Ito soke would probably have had me sparring against half the sixth period class.  Just to make a point.

The point would probably be that he was an evil old man.  But I knew that already.

Jade met me in the Admin area just before I went in to see Dr. Bellows, and she charged Jinn into my skin and clothes.  That was a little odd, since I could feel Jinn checking her grip on my clothes.  Jinn did a little testing with my eardrums that was pretty freaky.  First, she did a sound check so she had the right volume when she vibrated my eardrums.  She started at a whisper so low I couldn’t hear it, and kept increasing the volume until I told her she was loud and clear  Then she did a non-sound check, where she held my eardrums motionless so I effectively went deaf.  Both went perfectly.

I was all set.  In theory, anyway.  And I’ve ranted plenty of times about my feelings on theory vs. practice.  But if anything went wrong, Jinn could either hold my eardrums still so I couldn’t hear hypnotic commands, or could use my eardrums to give me messages.  And she could pick me up to fly me out of there.  I felt a lot better, knowing I had an invisible guardian to protect me, just in case.

Jade gave me a hug.  “Good luck, Ayla.”

I hugged the little squirt back.  “Thanks.  I appreciate it.”

Jinn whispered in my ear, “Okay, I need to concentrate now, so Dr. Bellows doesn’t pick up my emotions and realize you’ve got a passenger.”

I nodded, which was probably stupid, since she wasn’t in front of me and looking at me, she was cast into my skin and clothes.  Plus, she didn’t need a nod from me.  I reminded myself to act like I didn’t have Jinn around.

Dr. Bellows welcomed me into his office, “Ayla, you’re right on time, as always.  Come on in.  Now, just as we discussed earlier, today we’re going to try to get you into a hypnotic state, and verify how deep you’ve gone under.  That’s all.  We won’t start training you to use self-hypnosis, or working on your BIT, until later.  Okay?”

“I’m good with that,” I replied.  “I’ve been reading up on hypnotherapy, and I think I’m ready.”

“What did you read?”

I smiled, “Remember the list of books you gave Jade Sinclair?”  He grinned in recognition.  “Fey has most of them, plus a couple others.  The library has the rest.”

“Good,” he responded.  “Is that why you seem so much more relaxed and open?”

I admitted, “In part.  I also checked out your credentials and did a background check on you.  You have an awful lot of people who think you’re the best headshrinker since Sigmund Freud.”

He actually blushed.  He said in an ‘aw shucks’ sort of voice, “I just try to help people.  That’s all.”

Then he had me lie on his couch and get comfortable.  He said, “Be relaxed, but not so relaxed that you fall asleep.  The object is to help you set up your own self-hypnotic routines.  But for now, we just want to have you relax and focus, so you can slip into a hypnotic state.  Since you’ve been studying about hypnotherapy this week, you’ll remember that.  And I’ll use some of the basic techniques I’m sure you read about: an object of visual fascination, and a simple monologue with pacing that helps you move into the desired mental state.  If you’ve read about practical hypnotherapy approaches, you’ll recognize what we’re about to do as the ‘staircase’ technique.  Ready?”

“Ready.”

He pulled out the ever-popular shiny disk on a cord.  He slowly swung the disk back and forth while twisting the cord between his fingers, so that the disk twirled as it swung.  That made it hard for me to focus on it, which of course was the whole idea.

He began speaking in a slow, monotonous, carefully-pitched voice.  “Now I want you to watch the disk as it spins…  Keep your eyes on the disk…  Track it constantly, as it swings back and forth...  As you watch the disk, I want you to imagine walking down a staircase…  It’s covered with thick, plush carpeting...  It’s very easy to walk down this staircase, the easiest and most comfortable thing in the world…  I want you to count down from one hundred to one…  For each ten numbers, you’ll be one step closer to being in a full hypnotic trance…  Now begin counting…  As you count, you will feel your eyelids growing heavy, until you can no longer hold your eyes open…”

I started counting.  “100.  99.  98.  97.  96…”

He stepped through the whole staircase method, and I got all the way down to ‘1’.  But my eyelids still didn’t feel heavy.

He tried a couple simple tests, and he concluded that I hadn’t gone under.  I had already been pretty sure of that.

After that, he tried the ‘house of doors’ technique and the ‘floating on a cloud’ technique.  He spent the entire hour trying to get me to slip into a hypnotic trance.  We didn’t have any luck.

He smiled, Don’t worry.  Lots of people are resistant to hypnosis.  That doesn’t mean we can’t find a way to make this work for you.  We’ll try again on Monday.  How’s that?”

I wasn’t too confident, but I still said, “Sure.  That sounds fine.”

After I left his office, Jinn said into my eardrum, “He was discouraged.  I could see it.”

That didn’t cheer me up any.

Saturday, October 28

I overslept a little, so I didn’t have time to ogle babes in the bathroom.  Which was a major disappointment, because it looked like Bugs was about to shave her legs.  And it was about time for her to give herself another bikini trim, so I was really looking forward to watching that.  Instead, I had to rush out, throw on some clothes, and dash off to the caff for a to-go coffee and a couple croissants.

I wasn’t late to World Lit class, but I was the last person into the classroom.  I wasn’t too worried.  My paper contrasting the heroic styles of Gilgamesh and Beowulf was already turned in.

Next week would be the Indian epics the Mahabharata andRamayana.  I was only starting the Ramayana, and I had a lot of reading to do in very little time.  I mean, the version Zinn assigned us was 24,000 stanzas long!  The Mahabharata was nearly as long, and that had taken me a couple days to read.. in and around everything else I was doing.

Well, I knew what I was going to be doing with MY spare time this weekend.

The class discussion was really interesting.  Majestic was contributing, instead of going nuts about the way people pictured Hera or Juno.  And she wasn’t giving us her usual smug “oh I know how this really was because I was there” attitude.  Silver Serpent had her usual Eastern approach to the literature, which was really insightful as we talked about Gilgamesh.  I was really looking forward to hearing what she had to say next week.

The less I say about Bubble’s ‘contribution’ to the discussion, the better.  That girl has a bubble, all right.  Between her ears.

Iron Star and Magni-girl stopped Pendragon in the hall to talk to him about important Cape Squad stuff.  Something major, no doubt.  Like trying to convince Bravo to go away and leave them alone.  So I walked over to the caff with Stunner and Silver Serpent.  We were still talking about the epic of Gilgamesh.

When we got into the cafeteria, we all went our separate ways.  Which was probably a good thing; because Chef André had a treat for me, and I wouldn’t have wanted to explain to everyone why I was getting something that wasn’t on the menu.

André casually strolled out and handed me a bowl of a fragrant lamb stew that was redolent with apple and onion.  I got a salad and a dessert, and I was ready to eat.

I sat down with most of Team Kimba, who were engaged in the usual crazed conversations that always seemed to be running during meals.  This time, Chaka was bemoaning how complex her lovelife had become, since she had several guys chasing her when she already had a boyfriend.  And a girlfriend.  And maybe another girl interested in her as well.

At the same time, Jade was fussing about the problems involved in sending a couple members of the J-Team off to work in the sewers while she tried to get all her sewing done with another J-girl.  Apparently, the fourth J-girl was Jeannie, and Jeannie got to inhabit the fabric that was being sewn together.  That’s right, Jeannie was the one who actually went through the sewing machine.  Apparently, Jade could hold fabric together, cast Jeannie into it, and then let the layers of fabric hold themselves and line themselves up and then run themselves through the sewing machine along the right lines, while Jade just ran the sewing machine at the right speed.

I didn’t know much about sewing, but this seemed pretty fast.  She already had half the costumes done.  Man, at this rate she was going to put Cecilia Rogers out of business.  According to Rip, the normal method was to carefully line up the layers of fabric, pin everything in place, and then run the pinned material through a sewing machine an inch at a time, pulling out the pins as the sewing machine worked its way along your material.

The lamb stew was excellent.  The basis of the stew was apparently a rich sauté of carrots and celery and onion and garlic and ginger.  Then the cubes of lamb had been added, to stew in a rich lamb stock and a good quality red wine – a Bordeaux, I was pretty sure.  There was also cinnamon and cloves and cayenne pepper, giving it a subtle Middle Eastern sensibility.  Then apples were added late in the cooking – peeled, cored, and cubed baking apples – so the apples had time to add their flavor, but not disintegrate.  The stew was thickened too, so it was a rich, delightful repast.  After I finished the entire bowl, I made sure to go thank André and find out what kind of apples he had used.

When we got back to Poe, there was a note on my door.  I’d been trying to catch Beltane for a couple days, but she’d been next to invisible.  Apparently, she’d been preparing some Beltane-styled evil for some campus jerks.  Which sounded pretty much like most days for Belle.  The note was from her, and it merely said “the doctor is IN!” and was signed with an ornate ‘K’.  It took me a second to remember that her name was actually Kendall, since no one I knew ever called her that.

I zipped up to her room and caught her before she slipped off to play pranks on people other than us Poesies, which she still did pretty regularly.

She ushered me in and asked in her most formal Brit voice, “And to what do we owe the honor of the presence of a Goodkind?”

I didn’t bother to tell her to knock it off.  If I did, she’d just keep doing it.  I explained, “I’ve been asking around, trying to find out what my options are, for getting my BIT fixed to something more normal.”

She gave me a raised eyebrow and asked in a much more normal tone, “And how does that relate to me?”

I pressed, “You told us that you’re using your ectoplasm to change your biological patterns and turn you into a girl.  You didn’t explain how that worked, because we’re just stupid froshes.  But I wanted to find out whether you could use your ectoplasm to change other people’s biological patterns.”

She pursed her lips and asked, “Do you know what MATD is?”

I admitted, “Actually, I do.  Mother wrote some papers which touched on it.  I’ve read most of the mutant-related journal articles that have come out of Goodkind Research.  MATD is Manifestation-Augmented Tissue Deformity.  When a Manifestor creates manifested matter at zero distance, and the matter is of the ‘carapace’ or ‘shell’ or ‘symbiont’ forms, and there’s no separation between the skin and the manifested matter, the body may become attuned to the manifested matter, and the matter actually changes the body toward the appearance and substance of the manifested matter.”

“Bloody hell,” she swore.  “I figured I was going to have to give you the whole lecture.  You sound like one of the powers testing boffins!”

“Thanks.  I think.”

She went on, “Since I don’t have to school you on MATD, let me jump straight to the key point.  Most manifestors with MATD hate how the manifested matter is changing their bodies.  Like Kaiju.”

“KAIJU?  Someone named himself Kaiju?” I asked in surprise.  Even if this was Whateley.

She corrected me, “Herself.  If you meet her, you’ll understand.”

I tried again, “Oh come on, ‘kaiju’ is Japanese for.. well.. it would translate as ‘strange beast’ in English.  But it’s used mainly to mean giant monsters in movies, like Godzilla and Mothra.  Don’t tell me there’s a giant Godzilla running around Whateley and I just failed to notice it somehow.”

She slowly shook her head.  “Do you know what ‘kaiju girls’ are?”

I don’t think I blushed too much as I admitted, “Uhh, yeah.”

Okay, I wasn’t a saint.  I was a fourteen-year-old boy, for God’s sake!  And I had abnormally high levels of testosterone for a boy, on top of that.  Hell, I had high levels of testosterone for two boys.  Of course I’d surfed the web for inappropriate stuff.  Hundreds of times.  I hadn’t bothered since I’d come to Whateley, since there wasn’t anything on the web that was anywhere near as hot as the girls on my own floor.  But I’d been to Twisted Kaiju Theater, and I’d ogled the kaiju/hottie hybrids that showed up there.  And…

“Oh crap.  You mean there’s a girl here who’s got MATD and it’s turning her into a kaiju girl?”

Belle nodded, “Right on the money.”

“Crap.”

She nodded, “Sadhira’s pretty unhappy about it.  But MATD is what I’m counting on.  It’s working slowly for Megs, but it’s been working really well for me.  Even if I still have a long way to go before I look just the way I’d really like to.”

I told her, “Come on, you look fine.”  Well, she looked good compared to your average baseline.

She snorted, “Says the kid who’s dating Vox, and keeps getting yelled at for staring at Bugs and Fey in the bathroom.”

“Hey,” I mock-protested.  “I stare at a lot of other girls too.  I’m an equal-opportunity ogler.”

She laughed.

I pressed my point, “So the key point is that the ectoplasm has to have zero separation with the skin, and be attuned to the biological patterns.  So you can’t use your ectoplasm to re-shape anyone else.”

She suddenly had a fiendish gleam in her eyes as she said, “Ooh, if only I could!  I could turn Farrago into a girl.  Sneak over to his dorm every night and give him an ectoplasmic female form while he was sleeping, so he’d slowly change into a girl…  Or turn Glissade into a goat-girl…  Or…”

Whoa.  Maybe it was a good thing that she couldn’t do it.

After Belle chased me out so she could get some fiendish planning done, I went down to my room and read until Nikki got back from whatever she was up to.

I went over to her room and talked her into helping me with my next tactic.  My getting-really-desperate tactic.

I got Nikki to accompany me down to see Sara.  I was hoping that our resident half-demon had some advice for me that mere mortals were overlooking.

And we were in luck, too.  The door to her room was in the Poe basement again, and she was in.

She opened the door and smiled, “Ayla.  And with your bodyguard.  How.. trusting of you.”

You know, hanging with psychics can be a real pain.

“Well, come on in.  I promise not to cast you into a pit of eternal agony until you’ve at least explained what you’re after.”

Nikki plopped down in a chair and said, “Stop trying to scare her!  She just wants some advice.”

Sara focused on me, which was just as disconcerting as always.  “No dark boons?  No unholy pacts?  Just some advice?  How boring.”

I tried, “I’ve got a screwed-up BIT.  I’ve been looking into ways to fix it.  The options I’ve looked into are going nowhere fast.  Most of the top-rank devisers I talked to said ‘go away’ or ‘that is not my field’.  Hypnosis isn’t working, although I’m still trying.  Medical treatments are contraindicated.  Chou and Destiny’s Wave looked me over and gave me a big ‘sorry but no’.  Current deviser drugs won’t do it.  I already talked to Jade about what she’s tried, and I’m not interested in sacrificing my soul to become male again.”  I glanced at Nikki.  “And I already know that no mage is going to try and help me.”

Sara said, “Well, you’re right.  No self-respecting mage would even think about trying to change your BIT.  It’s too complex a problem in pattern theory.  What people don’t consider is that you appear to exist in three dimensions, and we describe your physical reality in ten dimensions.  But your BIT expands into higher dimensions.  At least the mathematics works best when we assume that.  But the BIT probably extends into infinite dimensions, with the over-patterns decreasing with Minkowski-Travitori distance at hyper-exponential rates, so that the total energy of the BIT is still finite and the Lie surface of the BIT is topologically constrained.   Magical efforts to alter a BIT simply can’t reach out through an infinite-dimensional system and affect all of your BIT in every dimension.  That means that something has to give somewhere in the over-pattern, and the resulting mathematical torsion is going to wreak havoc on some aspects of your BIT somewhere.  Or maybe just your sanity.  Plus there’s always the possibility that a magical spell that powerful, reaching through that many dimensions, might attract the attention of something that you really don’t want to meet.  You know about Firesnake?”

I nodded, “But wasn’t he a GSD case, and not a BIT case?”

She shrugged, “I personally believe this is what happened with Firesnake.  He may have had some sort of link to a spirit.  Maybe he was really an avatar, and not a GSD case at all.  When they tried to change him, I think it attracted the wrong sort of cross-dimensional attention, and some sort of snake demon managed to use the spell to manifest in this dimension.”

“Oh crap.”

“So, if I’m correct, then even the perfect magical spell, performed with enough power to topologically encompass your entire over-pattern, could fail simply because of outside intervention.  And that intervention could be something like the snake-demon in the Firesnake case.  It could conceivably be something much worse.”

“Oh crap!”

She added, “And even if the spell didn’t attract something you wouldn’t want to meet, the need to topologically encompass your entire over-pattern across infinite dimensions might mean that you’d require an infinite amount of magical power to make it work properly.”

“I’ll take your word on the math, professor.”

She smirked, “That would be a good idea, grasshopper.  Unless you have a decade to devote to nothing but higher mathematics and pattern theory.”

She turned to Nikki.  “Would you construct a Circle of Reading here on the floor?”

Nikki said, “Sure.  Give me a minute…”  And she went to work.  It was astounding to watch, because she was saying things in no language I’d ever heard, and making gestures that were making my eyes water.  After about thirty seconds, she turned back to Sara and said, “There you go.”

Sara looked at me and asked, “Will you willingly step into the circle?”

I snarked, “This isn’t one of these ‘Wicker Man’ deals, is it?”

She grinned fiendishly, “As a matter of fact, it is.”

Let me just point out that Sara has one hell of a fiendish grin.

Nikki admonished Sara, “Stop trying to scare her.”

Sara looked at me, “It actually is a spell that requires your cooperation.  I want to look at your BIT from a different point of view, and this is an effective way to do it.”

Nikki mouthed, “It’s safe.”

I asked, “Should I do a ‘Marathon Man’ joke here?”

Sara grinned.  Nikki obviously didn’t get the ref.

I took a deep breath and stepped into the circle.  I was expecting any number of weird mystical things: lightshows, demonic faces, incredible agony ripping through me, yada yada yada.  Nothing happened.  Well, nothing that I could spot.  But Sara and Nikki stared intently all around me.

Finally, Sara said, “There’s something wrong with your BIT.  It looks like it was magically altered already.  But some of these characteristics are definitely not magical in nature.”

Nikki muttered, “Aunghadhail’s never seen anything like it.”

I groaned, “I take it that’s bad.”

She replied, “Perhaps this is what Circe saw.  Some sort of magical interactions with your BIT.”

Sara said, “Tell me what happened to you between the time you realized you were manifesting as a mutant, and the time you realized you were becoming intersexed.”

I sighed, “Let me go even further back than that.  The Goodkinds have been doing prenatal screening for what’s known as the ‘meta-gene complex’ for as long as the research on the meta-gene complex has been out there.  Over a sixth of the people on earth have it, so it’s not like it’s rare.  I didn’t have it.  No one in my family had it.. or they wouldn’t be in my family.  I was examined by doctors a lot, and that complex isn’t in my blood samples, even as recently as two years ago.  It’s in my genome now.  Some time in the last two years, somehow my DNA was altered.  Introns were inserted or altered in maybe a dozen chromosomes.  Which isn’t supposed to be possible.  But the fun doesn’t stop there.  I was experimented on by Emil Hammond.  THE Emil Hammond…”

“Shit.”  It took a lot to get a reaction out of a half-demon, but that did it.

I went on, “…and that included being a guinea pig for a drug designed to suppress the mutant abilities of mutants who were just manifesting their powers.  They could have done lots of other stuff too, while I was unconscious.  I was unconscious WAY too much of my time there.  It was the day they stopped experimenting on me that I found out I had grown several inches over the weekend, and my face had changed.  It wasn’t until the next day that I found out I was growing boobs and hips too, but I had been stuck the whole time in a heavily padded wetsuit thing that was molded on the inside to hide my female curves.  I still have no idea why.”

Nikki pointed out, “But the magical impingement on your BIT could have happened later.  Maybe when you were going light and you interacted with one of the mages in your aikido class.  Charmer and Kismet are both in there, right?”

“Right.”

“And you’ve sparred against both of them.”

“Right.  And I’ve phase-KO’ed both of them too.  Neither of them’s an Exemplar, though.  Thank God.”  I realized what I’d said, and I hastily apologized, “Oops, sorry, Sara.”

“No problem.”  Sara waved off the inadvertent insult.  She added, “Or possibly it could have happened while you were exposed to those zombies in Boston.”

Oh God.  That zombie goo that had splattered all over me.  Could that have done it?  I shuddered just thinking about those hideous moments down there in the darkness, fighting already-dead things, and maybe getting contaminated by the intra-cranial nastiness that was animating them.

Nikki said, “We just don’t have enough information.  But we’ll keep looking.  Right, Sara?”

“Right.”

I nervously asked, “Is this magical stuff going to do weird stuff to me in future?  Like, is the zombie goo that got all over me going to turn me into a zombie or something?”

Nikki shrugged, “I don’t know.  But I doubt it.”

Sara concentrated in thought before she said, “No, what Uncle Darrow was using to animate those zombies won’t have any effect on you, because you have your own life force.  However, just in case, I’d recommend immediate cremation when you die.”

Oh God.

I didn’t know which was worse.  Thinking about how a possible zombie contamination could some day turn me into a flesh-eating thing, or thinking about Sara’s family tree.  Her dad was Gothmog, which meant her grandma was one of the Great Old Ones.  And her mother’s side of the family was perhaps even more disturbing.  All that stuff made my family look like an episode of “Ozzie and Harriet”.

We thanked Sara for her time, and we left.  Only her door had moved while we were in her room, and now it opened into the Hawthorne basement levels.

Nikki stood still and concentrated for a second.

Fubar appeared before us.  It was Louis, all right.  But for some weird reason, he was dressed in Elizabethan garb.  He bowed deeply to Nikki and said, “Welcome, my lady!”

She reacted like he did this kind of thing to her all the time, so maybe it was some private joke between them.  She sighed, “Hi, Louis.  I just wanted you to know we’re here.  Sara’s room dropped us off.”

He smiled, “That’s not a problem when it’s you.  You’re both welcome upstairs if you want to leave that way, or you can walk to the main tunnel and go home that way.  I know Phase has been using the Hawthorne tunnel for that already.”

Nikki asked, “Since we’re here, can I go upstairs and visit?”

He grinned, “Of course!  When would anyone here object to you coming over and visiting?  Go on up.”

Just to make sure, I asked, “Is it okay for me too?”

“Why wouldn’t it be?” he asked.  Then he answered himself, “Don’t think that way, Ayla.  You’re always welcome here, unless we’ve got an emergency going on.  I’ll let Static Girl know you’re on your way up.”

I ended up spending a couple hours in Hawthorne.  After I helped Claire with math, I visited with Puppet, then I played two games of Scrabble with Diz, and I chatted a bit with Frostbite before I went down to the main tunnel to get back to Poe.

Okay, if you have to ask, Diz beat me again.

I walked down through the main tunnel toward central campus, until I got to the spot where I always went light to phase through the ground to get into the Poe basement.  Apparently, I’d been doing it a lot, because someone had drawn a chalk body outline on the wall at my spot, and written next to it, “PRIVATE DOORWAY FOR PHASE.  DO NOT USE.”

Man, I wish I’d thought of that first.

After dinner, I managed to get a little reading done before it was time to leave for the Golden Kids soiree.  I put on a clean uniform and skipped the coat.  I went down to the basement and phased through the ground to the Hawthorne tunnel.  After all, it was my private doorway.  Heh.  I was still chortling about that.

When I arrived at the secret entrance, the same Security officers were on duty.  So I stopped and said hello.

“Good evening, Officer Green.  Officer Trews.”

“Hi.”

I looked around and made sure we were alone.  I dropped my voice to a quiet murmur, “I appreciate the package I found in my mailbox.  But I still haven’t received the information on the powers of all the students.”

Green frowned, “We’ve been workin’ on that.  But the Chief put his foot down, since there’ve been so many leaks this term.  Seems we’re not the only ones nosin’ around.  And Ser…  Well, someone important told us to hold up or else.  We’ll get the stuff to you.  It’ll just take a while.”

“Okay,” I replied.  “Take your time and do it right, so your tracks are covered.  I’m not interested in a sloppy job, or one that will get traced back to you.”

Trews nodded, “We’re not interested in getting caught, either.  Around here, that’s bad.”

“I’m glad we understand each other,” I said as I walked past them into the atrium.

I was also going to have to think about Green’s slip.  There was some sergeant in Security who had major pull, and was intimately aware of the criminal side of the system around here.  That had to mean that he had his fingers in it, if he wasn’t one of the people who ran it.  Knowing about said Sergeant could be valuable.

Having him know that I knew could be hazardous to my health.

I saw that several coats were already hung on the rack, so I knew I wasn’t the first one here.  I strolled into the reception hall and looked around.  I saw the same two staffers as last time, but the three student-age waitresses were different.

Traduce was loudly giving them last-minute commands, so it was pretty obvious who was responsible for this month’s meeting.  There was no mistaking her voice.  She had a sort of ‘Leona Helmsley’ shriek.  I wouldn’t have recognized her if I hadn’t heard her.  She had her back to me, and she had changed her hair color and hairstyle again.  This time it was a blond ‘Paris Hilton’ hairstyle, even if she didn’t have the Paris Hilton body.  Traduce was a specialized Esper with two knacks – that I knew of, anyway.  She had a clairvoyant gift with translating languages, and she had a Psi ability to coerce people into doing what she wanted.  According to rumor, she had a little trouble not using that second knack whenever she didn’t get her way.  Also, she was a terrible gossip, so I was going to have to make some time to talk with her.  I wanted to have some good dish when I went to see Melissa tomorrow.

Ren Egerton – known to everyone as Glitch, even though he preferred the name Overload - was already sunk into a distant armchair with a champagne flute and a large bottle.  Man, I wished there was something I could do to help him, but I knew from experience that he was going to have to be willing to help himself first.

Tabby was already there, holding a flute of some liquid, and flirting with Dynamaxx.  Of course, Dynamaxx was flirting with her too.  I didn’t think he was constitutionally able to not flirt with any girl who was at least cute.

A waitress rushed over to me, a big smile on her face.  I was surprised to see that it was Rhiannon.  She whispered, “Hey, Phase!  Have some non-alcoholic champagne.”

I smiled back, “Hi there.  What are you doing waitressing tonight?”

“Oh, Traduce offered a bunch of us in the dorm a ton of money to play waitress for one evening, and I’m trying to save up to buy some good Christmas gifts for all my family, so I jumped at it.  Isn’t this cool?”

I grinned, “Yeah, but you have to put up with Traduce.”

She giggled a little, “Oh, we have to put up with her all the time back at the dorm, so this is pretty easy.”

I told her, “Just take it easy and pace yourself.  After a couple hours of rushing around like that, you’ll be pooped.”

She winked at me and said, “Got it.”  Then she slowly walked over to the people just coming in.

Renshaw waved me over.  I took a sip of the fake champagne.. and immediately regretted it.  Gah!  Was this non-alcoholic champagne, or was it paint thinner?  I walked over to Ren and said hi.

“Good to see ya, Trev,” he slurred.  Holy crow, had he killed almost half that bottle of Krystal already?  That was a really bad sign.  “Ya doin’ okay?”

I shrugged casually, “Pretty well.”  I wasn’t about to tell someone like Ren all the problems in my life.  An alcoholic was not a trustworthy secret-keeper.

He smirked, “I heard ya took care of those Alpha assholes but good.  Way to go.  Us Chilton guys gotta show those snots who’s boss!”

“So how are you doing?”  Obviously, he had been dying for me to ask.

“Crap, I don’ think I can take much more of my roomie.  Told ya about him already, right?”  I nodded.  “He’s gotta be the biggest redneck you ever saw.  He’s from East Buttfuck, Kentucky or something.  Where they have the big horserace every year, with the mint juleps.”

Ren would focus on the alcohol-related events.  “You mean the Kentucky Derby, in Louisville?”

“Yeah,” he agreed with another swallow of champagne.

A smooth, not-quite-Southern voice from behind me interrupted, “Louisville isn’t that much of a backwater.  We have shipping and manufacturing there.  And I know Ralston-Purina has substantial manufacturing there too.”

I turned my head and looked.  It was Tidewater.  He was Marshall Scharf McClure, of the Maryland McClures.  I had heard that he was an avatar with some sort of water spirit, so he could swim really fast and breathe underwater.  For all I knew, he could talk to fish too.

Tidewater had strolled up with a couple other Golds.  One was a totally hot brunette with unnaturally blue eyes.  I didn’t know her.  The other was a nerdy looking guy with uncontrollable hair.

Tidewater looked at me and said, “Hey, Phase.  Are these the worst entrées they ever served here, or what?”

Unicorn strolled up and said, “Entrées?  I thought they were something Traduce had a maid pick up at a Burger King.”

That got a few wicked snickers.  The hot brunette frowned, “Tide, I know these are really icky, but do you have to say stuff like that?  Traduce gets upset about every little thing, and that’s just going to make things worse.”

Tidewater sighed, “Yeah, you’re probably right.  But it’s pretty hard to be nice about something like this.”

The brunette said, “I’m not being some little Goody Two Shoes here, ya know.  I just think that saying stuff that’s going to come back and haunt you isn’t a good idea.”

But the snacks were really pretty grim.  I had a feeling you could buy better stuff in the frozen foods section of a grocery store.  Not that I knew from personal experience.  Traduce had probably told someone else to take care of the food, and not bothered to check on the results.  Or she had pissed off her chef.  Well, it was rumored that Traduce’s mother couldn’t keep a maid or a personal assistant for more than a year, because she was so awful to the help.  Traduce had probably learned her behavior with servants from mommy.

Tidewater stopped long enough to introduce the Exemplar brunette, whose codename was Macrobiotic.  She shook hands with those of us who didn’t know her, including me.

She smiled at me, “I know you’re Phase.  One of the Goodkinds.  I’m Sophia Ferris, of Ferris Biochemical.”

I knew the company.  Goodkind International had several major contracts with them, including a Goodkind Research grant.  Sophia’s mother Laura Ferris ran the company, and Sophia was the heiress who was going to inherit the whole thing.  Ferris Biochemical had a sterling rep, going back to the early 1930’s, when biochemist Martha Ferris had founded the company by single-handedly developing a cure for some biological warfare weapon unleashed on New York by Deathmaiden.

I shook her hand and said, “Nice to meet you.”

But Glitch wanted to bitch about his roommate, so we were back on that in no time.  “And he acts like it’s my fault every time his laptop craps out, an-”

“Glitch, it IS your fault every time his laptop gives out.  That’s your power, you know?”

“Can’t you two figure out times for him to work on his laptop in the room when you’re not around, and then when you’re around he works somewhere else?”

Ren grumbled, “We tried that.  But he makes such a big freakin’ deal if I forget to call when I’m comin’ back, or I forget to knock before I walk in…”

“So how many dozens of times have you trashed his homework?”

“Look, itsh not like I do it every day!” Ren slurred.  “An’ he only had to take the laptop back to get fixed twice...  Maybe three times.”

Someone pointed out, “Glitch, those things are supposed to be indestructible!  You’re not EVER supposed to have to take it back to get it fixed!”

Ren glowered, “Why doesh everyone act like it’s my fault?  He’s the problem here!  He’sh always on my ass if I leave my stuff on the floor on his side of the room, and he doesn’t wanna clean up the place – I said I’d pay him – an’ he wouldn’t take a really good offer to do my homework for me, an’ he has a huge shitfit every time he catches me drinking in the room…”

Tidewater said, in his most sarcastic voice, “Wow.  What a troublemaker.”

“Yeah.  ‘Ats what I say,” Ren agreed.  He was drunk enough that he completely missed Marshall’s sarcasm.

Marshall went on, “So why don’t you hire a maid to handle everything?”

Ren grumped, “Boys’ dorm.  They won’t let me.”

Someone said, “Then hire a guy to be your valet.  Or your cleaning service.”

Ren nodded, “Ya know?  Thass a good idea.”

Dynamaxx made his usual kind of suggestion.  “It is simple.  There are many girls on campus who will do anything for money.  Hire one of them to lure your roommate out of your room for much of the time.”

Several girls pointed out that Maxx’s suggestion was beyond sleazy, not to mention that soliciting prostitution was illegal.  Maxx waved them off.

Ren complained, “Won’ work.  He’s got a girl he’s all hot for, even if she isn’t in’erested.  One of the deviser chicks.”

Hmm.  I wondered which deviser girl it was.  If it was Bugs, the guy was SOL.  Maybe it was Delta Spike or Widget.  Maybe it was one of the cuties like Kew and Spark and Tinkertrain.

I strolled off before Ren realized that several people were being sarcastic instead of supportive.  At least he was in a corner without a lot of electronics.

I poured out the vaguely grape-like swill in my champagne flute and filled it with water.  I turned around to see who else was present, and I found two people walking my way.

Tabby and Hatamoto made a beeline for me.  Ken started first, “Phase!  We were talking, and everyone’s interested in the way you took out an Alpha hit team.”

Automa-tech strolled up and joined the conversation, “What did you use?  Where did you get your equipment?”

Tabby added, “Did you hire any henchmen?”

I said, “No, no henchmen-”

“Good move,” interrupted Hatamoto.  “They’re easy to hire, but really problematic when you want to fire them later.  Even if you’re strictly legit, you have the problems we’ve seen, where your henchmen know all your sites they’ve visited, and they know what levels of weaponry and armor you provide for your henchmen, and your strategies and tactics, and so on…  So they have lots of information for sale to the highest bidder, and every one of your enemies will be bidding.”

“I’ll bet the Bad Seeds could tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the ‘care and feeding of your henchman’.”

“Yeah.  ‘Henchmen for Dummies’.  The new best-seller at Whateley.”

“My uncle said it’s surprisingly easy to find hundreds of potential henchmen, and the interview process isn’t really that different from interviewing for new programmers or new middle managers.  But the Human Resources problems are where everyone falls down on the job.”

“Absolutely.  Keeping a diverse group of talented specialists happy is always a problem.  If you don’t have a manager who really understands them, and that they respect, it always causes problems.  My cousin Pete was talking about the problems he was having with his programming staff just the other week.  It’s the same thing with henchmen…”

Well, I knew how that worked.  I knew what was involved in keeping good servants, and in hiring good staffers, and in working with good programmers.

“No, in some ways, it’s more like hiring a staff of independent salesmen, some of whom want to get into direct competition with other salesmen on your staff.  How do you evaluate their personalities when you’re hiring them?  How do you keep them from clashing, or undercutting each other, or sabotaging the sales productivity of other of your salesmen?  It’s basically the same management problem as dealing with a bunch of henchmen who want to fight each other when they’re not out on assignments from you.”

“Isn’t that how H. Ross Perot got his start?  As an IBM salesman who was screwing his fellow salesmen out of their commissions and sales, so he could make more money?”

“Yeah, and then he left IBM and took as many customers with him as he could, doing his best to squeeze money out of IBM after he was gone.  One of the classic ‘bad henchman’ maneuvers.  He was just doing something that was technically legal.”

“And hiring a henchman around here is so difficult.  The Whateley handbook has dozens of rules about hiring henchmen and treating them properly, and everyone says the headmistress is a total bitch about making sure you follow all the rules!”

I insisted, “Well, you should follow all the rules.  In fact, your personal guidelines ought to be so favorable that you never have to think about the Whateley rules.  I mean, really.  If I were going to hire someone like, say, Slab as a henchman, why on earth would I mistreat him or cheat him?  The whole idea is to have a guy who WANTS to work for me, and WANTS to look out for my best interests, not someone who’s looking for the first chance to stab me in the back!”  I couldn’t believe that some of these people didn’t get that.

The group wanted to argue about the henchman/programmer paradigm, and the henchman/salesman paradigm, and the henchman/manager paradigm.  I was just surprised that Dynamaxx didn’t want to salivate over a henchman/mistress paradigm.  After a while, I slipped away to go chat with Traduce.

I caught up with her just after she finished chewing out one of the staff for not arranging the trays of food in an attractive enough way.  She should have been yelling at herself for having inedible snacks in the first place.

“Traduce!  How are things going?”

She groaned dramatically, “I don’t know why it’s always so impossible to find someone who’s willing to do an honest day’s work for a reasonable salary.  But the cook my assistant hired is completely useless.  As is my assistant.  I swear, one more screw-up like this and she’s so fired!  And then I talked to my entire dorm, and only three losers were willing to work for three stinking hours…”  She switched from Drama Queen to paparazzo.  “So.. how are you doing?  Is it true that Chaka’s dating five different men, and two of them are white?”

I decided to give her some dirt to dish, just to keep Chaka safe.  “Ooh, it’s even better than that.  She’s only dating one guy – it’s Thunderbird, who’s utterly whitebread – but there are several guys panting after her who won’t leave her alone.  You know Mace?  He’s a Paragon?  She dropped him with one punch.”

She gaped, “She dropped a Paragon with one punch?  How is that possible?”

I shrugged, “No idea.  But Chaka can do anything.”

“She can get away with anything?”

I shook my head no.  “No, you got it backward.  She doesn’t have to try to get away with stuff, because she can do anything she puts her mind to.”

“Reeeeeally.  How interesting…” she drawled.  I wondered how she was going to distort what I’d just told her.

After she fished around a bit for some dirt on Lancer and Fey – as if I’d tell her any, even if there were some juicy tidbits on friends of mine – she got around to telling me what she’d heard.  Or sort of heard.  Or was in the process of distorting into something unrecognizable.

She leered, “So, The Don has been setting up this little Energizer slut named Coreolis.  Everyone’s been waiting for him to finally nail her for like a whole weekend until she thinks she’s in love with him.  And then he’ll humiliate her, before he dumps her, most likely in front of all her friends.  You know, like usual for The Don.  But just a couple days ago, Imperious, he’s a lightning Energizer and a big Exemplar you know, cuts right in and whisks her out of The Don’s claws.  So Majestic catches Coreolis and Imperious in one of the Melville rec rooms, just about the time they’re getting down to some really high-voltage sex, and she throws a big magical fit that wrecks the whole room and most of the hallway…”

As I was lying in bed that night, just before I dozed off, it dawned on me that I hadn’t checked on something important.  What was Traduce saying about me?