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Diane Castle / Ayla / Ayla #4: "Ayla and the Tests" / Part 8

Ayla #4: “Ayla and the Tests” 

- a Whateley Universe Tale

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

CHAPTER 8 – The Mares of Diomedes

Saturday, November 18

Obviously, word had already gotten around that Team Kimba had gotten into another major battle.  The morning showers were the warriors returning to their loved ones.  Bugs was hugging Fey.  Rip was checking Chaka for injuries.  Reeeeeally thoroughly.  And, lo and behold, Vox came over and hugged me hard.

She kissed me senseless before she held me at arm’s length and snapped, “What is it with all of you?  One of you’s gonna get hurt bad one of these days!”

I let her hold me like that, and I snarked, “It’s Peter Parker Syndrome.  We just attract bad guys.  Pheromones or something.”

“That’s not funny!”

Bugs agreed, “Yeah, Ayla.  All of you could’ve been hurt or killed or something!”

Jade helpfully corrected her, “Not Billie!”

Before Jade could ‘helpfully’ relate how Matterhorn had stomped Tennyo into the asphalt, Billie put a hand over Jade’s mouth.  Jade even put up with that.  If it had been my hand, Jade probably would have bitten me.  Or cast Jinn into my arm and made me smack myself a couple times.

I just barely had time to eat one of Chef Peter’s apple dumplings with cinnamon and vanilla bean.  Then I grabbed a to-go cup of the good coffee and hustled over to World Lit class.

As I walked toward the classroom, I saw Pendragon chatting with a couple of the other Capes: his girlfriend Glorianna, and Iron Star.  I didn’t realize they were waiting there for me.

Pendragon spoke up, “Phase!  Can we have a minute of your time?”

“Of course,” I said.  No point in dissing the Cape Squad.  Besides, Pendragon was a good guy.

Iron Star put in, “We just saw a report on your trip to Boston.  Could you fill us in on what you noticed about the supervillains you fought?”

“Like what?” I wondered.  “Strengths, weaknesses, fighting style, M.O.?  That sort of thing?”

“Exactly,” Glorianna purred in an upper-class British accent that might or might not have been real.

Captain Tilley had filled us in on the identities of the hired guns we had pummeled, so I could actually identify the people we’d fought.  I asked, “Was it a Boston P.D. report, or a Whateley report?”

Iron Star said, “Whateley.  Your chaperone had to file one.”

Hmm.  I wondered if I’d get a copy of that from my sources in Security.

I said, “I can tell you about some of them, but you’ll get much better intel if you talk to all the rest of Team Kimba.  Start with Fey; she can tell you more about the Necromancer than anyone.  This is the second time she’s gone one-on-one against him, and he’s had to run away both times.  Talk to Chaka about the Arch-Fiend and Lycanthros.  Lancer can tell you about the Anti-Paladin.  Generator’s probably your best source about Ironhawk and Lady Darke.  Bladedancer can tell you about Nightgaunt.”

“And who can you tell us about?”

I admitted, “Matterhorn.  And Jabberwock and Vamp.”

Maybe that sounded more impressive than I thought, because they exchanged a look among themselves.

Pendragon said, “We need to get into class.  Could you perhaps eat lunch with us and give us some more details?”

I nodded, “Sure.  Be happy to.”  The more favors they owed me, the better.  And the more they liked me, the more I could get out of them in turn.  Plus, Glorianna was a major hottie, and she was all decked out in her skimpy little superheroine costume.

I had already turned in my paper on Pope’s Rape of the Lock, and we had a great discussion group.  Most of the class had done the Germanic epic Niebelungenlied instead.  So some of the class learned about one, and some learned about the other.  I had read both, as Pendragon and several others had obviously done.

I hated to admit it, but Majestic had obviously read both, and had good commentary on both epics.  I didn’t like her, but when she wasn’t being a nutcase about Hera and Juno, she was an impressive scholar.

Then I walked over to the caff with Pendragon.  He was content to talk about Alexander Pope instead of superhero battles.  That was fine with me.  He was well-read, and had an interesting perspective on Pope that Americans didn’t usually see.

Glorianna and Mister Mystic met us just outside the cafeteria.  Glorianna was still in her superheroine costume, and Mister Mystic had gone with the costume too.  That didn’t surprise me, since the Cape Squad was usually in full regalia whenever I saw them walking around campus.  Heck, Megs wore her costume when she was studying in her room!

Okay, I didn’t have a lot of room to complain.  I was wearing my utility belt under my Whateley blazer.

In addition to the Big Three of the ‘Future Superheroes of America’, I saw several more Capes already eating their lunches.  Iron Star was sitting in between Mega-Girl and Magni-Girl.  He was flirting with Magni-Girl, seemingly oblivious to the efforts Marty was making to interrupt the two of them.  Lady Liberty was across the table from them in her ultra-patriotic ‘stars and stripes’ costume.  She was chatting with Saladin about something that had her excited enough that she was waving her soupspoon as she talked.  But she was casting suspicious glances over toward Iron Star and Magni-Girl now and then.  What was up with that?  I was glad to see that G-Force wasn’t there; I still wasn’t happy with that jerk.

Pendragon seated Glorianna carefully before taking his own seat.  He had me sit between him and Mister Mystic.  Then he announced, “Everyone?  This is Phase.  I believe Iron Star has passed around copies of the Security report?  She has graciously consented to talk with us about some of the supervillains they faced.”  He turned to me, “Phase, let me introduce everyone.”

He went around the table and everyone welcomed me or at least nodded politely.  Marty gave me a huge grin.

Lady Liberty said, “You’re a Goodkind, aren’t you?  It must be so interesting to be part of one of the great old American families that has made such a contribution to this country!”  She reminded me of a super-patriot type running for office in a wealthy, highly-Republican district.  Well, she looked Asian, but she had a ‘stars and stripes’ costume, and the codename Lady Liberty, so she probably was a super-patriot type.

Magni-Girl smiled and said, “I was really impressed by the job Team Kimba did against some very dangerous professional criminals.  I’m hoping some of your group will consider the Future Superheroes of America in the coming terms.”  Hmm.  I had heard that Iron Star was supposed to be the next head of the Capes, but Magni-Girl sure sounded like she ought to be running the group next year.

Saladin smiled, “Welcome.  I was most interested to read in the report about Fey’s battle against the Necromancer.  Do you think she would be willing to meet with us and discuss it?”  I told him that I was pretty sure she would.

They actually let me eat my salad niçoise before they started asking questions.  I ended up explaining how I beat Matterhorn using my extra-dimensional Warper ability.

Mister Mystic scratched his chin and asked in a middle-class English accent, “Do you think an inter-dimensional Warper could do the same thing?”

I answered, “I just don’t know.  Dr. Quintain had a theory that turned out to work in practice, so he could probably tell you.  Off hand, I’m going to guess ‘no’, or a lot more Warpers would be doing this.”

He said in Shakespearean tones, “Alas and alack!  Minions of evil hast escaped me yet again!”  Then he broke into a silly grin.

Glorianna and Saladin just shook their heads, so I figured he did this kind of stuff a lot.  I asked him, “So, are you an inter-dimensional Warper, or were you just curious?”

“Just nosy.  I’m actually a PDP.  I only pretend to be a mage.”

I said, “Then definitely avoid the Necromancer.  He’s a big-time mage, and a nasty one at that.”

Saladin said, “That is interesting.  I have also heard a claim that the Necromancer is merely a deviser pretending to be a mage.”

I told him, “I think it’s worse than that.  I think he’s a seriously dark wizard who also uses really nasty devises he’s acquired from Major Nasties who are not of this planet.”

Magni-Girl leaned forward, “And how do figure that?  That sounds pretty hard to believe.”

I said, “I wouldn’t have believed it either.  But he used a poison dart on Heartbreaker the first time we faced him.  The locals had no idea what it was, just that he’d used the same stuff plenty of times before.  Carmilla recognized it at once.  So did Fey.  They both knew it was extra-terrestrial in nature.  Something called Mi-Go.  I’ve seen him in action.  He’s a mage.  He uses these things as his holdouts.”

Glorianna frowned in thought.  “I don’t wish to sound rude, but I think I’ll want to talk with both Carmilla and Fey about this to confirm your beliefs.”

I didn’t get upset.  I thought she was doing the right thing, anyway.  I told her, “That’s a good plan.  Don’t take the word of a Warper who hasn’t even taken the intro magic classes.  Carmilla knows the Necromancer.  Fey knows the stuff he was using.  They can tell you things about the Mi-Go that’ll curl your hair.  But it’s something you need to know about if you ever face him.  I mean, you’ll expect him to throw heinous spells at you.  You’ll expect him to wear that same old hokey costume with the skull mask.  You might need to know that he’s actually wearing extra-terrestrial power armor of unknown capabilities.”

Iron Star asked, “And what about Ironhawk?”

“Oh, I think you could take him,” I said.  “He’s got a badass suit of armor, but I was massively unimpressed by him.  And then – get this – he tried the old ‘I have a hostage’ bit holding a knife against Generator, and she used the opportunity to take over his armor with some gizmo of hers, and she flew him around like a remote-controlled toy.”

“Generator?  The little Japanese girl with the ghost sister?”

“Yep.  That ought to be really good for his rep.  Taken out by a little girl while trying to use her as a hostage.  Then she used him to smash into Matterhorn.  At that rate, pretty soon he’ll be known as Ironschmuck.”

“So how did she over-ride his control system for his armor?”

I shrugged.  Then I lied, “I don’t know.  I think she slapped something onto his armor.  She’s a deviser, so there’s no telling what she’s invented, and what she can make it do.  I mean, I still don’t understand how the Shroud thing works.  She builds an autonomous robot with tons of weaponry in it, and then she somehow does something that also puts her dead sister’s spirit into it?  That sounds more like magic than devising.”  If that didn’t confuse them about Jade’s real powers, then I didn’t know what would.

“And what about Jabberwock?  I don’t get how his powers work,” asked Megs.

“He’s a Warper,” replied Pendragon.  “According to his MCO file, he’s a Warper-4:rb2.  That means he can warp reality for his own body, and also space-time within a distance from himself of more than twenty centimeters, but under a meter.”

“But what’s that mean?  What’s he do?” fussed Megs.

Pendragon looked over at me.

I ventured, “It looked like he mainly used his reality warping power to make it impossible to beat him in a fight.  I don’t what else he can do with it.  But he really tied Tennyo up, and I’d say she’s up in the Lady Astarte class most days.  She couldn’t hit him, even though she’s pretty good in martial arts, and her really dangerous stuff just went right through him.  Or around him.  Or something.”

“But you said that you beat him,” Iron Star pointed out.

I shrugged, “I cheated.  Every time I tried to hit him, he warped parts of his body out of the way of the blow.  It’s pretty disturbing punching a guy and your fist goes right through a big hole where his chest used to be.  So I used a holdout to momentarily blind him, and then when he couldn’t see what I was doing, I punched him.  That worked.  I also hit him with Matterhorn.  It took me three tries, even with something as big as a house.  But he doesn’t seem to have any martial arts skills.  If he can do other things with his talent, like warp through a nearby door or wall, I haven’t seen it.  But he’s got to have something else he can do if he’s got a rep as a major mercenary  Probably a bunch of other things that he just didn’t have the opportunity to use.”

Iron Star said, “Well put.  I’d like to hear about Vamp too.”

Magni-Girl cooed at him, “I just bet you would.”

Lady Liberty and Megs both gave her the death stare.

Man. I’d love to know what that was all about.  Was Iron Star stringing three different Cape Squad girls at the same time?  If so, it wasn’t his star that was made of iron.  I wouldn’t have the nerve – or the unmitigated gall – to try something like that.

Maybe Marty would tell me if I asked her sometime away from the other Capes.  Or maybe Delta Spike would spill the beans; I’d bet Megs tells her a ton of girltalk stuff.

Glorianna said in her ‘Brit princess’ voice, “Yes, I’d like to hear about Vamp also.  She’s supposed to be extremely new on the supervillain scene.”

I nodded, “From what Captain Tilley told us, she’s not any older than Megs or I am, and she already has a Murder One want on her, along with a ton of other charges from hanging with the Children of the Night.  The first time we were in Boston, she took on Bladedancer pretty effectively, but Carmilla creamed her.  This time, I saw her in action.  She seems to specialize in the cheap shot and the sneak attack, pretty much like Nightgaunt does.  She’s probably an Exemplar, so expect strength and speed.  She’s also an Energizer.  Sara said she’s an absorber, and she’s best at absorbing energy from people, so watch out for close personal contact.  Which is the other problem, because she’s also a Psi or something, because she can do this ‘lust’ effect that’s pretty tough to handle.  She’s hit Bladedancer with it, and Lancer, and also me.  So she’s pretty much omnisexual.  And I’m pretty sure she’s used it on Skyhawk, so she has no taste either.”

“What happened when she gave you the old lust power?” Iron Star asked. He was obviously really interested, while the three girls glared at him.

I looked him in the eye.  “You do know that I’m not what I appear to be, right?”

He frowned in puzzlement.

I rolled my eyes, “Oh come on, the entire school knows about this!  It’s why people keep attacking me.  I’m intersexed.  I look like this, but I’m a boy with a really weird BIT.  I still have a…  Well, I still have male privates between my legs.  It’s just that the rest of me looks like a girl.”

“Like a very hot girl,” said Iron Star.

Oh God, this dork couldn’t be making a pass at me too, could he?  What a maroon.  I reminded him, “Star?  Boy here?  Not interested in hearing that I look like a girl.”

Marty sniggered into her hand.  Pendragon and Glorianna exchanged looks like the parents of a wayward boy.

I said, “Vamp jumped me from behind while I was waving Matterhorn around.  She gave me the ‘hot nasty lust’ routine, which I admit was pretty distracting.  But she obviously thought I was a girl.  When she groped me down there and found out differently, she lost her train of thought and I was embarrassed enough to get my act together.”

“What’d you do?”

“I dropped Matterhorn on her,” I grinned.

“You dropped a multi-ton giant on her?  Weren’t you worried you’d kill her?”

“No,” I told them.  “She’s strong.  Ten tons of Matterhorn pancaked her, but she just wiggled out from underneath him.  She probably got some bruises and scrapes out of it, but that’s about it.  She’s tough.  In a stand-up punchfest, she’ll be tough to stop unless you’ve got Lancer-level power.  Go with ranged energy attacks or something like that.”

Saladin said, “I am interested in this Nightgaunt.  Isn’t he supposed to be a superhero?”

I said, “Captain Tilley of Boston SWAT has a theory about that.  He thinks this Nightgaunt killed the original and hijacked the costume as well as the ability to travel from one shadow to another.  Without that talent, he’s pretty much just a hired assassin.  But that talent makes it near impossible to catch him, or even predict where he’s going to be next.  So he pops up in a shadow behind any vulnerable member of your team and clubs them.  Or shoots them.  He popped up in a shadow next to Lancer and stuck a bomb on him.”

“A bomb?” gasped Megs.

“How’d Lancer get rid of it fast enough?” asked Magni-Girl.

“He didn’t,” I admitted.  “It exploded at point blank range.  Lancer got a couple bruises from it.”

Mister Mystic whistled in admiration.  Pendragon smiled, “Impressive.”

“Yeah, Lancer’s pretty damned tough for a frosh.  As Kodiak and a couple other people have found out the hard way.  Lancer’s been at Whateley for less than three months, and he’s faced.. let’s see.. Kodiak.  Screech.  The entire Whateley Martial Arts Cheerleader pack.  Nightgaunt and Lady Darke.  Matterhorn.  The Anti-Paladin.  He took on the Masterminds with that S.T.A.R. League Jr. gang.”

“Hippolyta doesn’t like him,” added Mega-Girl.

“Yeah, but that’s something personal she’s got going.  Lancer would drop the feud in a second, if he didn’t enjoy fighting her.  I’m surprised Poe survived a couple of those tussles.  He may not be the strongest PK superman around, but he’s tough.  And he’s definitely one of the good guys.  He’d make a really good addition to the Cape Squad.”

Pendragon grinned, “Normally, people are giving us sales pitches to get themselves into the group.  You have a fairly versatile power and an interesting reputation.  Have you considered pledging?”

I shook my head no.  “I don’t really plan to be one of the spandex-wearing set when I grow up.  I’m more of a financial planner.  Maybe you should all consider how you’re going to be making a living and investing your proceeds when you’re superheroing.  You’ll want to be able to retire if you get injured too seriously, and you’ll want to have ways of shielding your assets from lawsuits.  So maybe you should think about hiring me as support staff.  Teams like the Empire City Guard and the West Coast League usually have support staff who do devising, but they often need help with the day-to-day things like employment, finances, long-term asset and debt management, getting a house built while maintaining their secret identity.. those sort of things.”

Iron Star waved me off, “We’re only teenagers.  We don’t need to think about that junk until we’re old.”

That was so stupid and short-sighted.  No wonder so much of the United States has to resort to Medicare and Social Security.

I was about to jump all over him about that when Pendragon flagged me down.  “Phase, can we get back to the original topic for a few more minutes, before we all need to get going?  I was talking to Mister Mystic, and we’re interested in Lady Darke.  What can you tell us about her?”

“Not much, I’m afraid,” I admitted.  “She’s supposed to be a PDP, but she’s got a really unusual version of the usual PDP power set, and she’s a pretty high-level PDP at that.  She blacked out the entire battlefield.  I don’t know exactly what she did, but she incapacitated every single good guy except Shroud.  Okay, I don’t know if it affected Tennyo either.  But it was impressive.  I was in essence completely blind and deaf.  I couldn’t even smell anything.  And when it happened, I couldn’t tell whether she blanketed the entire battlefield, or just targeted me.  Fortunately for us, Shroud took her out before she realized that Shroud was even a real threat.  If we run into her again, she’ll know better.”

Lady Liberty grinned, “That may be a while.  Your team captured half the Children of the Night and most of those mercenaries.  Nobody’s done that well against them before.  Lady Darke’s in a federal lockup now.”

I snorted, “Yeah, and how long will that hold ‘em?  The Arch-Fiend’s been caught before.  Every single time, The Necromancer found him and busted him out.  I figure that a guy with a micro-management style like his will have to bust all his employees out, just to show them that they can’t get out from under his thumb no matter what.”

When we had discussed most of the major baddies at the battle, Magni-Girl wrapped it up, “So, while Speed Queen and Foxfire and Silver and Jetstream were trapped in a magical cage, Team Kimba took on The Necromancer and all the Children of the Night, plus four major mercenaries: Matterhorn, Jabberwock, the Anti-Paladin, and Ironhawk?  And won?  With no major injuries?”

“Well, we had some help at the end.”

“That’s still really impressive.”

“Well, I have some really impressive teammates,” I said as I picked up my tray and departed.  It wasn’t the best exit line I’d ever heard, but it sufficed.

There was a special delivery envelope waiting for me in my mailbox when I walked back to Poe.  It was from the Townshend Publishing House in Nashville, Tennessee.  But the cardboard envelope was obviously only bulky enough to be holding a few sheets of paper.  I couldn’t imagine what this could be.

Oh, wait.  There was a possibility.  Peril’s family business.

I took it up to my room before opening it.  Inside were two things: a note, and a two-page contract.

The contract was an agreement giving me 35% of the entire company in exchange for the $147K I had already given Peril.  The note said:

Dear Miss Goodkind,

We were at our wit’s end, when Robbie called and said you were giving us the money in exchange for a favor he was going to do for you.  No mere favor can cover this.  You have saved our business, and our good name.  We were about to have to declare Chapter 11 because we wouldn’t be able to meet our payroll or our tax obligations.  We talked it over, and we decided that we owed you a piece of the company.  You now own 35% of our publishing house.  May Jesus bless you.

Martin and Alice Townshend

Hmm.  What could I do with 35% of a struggling publishing company based in Na-yush-vee-yull?  I’d have to look into their capabilities, and see if I could grow their business or enhance their business model.  Chou would probably know something about the area, since she was a Knoxville girl.  She wouldn’t know details of the publishing industry, but ‘Robbie’ could tell me what he knew, and I could find out about the rest through other sources.  I’d have to look into opportunities for publishing firms.  Maybe the internet…

I spent the next couple hours studying what I could find out about the publishing industry in general, and Townshend Publishing of Nashville in particular.  They looked like a mid-sized publishing firm that didn’t have anything that would let them grow into a larger firm.  If they wanted to get bigger, they needed some help from a financial expert and a publishing expert.

Fortunately, Chou dropped in with Molly.  Otherwise, I would have stayed lost in financial planning and maybe missed my two appointments that afternoon: Cecilia Rogers and Hawthorne.

This time, I had an anonymous shuttle pass from Mrs. Horton.  After some of the crap that Ms. Hartford had pulled, I had no doubt that she’d yank me off the shuttle using some ultra-lame excuse, just to be a bitch.  She’d certainly done it before.  Surprisingly, Mrs. Horton had agreed with me and had given me a shuttle pass without my name on it.

The shuttle driver had a clipboard with a printed list of names on it.  He was asking each person to show him their pass, and he was checking over his list before letting people on the shuttle.  I wondered why, until a mean-looking guy showed him a pass, and the driver said, “Strongarm.  You’re on the list.  You can’t go until you get a separate permission slip from Admin.”

Srongarm glared at the guy but didn’t intimidate him.  So Strongarm trudged off in the direction of Admin.  Like Hartford was ever going to give him a pass.

When it was my turn, the driver look at my anonymous pass and said, “Codename?”

“Bogus,” I lied.  Bogus was a Shifter, and one of the Alphas.  I figured that Hartford would never put one of her precious Alphas on that shitlist.  Also, everyone knew that Bogus liked to walk around campus posing as other people, just to cause trouble.

He checked the list.  “Fine.  Hop on.”

As I walked past, I took a little peek at the list.  Right after Packrat and just before Quarrel was ‘Phase’.  Great.

Fortunately for me, no friends of Bogus sat beside me to ask Bogus what he was doing riding into Dunwich posing as Phase.  Frankly, I had no idea if he had any friends.  As far as I knew, he was just one of those Alpha hangers-on whom they used for pranks and revenges, then discarded when convenient.

Once we reached Dunwich, I hurried down the street to Rogers’ Fabric Boutique.  Cecilia was waiting for me.  “I saw the school shuttle, so I thought you’d be here fairly soon.”

I grumbled, “Well, I wouldn’t have been, if Mrs. Horton hadn’t given me an anonymous pass.  Admin has a ‘no-fly’ list for the drivers, and Hartford had my name on it.”

Since I had a fairly limited amount of time before I needed to be back at the shuttle, we got right to work.  I showed her the drawings and pictures of the Costume Class uniform that I wanted.  She showed me what she had available, including a few yards of four different kinds of deviser fabrics.

So she made me a costume out of real super-suit materials.  The material was bulletproof up to a .45 caliber revolver round, and was designed so that it reinforced my own body strength.  It also had enough Insular in the weave that it would be somewhat resistant to a variety of Energizer frequencies.  We’d have to see how well that worked in practice, since Energizers had a pretty wide range of functioning frequencies, and the suit might work better against some Energizers than others.

She designed in a simple back zipper, like for a wetsuit.  She added in kinetic-reactive gel body armor for the padding over the breasts.  That still was going to bump me up from an A cup to a B cup.  Ugh.  She also designed an athletic cup into it with some subtle padding around the cup so that it hid the contours of my privates and I didn’t have a big ‘look at my dick’ bulge.  I hated my stupid body, but it was better to be able to pass as a girl than to be unmistakably intersexed.  Looking like a freakazoid only got me into trouble.

Okay, looking like a freakazoid got me into more trouble.  I seemed to be able to find enough trouble no matter how I looked.

Unfortunately, the extra curves around my boobs and at my groin also meant that my regular clothes wouldn’t fit over the costume.  So I needed a special ‘wear only over super-suit’ blouse and blazer and pants too.  I needed the Whateley clothes over my super-suit to be well-cut, and yet just loose enough that I could phase out of them for my quick-change.  Cecilia did her usual perfect job with the uniform.

To go with a pair of specially reinforced ‘Doc Marten’ look-alike boots, and black gloves, Cecilia also whipped up a ‘spidey’-style headmask that was black, except for a roughly heart-shaped gray area over the face.  Over the eye areas were black polarized flexible lenses that Cecilia made in a distinctly feminine eye shape, so they were like horizontal teardrops.

I hadn’t discussed the costume eyes with anyone, but I had decided this point a long time ago, when I had seen Lily in her Wall Flower uniform.  She had a black mask, and she added about a pound of black mascara and eyecrayon to blend in with the mask.  I was totally not interested in having to apply makeup just to wear my uniform.

The body of the suit had dark gray arms and legs, with a nice gradation in the color.  The light gray torso that had black trim.  My white utility belt would go around the light gray waist.  The boundaries between dark gray and light gray were blocked with straight lines, so the torso looked like a polygon.  There was a straight horizontal border across my collarbones, with diagonal borders from there to my underarms so the blocking at the shoulders looked like ‘cap sleeves’, as Mrs. Ryan called it.

I had time to try it on and check the fit.  It was perfect, of course.  It looked great.  If only it didn’t make me look like a hot chick.  Still, I looked at myself in the mirror and I just had to grin.  It came out so well that I decided to wear it in my Combat Final. 

After all that, I had to rush to get back to the shuttle on time, but at least I didn’t have any trouble with the driver on the return trip.

I got back to Whateley just in time for my ‘detention’ at Hawthorne.  Since I was running late and it was a ‘green flag’ day, I jumped out of the bus when it was reasonably close to Hawthorne cottage, rather than waiting until it stopped in central campus.

I said to the driver, “I’ll get off here.  Don’t bother to slow down or anything.”

The bus was only going about twenty-five then, as it curved around on the campus roads.  So I sprinted full-speed toward the back of the bus and went light.

My relative velocity was maybe two or three miles an hour in the direction I was running, since I could sprint a bit faster than the bus was moving at that point.  So, when I went light and my velocity jumped, I flew out the back wall of the bus at only thirty miles an hour or so.  That was extremely manageable.  I just stayed light and flew in a gentle curve all the way over to Hawthorne.  At that speed, I could make some small course changes, so it worked really well.

You know, when flying works, it’s great.  I needed to practice this stuff a lot more.  If I could take a jogging start at, say, eight miles an hour, and then go light to move up to roughly a hundred miles an hour, I could probably make this pretty useful.  The ‘three hundred miles an hour and absolutely no control’ routine just sucked rocks.

The only downside was that Phlegm and Antenna and Slab saw me fly up to the front door.  Because I had been running and I had jumped through the back wall of the shuttle, I had kept my pose so I didn’t have any nasty surprises from the Law of Conservation of Angular Momentum.  So I had been flying with my right arm and left leg extended, but my right leg pulled up so my knee pointed downward.  They gave me major shit for ‘flying like a (Super) girl’.  At least I was wearing pants, so I didn’t give everyone in sight a look at my butt.

Next time, I’m going to start working on my flying posture.  Hank and Billie never have this problem.

Mrs. Cantrel sent me off to Puppet’s room first, and I put on the smallest MOPP suit to clean her floor before I sat with her and helped her work on her American Lit paper.  She was writing an essay on Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, so we spent a lot of time saying “The horror!  The horror!” to each other and laughing like ordinary high schoolers.

After a while, there was a knock at the door, and Mrs. Cantrel looked in on us.  She beamed, “Melissa, it’s good to see you smiling again.  A pretty girl like you needs to smile more.”

Puppet blushed.  Well, I think she blushed.  It was pretty hard to tell when her blood was green, so her cheeks couldn’t do more than get a little more green than usual.  But she curled up her shoulders and ducked her head in that “I’m embarrassed” way, so I figured it was a blush.  She muttered, “Ayla was just helping me with English.”

Mrs. Cantrel said, “I sort of doubt English papers are supposed to be that funny, but I’m glad you two are having fun with it.  Unfortunately, I need to pry Ayla out of here and send her to do some REAL work.”  She turned to me and said, “Would you scoot on over and help Claire some more with her math?  She’s stuck on her homework again.”

“Sure.  I’d be happy to,” I told her.  Then I smiled at Melissa, “I’ll be back tomorrow, so I’ll see you then.  And I’ll probably have some really juicy gossip.”

She grinned with anticipation.

Static Girl was having a miserable time with some of the trigonometric identities, so I never got around to working on her room.  We spent the entire time going over trig homework I’d already done a couple weeks earlier.  Her trouble with algebra was still giving her a lot of difficulty.  Even though she could now do most of the algebra she needed, it was taking her a lot longer than it ought to.

After that, it was time to go to dinner.  I took the tunnel to the cafeteria with a bunch of Thornies.  Then I found Team Kimba.  Of course, they were sitting at the usual table, with something insane going on.  Some things never changed.  That night’s dinner conversation was particularly loud, as Chaka seemed intent on making sure that Peeper and Greasy could hear all about my ripping the dick off of some guy who pissed me off.  I had to wonder what the hell Peeper had done this time.

Once I returned to my room, I changed into a clean, pressed school uniform and cut through the basement to get to the Hawthorne tunnel, instead of hiking along the outside paths.  The weather was pretty crappy, and I wanted to look presentable when I arrived.

There was a pretty good crowd of Golden Kids by the time I got through the atrium and to the reception.  I smiled at several people and moved toward the tables.

That was when I spotted the geisha girls.  Hatamoto had the serving girls dressed like geishas, down to the fancy kimonos and carefully-styled wigs.  That went with the refreshments.  He had hot green tea and a Japanese mineral water for beverages.  At the table, a cook was preparing a variety of piping-hot tempura: I picked out a shrimp, a slice of sweet potato, and a couple green beans.

The waitresses were walking around with trays of sushi too.  I took some unagi.  I noted that there were a couple kinds of vegetarian sushi there for the less adventurous eaters.

I strolled over to where Hatamoto was conferring with his sushi chef, who was apparently a senior I didn’t know.  I waited until he finished complimenting his chef on the presentation.  Then I moved forward slightly and said in Japanese, “I also find your presentation most impressive.  Your hosomaki are very well made, and your futomaki look as good as they taste.

The chef bowed slightly and replied, “Thank you.  It is always a pleasure to prepare food for those who can appreciate it.

Ken introduced me to his sushi chef, who was codenamed Gunkan.  Interesting.  Gunkan was not only a type of sushi, but in Japanese it literally meant ‘warship’.  So, was he a brick?  A blaster of some sort?  A heavy weapons specialist?

We strolled off and let Gunkan get back to work.  Ken said, “Unfortunately, the caterers we used to use do not want to deal with us anymore.  Apparently, Traduce went back to them after the last meeting and screamed at them until they made her leave.  So we will have to make do, until someone can find a new caterer of sufficient quality that we will be happy with their work.”

I sighed, “Why am I not surprised?  I don’t understand how Traduce and her entire family missed out on the basic lessons of working with other people.  I mean, even Tansy Walcutt isn’t this bad with staff…  At least you’ve found a way around the problem.  Very well done, too.  The refreshments are good, and the presentation is outstanding.”

He bowed his head slightly and said in Japanese, “Thank you very much.  A simple compliment from some is worth far more than effusive praise from others.

I grinned and said, “Thanks.  But whoever has the next meeting is going to consider this a hard act to follow.”

He just smiled.

I went and found Tabby, who was chatting with Premiere and Macrobiotic.  I asked Tabby, “Did you hear from Hatamoto?  Traduce cost us our caterer.”

She shrugged uncaringly, “Hey, it’s going to be months before it’s my turn, and someone will find a good caterer before then.”

Premiere groaned, “I should have known.  Unicorn warned me, but Traduce seemed so responsible when we talked to her…”

I said, “Don’t worry about it.  Lots of people talk a good game.  At least you learned the truth about her over something minor, like crappy food at a private soiree.”  I would have been beating myself up about this one too, so I knew just how Premiere felt.

Premiere nodded, “At least Hatamoto found a couple student workers to do set-up and clean-up and break-down.  And I really like what he did for refreshments.”

I said, “He has two students as chefs – the sushi chef is really good, and the other one is just frying tempura – and he has half a dozen students as waitresses.”

Tabby asked, “Are they all really Japanese?”

Just then, a waitress minced over with a tray of vegetarian tempura.

I took a mushroom and a green bean from the tray, and I said, “Domo arrigato.

The geisha looked at me in confusion from behind her white makeup and black wig, and asked in a Midwestern accent, “Uhh, is that Japanese?”

I apologized, “Sorry.  It means ‘thank you very much’.”

“Oh.  Okay.  I don’t know any foreign languages.  I didn’t even do that well in Spanish class.”

Tabby waited until the waitress moved off to another group before she said, “Well, that answered that question.”

I hadn’t really thought that Ken had been able to find six cooperative Japanese girls at Whateley who would play waitress for the evening.  I wasn’t even sure that there were six Japanese girls in school, unless you counted the entire J-Team.  Whateley was still very centered around America and Western Europe.  And I had a nasty suspicion that most Japanese girls who manifested mutant powers got snapped up by the Yama Dojo.

I decided to do the polite thing, and I walked over to see Glitch.  I mean Overload.  He was well through his usual bottle of Krystal, and looking miserable.

I said, “Hi, Ren.  What’s the matter?”

He fussed, “Damn teachers.  Nothin’ I do ‘s ever good enough…  Bet father’s on ‘em, makin’ ‘em do all this shit to me…”

I really doubted that Carson would let anyone, even Ren’s parents, get at her teaching faculty.  And, since some of the teachers were retired supers themselves, I had a feeling that leaning on the Whateley teachers was generally hazardous to your health.

But saying that to Ren wasn’t likely to help anything.  He wanted to gripe.  He didn’t want to have people tell him he was his own worst enemy.  I wished I knew how to help him.  He had to have a counselor.  Maybe his counselor could get him steered into some psychiatric therapy.  And I had to wonder if Whateley had a drug-and-alcohol abuse treatment program.  We had a campus full of supers and Superman wannabe’s, so there were probably people around campus who were also abusing steroids, as well as illegal steroid-like deviser drugs like Androthrust and Boosterin.

I let him gripe for a couple minutes about his parents, and his classes, and his annoying roomie.  Apparently, the roomie was still striking out with the deviser chick.  But the roomie was now trying to get one of the campus groups to rush him, so at least he wasn’t in the room as much.

I had a feeling that the roomie was doing everything in his power to avoid their dorm room as much as was possible, given what Ren had said before.  I suspected that Ren was making the unknown roommate a lot more miserable than said roomie was bugging Ren.  I wasn’t going to say that either.

As I was chatting with Unicorn and a couple other ‘East Coasters’, another waitress brought around a tray of gunkan-maki and futomaki.  I took some well-prepared roe gunkan-maki and one of the thinly-sliced futomaki.

Just as the waitress walked off, Traduce sidled up to our group.  She looked at the sushi on my plate and grated, “I wouldn’t eat that if I were you.  Hatamoto probably used some really cheap fish to keep his expenses down.  You know he’s like that.”

Once Traduce had walked off to say something hateful to another group, Unicorn sneered, “She’s really got her claws out tonight.”

Corrosive just shrugged.  “Doesn’t seem much different than usual to me,” she said unkindly.  “She’s always got her maw open, trying to sink her fangs into someone.”

Unicorn asked, “What’s she saying about me these days?”

Corrosive blithely said, “Oh, same as always.  Stuck-up frigid bitch…  Older brother Biff’s dumb as a post…  Between the two of them they’ll drive the family businesses into the ground…  You know.”

Damn.  Corrosive was really enjoying getting to stick the knife into Brenda.  It sounded as if ‘corrosive’ applied at least as much to her personality as it did to her powers.

Then Corrosive turned to me and smiled nastily, “Oh, and Traduce has been saying such interesting things about you.”

“I’m content to let things like that slide by,” I said.  Not that I thought that would stop her.

Corrosive insisted, “But you ought to know the awful things she’s saying about you.  Really.  Gossip can be so destructive.”

Said the one spreading the gossip and simultaneously blaming someone else.  “That’s really very thoughtful of you, but I’m simply not interested,” I said archly.

She went ahead and said the things, of course.  She couldn’t keep the evil gleam out of her eyes as she spoke.  “Now dear, I just hate to think that you’re unaware of the scurrilous things she’s saying about you.  That the Goodkinds disowned you.  That you’re actually flat broke.  That you killed one of those Yama Dojo ninjas.  That you’re some sort of pervert, running around in girl clothes, even though you’re a boy.  That you like to hang out at Freak House to make yourself feel better about your icky body.  That you get into fights constantly, and you ripped poor Peril’s dick off.”  She took a sanctimonious breath.  “Those sorts of things.”

She was obviously trying to get a rise out of me.  I made sure that she failed.  Now, if she’d said something about Vox, I would have let her have it.  I smiled, “Well, if those sorts of confused rumors are all she’s been saying, then I really don’t need to pay attention.  Besides, I don’t have to get mad.  I can get even.  Actually, I can get far more than even.  Didn’t you hear about Fireball?”

“Everyone heard that nutcase Alexis turned into some sort of demon,” she said airily.

I smiled nastily, “Then surely you heard that I did it.  It’s one of my powers.  I can take good-looking Exemplar types – for example, someone like you – and shred their BIT and turn them into hideous things that no one wants to be around anymore.”

“Oh really,” she said with shock in her eyes.  “How interesting…”  Then she made her excuses and left.

Several people snorted in amusement once Corrosive was gone.

“Nicely done, Phase.”

“Thank you.  I try.”

“Well, it’s just as well, becau-”

Tidewater cut in, “You won’t believe this, but Traduce had the unmitigated gall to tell me that Hatamoto made each of those girls put out before he’d hire them for this.”

I said, “Impressive.  She just told us that he was cheap, and was using unsafe food.”

Tabby walked up and said, “Oh, really?  She told me that Hatamoto was having gay sex with that sushi chef he hired, and I’d probably get AIDS if I ate any of it.”

Macrobiotic walked up just in time to hear that too.  She gasped, “Oh my God, I can’t believe she’d say that!  Although she did try to tell me something sleazy about the waitresses, and I just put her off.”

“Honestly, is she just making stuff up off the top of her pointy little head?”

Premiere strolled up and laughed, “Let me guess.  We’re talking about Traduce.”

Unicorn said, “It could have been about Corrosive.  She was at her worst a few minutes ago.”

Tidewater smirked, “Sometimes it seems as if she needs to live up to her codename in every way.  Whose clique was she corroding apart this time?”

“Just Traduce.. and everyone who still talks to her.”

“Classic,” said Tidewater.  “Just classic.  Traduce was blaming Corrosive for the disaster at the last meeting.  Seems Corrosive gave her a lead on her current secretary.  Since Traduce is blaming the secretary for everything, it had to be an evil plot on Corrosive’s part.  So Corrosive’s out to get her.”

“Oh, Corrosive has evil plots.  They’re just not that complex.  They all involve telling Person A what Person B said about them in such a way that Person A and Person B have a monumental falling-out and never speak to one another again.”

I looked around, and on the far side of the room Traduce was haranguing yet another group, no doubt telling them that Hatamoto was in league with The Kellith, or Hatamoto pissed in the rice before the sushi was made, or something equally stupid.  She didn’t seem to realize that everyone else was walking around telling what lies she had just told them.  In the long run, this was going to hurt her a lot more than the bad food and drinks at the previous meeting.

Premiere looked at Tidewater, who nodded.  So Premiere smiled, “Since Phase and Tabby are both here, I’ll just take this opportunity to announce that Phase will be running the January meeting, and Tabby will be running the February meeting.”  He looked at me and clarified, “That means you’re responsible for the servants and refreshments during the meeting, the Security before and during the meeting, and also the set-up and break-down and cleaning.  Just as we discussed before.”

“I’m good with that,” I said.

Tabby added, “Same here.”  The gleeful look in her eyes told me that she couldn’t wait to surprise her parents with the bills for the February party.  Then she turned to me and grinned, “And no showing me up with something over the top in January, got it?”

I blithely said, “Well, I was planning on asking Bill and Melinda Gates if they’d be willing to serve drinks.  But if you think that’s too much…”

She giggled.

It suddenly dawned on me that I could use this as an intelligence source.  There were Golden Kids who didn’t talk to me, or who didn’t say what they knew in front of me.  But if I talked Vox and Generator and a couple others into playing ‘servant’ and listening in on conversations, I might be able to find out some useful information.  Jade and Jinn would probably enjoy playing ‘French maid’, and Jinn could read emotions while she did it.

On the other hand, Vanessa would probably tell me to go to hell.  But I’d ask anyway.  I knew she could ‘voice’ just about any of the Golden Kids into cooperation.  And maybe she could voice Glitch into putting away the Krystal for an hour or two.

Plus, there were a couple TGs like Delta Spike and Megs who were really enjoying getting to be a girl now, and might really go for the ‘sexy French maid’ look that they couldn’t wear anywhere else.  I’d even spring for the costumes.

I already knew exactly what finger food I wanted André and Peter to prepare, starting with those amazing little diamonds of pâté with the Medjool date puree on top.  I thought I might have a good lead on some decent non-alcoholic ‘champagnes’ too, thanks to Goodkind connections with Charmer’s family business.

But set-up and cleaning staff…  Oh!  I’d bet the J-Team could do set-up and break-down faster than any five baselines could, since Jade could just cast the J-Team into the tables and chairs to set them up or put them away.  She’d probably jump at the money she could earn for one evening’s work doing set-up and waitressing and then break-down.

As I left the meeting that evening, I stopped and chatted with the Security guards.  “Guess what?  I’ll be running the January meeting of the Golden Kids.  So just let me know what Saturdays won’t work for you.  And then tell me how much to pay you for the security work, and how to make the payments.”

They both grinned and said they knew how to get in touch with me.

Sunday, November 19

Sunday morning was one of those mornings that make you glad to be alive.  I woke up to Brass Monkey.  I looked out the window at a gorgeous display of newfallen snow.  That I wouldn’t have to walk through.

I walked into the bathroom just in time to see Fey undress and step into the shower.  Wow.  I was never going to get tired of that.

Then Bugs stepped naked out of her shower because her towel had fallen off its hook.  Wow again.

I zipped through my shower and did my usual drying-off trick, so I was at a mirror before Fey stepped out of her shower naked, summoned up lines of power, and magically dried her hair.  While still starkers.  Extreme wow.

Then I got to watch Bugs shave her legs while I flossed and cleansed my face and everything else I could think of as a stalling tactic.

Plus, I got to see Riptide and Scrambler come in and shower.  All in all, another great morning in Poe.  If it wasn’t for this body that I hated, I’d be stuck in some place like Melville, having to shower with a bunch of ugly guys.

I took the Hawthorne tunnel to the caff, and I found another little bit of heaven.  Chef Marcel had something special for me to try.  A spinach and shellfish omelet.  The spinach was lightly sautéed with onions and leeks, then combined in the omelet with fresh, steamed mussels and just enough coarsely shredded Parmesan cheese.  The omelet itself was lightly seasoned with sea salt, coarsely-ground white pepper, and a subtle hint of tarragon.

As I was enjoying my omelet, along with a small bowl of Chef Peter’s version of ambrosia and a cup of the good coffee, Chaka noticed.

“Hey Ayles, you’re enjoyin’ your food too much.  Again.  Did your personal chefs whip you up somethin’ again?”

I decided to dampen her enthusiasm.  “Oh yeah.  It’s spinach.”

“Ick,” she complained.

“And mussels.”

“Ooh, gross!” Jade added.

“So, of course, you won’t want any now.”

She thought it over for a few seconds.  “Well, if it tasted like ass, you wouldn’t be over there moanin’ like Vox was givin’ you the sump’m-sump’m.  Gimme a taste.”  She paused and corrected herself.  “I mean: pleeeeeeeeez?”  She even tried the Big Sad Puppy Dog Eyes, but she couldn’t be sad enough to make it really work.

I still gave her a bite from the center, where it would be piping hot and fragrant.

“Mmm-mmm-mmm-mmm-mmm!  That can’t be spinach and mussels!  That’s way too good for spinach!”

“And mussels,” Jade added helpfully.

“Yeah.  Da-yum, Ayla!  This’s way too sick to be spinach and mussels.”

You know, sometimes the only way I know what Chaka is saying is from her tone of voice.

She turned to Fey.  “Hey Nik.  I vote we keep Phase on our team when we graduate.  On the condition she brings her chefs with her too.”

Tennyo chipped in, “I gotta admit, those sandwiches when we went to Boston?  The best breakfast ever.  My mom’ll kill me if she ever hears this, but those Irish breakfast sandwiches are WAY better than mom’s egg-and-bacon sandwiches.”

Hank added, “Ayla’s got the logistics end down cold.  An army travels on its stomach.  And a superhero team would too.  ‘Specially if it’s got a couple big eaters, like we do.”

Chaka finished her bites of omelet and asked, “Hey Ayla, do we get our own super-jet and submarine and everything?”

“Oh, sure,” I said, “I was thinking about asking Jericho to build a small jet.  Of course, it’d be painted some color combination that would make you puke before you got onboard…”

From there, the conversation went crazy, as everybody started speculating on Jericho’s color choices for a ten-person jet.

After breakfast, I went to the library and spent a productive morning reading for my World Lit class.  Because of the Thanksgiving Day holiday, we weren’t having a class this coming Saturday.  But we had optional reading for the week, which Professor Zinn had assigned back in September.  So I spent the morning reading through most of the ‘optional reading’ list.  I read the French Song of Roland and the Spanish Song of the Cid.  Pendragon and Silver Serpent and Majestic had already checked out the three copies of Dante’s Divine Comedy, but I’d read it in junior high school at Chilton.  Stunner was sitting in a chair reading Tasso’s Gerusaleme Liberta, so I waited a little while until she finished, and I traded Song of the Cid for her copy.  The copy of Camões’s Lusiads was checked out too, but it was on two-day loan, so I figured it would be back soon.

None of those epics were allowed for our final research papers, but that wasn’t a problem for me.  I’d already decided on Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.  I’d already read the book, and written most of the paper as well.

After lunch, Mal caught me and said, “I talked to Jobe.  If you want to meet with him, now’s the time.  I’ll take you down to the secure bio-labs, and you can talk to him before he buries himself in more work.”

“Sounds good,” I told him.  “Let’s go.”

It didn’t even occur to me until much later, but I could have been walking into a really nasty trap.  It wasn’t.  But it could have been.  I was just naively assuming that the person with me was my old pal Mal, and not Techno-Devil the son of the dreaded Dr. Diabolik.

Mal led me down through the tangle of tunnels that represented Deviser-Land.  Man, I’d seen bowls of spaghetti that weren’t this labyrinthine.

Finally, we came to a lab entrance with a nerd pacing back and forth in front of it.  A short, skinny little geek with a face like a weasel – assuming, of course, that you didn’t mind insulting every weasel in North America.  A dweeb in almost-fitting Banana Republic clothes.  Plus the standard Whateley labcoat, decked out with ten pounds of assorted gadgets and doohickeys.

Jobe Wilkins.

The arrogant little son of a bitch didn’t even have a real codename.  He was just ‘Jobe’ in the Security files.  Of course, he probably didn’t need one.  It wasn’t as if he needed to protect his family.  His father was the supervillain Gizmatic, AKA Joe Wilkins, AKA Emperor Wilkins of Karedonia.  Anyone stupid enough to attack Gizmatic would get exactly what he deserved.  And I had no idea if he even had any other family.  Given the pictures I’d seen of Joe Wilkins, I had to wonder if Jobe wasn’t a clone of dear old dad.

He turned and looked at us.  He smiled, “Malachai, hi!”  And then he recognized me from the Weapons Fair.  “Phase.  The P.C. girl.”

“More or less,” I partially agreed.

“So, did you want to correct my English some more?  Perhaps make sure I stopped saying ‘manhole’ and changed it to, umm, ‘person-outlet’?”

I didn’t care what he did with his own manhole.  But I didn’t say that out loud.  I knew the benefit of not ruining your own negotiations by pissing off your fellow negotiators.  Obviously, Jobe didn’t.  I doubted he’d ever been in a situation where he needed to.  Not when he’d spent his whole life being Crown Prince Jobe of Karedonia.

I told him, “I’m not particularly interested in being P.C.  It tends to clog communications almost as thoroughly as switching to Defense Department terminology.  I just wanted you to leave Generator alone.  She’s my friend.”

“Whatever,” he muttered.  But he was licking his lips and staring at my chest.  “By the way, did I ever tell you that you have a really nice ass?  I like ‘em more rounded myself, but I’ve seen a lot worse.”

He probably expected me to say ‘thank you’ for that.  I could see Mal’s point.  Working closely with this jerk would be nigh impossible.  Fortunately, I didn’t plan to work alongside him in any capacity.

I stared at him, “Which brings me directly to the reason I wanted to talk to you.  I have a bio-deviser project in mind, and I want to know if you could do it.”

“Of course I can, sugar,” he leered.  “I’m the best.  Period.”

“You’re certainly the best bio-deviser under thirty.  But the study I commissioned ranked you at number eleven,” I said.

“Eleven?  That’s an insult!” he flared.

I raised one eyebrow.  “Really?  Are you telling me you’re a better bio-deviser than Doctor Bubonic?”

“Oh,” he backpedaled.  “You didn’t tell me you were including all the now-dead bio-devisers too.”

“You’re sure he’s dead?” I checked.

“Well, if he isn’t he probably wishes he was,” explained Jobe.  “He got away in a sub, but when it was found by…  Umm, well I can’t say who found it, that might violate some confidentiality issues…  The group who found it recognized what it was, and wisely realized that they didn’t have the bioweapon containment facilities needed to open it up safely.  So they sold the sub and contents to the Prionator.  He opened it up and found about a dozen empty sets of clothing.. and roughly the same number of protoplasmic slimes oozing about the floor of the sub.  He’s studying the slimes, but he thinks one or two of those slimes may be Doctor Bubonic.”

Yuck!  I didn’t think I wanted to know how Jobe had this kind of supervillain gossip.  So I wasn’t going to ask.  Particularly when Jobe had this look in his eye that suggested he was dying for me to ask, so he could slap me down.

Instead, I pushed, “All right, my list was supposed to include only living bio-devisers.  So let’s drop the good doctor.  That makes you number ten with a bullet.  Are you as good as Igor Gellmar?”

He actually thought it over.  “Perhaps not at this moment.  But Dr. Gellmar is in his forties.  I’ll be clearly superior to him before I reach thirty.”

I admit it.  I was enjoying this too much.  “How about Dr. Elwin Ferber?”

Jobe actually snorted.  “That quack?  He came up with one good gimmick, and he’s milked it to death in twenty years of work.  Gene transform research is light-years past that now.”

“How about Influenza?”

“Definitely over-rated.  The only difference between him and the cold-war Bulgarian biological weapons programs is that Influenza actually uses the weapons, and has built some decent delivery systems.”

“The Prionator?”

Jobe’s eyes flashed.  “Now there’s a true genius!  Unfortunately, he’s chosen a ridiculously narrow field of research.  But that’s his prerogative.  I’ve corresponded with him about practical uses of prions.  Very insightful.”

“Practical uses of prions?”  Okay, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.  So sue me.

“Naturally.  Why would I be looking into impractical ones?”

Good point there.

He went on, “If it weren’t for protein agglutination problems and prion deterioration syndrome, I would have managed to build a prion-based supercomputer the size of this desk that could be used as a modern quantum computer that was roughly 32 qubits.  And that’s just the start.  Prions have a phenomenal amount to teach us about protein folding, tRNA transcription algorithms, you name it!”  His eyes were getting starry as he got excited about his subject.

Okay, I was willing to admit it.  This kid was good.  Still, I thought I’d press a couple more buttons.

“How about Professor Heinrich Liebler?”

“Nucleotide?  Pah.  The man has delusions of competence.  Over twenty years working for Bayer, and he has what, four or five pharmaceuticals to his credit?  That’s pathetic.”

I was willing to give him that one.  After all, Jobe nearly had that beat, and he was only fourteen.

“Okay, then can you work with BITs?” I asked.  “Plenty of bio-devisers won’t touch ‘em, and there isn’t a respectable wizard anywhere who will.”

He shrugged blithely, “BITs?  That merely adds some sophisticated complications.  Are you looking for a way to manipulate someone’s BIT?”  Suddenly he had that mad-scientist look in his eyes, as if he couldn’t wait to find a way to turn a host of Exemplars into frogs and snakes.

I cleared my throat.  “I’m specifically interested in altering one specific BIT.  My own.”

He looked me up and down.  He wondered aloud, “I don’t suppose your problem is just with the half-and-half thing, is it?  Hmm?  If so, I’m finishing work on what might possibly be the world’s finest woman.  Lose the wiener, and I could make you into a truly fine piece of ass.  Whaddya think?”

He seemed to have no concept that his words might be incredibly offensive.  I insisted, “No thank you.  Back to normal.  That’s all I want.  I won’t say no to a few improvements, provided that they’re MALE improvements.”

“Are you sure about that?” he pushed, much too eagerly.

I glared at him, “Let me put it this way.  Are YOU interested in the ideal woman package?”

“Oh, definitely.  But only from the outside, you know?”

I clenched my teeth.  “I live next to Nikki Reilly.  Sometimes I shower next to Nikki Reilly.  Believe me, I KNOW.”

He shook his head, as if he were having trouble explaining something obvious to me.  “But this package has a lot of advantages you’re not seeing…”

Mal groaned, “Oh Lord, don’t get him started on this again…”

Jobe ignored him.  “Sidhe immortality and eternal beauty.  Regen level five healing.  Superior strength and resistance to temperature extremes.  And a capacity for intimate sensation that’s unbelievable!”

He dragged us into his lab.  I glanced around.  It didn’t look like the typical lab around here.  Everything looked organized and protected.  There were experiments behind sealed glass, and fancy stuff that looked like it was isolating a stack of Petri dishes.

There was also a glass terrarium of what I was afraid were razorspinners.

Jobe clicked on a holographic projector.  A naked black elf appeared in mid-air, surrounded by more DNA helixes and text boxes than I could track.  It was a drow.  Man, was Jobe just a D&D junkie?

Mal groaned again, “I told you not to get him started.”

Jobe began blathering on about the esoteric details of the DNA construction, all the while getting more excited until he was nearly bug-eyed over his dream girl.

I interrupted the drool-fest.  “Jobe?  Not interested.  Got that?  Not.  Definitely not.  So, are you interested in my project?  It would be a hands-off project.  I’d supply blood samples, I’d let you scan me with whatever you needed, then you’d work without any annoying supervision from me.  We’d draw up a rational contract that we’re both happy with, and we’d stick to it.  You’d get all the intellectual properties.”

“Naturally,” he said, while still admiring his imaginary woman.  “But I’m not interested right now.  Check back with me in a couple months, when I have the gene sequencing properly tailored for my drow, and the regenerator stem-spores designed.  I’m sure there will be a huge list of women vying for the chance to be my wife, and while I’m studying the list of applicants, I’ll probably have time to review your little problem.”

The Crown Prince was done dismissing the peons, so I left.  There wasn’t any point in doing anything about his attitude, if I was going to be depending on his skills in a couple months.  Once he cured me, THEN I’d see about pounding some sense into his head.  Or maybe I’d just avoid him altogether.

I walked out of the lab and said to Mal, “Do you think he’ll actually have all this done in a couple months?”

Mal shrugged, “Wouldn’t surprise me if he got it all done over the holidays.  He’s got a hell of a great lab in Karedonia.  Even better than here.  And he doesn’t have the Whateley restrictions on test subjects and such.”

Ugh.  Did that mean what I thought?  Because I so didn’t want to hear about Jobe testing things on humans or disposing of dead bodies or whatever creepy stuff he did back home.

Mal added, “And he won’t have to put up with classes or tests or dorm parents griping about his late hours or any of that crap.  He can get way more done back home.”

After that, I was actively looking forward to detention at Hawthorne.  I took the tunnel to Hawthorne, since I was already down in the tunnels.

As I walked to Hawthorne, I told myself not to get discouraged.  Jobe was an arrogant asshole.  But he was a competent arrogant asshole.  Both he and Knick-Knack might be able to work with me by spring.  I could wait a couple months.  I could focus on other things, and wait until spring.

And maybe, just maybe, one of them could help me.

I tried not to think about all the things that could go wrong with deviser processes.  I tried not to think about Sara’s understanding of the complications of BIT-manipulation.  I tried not to think about Vanessa’s reaction if I stopped being the half-girl half-boy weirdo that she seemed to prefer.

When I got to Hawthorne, I received something else to think about.  I hardly had time to step out of the tunnel before Fubar was in front of me.  He frowned, “I need you to stay right here for a few minutes, Phase.”

“Why?”

“He sighed, “We have a small crisis going on upstairs.  Spoof manifested some monsters, and we’re trying to get them under control before anyone else gets hurt.”

“Anyone ELSE?”  I went right for the stairs up to the first floor.

Suddenly I was floating a foot above the stair step, spinning my wheels like Wiley Coyote just before he realizes he’s run off the edge of the cliff.  Fubar had me in a telekinetic grip.

He insisted, “Please Phase, we can’t let detainees get hurt.”

I fumed, “Look Foob, I’m not really on detention, and I can help up there!  So stop wasting your time on me, and go help up there, and let me help out too!”

A voice that sounded like Slab bellowed from upstairs, “FOOB!  WHERE THE FUCK ARE YOU?!?”

Louis looked worried.  “I gotta go.  Please stay put.”

“No way!”

But he did his vanishing act, and the TK hold on me vanished.  If I hadn’t gone light in a useless effort to escape his TK grip, I would have crashed onto the stairs.

But I had already gone light, so I flew up the stairs.

Into a horror movie.

Oh crap!  No wonder they worried about Spoof!

There were half a dozen huge things coming down the stairs.  Horrific octopoid things with bodies like nine-foot spheres, oozing down the steps on some of their tentacles, while grabbing people with other tentacles.  Slab was fighting off the two that had made it the farthest down the stairs, but one of them had two tentacles as thick as Slab’s leg wrapped around him, pinning one of his arms down while he grappled with another tentacle using his free arm.  Chaka had told me that Slab was supposed to be able to soak up a lot of kinetic force, but just being wrapped up like that wasn’t supplying him with the kinetic impacts he needed to do whatever he could do.

Some of the other things had other kids.  One had Ricou all wrapped up in a tentacle, and Ricou’s breather mask was smashed, with water dripping out and Ricou gasping for oxygen.  Another had someone who looked like a movie scream queen, except that she was melting as she struggled.  Oh crap, it was Jello.

Fubar was obviously hard at work, because the front two octopoids were struggling to push forward against a powerful invisible barrier that was keeping them from moving onto the main floor.  Unfortunately for Slab, he was on the wrong side of that barrier.

Every time one of the things got a tentacle around the left side of Fubar’s barrier, Antenna zapped it with a few gazillion volts and burned the extended part off.  Every time one of the things got a tentacle around the right-hand side of the barrier, Mrs. Cantrel shot some sort of laser beam out of the front of her not-a-wheelchair and burned a hole in it.  Or else Compiler fired off a small cannon-shaped thing she was cradling in one arm, and a beam of red energy shot out to burn a chunk of tentacle.

Those things were terrifying.  And hideous.  But everyone here needed my help.  I had to do something!

Whatever those things were, they seemed to be ordinary matter.  Not magical hobgoblins.  And I had something I could do to ordinary matter.  All I had to do was get around the Foob’s TK barrier.

I was still light, so I went straight up.  I came out in the second floor hallway, where Frostbite had an ice wall up screening off the last of the things.  She had Phlegm and a couple other kids behind the ice wall.  One of the kids was down with a nasty bruise across his face.  It was Spoof.  That meant that Spoof couldn’t make the things go away, and he couldn’t control them.  And if he had to wake up to make the things vanish, we were in trouble.

“Phase!  Look out!”  Frostbite screeched a warning from the other side of the ice wall, just about the time one of the things tried to wrap a tentacle around me.  The tentacle went through me, and I went heavy.  It hurt as I disintegrated the length of slimy tentacle that had passed through me, but it wasn’t too painful.  On the other hand, the octopoid shrieked in pain and jerked its stump back.  Since I was heavy, I dropped to the floor with a resounding thud.

I decided to give Slab some energy.  “Hey Slab!  Incoming!”

I jumped over the railing and landed on the tentacles holding Slab.  That ripped one of them in half.  I hit Slab as hard as I could in the chest, telling him, “Hope this helps!”

Another couple tentacles went for me, so I went disruption-light and leapt away from the TK barrier, right through a couple of the things.  That put me through the stairway wall, and into someone’s room.  I went straight up, into another room, and then back into the stairwell.

That put me above the things I’d jumped through, and level with the octopoids at the top of the stairwell.  The two octopoids I had jumped through looked like they were melting into goo.  I was still disruption-light, so every tentacle that lashed at me got the same treatment.

Slab yelled up at me, “Thanks!  Can you hit me again?”

He was standing on the stairs now.  He was having a much easier time with the tentacle in his hand, and there seemed to be a thick PK field all around him.  The tentacles that were trying to ensnare him couldn’t get within a couple inches of his body.

I flew disruption-light down through another octopoid, making it shriek as I went.  Then I went heavy and punched Slab as hard as I could in a one-two-three-four combination of flying fists.  His field just got stronger.  And thicker.  And colder too.  I could feel it even when I was heavy.  Man, I was glad I didn’t have to fight this guy in aikido class.  With every punch, his field grew.

While I was heavy and punching, a tentacle wrapped around my waist.  Dang, those things were strong!  I waited until I was done with my combination, and I went light again.  The tentacle fell through me and hit the stairs with an icky plop.

“Thanks.  I needed that,” Slab said.  And he demonstrated that he wasn’t kidding.  That tentacle he’d been grappling with?  He ripped it right off the octopoid and used it to smash the thing beside it.

The third octopoid was turning to goo also, so I went disruption-light and flew through another monster that wasn’t holding anyone.

Then Slab grabbed Ricou and tore away the tentacles wrapping him up.  Slab looked up at me and yelled, “Can you fly him outta here?”

“No way!”

“What I figured.”  He punched that octopoid so hard that it bounced off the back staircase wall.  I flew disruption-light through it and fried it.

Slab and I did the same routine on the remaining octopoids.  He’d rip the student free first, then I’d phase through the monster and melt it.  It took us no time before the stairwell was just a couple hundred gallons of greenish goo oozing down the steps.  I was glad I could fly over that instead of wading through it.

We spent the next few minutes carrying injured kids to the lobby area for the EMTs.  Spoof had a concussion.  Ricou was bruised, and nearly in oxygen starvation.  Jello was just scared and confused.  One kid had a couple cracked ribs, and another had bruises purpling up all around his torso.

While Slab and Fubar and I transported injured kids, Fubar and Mrs. Cantrel chewed me out for going into a dangerous situation without backup and without enough information.

“You had no idea what you were getting into!”

“Of course I did,” I insisted.  “Fey told me Spoof’s stuff is manifested matter, and not magical.  If I hadn’t been able to phase through it, I would’ve gotten out of there.”

“This was the worst incident with Spoof we’ve had since September!  You could’ve been hurt!  You could’ve endangered other students!”

Oh man, I didn’t want to know what had happened in September, if that was worse than this one.

“I told you to stay downstairs!”

“Look Foob, you were wrong.  This time.  You wasted time trying to keep me out of the battle when you were needed up here.  And I had an ability that was potentially useful, so you should have given me the sitch and let me get to work.”

Exasperated, Mrs. Cantrel snapped, “And I thought Chaka was going to be the biggest problem we had in your group!”

I tried again.  “Look, I could see Ricou.  He was dying.  I could see what was happening, and I could see what I needed to do.  I didn’t go in half-cocked.  I made a plan first.  I knew what Fey had told me about Spoof’s creations, and I knew what Chaka had told me about Slab.  You didn’t have Kali or Gotterdammerung, so you needed to settle for what I could do.”

“Phase, you’re not Lady Astarte, you know!  You should have followed orders.”

I insisted, “Look, they’re my friends!  I’m not going to stand around and let them get killed just because someone’s worried about me, or because I’m scared!”

Mrs. Cantrel suddenly stopped and stared at me.  “Phase, do you realize what you just said?”

I thought back.  “Yeah, I do.  And I meant it.”

She just stared at Louis.  Louis slowly faded, which probably meant that he was doing a lot of psychic communicating with Mrs. C.

Finally, she said, “I think we’ll drop this for now.  You did a brave thing, and it worked out well.  Even if you weren’t supposed to.  So I’m going to have to talk to Mrs. Carson this evening-”

“Oh God.”

“-and we’ll change the cottage protocols for handling Spoof’s manifestations to include you.”

I told her, “Then you should change the cottage protocols to include ALL of Team Kimba.”

She frowned, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.  I can certainly see Lancer and Fey, but I think Tennyo might be a little more collateral damage than this old woman can bear.”

I groaned, and defended my teammate.  “Oh, come on.  Billie’s got a bad rap because of a couple things that weren’t even her fault.  And her control’s gotten WAY better over the last couple months.”

Fubar said, “Even if we allow Tennyo, I don’t think it would be a good idea to put Chaka and Generator and Bladedancer on that list.”

I told him, “Okay, I can see Generator.  Shroud could tangle with those monsters without any risk of getting hurt, but not Jade.  But Chaka’s been using her Ki techniques to bust up Spoof’s creations for weeks now.  And Bladedancer’s got a sword that can cut through anything.  I think you’re seriously underestimating them.”

Mrs. Cantrel shook her head ever so slightly.  I caught it out of the corner of my eye.

Fubar said, “I don’t think that everyone on your team wants to play superhero at the drop of a hat.”

I frowned, “Then you need to eavesdrop on them more.  You should have seen them in Boston.  Both times.”  I took a breath.  “And I don’t see it as playing superhero.  I don’t want to be one of the spandex set.  I just…”  I had to think about it for a second.  “...I need to help people.  It’s my upbringing.  Goodkinds are raised to think about how their actions affect others.  We’re raised to.. well.. if we were royalty, it would be called noblesse oblige.  We run a large portion of the planet, and we know that people depend on us.  We have an obligation to help those people.  Just because it’s inconvenient, or difficult, or something we’d rather avoid, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.  I can’t look at something like those monsters and just say ‘oh let someone else get it’.  That’s not how I was raised.”

Louis smiled, “With great power comes great responsibility?  That sounds like a superhero credo to me, Phase.”

I sighed, “I’m not Peter Parker.  Let’s re-phrase that as: ‘with great economic power comes great social responsibility’.  Better?”

He was still smirking.

Mrs. Cantrel sighed, “Just git on up to Melissa’s, and try not to get into any more trouble for a while.”

“Yes ma’am.”  And I went.

At least Puppet was glad to see me.  I told her all about the meeting of the Golden Kids.  I talked about Hatamoto’s motif, with the geishas and the green tea and the sushi.  I told her all about the things that had happened, and who had said what about whom.  I made sure to point out how big a bitch Traduce had been about Hatamoto running a successful soiree, and how nasty Corrosive was being.  I even told her that I was going to be running the meeting in January.

She moaned wistfully, “God, I wish I could go to that.”

“Me too,” I said.  “Maybe we can talk to Mrs. Cantrel about letting you out for that?  It’s only a couple hours…”

She winced, “I wish.  But I can’t.  It’d be like taking a bottle of nitroglycerin to a rock concert.  It might be fine at first, but you know, sooner or later…  Boom!”

“You’re not a bottle of explosives.”

She pouted, “No.  I’m worse.  I’m a leaky drum of poison gas.  Everyone who comes in to see me is in danger.  Except that Sara character that everyone says is a demon.”

“Half-demon,” I corrected.

“You’re yanking my chain!” she gasped.

“No, really,” I explained.  “Genetically, I guess she’s all demon.  But her dad is a real demon named Gothmog who’s a child of one of the Great Old Ones.  On her mom’s side of the family, it’s supposed to be even freakier.”

“Oh, come on.  Now I know you’re kidding.”

I shook my head, “No, it’s a really icky family tree.  I think her closest living relative is The Necromancer.  The Necromancer!  Her mom died as she was mutating into a huge fish-thing that has something gruesome to do with the Deep Ones and Cthulhu.  I don’t want to know any more than that, unless I have to.”

Okay, that last bit was a lie.  I was dying to know more, but I didn’t feel like I knew Sara well enough to pry more, and I was kind of worried that at some point the knowledge I accrued would literally drive me insane.

She smiled a little, “Kinda makes our family problems look pretty minor, doesn’t it?”

“Oh yeah.”  I winced, “Compared to her family, our family’s The Donna Reed Show, or one of those other old black and white sitcoms Uncle Theo likes.”

I came downstairs and saw that the staircase was now pristine.  It was just sparkling and immaculate.  What, did Mister Clean do housecalls?

Antenna saw me staring at the steps, so he walked over.  “Hey there, Ayla.  The stairs?  Mrs. Cantrel got Plasmoid and Jimmy T to slurp it all up.”

Slurp it up?”

He nodded wickedly.

Oh God.  The mental image was making me lose my appetite.  For the next week.

He grinned evilly, “Yeah, if you ever get mold and mildew problems in your shower, just get Jimmy to shower in there for a couple minutes.  Just don’t watch, unless you want to lose your lunch.”

Mrs. Cantrel flew over and sternly said to me, “Phase, the Headmistress is expecting you in her office.  Now.”

Antenna looked at her and said, “That stinks!  She saved our butts!”

Mrs. Cantrel just gave him The Look.  “Bri-an!”

I sighed, “Yes, ma’am.”  I headed down the steps, since the tunnels would probably be slightly faster than the surface paths.

I took the elevator up to Admin instead of floating up through the floors.  I figured that a little warning would be a polite gesture.  I could hear the strains of Puccini lilting from Carson’s office, so I called out, “Mrs. Carson?  It’s Phase!”

She opened her office door and said, “Come in.”  Then she walked back into her office and the music stopped.

I tried making small talk.  “You didn’t have to turn off the music.  I like Tosca.  It’s not my favorite Puccini opera, but…”

She stopped me with a raised hand.  She gave me an I-know-this-ruse smile and said, “Unfortunately, we’re not here to discuss tastes in opera.  We’re here because you seem to be unable to stay out of trouble, in one way or another.”

I kept quiet.  She seemed to think I’d just incriminate myself if she gave me an opening.

She finally continued, “Louis gave me a fairly detailed report.  He seemed to think that your arguments were cogent and relevant.  But this is not a school for superheroes, and it is not a place to risk your life unnecessarily.”

“I understand that.  I even grasp the concept that teenagers are not immortal.. Carmilla notwithstanding.”

She didn’t smile.  Well, I hadn’t really expected her to.  She was too good at this sort of thing.

I pressed on, “Louis told me to stay out of it, and I didn’t.  But I have defense abilities that most students don’t, and I have escape abilities that most students don’t.  Once I saw the situation, I realized that I could help in ways that they couldn’t.  I knew I could get hurt.  But Fey told me that Spoof’s manifestations are ordinary manifested matter, not hobgoblins or magically-created creatures.  And I trust Fey’s expertise in areas like this.  So I knew I could help.  And I could see that Ricou needed help.”

She glared, “Let me press upon you the need to learn control and restraint.  We live in a world of baselines, where we are outnumbered so severely that even someone like your friend Tennyo could be overwhelmed by sheer numbers.  We need to learn self-control, so that we are not exposed.  So that our loved ones are not exposed.  So that the world can accept that we exist, without having to live in fear of our actions.”

She took a deep breath.  “I believe that I shall have to give you a punishment that will get your attention, since detention at Hawthorne has become too entertaining for you.  I am going to tell the chefs not to give you anything special this week.”

My jaw dropped open.  Now that was definitely hitting below the belt!

And how the heck did she know that the chefs were giving me little treats now and then?

I sighed and said, “You’re the Headmistress.  You make the rules.  I’ll abide by your decision.”  After all, it could have been worse.  She could have made me clean those bio-hazard toilets in Hawthorne all week.  Or clean Musk’s room all week.  Or clean up in the cafeteria for a week.

Or work as Traduce’s personal secretary for a week.  That would probably drive me insane.

I went back to Poe and joined the study group for a while before dinner.  I read well into Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, but I could tell I was going to need some help.  The Chinese ideographs weren’t too bad – even if I knew Silver Serpent could do a much better job of digging out their nuances.  I was good with the Latin and ancient Greek.  But I needed some help on the Italian, and I needed to find someone who could translate the Basque.

I solved that problem by deciding to send out an email to Pendragon, Silver Serpent, Stunner, and a couple other of the better students, offering to swap translations.

When I turned on my computer and logged into the Whateley email server, I found that I was behind the times.  Pendragon had beaten me to it by several hours.

Silver Serpent had already responded with a PDF file of the ideograms in the book, their meanings, and what she saw as their connotations.  She must have had a file already assembled.

Stunner volunteered to translate the Basque.  Hmm, where did she learn Basque?

Pendragon was volunteering to translate either the Greek or the Latin, as needed.  So I sent everyone an email volunteering to handle the Latin if Pendragon took the Greek.

I already had the Latin in the first three sets of cantos already translated, so I got to work.  I sat down at my computer with the book and typed every bit of Latin, followed by the translation, any references that came to mind, and in two cases, a possible cross-language pun that Pound might have had in mind.  Pound was that kind of guy.  I got all the way to the start of the Rock Drill Cantos before the gang dragged me off to dinner.

Chaka waved away my explanation of what I’d been doing.  “No, I don’t wanna know.  English is bad enough.  This sounds like if the Olympics had English Lit as an event.”

Tennyo chipped in, “Yeah, it’s Extreme Lit.”

“The X-Games!  Now with twice as much English!”

I finally threatened, “If you guys don’t knock it off, I’ll do dramatic readings of this stuff during every study group!”

“Hey hey!  You don’t have ta get nasty!”

Dinner was good, too.  Chef Marcel had an awesome dessert treat for me.  Bosc pears poached in white wine, with a dark chocolate ganache.  He murmured in French, “So this will have to hold you for several days.

I sat down with my food, and Fey groaned, “Oh my Lord, not more secret gourmet food!”

So I had to explain that I was getting another punishment.

“For saving a bunch of kids from slimy octopus things?”

“Naughty tentacle monsters!” chipped in Jade.

Chou murmured, “I do not think that anyone at this table would have stayed put and not tried to help.”

Tennyo put it into perspective.  “So your punishment is you just have to eat the same stuff as everyone else for a couple days?  Is that really a punishment?”

“Maybe not,” I admitted.  “It just seems like one to me.”

Lancer pointed out, “Maybe it’s not supposed to be a punishment so much as a tactical maneuver.  She’s letting you know that she knows what’s going on, and that you’re not really getting away with as much as you think you are.”

And that was why Hank was our team strategist.  I nodded, “Good point.”

He lowered his voice, “So what does that mean for your.. you know.”

My ‘intelligence network’ project?  I wasn’t discussing that out here.  But he wasn’t really asking me to.  I said, “I’ll let you know.  Some other time.”

He nodded, letting me know he was good with that.

Meanwhile, that poached pear with ganache was awesome.  But I figured I could survive for a few days without another.

After dinner, I spent almost an hour doing more Latin translations and then sending a file off to Pendragon’s cc: list.  Stunner already had the Basque translations mailed off, but there was a lot less Basque than Latin.  And one of these days, I was going to find out how she knew Basque.

I read more Pound, until Chou slouched in.  She just seemed really down in the dumps.  I knew that Parents’ Day had been a problem for her in more than one way, because we’d talked about it several times at bedtime.  Fitzgibbons was out of the hospital and her sponsors had paid for repairs to the building, but she still felt they had let her down.  Now she wasn’t even getting any sword work, and that really worried her.

I let her talk it out for a while.  The best suggestion I had was for her to go spend more time smooching with Molly. 

Chou finally grinned.  She said, “Guys!  That’s all you think about!”

Toni stepped into the room and grinned, “Hey!  Us girls think about it a lot too!”

Then there was a nervous knock on the doorframe behind Toni.  She gracefully slid to the side and turned so she could see who it was.

Vox was standing in the doorway, looking as nervous as an Enron executive in a courtroom.  She was wearing a lot more makeup than usual.  Plus, she was wearing a clingy cotton minidress and high heels.

Chaka looked her over and said, “Da-yum, Ayla!  That girl got all kind of floss goin’ on!  Git movin’!”

Chou stood up, “Yes, I believe I need to hurry before I am late meeting Molly.”

Toni gave me a lewd wink and said, “Got more homework, so I gotta get goin’ too.”

Vox just looked at them as they left.

I said, “Yeah, they’re always that subtle.”

She ducked her head.  “Maybe I’m not being all that subtle either.”

I smiled and waved her into the room.  “That’s okay.  But I want you to know something.  I don’t need you to get all dolled up like this.  I mean, I love it!  You look hot!  But you look gorgeous every day.”

She sat on Chou’s bed and carefully crossed her legs.  “Sharisha said if I really wanted to apologize, I should dress really hot, so you’d say you forgive me and you wouldn’t yell at me or anything.”

I told her, “I was going to forgive you anyway.  And you ought to know I wasn’t going to yell at you.  You were really upset.  Maybe you need to tell me about your family so I’d understand why, but I’m not going to yell at you or hit you or anything.”

She worried, “I was just so mad!  It was like things were starting up all over again and I couldn’t stop ‘em!  I don’t wanna be making the same mistakes mom made, or Auntie Lucy, but I didn’t know what to do!”

I went over and sat next to her on the bed and hugged her.  Then I told her I was sorry I hadn’t understood about things.  She apologized for getting so upset.  I apologized for not understanding.  Then we had a long, long talk about her father.

It sounded to me as if she and her mother were a lot better off without that big jerk hanging around.  But no one wants to hear that, so I kept my mouth shut on the subject.  Afterward, we lay down in one of my hammocks and did the ‘kiss and make up’ part.

That was definitely going to be my favorite part.

I didn’t tell her that – with any luck at all – by the end of spring term, I wouldn’t be the same intersexed shemale that she liked to cuddle.  I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.

Monday, November 20

I woke up to the sounds of Brass Monkey.  I looked around to see if Chou was in the room, because she really hated it.

No Chou.  She was probably outside practicing Tai Chi or showering afterward.

So I left “Stab My Eyes with Synesthesia” playing while I got out of bed and got going.  I was pretty sure Destiny’s Wave wouldn’t complain to her about it when she got back.

I was in a much better mood, now that Vanessa and I had made up.  And the morning shower routine was always great.  Vanessa gave me a kiss before she stepped into the showers, so I got a fabulous view of her in the buff.  Wow.  Nikki came in looking sleepy, so I ‘politely’ let her cut in front of me.  Getting to watch Nikki take off her peignoir and nightie, then step naked into a shower?  Priceless.  I managed to get into the next shower, clean up and dry off, then be at a vantage spot before Nikki stepped out naked and dried off her hair.  Then I faked working at a sink when Bugs and Riptide came in, so I was able to get in a lot more ogling.

Breakfast was decent, considering that I was exiled from the good stuff for the week.  I got a bowl of Chef Peter’s granola and a flaky, hot croissant.  Those, plus a cup of the good coffee, and I was set for breakfast.  I made do with the regular cafeteria fare at lunch as well, and so I had no trouble getting to aikido class in plenty of time.

Golden Girl was back in class.  She didn’t look all that great, and she seemed to be spending a lot of the before-class time staring at me, psychically trying to maul me.  Too bad she wasn’t psychic.  Ito had her partnered with Charmer during practice, and he had her spar against Gila, so he let her off pretty easy.

That made me think about the way Ito had handled me after some of my injuries, and I had to wonder if I was doing something wrong.  Ito just seemed to be determined to pummel me, while he was apparently coddling her.  Was it me?  Was I the problem around here?  It wasn’t like I could get a straight answer from Ito or Tolman, so there was no way I was going to be able to fix things.

After classes, I went straight over to detention at Hawthorne.  I wasn’t sure how Mrs. Cantrel and Fubar would greet me when I got there.  I mean, I understood that they had rules, and they were trying to protect students, and everything else.  But they had needed my help.  Hell, for a couple minutes they had been pretty close to needing help from half of Team Kimba.

Mrs. Cantrel met me at the front door, and she wasn’t smiling.  Okay, if she called me “Goodchild”, I’d know I was in deep doodoo.  I’d probably get Fubar’s pool, or the biohazard toilets.  Or perhaps the supposedly cannibalistic Jimmy Trauger.

“Phase,” she said flatly.  “Please go upstairs and help Static Girl with her math homework, then go clean Puppet’s floor and see if she wants some help with her homework.”

“Yes ma’am.”  Well, that wasn’t as bad as it could have been.  Still, it was a long way from being called ‘Ayla’ and getting a nice smile.  Crap.

Okay, I wasn’t going to beat myself up about this.  I had done what I thought was right, and I had helped people who needed help.  I hadn’t done it to get a big pat on the back, so I shouldn’t care that I wasn’t getting hugs and kisses.  Not that there were many Thornies I wanted to kiss me.  And I already knew that many times the right thing to do was not the popular thing to do, so I had to expect this sort of reaction now and then.  Still, it would have been nice if I had found a way to help without getting Mrs. Cantrel and Fubar upset with me…

Well, I was going to try not to beat myself up about this.

At least Claire was glad to see me.  We spent most of my detention time working on algebra, so she could do the steps needed to complete her trig homework.  Apparently, she was getting a little help on her geometry from Frosty.  I must be doing pretty well as a tutor if Frostbite was up to helping other people with geometry.

And when we weren’t working on her homework, we were chatting about yesterday’s monsterfest.  Apparently, the slime that the monsters left behind them was wet enough that Frostbite was able to use all that water to build her ice wall.  I’d wondered where she got that much water.  Also, Claire had heard that Spoof slipped on Frosty’s ice and knocked himself out on the ice wall.  The octopoids hadn’t touched him.

Then Mrs. Cantrel sent me over to Puppet’s room.  But someone had already cleaned up the floor.  All I had to do was sit and talk with Melissa about European History.  And the monsterfest.

“So who cleaned up the floor?” I checked.  “I thought that was going to be one of my tasks.”

She smiled a little.  “Ricou came in and did it.  He said there was no way he was letting you get punished for saving him.”  She giggled a little, “Actually, he said ‘for saving my scaly butt’.”

“When I see him I’ll tell him thanks,” I said.

She paused.  “You know Ayla, there aren’t many people who would’ve jumped in to help a bunch of Thornies, like you did.”

I told her, “First off, every single person on my team would have.  Team Kimba’s just like that.  And half of them would have been way more effective than I was.”

“More effective?  I thought you fried those things in a couple seconds!”

“MORE effective,” I insisted.  “Tennyo and Bladedancer could have sliced those things into calamari in a couple seconds.  Lancer could have ripped those things to shreds without breaking a sweat.  Fey could have cast a spell and turned ‘em into lemmings or something; plus she could have healed most of the injured kids on the spot.  Chaka?  God only knows what she would have pulled out of her.. chakras, but I bet she could have used her Ki to shred those squidlets.  Shroud?  Already dead and can’t be hurt, so you know she’d be effective close in.  As for Generator, I have no idea if she has a devise to handle stuff like that.”  Well, I wasn’t going to tell the truth about Jade.

I left detention as early as I could, so I could get back to Poe for the Day of Remembrance ceremony.

When Belle had first told me about the Day of Remembrance, I hadn’t thought that it was relevant to me.  But maybe it was more relevant to me than to anyone else on the floor.  Well, except Jade and Chaka, who had been TG long before they manifested mutant powers.  Okay, I’d better include Jamie in there too.  And Chou.  And what about…

I was over-analyzing again.  This was painfully relevant to me.  I’d been a normal boy.  I hadn’t been transgendered.  But now I had a mostly female body that I hated, and my mutation had MADE me transgendered.  It had changed me into an intersexed freakjob who hated his body as much as Jade hated hers.

On top of that, only Heyoka and I had the ‘intersexed target for gaybashers’ issue with which to deal.  Wasn’t that related to the people who would be remembered on the Day of Remembrance?  We were too much like them: people who just wanted to be left alone to live their own lives, but instead were beaten or murdered just for being different.  Jamie and I had both been put into the hospital by violent thugs who happened to have superpowers too.

Even though I rushed, I was nearly late to the ceremony.  Everyone else already had a black armband and a white candle by the time I dashed into the lobby area.  Zenith and Beltane were getting the rest of Team Kimba and Lily set up, and they were nearly ready to march downstairs.  I hurried to get on an armband and get into the mood.

Someone had spent a lot of time turning the exercise room into a funereal site commemorating far too many dead people.  Shrike and Megs and Delta Spike were already down there with armbands and tapers.  Electrode and Feral were at the opposite wall.

The walls were covered in black fabric.  Way too many pictures of supers decorated the walls, with information attached under each picture.  Every one of them had died because they were TG.

Zenith gave a very moving speech, and then had each of us read aloud about one of the people in the pictures.  A lot of the stories were like a punch in the stomach or a knife in the chest.  It hurt just to hear what had happened to each of them.  Some of the stories were betrayals so tragic that Shakespeare could have written them.  Some of the stories were so horrific that I just wanted to puke.

Zenith handed me a small sheet of paper, and I skimmed it.  It was the story of Transect.

I knew more than was on the paper, because this was one of the ones that Trin & Macintyre had put in their report on how intersexed and hermaphrodite supers had handled their ‘body problem’.  But I wasn’t sure I could tell this story without being physically sick.

I started, “Transect was an Exemplar-5 and Warper-2 who was one of the leaders of the Dallas Defenders.  She was a hermaphrodite, but outwardly looked like a robust woman.  So she had been posing as female since shortly after she manifested her powers.  She trusted her teammates so much that she revealed her secret to them.  But this was in the middle of Texas.  Several teammates rejected her.  One, Longhorn, publicly denounced her.

“Two weeks later, Deathlist and his Sabretooths hit the Fort Worth Military Weapons Depot.  They targeted Dallas then because they felt sure the Dallas Defenders were in utter disarray.  They were unfortunately right.  In the ensuing battle, Transect was left unprotected by a teammate, and was knocked unconscious.  The Sabretooths took her with them when they had the top-secret weapons they had targeted.  Longhorn saw her being kidnapped but didn’t bother to tell the other team members.

“The Sabretooths screwed a devise into the top of her skull so she couldn’t use her Warper abilities.  They hacked her male parts off, then cut off her arms and legs.  But she was a high-level Exemplar, so she didn’t die from that.  They gang-raped her and tortured her for five weeks until she finally died of her injuries.  The next morning, the Dallas police were called to the plaza in front of the courthouse building.  Deathlist had impaled what was left of her body on a flagpole.  He left a note written in her blood.  It said: ‘Thanks Longhorn, I could not have done it without you’.

“Longhorn was tried for accessory to abduction and accessory before the fact on murder one, but got a hung jury and was not re-tried.  The Dallas Defenders split apart and never re-formed, even though Longhorn tried to start a new group.  Because of the demonstrations and picketing by Humanity First! and fundamentalist church groups, Transect was not given a posthumous medal, and was buried in an unmarked grave to prevent people from desecrating the gravesite.”

I just felt sick and shaky and horrified.  When the ceremony ended and everyone else went upstairs, I just took off the armband.. and took off for the Hawthorne tunnel.  I walked until I was completely lost in the tunnel system, which was exactly what I wanted.  I found an empty niche and sat down in it.

Then the shakes really started.

I could die because someone hated that I didn’t fit their simple men-and-women-and-nothing-else worldview.  I could be killed in horrible ways because my body had done something that was completely beyond my control.  I hadn’t asked to be like this!

I sat there on the floor, shaking uncontrollably, weeping like a girl, and trying not to be violently ill.  I couldn’t stop envisioning the hell that Transect had gone through.  The horrible images that played through my mind just wouldn’t stop.  And all the imagined scenes ended the same way, with that poor, mutilated body being rammed down onto a flagpole anus-first with such force that the tip of the flagpole tore through her body and came out her mouth.

I wished I wasn’t being such a wimp about this.  Probably no one else at the ceremony was falling apart like I was.  That was the real reason why I had headed for the tunnels instead of going back to my room.  I couldn’t bear to have Chou and the others see me being such a pathetic crybaby.

But those stories really struck a chord with me.  Maybe it was because I had listened to Father so much as he railed against transsexuals.  Maybe it was because I had been such an asshole to Gracie that first day in Los Angeles.  Maybe it was because I had turned into exactly what Father had complained about so many times.  Maybe it was because I hated my body so much.  Maybe it was because so many other people had shown that they hated me even more, because of something I couldn’t control and didn’t want.

I was afraid that I’d never be able to be a guy again.  I was terrified that my body wasn’t done changing, and I might grow even more female.  I was frightened that some day, some place, someone else would try to destroy me because I was trapped in a body I despised.

Why had this happened to me?  What did I ever do to deserve all this?

I sat there, my arms wrapped around my knees, and sobbed for hours.  I missed dinner.  I didn’t care.  I was so far from hungry that I didn’t think I could eat for years.

I finally made myself get up when it was nearly curfew.  Since I had no idea where I was, I just went light and flew straight up.  When I came up through one of the buildings, I flew through a wall and out into the Quad.  Then I dove into the ground and to the Hawthorne tunnel.  I was back in the basement of Poe in a few minutes.

I didn’t want to see anyone, or have anyone see me.  So I flew up through the first floor and into my room.  Then I went straight to bed without washing my face or brushing my teeth or anything.  I was still shaky and sick to my stomach, but I was so exhausted from crying and worrying that I actually fell asleep…


I was running.  Where was I?  What was going on? 

I was in the halls at Chilton.  I remembered the lockers, and the glass-encased pictures of famous alumni.

I was running, and I was scared.  Why?

I stopped in front of the debate team trophy case.  And I could see myself in the reflective glass of the case.

Oh my God.

I was me again!  I was Trevor!  I was good old Trevor James Goodkind, and I was back at Chilton!

And I was wearing a party dress.  I was standing there in a shiny pink party dress that no girl over the age of eight would be caught dead wearing.  And it had petticoats.  Scads of stiff petticoats, pushing the skirt up and out in a humiliating way.  Below the skirt, I was wearing frilly white tights and Mary Janes.

The crowd came sprinting around the corner.  One of the Carruthers brothers pointed at me with a fireaxe and screamed, “There he is!  Kill that faggot!”  The crowd surged toward me.

I ran.  I ran in terror down the halls.  I struggled to get the stupid dress off, but it wouldn’t budge.  I couldn’t kick off the revolting shoes.

I ran until I turned the corner and crashed into another throng.  My old friends Jonathan and Jacob and Park were leading the group.  They grabbed me and yelled, “Kill the faggot!”

I pleaded, “But I’m not!  I swear!  I don’t know how I-”

And then the axe sliced into my chest…


I gasped for air.  I was lying in my bed at Whateley, panting in terror, and hoping I didn’t wake up Chou.

Oh God.  Oh holy crow.  That had been nasty.  Being me again, but trapped in a little girl’s party dress?  Yuck.

I was coated in a cold sweat.  I floated out of the bed, through the door, and into the bathroom.  Then I splashed cold water on my face until I felt better.  I went light and dropped the water off, then floated back into my room.

It took me a long time to fall back asleep.


Dr. Emil Hammond loomed over me.  “So, now you think you’re a powerful mutant, do you?  Gene filth!  You make me sick!”

I tried to scream, but I couldn’t even feel my mouth.  I tried to get away, but I was shackled to a heavy metal table by massive metallic cuffs that completely dwarfed my arms and legs.

He smirked, “Struggle all you want, gene deviant.  The power suppressors built into the table guarantee that you can’t change density.  So you’re helpless.”

I tried to scream at him again.

“Oh, and don’t waste your time trying to scream.  I excised your larynx.  When the anesthetic wears off, the pain should be excruciating.”

I stared in horror at the malign grin spreading across his face.  I tried to scream.  I really, really tried.

“In the meantime, we’re very interested in your BIT.  Even for a non-normal, you’re strange.  So we’ll be taking more DNA samples, then trying a few things.  First we’ll cut off your penis and study the re-growth.  That may take a couple months.  But you’re not going anywhere, are you?  Heh-heh.  then we’ll cut your breasts off.  One at a time.  Maybe they’ll grow back larger.  That’s our current hypothesis.  If so, we’ll keep cutting them off until they stop enlarging.  That should prove informative.”

“Now the penis first…”

He lifted a gloved hand and picked up a scalpel.

“You don’t mind that I used up the anesthetic already, do you?  I didn’t think so.  If this hurts too much, just holler.  Heh-heh-heh…”

The scalpel descended…


Oh God.  Oh God oh God oh God.

I was lying in my bed again, panting and sweating and frantically checking that my privates were still attached.

I was soaked in cold icky sweat.  I went light, dropped my pajamas off as I flew over my laundry basket, and showered.  Then I went back to bed, telling myself that I was done with nightmares for a while.


I woke up when there was a knock at my door.  I floated out of bed and trudged over to see who it was.

The door burst open, the wood shattering under the impact of a dozen deviser weapons.

Jericho screamed, “There she is!  See?  I told you!  My medical scanner was right!  She’s a guy with a dick, pretending to be a girl!”

Mega-death behind him pointed a fiendish energy rifle at me, shouting, “The great Mega-death will not permit others to make a fool of him!  You will die for that!”

I dove through the wall, as energy beams seared past me.

Tinkertrain and Flashbang were shouting, “She made fun of us, and SHE’S the freak around here!  Fry her!”

The window behind me exploded, and then Jericho was shouting, “There she goes!  Get her!”

I went heavy and dropped to the ground, as two plasma spheres shot over head and exploded, taking several innocent trees with them.

“Flash, you missed!”

“I know, stupid!”

A loud ‘poomp’ sound from my left alerted me to more threats.  Something landed beside me and exploded.  I ran, as more of the things rained around me and went off like small grenades.

“There she goes!  Get her!”

I ran.  I didn’t know where I was going, but I ran.

A giant robot stomped, narrowly missing me with a foot that had to be twenty feet long.

“Dammit Harry, pay more attention!”

“I’m trying!  She’s fast!”

I looked up, and I could see the robot was made of six sections, with a deviser operating each one from a clear control bubble embedded in the part.  Harry Wolfe and Gadget were operating the legs.  Knick-Knack was operating the torso.  Dynamaxx was operating the head.  Rack and She-Bot were operating the arms.

The other giant foot smashed down on me…


Crap.  I was lying in bed, breathing hard and trying not to wake up Chou.  Weren’t these nightmares going to stop?  I lay still and tried not to cry.


“Ayla?  Ayla?”  Chou’s voice echoed in my ears, even as her hand gently touched my shoulder.

“Whuh?”

“It is Chou.  I heard you crying.  Are you all right?”

I opened my eyes and saw her standing there, looking worried.  I managed, “Uhh, yeah, I’m okay.  I guess.  Just a nightmare.”

She sighed, “The Tao told me this.  And it told me why you are having these nightmares.  With help from the Tao, Jamie will be able to shift back into a fully female form.  But there is no hope for you.”

“What?”

She pushed on, “The Tao has revealed that your very nature – your half-boy half-girl form – will soon expose the secret of Poe cottage.  That will lead to a fight between Poe cottage and most of the rest of the school.  If I refrain from taking this step now, hundreds will die, and all of Whateley will be destroyed.  I am sorry, but I must act.”

“What?  Wait a minute!  What the hell are you talking about?”

She pursed her lips.  “Ayla, I care very much about you.  But I care about the Tao even more.  I am the Handmaid.  I must act, or all will be lost.”

“No!  You can’t!  You-”

Her sword flashed in the moonlight as it sliced me in half.


Crap.  I was lying in bed, gasping in terror, and REALLY trying hard not to wake up Chou.

It was just a stupid nightmare.  Chou would never do a thing like that.

Would she?

I mean, she was the Handmaid of Balance.  Not the Handmaid of Sweetness and Light.  Not the Handmaid of Overly-Wholesome Good Guys.  And what I knew about the Tao would probably fit on the head of a pin, and still leave room for a couple hundred angels to have a mosh pit for slam-dancing.

But she wouldn’t kill any good guys, would she?

Destiny’s Wave was a sword.  It wasn’t a set of scales, or a water jug.  It was a magical sword that could probably cut me in half whether I was heavy or light or neither.

It was from an era when life was under-valued and people died all the time.  It was from a violent era when violent people needed to be killed.

If it was going to be my life, against most of Whateley, would I even want to live?

Sometimes it would be easier to be a super-villain and not have to worry about stuff like that.


“Ayla!  Front door!  It’s for you!” Amy called cheerfully as she walked back to the kitchen.

I brushed my hands off on my apron so I didn’t get flour on my new dress.  I checked myself in the mirror to make sure my makeup was perfect and my hairstyle looked just right under my toque.  My pearls looked lovely about my collarbone, just above the jewel neckline of the dress.  I hoped my nylons were straight, but I didn’t have time to check the seams.  I minced on my three-inch heels to the front door.

I opened the door.  “Yes?” I smiled.

A seven-foot-tall armored threat loomed over me.  The man inside the power armor was invisible behind the threatening metal face.  The suit crackled with power as the forcefields flared all over it and the energy weapons at its shoulders tracked onto my chest.

It was the El Monte Knight.

“Perversions of nature like you cannot be allowed to live!  You fucking faggot, you make everyone sick!”

The energy cannons punched holes through my chest as I shrieked…


Holy crow.  Where had THAT nightmare come from?  And why did I look like Donna Reed in it?  I was definitely not watching Nick At Night anymore.

I didn’t know which bothered me more.  Getting blown to pieces by that bigoted Iron Man rip-off, or turning into a 1950’s housewife.

I went to the bathroom, washed my face – again – and went back to bed.

Even if I wasn’t sure that was a good idea.


I opened my eyes.

Deathlist held me by the hair flowing down over my shoulders.  He grinned fiendishly, “Welcome to my little home away from home.  Our devisers have already attached a devise to you brainstem so you can’t use your Warper powers.  And that’s really a shame.  Because we’re going to hack off your privates.  And then your arms.  And then your legs.  It’s a good thing you’re an Exemplar, or that might kill you.  Then I’m going to give you to my children as a special present…”  He waved his arm at the crowd of feral Sabretooths leering at my naked body…


Oh God!  Oh God oh God oh God…

I sat in bed hyperventilating as I tried to stop thinking about Transect’s last days.

I figured I wasn’t screaming when I had these nightmares, because Chou was still asleep.

Lucky girl.

I wasn’t sure I could take another nightmare like that one.  I got up and read a book of literary criticism I had checked out of the library.  I worked my way through half the book before I finally hit one paper that was so boring and stupid that I was falling asleep while trying to figure out if the author had any rational point at all that he was trying to make.  I went back to bed.


I was in the dojo.  But I was standing there in the middle of the mat and I was stark naked!  My boobs were sticking out up top, and my wiener was sticking out down below.  How had I gotten here with no clothes?

Oh wait, I was dreaming.

Then Golden Girl walked in with a couple of her little friends and two Alphas I knew.  Hamper and Damper.  I had to get out of there!

I tried to go heavy so I could do my jump-and-go-light trick.  I couldn’t go heavy!  I turned to run, and suddenly I was too dazed to know where to go.  I fell to my knees.

Golden Girl was suddenly covered in that golden glow as she revved up her powers.  She grinned evilly as she kicked me as hard as she could in my crotch…


Crap.  That sure woke me up.

I was definitely going to have to recognize that I was having nightmares, if I wanted to get out of them before I woke up in another panic.

Not that Golden Girl wanting to kick my nuts off was anything other than painful reality.


I looked out my bedroom window and saw a powder-blue dropship landing in the dawn light.  And then I was outside, walking to greet them.  The Knights of Purity were always good to see.  It was great to know that Uncle Herb had created such a potent force on the side of Right.

I walked toward the teams, knowing that I could help them.

Suddenly, three of the fireteams wheeled and targeted me.

I held my hands up, palms outward.  “Hey, it’s okay!  I’m Phase!  I came out to help!”

A bullhorn blared, “Self-identified as Phase.  Fireteams Able and Baker, bracket threat.  Fireteams Charlie and Delta, backup positions.”

“Wait!  I’m not a threat!”

The bullhorn blared again.  “Whateley Admin has ID’ed this student as a known pervert.  Just look at him!”

Someone shouted at me, “Pervert!”

Suddenly I realized that I wasn’t wearing any pants.  My dick was hanging for the whole world to see.

“Faggot!”

“Freak!”

“Get ‘im!”

They opened fire on me, and I ran.  Heavy weapons punched into my back.  Energy weapons seared my skin.  Something whistled through the air and landed right in front of me, exploding like a plasma sphere, tearing me apart…


I woke up hyperventilating.  Again.  Man, weren’t these nightmares going to stop?

Tuesday, November 21

I woke up gasping in fear, yet again.

Oh God.  That time it was me being chased through downtown New York City by hundreds of angry gay-bashers armed with torches and pitchforks.

There was just something wrong about New York executives in Brooks Brothers suits and Gen-Xers with soul patches, chasing you with torches and pitchforks.

I took a few deep breaths and calmed down enough to go to the bathroom.

“KILL THE SUPERMODEL!  KILL THE-”

“GAH!”  I slammed the snooze button on the alarm before Brass Monkey scared me any further.

I turned off the alarm and trudged to the bathroom.  Unfortunately, I needed coffee a lot more than I needed to stare at half-naked hotties.  Fortunately, no one seemed to notice how exhausted and shaky I was.

Well, probably not.

Okay, a couple people probably did notice.  When I accidentally knocked my bottle of facial cleansing solution off the bathroom sink, Chaka caught it on one foot before it smashed on the tile floor.

She balanced it on her instep before casually flipping it up into her right hand.  She handed it to me and asked, “A little careless this morning?”

I muttered, “I’m okay.”  Even if I wasn’t.  “Didn’t get enough sleep last night.”

She shook her head, “You work too hard.  Ya gotta get out and have some fun!”

I took her advice.  Sort of.  I needed to do something.  I went to my room and called Dr. Bellows to get an appointment.  He managed to squeeze me in that afternoon.

Man, I have got to figure out some way to thank him for everything he’s done for me this term.

I went to breakfast, but I still wasn’t hungry.  My stomach didn’t want food anywhere near it.  Since I hadn’t eaten since the previous lunch, that was a bad sign.  I didn’t want to sink back into that cesspool of depression I’d visited not that long ago.  That was scary.  If I hadn’t had some really good friends and a really thoughtful girlfriend and a couple really good therapists, I could have ended up in the hospital.  Or in a sanitarium.

I made myself eat two croissants.  They were warm and flaky and buttery, but they still felt like lead weights in my stomach.  I drank enough coffee to stay awake through morning classes.  Actually, I didn’t feel all that sleepy.  Just physically exhausted.  The caffeine would probably make my shakiness worse, but at least it would be a wide-awake shakiness.

Then I got to Costume Class and found a new problem.

Mrs. Ryan had heard from Cecilia Rogers.  She had video footage from Cecilia of me trying on the costume in Cecilia’s shop, and she wanted my permission to show it to the class.

The problem was that she was standing in front of the class, sweetly talking at a volume that would carry throughout the room, and I was sitting next to Jinn.  So the entire room got to hear this conversation.  That pretty much guaranteed that I’d have to say ‘yes’ to her.

If I’d still believed that she was a misplaced octogenarian library lady, I would have put this down to cluelessness.  But I no longer saw her as a harmless, fluffy old lady.  I’d seen her deal with Superior.  Superheroes who could bench press a truck hadn’t gotten him to shape up, but she had.  So I was putting this down to a devious plan.  She was going to force me to say ‘yes’ by doing this in front of the whole class.

“So would it be all right if I showed this?”

“Yes ma’am,” I reluctantly agreed.  “It’ll probably be embarrassing, but go ahead.”

She flipped a toggle, and the image on her computer screen appeared on the large screen at the front of the room.

Oh God.  I just wanted to bury my face in my hands.  But I didn’t.  I put on my ‘there is nothing wrong here’ face and sat there like I wasn’t utterly humiliated.  Jinn had to know what I was feeling, because she reached over and patted me on the shoulder.

I also knew she couldn’t see the image on the screen, so I’d probably have to show the footage to Jade at some point.  Which would mean that I’d have all of Team Kimba giving me shit about my costume too.  I could hardly wait.

The image was me, in the full bodysuit, with the boots already on.  I was walking out of the changing room and tugging on the black gloves.  And I was smiling as I chatted with Cecilia about how well it fit.  The CCTV didn’t have sound, so you had to guess what I was saying.  I was sure that most of the room was making up their own uncomplimentary phrases.

Oh God, I was looking at the costume in the mirrors.  I looked like a girl in that thing.  I looked like a really hot girl.  The kinetic-gel body armor in the breast covers made me look like I had bigger boobs.  The tight material made me look like I had a ridiculously small waist.  My small waist – and maybe the cup-concealing contours Cecilia had designed – made my butt look particularly curvy and rounded.

Sometimes I really hate my body.

And that was about when the muttering started.

“Fucking rich-bitch!  She did it again!”

“I told ya she’d pay someone a ton so she could get an easy ‘A’!”

I could hear the people near me, so I could guess what people at the far side of the room were saying.

I didn’t have to guess about some of the people at the far side of the room.  A couple guys let out loud wolf whistles.  Some guy at the back of the room called out, “Great ass, baby!”

Holy crow, I was never going to hear the end of this.  And, as soon as Jinn recombined with the J-Team, Jade would be blabbering about this entire episode to the rest of the team.

Then, in the video footage, I pulled on the headmask and made sure it blended into the neck of the costume.  I had to admit.  It did look good.  It wasn’t one of those “I have an incredible body and I’m going to flaunt it” costumes, like Glorianna and Mega-Girl wore all the time.  But I didn’t really want to show off my revolting form.

After the video finished, Mrs. Ryan added, “Now class, there is no requirement to use the work we do in this class to make a costume for yourself.  Many of you are indeed doing that.  But this will not get you extra credit, as Phase already knows.  Phase, could you come down front and discuss the materials used in your costume?”

Crap.

I walked down to the front and faced the class.  “How many of you know that the best seamstress on the planet has a shop in Dunwich?  Rogers’ Fabric Boutique?”

Four hands went up.  Jinn was one of them.  Oddly enough, another was one of Superior’s cronies.  Uberman punched the guy in the shoulder, and the guy jerked his arm back down.

“I went on, “Most of the people on campus who get their Whateley uniforms tailored go to her.  And most of the people on campus who get uniforms to hide the fact that they don’t look like baselines also go to her.  She’s a mutant, like us, so she isn’t bothered by people who look a little different.  I know Tennyo and Carmilla and Techwolf have all gone to her this term.  But here’s the key point.  Her mutant power is over fabric.”

“Like Agent Paper, but not with paper?”

I nodded, “Yes.  She’s the Magneto of dry goods.  And she has real superhero fabrics in her shop, so she can make a super-suit that’s as good as the pros wear.  Actually, a lot of the real superheroes come to Cecilia to have their costumes made.  The costume she made for me has a Zylor-Insular weave in the outer layer, so it’s bulletproof up to about a .45 caliber handgun, it’s resistant to some kinds of energy attacks, and it’s a lot better at resisting slashing weapons than Kevlar or Duralon.  It’s also stain resistant and acid resistant.  And, since she has a power over fabric, and some really awesome deviser gadgets, she whipped the bodysuit together in under ten minutes.”  Several people whistled or gasped in amazement.  “And she whipped up the headmask including the eyepieces while I was changing into the bodysuit.”  A couple more people made appreciative noises.

“I know, you all think I spent a million bucks on this.  I didn’t.  Most of you can afford to do this too.  It’s more expensive than putting together a costume using one of the default supersuits.  But it’s not a lot more expensive, and her work will hold up a lot better.  If you have a cheap outfit that gets ripped apart a dozen times over the next four years here, your overall costs are going to be much higher than if you went to Cecilia’s once and had it done right.  And if you pay for the high-end materials to start with, she does free repairs.  Lots of people on campus have one of her mailer boxes so you can ship the costume to her for free and get it back, completely repaired, in a couple days.  And if you think I’m not being reasonable, just call her up and talk to her about prices.  She’s in the Dunwich phone book.”

Personally, I thought the Dunwich ‘phone book’ was more of a ‘phone pamphlet’.  The phone book on Mrs. Horton’s desk was actually a phone book for Berlin and all the small towns within fifty miles of Berlin.  With yellow pages for all the towns.  And that phone book was still thinner than my trig textbook.

Mrs. Ryan smiled, “Thank you, dear.  That was well said, and I’m sure Cecilia will appreciate any business this gets her.  And I do hope I didn’t embarrass you in any way.  It really is a very nice-looking costume.”

If I hadn’t seen her handle a room full of snotty super-powered mutants all term just like this, I might have thought she was just as she appeared.  But I had stopped taking her at face value.

I got through the rest of my classes, and rushed over to talk to Dr. Bellows.  I felt a bit better after talking to him about all my insecurities, but there was no getting around the fact that I was outwardly more intersexed than almost anyone else on campus.  Even Heyoka looked distinctly female or distinctly male a lot of the time.

Then I rushed off to Hawthorne.  I was figuring on helping Claire and Frosty and Melissa with homework.

As soon as I walked in the door, Fubar appeared.  Okay, I figured something was up.

Mrs. Cantrel zoomed up and said, “Phase, I want you to…”  She stopped, and she stared at Fubar.  Then she changed direction, “Umm, I want you to go with Louis.  Stay there as long as you want.”

Louis led me down the stairs.  I didn’t have to say anything, of course.  He nodded, “Yes, I spotted your emotional state.  Actually, I picked up on it before you even met with Dr. Bellows.  He didn’t call me or talk to me about you.  He knew that he didn’t need to.”

I started, “Umm, you do know that I’m…”

“That you were a normal, heterosexual boy?  That your mutation turned you into an intersexed person who looks like a hot girl, even though inside you’re still a heterosexual boy?  You sort of broadcast your interest like a ten-megawatt radio station.  You and every other boy on campus.  And most of the girls too, for that matter.”

I tried again, “It’s just that yesterday was the Day of Remembrance…”

“Yes.  I watched the ceremony in Poe.  It was very moving.  It always is.  I was particularly touched when Elaine read the piece about Jan Stilton.  I knew Jan personally.  She was a lovely person who really cared about others and really loved life.  She didn’t deserve to die because she was in love with a prejudiced, thoughtless jerk.  But a lot of TG women die for that very same reason…  Maybe some year they’ll let me participate.”

I pointed out, “Foob, maybe you haven’t noticed, but it’s a ceremony for TGs only.”

He suddenly changed into the image of Jan Stilton in the picture I’d seen.  But he kept his normal voice.  “What makes you think I can’t conform to the rules?”

I said, “We both know you’re not technically TG.  Putting on a costume doesn’t make you into…”  No, I wasn’t going to name that person.

“Into Jade Sinclair?  No, it doesn’t.”

You know, that mind reader routine gets really old some days.

He grinned, “Relax.  You kids in Poe have pretty mild secrets compared to some of the stuff flying around this place.  I’m not going to tell on you.”

We sat down next to his tank, and he waved an arm.  The chessboard and chess pieces flew onto the table and landed in starting position.  I knew he was using his PK to do it, but the handwave bit still looked very stylish.

“Thank you.  I try,” he smirked.

You know, that mi-

“And yes, I know that mind reader routine gets really old some days.”

Rrrgh.

He let me move my king’s pawn forward, and then he said, “So tell me about some of the nightmares you were having.”

And so I spent all of my detention playing chess with the Foob and getting Psi psychotherapy from him.  Not to mention getting clobbered by the best chessplayer in the world, who also happened to be reading my mind every time I plotted any kind of strategy.

Have I ever mentioned that I hate losing?  Even to really, really good players?

That night, as I got into bed, I started sweating about the nightmares that might be waiting for me.  I didn’t think that one day of psychotherapy was likely to solve my problems.  Still, I lay down and practiced deep breathing until I drifted off to sleep…


I woke up to Pink singing “Can’t Take Me Home” and I hopped out of bed.  I grabbed my bathrobe and shower gear, and walked into the bathroom.  It was even more crowded than usual.

I slipped off the bathrobe, and I suddenly realized I had changed.  I stared in horror.

I had boobs!  Those awful little booblets I hated so much had swollen into huge Tennyo-sized hooters that were even worse!  What the hell had happened?

As I stood there, gaping in shock, Toni walked past and teased, “Nice tits, doll!  Ya just gonna stand there showin’ ‘em off?”

“Wh-what happened?” I choked.

“What do you think?” Tennyo said in passing.  “You said it was your BIT.  So you’re still changing.  It’s called puberty.”

“But.. but…”

“Yeah, nice butt there too,” said Vanessa unhelpfully.

Scrambler zipped in front of me and bubbled, “And you have a really cute pussy too, I thought you wouldn’t shave or anything but I really like that, it looks so pretty…”  And then she zipped out of my way.

What?  I looked down between the bulges jutting out of my chest…

Oh God!  My dick was gone!  My dick and balls had vanished!  And now I only had a pussy between my legs!  I stared in terror at the carefully-shaved pussy with the delicate little heart of pubic hair above it.  “No!”

“What’s the matter, Ayla?” asked Nikki.  “You shower in the girls’ bathroom, it’s only fair that you have the right equipment for it.”

“But I don’t want this!  I want to be a guy!”

Toni shrugged, “But you’re not.  Just get used to it.”

Jade skipped happily, “Yeah!  Being a girl is way better than being a yucky old guy, anyway!”

“But.. but I don’t want to look like this!” I gasped.  “I have to be a boy!”

“Oh, don’t worry about it, you’ll get used to it.  I did,” encouraged Nikki.

Billie grinned, “Yeah, in no time you’ll be happy being a girl.”

Nikki said, “I can get Stalwart to find a guy so you can double date with us!”

“No!” I shrieked.  “I don’t like guys!”

“Oh come on,” pushed Toni.  “That’s what I always said, but I love dating Thunderbird.  You’ll probably be chasing after guys right and left.”

“I tell you what, I’ll help,” said Nikki.  She waved her fingers and murmured words that echoed unpleasantly through my head before vanishing from my memory.

And suddenly every single girl in the room – every girl except me – had a dick.  A big, erect, throbbing penis.  Pointing at me.

“Wh-what the hell are you doing?” I yelped.

“What do you think?” she asked.  “We’re going to break you in easy.  It’ll be much easier learning how to take a cock like a porn starlet if you start on us instead of some hair-trigger guy.”

“Me first!” grinned Toni.

“NO!”


Oh God.  I was lying in bed, panting in shock.  I did a frantic check, and my body was the same as always.  Male privates.  A-cup boobs.

Whew.

I took a couple deep, slow breaths and managed to calm down.  It was a while before I managed to fall back to sleep.


“Look, try to keep up here, Phase.  At least don’t lag so far behind.  Do I need to drop down to the kindergarten version of the story?”

It was Jobe.  What was Jobe doing in my room?

He rolled his eyes heavenward, “I swear, you people go out of your way to make my life wretched!  That’s why I’m here now.  To teach you a lesson.”

“Wha?”

He went on, “I don’t like doing this sort of thing, it’s an extra burden when I have so much work I’m trying to get done.  But some people just don’t get it.  So think of this as one of those ‘teachable moments’.  You wouldn’t stop pestering me.  You wanted a trouser snake?  Now you’ve got one!”

That was when I saw the hypodermic needle in his hand.  The front of my bathrobe began writhing.

I yanked open my bathrobe to see my dick lengthening.  It grew, as it turned a bright green.  The smooth skin became scales.  By then it was down past my knees.

“No!”

It began writhing, as it trailed across the floor and the head became a real snake’s head, complete with eyes and a horrible fanged mouth.

“This should make for some interesting times trying to use the urinals.  See you around…”

The snake reared back and hissed at me.

“NOOOOO!”


I grabbed underneath the covers and frantically checked again.

Whew.  Just an ordinary penis.  Man, these nightmares were getting freakier by the minute.

I got up and went pee, keeping a careful eye on my wiener just in case.  I washed my face with cold water and went back to bed.


I was standing in the Crystal Hall.  It was a bright, sunny day.  There was something wrong.

It took me a moment to realize that I was stark naked.  My clothes were lying in a pile on the floor.  I reached down to pick them up before someone noticed.

My hand went right through the clothes.

I went solid and tried again.

Holy crow, I was still light!  I tried going normal, and I tried going heavy.  I tried everything I could think of, but I was stuck in my lightest form.  And I was stark naked, with my boobs and my dick sticking out for everyone to see.  I hastily covered my crotch with both hands.  Then I pulled up one hand and covered my boobs with my forearm.

Suddenly all the Whateley Academy Martial Arts Cheerleaders burst into the room.  They were all armed with laser rifles.  And I was stuck being light.

Patti pointed at me with her rifle, “There she is!  I told you she was a freak!”

“Kill her!

“Get the faggot freak!”

They began shooting laser blasts at me as I sprinted across the room for the outer wall.

Aries zipped into the room, carrying a huge Gizmatic Lightning Launcher™ and shouting, “Fry the queer little freak!”  He shot from the hip and a bolt of lightning exploded against the table next to me.

I shouted, “No!  Please!  It’s not my fault!  I don’t want to be like this!”

Gold Stallion and his buddies charged in.  They were all carrying light sabers.  They were screaming, “Kill that fucking faggot!” as they charged at me.

I ran.

Everywhere I ran, more angry students chased me.  They all had energy weapons, and they were all shooting at me.

Then I was in the Admin building, still naked.  Still light so I couldn’t pick up any clothes or even a blanket or a towel.

Amelia Hartford stepped in front of me.  She was holding a phaser and a tricorder, and she was wearing her usual evil smirk.

“You!” I gasped.  “You’re behind all of this!”

“No,” she enjoyed telling me.  “You’re wrong.  In fact, you’re dead wrong.  I don’t like you or your family.  But I’m not the one behind it all.  I’m not the one who’s going to kill you.”

“That would be me,” said an angry female voice.

I wheeled about to find Lady Astarte floating three feet above the floor and glowing with energy.  She extended her arms, and an energy ball ten feet across flared out to disintegrate me…


Oh God.  “It was just a dream.  It was just a dream…  It was just a fucking nightmare!”

I took deep breaths until I stopped shivering.  Man, was I sick of these stupid nightmares!


I opened my eyes.  Sunlight was pouring in my window.

I was in my room at home.  I was back in my own room, back at the estate.

I hastily looked at my hands, and then felt my chest.

I was me!  I was Trevor!  All that horrible nightmare – that ridiculous scenario of a Goodkind manifesting as a mutant and then becoming a bizarre half-boy half-girl freak – it was all a terrible dream.

I was back to normal.  I mean, I was still normal.  Wow, that had been some dream.  It had felt so real.  But none of it was real.  Not manifesting as a mutant, not being rejected by my family, not being tortured by Dr. Hammond, not finding out that Greg had turned himself into a shemale.  None of it.

I needed to get going.  I had a busy day ahead of me, and then tomorrow right after church, Mother and I would be flying down to my camp.

But first, I was going to make a concerted effort to let everyone know just how much I loved and appreciated them.  Even David and Connie.  David would probably tell me I was going gay or something.  But after that horrible nightmare I’d just endured, I could laugh off a comment like that.

And, once I was back at Chilton in September, I was going to hire a private detective agency to track down Greg once and for all.  I needed to know what had happened to him, even if Father didn’t want to talk about it.  If Greg really had done something to himself, I was pretty sure I could take it in stride now.  It was really weird how that one long, detailed dream had made me feel more mature and more worldly.  Maybe I was finally growing up, at least emotionally.

I clambered out of the bed to go to the bathroom.  It was reassuring to know that the gorgeous Italian tile floor in there hadn’t really been smashed to pieces in a mutant manifestation accident.

I stepped into my slippers.

My foot went through the slipper.

“No.  Oh no no no!  This can’t be happening!”

My feet began sinking into the wood floor.

My pajamas fell through my body.

“No!  Someone help me!”

I sank further into the floor.  I was drifting downward like I was sinking into quicksand or something.  I was up to my shins in the floor.  I had to stop this!

The dream.  In the dream, I became a mutant.  I had this power.  I learned to control it.  I needed to float upward again.  I needed to ‘go normal’ or go heavy’.

I concentrated.  I concentrated hard.  I had to get this under control.  I couldn’t be a mutant.  Mother couldn’t be around me if I were a mutant.  The whole family detested mutants.  If I couldn’t hide this, I would lose everyone.  Again!  I couldn’t bear that!

I sank deeper into the floor.  The highly-polished wood rose higher and higher on my body.  My groin.  My hips.  My navel.  My ribcage.  I concentrated as hard as I could, but I couldn’t make it stop!  I couldn’t get it under control!

“Please make it stop!  Someone!” I whimpered wretchedly.  But I kept sinking through the floor.

The wood rose up past my chin, and I took a deep breath.  I watched in tearful horror as the floor level rose past my eyes and everything went dark.

Then I was drifting through the second-floor projection room.  I was still sinking downward.  I was still naked.  I was still ‘light’.  “Somebody help me,” I gasped.

Violet, one of the upstairs maids, stepped into the room.  When she saw me, she screamed.

I begged, “Get someone.  I need help!  I can’t control it!”

She screamed again and ran from the room.

I sank into the projection room’s carpet.  I couldn’t stop sinking.  I couldn’t stop phasing through everything.  What was I going to do?

I sank through the floor, and suddenly I was passing through the chandelier over the dining room table.

“What the…”

I turned my head to look.  Father was staring up at me in utmost horror.

Everyone was staring at me in horror.  The whole family was gathered around the table for breakfast.  Father and Mother, Paul, Connie, and David.

I cried out, “I turned into a mutant!  I didn’t want to!  And I can’t stop sinking through things!  Help me!  Please!  Father!  Mother!  Someone!”

That was when I realized I had breasts.  I had turned back into Ayla at some point.  Oh God, once again I had a feminine body with a boy’s privates between my legs.

I begged, “Please, somebody help me…”

Then I stopped being light, and I crashed on my back into the center of the table.  Then the place was pandemonium.

Mother screamed in terror and ran from the room.

Father jumped up and yelled for Andrews to get his hunting rifles.

Paul leapt to his feet and grabbed the lavalier lamp behind him.  He started trying to smash me with the base of the lamp.  “Gene filth!  Die, you gene filth!”

David grabbed his fork and knife and tried to stab me every time I rolled toward his side of the table.  “Freak!  Fucking faggot freak, I’ll kill you!”

Connie sat paralyzed in her chair and screamed so loud I couldn’t stand it.

“Stop!  Please stop,” I begged.  “Oh God please stop!”

Then the Black Canary leapt into the room.  It was Vox, in her Halloween costume.  She commanded, “Stop!  Everyone freeze!”

The room was instantly silent.  Everyone was literally frozen in place.  Vox whisked me off the dining room table and carried me out the front door.

Then we were in her room, lying in her bed.  I was naked against her warm, inviting back.  She was wearing sexy, silky pajamas, and pressing back against me.  I was so horny, and she was dying for me to do what we had waiting so long to consummate…

Wednesday, November 22

The bed lurched and Chou suddenly yelled at me, “Ayla!  Wake up!”

Huh?

“Ayla?  Why the hell are you in my bed?  Naked?”

What?  What was she babbling about?

Oh crap.  I wasn’t in bed with Vox.  I was in bed with Chou.  And I was naked.  But how was that possible?  I pinched myself hard to make sure it wasn’t another damned nightmare.

OW!

Okay, it wasn’t a nightmare.  I had…

Oh God, when I phased through my pajamas and the floor in my dream, I must have phased through my pajamas and the bunkbed for real!  I blushingly tried to apologize while I went for my bathrobe and I tried to think.

Then it hit me.

Oh my God, I could have phased right through her!  I could’ve trashed her BIT and turned her into a monster!

Oh my God, I could have gone normal while I was partly through her!  I could’ve killed her!

Oh my God, I could have gone heavy and crushed her!  I could have killed her in yet another horrible way.

And that last nightmare was too much, with Connie and Mother and Father and Paul and David all trying to kill me and saying those things.  And I really had sunk through my pajamas and the bed.

And I could’ve done something horrible to Chou while I was dreaming about being in bed with Vox!

I babbled out some sort of feeble, stupid apology.  I didn’t really remember what I said.  I was too busy being a total basketcase.  I was having a hell of a time dealing with that and also nearly killing one of my best friends, or maybe raping one of my best friends in her sleep…

And she was really still mad at me, and it was all my fault.  And I could have killed her!  I pretty much just fell apart.  I babbled something about what had happened.  I’m not really sure what I said.

But I knew one thing.  I could not let this happen again.  I wasn’t going to let it happen again.  I’d move out first.  I’d sleep in the basement, or over in the Hawthorne tunnel before I hurt Chou!

I rushed out to talk to Mrs. Horton.  Chou was telling me something, but I ignored it in my hurry.

I got all the way downstairs to Mrs. Horton’s office before I realized.  Chou had still been asleep, and she was an early riser.  It was still really early.  It was too early to be pestering Mrs. Horton, even if this was crucial.

I stopped outside her office and thought.  I only had to protect Chou at night, while I was having those damned nightmares.  I had until after curfew tonight to get this worked out.  And I really had a lot of options.  The sunroom.  The exercise room.  There were a couple completely unused rooms on our floor, since Poe wasn’t stuffed to capacity by any means.  Hell, I’d even sleep in Sara’s room if it kept Chou from getting hurt or killed.. or worse.

Mrs. Horton called out, “Why don’t you come on in, Ayla?”

Oh yeah.  Magical powers and stuff.  How could I have forgotten?  I opened the door and walked in.

She was in a long nightie and bathrobe, with her hair up in soft curlers.  She covered her mouth as she yawned.  She sat down and said, “What’s the matter?”

I gulped, “I..  I nearly killed my roommate.”

She tried not to react, “And how do you figure that, Ayla?”

“I was having a nightmare.  In my nightmare, I was my old self, and I phased through my pajamas and the floor.  I really did it.  I phased through the bunkbed and ended up in bed with Chou.  If I’d landed on her, I could have killed her when I went solid.”

“But you didn’t, did you?”

I blushed, “No, but I had a really humiliating experience when I woke up, and she was pretty mad.  She had a right to be furious.  I could’ve killed her.  I could’ve shredded her BIT.  I could’ve…  It could have been really bad.”

“And so you came to see me because…”

I pushed, “Because I need to know I’m not going to hurt my friend when I have a nightmare!  If I could move to another room, or even just sleep in another room until I stop having these nightmares…”

She pursed her lips, “Ayla, we keep the extra rooms locked for a reason.  We need to make it look like Poe is fully occupied.  We don’t want other students to hear that a bunch of Poe students have singles, and then have them try to transfer over here to get a single too.”

“That makes sense,” I admitted.  “But I could stay in my room, if I could just sleep somewhere else.  Anywhere.  I have a really good camping mattress and a high-end sleeping bag.  I could sleep in the sunroom.  Or in the basement.  The exercise room.  Something!”

She frowned, “All right.  I’ll let you sleep in one of the unoccupied rooms.  For now.  You’ll stay in your room with Chou and you’ll only use the other room for sleeping.  No visitors.  No hankie-pankie.”

“I’ll use my sleeping bag and put it on one of the beds.  It’ll be pretty much impossible for hankie-pankie inside a sleeping bag.”

She smiled a little, “Oh, I don’t know.  I think you kids could manage in a sleeping bag too.”  She switched to a frown.  “But don’t.  If I find out that you’re misusing this room, I’ll report you.”

“I won’t abuse your trust.  I promise.”

She nodded, “All rightie.  But this is only a temporary measure, understand?  You’ll need to resolve this, one way or another, by the start of next term.”

I sighed, “I’m already seeing Dr. Bellows, and talking to Fubar too.  If I can’t get this resolved before Christmas break, I’ll need help from you too.  Even if it means moving me over to Hawthorne because I’m not safe to be around when I’m sleeping.”

Everyone had to get showered and get ready extra early, because of the special assembly.  Because I was up so much earlier than normal, I missed most of that.  It was just as well.  I really didn’t feel up to ogling.  I just wanted to hide in my room and be sure I wasn’t going to hurt anyone by accident.

I forced myself to eat a couple croissants, and I took a to-go cup of coffee to the assembly.

I knew what the subject was as soon as Carson started.  MID cards.  I wish I could say I was surprised or shocked.  I wasn’t.  Not when I had known about MID cards and MMID cards for years.  Goodkind Research had worked with the MCO on this for a number of years.  The only part I hadn’t known was that freshmen were issued their MID cards right before they headed home for the Thanksgiving holidays, or during the Thanksgiving holidays if they weren’t going home.

I had known, ever since I manifested as a mutant, that an MID card was in my future.  So this wasn’t new to me.  I was resigned to it.  The anger and unhappiness and shock were all around me.  I didn’t have to be an empath to pick up on it.  I sympathized with everyone else, I had just hit this point months earlier so it was old news for me.  Still, when I had been a baseline protecting other baselines, this had seemed like a really good idea.  Now, seeing it from the inside, it felt more like I was a Jew being forced to sew a yellow star onto my coat.

For me, the only interesting part of the assembly was the MID information display.  Carson actually had them put up her own MID on that screen!  That woman had cojones the size of locomotives.  I tried to skim the information, but it flashed too quickly across the screen.  There was a lot of information on her, going back to her birth in 1931 and her first mutant entry in 1943.  Whoa.  She manifested at age twelve?  I spotted at least four different MCO database entry points, which meant she’d had at least four different superheroine identities in her career.  I already knew two of them.  Most of the information was stuff I couldn’t parse, like fingerprints and footprints, DNA patterns, Kirlian signature and psychic imprints, details of her bone structure, and several sets of public key encryption strings.  I knew the public key encryption systems were used so that the MCO agent in the field would have a handy way of checking that the information on the card hadn’t been forged or altered in any way.

I knew that Carson had to be responsible for the timing of this assembly and the issuing of the MID cards.  She had to have a reason for it, too.  I had a feeling that Carson was in this for the long term, as you would expect for someone who - after seventy-five years - looked mid-thirties.  Had she only aged twenty-some years in the sixty-three years since she manifested?  If she was only aging at maybe 1/3 normal, she might be planning out the future of homo mutandis for the next two centuries.

Most of the freshmen were too shell-shocked to focus on classes after that assembly, so the teachers took it easy on them.  That was okay by me, since I was too shell-shocked by other events of the past couple days, and I didn’t want to have to focus on schoolwork.

I went out of my way to sign up for an early MID card meeting Friday morning.  There was no point in having it done while departing students were clogging the system, and I figured most of the other freshmen would stall as long as possible before getting theirs done.  So I would probably have a nice, quiet time with the MCO and the few other freshmen who wanted to finish up an unpleasant task as quickly as they could.

At lunch I mostly stared into my soup and tried to make myself eat.  I pretty much ignored the hot blonde that Harry Wolfe was introducing.  Although I certainly picked up on the vicious smell of the moonshine she was drinking.

Whoa.  Forty-seven years old?  Born male?  Part of Security?  Turned into a teenaged girl in a nanotechnology accident?  Drinking moonshine for the ethanol content as part of some non-human dietary supplements?  Okay, I picked up on all that stuff.  Man, this school just kept getting weirder by the minute.

I didn’t say anything, but I’d seen a Goodkind Research report on nanotechnology accidents and deliberate attempts to empower baselines using nanites.  This ‘Sam’ was really lucky.  Most nanotech empowerment trials had ended horribly.

The worst example was probably the Russian attempts with nanites.  The English translation of the Russian was something akin to “Project Steel Soldier”.  Shortly before the end of the Cold War, the USSR had attempted to create a squadron of super-powered nanite soldiers.  Out of nearly two thousand ‘test subjects’ in their beta-testing cycle, only two had survived, and those two had been horribly mutated.  For some insane reason, the project scientists had thought they had their problems solved after that, and they tried the nanotech on two hundred Red Army volunteers.  Only three survived, and only one of the three was healthy enough to use as a super-soldier.  He dissolved into a puddle of goo less than a year later, while battling Brilliante in Hungary.  The next wave of planned nanite trials didn’t do that well.  Somehow, the entire project site was exposed to their nanites.  Out of five hundred Red Army volunteers, ninety scientists, and three hundred support staff, only four people survived.  Since the contamination alarms had been triggered, all four of those people were killed when they tried to get out of the compound.  They were slaughtered by Red Army CBW platoons stationed all around the perimeter.  After that, the place was nuked and then buried under fifty feet of concrete.

I just hoped that Sam wasn’t going to dissolve into a puddle of goo anytime soon.

I met with Dr. Bellows for an hour.  While I was telling him how I had nearly killed Chou, he was being supportive and helpful.  He even had some good points.

As we wrapped up, he told me, “I want you to think about something.  I agree that you’re right to be worried.  All of us have powers that can have serious repercussions.  Most of us don’t bother to think about the downside, as you’re doing now.  But think about this.  Your beds in Poe are pretty narrow.  It would be nearly impossible to drift down into a bed so that you didn’t fall out, but you didn’t touch the other person.  And yet you managed to go solid so carefully that you didn’t hurt Chou, and you didn’t damage her nightie, and you didn’t damage her bedclothes.  Even if you were in the throes of a nightmare.  Was your subconscious mind looking out for your friend?  Were you really a threat to her, or were you safe even though you were phasing in your sleep?”

I didn’t know what to think about that.  Well, that was why he said it as we were wrapping up.  He wanted me to think about it for a while.

I opted to go straight to Hawthorne instead.  Fubar must have read me while I was on my way, because he was lounging in the entryway when I walked in.  We went right down to his room and talked for a couple hours.  Oh yeah, he beat me mercilessly in chess.  I did manage two draws, but that was the best I could do.

I walked over to dinner, even though I still wasn’t hungry.  Chef Marcel strolled out as I walked through the food line.  He murmured in French, “Madame Carson specifically told me that I am not allowed to give you anything special this week.  So I shall not give you anything.”

Then he gave me a wink and pointed at Jana, who had a plate in her hand.  Oh.  So he was playing ‘rules lawyer’.

Or else Carson had specifically worded her order so that the chefs could get around it if they wanted to.  I was probably never going to know.

Jana gave me a wink as she handed me the plate.  I quietly thanked her and slid the plate onto my tray next to my salad.

This time, it was a stealth treat.  One of the foods on the menu that night was manicotti with white sauce.  Technically speaking, this was too.  I sat down and took a careful bite.

Oh man!  I had to make an effort to keep quiet so the whole table wouldn’t know I had an illegal treat.  The ‘white sauce’ was actually a rich Béchamel sauce with ground white pepper and just a hint of fresh-ground nutmeg.  The filling was a rich whole-milk ricotta cheese mixed with real crabmeat.  There was plenty of chopped fresh basil and real Parmesan cheese in the filling as well.

I think I managed to keep quiet while I ate.  No one mentioned any moaning or drooling or writhing in ecstasy.  Still, that perked me up more than anything.

The big shock of the day occurred that evening.  Jade and Billie came back from Knick-Knack’s lab.

Jade had changed!  Oh my God, that stupid BIT-slicer actually worked!  Jade had Billie’s hot, curvy seventeen-year-old body.  And not enough experience to keep from showing it off pretty much constantly.  I had never before wanted to see someone in a Hello Kitty sleepshirt, but a shirt that was loose on an eleven-year-old shrimp was suddenly moving into Playboy territory on a body that was Tennyo-sized.  And Jade hadn’t bothered to put on panties either.  Between that and Sara unleashing her lust power in the hall, I had to go take a cold shower so I could get some sleep that night.

Man, I had to try that BIT-slicer out as soon as Jean-Paul and Stephen would let me!  I already had a shortlist of people with BITs who I could probably get to let me copy their BIT.  This was great.

I was really hoping everyone was wrong and this would stick for Jade.  She deserved some happiness.  I was really hoping this could help me.  And Puppet, and Igneous, and a ton of people on campus.

However, I just didn’t think that Stephen had thought through all the ramifications of such a devise.  There was no way he was going to be able to keep this a secret once he started curing most of Faction Three.  Not just unhappy mutants, but millions - maybe billions - of baselines would kill to get a shot in such a machine, whether the machine could work on them or not.  What would people do if they could get such a change, if it also turned them into a mutant?  What would people do if they thought they deserved such a chance but some lousy mutants were depriving them of the opportunity?  This could lead to major wars.  And then what would we do about low-level mutants who wanted an upgrade via the BIT of some Exemplar-7?  I could see waves of problems if Thuban wasn’t extremely careful with this thing.

Chou was still lobbying for me to stay in the room at night, so I opted for Plan C.  I pretended to be asleep, and I patiently waited in bed until Chou dozed off.  Then I walked down the hall to my temporary sleeping quarters.  The room was definitely colder than my nice, heated, electric-blanketed room.  But I was only using the bed in there, not showering in there.  All I needed was what I had already put in the room for the duration: my battery-boosted low-temperature sleeping bag from downstairs storage, my pillow, and a spare battery-powered alarm clock.  I put the sleeping bag and pillow on the bed, and I put the alarm clock on the floor.  I didn’t need anything else for simply sleeping and getting up.

On the downside, it wasn’t as comfortable as my old bed.  And I was still having those damned nightmares.

At least I didn’t wake anyone up with the nightmares.  Or phase into anyone and kill them.

Thursday, November 23

The alarm went off, and I woke up.

I wasn’t in my usual room, and I wasn’t in my usual bed.  It took me a moment to remember why, and where I was.  But this was livable, until I got myself straightened out.  Again.

I’d had a couple nasty nightmares, but the themes had started to repeat.  And once I recognized them, it was easier to see them as nightmares and wake myself up from them.  It was called ‘lucid dreaming’ in the psych literature I’d read.  Unfortunately, I still didn’t think I was a hundred percent safe around other people when I was having a nightmare.

Today was Thanksgiving Day, and I was looking forward to a Thanksgiving dinner with my ‘family’ here.  Team Kimba.  I told myself I ought to be thinking about the things for which I could be thankful, instead of the things that sucked in my life.

Chou popped her head in, “I heard your alarm, and I thought I should check on you.  I still do not think you should have to exile yourself from your own room.”

I told her, “Look, you’re more important than sleeping on a silk sheet with a heated mattress pad.”

She frowned, “I am glad to hear you say that.  But you did not need to sneak out of the room last night.  If I had known you were so determined to do it your way, I would have stopped arguing.”  And she didn’t insist on singing a few bars of “My Way” in a bad Sinatra imitation, as some people I knew would have done.

Having a really good roommate?  A definite plus.  Having a really good roommate who was a stone fox?  The kind of plus that no other fourteen-year-old boy on the planet was lucky enough to have.  I liked Chou, and I liked having her for a roommate, and I was willing to make a few small sacrifices to ensure that I didn’t accidentally hurt her while I was in the throes of another hideous nightmare.

She gave me a little wave and added, “I am going over to see Molly off.  Her parents are picking her up soon, and I want to spend time with her before she leaves.”

I nodded as I yawned.  I knew it was really bugging her that she was madly in love with Molly, but Molly was having trouble getting up the courage to tell her folks that she was in a lesbian relationship.  I could see how that could be a really hard thing to do.  I couldn’t imagine my old boy-self ‘coming out’ in front of my parents.

I clambered out of my sleeping bag and fetched my shower kit from my room.  My room was another thing.  I had a great room, and I could afford to make it into a great room, and I could afford to pay Jody to take care of it.

I tended to take my money for granted, since I usually felt like I was broke.  I had so much less money than I was used to.  So sometimes it was hard to realize that I was still the second-richest kid at Whateley.  And I had more access to funds than any of the other Golden Kids around here.  Maybe I had more access to funds than even Solange, since I basically had control of my funds, instead of having to beg daddy to let me spend money like Imelda Marcos in a shoe store.   I needed to be more thankful for that, too.

Vox saw me in the hallway, and came over to greet me.  She kissed me thoroughly, until I was having trouble making my brain work and I was having REAL trouble making my wiener STOP working.  “Happy Thanksgiving Day, Ayla,” she purred.

I had to clear my throat before I could talk.  “Umm, a happy Thanksgiving Day to you too, honey.”

She sashayed off into the showers, while I tried to remember how my legs were supposed to work.  Vox.  Definitely someone to be thankful for.  How many fourteen-year-olds had a girlfriend that sexy, and that smart, and that amazing?

I walked into the bathroom and got in line for the showers.  Ahh, showers with incredibly beautiful hotties?  Getting to shower in the same room with Fey and Vox and Bugs and Tennyo and all the rest?  Priceless.  Hugh Hefner’s shower room wasn’t this sexy.  This wasn’t a ‘thank you for our blessings’ deal; this was an ‘oh my God how the hell did I ever become the luckiest teenager on the planet’ deal.  I was going to be thanking God for this one until I was too old to remember why I liked looking at girls.

Chaka walked over and smiled, “You’re looking better today, Ayles.  You sure ya need to sleep in another room?  Chou’s pretty tough.”

So much for keeping problems a secret around here.  I murmured, “Thanks for caring.  But I’ll feel better knowing Chou’s safe.”

Tennyo leaned over my other shoulder, which was easier for her to do when her feet were two feet above the floor.  She smiled, “You’re ruining your rep as a tough guy, you know.”

“Yeah, says the girl who worries constantly about her roomie.”

She just grinned, her canines popping out at the corners of her smile.

Yeah, I had a great team around me.  The best in the whole school, if you asked me.  Team Kimba was probably the toughest team on campus, but I wasn’t thinking about the powers issue.  These girls were great people.  They were people I was happy to call my friends.  They were people who had stuck with me when most of the school hated me on sight.  I had a lot to be thankful for in my team.

I cut down to the Hawthorne tunnel so I could say ‘happy Thanksgiving’ to a few people who had a lot less for which to be thankful.  I managed to catch up with Antenna and Phlegm and someone who looked like one of those part-Alien Sigourney Weaver models in the tanks in Alien 4.  It wasn’t until I saw ‘she’ was wearing an Ultraviolent badge that I realized it was Jimmy Trauger.  Apparently, Jimmy had a lot less trouble dealing with his femme side than I did.  Maybe someday I’d have to talk about that with him.. uhh, her.. no, him.

We chatted the rest of the way to the caff, although Phlegm had to tell Antenna to knock it off when he wanted to start talking with me about Brass Monkey.

Jimmy T just grinned in an astonishingly good replica of Sigourney Weaver’s voice, “No problem here.”  Then I watched as he made his ears shrink to nothing.  “No ears, no listening to awful music.”

I said, “I’d argue with him, but he can’t hear me anymore.”

Once I got into the caff, I had to stop at the Beret Mafia table.  Apparently, I was the only person to whom they wanted to say ‘happy Thanksgiving’, since it was an American holiday.

As I walked to the food line, I waved hi to some other people too.  I did seem to have a decent number of friends around campus, even if plenty of people still hated my guts.  So I needed to be thankful for all my friends, and for a school where they could attend in safety.  I really didn’t want to think what would happen to a guy like Antenna if he didn’t have Whateley.

And, as I walked through the food line with Jimmy T – my God, and I thought Tennyo ate a lot - and Charmer, Chef Peter stepped out of the kitchen, winked at me, and pointed at a food server.  She smiled at me and handed me a bowl of oatmeal.

But it wasn’t mere oatmeal as was presented in twenty gallon pans and served up by the quart to the heavy eaters.  This was what oatmeal was supposed to be.  It was made with steel-cut oats, I was pretty sure, so that the oatmeal was rich and chewy, with a dense almost-nutty oat flavor.  And it was perfectly cooked, so it wasn’t cloying and gloppy.  I was really getting to love these stealth treats.

I went back to my room to grab a notebook, because I had reading to get done in the library, and this was probably going to be the best time this week to get the remaining books read.

I stepped into the room, and Chou was lying on her bed looking utterly miserable.

Crap.  The farewell moments with Molly must have been pretty rough.  Not to mention that this was her first Thanksgiving without any parents, and her first Thanksgiving stuck in a body she hated.

I tried, “Uhh, hey, I’m going over to the library, I’ve got some reading to get done for World Lit.  You want to come too?”

She just shook her head no.

I checked next door, but the Thrillsome Twosome were off somewhere.

I came back into the room.  “Look, Fey and Chaka aren’t around right now, but I can try to round someone up if you need company.  Or I could put off the library stuff until the weekend.  Would you rather I stayed with you?  You could talk about what’s bugging you…”

She tersely shook her head in a firm ‘no’.

Okay, I didn’t know what to do.  Chalk it up to my basic guy-ness, if you want.  But I didn’t know if I should go, or stay with her, or drag her out of the room, or go over and give her a big hug, or what.

Okay, after what I’d done yesterday morning, the big hug was right out.

I told her, “Look, I’ll be back before long.  A couple hours, tops.  Maybe we could go do something then, before the big feed.  What do you say?”

“I would like to be alone right now.  Is that a problem?”

“Oh no!  Of course not!  I’m leaving right now,” I said.

I walked out the door and down the stairs.  I just didn’t think I was doing the right thing, but I didn’t know what I should be doing.  I needed to talk to someone like Chaka or Fey.  They had the whole ‘girl’ thing down pretty solidly.

I spent a little more time in the library than I had planned, because both the epics I wanted to read had been turned back in for the holiday weekend.  So I was kind of rushing back to Poe when Rebecca Stone stepped onto the path in front of me.

She still had that calm smile, but she was obviously waiting for me to walk over.  I obliged.

“Happy Thanksgiving, Ayla,” she beamed.

Man, how many decades of Taoist training would it take to get that degree of peace with yourself?  I nodded, “And the same to you, Ms. Stone.”

“Rebecca, please.  Just Rebecca.”

Like my family wouldn’t have had a cow if any of their kids were so rude as to address an adult by her first name.  Especially an adult old enough to be someone’s great-great-great-grandmother.

Oh yeah.  “I’m glad I saw you, because Chou is really depressed, and I didn’t know what to do to make her feel better.”

“I know,” she said serenely.  “The Tao has led you here, so I could tell you that you did fairly well this morning, but she will need me for the rest of the day.  I’m going to take her out to dinner, so she won’t be eating Thanksgiving dinner with your team.  In the meantime, if you could give Chou an opportunity to meditate quietly, I would appreciate it.”

“Umm, sure,” I replied.  “I…  I’ll just go over to Hawthorne and say ‘happy Thanksgiving’ to a few people there.”

She smiled, “Good.  You can do far more good there this morning than you can with Chou.  So that would be a good choice.”

Well, when super-powered, nearly-ageless beings go out of their way to offer advice, I try to take it.  I walked over to Hawthorne and spent some time chatting with Puppet, then Static Girl, then Frostbite, and finally Diz.  Diz clobbered me in a game of Scrabble, which made her day.

By the time I got back to Poe, Chou and her mentor were long gone.  I wondered where they went.  Dunwich?  Berlin?  Well, Chou would tell me later.  Hopefully, it was someplace that would cheer her up.

Chaka made sure to round everyone up, and then we trekked over from Poe for the big Thanksgiving dinner.  I didn’t need any special treats when the food line was full of delicious foods.

We had to pull three tables together for all of Team Kimba and our friends.  As soon as we had all taken seats, Chaka stood up and announced, “And I’m gonna say grace.”

“Like anyone could shut you up if someone else gave grace!”  I think there were three of us who said that, or something very similar.

“Hey!” Toni complained.  “Knock it off.  Now.  Lemme see.  Dear Lord…  Wait, if anyone’s offended by that, then whoever you pray to…  Dear Lord and everyone else, thank you for our many blessings.  Thank you for really great friends and loved ones, even if some of them can’t wait to start shoveling food into their mouths…”

“Mmg!”  Tennyo probably meant to say ‘hey!’ but she already had about two pounds of turkey breast crammed into her maw.

I supposed that I did have a lot of things to be thankful for.  Back in the Square, I had Gracie and Janet and the girls.  Here, I had TK.  I had Vox.  I had a place to go to school.  And I had other friends here at Whateley.  I had a place to live when school was out.  I had some money again, after learning what it would be like to be ‘lower middle class’ in this country.

“…and thank you for family, even if some of our brothers need to go buy a ginormous clue…”

“Amen!”

“I’ll say!”

I didn’t have my family, or my gender, or my identity, or my inheritance, or my old friends, or my cherished books, or the career I had been trained for my whole life.  All of those were still pretty painful to think about.

“…and thank you for giving us kick-ass mutant powers and a cool school to go to so we can learn more cool stuff we can do…”

I had a pretty decent mutant power.  But I had a screwed-up body because of what I had believed my whole life.  Maybe I didn’t have as much to be thankful for as Chaka or Pendragon.  Or maybe I was just a much bigger whiner than they were.

But I did have a lot to be thankful for, and I had a lot of room to grow.  I was going to try to get my body fixed.  I definitely wasn’t giving up on that, when Knick-Knack’s BIT-slicer looked like the cure I needed.

But if I couldn’t get my stupid body fixed, I was going to find a way to live with what I had.  Having a girlfriend like Vox and having friends like TK made all kinds of things seem possible.

I let Chaka finish, and then I said “Amen” with everyone else at the table.

Hank said, “I have a quick prayer my dad’s Uncle Will used to say.”

“Okay…”

He grinned.  “Good food, good meat, good God, let’s eat.”

We laughed as we dug in.  Right then, anything seemed possible.

With Team Kimba around, it probably was.