User Rating: 5 / 5

Star ActiveStar ActiveStar ActiveStar ActiveStar Active
 

Straight from the Squirrel’s Mouth

By Diane Castle

Chapter 1

Wednesday, December 13
Whateley Academy

Aquerna - Anna Parsons to her closest human friends - had been worrying about her little non-human friends ever since her Combat Final.  But the teachers running the Combat Finals couldn’t let her into the arena areas to check on all those poor little squirrels.  Not while the Combat Finals were going on, and not last evening while they were repairing all the damage from some of the tougher battles.  She’d stewed about it all last night, and now she was getting up way before sunrise because of her little friends.

Most of the time, her squirrel spirit was great.  It made her stronger and faster and tougher.  Okay, not a whole lot stronger or tougher.  Not like lots of the other kids around Whateley.  She was way stronger than a teenage girl her size ought to be, but she couldn’t out-wrestle a pro wrestling guy.  Tons of kids around school could take Kurt Angle and The Undertaker, pick them up one-handed at the same time, and throw them both across a room.

And she could climb.  She didn’t have any fear of heights anymore, and she could climb a tree faster than a chipmunk.  Plus, her nails were so hard she could climb a concrete wall if she wanted to.  She could jump from tree to tree, and she had an instinctive knack for knowing which limbs could hold her.

And her squirrel spirit helped her study longer, and be more determined on schoolwork and stuff.  She couldn’t figure out how she’d picked up a squirrel spirit when she lived in a little duplex in Zanesville, Ohio.  But somehow, she had it.

But on mornings like this, her squirrel spirit was a pain.  During the cold, dark winter months, her squirrel spirit really wanted to sleep in.  Heck, a lot of the time, her squirrel spirit wanted to sleep all day at this time of year!  Sometimes her roommate Skids - whose real name was Ellen Tremain and was really nice - let her sleep most of the day on Sunday, which was really cool of her, except when Anna had more homework she had to get done.  Skids never stayed in the room to do homework if she could sneak out and go drive one of her creations all over the campus.  Skids had a motorcycle, and a powered gyroscopically-stabilized unicycle, and an all-terrain power-trike that had been through places you really weren’t supposed to ride, and a go-kart thing that had two seats and was really fast.  She also had a sort-of-car that was too small for even a compact car, and low-slung like a sports car, and really fast, and not all that safe, and it cornered like one of the speedsters.  Anna had found tracks from some of Skids’ cars off in the woods around the campus where you weren’t supposed to be driving, but she hadn’t told anybody else whose treadmarks they were.  She’d just told Ellen not to drive out there anymore.

But Anna had stuff she had to get done super early this morning, and she couldn’t let her spirit keep her in the bed.  She dragged herself out of the bed, trying really hard not to wake up her roomie.  Ellen snored a little sometimes, but it wasn’t bad.  Anna’s dad could get elected to the Snoring Hall Of Fame, and back home Anna’s little attic room was right over her parents’ bedroom, so she was used to snoring.  Anna just hoped she didn’t turn out to be a big-time snorer.  Maybe her squirrel spirit would stop it.  Ellen hadn’t complained yet, so she had her fingers crossed on that.

She grabbed her bathrobe and her shower kit, and she headed down the hall to the bathrooms.  It was way early, so she thought she might have the bathroom to herself, but Betty was already there.  Betty was always nice, even to some of the real crabby people in the dorm, and just about never wanted to get into a fight.  But Betty’s power was pretty awesome, so she wasn’t interested in joining the Underdogs.

Betty’s codename was Britomart, which Phase had told Anna was actually a name from a famous classic English Lit epic.  Sometimes she wondered if there was anything Phase didn’t know.  How did a girl who was only a freshman already know enough Old English stuff to know the word ‘aquerna’?  Not that Aquerna was knocking Phase, because Phase was really cool, and way nicer than a super-rich girl had to be.  Phase was nice to everybody in BMA.  Well, except for Golden Girl.

Anna had showered in the locker room after every Basic Martial Arts class all term long, so she’d heard all about the Golden Girl - Phase thing.  Golden Girl was totally ‘only my friends get to call me Jayne’ to most of the class, and her little clique would shower together and diss Phase, especially if Phase just beat the snot out of one of them in sparring.  It was like Jayne was all jealous of Phase because Phase was rich, and Jayne was all creeped out because Phase wasn’t really all female.  Anna figured Phase would have showered in the girls’ lockers if she really was all female, because showering with sensei Tolman watching you would not be a load of laughs.  Still, there were all kinds of GSD cases around Whateley, so being mean to someone because they had something weird between their legs was just… mean.  Anna always rooted for Phase whenever she sparred against Golden Girl.

Okay, she prety much always rooted for anybody if they were sparring against Golden Girl.  Jayne wasn’t nice to her or Rhiannon, or to the kids like Phobos.

“Hey, Betty!” she smiled.

Betty pulled her head out of the shower, where she was adjusting the water.  Betty had her cool power, which was a high-end Manifester power, and let her manifest a ‘carapace’ armor around herself.  But the armor formed right against her skin, and took off her hair when she peeled the armor off.  Anna never heard Betty yell or cry when she was getting that manifested armor off, but that had to hurt.  Poor Betty didn’t have a hair on her anywhere.  She was totally bald, and didn’t even have eyebrows or eyelashes.  It was a good thing Betty had a really nice pageboy wig that she wore, and some false eyelashes, so she looked normal all the time, except moments like this.  Even if she had to draw on her eyebrows.  There were other girls who had drawn-on eyebrows, or brows so pencil-thin they looked like someone drew ‘em on with a black pen, so Betty’s eyebrows didn’t look all that unusual.

Betty beamed, “Oh, hi Anna!  I just wanted to tell you how awesome your final was yesterday.  Buster’s such a jerk.”

Anna blushed.  “Thanks.”  She really didn’t know what to say.  She wasn’t used to this kind of attention, and she wasn’t used to being congratulated for stuff.  “I was just lucky they had that park there in my sim.”

Betty smiled, “I don’t think that was luck.  I think they were hoping you’d use the park like you did.”

Anna ducked her head.  Yeah, that had occurred to her too.  Especially since none of the instructors had been surprised that she did it.  They acted more like they expected her to do it, and just wanted her to do it sooner, instead of waiting like she did.  She still had a big bruise on her chest, and her right breast was sore, and one of her ears was real tender, all because Buster got in some shots before she was ready to launch her big surprise.  But she healed up a little faster than she used to, and that was from her squirrel spirit too.  “Still, I was pretty lucky I did so well, since I was up against Buster.”

Betty smiled, “Well, Buster isn’t the smartest guy around here.  So you did have at least one big advantage.”  She stepped into the shower and kept talking, “And there’s a rule about going after people if they clobbered you in the sims, so Buster’s gonna have to leave you alone for a while.”

Anna smiled back as she adjusted her own shower, “That’d be nice.  He’s so mean to all the Underdogs.  I don’t know why some people have to be bullies.”

She thought about all the people she could have been matched against in the Combat Finals, and she winced.  There were a lot of kids she could beat, like Kamuro or Lightweight or Glass or Skids or a bunch of the devisers.  But there were a lot more kids she couldn’t come close to beating.  Some of the things she’d seen kids do this week were just insane.  She still couldn’t get over Chaka’s Combat Final.  How in the world could you use a tornado as a weapon?  That girl was unbelievable.  Phase said she was just that cool in person.  Not that Anna would know.  Anna was in the Intro to Criminology class with Chaka, and she hadn’t gotten a chance to even sit next to Chaka, because most of the class wanted to do the same thing.  The cool upperclass kids like Spade who were into that kind of thing had already taken the intro course, and that left Chaka as the coolest kid in the whole room by a long shot.

Yeah, Chaka would be really tough.  But so would a lot of other kids.  A third of her Basic Martial Arts class could wipe the floor with her, assuming Anna was dumb enough to try and fight them like it was a sparring match.  Plenty of other kids in that class would be a real struggle to beat.

Okay, she could’ve beat Bugs.  If Bugs hadn’t been up against a guy - a really dumb, really horny guy - she would’ve lost.  But every guy Anna knew thought Bugs was like the goddess of the devisers.  She was so pretty lots of guys thought she was like a goddess, period.  If Bugs just smiled at a guy, he went all “guh bluh guhh” and didn’t know what to say and ‘his big head transferred control to his little head’, as Ree liked to say.  There were a lot of guys that Anna would’ve liked to look at her that way.

But there was a huge list of kids who would be just a nightmare to face in a Combat Final.  That thing with Lancer and Hippolyta and Eldritch?  Jiminy Christmas!  There wasn’t anyone on Team Kimba or Outcast Corner or the Capes she would want to have to face.  Even Generator.  That girl might be small, but missiles firing off your arms?  Anybody who could shoot missiles and carried a gun like hers was dangerous.  And Jericho had that armor stuff that he could teleport onto his body anytime he wanted.  Fighting guys in power armor was definitely not a good idea.  Anna might be able to scratch up a board like it was kleenex, but really good power armor had stuff she couldn’t possibly claw through.

As Anna dried off and chatted more with Betty, she thought more about the Combat Finals.  Phase was right.  Anna needed more holdouts, and more martial arts training, and more tricky stuff.  She’d won against Buster because she was facing a big, angry dummy.  Next time she wouldn’t be so lucky.

She dried her hair and styled it in the bathroom so she wouldn’t wake up Ellen.  Then she slipped back into the room to get dressed.  Ellen was face-down in her pillow, drooling and complaining, “…but ma, I don’ wanna, I wanna go ride my ATV, an’ it’s not fair…”

Anna grinned, and quietly got out her clothes.  She grabbed her gloves and heavy coat too, since she had to walk to main campus before she could get down into the tunnels.  She liked Dickinson, but it would be really cool to room with Rhiannon and be in Whitman, where you could get right into the tunnels without going outside.  Trading over to Whitman would be a real hassle too, since there was this stupid rivalry going on between Dickinson and Whitman, and a lot of the girls were really crabby about girls from the other dorm.  Betty agreed with her.  It was dumb, and people needed to do their part to cut down on the pranks and general crankiness.  The Dickinson people like Solange just kind of went out of their way to be mean to the Whitman and Hawthorne girls, which was just rotten in her personal opinion.  But plenty of Dickinson girls were perfectly willing to go along with pranks on Whitman, and even called them the ‘Whitmaniacs’.  No wonder the Whitman girls called this dorm ‘Dickinsuck Cottage’.  Playing pranks on people like Phobos and Psydoe was just mean.  Phobos had it so awful already, especially after what that creepy guy Jobe did to her and her sister.  Anna had tried being nice to Phobos in Basic Martial Arts class, but Phobos was really strong, and with four arms for punching and blocking, she was just super-tough to spar with.  Plus that whole ‘fear aura’ thing that made sparring with her just scary.  You knew you were stupid to be afraid, but you couldn’t help it, just being near her made you feel scared.  Which was horrible, because she could sense what you were feeling, so she had to feel you being scared of her all the time, which was just so not fair.

Anna had ruined her best leather gloves, which her mom was going to be really mad about if she ever found out.  But it really wasn’t her fault.  She couldn’t help it if her fingernails could cut through stuff fingernails weren’t supposed to be able to cut through.  Like leather gloves, and bath towels, and wood and stuff.  So she was wearing a pair of heavy wool gloves that had the tips cut so her fingernails stuck out.  She was wearing a really cute nail polish.  It was a gorgeous coral color that went really well with her coloring.  But her polish never lasted more than a few seconds if she had to do any climbing or scrambling.  Her nails were way harder than any polish she’d found, even the ‘diamond hard’ stuff, and if there was a nail polish that really was as tough as her fingernails, it would probably cost way more than she could ever afford.

She pulled the hood up on her coat and hiked down the still-dark path to the Crystal Hall.  She figured she’d get some coffee and a snack, and hurry down to the tunnels from there.  She had to go into one of the buildings anyway, and it might as well be one that helped her wake up.  Even after her shower, and walking around in the freezing cold, she still wanted to go to sleep.  That just made her feel worse about her little friends, who hadn’t been allowed to go hibernate like they needed to.  Hibernating was a natural part of their lives, like climbing trees and making baby squirrels.  Okay, not all of her little friends liked to hibernate all winter, but even the tree squirrels wanted a cozy, warm place to snuggle into when they weren’t foraging.

Babies.  Ever since she got the spirit of the squirrel, she’d felt more at home outdoors.  And she’d felt more and more that she ought to be getting married to the right boy and having lots of babies.  She’d always liked children.  She was an only child, and she’d felt lonely a lot when she was growing up.  She’d always thought about a big family.  Even if Betty said taking care of a whole squad of kids was harder than you’d think.  You could tell Betty really loved her little brothers and sisters, but she told a lot of stories about them, and you could read between the lines and tell it was a lot of work just being the big sister.  But ever since Anna had turned into a mutant and gotten her squirrel spirit, it was even more of an urge than before.  Or maybe that was puberty and hormones talking.  She sure wasn’t the only girl on the floor who was talking about boys and dating and marriage and kids, and stuff like that.

There were so many really cute boys around campus.  She really thought Prism was H-O-T hot.  But Prism never even looked at her.  And the couple times sensei Ito had made Prism spar against her, she’d been too unnerved to do a decent job of sparring.  Okay, he was stronger than her, and almost as fast as her, and he had those energy blasts.  But she usually managed to dodge the energy blasts enough to get close and kick at him.  But then she couldn’t bring herself to hit him hard, for fear he’d be mad at her.  Prism probably thought she was a hopeless loser.  Plus, she wasn’t nearly as pretty as the girls he hung out with, so she knew she didn’t have a chance.  Still, it just about killed her when she saw Cytherea and Majestic walk up to Prism and chat with him, and Cytherea even kissed him!  Majestic didn’t talk to anybody except Imperious and that crazy fruitcake Counterpoint.  And Majestic was so pretty.  Even prettier than Cytherea, although she wasn’t as ‘here I am beefcake, come hump me right here on the table’ as Cytherea was.

It just wasn’t fair that there were so many drop-dead gorgeous girls around here.  Anna had been a chubby, unattractive girl with glasses, back when she was in elementary school and junior high.  Plus, her dad worked in a junkyard.  So none of the cool kids had any time for her.  And then she’d turned into a mutant, and now she was ‘cute’.  Not fat anymore, not ugly, not needing glasses.  But not really pretty, either.  Everybody knew that if you turned into a mutant, you either got so pretty you could be a superheroine in a skimpy skin-tight costume, or else you got so ugly you had to hide in the sewers.  Nobody just got ‘cute’.  At least, that’s what she thought before she came here.  About a third of the girls had GSD, and about a third were basically normal-looking, but maybe a third of the girls around campus were so pretty you couldn’t believe it.  Some of them were really nice, anyway.  Like Charmer, who was just down the hall from her and was way nicer to you than a lot of the other Europeans were if you were just a plain old American.  Or Fey.  Especially Fey!  But some of the super-pretty girls were so bitchy you almost wished they’d gotten the horrible GSD instead.  Not to name names, but she was thinking about Cytherea and Solange and Flicker and Fade.  Why couldn’t someone nice, like Phobos, get the gorgeous body and beautiful blonde hair, and give the three eyes and goat-legs to Solange?

It wasn’t even like Anna wanted to leave home and come to Whateley.  Okay, she had some great friends here.  But it would’ve been so cool if she could have stayed back in Zanesville and gone to Zanesville High and been popular, for once.  Ellen said it was just a matter of waiting it out and getting through Whateley.  Then they’d be around normal people, and they’d be the ‘pretties’, and cool people would be asking them out, and everything.  Sometimes Anna worried about Ellen.  Ellen talked that way, but she never seemed interested in any of the guys around campus.  And Anna had caught Ellen staring at Cytherea a couple times.  Well, if Ellen ever wanted to tell her something private, it would be okay, because Ellen was her friend.  Even if Ellen could do so much better than that skanky Cytherea.

Anna hurried through the cold.  The paths were really pretty like this, with the streetlights that looked old-fashioned, and the wide, well-groomed bricks all interwoven in cool patterns.  She was glad she wasn’t part of the crew that had to do the snow removal, especially this time of year, when they could get just a ton of snow in no time.  She was a scholarship student, but her scholarship was in landscaping.  That meant she was working with the baselines who did tree maintenance and tree surgery and tree planting.  The arborists.  And the ones who did pruning and replacement of the shrubbery.  The landscapers and horticulturalists.  She was learning all kinds of cool stuff doing her scholarship work.  She might even decide to be an arborist or a landscape architect when she grew up.  After all, it wasn’t like anyone was ever going to look at her and think she had to be a mutant.  She looked too ordinary.  Even her eyes looked like a normal color.  They were just dark brown, the same color as a squirrel’s.  Plenty of regular baseline people had eyes her color.  It wasn’t even a sexy color for normal people.  It was boring, just like her.

Which just made her think about Prism some more.  She sighed.  Richie was just so handsome.  At least she wasn’t as bad as some of the girls.  She hadn’t been writing ‘Mrs. Richard Mills’ and ‘Anna Raquel Mills’ and stuff over and over in her diary or anything.  Okay, so she had done that a ton, one weekend a couple months ago, but she’d taken those pages out and shredded them and then burned them over at the fireplace in the landscaping offices.  You had to be careful about stuff like that in a school where some people could just touch your notebook and ‘see’ what was written in it.

She brushed her hood back as she entered the Crystal Hall and made her way through the cafeteria.  The Crystal Hall was just so pretty and amazing that sometimes she just stopped and gawked.  The sun wasn’t up yet, so there weren’t beautiful scenes of snow and winter through the glass.  But the inside of the hall was just so cool.  Not that it was cold.  It was warm in there.  But there were little ‘islands’ scattered around, and each island was a tree with shrubs around it and maybe gorgeous flowers too.  And in the center was a waterfall.  A waterfall!  A multi-level waterfall with little ponds and water plants and other cool stuff, right down to the big fish in the bottom pond that you could go look at.  She didn’t know what kind of fish they were, but up close they looked like super-fancy carp.  Maybe they were some deviser’s pet fish that he’d bred or mutated.  Maybe they were like those expensive fish you heard about that they had in Japan.  But they were pretty, as long as they weren’t coming up to the surface and opening those huge mouths and gulping at everything floating on the surface.  Her favorite was the huge white one with the blue and red markings across its back and the big floaty tail.  It had to be two and a half feet long if you counted to the tip of its tail.

All she really wanted was some coffee and a quick snack.  She put the coffee in a paper cup with a lid, and she grabbed a couple fruit and nut granola bars.  She wasn’t really all that hungry.  She hadn’t really been that hungry since winter came to stay.  She figured part of that was her squirrel spirit.  It went with the hibernation thing.  She just worried that come spring, her spirit was going to try and make her pig out.  Maybe she could handle that.  Just as long as her spirit wasn’t constantly trying to make her go get pregnant.  That would be bad.  Even if it was with Prism.  She was so not ready to be going that far with boys.  Heck, she wasn’t even ready to do the petting thing.  No matter how many times she’d fantasized about Richie touching her and telling her she was the only one for him.  Kissing would be okay, though.  But just kissing.  Not anything more.  At least, not yet.

She poured herself a cup of coffee and added some sucralose.  She snapped a lid on it and made her way toward the table with the granola and stuff.  That was when she spotted Tennyo.

Ooh.  Tennyo.  That was one scary girl.  She felt sorry for whoever got her in the Combat Finals.  Anna had seen part of the ‘Breakfast Brawl’, as people all over campus were calling it, and she’d seen Tennyo ripping up those robots in the gym at Halloween, and she’d heard other stories about Tennyo.  Some of the Dickinson upperclass girls said Tennyo had taken out two entire dropships by herself before everybody else got up out of the gym to fight.  Maybe they’d have Tennyo and whoever doing their combat thing in the holographic simulation thing that Anna had only heard about.  That way, if Tennyo sliced you in half with her lightsaber thing, or blew you up with one of her energy blasts, you’d still be okay.

Tennyo was over at the ‘official’ Team Kimba table.  Anna always saw the Kimbas way over there.  From what she’d heard, the Kimbas were tough enough to push their way into the center tables if they wanted to.  Heck, Tennyo had once taken out three or four Alphas in about fifteen seconds, all by herself.  And nobody wanted to tangle with Lancer.  Not to mention what Fey could do if she really wanted to, not that she would, since she was so nice.  And Phase.  And Bladedancer.  And Chaka.  Even Shroud and Generator weren’t pushovers, and they were the bottom rung of the team.  Nate still insisted that Generator had put Killstench and Maggot in the hospital, even if Anna couldn’t see that happening.  Anna figured that the Kimbas just didn’t care about seating in the cafeteria, because someday, when the Kimbas decided to beat up the Alphas and take over the Alpha spot on campus, there wouldn’t be much left except an Alpha-shaped smear or two on the pavement.  If Tennyo and Fey and Lancer all really cut loose, there might not be any clique on campus that could stand up to them.  Maybe the Wild Pack.  Or the Grunts.

Tennyo was chowing down, and eating what looked like enough for Razorback, Diamondback, and Jimmy T, all put together.  Anna knew there were plenty of Energizers and such who needed lots of extra food, but that pile of food was just crazy.  There was no way someone as petite as Tennyo could fit that much food inside her without exploding.  And she did it every single meal.  Sometimes these mutant powers were just freakier than you could believe.  Anna was pretty glad she just had a fairly normal appetite, and didn’t need to eat two hundred pounds of food a day, or something really gross, like bugs, or the live animals Carmilla ate.  That was just awful.  The thought of Carmilla eating half a dozen squirrels just made Anna feel sick to her stomach.

She shoved two granola bars into her coat pocket and made her way out of the cafeteria.  Maybe her appetite would come back later.  She headed down to the elevator so she could get into the tunnels.  She checked her watch.  Good.  She was still ahead of schedule, so even if she got lost down here she could still probably get to her meeting in time.  She really didn’t want to be late.  They might just tell her “oh too bad, we’re busy now, go away and come back next year when we have time.”

It didn’t take too long for her to get back to the Arena ’99 area.  She was really pretty good about knowing which tunnels to take, if she’d been in them before.  But then she had to wander around until she could find a way down to the lower levels underneath the arena.  She found a locked door with a ‘No Entrance Except With Security Pass’ on it in huge red letters.  It had a speaker next to the door.  She tried it.

She pushed the button.  “Hello?  Is anybody there?  I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m supposed to meet Mister Wilson in…”  She glanced at her watch.  “… oh gosh, in like six minutes, and I really don’t wanna be late, I don’t know if he’ll let me in to see my little friends if I’m late, so please, I really need some help now…”

A strong male voice interrupted her, “It’s okay, kid.  Just calm down.  Try some deep breaths.  You’re looking for Staff Sergeant Wilson?”

“Yes sir,” Anna replied politely.  “The nice man who gave me my grade yesterday with sensei Ito and Sergeant Bardue.  He said I couldn’t see my little friends yesterday or last night, but he’d see if I could get in to see how they were doing if I came this morning before the first Combat Final needed to be set up.”

“The squirrels, right?”

“Yes sir,” Anna anwered.  “I really need to check on ‘em, Buster could’ve really hurt ‘em, he’s really strong, and they have no idea about mutant powers.  They don’t understand things like that.”

“All right,” the voice said, drawing it out like Anna was really being ridiculous about this.

At last, the door clicked and swung open.  Mister Wilson - oops, sorry, Staff Sergeant Wilson - opened the door and waved her in.  “Aquerna.  Nice to see you again.  Ready to visit your helpers?”

She gulped.  When she’d gotten graded the day before, she hadn’t paid much attention to anyone but sensei Ito.  She’d been too nervous and worried.  But now she was getting a good look at Sergeant Wilson.  A really good look.  Wilson was tall, dark and handsome.  Totally hot.  Totally scrumptious.  What a hunk!  Her heart was making little drumming noises in her chest as the rest of her was winding up and her squirrel spirit was chittering madly about lots and lots of little babies.  She felt like her face was turning bright red and the room was getting really, really steamy.  Other things were getting really steamy too, and she couldn’t stop blushing with embarrassment.

Then her brain reminded her of the hard facts of life.  Starting with: there wasn’t any way a guy like him would be interested in even the really hot students around here, much less someone like her.  He probably had some really hawt twenty-something superheroine girlfriend like Valley Girl or Crystal Woman or Dragonette.  He’d probably laugh in her face if he knew how hot she thought he was.  She stared at the floor and tried to get herself back under control.  Stupid hormones.  Stupid squirrel spirit.

Sergeant Wilson either didn’t notice her reaction, or just decided to ignore it.   Heck, he probably got that reaction from campus girls thirty times a day.  He probably went home to his super-hot super-girlfriend and made jokes about the pathetic little teenage girls who were melting over him.

He waved her on, “Come on, I’ll take you down to your squirrels.  We’re in a big time crunch today, since our students seem to be getting more and more destructive every year.  At least you didn’t wreck the place.”

She walked alongside Sergeant Wilson.  He led her down a corridor to an elevator, and then down two floors.  He took her off to the right, down a long corridor that was filled with all kinds of animal smells, some of which really set off her internal ‘predator’ alarm, and one of which made her squirrel spirit want to scream in terror.  What the heck did they have down here in the other rooms?  Wolverines and panthers?  Wilson opened a door and walked in.

“Hey Chris!” Wilson called out.

A goofy-looking middle-aged guy in a no-longer-white labcoat stepped out from behind some shelves of supplies and said, “Hey there Sergeant.  Brought us another animal lover?”  The guy looked about forty and still had brown hair, but had a hairline like Anna’s grampa, with a little thing about two inches wide going around his head above his ears, and then a really bad comb-over.

Wilson grinned, “Not exactly.  This is Aquerna.  She’s the one the squirrels all followed yesterday.”

“Ohh!” Chris smiled widely.  “An avatar?  Or a channeler?  Maybe a nature mage?"

Wilson looked at Anna and said, “Avatar, I think.  Is that right?”

Anna nodded nervously.  “Right.  I have the spirit of the squirrel, so I can talk to them.”

Wilson grinned wickedly, “Only here’s the best part.  They listen.  Man, you have got to pull up her combat final and watch it.  Second half’s the funniest thing since Beltane went ‘Bugs Bunny’ on Warfist two years ago.”

Wilson patted Anna on the shoulder and said, “Okay.  I’ll be back in ten or fifteen minutes.  Don’t leave the animal control area until I come to get you.  Got it?”

She nodded nervously, “Yes sir.”

“Good girl.”  He turned on his heel and left.

Chris smiled uncomfortably.  “Uhh, I’m Chris, by the way.  You’re A-kernel?”

“Aquerna. A-q-u-e-r-n-a.  Like the Middle English word for squirrel,” she explained.

“Neat.  We need more names like that.  I get so tired of all the theme names.  The ‘color’-‘animal’ names like Green Dragon and Gold Stallion.  The ‘whatever’-man names.  When I was a student, my codename was ‘Phlogiston’, and nobody ever understood that.”

She confessed, “I didn’t know what ‘aquerna’ meant when I heard about it.  A friend of mine - she’s really smart and knows tons of literature stuff - she picked it out and I just liked the sound.”

Chris shrugged nervously and changed the topic.  “You’re probably wanting to come back and see your squirrels and chipmunks.  They’re all safe and sound.  Don’t worry about a thing, we patched a couple up a bit, and they’re all fine.”

“Patched them up?” she squeaked.  What did that mean?  Her worry skyrocketed into near-panic.

“A few had some injuries, so we had a vet and a healer fix ‘em up so they’re good as new.  Don’t worry about a thing.”

Like she could stop worrying after hearing that news.

Chris led her back to a clear door that formed a small airlock with another clear door three feet past it.  Anna figured that was a smart way to make sure nothing got out that was supposed to stay in, and none of those predators from those other rooms got in when they were supposed to stay out.

They walked through the airlock doors, and Anna found herself in a room with wall-to wall cages on the left side.  She looked.  And looked.  And looked.  There had to be two or three hundred squirrels and chipmunks, all in cages, and all apparently well-fed.

All of the animals saw her come in and reacted excitedly.  They chittered wildly in their own not-quite-language, “Big squirrel!  Big squirrel!  We did it!  We chased off the monster!”

She beamed, “You did such a good job!  I’m so proud of you!  All of you!”

“We saw!  You got hurt protecting us until we were ready.  All right?”

She nearly cried at their concern.  “I’m fine.  I’m worried about you.  Is everyone all right?”

“We all right.  Some are sore, none are dead, none will die later.  Big things took some and made them better.”

She smiled weakly.  “Are they taking care of you?  Is it all right here?”

“Good!  Food!  Lots of food!  No night flyers!  No squirrel-eaters!  And lots of food!”

She smiled wider.  She chattered with them for a while, paying special attention to some of the ones she had talked to around the campus, until she noticed Chris glancing at the wall clock.  “I’ll come back as soon as they’ll let me.”

“Good!  And more food!”

She walked out through the airlock doors and let Chris lock up the room.  She said, “Thanks so much for taking care of them.”

He nodded uncomfortably, “No problem.  We’ll let ‘em go Saturday morning, and they can get back to whatever squirrels do.”

She was so stunned she nearly tripped and fell.  She paled as she gasped out, “No!  You can’t!  It’s winter outside.  Most of them ought to be hibernating this time of year.  They’ll die!”

He just shrugged, “Hey, they’re just squirrels.  They’ll be okay.  They live here year-round.”

She stared at him in shock.  Didn’t he understand?  No, there was no way he could really understand, and still be about to throw them out into the snow to freeze to death or starve.

She turned on her heel and rushed out.  She only had until Saturday morning to figure out a way to save them all!

She ran facefirst into a massive brick wall.  In a sergeant’s uniform.  “Oof!”  Jeez, the guy was like a rock wall!

Sergeant Wilson caught her before she fell to the floor.  “Whoa!  Where’s the fire?  You okay?”

“Sure,” she managed.  “I’m fine.”  Well, she was sort of fine.  She’d heard the expression ‘rock hard abs’, but Sergeant Wilson had a set of abs that you could bounce cannonballs off.  “I was running out to find you.”

He grinned, “It’s nice to know I’m so appreciated, but you really needed to stay put until I got back.”

She insisted, “But I had to find you!  Chris is gonna just throw all the squirrels outside on Saturday!”

Wilson just stared at her.  “So?  Squirrels do live outside, y’know.”

“But not in the middle of winter in a blizzard!” she wailed.  “They’ll die!  They’ll freeze to death, and if they find somewhere that’s warm enough they won’t die from freezing right away, they’ll starve!  You can’t just toss ‘em out like this!”

“Hang on, hang on, explain this to me.  Pretend I’m just a big, dumb grunt.”

She tried to calm down.  “Most of them need to hibernate in order to survive over winter.  They need a nice, safe burrow, and they need to settle into it before it gets too cold, and then they hibernate until spring.”

“And so…” he urged her on.

She finished, “If you just throw them out in the snow, they’ll all die!  All of them!”

He frowned, “Okay, but we don’t have any choice.  We don’t have any budget for the care and feeding of your little pals all winter long.  And there won’t be anybody here to take care of them for weeks, during Christmas break.  Besides, we’re going to need this whole room for something else come Monday, and Chris is going to be spending all weekend disinfecting the room and prepping it.  So what are we supposed to do?”

She just stared at him with her mouth open.  She felt faint.  She didn’t know what to do.  But she knew she had to do something.  If she didn’t have a really good plan by Saturday morning, those squirrels - the squirrels who had saved her from Buster - would die.  She wouldn’t let that happen.  She couldn’t let that happen.

She was so upset she hardly remembered walking out of the arena area with Wilson.  He didn’t seem so sexy now that she knew he couldn’t care less about her squirrels.

She didn’t remember being escorted out of the secure areas, or Wilson shutting the security door behind her.  She didn’t remember wandering aimlessly into the tunnels while she stewed about her poor little friends.  But somehow, she managed to end up in the main tunnels heading back toward the main part of campus.

“Anna?  Anna?  What’s the matter?  Are you okay?”  It was Rhiannon and Lucille.  “You don’t look so good.”

“I’m not so good,” she whimpered.  It was all she could do not to burst into tears as she told her best friends all about her problem.

Lucille said, “Come on, let’s go eat.  You can’t think things out if you haven’t had a good breakfast.”

Rhiannon just rolled her eyes.  Ree was always acting like this when Luce got on her ‘mothering’ kick.  And Luce really got into if you gave her a chance.  Eat a good breakfast.  Get your homework done.  Put that down, you’ll poke your eye out.

Ree hugged her with one arm and said, “Plus, you’ll feel a lot better after you talk it out with all of us.  You know Nate’ll have a solution.”

Lucille groaned, “What, like the last time?  He wanted to eat a pot of chili and then be a poison gas bomb for us!  That’s not a solution!  That’s an even bigger problem!”

Ree smiled, “Yeah, he could’ve wiped out half the campus like that.”

Anna was so upset that she didn’t even smile.  She didn’t even notice her friends exchanging worried looks behind her back.

They led her to one of the Underdog tables in the cafeteria.  The Underdogs usually sat way out at the edge of the Crystal Hall, usually on the far side of one of the outer planters, where they wouldn’t catch the notice of the Alphas or the Ultraviolents or any of their other constant headaches.  The very outside tables were colder during the winter, but at least no one bothered the Underdogs there or told them to move somewhere else.

Lucille sat Anna down and said to Nate and Darlene, “Anna had some bad news this morning, and she’s real upset.  Keep an eye on her while I go get ‘er some breakfast.”

“Okay.”

“Yes, mom.”

“Stop it, Nate,” Lucille snapped.

“Yes, mom.”

“Rrrr!”

Once Lucille vanished off to the breakfast line, Nate toned it down and asked, “Anna?  You okay?”

Darlene asked, “You wanna talk about it?”

So Anna told them all about her poor little friends, and how they were all going to die if she didn’t figure out a plan like right away.  She was blubbering into a handful of napkins when Lucille and Ree came back.

Lucille plopped a big bowl of oatmeal in front of her.  “Here.  Eat up.  You’ll feel better.”

Anna blew her nose again with a bubbling honk that made Darlene wince.  “I can’t eat all that!”

“Well then, eat some of it and tell me when you’re full,” Lucille pushed.

Nate finished his breakfast and said, “You know, I think I have an idea…”

“If it involves beans, just forget it!” Darlene snapped.

Nate grinned, “No, no beans.  Nothing like that.”  He got up and moved off through the cafeteria.

“What do ya think he’s gonna do?” whispered Ree.

“Probably drink three quarts of soda and then stink up the Alphas’ table and then get chased all over until someone rescues him.  Again,” complained Lucille.

“You know, if he’d stop doing that kind of junk, all the Underdogs might get picked on a little less,” Rhiannon muttered.

Anna forced herself to eat some of the oatmeal.  Lucille had mixed it up with a bunch of butter and brown sugar and raisins, and it really tasted pretty good.  But every bite just reminded her of poor starving chipmunks, huddled together somewhere horrid, trying to survive the freezing cold.  Her tears dripped into the oatmeal, leaving salty little dents.

“Hey, I’m back!” Nate called out.  Anna looked up.  Nate had gone and found Pythia for her.  What a good friend he was!  Anna sniffled again.

Pythia sighed, “Oh Aquerna, what’’s the matter?  Miasma here was pretty incomprehensible, since most of his explanation seemed to revolve around you not letting him eat beans.”

Anna half-laughed and half-sobbed into her napkins.  She blew her nose again, prompting Darlene to insist, “For god’s sake, let me get you some more napkins!”

And while Darlene rushed off, Anna managed to explain to Pythia about the arena technicians getting ready to throw her poor little friends to their horrible deaths.

Pythia thought it over and said, “So you need most of them to go into hibernation, and you need some places to put them while they hibernate, right?”

“Yeah,” Anna agreed.

“And you need safe, warm places for the tree squirrels, right?”

“Yeah,” Anna said again.

“But you already know dozens and dozens of places where they’d be hibernating and whatever, right?”

“Yeah…” Anna agreed, but slower this time.

“So why not get one of the bio-devisers to find a way to put the hibernators into hibernation, while you go tuck them into their little nests?  And you put the others back home with whatever they need.  Then everything’s set until spring.”

Ree grinned, “Pythia, you’re a genius.”

“Not really,” she sighed.  “Just a PDP with a lot more precog and esper than PK.”

Anna realized that Pythia had the answer.  She just had to figure out how to do it.  “So who’s the best bio-deviser on campus?” she asked.

Pythia winced.  In fact, the whole table winced.  That answered the question.

“Jobe, huh?” Anna checked.  Everyone nodded.  Even Lucille.

Anna glanced over to the Outcast Corner table, where Phobos and Deimos were talking with Eldritch.  Jobe.  Anna shivered at the thought.

Jobe turned Phobos and Deimos into the things they were now.  Everyone said there was a guy picking on him in Twain and Jobe turned the guy into a giant tarantula or something.  People said Jobe was the one who turned regular people into big green orks who were slaves in mines under the ground in Karedonia.  Anna didn’t want anything to do with Jobe.

But she had to get help for her little friends, and she had no time.  If she went to someone nice, and the guy needed a couple weeks to do the work, her friends would all be dead by then.  And there was no way Mrs. Nelson would let her keep three hundred squirrels in Dickinson, even if they wouldn’t all die over Christmas.  She had to try asking Jobe for help.  She had to.

Pythia looked at her set expression and said, “No, don’t do it.  Just stay away from Jobe.  Please.  That guy’s the most dangerous kid on campus.  You need to stop and think this over.  There are dozens of devisers and gadgeteers on campus, and we can pull in favors to get to some devisers who just graduated.”

“No,” Anna insisted.  “I don’t have any time.  They’re going to ditch those poor little squirrels Saturday morning.  I’ve got to have a plan and rescue all of them before then.  I only have three days.  Even if you could call up the greatest deviser in the world, he couldn’t get here in time, much less fix everything.”

“Please Anna, think about it.  You’re being rash.”

Anna just clenched her jaws and said, “I don’t have any choice.  I have to take care of them!”

Pythia tried again, “Anna, it’s your squirrel spirit talking.  You’re thinking like they’re your family or something.  They’re not more important than your life.  Or your body.  Think about what he did to Phobos and Deimos!”

“I already did.  A lot.  I’ll be careful,” Anna muttered, and she was off.  She hurried through the cafeteria and ran down the hall to the elevator.  She went down to the tunnels before anyone could stop her, and then she sprinted off to Twain.

She needed to talk to Jobe.  She knew how dangerous that was.  For a lot of reasons.  First off, the Twain boys didn’t like girls walking in on them.  Everyone knew the Twain guys had been ready to fight Tennyo just because she went over to visit someone.  And you’d have to be crazy to fight Tennyo.  She didn’t want to think about the poor sucker who got stuck fighting Tennyo in the Combat Finals.  Maybe it would be one of the really tough upperclassmen, like Stormwolf or Powerhouse, who wouldn’t get hurt too bad.

Plus, just talking to Jobe meant… Jobe.  She shuddered.  She knew Phobos some from class.  She’d heard all about what Jobe did to Phobos and her sister.  Heck, she’d seen it.  One Friday, Phobos looked a little odd but something you could hide with makeup and wrap-around sunglasses.  The next Monday, she was a full-out monster girl.  Sometimes Anna had nightmares about turning into a squirrel-thing that would look a lot like Phobos, with inhuman legs and a face no one would ever want to kiss.  Anna’s parents were pretty upset about her being a mutant, but if she stopped looking human…  She didn’t want to think about it.  Things were bad enough already.

She reached the door into Twain from the tunnels.  There was even a doorbell there.  She pushed it and tried to stand still as she waited.  After what seemed like ten minutes, but was probably way less than that, the door opened.  She’d seen this kid around school, but she hadn’t met him.  And she sure hadn’t figured out that the reason he looked so odd and bulky in his heavy coat and big hat was this.  The guy was turning into a turtle-man!

“What can I do for you?” the boy asked in an accent Anna couldn’t place.

“Umm, I’m sorry to bother you and all, but I have a problem, and, well, could I talk to Jobe?  Please?”

“And who should I tell him is bothering him?” the boy smirked.

“Oh yeah.  I’m Anna.  Aquerna.  You know?  The ‘loser who has the spirit of the squirrel’ that everyone makes fun of?”

The boy burst into a huge grin.  “Oh!  You’re the one who fought Buster yesterday!”  He snorted with amusement.  “You get big credits for that one.”

The boy turned at looked up at the ceiling.  Anna looked where the boy was looking, and found she was staring at a tiny security camera.  The boy grinned, “Hey, heads up!  We got a heroine here.  It’s Aquerna, the girl who trashed Buster.  She needs to talk to Jobe.  Give him a heads-up that some of us owe her one.”

The boy looked back at her.  “You don’t mind waiting here for a few minutes, do you?”

Anna shook her head no.  “Nah, I’m good.  Just worried, so I’m kind of antsy.”

“I’m Carapace.”

She put her hand out.  “Nice to meet you.”

He seemed surprised that she’d want to shake hands with her.  She frowned, “It’s not like I’m one of the pretties or anything.  Gila lives here, doesn’t he?”

“Yeah.”

Anna said, “He knows me.  From martial arts class, anyway.  You can check with him.  I’m not like the snotty girls in my dorm.”

“What dorm?” he asked.

“Dickinson.  But not everybody there is all prissy and mean.  Even if some of ‘em sure are,” she complained.

Carapace got a really weird expression on his face as he murmured, “Solange.”

“Ugh, don’t remind me,” Anna muttered.  “I have to put up with Tansy and her little clique way too much, and she doesn’t even live on my floor!  We’re hoping she’ll move over to Melville.  That’s where she wants to be.”

Carapace thought it over and said, “Okay, let me tell you something.  I don’t know why you’re looking for Jobe, but the best advice I could give you is: don’t.  Whatever it is, whatever you think you need, whatever he’s offering, don’t do it.  The guy’s a genius, but he’ll do what he wants, not what you’re hoping for.”

She said, “Thanks for being concerned.  I know Phobos, so I’ve got a pretty good idea how bad things could go if that was what I was after.  But it’s not.  You see…”

Just then a weasel-faced geek strolled down the stairs behind Carapace and walked up to them.  Jobe.  The little nerd acted like he owned the place.  Carapace was turning into a turtle-guy, and he still looked more handsome than Jobe.  Jobe was wearing a spotless white labcoat over a polo shirt and khakis, and it looked like he hadn’t bothered to shop in a clothing store and get them fit right for his figure.

Jobe insolently looked her over like she was for sale.  And he obviously didn’t find her that attractive.  Well, she was pretty used to that.  Not that it didn’t hurt.  But it happened all the time.  Especially when there were all those girls on campus who were so pretty it made you ache inside that you weren’t as attractive, and the guys all went for the hot girls, not for the girls like Anna.

Jobe smiled mischievously and stared right at her chest.  He said in the rudest way you could imagine, “So.  Aquerna.  Our little Buster-buster.  That was a real treat, baby.  For that, I’m willing to hear you out.”

She couldn’t believe how rude he could be just saying ordinary unkind words.  He was so snotty she would have just stomped off if it wasn’t for her little friends.  She made herself say, “Okay, umm, thanks, because this really means a lot to me…”

Jobe guessed, “You’ve heard about my drow treatment and you want to be first in line, eh?  Well, I am accepting offers, but you’ll have to fill out a resume and write a four paragraph essay on why you want to be my first drow.  And then…”

“No, that’s not it,” she interrupted.  Ick, she didn’t even know what he was talking about, and it already sounded super-gross.

“Oh.  So you just want some tawdry bio-treatment from me.  Be better looking?  Better powers than ‘squirrel power’?”

“No, that’s not it either,” she said.  “I can explain if you just give me a minute.”

“That seems fair,” said a deeper voice from back behind Jobe and Carapace.  This was another Twain guy.  She’d seen him around campus, but never up close.  It was like he was totally covered from head to toe in shiny silver metal.

Jobe didn’t bother to turn his head.  “Ahh, Mirror.  I should have known.  Rushing to rescue the damsel in distress.  She really doesn’t need your help for anything.”

Mirror pointed out, “Look Jobe, I’m here as a chaperone for both of you.  Think about it.  If something bizarre happened to Aquerna in the next day or so, no one would believe it wasn’t you.”

Jobe rolled his eyes and drawled, “Ahh yes, the curse of the superior intellect, all those jealous people around me…”

Anna just stared at him.  Did he really believe that?  It sure seemed that way.  And he was so awful about it!  How did he keep from getting punched in the face about twenty times a day?

Anna smiled at the guy.  Mirror.  Easy to see why he had that codename.  He really did look all reflecting, like one of the Terminators or something.  But the shininess was also on the outside of his clothes, and even on his shoes.  She didn’t see how that would work out.  Did he have some kind of shininess field around his skin, like the way Blot had that darkness field?  “Thanks.  I just want to talk to Jobe and get his advice on something, since he is the best bio-deviser around here.”

Jobe preened at the compliment, like everyone was supposed to say that to him all the time.  What a jerk.  But Anna wasn’t going to tell him what she really thought.  Not if it might mean he wouldn’t help her with her squirrels.

Jobe said, “It’s so nice that someone recognized the superirority of my work.  I was on my way to my private lab anyway.  Why don’t you two trail along behind me - physically, as well as intellectually, in this case - and Squirrella can tell me her little problem that she thinks is so overwhelmingly critical.”

Mirror might be all reflecting, but she could still tell when he rolled his eyes.  Jobe set off down the tunnel, going back toward the main campus.  She started explaining about her little friends and how she needed someone to get them back into hibernation so she could find burrows and nests for them over the winter.

Jobe looked unbelievably bored, and he wasn’t even trying to hide his lack of interest.  He offered again, “Now you’re sure you don’t want to become a drow?  You’d look WAY hotter.  Amazing sensitivity.  Much stronger and tougher, plus outstanding regeneration in case anything happened.  AND you’d get to be with me a lot.  What more could you ask for?”

She swallowed.  “No thanks.  Really.  All I want is someone smart enough to figure out how to get my little friends into hibernation so they don’t die when the combat finals people let them go on Saturday.”

“Hmmm.  Squirrels.  Probably a smattering of different species from the Sciurus and Tamiasciurus genera…”

“Umm, I wouldn’t know,” admitted Anna.

“And why not?” Jobe fumed.  “What’s the point of having a power like yours if you don’t even know the genus and species of your minions?”

She frowned.  “They’re not my minions.  They’re my friends.  They think I’m their family.  So I need to take care of them.”

Jobe rolled his eyes.  “Honestly, some people!  Too much genetic diversity to be useful.  They’re not even suitable as lab animals.”

“Lab animals!?!” Aquerna squeaked angrily.  “They’re not lab animals!  And they better not get turned into lab animals!”

“It won’t happen,” Jobe waved her off uncaringly.  “They’re completely unsuitable genetically, and there aren’t any good diseases where squirrels are suitable animal models.  Also, they’re high in cholesterol, so no one around here’s going to be eating them.”

Anna stared at him in horror.  No wonder Phobos hated this guy so much!  She wanted to slap him already, and he hadn’t even tried to experiment on her.  Aries might be a big butthead, but she’d take Aries over this jerk any day!

Jobe looked up at the ceiling and finally said, “Try Hazmat.  Relatively adequate as a chemist.  He might have a way of synthesizing HIT for you.”

“H. I. T., you said?” Anna wondered.

“Yes, do try and keep up even if it’s only with English letters,” Jobe replied scathingly.  “HIT is the Hibernation Induction Trigger.  Researchers have found that blood from a hibernating squirrel can induce hibernation in other squirrels.  The relevant chemical is an opioid-like compound that even a dimwit like Hazmat ought to be able to synthesize in a day or two.”

“Uhh, thanks,” she said.  For a mean, snotty jerk, Jobe sure knew a lot.

Jobe went on, “Of course you’re thanking me.  It’s only natural.  But I’m not interested in your little problem.  I’m busy with my own projects right now.  I just don’t have the time.  But try Hazmat.  If he can’t get the job done, try Bugs, then Telomer, then Greasy, or even Erlenmeyer if you’re really desperate.”  Then he stepped into his private lab and slammed the door in her face.

“Honestly,” she muttered.

Mirror agreed, “And this is the pleasant version of Jobe.  He must’ve really liked what you did to Buster, because he’s usually a lot nastier to people.”

“A lot nastier?  So, you came along so I wouldn’t punch him in the mouth?” she wondered.

He shrugged, “Sort of.  I came along so after you punched him in the mouth he didn’t get a chance to turn you into a slug or something.”

“Oh.”  She’d heard lots of stories about Jobe, so that really made a lot of sense.

“Seriously,” Mirror went on, “Just avoid him.  Like the plague.  He’s always like this.  Or a lot worse.”

“Okay,” Anna said.  “So…  Where do you think I could find Hazmat?”

Mirror rolled his eyes again.  “Try the main chem lab for the Workshop.  Do you know where that is?”

“Umm, no?” Anna admitted.  “I don’t even know what ‘the workshop’ is.  Is it like metal shop or wood shop?”

Mirror shook his head slightly.  “No, the Workshop is the slang term around here for all the high-tech labs and classes the inventors use.  They’re all down in these tunnels, and you really need a guide if you haven’t been down here before.”

“Okay, but I really need to find him real soon,” she insisted.

Mirror said, “I can give you some directions, but this place is a labyrinth.  You’ll end up stopping people for directions anyway.  And some of them will give you the wrong directions, just to be funny.  Even if you find your way to where Hazmat likes to hang out, he may not be there.  Most of the school is watching the Combat Finals, you know.”

She blushed, “Yeah.  I know.  I couldn’t believe how many people sent me stuff just because I won yesterday.  I got this huge chocolate assortment that must’ve cost an arm and a leg, and two fruit baskets, and a big fancy box of assorted nuts, and a veggie pizza, and so many flowers I had to ask Skids to help me carry them all to our floor sunroom, and a pile of thank-you cards!  And I didn’t do much of anything!”

Mirror grinned a little.  “That might have been because Buster lost, not because it was you who won.”

“Umm, yeah, that’s what everyone says,” she confessed.

“Well, start at the main Workshop chem lab.  Then try the Combat Finals.  Then check his dorm.  Some of the Workshop kids probably have him on their contact lists, so they can call him up if they’re willing to help you out.  And his house parent can definitely leave a message for him.”

“But I only have until early Saturday!” she squeaked.

“Okay,” Mirror said.  “Hang on.”  He pulled out a cell phone - how the heck did he think a cell phone would work way down in these tunnels? - and made a call.  Wow, cell phones did work down in these tunnels.  She thought cell phones had to be where they could send signals to those ugly cell towers.  Maybe the devisers had special reception systems set up in these hallways.

Mirror talked into the phone, "Oh, hi.  Yeah, it's me.  I’ve got someone looking for Hazmat…  No, she’s not mad at him…  Yeah, yeah, I know they’re still really pissed off at him about that, but you said it was an accident…  She wants to get him to help her out on a little biochemistry problem…  You think so?  Good.  Thanks.”

He hung up and focused on her.  Which was kind of weird because even his eyeballs were all silvery and shiny.  “Hazmat’s probably at his workbench in the main chem lab.”  He pointed off to her left.  “You’ll need to head that way until you can go down another level, and then follow signs toward Schuster until you spot the chem area.  Got it?”

“I hope so,” Anna said.  She turned tail and skittered down the hall.

She heard Mirror quietly mutter “good luck” before he headed back toward Twain.

It took her fifteen minutes, two wrong turns, three stops for directions, one of which pointed her in the wrong direction the big jerk, and one “you already went past it” to find the main chem lab for the devisers.  It wasn’t like it was well labeled.  It didn’t have signs pointing to it, and it didn’t even have a sign sticking out into the hallway so you could tell when you were getting near it.  There was just a small black plastic sign on the door that said:

CHEM/BIOCHEM ONLY

ASSIGED WORK AREAS

NO ADMITTANCE

IF RED LIGHT IS FLASHING CLEAR AREA AT ONCE

“Great,” she muttered to herself.  “They probably won’t let me in, and if they do, someone could poison the whole room.”

She took a deep breath to get her courage up, and knocked.  After maybe twenty seconds, she knocked again, only louder.  After maybe another half minute, she knocked really hard.  Not that she could bust a door like this down, or even dent it.  But she pounded on it loud enough to make a huge booming racket that echoed down the hallway.

Someone yanked the door open.  The guy looked like a junior or senior, and he was pretty big.  Maybe six feet tall, and way overweight.  He shouted in her face, “Get a CLUE, honey!  See the words no admittance?  In Stupid, that means get the hell out of here!”

Someone inside yelled, “Hey Erl, shut the hell up and stop being such a prick!"

‘Earl’, or whatever they’d called him, turned around and yelled, “Why don’t you give yourself a high colonic enema with a gallon of diphenylmethane?”

Another guy, who looked like he had some sort of reddish rash all over his face walked up to the door and said, “Ignore Erlenmeyer.  Any time his experiments don’t work he’s a total douchebag for days.”

Erlenmeyer glared at the guy and growled, “Fuck you too!”  Then he stomped off to his workbench and went back to work on something that looked like five huge glass columns filled with little teeny orange beads.

The new guy asked, “Are you lost?  We don’t get a lot of cute girls looking us up.”

Anna blushed and said, “Umm, I’m looking for Hazmat?  Mirror said he ought to be here.”

The guy grinned.  He turned his head and yelled, “Hey Baldy, you got a gurrr-rrel wantin’ ta see you!”

Several wolf whistles and catcalls echoed around the large room.  Aquerna wasn’t sure she wanted to go in there.  These guys weren’t just dorky, they were like dorkiness was their superpower or something.

Another guy came to the door.  He was pretty ordinary-looking.  He wasn’t super-handsome like a lot of guys on campus.  But he wasn’t ugly either.  Just really pretty normal.  Except for his hair, which was really weird-looking.  If this wasn’t Whateley, she would have guessed he was wearing a wig, but she’d seen plenty of people around here with weirder stuff.  Still, that second guy had called him ‘baldy’, so maybe…

“H-hi.  I’m Hazmat.  Were you really here to see me, or are they just jerkin’ my chain again?”

Hazmat was maybe four or five inches taller than her, and looked like a typical high schooler.  Not real muscular, not fat, not real skinny.  He wasn’t a huge mass of pimples or rashes, and he didn’t have braces or glasses.  He didn’t really look nerdy enough to be one of the school devisers, given what guys like Jobe looked like.  Or that Erlenmeyer dork.  But that was okay.  She wasn’t here based on his looks.

She gave him a chipper smile.  “I’m Aquerna, and…”

“YOU’RE Aquerna?” he practically shouted.  He pulled her into the room and yelled, “Hey Erlenmeyer!  Guess who this is that you treated like shit!  Your good ol’ pal Buster’s arch-nemesis!  This is Aquerna!”

“Really?”

“Holy shit!”

“Kewl!”

Guys called out stuff from all over the room.  Erlenmeyer popped his head up from his work and actually looked embarrassed.  “Sorry.  Umm, thanks for yesterday.”  Then he disappeared again behind his labware.

Hazmat grinned, “Erl isn’t the only guy around here Buster picks on all the time.  This is so cool!  Why’d you come down here?  Isn’t there like a ticker-tape parade going on for you?  ‘Cause a lot of people really don’t like Buster.”

She tried again, “Well, the reason I came down here is because of my Combat Final.  All those squirrels and chipmunks?  I need to find a way to get them hibernating in nests by Friday night, because the arena guys are just going to throw ‘em outside Saturday morning because they need the room, and they’ll die if I can’t save ‘em, and they’re really important to me.  So I asked Jobe-”

“BOO!”

“HISS!”

“BOO!”

The entire room erupted in catcalls at Jobe’s name.  She suddenly realized the whole room was listening in on her conversation.  She blushed so hard her face felt like it was going to catch on fire.

Hazmat turned and yelled, “Shut up, dorks!”  Then he turned back to her and said in a much softer voice, “Sorry.  Jobe isn’t real popular around here.  He pretty much treats everyone else in Workshop like the retarded cousin he keeps locked in the basement.”

Anna nodded.  That sounded so like Jobe.  “Yeah, well, he said he was too busy, but you could synthesize some H.I.T. - Hibernation In-something Trigger-”

“Hibernation Induction Trigger,” Hazmat supplied.  “Yeah.  I’ve heard of it.  It’s made the research lit.”

She nodded hopefully.  “Yeah.  But I’d need enough for about two hundred squirrels and chipmunks, and I’d need it soon enough that I could get all of ‘em tucked away in their little burrows and nests by early Saturday morning.”

“Whoa.  Three hundred nests?  How’s anybody gonna find that many nests, or make that many nests, or whatever they’d have to do?” he wondered.

“Umm, that’s kind of the part that’s me,” she said.  “I know where most all the squirrels and chipmunks on campus live, and I can put ‘em back in family groups of two and three and four.  So it’s like about…”  She thought it over.  “Maybe fifty to eighty different nests, and the ones in the trees don’t need the H.I.T. stuff.  I can probably do that in one day, if I really, really hurry.  But to do it all in one day, I’d need you to have the stuff made up by like tomorrow night.  Can you do it?”

He sighed as he thought it over.  “Come on over here, and let’s check.”  He led her to a big computer screen on one of the side walls.  He pulled up a keyboard and started typing.  “Okay… Hibernation Induction Trigger…”

Several windows popped up on the screen, and Hazmat began studying them.  “Okay, this is good.  The known HIT research has been done on squirrels and chipmunks, among others, and it’s the same chemical in all the genera you care about, and the chemical’s been analyzed.  So three problems down.  Now let’s take a look…”  He typed and clicked, and another couple windows popped up.  One had a complicated chemical formula with detailed comments.  Another had a model of a weird chemical showing in 3-D, and it was rotating.

Hazmat studied the chemical.  “I can do this.  It’s an opioid-like protein, so I’ll have to get permission to access some of the progenitor compounds from the chem stores, but I can have this for you probably by tomorrow afternoon.  I think.  It’s thermolabile, so the synthesis is going to be tricky, and the lab verification won't be easy.  If you get me permission to go down to the facility where they’ve got the squirrels, I can test it out tomorrow night, and we’ll know by early Friday morning if it’s a complete success.  Then you just have to box up your sleeping little buddies and get ‘em stuffed into their nests before they get too cold.  How’s that sound?”

“It sounds great,” she sighed.  For the first time in a day, she felt relieved.

Hazmat looked up at her, and he looked really nervous.  That was making her get nervous.  He asked, “If I do this, would you do something for me?”

Oh God.  This was it.  What they were warning her about when she was talking to Jobe.  He wanted to experiment on her.  He wanted to experiment on her little friends.  He wanted her to put out.  He wanted to experiment on her while she put out.  Oh God!  She managed to ask, “What?”

“W-would you g-go out?  On a date?  With me?” he managed.

“Yes,” she said instantly.  That was such a relief!  She’d been thinking really crazy stuff, and he just wanted to ask her out!

“I know I’m not much to look at, and I don’t have the really cool superpowers like tons of guys have, and I’m not one of the Golden Kids, and everyone says this wig is really stupid, and you probably have a boyfriend who’s way better looking than me, and…  Wait a minute!  Did you say yes?”

She smiled at him.  He was so much more nervous about this than she was.  It made her feel feminine and kind of powerful in an odd way.  Even kind of mysterious and sexy.  She wondered if Fey felt like this when guys asked her out and fell all over themselves trying to stammer out that invite.  “Yes.  I said yes.”

And he grinned this huge, ear-to-ear grin, like one of the Venus Inc. girls had just told him she thought he was really sexy.

He smiled, “Great, this is so great.  Okay, what’s your exam schedule.  Let’s pick a night that works for you before you go home for Christmas.  I’ve got an easy exam schedule and I already know this stuff, so I can do just about any night.”

She thought it over.  She was done with Basic Martial Arts, and there wasn’t a separate final for biology lab.  Her hard exams (biology I, algebra I, and freshman English) were Monday and Tuesday, with nothing on Wednesday and just Criminology on Thursday.  “Tuesday night would be good for me.”

“Yes!” he pumped his arm into the air.  He caught her look and admitted, “Okay, I sorta fibbed.  Sunday night and and Wednesday night would’ve been kind of sucky, because my hard exams are on Monday and Thursday.  But I would’ve wanted to do the date with you anyway.  Tuesday just works a heckuva lot better.  How’s about pizza and a movie, in Dunwich?  The pizza place there’s pretty good, and there’s usually one movie worth seeing at their little quad-plex.”

“That sounds good,” she said.  “I like pizza.”

“Terrific!” he grinned.  “Okay, now I just have to get some compounds from the storeroom and get to work on your project.”

The rash-faced guy looked up from where he was listening in.  “Hey, what about your own stuff?” he pointed at Hazmat’s bench, where a beaker was softly simmering under a portable vent hood.

Hazmat waved him off, “To hell with that.  It’ll wait.  I’ve got something important to do.”  Anna couldn’t keep from blushing.

Anna hurried off, finally feeling like this might really work.  She started making a mental list of all the things she needed to do.  “Okay, first I need to go back and check on my little friends, and get Chris out of the way so I can get ‘em all re-arranged in family units…  Then I need to explain to them about trusting Hazmat and going to sleep for winter…  Oh God, I hope I can trust him.  I have to.  This has to work, because I don’t have any time if this fails, and I don’t know what else to do!  Focus Anna, focus…  Okay, next, I gotta make some carrying boxes, with nesting materials, so I can tote ‘em all over campus and get ‘em all snuggled in for the winter.  Oh God!  The chipmunks!”

That was when the real problem hit her.  She could clamber up any tree around, to tuck tree squirrels into their little nests and help them with nest-building, but the ground squirrel and chipmunk burrows were all under a yard or two of snow!  Oh God oh God oh God, what was she going to do?

She checked her watch.  Still plenty of time before lunch and meeting up with Ree and Luce.  And please, lunchladies, don’t serve the three-bean chili this time, because Nate always ate like three bowls of it, and then they had to lock him out of the Underdogs’ secret hideout for like the next twelve hours!

She went right back to that locked door to the arena areas.  This time, she knew just how to get there, and what to do.  She hadn’t thought about it, but she had a feeling her squirrel spirit was making it easier for her to find her way through the underground tunnels, even if sometimes it seemed like whoever laid out the tunnels was trying to make people get lost.

She found the locked door and pressed the button on the speaker.  After a few seconds, the same voice answered.  “Aquerna, isn’t it?  Sorry, but Sergeant Wilson is busy with Combat Finals for the rest of the day.”

She tried to look firm.  “I know, sir.  I want to see Chris, the animal care technician.  I need to see my squirrels again.”

“Look. We’re all really busy right now…”

“I know,” she tried.  She looked at the camera and tried to give a teary-eyed pout.  Plenty of girls got away with murder when they pulled this, but she’d never been any good at it.  At least, not when she was chubby and unattractive and wearing glasses.  “But it’s really important to me.  Could you just check with him and see?”

“Oooooh-kay,” the man muttered.  Wow!  Did it really work?  Maybe, maybe not.  Still, she had a chance to get in to see her friends.

She waited impatiently, and after maybe five minutes, the door swung open.  It was Chris, and he looked tired.  His comb-over was kind of falling apart, and his huge bald ‘spot’ was looking sweaty.  He sighed, “Look Aquerna-”

“Anna,” she pushed.  “Call me Anna.  You’re taking such good care of my little friends.  Can I see them?  Please?”

He shook his head slowly.  “Not now.  I’ve got to clean all their cages and feed all of them before I can get to rooms 3 and 4, and then-”

She interrupted again, “But that’s silly!  You shouldn’t have to do all that!  I could do it for you!”

He stopped, frozen in mid-thought with his mouth open.  “You would?”

“Sure!” she said.  “I’d love to!  It’d give me more time with my little friends, and I could talk with them, and everything!”

“And you wouldn’t mind cleaning the cages?” he asked, with a sneaky tone in his voice.

“Of course not!” she smiled.  “They’re my friends.  They’ll even help me out.  And I saw where the food is, and I know how to fill a water bowl.  It’ll be easy.  And then you can do the important stuff.”

He grinned, “You got yourself a deal.  But I’ll come back and check up on you, and if you didn’t do a good job, I’ll be telling them not to let you in here anymore.”

She decided to push a little more.  “But if I do a really good job, you’d let me do it again tomorrow and Friday too?”

“Well, we’ll see,” he said in the sneaky tones of a guy pulling the wool over some stupid kid’s eyes.

“Great!” she grinned, as if she didn’t know exactly what he thought he was getting away with.

He led her down the corridors, down the elevator, and back into the animal care area.  She spent the whole time talking to him about who she needed to see to make sure Hazmat could get in to test his drug, and to make sure she could come and go with her little friends when it was time to put them in their homes for their long winter naps.  Chris was pretty sure Staff Sergeant Wilson or sensei Ito could get her the okay, so she knew what she had to do after Combat Finals ended today.

Then, once he led her through the ‘airlock’ doors and pointed out where the supplies were, he took off to go work in other rooms.  Judging by the smell on him, Anna was guessing some sort of predators.  Ick.

“Big squirrel!  Big squirrel!  You came back!”

She smiled and opened up a cage, letting the chipmunks scramble into her arms.  “Sure I came back.  And I’m gonna take care of everyone.  I have a big man coming to help get everyone ready for winter sleep.”

It was just so great, getting to see all of them, and touch them, and talk with them.  Especially the big fluffy tree squirrels who were her pals long before her combat final, Earscratch and Twotoe and Brighteyes and Alwayshungry and Morenewbabies.  She had so much fun.  The cleaning part was easy.  She just opened up all the cages and told them to stay inside.  Then she told each of them to gather up the trash and push it out the front of the cage.  When they were done, she swept the yucky stuff up off the floor, and she was done.  Water and food were super easy too, when she could leave the cage doors open and not worry about them being naughty.  Even if a couple of them were being naughty.  It wasn’t their fault, there was a lot of stuff to explore.

She really spent the time petting them, and talking with them, and making mental notes about where their homes were, and re-arranging them into little family groupings that could nest together over the winter.  That would make everything way simpler once she had to move everyone.  Even if that still left her with fifty-eight little families to rescue.  Fifty-eight.  Thirty-seven that would hibernate in burrows and twenty-one that only needed decent, warm nests in their trees.  By Saturday morning.  Her stomach gave a little lurch.  If Hazmat didn’t come through, or she couldn’t go in and out of here constantly all day once he did…  She didn’t want to think about it.

When she heard Chris coming back, she closed up the cages and looked around to make sure everything looked good.  Chris opened the interior airlock door and looked around.  “Wow, it looks good!  And it smells a lot cleaner.  You do good work.”

She shrugged and said, “I just try extra hard for my little friends.”

He walked her back to the security door, annoyingly reminding her more than once that she needed to get clearances if she was going to be dropping in and pestering him all the time.  She wanted to say something rude, but she was too worried he might say something to sensei Ito and cost her the chance to save all of her little friends.  So she just smiled and nodded and said ‘okay’.

She waited until he slammed the security door behind her to scowl.

She hurried back to her dorm room, checking through her mental lists as she went.  The next thing she needed to do, before she met up with her friends for lunch, was to make some carrying boxes.  And put a lot of nesting materials in each one, for her little friends to sleep in.  Fifty-eight families worth of nesting materials.  Oh jeez, she was never going to get through all this in time!

She hurried into her room, and found Ellen studying math.  Ellen looked up and said, “Go meet your pals at the Combat Finals.  They’ve got ideas to tell you.”

“But… but… I gotta get a whole ton of stuff done first!  I mean…”

Ellen shook her head, “No, you don’t.  Your friends have figured a bunch of stuff out for you, and you need to go talk to them before you go nuts.”

“Was that a squirrel joke?”

“Umm…  Maybe?”

Anna smiled, “Thanks, maybe I’ll go do that.  And maybe we’ll see the most awesome Combat Final EVAR.”

Skids grinned, “Awesomer than Lancer and Eldritch?”

“Awesomer!”

“Awesomer than Chaka?”

Anna stopped.  “Well, I can’t think of anything awesomer than Chaka’s Combat Final.  That was totally insane.  But if something even better comes along while I’m over there talking with the other Unders, I will so tease you about missing it.”

Skids shrugged, “I gotta get this done before the weekend, no matter what.  Saturday and Sunday afternoons are snowmobile racing down the east road, and I’ve got forty bucks with Hazard that I can win at least three races.  And she’s giving me 4-1 odds, so I know something’s up with that.  Probably Thrasher or Mechano Man.  Anyways, once I finish studying, I’ve got to get my trike refit for spiked rear wheels, with some safety cages.  So no time for awesomeness.  I’ll just have to find someone who’s got it on tape, so I can watch ‘The Best Of’ some day.”

Anna made her way to Arena ’99, and found her friends sitting with Outcast Corner again.  It was kind of funny.  Most of the school was scared to death of Razorback, and he was like their personal protector.  Kind of like ‘My Bodyguard’, only not with Hollywood actors.

Nate and Ree and Luce waved her over, and she scooted past Jericho to sit with her fellow Underdogs.  Luce started out, “We asked Pythia after you took off, and she said you were gonna need some kind of carriers for all your chipmunks and squirrels, and then they’d need nesting stuff to sleep in and stay warm.  She had an idea for the carrying boxes, and we had ideas for the nesting stuff.  So…  Ta-da!”

And she handed Anna a cardboard to-go box from the cafeteria.  They had some really nice waxed brown cardboard to-go boxes that had a square bottom and flared out on all four sides for easier loading, and then had two big pieces that folded over the top with a tab-and-slot design to lock it in place.

“Huh?” Anna couldn’t figure out why they were giving her more food at a time like this.  It wasn’t even lunch yet.

“Open it up!” insisted Ree.

Anna obliged.  She undid the little tab at the top and opened it.  Inside was a little donut of nesting material, mostly soft down but also tiny scraps of cloth.  She could just imagine a cuddly little squirrel or two nestled in there, fast asleep.

“Well, whaddaya think?” Nate pushed.

She was so choked up she couldn’t speak.  Her friends had done this for her, and…  She burst into tears and wept, “It’s perfect.  Thanks so much!  This is the greatest thing ever!”

Luce said, “I got three different sizes of to-go boxes from the cafeteria.”

Ree said, “And I got a whole bunch of scrap fabric.”

Nate added, “And I… umm…  Well, four down pillows mysteriously vanished out of the dorm.  It’s the darnedest thing…”

“Nate!” Lucille frowned.

“Yes, mom?” Nate asked, trying real hard to look innocent and failing really bad at it.

Lucille scowled, “And just whose pillows were they?”

Nate shrugged, “No one you like.”

“Nate!” Lucille scolded.  “That’s not okay!”

Anna blubbered, “B-but th-thanks.  This is s-so great.  I never thought I could get everything together in time, but now…  Now…”  And she burst into tears again.  She knew it was stupid, but she just couldn’t help it.  This was so great!

She watched some pretty amazing Combat Finals (and a couple sort of lame ones) with her friends, even if she had a hard time not crying with happiness every time she looked at the nesting box her friends had made for her.  Then they dragged her off to lunch.  She didn’t complain, because she was figuring out what she needed to do that afternoon before Combat Finals wrapped up for the day.  She couldn’t go talk to sensei Ito until then, anyway, so she needed to use the afternoon for something else.  She had thirty-seven burrows to unbury and check on.  Even if she knew where they were from her little friends, that was still a ton of work.  And she didn’t want to do all that digging in the snow with her bare hands.  Her nails might be really hard, but that didn’t keep her hands from getting wet and freezing cold.  She needed at least one shovel.  Maybe a couple different kinds of shovels.  She knew just who would know what to do.

Ree and Luce walked on either side of her in the lunch line and made her get stuff.  Luce said, “You need more than that little salad.”

Ree said, “Here, try this, it’s Waldorf salad or something, and it’s all fruit and nuts.”

Nate came over and said, “Here!  I saved you a cup of the chili!  It’s really good!”

Pretty much the entire lunch line groaned when they heard that.

Luce whispered, “For God’s sake, don’t let him in the hideout until tomorrow!”

“I’m not stupid!” Anna insisted.  One time was all the experience she needed to learn a valuable - if really horribly stinky - lesson.  Namely, that it took hours to air the Underdogs’ hideaway out once Nate started cutting loose.

Luce insisted, “I swear to God, that boy’s butt is a violation of the Geneva Convention!”  Even Anna couldn’t keep from giggling.  Especially when Nate did his ‘why is everyone picking on me’ face.

Ree said to him, “Just remember, you can only sit with us for the next hour.  After that, you’ll have to sit somewhere else in the arena.  Or go back to your room and listen to it on WARS.”

“Okay, okay!” Nate grumbled.  “Jeez, you make one stupid piece of shrubbery wilt, and everyone’s on your ass.”

“Hey Miasma, trust me, no one’s on your ass!” called out a guy a couple people back in the line.

Lucille fussed, “Nate, it was a plastic plant!  And no one could go back in there for like ten hours!”

Anna ate her food without paying much attention to it.  She figured she needed to check all thirty-seven burrows this afternoon if she could, because she didn’t know if she’d have enough time tomorrow or Friday.  But if she could get the sites ready today, she might have enough time to move everyone into their burrows, once Hazmat came through for her.  And if he did come through for her, he deserved a date.  Heck, if he came through for her, he deserved a date with Fey or Chaka, or someone else on the ‘hot list’.

Well, not the really mean girls on the hot list, like Solange and Majestic.  Nobody deserved being stuck with them, except guys like The Don and Imperious, who were really mean jerks too.  If Hazmat came through on this for her, he deserved a date with a nice girl from the hot list.  She couldn’t help smiling at the memory of him saying she was pretty and wanting to ask her out.

As soon as she was done eating, she headed off to the gardeners’ shed.  That’s what they all called it.  The Shed.  But it wasn’t just for the gardeners, and it wasn’t a shed.  It was a big two-story building hidden away between Dunn Hall and some of the forest.  It had huge roll-up garage doors at the front and back, for all the trucks and self-powered equipment to go in and out.  It had a shop floor for repair work on the tools and sharpening the saws and everything else like that.  It had storage areas, so the fall weather stuff was all put away while the winter gear was all out, and then so the winter gear could get put away when spring came around.  The riding lawnmowers and riding leaf vacuums were all put away, now that the snowblowers and snowplows were all out.  The ‘tree surgeon’ truck was tucked away in a corner of the main level, along with the smaller gardeners’ trucks and stuff, and in their usual places were several snowmobiles.

She trotted up the stairs to the second floor, where the offices and the lunchroom and a couple small shops and the extra storage spaces were.  She checked with Mrs. Lewis, who was the secretary for the whole building, and she sent Anna back to Mr. Miyamoto’s office.

Anna peeped in, and Mr. Miyamoto waved her in.  “Ahh, Aquerna.  What can I do for you today?”

She smiled.  Mr. M. could always make her smile, even on a bad day like this.  He was a Japanese man, and probably in his fifties, although she wasn’t sure.  He was a couple inches taller than her, and really strong, even if he wasn’t all that musclebound.  No, it was from working hard outside all his life.  He was the official Whateley landscape architect, and the boss of everyone who worked out of ‘the shed’.  That meant he was in charge of all the Whateley gardeners, the arborists, the tree climbers, the landscapers, everybody.  And he was in charge of all the students who had ‘outdoors’ scholarships like her and Fertility.  And he had to handle the kids who got detentions and got assigned the outdoors jobs, which really didn’t sound like a fun part of the job.  Some of the older workers had a nickname for him: Mister Moto.  She didn’t know where that came from, and she’d never asked Phase.  But some of the younger guys had a different nickname: Mister Miyagi.  She knew that one: she’d seen “The Karate Kid” and “The Karate Kid 2” on DVD.  She just called him Mr. M.

She explained about her little friends, and asked if she could have two shovels for the week.  A big one to clear heavy snow, and a really narrow one to just scoot a foot of snow out of the way of burrow openings like when she was looking for burrows around tree roots or under really heavy tree cover.

He pursed his lips and said, “We do need to protect our little ecosystem around here, and that includes your friends.  Let me get you two shovels, and some help.”

“Help?”

“Naturally,” he smiled.  “After all the help you’ve been this term, I think we can help you out.”

He walked over to Mrs. Lewis’s desk and pressed the speaker button.  “Bill and Ted?  Get off your butts and get up here.  I’ve got another excellent adventure for you to go do.”

She covered up her mouth to keep from giggling.  ‘Bill and Ted’ were what everybody at ‘the shed’ called Bull Morris and Todd Schmidt.  Someone had told her about “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”, so she got why everyone always called them Bill and Ted, and why everyone always made jokes about their ‘excellent adventures’.  She knew it was an old movie with Keanu Reeves, who was really cute but wasn’t a good actor like Heath Ledger or Johnny Depp.  Bull and Todd were two of the gardening and clean-up crew, and always seemed to get the crummiest jobs that didn’t get dumped on students.  Plus, Anna had helped them out a ton of times in the fall, since her powers let her clear like the whole Quad in maybe fifteen minutes just by getting her little friends to grab all the sticks and leaves and dump them in piles.

When ‘Bill and Ted’ showed up, Mr. M. led them over to a nearby storage bay.  He pulled out a wide shovel and handed it to Bull.  “This is a grain shovel, Anna.  It should be sufficient when you have many feet to dig down through.”  Then he pulled out a shovel that had a blade about a foot and a half long but only a few inches wide.  “This is a tiling spade.  I think this is exactly what you’ll want when you need to clear smaller amounts of snow near tree trunks and in heavy forested areas.”

“So what’re we doin’?” Bull asked.

Mr. M. looked at Anna, who explained, “I need to scout out some burrows for squirrels and chipmunks.  Thirty-seven of ‘em.  I know where they are, but I gotta clear ‘em all so when I get my little friends ready for hibernation, I can run over and slide ‘em right into the tunnels and let ‘em make their nests and go to sleep.”

“37, huh?” asked Todd.  “How many days do we have fer this?”

Anna gulped, “I think I have to get it done in the next four or five hours.”

Bull and Todd looked at each other.  Bull said, “Look Anna, you’ve been a big help fer us all term.  But there’s no way we can clear enough snow ta find 37 tiny holes in the ground and do whatever else ya gotta do.”

She said, “That’s why I was gonna do this myself.  I know exactly where the burrows are.  Most of ‘em, I already knew about.  They told me the others.  And none of ‘em are that far away from main campus.”

Bull and Todd looked at each other again.  Todd shrugged, “Okay.  Let’s give it a shot.  We’ll know pretty soon if it’s gonna work.  Anyways, it beats running the snowblowers to clear the sidewalks.”

Bull shrugged, “Hey, that’s not so hard, just frigging cold!”  He looked over at Anna and winced at his language, “Sorry.”

Anna had seen them running the snowblowers, so she knew what they meant.  Each snowblower was self-powered and had a huge chute that was two feet high and four or five feet wide, with a giant churning auger inside to chew up the snow and spit it out the chute, which was seven feet in the air and blasted the snow maybe twenty feet off to one side.  Bull’s snowblower threw everything to the left, and Todd’s threw everything to the right, so when they walked the paths, Todd on the right side and Bull a couple feet back and on the left side of the path, pretty much the whole path was done on one pass.

Todd checked out one of the small electric-powered buggies, while Bull and Anna got snowshoes for the three of them.  Bull knew what size Todd needed, but he had no idea about Anna’s small feet.  Anna wasn’t planning on using the snowshoes if she didn’t need to, since a lot of the time she could run over the snow without doing more than leaving a trail of footprints behind.

Mr. M. had her mark up a map with all the places she wanted to check.  When she laid it all out, she could see that it wasn’t as bad as she feared at first.  There were clusters of burrows in places.  Like the big forested area between Poe and Melville, way off the paths on that map.  Or the area between Dickinson and Whitman, only well east of the brick path.  Or a couple areas over near the road that ran all around the campus.  Seven little clusters, plus a dozen other burrows?  Maybe they could do that in one afternoon.

Mr. M. gave each of them one of the ruggedized garden-phones.  They were big cell phones sealed inside a thick, rubbery, protective plastic, so you could drop them in mud or in a creek and they’d still work.  He said, “Keep me informed.  Anna, you can hang onto yours until you’re all done with this project.”

“Gee, thanks!” she gaped.  She could hardly believe her luck.  Now, if only the phone worked as well inside the tunnels as Mirror’s little cell phone did…

Todd and Bull let Anna squeeze into the little dropseats behind the regular seats in the cabin of the electric cart.  The two shovels and some other gear were all strapped down in the bed of the cart behind her.  “Hang on!” Bull grinned.  She grabbed onto the strap over by the top of the window.

It was a good thing Bull gave her some warning.  Todd drove the little electric cart like there was a supervillain chasing him.  Anna had to hang on so tight her fingernails cut into the plastic of the strap.  They zoomed around the outer road and got to their first stop in no time.  It felt to Anna like Todd must’ve gone seventy miles an hour.  But she wasn’t going to admit she was scared, and she wasn’t going to ask him to slow down when she felt like she had no time to spare.

Bull and Todd pulled on their snowshoes while Anna grabbed the tiling spade and ran across the crisp snow.  There was enough of a crust that she didn’t have any trouble staying on top of the deep snow, even when she had to run over some big drifts.

She could sense that she was in the right place, so she went to work against the trunk of a huge oak.  It only took her a few seconds with the spade to scrape away the snow over a hole between two roots, and check that it was empty.  It wouldn’t be good if she tried shoving a family unit into a burrow that already had occupants.

She was checking another burrow at the base of a fir before ‘Bill and Ted’ caught up with her.  So she ran out onto the snow and stabbed into the snow.  “Here!  There ought to be one right underneath here!”

Bull and Todd stared at each other… and they both shrugged.  “Okay, kid.”  Bull had the big shovel, and he went to work clearing his way down to the ground, while Anna ran off to check another burrow.

Anna was lucky, so far.  Part of the area was in really heavy forest, and not as much of the snow had worked its way to the forest floor there.  So she was able to check two more burrows before Bull was ready for her to check his snow pit.  She concentrated…  and stuck the tiling spade four inches into the remaining snow and right into the burrow.  Bull had done an amazing job of digging down just the right amount without digging into the ground.  That burrow was okay too.

She marked another burrow in the deep snow, and Todd started digging while she ran off to check the last easy burrow in the little area.  She finished way before Todd did, and then had to dig about a foot and a half down to get to the burrow entrance.  Todd hadn’t done as well as Bull had, and Bull gave Todd some major shit about it all the way back to the cart.

Anna squeezed into the back of the cabin and kept her mouth shut while the men hopped in and Todd zoomed off to the next cluster on the map.  She didn’t like how fast he was driving, but she was more afraid she wouldn’t have enough time if the men stopped driving fast.  If they had to piddle along and worry about her, she’d never get every burrow checked.  She clenched her teeth and hung on to the strap.

At the next spot, it was just as fast to check every burrow in the little cluster, but then they had to stomp out into the snow to check two burrows that were further away.  She had the one at the base of the tree already done by the time the guys got there to clear snow from the harder one.  And then they had to tromp all the way back to the cart.  She looked at her watch and tried not to worry too much.  But if they had to hike all the way in to the clusters over by Poe and Dickinson, they’d never make it before dark.  She didn’t know what to do.

Todd got them to all the sites near the outer road, and it was still before three p.m.  But she was worrying a lot more.

“Bill and Ted?  Check in.  Aquerna?  Check in,” Mrs. Lewis insisted over the radio in the cart.

“Bill here.  Todd’s driving like the Indy 500, so he can’t talk for a minute.  Anna’s hanging onto a strap like she’s about to fall out.”

Anna grabbed her phone and pushed 1 on the speed dial.  “Aquerna here.  I’m fine.  Todd’s doing a great job.  No complaints.”

Mrs. Lewis said, “Good.  Tell Todd to meet Mr. Miyamoto at Point Fifty on the outer road.”

Bull frowned, but said, “Okay.  Got it.  Point Fifty.”

Anna asked, “What does that mean?”

Bull said, “We’ve got the outer road marked up in a hundred little segments.  Zero is due north.  Point 50 is south of Hawthorne.”

“Hawthorne?” Anna squeaked.  “But we don’t wanna go there!  That’s the wrong direction!  And we’d be way out of the way even for the burrows north of Poe!”

Todd stepped on the accelerator, making the cart seem to go into a long controlled skid.  Anna gasped as quietly as she could manage, and just hung on.  He said, “You know the rules.  Mr. Miyagi says…  We do.”

She gulped.  “Right.  I know.”  She wasn’t going to break the rules, when Mr. M. was being so helpful.  But she had no idea what was the matter, and she had no idea how she could get to more than a couple more of the burrows on her own, if she had to start from way south of Hawthorne.  She just closed her eyes and kept telling herself it would be okay.

Todd skidded to a sliding stop at Point 50.  Anna opened her eyes and managed to pry her fingers loose from the strap.  Which was nearly cut in two by then.  And she gasped.

Mr. M. had a big truck there, and he and two other men had unloaded two big two-seater snowmobiles for them!  Anna could have kissed all of them right then.  Even Bull, who really needed more underarm deodorant if he was going to be digging snow holes in heavy winter clothing.

Jennifer was there too, all bundled up for snowmobiling and stuff, and she had some extra shovels.  Anna didn’t know why everyone was being so nice to her, but it was all she could do not to start crying.

“Th-this is so g-great,” she managed.

Jennifer patted her on the shoulder.  “C’mon, hon.  Don’t cry here.  These jerks all think girls are little sobby things already.  It’s bad for our rep.”

Mr. M. said, “You’ve helped out everyone here, even when you didn’t have to.  Those times you cleared the Quad for us, and the way you checked all the trees for weak spots in Cliff’s sector back in the fall, and the way the area all around Dickinson stays clean all the time…  We figure you deserve some help, the one time you ask.”

“B-but this is so much!  The snowmobiles… and everything…”  Anna had to clench her teeth to keep from sobbing.

Jennifer grinned, “Remember the time you helped me with those shrubs, even though you didn’t have to, all because I said I had a date and I didn’t know if I could get done in time?”

“Uh-huh,” Anna said, trying not to get all teary-eyed and stuff.

“Well, you and your little friends saved me about four hours.  So I figure I owe you at least a couple hours now.”

“Th-thanks,” Anna sniffed.

“Unh-uh, no crying,” Jennifer smiled.

“O-okay.”

‘Bill and Ted’ grinned.  Bull said, “And hey, you saved us shitloads of time every time we asked you to help clean up the Quad.  Or the paths to the dorms.”

Todd added, “And Mr. Miyagi hasn’t asked us to do weeding or leaf-raking around your place for months.”

Bull nodded, “Yeah.  Thanks.”

Anna shrugged, “My little friends just like to keep it extra nice for me, and they’re really cooperative.”

Jennifer slid a couple shovels handle-first into a tube mounted on the side of one snowmobile.  “Well then, let’s cooperate for them.  You’re with me, since there’s no way I’m letting Bill and Ted grab onto my butt.”

“Aw Jen, come on!  I promise it’ll be an excellent adventure!” smirked Todd.

“Yeah yeah, we’ve all heard that before,” she pretended to scowl.

As everyone laughed, Jennifer started up one snowmobile and pointed to the seat behind her for Anna to sit on.  ‘Bill and Ted’ took the other snowmobile and started having ‘excellent adventures’ doing donuts in the snow.  Anna noticed that the snowmobiles were noisy, but still far quieter than any snowmobile she’d ever seen.  She guessed that maybe the engines or the mufflers were devises.

Mr. M. yelled over the noise of the machines, “Just don’t tear anything up, or you’ll have to fix it later!”  Then he shrugged, fully aware that ‘Bill and Ted’ would have pretended not to hear him even if they really could hear his shouting over the noise of the snowmobiles.

Anna hung on to the back of Jennifer’s coat, and Jennifer roared off.  “Just point anytime you want me to change direction!” she called out over the engine.

Anna watched as they tore past Hawthorne, cut around some of the heavily wooded areas, and then zoomed past the eastern side of Poe away from the brick path.  When she tugged on Jen’s coat, the snowmobile slid to a stop.  Anna hopped off and grabbed one of the tiling spades.  Then she ran over the snow to the first burrow.  She sniffed and looked around until she was sure she was in the right spot, and she dug out a scoop of snow as a marker.

Once she was sure Jen knew where to dig, she ran to the next spot and marked the next burrow.  Bull came trudging over the snow in his snowshoes, and went to work there.  Then she marked a burrow for Todd.  After that, she ran to the fir tree nearby and used the tiling spade to dig down to the burrow in between its roots.  Ooh, that looked really good.  She moved on to the next tree her little friends had told her about.

She managed to check three ‘easy’ burrows before Bull called her.  She dashed over the snow to dig the last couple inches and check.

“Damn, Anna,” Bull grinned.  “How do you do that and not sink about three feet into the snow?”

She didn’t say anything.  He knew the answer.  He was a huge guy, and worked out with weights.  He probably weighed three time what she did.  So naturally he sank into the snowbanks.  And maybe her squirrel spirit helped her too.  Somehow.

Once she had all three of their burrows checked, she marked three more for them to dig out, and she checked the last two easy spots.  Right next to the trunks of the really dense fir trees, the snow was really light, since the heaviest part of the snow was still up on top of the trees, or else fallen off the branches and on the ground twenty feet from the trunk.  She really had it easy, compared to the heavy digging the others were doing.

And, once she checked those last three burrows, they were back on the snowmobiles and heading for the forest northeast of Dickinson.  They made a couple stops before and after that cluster, to check individual burrows, and then they were off to the area southwest of Twain.  They checked the last couple separate burrows on their way back to ‘the shed’.  It seemed like she never stopped rushing the entire afternoon.

But - thanks to her really great friends - she got it done.  She had all the burrows cleared and checked, and she was ready.  As soon as Hazmat had the H.I.T. ready.  Her stomach was tying up in knots every time she thought about what would happen if he couldn’t get the stuff made in time.

She made it back to the arena in time for the last two combat finals of the day.  She really wanted sleep, but she had to go see sensei Ito.  Plus she was starving.  She wasn’t usually all that hungry this time of year, because of her squirrel spirit,  But after an entire afternoon of hard work, she felt like she could eat a cow.

Well, not an actual cow.  That would be icky and gross, and she didn’t eat that much meat anymore, anyways.  But maybe an entire butternut squash and a pumpkin pie.

She walked back to the same security door and buzzed the button on the speaker.

“Aquerna.  Don’t tell me you need to see your squirrels again!”

She winced a little, but she pushed onward.  “I’m sorry to be such a pain, but this is important.  Could you tell sensei Ito or Staff Sergeant Wilson or Sergeant Bardue that I need to talk to someone about getting permission to come and go into the animal care area?  It’s really important.  If I’m rescuing squirrels all day tomorrow and Friday, you don’t want to have to stop what you’re doing and let me in and out thirty times a day, do you?”

The voice groaned, “Okay.  Let me see if I can get hold of any of ‘em.  They’re still talking with a couple of our combatants.”

“I can wait.  I’ll just be right here,” she said.  Even if she felt like she was lying.  She didn’t feel like she could wait.  She felt like she needed to do something.  Just sitting on the floor and pretending to be patient was hard.  And the floor wasn’t comfy either.  Good thing she didn’t get as sore sitting on hard things as she used to.  So she concentrated on what she needed to do once she got back to her room.  She’d take the fruit baskets and the nut assortment apart on her bed, and get a whole bunch of fruits and nuts ready to go into the carrying boxes so her little friends could have some food in their burrows.  She needed to figure out how to pack all that stuff so she could lug it all down to the animal care area.  She needed to figure out how to tote her little friends around in the carrying boxes so no one got hurt.  She needed to…

The door clicked, and she scrambled to her feet.  Sensei Ito stepped out and faced her.  “Aquerna.  Are you all right?”

“Sensei, I just needed to talk to you.  I need to get some way to get permission to go in and out of here all day tomorrow and Friday, because there’s like three hundred of my little friends that I need to rescue, and it’s gonna take forever if I have to wait for someone to walk me in and out every single time I come down here.”

Sensei smiled slightly, “Yes, that had occurred to some of us.  Chris was quite pleased that you helped him with the care and feeding of the squirrels, but he was reluctant to act as… how did he put it… ‘that chick’s babysitter’.”  Sensei gave a slight frown that told her he didn’t like Chris’s attitude all that much.  “So I will see what I can do.  Are you sure you do not want to watch the other finals?”

She bit her lower lip a little.  “Umm, sure.  I’d love to watch all the combat finals with my friends.  But not if it means letting my little friends die.  I’m sure I’ll still be able to watch some of the finals somehow.”

He nodded in thought.  “What about studying for your exams?”

She’d been worrying about that one too.  She admitted, “I’ll get back to that after I’ve got all of them safe and sound.  Like Saturday morning.  I promise.”

He thought it over and answered, “Very well, I will check for you.  If you will meet me in the dojo right after dinner, you will see what I have been able to do for you.”

“Oh thank you thank you thank you!” she squealed.  She really wanted to give him a hug, but she didn’t think he’d like that.  She asked, “Oh yeah, what about getting Hazmat in too?  I’m gonna need his help once he gets the hibernation drug all synthesized and stuff.”

Sensei Ito did that ‘tiny wrinkle on the forehead’ thing that seemed to be his serious frown.  He said, “Hazmat does not have quite the pristine record that you do.  That may be more complex a problem.”

Darn it.  She just said, “Okay.”  And she hoped a whole lot.  She didn’t know what else to do.

She rushed off through the tunnels toward the Crystal Hall.  She was really, really hungry by then.  And there was probably gonna be a huge crowd in the cafeteria, since everyone was done watching combat finals for the day.

Ree and Darlene were waiting outside the cafeteria doors for her.  She grinned at the sight of them.  As soon as she got really close, Darlene frowned.  “Anna, I know you’ve been working really hard, but you’re kind of… smelly.”

Anna blushed with embarrassment.  She hadn’t even thought about that, even though Bull and Todd had been pretty funky by the time they all got back to the shed, and even Jennifer wasn’t exactly fresh as a daisy.  She mumbled, “I’m sorry, I’ll go home and shower.”

Ree grabbed her wrist.  “You will not!  I bet you haven’t eaten anything all day since lunch.”

Darlene added, “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings, but other people might be kind of mean about it.”

Yeah.  Like everyone who noticed.  She didn’t want to think about how the Alphas would act if one of them spotted little Anna, the squirrel girl, running around the cafeteria being all stinky.

Ree said, “Come on.  No one’s going to notice.  Nate’s at the far side of the caff, and they’ve got him under the big vent fans.  And he still smells like-”

“Like someone blew up the outhouse, as my great-uncle Ed used to say,” Darlene cut in.

“Oh phew!” Anna gasped.

Ree grinned, “Lucille’s got our table way on the far side from the fans, between the big planter and the glass.  We’ll have the most Nate-free spot in the place.”

Anna was glad her friends didn’t mind how bad she smelled, because she was starving.  She got two servings of the vegetable casserole, and some mashed potatoes with lots of butter and sour cream, and some salad with lots of chopped nuts in it, and two pieces of pie.  They did have pumpkin pie, so she grabbed a piece, but the apple pie looked delicious too.

Darlene gasped, “Good lord, Anna!  You never eat this much!”

Ree wondered, “Have you been running all over campus or something?”

So, over dinner, Anna told everybody all about Mr. M. helping her out, and ‘Bill and Ted’ digging snow for her, and Jen, and the snowmobiles.  Well, she didn’t tell everybody.  Nate wasn’t there.  Will said Nate was REALLY stinky after all that chili, and he said Nate had like three whole bowls of it at lunchtime even though he knew he’d be a gasbomb for the rest of the day.

Lucille watched Anna chow down and asked, “So are all the little holes ready now?”

Anna nodded yes, since she had a huge bite of pumpkin pie in her mouth.  Once she finished swallowing, she said, “But there’s still a ton of work to do.  I can get my little friends into the carriers and put in bedding and food for them too, but I’ve gotta figure out how to get a couple of the carriers at a time, because there’s no way I can do twenty or thirty separate runs all over campus and back, and not run out of time.”

Darlene stared at her empty dessert plate and thought.  “Have you seen the fancy carriers they put the to-go boxes in sometimes?”

“Umm, no?” Anna admitted.

Darlene said, “It’s like a wooden box that could hold half a dozen drawers on top of each other, but without the drawers in it.  So you slide the to-go boxes in on top of each other, but there’s little wooden floors for each box to sit on, so they don’t crush each other or anything.”

Lucille asked, “How do you know about them?”

Darlene complained, “I had to help Flicker and Fade one time when they were carrying food back to the dorm for Solange.  They wouldn’t tell me what was going on, or why Tansy wouldn’t come out of her room, or anything, but they were really mean when I said I didn’t want to help.  They promised to lay off us for a week if I carried the thing back to the dorm for them.  So I did it, but it was really stupid, since Fade could’ve done her teleport thing with it instead.  I think they were just being really lazy, or maybe just picking on me…  Anyway, that’s how I know the cafeteria has those carrying things.”

Lucille said, “That sounds perfect.  Anna, I’ll get one for you, and I’ll bring it down to the hangout tonight so you can pick it up.”

Anna stuffed the last bite of apple pie into her mouth and said, “Thanks!  That’s great.  ‘Cause I’ve got to get over to the dojo to meet sensei Ito, and then-”

“And then you need to go home and shower,” Darlene put in.

Ree wrinkled her nose and said, “Might be a good idea.”

Anna took care of her tray and rushed off to the dojo.  She cut through the tunnels so she could get there faster.  She hurried through the annex to sensei Ito’s office and tried not to knock too loud.

“Come in, Aquerna,” called sensei.

She opened the door and peeked in.  Sensei Ito had a little desk in his office, but as far as she knew, he never used it.  He was sitting on a mat in the middle of the floor, and it looked like he was meditating.

“Oh!  Am I disturbing you?  I could come back later if you-”

He smiled slightly.  “It is all right.  Please come in and sit down.”

She sat in seiza position in front of him.  It wasn’t really comfortable, even after she’d done it for weeks and weeks, but she was more flexible than she used to be, so it wasn’t bad.  She settled in and waited for him to say something.

He handed her a red security card on a plastic necklace.  “Here you are.  This will open the doors you have used today.  It will get you through that security door, down the elevator, into the animal care facility, and into the squirrel room.  But nowhere else.”

She grinned, “I don’t need anywhere else.  This is perfect!  Thanks so much!”

He nodded and continued, “You will have to escort Hazmat into the squirrel room and out again.  I cannot get him his own card, but I have managed permission for him to accompany you.  You will be responsible for him.  Any misbehavior on his part will reflect badly on you.  Will you accept this responsibility?”

Right then she could’ve danced, but she tried to at least look calm.  “Yes, sensei.”

He gave her a small smile.  It was a pretty big smile for him.  “Good.  Then let me offer you the best of luck in your project.”

“Thank you, sensei.  Thank you very much!” she grinned.

“One other thing, Aquerna.  I have seen that you are willing to work hard in class.  Now I see how hard you are willing to work for your friends.  You might consider a class I am teaching in winter term.  It will be a ‘special topics’ class in martial arts, focusing on weapons.  Since you lack the offensive powers that some Whateley students possess, you might want to learn about weapons that suit your fighting style.”

She gulped.  “But won’t that class be a whole lot of kids who are really good at martial arts, or maybe they’re really powerful?  Chaka and Swordmaiden and Nightbane and like that?”

He gave her a tiny nod.  “Yes, but you will never get better by working against those of lesser skill.”

She didn’t know what to say.  She’d gotten bruised plenty of times this term, and this sounded like it could be a lot of ouches.  Ouches with real swords would be bad.  But she’d been planning to take more martial arts until she could defend herself better from the campus bullies.  Still, this one sounded like she would be in way over her head.  But sensei Ito wouldn’t have told her about it if he thought she couldn’t handle it…

She managed to tell him, “I’ll think about it.  Thank you, sensei.”  She shoved the security card into her pocket and politely left, before turning and running as fast as she could all the way back to her dorm room.

She carefully took out the security card and tucked it into her desk drawer - not that she thought there was any chance at all that Skids would do anything bad if she saw it - but there were plenty of people at Dickinson she didn’t trust.  And Jaunt still popped into your room without knocking if she had something to tell you.  Then she tossed her clothes into her laundry basket, shoved it back under her bed, and grabbed her shower stuff.

She took a quick shower, but didn’t go crazy trying to rush.  She hardly ever had privacy in the shower area here, so this was nice,  She took her time and even used her detangler on her hair after she used the conditioner.  She had time to use her loofah sponge without grouchy people yelling at her to get out and give someone else a chance to get clean before they were late for classes.  Then she dried off and put on her terrycloth bathrobe, which was sort of worn now but she really liked it and she didn’t care all that much if some of the girls made fun of her for not having brand new, super-expensive stuff all the time.  Well, she did care, but she wasn’t going to admit it to anyone except Ree and Luce and Darlene.

After she dried her hair and got dressed, she took the time to prepare some treats.  She pulled apart the two huge fruit baskets and the nut assortment.  Some of it was totally not okay for her little friends, like the chocolate covered nuts and the Whitman Samplers and the candy popcorn.  But there was no way she could eat all of that herself in a week.  Not without ending up looking like a hippo instead of a squirrel.  So she put the stuff for her little friends on the bed with the wicker baskets, and she put the other stuff into a big paper bag.  She even put half the really good chocolates in there.  They tasted so good it was just sinful, but there was no way she could eat all of that huge box.  She wished she knew who sent the thing, because it probably cost several people a lot of money.

She slung the paper bag under her arm and set off toward Whitman.  It was pretty cold, but at least it wasn’t snowing.  If they had a huge snowstorm between now and Saturday morning, she was probably totally screwed.  The holes she dug would be buried, and there was no way she could re-do all of everyone’s hard work.  Why did she even think about that?  Now she was going to be sweating about the weather too!

Ree was waiting outside Whitman by the time Anna got there.  “Come on, Anna!  Where have you been?”

“Well, I needed to see sensei, and he gave me a security card for tomorrow, and then I needed to shower and dry my hair, and then I packed a bunch of treats for everybody.”

Ree looked at the size of the bag and said, “Let me guess.  You’re keeping all the fruit for your squirrels.”

“Well, not the pineapples.  I don’t think pineapple would be good for them.  And I’m keeping most of the nut assortment for my little friends,” she said.

Ree just grinned, “I’m so surprised to hear that.”  Anna grinned back.  Ree went on, “So anyway, Nate wanted to come tonight, and Lucille just shut him down like that, and he was really grumpy, but you know what would happen if we let him come.”

Anna nodded, “Oh yeah, everyone does.  I mean, he blew out a window in his dorm room last week!”

Ree grinned.  “Good thing our hangout is underground.”

“Except then we can’t open the windows for emergency ventilation,” Anna said.

“And we can’t dive out the windows for emergency rescues,” added Ree.

They giggled and made fun of Nate’s problem as they walked into Whitman.  Ree led her right down the stairs and into the tunnels.  Then they headed off toward Twain.  It didn’t take long to get to the right place in the tunnels.

Anna pulled out the key from Mister Mahren’s friends.  Now that Mister Mahren was gone, this gift meant so much more to her.  There was no way she could ever repay Mister Mahren for taking an Underdog like her into the Parkour Hooligans.  The rest of the Hooligans were major campus stars, and had major superpowers.  Zenith was like an Exemplar-5 and had psychic powers so she could do almost anything.  Breaker was just as strong, and had that explosion power that made him almost unbeatable.  Thrasher had those amazing PK abilities, and people said he was a Bad Seed too.  She was just Aquerna, the kid people made fun of.  But the Hooligans were all so nice to her, like she was someone special.  She really missed Mister Mahren.  So what if he was really grouchy to stupid kids who didn’t act careful on the ranges?  They deserved it.  Her dad had two shotguns hanging up over their fireplace, and he’d made sure she knew about gun safety long before she could climb up and touch the guns.  So she knew how important gun safety was, and she thought Mister Mahren probably had to be a real tough guy on the ranges.  Plus, he must’ve had some horrible experiences in the military, from all the things he and his friends couldn’t talk about.  It wasn’t fair that someone like him got killed, when lots of not nice people got off scot free.  People were still claiming that Deathlist - the Deathlist - was on campus at Halloween and fought Headmistress Carson before she blew him up, and he still got away.

Ree looked around to make sure no one else could see what they were doing.  Anna opened up the big ‘electrical panel’ on the wall and pressed on the bottom ‘circuit breakers’, which popped open to reveal a big steel lock.  She put in her special key and gave it a turn.  The wall opened up to reveal a hidden doorway.

They slipped inside and closed the fake wall after them.  They opened the inner door and walked down the steps into the Underdogs clubhouse.  The first time Anna had snuck in here, she had been totally surprised.  It was nicer than the first-floor lounge in Dickinson, even if the furniture wasn’t as fancy or as new.  Still, Underdogs weren’t super-strong powerhouses or unstoppable blasters, so the furniture in here held up for a lot longer than in most of the dorms.

But over on the left side was a nice little kitchen.  It had a great big side-by-side refrigerator-freezer with drink dispensers and an ice dispenser in the front, and a big cooking range and oven.  The front of the oven was that pink color that told Anna it had been made back in the Sixties, like some of the appliances she’d seen back in Zanesville.  There was a complete double sink with a garbage disposal and a nifty faucet and an ‘instant boiling water’ faucet too.  There was enough instant soup and frozen dinners and dried fruit and whatnot in the cupboards to hold you for like a couple months, and the cupboards also had some nice glasses and mugs and plates and flatware, and even baking stuff, like half a dozen cookie pans and some cake tins.  In the main room there were big padded couches and easy chairs arranged in a couple little groupings, and a fancy stereo system with a ton of CDs and old-fashioned vinyl records and stuff.

One wall had a bookcase, and there were maybe four or five hundred books there, mostly paperbacks.  And mostly the kind of paperbacks that you read once and then left on that bookshelf and didn’t admit that you were the one who left the book there.  The Catherine Coulter Regency romances were Anna’s, but only Rhiannon and Lucille knew that for sure.  The ‘ancient Viking who becomes a modern Navy SEAL’ novels were Lucille’s.  The Mickey Spillane books looked like they’d been there for decades, but the Executioner books were all Gary’s.  Anna wasn’t going to admit it, but she’d read a couple of them, and they were awful.  Someone had left the first two Twilight books on the shelf, but it wasn’t Anna.  She had her own copies back in her room at home.  None of the guys would admit which of them left the porn on the bookshelf, but Lucille had taken half a dozen really dirty books and burned them.  Anna didn’t know what the books were, but one night when the guys weren’t around, Lucille admitted she skimmed through each one to decide whether to throw it out, and she even told them some of the stuff in the books.  Ewwww.  Anna couldn’t believe real girls really did stuff like that, even after some of the things she’d heard about the girls like Solange and Sahar.  Sure, everyone had heard about ‘Deep Throat’ and stuff, but wouldn’t you choke to death or something?  And there were way worse things Lucille told them about that were in those books.  Some guys were really gross.

And another wall had a huge corkboard with pictures of old Underdogs.  Anna recognized the two twins who were Mister Mahren’s friends.  She hated to say it, but they looked like dorky high school guys in those pictures.  Most of the pictures had people’s real first names and no codenames, but she was pretty sure the short fat kid sticking his finger in a hole in a rock wall was Molefinger.  That would be pretty cool if the Underdogs had some famous alumni.  When Anna started bringing her friends down, Gary and Alan had insisted on getting several pictures of them for the corkboard too.  She was going to replace that picture of them all cringing and holding their noses because Nate had a gas attack just before Alan took the picture.

The place even had its own bathroom, which had a big sign on it that said, “NO NATE YOU CANNOT USE THIS ANYMORE.”  Anna felt bad about that, but the only times they’d let Nate use it, nobody else could go in for like two or three hours, even with the fan going inside.  There was a toilet and sink inside, naturally, but there was even a fancy shower with some towels.  Anna had contributed some good shampoo and conditioner, since the stuff that was left in there was the kind of thing only guys would use.  Lucille had contributed some Ivory soap - even though Will said Ivory soap was made by a Goodkind International subsidiary - and some scrubbing disks.  Darlene had contributed a box or two of tampons, but the girls didn’t talk about that when there were guys around.  Somebody had put a big box of condoms in the cabinet too, and everyone thought it was either Alan or Trish.  But now that they all knew about the condoms in there, none of the girls wanted to use the shower because everyone figured Alan and Trish were, umm, using the shower.  Ick.

Some of the upperclassmen were already in there when Ree and Anna walked in.  Gary and Mindy and Alan and Trish.  Alan and Trish were always sneaking in to use the hangout as their private makeout place, which was why everyone else thought the condoms were theirs.  As usual, they were busy necking in one of the big upholstered chairs, the one over in the far corner where the ceiling light was out.  It wasn’t burned out.  Trish just kept taking it out and hiding it.

Anna held up her paper bag and smiled, “Treats for everyone!”

Gary said, “Great!  I could use a before-bedtime snack.”

Mindy teased him, “You’d say that if you just finished eating an entire ham.”

Gary acted all picked-on and said, “Hey, I’m not exactly Jimmy T, ya know.  I’m just a growing boy.”

Alan called out from the far chair, “Yeah!  And you’re growing sideways now!”

“Remind me now why I didn’t put the itching powder all over that chair…” Gary muttered.

Anna ignored them, since the older Underdogs were always giving Gary a hard time.  Unless Gary was doing something to make everyone want to give him a hard time.  Anyway, the talk switched to something else pretty quick, and she heard all about Razorback’s combat final that she missed while she was running around like crazy all day.  She really wanted to cheer for the Outcast Corner kids, since they’d been so nice to all the Underdogs, even Nate, although Jericho’s clothing a lot of the time made her want to urp.  But Razorback’s final also sounded so gross that maybe she wouldn’t really want to watch it.

Anna laid out the candies and the salted nuts and the candy popcorn and the pineapples, and all the other stuff she didn’t want to feed to her little friends.  Mindy took the two pineapples and expertly sliced them up so there was a bowl of pineapple chunks.  Then she fished out a box of toothpicks and set it by the bowl.

Anna tried a couple pieces.  “Wow, this is really good!”

Gary tried a piece then.  “Mmm.  Well, it’s okay.  I’ve had better.”

Anna wondered, “Really?  ‘Cause I thought this tasted way better than the canned stuff.”

Gary grinned, “What, you’ve never had fresh pineapple before?”  Anna shook her head no.  “Well, if it’s even fresher, it’s even better.  My folks took me and my brothers to Hawaii once, back before I manifested, and fresh pineapple right out of the fields, right when it’s perfectly ripe?  Unbelievably good.”

“Wow,” she said.  “I didn’t know that.”  She had a couple more pieces, because it tasted pretty darn good to her, and she didn’t know how long it would be before she had real fresh pineapple again.

“Wow!” gasped Mindy behind her.  “Where’d you get this stuff?”

Anna turned around to see Mindy was  in the super-fancy ‘fruit and nut’ chocolate assortment.  She explained, “Someone sent it to me after my combat final.  They’re really good.”

“Good?” moaned Mindy.  “They’re spectacular.  They’re like orgasmic.  Whoever sent you this must really, really like you.”

Anna blushed, “I think they just really, really hate Buster.”

Gary said, “Well, that narrows things down… to maybe ninety percent of the entire campus.”

Mindy insisted, “But this isn’t your old Whitman Sampler stuff.  This is really expensive.”

Gary took a piece and said, “It’s just chocola…  Ho-ey shiff!  Dis is gweat!”  He chewed some more and swallowed.  “You weren’t kidding.”  He raised his voice, “Quick!  Eat it all before Alan and Trish see it!”  He turned back to Anna and said, “Jeez, someone really does like you!  This is like the Tiger Woods of chocolate.  The Wayne Gretzky of chocolate.  The Michael Jordan of chocolate!”

Mindy teased, “Michael Jordan?  Well, that’s the official Gary Seal of Approval.”

Anna said, “It really is awfully good.  Right Ree?  Ree?”  She turned around to find Ree had so much chocolate in her mouth that she couldn’t talk.  Ree blushed bright red at getting caught, but didn’t stop eating.

A few minutes later, Lucille showed up with Barry and Darlene in tow.  Lucille was carrying the to-go box carrier.  Anna was surprised at how small it was.  It was about the size of one of those boxes of printer paper, only set on its end.  It wasn’t any bigger than seven to-go boxes stacked on top of each other if you put a thin piece of wood in between each box, and it had a strong handle on top.  Lucille pointed out that the sides and the layers in between weren’t really wood but something stronger and better insulating.  And the open side had an insulated foil cover that draped over the to-go boxes and had a couple velcro tabs to hold it in place.

“Ooh,” Anna cooed.  “Luce, this is perfect!”

Lucille just beamed.  And helped herself to the good chocolate.  “Wow!  Chocolate covered blueberry!”

“Where?”

“I want one!”

“Damn, that was the last one, Trish!”

“Too bad, Gary.  You didn’t need it anyway.  Us girls require mood lightening foods at this time of year.”

Alan complained, “What?  I’m not mood-lightening enough for you?”

Trish kissed him and shut him up.  Then she looked around the kitchen at the freshman girls and said, “Take notes, kiddies.  Controlling your boyfriend really is this easy.”

Gary helpfully added, “Next, she’ll show you how to make him roll on the floor and bark like a dog.”

Alan pretended to growl at Gary and snap at him.

Teddy and Laurie, who were sophomores, showed up too.  But all the good chocolate was gone by then.  Laurie asked, “Is Nate here?  I saw the chili at lunch…”

Lucille shook her head no.  “Unh-uh.  Nate’s exiled until tomorrow morning when he won’t be so stinky.”

Teddy complained, “Stinky?  Shit, last time he burned a hole right through the cushions on our best couch!  He’s lucky we ever let him back in!”

Mindy groused, “Christ, it’s like rooming with Killstench!”

Gary added, “Nobody rooms with Killstench, he can’t keep from leaking that gas in his sleep sometimes.”

Mindy glared at him.  “You know what I mean.”

Teddy smirked, “Don’t worry about Gary.  One of his powers is a complete inability to detect metaphors.”

Gary frowned, “Oh shut up.”

So Teddy said to him, “Hey Gary, what’s a metaphor?”

Gary smirked, “To keep cows in.”

Teddy started, “No, that’s wro…  Oh.  Hah hah.  Very droll.”

“Gotcha!” grinned Gary.  “One point for me!”

Mindy teased, “Oh, good.  Now at least you’re not being shut out.”

Gary looked to the froshes for help.  “Why’s everybody always picking on me?  I’m not the one who burned a hole in the cushions with his farts!  I’m not the one who shorted out our microwave!”  Alan started blushing furiously, and Trish didn’t help.  She looked at the froshes and pointed repeatedly at Alan’s head.

Pretty soon, they had Anna laughing so hard she had to run to the bathroom.

By the time Anna finally got back to her dorm room, she was ready to conk out.  And she still needed to take care of maybe twenty-one families tomorrow!  Oh God, she was never going to make it!

She quickly cleared off her bed.  All the ‘easter grass’ stuff went into the big trash can down the hall.  She put all the fruits and nuts and to-go boxes and the box carrier on the floor, and she packed as much fabric and down as she could manage into the first wicker basket.

She slipped into a nightie, and ate a couple more pieces of the chocolate she’d saved from the expensive fruit and nut assortment.  It was so much better than the other chocolates.  Man, she wished she knew who sent that.  Maybe all of Outcast Corner chipped in on it?

She really, really hoped all her hard work would pay off.  If anything went wrong tomorrow or Friday, she could lose a ton of her little friends.  She couldn’t bear it if that happened!  But what if Hazmat didn’t come through for her?  What if his drug didn’t work on her squirrels and chipmunks?  What if her security card got taken away for something?  What if there was a big storm and all the digging got buried again?  What if Buster came after her and put her in the hospital?  What if he just got a bunch of his pals to chase after her all day?  What if…  What if…

She was asleep before she finished the thought.