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Straight from the Squirrel’s Mouth

By Diane Castle

Chapter 3

Friday, December 15
Whateley Academy

The alarm went off.  At the thought of all the stuff she had to do today, she was wide awake and already worrying.  She had to check on her three families she had tucked away last night.  She had thirty-four families still to go.  And she needed to check her hair before Hazmat saw her with a bad case of bed-head.

She glanced out the window and breathed a sigh of relief that it hadn’t snowed overnight, and it didn’t look like it was going to dump a ton of snow during the day.  She looked over as Ellen mumbled into her pillow, “…but ma, why can’t I have a race car…”  It was really hard not to giggle out loud.  But she was going to let Ellen sleep as long as she dared.

She peeked over at Ellen’s alarm clock.  Good.  Ellen was gonna wake up in half an hour.  By the time Ellen had breakfast and got her snowmobile ready, Anna would have her first batch of little friends ready to go.  Or ready to sleep.  Whichever.

She looked at her map of squirrel nests, which Ellen had pinned up on the wall.  She thought it over and figured out where it would be easy to pop out of the tunnels, but still easy for Ellen to drive up on her snowmobile.  It would be simple for her to just take the Schuster elevator, but then Ellen would be tearing across the Quad, and that would get them in trouble.  So she picked an exit over by the Arena but not right in everyone’s way.  She stopped and thought.  “Okay, Ellen needs time to get up and shower…  She won’t be awake until she has at least two cups of coffee over at the cafeteria…  Time to walk over and snag her snowmobile and maybe do some quick changes on it…  Okay.”

She quickly wrote a time on a Post-it note and stuck it on the map, with an arrow pointing at the side door of Dunn Hall, over where it faced away from the other main campus buildings.  But that meant Anna had an hour to eat, find Hazmat, and get the first seven families ready.  And Hazmat was going to meet her in the cafeteria.  Which meant she was going to have to kill a bunch of time, when she was so hyper she felt like she was about to start running around campus like a rabid chipmunk.

She checked her hair in the small wall mirror and sighed.  “Darn it.”  Okay, she needed to wash her hair and style it, because there was no way she was letting Hazmat see her looking like this.  And since she had to kill all that time, she might as well spend some of it showering, so she looked nice and didn’t smell bad when Hazmat met her in the cafeteria.  Still, if Nate got gassy again, no one was going to notice any smells from her, even if she’d just played tag with a family of skunks.  It sure would be helpful sometimes if Nate could get a better handle on his powers.

She grabbed her shower kit and headed off for the showers.  She kept telling herself this wasn’t a date, and the real date was Tuesday evening, but there was no way she was meeting him looking like rats had slept in her hair.  If she looked horrible today, he might call it off before he even took her out the first time!  And if he really was bald under that wig, maybe he was looking at people’s hair a lot more than normal.  Because lots of times, guys didn’t notice anything, like if you’d gotten your hair cut, or you were wearing it in a new style, and it might look totally different, and they’d just be all ‘huh?’ about it.  Back in Zanesville a year ago, she still remembered when Jodi Anne Heaton used a platinum rinse on her hair, and it looked even more blonde and shiny, and her boyfriend didn’t notice even when she asked him what she’d done, right in the middle of the lunchroom.  Anna remembered watching that with her friends.  Bobby had guessed she had new earrings.  Duh!  After Jodi screamed at him for like five minutes, she dumped his food in his lap.  Well, Jodi was always doing stuff like that to be the center of attention, but how dumb could guys be?  So she didn’t know if Hazmat would notice her hair or not.  But she wasn’t taking any chances.  Besides, the other girls would sure notice if her hair looked awful.  Solange and her clique were sure crabby to anybody in the dorm who went out with their hair all yucky, or looking clothes that weren’t matched up right.  Like anybody from Dickinson who didn’t look her best was making Solange’s clique look bad somehow.  Anna could see how you’d want your friends to look good too, just so they wouldn’t be embarrassed.  And she could see how if you were the head of a gang you’d want all your members to look good so no one would be able to get snotty about it, but still, she didn’t see the point of Solange and her friends getting all crabby when people they didn’t even like wore a plaid skirt with a striped top.  It wasn’t like not being fashion-conscious was contagious or anything.  And anyway, nobody looked at stuff like that when Jericho was walking around.  Anna didn’t know a lot of black people, because Zanesville was really pretty white and Protestant and middle-class, but she didn’t think any regular black people wore clothes that made you want to throw up, and she was sure Yolanda Warren and her brother Tomas wouldn’t ever wear stuff like that.

There wasn’t a long line for the showers, which was really nice, because when there was a really big crowd for the showers on school mornings, there were always people who got really snotty about having to wait in line.  And some of them could pick you up and slamdunk you into a toilet one-handed if they got mad enough.  Not that she ever saw anybody do that, but she heard stories from some of the guys.  And some of the girls said Solange made people let her get in the front of the line, and then she took a really long time in the showers too.  And there were a couple girls like Sahar that if they just looked at you, you knew you’d better get the heck out of their way, or else bad stuff was going to be happening.  After all, you could tell the left shower and the two toilets next to it and the tile behind them were all new, and Duplex said it was because last year two girls got into a fight about whose turn it was to get the next open shower, and when two bricks got into a fight, you just hoped they didn’t come over your way.  If they could smash concrete and just keep going, you didn’t want to be the smash-ee.  Which was why Phase had one of the coolest powers on campus, in Anna’s opinion, because it would be so neat if you could just walk right out through the nearest wall, or fly up through the ceiling, and not have to worry about getting hurt.

Anna spent some time chatting with Linda and Alicia and Winnie, while Jaunt finshed showering.  Jaunt did a short-range teleport thing, and really wasn’t very considerate, and she’d just pop into your room without knocking if she had something to tell you.  And sometimes she sort of cut in line with a quick teleport, which Linda was complaining Jaunt did again this morning.  But then Jaunt ‘jaunted’ off to her room without drying off or anything first, which was the kind of thing that made Anna wonder if Jaunt was doing it accidentally most of the time.  She said to Alicia, “You think maybe she doesn’t have much control over it?  You know, she thinks ‘I oughta go tell Ellen her clothes are done in the laundry’, and the next thing she knows, she’s in my room telling Ellen?”

Alicia shrugged, “Maybe.  But there’s tons of times when you know she’s just doing it because she can.”

And then Carlie was hopping out of the shower, and Anna took her turn.  She made sure to use her conditioner too, since she wanted her hair to look nice.  It wasn’t like she was so gorgeous she could just put it up in a ponytail and not have to worry about looking dorky.  Widget was really pretty, but that girl was just not interested in hairstyles or dress sense or anything except building stuff, and Widget always had her hair up in a ponytail or something, with a dirty cap slapped on top of it, and she was still wondering why Thunderbird hadn’t ever asked her out, and now it looked like Scott wasn’t going to ask her out anytime soon, because that crazy girl Chaka had gotten her hooks into him.  Okay, Chaka was really, really pretty, and everyone said she was the coolest martial artist to hit Whateley since Speedstrike, but Anna figured there were some sophomore and junior girls who were pretty peeved about Chaka just waltzing in there and lassoing Scott in like five minutes.  Tesla said Chaka was sitting in Scott’s lap getting all skanky before she even knew anything about him!  Well, Chaka was over in Poe, and even Ayla said Poe had a ton of nutcases in it.  Even if Jay Jay and Ayla seemed really nice.  But Tennyo seemed to be getting into crazy things, and Jade did really, really crazy stuff, and nobody could even figure out whether Heyoka was a boy or a girl, and Gabriel was nearly as crazy as Olympia, and people had told her to watch out for Michelangelo, and…

Well, the Poesies did seem to be kind of crazier than the girls she knew in Dickinson.  Maybe a lot crazier.  After all, most of the girls Anna knew in Dickinson were really nice, like Lindsay and Ellen and Vera and Winnie and Betty, even if there were a few ‘mean girls’ like Solange, and a couple girls who when they got mad kind of lost it.  But Nate said Tempest was really angry and wacko pretty much all the time in Powers Lab, and everyone said Delta Spike was a menace down in the deviser labs.  Even Ayla did some weird stuff sometimes.  But Jay Jay seemed like the other speedsters Anna had met, so maybe not everyone in Poe was nutso.

Anna finished rinsing her hair, and she turned off the water.  She scurried out of the shower so someone else could get in, and she stepped over toward the sinks to dry off.  There were never enough showers on weekday mornings, even if whoever built the dorm had to know how many dorm rooms there were.  But guys never seemed to ‘get’ what girls needed to do in the morning.  Maybe Hazmat would have a clue.  He said he had three sisters, so he oughta be used to it.  Not that Nate seemed to have a clue, and he had an older sister.  And Alan had Trish, and he was even worse.  Come to think about it, Anna’s folks had been married like forever, and her dad was incredibly bad about stuff like that.  Every time her folks went out, he was standing there, wondering why it was taking her mom so long to get ready, and he never helped with the dinner or clean-up after, so even with Anna helping as much as she could, her mom had a ton of stuff to do first, and then maybe wanted a shower, or doing her hair, and all the other stuff her dad still couldn’t figure out.  Her mom said guys just used that part of their brain for stuff they cared about, like cars and pro sports and Ohio State football.

She dried her hair and styled it with her roller brush and a little styling gel just to hold it in place so it wouldn’t get too messed up while she was running all over campus.  Not that she really thought that would be enough, because the snowmobiling-around stuff would mess her hair up like nobody’s business.  But it wasn’t like she had Tennyo’s hair, which didn’t get messed up no matter what, and Anna had seen Tennyo flying upside down and her hair was still all fixed just right, like it was magically pinned in place or something.  But having all that hair would be a real pain to wash and style, not to mention how much haircuts would cost, and that was probably just a ton of styling gel and hair wax.  And Tennyo probably had to have like six different kinds of hairdryer attachments and eight different styling brushes to get her hair like that, plus an hour and a half every morning just for hair care.  Or maybe she got Fey to do a magic spell every morning to get her hair like that.  That would be awesome if you could just do magic and your hair was done for the day, but Trish said magic stuff like that was really hard.

Anna actually got all the way through her morning routine without any snotty comments.  Usually, there was some stuff.  Not the ‘hit you in the back of the head’ kind of thing Nate got some of the time, especially when he made the boys’ showers in his dorm pretty much unbearable.  Or some of the other stuff she’d heard about from the guys.  The wet towel snap on the butt, or the shove to get you out of the way, or just pranks.  According to some of the guys, Nate was notorious for going up to some guy who was showering with soap in his eyes or shampoo in his hair, and backing up to the guy’s shower and cutting the cheese while the guy was trapped in there.  So it wasn’t real surprising that guys did stuff to Nate too.  But that sounded like what guys did all the time, as far as Anna could tell.  Showers for guys and guy locker rooms were just big stinky tubs of testosterone.

The girls’ showers were way better.  The worst Anna ever got was the usual “Hey squirrel girl, quit hogging the sink and let me in” kind of stuff.  Since there weren’t enough showers or sinks, pretty much everybody got complained at sooner or later, but the girls who pretty much ran the floor got it a lot less.  The girls like Anna and Ellen got it more, since everyone figured they could boss around someone like Skids.  After all, what was Ellen going to do?  Go build a car that could drive up and down the dorm hallways so she could run over people?  Not that you could run a car over a lot of the girls on the floor.  Even the girls like Charmer got told to get a move on, once in a while.  But Vera was always nice about it, even if she sometimes answered back in French so there was no way to tell if she was being all nice and polite, or just pretending to so she could call the person a fat ugly poop-eating cow in French and get away with it.  Not that Anna wanted to take French class just to find out, since she never tried to get Vera to move so Vera never gave her the talking-in-French-for-five-minutes routine.

As Anna walked down the hall to her room, she thought about Skids trying to drive a car down the hall to run over someone picking on her.  Between all the bricks and flyers and people like Jaunt and even the really agile girls like Anna, it would be pretty hard to hit anyone.  And then with the girls like Charmer who could just cast a magical barrier, or devisers with PFGs, or what-have-you, it’d probably end up with the car in a crumpled heap.  Still, she smiled all the way to her room.

Ellen was still snoring away, so Anna got dressed for the day as quietly as she could.  Sturdy boots and tight jeans she could pull the snowmobiling suit over, a t-shirt and flannel shirt and sweater to hold her for long enough to get to the Crystal Hall without freezing, and the clean white snowmobiling suit, all carefully folded in her backpack.  Everything else was ready to go.  She hoped.  She really, really hoped.

She slipped out of the room, shutting the door quietly so Ellen could get a little more sleep.  Then she walked off to breakfast with Betty and Linda.  They chatted about how some of the really hot boys had done really well in the combat finals.  She put in a few nice things about Lancer, even if she didn’t want to tell anyone about him flying her all over the place, just because it seemed sort of not anyone else’s business.  And he really was cute.  She could so go for him, if he didn’t already have a girlfriend.  But the really good-looking guys all wanted super-pretty Exemplar girls like Mindbird and Fey and Charmer.  Even if Wallflower wasn’t all bosomy and stuff, she was still really pretty.

Linda said, “Lancer?  He’s gotta be a wacko.  I mean, he lives in Poe and everything.  Everyone knows what the Poesies are like.”

Betty said, “Not everyone in Poe acts crazy, you know.  Okay, Chaka is pretty out there, what with that fight with Montana and stuff.  And Gabriel is kind of scary and all bi-polar or whatever.  And Widget says Delta Spike is just kind of nuts in the deviser labs.  And Beltane’s kind of wild.  And…”

Linda giggled, “I think you just proved I’m right.”

Betty shrugged, “Well, it’s not like we don’t have some pretty wild girls in our dorm.”

Anna just said, “The Poe kids I know are really nice.  And Lancer seems like a really nice guy.”

Betty added, “And he is awfully cute.”

“Oh yeah…  There is that,” Linda sighed.

“He looked just amazing in that final against Eldritch and Hippolyta,” Betty said.

“Hippolyta,” Linda pointed out.  “Another Poe loony.  And she actually likes that Carmilla demon-girl.  She hangs out with her all the time, when she isn’t doing stuff with The Capes.  Now that Carmilla is one scary girl.  I don’t envy whoever gets her in the combat finals.  What if she whips out those tentacles and eats you?”

They all shuddered.  Anna tried not to think about the feelings Carmilla made her feel.  That was just too creepy.  And scary.  And freaky.

When they got into the cafeteria, they headed through the breakfast line and then split up to go find their friends.  Anna spotted her pals off behind one of the big planters at the far side of the dome.  Rhiannon and Lucille were already sitting there with Will and Alan and Trish.

Anna sat down, and everyone looked over at her.  Trish asked, “Any sign of Nate?”

Uh-oh.  “What’s he done this time?” Anna worried.

Alan groaned, “Last night some joker left a couple cans of beans and a huge bottle of soda in front of his door, and we think he ate all of it before he went to bed.”

“Oh no!” Anna winced.

“That’s not funny,” said Lucille.

Alan grinned evilly, “At least I don’t have to live on the freshie floor this year.  It’d be like living next door to Killstench.”  Trish gave him an elbow.  “Ow!”  He rubbed his arm and went on, “So anyway, I think his whole floor banished him from the shower room until everyone else was done.”

Lucille said, “If he keeps this up, he’s gonna get himself shipped over to Hawthorne.”

Anna didn’t say anything about that, but the Hawthorne people she’d just met had really creeped her out.  Between Carmilla and Fubar and Mrs. Cantrel, she was really, really glad she wasn’t stuck in Hawthorne.  What did the normal Thornies do when Carmilla and Fubar were around the dorm?  Well, the only ‘normal’ Thornies she knew were Jimmy T, who sure didn’t act like he needed to stay in Hawthorne, and Frank, who was in her English class and had to wear that giant helmet-thing all the time.  Jimmy T was really good about protecting the Thornies and lots of other kids from bullies and stuff.  But Frank just seemed sad and unhappy all the time.  The only time Anna had tried to be nice to him, he’d just walked away from her without even saying goodbye.  So she didn’t know what his deal was.  And then there were guys like Slab, who was almost as bad about pushing his way through the halls between classes as Montana.  She’d watched Slab’s combat final against Thuban, and that guy looked tough.  She was glad she didn’t have to go up against him in her combat final.  So she hoped Nate didn’t get shipped over to Hawthorne, because she’d feel really bad about not ever going over to visit him, but she really didn’t want to have to go back into Hawthorne anytime soon.  Especially not with Carmilla making her feel all weird and Fubar reading her mind all the time and stuff.  Even if Frostbite seemed okay.

Alan said, “Nah, they won’t have to do that.  But they might make him wear one of those space suits.  They keep the environment in, so as long as he didn’t blast a hole out the back of it he could go anywhere and not make everyone else hold their noses.”

Will said, “I don’t think even one of those suits like Geiger wears would hold up against Nate on a three-bean chili day.”

Alan grinned, “Those?  I don’t think power armor would hold up against Nate on a chili day.  That boy’s butt is like an E.P.A. Superfund site.”

Ree finally said, “Can we talk about something else while I’m eating?”

Lucille looked over at Anna and said, “Yeah.  So Anna, how are your squirrels going?”

Anna sighed, “I think I got it under control.  Hazmat’s stuff worked really well when we tested it last night, even if I wanna check the three families I tucked away last night.  So that leaves thirty-four families to go.  That’s five trips with the to-go carrier - thanks a ton for that, Luce - and Skids is driving me around all morning on her snowmobile.  And it hasn’t snowed since we dug out the holes, so it oughta be fast to put each family in their home for the winter.  And Hazmat’s bein’ real helpful too.”

Ree teased, “Well sure.  He wants that date.  You totally have to tell me all about it, too.”

Luce said, “Yeah, he’s pretty cute for a deviser.  A lot of them look like Jobe.”

Alan said, “Or like Jobe made ‘em.  Out of spare parts and old hamburger patties.”

Trish said, “Well, Slapdash is really pretty hot.”

Alan frowned at her for a second and then said, “Well, Bugs is pretty babe-o-licious, and Delta Spike is really workin’ that super-suit bit, and then there’s…  OW!”  He rubbed his arm again and glared at Trish, “You started it!”

Anna watched as Alan and Trish just stared at each other for a long time.  She figured this was going to be another one of those silly arguments they had where they ended it by sneaking off to the Underdog hideout to make out for a couple hours.  She hoped they remembered to turn on the bathroom fan if they were going to have another hour-long ‘shower’ together.  Not that she wanted to think about that, since it was really pretty gross.  And the last time they did it and didn’t turn the fan on, the whole place was just kind of foggy.  And moist.  Ick.  It had taken days to really get everything all dried out really well.  Gary called them the ‘wet bandits’ for like two weeks.  After that, Anna couldn’t even think about watching “Home Alone”.

Instead, Anna said, “That Erlenmeyer is really pretty jerky, and he must weigh like three hundred pounds.”

Gary smirked, “More like four hundred.  He’s like The Blob.  He’s not even shaped like an Erlenmeyer flask.  More like a water balloon.”

Ree asked, “What’s an Erlenmeyer flask?”

Gary said, “You know those flasks you see in mad scientist labs in movies that are flat on the bottom and shaped kind of like a cone and then have the narrow chimney on the top?  That’s what they are.  The other common shape of flask is a Florence flask.  It’s a sphere with the cylinder coming off the top.”

Alan grinned, “So maybe you could get everyone to start calling Erlenmeyer ‘Florence’.  That’d piss him off.”

Gary laughed.  “Yeah.  If he gives me any more shit, I’ll threaten him with that.”

“Did I hear someone bitching about Erlenmeyer?”

Anna turned to see Hazmat walking up behind her.  He had a big backpack that looked like it was crammed full of stuff, and it had a big red plaid thermos bottle strapped to the side too.

Gary grinned at him, “Yeah, Haz.  Bluescreen just had an idea.  We could call Erl ‘Florence’ instead when he’s being a prick.”

Hazmat smirked, “Oh, you mean all the time, then?”

Gary laughed, “Well, yeah.  Pretty much.”

Anna asked, “Is he really that bad all the time?”

Hazmat sighed, “No, not really.  When his stuff’s going well, he’s Mister Cheerful.  And when he gets an ‘A’ in chem lab, he’s ready to do anything for anybody.  The last time, he bought pizza and soda for the whole lab.  When his labwork’s going bad, he’s a major grouch.  Like right now.  He’s been working on this big synthesis all term long, a month ago he thought he was looking at a big patent even.  But he hit a wall.  And if he doesn’t get it done by next week he’ll get a crappy grade, and he’s massively cranky about it.  And he’s in the lab 24-7 working on it, so he’s not eating right or sleeping enough, so that makes things worse.”

“Oh.”  Anna felt bad about thinking such mean things about the guy.  Maybe there was something she could do…

“No,” Hazmat interrupted her thoughts.  “We can’t help him.  That’s an automatic ‘F’.  And detention.  And loss of Workshop privileges.  Plus, he gets really mad if people act like they can do it when he can’t.  So he just hates Jobe, because Jobe’s always like that to him.”

Gary shrugged.  “But Jobe’s always like that to everybody.”

Hazmat said, “Sure, but Jobe’s a genius.  I was reading a biochem journal last week.  Wang and Govinski on protein folding.  Two of their key references were - get this - papers by Jobe Wilkins.  One was a paper he got published three years ago.  Which means he was eleven when it was published, which probably means he was like ten when he wrote it and maybe nine when he started the research.  That’s not just ‘boy genius’ stuff, that’s like ‘Stephen Hawking is jealous of you’ super-genius stuff.”

Gary said, “Don’t tell me Jobe doesn’t piss you off.”

Hazmat said, “Sure he does.  So what?  Back in October, I was trying to create a new plastic that you could mold, and then lock into place with an electrical impulse.  I got the idea from an experiment I was doing that went wrong last year.  But I couldn’t get it to work right.  I spent about three weeks struggling with hydrocarbon chain breakdown, and got nowhere.  Jobe looked at my notes for about a minute and figured out a possible answer.  Sure, he was a massive jerk when he explained it.  But I’ve been using his idea, and it looks like he was right.  Again.  I think this is gonna be patentable.  If I make a hundred thousand dollars off it, I can afford to have Jobe be a jerk to me for a minute.”

Gary said, “You gonna go to the Goodkind kid with your plastic?”

“Why should I?  She’s a freaking Goodkind,” Hazmat said.

“Hey!  Phase is really nice!” Anna protested.  The guys ignored her.

Gary said, “Because she’s rounding up inventors and working on patent rights.  Triaxial said she saved him about three months in development efforts she figured out he didn’t need.  Bugs said Phase is doing patent stuff for her, and already figured out a couple serious money-making uses Bugs never thought of.  Even Jericho’s thinking about working with her.  So what if she’s a Goodkind, if she can make you a million bucks?”

Hazmat frowned.  “I don’t like Goodkind International.  And I don’t trust a Goodkind who says she stopped hating mutants.”

Anna poked him in the side.  “Hey!  She’s nice!  And she is a mutant.  Plus, she’s got lots of friends.  They wouldn’t be her friends if she was all mutant hate-y and stuff.”

Alan just said, “The campus bookies have a pool going on how long it’ll be before Phase loses her temper and calls someone ‘gene filth’ or something like that.  They wouldn’t do that unless…”

Trish cut him off, “Unless they could make money by getting tons of morons like you to bet against Phase in the first place.”

Anna insisted, “Look, Phase is nice!  Months ago in aikido class, Phobos nearly cut her arm off!  I mean, Prism had to Heal her right there, and there was blood all over the place, and she had to go to the hospital, and everything!  And she didn’t say anything then.  She even kept being nice to Phobos.  So there’s no way she’s ever gonna say something mean like that.”

Alan said, “Oh come on, you don’t really mean Phobos did that.  You mean there was some blood.  Right?”

Ree said, “No!  It was awful!  I mean, it was the worst thing I ever saw!  Phobos can do these energy claws, and she hacked Phase’s arm apart!  I nearly barfed!”

Gary said, “Rhiannon, you nearly barfed when Nate put ketchup on his chocolate pie.”

“Well, this was a lot worse,” Ree said stiffly.

Anna said, “Prism said Phase nearly lost her whole arm.”

Laurie leaned over and said, “Prism’s a high-level Healer.  If he said that, believe it.”

“Thank you, Naruto,” teased Gary.

“Oh shut up,” Laurie said back.

Anna tried again, “Look.  Phase is really nice.  And she doesn’t have to be.  She’s a Goodkind.  She’s really, really rich.  ‘Solange’ kind of rich.  She could just pay some suck-ups to do whatever she wants, and then she could treat everyone else like dirt.  She doesn’t.”

“How do you know she doesn’t?” asked Mindy.

“I… just know,” Anna said lamely.

Rhiannon said, “Do you think anyone could pay Tennyo to do whatever you want?”

“Or Chaka?  She’s crazy,” Lucille added.

Anna said, “I like Scrambler, but she’s kind of hyper, and she can’t keep from blurting out anything that pops into her head, and she lives almost next door to the Kimbas, so I think we would’ve heard by now if Phase was paying everyone to do what she wanted.”

Laurie rolled her eyes.  “I’ve met Scrambler.  I totally believe you now.”

“Scrambler?  Is he the one who wrecked the spindle?”

“No, that’s Scramble.  Scrambler’s one of the speedsters.  One of the ‘not speedy between the ears’ speedsters,” Laurie said.

“Aren’t they all?” Gary smirked.  “Really.  Hyper?  Quickdraw?  Quickie?  Whoosh?  Accelerator?  It’s like their brain can’t keep up with their own body.  The only super-fast guys I can think of who aren’t like that are Stormwolf and Aries, and they’re both big-time Exemplars, so maybe they aren’t even real speedsters at all.”

“Scrambler is nice,” complained Anna.

“Sparring against her is not any fun,” Rhiannon said.   “You blink, and she’s already hit you thirty times.”

“Well, there is that,” Anna admitted.  She was stronger than Jay Jay or Ree, but not so much that she could just stand there like Ayla and ignore it when Jay Jay hit her at a hundred miles an hour.  Jay Jay said it wasn’t fair that Phase could go so heavy that Jay Jay hurt her hands and feet striking her.

Hazmat grumbled, “Man!  I don’t know why you want to do the martial arts stuff.  Against guys who can bench press a truck and blast holes in you.  Survival class was bad enough.”

Anna defended herself.  “I learned some cool stuff.  And I learned that I can get better.”

Hazmat said, “Okay.  Are you ever gonna get good enough to fight Phase?  Or Lancer?”

Anna said, “Maybe.  In ten or twenty years.  Sensei Ito beat up Silverwing our first day.  And Ayla said sensei beat up Lancer in sixth period, and he beat up Counterpoint that morning.  So… maybe some day.”

Hazmat just shook his head.  “No way.  I bet Ito’s not a baseline.  He’s probably got all kind of powers he’s just not showing you.”

Rhiannon said, “He told us he wasn’t a mutant.”

Hazmat shook his head.  “Maybe he even believes it.  I mean, he’s so old there wasn’t any way to test you when he was young.  But he’s what?  Seventy?  Eighty?  And he’s still faster than you guys?  And he can take a hit from a brick?  He’s an Exemplar.  Don’t kid yourself.”

Rhiannon came to her defense.  “Well, Anna’s as strong as an Exemplar-2, and as fast as an Exemplar-3, and she can jump like an Exemplar-5 or something!  So why can’t she learn to be the karate kid, like sensei?”

Hazmat said, “Okay, I give.  But that’s not me.  I’m just a chemist.  If I ever get attacked by a brick, I’ll use chemistry.”

Gary said, “And that’s how he won his combat final.”

Hazmat shrugged.  “It’s a knockout gas I tweaked a bit so it works faster.  Flywire helped me with the delivery system.  I take the antidote every day, so I’m immune.  I just sprayed a big area and stood in it until Crunch came after me.  He keeled over before he caught me, and I won.  The end.  No martial arts needed.”

Alan grinned, “The bullies haven’t done too well this time.  Anna clobbered Buster, you took out Crunch, Legbreaker got pounded by a brick…  Plus, Nex got his ass kicked by that Bladedancer chick everyone says is a baseline.”

Hazmat said, “Yeah.  Sure she’s a baseline.  Just like Ito is.  The chick’s faster than Nex, and she did his psychic invisibility bit right back at him.  Plus she did that Energizer trick at the end and hammered him.  If she’s not a high-level mutant, she’s Imbued.  With something major.  There’s no way she’s just a baseline.”

Anna checked her watch and said to Hazmat, “Have you eaten yet?”

He shook his head no.  “I’ve got coffee and and a danish in here,” he slapped his backpack.  “Plus some power bars.  And two textbooks plus class notes, so I can study while I’m waiting on you.  And my iPod.  I’m good to go.”

Gary checked, “Is that deviser lab coffee, or ordinary coffee?”

Hazmat grinned, “Deviser coffee.  Natch.  The coffee in here is like brown water.  I need something thick and zingy.”

Gary grinned, “Ahh, the old ‘retina rattler’.  The way coffee ought to be made.”

Hazmat grinned back as he walked out with Anna.  But they hadn’t gotten through the doorway when Hazmat groaned, “Oh crap.”

“What’s the matter?”  Anna was suddenly thinking of all kinds of horrible things it could be.

“Over there.”

Anna looked where Hazmat was pointing.  It was Strongarm and Crunch and Legbreaker, eating their breakfasts and all glaring their way.

Hazmat muttered, “Yeah, they say ‘what happens in the sims stays in the sims’ but it looks like Crunch isn’t gonna let this one go.  Ugh.  I’d better make sure I’ve got my gas-gun and my trank darts ready.”

“You have a gas-gun and trank darts?” Anna wondered.  “Really?”

He nodded, “Sure.  I’m not Stormwolf, y’know.  The only reason I got to take my gas-gun and stuff into my combat final is ‘cause I carry ‘em around all the time.”

“Really?” Anna wondered.  Because she’d seen him a lot over the last couple days, and she hadn’t seen anything like that.

He nodded and held up his hand for her to wait.  They got on the elevator and went down into the tunnels.  Once the elevator reached the tunnel level, they quickly got off, and the elevator went back up.

Hazmat looked around to make sure they were alone.  Then he rolled up his right sleeve.

“Wow,” Anna whispered.  There was a leather band strapped tightly around his forearm.  On the back side of the band were three small plastic tubes that connected to a tiny tank.  On the front side were four smaller tubes.  It looked dangerous.

Hazmat smiled, “It’s a Gizmatic Dartlauncher™ 620.  Three loaded tubes.  Gas-powered, with a range of about twenty feet but accuracy gets pretty sucky if someone’s that far away.  It works best when they’re right in front of you, threatening you.  You point your arm at them and tilt your hand down and flex this muscle here, and it fires.  You get three shots, and you have to re-load.  I’ve got two darts in each of these backup tubes under here, but you have to hand-load ‘em, which takes time.  After about ten shots, you run out of compressed nitrogen anyway, and you have to replace the little tank here.  Jobe makes sure everyone in Workshop has a copy of the latest catalog, and if you order through his contact, there’s no postage charge and stuff gets delivered really fast.”

Anna said, “That looks pretty dangerous.”

He shrugged, “It’s just trank darts.  An injectable knockout drug.  The worst that’ll happen is someone wakes up a couple hours later with a really bad headache.  I’m not into the supervillain stuff.  Sometimes Jobe carries dart launchers around that’ll take down anyone you can think of, and a lot of that stuff is lethal unless he gives you the antidote.”

“Ick,” Anna said.

“Yeah,” Hazmat agreed.  “Now here’s my gas-gun.”  He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out what looked like a little plastic squirtgun, except it had a tube that ran back into the pocket.  “I’ve got a small, flat tank of compressed gas strapped to my thigh, and the tube runs to that, through a little hole I cut in my pocket.  This is the stuff I’m immune to, so I can spray the gas all over the place, and I’m fine.  You’d be out cold, but you’d be okay when you woke up.”

“And you carry this stuff around all the time?” she asked.

He said, “Well, no.  But after my combat final, I heard Strongarm was telling people he was going to make me pay for making his friend look bad.  So I’ve been loaded for bear since then.”

She didn’t know whether he was being paranoid, or just reasonable.  Around Whateley, it could be real hard to tell the difference sometimes.

They walked in silence to the animal care areas.  But it wasn’t one of those awful, embarrassing, icky silences where you didn’t know what to say and you just knew everything was going to be awful.  It was more like a nice, peaceful silence.  Anna thought Hazmat had plenty of inventions to keep him safe, even if they wouldn’t keep him safe from someone like Aries or Tennyo.  But she couldn’t afford stuff like that.  Everyone knew the stuff in the Gizmatic catalog was expensive.  Super expensive.   The ‘if you have to ask about the price you will never have enough money to buy it’ kind of expensive.  Not to mention dangerous, and illegal, and just plain nasty.  And it was invented by a supervillain, which pretty much made it bad automatically.  Anna didn’t even want to think about the kinds of darts Jobe had in his dart launcher thingie.  She watched Jobe’s combat final, and he was up against Punch, who was an unstoppable brick, and he still got her, and she just barely had enough left to knock him out before she passed out and had to go to the hospital.  He probably had all kinds of horrible poisons and diseases and stuff to shoot into you.  Ick.

Anna pulled out her security card and let them through the locked door.  Hazmat grinned at her, “Hey, look at it this way.  I’ll be down here for hours.  I won’t have to worry about Strongarm and his pals for most of the day!”

She grinned back.  “I really, really hope you won’t be stuck down here all day.  I bet you wanna see some more of those combat finals.”

He nodded.  “Yeah, it’s a good thing to see just who can do what.  I mean, did you see Chaka?”

“Yeah.  Wow,” she whispered.

He said, “I thought she was just another of those martial arts nuts.  But that thing she did with that tornado?  That was wicked!  I’ve never seen anything like that, except in cartoons!”

She said, “Or She-Beast?  Or Lancer?  Or Slab?”

He said, “I caught Slab vs. Thuban.  And Lancer vs. Eldritch.  And then there was this really pretty girl who ripped up Buster…”

She blushed.  A lot.  “Flattery will get you nowhere.”

He just grinned.  “It got me a big ol’ blush.  I’ll take that.”

She was sure she was blushing again.  She was just a little pushover for people who were nice to her.  That was all it was.  She changed the subject and chattered about the really cool combat finals all the way down into the animal care areas.

“Big squirrel!  Big Squirrel!  You’re back!  And there’s more food!  Yum yum!  We like this!”

She smiled warmly at her little friends.  “Food good.  But nice human here is going to give you little stabs so you can go home and sleep for the winter.  And I have food for you to take, and nice soft warm stuff to snuggle in.”

“We trust you, big squirrel!”

Hazmat shook his head.  “That is so weird.  I don’t even wanna know what Arachne does when she talks to spiders.  They say Pestilence just stares at his insects and there’s no sound.  But that’s probably even creepier.”

“Pestilence?” she asked.  “I don’t know him.”

Hazmat shrugged.  “Ian.  Freshman in Emerson.  I can’t figure him out.  He seemed like a nice guy, but now he’s hanging with some really weird Goths.  He can summon up insects and stuff.  And he’s got really weird eyes.  They’re like a fly’s eyes, except human-sized and purple.  He wears big sunglasses as much as he can, ‘cause people give him shit about his eyes.”

Anna shrugged.  “Well, at least Bloodwolf can’t summon up packs of werewolves.”

Hazmat muttered, “As far as you know.”

Well, there was that.  She guessed, “Well, somebody nailed him to a tree a couple months ago.  Everyone was talking about it.  If he could summon werewolves, wouldn’t he get even?”

Hazmat frowned.  “Dunno.  There are plenty of kids around here who could turn a pack of werewolves into hamburger helper.  Besides, whoever got him doesn’t mess around.  They didn’t just nail his clothes to a tree.  They took railroad spikes and hammered ‘em through his body so he was stuck there, and he was screaming in pain.  Security had to call on the Betas, and Thunderfox got some of her Workshop pals to help get him down.  If he didn’t heal up super-fast, he would’ve died.  And whoever it was, Maggot and Killstench were there too, and he knocked both of them out too, and put one of ‘em in the hospital.  And none of ‘em would tell who did it.”

“None of ‘em?” Anna checked.

“None of ‘em,” Hazmat insisted.  “I think it must’ve been Aries.  Maybe with Hamper and Damper helping him.  I can’t figure out why, but it has to be someone scary enough to keep Bloodwolf quiet.”

Anna thought for a second.  “What if they just really don’t know who did it?  There’s enough mind-muckers on campus that could mess up their memories afterward, or get ‘em so confused they never knew who did it.”

Hazmat thought it over.  “Maybe.  But the campus Psis tend to get really mad about that kind of stuff, and you can’t get around Fubar.  So I’d call that one a ‘probably not’.”

Anna opened her mouth to tell him about when she met Fubar, only to get interrupted.

“Big squirrel!  Big squirrel!  Food?  Sleep?”

“Right,” Anna muttered.  “Better get going on that.”

Hazmat nodded, and started pulling out the syringes and gloves he left there the night before.  Anna watched as he carefully got the bottle of H.I.T. out of the little refrigerator and loaded up a syringe with three doses of liquid.  She looked around.  She had everything she needed.  The to-go boxes.  She lost three of them last night, but they were just cardboard.  She had replacements.  The to-go carrier.  The extra food, and the warm stuff to snuggle in.  She pulled out seven to-go boxes, laid out a donut of warm bedding in each one, and laid out all the food on the counter to make sure she had enough for thirty-four families.  Then a family’s worth of the food went into the corner of each to-go box.

“Okay,” she whispered to Hazmat.

He tapped his syringe with a fingernail and then pushed on the plunger until the tiniest droplet started to form at the tip of the needle.  He gave her a nod.

She turned to the first cage.  She tried not to think about what Hazmat just did.  Why did doctors always do that in movies?  She’d ask him one of these days.  There was probably a really good reason.  She scooped out the first chipmunk and gently told him, “I’ll hold you.  The big man will give you a little stab in the foot.  It’ll be okay.  Just let him do it, and I’ll put you in the box with your family, and then I’ll tuck you in for a while.  It’ll get noisy, but then you’ll be home, and you can go to sleep.”

“Trust you big squirrel.”

“I know.  I love you guys.”

She held him out and gently hung onto his leg so Hazmat could do the injection.  Her little friend bravely held still, and then let her tuck him into the nesting.  “Soft!  Warm!  Nice!  And more food!”

She took care of the other two, and made sure to put the rest of their food from the cage into another corner of the box.  They might as well have plenty of that food too.  She closed the box and slid it into the carrier.

She just kept reminding her little friends that it would be okay, and they kept doing what she wanted.  It seemed like no time before she had seven little families tucked away in the to-go carrier, and she was closing the front of the thing and hooking the little velcro tabs so they’d stay warm while she took them home.  This time, she knew they’d be getting sleepy in like half an hour or an hour, so she had to get going before they conked out inside the carrier.  She shuddered just thinking about how awful last night mght have been.

She checked with Hazmat, “You gonna be okay while I’m gone?”

He was already pulling out his iPod.  “Oh sure.  I’ve got hours of studying to do.  I’m good.  Have fun.  And take care of yourself.  No getting covered in snow and soaking wet while you’re outside.”

She smiled as she thought about how nice he’d been last night.  All thoughtful and considerate and everything.  “You bet.”

She pulled the snowsuit on over her boots and pants, then slipped her arms in and zipped it up the front.  Hazmat watched her like she was wearing some sort of slinky catsuit for spying or something.  Which was kind of annoying, and kind of sexy.  She wasn’t used to guys looking at her like she was anything special.  Then she ducked out through the airlock doors and walked off to meet Skids.  She hoped.

Once she was out of the security door and it locked behind her, she had to walk out of the short dead-end corridor, turn right, hike through three more hallways, and then wait for a really, really slow elevator.  Maybe there was a staircase she could take instead.  This was really slow.  And then the elevator was huge, and it went up really, really slowly.  And it was just her in it!  How slow was it when it was filled with people?

Okay, maybe Anna was just getting impatient and nervous, and the elevator wasn’t that bad.  But it sure felt like it.

She finally came out on the ground floor of Dunn Hall, and she made her way past the cafeteria area to the side door.  She reminded her little friends, “Okay. This is going to be noisy, and shaky, but it’ll be okay.  I’ll protect you.”

“Trust you, big squirrel!”

“You guys are so great.”

At least the snowmobile would keep anyone from falling asleep.  She walked back and forth, stomping a path in the snow, while she waited for Ellen.   Just about the time she was thinking about going inside and calling her room to make sure Ellen was really awake, she heard a distant roar.  It wasn’t nearly as loud as she expected, and it was zooming up really fast.

Ellen came speeding around the corner on something that looked like a high-tech snowmobile built out of aluminum tubes.  It wasn’t a snowmobile, it was a snow racer.  It had a fancy ski-like thing on the front, and big tank tread things on either side of the back part.  Ellen could sort of make cars and motor-things change just by thinking about it, so changing this from a one-person laying-down-on-the-frame thing to a two-people-sitting-on-one-long-seat thing was probably easy for her.  Ellen shifted her weight and twisted the handlebars, and the thing suddenly turned sideways and slid to a halt right in front of Anna.

“Wow, this looks so cool!” Anna said.

“Nice, huh?  It’s way faster now that I’ve got this new plastic for the treads.  It’s got a way better grip,” Ellen grinned.  “I yanked off the seat and slapped this padded banana seat on it so you can sit behind me.  Anyway, you don’t want to ride on the ice speeder unless you have to, because the back tires are all spiked with really big spikes, and the fenders are just open cages.”

Yikes!  That sounded dangerous!  Anna didn’t say anything about it, though.  She just pointed at the snowmobile and said, “It’s not as loud as I thought it would be.”

“Oh, that.  I did some more tinkering with the engine yesterday.”

“Loud!  Scary!” complained most of the crowd in the to-go carrier.

“Shh.  It’s okay.  It’s loud, but it’s here to help us.  I’ll keep everyone safe.”

“Trust you, big squirrel!”

Ellen asked, “You ready to go?”

Anna nodded as she pulled up the hood of her snowsuit.  Ellen handed her a pair of goggles that she quickly tugged on.  Then she sat behind Ellen with the to-go carrier stuck in between them.  She said, “Okay, first we need to go to the three nests from last night.”

Ellen pulled out the map, and Anna pointed out the three burrows she’d done last night.  “We need to check these guys first.  Just stop about fifty feet back, I’ll run over and make sure they’re asleep, and then we’ll go.”  She pointed out the burrow for her little friends who had gotten the first shots that morning.  “Then this one and this one.  Okay?”

“Sure,” Ellen said.  She folded up the map, and they took off.

And when Skids wanted to take off, she took off.  Anna had to wrap her arms around the to-go carrier and hang onto the back of Ellen’s snowsuit, because Ellen was hauling.  It seemed like it was no time before Ellen was slowing down and pointing to the first burrow.

Anna made sure to tell the little guys, “Don’t worry.  I’ll be right back.  We’re all safe.  I just want to check on some of the others.”

“Trust you, big squirrel!”

She balanced the to-go carrier on the seat and hopped off, then ran over the snow to the first burrow.  She had to listen carefully for long seconds before she heard it.  The soft, safe sound of slow, shallow breathing.  Phew.  They were already deep in hibernation.  This was really going to work after all.

She hopped back on the seat and gave Ellen a big thumbs-up.  Ellen could probably tell everything was good by the huge grin on her face.  It felt like she was grinning from ear to ear.  Hazmat’s serum had done the trick.  All she had to do was get her little friends into their burrows, and everything would be fine until spring.

Ellen drove her over to the other two ‘last night’ burrows, and Anna checked them too.  No problems there either.  Time to put her seven families into their burrows for the winter.

They zoomed across the snow to the place marked on the map, and Anna pulled out the first to-go box.  She skittered across the snow to the burrow she wanted.  There was maybe an inch and a half of snow over the burrow opening, but that was okay.  She brushed it out of the way and opened up the box.  Her little friends were already looking sleepy, but they were still good for getting tucked in.  She made sure they pulled all the bedding down into their nest and tucked all their food in the tunnel for later.  Then they plugged up the tunnel from inside, and went to cuddle up and sleep.  Anna threw snow all over the burrow’s opening so no one would see it, and she headed back to the snowmobile.

“Everything okay?” yelled Ellen.

Anna gave her a big thumbs-up and a grin.  They took off again.

It seemed like no time before she had the seventh family tucked away, and they were zooming back to Dunn Hall.

Anna hopped off.  “Give me ten or twenty minutes, and I’ll have the next group ready.  Okay?”

“Sure,” Ellen said.  “That’ll give me time to get a loop or two done around the ring road and check how the skid control’s working.”  She roared off at a pretty frightening speed.

Anna took off her goggles and gloves, shook the snow off the gloves, and tucked them all into pockets of the snow suit.  Then she took the carrier back into Dunn Hall.

She looked around as she headed for the elevator, but she didn’t see any stairs going down.  That would be handy, since that stupid elevator took forever.  Maybe they were on the other side of the building.  She pushed her hood back and waited for the elevator, which took just as long as the last time.  Then she headed back to the animal areas.

Hazmat was lying on top of the shelves again, listening to heavy metal or whatever was making him rock his head back and forth while he studied.  His feet were wiggling back and forth too.  He looked like he was having way too much fun for someone studying a book that said “Theoretical Principles of Organic Chemistry” on it.

This time, he looked up when Anna opened the inner door of the airlock and walked in.  He smiled, “Everything go okay?”

She said, “Yeah.  And the little guys from last night are all sleeping away just like they’re supposed to.”

He grinned, “It’s nice to hear a success story.  I was kind of worried something might go wrong, even after I did all the tests.”

She smiled at him, and then said, “We need to get going on the next set.  Ellen’s zooming around campus, but she’ll be back soon.  And that stupid elevator in Dunn takes like forever.”

He nodded, “Yep.  There’s an old stairwell, but you have to basically go around the elevator to the back side, and that’s where the stairs are.  You come up in the back hallway, so it’s not all that handy.”

“And how come you know all about this?” she teased.

“Going up and down to these tunnels is pretty much all us devisers ever do, y’know.  Every time someone finds out some new way in and out, he spreads the word.  Like when Erlenmeyer found a connect to the sewer tunnels.  Not that anyone wants to open that door.  It’s got about a hundred alarms on it, and Erl smelled funky for hours after he went in there.”

“I thought you said there were a hundred alarms on the door,” she said.

“Yeah, but one thing devisers and gadgeteers are good at is things that turn off alarms.  Erl has this deviser chemical that demagnetizes stuff, and it’s hell on any magnetic or electronic lock that isn’t hermetically sealed.  He still set off at least one of the alarms.  Stan and Morrie came and chewed him out for like an hour.”

“Stan and Morrie?” she wondered.

“Oh yeah,” Hazmat told her.  “They’re like our own personal Mario and Luigi.”

Anna giggled.

Hazmat said, “Okay, they’re not Italian or anything.  But they’re the head plumbers around here, and they handle all the really nasty shit that happens with the sewer system.  Which is seriously creepy.  There’s stuff living in the sewer mains around here that even Jobe couldn’t create.  Either devisers have been dumping their bad results into the sewers for decades and the stuff’s been interbreeding, or else there’s something even nastier going on down there.  Word is that sewer duty is the worst detention on campus.”

“Worse than Hawthorne?” Anna asked.

“Oh yeah.  Way worse.”

Anna shuddered at that.  Hawthorne had really freaked her out.  Fubar reading her mind all the time was bad enough.  But Carmilla totally creeped her out.  And there was something about Mrs. Cantrel sneaking up on her without making a sound that really bugged her too.  And people said there were way worse things there.  Some of the girls upstairs in Dickinson said Tansy cried about the toilets over there for days after she had detention.  And if something could make Solange break down like that, it was probably really, really icky.  Anna didn’t want to know what Hawthorne was like if even the toilets were scary.

They talked while Anna held her little friends and Hazmat gave them little shots in their paws.  In just a few minutes, she had the next set of seven families stored in the carrier with their bedding and food.  She didn’t bother to go looking for the stairs up to Dunn Hall, even though Hazmat told her where they were.  It just seemed like more trouble than it was worth.  Maybe if the elevator got even slower, she’d think about it.

Ellen wasn’t waiting for Anna when she got out of Dunn, but she didn’t have a long wait.  By the time she had her hood up and her gloves on and her goggles set, she could hear the distant roar of Ellen’s snowmobile.  In another few seconds, Ellen was zooming up to her, and Anna just hopped on with her carrier.  Ellen pulled out the map, and Anna pointed to the seven burrows they needed to go to next.  Ellen gave her a grin, folded up the map, and stepped on the gas.

This time it seemed like Ellen was going a lot faster.  Anna hung on tight to the to-go carrier and Ellen’s coat.  She told herself at least the noise and the shaking and the sharp turns were going to keep her little friends from getting sleepy.  Or maybe it would scare the pee out of them.  She didn’t want to keep using any boxes if they peed inside them!  And it would mess up the bedding too.  And the food!  Ick.  That would be a big problem.  And smelly.  And no one would want to go in the to-go carrier next.  And - oh God - how would she explain that when she took the to-go carrier back?  She’d have to buy an all-new one for the kitchen people!  That would be awful!  How would she ever afford it, anyway?

So it didn’t take long to get the next seven families into their homes, since Ellen was going like seventy miles an hour through the forests and turning corners like a speedster or something, and her little friends were all really ready to get out of their boxes and get into their homes, especially if it would get them away from the shaking, vibrating, roaring, machine that smelled scary too.  Anna would open up a box, and her little friends would hurry to drag all the bedding down into the hole, then they’d come back for the food, and then they’d plug up the burrow.  Anything to get away from that scary snowmobile.  Anna really felt bad about that, but she really needed to get everyone in their homes before they fell asleep and before she ran out of time.

When Ellen zoomed back to Dunn Hall the second time, Anna saw Strongarm stomping about between Dunn and Schuster.  She wondered if the guy was really trying to hunt down Hazmat.  That would be bad.  She thanked Ellen and hurried to get her next seven families ready.  And she figured she better warn Hazmat, just in case.  Because Strongarm wasn’t a nice guy.

When she got back down to her little friends, Hazmat was still doing the same thing.  Except he had an inflatable pillow under his head.  It was even the same book, except he had a notebook out too.  She wished she could understand stuff like super-advanced chemistry too.  She was having enough trouble with regular math and english and science.  Okay, english wasn’t really so bad, even if they did have to read some stuff Anna thought was really boring and maybe really hard to get through.  Those old poems were just hard to figure out because it wasn’t like the guy writing it was writing the same stuff people wrote today.  They were almost as hard as trying to get through Act I of “Romeo and Juliet” like she had to do last year back in Zanesville, and the teacher read through the stuff with the whole class and explained it, but it was still hard to read.  Anna didn’t get how people like Phase really liked reading that sort of stuff.  And really, Anna kind of liked the writing part of english class, even if she wasn’t getting ‘A’ grades on her papers like some of the kids in her class.  The algebra class was a lot harder, because algebra was full of all kinds of little tricks and sometimes you just couldn’t figure stuff out because your old math teachers hadn’t told you the kinds of tricks your new math teacher liked.  And the probability parts were hard, because you had to understand how to apply the stuff to story problems, and she was still struggling with that stuff, and the exam was only days away.  Who was going to use combinations and permutations in the real world anyway?  Okay, she wasn’t going to say that out loud, because someone like Phase or Alan or Jericho would make her sit there while they told her a ton of ways they could use that kind of stuff.  Math was never going to be her favorite class, and that was that.  Okay, biology was worse.  She could memorize all the stuff in the class, so her grades were really pretty good, but the biology lab was mostly dissecting stuff, which was icky.  And she had to pay attention, and even make drawings of the guts, because that kind of stuff was going to be on the exam.  Okay, the part with the microscope and the little amoebas was okay.  But dissecting the big old worms was gross, and dissecting those frogs was even worse.  She really, really didn’t want to take the second term of biology, because the teacher said they would be dissecting even worse stuff, including a fetal pig!  ICK!  At least no one was talking about dissecting anything like squirrels.  So biology was her least favorite class, then math, then english.  She got bruised a lot in Basic Martial Arts, but she really felt like she learned just a ton in there, so it was her second favorite class of all, just behind Intro to Criminology.  That class was so fun she just wanted to take a bunch more criminology and forensics stuff.  She knew real forensic lab work wasn’t like “CSI”, it was staying in your lab and doing your work and handing it over to other people.  Nobody really got to do forensics and go out and interview people and then arrest them and stuff.  That was just make-believe.  She wondered what kind of classes her old friends were taking back at Zanesville High.  Probably algebra and english and social studies and civics and science and really boring P.E. classes.  Definitely not aikido and criminology.  Sometimes Whateley was really cool.

Hazmat looked up when she came in, and he tugged the earbuds out of his ears.  She could hear the music from where she was standing, which was one of the downsides of really good hearing, but it wasn’t too awful.  It sounded like heavy metal, but the girl who was singing was really good, and the guy on guitar sounded really good too.  That was way better than some of the heavy metal she’d heard back home, with guys who couldn’t sing screaming freaky lyrics about busting stuff and doing bad things, while other guys made loud screechy noises behind them on guitars and drums and stuff.

He smiled, “Everything going okay?  You’re making good time.”

She nodded, “Yeah.  Sure.  Except this last time I saw Strongarm stomping around outside.  Maybe he’s looking for you?”

He just grinned.  “Nah.  I doubt it.  Strongarm’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he has to know I’m not going to be wandering around by myself out in the snow.  ‘Nerdy deviser’ does not equal ‘outside in crappy weather for no reason’.  I’m always down in Workshop, if I’m not eating in the caff or going back to the dorm.  If he really wanted to catch me, all he’d have to do is hang around on the path back to Emerson after dinner.  I’d be walking up the hill to get home sooner or later.  He’s probably doing something else, like looking for some of your friends to pick on, or stuff like that.”

She said, “Well, I just wanted you to know.”

“Thanks.  I appreciate that.  But if he tries anything, I’ll just gas him and call Security.”  He tried a deep Arnold Schwarzenegger voice.  “No problemo.”

“Ah’ll be bock,” she grinned.

He smiled, “You really don’t have the voice to do Ahh-nold.”

She shrugged, “I’m not any good at impressions anyways.”

He said, “The secret is finding some people who sort of sound like you to start with.  You could probably do Madonna, or some movie stars who have voices with the same tones as you.  Then you just pick out some of their vocal quirks, and do some of the lines they’re famous for.”

She blushed a little and said, “I couldn’t do Madonna.”  She had a really, really embarrassing mental image of her in a really naughty outfit and a bustier she couldn’t fill out and a bleached blonde wig and too much makeup, trying to sing an old Madonna song like “Like a Virgin” or something.  She didn’t think she could manage the ‘sexy’ side.  Maybe ‘slutty’.  She was afraid she’d come off as stupid and laughable instead.

While they got the next seven families into their boxes, and Anna made sure to tell everyone not to pee in the boxes, just in case, they talked about her little friends.  She was still really worried about them.

Hazmat tried to make her feel better.  “Look, you’re worrying way too much.  First, these guys look really healthy, and you told me the animal care guys patched everyone up and cleaned ‘em up and stuff, so they’re really a lot better off than they’d be most years.  Then they’re still awake.  Extra time awake means less time in hibernation, which is good.”

“Really?” she checked.

“Really really,” he said, in a really bad Shrek imitation.  She still giggled some.  “They’ll be using less stores of body fat, so come spring, when they wake up they’ll be less starved, and less dehydrated.  Plus, they’ll have quick access to food, from all the stuff you’re tucking in with ‘em.  So I really think this spring won’t be hard on them.  I think it’ll be their best spring in years.  You may have a big baby boom this spring from all the healthy squirrel mommies and daddies running around loose.”

That made her feel a lot better.  Even if she was still worried.  She was still planning to get a lot of grains and fruits to place in and around their homes when they were first starting to come out of hibernation in the spring.  She didn’t know where she was going to get the money for the food.  Maybe she’d have to snitch it from the cafeteria, even if she didn’t like thinking about doing stuff like that.  She hoped she wouldn’t get in trouble for it.

As she was getting the seventh family tucked away, she asked, “You’ll be okay in here?”

He waved off her concern.  “Oh sure.  And even if I wasn’t in here, that dimwit Strongarm isn’t that big a threat.  Guys like him and Crunch and Buster have to get ahold of you first.  Now Legbreaker’s a lot bigger threat, if you ask me.”

“Him I don’t know,” she said.

“Oh, he’s a PDP,” Hazmat said.  “You know what that is, right?”

“Oh sure,” she told him.  She’d heard all about stuff like that, even if she wasn’t taking the ‘Powers Theory’ course this fall.

Hazmat nodded, “Okay.  Well, he does this ‘super-strong’ bit, but he also does this bit where he can take a PK whack at you, and it’s not like a big PK shove.  It’s more like a baseball bat, but with kind of an edge.”

“Like a bokken?” she asked.  He looked like he didn’t know what she meant, so she added, “You know, one of those Japanese practice swords, but they’re made of wood, so they still hurt when you get whacked with one.”

He smiled, “I’ll take your word for it.  You’re the martial arts master around here.”

She blushed and stared at the floor.  “I’m not really any good…”

He said, “You were good enough to kick Buster’s ass.  I saw you.  You did those blocks, and that run-up-his-face thing, and that cool throw.  There’s no way I could do that stuff.”

“Sure you could,” she said.  “All it takes is practice.  Sensei Ito can do way more than that, and he’s a baseline.”

Hazmat shook his head.  “No way, I’ve heard about the smackdowns that guy’s laid on some major bricks.  That guy’s got something.”

“Phase said Chaka says he’s not doing anything except using his Ki,” she insisted.

He rolled his eyes.  “Okay, Phase is a Goodkind, so I wouldn’t believe her if she said the sky was blue.  And Chaka is nuts.  And there’s no way she can tell from fifty feet away whether some guy is using Ki or a mutant power to do the exact same thing.  So I’m not buying it.”

Okay, maybe he was right about that last thing.  And a lot of people said Chaka was nuttier than a whole chestnut tree.  But…  “Phase is nice.  I like her.”

Hazmat said, “Look, I’m not saying she isn’t personable.  I’m sure she’s got years of training in being a Goodkind, and she can talk Eskimos into buying rerigerators.  But she’s a Goodkind.  I might let her do the patent work on some of my stuff, if Bugs and Triaxial really vouch for her.  But that’s not the same as trusting her.”

Anna sort of pouted, “But she’s nice.  And way friendlier than any of the other Golden Kids I ever met.”  Especially Solange.

Hazmat frowned, “Look, you gotta watch out for yourself around here.  Last year, I thought Cavalier was a real nice guy.  A good guy.  And now he’s gone over to the dark side of the Force or something, and he’s as bad as any of the Alphas.  You’ve got to watch out for some of the people around here.  They come across all friendly, and they pat you on the back, and you don’t find out ‘til later they slapped a big ‘KICK ME’ sign on you while they were pretending to be your friend.”

Anna asked, “Don’t you think The Don did something to Cavalier and Skybolt?  Something evil?  Maybe it’s not their fault.”

“Maybe.  I mean, it’s possible.  Pretty much anything’s possible around here,” he said.  “But I don’t know.  They pulled Cavalier and Skybolt in and made ‘em go through a bunch of tests and stuff.  Nobody could find any sign of psychic influences, and that’s The Don’s forte.  I think he just made ‘em a better offer, and they went for it.  Like everybody thought Cliffhanger was a big superhero, until the Black Diamond showed him her carats, if you know what I mean, and then he up and switched to her side.”

Anna said, “Well, I don’t see how The Don could know what they really wanted bad enough to switch over to his side.”

Hazmat said, “Well, you see, The Don’s smart.  He doesn’t wallop you over the head with a big psychic sledgehammer.  I figure he used his psychic powers to worm his way into their heads and find out what mattered the most to them, and then he figured out how to offer it to ‘em so it looked like they’d never get it if they didn’t go over to his side.  So that’s why no one found any big psychic attacks on ‘em.”

“You think that’s what The Don did to Aries?  And the others?”

He shrugged.  “Maybe.  Word around the Workshop is he headgamed Peppercorn into being his peon, and then he mindfucked Bogus until he pretty much crushed the guy’s self-esteem and then re-built him into his own personal Shifter weapon.  Somehow.  He’s pretty dangerous.  And he likes hurting people, so stay way away from him.”

“There’s no way I’d be around him,” Anna said.

“Sure, you say that now.  But he’s got a long list of girls he picked up, boinked, and then humiliated.  He likes hurting people, especially girls.”

“Ick,” Anna said.  “There’s no way I’d even go out on a date with him.  And he’s so slimy.”

Hazmat frowned, “Yeah, I figure that’s what all those other girls said.  Right before he pulled his mojo on ‘em.”

Boy, that just sounded really, really icky.  Having some guy do psychic mind-tricks on you just so he could get you in the bed, and then make you feel like crud.  Just because he could, and because he was a really, really mean jerk.  Kind of the Whateley version of Cliff Cordell’s big brother Randy, who went to jail like six years ago because he was taking high school girls out and giving them date rape drugs and then having sex with them and taking pictures of it.  If the police hadn’t found all of Randy’s pictures where he was showing ‘em off to all his jerk buddies, they never would’ve been able to put him in prison.  But if ordinary baseline jerks did stuff like that, it figured there had to be mutant jerks who would do the same awful things.  Ick.

They didn’t say anything for the rest of the time, while Anna was closing up the to-go carrier and zipping up her snowsuit.

Anna walked down the hallways and waited for the elevator.  Which took so long she had a chance to peek around the corner, and around the next corner, and find what was the door to the staircase.  But she heard the little ding of the elevator arriving, so she hurried back and took the slow elevator up to the first floor of Dunn Hall.  She really didn’t know how many flights of stairs it might be to get up there, and she didn’t want to risk getting lost or stuck when she had seven families that needed her care.

She only had to wait about two minutes before Ellen was zooming up to her.  “Hey Anna!  Guess what?”

“What?”

Ellen burst into a huge grin.  “This time, I made four entire laps around the school before I had to come get you!  I am so ready for that race on Sunday!”

Anna didn’t want to burst her bubble, but she still said, “But Hazard took your bet.  And she doesn’t lose much.  Do you think she knows something you don’t?”

“Oh, probably,” Ellen said.  “She probably knows all the other people who’re gonna enter, and she’s already picked the winner.  But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t underestimated me this time.  She hasn’t seen this baby in action!”

Anna hopped on, put the to-go carrier between her and Ellen, and reached around it to hang onto Ellen’s coat.  “Okay, the next seven on the map.”

“Roger!” snapped Ellen, and she twisted her wrist, making the engine roar.  The snowmobile took off like a rocket.  Anna would’ve fallen off the back if she hadn’t been hanging onto Ellen’s coat.  This time, it seemed like Ellen was going even faster.  Anna’s heart was in her throat as Ellen wove in between trees and tore through the heavy snow.  The worst was when they cut across one of the brick paths.  The snow was may four feet high on either side of the path, and Ellen jumped the path.  For one horrible second Anna was sure they were going to plow into the snowbank on the other side and flip the snowmobile, but Ellen just barely managed to pull it off, and they went roaring through the snow again.  Anna was just glad no one had been standing on the path there.

She was extra glad Foxfire hadn’t seen it happen.  She would’ve never heard the end of it.  And she didn’t know if Foxfire and her friends in Whitman would be mean to Ree about it.

Even with Ellen zooming all over the place and cutting across places she wasn’t supposed to go, it didn’t take long for Anna to get all seven of her families into their burrows.  And every one of those families was anxious to get away from that roaring, shaking monster and into a nice, safe burrow with plenty of warm bedding and food.  After that jump, Anna wouldn’t’ve minded getting away from the snowmobile for a while, either.  But she had two more runs to do.

Still, she was glad to get off the thing for a while when Ellen dropped her at Dunn Hall again.  Her hands were still warm, but her face was freezing.  Even around the goggles.  She didn’t know how Ellen was staying warm.  Maybe raw excitement.  Ellen pulled out the map, and Anna pointed out the next seven burrows.  Then Ellen yelled, “See you in twenty!” and roared off, throwing chunks of snow everywhere.  Anna hastily ducked out of the way, while those snow treads flung about thirty pounds of snow all over the walkway.  Fortunately, most of the mess went all over a big snowbank that was about six feet high, where someone had thrown all the snow that had piled up on a couple paths leading into the side door there.  Anna figured it was ‘Bill and Ted’.

She peeled off her goggles, wondering if the skin around her eyes was getting a little sore from the things.  She just shrugged.  She’d heal up pretty fast, if anything happened, like a little bruise.  And if worse came to worst, she’d use a little foundation to hide any bruises when she had her date next week.  She brushed off the snow on her snowsuit and shook off the snow on her gloves.  Then she walked down the hall to that stupid elevator.  It almost felt like she’d spent more time waiting for that dumb hunk of junk than zooming around on Ellen’s snowmobile.

As she walked the carrier back to the security zone, she went over her mental checklist.  She only had seven families to go this time, and six the next time, and she’d be done.  She couldn’t believe how well things were working out, especially when she’d been worried to death just a couple days ago.

That made her start worrying about what could still go wrong.  What if Hazmat ran out of his serum?  What if Chris kicked Hazmat out for doing something he wasn’t supposed to be doing?  What if…

She hurried through the security door and down to the animal care areas, just to be sure.  But Chris was busy working in a room way down the hall, and Hazmat was still lying on his back reading that same textbook, even if this time he was doodling in his notebook while looking in the textbook.

She walked in through the airlock doors, and he didn’t look up.  She tapped his foot.

“Jeez!”  He nearly fell off the shelf.  She grabbed his shoulder to keep him on there.  “Give a guy a heart attack, would you?”

“Sorry,” she said.  “I…  You were kinda lost in your book.  I came in, but you didn’t notice.”

“Oh.  Well, I was trying to figure out how to synthesize a new fluorocarbon, based on the techniques in the book.  It’s a real pain, because if you don’t get it right, you end up with little tiny flakes that won’t react with anything, and you can’t make ‘em stick to anything, so they’re useless.  Except maybe as solid-form lubricants.  So you have to make sure all but one bond gets a fluorine atom, and the last bond gets something you can use, like an alkyl, or an acid so you can attach the stuff to something else.  That’s how Teflon works, y’know.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” she said.  She knew what teflon was - her mom had a teflon skillet and a teflon pot.  But she didn’t know how teflon worked, except stuff didn’t stick to it.  And she’d never thought about how you would make teflon stick to the metal of the pot and not stick to anything else, but obviously lots of chemists already had thought about it a whole lot.

Hazmat clambered off the shelf and put his study stuff down by his backpack.  He looked up at the clock and said, “I figure by the time you finish your next run it’ll be lunchtime.  So maybe this time I’ll walk out with you, and we’ll meet up in the caff after you get back and eat some lunch.”

“Sure,” she said.  “That sounds good.”  She thought about something and said, “As long as you’re sure those guys aren’t gonna try and beat you up or anything.”

He smiled, “You really worry about me.  I like that.”

She couldn’t help blushing.   “Well, you’ve been really nice, and I just don’t want those guys to do anything mean to you.”

“Cause it would really ruin our date,” he grinned.

“That too,” she muttered.  It totally wasn’t fair that he could make her blush just by teasing her a little.

He grinned again, and got going on the shots for her little friends, while she got all seven to-go boxes loaded with bedding and food.  She made sure to tell everyone again that she would hold them while the big man gave them little stabs that would help them.  It wasn’t like her little friends were really stupid, but they didn’t remember stuff for real long either, and reminding them was probably a good thing to do.  It felt like she needed to remind ‘em, so she probably did.

While she packed the first family into its box with the extra food from their cage, Hazmat pointed out the time.

He said, “Look, it’s nearly noon.  By the time you get done with this run, it’ll be time to get lunch.  So how about I follow you out of the security area, and I go check on stuff in my lab area, and then I’ll see you at lunch?  You and Skids can wrap up, and come get lunch, and then you and I’ll come back here for the last batch, and we’ll be all done.  Okay?”

“Sure,” she said,  “Sounds good.”  And she was getting kind of hungry, now that he mentioned it.  She hoped her stomach didn’t start rumbling and stuff in front of him.

He said, “Okay.  ‘Cause I’m getting pretty hungry, and you can only read fun stuff like this for so long before you need a little break.”

She managed not to goggle at him.  He thought reading advanced chremistry textbooks was fun?  He was such a deviser.  Well, he hadn’t gotten all weirded out when she talked to her little friends, and he said it sounded really freaky, even if it sounded to her like she was talking normally to them, kind of like Harry Potter talking to snakes and thinking he was talking in English the whole time.  So she had some weirdness too.  And his ‘weird stuff’ was really pretty normal, even for baselines.  There were guys back in Zanesville who were the school brains who did stuff like reading math books and playing chess for fun.  He’d be like a ton of college guys and science nerds all over the world.  She wouldn't be normal.  Squirrels followed her around, and talked with her, and came to her for help.  Plus, she could do stuff normal people were never going to be able to do, like leap from tree to tree and not get hurt, and climb trees like a squirrel, and stuff like that.  Hazmat was just a science nerd, with extra nerd.  She was a freak who was so weird her own family didn’t want her around.

“You okay?”  Hazmat said, “You just kind of zoned out there for a minute.  Getting secret messages from your squirrels?”

“No, nothin’ like that,” she said.  “Just thinking about… stuff.”  She lied, “I still have a ton of stuff to get done this weekend, and a lot of studying for next week.”

He shrugged, “Hey, it’s all a part of school.  I think I’ve got the chemistry pretty well knocked, unless Professor Welch throws something really weird at us.  We got his exams for the last four years, and he’s tossed in some really off-the-wall stuff once in a while.  Like last year, he came up with nickel carbonyl.  Turns out you can make it by accident, so the synthesis is super-easy if you have the right stuff.  Super-finely powdered nickel, at room temperature and normal air pressure, with enough carbon monoxide added in.  Presto.”

She nodded, like she figured he expected her to, but she didn’t really know what he was saying.  Okay, she knew what nickel was, and ‘room temperature’ and ‘normal air pressure’ and even carbon monoxide.  But she didn’t see how you could use those things to make some weird compound she’d never heard of before.  But if she wanted to work in criminal forensics, she’d have to take chemistry and learn tons of stuff like that.

By the time she had her last family tucked away in the to-go carrier, Hazmat had all his stuff packed away back in his backpack.  The thermos had little clips glued on the side so it could clip right onto the backpack, so it was no wonder it fit there so well.

He slung his backpack over his shoulder and held the airlock door open for her.  She gave him a smile and walked out with him.  The left the security area and Anna made sure the heavy door locked shut behind her.

He said, “I guess you’re stronger than you look too.”

She admitted, “I’m not really that strong.  Not for Whateley.”

He pointed, “But you’re carrying that thing like it’s a balloon.”

She said, “Well, it really is light.  And I am stronger than your typical hundred-pound girl.”

So how strong are you?” he asked.  “Not that I have to know, but I’d like to know if I’m risking getting crushed if you hug me hard.”

She ducked her head so her hair sort of spilled over her face.  “I’m not that strong.  Exemplar-2 strength, basically.  I can jump a lot further than an EX-2, but that’s my squirrel spirit.  So that’s it.  EX-2 strong, EX-3 fast, jumping and tree climbing.  And I can talk to squirrels.”

He said, “Well, that’s better than me.  Outside of being a chem geek, I got nothing.”

“So why aren’t you one of the Underdogs?” she asked.

He shrugged.  “Well, hardly any of us devisers and gadgeteers have anything going physically.  Would you really want every inventor on campus joining your group?”

She said, “Sure.  Why not?  It’s there to help people.  I don’t care how many people are in it.”

He told her, “Well, the mad scientist crowd pretty much takes care of their own.  Mostly.  So you don’t get a lot of us in the Underdogs.”

She said, “Gary’s an Underdog.”

“Who?  Oh, Fixx,” he said.  “Fixx isn’t much of a deviser, so I guess he figured he’d fit in with you guys.  Or maybe he joined up because of some girl who was already in the Underdogs.”

She looked at him from under her hair.  Was he hinting that if she liked him and wanted to keep dating him, he’d join the Underdogs to be with her?  She had a sudden flash of her getting all steamy with him on one of the armchairs, like Alan and Trish, and she blushed again.

Hazmat detoured off toward his lab, and she waited for the elevator up to Dunn.  Again.  She was getting so sick of this elevator.  Although she started thinking about Hazmat, and whether he’d be a good kisser, and she lost track of time so the elevator surprised her when it went ding and opened up.

She focused on her little friends after that, and she waited patiently for Ellen over by the snowbank.  Someone had carved a naughty picture in the snow.  It had to be a guy, because whoever did it didn’t really know what girls’ privates looked like.  And girls wouldn’t draw stuff like that, would they?  The girls she knew sure wouldn’t.  She put on her gloves and wiped it out.

She stood and looked at the now-blank face of the snowbank until Ellen zoomed up.  She settled herself and the to-go carrier on the seat, and they were off again.

Maybe it was because the burrows were closer to Dunn Hall, or maybe it was because Ellen was going even faster, but it seemed like they got to the first burrow a lot sooner than the last time, or the time before that.  Anna wondered if Ellen was using these runs to try out things with her engine to make it go faster, or farther, or something.  Anna didn’t mind being a guinea pig for Ellen’s tests, as long as they didn’t end up crashing into a tree or a snowbank or anything.  After all, no one was making Ellen do all this nice stuff for her.  Ellen was just doing it because Ellen was a really great roommate.

Once Anna had the last family tucked in, and she’d covered up the burrow with handfuls of snow, she tapped Ellen on the shoulder.  Ellen revved the motor and then did something so it went a lot quieter.  “What?”

Anna said, “Just drop me at the Crystal Hall.  It’s lunchtime.”

Ellen said, “Good.  I was getting hungry anyway.  I’ll go tuck my baby away so no one can come over and mess with it, or take it on a quick spin through the trees, or anything.  Then I’ll come eat too.”

“Good,” Anna said.  “Once we’re done with lunch, you go get this, and I’ll get the last group of little guys, and we’ll get ‘em all tucked in, and you’ll be done.  I really, really appreciate all your help today.  I mean, there’s no way I could’ve done this without you.”

Ellen grinned, “Unless maybe you went and got Lancer to help you out again.”

Anna blushed a little behind her goggles.  “I shouldn’t.  He was so nice yesterday, and he had to give up time with his girlfriend to do it, and I just felt really bad about that part.”

“Even if he’s reeeeaaallly cute?”

Anna blushed a little harder.  “Yeah.  Even then.”

“Okay, blushing girl,” Ellen teased.  “I’ll drop you and your carrier off, and you can go chow down.”

“Okay,” Anna said, even if she really wanted to say ‘stop teasing me’ or something like that, but it wouldn’t do any good, and she knew she was just real easy to tease.  Her dad used to tease her all the time.  Back before he stopped wanting to have anything to do with her.

Ellen didn’t cut through the Quad or anything, which Anna was glad about, because Ellen really wasn’t real careful about driving in places where she wasn’t supposed to go.  No, this time Ellen stuck to the access roads behind the buildings, which were where the trucks went when they were bringing in food for the cafeteria and stuff.  Anna saw how much food everyone ate every day, so she wasn’t sure how the school stored enough food to last for a whole weekend.  There was probably a big loading dock and a huge storehouse with giant refrigerators and freezers and stuff back behind the Crystal Hall, or maybe connected to it by a huge tunnel or something.

She pulled off her gloves and goggles and shoved them into pockets before she slipped back her hood and walked into the cafeteria.  Everybody was busy going through the lunch line or eating, so no one paid any attention to her in that snowsuit.  There were a couple Exemplar girls wearing white skiing outfits that were so tight Anna didn’t see how you could wear ‘em and stay warm too, but they were Exemplars, so maybe they were extra resistant to cold and heat.  Guys were noticing those girls instead of Anna.  Which she was happy about, because she really didn’t want guys drooling at her like they did with Fey and Poise and Solange and a bunch of other girls.

Okay, she was lying to herself.  She did wish she was so pretty that guys would just stare at her and forget to close their mouths and stuff.  But she was never going to be as pretty as the Venus Inc’ers and Solange’s clique and the other Beauty Nazis, which she thought was a really mean name for them, even if Solange was like that if you didn’t have your hair looking nice and stuff, but most of the Venus Inc. girls were really nice.  Fey was super-nice, and Lifeline was nice to everyone, even when Compiler broke stuff, and Poise even tried to be nice to Greasy and Peeper, which was like imposssible to do for more than about three seconds.  So it was just sort of Tansy and her friends.  And the Yellow Queen and her pack of fake cheerleaders.  And Hekate’s friends.  And some of the girls in the Jocks.  Okay, there were plenty of girls like that, but not all of them, and really not even half of them.  Maybe about one in ten.  Which was probably about the same as at her old school.  Well, her old school had a few really, really mean girls.

She went through the lunch line without anyone asking why she was wearing a snowsuit, and she went off to find her friends.  They were at one of the far tables again, only this time they weren’t behind the big tree-planter thing.  They were where they could look out the windows at a big snowball fight going on between a bunch of Dragons and a bunch of Tigers.  She sat down where she could watch, because it was really pretty awesome.  Nobody ever had snowball fights like this back home.  Guys were kicking snowballs out of the air, and slicing them in half with swords, and blasting them out of the air, and one guy was using some sort of shout to shatter the snowballs comnig his way.  But they were also using martial arts moves to throw snow, and hurl snowballs, and…  Holy cow, did that guy just do a mid-air bicycle kick to kick three snowballs at someone?  It looked awesome, even if the guy ended up going headfirst into the snow.

It was funny, but after the Basic Martial Arts class Anna had taken, she could watch really carefully and she could just tell whether a guy was using his powers or was using Ki to do something.  Most of the time, anyway.  Maybe it was because she’d seen what you could do with Ki and what you couldn’t.  Even if Chaka seemed to break that sort of rule every single day.  But for most people, even most martial arts guys on campus, you could only do so much with your Ki.  Chaka could use it to run up the sides of buildings and knock guys over and other crazy Dragonball kinds of things, but Chaka sort of had Ki as her superpower, as far as Anna could tell.

Anna had a big bowl of nice, hot soup and a big square of macaroni and cheese, while she chatted with her friends and enjoyed the superpowered snowball fight.  She told Ree and Luce, who were acting all worried, “No, really.  Everything’s going great.  I’ve got almost everybody tucked away for the winter with plenty of bedding and food, and I only have six more families to go, and they’ll all fit in the carrier all at once.”  She patted the to-go carrier than was on the floor by her chair.  “I just need to take the carrier back into the animal care area and clean it out with the disinfectant stuff they’ve got there, because nobody’s gonna want to carry food in it after it’s been packed with squirrels, ya know.”

Ree said, “You did keep all the squirrels in the to-go boxes, right?”

“Well, sure.”

Lucille said, “So the squirrels never touched the carrier.  It’s not like you let the squirrels go poop in the thing.”

Alan said, “But you did put it on the floor near Nate’s butt, so you’ll probably have to have it decontaminated.”

“Hey!” complained Nate.  “I haven’t burnt the clams in here all day!”

Burnt the clams?” Trish groaned.

“Yeah,” Nate said.  “I figure I need a whole vocabulary.  Cut the cheese, burnt the clams, chipped the beef, opened the durian…”

“Spanked the monkey,” suggested Alan.

“No no no,” frowned Gary.  “That’s a whole different problem Nate has.”

“Hey!” Nate fussed.

“Guys!” Lucille complained, in her ‘mom’ tones.

Anna didn’t know whether to giggle or be like Lucille.  Most everyone else laughed.

Trish waited until the snickering died down and said, “You guys are so gross.”

“But you love us for it,” said Alan.

“Or maybe we like you despite it,” Trish said to him.

“That wasn’t what you said yesterday afternoon,” Alan leered.

Trish said, “I didn’t say it was gross.  Just… weird.  When you get to ‘gross’, I’ll let you know.  By saying ‘no way’.  You big perv.”

He wiggled his eyebrows at her, and she rolled her eyes.  She looked the other direction and found Anna.  “So, Anna, have you been doing any studying, or just running around like a madwoman carrying squirrels everywhere?”

Anna swallowed and admitted, “Umm, I kinda haven’t done any studying since my combat final.”

Trish asked, “And when are your exams?”

Anna swallowed.  “Umm, two on Monday, one on Tuesday, and one on Thursday.”

“And how are you gonna get ready in time?” Trish asked.

Anna said, “Well, I kind of figured I could start studying again once I got done this afternoon.  So… I’ve got all weekend to get ready for English and algebra and bio.  And I’m pretty much ready for English and bio already.  Unless he makes us read a really weird poem and then have to figure out what it’s supposed to mean.  The math is the hard one.”

Gary started lecturing, “That’s because math is really all conceptual.  If you understand the concepts, you can do all the problems easy.  If you don’t understand the concepts, you’re stuck.  I like to think of mathematics as-”

“As a huge waste of time,” interrupted Alan.  “A huge waste of time that’s really a conceptual waste too, not just a normal waste of time.  And-”

“Oh shut up,” Gary grumbled.

Anna would’ve felt bad for Gary, but she’d heard more than one of his big ‘math/science/inventing is important’ speeches before, and she’d seen the only way to stop him was to interrupt him and be rude about it.  Okay, Alan liked doing that.  Plus, she already knew math was a bunch of concepts and understanding and stuff, but it was hard.  She did better when the test problems were enough like the homework problems that she could tell what she was supposed to do.  Which was why she was re-doing all the homework problems and all the extra-credit problems, so she’d be ready.  Or more ready.  Or at least not totally un-ready.  It didn’t really help that Gary thought all the stuff she was doing was super easy.  But Gary was a deviser, and devisers were usually really smart about math and science, so sure it was easy for him.  She was just normal.

She was still finishing her soup and the last of her mac and cheese when Ellen came over.  Ellen patted her on the shoulder and said, “So, roomie.  You about ready?”

Anna glanced over to see if Hazmat was done eating.  He looked up and spotted Ellen talking with her, and shoved a huge wad of sandwich into his mouth, then rushed over to bus his tray.

Anna watched Hazmat and said, “It looks like we’re ready to go.  Hazmat’s coming right over.”  She swallowed the last of her soup and decided not to finish all that pasta.  “And I’m ready, as soon as I take my tray over.”

“I got it,” Ree said.

“Hey, thanks!” Anna grinned.

“No biggee,” Ree smiled.  “I gotta take my tray over anyway.”

Alan chipped in, “And it’s not like you made a hideous mess, like Gary did.”

Instead of grousing at Alan, Gary said, “Or ‘burnt the clams’ and melted half the tray, like some people.”

“Hey!” Nate protested.

Ellen looked at Anna and mouthed, “Burnt the clams?”

Anna whispered, “I’ll explain later.”  She watched Hazmat hurry toward them and she added, “Okay, meet me in like twenty minutes in the same place.  Okay?”

Ellen said, “No problem.”

Gary added in a deep bass voice, “No problemo.”

Trish said, “That’s the worst Jessica Rabbit impression ever.”

Gary glared at her while half the table snickered.

Anna stood up and walked over to Hazmat.  She smiled up at him, “Hi!  I’m ready.”

He smiled back.  “Okay.  So am I.  Let’s go rescue some squirrels.”

Anna led him out of the cafeteria and over to the elevator.  She tried not to think about the way Crunch and Strongarm seemed to be glaring at Hazmat.  She hoped he’d be okay this weekend.

They chatted about classes as they walked through the tunnels.  Hazmat was a sophomore, and he was taking some stuff that sounded like college chemistry and biochemistry courses.  Even if he was taking basic sophomore English and social studies.  So he was a super-brain about biochem things and pretty normal about other things.  That made her feel not so stupid.  And he thought she was really cool for taking aikido and Intro to Criminology.  That made her blush.

He said, “I thought only the bricks and martial arts whizzes and stuff took the basic martial arts stuff.  Mr. Anderson’s survival class is hard enough as it is.  Don’t you get all beaten up every day?”

She admitted, “Well, sensei Ito matches us up pretty fair.  I usually spar against people like Vox or Gila, not the heavy hitters.  If I had to spar against Phase and Silverwing and Golden Girl and Britomart and Charmer every day, I’d be one huge bruise.”

He grinned.  “That’s so cool that you have a sensei, you know.  It makes you sound like The Karate Kid  or Kwai Chang Caine or something.”

“Who?”

“Kwai Chang Caine,” he repeated.  “This old show back when David Carradine was a young hero type, instead of a creepy old badguy type.  He played a half-Chinese half-American guy who was a master of Shaolin style kung fu.  In every episode, he’d spend like forty-five minutes trying to be Mister Peaceful, and then in the last fifteen minutes he’d go all kung fu all over their asses.  My dad has the entire series on DVD.”

She shrugged.  “I’m not a master of anything.  I just passed one term of aikido.  Sensei says people have to practice every day for years and years to be really good.  And he says people like Chaka don’t count, because it’s already their superpower.”

He said, “Well, the Tigers and the Dragons are already pretty damn awesome, even when they’re just trying to beat each other up.”  He grinned, “I’m good with just learning how to run away really well.”  She giggled.

He asked, “So.  What’s that criminology class like?  I mean, I’m just taking normal high school stuff, and advanced science classes, but there are baseline science geniuses who get to do that.”

She gave him a huge grin.  “It’s the coolest class ever.  Even cooler than aikido.  The teacher?  He’s a real cop.  A super-cop from Hong Kong who retired early so he didn’t have to deal with the mainland Chinese takeover.  He talks about how real cops solve crimes and gather clues and gather forensics for the prosecutors, and he has some of the coolest stories ever.  He told this one story about him and three other police officers gathering clues at the scene of this girl’s murder.  She was this artist who was the girlfriend of this Triad bad guy, and she’d fallen and broken her neck while she was sculpting this huge granite figure.  And when they had all the evidence all gathered up, he realized that she didn’t have the right chisel for the size of notches she was knocking out of the granite.  It took their forensics guys a week to prove the chisels in the room weren’t the ones making the latest toolmarks.  So he figured out that the girl was murdered.  By a guy who could break a neck and make it look like a fall, and who accidentally picked stuff up without thinking about it.  And they figured out who that had to be, and they caught him and he still had the chisel in the pocket of the coat he wore when he killed her, shoved in the bottom of a laundry bag.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah,” she nodded.  “Class is like that every day.  I am so gonna take Criminology II in the spring.”

He said, “Well, if you get really interested in forensics, you’ll have to take a bunch of chemistry and physics and biology.  I could help you with your homework.”

She smiled, “Well, if you decide to take basic martial arts, I could help you with your homework.”

“By slamming me into walls and stuff?  I might pass on that,” he said.

As soon as they got into the animal care room, they got to work.  He prepared a syringe of the drug, while she laid out six to-go boxes with the last of the bedding and food.  Then they did the six remaining cages: Anna would pull out the animals one by one, hold them for Hazmat, and then tuck them into the box, telling them to hold still and wait for her.

Chris came in as they were working on the last little family, and said, “Impressive.  I gotta admit it, you have a real way with animals.”

She just said, “Well, only with my little friends.  I couldn’t get other animals to do what I want.”

He nodded and said, “This is great.  The cages are already in good shape, and now I just have to clean ‘em out and then sanitize them so they’re ready for Monday morning.”

She noticed that Hazmat stopped and suddenly stared at the cages.  As she tucked the last box into the to-go carrier, she said, “Okay, I’ll let you out when I go, and you can go watch the rest of the combat finals.”

He looked at the cages and said, “You know, these are all in pretty good shape.  How about I stay behind and do the clean-up for you?  I could do the sanitizing, and Chris would be pretty much off the hook for this room.”

Chris grinned, “You’re kidding, right?”

Hazmat shook his head.  “Nope.  Biochem is what I do.  I know just what you’re looking at.  Vacuuming out all the cages with that vacuum system over there, then loading all the little water and food dishes into that special washer in the other room, and then using the sanitizer on all the cages.  You’ve been really great to Aquerna, so it’s the least I could do.”

Chris grinned even wider, “You got yourself a deal.  If you want to do all that for me, I’ll let you out whenever you wrap up.”

Anna looked at Hazmat and didn’t know what to say.

“Speechless?” Hazmat teased.

She just nodded.

He grinned, “A ‘thank you’ would be just fine.”

“Thanks, just thanks a ton.  I really, really appreciate it,” she managed.

He just grinned.  “Go on, you’ve still got a bunch of chipmunks to save.  Maybe I’ll see you at the combat finals.”

She said, “I’ll be over with the Outcasts and the Underdogs.”

He shook his head.  “You know, I just can’t see you guys hanging out with Razorback.”

“He’s nice!” she insisted.

He said, “Last year, Razorback was the most dangerous thing on campus.  He made the rest of the Ultraviolents look like hallway monitors.”

She stuck up for Razorback.  “Well, this year he’s been really nice, and he hasn’t hurt anyone, and he’s protected some of the Underdogs from Aries and Icer and some of the other bullies.  He’s like a hero.”

He grinned, “Okay.  I give.  You just get going with your squirrels.”

That was when she realized she was holding his hands.  And he was letting her.  She blushed as she let go.  She hurried to get into her snowsuit, and she rushed out the door.  “Thanks!” she yelled one last time.

She rushed out through the security door and made sure it locked behind her.  Then she started off toward Dunn Hall.

“Big squirrel!  Big squirrel!  Bad thing!”

She felt it too.  Something bad was close by.  She just really hoped it wasn’t Carmilla.

Strongarm stepped into the hallway, blocking the end with his bulk.

He was a big guy.  Maybe 6’5” and built like an offensive lineman.  Was he after Hazmat?  She sure wasn’t going to let him into the secure areas, no matter what.

He stared at her and growled, “There you are, ya little bitch.”

She gulped.

“Thought you could make one of us look bad in the combat finals?  Well think again.  Nobody gets away with shit like that.  ‘Specially Underdog losers like you.”

Eep.  He wasn’t after Hazmat.  She suddenly realized that every time she thought he was staring at Hazmat, she had been standing next to Haz.  He’d been after her.  Maybe for a couple days.

And now she was trapped.  Even if she wanted to sprint back to the security door, there was no way it would open before he could get to her.  She was so in trouble.

She’d thought the hallway was pretty big.  But Strongarm sort of filled it up.  He wasn’t blocking it like with a force field or anything, but he was big.

“An’ ya don’t have a zillion squirrels hidin’ around here ta use on me, ya little bitch!  You’re goin’ down!” he growled.

She tried, “But you’ll get in tons of trouble.  And so will Buster.  You know the rules.  What happens in the sims stays in the sims.  If you don’t let this go, you’ll be in so much trouble, and Buster’ll be in ever more trouble.”

Strongarm leered, “Buster doesn’t know.  He’s busy chasin’ down some Melville guys who’ve been givin’ him some major shit about his final.”

“But no one’s going to believe that,” she said.  “He’ll be in huge trouble, and he’ll blame you.”

“Nah, we talked it over and figured he can just get one of the psychics to look in his head and see he didn’t know anything about this.”

She stared at him.  ‘We’?  Who besides Strongarm?  Crunch?  She wasn’t waiting for a whole army of bullies to show up.  She had to get out of there!

She said, “So.  I’m not hiding a zillion squirrels, huh?”  She told her little friends, “Make a lot of noise.  Then HANG ON!”

“Noise for big squirrel!  Lots of noise!”

Strongarm’s eyes locked onto the carrier as he heard all the angry chittering, and he suddenly realized what she had in it.

She threw it.

She threw hard enough that it sailed above his head and off to his right, easily clearing his bulk.  She threw it far enough away from him that he didn’t even have to duck or swat at it.  He watched it sail past, and…

And she seized the chance.  He wasn’t watching her.  For a split second, his attention was somewhere else.  She sprinted down the hall and dove.  She dove past him on his left, clearing the floor by a foot or so and just grazing the wall.

He took a swat at her, but missed.  She was already past him, and moving fast.  She pushed off from the wall, kicked off from the floor in a move Mister Mahren had showed her, and caught the carrier in mid-air.  She landed on her back, shielding her little friends from the impact, and then she rolled onto her feet when she slid into the crossing hallway.  She sprinted down the hall as fast as she could run with a big to-go carrier and six chipmunk families in her arms.

Strongarm was already chasing after her.  “Get back here, you bitch!” he bellowed.  She could hear the pounding of his feet as she skittered down the hall.  It sounded like he was running even faster than she was.  Which was so, so not good.  If he caught her, she was going to be roadkill.  And God only knew what he’d do to all her little friends!

Left-hand turn ahead.  Sharp left to get into the tunnel to Dunn, and the floor all along here was nice and polished.  She’d never tried taking that turn at full speed before.  If she slipped and fell, Strongarm would get her.

Or maybe…  She pushed herself, sprinting as fast as she could toward the intersection.  When she was thirty feet away, she leapt.

Parkour had already helped her once.  She tried it again.  She leapt for the right-hand wall, just before the turn, and she hit it feet-first.  She pushed off as hard as she could and leapt straight into the left tunnel.  She had to push off the side of the tunnel with a foot and her free hand, but she made the turn without slowing down.

Behind her there was a loud, “What the fu…  SHIT!”  And then the sound of a big guy crashing to the floor and sliding into a wall.

She didn’t look back.  She just ran.  He was a brick.  Sliding into a wall wouldn’t stop him any more than hitting him with a pillow.  Sure enough, she heard him scramble to his feet and chase after her again.  And he was still faster than she was.  She ran.  All she had to do was get to the…

Oh crud!  The elevator.  That incredibly slow elevator that she had to wait for every single time.  There was no way she could get the elevator and get on it and get the door closed before Strongarm caught up to her.  And if he had her trapped in an elevator, she was totally doomed.

Hazmat!  Haz told her about the stairs.  Around the corner, in back of the elevator, and coming up in the wrong hallway.  She’d have to try the stairs.  She didn’t know how many flights of stairs she’d have to climb, but she had to try.  She had no chance with that stupid elevator.  She at least a decent chance with the stairs.  And maybe she had a good chance.  Strongarm might be able to run faster than her in a straight line, but maybe she could jump flights of stairs faster than he could.  Yeah.  And maybe she’d magically turn into the prettiest girl on campus.

Well, she had to try.  She ran down the hall, Strongarm’s massive feet pounding behind her, slowly gaining on her.  He’d be within arm’s reach in seconds.

And there was the elevator.  Doors closed.  In the movies, the doors would be open, and just closing, so she could dive in and have the doors shut in Strongarm’s face.  Except even if she got away with something like that, he could just yank the doors open and get at her.

She ran right at the elevator and ran up the wall beside it, stepping on the button as she went past.  Then she did a somersault and came down in front of the elevator doors.

“Gotcha now!” he yelled.

“Big squirrel!  Big squirrel!  RUN!”

She stayed there, standing facing the closed doors, until the last second.  Then she jumped to the left.  Strongarm sailed through the spot where she’d been a split-second ago and crashed face-first into the elevator doors.

She ducked around the corner, around the next corner, and into the door marked ‘EXIT STAIRWAY’.

No time to catch her breath.  No time to look behind her.  She ran.  She leapt up the flight of stairs, turned on the landing, and leapt to the next landing.  Still no Strongarm.  She leapt up to the next landing, and the next.  Still no Strongarm.

She got up another three landings before the door at the bottom of the stairwell burst open.  “BITCH!”

She kept going.  Another stair landing, and another.  How many stairs were there?

“LEG!  She’s in the stairwell!” Strongarm bellowed.

“Got her!” another male voice bellowed from up ahead of her.

OH CRUD!  Not another one of these guys!  And there were no doors to duck through, and if she even tried something like that, she’d be lost and she’d be running around where she might get trapped or anything!  She jumped to another landing, and looked around the corner.

At the top of the next flight of steps, Legbreaker was standing there waiting for her.  He made a pushing motion at her.

She ducked back for a moment, and something invisible smashed into the concrete wall where she’d been standing.  Whatever it was hit hard enough to bust a couple of the concrete blocks.

The stairwell wasn’t wide enough that you could fly up between the stairs.  No, this was a pretty standard stairwell, with maybe enough clearance to drop a penny straight down between flights of stairs.  The railings were the usual two metal tubes running along the stairs, one at waist level and the other halfway to the level of the steps.  She’d have to try it.

She sprinted at the right-hand side of the stairs and jumped most of the way up the flight of stairs.  She kicked off the wall hard just before Legbreaker could blast her.  She hugged the carrier and just barely cleared the railing on her side and the railing for the next set of stairs.  Legbreaker blasted at her again and missed, hitting the railing with a horribly loud clanging noise.  She landed hard against the far wall and came down in a three-point stance, just barely hanging onto the carrier.  She leapt again, just barely making the next landing and sprinting around the corner so Legbreaker couldn’t blast her again.

“FUCK!  She got away!” screamed the guy.

“You MORON!” shouted Strongarm from far below.  “Get after her!”

She leapt up four more flights of stairs and found a door.  She grabbed it and ducked through it, guessing which way she needed to run.  She sprinted down a poorly-lit hallway and into a classroom.  She ran to the windows at the far side of the room, threw one window open, and jumped out into the snow.

She skittered across the surface of the snow and turned a corner to find herself right where she was supposed to be.  The far door of Dunn Hall.

And Crunch was waiting for her at the intersection of the brick paths.

“What did I ever do to you guys?” she squeaked.

“You can’t get away with making us look bad,” he said.  He didn’t sound mean, like Strongarm, or angry, like Legbreaker.  Just really, really determined.  And his two pals had to be coming up behind her any moment now.

That was when she heard the noise.  She didn’t look behind her.  She didn’t look past Crunch.  She just raised her voice slightly and said, “You can’t get away with this.  No matter what you do to me, I’ll tell Security.  You’ll be in so much trouble you’ll wish you’d been the one my squirrels ripped up.  You guys are gonna get yourselves expelled.  Or worse.  Mrs. Carson talked to us just this week…”  She was running out of lies to make up, but she just needed another couple seconds.

He glared at her.  “Shut up, Squirrel-Girl.  Underdogs don’t get to make us look like losers!  That’s not the way it wo- OOF!”

He was so busy being mad at her that he never noticed Ellen coming up behind him at maybe seventy miles an hour.  She twisted the handlebars and leaned her weight just right, and her snowmobile did a three-sixty just in time to whip around and smack him in the butt hard enough to knock him flying headfirst into that big snowbank.  Right where the naughty drawing had been.

Ellen laughed over the noise of the machine, “Ooh, that’s gonna leave a mark.”

Anna hopped onto the back of the snowmobile and grabbed Ellen’s coat.  Crunch was still in the snowbank, only his legs and butt sticking out.  Ellen took off across the snow.

Anna yelled, “We have to call Security and report this!  And we have to get someone to round up all three of them!  Him and Strongarm and Legbreaker too!”

Ellen nodded.  She reached into a small compartment on her handlebars and pulled out something like a plastic choker collar on a long wire.  She wrapped the collar around her throat and made a phone call.  Anna finally got it - the thing was some sort of microphone like in the movies!

Ellen said, “A-Plus?  Skidz here.  Three perps.  Assaulted Aquerna but couldn’t catch her.  Crunch is head-in in a snowbank forty feet east of Dunn Hall’s east door.  Strongarm and Legbreaker are loose inside Dunn Hall right now…  Got it.  I’ll bring Aquerna over to Kane Hall to file a report, as soon as we take care of an important task first…  No, it won’t wait.  Time critical.  See ya in ten.  Out.”

Ellen tucked the mike thing back into the snowmobile and turned her head enough to talk to Anna.  “The Spy Kidz will take care of them for me.”

Anna knew Ellen did some driving - and maybe some flying too, Anna kind of suspected - for the Spy Kidz now and then, so they owed her a couple favors.  Still, she wouldn’t want to have to go round up Strongarm and Legbreaker and Crunch just as a favor to someone.  Okay, if someone like Ree or Lucille needed it, she’d sure give it a try.  But maybe she’d get some help first.  She figured Lancer could smack all three of those clowns around like Superman rounding up bank robbers.  Not that she could ask someone like Lancer for help, especially when she was the one who owed him a big favor, which she was totally sure there was no way she could ever repay.  After all, what could she do for someone like him?

Ellen was already slowing to a halt before Anna ws even done worrying about the favor she owed Lancer.  Anna scampered across the snow and tucked her first family in, making sure they plugged the tunnel from their side before she covered up the hole with snow.  Then they were off to family two’s little burrow.

It seemed like it only took a couple minutes to get all six families tucked away for the winter, and then Ellen was zooming back toward the center of campus and parking her snowmobile next to Kane Hall.

Anna felt really nervous as she followed Ellen, lugging her carrier with her.  She didn’t know why.  She hadn’t done anything wrong.  But she had only been in here once or twice, to file reports on bullying, and the security guys just sort of intimidated her.

When they walked inside, A-Plus was waiting for them.  She pointed at her wristwatch and said, “Skidz, you’re late.  ‘See you in ten’, huh?”

Ellen shrugged carelessly.  “Okay, so time management isn’t my strong suit.  Not all of us have to be perfect in everything, you know.”

Anna said, “It’s my fault.  Ellen’s been helping me get my little friends tucked away for hibernation.”

A-Plus looked at Anna, then at the carrier, then back at Anna.  “Oh.  The squirrels and ground squirrels from your combat final.”

“Yeah,” Anna said.  “The guys in the animal care rooms thought they could just dump ‘em all outside and let ‘em go.  Okay, about half of ‘em would’ve been okay, probably, because the tree squirrels don’t really hibernate all winter, they go eat and stuff, but the rest would’ve been in really bad trouble, and they couldn’t’ve gotten down into most of their burrows ‘cause they were under tons of snow, and it would’ve been awful!”

A-Plus nodded, and then asked, “Isn’t that one of the school cafeteria food carriers?”

“Umm, yeah?” Anna admitted.  “I didn’t put the squirrels in it.  They were in boxes inside it.  And I’m gonna clean it out and ask Chris how to sanitize it.”

A-Plus pursed her lips and said, “I still don’t think the caff is ever going to want that back.”

Anna worried, “Lucille got it.  They’re not gonna make her pay for it or anything, are they?”

A-Plus just said, “Let me check.  Meantime, you need to go in there and file a report.”

A-Plus led her through some twisty hallways, past a room with a big glass window, where a couple Security officers were yelling a lot at Strongarm and Legbreaker and Crunch.

A-Plus sneered, “Big tough guys.  They aren’t looking quite so tough now that they’re facing someone besides a little girl.”

A-Plus led Anna to another room, where two Security officers, one a guy and one a woman, were sitting at a desk.  They looked up and smiled.  The woman said, “A-Plus.  Nice job on the captures, and the C-and-S on Legbreaker.  Tell the rest of the Cadets we appreciate it.”

A-Plus said, “It’s nice to have something go right.  For a change.”

The woman nodded.  Anna had no idea what they were talking about, but she knew they were talking about something.  And she figured it probably wasn’t any of her business anyways.  So she didn’t ask, even if she was pretty curious about whatever it was.

The man said, “Hi.  You’re Aquerna, right?”  She nodded.  “Okay, I’m officer Merritt, and this is Officer Winslow.  We just want you to sit down and tell us everything you can remember about the whole incident.”

Anna sat down and told them everything she could think of, going all the way back to when she first noticed the bullies glaring at her in the cafeteria, and how she just thought Strongarm was mad at Hazmat.  She was pretty tired from running all over the place and hanging onto the back of Ellen’s snow racer too, but she figured she needed to do a really good job so those jerks wouldn’t get away with it.  She told the officers everything she could remember, even the part about Buster not knowing about the deal.  That was when Officer Merritt told her that Buster had gotten into a fight with three boys outside of Melville, so he was in trouble too.  Just for something different.  She sort of wondered if these guys did anything except be bullies, like go to classes and stuff.

She was hoping to get to a bunch of the combat finals, but the report stuff took a lot longer than she figured.  By the time Officer Winslow walked her out to the front lobby, A-Plus and Skidz were both gone.  Still, she couldn’t help bursting into a big grin when she saw Hazmat was sitting there waiting for her, looking worried.

He jumped and rushed over to her.  “I heard about the attack from Skidz!  Are you okay?  Did they hurt you?”

She smiled, “I’m fine.  They never caught me.”

He said, “Oh thank god, I was so worried!”  And he pulled her into his arms and hugged her hard.  She snuggled into his arms and hugged him back.

Finally, he froze.  “Uhh…  Is this okay?  You’re not gonna like crush my spine or anything, are you?”

She hugged him some more and said, “No way.  Thanks for… for caring so much, Hazmat.”

He kissed her lightly on the forehead and said, “Jerry.  My name is Jerry.”

“I’m Anna.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Anna,” he teased.

He walked her all the way back to Arena ’99, getting her to tell him all about what happened.  Then, when they got there, he sat and watched the last few combat finals with her and the Underdogs.  She was pretty sorry she just missed Jericho’s combat final, and she was really surprised when they told her who Jericho faced.  So she tried to pay attention to the combat finals that were left.

The last combat final was Tennyo.  Anna should’ve guessed that.  But there was no way she would’ve guessed that Tennyo was down there all by herself and up against the entire city.

Anna wasn’t afraid to admit it.  Tennyo’s combat final scared the crap out of her!  Oh my GAWD!  For a while there, it looked like Tennyo was going to destroy most of the city in that arena!  There was no way someone like Anna could win in a scenario like that.  A whole city trying to kill her?  Police with guns?  SWAT teams with rifles?  Helicopters?  They shot Tennyo and blew up part of her shoulder!  That was crazy!  And it didn’t stop her!  That was scary!  No wonder she had that Section 33 on her.

After all the other combat finals, people were cheering, or booing, or applauding.  After that one, there was mostly stunned silence.  There were a couple bullies and school jerks that Anna saw when she was walking out, and they had a deer-in-the-headlights look, like ‘oh my God I’m not messing with her’.

And then, at dinner, everyone got the heck out of Tennyo’s way.  Even the juniors and seniors must’ve been watching her final, because even guys like Killstench were avoiding her.  Even the Alphas looked worried.  The only people who didn't look worried were the other Kimbas, who looked like they were teasing her the same as usual.  Generator looked like she was treating Tennyo the same as always.  Anna wished she was that brave.  It had to be really scary rooming with someone like that.

And Anna figured the thing with Tennyo in the cafeteria was good for her personally, because even with people all checking out Tennyo, Ree and Luce and Nate and Alan were all giving her a ton of grief about Hazmat.

Nate kept singing, “Anna’s got a boyfriend…  Anna’s got a boyfriend…”

And Gary kept making comments about her watching out so Hazmat didn’t burn off her hair.  She was the only one there who knew what he was talking about on that, and she wasn’t going to blab about it.  But she figured everyone in Workshop knew about Hazmat and his hair, so sooner or later Nate and Alan would be gigging her about dating ‘Bald Boy’.  She just tried to eat, and think about all the stuff she needed to do now that she’d saved all her little friends.

That was the main thing.  They were all safe, and they’d stay safe.  She felt really good about that.  Maybe almost as good as when Jerry had hugged her because he was so worried about her.

After dinner, she hiked back to her room and got started on math studying.  She had a huge pile of math problems she wanted to work through, and most of them she already had done, and corrected, since she hadn’t gotten a bunch of ‘em right the first time.

She worked pretty solidly until eight that evening.  By then she knew she had the additive rules and multiplicative rules down cold, and she was doing great on the associative property problems and even the distributive property problems, but she was still having trouble with graphing straight lines.  And she need to work on the new stuff.  Computing the means and ranges and stuff, and doing the histograms and boxplots.  She didn’t know why intro algebra had this statistics stuff in it, but it did.  Maybe it was just a Whateley thing, because she thought statistics was like a college course.

At eight, she gathered up her math book and her notebook with her worked problems in it, and she headed over to the Underdogs hangout.  Which was a really good idea, because Gary was there.  All the upperclassmen were all done with their course exams and just had their combat finals to worry about.  So they were sitting around giving Winnie a hard time while she tried to do some sort of feng shui thing to make the room be better for calm conversations, or something like that.  Anna wasn’t really sure, because every time Winnie tried to explain, Gary or Alan or somebody would start teasing her, so she never really got through a whole explanation.

Anna got Gary to walk her through the problems she didn’t think she knew how to do.  That went real well.  He was a pretty good teacher, when he could remember that not everybody was a deviser math genius.  It helped that every time he got carried away, Trish or Mindy or Alan or Nate threw something at him.  And Mindy kept hitting him in the head with wadded-up paper cups that had sharp edges.

So, by the time she went back to her room at nine thirty, she was way ahead of where she figured she’d be by then.  Maybe she’d even do really well on her math exam!  That would be awesome.  She didn’t want to do bad in any of her courses, and she sure didn’t want Jerry to think she was stupid in the things he did science on.  So she was going to study hard on her biology notes, even if she thought dissecting little animals was the grossest thing ever.  There was no way she could be a doctor if the medical students had to cut up real dead people for classes, like on tv.  That was too awful to even think about.

She studied until she got a phone call at ten.  “Hello?”

“Hey Aquerna.  It’s Zenith.”

She nearly leapt out of her chair.  “Zenith!  Hi!  What is it?”

“Parkour run.  Tomorrow morning at five a.m.  Get some sleep.  I’ll be at your dorm at ten of, to pick you up.  Eldritch wants to see how you run.”

Anna just sat there quivering for long seconds.  Parkour!  And she was still in the group, even with Mister Mahren gone!

But Mister Mahren was gone.  She didn’t know how things would be without him.  She didn’t know how she would be without him.  He’d been a grouchy old guy, but she still really missed him.  And Eldritch was freaky.  Anna saw what Eldritch’s combat final was like against Hippolyta and Lancer, so she knew Eldritch was another campus powerhouse.  And she was just the girl with the spirit of the squirrel.  What if Eldritch didn’t want her to run with them anymore?

She told herself to go to bed.  She’d find out real soon how things were going to be in the Parkour group, and if Eldritch was really mean, Anna could always just not run with them anymore.  Which would be cruddy, but would be better than trying to hang out with people who didn’t want her around.  That never worked.

Comments   

0 # DocSavage 2017-02-22 19:47
I didn't notice the first time I read this but somehow the 31 families to hibernate became 34 instead of 28 after the first three families were tested. Aside from that great story. =)
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