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Aquerna - Straight from the Squirrel’s Mouth

By Diane Castle

CHAPTER 7

Anna turned to her right to get Judicator’s help, but Judicator was already looking over at the argument.  She said in a real stern voice, “Packrat!  Give it to Flashbang right now.  Flash?  Put that away before I report you to the range officers.”

Flashbang put the raygun-thing back in her bag and muttered, “I wasn’t really gonna shoot her, anyway.”

Packrat reached into her pants pocket and pulled out a shiny little metal cylinder with wires running out of it.  She handed it back and said, “It’s not really dangerous, is it?”

Flashbang fussed, “It’s an alpha wave generator.  If you accidentally set it off and it generated the wrong sets of alpha waves, it could paralyze you.  Or put you in a coma.”

“Shit!” Packrat gasped, and quickly shoved it into Flashbang’s hands.

Anna asked, “Is it really that dangerous?”

Judicator asked, “And if it’s that dangerous, what are you and Tink up to this time?”

Flashbang looked over at Judicator and frowned.  “Don’t get your panties in a wad.  We’re just trying to win this Defense Department contract for non-lethal weapons.  We figure if we can get it just right, we can knock out like a wall of enemies in front of you, with no injuries.  Everyone would just fall down unconscious.  And it would go through walls and around corners, so it would be the best anti-terrorist weapon ever.  But I really don’t need Pack swiping something it took me over two months to design and build.  And this is just the alpha test version.”

“Devise or gadget?” Judicator asked.

“We-ell, right now it’s a devise.  But Tink thinks maybe we can turn it into a gadget once we get the alpha test version working right.”  She looked at Judicator and sighed, “Yeah, I know, we can’t win that contract with anything that ain’t a hundred percent gadget, but we’re working on it!”

“Sorry,” Packrat mumbled.  “I couldn’t help it.”

And then, since Anna wasn’t too tired after class, she headed over to The Shed to talk to Mr. Miyamoto.  Mrs. Lewis had her wait for a couple minutes, so she looked through the pile of magazines and things piled in a big wicker basket on the floor by the waiting-area chairs.  There were all kinds of magazines on gardens and gardening and plants and trees and landscaping and ecology and nature.  She found an article on picking the right plants and shrubs and trees to attract wildlife, and started reading in it.

“Anna?  Anna?”

Anna jumped up.  “Oh!  Sorry, I just got reading this, and it was really interesting about plants that keep some bugs away, ‘cause my squirrels get fleas and stuff and they really don’t like it, and I was just trying to find out if there were any bushes I could plant to keep the fleas down for my little friends, and-”

“It’s okay, Anna.”  Mr. Miyamoto walked out of his office with a big smile.  “I’m glad you’re interested in reading those articles.  Most of my staff only read those magazines and journals if they’re stuck waiting here so long that they start taking root.”

Mrs. Lewis smiled.  “Some of them just look that way.”

Anna giggled and said, “Is it okay if I came by?”

Mr. M. smiled and waved her into his office.  “Yes, Anna.  You can come by any time.  I assume you want to know about your scholarship work?”

Anna nodded.  “Umm, yeah.  Can I start on some stuff?  I really owe you so much for last December, and my little friends are doing so great, and I couldn’t of done it without you.  And Bill and Ted.  And Jennifer.  And everyone.  You guys were so great to me.  So anything you want me to do, just name it.”

Mr. M. grinned at her.  “I like this.  Most of the students dodge their work as much as they can.  Particularly the ones on punishment duty.  Well, this term I want you to work with Charlie’s crew.”

“The tree guys?  Great!” Anna squeaked.  “Because that’s just what I was hoping for, so I could check up on my little friends now and then while I was working.”

He said, “I think that will work.  We’ve been having a very harsh winter, and the snowfall is going to be breaking a lot of limbs, causing serious damage across campus.  So I want you to work with Charlie and his crew to go across the entire campus, sector by sector, and check every single tree.  Clear snow, if you can save a tree that way.  Mark branches that are already broken, and then trim them off before they do more damage to the tree.  And if a tree’s unsalvageable, then make sure it won’t fall and destroy even more trees or shrubs or plantings.  Charlie can show you all the things you need to do.  You can learn a lot from him.”

Anna nodded.  “Oh yeah.  I know that.  He’s really smart on this stuff.”

Mr. M. said, “So come over here after last period on Friday, and Charlie will tell you your duties for this term.  I think he’s looking forward to having your skills for this particular project.”

Anna asked, “But… what about my other stuff?”

Mr. M. said, “I don’t really think there’s going to be any cleaning or clearing or planting going on this term.  So I think we’ll leave the snow shoveling to the bad boys and girls, and let you have some fun in the trees.  Fran’s going to be doing some design work in the greenhouses, and Jeff volunteered to help get all the mechanicals in shape for spring term, so I think we’re in good shape.  And I’m pretty sure students will be causing trouble right and left, so we’ll have plenty of snow shoveling help wherever we want it.”

Anna practically skipped back to the dorm.  This term was going to be so cool!

Well, except for Civics class.

But maybe Mrs. Devon will get to some other stuff and it’ll get really interesting!  After all, you never knew…

Anna hadn’t thought much about the little ‘shoulder angel and devil’ thingies that some of the inventors were showing off.  After all, the school devisers and gadgeteers (she even knew the different names now!) were always doing weird stuff.  Like that thing fall term with the guy who built little tiny shoulder-mounted artillery guns for himself, and he walked around being really pushy and swiveling his guns at anyone who moved near him, until some speedster was running circles around him and he accidentally shot himself in the neck.  Like three or four times.  Jerry said Mrs. Carson dragged the whole Workshop into a private assembly and yelled at them for building stupid stuff with no safeties.  So now you could only build shoulder-mounted artillery guns that couldn’t shoot anywhere near your neck or head.  Jerry said it was only a matter of time before some guy built something like that and shot himself in the hand.  Erlenmeyer had heard that and said it would be a lot funnier if whoever it was shot themselves in the foot.  Which didn’t sound funny at all to Anna, but made a couple of the other Workshop guys snicker real hard, so there had to be a big joke in there somewhere.  Or there was the thing Jerry talked about that they did last year that turned into a huge one-upmanship deal where people were trying to build the smallest rocket that could fly over the Crystal Hall and knock out a little remote-controlled flying helicopter.  One of the seniors didn’t like that Ergonomic had the best one, so he built this thing that it turned out didn’t work right, and all the Workshoppers had to spend a week patching holes and dents in the outside of the Crystal Hall.  So Anna had figured the shoulder angel thing would just be a couple devisers trying real hard to top Generator, who totally didn’t look like a deviser.

Okay, almost half the girl inventors didn’t look like devisers.  Generator was really cute, but then there was Delta Spike and Bugs and Loophole and Thunderfox and Widget, and they were all just plain gorgeous.  It kind of wasn’t fair that Delta Spike was an inventor, when she was also super-pretty and super-strong and had blaster powers too.  Even if Jerry said Delta’s stuff blew up a whole lot.

Anyways, Anna had just figured the shoulder angels would go away as fast as they appeared.  Like the anti-radiation caps had last fall, or some of the weird stuff Jerry told her about, like the rocket shoes from a year and a half ago, which were real popular but put maybe a dozen Workshop guys in the hospital when they crashed into something or the rockets gave out in mid-air.  But the shoulder angels were getting really popular, and even a whole bunch of non-Workshop people were wearing them.  Anna thought maybe it was because Phase was wearing some the other day, and everyone said Phase could be running the Golden Kids in a couple years.

She asked the other Underdogs about the things while she was eating dinner.

Rhiannon pointed at the New Olympians table and said, “See Majestic?  Those are probably magical.  She can do stuff that powerful.”

Lucille loyally said, “I bet Fey could do WAY better ones than that.”

Anna agreed, “Yeah, but she’s way nicer than Majestic, so she probably doesn’t need to show off and make ‘em.”

Alan said, “Jimmy T’s got some too, but I think they’re just him.”

Trish cringed.  “You mean he like…”  She made a gesture like she was squeezing her own shoulder into a big pimple.  Ick.

Alan said, “Umm, yeah.  I’m pretty sure his shoulder angel and devil are just little shapeshifted thingies.”

Lucille asked, “Well, how could he, if they’re on top of his shirt?”

Alan said, “Umm, Luce, that’s not a real shirt.  He shifts his skin into fake clothes most of the time.”  Lucille’s eyes bulged and her jaw dropped open.

Ree asked, “So you mean he’s like walking around naked all the time?”

“Eww,” Anna said.

Mindy said, “Well, you know, the really good Shifters can do that.”

“Gross.”

“TMI.”

“I’m never sitting next to a Shifter in class ever again.”

Nate smiled smugly.  “It’s easy to tell.  I just fart.  If their clothes move out of the way, then it’s them.”

“Now that’s way grosser.”

“Totally.”

Anna asked, “But all the devisers have real devises for their shoulder stuff, right?”

“Oh, sure,” Gary said.  “I just hope Delta Spike doesn’t wear any.”

“Why not?” Trish asked.

Gary rolled his eyes.  “Well, because all her stuff blows up!  How’d you like to be near some shoulder angels that suddenly explode, injuring everyone within twenty feet?”

“Ouch.”

Gary added, “And she’s a brick, so she’d be the one who didn’t get hurt.”

Nate asked, “So why don’t you have any?”

Gary tried to look above it all.  He said, “I’m way too busy to mess with building shoulder angels.”

Mindy pointed and said, “Ooh!  Look at Bill!  He’s got shoulder angels too.”  She watched for a second and said, “But they don’t work very well, do they?  Generator’s were way better.”

Gary said, “Well, first off, she maybe spent a couple months working out the details before she showed ‘em the other day, and these are all alpha-test versions that guys are just trying to get out so they can say they had theirs done sooner.”  He looked at his tray in thought.  “But they’re really hard to get right.  The look’s more than just realistic-looking skin and a decent body modeling system, which are pretty darn hard to start with.  But the mechanics for the body movement, and the servos for smooth movement, and the AI to control all that, they’re the tricky part.  Then you need the system to make them float over your shoulders, like Generator has, or else just a mounting system direct to your coat.  And then the AI so they can talk and interact, plus voice control, and then overall systems design, and power requirements, and getting everything into a couple cubic inches of usable space.  There’s some really hard problems in there, even if Generator made it look easy.  I’m pretty sure there’s no way she’s just a DEV-1.  Maybe a DEV-3 or higher.”

Alan smirked, “So…  Gary…  If you’re too busy, how come you’ve put all this thought into it?”

“Shuddup.”

And then, after she finished her dinner, Jerry came over to the Underdog table and asked, “Can we go for a walk?”

“Umm, yeah,” she said.  “I gotta bus my tray first, but-”

Ree butted in, “No she doesn’t.  I got it.”  She looked at Anna and said, “Go on, I got it, you got mine at lunch.”  Which was a big fib.

“Right,” Anna managed to say.  So she walked off with Jerry.

“Hi.”

He grinned, “Hi yourself.  How was Christmas?”

“Oh, it was so great!  I went home with Ree, and we had the best time, and you know what?  Ree has a boyfriend back home, and nobody except Ree’s family knows she’s a mutant, and they’re really cute together.  I bet she goes home over term break and goes out with him a lot.”

He wrapped one arm around her and said, “I missed you.  I really wanted to call you up and tease you a bunch of times about the Ohio State – Florida game.”

She stuck her tongue out at him, and he laughed.  “Okay, not really.  I knew you’d be grouchy about it.  I had a really good Christmas.  And I guess I talked about you way too much.  My sisters all want to meet you.”

She kind of shivered.  “I’d like to meet ‘em.”  But the ‘meet your family’ thing was supposed to be WAY after the first date.

He asked, “What are you doing Saturday night?  I thought we could go into Dunwich and catch a movie and just spend time together…  Unless you’re too busy, or you already have plans.”

She smiled up into his face.  He was so cute when he was nervous.  She said, “I’m free Saturday night.  For you, anyway.  And I’m not too busy.  It looks like only one of my classes has study-type homework.  How about you?”

He frowned.  “I’m only taking two classes, but both of ‘em look like they’re going to be monsters.”

“They both Workshop courses?” Anna guessed.

“Yeah,” he admitted.  “What about you?”

She grinned.  “Civics, which is already too boring for words.  Martial arts weapons.  And ‘theory and practice of the escape’.”

He stopped walking and just stared at her with his mouth open.  “Holy crap, Anna!  I thought you said you didn’t want to be a superhero when you graduated!”

“I don’t.  Really.”

He said, “Well, it sure sounds like you’re taking the Batman courseload.  Weapons and escaping.  And you took Criminology last term too.  What’s next?  Utility Belts 101?  How to find your Robin and make him hunt in the Batcave for live bats to eat?”

“EWW!” she said.  “Where’d that come from?”

He shook his head.  “Never mind.  Frank Miller…  You know who he is?  The writer?  He did the new version of Batman, and it’s pretty psycho.”

“Umm, I’m not that big on comic books,” she said.

He nodded.  “Well, I like ‘em, so I guess that means I don’t have any room to tease you about Bella and Edward.”

She frowned, “Bella’s great!  And Edward’s really hunky.  And… you’re already teasing me about it.”

“Maybe…”  He gave her a big smile.

She slid an arm around his waist, and let him hold her close, and they just walked and chatted for a while.  And kissing when he walked her back to the dorm.  Mmm.  She was looking forward to Saturday.

Saturday, January 13
Dickinson Cottage

Anna finally got herself up when her alarm clock buzzed for like the third time.  Maybe the fourth.  But she was really getting to like not having to get up early in the morning during the winter, with nothing before third period.  But she had to get up and eat a good breakfast today, because she had swimming.  And she had to make sure Ree ate a good breakfast, because she had swimming too.  They were doing their swimming requirement together.  And if Ree didn’t pass the test, she was going to have to take a swimming class.  Anna wasn’t worried about herself.  She’d been an okay swimmer back when she was fat and blobby, and she was a lot lighter and a lot stronger and a lot more durable these days.

The bathroom was pretty crowded, since everyone wanted to get over to the cafeteria during regular breakfast hours to get all the food, instead of having to just get some coffee or a little Danish or something later.  She still thought getting up later than most everyone else was really pretty cool.  She didn’t think she could do it for normal terms, but Winter Term classes were pretty awesome in a lot of ways.  And next winter, she wouldn’t have that Civics class to get done.  And there were some awfully cool courses that maybe she’d get to take next year.  And if sensei Ito thought she was good enough to take his martial arts special topics class, then maybe she could get really good some day!

She rushed over to the Crystal Hall to get some breakfast.  She wanted to make sure she had a nice, healthy, nutritious breakfast, and then she wanted to be sure she was done maybe an hour before the swimming test.  Her mom always made her wait forty-five minutes after she ate before she could go in the water, which she never understood.  Why forty-five minutes?  Why not half an hour or a whole hour?  And why did she have to wait if she was just getting in a couple feet of water where she could stand up?  Maybe she’d ask Pythia some day - Pythia knew all kinds of important stuff.

On the way to breakfast, she had to detour off the path to avoid two shoulder angel fights.  She was glad none of the Underdogs were wearing shoulder angels and getting into fights.  She hoped.  But it was really getting crazy the way people were getting into fights over what shoulder angels you were wearing, and whether you made ‘em do weird stuff.  A bunch of the girls in the dorm thought it was kind of funny that the guys wearing Solange shoulder angels were making them act really stupid and slutty, even if that made Solange’s clique get really cranky.  And Anna had heard from Ellen that some of the Kimbas had tracked down the guys who bought Fey angels and ripped the things up.  Nate was still insisting that Bladedancer went up to a guy right in the cafeteria and sliced his Fey shoulder angels to bits with her sword while the guy was standing there wearing ‘em, but Anna was sure Molly’s friend wouldn’t do something that dangerous.

When she got to the cafeteria, she spotted the gang sitting way over on one of the edges behind a big planter with two trees.  Luce waved her over, so she jumped out of line and headed there.

Luce already had Ree eating a big, steaming bowl of oatmeal, and there was a second bowl sitting next to Ree.  Luce pointed at it and said, “Sit down and eat.”

Anna couldn’t help grinning.  “Yes, mom.”

Luce glared at Nate.  “See?  This is all your fault!”

“Yes, mom.”

“Stop it.”

“Yes, m-mpphh!” Nate mumbled as Alan put a hand over his mouth.

Anna asked, “Is this your special oatmeal with all the good stuff mixed in?”

Luce nodded.  “Yep.  They even had some toasted almonds all sliced up, so yours has them too.”

“Wow!  Thanks!” Anna said.  “You’re great.”

“Yeah, you’re the best mom ever!” Nate said.

“Nate?”  Luce waited until Nate looked at her.  “Go to your room.”  Most of the table laughed.

Nate decided to play ‘mom’ too.  “Do you have clean underwear?  Now you’re not going to wear something suggestive for your swimming test, are you?  Don’t flirt with those lifeguards, you don’t know where they’ve been.  And don’t run around the pool, you might slip and fall.”

Alan helpfully added, “And don’t play with those sharp sticks.  You’ll put someone’s eye out.”

Ree looked over at her and whispered, “Let’s flip oatmeal on ‘em.”

Anna nearly choked from trying not to laugh out loud with a mouthful of oatmeal.

Nate looked at Ree and said, “Don’t sweat it.  I did the test last night.  It was a breeze.”

Alan said, “Uh-oh.  You know what it means when Nate talks about a breeze.”

Gary said, “We all know what kind of breeze that’s gonna be.”

Trish fussed, “You guys!  Can’t we have one nice meal without the toilet humor?”

Alan looked at Gary and said, “I have no idea what she’s talking about.  Do you?”

Gary tried to look puzzled.  “Not a clue.  It’s not my fault Trish’s mind is always in the gutter.”

Alan protested, “Hey!  That’s one of her best features!  OW!”  He rubbed his ribs where she just elbowed him.  Anna tried not to laugh while she still had a mouth full of hot yummy oatmeal.

The guys kept making jokes about what Nate could mean by ‘a breeze’, while Luce and Trish got on them about being naughty and Anna ate all but a couple bites of her oatmeal.  It really was awfully good, but it was just too big a bowl.

So after breakfast, Anna got some homework done, and then met up with Ree for the swim test.  They went through the tunnels to avoid some of the shoulder angel fights going on all over the place.  Lucille went along to watch, since her swim test was a couple weeks away and she was worried about it.  If you didn’t pass the test, you had to take a swimming class, unless you got a special deal.  But if you could jump into a pool and then fly out again and fly around the pool, you were excused.  Or if you were a water-type, like Tidewater or Riptide, you were automatically excused.  And if you could Shift into an aquatic form and do the three laps, that was okay too.  Or if you could walk on water, after you jumped into the pool.  Or if you already had a Red Cross lifeguard certificate, you didn’t have to take the test, but that pretty much made sense.

Luce asked, “You got your swimsuits?”

Ree nodded.  “I got this really nice one-piece last summer when mom knew I was gonna be coming to Whateley.  I’ve got some bikinis, but I don’t think that’d be a good idea in a swim test.  I mean, what if something came loose?”

Anna admitted, “Sorta.  I mean, I turned into a mutant about a year ago, and I lost all this weight, but it was before it was time to shop for swimsuits, and there’s no way I could wear any of my old stuff, which are for Old Fat Anna, and then my folks found out I was… you know…  And my mom never took me shopping again after that.  But I got my aunt’s old one-piece she can’t fit in anymore, and it’s not too icky, and it pretty much fits even if it’s a little tight at the bust and a little loose at the waist, but it’s spandex, and it’s not like this is gonna be around a bunch of guys I want to see me, so it’s okay.”

Ree pouted, “Anna!  That’s awful!  We got to get you a decent swimsuit before spring.  Jerry’s from Florida, so he’ll want to do stuff like swimming and laying out in the sun, right?  So you need something sexy.”

Luce said, “Yeah, we need to get you a birthday present anyways, and we can shop in a catalog and get you something you like.”

Anna insisted, “But not anything too skimpy.  Okay?”

“Well, sure,” frowned Luce like Anna had accused her of something.

Ree changed the subject.  “Who else besides you still has to take their test?”

Luce looked up in thought.  “Umm…  I think I’m the last one.  Winnie’s roommate went with her end of last term, and they both passed.  Nate was last night.”

Anna nodded.  None of the Underdogs could fly, so they all had to take the swimming test.  Lots of other people got out of the test.  And the test wasn’t that bad.  You just had to jump into the pool so you were away from the side, then tread water for a minute, and then swim three laps up and back, any style you liked. 

Nate had told them all that Igneous told him that if you were a lot heavier than water, you just had to walk the three laps and be able to climb out of the pool afterward.  Igneous didn’t need to breathe air anymore, so he’d passed easy.  People who were heavier than water and couldn’t do what Igneous did had to find a way to learn to swim, or else get a special thing from Headmistress Carson to get out of the requirement.  Gary said some of the Robo-Jox like Rack did their swimming test by building propellers or jets into themselves so they turned themselves into jetboats. 

They walked into the girls’ locker room and changed into their swimsuits.  Anna’s was old and dumpy, and black wasn’t a great color for her, but she couldn’t afford to go buy a whole swimming suit just for one test.  Ree had a really pretty navy blue one-piece with shirring across the waist.  Luce didn’t change clothes, she just hung around and chatted, and then put all their clothes in a duffel bag and hung onto it so no one could do something bad, like snitch their stuff so they had to walk home in freezing weather in just sopping-wet swimsuits.

They walked into the indoor pool area, and…

“Jeez, it’s cold!” complained Ree, while she wrapped her arms around herself and shivered.

Anna said, “Yeah.  Is something wrong?”  She looked around.  All the lifeguard types and pool people who would be in swimsuits were wearing big bathrobes over their suits.  And two guys dressed like maintenance workers were fiddling with big heaters.

One really handsome but cold-looking lifeguard guy walked over to them in a heavy robe that nearly reached the floor.  He looked at his clipboard.  “Are you Kamuro, Aquerna, Accelerator, Gavotte, …”

Ree interrupted him, “I’m Kamuro.  She’s Aquerna.  Lucille isn’t taking the test.”

“S-swell.  Okay, I’m sorry about the cold, but the water’s warm.  We’re still trying to recover from a little problem we had in last night’s testing.”

“A little problem?” Luce asked, while Anna looked at her and Ree.

“Yeah,” the guy groaned.  “There’s this frosh named Miasma…”

All three girls groaned.  Anna whimpered, “Oh no.”

“Oh.  You know him.  Then you can probably guess what happened.  You know about his power?”  All three girls nodded unhappily.  “Well, he used it last night to sort of give himself a ‘jet assist’ during his test.  We had to clear the pool and evacuate the room.  Then it took us all night long to air the place out afterward, and so it was below freezing in here this morning.  It’s still pretty cold in here, but it’s way better than it was three hours ago.  But don’t worry.  We did a complete water exchange last night with a cleaning with some deviser chemicals, so everything’s all taken care of.”

Luce muttered, “You guys get going.  I’m putting on my coat.”

Ree muttered to Anna, “Nate.  I should’ve known.”

Anna said, “And I was gonna stand up for him at breakfast when they were all picking on him.”

Ree said, “Yeah.  Thank God we weren’t taking the test with him.”

“Oh phew.”

They hurried over to the edge of the pool, and another lifeguard type was waiting there with another clipboard, only the girl was in the warm water and she had her clipboard lying on a pool float.  This one was an Exemplar girl in a tiny red one-piece.  Anna thought it kind of wasn’t fair that a high school girl could look better than anyone in “Baywatch” without even trying.

The girl said, “Do you know what to do?”

Ree said, “Yeah.  We jump in, tread water for one minute, and then swim up and back three times.”

The girl smiled, “Great.  And we’ve got that barrier across the pool, so you don’t even have to swim a full length for this.”  She picked up a stopwatch and said, “So… go.”

Anna jumped right in, with Ree right behind her.  Ohhh, the water felt so nice and warm after the chilly air!

Ree said to the girl, “Oh jeez, this is way better.  Can we stay in the pool?”  The girl just laughed.

They treaded water while the girl watched her stopwatch.  Anna started noticing something.  She was treading water differently.  It was more… squirrel-like.  Instead of doing it the way she got taught years ago, her body was sort of instinctively getting her hands to move like paws.  She tried to relax and just take it easy.  But it wasn’t that tough for her.  One of the weird things about her mutation was that her bones were a little stronger than normal, but definitely lighter too.  Same for her muscles.  So the powers testing guys said she was the size of a 115 pound girl, but she was about ten percent lighter than a normal girl.  Which made her a lot more buoyant, so she was floating really easy.

“Time!  Go do your laps,” the lifeguard girl said.

“Okay,” Anna smiled.  She started out doing the breaststroke.  That seemed to go pretty good.  Her squirrel spirit liked it.  But on the second lap, when she was trying to do the crawl, it just seemed like her squirrel spirit didn’t want to reach out the way she was supposed to.  She did okay, but it just felt weird.  Like she ought to be doing something different.  So she went back to the breaststroke.  She tried the sidestroke and the backstroke, but the breaststroke just felt the most natural for her, so she did a lot more of that.

Anna didn’t have any trouble with the test.  She wasn’t even tired at the end of the three laps.  But Rhiannon just barely made the third lap, finishing about two or three minutes after Anna, and having trouble getting out of the pool afterward.  Anna was really worried when she saw Ree heaving herself out of the pool.  Ree was so wobbly that Anna made sure to help Ree into the locker room, and Luce rushed off to get Ree some stuff.  After fifteen minutes of rest and a couple power bars and some Gatorade, Ree was good to shower and get dressed.  Anna and Luce walked her back to Whitman through the tunnels, and kept an eye on her for the rest of the morning.  At least nobody in Whitman was having shoulder angel fights in the hallways, even if there was this new girl that Ree said Tisiphone had fireballed like her first minute in the dorm.

After lunch, Anna headed over to The Shed to meet up with Charlie’s team and do some arborist work.  She was really looking forward to it after the talk she had with Charlie and Mr. Miyamoto yesterday.  Charlie was really nice.  He was old, but nice.  She figured he was even older than her dad.  And he wanted her to call him Charlie, instead of Mister Hockelheimer, which was good, because she didn’t think she’d be able to remember how to pronounce a name like Hockelheimer all the time and it would be super embarrassing if she called him Mister Hockelheinie or Mister Hockeyhead or something even worse.

Mister Miyamoto was a landscape architect, which Anna thought sounded really cool, and she hoped one term she’d get to work with him and do some landscape design stuff and learn about that, because it sounded like something she’d really enjoy doing for a real job.  It wasn’t like she could be a superhero when she grew up, and even if she’d heard that there were police forces that let mutants be police officers, she was pretty sure she couldn’t ever get a job in Zanesville being a policeman when she was already a mutant.  Besides, policemen had to learn to shoot guns, and she wasn’t sure how her squirrel spirit would like that.  She wasn’t sure how she’d like that, even without any squirrel spirit.

But Mr. Miyamoto was putting her on Charlie’s arborist team for Winter Term.  Which Charlie was really happy with, because she could do stuff that none of the baselines could, and she could do stuff way faster than baselines could.  She could scramble up a tree faster than Charlie could go up a ladder, and then she could check all the branches in no time.  She just sort of instinctively knew which branches were dead or damaged, and which ones were fine.  And she could tell if there were dead spots inside the tree, or dead roots, and stuff like that.  So she was sure she was gonna be a huge help.  Maybe they’d even like her.

And Charlie’s crew guys were okay, even if they were all old guys like Charlie.  He introduced her to Ed and Cliff and Franky.  Cliff was the oldest, and had some scars and tattoos and stuff.  She would have been pretty scared of him back before she turned into a mutant.  But she lived in a dorm with girls who were a hundred times tougher than he was.  And a couple of the girls were a hundred times meaner, too.  Not that Cliff was mean to her, just sort of… not real friendly.  Franky and Ed were younger than Charlie, but still old.  Ed was the kind of guy who teased everybody.  Franky was the quiet kind.

Ed said, “So you got someone really cute.  I thought you were gonna get us someone who’d be a huge help.”

Charlie frowned at him.  “No harassing the help, Eddie.  Not unless you want her to slam-dunk you into a trashcan.  Head first.”

Anna said, “Oh, I wouldn’t do that.”

Charlie said to Ed, “Remember that big dumb brick who ripped up all our new plantings last year when he was fighting some Energizers?”

Ed and Cliff really frowned then.  Franky said, “I remember he tipped over your truck when you chewed him out.”

Charlie grinned fiendishly.  “Guess who kicked his ass in the fall combat finals?”

“You?”  Ed looked real surprised.

Anna blushed, “If you mean Buster, then yeah, I won the combat final, but only because he was dumb and I was lucky.”

Ed laughed out loud.  “Yes!  Revenge is SWEET!”

Charlie said, “Anna here is an Avatar, and she has a squirrel spirit.  So she has squirrel powers.  I think she’s exactly what this job calls for.”

Frankly quietly said, “That would be pretty good.  Guys who can shoot energy beams out their ass?  Not so useful.”

Charlie took Anna and his team outside to a couple pine trees.  “Anna, maybe you oughta show the guys what you can do.  Check both of ‘em out for damaged limbs.”

Anna grinned, “Okay, Mister H… I mean Charlie.”

She handed him her gloves, and then ran across the top of the snow to the base of the first tree.  She jumped up to the lower branches, and then clambered up near the top of the tree.  She yelled down, “Everything’s okay, but not for long.  Can we shake the tree and make the stuff on top kinda fall off?”

Charlie yelled back, “I dunno.  Can we?”

Cliff muttered to Ed, “Fuck!  I saw it, but I still don’t believe it!  She’s gonna put me out of a job at that rate!”

Charlie said, “Don’t even think that way, dickhead.  She’s gonna need a lot of help from you to learn how to climb trees like normal people.”

Cliff asked, “Why the hell would she want to, if she can climb like that?”

Charlie said, “Why do ya think, dumbfuck?  If she wants to be an arborist when she grows up, she has to learn how to do it like a baseline, so she doesn’t freak out her customers.”

“Oh.  Right.”

Charlie said, “Now be nice to her.  She’s just a work study kid, she’s not takin’ over your job.  Next term, Mr. Moto’s probably gonna have her on landscaping or planting.”

Anna decided she had to play fair, so she called down, “And Cliff?  One of my powers is really good hearing.  Just so you know.”

“Fuck!”

“Shuddup.”

Anna climbed up another couple yards, until she could make the whole top of the tree shake.  She threw her whole weight around, and snow cascaded all over the place.

“Anna!  You okay?” Charlie yelled.

“Yes sir,” she said.  “I’m just doin’ what you said.”

Charlie muttered, “Damn!  I didn’t think she could really do it.”  Anna didn’t tell him she heard that too.

Anna looked through the now mostly-open upper canopy and studied the second tree.  It wasn’t that far away, and some of the big branches facing her were pretty much clear of snow.  So she scrambled out along a limb and jumped.

“Holy shit!” someone yelped.

She landed on a safe branch and skittered along it to the trunk.  This tree didn’t have as much snow on it, because a branch had broken already and shaken everything loose.  She went ahead and checked the rest of the tree, but the only problem was that one broken branch.  She called down, “Everything’s good here, except this one big branch on this side, about fifty feet up, I guess.”

“Can you cut it off with your powers?” Franky wondered.

“Nope.  I don’t have powers like that,” she said.

Charlie said, “Well, come on down.”

She jumped from branch to branch and skittered back across the snow to where the guys were still standing.

Cliff said, “That was a hell of a leap.”

Ed said, “Pretty useful, bein’ able to tell which branches are bad, Squirrel Girl.”

Franky elbowed him.  “Ed, take a look.  She ran across the snow and didn’t sink in!”

Charlie grinned, “Maybe you’d better give the guys a full rundown on your powers, so they’ll know what to expect.”

Anna blushed, but she did it.  “Okay, you saw most of it.  I’m stronger than I look, and I’m quicker than normal, and I can jump really far.  I’m really good in trees.  I can tell if a branch is too weak to hold me up, and I can tell if it’s bad, and most of the time I can tell if a tree has dead spots in it or dead roots.  Plus, I can talk to squirrels and get ‘em to do stuff for me.”

Franky said, “I heard about that from The Excellent Adventure.”

Ed said, “You mean she’s the one who gets the squirrels to clear the Quad for those goofballs?”

Charlie smirked, “Not this term.”

Anna went on, “Okay, so I’ve got really good hearing, too.  And my eyesight’s way better, and my sense of smell.”

Ed teased, “Can you beat up Deadpool too?”

Anna had heard all the Squirrel Girl jokes a ton of times already, so she just ignored him.  She wanted to stick her tongue out at him, but she figured she better not.

Cliff muttered, “Ed gets weirder by the week, if ya ask me.”

Charlie said to Cliff, “I’ll explain it to ya… when you’re older.”  Franky laughed.

Ed grinned, “If Cliff gets any older, he’ll be too senile to remember what you told him.”

Cliff hit him in the back of the head with a snowball.  Anna had a hard time not laughing out loud.

Charlie tossed Anna a big roll of red tape.  Franky said, “I thought I got all the red tape around here.”  Anna didn’t get the joke. 

Charlie said, “Here’s what we’ll do.  Until we figure out a way for Anna to trim the damaged branches too, she can mark ‘em with the tape.”  He turned to her.  “Just wrap the tape around the branch far enough in so the damaged part can be trimmed off cleanly.”

“Okay, I can do that,” she said.

Ed said, “Jesus, all we need now is some kid with flying and slicing powers, and we can just go on vacation for the next month.”

Franky said, “We still gotta clear the debris and file the reports.”

Ed grinned, “Okay, so you’ll have something to do while I’m off ice fishing.”

Cliff said, “Yep, nothing says fun like lugging two hundred pounds of crap onto a frozen lake to catch half a pound of fish.”

Ed said, “I got a new ice auger for my birthday.  I can’t wait to try it out.”

Anna suddenly felt really sad.  Her granddad Jim used to let her and her cousins go out with him and watch him icefish when they visited him in the winter.  But now she was a creepy mutant monster, and she’d probably never get to go do that ever again.  She turned and looked at the tree so none of the guys would see her getting all weepy.  Guys didn’t like that.

She tried to sound okay when she said, “Well, we still gotta cut that branch off and clear away the stuff after it falls.  Right?”

Charlie said, “Right.  Okay, Anna, I want you up in the tree, watching how Cliff climbs it and hangs the ropes.  You’re gonna need to know how to secure the ropes right, because the rest of us don’t have squirrel powers, and we’ll need the ropes and other gear.  Then I want you to watch Ed tie off the limb and cut it and lower it down right.  We don’t want to break everything else when a big limb drops.  Then you can help me and Franky clear the debris, and you can help Franky write up the report.  You might as well find out now just what’s involved in doing this right.”

Anna grinned, “That sounds great.  I’m really glad I get to be on your team this term.”

Franky smiled, “Someone who wants to write the reports?  I guess I’m getting an extra Christmas present.”

Ed said, “Yeah, those lumps of coal went pretty fast in the fireplace.”  Franky flipped him a bird and got started.

Anna was really impressed.  They had all their gear in a truck that had a small flatbed trailer behind it.  Franky drove the truck out of The Shed, and the guys started pulling their gear out of fancy metal cabinet things on the sides of the truck.  Anna watched as Cliff pulled out his tree-climbing gear, and Ed pulled out his tree-cutting gear, and Franky pulled out cables and a winch that she had no idea what they were for.

Charlie brought her a hardhat.  “Everybody wears a hardhat when we’re dropping limbs, even if you’re super-strong.  OSHA regs, unless you can demonstrate you can take a two hundred pound steel weight dropped on your head.”

Anna gave him a smile.  “Thanks.  Anyway, I’m not strong like that.  I just try to jump out of the way when stuff happens.”

He grinned, “Good plan, kid.”

She put the hardhat on and watched the guys work.  It was pretty obvious they’d been working together as a team, because they knew just what the other guys needed, and they knew how to stay out of each other’s way.  She hoped she could learn to fit in and not cause too many problems for everybody.

“Go on, Anna.  Git on up there, so you can see how Cliff does it,” Charlie said.

She skittered across the snow and scrambled fifteen feet up the tree to the lowest limb.  Then she perched there to watch Cliff work.  It was really cool.  He had this stuff like a lineman’s spikes and belt.  He slung the belt around the tree and stuck the shoe-spikes into the trunk so he could step up the tree.  Then he had ropes and hooks and stuff so he could make everything secure before he started climbing up on the branches.

She hopped up three more branches so she could watch him better.  When he got near her level, she said, “Wow, this is cool!”

He said, “Don’t see why you’d think so.  You can do better in your sleep.”

“But I don’t know how to do it like you do,” she said.  “And you’re really good at it.”

“Well, I’ll teach you, if you want.”

She grinned, “That would be awesome!”

He showed her how to do the next part too, as he worked his way up through the branches, carefully securing himself to the tree every five or ten feet.  “Ya see, sooner or later, you slip.  Or a branch breaks under you.  Or a hawk decides you’re too damn close to her nest and divebombs you.  And you fall.  But if you’re tied off good and proper, you only fall a couple feet.  And when you’re hauling Ed’s fat ass up here to do the cutting, you really don’t want to fall and have him land on top of you.”

Hey!  I heard that!” Ed called up from the ground.

Cliff gave Anna a naughty wink that meant he’d said it loud enough that he knew Ed would hear.

Anna watched as Franky walked over with a bunch of chains and ropes and pulleys and things.  Cliff took the rolled-up rope on his hip, tied one end of it carefully to the tree ten or fifteen feet above the bad branch, and dropped it.  Then Franky tied all the stuff onto the rope.

Cliff grinned at her.  “Wanna help?”

Yes!” she squeaked.

And he let her haul all the stuff up.  He said, “Damn, you’re a lot stronger than you look.  How much could you haul up here?”

Anna guessed, “Umm, maybe six hundred pounds?  I don’t think the branch would take it, though.”

Cliff just shook his head.  “I’m dragging you along the next time I go rock-climbing, kid.”

Cliff showed her what needed to be done next.  They had to tie pulleys to the tree so they could put rope around the bad branch.  That way, it wouldn’t bind while Ed cut it, and they could lower the whole branch to the ground without destroying all the limbs below it.  Anna walked out on the bad branch to tie the ropes to it, but not until Cliff made her put a harness on and have a rope tied off for safety.  As he said, no matter how good your balance is, nobody can be perfect every single time.  But Anna could tell how far was too far, so she was being really careful, even if it didn’t look like it to anybody else.

“Okay kid, let’s get out of the way before Ed comes up and ruins all our hard work.”

Anna jumped up to the big branch over her head and perched there while Ed came clambering up the tree.  He had two ropes.  One went up to one of the pulleys, so Cliff could make sure Ed didn’t fall far if he slipped or something.  The other hung down to the ground, where Franky was clipping a chainsaw to the end.

Ed scrambled up and sat on the branch.  He looked up at Anna and said, “Hey Squirrel Girl, enjoying the view so far?”

Anna grinned, “Yeah.  This is so keen!  So now you pull up your chainsaw and cut the branch, right?”

“Right.  And you and Cliff get to hold it up for me.”

Cliff said, “I think she could hold up the whole branch and the trailer too, Eddie-boy.  She’s pretty damn strong.”

Anna shrugged, “There’s tons of kids stronger than me.”

Then Anna put on her safety goggles and watched excitedly as Ed worked.  He started the chainsaw one-handed, then slowly cut right through the branch until it swung free.

Charlie called out from the ground, “How’s the butt look?”

For a second, Anna thought Charlie was being really rude, but then Ed pointed at the end of the branch where he had cut it, and Anna got what he meant.  She walked a little further out on her branch and took a look.  She called down, “It looks really good.  No damage, no cracks, no rot, nothing.  Just some nice growth rings.”

Cliff said, “Well, she said her eyesight was better than normal.”

Anna helped Cliff lower the branch to the ground, and Franky backed the trailer almost right under it so it didn’t have to be moved again.  Charlie helped pull it right onto the trailer so they could haul it away.

As they lowered Ed to the ground and started untying the gear, Anna asked, “Where do you take the limbs?”

“Where do we take the limbs, ya mean?”  Anna nodded.  “We’ve got a huge composter area way southeast of Hawthorne.  Everything from trees and plants to paper and non-meat kitchen scraps goes in, and gets turned into fertilizer for next year.  All the stuff we cut down, rake up, or clean off goes there.  There’s plenty of other stuff we don’t let anywhere near the composter, like stuff out of those freaky underground labs of yours.  Stuff like that could kill every tree for miles if it got into the fertilizer.”

“Ick.  And they’re not my labs.”

Anna belayed Cliff to the ground, lowered the rest of the gear, and then scrambled from branch to branch until she leapt down to the snow.

Charlie said, “Okay, now the extra fun parts.  Cleaning everything, looking it over for damage, and putting it away properly.  While we do that, Franky does the reporting part.  You stick with me and watch what I do, okay?”

“Okay, Charlie.”  But she still grinned, because this was so neat she could hardly hold still.  Maybe after she did it a few thousand times it would be really, really boring.  But for right now it was all new and interesting.

She watched as Ed cleaned up the chainsaw and Cliff checked the climbing gear and Charlie went over everything else.  One rope looked frayed, so it got set aside for replacement.  Then they carefully put everything away in its cabinet, and locked stuff up.

After that, Charlie showed her what Franky had to do.  They had maps of the whole area, showing every tree within two miles of the center of campus.  Franky used the big map to show her which detail map he was working on, and then he showed her the paperwork he was doing for that detail map.

She asked, “So we’re gonna check every tree on that whole big map?”

Charlie said, “Not quite.  Take another look.  See those areas in red?”  She nodded.  “Never, ever, EVER go in one of ‘em.  Even if you’re being chased by one of those damn Syndicate dropships.  This really big one here, close to campus, is The Grove.  It’s a Class X site.  If you go in, you might never come out.  One of the Security guys went in after a student last fall.  He ended up nearly insane, and he was only in there for a minute or so.  According to Mister Moto, one of the teachers went in there in 1975 and didn’t come back out until about twelve years later.  And he hadn’t aged a day, but his hair was completely white and he’s still in an insane asylum.”

Anna said, “You’re making that up to scare me.”

Charlie sighed, “I wish to God I was, kid.  Just don’t go in there.  And these spots way off at the edges of the map, here and here and here?  Don’t go near those either.  They tell me this one’s some kind of portal to Hell kind of spot.  That big one there’s part of the Native American land where they’ve got a village, and they’re real touchy about people tramping through.  As in ‘let wolves chew your legs off’ touchy.  Don’t mess around with them.  They don’t play nice.  And this spot way up here?  No idea.  What I been told is there’s something in there that’s so dangerous none of the supers at the school have been able to kill it.  Not interested in findin’ out if that’s right or not.  Just don’t ever go into these red areas.  Okay?”

“Okay.”

“And Anna, if you go farther out than this map, there’s more bad stuff hidden around the county.  It’s not safe.  I’m not kidding around about this.”

She gulped.  “Yes sir.”

After Charlie arranged a schedule for Anna to help out the crew, she headed back to the dorm.  She still had to get all cleaned up and ready.  Her heart leapt in her chest at the thought of another date with Jerry.  She smiled all the way back to Dickinson.

She took a nice, hot shower and washed her hair with her favorite shampoo, which she didn’t usually use because it was way more expensive than the G-Mart shampoo she used most of the time.  Plenty of people in the dorm said bad things about G-Mart because it was owned by the Goodkinds, but lots and lots of stuff was owned by the Goodkinds, and the only Goodkind Anna knew about was really pretty nice.

She would’ve spent more time getting ready, and maybe had Ree and Luce come over and talk while she did it, but everyone had to go to the big five o’clock meeting.  And they had to do it be cottages, instead of hanging out with their friends.  Anna didn’t get why.  But she walked in with the other Dickinson girls and sat down in front.  She managed to sit at the back of the Dickinson group, with Winnie and Ellen and some other friends.  The important girls on her floor were farther forward, in with some of the sophomores and juniors.

But Anna gasped when Mrs. Carson came out.  The headmistress was really, really, really mad about the shoulder angel stuff.  Anna wished she could be sitting way at the back with her Whitman friends, because sitting up close wasn’t fun.  At all.  Jeepers, she’d never seen Mrs. Carson look so darn scary.  A couple times, she was afraid she might pee herself.  And Winnie was gripping her hand so tight it was starting to hurt.  At least she didn’t break the chair trying to push backward away from the stage, like a couple of the girls in front of her did.

After that, she felt so sweaty she cleaned up again before her date.  She wore the same stretch denim jeans she did before, because they looked good on her and didn’t make her butt look fat or anything bad.  But she had to pick another sweater.  She couldn’t wear the same sweater she wore the last time!  She finally decided on a nice blouse and a cute buttondown sweater she could wear open over that.

“Tell me the truth, Ellen.  Do I look too preppy in this?”

Ellen did that funny thin with her mouth that she did when she was thinking something over really hard, where it kind of looked like she was swishing a tiny bit of mouthwash from side to side in her mouth, but real slow.  “Nah.  I dunno if Solange’s Squad of Evil will pick on you about it, but I think it looks cute.  Jerry’ll like it.”

“You sure?”

Ellen did the mouth thing some more and finally said, “No?”

That wasn’t what she was supposed to say!  She was supposed to say she was really super sure, so Anna would be all relaxed and not worried about looking dorky for her date!  But Anna didn’t say that out loud.  She just said, “Okay.”

Anna checked her mascara and her lipstick before she scurried downstairs and peeked out the front door to check if Jerry was walking up the path.  And there he was, way down where the path curved a little around a couple big pines!  She was so excited she nearly ran out the door without her coat, which you were totally not supposed to do, because everyone knew the girl was supposed to go upstairs and play with her hair a little or check her makeup again, so the boy had to wait a little bit.  Then the girl would make a fancy entrance, walking down the stairs in a sexy, mysterious way, so the boy would think she was the most amazing thing since… umm… like, ever.  But she was too antsy to run upstairs to her room and wait for Mrs. Nelson to call her and tell her that her date was here.  So she just clung to her coat and her purse and quivered, and tried not to be so jittery that she started jumping up on the walls.

When the knock came at the door, Anna nearly jumped straight into the air.  Mrs. Nelson walked out of her office, winked at Anna, and answered the door.

“Umm, uhh, is Anna here?”

Anna grinned madly.  He was more nervous than she was!  This was so great!  Hearing him being all jumpy made her feel a little better.  So she slipped on her coat and tried to act not all nervous, and walked over to the door.  “Jerry!  Hi!”

Jerry looked at her and grinned, “You ready to go?”

Anna pretended to think about it.  “I think so.”

Mrs. Nelson let her walk out the door and reminded her, “And don’t be out too late.”

“Yes ma’am,” Anna answered politely.  She let Jerry take her arm and walk her down the path.

He gave her a huge grin and looked down at her.  “Wow.  You really look cute…  I mean, you always look cute, but you just look extra-cute in that.  I mean, umm, I think I need some help getting my foot out of my mouth.  You’re pretty strong, right?  Maybe you could just grab my ankle and pull my foot out.”

She leaned into him a little and said, “Let’s pretend you stopped after ‘wow’, okay?”

He blushed and said, “Yeah.  That would be good.  Less embarrassing and all.”

She let him take her hand, and they walked down to the shuttle in happy silence.  It wasn’t until they got to the pizza parlor that they really started talking a whole bunch again, except making fun of the Goth girls sitting together at the front of the bus who were so Goth they really looked like they were going to a Halloween party as Goths and making fun of Goths at the same time.

Jerry said, “How about a Hawaiian pizza?”

“Huh?”

“You know.  Canadian bacon and pineapple.”

Anna wondered if he was kidding.  “Doesn’t that sound kind of… icky?”

Jerry grinned at her.  “It’s great!  And it’s not all greasy, so you might like it.”

She thought it over and said, “Umm, maybe we could order half veggie and half Hawaii, and I could have a bite of yours?”

He grinned, “You can have anything I’ve got.  Except the catalytic converter I’m building for class, and the new plastic I’m trying to make work for MD.”

“MD?  You’re working for a doctor?” Anna wondered.  Then it hit her, and she felt really stupid.  “You’re working with…”  She looked around and dropped her voice to a whisper.  “…Mega-Death?  Isn’t he crazy or something?”

Jerry frowned at her, which she didn’t feel good about.  “Harvey’s a nice guy.  But he’s got Diedrick’s Syndrome.  You know what that is?”

“Umm, sort of?”

Jerry said, “It’s like there’s a chemical imbalance in your brain.  You’re fine, you’re normal, you’re a nice guy.  Then you get upset.  Your brain chemicals go haywire.  You get more upset, and you go all ‘mad scientist’, ranting and screaming and inventing crazy stuff, and the more worked up you get, the worse your brain chemicals get, and so they you rant and scream even more, and it just escalates until you crash.  With Harvey, it’s a major depression, mainly from knowing he was a complete nutcase for maybe a couple hours.  With Olympia, it’s a complete lapse into unconsciousness.  The Diedrick’s cases with depression are the ones you have to watch out for.”

“Why?  Are they extra dangerous?”

He shook his head no.  “Unh-uh.  Because if they ‘drick bad enough and someone they care about gets hurt, they may kill themselves.”

“Eww.”  Anna suddenly felt really bad for what she was thinking about ‘Harvey’.

Jerry said, “I was really pretty edgy about getting teamed with him in class, just because a team project with a ‘dricker could go down the toilet pretty fast.  But he’s been really good so far.  We’re working with Ergy – that’s what we usually call Ergonomic – on something pretty cool.  The class is a project development class, and Harvey had the idea to turn our project into a service project, so we’re working on something to help out one of the girls over in Hawthorne.”

“Is it Frostbite?”

“No, it’s someone else.  Why?”

Anna admitted, “I only know about a couple girls in Hawthorne.  Frostbite… and I’ve seen Carmilla.  I don’t really know any of ‘em.”

Jerry said, “Well, I’m not supposed to talk about who it is, but I can tell you what my part of the project is.  We’re trying to develop a replacement system.  Ergy’s part is an improved connector to a mechanical system, and my part is the plastic running from his connector to the machine, which is what Harvey’s working on.  But it’s really tricky, because what goes through the plastic is… umm… well, imagine the most dangerous poison gas you ever heard of.”

“Ick.  You have to feed some girl poison gas?”

Jerry shook his head no again.  “No, it’s…  This is liquid that comes out of her body.  Her room’s like a quarantine site now.”

Anna gasped, “That sounds awful!  How does she get around?”

“She doesn’t.”

Anna didn’t get that.  “Wait a minute.  She doesn’t get to go to classes?”

Jerry frowned, “She doesn’t get to leave her room.  Ever.  She’s been in that room, with no breaks, for like a year and a half.”

“Ohmygod,” Anna choked.  “That would be like… like… being in prison!”

Jerry nodded.  “And if we can’t come up with something to help her, and other devisers can’t come up with stuff later on, it’s forever.  The stuff in her body?  Right now it eats out the lines in the system they have now, so a lot of the time she can’t have visitors unless they’re dressed in MOPP-4.”

“What’s a MOP-4?”

“To clean up mud,” Jerry grinned.

“Huh?  Oh!  Very funny… not.”

So Jerry explained all about MOPP protocols and stuff she could hardly follow, until the pizza came.  And then while they ate, he started talking about the ‘depolymerization’ problems – whatever that was – involved in making a plastic that wouldn’t be affected by this girl’s fluids.  And she really couldn’t follow that, but he stopped about a dozen times to explain pieces when she looked really, really lost.

But she let him talk, because he was really interested in this stuff, and she figured this was the kind of stuff he was going to want to talk about always, and if she couldn’t let him talk about what he wanted to, then she would just be a pretty crummy girlfriend.  Her mom always said it was important to let guys talk about the stuff that mattered to them.  Her mom didn’t like football, but she always let her dad talk about it as much as he wanted to.

And then they went to see a movie.  And since Jerry had been talking about his chemistry stuff for the whole dinner, he insisted on taking her to see the ‘chick flick’ movie instead of the one she knew he really wanted to go see.  Which was so sweet!  But the movie really wasn’t very good.  The whole plot was stupid, and the actors weren’t very good, and she was sure Whateley Academy theater actors were better than these guys, even if she hadn’t gone to see the Shakespeare thing they did, which Charmer said was really well done.  So mostly they just held hands and kissed and ignored the movie.  Which was great!

And then after the movie, while they just walked around and waited for the school shuttle, Jerry wanted to talk about those shoulder angels.

Anna said, “But they all have to be gone!  Mrs. Carson was really mad about ‘em!”

Jerry looked up at the sky in thought.  “I’d love to know who had the stones to prank Carson with shoulder angels.  You saw those things?  They had to be magic.  Really big magic.  Who’s the most powerful Wizard at school?”

“Fey!” Anna said brightly.  “But she’s nice.  She wouldn’t do anything like that.”

Jerry said, “And she’s in Poe, so she could just be crazy enough to do something like that.”

Anna insisted, “She wouldn’t!  She’s really nice!”

Jerry shrugged.  “It had to be someone with kick-ass magic powers.  And Hekate’s gone.  Good riddance.  So… Majestic?  Bifrost?  Conjure?”

Anna shrugged.  “I dunno.  Majestic is really stuck-up, and likes to show off.  I could believe it if it was her.  I don’t even know who Bifrost is.”

Jerry said, “Somebody did it.  And I can’t see Carson just rolling over and playing dead when she was that mad.  I swear one of the guys sitting near me must’ve wet himself.  We could smell it.”

“Eww.  None of the girls did.  I would’ve smelled it.”  She didn’t want to admit she’d nearly been scared enough to pee her pants a couple times there.  She figured lots of people were just braver than she was.

He glanced at her and smiled.  “Yeah, major downside of having extra-good senses.  How do you stand it when Miasma starts cutting loose?”

Anna winced.  “We don’t.  Either we make him move, or we all move to get away from him.  And sometimes he’s really bad.  Alan says one of these days Nate’s gonna burn a hole right through one of the cafeteria seats.”

“Alan?”

“Yeah.  Bluescreen?  He’s a junior over in Twain?”

Jerry nodded.  “Oh.  I don’t know him.  But there’s plenty of people in the other dorms I don’t know.  We devisers don’t get out much.”  He gave her a silly smile.  She hugged his arm and smiled back.

He looked up at the sky again.  “I’d love to know how Generator made those shoulder angels work that well.  She doesn’t have access to the main fabrication areas, even if I heard Techwolf let her work on some detailing last fall.  Maybe that was it.  Maybe she’s been doing this as a side project for like four months or so.  But getting shoulder angels just right is really tricky.”

Anna nodded, “Gary was talking about that.  He said he was too busy, but the way he was talking, it sounded like he just couldn’t get stuff to work the way he wanted.”

Jerry said, “Well, my friend saw the Phase angels and said they looked amazing.  And he said Generator also had some Chaka shoulder angels that he was pretty sure were holographic, because she was working with Bugs.”

Anna knew about that, because she’d seen the hologram shoulder angels on Peeper’s shoulders the night he got in trouble and all those girls threw pies in his face.  Which was really funny, but really naughty, and she was glad she hadn’t done any of it, even if it would’ve been really fun to just try one time.  But she probably would’ve been the one person who got caught and got in trouble, and she didn’t want that.  She just said, “I could tell they were holograms.  They just didn’t look right.”

Jerry’s eyebrows went up.  “You can tell the difference between real and holographic across a room?”

“Well, not all the way across a really big room, but yeah, pretty much.  Extra-good eyesight, you know.”

He gave her a hug.  “You just have all kinds of cool powers.  Me?  I just know chemistry.”

She blushed and said, “But that’s really useful.  And important.  Me?  I can talk to squirrels.  Not so important.”

He grinned, “Just tell that to Buster.”  She giggled a little, but not much.  So Jerry cheered her up by telling her all kinds of funny stories about his friends and their shoulder angels and stuff that went wrong that nobody else got to hear about.  Like Delta Spike’s shoulder angels exploding while she tried to show them off over in Poe.  And Kludge and Juryrig getting into a missile war with their shoulder angels.  And Jobe talking about devising an anti-shoulder angel gas in Workshop, and then everyone within thirty feet turned and ran out of the room.  And Jericho’s shoulder angels which he dressed himself so they were so horrible-looking nobody could talk to him.

“Eww, I remember those,” Anna said.  “I thought I was gonna lose my lunch.”

But Jerry’s stories were really funny, and they had such a good time just talking that they forgot to walk over to the shuttle, and they ended up taking the one an hour later, which was okay by her, because she had a great time just talking with Jerry and holding hands and once in a while letting him sneak in a kiss like kissing her was something special.

And when he walked her back to Dickinson, she let him kiss her a bunch, and she kissed him right back, and it made her feel all hot and bothered, and she almost let him slip her some tongue, even if she’d decided she was going to wait until the fourth date before she let him get that far.

He was breathing kind of hard when he asked, “Can I take you out again?”

“Sure,” she gushed.

“How’s your Wednesday nights look?  And Saturday nights?”

She said, “I figure the only nights that might not work somewhere down the line are like the nights before Monday and Wednesday and Friday.  So Wednesday night and Saturday night oughta be great.”

He looked really nervous as he asked, “Well, can I take you out again Wednesday night?  Maybe just dinner, because I’m pretty sure we’re running out of good movies to see at that dinky little place they’ve got.”

She grinned, “I think we already ran out of good movies, because I thought the one tonight was pretty ick.”

He sighed in relief.  “Oh thank God!  I didn’t know what I was gonna do if you wanted to see movies like that all the time!”

She giggled and gave him another kiss.  So he asked, “So maybe next Saturday night too?”

“Yes.”

“Well I…  Really?”

“Really really,” she said in the best Shrek imitation she could do, which was not very good, but he got it right away, so it couldn’t have been too terrible.

They kissed some more, until some more girls came back to Dickinson, and she sent him off to his dorm before anyone started teasing her.  Then she scurried up to her room and told Ellen all about her date, and then she called Ree, and by the time they stopped talking it was past time to go to sleep.

 

Thursday, January 18

It seemed like it was no time before most of a week went by.

Winter Term was the best term ever, as far as she was concerned.  She got to sleep in late every day, and her roommate didn’t mind, and she got to shower without a whole line of girls leaning in and giving her a hard time about taking so long even if she wasn’t taking a long time at all.  And she didn’t even mind when some of the girls teased her a little about dating Jerry all the time, because it wasn’t Solange’s gang, who would’ve been really mean to her about it, and instead it was pretty fun.

She was really liking her ‘escape’ class.  Mr. Robertson was really funny, even if when he took his shirts off to show them how to do some of the trickier escapes it was pretty gross because he was all skinny and hairy.  And she’d done really well at escaping the rope ties the first couple days of the class, because she could claw right through even the toughest ropes Mr. Robertson had.  She couldn’t do that with the metal cables or the chains, but her fingernails were strong enough she could tug a knot loose in the cables unless someone like Peccary tied the knot extra, extra hard.  And her sense of touch was really good, so it turned out she was better than most of the class at picking the easy locks Mr. Robertson started them on.  And Ree wanted Anna to help her with class, which was so not normal when Ree was the smart one, so Anna really felt good about how the class was going.

And martial arts class was going great too!  Not that she was turning into another Chaka or Bladedancer.  That wasn’t ever gonna happen.  But she was definitely better than some of the other students in the class.  And she was really happy that sensei Ito and sensei Tolman were helping her change her katas so they felt right for her squirrel spirit, which meant a huge amount to her.  And she was the only one working with the kamas, which really made her feel almost like she was special, which she knew she wasn’t, because as soon as it was Chaka’s time to learn the kamas she’d pick it up in like a minute, and by the end of the hour she’d be way better than Anna was after a couple weeks of serious practice.  But that was Chaka.  She was just like that.  Even some of the teachers were amazed by how fast Chaka got really, really good with the meteor hammers, and Blitz was really grouchy about it because she was still working with the rope dart, even if now she was using a heavy metal cable with a twenty-pound knot in the end of it, so she was pretty dangerous with it even when she wasn’t sending giant electrical shocks down the thing.  Anna figured that was why sensei had Blitz working out against some of the really tough people in the class, so they didn’t get hurt from her shocks.  That, and Blitz was really good already at aikido and stuff.

And sparring was so much fun!  Well, most of the time.  Shadowolf was stronger than she was, but Gavotte and Packrat definitely weren’t.  And she was faster than Gavotte and Packrat… and even Shadowolf, well just barely… well she was pretty sure.  And maybe about as fast as Lancer.  Plus she was good at jumping way out of the way.  Running away was her best move, really.  You’d never see someone like Lancer run away.  But Lancer was real careful when sensei Tolman had him spar with anybody in their group, so he didn’t hurt anybody, not even Packrat.  And when he sparred with sensei Tolman, it was really awesome to watch.  Okay, they all knew sensei Tolman could always win if she wanted to just by using that ‘mindhammer’ mental attack she had, but she didn’t fudge like that when she was trying to teach them stuff.

And sometimes she got to spar with people in other groups.  Sparring with Força was really fun, because he did that martial arts-dance-handstand-cartwheel-y thing that was just plain cool to watch, and you never knew when he was going to cartwheel right at you and attack, or maybe cartwheel away from you and try to blast you with his energy beams.  But she was good at jumping out of the way really fast, or jumping in at him really fast, so it turned out he was a pretty okay match for her.  But some of the other students were WAY too tough for her.  The people like Aztecka were way faster than her, and way stronger than her, and way tougher than her, and way better at martial arts on top of that.  How could she ever even try to catch up with them?  Or Chaka.  Or Bladedancer.  Or Tennyo.  Or…  Well, a lot of the class was just super-super-better than her.

But she was practicing.  A lot.  Even when she was studying civics.  Well, even when she was supposed to be studying civics.  She’d just take a break now and then, and do her katas really carefully.  And lots of times Ellen would stop studying stuff and watch her, which made her feel kind of funny, because she wasn’t nearly as good as lots of kids in the class.  But then Ellen didn’t know any martial arts stuff, so maybe Ellen just thought this was what the good fighters looked like, even if she’d seen a ton of the really good fighters during the combat finals, so she ought to know Anna wasn’t one of the really good ones.  Ellen was just mad she hadn’t passed Survival, and so she was gonna take it Spring term too and pass it, and that was all she was ever going to take, even if Anna was still trying to get her to take intro aikido just to learn some self-defense.

And things were going so great with Jerry!!  They were going out on a date every Saturday night and every Wednesday night now, which was just so great she could hardly sit still just thinking about it.  They’d pretty much seen the movies they both wanted to see in Dunwich, and they’d decided they could just go see the other movies on their own, because Anna really didn’t want to see the monster movies and horror movies, and Jerry really didn’t want to go see the really girly movies.  The ones her dad always called ‘chick flicks’.  Anna didn’t get why guys didn’t like movies like that, but she’d heard about it enough times from her mom and dad arguing about what movie to go see that she knew guys didn’t like movies like that.  So they were waiting until new movies came into the little four-plex before they saw another movie in Dunwich.  But they tried out a couple other restaurants in Dunwich.  And they’d watched a movie in Emerson with some other couples who rented a movie and borrowed somebody’s fancy DVD player and hooked it up to the big screen teevee in the Emerson party room.  And on Wednesdays they usually just ate together in the cafeteria and walked around campus and held hands and talked, and it was just so romantic she could’ve squealed.  And nobody got in their way and bullied ‘em, so that really helped make things a whole lot more romantic.  Plus, there were a couple spots they liked to walk to, where there was like a bench just off the path, or a private little spot under some trees so it was extra dark, where they would kiss.  Even if sitting in Jerry’s lap on the metal benches and kissing meant they had to stop when Jerry’s butt got freezing cold, which wasn’t romantic at all, but it wasn’t like Jerry had Exemplar powers or anything, and he told her Mega-Death had a warming fabric that stayed warm, and he told her he liked ‘Harvey’ but he didn’t want to get third-degree burns on his butt or get his butt exploded just for wearing one of Harvey’s inventions.

Oh!  And Jerry was so excited when he got his special anti-corroding plastic working and his class group got to try it out.  Jerry hadn’t told her who in Hawthorne it was for, but as soon as Anna told the story to Pythia, she knew right off that it was Puppet, who had toxic blood and hadn’t been allowed out of her room in like a year and a half.  Ick.  But Jerry said Ergonomic came up with these really cool adaptor plugs that locked into place with a water-tight seal where ‘the girl’ had these plugs in her arms and back and legs and stuff because her entire lymphatic system had shut down and her circulatory system wasn’t working anymore either so the machines had to suck lymph fluid out of her and replace it, and had to make her body circulate the stuff she had instead of blood, and Anna was really glad she had biology last term so she understood almost everything Jerry was talking about.  But ‘Ergy’ had made the plugs work, and Jerry had made the plastic tubing work, and Harvey had made a much better, much smaller pump and storage system and put in a special filtration system because the girl’s doctors were worried about her kidneys failing, and so they already had something in place just in case that ever happened.  So Jerry was figuring on an A+ for the first half of the class, and maybe some extra credit too, because this went really, really well.  And he was looking forward to whatever they worked on next, because Harvey was talking to Mrs. Cantrel about other Thornies they could try to help out.

Plus, Jerry was really interested in hearing her stories about martial arts class and escape class.  Because Mr. Robertson wasn’t nice to look at when he did an escape with his shirt off, but he was really, really, amazingly good.  Especially for someone who didn’t have any Shifter or Exemplar powers at all.  He wouldn’t say just what his powers were, but he made it pretty clear that a baseline could do every one of the escapes he showed them.

And the stories she had from martial arts class were really pretty cool, like the times Tennyo sparred with Lancer and had these big battles that took off from the mat and turned into real superhero fights halfway to the ceiling.  Or the sparring that Chaka did, which always turned into something out of a martial arts movie, unless they turned into some kind of martial arts anime thing.  Like the time sensei told Chaka to spar with Blitz, who had that lightning attack and that rope dart cable-thing, and Chaka was supposed to spar without her meteor hammer, and Chaka pulled out a pack of sewing needles and threw ‘em at Blitz, and it seemed like she had to be missing every time because Blitz never acted like she’d been stabbed or anything, until Blitz wound up to really let Chaka have it, and her gi fell off.  Chaka had thrown all those sewing needles so they cut through all the seams, so when Blitz really strained hard, the seams all ripped, and she was standing there in nothing but an exercise bra and a pair of cotton panties.  Boy, was Blitz mad about that.  She was so mad that the water kept sparking where it hit her when she showered after class.  Chaka just said, “Bad day bad day bad day!” which Anna was pretty sure was a Jackie Chan cartoon joke.  Blitz just got madder, but Generator laughed so hard she had to run over to the toilets.  Anna didn’t think she told the story all that great, but when she told it, Jerry laughed so hard she thought he was gonna fall over.

And then there was the time sensei Ito had Bladedancer spar with Tennyo.  With swords.  And Tennyo got to use her lightsaber thing, which Phase said could cut through anything.  But it couldn’t cut through Bladedancer’s sword, which didn’t even look real.  It looked like it was made out of a big piece of jade cut so thin it would crack if you even waved it hard, but when Tennyo hit it with her sword, there was just a kind of weird sizzling noise, not even a whacking sound, and Bladedancer’s sword actually blocked Tennyo’s lightsaber!  And then they started swordfighting for real, and it was the most awesome thing ever, and Anna didn’t even know what kind of style Bladedancer was using, because she’d never seen anything like it.  Anna just sat there and watched, and hardly even remembered to breathe it was so exciting, and then finally sensei Ito called time and said it was a draw, and that was when Anna realized that Bladedancer – who was supposed to be a baseline – had fought Tennyo to a tie.  Which was like impossible, unless you were maybe Lancer or sensei or Lady Astarte.

Or there was any time Lancer fought with his special swords, which were really just little paper things he kept rolled up in a pocket.  But he’d just snap them out and do something so his PK field ran over them, and then they’d be indestructible swords of doom that could slice through pretty much anything.  Except Tennyo’s lightsaber and Bladedancer’s sword, which Phase said was a jian and not a katana like some of the students had.  But Lancer had this one move where he’d put his arms out with his swords in his hands, and he’d spin like a top without even touching the ground, and he’d pretty much rip through anything in his way.  There were katas for fighting three or four guys surrounding you, but there wasn’t ever going to be a kata for ‘turn yourself into a spinning top of death and shred everyone within four feet of your head no matter what kind of sword or gun they had’.

And Jerry had to admit that all of Team Kimba were really pretty cool, even Generator, who looked like she was only about eleven, even though her sister Shroud said it was a weird BIT problem they were trying to get fixed.  He even asked about how Phase looked in class.  But Phase was pretty much impossible to touch when she went light, and pretty much impossible to hurt when she went heavy, so most of her sparring matches tended to kind of be kind of her standing around for a while, watching for an opening, and then… ker-blam!  Sort of like Lancer, but more waiting and not as strong.

Okay, Civics class was still really boring.  But Ellen got her playing hangman in class when things got really dull.  And the TNT guys stopped talking about her and spent all their time whispering about the really awful detention they got and how security always picked on them, which Anna thought was just kind of crazy, ‘cause they were the ones causing the problems and being all stupid and then getting caught and stuff.  But the homework wasn’t too bad, and it was a lot of fun quizzing Ellen on it and the other way ‘round.  They made it into a kind of game, and since Anna was studying harder than Ellen, which was because Ellen was sneaking off to work on cars and things, Anna was up three candy bars and a thing of Tictacs.  And Ellen even bought her some candy bars with lots of nuts, and her favorite flavor of Tictacs, which the school store even had in.  Plus, when she got bored studying the Civics class homework, she’d take a break and practice all her cool katas for the kamas and the fighting claws.

And her scholarship work was just way more fun than she figured scholarship jobs were supposed to be.  A couple times a week she put on her heavy work clothes and hurried down to The Shed and met up with Charlie’s crew, and they’d drive out to one of the sectors on Franky’s maps, and they’d check trees.  If the sector was right on one of the roads, they’d take the regular truck and the trailer, but if the sector wasn’t near one of the roads, they used a big sno-cat with big old tractor treads and didn’t haul the cut branches back in.

Since there was nobody else around, she got to do the tree stuff her way.  She would scramble up a tree about ten times faster than Cliff could do it, and she could check a whole tree really fast, instead of having to go branch by branch like Cliff and Ed did.  And then she could leap to the next tree most of the time, unless there was too much snow on the outer branches or the next tree was way far away.  And for the trees that had too much snow on them and were gonna lose some branches, Charlie worked out a set-up for her.  She would climb up with one of the big cables and hook it up to the top of the tree where it wouldn’t break the crown out of the tree when they hauled on it, and then she’d scramble down, and Charlie would hook the other end up to the truck or the sno-cat, whichever they had that day, and he’d gun the engine and yank hard on the cable three or four times.  That pretty much always dumped enough snow off the tree to keep it from getting all broken when the weight of the snow smushed the branches down too hard.  Then she just scrambled up the tree and undid the cable and they put it all away for the next tree that needed it.

And if the tree had a broken branch or two, she could tell where the branch was still good, so she’d tie a red ribbon around the branch there and then get Cliff, so they could haul Ed up to do the trimming and lower the branch to the ground so it wouldn’t bust more branches.  And if the tree was just fine, she could jump to the next tree, and the next, and get maybe five or six trees done in pretty much the same amount of time it took Charlie and Ed and Cliff and Franky to do one tree as a team.  And they always teased her about it, which made her feel like she was part of the team.  Ed would yell something like, “Come on, Squirrel Girl!  Stop making us look bad!”  She liked Ed, because he was funny and teased everybody.  And sometimes up in a tree, Charlie would call her ‘Doreen’ to tease her, because that was Squirrel Girl’s real name in the comics.  Doreen Green.  She was just really glad she didn’t have a weird name like Doreen.  Or Tansy, come to think of it.  That was a pretty weird name for a girl who wasn’t from California and didn’t have hippie parents.  She was glad she had a normal name, like ‘Anna’, and not something really weird like ‘River’ or ‘Sunshine’ or ‘Minnesota’.

Sometimes when she was tying her red ribbon onto a broken branch where she figured the cut needed to be, she’d wish she could just slice through the branch and fly off with it.  Lancer could do that with his paper swords and his PK superboy powers.  He’d be the best tree surgeon ever, way better than she could be.  Or it would be so cool if she had a magic sword like Bladedancer’s so she could just whip it out and slash the branch off and be done with everything.  Except when that’d make it drop on a lower branch and bust that branch too, and she knew that would be really bad.

She talked about it with Charlie one time when they were driving back to The Shed, and he took her up to Mr. M, who said they ought to find her a really lightweight chainsaw she could use instead, even if she could use a really big chainsaw, because it wasn’t like she was really as weak as a normal girl her size, but they didn’t want her trying to jump around in the trees with something that might get snagged on a branch and make her get hurt.  So Mr. M took her down to the storage areas and found her something.  It was a little canvas pouch she could shove in her back pocket.  When she opened it up, she found what looked like three feet of really sharp chainsaw chain, with two-foot-long metal cables on each end, and heavy plastic handgrips on the ends of the cables.  He explained, “You loop the chain around a branch and then pull it back and forth, so you can saw the branch off by hand.”  She’d tried it on a couple smaller limbs that wouldn’t fall on anything, and she figured she was a lot fasted with that than with the folding handsaw, but not nearly as fast as the guys when they were working with their chainsaws. 

And she really liked the work.  Charlie liked showing her all the arborist techniques.  He was really talented, and really artistic too.  He could trim bad branches off a limb just so, and make it look gorgeous.  And Franky was really good at the ‘writing reports’ part.  She was learning that being a good arborist was more than just playing in the trees.  It was taking care of the local ecology, and keeping good records, and writing reports so everyone else knew what had been done.  Or hadn’t gotten done.

Cliff really liked the adventuring, risk-taking part of the job.  Still, he needed a lot more gear to do that safely than Anna did, and he showed Anna all the stuff regular tree-climbers needed to carry, and made sure she knew how to use it right.  He kind of growled, “Look kid, you may be Squirrel Girl and all, but when you’re around reg’lar people, you gotta make it look like you’re normal.  So ya gotta know how ta put on the belts and handle the ropes and all that crap.  Got it?”

Anna nodded, “Yes sir.”  Even if Charlie had talked to about this kind of thing already.

He frowned, “Don’t ‘sir’ me, kid.  I ain’t yer grampa.  It’s just plain Cliff.”

Anna said, “Okay, Cliff.  But Mr. M. said I’ve got to be polite and respectful to you.”

Cliff just grinned, “Ah, screw that.  What Mr. Moto don’t know won’t hurt him.”  Then he went off on a smoking break while Charlie wasn’t looking.

And, whenever she could, she used her arborist time to check up on her little friends.  That was really, really terrific, and it was all because Charlie was so nice, because stopping up in a tree and checking on her little friends always turned into ten or fifteen minutes with them, because they wanted to be with her and play with her and cuddle against her, which was so sweet she just wanted to hug them for like all day.  And after a while, Ed or Cliff would have to yell at her to stop ‘playing with your furballs and get back to work’, which always made her feel bad because she really wanted to do a good job, and she didn’t want them to be all mad at her or anything.  But one afternoon she had to stop and tell two squirrels to leave, because there was a big snag where a branch was breaking off at the trunk, and the team was going to have to take it off all the way back to the trunk, and the squirrels wanted to make a little nest in there, and they did what she said, but they weren’t happy about it, which made her feel really bad inside.  And it took like an hour to get everything trimmed right, even leaving the ‘snag’ part for her little friends, or whoever wanted to use it as a nesting area.

But even all that didn’t match up with the day that she saved Chaka.  She saved Chaka!

Okay, well only sort of.  And then she had to be saved.  So not really so much saving there.

But she did it!  For reals!

She was just saying hi to Rez, who was in her Intro to Criminology class last term and was really nice.  Okay, Anna didn’t know her all that well.  She didn’t know Rez’s real name, or why she called herself Rez, or any of that stuff that you really oughta know if you know someone, like she knew all about Ree and Luce and Ellen, even if she wasn’t really sure if Ellen was maybe kind of gay or not, but she sort of thought maybe she was.  Secretly.  Well anyways, Rez was being friendly and asking how her classes were going, and Anna was telling her about the ‘Theory and Practice of the Escape’ course, which Rez was pretty interested in, because Rez was one of the new kids in the Intelligence Cadet Corps, even if some of the mean people called them the Secret Squirrels, which Anna didn’t think was funny.

Rez said, “So, do you know where Mr. Robertson learned all this stuff?”

And before Anna could admit that she didn’t know, even if she was pretty curious about it, Tabby and Chaka walked by and waved Rez over.  Normally, Anna would’ve just walked off, because Chaka and Tabby didn’t know her, and Chaka was big with Team Kimba and Tabby was one of the Golden Kids, and people like them didn’t make time for Underdogs.  But Rez waved her hand in a ‘come on’ gesture and got Anna to come too.  Which was just kind of amazing, because people like that never invited Underdogs over to hang out with them.  But it got even more amazing, because Rez introduced them, and Chaka knew who she was!

Chaka said, “Oh!  You’re Phase’s friend.  You did a nice job on the mat yesterday against Força.”

Anna walked along with them and blushed, “Well, we’re kind of pretty well matched up.  It’s not like I could do that against, like, Lancer.”

Chaka laughed this bubbly laugh that made her want to laugh too.  “Well, that’s why he’s Lancer.  Not like I can do much against Lancer either.”

Rez said, “I can’t believe you two’re really talking about fighting Lancer.  What next?  You gonna fight Tennyo?”

Chaka just grinned this smile that reminded Anna of a big cat.  “Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.”

And then Chaka started talking about fighting Sledge with sledgehammers, which was just incredible.  Anna just had to ask, “How do you fight with sledgehammers? I've seen Sledge spar in class, but not with a real sledgehammer, so I don't get how to fight against one. Weren't you like scared to death when he came at you with a sledgehammer? How do you even fight with them?”

But before Chaka could tell her how to fight against a super-strong guy who had a sledgehammer and Energizer powers to make it a more dangerous weapon, Tabby sidetracked her.  Not that Anna was going to interrupt, because she was just kind of hanging out with them, not being a real part of their gang. 

Plus, they knew some amazingly awesome gossip.  Anna had heard that there was some sort of turf war going on with the Dragons and the Tigers, but she had no idea it was over Chaka!  Wow, Ree and Luce and everybody were gonna be so amazed when they heard all about that.  And it was because Rez was with the Intelligence Cadet Corps.  And was dating Holdout too!  Plus, she found out that the black people on campus weren’t all hanging out together and being best buds.  She didn’t really get that, because weren’t the Texans doing that?  And the Europeans?  And all the dopers?  But Rez was grouchy at some of the Dragons for ‘dissing’ her, and Chaka thought N’Dizi was a big bossy jerk.  And N’Dizi got dissed by Chaka’s grandma on Parents’ Day!  Anna had a hard time not laughing about that.  Chaka was really funny.  And then Tabby pretty much admitted she was one of the Ninjas too, and that they’d had a big fight up on top of some of the campus buildings the other night with some of the Intelligence Cadet Corps.  And Rez said Reach really did get turned into a girl, and he kept shifting back and forth from girl to boy, and he was ‘rooming’ with Spark, who was the girl who turned him into a girl in the first place, which just sounded sort of… kinky.  Anna tried to ask some questions about it, but never really got the answers she was looking for.

And then, just when Anna thought they might kind of start talking about some of the naughty parts of sharing a room with your girlfriend, someone screamed.  It kind of sounded like Generator, but not quite.  And it was pretty loud.

Chaka instantly reacted.  She yelled, “Jade!” which Anna wasn’t sure but she sort of thought that was Generator’s real first name.  Chaka took off running.  And she was fast.  Really fast.  But Anna hadn’t been practicing all that parkour and freerunning for nothing.  Chaka was sticking to the paths, but Anna cut through a big fir tree, jumped a couple benches, and cut across a snow bank to catch up with her.

And that was when Anna saw it.  It looked like two badguys hitting Generator while she just stood there and took it.  Which was so not like Generator in martial arts class at all.  And it didn’t look right.  It took Anna a moment to realize she was looking at a hologram, like the one the Young Turks used against Team Kimba in that arena fight, only not quite as good.

Anna screeched, “No!  It’s a trap!”  And she did her best jump to cut in front of Chaka and get to the hologram first.  Which, when she had time to think about it later, wasn’t a smart thing to do, because, like, why would you want to jump right into what had to be a trap strong enough to hold someone like Chaka?  But she wasn’t thinking then.  She was just reacting.

And sure enough, as soon as she got close enough for normal people to see it was just a hologram, the image faded out and the trap went sproing.  These big metal poles snapped up out of the snow on either side of her, and these really creepy things that looked like octopus tentacles made out of jello flew out of the poles and grabbed her.  One got her left wrist, and two got her right arm, and then a couple more grabbed each of her legs, and they just pulled.  She struggled as hard as she could, but all that happened was the tentacles just pulled even harder, so it was a really good thing she was limber and she stretched every day in martial arts class, or she might’ve pulled a groin muscle the way they had her legs snagged.

She was pretty sure there was no way she could bust loose from a trap that was strong enough to hold someone like Chaka, so she gave up and called for help.  She took a deep breath and yelled for help.  “Please come help!  If you can hear me, I need someone to come help!  Chew through this stuff and get me loose!”

The look on Chaka’s face was kind of icky.  Chaka looked like she was totally freaked out by Anna calling her squirrels.  Anna felt kind of bad about that, since Chaka was really cool, and she really wanted Chaka to like her, but the whole squirrel thing just freaked a lot of people out.  Her parents were totally freaked the first time they heard her talk to her little friends, and they were her parents.  Anna was just lucky Jerry hadn’t dumped her as soon as he heard her talking to her little friends.

And a whole bunch of tree squirrels rushed to her rescue.  They jumped onto the poles and onto the tentacle-things, and they started chewing away at the stuff.  Well, they couldn’t chew through the metal of the poles, but they started biting on the gooey tentacles.  Anna cringed when a bunch of electrical shocks went through the tentacles and zapped her little friends.  They pretty much all fell off and landed in the snow underneath.

“Bad thing!  Bad thing hurt!”

Anna knew they would try to keep helping her, and she didn’t want them to get hurt any more, so she ordered them, “No!  Stop!  Don’t chew on the icky things.  Big people will rescue me.”

“Have to help big squirrel!” they chittered angrily.

“No!  Wait!  Just wait right where you are,” she told them.

And then Tabby came bounding along, only now Anna knew why Tabby was called Tabby, because she’d changed into a scary cat-girl form so she looked like she was half-lion or something.  Anna’s squirrel spirit really didn’t like the way Tabby looked.  Or smelled.  Because Tabby smelled like a great, big, hungry, squirrel-eating predator.

“Big squirrel!  Big squirrel!  Run!  Run fast!”

Anna tried to sound calm.  “It’s okay.  She’s not going to eat us.  Any of us.  She’s safe.  She will help me.  You can stay here.”

The squirrels took another look at Tabby, and sort of moved away from her and behind Anna.  Like Anna could help at all when she was still stuck with gooey tentacles hanging on her.  She was so gonna wash her arms and legs once they got her loose!

Rez came running up holding some kind of gizmo, so Anna was hoping she could make the things let go.  By then, there were these weird antenna-like things waving up and down around her, like they were trying to find really good teevee reception on her somewhere.  Rez told her to hold still, which was like duh, because she couldn’t move anyway.  And then, after the gizmo didn’t do any good, Rez pulled out a laptop and plugged in some stuff and started typing away.  Then, Rez pulled out a bunch of tools and managed to get one of the little boxes open where they were hooked into the poles, and Rez hooked up these electronics clips to stuff and ran a cable from there back to her laptop, and started typing some more.

The amazing thing was that it really worked.  After about five more minutes, with her squirrels worrying like crazy about her and sticking around even though Tabby was scaring them silly, the tentacles just drooped, then let Anna go, then slurped back inside the poles.  And the poles collapsed back into the snow.  Anna landed on the snow on all fours, and kept from sinking in.

“Big squirrel!  Big squirrel!  Okay?  Hurt?”  Her squirrels all rushed over to her to make sure she was okay.

“I’m okay.  Not hurt at all,” Anna told them all.

Then she thanked Rez.  “Wow!  Thanks. That was so kewl!  I could see it was a hologram, so I knew it was a trap, but how did you get that thing to let me go? I mean it was so kewl! Who set this trap?”  Then Anna had to pay lots of attention to the squirrels who were climbing up into her arms and checking to make sure she was okay, so she kind of missed most of what Rez and Chaka were saying.

But she heard the part about Belphegor.  She asked, “How come he's after you?  Wouldn't he be after Ayla?”  Because everyone knew Phase pretty much hammered Belphegor in the combat finals, and she figured Buster and Crunch probably weren’t the only jerky people who were trying to get even for getting beat in the combat finals, even if you absolutely weren’t supposed to do stuff like that.  And everyone said Belphegor was a big fat butthead.

But it turned out Belphegor was doing creepy stuff to Chaka a lot.  And that was why Tabby came up with an idea on how to make him stop.  And when Tabby explained her idea, part of it was using Anna’s squirrels to trick Belphegor.  Anna didn’t think that was a good idea, but her squirrels were all for getting even with the bad man who hurt their big squirrel, especially if it wasn’t really going to be dangerous.  So she finally said okay.

It was really pretty easy on her end.  Tabby went back to her human form, so she didn’t scare the squirrels so much, and she explained just what she had in mind.  So Anna waited while Rez messed up Belphegor’s gizmos really bad, and then she told her squirrels what to do.  All they had to do was dig around the exposed equipment until Anna told them to do the next thing.  And the next thing was just jumping into the bad man’s funny chair to look for food.  Since the bad man had hurt their big squirrel, her little friends were all for that.

Then all they had to do was wait.  Which was kind of cold, but not as bad for her as it was for Rez, who looked like she was freezing.  Or Chaka, who finally got up from their hiding place and did something weird that suddenly felt almost like magic but wasn’t, and then she acted like she was warmer.  Since everyone said Chaka was the master of Ki, Anna figured she was using her Ki to stay warmer.  Tabby finally had to change to her cat-form again to put up with the cold.  Anna just shivered in her coat and let some of her little friends snuggle in with her so everyone stayed warm.

Then finally, after maybe half an hour, Belphegor came tootling along in his weird floating egg-chair thing.  He totally looked like a supervillain in that.  And since Jerry said Belphegor stole people’s stuff all the time, and then turned it into new devises, Anna guessed he sort of was a supervillain.  Kind of.

Well, after Belphegor complained really, really loud about how this wasn’t fair, and how it had to be the fault of some idiot whose stuff he stole (which sounded really rude to Anna), he got over to the trap.  Then he saw it was a bunch of squirrels messing with the poles and the tentacles and stuff, and he thought it was all their fault, and not someone else messing with his trap.

As soon as he got really close and yelled at her squirrels, Anna whispered, “Now!  Jump in the bad man’s thing and find snacks!”

It worked, too.  Anna didn’t think it would, but Belphegor totally panicked when about thirty big, fluffy squirrels leapt into his chair-thing and started digging through everything.  He jumped out like she had sicked thirty cobras on him instead.  And when he jumped out, he jumped right into the trap area.  After getting trapped herself, she didn’t think it was all that funny seeing him get grabbed by the tentacles and stretched out toward the poles.  She didn’t like him, but his legs were getting pulled apart pretty far, and she didn’t want him to get a bad groin pull or anything serious.  She remembered when their high school’s star quarterback got a bad groin pull in a football game, and he could hardly walk for a couple days.

But once Belphegor was caught in his trap, and her squirrels found like three candy bars and two bags of nuts and a bag of crackers, they came out of their hiding place and checked.  Belphegor saw Chaka and them, and starting squealing like a little girl.

Rez walked over with a wicked smile and held up her fancy remote control.  Then she said some fancy deviser words while she pressed buttons.  The next thing Anna knew, the antennas started up, and the tentacles started shocking him, and other icky stuff.  Was this what Belphegor was going to do to Chaka?  What a jerk!

Okay, when Rez said, “I wonder if this thing has an anal probe,” that was too icky for Anna.  It was too icky for Belphegor too, because he really started screeching then.  And it turned out there was an anal probe thing, too.  Anna cringed and closed her eyes and said, “Eww!”  And she covered the eyes of the squirrels in her arms, so they didn’t have to see either.  Then there was a pants-ripping noise, and a squelchy noise, and a “YAAAGGHH!” noise, and she pretty much wished she had some more free hands so she could put ‘em over her ears too.

And then Chaka even bought treats for Anna’s little friends!  They went over to the outdoor seats, which were really too cold to use for eating a meal, even with the fancy deviser heaters that were running.  But Chaka bought nuts and popcorn, and they tossed food to her little friends, who scrambled for every little tidbit even though they were only a couple feet away from big people.

So Anna ended up telling the story to everybody that night in the Underdogs secret hangout.  And even the guys watching the basketball game turned it down and came over to hear.

“Anna, what is it with you and superheroing?” Mindy teased.

Anna said, “I really wasn’t.  I just saw it was a trap.  And I got caught in it too, which was really pretty dumb.”

Luce asked, “But you really did save Chaka?”

Anna shrugged.  “Well, sort of.  But then Rez had to save me.  And Tabby had the idea for the trap.  And Rez made it work.  I just watched.”

Ree asked, “But you got to hang with Chaka?”

Anna nodded.  “Umm, yeah.  She was nice.  And really funny.  I bet she’d be really fun to spar with.”

Alan said, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you said that!  Are you crazy?  People like us can’t spar against people like Chaka!”

Anna pouted a little and said, “Well, just sparring.  Not a real fight.”

Ree said, “You are so asking for trouble.”

Nate grinned, “You’re nuts.”

Anna gave him a look.  “Was that a squirrel crack?”

Nate looked around and saw everyone was staring at him.  “Umm, maybe?”

to be continued…