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Aquerna - Straight from the Squirrel’s Mouth

By Diane Castle

CHAPTER 10

Anna had to do something.  But it was a badguy in body armor!  With a really big gun!  And Anna wasn’t anywhere near Adrienne.  And Anna wasn’t even the closest to her.  And Officer Everheart had a gun, and so did Doc, and Elaine and Rich had blaster powers.  And there was no telling what Joe was carrying in his pockets.  And Adrienne had superpowers of her own.

And over a dozen bad guys in body armor and power armor were suddenly pouring into the room from everywhere, so she didn’t think she should even move from where Officer Everheart made everyone go, since they were supposed to follow orders from Whateley Security.

Adrienne just reacted.  And when an Exemplar-4 reacts, it’s fast and hard.  Those goat legs of hers that were so much trouble to fight against when you were behind her?  Ow.  Anna had seen guys get hit in the junk before, so she knew it hurt a lot.  A whole lot.  But she’d never seen a guy get hit in the junk so hard it practically launched him into outer space.  The guy went flying straight up so fast he crashed head-first through the drop ceiling, and he just stuck there, almost like he was a cartoon character.

Anna had seen guys wince when another guy got hit in the crotch, but she’d never seen a pow to the junk so hard that every single guy in sight reacted.  Every single badguy who saw the kick either froze or grabbed his groin in sympathy.  The kick was so hard even some of the girls Anna could see grabbed their crotch.  Anna could hear Elaine make a choking noise, and Marty just about locked her knees together too, and even Officer Everheart cringed some.

But then it was like being in the combat finals or doing exercises in aikido class.  Everyone just knew they had to stop those guys.  Officer Everheart shouted, and they all just reacted all at once.

Everything was so confusing and sudden that it was almost like a blur, even to someone quicker than a baseline.  Anna saw the Blasters start blasting, while Mega-Girl grabbed a big round dining table and threw it backhanded like a giant frisbee right into a power armor guy holding an energy cannon.  There were force fields screening them in places, and a huge gaping hole in the air that Anna figured out later had to be one of Molly’s portals, and all kinds of stuff like that.  And it was a good thing, because those badguys were trying to kill them!

The power armor guy in front of Anna had a huge gun and Mega-Girl was already helping someone else out, so Anna moved right at the guy.  After all, she didn’t have any long-range weapons and sensei Ito had been real insistent about this kind of thing.  If you can’t run away fast enough, get so close they can’t blast you to pieces.

She ducked under his grab and blocked his arm away from her to give her enough time for her move.  She ran right up his front, and slid down his back, maintaining contact so he couldn’t pull away and get enough room to shoot her.  He did just what everyone did the first time she pulled her move on them.  He wheeled around and tried to grab her.  Or maybe shoot her.  Well, since he turned around to his left instead of the side where he had the huge gun, he was probably trying to grab her.

She grabbed his arm and used his momentum in a hip throw.  He was pretty heavy, but nothing like Phase at her heaviest.  And she was stronger than she looked.  He went flying into a table and smashed it flat.  Anna winced at the thought she might have to pay for the damages.

The guy started to roll over to get back to his feet, but Anna saw what was coming, so she didn’t bother to stop him.  Because one of Charmer’s golems was aiming right at the guy, and those golems were tough.  The guy was trying to get up and keep an eye on her and pull up his big gun to take a shot at her all at the same time, so he totally didn’t see seven feet of magical rock monster leaping into the air and pretty much doing a bodyslam like something out of pro wrestling.

It was awesome.  Anna had no idea where Charmer learned about pro wrestling, or where the golem did, or if there was some other place that had moves like that, but Anna just wanted to clap and yell, even if she was way too busy to do something like that right here in the middle of a giant superhero battle.

Holy cow, she was in a real superhero battle, like something out of Marvel Comics.  The other Underdogs were never going to believe this one.  Half the other kids were kicking or punching or smashing or blasting badguys.

She suddenly realized Molly was about to get shot.  Molly was concentrating on her portal or something and wasn’t even looking this way.  But a badguy in body armor was lining up a gun right at her.  Anna did one of her best leaps, right over a couple people, and she landed right on the guy’s gun arm, springing off into a roll that put her back on her feet.  The impact spun the guy to the side and nearly knocked him over.  She was going to kick him in the back of the knee, but before the guy could even stagger, Charmer hit him with a spell that froze him solid, like an ice cube.

And it was all over.  After the incredible noise and violence, the room seemed shockingly silent.  Except for a badguy on the floor who was groaning, and some sizzling noises from a couple of the power armor suits like they were shorting out.  And the sound of wallboard and paneling cracking as the unconscious guy Mega-Girl had home-run-balled into the wall slowly sagged down to the floor.

Well, it was all over except the clean-up, and the repairs, and something Anna had never considered before.  Officer Everheart was making everyone check every power armor guy and body armor guy to make sure they weren’t getting back up any time soon, and if they did, they wouldn’t have any weapons or stuff to cause problems with.

Anna kept an eye on what Officer Everheart was doing, while Anna and a couple other kids picked up the broken tables and chairs, and picked up some pieces of ceiling and wall that were kind of in the way.  But what the security officer was doing was really smart.  Sam was going around and taking weapons and stuff off each of the badguys, while she had the devisers break the power armor and she had the bricks watching the body armor guys.  It really made sense – now that she was seeing it work – that all you had to do to turn off super-strong power armor was just disconnect the electricity.  The other part was kind of embarrassing, though.  Frisking a badguy was way too personal for her.  There was no way Anna was ever going to reach into some guy’s pants to fish out weapons.  Especially not that crotch gun that Sam was pulling out of that guy’s pants.  Eww.  And how did Sam find every single one of those things?  Did she just know that much about weapons and holdouts?

Anna helped move some unbroken tables and chairs over, and one of the chefs brought out some new food that hadn’t been covered in busted ceiling tiles and stuff.  The walls and ceiling and floor didn’t look so hot anymore, and with her hearing, she could tell that some of the restaurant employees in the back were unconscious or tasered or something.  At least the mean lady back there wasn’t screaming at anyone.

She had wondered about this kind of thing – you know, a real superhero battle in a major city – more than once, but she’d never thought it would really be like this.  Once they had the place cleaned up enough, Officer Everheart got everyone to just sit down and go back to lunch, and she told them that they’d all have to give statements to the police.

“The police?  Are we gonna get arrested?” asked Bart.

Officer Everheart was just gonna say no, but Doc started talking.  And talking.  And talking!  She had like five minutes of explanation on all these laws and statutes and court decisions she knew about that pretty much said it wasn’t very likely they’d get arrested for defending themselves from killer mercenaries in power armor, and even if the police issued some citations or something, Ayla’s lawyers would be able to get all that stuff dismissed without any problems.

Marty just said, “Back in New York, the worst I ever got was having Doctor Thunder threaten to tell my dad I was out superheroing at two in the morning when I had a curfew.”

Elaine looked at Anna and Adrienne and said, “Come on, I wanna try the desserts, but I don’t want to go up there by myself.”

Joe smirked, “Need minions to aid and abet?”

“Exactly,” giggled Elaine.

Anna figured Elaine could eat whatever she wanted, because there was no way that body wasn’t an Exemplar frame.  But the desserts did look awfully yummy, and they smelled really, really good too.  Plus, Elaine was being friendly, and Anna knew it was dumb just to go and do whatever the cool kids wanted her to do, but she was going along anyways, just because she was having fun… now that the fight was over.

Anna couldn’t help herself when she saw there was chocolate mousse pie.  She was just going to get a teeny, super-thin piece of it, but the description on the cardboard in front of the pie sounded so good her hand just kept sliding around, and the next thing she knew she had a piece of pie that had to be like an eighth of the whole pie.  She shook her head and told herself she wasn’t going to get any of the berry torte or the cranberry tart or the apple pie.

Okay, maybe she’d come back later for a teensy piece of one of them.  Maybe two.  But that was all!

She was just glad Elaine was getting like three different pies and Adrienne had a piece of the apple pie and a slice of the ice cream cake, so she didn’t feel like a hog.  But oh man was that chocolate mousse pie delish!  And it had this chocolaty crust that was like chocolate graham crackers, with some real whipped cream on top that somebody had to make themselves instead of squirting out of a can, because she could smell the vanilla in it before she even took a taste.  Boy, it was a good thing she didn’t eat with Ayla every day, or she’d be as big as a house.  And not in a Sizemax way, either.  She reminded herself again that she needed to watch her diet so she didn’t get all fat this spring when her little friends came out of hibernation and started chowing down.

Vanessa sat down next to her, and Anna saw that at least one someone was being sensible.  Vanessa had a tiny piece of each of the pies.  Well, pie-shaped things, because Anna wasn’t really sure what the difference was between a torte and a tart.

Anna said, “I shoulda done that.  I’ll never have enough room for the other stuff.”

Vanessa smiled, “Well, I’ve eaten wit’ Ayla enough times to know you have to pace yourself, so you can get a good taste of everything.  Without exploding afterward.”

But Vanessa just sort of picked at her desserts.  Finally, Anna whispered, “Umm, this isn’t any of my business, but are you okay?  I mean, are you worrying about Ayla?”

Vanessa swallowed hard and nodded just a teeny bit.  She finally said, “Ayla’ll be okay.  Wit’ Tennyo and Fey along, they’re pretty much set, ya know.  But I think part of it is a Goodkind thing.”

Okay, Anna was lost on that one.  “I thought Goodkinds hated mutants.”

Vanessa said, “Not that thing.  The whole ‘we take charge and we take care of everyone’ thing Ayla does.”

“Well, that’s a good thing, right?” Anna wondered.

“Yeah.  Most of the time.  Maybe not right now, but most of the time it’s a good thing.  Sometimes it’s really annoying, like if Ayla decides you’re not studying hard enough in Accounting class, or wants Jade to stop arguing and just let Ayla buy her the clothes Ayla thinks she needs.  But that’s who Ayla is.  I guess you can’t stop being a Goodkind just ‘cause they don’t want you around anymore.”

That was about when a nice police officer came in with like half a dozen policemen.  Sam and the bricks hauled the badguys out to the paddywagons outside.  Anna had no idea why they were called paddywagons, which didn’t make any sense, because wasn’t a paddy a swamp where you grew rice?

Anna asked if Sam wanted her help, but Sam just smiled, “Thanks for the offer, but I think we’ve got it covered.”  Then Sam picked up a badguy in each hand and strolled out the door.  Marty was carrying a stack of five badguys like they were foam pillows, and Elaine had a power armor guy under each arm.  Wow.

Once all the badguys were shipped off, the lieutenant had everybody take a seat and let the policemen go around getting statements from everybody.  Anna was happy to let other kids go first, but she noticed that Loophole sat down with one of the policemen and started talking maybe faster than the poor guy could write.

Anna ate her pie, which was really incredibly good, and waited her turn.  She took the chance to talk with Vanessa and Elaine.  Bunny came by and gave Vanessa a reassuring little one-armed hug and told her she was sure everyone would get back okay.  Then Molly came over and patted Vanessa on the shoulder and told her pretty much the same thing.  Everyone kept telling Anna that Poe was the dorm for the loonies, but they sure seemed to stick up for each other and be nice to one another.  She wondered why anyone would think Vanessa or Bunny was crazy.  Or Ayla, really.  And everyone knew there wasn’t anything wrong with Fey!

Then it was her turn to give a statement.  The policeman asked her, “Could I get your name?  I mean, your official codename?  And can I see your MID, if you have it on you?”

Anna wrinkled her forehead in thought.  “You mean you don’t need like my real name and address and age and sex and race and everything?”

The nice man, whose namebadge said ‘Carver’, shook his head no.  “You’re a Whateley student.  So we know where you live and we know who can find you if we need something.  Plus, we need these reports to stick to official DOJ guidelines, and that means codename.”

Anna wasn’t sure, but she thought ‘DOJ’ was probably the Department of Justice.  Score one for Civics class!  She smiled, “Okay Officer Carver, I’m Aquerna.  A-q-u-e-r-n-a.”

“Great.  Now just tell me in your own words what happened.”

“Sure!” she squeaked.  And then she told him everything she could remember, from the time she heard the clang in the kitchen to when Officer Everheart disarmed all the badguys, one by one.  She had to slow down and let him catch up a couple times, so she kind of wondered if she was talking too fast or telling him too much stuff he didn’t need.

When she was all done, Officer Carver just folded up his notebook and thanked her, then let her go back to her dessert.  And it was even still there!  If it had been a piece of yummy pie back home, and she left it for that long, either her dad would’ve eaten it, or her mom would’ve cleaned it up.  Or both.  Well, no one around here was going to want to eat her leftovers with her germs on it, when there was still delicious stuff over on the buffet table.

She sort of listened as Marty told the nice policeman her story, which was really awesome since Marty pretty much went Supergirl on those guys.  And that was when Anna noticed that Doc was still talking to her policeman, and it looked like she was correcting some stuff he had written down.

That was when the first part of Team Kimba came back.  Riptide and Chaka were still in their superhero uniforms, even if they had their masks off.  Riptide looked like she’d stayed out in the sun too long, but without the bad sunburn part.  She was drinking a big thing of bottled water and carrying another bottle in her other hand.  Chaka looked like she was getting a huge bruise across her face, and she was walking like she was pretty beat up.

A bunch of the Poe girls jumped up and ran over and hugged both of them, and scooted them over to chairs, and made ‘em sit down.  Anna had never seen Chaka tired enough that she just sat still, even in martial arts class.  The girl pretty much vibrated even when she was supposed to be sitting still in seiza position in class.  Anna saw Vanessa rush over and grab Rich by the hand and get him to come over.  Anna could hear her asking him to do some quick Healing.

She knew she was being nosy, but she moved closer to the Kimbas and listened in.  Riptide waved Rich off, “Hey, I’m okay.  Just hot and tired, and a little dehydrated.  Chaka’s the one who needs some of the mojo.”

Chaka said, “Hey, I’m good.  I just have a bruise.  A big bruise.”

Rich put his hands on her shoulders and concentrated hard for a few seconds.  It was like a big suncatcher was twinkling between him and some sunlight, because flashes of rainbow colors were winking around him, just like they did when he was really working hard in aikido class and standing in the sunlight.  Now that Anna knew about the whole secret ‘Apollo’ thing, that made a whole lot more sense.

Rich said, “I think that ‘one bruise’ is covering about a third of your skin.  Let me do a little something.”

Chaka grinned just like a sneaky cat and teased him.  “Sure thang, Rich.  I’m all about the hot boys doin’ things for me. ‘Specially with that layin’ on of the hands.”  She wiggled her eyebrows at him, and Rich actually blushed.  He still gave her some Healing, though.

After that, it was Jade and Jinn and Chou, but – oh my gosh – Chou was lying on a stretcher that was floating along all by itself with a little blinking flashy-thing on it.

No, wait.  It wasn’t a stretcher, because it didn’t have the handles and side-things.  It was just a blanket.  A floating blanket holding up a person.  She remembered what someone had said about Jade and studying in a floating blanket.  Was it Vanessa?  Anyways, this had to be another of Jade’s devises.  Jade had to be like the most amazing deviser at school.  Okay, so Jobe could pour stuff on you and turn you into a slug or something.  But he couldn’t make you fly.

Molly and Dorjee ran right for Chou.  Anna was going to go get Rich, but Toni was already saying, “Better get over there and do your stuff.”  Anna just couldn’t figure out how Toni knew, since she had her back to where Chou was, and she had her eyes closed too.  Maybe it was some of that ki ‘situation awareness’ stuff.  Anna figured a really great master of ki would have to be able to keep track of who was doing what around them, so no one snuck up on them or ambushed them.  She still didn’t see how that would help you with a tornado, but Toni could do a ton of stuff Anna couldn’t, so there was no telling.

Molly and Dorjee just knelt on either side of the blanket, holding Chou’s hands and telling her she needed to stop getting hurt.  And Jade was right there, telling Rich that Chou had a broken rib and a punctured kidney, and she’d fixed it enough to hold her for a few minutes.  Wow.  Jade had magical healing devises too?  That girl was amazing.  Wait a minute, was the blanket talking to Rich too?  That was pretty freaky, even for Whateley.  Anna was so going to have to get Jerry to talk to her about devises and what they could do, because that was just plain bizarre.

And Anna was getting this weird vibe off the blanket that was sort of like the feeling she got from Shroud sometimes.  Did that mean that Jade’s devises were doing stuff like magic?  Because she could pick up magical stuff sometimes, when her squirrel spirit saw it.  She totally didn’t get the difference between devises and magical things.  She figured she really needed to take some of those special courses as soon as she could work ‘em into her schedule.  What did colleges say when they looked at your high school courses and your electives were things like ‘Powers Theory’ and ‘Avatars and Spirits I and II’ and ‘Introduction to Magical Concepts’?  Or did Whateley just send out your transcripts with stuff like that changed to ‘independent study’ or ‘science electives’?  She’d have to ask somebody before she was like a senior.  Assuming she did good enough in school that she could get a scholarship to go to college, because there was no way her dad could afford to send her to college, even if he stopped being mad at her for being a mutant.

The rest of Team Kimba came tramping in a minute or two later.  They looked worse.  Billie looked fine, even if her clothes were a wreck and she looked all muddy.  But Nikki and Ayla were kind of limping, and Hank was holding his head like he had a really bad headache.  Hank’s uniform was really dusty, even if she didn’t see how a PK superboy’s field would let in dirt like that, because Pristine never even got splashes or dust on her.  Nikki had a big hole in her uniform over her stomach and the skin underneath looked red and bloody.  Ayla was limping and holding her arm funny, and one side of her face looked kind of burned, like the worst sunburn ever.  Anna wondered just how bad the fights were that the Kimbas were in.  And how many of the fights they’d lost.  Or if this was what you looked like when you fought real supervillains and won but got hurt while you were fighting ‘em.

Well, maybe they weren’t hurt all that bad.  After Fey turned all their superhero costumes back to their regular clothes, which pretty much took care of almost all the dirt and dust too, Billie and Ayla went right over and got themselves stuff to eat.  Anna wanted to go ask Ayla if she was okay, but Vanessa ran over and hugged Ayla and kissed her, right there in front of everybody, and Anna didn’t want to butt in.  Plus she felt kind of weird about the whole ‘two girls kissing in public’ thing.  And remembering that Ayla maybe had a wiener between her legs made the whole thing even weirder.

Anna watched while Fey did some more Healing on Chou, and Rich did some Healing on Hank and Nikki and Ayla.  Boy, were Luce and Ree and the others were going to be so jealous that Anna got to watch it.  And then, when Chou was feeling a lot better, she got up and did some Healing too.  But the stuff Chou was doing looked more like the karate healing thing from “The Karate Kid.”  Wow.  Anna hadn’t even known there were different kinds of Healing, but she could see Nikki’s was magical, and she could see that Rich’s wasn’t.  Well, it sure didn’t look like it.

And even more police came in, this time a police captain who acted like he already knew Ayla and the rest of the Kimbas.  And he brought even more policemen, and so everybody’s statement finally got done.  Even if Loophole was still arguing with her policeman about interview protocols under some subsection of some law Anna didn’t understand.  Anna didn’t know a lot about policemen, even if she’d met Sheriff Bates a couple times when he came to talk to the kids in her school about not doing drugs or learning the rules of the road so they could be responsible with their bicycles.  But she knew when someone was in charge, and that police captain knew he was the big cheese.  He even went over and ate a bunch of the food off the buffet table while he was talking with Ayla.

The kind of funny thing – funny like ‘ha ha’, not funny like peculiar – was Marty.  She had beat up a bunch of power armor guys armed with stuff like energy cannons, and the power armor guys were trying to kill her, but she was fussing about her skirt getting ruined.  Anna would’ve been real sympathetic if Marty was complaining to her about it, but Ayla was just kind of, well, not real sympathetic about it.  She just said she’d buy Marty a new one, and didn’t even want to listen to Marty talk about the skirts she’d been thinking about buying.  Elaine took Marty over to a table to talk about skirts and dresses in the Victoria’s Secret catalog, which Anna thought was a little too naughty for her taste in clothes.  And then Doc dropped by and started giving Marty suggestions on how to ‘optimize’ her clothing purchases in terms of nice items per dollar spent, and how to get around some of the postage and handling costs, and how lots of times you could get a better money deal getting the same kinds of clothes off the website, and a bunch of stuff Anna really needed someone to write down for her, because Doc was going through way too much detail on prices and accessories and side details and stuff.  Why wasn’t there a book that told girls how to shop and buy more for less?

Anna got up and went off to the bathroom, and it turned out the manager’s office was on the other side of the women’s bathroom wall, because Anna heard way too much about Ayla having to pay the restaurant people for all the damage, which Anna couldn’t imagine being able to pay for in a hundred years, and then they pretty much said ‘thanks for your business and never come back,’ which had to hurt, even if you were Ayla Goodkind.

But when Anna came out of the bathroom, Ayla looked just the same as always.  She couldn’t figure out if Ayla wasn’t bothered at all, or if maybe Ayla just looked like she wasn’t bothered but maybe she was upset a lot and it didn’t show.  No, Ayla just looked like the queen of some country who was about to tell you what to do and knew you’d do it right away or else.  For just a second, Anna wondered if every Goodkind looked like that.

When everyone was done talking to the police, and picking up broken stuff, and eating way too much dessert – which was totally not Anna’s fault because the cranberry tart had a crust made of crushed nuts and it was like the best dessert ever and she really wasn’t going to get a second piece, but then she was talking with Jade and walking and they ended up at the desserts and Anna couldn’t help getting another piece of it, and now she felt like she was going to explode if she ate another bite – Ayla got up and announced it was time to hop in the limos and go back to the jet.

And that was when the heckling started up again.

Toni asked if they had to worry about guys trying to shoot up the limos when they drove to the airport.

Nikki asked if she was supposed to ‘whip up’ an anti missile charm before they got to the jet and someone tried to blow them up on the way home.

Jade asked if the jet was radioactive condor proof, which didn’t make any sense at all, but half the Kimbas went into hysterics when she said it.

Hank asked if the peanut gallery was all done, because he still had a hell of a headache.

Anna just watched Ayla’s face, because Ayla had this ‘we are not amused’ expression like she was royalty but still had to put up with everyone else.

Finally, Anna whispered to Elaine, “Are they always like this?”

Elaine just grinned.  “Oh yeah.  Sometimes they’re way worse.  Ask Ayla what they did to her for her birthday this week.  Or ask Chou about the time they picked out her codename.”

Anna grinned a little.  “I kinda heard about that one.”

Ayla just sort of ignored the smart-alecky comments from the rest of Team Kimba, and she started talking.  Basically, she apologized to the whole party crowd, because apparently the whole thing with the three crimes at once was a big set-up to clobber Team Kimba and do something really bad to Fey, and the Necromancer nearly got Fey, and some big-time supervillain named Mimeo pounded Phase and Lancer and Fey and even pushed Tennyo around, and someone tricked The Lamplighter into smashing Chaka and some other people, and Skyhawk nearly got a bunch of kidnapped people killed and Bladedancer and Generator got beat up trying to save the victims, and it was just a huge mess.

Anna still didn’t see why any of that was Ayla’s fault.  It wasn’t like Ayla mailed out invitations to a hundred supervillains to come try to kill her at her birthday party.  Anna couldn’t even figure out how the Necromancer could know Ayla was coming to Boston today.

When everybody piled back into the limos, it was a lot like when they got out of them.  Including Marty.  Elaine elbowed Anna and Lily and Bart and told them to keep an eye out for Marty’s big exit from the restaurant.

And Marty acted just like she did when she got out of the limos.  She sashayed out of the restaurant like she was wearing a long gown, and she blew kisses to her imaginary fans like she was walking out of the Oscars.  Then she made sure to show lots of leg as she slid into the limo.  Since she wasn’t wearing her burned skirt anymore, just her uniform leotard, Anna didn’t see how it was possible to show more leg unless you started including the parts of her hips and butt that showed at the bottom of her one-piece maillot.

Anna sort of wondered what Marty was going to be like after she graduated from Whateley and joined the Empire City Guard and got really famous.  Because there were already some superheroines who pretty much did anything they could to get in front of teevee cameras and celebrity photographers, including wearing really, really skimpy outfits when they were in superbattles.  And Nate said some of them posed naked in magazines too!  Ick!

Marty slid onto her seat and said to Elaine, “That was so fun!  I wish I had a long fancy gown for this.  You know, the Empire City Guard has an annual charity ball, but I wouldn’t get to show up in a limo like this, because the supers are supposed to be dressed up in their uniforms and already in the ballroom before the first guests show up.”

Elaine smiled wickedly, “Hey, you know, I bet they need some ideas for advertising for the thing.”

“Ooh!  Cool!”  Then Marty’s face fell.  “But there’s no way Doctor Thunder’s gonna go for that.  I mean, she’s already mad at me.”

Elaine rolled her eyes.  “Well, stop bugging the shit out of ‘em and wait ‘til you’re legal before you apply again.”

Marty pouted.  “But how’m I supposed to help out when ice giants tromp through downtown?  And how’m I supposed to build up a resume so they’ll pick me?”

Anna said, “You could use today, y’know.  Ask Officer Everheart to write up what you did, because I thought you were awesome.  And you followed orders, and you didn’t do anything illegal, so today’s stuff would be extra-good.”

Elaine said, “Yeah.  That’s what I was gonna say.  This is the stuff they want to see.  That you did what Everheart said, and you didn’t go off half-cocked, and you didn’t superhero without deputization, and you took out a bunch of attacking mercs with power armor, and protected your fellow students.  I bet Everheart would write you a really good review for your resume.”

Jody said, “This is the best thing yet for your resume.  Really.  The ECG has been pretty grouchy about you not following orders, so showing them you got more mature and started following orders and following the rules would be good.  Plus, you ought to start getting all your combat finals on DVD, for your resume.”

Anna grinned, “Call it ‘The Best of Mega-Girl.’”

Elaine smirked, “Mega-Girls Gone Wild.”

Everybody giggled, and tried making up more funny video names most of the way back to the airport.

“There’s Something About Marty.”

“Earth Mega-Girls Are Easy.”

“Hey!”

“I Wish They All Could Be California Mega-Girls.”

“Mega-Girl Interrupted.”

“Marty Mauls Manhattan.”

They just went on and on.  Anna thought some of the names were really naughty.  She had no idea why Marty and Elaine knew the names of so many porn movies.  She thought only guys looked at gross stuff like that.

The airport was easy.  They didn’t have the long walk through security, because they were at the ‘private planes’ part and they had an MCO guy ushering them back onto the flight.  The guy might’ve been the same guy who had watched them get off.  It was hard to tell when they all dressed alike and wore those dark glasses.  But she could tell it was the same aftershave, so maybe it was the same guy too.  Unless there was like an official MCO aftershave to wear, which would really be pretty weird.

And since they were on a private jet, they didn’t have to go on some airline schedule.  Once everyone got on the plane and got in their seats, the pilots moved out away from the gate and got in line for a turn on the runway.  It was that easy.  No wonder rich people like Ayla hired private planes.

She started chatting with Hank and Lily about the plays Lily was doing in the school theater, and before she knew it, the plane was taking off.  Anna finally made herself say, “And I’m really sorry about making Hank leave, back in December when I was tucking my little squirrels away for the winter.”

Lily just smiled.  “It’s okay.  It wasn’t you, anyway.  It was Mrs. Horton.”

“Well yeah, but it was because she knew I needed help.”  Anna sighed, “I just don’t have the powers to do something like rescue all my little friends.  I needed help from Hank, and my roomie, and my friends, and Hazmat, and the maintenance guys I work with for my scholarship, and just a ton of people.  Even Jobe.”

Hank shrugged.  “So?  It’s not like I could’ve done all that by myself.  There isn’t a single person on campus who could’ve done all the physical work and also handled all the technical biochemistry part.”

Lily murmured, “Maybe Loophole or Delta Spike could’ve.”

Hank grinned at Lily and whispered, “Well, maybe not Delta.”

Anna didn’t want to think what might have happened if Delta Spike had been the one making up the special hibernation chemical, even if Elaine was really nice in person and not at all stuck up for being so pretty.  Anna just had this horrible mental image of Elaine giving a bunch of chipmunks little shots, and then they all exploded.

Hank went on, “Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness.  It’s a sign you’re not so stuck-up you can’t admit you need some help.  That’s one of the things I learned being a military brat.  Forces don’t jump into things and get themselves killed.  They call in for air support, or whatever the rest of the division can supply.”

Lily said, “I have to agree with him.  Especially when it comes to superheroing.  My folks have called New York City for help before.  And that’s why they’re still around.  Asking for help on something that important to you is just a smart call.”

Anna wrinkled her forehead in thought and stared at the carpet.  “It didn’t feel like a smart call.  It just felt like I wasn’t good enough.”

It just kind of felt funny having people like Lancer and Wallflower – real superhero types who had really awesome powers – telling her she did the right thing with getting help for her little friends.  She figured they were just being nice to her since they were the kind of people who got invited to join the Cape Squad, and she… really wasn’t.

Then Bart came over to talk to Lily about ‘saving his butt’ at the battle in the restaurant, even if it really sounded like he wanted to figure out how her powers worked so he could make a devise that would do the same thing.  Anna had to admit a really good personal forcefield generator together with invisibility and maybe flying too?  Pretty awesome superpowers.

Abby came by with Jade and Jinn a little later, and Anna heard ‘em talking about Jade and Jinn waitressing for Abby next month.  She remembered hearing Ree talking about being a waitress once even if it was for someone really crabby but it still paid a lot.  So Anna asked, “Umm, could I be a waitress too?”

Abby thought for just a second and said, “Sure.  I’d like to end up with six or eight wait-staff, and with you three I’m now up to five.”

Anna just said, “Okay.”

Abby smirked, “Don’t you want to know how much I’ll pay you?”

Anna shrugged, “Well, I figure it’ll be fair.  Ree said she got paid pretty good.”

Abby said, “Because Ayla manipulated the pay scale so drastically, I’m paying eighty an hour.  For about three hours work.  Plus, Jade’s doing some extra work.”

Anna figured her ears must not be working right.  “Eighteen dollars an hour?”

“Eighty.  Eight oh.”

Anna swallowed hard.  “B-but that can’t be right, that’s way too much!  That’d be like… umm… two hundred forty dollars for three hours work!”

Abby just grinned.  “Yep.”

Anna tried again, “Is that normal?”

Jade nudged her.  “It is after Ayla causes problems.  Ayla paid us a hundred dollars an hour, and paid for the maid outfits too.”

Anna was pretty sure Ree had only gotten like twenty or thirty dollars an hour.  She said, “Can I ask Rhiannon if she wants to waitress again?  She’s Kamuro.  I’m sure she’d do it.”

Abby asked, “And she’s already waitressed for a Golden Kids meeting once?”

“Yeah, back in the fall.  Late fall.”

Abby rolled her eyes.  “Well, ask her and have her come see me.  But if she waitressed for Traduce, she probably thinks it will be an utter nightmare.  Traduce is… not the best people person ever.”

Jade giggled, so Anna guessed Ayla had told Jade stuff about Traduce.

Abby added, “And, unlike some people, I’m planning on simple gray uniforms, just below the knee, with no cleavage and gray flats.”

Jade and Jinn both giggled, sounding amazingly alike, and Jinn said, “Jade kept her uniform so she could go over and flirt with Stephen and-”  But Jade put her hand over Jinn’s mouth and shushed her.

Anna could hardly believe her luck.  Two hundred forty bucks just for wearing an ordinary maid dress and walking around with trays for a couple hours?  That was more money than Anna had ever had at one time.  And maybe she could get Jade or Abby to introduce her to the next host and she could get to play maid another month too!  She refused to think about the thing that her folks weren’t going to be giving someone like her an allowance anytime soon.  Not that they could really afford to give her much of an allowance before she turned into a mutant, since her dad didn’t make a whole lot at the junkyard and her mom was a stay-at-home mom.

Anna watched as Jade dragged Jinn back to the kitchen so Jinn didn’t tell them something even more embarrassing about Jade and her boyfriend Stephen.  Abby smirked, “That’s Thuban.  Jade’s dating the King of Twain.  It was really cute at the last Golden Kids meeting.  Thuban was trying to be Mister Cool, but he was obviously watching out for her the whole evening.  I was really surprised at how jealous he got just watching her flouncing around in her little outfit.  They’re really a cute couple.”

Anna was kind of surprised to hear that, because mainly what she heard about Thuban was he wasn’t a nice guy, and he wasn’t all nice and normal, and he wasn’t the kind of guy who was crushing on a girl who wasn’t even an Exemplar.  But she figured a lot of the stuff she heard about people wasn’t right anyways, like the crazy things people said about Tennyo, or the really mean stuff people said about Razorback.  And she knew lots of people said awful things about Nate, but okay most of the ones she heard about Nate were actually true, so…  So she didn’t know what it all meant.

After that thought, she decided she needed to go talk to Molly and her friends about something kinda important.  So she went over to the back of the jet, where Molly and Dorjee were sitting on either side of Chou, really super close together on one couch, like they were trying to squish her.  Or like they were really getting maybe a little too PDA for right here in front of a ton of people.

Anna checked, “Umm, is it okay if I ask about something?”

Chou hastily said, “Yes!  Whatever it is!”

Anna wondered if maybe Molly and Dorjee were kind of overdoing it.

Molly sounded really tired as she said, “Yes, you can ask, but we aren’t going to talk about everything about the three of us in front of the whole plane.”

Anna blushed and said, “Uhh, no, I wanted to talk about Winnie.”

Then Molly blushed.  She said, “That wasn’t what I thought you were going to ask.”

Anna turned even more red and whispered, “I wouldn’t ask you about that in front of everybody!  I...  I…  You guys are Winnie’s friends, and I wanted to talk about something I really hope Winnie won’t do.”

Dorjee gave her a calm smile and said, “And what are you concerned about?”

Anna managed to say, “Jobe.”  All three of the trio winced.  She went on, “Do you know Jobe has a secret serum to turn girls into these freaky black elf ‘drow’ things?  And Joe – Jericho – says most of the Workshop thinks it won’t work every time and a lot of girls who try it might die?  And Adrienne thinks a lot of girls on campus are so unhappy about how they look that they might try the stuff anyway?”

Molly guessed, “And we all know Winnie has body issues, and she’d do a lot of things if she thought it would fix her weight problem and make her prettier, and…  Oh God.”

Chou frowned, “I hadn’t thought about that.  But I bet Ayla has.  She’s probably got a list of every GSD girl on campus who’s a maybe for trying Jobe’s serum, and a file on each of those girls, and…  And who knows what else?  But I’d bet she’s looking out for the GSD girls who are her friends.”

Dorjee smiled, but it was a sad smile.  “But what about the cow girl you were talking about?  The one who is dying?”

“Bova.”  Chou looked like she was gritting her teeth.  “Bova said her GSD – well, it isn’t officially GSD but it’s similar – is killing her.  And if that’s her only choice…  Dying of her disorder in a pretty horrible way, or taking a crazy chance…”

“Eww,” Anna grimaced.

Dorjee said, “But we do need to make sure that Winnie has our support, and she understands that Jobe’s serum is not a solution of any kind.”

Molly said, “Yeah.  If Jobe’s drow serum is the answer, I don’t wanna know what the question is.”

Anna said, “Well, I just wanted to make sure you knew about Jobe’s thing, because Winnie’s my friend too, and I know she’s really unhappy about her weight since most of the people in Dickinson are pretties and some of them are mean to her, and, well, I was worrying about her after what Joe and Adrienne told me.”

After they thanked her, she decided she wanted to go talk to Adrienne.  Not about that icky drow serum stuff, either.

Adrienne was busy talking with Jay Jay and Pilar about lunch.  Anna noticed that Joe was kind of hanging around in the neighborhood like an over-protective dad.

Pilar said, “We certainly have fish and other seafood in South America.  Half of the border of Brazil is seacoast.  But I have never had seafood like that before.”

Jay Jay interrupted, “Exo, well she’s my roomie, she said there oughta be really cool seafood like that, but I like fishsticks, especially with the little tartar sauce you mix up from the packets, still the seafood pies were amazing, and maybe I’ll try some of the stuff like that in the caff the next time they make some.”

Pilar just nodded and said, “I too.”

“Me too,” someone corrected her.

Adrienne said, “Out where we live, we don’t get much fresh fish, except when we go camping.  Fresh brook trout right out of the stream, roasted over a campfire, now that’s good.  It’s even good for breakfast the next morning, if you’ve got enough ice that you can keep it refrigerated overnight and you can keep the bears from getting into it.”

Anna thought the roasted fish hot off the campfire sounded pretty tasty, but cold trout for breakfast?  Ick.  Not that she was going to say so.  Not that she got a chance to say so, because Jay Jay said it a couple times in a row.  And Jay Jay could say ‘eww’ about a dozen times before you could get a word in edgewise.

After people talked about fish and shrimps and stuff for a while, Anna got her chance to talk to Adrienne with a little more privacy.  She said, “I just wanted you to know.  When I watched that guy come up behind you with that big gun, I was really scared.  But then you totally hammered him.  You’re like the hero of the fight for stopping that guy and giving everyone else a moment to do their attack things.”

Adrienne blushed, which was kind of dark green, and she said, “No way.  I was just freaked.”

Joe leaned over and said, “I thought it was due to your deadly make-guys-grab-their-crotch aura.  That guy you kicked was still stuck head-first in the ceiling when the police got there.”

Adrienne said, “I did kind of kick him right in the…”

Joe smirked, “Right between the goalposts there, Mister Vinatieri.”  Anna had watched enough pro football with her dad that she got the joke.  Even if it was really naughty.

Adrienne just sort of ignored Joe, which you probably had to do if you hung out with him all the time, because he was always saying naughty stuff and doing naughty things and wearing really puke-y outfits.  She said, “I think Sam Everheart’s the hero of the whole restaurant fight.”

“Brunch brawl,” Joe insisted.

Adrienne just kept going, like she was expecting Joe to interrupt her and stuff.  “Really.  Sam got everyone grouped together for protection before the big invasion, and she got Lily to grab the most vulnerable kids and protect them, and she led the fight, and she handled all the clean-up part where she disarmed everyone.”

Joe said, “That was the really awesome part.  Everybody at Whateley can punch somebody.  I mean, just look at the Combat Finals.  Knowing what to do afterward is the part nobody handles.  Remember Generator’s combat final?”

“Umm, no?”

“Oh yeah!” Anna squeaked.  “Against… umm…  Electrode!  She had missiles, and a grappling gun like Kim Possible, and a gun, and I thought she got Electrode, right up until the very end.”

Joe nodded.  “Yep.  If she’d known what to do with a downed enemy, like Everheart did, Generator would’ve won that final.  What we saw Everheart do, disarming all the power armor and disarming all the mercenaries in body armor, that’s a life lesson.  How many of those guys would’ve been able to pull out a gun or something and shoot one of us, while we were sitting around waiting for the cops to get there?”

Anna said, “I dunno.”

Adrienne said, “Maybe two or three?”

Joe said, “I figure most of ‘em.  And they were all packing.  Those guys had more hideouts and knives and guns and shit than Batman and Green Arrow put together.  Did you look through the pile of weapons Sam got off those guys?”

Anna admitted, “Umm, no?  I went and had some dessert and talked with people.”

Adrienne said, “I figured you were nosing through that crap.  How much did you steal?”

Joe gave her a look.  “I’m shocked – shocked I say – that you could think I would do such a thing!”  Adrienne just pursed her lips and stared at him.  He finally said, “Okay, I didn’t take anything, but I did get a few ideas.  I’m thinking about turning my belt into a sword.”

“That would be really cool!” Anna said.  “And there’s some people around here who are really, really good at martial arts styles with swords, so you could learn to use it really well!”

Adrienne said, “How are you going to have a soft, workable belt with a solid steel sword hidden inside it?”

Joe grinned, “That’s the trick.  I’m figuring on a diphasic plastic with just enough metal molecules to let me give it a really fine edge.  It’s rubbery until you whip it out and expose it to air for a few seconds.  Then it hardens into a sword.”

Anna definitely heard Officer Green behind her, whispering to Officer Trews, “That’s what she said.”  And then Officer Trews laughed.  Anna kinda turned red because she was sure it was a dirty joke.

Joe went on, “And since I’m a fatso, my belt’s long enough that I’ve got at least three feet of swordblade to hack with.”

“You’re not fat,” Anna said automatically.

“You’re way thinner than you were back in September,” said Adrienne.

Joe rolled his eyes.  “Hank is thin.  I’m not thin.  I’m not as heavy as I used to be, but I’m not a thin kind of guy.”

Anna and Adrienne argued with Joe a bit, but Anna didn’t really know what to say.  It wasn’t fair that there were like a hundred Exemplar guys on campus making guys like Jerry and Joe, and probably Bart too, feel bad about how they looked.  Joe looked fine!  Okay, he wasn’t as handsome as Rich or Hank, but Anna wasn’t as pretty as most of the girls on the jet, either.

Heck, Anna was sure she was in the bottom five of all the girls on the jet.  Most of the girls were ‘superheroine’ pretty, like Fey and Mega-Girl and Phase.  And Bladedancer and Delta Spike and Loophole and Chaka and…  Well, most of ‘em.

When Anna finally got up her nerve and went back to the kitchen to try one of the weird juices, she found the mango juice was all gone, so she got a goblet of the guava nectar.  She made sure no one was looking before she took a sip, just in case it tasted all weird and she needed to spit it out.  But it was good.  Really yummy.  She didn’t know what a guava looked like, but if she ever saw one in a store and it wasn’t super expensive, she might even buy one and try it.

She walked out of the kitchen and found Ayla having another chat with Rich, while Nikki and Toni were hanging around making comments.

She heard Rich say, “And you’ve known about us since last fall?”

Ayla shrugged in this casual way that Anna wished she could do, because it pretty much said ‘yes I am that amazing but I wish to pretend that I am also humble.’  Anyone who saw you do a shrug like that just had to know that you knew exactly what you were talking about.

Ayla said, “I had my suspicions going back to the first couple weeks of the term.  June really isn’t very good at concealing her feelings about the way Hera and Juno are portrayed in classical literature.”

Rich shrugged back.  Even if he was Apollo, he wasn’t as good at doing the ‘queen of all she surveys’ thing as Ayla.  That kind of made Anna wonder if Ayla was some sort of something godly too, or if maybe it was all part of the whole Goodkind thing.

Rich smiled, “Majestic’s still pretty cheesed off that Zeus ran loose, assaulted women right and left, and left her to clean up his messes.  And then she got blamed as the bad guy.”

Ayla said, “The winners write the history books.”

Anna gaped at that.  She’d never thought about that before.  But did that mean that some of the stuff from history looked that way because the people who won stomped all over the people who lost, so the winning side got to be in charge and say whatever they wanted?  Cheese and crackers, Ayla was smart!

Nikki said, “Majestic ought to be ignoring that and planning for the future.  Things change.  People evolve.  Running around knocking up virgins and married women isn’t okay anymore, no matter who you are.  Even superheroes don’t get to do that.  Like Captain Courage.”

Toni cracked, “Yeah, there’s a reason people call him Captain Condom.”

Nikki ignored Toni and went back to her point.  “The goddess of marriage and the home is a lot more acceptable now, and a lot more politically correct.  She ought to play to her strengths, since they’re accepted virtues today.”

Rich said, “Judicator said some things like that to her already, but she might pay more attention if she heard it coming from you.”

“Or Unga-Dunga,” smirked Toni.

Anna frowned in confusion at that.  Unga Dunga?  What the heck was that supposed to be?

Ayla said, “Tell June the message is from Aunghadhail, Daughter of the Burning Oak.  That’s likely to be a bit more impressive than hearing that some high schooler said it.”

Anna almost gasped out loud.  Nikki really was a real Faerie Queen with a super-fancy name!  How awesome was that?  Lucille would faint when she heard!

Ayla said, “June was handing me clues by the folio in World Lit class.  She knew a great deal about ancient Greek and Roman cultures, and her ancient languages are noticeably better than mine.  I assumed that if she wasn’t connected to Hera in some way, that she was an insanely fixated fan of Hera.  So I was suspicious well before Counterpoint decided that my powers would be really fun new toys.”

Rich looked, well, embarrassed.  Like Brody Petersen when everyone found out his big brother Brady was the one who broke into the school in the middle of the night and peed all over the floor in the principal’s office.  Anna wondered if some of the Olympians got embarrassed with how some of the other ones acted, because she totally would’ve been humiliated if Counterpoint or Imperious was her big brother and everyone knew it.

Rich asked, “How’d you stop Counterpoint?  As Toni and Chou know, he’s a tough fighter.  On top of that, he can up his threat level just by picking some new powers.  If you beat him last fall, I’d think he’d be after you again and again, until he finally won.  And I would’ve heard about it.”

Ayla gave Rich a big smirk.  Toni said in a bad robot voice, “The only way to win the game is not to play.”

Oh!  That was from War Games!  She’d watched that with the girls down in the Underdog hangout.  Ooh, Matthew Broderick used to be so cute!

Ayla said, “I told him I was too scared to fight him.”

Rich sounded pretty suspicious when he said, “I wouldn’t think that would stop him.”

Ayla nodded, “It didn’t.  But Jason showed up and made him cut it out.  I quoted a little Euripides, and Jason inadvertently showed me he knew enough ancient Greek to understand it.  I was just quoting.  He speaks it fluently.  Big giveaway.  So that was when I realized that the ‘real Greek Gods’ option was starting to outweigh the ‘really obsessed role-players’ option.

Rich snickered.  “And when was this?”

Toni asked, “Was this when you showed up at our place and got Ungy to chat about them bein’ the real deal?”

Ayla nodded.  “Yeah.  First week of November, if I recall correctly.”

Nikki rolled her eyes.  “Like you ever recall incorrectly.  Showoff.”

Toni said, “I totally figured Ayles was just doin’ the Goodkind obsesso-gram thing again.  I mean, this is Whateley!  We got like a couple hundred Exemplars runnin’ around loose copping attitudes and showin’ off.  You could probably pick any group of superpowered whoevers or god pantheons and find a dozen kids who’d fit.  We came up with like thirty girls who could be Aphrodite.”

Rich groaned, “Don’t tell Cytherea, she’d have a fit.”

Ayla said, “It only took me a day to narrow it down to her.”

Rich’s eyes bulged.  Anna’s did too.  Ayla figured that all out in one day?  Holy crow!

Ayla said, “I just looked at who eats with Jason and June regularly.”

Rich looked like he wanted to smack his own forehead.  “Oh.  Right.”

And Anna got it too.  The New Olympians wouldn’t let just anybody eat at their table.  No, the kids who ate with them a bunch would have to be other New Olympians!  She thought real hard, because she’d heard Gary complaining about Knick-Knack, and…  Oh.  Knick-Knack, Counterpoint, that skanky Cytherea, and Judicator.  And Stygian too.  And she’d seen Rich over with ‘em too, once in a while.  Anna wasn’t sure how she felt about Judicator being one of ‘em, because Ree really liked her.  And Anna thought Judicator was so cool in martial arts class, and really nice when she was sparring with someone who wasn’t all that good.

Rich said, “Well, that’s still pretty impressive.  It’s not like the other campus powers have figured all this out.”

Toni said, “Or maybe they did, but they aren’t as big a showoff as Ayla.”

Rich grinned at her.  “Maybe.”  He turned back to Ayla.  “So, do you know where Poseidon is?  Imperious is still trying pretty hard to find him, and I’m not even sure he’s free of the Seal.”

Ayla pursed her lips and said, “No, that’s one of the ones I don’t have down.  I do know about your sister.”  Rich blinked in surprise.  “And I know about Hermes.  But Poseidon, Hestia, and Dionysus I’m still researching.  Besides, Poseidon might not want Imperious and Majestic to know about him.”

Rich thought that over and nodded.  “Yeah, I can totally see that.  But if you find him, could you tell me?  I’ll keep it a secret.”

Anna just stared with her mouth open.  She felt like she was watching some of the amazing superpower stuff the school was all about, even if she was just one of the Underdogs.  Real Greek Gods?  Super-smart people investigating other students like criminal investigators?  She just knew the rest of the Underdogs would sit there with open mouths when she told them.  Nate would probably sit there with an open mouth full of half-chewed food.

After Rich and Nikki walked toward the front of the jet while they were talking about more stuff with gods and things, Ayla turned and said, “Anna, it’s okay that you overheard.  It’s not a huge secret.”

Anna clutched her glass and said, “I’m really sorry, Ayla.  I mean, I didn’t plan on hearing the whole thing, I just went to get some more juice, and when I came out of the kitchen you were all talking, and I could hear from all the way back where I was, and…”

Ayla smiled, “It’s okay.  You’re not the only one in the group who has a hearing advantage.  You’re just the only one who doesn’t have pointy ears.”

“Ooh!” Anna squeaked.  “You mean Nikki has really good hearing too?”  Ayla nodded.  “And Billie?”  Ayla nodded again.  “And the cabbit?”

Ayla paused for a moment and said, “That’s a possibility.”  She looked over at Toni and asked, “What do you think?”

Toni shrugged and said, “Hey, with the J-Team, how would you tell?”

Anna must’ve looked confused, because Ayla explained, “Jade names her devises too.  And since she and Jinn have names starting with ‘J’, all her devises – except the cabbit – get nicknames that are girls’ names starting with ‘J’ too.  So we’ve been calling her and Jinn and her junk the J-Team.”

Toni smirked and tried to do a deep ‘announcer’ voice.  “If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, your problem is probably caused by the J-Team.”

Ayla laughed, and walked off to talk with Sam about security stuff.

Once they landed, things started winding down and going back to normal.  They piled onto the school shuttles and rode back to the school.  The roads were clear, so getting home was easy.  Dunwich looked really pretty with all the snow on the roofs and the Christmas decorations and stuff.  And nobody attacked them with supervillains and giant robots and monsters, like Toni was teasing Ayla would probably happen because the Kimbas were in the shuttles.

When they got back to the parking lot, Anna was real surprised to see Kodiak was waiting to give Doc a big hug.  Anna didn’t know Kodiak could be a nice guy, since all she really knew about him was he was running the Alphas now and used to hang with The Don, who was really not a nice guy.  Anna had heard that The Don was still in the hospital, and she figured that meant he really got hurt really bad, but if there was anybody on campus who deserved something really awful like that happening to ‘em, it was probably Don Sebastiano.

So Anna figured it was all over.  But that was before she and Vera – could she call her Vera anymore? – walked into Dickinson.  Molly wasn’t with them, because she and Dorjee were busy waiting for Chou to get out of getting yelled at by Mrs. Carson to find out how much trouble the Kimbas were in this time.  Because as soon as they walked into the main sitting room, about three dozen girls swarmed around ‘em to find out what happened in Boston.

Anna hadn’t realized that the whole thing at Roxbury Prison was on GNN and MSNBC and Fox News and everything, plus the hostage thing at the hotel and the museum break-in were on all the local news stations.  And the superhero websites and blogs were covering all that stuff.  It was just a good thing the restaurant fight wasn’t all over the websites.  Yet.

Boy, Anna was really hoping Mrs. Carson wouldn’t call all of them into her office and yell at them for getting into a superhero fight in an expensive restaurant and busting everything up.

But everybody wanted to hear about what happened, and whether Phase really rented out the Boston Garden for the party, and what supervillains showed up, and all that stuff.  Even the people who never wanted to talk to her, like Erzabet.  Even the really cool girls, like Bombshell and Seraphim and Pythia.

So she talked about the jet plane, and who went with her, and the limos in Boston, and the fancy restaurant, and the awesome food, and all that stuff.  Vera just sort of sat there and made a few suggestions now and then about what to talk about, but didn’t say much else.  And that wasn’t all that great, because Anna knew she just talked on and on too much, and she knew Vera sounded really classy with that cool French accent she had.  But Anna just talked until her throat was getting dry.  It was a good thing Winnie got a bottle of water for her to sip.  At least when she told the part about Adrienne –sorry, Phobos – kicking the badguy in body armor up into the ceiling, no one winced, even if a bunch of the girls giggled.  And Vera blushed when Anna told about all the really cool charms Vera whipped out on the bad guys.

She didn’t tell anyone about Rich being a real Greek god.  And she didn’t say anything about Phase and Vox kissing.  And she didn’t say anything about the Kimbas maybe still being hurt, because she was sorta worried someone might decide to go be mean to them right away.  But she did tell everybody about Tennyo being nice, but really shy.  And she told them about Phobos being funny and how it wasn’t her fault at all she had that icky fear aura.  And she told them about how even though Generator looked like a little girl and was in Poe, she was really an awesome deviser, and she wasn’t afraid to go into really dangerous situations, and how she saved Bladedancer’s life with a medical devise Anna didn’t even know she had, and how incredibly cute her little cabbit devise was, especially when it was running around serving drinks on the plane.

So then she found Ree and Luce waiting for her when she was ready to go to dinner, because all the Underdogs wanted to hear about her trip too.  And when she got to Dunn Hall and got dinner, pretty much all the Underdogs were at the table except Winnie, who was off sitting with Chou and Molly and Dorjee.  She was pretty sure Dorjee wouldn’t mind her calling him Dorjee, because he seemed really nice and like a real monk ought to be.  Except for the part about him maybe having sex with both Chou and Molly, which she wasn’t going to talk about.

She looked around.  Wow.  It looked like all the Capes were listening to Mega-Girl and Delta Spike talking.  And all the Alphas were clustered around Loophole, who was talking away.  And all the New Olympians were listening to Prism tell his story.  And the Outcasts were listening to Jericho, which was really pretty much normal over there, except Phobos was talking a lot too, and waving her hand even if she had a fork in it, which Anna’s mom always said was bad manners.  And Vox was over with a bunch of the Tigers and her other homegirls – or whatever black people really called their friends, because Anna didn’t really know if black people really talked like that in private – and she was probably telling all about the trip except maybe not the kissing Ayla part.  And there was Charmer sitting with the other Beret Mafia, talking away with those gestures that looked really European and swanky.  And…

Well, it pretty much seemed like everyone in the whole cafeteria was hearing about Ayla’s birthday party and superhero battle.  In fact, once Anna started talking, pretty much all the Goths at the table on the other side turned around and started listening in, like they were nice to the Underdogs the rest of the time, or something.  And then behind her, she heard Bart say, “Oh, listen to Anna, she’s way better at telling a story than I am.”

So she looked behind her and saw the Nerd Herd was listening in too, even if two of them were using what looked like little satellite dishes for snooping.  She smiled and waved at Mobius and said, “Hi Bart!”  And he blushed and grinned at her, like he was amazed she would want to talk to him or use his real first name.

And everybody was kind of amazed at the sort of stuff that Anna said Ayla did.  They kept saying things like “A real 767?  Come on!” and stuff like that.

So Anna had to keep stopping to say things like “Oh totally, and it was all decorated like a fancy living room inside!”

She could tell when the Nerd Herd really got impressed, because when she started talking about the cabbit devise sassing Jade and then holding the whole tray over its head and serving drinks, they were totally getting deviser-y, like Jerry when he got an idea for how to make a new chemical thing.

And that was when Bart finally said something else.  He said, “Oh, she’s right.  I didn’t have any of my testing equipment on me, except for a couple simple meters I had in my ‘special’ pocket in my coat, but I did do a little Turing test on it, and it’s a lot smarter than I expected.”

Anna had no idea why a touring test would tell you anything about smart, because it sounded like it would be for testing what kind of flight you were taking or where you oughta be driving.  But she didn’t say anything.  She just figured she’d ask Jerry some time.

And Bart went on, “It would only answer in syllables of ‘mi’ and ‘miya’, just like it was a real cabbit, but it was surprisingly expressive.  It had all the tonality right, which is way harder than putting in word choices.”

A couple of the other devisers said stuff like ‘well duh’ to that last bit.

Anna said, “And it was the cutest little dickens too, and it’s soft and cuddly.  I kinda figured it would be like a metal robot with a little fur stuck on it, but it’s not.”

Bart said, “And it’s really strong for its size.  It was balancing a tray that was about twice as wide as it was tall, and I think the tray and glasses together must have weighed about three or four times what the cabbit does.”

And all the devisers and gadgeteers got all technical about how it couldn’t be a gadget because of the stability thing, and how Generator already had a really good AI that everyone saw in her shoulder angels, and how it was just a real pain that her devises only worked for her and not anyone else.

Bart said, “Hey, plenty of high-powered devisers got the same problem.  A lot of the ‘science hero’ guys back in the Fifties and Sixties couldn’t make anything that would work for anybody else.”

Ergonomic said, “And Cerebrex had that stuff that even the Amazing Three couldn’t work.”

A guy Anna didn’t know said, “But not all the science heroes were like that.  Wasn’t Macrobiotic’s grandmother one of the science hero types?  Her antibiotic stuff was strictly bio-gadget.  And patented.”

Bart counted silently on his fingers and finally said, “I think it was her great-grandmother.  But I’m not sure.  Anyway, the Ferrises are probably a whole family tree of gadgeteers and devisers.”

Another one of the Nerd Herd said, “Yeah, and Macrobiotic’s hot for a deviser chick.”

One of the Goths that Anna didn’t know even if she knew he was one of two twin Exemplar guys that hung out with Screech, said, “Is that all you care about?  Whether she’s one of the pretties?”

Anna thought that was kind of, well, smug and stuff, because he was an Exemplar, and he’d be one of the campus pretties if he didn’t wear that weird makeup and make his hair all weird.  But he did hang out with Screech, who wasn’t a pretty, and who had major problems with her Siren power, so maybe he really was totally serious and not being a jerk.

The Nerd Herd guy said, “No!  I care whether her stuff works.  And she’s doing some amazing work on genetic engineering on rice and wheat.”

Gary said, “Beats doing genetic engineering on other students.”

And it seemed like half the people at all three tables whispered, “Jobe.”

But everybody was impressed with the stuff about the jet and the limos and the restaurant and the food, even if they all said pretty much the same thing: “What do you expect from a Goodkind?”

One of the Goths Anna didn’t know called Phase some bad names for being rich, and Anna insisted, “No!  Ayla’s nice!  And she doesn’t have to be.”

“Did you hear what Phase did for the Golden Kids bash last week?”

“Well, I heard she bought a super-secret superhero utility belt that cost like a million dollars and you can store a couple hundred pounds of weapons and stuff in it.”

That comment made Bart cough real hard, and Anna knew why, because she’d heard Bart telling Doc and Elaine about how Ayla made him make more of those utility belts and sell ‘em at the Whateley Weapons Fair and some other places, and how he kept having to raise the prices to keep the demand down to where he could make enough of ‘em, and how his utility belts were now up to twenty-five thousand bucks for the small ones and seventy thousand bucks for the larger ones, and how he still was on the hook for five more utility belts, and so he was going to have to raise the price again, just like Ayla told him to and he hadn’t done it fast enough.

“Well I heard she paid Techwolf a million dollars to make her an adamantium tactical baton to beat up people with.”

Anna said, “A quarter of a million.”

“What?”

“How would you know?”

Anna blushed and said, “She’s been working with it in martial arts class, and Tennyo accidentally cut it in half with her lightsaber thing, and I heard her tell sensei Tolman what it cost.  I thought sensei was going to have a cow.”  She decided not to tell that she heard Ayla say that from the other side of the dojo, while Anna was walking off to the girls’ showers.

But it seemed like everyone had heard at least one story about how rich Ayla was, and how she spent her money, so nobody was all that surprised that she rented a jet or rented a bunch of limos.  But some of them did laugh when Anna told how, when the Kimbas rushed off to fight badguys for the Boston police, they had to hop in the limos to go to the crime scenes.  Anna said, “Jade said it was kind of embarrassing showing up in a limo and jumping out in front of the police people, and then Chou wouldn’t let her make any Green Hornet jokes, because, you know, a black limo, and three Asian crimefighters with masks and martial arts.”

“You mean Generator?”

“Umm, yeah,” Anna said, because she probably wasn’t gonna get to call the cool kids by their real names anymore.

“Generator?  That little shrimp?  As Kato?  Don’t make me laugh.”

Anna insisted, “She’s fourteen.  She just looks young.  And Tennyo said she’s been doing aikido for like years, and she took aikido last fall with most of the Kimbas, and she’s been learning the nunchucks and stuff, so she’s pretty dangerous even without all her devises.”

“Bladedancer would be totally awesome as a female Kato.”

Anna agreed, “Umm, yeah.  She’s amazing with that sword of hers, and I’ve seen her spar with Tennyo, and she’s at least as good as Swordmaiden and Nightbane.  She’s awesome to watch.  And when she spars with Chaka, it’s like… like… a ballet for fighting.”

“So who’d the Kimbas fight while you were eating?” one of the Goths wondered.

“And getting into a superhero battle against power armor guys?” Nate added.

Anna said, “Well, I’m not too sure about that part.  Chaka and Riptide stopped a museum robbery and then the Lamplighter tried to stomp all over ‘em.”

“What?”

“I thought he was a good guy.”

Anna said, “Well, from what Toni said, the Necromancer did this spell so the Lamplighter thought Toni and Dyna-Man were Lady Darke and the Necromancer, and Riptide was some other badguy.  So the Lamplighter smashed Chaka and Dyna-Man, and then Riptide fought him all by herself until help showed up.”

“Whoa!  Riptide one-on-oned the Lamplighter?”

Anna nodded.  “That’s what they said.  And she didn’t win, but she pretty much got a tie for a long time, and all she got was sorta dehydrated.”

“Damn.  Even the Kimba auxiliaries kick ass.”

Anna said, “And then Bladedancer and Generator and Shroud rescued a bunch of little kids when Skyhawk busted in on a hostage sitch and nearly got everybody killed.”

“That’s not what it said on the radio.”

Anna said, “I dunno about the news stuff.  I haven’t heard any all day.  I just know what Chou and Jade and Jinn said while Chou was getting Healed.  They were really grouchy about Skyhawk, and they said he flew right into a window that all the badguys could see him coming, and the badguys all smashed him silly when he busted in, and then Jade had to dive in front of a PK blast to keep some kids from getting killed.  I think.”

“So who was it?”

“Umm, I dunno?” Anna said.  “I think Jinn said it was these guys with theme names.  Hacker and Slasher and Pointer and… umm… Ripper?  I didn’t really hear.”

“Okay, I don’t think you got all those right, but I think I heard of ‘em.”

“So that leaves… who?”

Anna thought for a second.  “Umm, Tennyo and Fey and Lancer and Phase.  They flew out and stopped the prison break at Roxbury Prison.”

“Whoa.  The superjail at Roxbury?  That’s stepping up into the big leagues.”

“It’s all over GNN and MSNBC, ya know.  GNN3’s running special coverage.”

“They said the Necromancer blew the whole place up and it’ll take years before a new superjail’s ready.”

“I heard like half the cons in the place got killed when it blew up.”

Anna said, “Lancer said Tennyo was inside it when it collapsed and she had to blast her way out of it.”

“Jeez!”

“Goddess!”

But the most amazing thing was when Anna was talking some more about the fight in the restaurant and she told how Vox did her Siren trick and made one guy shoot the boss.

“Go, Vox.”

It was only a murmur, but most everyone at the tables heard it and froze.  Because Screech never talked.  And everyone knew what happened when she did say something.  Except nothing exploded or disintegrated or nothing.  Everybody stared at Screech.  Well, everybody except the Goth Exemplar twins, who were smirking like they already knew this part.

Screech concentrated and then slowly said, “I… have… been… working… on… this… in… class.”

And then all of the other Goths were congratulating Screech and asking her how long she could do this, and some of them even sounded happy for her, even if they were Goths.

Anna didn’t say anything, because she was all choked up.  This was so great!  Someone like Screech, who couldn’t even have a normal conversation or anything, and now she was learning to talk normally, like a real person!  Anna could feel the tears welling up in her eyes.  She whispered to Ree, “I bet she’s really happy she came to Whateley now.”

Ree said, “Ya think she knows Vox from that Sirens class?”

Anna shrugged, but she couldn’t think of any other way Screech and Vox would know each other and Screech would like Vox enough to say something out loud just like that.  She said, “Well, Vanessa is really nice.  I guess if they’re both in that Sirens class, she’s being nice to Screech.”

Gary said, “Anna, you think everybody is nice.  OW!”  And he rubbed his shin from where somebody like Mindy or Trish had just kicked him.

And then, that night in the Underdog hangout, everyone still wanted to hear more about the trip.  Even the guys, when there was a basketball game going on the teevee.  And Gary really wanted to hear all about Generator, and he was the one who usually wanted to watch the teevee the most.

Gary asked her, “Lemme get this straight, she’s got all the stuff we saw her use in her combat final and against the Young Turks, plus her shoulder angels, plus her cabbit robot, plus some kind of medical devise, plus a devise that’s anti-grav with enough lift to hold Bladedancer and some other stuff?”

Anna nodded.  “Umm, yeah.  I saw the cabbit and the floating blanket.  And Shroud said she has some other devises Jade made.  And Tennyo said she made some devises that unloaded and loaded the chairs and tables for the Golden Kids party.”

Alan said, “And everybody in Whitman and Twain heard about her remote control wedgie devise she used on Peeper, and the remote control boob enlarger for Shroud that blew up at one of the Faction Three parties.  I mean, the guys couldn’t stop blabbing about that one.”

Trish said, “Can guys ever stop blabbing about boobs?”

Alan stared right at Trish’s chest and said, “Not me.  That’s a mighty fine rack you got there, hon… ow!”

Anna didn’t even smile, because the Underdog girls all knew Trish was kind of sensitive about not being all that developed up top, even if Alan didn’t seem to mind.  She thought Trish hit Alan too much, but she kinda thought Alan deserved it this time.  Alan and Trish had been dating really serious for how long, and he still didn’t know how touchy she was about her bust size?  Anna’s mom would’ve just said something about guys not noticing anything if it wasn’t a breast, a ball, or a beer.

Sunday, January 28, 2007, 2:33 pm
Dickinson Cottage
Whateley Academy

It was just after two thirty in the afternoon, and Anna could hardly sit still.  Jerry had said he thought it would be better to have their Saturday night date Sunday afternoon just in case she didn’t get back from Boston in time or something came up with the Boston trip, and so now she was waiting for Jerry to walk up the path to Dickinson and not only was she not sitting still she wasn’t sitting at all.

She was downstairs in the sitting room not sitting, and standing up, and waving her hands.  She was so nervous she was about to fly apart, because not only was Jerry coming to pick her up for a date, but Bombshell wanted to talk to her!  Bombshell!  Okay, Bombshell wanted her to tell all about what Mega-Girl and Delta Spike did in the restaurant fight, and stuff like that.  Anna kind of thought Bombshell wanted to know if she could get into the Cape Squad like Mega-Girl already did, so she wanted to know how strong Mega-Girl was, and how tough, and what all her powers were, but Anna couldn’t really be sure, because she sorta thought Bombshell was leading a training team for the Alphas already, but maybe she was planning on getting into the Alphas by being really important in the Cape Squad, or something like that.

But anyway, Anna was just showing how Marty did her ‘home run swing’ with a guy in power armor as her bat and another guy in power armor as the baseball, when Jerry knocked on the front door.

Anna’s first impulse was to scream “JERRRRRYYY!” and run to the door and jump into his arms and give him a huge hug.  But she didn’t.  That wasn’t what nice girls did.  So she jumped over to the couch where her purse and coat were, and sat down real fast, and accidentally sat on her coat, and hopped up really fast to rescue her coat and then sat back down and tried to breathe normally.

Bombshell gave her a big smirk and asked, “Boyfriend?”

Anna didn’t know if she was gonna get teased or anything, but she nodded.

Bombshell strode over to the door in her usual ‘don’t get in my way or I’ll run over you like a tank’ way that she had, and she yanked open the door.  Only she didn’t really yank it open, because if she really pulled the door hard at all, it would’ve gotten ripped off its hinges and gone flying across the room.  “Yeah?  What is it?”

Anna could hear Jerry sounding nervous as he said, “I’m Hazmat.  I’m here to pick up Aquerna?”

“Okay.  I’ll go see if she’s ready.”  And Bombshell shut the door in his face.  She gave Anna a wink and walked up the stairs.

Anna clenched her hands together and tried to count slowly to thirty, but she was sure she was counting too fast because she was all excited.  Then she stood up, slipped on her heavy coat, slung her purse over her shoulder, and slowly walked over to the front door.  She was doing the slow walk because Mindy had talked her into wearing a pair of Mindy’s brown suede kneeboots, which were way cute, but she had to wear her boot-cut blue jeans with the zippers at the calves, and the kneeboots and the tight jeans made her legs look really long, but the boots had like three inch heels, maybe three and a half inches, and she wasn’t used to walking in anything more than about two inches, and she really didn’t want to show off her outfit by falling on her butt in the snow first thing.

But it was all worth it just seeing the look in Jerry’s eyes when he looked at her legs… and just kept looking, and looking, like she was the sexiest thing ever, instead of a girl who wouldn’t even make the Top One Hundred in a high school with only three hundred girls.

Jerry finally made a couple ‘ahum’ noises in his throat and said, “Wow…  I mean…  You always look great, but… wow.”

It was all she could do not to burst into a giant grin and shout “Yes!”  ‘Cause Mindy and Trish told her it would ruin the whole effect.  So she gave him a sexy smile and said, “Glad you like the look.  Are we just gonna stand here all day, or are we gonna walk down to the shuttle?”

Jerry paused for a second and finally said, “If I say ‘stand here all day and stare at you’, are you gonna throw me into a snowbank?”

She giggled and took his arm.  Then they walked together down toward main campus.

Jerry said, “I was figuring on seeing a movie and then taking you to our pizza place for dinner-”

They were a couple and they had their place now!  Anna just about squealed with happiness.

“-but frankly after everything I heard about yesterday, I think the movie would be a major let-down.”

So Anna let him tell her all about the four movies playing at the four-plex in Dunwich.  A slasher movie and a monster movie she didn’t want to watch, but Jerry already knew that much about her.  An animated movie they saw last week, which Anna thought was really good but not good enough to go see for a second time just a week later on a date.  And an action movie that was getting crummy reviews.  That was the one Jerry was talking about.  Plus, she stopped liking Tom Cruise when he dumped Nicole Kidman, which her mom agreed was the dumbest thing in years.  Even if he was still cute, having a great butt didn’t excuse being a bad husband who was in a weird cult-thing.

Anna smiled up at him and asked, “So what’d you wanna do?”

Jerry grinned, “I was really hoping I could take you to our place and buy you ice tea until you get all over-caffeinated and you tell me everything that happened yesterday.”

Anna asked, “Didn’t you get a big rundown from like half the Workshop?  And there was all that coverage on GNN, too.  I didn’t watch it, but Molly was grumpy today that they said those stupid Knights of Purity did a lot of it, because Ayla said they showed up when everything was pretty much over.”

Jerry nodded.  “Oh yeah, I watched about an hour of coverage last night with Erl and Ergy and the guys.”  Anna knew he meant Erlenmeyer and Ergonomic, and some of the other devisers.  Well, she was really sure of it.  “And I heard some rumors from friends of Möbius and Loophole and Bugs.  But I wanted to hear the real story, straight from the squirrel’s mouth.”

“Don’t you mean the horse’s mouth?”

“I would never call you a horse.  Not even a filly,” he teased.

Anna pretended to think it over.  “We-ell, you might have to buy me a couple of their little one-person pizzas.  I’d really like to try that Thai pizza pie thing they make that has the peanut sauce and the bits of peanut on top, and I’d hate to order a big pizza of it and then find out I don’t like it.”

He smirked, “Okay, but I’m going to order one of their one-person pizzas in a couple other flavors, and you have to try a little piece of each.  They’ve got a ‘Mexican desert’ pizza I wanna try, and maybe their chicken pesto one.”

She’d really wanted to try the Mexican desert thing, but hadn’t had the nerve to risk getting a whole half a pizza of stuff she maybe wouldn’t like.  And he’d remembered.  He was such a sweetie!  If she wasn’t wearing lipstick she’d just touched up not ten minutes ago, she’d give him a huge kiss right here on the walkway.

Oh, what the heck.

It was a good thing she was carrying her purse this time, because when they got down to the parking lot for the shuttle, she had to pull out her compact and look in the little mirror and then clean her lipstick off and re-do it.  And she pulled out another kleenex and wiped lipstick off Jerry’s face.  But it was totally worth it.  And with the high heels on the boots, it was even easier to kiss him, so extra goodness for the boots.  Maybe if she really got two hundred forty dollars from Abby for waitressing next month, she’d go into Dunwich and buy herself a pair of boots like these, only not suede because that was hard to keep clean and spot-free.

They talked on the shuttle on their way into Dunwich, and Anna agreed with Jerry.  The three movies she hadn’t seen were movies she didn’t want to go see.  Although she would’ve been fine with the action movie if Jerry really wanted to see it, but he didn’t want to.  He didn’t like Tom Cruise, and he thought the actress playing the other main role was really pretty but the worst actress since Megan Fox.  And Anna had to agree with him.  It was really hard to enjoy a movie when one of the actors was so awful you kept stopping and thinking about the actors instead of just enjoying the movie.  It was like those stop-animation monsters in that old black and white movie Nate was watching in the Underdog hangout last week, where you just kept saying to yourself ‘what’s the deal with that thing?’

So Jerry walked with her to their pizza place, and they got their favorite booth most of the way to the back where they could watch people doing stuff across most of the room.  And Jerry ordered a couple of the one-person pizzas for them, and an ice tea for her and a big Dr. Pepper for him.  And then he teased her, “So tell me.  What’s it really like being one of the rich and famous of Whateley?”

She giggled, and started talking about Ayla and her friends.  Naturally, what Jerry was really interested in was the devisers who went, and the devises, and the devising talk, and a whole bunch of stuff Anna couldn’t possibly remember.

She admitted, “Well, okay, Bart was talking to Doc and Elaine a whole bunch about how his pockets and things are bigger on the inside than the outside, and about all I got out of it was Elaine calling him ‘Captain Tardis’ and I didn’t even know if that was an insult or not.”

Jerry grinned, “The TARDIS is from Doctor Who.  It’s his time-and-space ship, and it’s the size of an old-time phone booth, and inside it’s the size of maybe Melville.  And if you understood anything Möbius said, I’d be embarrassed, because I’ve talked to him about his size-warp pockets, and I can’t figure out how they’re supposed to work.  I mean, if you ask me, his science is totally… not.  At least his stuff works for other people.  There’s plenty of devisers whose stuff does insane things and it doesn’t even work if you pick it up instead of them.”

“Like Generator?” asked Anna.  “That’s what her friends said.  And she had these little plastic disks with blinking lights that looked like an ounce each, and two of ‘em were enough to turn a blanket into a floating stretcher for Bladedancer.”

Jerry nodded.  “Yeah.  Her.  She’s a really good example, because none of her best stuff is reproducible, or even usable.  A classic Schimmelhorner.”

“A what-horner?”

Jerry frowned.  “Sorry.  It’s Workshop slang.  There’s these old sci-fi stories by Reginald Bretnor.  Papa Schimmelhorn could invent anything.  Time machine, gold transmutation, whatever he wanted to.  But it was strictly devise, not gadget.  So a ‘Schimmelhorner’ is a deviser who can make devises that seemingly violate the laws of physics but they only work for him, or maybe only the one he makes will work, and you can’t copy ‘em, and maybe even he can’t make a second one.  Most of the big-name ‘mad scientists’ that make the news are Schimmelhorners.  The big-name mad scientists who aren’t Schimmelhorners, like Deathmaiden and Cataclysm, they’re really scary.  Guys like Professor Mokkill?  Serious Schimmelhorn deviser.  He invented a freaking shrink ray one time!  The Justice Brigade stopped him just before he shrank the whole city of Berlin.  But he can’t seem to re-invent the thing, and the version the Justice Brigade took off him doesn’t work for anyone else.”

“Shim-ul-horner, huh?” Anna wondered.

“Yep.  So we think Möbius is a Schimmelhorner.  Then there’s the gadgeteers.  Everything they make is reproducible.  You can take it to the patent office and get a patent, and anybody on Earth can make the gadget from the blueprints.  Triaxial’s like that.”

Anna said, “I dunno who he is.”

Jerry said, “I don’t know him all that well, myself.  He’s a senior.  His dad is one of the powers testing gurus here.  Tri’s not inventing stuff like shrink rays and anti-grav disks.  He’s more into things like this thing he’s got now that you put your book on it, and it turns the pages for you while you read.”

Anna thought a second and then smiled.  “Ooh, I could really use one of them.  I could take a nice hot bath, and not have to touch the pages of my book when my hands are wet.”

“You read in the tub?” Jerry wondered.

Anna tried not to blush as she said, “Umm, yeah.  Sometimes.”  Because the only stuff she read in the tub were romance novels and she was kind of embarrassed about that, and she didn’t want to admit it to Jerry.”

“I guess it’s a girl thing,” he said.  “Most of my sisters have tried it at least once, but when you’ve got a not-gigantic house and a bunch of girls, nobody has the time to go lie in the tub for hours unless the rest of the house is out doing something else.  My dad keeps a special key for the hall bathroom door so one of the girls can’t lock everyone else out and take a three hour bath in the middle of the evening when everyone else wants to use the bathroom.”

Anna asked, “How big is your house?  I remember you got three sisters.”

Jerry said, “Well, we’ve got four bedrooms.  Mom and dad have a bedroom with its own bathroom at one end of the house.  The living room and dining room and kitchen are in the middle, and there’s a tiny half-bath that’s really only a toilet and a sink, over near the front door.  Mom doesn’t let us use it.  It’s only for company.  I mean, well, we use it all the time, but we’re not supposed to.  And then at the other end of the house there’s three bedrooms and another full bathroom.  I’ve got the smaller bedroom that would probably be a rec room if there were only two kids, and Molly and Jeannie have to share the biggest bedroom, and Tammy has the other bedroom.  And since Molly and Jeannie are both in college now, the house isn’t so crowded.  Even if it ought to be pretty cramped come summer, if we’re all home at the same time.  Tammy says it’s really boring being all alone at her end of the house with me gone too, but mom says she has friends over visiting all the time.  But it felt pretty crowded at Christmas.  But Molly’s graduating from college this spring, and getting her own place wherever she gets a job, and Tammy’s graduating from high school so she’ll be going off to college next year.  With me already gone during the school year, mom’s looking at a pretty empty house most of the year now.”

Anna said, “That’s way bigger than our house.  We have a kitchen that mom says is too small, and one room that’s kind of a living room and dining room together, and one bathroom, and my folks’ bedroom.  Then there’s the stairs, and upstairs we’ve got my room and the attic storage area.  That’s it.  It’s just part of a duplex.  But out back there’s a big garage that’s got enough room for dad’s car and his workbench and all his tools and everything.”

Well, eventually they got back to Triaxial’s invention, and Jerry’s idea about marketing it as a study invention for college students so they could eat snacks and pizza, and read a book at the same time, and not get greasy marks all over a library book.  Anna thought that was super-clever.  And that reminded Anna about all the devisers talking about Phase, and then she was telling Jerry what she’d heard about Ayla as a partner for inventions.

Jerry frowned at his slice of pizza.  He said, “I heard Phase got Triaxial to stop development on his book reader and put the current beta version into the system as the future production unit.  I don’t like how that sounds.  Tri said Phase just found a good breakpoint in the development cycle, but…  I’m not real comfortable with some big wheeler-dealer marketing guy who steps in and yanks an unfinished prototype off your workbench.”

Anna said, “But Ayla’s nice!  She wouldn’t do something bad.  I heard Loophole was worrying about working with Ayla on some stuff, and so she got the other inventors on the trip to talk about stuff, because most of Ayla’s inventors went with her to Boston.  Even if Jade said Askey counts as one of Ayla’s inventors but he didn’t go because he had some computer project he wanted to work on.  And anyways, everybody I heard was saying nice things about working with Ayla.  Bunny said Ayla figured out how to market two things she didn’t even think were good inventions, and she thinks Ayla’s gonna make her a couple million dollars by like this summer!”

“I still don’t know…” Jerry fussed.

Anna didn’t usually push on stuff, but she really liked Ayla, and she thought way too many people didn’t like Ayla just because of the Goodkind thing, which was totally not fair, even if Ayla did act like a Goodkind a lot, and pretty much talked like she ought to be in charge and you ought to do what she said because she knew better than you did.  And okay, she seemed kind of pushy if you didn’t know she was nice, and when Anna thought back to that first time she worked with Ayla in aikido class and Ayla was telling everyone what to do, and how to do it, and what their codenames ought to be, and the kind of stuff they should be working on…  Yeah, maybe Ayla was sorta pushy.  But Ayla was right.  She was right about Anna’s codename, and Ree’s codename, and the kinds of things Anna ought to try to do, and all that stuff.

Still, she said, “Well, I like Ayla, and she’s nice.  I think if she wants to help you sell one of your things, you should think about it.  Sorta.”

Jerry shrugged, “Like I have anything right now that’s not a devise and looks marketable.”

But he got her to tell him all kinds of fun little stories about stuff people said and did, so she kind of forgot about that part after a while.  She pretty much forgot about it totally, until the next morning.

Monday, January 29, 2007, breakfast time
Whateley Academy

Anna walked into Dunn Hall and tried not to yawn too much.  She had been sleeping in all term, since she didn’t even have a class until third period, and so she just picked up a couple protein bars at dinner and took ‘em home and ate ‘em the next morning when she did get up to shower and stuff.  But she was here bright and early, even if it wasn’t all that bright out.

It was all Jerry’s fault, too.  She yawned again, and made sure not to run her hand through her hair, since she just spent an extra five minutes fixing it because she was meeting him for breakfast.  Or right after breakfast.  She still wasn’t all that sure about the little details, because she agreed to showing up this early while he was kissing her silly yesterday evening.  They’d been kissing outside Dickinson after he brought her home, and he’d asked her if she’d meet him at breakfast, and she’d just naturally said ‘uh-huh’, and he’d been so happy about it she hadn’t had the heart to ask if they could switch it to lunch instead, and so now she was really sleepy and hoping there was lots and lots of coffee.  Maybe even with some of that flavored powdered creamer stuff to mix in.

She went right over and got some coffee before she even thought about getting a tray and getting some food.  She had to stop just saying yes whenever Jerry asked her anything.  What if he asked her to go see one of those icky horror movies with all the blood?  What if he asked her for S-E-X?  What if he asked her to be nice to Jobe?

She was still totally creeped out about that brow serum.  Or prow serum.  Or drow serum.  Something like that.  Why couldn’t Jobe even call it what it was?  It was a ‘turn you into a creepy dark elf’ serum.  People were even saying Jobe had a contest going where you had to turn in an essay on why you wanted to be the first person to get turned into a dark elf girlfriend for Jobe!  And some of the Whateley girls were even turning in entries!  Eww!

She drank some more coffee and skittered over to get in the line and get a tray.  They had oatmeal with toppings, so she got some.  She really liked the instant oatmeal her mom bought that had the little packet of maple syrup stuff you could swirl around on the top once the oatmeal was ready.  She always liked to draw little things on top of her oatmeal with the packet.  But there weren’t any little squeezy syrup packets here.

But they had fruit!  And nuts!  Ooh, this was great.  They had raisins, and little yellow raisins, and chopped apples, and sugar, and brown sugar, and chopped dates, and chopped walnuts, and bottles of maple syrup and pancake syrup and some kind of syrup that was made from berries.  She dumped in a whole bunch of raisins and chopped walnuts and chopped apples, with plenty of brown sugar.  And a little swirl of pancake syrup on top that was supposed to be a smiley face, but the syrup was too drippy and it kind of ran all over the place.

She got a banana too, and she made her way over to the Underdog table.  Jerry didn’t usually sit at the Nerd Herd table, but he was there waiting for her with Ergonomic, who was busy talking about some kind of car engine and how he really needed some kind of special chemical added to his gasoline so the electrical ignition would get more power for the pistons.  Anna knew enough about cars from her dad to know about pistons and engine blocks and stuff, but she was totally lost on the chemistry part.

About the time she decided she couldn’t finish her whole bowl of oatmeal because she put so much stuff in with the oatmeal, even if it was really yummy stuff, Jerry told Ergonomic he had some ideas and they could work on it later in their Workshop class.

Jerry turned around and said, “Anna?  Whenever you finish, it’s fine.  We’ll wait.”

“Oh, I’m pretty full,” she said.  “Did you guys eat already?”

Jerry nodded.  “Yeah.  I think Ergy ate twice.”

Ergonomic glared at him, but not in an angry way, more in a friendly kidding kind of way.  He said, “I’m taking P.E. this term, just to get it out of the way.  I need the extra calories.  That woman’s a slavedriver!”

“You have a lady P.E. teacher?” Anna asked.

Ergonomic groaned, “Yeah.  This tall black chick who looks like she’s straight out of a bad Seventies action movie.  Her name’s Tolman.  She doesn’t put up with any crap, either.”

Anna grinned.  “Ooh!  I know her!  She’s one of the martial arts teachers.  She’s totally awesome.  You’re so lucky you got her.”

He said, “I don’t think ‘lucky’ is the word I’d use.  But she sure looks like she could break half the class in two in about five seconds.”

“What kind of P.E. is it?”  Anna just had to know, because she didn’t think sensei Tolman would want to teach a P.E. class that was making a bunch of out of shape kids run laps for an hour.

Ergonomic said, “Self-defense for non-martial arts kids.  Lots of defense, lots of how to run away when someone’s chasing you or blasting energy bolts at you, and even some really nasty offensive moves.  I don’t think I could do most of them.”

Anna asked, “Too hard to do?”

“Nah, just too gross,” he said.  “I mean, sure an Exemplar who has tougher skin and harder muscles still has human weaknesses.  But punching someone in the throat or gouging their eyes?  Ugh.  I’d rather get hit.”

Jerry said, “Anyway, the bullying’s way down since The Don got put in the hospital and Kodiak took over the Alphas.  Never thought I’d say something nice about Kodiak.”

Ergonomic said, “But Don Sebastiano’s getting out of the hospital soon, so shit’s gonna start back up.”

Jerry shrugged.  “Maybe.  I’m hoping Kodiak’s gonna step on that.  I figure with Buster and Crunch and all their pals on detention for like a century, and the TNT guys in trouble, the goon squads might be out of action for a while.  And Counterpoint got his ass kicked, so maybe he’ll be leaving people alone for a while.  On the other hand, it means Horrorshow’s keeping all his bullshit inside Emerson for now, so we’re seeing more of that crap in our halls.”

Anna asked, “Didn’t he do something to Phase just last week, right in here?”

Jerry smirked.  “Yeah, it was a major failure.  Phase and Chaka squashed it like it wasn’t even worth noticing.  Not good for the rep.  Assuming Horrorshow and his buddies had a rep, other than ‘biggest losers in the dorm.’

Ergonomic turned around more and put out his hand.  “Ergonomic.  I know who you are.”

Anna said, “Oh, I know who you are too.  We watched you racing against Skids and Mechano Man and them.  You’re pretty good.  I’m Anna.”

Ergonomic grinned and blushed at the same time.  “Call me Will.  Are you really gonna let Haz talk you into coming down and telling about Saturday?  Because that would be excellent.”

And that was when Anna figured out what Jerry had asked her last night while they were kissing.  Not meeting to have breakfast together, but meeting at breakfast to go talk to his friends.  “Umm, yeah.  That.”

They got up.  Jerry grabbed her tray and bussed it along with his.  Ergonomic said, “You better get her tray and stuff.  You absolutely don’t deserve a girlfriend as good as Aquerna.”

Jerry hustled back and smiled, “And don’t I know it.”  He looked at her and gave her a big grin that made her feel all warm inside.  He took her hand and said, “You sure you don’t mind telling the whole story over again?”

She shook her head no.  “Unh-uh.  I mean, I don’t know why you want me to tell it, instead of somebody like Loophole or Delta Spike.”

Ergonomic said, “Loop’s too busy with Alpha stuff and her power armor research to mess with us peons.”

Jerry said, “I like you better, and you’re really good at telling stories.  I mean, Möbius was there too, and you’d think the only thing he saw was details on Generator’s cabbit.  Sure, that’s interesting, but we can go talk to Generator herself about that.  We want to hear about the trip.”

They took the elevator down into the tunnels, and Ergonomic started complaining about Delta’s version of the trip.  It sounded like the only thing Delta Spike wanted to talk about was who was wearing what, and what happened to Mega-Girl’s brand new skirt.  She could guess a bunch of guys would get pretty tired of that pretty fast.  Her dad sure would.

So Jerry and Will took her down to the main chem lab for the Workshop guys, and there were like a dozen Workshoppers, including some people she already knew like Erlenmeyer and Mechano Man.  She waved and said “Hi Steve!”  And Flashbang and Tinkertrain were there, so she waved to Flash.

And so she ended up telling her whole story again.  Only they didn’t interrupt as much as the Goths and the Nerd Herd did, except once or twice.  And it was mostly Erlenmeyer being a jerk.  Like when Anna told the bit about the girls who were talking about not wanting to shave their legs, and Erlenmeyer interrupted just to say, “Hey!  They could put Haz’s goo on their heads and not have to wash their hair either!”  Anna ignored him, even if she saw Jerry slap his hand to his forehead.

And afterward, when Jerry walked her to her Civics class, he said, “Ya know, Erl’s a huge pain in the keester, but he gave me an idea.  Those girls who didn’t want to shave their legs?  Well they don’t have to.”

“Huh?”

“Remember my ‘haircare product’ that made me bald?”

“Umm, yeah?”  She couldn’t figure out where he was going with this.  But she wasn’t gonna say so.

He smiled, “Well, if you used that stuff on your leg instead of your head, you’d have perfect, smooth, hairless skin.  And it wouldn’t stink or burn or anything.”

Her jaw dropped open.  Then she thought about all the stuff she’d tried for the hair on her legs.  “It doesn’t burn?”

“Nope.”

“How long does it last?”

He looked at the ceiling.  “Several weeks, I’d say.  Maybe longer, since I put it on my head, and that hair grows differently.”

“Did you get a bunch of little ingrown hairs and stuff?  When it grew back?”  He gave her a puzzled look and she said, “Because, that’s one of the things girls get when they wax their legs.”

He said, “Well, I don’t think I got any.”

“Oh, you’d know,” she muttered with a frown.  When she’d let her friends wax her legs back in middle school at a sleepover, it had really, really hurt, and then her legs were all red for like a day and a half, and then when the hair grew back in like a month later, she had dozens of ingrown hairs she had to scrub and exfoliate and stuff so she wouldn’t have huge itchy pimples there.

He smiled, “So, I’m not the inventor of a bad haircare product that ruins your hair.  I’m the inventor of a brand-new depilatory!”

She grabbed his arm.  “I’ve got to introduce you to Phase.  She could help you market this stuff.”

He grimaced.  “Well…  Okay…  But if she does anything hinky, I’m not going through on the deal.”

“Hinky?”

He smiled naughtily.  “Well, I was gonna say ‘squirrely’, but I figured I’d better take that word out of my vocabulary.”

“Ooh, you!” she squeaked.  So he kissed her.

He asked, “Can you introduce us maybe at lunch today?  I’ll walk you to lunch after Civics.”

“That would be great!”  She gave him a big grin and hurried on into class.

And then Jerry was right there waiting for her when she got out of Civics class, even if she figured he must’ve snuck out of the last part of his Workshop class to get there that early, so she gave him a big hug.

They walked over to Dunn Hall with the lunch crowd, talking about classes and stuff.  Jerry was trying to help Ergonomic with some new type of engine for low-power airplanes, but he and Ergonomic and Mega-Death were also working on this new project for their special topics class, and it was for another person over in Hawthorne because their first project there went so great that Mrs. Cantrel asked if they could help someone else over there, and Jerry said that never happened, so they were looking at an A+ in that class unless everything went to pot on their second project.

Anna said, “I’ve been over there.  It’s scary.  Fubar, and Carmilla, and that chair Mrs. Cantrel flies around in, and all that stuff.”

Jerry nodded.  “MD wanted to try and upgrade Fubar’s pumps and filtration equipment, but Mrs. Cantrel had a list of people she wanted us to try to help, and The Foob’s about number eight on the list.  So MD took a look at all of Fubar’s gear, and he says we can definitely improve things for him, but he figures that’s gonna be late next year.”

Anna asked, “So who are you gonna help this time?”

He gave her a little smile and said, “Remember?  Top secret stuff.  I can’t tell you.  But if someone at Hawthorne tells you about how someone just invented something cool that helped ‘em out, you’ll know it was us.”

Anna said, “So you and Mega-Death and Ergonomic?”

He nodded.  “Yeah.  Most of these projects turn out to have some mechanical features, some problems with plastics or chemicals, some tricky engineering problems, and maybe some adaptability issues.  Between the three of us, we’ve got just about every aspect covered.  Well, that’s why MD pulled us together.  That, and there’s plenty of people who won’t even think about working with MD, even with the new meds he’s on.”

But when they got to Dunn Hall, the only people at the Kimba table were Tennyo and Lancer.  Jerry said, “Uh-oh.  No way I’m going over there now.”

Anna took his arm and said, “Come on.  I’ll introduce you.  They’re really nice.”

Jerry groaned, “Honey, you think everyone’s really nice.  Tennyo?  Seriously?”

“Seriously,” she said.  “Come on.”

By the time they got to the Kimba table, Generator and Shroud had sat down too.  They sat on either side of Tennyo, giving her enough room to eat because she had a whole tray covered in food.

Shroud said, “Hi, Anna.”

Generator looked up and said, “Yeah, hi!”

Tennyo looked up too and smiled around what looked like a mouthful of beef.

Lancer turned his head enough to look at them and said, “Oh, hi.  Looking for one of us, or are you trying to track down Ayla?”

Chaka gracefully slid past Anna and sat down.  “Wassup, girl?”

Anna said, “I wanted to introduce Phase to Hazmat, because-”

“Ooh, he the one you been going out with?” Chaka asked.  She looked at Jerry and said, “Nervous, huh?  We get that all the time.  I’m Chaka, this is Lancer, that’s Tennyo, and her royal courtiers are Generator and Shroud.”

Generator stuck her tongue out at Chaka.  Anna was pretty sure Lancer was trying hard not to laugh.

Anna said, “Umm, yeah, we were looking for Phase.”

Chaka waved her hand, “Well, Ayles is off on Kay Pee detail for her punishment, eatin’ over at the faculty food service while they make her peel potatoes or rinse lettuce or whatever they got her doin’.  Best bet is catchin’ her at the end of martial arts.”

“Okay,” Anna said.

Chaka turned to Lancer and asked, “Just how the heck do ya get a punishment where it means you get to eat the food you been tryin’ ta snitch for a whole week now?”

As Anna led Jerry back to the food line, she definitely heard Generator say, “So how’s your snow shoveling going?”

And Chaka said, “Oh, I got some big plans for my punishment detail.  Big, big, mondo big plans.”

And Tennyo asked, “They’re not gonna get you in more trouble, are they?”

And Lancer said, “Isn’t ‘More Trouble’ Toni’s middle name?”

Then Anna watched as Fey showed up and put a necklace on the middle of the table, and they all reached in and touched it, and there was a little flare of magic that Anna could just barely spot.  After that, they started talking about the Oscars.

Anna wondered what the deal was with that necklace, but she didn’t want to bother Fey to ask her.  It was probably magic stuff she wouldn’t understand anyway.

So Anna just waited until martial arts class to find Phase.  And Phase got there early enough to do some stretches before sensei Ito came out, so Anna hopped over and sat next to Phase and said, “Hi, Phase.”

Phase stretched her legs out and stretched forward.  “Hi, Anna.  You can still call me Ayla, if you want to.”

“I can?  Really?  ‘Cause I kinda figured it was only for the party.”

Phase stretched some more and said, “No, I’m not precisely set on living with the codename Phase forever.  You can call me Ayla.  On the other hand, I think Billie likes ‘Tennyo’ better than ‘Billie’, and Elaine goes by ‘Delta’ more than anything, and no one calls Kendall anything except ‘Beltane’ or ‘Belle’.  Think of it as an individual choice.”

“Oh.”

Ayla asked, “So what did you want?  Toni said you wanted me to meet Hazmat.”

Anna nodded while she did a leg split.  “Umm, yeah.  You know Jerry’s stuff that took off all his hair so it’s not a good haircare product?”

Ayla nodded.  “His friends still tease him about it, from what I hear.”

Anna said, “Especially Erlenmeyer, who’s not a nice guy if you ask me.  But anyway, Jerry realized it’s the perfect depilatory for like legs and maybe even armpits.  So could you talk to him about it after class?”

Ayla said, “Damn.  I should have thought of that.”  Anna didn’t understand why Ayla was supposed to think of stuff like that if the inventor who knew all about the stuff, and his super-smart deviser friends, didn’t.  “Sure, meet me outside the dojo.  We’ll walk over and grab a meeting room if we need more than about five minutes.”

“Okay.”  Anna didn’t even know students could get meeting rooms, and if they could how they could get them without finding a sign-up sheet and putting their name down a couple weeks ahead of time.

Then martial arts was really fun, even if she had to concentrate hard not to stop and think about what would happen after martial arts was over and she showered so she wasn’t all stinky when she met up with Jerry, even if she couldn’t dry her hair and style it fast enough so she was going to have to go with pulling it back in a ponytail and hope it didn’t drip on her shirt.

It was extra fun, because she got to spar with Chaka!  And this time, she was wielding her kamas and Chaka didn’t use any weapons at all.  That was just how amazing Chaka was.  When sensei Beaumont had them bow, Anna looked at Chaka and started grinning, and Chaka grinned back, and Anna knew it would be amazing.  Then they started.  And, just like Anna expected, she just could not hit Chaka with anything!  She knew Chaka was using some kind of Ki power to push herself out of the way of Anna’s strikes, since Chaka and everyone else said so, but it was just sort of incredible, like Chaka had superspeed just for sparring.  And then when Chaka did this crescent kick and Anna blocked it, it was this amazing trick that put Anna’s arm and body where Chaka wanted them, and Chaka suddenly blurred into motion, and Anna felt four taps on her neck and elbow and solar plexus and knee where Chaka could’ve smashed her into little pieces if she’d hit as hard as she could.  But Chaka just gave her this grin like the cat that ate the canary, and Anna grinned back, and they went back to sparring.  Anna couldn’t wait to tell Ree and Luce and the rest about this!

So she rushed through her shower so she could be sure to round up Jerry and find Ayla when Ayla came out of the women instructors’ showers, because usually when Anna came out of the girls’ locker rooms Ayla was already done and dressed, and hanging around waiting for some of the other Kimbas to show up.

Jerry was waiting in the hallway right outside their dojo, so Anna just skittered over and took him by the arm and waited until Ayla came out.

Okay, Ayla kind of came out like she was in a royal procession and she was the queen of the country and you’d better know it.  Anna could feel Jerry tensing up just watching Ayla walk toward them.  Ayla was kind of intimidating for someone who was even shorter than Anna was.

“Ayla Goodkind,” she said, putting her hand out.  As Jerry shook hands, Ayla went on, “I know you’re Hazmat.  We met at the Whateley Weapons Fair.  I believe you were in the forty percent of the room that I didn’t personally see being hassled by Jobe.”

Jerry snickered out loud at that.  He’d told Anna about the Whateley Weapons Fair more than once, but she hadn’t heard all about Jobe doing stuff, except the big part at the end where he and Phase saved the day.  He looked at Anna and said, “Jobe was doing what he thought of as his civic duty, going around telling everybody how their stuff was crap and how they should fix it.”

Ayla said, “And given how Jobe has the tact of a T. Rex with a toothache, he’s lucky he wasn’t punched in the face by most of the room.”

So they walked down to the tunnels while they talked.  Anna had no idea where they were headed, but Ayla obviously did, and so they just sorta followed her.

Anna knew as soon as Ayla asked what went wrong with the hair product and Jerry told her for about five minutes, and Ayla just kept nodding and making tiny comments along the way, that everything would be okay.  Because if Jerry could be himself and that was okay with Ayla, then she was sure things would be good.

Ayla led them into a small office that had a desk and chairs.  She sat behind the desk and they sat in some nice swivel chairs in front of the desk.  Ayla said, “Okay, so the proteinase wasn’t as stable as you thought?”

Jerry nodded, and went on about hair protein and chemicals that made protein and chemicals that ate protein and chemicals that did stuff with the other chemicals, until Anna was totally lost.  She just sat there and watched, hoping Ayla didn’t get lost and get mad at Jerry or anything.  But Ayla just nodded, and took notes on a fancy thing like a phone or a tiny computer or something, maybe one of those iPhone things people were talking about.

Finally, Ayla said, “Okay.  I think we have two products here.”

“Two?” Jerry asked, sounding real surprised.

“Two,” Ayla said like her saying so automatically made it true.  “We can mix up the product in large batches and then let it sit for long enough that it will uniformly dissolve the proteins.  Then we have a safe depilatory.  We patent this, along with as many similar chemical formulas as you can work out on paper, just to cover all our bases and ensure that it will be extremely hard for anyone to look at your patent and do an end-run around it.  I can have my patent attorneys on this tomorrow morning, and we can have the first patent applications ready for you to look over about two days after you get the chemistry details to them.  We then simultaneously file patents on this and all the other related compounds you can work out in, say, three weeks.  Once we have the patents pending, we should be able to market this to a variety of companies, and if I can get several into a bidding war for the patent rights, you can be a very rich inventor by, say, this summer.

“The second product would be a bit more complex to pull off.  But there are plenty of really high-end beauty salons that have the technical capability to perform high-end chemistry by an expert on staff.  We should find a couple of the fanciest salons worldwide.  I think Hollywood would be the natural place to start.  Right now, starlets and celebrities pay phenomenal amounts of money for all kinds of ways of faking longer hair.  I think most celebrities would pay a hundred thousand dollars a treatment for real long hair anytime they wanted it.  A salon that had this kind of capability could make ten million dollars during the week before Oscars alone.  Net, not gross.  So we just have to work out the exact details on what is needed to make this work on someone’s hair.  We’ll work out what you need in terms of experimental equipment and lab facilities, and then you can work out the details.  When we can demonstrate this with a hundred percent success rate, we can get any of dozens of the hottest beauty salons in L.A. to pay through the nose, because their clients will pay a heck of a lot more.”

Jerry’s jaw had dropped open.  Anna was pretty sure hers had too.  Ayla was talking about millions of dollars, and really soon.  And even though Jerry had invented this stuff months and months ago, Ayla was already way, way ahead of him on what to do with it.

Was there such a thing as a money-deviser?

Then Ayla started talking about contracts and patents and filing patents and researching patents and all kinds of stuff Anna had no idea about.  The one thing Anna did catch was when Ayla said, “And once I have the contracts for you, I’ll let you run them past Diamondback.”

Anna cringed a little and asked, “So you know Jericho kind of didn’t trust you and had Diamondback check everything?”

Ayla smiled this really smug smile and said, “Oh yeah.  At least he was honest about it up front.”

Jerry asked, “So I can get people to check the contracts before I sign ‘em and everything?”

Ayla calmly said, “I’d prefer it.  I want you to be happy with the arrangement.  And you can even go talk to the Whateley people and see if they’d give you as good a deal.  Not that they can.  They don’t have the best patent lawyers, or all the marketing expertise, or the negotiating skills, or even the best contacts.  I do.”

Anna watched the whole thing, and it was like watching royalty or something.  Ayla just knew she was better at this stuff than anyone else, and she knew what to do, and she thought everyone else ought to just say ‘yes ma’am’ and let her do it.  And the thing was that you just felt like you ought to.

Jerry grinned and shook her hand.  “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Ayla snickered and added, “Louie.”

And then Anna got it too, and giggled.  She added ‘watching Casablanca’ to the list of things she could do with Jerry.

So she was in a really good mood when she went to dinner, even if Jerry didn’t go eat with her, because he wanted to go straight back to the chem lab and work on a couple dozen related chemical compounds, and synthesis methods, and stuff she didn’t get about colloidal suspensions and things, and he wanted to get enough done this week that he could use the work in his other special topics class he was taking for the term.

But almost all the Underdogs were at their table, and it seemed like all they were talking about was her date with Jerry, and Ree’s phone call to her boyfriend back home, and Alan and Trish’s date, and why Nate didn’t have a date this weekend because there was no way someone like Attributes would go out with a freshman Underdog, and why Gary’s girlfriend back home wasn’t talking to him this week.  And why Nate oughta be asking out someone nice, not someone who just had really big boobs.  Alan said, “Those aren’t hooters, she’s got ICBMs hidden in her bra.  And Gary said, “Yeah, you could put an eye out on one a’ those.”

Then Ree asked Anna, “So who’d they make you fight in class today?”

But maybe Ree asked a little loud, because when Anna said, “I got to spar against Chaka!” the whole table turned and stared at her.  And she was pretty sure she hadn’t said that too loud.  Even if she was still all excited about it.

“Chaka?”

“That girl’s nuts.”

“I can’t believe you wanna fight with the powerhouses.”

So Anna had to tell them how nice Chaka was, and how careful, and how amazingly awesome too!  Because really, sparring unarmed against someone with a pair of kamas?  There was no way someone like Anna could do that.  She told them all about Chaka’s tricks with her Ki, and how, when Chaka flipped Anna over her shoulder, Anna did Chaka’s trick and squeezed the kama handles real hard and landed on the back edges of the kamas and then pushed off and landed on her feet and didn’t even land outside the sparring circle.  And Chaka even said, “Good one, Anna” to her like they were buddies!

And then, that night in the Underdog hangout, Anna told Ree and Luce and Trish and Mindy all about taking Jerry to see Ayla, and how Ayla was going to make Jerry a millionaire.  Plus, the whole part about kissing Jerry goodnight last night.

The next couple days passed in a hurry.  Anna kept finding herself telling people about the trip.  It wasn’t like the whole school wasn’t talking about it.  But maybe some people around the school didn’t have anybody to talk to about it, and they knew she was just an Underdog so they could ask her stuff.

The thing Anna couldn’t believe was the Kimbas got punishments for saving Boston from badguys!  That was so not fair!  But Anna heard it first from Luce, who heard it from Diamondback, who heard it from Jericho, who heard it from the guy who roomed with Timeless, who said Timeless heard Mrs. Carson yelling at all the Kimbas.  Anna didn’t hear it at all from any of the Kimbas, so she guessed they were embarrassed about it.  Or maybe they got punishments so often it was just sorta everyday stuff for ‘em.

But Anna found out Chou had to shovel snow around Dickinson.  She found out because one evening she caught Molly summoning these cute little lizard-y fire elementals that ran around and melted all the snow on the bricks, so Anna kind of wondered if there was any snow left to shovel anywhere around the dorm, and Molly told her why she was doing it.

And people were talking about Chaka, because she was supposed to be shoveling snow around Melville, which Anna thought would be really awful with the Melville people being mean to her and all, but everybody was talking about the snow sculpture Chaka was making on the front yard with all the snow she was scooping up.  But it was a couple days before it was finished, and then everybody was laughing about it, because it looked like Don Sebastiano getting a desk lamp shoved up his hmm-hmm, which Anna thought sounded awful even if it was what Lindsay said really happened.  Well, especially if it was what really happened.  People said Chaka got in trouble for that and got moved to a different punishment instead, but then someone did something to the snow sculpture so it got hard as a rock and wouldn’t melt, so it was gonna be on the front lawn of Melville for a while.  Nate dragged all the Underdogs by to look at it, and it just sorta felt like a magic spell to Anna, so she figured somebody like Majestic or Fey or Conjure did it.  There were a lot of people around who didn’t like Don Sebastiano, and plenty of ‘em could do magic, so there was no telling.

Then Wednesday night, she didn’t have a date with Jerry because he was buried in work in his lab.  And that was good because it would help him protect his patents and stuff and then he’d be a successful inventor.  But she missed talking with him.  And the kissing too.  So she took him a cheeseburger with no lettuce, and extra fries, and some apple slices for dessert.  And she got the kissing part in too.

And martial arts classes were going better, and she was feeling really good about how much she was learning, even when sensei Tolman had her spar against Lancer at the end of class on Thursday.  In regular practice, Lancer usually sparred with sensei Tolman, which was good, because his sais got that PK superstrength too, and then sparring against him was like trying to fight Champion or something.  You’d strike against his sais, and it would be like hitting a mountain, or you’d try to block one of his attacks and it would be like trying to block an oncoming freight train.  He wasn’t any faster than she was, but he was like a hundred times stronger, and even if he made a mistake the most she could do with her kamas was hit him hard enough that sensei had to sharpen the blades afterward, which really made her feel bad about mistreating class equipment.

But then at dinner it was like nobody at the Underdog table would believe she sparred with Lancer, because she wasn’t in twenty plaster casts and bleeding all over the place.  Anna insisted, “He’s real careful!”

Ree asked, “But you couldn’t do anything to him, could you?”

Anna just said, “No way.  The most I did was I got in one really good hit with my lefthand kama.  And I dented up the blade on him.  So then after sparring I had to tell sensei Tolman I busted up the training equipment.  But she didn’t yell at me or anything.”

Saturday, February 3, 2007, early afternoon
Whateley Academy

Right after she finished her lunch, Anna hurried over to The Shed to meet with Charlie and the guys.  She figured she could get in maybe three or four hours of tree work with the guys, since Jerry wasn’t picking her up until five forty for their date, and she didn’t need two hours to get ready this time, because she already shaved her legs, and filed her fingernails and toenails, and did three coats of polish on her toenails, and picked out her outfit.  So all she needed to do was just showering and washing her hair and styling her hair and getting dressed and putting on just the right amount of makeup and then doing her nails.  She figured all Jerry did was take a quick shower and get dressed, because that was pretty much what her dad did when he was taking her mom out.  She didn’t mind that guys didn’t need hours to get ready, she just couldn’t figure out why her dad didn’t know her mom needed a lot more time, because they’d been married like forever.

When she got out to The Shed and checked in, she found Charlie and Franky in the break room drinking coffee and looking at detail maps.  And Franky had his arm all bandaged up, from his wrist up to his elbow.

Anna looked at his arm and asked, “Ooh!  What happened?”

Franky said, “A little accident with the pulleys yesterday.  Cliff’s out with a bad cold-”

“Told him he needed to quit smoking,” Charlie interrupted.

“-and I did a crappy job of getting the pulleys secured, so when Ed cut the branch, the pulley and rope went too, and I kind of got my arm ripped open.  It’ll be fine.”

Charlie said, “Twenty-five stitches.  Could’ve been his head, if he wasn’t wearin’ his hardhat.”

“But you’ll be okay, right?” Anna checked.

Franky smiled at her.  “Yeah.  I’ll be fine.”  He turned to Charlie and said, “Can we keep her?”

Charlie said, “Don’t know.  Mister Moto wants her to learn about landscaping this spring.”

Franky said, “Well, Cliff’s out sick, and so Ed’s off ice fishing this weekend.  That means that Monday we have to listen to hours of stories about sitting around freezing your can off trying to catch fish too small to eat.”

Anna said, “My grampa likes ice fishing, and he always said it wasn’t the fish catching part that made it worthwhile, it was the part about being in the great outdoors with your family.”

Charlie said, “We think Ed goes fishing so his wife can’t make him work on the honey-do list.”  But he winked at Anna so she’d know it was a joke.

Franky said, “So we don’t have enough of a team to do the whole process.”  He stopped Anna when she was about to say she could do all the tree climbing and that stuff.  “I know, you’re Super Squirrel, and you can climb the trees and lift the gear.  But you’re not checked out on Ed’s cutting equipment yet, and I’m out of action for a couple days-”

“A couple weeks is more like it,” Charlie growled.

“-and so we’ve got something simple in mind.”

“Oh good,” Anna said.

Charlie said, “See this map here?  This area just east of central campus is pretty hard to get into.  No road, east of campus, well inside the big ring road.  But you can cover it on foot way faster than any of us.  So what we have in mind is you going and checking the trees here and here, and just marking the trees that need work on the map, and marking the branches with a roll of red tape.  Then we can come in with a group and tackle the whole plot in one go, maybe in two weeks when Franky’s arm doesn’t look like a sleeve full of hamburger.”

“Eww,” Anna whispered.  That was kinda gross.

Franky said, “So just take this map, a waterproof pen to mark it up as you go, a couple rolls of the red tape, and one of the ruggedized phones.  We want you to check in at every tree before you go up, just in case something happens.”

“I’m careful,” she insisted.

Charlie nodded.  “I know.  But so is Franky, and he’s lucky he doesn’t have a concussion.  Or a fractured skull.  We’d feel a lot better if you do the check-ins.”

Franky said, “And you can check on some of your ‘little friends’ while you’re in the area, just check in before you go up those trees too.”

“Oh.  Okay.  You sure it’s all right if I go see how some of ‘em are doing?”

Charlie said, “Sure.  You’re not gonna go sneak off for a smoking break every chance you get, like some people we could name.  And I’ve watched you, y’know.  You try too hard to be perfect, and you don’t take breaks when you ought to.  So go visit your squirrels now and then.”

“I’m not perfect,” she said quietly.

“Nobody is,” Franky said.  “Not even Mrs. Carson.”

Charlie grinned wickedly, “Oh, she’s perfect, all right.  You just have no shot of getting her to go out with you.”

Anna looked at the blush on Franky’s face and gulped.  Franky had a crush on Mrs. Carson!  Okay, Mrs. Carson was really pretty, and she looked younger than Franky, but Lindsay said Mrs. Carson was really over seventy years old!  That was like older than her grandma!  She didn’t say ‘eww’ but she sure thought it.  Kind of.  She said, “Umm, I’ll get the tape and the map if you could get me the phone?  Please?”

“Sure thing, kid.”

Anna was glad Charlie and Franky didn’t call her Squirrel Girl and Doreen, like Ed did.  Ed teased her a lot, but she was pretty sure he didn’t tease her nearly as much as he teased Cliff or Franky.

So she skittered off to the map coordinates.  It was pretty heavy forest over a big chunk of the detail map, so she was hoping most of those trees would be protecting each other.  But at the edges of the heavy part, and where the trees were spread out more, single trees could get really heavy loads of snow and might be in trouble.  There was a little open area, kind of an oval shape, toward the western side of the map, and she was sorta worried about trees along the edges of the oval.  At least there were campus walkways near the oval, so they could get the truck and gear in to work on any trees in there that were in bad shape.

 It didn’t take long to run out to the first trees on the detail map.  Franky’s maps were really cool.  They were like aerial photographs low enough that your could see the individual trees, with computer stuff on the maps too, so the trees were all marked with their own little circles, and topographic lines were drawn in so you could tell where little rises and dips were, and the bigger trees got bigger circles, so you could even tell stuff like where clumps of tiny saplings were.  And there were markings so you could tell when you were in the right place, just by looking for the metal pins that Franky had stuck in the ground at the corners of each of the maps.

She called in before she hopped up into the first tree, and she went to work.  About half the trees along the edges of the heavy forest part needed a hard shake, and maybe another quarter needed a broken branch trimmed off before it did even more damage.  And her little friends came out and followed her around through the trees, chatting with her and wondering if she knew where there was lots of food.  She wished she had enough food for all her little friends, but until she got some more money for doing the arborist stuff, she couldn’t even afford to buy Jerry more cheeseburgers.  Maybe she’d use the money from waitressing for food for her little friends.  It wasn’t like she really needed kneeboots all that bad.

She marked another branch with red tape, and carefully marked the tree on the map.  Then she moved on.  Most of the trees in the middle of the heavy forest part were in good shape, since the snow could only come down on their tops and not all over one side, or even worse, all over until the whole tree was breaking apart.  But one of the trees that had a lot of room around it was in bad, bad shape.  She didn’t even know if they could save it.  She didn’t even know if they should try.  One of its biggest branches had already broken loose near the top, and was lying on the ground buried in snow.  When it broke off, it split the trunk at the spot where the branch used to be, so everything above the split might have to go.  And one of the heavy snow-covered branches lower down was splitting about ten feet out from the trunk, and was gonna have to get trimmed off maybe two feet closer to the trunk.  One more heavy snow, and that branch would rip off all by itself, which wouldn’t do the tree any good.  She marked the tree on the map, wrapped red tape around the branch and the split trunk, and sighed.  Then she called Charlie and told him where she was.

He said, “Holy crap, kid!  You don’t have to do every single tree in that map.”

She shrugged and said, “Well, a lot of the trees in the middle part are okay, and I’ve been going from tree to tree checking, so it’s gone pretty fast in those parts.  But this tree is in bad shape.  I dunno what to do to fix it.  I don’t know if we can save it.”

He said, “Don’t worry.  We’ll show you.  Trees like that?  Depends what you want ‘em for.  Right there, we’ll probably leave the split in, so the wildlife can use it as a snag, and trim the parts above so the tree’ll be stable, and take off some of the bigger limbs so it won’t threaten any of the surrounding trees.  We’ll show ya.  It’s all part of the craft.”

“Cool!” she said with a grin.  “I’m just gonna go over toward the Melville side of the map, near the open spot, and check a couple nests.”

“The glen?  That’s fine.  Just mark on the map which trees you checked.  Okay?”

“Okay.”

So she and a couple of her little friends went over to check on some squirrels who hadn’t been part of the combat final and were just doing the normal squirrel winter thing.  Plus, one of ‘em, FluffyTail, was really cute and friendly.  And LooksAround was probably the nosiest squirrel in this chunk of the woods, so she was pretty amazed he hadn’t gotten caught for the combat final.

So Anna went clambering and jumping through the trees to check on her little friends.  And she was thirty feet up in a fir when she heard the people talking over by the nearby open area that Charlie said was a glen.

 

Minefield stood on the brick path and pointed at the glen.  He wasn’t going to go tramping around in there if he didn’t have to.  He didn’t want to have a pound of snow down each shoe, and he didn’t want to leave any traces.  He looked around at his team.  He was briefing Nantuko, Conduit, Roadrunner, Ferret, The Man Called Vengeance, and Appaloosa on his plan.  Naturally, Fantastico and Oiler weren’t there.  Okay, both of them already knew their part in the operation, so the F-Man was right when he said they didn’t need to show up for the briefing.  Sometimes Minefield couldn’t tell whether Fantastico was incredibly lazy, or a master at time management.  Maybe both.

Minefield made sure he had Roadrunner’s attention, and he continued with the explanation.  “We’ve been remotely monitoring Phase for over a month now, so we know she comes out here to make some of her more private phone calls.  There’s only one other person on campus who pulls this dodge.  Right here we’re in between cell towers, and the towers tend to split the message packets so you can’t eavesdrop on the call from just one of the towers.

“Nantuko has a spell she’s been working on for a while, so we’re ready.  It’ll keep Phase from being able to dive into the ground or fly up above the lowest branches, so she’ll be pinned in here.  You can see the only footprints out there belong to Phase.  So I already laid down an entire minefield across the ground.  Then, once Phase is in the glade, Roadrunner and Appaloosa keep Phase corralled, while Fantastico and Vengeance-”

“That’s ‘The Man Called Vengeance’, dammit!”

“-shut up, Larry. So the F-Man and Larry blast the snot out of her.  We keep Conduit over there in reserve, in case she pulls out any energy weapons or tries to send an emergency beacon, and we keep Oiler over there in case we need to trip her up if Roadrunner and Appaloosa aren’t enough.  Okay.  Any questions?”

Appaloosa put his hand in the air.  “Umm, isn’t Phase gonna know who’s bombarding her?”

Minefield nodded, “Oh yeah.  That’s the whole point.  She wanted a war?  We’re gonna give it to her.  We’ve got plans for the next step.  Phase isn’t a backstabber.  She’ll go right for Fantastico and Oiler and me.  So we’ve set up a little something with Ferret doing remote monitoring on all three of us, and when she and her Poesie friends jump one of us in retaliation, boom!  Instant call to Security and they’re busted.  Assault one, maybe felony assault.  And we’ll have it on video.  She wants to play hardball?  We can play by the same rules.  We found out she’s funding some weapons to take out Exemplars like the F-Man.  So we’ve got some devises Ferret got for us from some school players that’ll put the hurt on her and her pals, when they jump us.  But since we’re the victims of an unprovoked assault, we’ll be in the clear.”

Appaloosa said, “I still don’t like it.  Phase and her buddies will be kickin’ my ass in martial arts class over this!  The only Kimbas who aren’t in the top quarter of the class are Shroud and Generator, and you can’t hurt Shroud no matter what.  This is not gonna be good.”

Minefield growled, “Just stick to the plan, dammit!”

And that was when they all heard the phone ring, from up in a tree off to the right side of the glade, not sixty feet away.  Where someone was crouched on a limb, staring right at them.

Minefield reacted instantly, when he realized it was an eavesdropper.  “Get him!”

 

Anna crouched on the tree limb and listened.  She felt horrified.  This was awful!  She had to tell someone!  Umm, maybe Security.  Officer Everheart was nice, she’d believe her.  And Ayla.  She had to tell Ayla right away.  And Charlie, because he’d be wondering what the heck she was doing instead of-

Twee-deedly-dee!  Twee deedly-dee-dee!

Oh shoot!  It was her phone!  She hadn’t called in for a few minutes while she was listening to the Good Ol’ Boyz doing their evil plan thing, and so now Charlie was checking on her!

“Get him!” Minefield screamed from down there.

Anna took off like a scalded cat.  Well, a scalded squirrel.  She leapt from her branch to a lower limb, then kicked off to a large branch sticking out from the neighboring tree.  Then she scrambled up two limbs to jump to a safe branch in the next tree.

But her phone was still ringing in that silly tune, so everyone knew exactly where she was and they kept following her.  She tried to yank it out of her coat pocket and jump to a higher limb at the same time, and nearly dropped the phone.  She had to drop down two branches to grab it out of the air.  She quickly pressed the talk button so she could yell for help.

And she missed.  She hit the end button by mistake and hung up on Charlie.  Darn it!

Even worse, they had Roadrunner and Appaloosa.  Both of them were way faster than she was.  Roadrunner was already cutting around behind her, and Appaloosa was running around the glen to cut her off from the other direction.

She felt something kinda magical from the others still over by the walkway, and she jumped to the next tree.  A magic blast hit the branch she’d been on and it burst into splinters.  She didn’t spot the other attack, but she didn’t have to.  The whiny guy in the leather jacket yelled, “Take that, bitch!”

She jumped again and kicked off another branch to put a tree trunk between her and whatever he was doing.

Some kind of energy blast came out of his hands.  It looked kind of violet and see-through, and it whizzed through the branch she’d been on, and the tree, and the fir needles, and everything.  She didn’t know what it was, but she sure didn’t want it hitting her.

She ran out to the end of the large branch and leapt to the next tree, scrambling to the trunk of the tree and skittering off on another big branch to jump to the next tree.

But she knew Appaloosa would be able to plow across the snow faster than she could run, and she was afraid Roadrunner would be able to pretty much sprint across the snow at superspeed.

That was when she had the idea.  She cut to her left and then back to her right, like she was trying to lose them.  But really she was aiming for one particular tree.  As she scrambled through the branches, she called out in a language no other human spoke, “Quick!  Quick!  Meet me at the big broken tree!”

She jumped into the marked tree.  She dodged around the big broken limb and scrambled up to the split in the trunk.  She threw handfuls of snow into the tree on the other side and hissed, “Run that way for a while!”

Three squirrels took off together, scrambling through the branches and making limbs tremble as they went.

She ducked into the split and tried to hold still.  “Please don’t call back.  Please don’t call back.  Please don’t call back,” she whimpered.

The phone stayed quiet.  Roadrunner and Appaloosa sprinted past the tree.  She watched them plow through the snow, following her little friends.  Only seconds later, three more of ‘em went running by, a little ways to her right, racing through the parts of the forest where the trees were really thick so there wasn’t a lot of snow on the ground so it wasn’t too hard to make good time.  It was their magic user, who she was pretty sure was called Nantuko even if she had no idea what that meant, and Conduit, and Larry The Vengeance Guy, or whatever his name was.  There was still no sign of the other two.  Ferret and Minefield.  She tried to hold still and not move and hardly even breathe.

“Nice try, but that’s as old as military history.  Come on down.”  She winced.  Minefield and Ferret were standing practically right underneath her, and Minefield had a glowing ball of explosive force in each hand.  Plus Ferret had some kind of ray gun rifle, and he looked like he knew how to point it.

She came on down.

The big branch up over their heads was the one with the big red ribbon on it.  She remembered putting it there just a little while ago.  She remembered that limb.  Really shaky.  Maybe she was heavy enough.  Maybe not…

She fell twenty feet.  As she fell, she grabbed a roll of the red tape and pulled out about four feet of it, hanging on tight to both ends of the tape.

She hit the limb feet-first, right at the weak point, a couple feet past where she had put that tape.  The limb cracked and broke cleanly.  She held onto the tape with both hands and swung it at the butt end of the branch like it was a jump rope.

The limb dropped straight down.  The limb, and the pile of snow that was breaking it off, crashed to the ground.  The tape caught on the butt end of the branch, and she found herself hanging from the tape, her hands just about a foot below the branch.

The two guys weren’t so lucky.  The limb, and all its branches, and all that snow, all dropped right on them.

“Ow!”

“Shit!”

BOOM!  BOOM!  The two explosive balls went off underneath the snow.

“Ouch!  That hurt!”

“Oh, shut up and dig me out of here.”

“How am I supposed to do that?  There’s a fucking tree on me!”

Anna was still hanging from the tape, and she was pretty sure it wouldn’t hold her much longer, even if she didn’t weigh all that much.  So she swung back and forth until she could swing to the side and leap over to another branch.  She landed cleanly and then skittered off before the others came back.

But it was only a couple more seconds before Roadrunner was on her tail again.  She could hear him pounding through the snow with his feet going really, really fast.  And he was gaining on her.  She didn’t know how long he could run in snow before he pooped out, but she didn’t think it was going to be soon enough.

She kept scrambling through the trees, jumping from branch to branch, leaping out along solid limbs to jump to the next tree.  And she found she was accidentally running back the way she came, going toward the little glen again, instead of rushing out into the trees way east of campus.  If only she was a lot faster, she could scurry to The Shed and be safe.  But Roadrunner was going to catch up with her way before she ever got within sight of the place.

And there was the little glen.  She jumped onto a solid branch and pushed off with her feet to catch a sturdy branch with both palms and then pull her feet back under her for another jump.  But she was going to have to cut all the way around the glen, since there weren’t any tree branches in the middle of it, and…

Oh.  Oh yeah.

She stopped just long enough to look back, spot Roadrunner, and blow him a raspberry.  PTHPTPH!  Then she leapt for the next tree.

And it worked.  It really worked!  Roadrunner cut across the glen to get to her.  Right through the minefield she’d heard Minefield telling Roadrunner he’d already laid out.

BOOM!

She looked off to the side as she jumped to another branch, and gasped.  Wow!  She’d never seen anyone actually blown into the air like that.  That was worse than the arena fight between the Kimbas and the Young Turks when Jade made that greasy kid drop his explodo-balls.  That looked more like Wiley Coyote than the Roadrunner.  It looked like it hurt.  A lot.

BOOM!  BOOM!

Okay, those looked like they hurt even more.  Roadrunner landed face down in a snowdrift and didn’t get back up.  She figured she’d better call someone in Security or at the hospital before she did anything else.

But before she could do anything like that, she spotted movement out of the corner of her eye.  Appaloosa was just running up on the far side of the little clearing, with Nantuko in his arms.

Anna froze on her branch.  Oh crud.  Appaloosa looked up and stared right at her.

And he winked.  He winked right at her.  He set the girl down and said, “Come on Nan, we better get Roadrunner over to the clinic.  He doesn’t look so good.”

Anna just squatted there on the branch, not moving a muscle, except her eyeballs, as Appaloosa picked Roadrunner up and slung him in a fireman’s carry, and they walked off.  Appaloosa yelled, “Larry!  LARRY!”

“That’s The Man Called Vengeance, damn it!”

“Come on Larry, we gotta get Cliff over to the clinic.  Where’s Minefield and Ferret and Conduit?”

“Conduit’s diggin’ ‘em out of the snow.  That little snot dropped half a tree on ‘em.”

“Snrrrk!”

“Hey, it’s not funny…  Okay, it was pretty goddamn funny.  I hadda leave before I started laughing.  You know how Miney gets if people laugh at him.”

“Oh yeah, and just say one bad thing about the A-Team and their nerdy gamer stuff…”

“Yeah, he goes postal about that.”

“And another thing…”

Anna just stayed there, not moving, until she couldn’t hear them any more.

And that was when she heard the distant roaring of snowmobiles.  Three or four of ‘em.  Heading her way.  Bull and Todd came screaming in on their snowmobiles, with Charlie and Franky in one of the sno-cat trucks with the open back like a pickup truck.  And it looked like they had a stretcher and a big first aid kit in the sno-cat too.

She jumped down out of the tree and ran across the snow to where they were letting their engines idle while they tried to find her and save her from whatever happened to her.

And boy, were they mad at her.  Charlie yelled, “Never do that again!  I just about had a heart attack!”  Then he jumped out of the sno-cat and gave her a huge hug.  So maybe he wasn’t that mad at her.

Todd said, “Scared the crap out of me.  Crazy Charlie comes screaming into the break room shouting something happened to you and he had to have the sno-cat ASAP and he didn’t care if Delarose himself had it checked out, he needed it NOW.”

Anna looked down at her feet and said, “Thanks for worrying about me.”

Bull said, “Course we worry about you.”

Franky said, “We’re just not gonna try that again, okay kid?  At least one of us’ll go out with you, even if we have to follow you around on a snowmobile or something.”

Anna said, “It really wasn’t my fault.”  And then she had to explain the whole thing, and she thought Charlie was gonna bust a gut about the Good Ol’ Boyz chasing after her.  She was gonna say she needed to go over to Security to tell them about what happened, but before she even got the chance, Charlie and Franky and even Bull and Todd were insisting she get on over to Kane Hall right away, and Charlie even gave her a ride over, in the squished backseat spot behind Franky.  She wouldn’t ask Franky to squeeze back there, because he had a hurt arm.

Charlie said the person to talk to was Chief Delarose, but she didn’t think she ought to be wasting the time of the whole head of Whateley Security, so she was fine with a nice man named Lieutenant Trout, who didn’t yell at her or anything.  He just took down her story on a computer pad.  Well, when she got to the part where Minefield was talking about the trap being for Phase, the Lieutenant had her stop while he called someone else, and then a big scary-looking sergeant named Buxton came in and she had to start all over.

When she was all done and even got to the part where Charlie and Franky and Bull and Todd rode in to the rescue, Sergeant Buxton looked at her hard and said, “And so you were just over there by accident, huh?”

“Umm, no,” she admitted.  “I was there ‘cause Charlie sent me over there to work by myself for my scholarship stuff, because Franky was hurt and Cliff was out sick and Ed’s off ice-fishing, so he didn’t have an arborist team.  So I was just marking branches for us to trim later on.”

“Hmm.  And what are you going to do now?”

She looked at the clock up on the wall and saw it was only a quarter of three.  She said, “Well, I thought I oughta go tell Ayla about the G.O.B. trying to do mean stuff to her.”

The nice lieutenant said, “You’re one of Phase’s little friends, aren’t you?”

“Umm, me?” she sorta squeaked.  “I’m just one of the Underdogs and like that.”

The lieutenant said, “But you were one of the kids on the trip last Saturday.  Phase’s friends… and colleagues.”

Anna shrugged, “Well yeah, but I was real surprised when she asked me, I mean we had a class together last term and she was really nice, and she even invented my codename and stuff…  So… I guess so.”

The two men looked at each other, and then the sergeant said, “Well then, why don’t you just go on over to Poe and tell Phase all about this little ambush.  I’ll even show you down to the Hawthorne tunnel, if you’d rather go that way.”

Anna smiled at him, because that was really nice of him, even if he looked really scary and sergeant-like.  She said, “Gosh, that’s real nice of you, but I got my coat and boots and stuff for the work I was doing, so I’ll just walk it outside.”

The lieutenant said, “Okay.  Sergeant Buxton will show you out.  I’ll call Poe and let them know you’re on your way over.”

Gee, those guys were really nice.  Between them and Sam Everheart and Officer Green and the other officer, she was liking the Security people more and more lately.

It didn’t even occur to her that Ayla might be somewhere else, or might be busy with stuff, until she walked into the lobby area of Poe and saw Mrs. Horton standing there with Plastic Girl.  But Mrs. Horton just smiled at her.  “Anna?  Security just called to say you had some information for Ayla.  You know Jody from Saturday, right?”

Anna nodded nervously, while Jody said, “Sure!”

Mrs. Horton said, “Jody, why don’t you show Anna up to Ayla’s room so she doesn’t get lost?”

“Yes ma’am,” Jody smiled.

So Jody walked Anna up the stairs to Ayla’s room, which looked like everyone else’s room.  From the outside, anyway.  Jody knocked and called out, “Hey Ayla, Anna’s here to see you.”

Just about the time Ayla said, “Come on in,” the door next door popped open and Toni stuck her head out.  “Hey Anna, you here for the weekly Ayla financial report too?”

Anna shook her head no.  “I just need to tell her about something the Good Ol’ Boyz were planning.  It sorta got wrecked.  ‘Cause of me, partly.”

Ayla opened the door and said, “I tell you what, Toni.  I’ll leave the door open so you and Nikki can pretend you’re not eavesdropping.  From what Trout said, you’re going to want to hear this one.”

So Anna got taken into Ayla’s room, and it was just as amazing as Molly and Chou said it was, which was a lot.  The fancy paintjob on the walls, and the hammocks, and the beanbag chairs, and the super-fancy computer on Ayla’s desk, and the fancy refrigerator and microwave and something Anna wasn’t even sure what it was but it was probably the fanciest coffee maker in the world.

Ayla said, “Would you like something to eat?”  And just about the time Anna was shaking her head no, Ayla said, “Maybe some chocolate covered nuts?  It’s the good stuff.”

Anna’s mouth started watering just thinking about that scrumptious chocolate, and she ended up saying, “Yes, please.”

And so they sat down in the beanbag chairs, and Anna told her story while she ate a bunch of the really super delicious chocolate that cost way too much for her to be eating all that much of it.

Anna figured Ayla would be all worried when she heard the whole G.O.B. was out to get her, but she just grinned.  Okay, it was more of a smirk.  Even when Anna told her the part about Ferret getting them weapons to use against Team Kimba people.

Ayla just smiled and said, “Oh, we already know about that.  At least one of them doesn’t really work at all.  I paid the deviser to give Ferret a dud.  And the anti-Warper weapon doesn’t do much against someone at Tennyo’s power level.”

And then, when Anna told her all about the chasing and running away, Ayla laughed out loud at the part about dropping the limb on them.  Anna was sure she heard giggling going on in Chaka and Fey’s room, so she was pretty sure they were hearing everything she was saying.  After all, it wasn’t like she was the only kid on campus with really good hearing.

Ayla finally said, “Yeah, I was expecting them to try something fairly soon.  It’s a shame, really.  I’ve been taking Tennyo with me to that spot, with my leaving footprints and her floating above the snow so she didn’t leave any traces.  She would have pulverized them.  Fantastico thinks he’s really tough, but she could shake off his heat vision and then pound him into the ground like a tent stake.”

Anna wasn’t sure whether to wince or giggle.  She sorta did both at the same time.  “Didn’t she already do that to somebody back in the fall?”

“At least once that I know of.  I have my suspicions it was two or three times.”

Chaka yelled out from her room, “Four times!”

Fey yelled out, “At least!”

Anna just smiled.  Boy, was she going to have some wild stuff to tell Jerry about when he took her out to dinner tonight.  Maybe he’d even kiss her a whole lot and tell her how worried it made him.  She liked that part best.

THE END

but not the end of Anna’s journey