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A Whateley Academy Tale

Reflections In An Evil Eye

by Bek D Corvin

Wednesday, Oct 4th

It’s one thing to talk about being ‘the Cooler King’ and how we’ll ‘own up to what we did and take what they throw at us without complaining’ when you’re sitting in Sara’s room at Poe. It’s a whole other thing, when, after a long hard day of school, instead of going back to good ol’ Poe and kicking back, you gotta walk down the hill to Hawthorne cottage. Hawthorne, the weirdest cottage at Whateley. At WHATELEY. Think about that for a while. Hawthorne is the cottage where they stick the kids who can’t control their powers enough, and are a danger to others. The hair-trigger energy blasters, the bricks who can’t control their own strength, and the ‘loud’ telepaths who can’t help but broadcast their thoughts.

Well, if nothing else, it will make for an interesting letter home.

I tried to get the gang in the right mood by trying to whistle the ‘Colonel Bogey March’- y’know, what Alec Guiness and the other POWs whistle in ‘Bridge over the river Kwai’?- but nobody was up for it. *humpf!* Try and keep up morale!

Ayla was busy grousing.  “It was a lot easier thinking about the whole ‘Cooler King’ approach when we weren’t so close to the problem.”

“Hey,” Hank reminded her, “if it was easy, no one would be impressed.  So you picked your assignment yet?”

“I have!” Jade chirped. “She’s the one you told me about, Sempai.  Jello, the girl without a body image template.  I was thinking, maybe we’d be good for each other.”

I gave her a smile to buck her up.  “I hope so.”

We were received by Ms. Cantrel, the housemother at Hawthorne.  She’s a large, black woman in a wheelchair, who looks to be about two days younger’n dirt.  But this chair had been jazzed up like you would not believe!  It had no wheels, but glowing golden orbs at each corner, each orb the size of a grapefruit.  It didn’t just hover, it zipped around like a dragonfly. A size 150 dragonfly, XXXXL.

She zoomed up to us as soon as we hit the front door.

“Well, here at last, and about time, too!”

“Are we late?” I asked, not really sure of what to make of this Woman-Mountain.

“Late?  Not yet you aren’t!  But unless we get moving you might be.  And those kids need every minute they can get, so don’t sit there gawking. Let’s get to work!”

She showed me a closet with mops and other cleaning supplies. “Okay, let’s see how those fancy-schmancy powers of yours help you with something simple, like mopping the floors. I want the first two floors not only spic, but span! Well, what are you waiting for? Get to work!”

Grabbing one of the mops, I looked at her retreating back. “Credulous Fool!” I intoned, “Clearly you have no idea that you are dealing with a master of MARTIAL ARTS MOPPING!”

I filled a mop bucket with hot water, added a dollop of cleaning solution, and paused to center myself. *Hiyah!* I attuned the mop to my Ki, and began. “Yi- yi- yi- yi- yi, yi- yi- YI!” I went at the hall with a will, and I was soon at the far end of the hall. I dried out the mop. “Yi- yi- yi- yi- yi, yi- yi- yi- yi- YI!” The hallway was both clean and dry.

“What’s all this noise about?” Mrs. Cantrel came whizzing up. “And why haven’t you started yet?”

“Started?” I emptied the dirty water out into the cleaning closet washbasin. “I’ve already finished!”

“Finished? Then why isn’t that floor wet?”

“I thought that the point of the exercise was for the floor to be clean, not just wet.”

“It IS!”

“Well, then look.”

Cantrel swiveled her chair around so that she could get a good look at the floor. “Well, I’ll be. …” She gave me the gimlet eye, “And where are you going now?”

“Second floor. You DID tell me to take care of that as well, didn’t you?” She nodded. “Oh, by the way, do you want me to take care of those back stairs as well?” She nodded again, and tooled off in her chair.


Four minutes and much yipping later, the second floor and the back stairs were clean and dry as well.

As I cleaned out the mop and bucket, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Mrs. Cantrel again, and she was smiling that shark-looking-at-a-fish smile of hers. “Well, you’re done with that, already. But don’t worry, Hon. I’ll find things for you to do. Come along!” She whirled her chair around.

In quick succession, I proved my mastery of Martial Arts linen-folding, trashcan emptying and shower scrubbing. Yes, the filth of Hawthorne cottage was a formidable opponent, but it fell to the awesome skills of Chaka, super-powered grime fighter!

From the Second Floor down to the Ground Floor, Cantrel showed me to one of the student’s room. There was an official looking nameplate that said ‘Compiler’ next to the door, but there was also a ceramic nameplate ringed with daisies that said ‘Babs’ on the door. It looked like one of those summer camp Arts & Crafts projects. “Okay, Hon,” Cantrel purred, “Your job is to help this poor child get her room clean.”

I looked at Cantrel worriedly. “And exactly WHY does she need help? I mean, I know that Hawthorne is for students who DO need help, but what exactly are the specifics here?”

Cantrel just gave me the shark grin and chuckled as she knocked on the door, “Hon, I think that I’ll let you figure that one out all by yourself.”

The girl who answered was weird. Not in any immediately obvious way, with scales, or antennae, or a nimbus of fire or anything like that, but, how do I put this? She looked like a Barbie™ doll, full-sized and come to life. Her hair was midnight black, but other than that, she could have stepped out of the Dream House©. She had the impossibly cute face with the oversized eyes and the teeny little nose, the ridiculous breasts, the absurdly narrow waist, and long slender legs.

She blinked unlikely iridescent green eyes at us and said, “Yes?”

“Babs, sweetie,” Cantrel said in a completely different voice, “we have someone to help you with your room.”

Why did I get the sinking feeling that I was being set up for a particularly nasty joke? If she’s in Hawthorne, then she must have something seriously wrong with her, and I’m probably gonna find out when it goes off in my face.

‘Babs’ worried her lip, finally said, “Okay”, as if she weren’t sure about it, and let me in.

It turned out that Barbie’s™ Dreamhouse© was a pigsty. No, on second glance, it wasn’t your basic ‘I just don’t care, so I throw it down wherever I am’ mess- I know that style from 14 years of living with Vince. This didn’t have that ‘layered’ effect that you get with a dedicated slob; it was more like she hadn’t had a chance to pick up after an earthquake.

Or maybe the dog had something to do with it.

Lounging on her bed was a large, and I do mean LARGE, white dog wearing something that looked sort of like one of those service dog harnesses, with bulging satchels and a pair of sneakers tied on by their laces. I looked at the dog and said, “I know that we can’t have pets here at Whateley, so that must be a service dog. So, exactly what kind of condition do you have?”

Babs walked slowly into the room and shook her head. “Stella isn’t a service animal. Hey, Stel, this is this week’s Detainee.” The ‘dog’ sat up, and its form began to flow, altering shape. It went through a ‘werewolf’ stage, and wound up as a rather skinny girl with white hair. Now, I’ve seen shapeshifters do their thing before, but this one was really weird- most shapeshifters have to sort of make do with their clothes, but this one’s harness changed into a Whateley school uniform.

“I didn’t know that they made uniforms that did that.” I said.

Stella shook her head. “They don’t. But Babs here does. Though, I still say that I wish you’d make a suit that changes into something other than the uniform.”

“Be grateful.” Babs replied as she pulled out a chair that had been formed from a single piece of very thick metal. “You have no idea of how difficult it was, getting a triggered multiphasic matrix to stabilize.” She looked at me. “So, what did you get busted for?”

“Oh, my team rumbled with those Alphas losers a few days ago, and whupped their butts,” I told her as I started to pick up clothes up off the floor and tossed them into piles.

“Hold on,” Stella said, sitting more at attention. “You guys went up against the Alphas?”

“Yeah, but don’t you worry- next week, the Alphas will be here, so you guys can carve a slice outta their hides, too.”

“What?” Babs got up out of her chair, “But Alphas don’t GET detention!”

“Now they do,” I grinned.

“Why that’s …“ Suddenly, Babs rushed at me in a near blur, taking me totally by surprise. She caught me flat-footed, hitting me with the force of a Mack truck, and sending me crashing into the wall.

I bounced off the wall and kippuped up to a fighting stance. “I didn’t know that they put Alphas in Hawthorne,” I snarled, “but it’ll be worth another week of detention, to send Donny boy the message, DO NOT fuck with Team Kimba!”

Stella got between us. “No! She didn’t mean to do that! It was an accident!”

“It was pretty damn hard for an accident!”

Stella swept a hand around the room. “Why do you think that this room is such a mess?”

“She’s a slob?”

Stella let out a disgusted breath. “NO, she can’t control her strength or her speed! That’s why she’s in Hawthorne to begin with!”

I gave her a hard look. “An Exemplar who can’t control their strength or speed? Isn’t that sort of a contradiction in terms?”

“I’m not an Exemplar.” Babs said hollowly from the chair which she had set well away from me. She didn’t look happy. “But I wanted to be one. And it sorta turned around and bit me on the ass.”

Stella plopped back down on the bed. “Babs is some sort of Nano-tech wizard. She can control and power nanites, just by thinking about it. She can even design ‘em. Don’t ask me how they found out about it. Anyway, when they sent her here to get it all under control, she sorta went nuts in the Workshop. She decided that she wanted to be as good as the Exemplars, so she kludged up a ‘nanotech supergirl’ suite of nanites, and got like that,” Stella waved at Babs.

Babs blushed, and said, “Well, it wasn’t really all that hard- carbonite reinforcing strands through the muscle and tendon tissue, fullerene tube mesh reinforcement of the bones, super-conducting strands through the nerve-”

Stella cut her off, “Short form, she’s so dense that she’s four times as heavy than she ought’a be. And, she can’t control her strength very well. And, she has these sort of bursts of speed that she can’t control either. You were just on the receiving end of one’a those. That’s why they stuck her in here.”

I gave her a skeptical look. “Well, whatever you did, Hon, it screwed up your Ki something fierce.”

“Ki?”

I gave them the ‘Qi Gung for Beginners’ lecture. When I finished, Babs looked at her hand. “And you think that the nanite upgrade that I gave myself is messing with my Ki? And that’s responsible for all the weirdness?”

I shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not. It’s possible that you screwed up something else, and that’s reflected in the way that your Ki flows. On the other hand, getting your Ki back on track couldn’t help but improve the situation. But then, it’s possible that this could be the way that your Ki settled afterwards, and you’ll have to tough out the cure the hard way. How long have you been like this?”

“Three weeks.”

“Say WHAT?” I felt my eyebrows try to rise up off of my head. “You’re kidding!” Then I remembered where I was- Whateley Academy, Weirdness Central, and pulled myself together. I waved my spazz-out aside. “Well! Three weeks ain’t nuthin’, Sugar! A little Tai Chi is just what the doctor ordered!”

“Tai Chi?” Babs worried her lower lip. “Gee, I dunno if I’m really up to learning any martial arts.”

“N-n-n-n-no. Tai Chi Chu’an isn’t a martial art. Well, it can be used as one, but that’s not the point. Tai Chi is a system of learning to focus and move your chi by repeating a system of 108 movements. No punching or kicking involved, just moving your body in a relaxed but controlled manner.”

“Hey, I already know how to move slow.”

I picked up a bit of debris from the floor. “No you don’t. You know that you have to move slow, but you don’t really know how to move- or breathe- at all.”

“BREATHE?” She said outraged, and got up …

… and I just barely managed to get out of her way as another spurt of speed threw her in my direction.

Stella managed to talk her into listening to me. Besides showing her the postures, I helped her ‘feel’ her Ki, which helped her understand a little of what was going on.

I’ll give Babs her due- she’s a smart girl. Not smart enough to keep from mucking with her body with untested nanotech, but she picked up fast.

But when someone’s who that big is a stranger to her own body, she will still have problems. One of her spurts threw both of us against the door and almost knocked me out.

As we were sprawled on the floor, and I was trying to get back the wind that had been knocked out of me, before I got around to pushing a girl who weight over 400 pounds off of me, the door opened. Ayla stuck her head in. “What’s going on here?”

She looked at me with the live action Barbie© on top of me, and tsked, “Toni, aren’t you having enough problems with Rip as it is? If word of this gets around …”

Before she could get around to phrasing her blackmail, Mrs. Cantrel loomed up behind her in her flying chair. “What’s going on here?” She looked at Babs on top of me, shook her head and said, “No, I don’t wanna know. You, Goodchild, get her off your friend. I have another job for her.”

As Babs got to her feet, I told her, “We’ll pick up again, tomorrow.”

Cantrel led me down the corridor. “Okay, what was all that about?”

“I was showing her some moves.”

“Hey, you leave that sicko stuff in Poe! That girl’s got enough problems!”

I explained the Tai Chi Chu’an. “You yankin’ my chain, kid?”

“Hey, ask her yourself, if you doubt my word. So, what’s the new job?”

She led the way down a flight of stairs that were sort of like the ones you see in movie sets of old dungeons. They were cast out of the solid cement. “Well, you asked about ‘Dr. Heavy’, the kid who’s stuck generating a constant 8 G field.”

“I thought that Tennyo was handling that.”

“Yer buddy is handling something else, so you’re the next in the barrel.” She led me to simple door with no locks or anything. "Well, here we are.”

“ ‘Kay, just a sec.”

“Second thoughts?” she smirked.

“There are no problems, only new ways of training. But, I can’t do the job if I can’t move, now can I?” I centered myself, and super-charged my Ki, which makes me that much stronger. It’s a good technique, but tiring as hell. I can keep it up for a few hours; at least, I think that I can keep it up for a few hours. If I start to get tired, I can always call a potty break, and recharge. Hey, this is supposed to be detention, not eternal perdition.

Steeled in body and spirit, I walked through the door and found-

-Okay, I admit it, I was disappointed. I was expecting a huge mess with a hormone-crazed boy bouncing off the walls. Okay, it was a little messy, but nothing like the knee-deep mess that I was expecting. And instead of a cabin-feverish horndog, the kid was sitting on his bed, looking like his dog died.

At first, I was surprised, as I was expecting someone --- taller. But he didn’t look like he was only Eight, there was something about his head---

*Oh, shit, they didn’t tell me that he’s a dwarf! He’s a ‘little person,’ AND he can’t control his mutant powers?  Talk about crapping out in the genetic lottery!*

I stepped into the room, and suddenly the Eight Gs hit me. Yep, suddenly the cliché ‘invisible hand of stone’ makes perfect sense. I steeled myself and walked further in. “Hey!”

“Hey,” he returned dully.

“So, waddya need done?”

“Oh, just … pick this shit up.” He said it like someone whose favorite sport has just gone sour on him.

I carefully picked up a funky pair of drawers that must have weighed four pounds. “So… how cum Billie got yanked from this?”

“Billie?”

“Y’know, the girl they assigned to this room, just before me?”

“You know Billie?”

“Yeah, we’re both in Team Kimba together.”

“Team Kimba?”

“Our training group.”

“Oh …” He sort of sunk in on himself again.

“Are you okay?”

“No,” he said, clearly getting a little peeved. “But it ain’t nothin’ that I ain’t been dealin’ with for months.”

“Okay, you need to get out of yourself a little.” I trudged over- and believe me, at Eight Gs, all you can DO is trudge!- and took him by the hand. I tried to pull him up, and it was like trying to pull an anchor out of a seabed. “C’mon! What you need, is some good old fashioned Tai Chi Chuan to get the ki flowing! C’mon!”

I did the thumbnail explanation of Ki and Tai Chi, and demonstrated for him. He got up off his bed in an ‘Oh, well, if it will shut you up’ way, and started stumbling through the first few movements. Okay, it’s hard to move in Eight Gs, even when you have super-strength, but still! Even someone who’s never done Tai Chi before should have been able to do it better than THAT!

“No, no, no!” I demonstrated again.

He tried again, and didn’t do any better. “There! That’s the best that I can DO!” he snarled up at me.

“Weird. One more time, but this time, do it real slow. I’m gonna watch your Ki, and see what’s wrong.”

He ground gracelessly through the first three movements, before I stopped him. “Got it! I see what the problem is. You got a knot of tangled up Ki, right here.” I poked at a spot just above his belly button. “Now, breathe.”

“Waddya think I’m doing?” He didn’t add ‘bitch’, but it was there.

“I mean, breathe deep. Like, all the way down to your toes. When you can’t breathe in anymore, hold it for like five seconds, and then let it out slow, a little at a time. Try to take as long letting it out as you can.”

I had to get him to slow down a little a couple of times before he got it. And then, as he was doing it right, I poked at the knot. Wow, talk about your Gordian knots! This was one angry snarl! It grabbed onto my finger and wouldn’t let me go! I tried to pull my finger out, but it was stuck.

Sheer brute force wasn’t working, so I sent my Ki through my finger. I felt around the angry tangle of Ki until I found the very core of it. I wriggled it around, got it loose, and then it finally worked its way free on it’s own. The snarl unsnarled and let go of me.

And then, everything started floating.

Yes, floating. As in the junk on the floor gently drifted into the air. ‘Dr. Heavy’ and I didn’t gently waft aloft, though. Hey, we were braced to move around in Eight Gravities, which suddenly punked out on us. We both shot off the ground and bopped our heads on the ceiling.

The Doc let out a whoop like he’d won a date with Pam Anderson and she’d promised to bring the extra LARGE box of condoms. He braced himself against the ceiling and dove down into the cloud of clothes and stuff. Brave boy, going face first into his own untidy less-than-whities. He started bopping around, diving in and out of his own stuff like a dolphin. Or a Null-G gopher, maybe.

I managed to kick myself against the ceiling and kicked out to the door, where gravity came back on the job. I turned back and checked on Heavy-boy. He looked to be having a ball, so I left him to it.

I headed out into the hall and ran into this black guy. And when I say ‘black guy’, I am not talking about a ‘brother’- though, he might have been African-American originally, who knows?- I am talking Black. Slate black. The kind of black that you see on Seals and Sea Lions. Or maybe whales, cause he was BIG, Hippolyte big, and had this kind of thick physique that somehow hid his sharp edges. He was bald, and he had this face that sort of looked like he was trying to stretch a face over a head that was three sizes too large for it. He wasn’t so much ugly as he was, well, ODD looking. “Hey! Are you on the staff here?”

He scowled at me with suspicious little eyes. “What do you think?”

“Hey, this is Whateley! You could be a student, you could be staff, you could be a teacher, you could be the interior decorator, for all I know!”

He chewed this over for a second, and reluctantly saw my point. “My name’s Slab. I’m one of the inmates here in Hawthorne.”

“Inmate? Isn’t that what you call someone they locked up in the booby-hatch?”

“Well, what would you call someone stuck in Hawthorne?”

“Apparently, someone who needs to lighten up a bit, Jack!”

“The name’s Slab.”

“You’re kidding? You picked that out yourself?”

“How could you tell?”

“ ‘Cause, if anyone slapped that tag on you, you’d’a probably ripped his head off, slapped the name in his mouth and crammed his head up his ass.” I waved all that aside. “ANYWAY, I gotta find the staff!”

“What for?”

I opened up the door, where it was all ‘Poltergeist’, and Dr. Heavy was still zipping around. “What do YOU think?”


Slab found Mrs. Cantrell, and Dr. Traherne, who apparently was part of Hawthorne’s in-house research staff. “Okay, WHAT did you DO to him?” Traherne yelled at the top of his lungs.

“What’s the big fuss? I’d think that living in Zero G would be a step up from the way he was before!”

“You got THAT right!” Dr. Heavy grinned as he floated past us.

“That’s NOT the point!” Traherne grated, “These children have very serious problems, and you could have seriously complicated his condition with your reckless poking around.”

“Hey!” Dr. H rose to my defense, “At least she DID something!”

“Oh?” Traherne sneered, “Can you suddenly turn your gravity affecting power OFF?”

“Er … no.” The Doc sort of wilted in mid-air.

“Well then, you’ll have to stay in Hawthorne, won’t you?”

“Oh, hush, Hubert.” Cantrell said from outside the room, still in her chair. “At least the boy can leave his room now without destroying the furniture. Heck, the other kids might enjoy having a Zero-G area to hang out in.”

“Only as long as you have a bucket and mop for the vomit.” Traherne sniped. “And as for YOU-” he poked a finger in my face, “you’re going to tell me what you did to do this, and you’ll leave out the pseudo- mystical mumbo-jumbo if you know what’s good for you!”

“Excuse me?” I returned, feeling the hackles on the back of my neck rising, “Did you just call Qi Gung ‘pseudo-mystical mumbo-jumbo’?”

Cantrel hit a button on one of the arms of her chair, and I felt an odd force that jerked both Traherne and me out of Dr. Heavy’s room. “Enough of that. Hubert, the kid wasn’t trying anything, she was just tryin’ to get the boy out of his funk, and it bit her. Chaka, for the love of JESUS, the next time that you get the bright idea to go poking around in other people’s lives, THINK, will you?” She gave a massive sigh- but then, there wasn’t a lot about her that wasn’t massive. “Oh, fer the luvva Pete, just go. You’ve done enough damage for t’day.”

I tried to ask a few questions, but she just shushed me and waved me out of the corridor. The rest of Team Kimba had already left, their shifts already done (traitors!), so I headed back to Poe to get cleaned up for dinner.


Well, so much for my first day at the dreaded Hawthorne Cottage.


I got together with the crew. “So, Toni, what kept you?”

“Oh, let’s just say that I helped ‘Doctor Heavy’ lighten up.”


SAHAR

Semiramis ‘Sahar’ Vesmarran tried to approach Zenith as she went into the Crystal Hall for dinner, but her nerve failed her at the last minute. It was the most extraordinary thing. She was all set to walk up, plow through all the stickiness, and clear the air. And then, it was like a fog of uncertainty shrouded her mind, and she couldn’t think of anything. And then, the opportunity was gone. Again!

Dammit all, why couldn’t she speak with Zoe? Last year, they’d talked about everything! About anything. About nothing. About too much. Ohhh … truly, the wisdom of God blows like the wind through the ears of a jackass!

Sahar took a deep breath and let her disappointment rush out of her. Well, there was nothing that could be done, she might as well get some dinner. She helped herself to the special, and sat at a table by herself. Again!

Odd, that had never bothered her before. Before, she’d always been setting up one of her marks, or she was studying a mark before the set up. But now?

Semi’s ruminations were interrupted when Tansy ‘Solange’ Walcutt sat down across the table from her. “So, how is the asparagus tonight?”

Semi flinched, taken off guard. “You’re sitting with me?”

“Why not? I share a room with you.”

“You’ve never eaten with me before.”

Tansy made a significant look over at the Alpha table. “Consider it a sort of penance.”

“Oh. The Alphas are still upset over that thing with the ghost girl?”

Tansy pursed her mouth sourly, and then her mouth wreathed itself in a nasty smile. “You know … that ‘ghost girl’ bit of hers would be a great trick. I’d love to know how she does it.”

Semi locked her red-ringed eyes with Tansy’s cornflower blue ones, and gave her a sort of psychic ‘tap between the eyes’, letting Tansy know that she wasn’t being either amusing, or subtle.

Tansy shrugged. “I’m just saying … it would be a really useful thing to know …”

“I’m not a psychokinetic.”

“Oh? How do you know?”

“I have checked, you know.”

“Oh, well, I suppose you’re right. After all, you have a very full schedule. Meditating, brooding, sulking … where DO the hours go?”

Semi bridled at the spoiled little Merikanji snip’s cut, but it did manage to snap her out of her funk a little. Suddenly, she was tired of all the introspection and moping. She had an understanding with the CIA that she would go to work for them when she graduated from Whateley. Being a ‘talented’ agent for the American CIA was what the Americans would call a ‘cushy gig’, but it was also very dangerous work, and you needed every little edge that you could get, just to stay alive. She owed it to both the Company and herself, to make the most of her opportunities here at Whateley!

But, Zoe …

Semi made peace with the two warring urges inside her. Yes, she would continue to learn as many psychic ‘tricks’ as she could. BUT, no more rip-offs. No, there was something precious, something hurt and crying inside her. Another rip-off might kill it. No, this time she’d … what? Just go up and ASK someone ‘will you teach me your special trick, the one that gives you this huge advantage?’ But that was insane!

Some sort of trade, maybe? After all, if she could learn these tricks, maybe she could teach them as well? Now, for almost anyone else, this would have been an obvious conclusion. But to Semiramis Vesmarran, it was an epiphany equal in magnitude to Moses seeing the burning bush, or the prophet Muhammad beholding the Archangel Gabriel, or Bill Gates realizing that a flaw could be marketed as a feature. Suddenly, the hesitations of months of soul searching were behind her.

Yes, she’d start picking up new techniques for her resume again. But this time, she’d offer something in return. It would be an honest, above-board exchange, a value for a value! Then crushing reality brought her back down to Earth, and totally killed her rush. Who would believe her? Anyone who wasn’t a friend of the people that she’d burned, would still get warned off as a matter of course. Which meant, that she’d have to try her luck with the freshmen. Nobody told the froshes anything.

Reflexively, Sahar followed Tansy’s venomous gaze across the caff over to the table where Team Kimba sat. Hmmm … Team Kimba… maybe … if everyone thought that Tansy was using her as a weapon against the troublesome froshes, probably on Don Sebastiano’s orders or some such, then no one would warn them.

Semi immediately mentally slapped her own wrist. *No! I don’t think that way anymore! It only makes things worse! And it cost me …*

Semi mastered herself. Okay, erase the mind game regarding Don Sebastiano. Still, Team Kimba was as good a place to start looking for possible … trade partners? … as anyone.

Very well. First cross off Jade, the little Asian girl with the ghostly sister. Whether the ghost girl that Tansy had kidnapped had been a ghost, or a packet of PK energy, or whatever, it was obviously outside her ability to learn. Of course, the ‘ghost’ might also be the product of one of the girl’s devisor gadgets, and she could learn gadgeteering skills…

No, the girl, Jinn, wouldn’t forget that Sahar had turned her down, when she asked her for help. Sigh* Another wasted opportunity. Was crossing back over burned bridges to be her kismet? She shuddered and waved the evil thought away, before it decided to make a home.

Very well. There was the skinny ‘punker’, who seemed to be egging on every homophobe in Whateley by showing off her ‘package’. Sahar wondered briefly how she’d managed to keep from getting jumped yet. No, no matter what her powers were, getting close to that one would only totally ruin Sahar’s already shabby reputation.

The token boy of the group? No, if she remembered correctly, he was what they called a ‘PK superman’, and she couldn’t learn PK traits  as far as she knew.

The blue-haired Asian? No, she was some sort of energizer, same problem as the last. She wasn’t sure what the new Asian girl, the one with the sword, did. Look into that, it was a possibility.

The red-haired pretty-pretty? No, Semi thought, life is dangerous enough, without getting tangled up with Magic. And that went triple for the Gothling, who had an even worse reputation than Sahar did!

But what about the African? If she remembered correctly- and she had a photographic memory- according to the gossip in the dojos, she was called ‘Chaka’, and she was some sort of prodigy. Something about Ki. She’d heard some of the martial arts types theorizing about it. It wasn’t psychokinesis, but practitioners of Qi Gung were supposed to be able to develop psychic abilities. Which suggested that it was some sort of psi ability. It would definitely improve her ability in hand to hand combat, if that showdown between Chaka and Montana was any sign. While Sahar was of the school of thought that said if it came to violence, you’d already lost, she also agreed that the total pacifist was always at the mercy of the violent.

So, if Chaka’s Ki ability was some sort of specialized Psi trait, then this could work very well for both of them. Sahar would learn a valuable combat technique, and Chaka would break out into the wider range of psi talents. *Yes,* Semi smiled to herself, *definitely a ‘win-win’ scenario.*

Now, all that she had to do was sell Chaka on it.


CHAKA

Well, I managed to survive both my first day of Detention in Hawthorne AND the Alphas at dinner. I must be doing something right. As a matter of fact, I was even able to use that a little, during classes. ‘Yeah, I’m doin’ Dee-ten-shun in big bad Hawthorne, and it don’t bother me at ALL! Uh-HUNH!’ It’s always good to be one up on the competition. Besides, if I didn’t play it as an asset, you know that someone would have been rubbing my face it in it.

Heck, Blitz tried anyway, at dojo. Blitz is this tall strapping ‘All That’ type Brit who thinks that she’s Diana Rigg or Emma Peel or somebody, and seems to have it in for me. This is not good, as she’s very strong, very fast, very good at martial arts, and the first time that I grabbed her to throw her, I got a 100-kilowatt jolt.

And I STILL don’t know why Ito-sensei won’t let me wear rubber gloves and/or slippers on the mat.

As it was, I was spending most of my dojo time ducking little miss cattle prod, so that she wouldn’t call me onto the mat for another session of shock therapy.

But you mark my words- _I will_ find a way around that stupid shock bit, and I _will_ cram that snotty accent of hers, right up her ass!


SAHAR

Semi bided her time. Apparently, Blitz had appointed Chaka as this year’s punching bag, and again, the senseis were taking the ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ point of view. Well, an opening is an opening. There’s nothing wrong with making your sales pitch at an advantageous time…


CHAKA

Ah, Shit, Blitz had pretty much cornered me, and was moving in for the kill. It looked like shock therapy time again. Then, suddenly, this girl that I had seen around the dojo but not talked with before stepped up and said, “Excuse me, but I’ve heard that you’re very good. Care to do a few falls?”

Hey, I can do without losing any more childhood memories! “Sure! I’m Chaka. And you are?”

“She’s stepping aside, little missy.” Blitz stalked up, just oozing that ‘blue-blooded noble deigning to associate with the hoi-polloi’ vibe of hers, “We have an appointment on the mat. NOW!”

“Appointment?” I batted my eyes, “Gee, I’ll have to consult my daily planner. I’m sure that I don’t remember anything about a date with you. And, as I DO have a prior engagement …” I waved the girl towards the mat.

“Oh, no you don’t. On the mat! Now!”

“Yes, indeed. With her, not you.”

“Oh, you don’t get off that easy, little missy.”

The other girl stepped between us. “Excuse me, Blitz, but I’m next on the mat with Chaka.”

“Don’t start with me, Evil Eye! Someone has to show this cheeky little squit …” I didn’t find out what Blitz was going to show me (though I have a pretty good idea). As the girl locked eyes with her, Blitz paused and pulled back. Blitz glared at me. “Later. Believe it.”

I called after her, “I notice that you pull this on the mat- the ONE PLACE that you can win!” I looked at the girl. “So, what was all that about?”

She gave a rueful smile. “I just gave her a psionic tap-” I felt a mental ‘snap’ at my brow chakra, where Taoist theory states that psychic energies enter and leave the mind, “-to remind her that some people don’t have to touch her to hurt her.” She took a deep breath and set that aside. “I’m called ‘Sahar’.”


We had a good session on the mat. Well, neither of us actually laid a hand on each other, but we got a good workout, anyway. I couldn’t touch her because Sahar seemed to have a good idea of what I was about to do, and I used my chi to flow out of her attacks. It was pretty much a rerun of what happened with Cavalier at the ‘Breakfast Brawl’. I could have closed my brow chakra, like I did with Cavalier, but I figured that I owed her something for the save with Blitz.

As class was wrapping up, Sahar said, “I did have an ulterior motive for stepping in with Blitz.” She seemed to be having a problem getting it out.

“Okay, I can respect an ulterior motive. What’s yours?”

She took a deep breath. “Well, besides my own talents, I have- well, not exactly a power, it's more like a knack- for copying the psychic specialties of others.”

“Say what?”

“You know, some psychics and espers have these refined talents- like the gadgeteers, they’re focused on technology. Others can do things like a Psi, mentally paralyzing someone, or an Esper who can intuit how to read any written language. Well, I can learn how to copy that focus, though I’m not as expert with it. Well, ah, I’d like to learn your chi specialization.”

“Errr … Well, there’s a problem …”

“Now, I’m not asking you to just give up your great edge!” She seemed a little flustered, and she was selling a little harder than is really good salesmanship. “I could teach you one of the specializations that I’ve learned! For instance, I know a psi rote for connecting with another person’s mind, so that you can talk to them, even though you don’t speak the same language! Or-”

“Hold It!” I managed to break in. “I’m not a Psi.” She started to recover, and I headed her off there. “And, I’m not an Esper, either.”

She was totally at sea. “You’re not?”

I tried to give her a reassuring smile. “No. Manipulating Chi isn’t a psi or ESP talent. It’s its own thing, all by itself. Still, I appreciate the offer.”

But by this time, Sahar was obviously embarrassed, so she mumbled something, broke off and hurried away. OH-kaaaayyy… Obviously some issues there. It occurred to me that the worst thing that I could do would be to just shrug my shoulders and say ‘not my problem’. So, I went into the changing room, but she wasn’t there. “’Scuze me,” I asked the girls who were still in the changing room, “but did a girl in a neon blue practice gi just come through here?”

“You mean Sahar?” One of them asked.

“Yeah, I think that was her name.”

“She blew through here without changing.”

*Oh, fuck.* “Was she upset?”

“Hey, it was Sahar.” One of them shot back. I immediately recognized her as one of the ‘Tigers’, the one who calls herself ‘Alakazam’. But then, it’s sort of hard to mistake a black chick who shaves her head bald, except for a long ponytail set high on the knob of the bulb. “Who gives a shit?”

“Aw, fuck, I gotta go find her and …”

“HEY! Hey, hey, hey, fresh-thing, what do you think you’re doing?” the other one, I’m not sure which one she was, said as she grabbed my sleeve.

“I’m going to see that she’s all right. She got sort of upset out on the floor, and-”

“uh-HUNH.” Alakazam nodded knowingly. “Lemme guess- she asked if you could, like help her with somethin’, and she got all upset when you said No, right?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Smartest thang, y’evver did, Sugar.” Alakazam went into the whole ‘homegirl’ thing. “Sahar is a super-sized order of Bad News, with a side of shit. She’s playin’ you, big-time.”

I looked her straight in the eyes. Ever since I got together with Scott ‘T-Bird’ Emerson (and bitch-slapped their boy ‘Mace’ in the process), the Tigers have been on my back about ‘turning my back on the race’, and that that crap. Don’t you just love having near-total strangers tell you how to run your life? “It didn’t feel that way.”

“Hey, that’s her bag- she’s a psi, she messes with people’s heads. She’s got a different face for every day of the week, just like all them Middle East types. They say one thing to your face, and the exact opposite, the minute they think you can’t hear.”

“Scuze me,” I cut her off, “Y’know, I just hate to cut off a good bigoted rant, but I have to go talk to another human being. You just keep going on about vague socio-cultural abstractions.” I headed for the door Sahar must have gone out.

Suddenly, a wall of smoke formed in front of the door. “And where d’you think you’re going?”

Now this would have worked, if Alakazam hadn’t played this trick on a girl who squishes Nikki’s hobgoblins daily, and copes with Belle’s sense of humor on a regular basis. And Belle’s manifestations are on a whole different level than this. I cut through the smoke with a single Ki-empowered slice of my hand. “I think I’m going to go get some fresh air.”


Frack. Sahar was nowhere in sight, and I had to go back into the changing room, to get into my school uniform for my next class. Whatever had happened with Sahar bugged me, and not just because I hadda take shit from Alakazam, (who comes UP with these names?), either. No, there was something going on there which went a lot deeper than missing a chance to pick up a new trick. I know, as tricks go, Ki is Aces, but it couldn’t have meant that much to her!

It bugged me so much that I couldn’t even pay attention in Intro to Criminology. And Inspector Kwan is my favorite teacher!

Lunch rolled around, and I was at the Kimba table. “Hey, you look out of it.” Nikki observed, “Not looking forward to Round Two at Hawthorne?”

“Nah, somethin’ weird happened at the dojo this morning, and I think I put my foot in it again.”

“Well, that’s a first.”

“What? Me putting my foot in it?”

“No, getting strung out because of it.” Serves me right, going to someone with pointy ears for emotional support. But then, the original series of Star Trek was never really big on my viewing schedule.

“Very funny.” I not-laughed, “A girl came to me with a proposition …”

“Better not let Rip hear about that.” Nikki said with a snarky smirk.

“Not THAT kind of proposition!”

“Well then, what was it, sempai?” Jade asked from the other side of the table.

“Well, see that girl over there?” I pointed at Sahar, who was sitting several tables over, off on the pariah end. “Well, she came over and wanted to learn how I did my Ki schtick. She though that it was some sort of Psi or Esper thing that she could psychically learn from me, and she got sort of strung out when I told her that it didn’t work that way.”

Jade looked over interested. “That’s Sahar,” she said in a tone that kinda suggested that there was more to it.

“Yeah, that’s the name. You know her, Jade?”

“Well ...” she got that cagey look she had when she was trying to
trying to be clever. “Jinn met her, back when I … er … she was stuck
inside Tansy Walcutt.”

“She’s one of the Dickenson girls?”

“More to the point, she’s Tansy’s roommate.”

Suddenly, Ayla, Tennyo and Hank were very interested. “So … Tansy’s playing her next card,” Ayla said, as if she were considering her next chess gambit. “Now I wonder, is Tansy trying to get the Master to her CD back, or is she playing a longer game?”

“Kinda obvious, don’cha think?” Hank wondered. “I mean, Walcutt’s gotta know that Jade will make Sahar.”

“Not necessarily.” Billie corrected him. “Remember, Tansy doesn’t know that the J-team does that info share thing with Jade when they re-integrate. Jade, honey, you say that you met her- what’s your opinion?”

Jade took a deep breath and let it out slowly, to give herself time to think. “We … eelll … I don’t really get the impression that Tansy and Sahar really hung out. It was more like they hadda share a room, and tried not to notice each other as much as possible.”

“So, Sahar wouldn’t feel particularly obligated to help her roomie out.” Ayla said it like a statement, not a question.

“Not unless Walcutt paid her. And Sahar did seem to have a pretty thick mercenary streak to her. Tansy paid her to help her get me under control.” Jade paused and her eyes widened, “Ayah! Tansy paid Sahar more for a few nights’ work, than I’ll make in a year, scraping out the tunnels!”

“Yeah,” Ayla said, “but remember, a big part of that is putting up with Tansy in the first place! Still, with Walcutt money, Tansy can pay for a LOT.”

Ayla regarded Sahar, but turned her gaze when Sahar seemed to notice it. “So, how do we use this?”

Tennyo gave an acid smile. “We let her hang with Chaka, and see what she’s planning. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer, and all that. I think that Tansy’s dumb enough to fall for a little creative dis-information."

”Ah, GUYS….” I cut in, “as much as I hate to admit it, I think that this is what that Stormwolf doink was yammering about, when he talked about the tactics you use. I mean, I got the impression that Sahar was genuinely upset when I turned her down. I kinda doubt that she’d get that wrung out, just for losing a chance to pick up a couple of grand.”

“Depends how greedy she is.” Ayla said off-handedly. “I remember a couple of the guys who worked for my Dad breaking down and crying, when they lost out on big deals. Besides, the old pity ploy is one of the oldest tricks in the book. If you hold off, mark my words, she’ll find an excuse to make another offer.”

“When she does, take it.” Tennyo offered. “If you don’t, Tansy will just find another way of getting at us. If she thinks that she’s got a ploy that’s working, she’ll keep at it, and leave us alone, otherwise.”

“GUYS, we don’t even know that she’s working for Tansy!” I complained.

“Well, I could meet her, and get an impression.” Nikki offered.

“No good.” Jade shook her head. “She’s a Psi. If she’s into the mind-fuck thing, the first thing that she’d learn would be how to give a phony emotional impression.”

“I’ll make a few calls, ask a few questions.” Ayla offered.

“Shouldn’t be that hard.” Jade said, “From what I heard, one of the reasons that she’s rooming with Tansy, is that she’s got a real bad reputation.”

I cleared my throat. “Excuse me, but may I point out that WE don’t exactly have a spotless reputation ourselves?”

About that time, Bugs and Rip walked up a little late, as both of them had made the mistake of trying to get at the seafood platter before the Alphas. “So, what’s up?”

“Oh, Toni’s trying to decide whether to go out with that cute girl over there,” Sara drawled.


Well, it’s not like I didn’t already know that she was genetically Evil.


We did the ‘brave soldiers marching off to their fates’ bit after classes ended, and headed off to our next day in the salt mines. Mrs. Cantrel divvied out the jobs and left me for last. “Shall I start with mopping, or do I help out Babs first?”

Mrs. Cantrel gave one of those shark-grins. “Oh, neither. Why don’t you go with Fubar here, and see what he needs done?”

An older looking white guy stepped forward, smiled and said, “Hi there, Toni. My name’s Lou, but the kids here call me Fubar.”

As he lead me down into the basement, I asked, “So, Lou, what do you do here?”

“Oh, I just help out whenever I can.”

“Really? I’d’a thought that they were really specific about who does what.”

“Why?”

I shrugged. “Well, in order to get a job here in the first place, you-”

“Oh, I’m not on the Staff.”

“Then what do you do here?”

“I’m one of the inmates. I live here.”

Oh lord. “Ah, you look kind of …  mature … to be a student. How long you been here?”

“Oh, twenty years exactly, come February.”

Twenty YEARS? “Ah, then how’cum you’re still here?”

“Well, to be honest, this is practically the only place that I can live.” By this time, we’d gotten to the basement, and walked into a short tunnel. He gestured at a set of double-doors set into the very end of the tunnel, which had on it a picture of the old Hanna-Barbera cartoon character ‘Squiddly Diddly’ over the word ‘FUBAR’. I pushed open the door, which lead into what looked like a small indoor swimming pool. That is, if anyone would build a small indoor swimming pool with a bunch of heavy aeration gear and pumps and stuff. But what really caught my attention were the huge heaping globs of gooey crap that was all over one edge of the ‘pool’ and the equipment’s housings.

eeewww…!” I shuddered. “What happened HERE?”

“Oh, nothing that doesn’t happen four or five times a day.”

“A day?”

“A day. Y’see, I need extremely pure water, or my sinuses get all clogged up.”

I felt my eyes cross in confusion. “Excuse me? What do you DO here?” I saw a snow shovel and a big recycling bin, the type that wheels around, and I was getting a very bad feeling about it.

“Oh, I just hang out.” He could tell that I wasn’t getting it. “Toni,” odd, I didn’t remember telling him my name, “what you’re looking at, right now, isn’t my real body. What you’re seeing is a psychic projection, a manifestation of my Astral body. I, or at least my physical body, is down there in the water.”

I peered down into the water. “Where are you? All that I can see is this big ugly blob.”

“I’m the blob.”

“That’s… you?”

“Why do you think they call me ‘Fubar’? It’s an old Army term. It means ‘fucked up beyond all recognition’.” He pointed at a door. “If you’d like to get a closer look.”

Behind the door was a spiral staircase that went down some twenty feet. At the bottom was a large window that looked into the tank. Fubar was already at the bottom of the stairs, even though I went first, and he never passed me on the stair. “There’s a light switch over there.” The lights brightened the insides of the tank, and I got a better look at Fubar’s real body. He was sort of stretched out on the Barcalounger ™from hell, and he wasn’t moving. He was humanoid- that is, if you’re very loose in your definition of ‘humanoid’. His body was sort of flabby looking- ah, who am I kidding, it was bloated- and there was something about the way that his joints were set that didn’t seem right. His hands were these massive claws, and there these things jutting out from behind his back that might have been wings. But the thing that really jumped out at you was his head. His head alone must have been as big as my entire body, and it was definitely misshapen. Misshapen? Hell, the entire front of his face looked like a freaking squid! There was this mass of tentacles writhing- and believe me, I don’t normally use the word ‘writhe’, but in this case, it FIT!- around in front of his face. The tentacles whipping around were the only sign that he wasn’t dead. Other than that, he didn’t move an inch. “I have the dubious distinction of being the most severe case of Gross Structural Dystrophy on record. At least of those that survived. I can’t move out of water, because my entire skeleton has become cartilaginous. I’ve even developed a set of gills in my lungs. On the other hand, besides being an Exemplar, I’m also a high level ‘Package Deal Psychic’. There are only a handful of Exemplar/PDP combinations that I know about.” He looked out the window at his own deformed real body. “And none of them got anything even like this.”

“What are those tentacles doing?”

“Oh, looking for lunch.”

“Lunch?”

“Yeah, they dumped my lunch in at noon, but you can never tell when one of the little buggers got away, so I’ve gotten in the habit of keeping the old whiskers going at all times.”

“What do you mean, ‘little buggers’?” Hey, keep in mind, I hang out with a girl who eats puppies for breakfast. Literally.

“Brine shrimp. Y’know, like ‘sea monkeys’? There’s sort of a rule, that the bigger something is, the smaller the food that it lives on. The big whales live on plankton, and I live on brine shrimp. Of course, that has its own problems.”

“Such as?”

“Well, like I said before, I need extremely pure water, or my sinuses get all clogged up. And if I don’t get ALL the shrimp that they dump in there for me, they get in my sinuses, and even then, they usually *ahem!* ‘evacuate’ while they are in the water. Just a second….”

Fubar faded from my view. Suddenly, the huge whateveritwas on the barcalounger jerked, sat up partially, and ejected a huge wad of… something… through the water, which at least some of shot out of the water. Then Fubar re-appeared. “Sorry about that. Anyway, like I said, I need clean water. So, part of your job will be to strain out the bigger clumps of that-”

“Y’mean, I gotta shovel snot for the next three hours?”

Fubar shrugged. “Hey, would you want to sit in a pool full of snot? Yeah, your job is to scoop out the bigger globs, clean out the filters, and shovel out the stuff that leaves the water.”

“Do I at least get a raincoat, so’s I don’t get slimed the next time you hock a loogie?”

He smiled. “Look for a closet market ‘Cleaning Supplies’. You’ll find a slicker, rubber boots, and some plastic liners for the garbage bin. Oh, and don’t worry. I don’t let off a big one like that very often, and I just cleaned my sinuses.”

I gave him a ‘yeah, right!’ look. “Rrriiiggghht. And when I’m covered with snot, you’ll just say that the raincoat and stuff is there to be used.”

Then I noticed a movement in the tank. The huge head on the immense figure turned to me, and the eyes opened. The eyes were human. Each one was at least as big as my head, but they were still human. They twinkled, and one winked at me. Then they closed again.


Y’know, that wink creeped me out more than anything else?


It took me the better part of an hour, and I barely managed to dodge getting slimed, but I got the job done, and even managed to use the phlegm dissolver to get the place clean. Fubar nodded approvingly. “Good job, especially for a first timer.”

I gave him a hard look. “Hey, what do you do, when you don’t have someone to clean out your tank?”

“Oh, I just take care of it myself.” He gestured at three of the bags full of snot and lifted them into the disposal hopper.

Oh right. Package Deal Psychic. He’s also a psychokinetic. “Then why don’t you just do that all the time?”

“Then what would naughty Detainees, who go around messing with Thornies without thinking about the consequences, do?”

“Y’mean, this is a punishment detail? The really nasty one, for the Detainees who don’t ‘get with the program’?”

“No, those ones do the toilets.” Fubar shuddered.

“So, this is about Dr. Heavy?”

“Yep, Traherne insisted.”

“But I was only trying to help!”

Fubar gave me one of those exasperated parent looks. “Chaka, Dr. Heavy is a very high level gravitic warper. The effects of his powers put very strange strains on his body. When you were messing around with his Ki, you could have upset the delicate balances in his body that were keeping him alive.”

I felt an icy chill enter my heart. Oh God, I’ve killed him!

Fubar shook his head. “No, he’s doing fine, and driving Traherne up the wall. BUT, that’s pure dumb luck, and the purely accidental matter that you were apparently right about the cause of Lester’s being stuck on ‘generate 8 Gs’ doesn’t change things in the least. Chaka, everyone hits the bull’s-eye at least once in their lives. You hit the bull’s-eye with Lester. But you could have also screwed up his metabolism badly. Unlike Traherne, I’m reasonably familiar with Qi Gung, and I know exactly how badly a system under stress can be fouled up, if you just go poking around willy-nilly, the way that you did.”

“Does the fact that I wasn’t trying to ‘fix’ him mean anything? I was checking out the flow of his ki, and my finger got stuck.”

Fubar seemed to chew on this a bit. “Maybe. But don’t get any weird ideas, Chaka. When the word gets out about what happened, some of the other kids here may ask you if you could ‘poke around or something’.  As a matter of fact, Phlegm, the boy who keeps secreting all that mucus, is already trying to figure out how to ask you, without grossing you out. Just tell him that ‘’Fubar already said No’.”

I raised an eyebrow. “You have that kind of pull?”

“I’m not just an inmate here. I’m also a senior instructor in the Psychic Disciplines. So, yeah, I have that kind of pull.” He paused, and if to prove it, he beat me to my next question. “And, yes, it’s okay if you keep teaching Babs Tai Chi. It’s nothing too drastic, and, hey, it might actually help.” Then he disappeared. “Okay, the pool’s as clean as you’re gonna get it. Mrs. Cantrel says that it’s okay for you to drop in on Babs now.”


I went back up stairs. As I went through the common room, a couple of kids came up to me and started to say something. “Sorry!” I cut them off before they could say anything that they’d regret, “Fubar laid down the Law: I’m not supposed to go poking around in other people’s Ki anymore. If you really think that I can help you, talk it over with that Traherne guy.”

There was a generalized ‘aaawww …’, and they sort of slunk back to watching TV. That big black guy, Slab, was leaning against one of the posts. He scowled at. “You could’a let ‘em ask.”

“I didn’t want to embarrass them, by letting them make fool promises.”

He just scowled some more and let it be. I was halfway down the hallway to Babs’ room, when I was swarmed. And, no, not by more Thornies. Suddenly, a swarm of Tinkerbelle sized Nikkis with little fairy wings surrounded me. They were looking at me and giggling in really annoying high-pitched titters.

It looks like ‘oops’ time again. I paused, focused, took a deep breath. Then I let out with a loud series of yips and furiously poked the little flying copyright infringements, popping them like balloons. The giddy little nuisances were ‘hobgoblins’, little runaway packets of magical energy that Nikki creates when she does her ‘oops’ thing. I get rid of, oh, about five a week, so it’s no biggie.

Babs poked her head out of her door, to see what was the noise. “Oh! Chaka! Fubar said that you’d be dropping by. But what’s all the ruckus?”

“Pest control.” I walked into her room, and yes indeedy, it was a mess- again. I tsked sadly and started picking up. “So, you know Fubar?”

“Oh, sure. Everybody at Hawthorne meets the Foob. He’s all over the place.”

“Well, I guess it’s pretty hard to keep out a guy who can astrally project anywhere he wants.” I paused as a thought hit me. “By the way, how do you keep him from peeping into the girls’ showers?”

“Oh, Fubar would never do anything like THAT.”

I gave her a knowing look. “He’s a guy, and he doesn’t get out that much. Believe me, he peeps.”

“I’ve never heard of him trying anything.”

“That just means that he’s a very good peeper.”

Babs crossed her eyes as she tried to wrap her head around the idea. She glanced around nervously, and decided to think about something else, … anything else. “So, ah, wanna show me that Tai Chi thing again?”


Babs hadn’t come very far with her Tai Chi, but hey! Give her a break! She’s only been doing it for a freaking DAY! I mean, it takes months, if not years, for any real improvements to develop.


I was guiding Babs through her third set of motions, when there was a knocking at the door. I opened it, and Mrs. Cantrel was there. “Are you through in there?”

I looked back in. “You cool, Babs?”

“Yeah, I think that I’m getting it. You go on, I’m okay.”

As Mrs. Cantrel led me up one of the stairs, I asked her to look into a Tai Chi instructor for Babs. “I mean, I can’t guarantee that I’ll be able to be here every day, and Tai Chi isn’t really any good, unless you do it every day, regular as clockwork.”

Mrs. Cantrel stopped her chair, and spun it around to look at me. “And what’s it to you?”

I looked right back her, straight in the eye. “We share a common experience. I know what it’s like to have your body suddenly turn on you and leave you flat. So, she did something stupid, and it bit her in the ass. God knows, I know what that’s like. And besides, why wouldn’t I want someone to get better?”

Cantrel grumped and spun her chair around. “Well, if you’re all that eager to be helpful, then you’ll just love this’n.”

She led me to a room with an unusually wide door with really thick, heavy-duty doors. She buzzed a couple of times, and didn’t get any response, so she keyed something, and the doors rolled open, letting the latest bubble-gum rock anthem come tumbling through the door. She sighed, “Oh, of course. What else would it be?”

She whizzed inside, and I followed. Inside I saw a dark-haired girl in jeans and a pink Tee-shirt,  bopping around to the sound of the music. She looked to be about ten, maybe eleven years old. But, if Jade has taught me anything, it’s that you can’t always tell a mutant’s age.

Cantrel let her boogie for a little bit, and I took advantage to check out the room. It looked as if someone had tried to girly up a heavy machine shop. Everything in the place was made of really heavy-duty metal or high-impact plastics, yet also as if it had been designed to be replaced on a regular basis. Sort of like Dr. Heavy’s room, but not as plain. The place had been ‘prettied up’ with pink paint and flowers and stuff. Stuff that a little girl would like. Or, at least what an engineer who didn’t have kids of his own might think a little girl would like. There were a bunch of large, palm-press buttons all over the place, including what looked like an oversized game controller set near a TV screen. There were shelves with girly stuff, like dolls, stuffed animals and horses, but most of it looked … off, somehow.

Cantrel hit a switch on her armrest, and the music cut out. The girl stopped dancing and spun around. She saw the two of us, and immediately went beet-red in the face. “Sorry t’interrupt, Diz honey.” Cantrel said, “Meet our latest detainee, Chaka. Try not to break her.” With that, Cantrel zipped out of the room.

I looked at her. ‘Diz’ looked like she weighed maybe seventy pounds, if that. “Break me?”

She gave me a ‘sorry about that, Chief’ grin. “Ah, yeah. I break stuff a lot. Y’see, I got this thing, psychokinesis, but instead of makin’ stuff float, I’m like really strong.”

“Oh? Hank- I mean, Lancer- on my team’s like that. He can lift about five tons, or so he says.”

She made a face. “Can he turn it off?”

“Turn it off?” It took me a second to figure what she was talking about. “Oh, you mean, can he NOT be super-strong? I guess so, we’ve never had any real problems with it.”

Her face got worse. “Well, I can’t. I’m always super-strong, and I can’t control how hard I push. I always give it eight tons.” She waved around the room. “All this stuff is made to take a lot of punishment. They got buttons for all the stuff that I gotta move around, that I don’t wanna throw like a missile. And if I wanna leave this room, I gotta wear that.” She gestured at something that looked like a leg brace, only for the entire body. “It’s rigged so that it takes all my PK strength to move it, so I don’t tear nothin’ apart. But it’s real slow, and every so often, it jams. That’s why they call me Diz.”

“Diz?”

“Short for ‘Diz Aster’.”

I immediately had a thought. “You ever hang out with ‘Dr. Heavy’, down in the basement?”

She nodded. “Yeah, but not a lot. I mean, it’s nice, not havin’ t’worry about tearin’ his stuff up, but he’s like 15, and he’s all into boy stuff.” She made a face. “And, his room is, like, a PIT! It’s disgusting!”

“Yeah,” I agreed, “Maybe now that he’s floating around in zero gravity, he’ll be a little better about putting his funky drawers in a hamper!”

She got very interested. “I heard about that! You know anything about how that happened?”

I gave a ‘sorry about that, Chief’ grin of my own and raised my hand.

“You?” Suddenly, she was all interested and came up close real fast. Not wanting to get plowed over by an eight ton St. Bernard, I jumped back. “How?” I gave her the ‘Qi Gung for Beginners’ version. She was all amped, but she got mega-bummed when I told her that Fubar had nixed any more off-the-cuff Qi Gung.

“So, what do you need to have done?”

It turned out that all she really needed was a Scrabble© pigeon. I spent the next hour at the mercy of a Scrabble© shark. And what the hell is a Kolhozy, anyway?

While I was furiously looking up ‘Muzhik’ (which turns out to be a kind of Russian peasant, same as Kolhozy- apparently they got lots of different kinds of peasants in Russia), Diz took one of those ‘hair styling’ heads and started brushing that looked sort of like vermicelli. “Couldn’t they find something that looks better’n that?” I asked.

“Eight tons of force, remember? That new girl, Babs, made this for me. It’s some sort of ultra-strong nano-thingie. Babs-”

“Not to worry, I’ve already met Babs, and got the down-low. Okay, here it is- Muzhik.”

“Seventy-seven points!” Diz squealed, “On a Double Score!”

“Shark!” I shot back. “Hey,” I said, looking at what she was trying on the dummy head, “not bad. Let’s see how it looks on you!”

I picked up a comb, but I couldn’t get it anywhere near the back of Diz’s head. “What’s with the force field?”

Diz looked up at me. “I can’t turn that off, either.”

“How do you EAT?”

“Through a straw. Another nano-construct. I haven’t eaten anything solid in almost a year.” She paused, and a look of real hunger crept over her face. “Y’know, I’d KILL for a Big Mac?”


“What’s the matter, Toni-hon?” Rip asked as we mass-migrated to dinner, “You still brooding over the one that got away?” She’d been teasing me about Sahar ever since Sara spilled the beans. She’s more or less gotten used to the fact that I’m also dating T-Bird, but that doesn’t mean that she’s happy about it, so she gets in her digs when she can.

“Nah, I’m just a little bummed out.” As we ate, I described Diz’s lousy situation. “I mean, GAWD, she hasn’t even been able to TOUCH anyone in, like, a YEAR!”

“Toni, NONE of the kids in there are exactly sitting pretty.” Ayla pointed out, “That’s why they’re in Hawthorne.”

“You don’t get it, Ayles! She’s only Eleven!”

Jade shrugged, “Well, I did hear that the earlier a mutant trait manifests itself, the more powerful and more uncontrollable it is.”

“Yeah, I know. But, God, she can’t even eat solid food! She had to force a straw through her force field and drink through that!”

“The straw is probably attuned to her force field.” Hank said with the calm certainty of a professional.

“And what’s THAT supposed to mean?” I shot back

“Well, it would take too much energy to create a solid PK field that would be on all the time;” he explained. “Besides, if it were a solid field, it would repel the air we breathe as well, and we PK supermen would suffocate."

“So, it has, like, air holes?”

“No, Chaka-sempai,” Jade told me, “It’s more like a really complex lace pattern that shifts when something touches it. Only, instead of the force moving away from what’s touching it, it moves toward it, increasing the power of the field.”

“Oh- kaaayyy … That makes sense … I guess.” I gave her a look. “But howcum you know all about it?” 

“Hank let me charge Jann into his field.” Jade paused, “Had a real hard time getting’ free of it, tho. Don’t really wanna try that one again.”

I tried to wrap my head around what they were trying to say. “Sooo … it’s like the force field learns what it should and shouldn’t push away? Do push away Zergatronic Death Rays, don’t push away oxygen and chocolate fudge? Only in Poor Diz’s case, it even pushes away the fudge, unless she can get it through the magic straw Babs made for her.”

Hank nodded. “Somethin’ like that. Takes a bit to get used to new clothes, and like that.”

An idea was forming somewhere in the back of my brain, but it was derailed when a pair of long muscular black arms, overloaded with bling-bling, draped themselves over my shoulder. “Hey, Sunshine! Why don’t you brighten up these li’l sparklers fo’ me, hunh?”

“Hello, Dredz.” I said in as deadpan a way as I could. ‘Dredz’ was part of Lily’s team, ‘STAR League Jr’. STAR League Jr. Oooggg. … It must suck, being thought of as a kiddie knock-off of somebody else.

“Sooo … Baaayyy-bay ... when are you an’ me gonna get together for a little you an’ me?” Don’t ask me where he got the idea, but Dredz seems to think that we’re an item or something. I keep telling him that I’m already connected up, but he seems to think that I’m playing hard to get or something. It wouldn’t be half so bad, but Dredz is on the whole suburban gangsta trip. Getting hit on by him is like being drooled over by my brother Vince.

I was searching for a nice way of prying him off of me, when suddenly Dredz slipped with a thud, and a slick patch on the floor carried him out of the dinner hall. I patted Rip on the hand. “Thanks. I needed that.” Hey, having a jealous girlfriend can come in handy some times! Rip’s managed to accept that I’m dating Scott. At least, I think she has- it’s hard to tell with that girl. … Anyway, she puts up with me seeing Scott, but there’s no way that she’s gonna put up with anyone else come nosing around me.

Y’know, it’s kinda frightening, when you see it in print, like that.


During study time, I was looking for something to think about besides diagramming sentences. I kept coming back to Diz and that stupid force field. Okay, having super-strength that you can’t control has got to suck big time, all by itself. But not being able to touch anyone … Suckimus Maximus! It all came down to that stupid force field. Okay, maybe they can’t find a way to bring it down … but maybe there’s a way to, like, get through it somehow?

I looked over at Hank, who was sitting there, grinding through his homework. Lucky dork, he didn’t seem to have any problems turning his force field off and on. Come to think of it, how often did he have the fool thing on? I reached over and gave him a poke. “Hunh? What is it, Toni?”

“Do you have that force field of yours up and running?”

“Uhm, sort of. Why do you want to know?”

“Just curious.” I gave him another poke. “Crank it up, will you?” A slick feeling came between his skin and me. It wasn’t like there was this hard wall between us, more like I was trying to pin down a bead of mercury with my fingers, only instead of the mercury slipping out from under my finger, my finger kept slipping off the mercury. The harder I poked, the more my finger went scooting off in the wrong direction.

Okay, this is a lot more interesting than tenses, any day! I felt around with my Ki, and I got a sense of what Jade was talking about; It’s like there are these tiny whirls of energy twisting around just over Hank’s skin, laying in wait for something to disrupt the pattern. As soon as something pushes in, like my finger, or a bullet, or packet of photons or something, it overloads a sort of ‘surface tension’, and all the PK energy sort of swarms into that spot instantly, forming a bigger and better barrier.

Okay, so the problem isn’t really so much getting past the PK field, it’s a matter of not triggering the swarming reaction. All right, let’s assume that Diz’s force field works like Hanks, only 24-7 at full blast. Still, she can eat- if it passes through that stupid straw- and she can take showers. No, more likely she has to take baths, and she sits there, dry as a bone, until her force field gets used to the water, and lets it past. Come to think of it, how does she wipe, after she takes a dump? Does she just do it before she takes a bath? Jeez, just when you think that somebody’s life can’t suck any more than it already does … !

Okay, Diz doesn’t stink, so that means that she can stay clean. So, she does wash somehow, probably like I just figured. That means that once the force field gets used to something, like that straw, or her clothes, it lets them past. Diz just doesn’t know how to tell her force field to shut down.

Maybe I can use my Ki to ‘slip past’ the PK. If I can feel the PK, maybe I can match it somehow, and make it think that my Ki is just more PK. Let the PK balance itself out a little, and sneak past that way. I laid my the tips of my fingers on Hank’s cheek, closed my eyes, and focused on feeling his Ki. It took a bit, and I could tell that people were saying things, but I wasn’t hearing them. I could feel his PK whirling around, and I finally got a sense of the ‘tone’ that it was operating on. I tried to match the tone, and I could feel Hank jerk.

“What did you do?”

“What do you mean?”

“You did something… to my skin… it felt… weird…”

“Don’t worry, Studmuffin,” I grinned at him. “I think that I just got your number. Turn your force field up, full blast.”

Hank shrugged and focused for a second. I reached out and touched the very tip of his nose. The ‘tone’ was a little different and I couldn’t actually touch his nose, but I easily matched it, and slipped past his PK.

Hank looked cross-eyed at my finger. “Hey--- I can feel that…”

I pulled my finger away, and on a sudden impulse, poked him again. “Hey!” Hank said, “Why’d... hey, how’d you do that?”

I grinned at him, and said, “Like I said, Studmuffin- I got your number.” Then I ruthlessly tickled him into a giggle fit, while other Poe kids walked by with that ‘Team Kimba, go figure’ look that I know all too well.


Once the homework was wrapped up, I dropped by Rip and Bunny’s room. All things being equal, Rip’s being more than a good sport about Scott and all, and I wanted to let her know that I do appreciate her. Take a good fully clothed massage, amplify with a liberal application of Ki, and I left Rip a gently cooing puddle of flesh, and Bunny, round eyed.


You’re supposed to dread going to do Detention, but I could barely wait for it. Fubar had a big heaping mess of goo waiting for me. “Hey! Squiddly Diddly!”

Suddenly, ‘he’ was right beside me. “What is it, Toni?”

“Am I scheduled to be with Diz again today?”

He flickered out and back in again. “Nope, but I can put in a good word, if you really want to. Did you learn some new words that you wanna spring on Diz?”

I shook my head. “No, I had an idea, and there’s something that I wanna try out on her.”

Foob shook his head, “Toni, I know that you mean well, but Diz’s condition is very …”

“I’m not gonna mess with her powers! I just had an idea that might make her life a little more livable.”

He looked at me funny. I briefly had one of those ‘is he messing around in my head, and what do I do about it if he is?’ moments. “Okay, but Cantrel wants to have someone there, in case something goes wrong.”

I shrugged. “Okay.” I briefly thought about asking him if he’d been messing around inside my head, but what would I do if he said ‘Yes’?

“Oh, and would you get that lump there? It’s starting to get crusty. I hate it when they get crusty.”

Some people are so picky about their mucus!


My ‘chaperone’ was Slab. I guess they figured that if anything went wrong, they wanted someone who could soak up a lot of damage there to get things back under control. “So, what’s this big idea you got planned?” He didn’t add ‘you stupid little twink’, but it was there, you could just tell.

“Nothing major, Dude. Just a little something to make Diz’ life a little brighter.”

Slab started to say something, when a stream of loud cussing came down the corridor. Following the sound of the swearing, we looked down the hall, and Nikki ducked around the corner, buck-nekkid and giggling. I quickly covered over Slab’s eyes and started to say something as Nikki flounced toward us. Then Nikki came around the corner- again- this time fully clothed, waving a broom and cussing up a storm. “Come %*&^ing BACK here, you ^&##!*$ &>~#!”

Oh. Hobgoblin time again, only full-sized this time.

As the hobgoblin-Nikki scampered past me, I poked it and ‘popped’ it. But instead of dissolving into ethereal vapors, like hobgoblins usually do, it sort of ‘shattered’ into a few dozen buck-nekkid Nikki- pixies. The Nikki-pixies (Nixies? Nik-sies?) giggled and flew off in a swarm. The real Nikki paused, scowled at me and said, “Oh, thank you ever-so $#@&- ing MUCH!” Then she chased after them, swatting at them with all her might.

Slab scowled at me. “If that’s the sort of help you are, I’m not letting you anywhere NEAR Diz.”

I pointed at Nikki as she rounded a corner, swearing like a sailor who just missed the last boat for shore leave. “That shouldn’t have happened. Normally, Nikki’s hobgoblins just go *pop!* and turn into vapors when I pop them.”

“It’s probably because she’s not the one creating them.”

I looked aside at him. “You got a guy who creates hobgoblins here?”

“What makes you think that it’s a guy?”

“A girl wouldn’t think up Nikki running around naked.” Or, if she did, she’d be in Poe.

Slab shrugged. “Okay, you got me there. I think that Spoof has a crush on her.”

“I take it that ‘Spoof’ is the kid responsible for this?”

“Yeah, t’be honest, it’s nice to have a change from Autobots and Pokemon and Ninja Turtles.”

“Sounds to me like this kid watches too much TV.”

“Yeah, but what he dreams up on his own can be worse. At least the TV stuff acts like he thinks they’d act.”

“So, in other words, it could be worse.”

Slab nodded. “Believe me, you do NOT want to be here when he’s having nightmares.”

I shuddered, and knocked on Diz’s door. Diz looked up from the book that she was reading. “What? You back for more punishment?” She hit some controls, and a waldo setup started fishing around her shelf.

“Don’t bother with the board. Just sit down and stick out one of your feet.”

Diz shrugged, sat down and stuck out one of her shod feet. Well, I was thinking of doing this with a bare foot, but if I’m right it shouldn’t make any difference.

I knelt down by her and ran a finger over the slick surface of her shoe. Come to think of it, how did she stand up, if her force field was repulsing everything, including the floor? “Let me know when you feel anything.”

She gave me an ‘man, you are SO dense’ look. “I can’t feel anything, remember?”

“Shush.” It took a while longer- her vibes were a lot different from Hanks- but I finally got the ‘tone’.

Diz jerked. “Hey. I felt that!”

“Good. Then I think it’s working.”

“Exactly what are you up to?” Slab asked from behind me.

“Watch and learn, pipsqueak!” I ran a finger down the length of Diz’s shoe, and felt leather. Okay, so far, so good. I untied her laces and pulled the shoe off.

“How’d you do that?” Diz asked, flabbergasted.

“Why *I* am the Wise and Powerful CHAKA!” I intoned in my most over-awesome voice, “Mistress of Ki and all it’s myriad applications! There is NOTHING that I cannot do, when I put my mind to it!”

“Or, in other words,” Slab said in a flat, unimpressed voice, “she got lucky on a wild-ass guess.”

“HUMPH!” I said loudly. “Pay no attention to the little man in the big skin, Diz! Just lean back, and enjoy.” I proceeded to give her the most luxuriantly relaxing ki-powered massage that she’d ever had. Like she has a lot for comparison. She lay there, digging on being able to feel someone touching her. She turned around to give me a hug but I stopped her. “Ah-ah! I’m not immune to your PK, I just managed to slip past it. If you hugged me, they’d have their hands full squeezing me back into the tube of toothpaste.” Diz wilted a little. “BUT, there’s nothing that says I can’t give YOU a big hug.” Getting the rest of me past her PK shield was… interesting, but I managed.

We sat there, just listening to the beating of each other’s heart for a while. Then, I remembered Slab. “Well! Enough of that. Don’t want you getting jaded or anything. Up for a game of Scrabble?”

As Diz smiled and punched the buttons to retrieve the set from her shelf,. I looked at Slab. “Well? How about you? Maybe Diz could spot you a few points?”

Slab shook his head. “Naw. I’ve already been taken through the wringer.” He turned to leave, but we cackled him out the door with ‘chicken-clucks’.


Even Traherne had a hard time finding fault with what I’d done, when he heard about it. Not that that stopped him from bitching about not being able figure out HOW I’d done it. I think that he just doesn’t get the whole concept of Ki. But Cantrel had a very different take on it. “Y’did good, Kid.”

Okay, it wasn’t a rousing tribute with a medal or anything, but Cantrel looked at me differently now. She didn’t look at me as if I was tracking mud on her clean floors anymore. She looked at me with warmth, and like she knew that I could be counted on to do the right thing. From someone like Cantrel, that means a lot.

But the kicker was at the very end of the shift. Diz looked at me with that tragic ‘you’re going away?’ look. “Will I see you again?”

I shrugged. “I think that it’s a good bet that they’ll arrange for me to be assigned to you, when I get detention.”

Big Puppy-dog Eyes. “And what if you don’t GET detention?”

I gave Diz my best reassuring smile. “Oh, if I understand Karma correctly, I can almost promise you that I’m gonna get detention. More often than is really good for me, I’ll bet.”

“Why?” Diz suddenly seemed to be worried about what sort of person she was counting on for her hugs.

“Oh, don’t worry, I’m no troublemaker. But I just don’t sit still and take it when people try to push me around.” Though, come to think of it, that pretty much IS what most people call a ‘troublemaker’. “Still, not just laying there and letting people wipe their feet on you is usually enough to get you in trouble, one way or another. I wouldn’t worry, Hon. I’ll drop in every so often, even when I don’t have detention.” I turned and glared at Slab. “You got a problem with that?”

He looked back at me innocently. “Why would I have a problem with it?”

“I dunno. You just seem to have a problem with the fact that I exist.” He just maintained a dignified silence.


Well, three days into my week of Detention, and I think that I can honestly say that I’ve done more good at Hawthorne cottage than most of the losers that they send there do in their entire time at Whateley. What? You were expecting modesty?

Well, if there was a downside to detention, it’s that it cut badly into the time that I could spend with Scott. I barely had enough time to change for dinner, yet when I got to the big fish bowl, Scotty was so busy with his buds that all I got was a wave. A Wave! *Humph!* No wonder, women are always bitching about men!

Still, it took more than that to harsh my good vibe. First Babs, then Dr. Heavy, and now Diz. Maybe I’m going at this ‘Ki Prodigy’ thing wrong, by focusing on the martial arts. After all, there’s all sorts of things that you can do with Ki! Maybe I was given this incredible gift, to be a great Ki healer.

I was riffing on the high of what Cantrel had said when I spotted Sahar, sitting all by herself again. No, wait a minute, that bitch Tansy was with her. Now, I’m not psychic, but even I could tell from several tables away that Tansy was working Sahar for something. Probably trying to get the girl to do something stupid, that’s Tansy’s bag. Maybe she’s trying to get her roommate to mess with Team Kimba, to get that DVD of her that Jade burned.

Okay, maybe I’m just tripping on the whole ‘do-good’ thing, but it really struck me that Sahar needed a friend. And Tansy Walcutt ain’t nobody’s friend. And, whathehell, I sorta owe Sahar for keeping Blitz at arms’ length.

I picked up my tray and said, “Cover me, guys- I’m goin’ in.”

Before the gang could talk me out of it, I was over at Sahar’s table. “Why, TANSY! I didn’t recognize you-” I dropped to sotto voce, “-fully dressed.”

Tansy went beet-red, and I could sense her gather and focus power. But there are rules against going around psychically bitch-slapping people. At least, in public. Or where there are several other psychics around. And given Tansy’s personality, I’ll lay odds that most of ‘em were already fishing around for dimes to drop on her. Tansy sniffed, made a nasty remark about the quality of the neighborhood, and left. She went over a few tables, and sat with two other blondes, who all started buzzing at each other.

Sahar looked at me with large confused (and red-ringed) eyes. “What is it?” she asked, with a note of fear.

“Well, you made me an offer, and you left before we finished talking it out.”

She made a surprised noise. “But … you said that your Ki gift wasn’t psychic …”

“So? That doesn’t mean that I can’t teach you.”

She blinked in confusion, “But I can’t learn psychokinetic gifts-”

“Honey, Ki isn’t psychokinetic. And Everyone’s got Ki, whether they know it or not. Now, if you can learn psychic ‘knacks’ from other Psis, then you should be able to learn how to use your Ki from me.”

“What makes you think that?”

“Can you use your psi to learn normal stuff, like Math or Gymnastics?”

“Well … yes …”

“Okay, the mistake that most people make, is that Qi Gung is some paranormal, kinda-magic thing. It’s not. Like I said, everyone’s got ki. Everyone uses ki. They just don’t use it very well. Everyone can learn to use their ki. It just … takes most people a while. Like, say, twenty or thirty years of dedicated effort. Now, as you’ve probably heard, I’m like the Mozart of Qi Gung; doing this stuff is like breathing to me. Okay, technically, it’s all breathing, but you know what I mean. So, I should be able to teach you a few things.”

Sahar’s red-ringed eyes narrowed in suspicion. “And what will you be getting out of this?”

I shrugged. “Okay. I’ve never actually trained anyone in Ki before. And, before you can really use ki, you’ve got to, well, sort of wake it up, wrap your head around the fact that it’s there, and get it to listen to you. Now, this is a lot harder than it sounds. Now, for me, it was easy as pie. But, by definition, I’m hardly what you’d call normal. Waking up your ki is major. But, I think that I can walk you through it. ‘Course, we’ll have to do this in the dojo, so Ito-sensei has the final say-so.”

“I still don’t see what you’re getting.” 

“Hey, messing around with Ki is dangerous. People have died, trying to get their Ki to do too much. If you agree, you’ll be my first student. Every mistake that I make, I’ll make with you.”

Sahar shook her head. “But you’ll be taking every risk that I will. There must be some form of payment.” 

Woof. Dunno why she’s so hot on the whole repayment gig, but if it’s so important to her. “Well … I guess that I could always stand to learn Arabic.” I looked at her. “You could use that psi of yours to teach me Arabic, right?”

She nodded. “I have to warn you- the link that we’ll have to form will be very … intimate. You should know that. Some might feel that … closeness … would be … uncomfortable. Or manipulative. Even invasive. If you let me in, there’s no way that you could know that what you’re thinking or feeling is you or what I want you to think or feel.”

I shrugged. “So, we’re both taking a risk.”

She looked at me strangely. “Why are you doing this?”

“Hey, teaching Qi Gung is part of learning Qi Gung. I gotta start with someone. I think that you’re tough enough to survive any screw-ups that I might make.”

Sahar took a deep breath, like she was gonna jump into cold water. “Okay. … I’m in.”


NEX

There are people who do push-ups as handstands. There are people who do push-ups and clap their hands at each crest. Cyril ‘Nex’ Huntley did both. He could have used PK to help him do it, but he didn’t. Nex was angry. He’d accepted a commission, and he’d failed. The elf-bitch and her iron-plated boyfriend had made a fool of him. But he wasn’t angry at them. No, you don’t blame a target for not rolling over and dying, or for someone for coming to the rescue. No, Nex was furious with himself.

“I don’t believe it!” *clap!* “I gloated!” *clap!* “Ninjas don’t gloat!” *clap!* “The Evil Emperor Zerg gloats!” *clap!* “Stupid-ass PUNKS gloat!” *clap!* “But Professionals don’t gloat!” *clap!* “They get in, do the job, get it over with, and get OUT!” *clap!*  “They don’t have bloody conversations with their targets!” *clap!*

But what really pissed Nex off, was that he’d made the mistake that he’d always told himself that he’d never make. He’d promised himself that, when he’d seen the old James Bond movie, From Russia, With Love. Grant, the SPECTRE assassin, had screwed up the entire plan.  Kronstien’s entire elaborate plot had been working like a Swiss watch, right up to the point where Grant should have simply pulled the trigger and sent 007 to Hell. Admittedly, Bond was suspicious, but, if he’d just kept to the plan, and acted like a professional, Grant still would have killed Bond. But NO, right at the last moment, when he SHOULD have just kept his mouth shut, and blown Bond’s brains out, Grant had to go and get chatty. He had to go and gloat, and shake Bond down for money, despite the fact that it would have completely destroyed the cover story that Kronstien had planned, and tell Bond to kiss his foot. Nex remembered being outraged when he saw that scene. Up to then, Grant had been a perfect assassin. But, no, just when it mattered the most, Grant had punked out. At that moment, Grant deserved to get shanked by a knife that came almost out of nowhere. And Cyril had promised himself that he’d never make that sort of stupid mistake.

Then, why had he made it?

Nex let himself down onto the floor. Yes, why HAD he done it? When a professional makes an inexcusable blunder like that, he doesn’t beat himself up over it. He figures out why it happened, so that it never happens again.

He’d had her, but when she fought, he more or less played with her. When she bit him, he decided to hurt her, rather than just mark her up. Yes, that was definitely where he went wrong. A quick sandbag along the back of her head, maybe a sedative soaked rag over the mouth, and it all would have been over before the git in the armor could have reacted. Indeed, his entire plan had been flawed. A quick splash of acid would have done the job, and the redhead never would have seen him. If anything, the King Arthur poser who had been stalking her would probably have been a prime suspect. So, why had he done it that way?

Because, he’d wanted to hurt the redhead.

Another classic blunder! Never let yourself get emotional on a job! But WHY had he wanted to hurt the redhead? She’d never done anything to him. Indeed, it was the first and last time they’d ever met. Not that he wouldn’t enjoy peeling her arrogant face like an apple. But why did he resent her so much?

He remembered feeling attracted to her when he first saw her. But his research suggested that every straight male who saw her got that reaction. Some sort of psychic projection, he’d heard. But why would he want to hurt a girl that he was attracted to?

A face came unbidden to his mind’s eye. Sahar. He still longed for Sahar; maybe he also wanted to hurt her? Maybe Reilly’s psychic projection had slipped past his mental defenses, and itched that anger at Semi, unconsciously making him want to take out his anger at Semi on Reilly?

This was even more annoying than the gloating. He still had it bad for Sahar. God, how cliché! He was still infatuated with the girl that had played him for a sucker.

But then, he’d known that she was playing him, even as she was doing it. Indeed, it was part of what made her so irresistible to him. They were two of a kind, both of them dedicated to the careers that they were training for. She, a ‘talented’ operative for the American CIA, and he, a killer for hire. He’d never seen anyone with an instinct for the jugular that Sahar had. She was perfect in her ruthlessness and cold-blooded cunning. She enflamed him just by his thinking about her.

He was blessed- he was only 17 years old, and he’d already found his woman. He was accursed- she’d left him. No matter what it took, Cyril Huntely knew that he had to get Sahar back.


CHAKA

Call me crazy- God knows, you won’t be the first- but there is just something essentially wrong with doing Detention on Saturday.  I mean, Detention is being kept after School, right? And there’s no school on weekends, right? Sometimes boarding school can be such a drag. They made me miss my ‘toons!

Well, at least we got our hours over in the morning, so we had the afternoons to look forward to.

Cantrel had me clean up a hall in a section where a boy called Phlegm roomed. Phlegm was the kid who secreted a thick, slimy mucus all over his body. Constantly. Well, it was a formidable foe, but none can stand before the awesome mopping technique of CHAKA!

I’d rinsed out the mop and was emptying the bucket into the special ‘Biohazard’ chute- Hawthorne has special ‘Biohazard’ chutes on every floor (and people say that POE is weird!)- when Ayla walked up to me. “Hey, Tone, I need a hand.”  Never one to miss a cue, I started clapping my hands.  “Very funny. I need help with the room.”

“What’s the matter?”

“It’s frozen.”

“Then get Cantrel to unlock it for you.”

“No, I mean FROZEN. As in sealed shut with ice.”

I paused for a moment. “Oh, right. Whateley.” I followed her to a room on the third floor, where a girl bundled up in a snowsuit and a guy dressed in what I took for a technicians uniform were standing beside a door.

“Hey, Frostbite, this is Chaka. Chaka, this is Frostbite.”

“Lemme take a wild guess- Ice powers?”

Frostbite gave a ‘oh, this again’ grimace. “Well, to be accurate, I have a psychokinetic talent that’s attuned to water molecules.”

“Oh! Do you know Riptide?” She nodded.

“Rip? Oh, right, she’s in Poe, isn’t she? Yeah, but part of my talent is that I use the heat energy in water to propel it. When I move the water, I translate the heat energy into movement, and the water loses heat. Problem is, once the ice sets, I can’t move the water anymore. I can shape the water into a form, but once it freezes, that’s it.”

I gave a half-smile. “AND, you can’t turn off your ‘freeze’, right?”

She nodded. “Yep. And I’m not immune to the cold that I create, either. It’s not as bad as it was last year, but every so often, it still goes out of control, especially when I’m dreaming. Then, I wake up in a Winter Wonderland.”

“Yeah. The snow on the floor was sort of a giveaway. So, what do you need me for?”

Frostbite glowered, “I’m frozen out! That idiot Olympia came into my room and started dricking out over something. Not only did she short-circuit the heaters and the dehumidifiers in my room, but she set off the freaking sprinklers! Everything in my room is covered in ice a foot thick! I barely got out with my snowsuit!” She clutched together and shivered. “Gawd! I’m freezing!”

I looked at Ayla. “Okay, and why do you need me? Can’t you phase through it, or get heavy and just force the door open?” The door had one of those latches, like a large kitchen freezer.

Ayla shook her head. “What? And pass through freezing cold ice? Not hardly. Besides, what would I do, once I was inside? I can’t get Ernie there inside to fix the heater, and I don’t know how to do it myself! And the latch is filled with ice; if I tried to force it open, I’d probably break the mechanism. We were thinking that you could do your kung fu mojo on the ice, like breaking a board or something, but not break the metal.”

I leaned over and tapped the ice. “Well, it’s a little more complicated than that, Ayles, but I think that I can help you.” I got a sense of the resonance of the ice as opposed to the metal, and focused my Ki. “”Hi-YAH!” I gave the door a palm strike in the center of its main panel, and the ice around the edge shattered. Ayla checked the latch; it worked, and the door swung open.

The room was designed like a freezer- for obvious reasons- and it was as cold as one. Yes indeedy, there was a thick coating of ice over everything. Frostbite hurried in, and gave out a loud scream of anguish. “My Bed! My electric blanket! It’s ruined! Omigawd, my homework! My books! Oh, no… MISTER MEW-MEW!” She clutched an ice-encrusted furry cat plushy to her chest. “Dammit, WHY did they put a sprinkler system in a freezer in the first place?”

“Safety regs.” Ernie the tech said evenly as he was looking at one of the very large heater panels that was positioned over Frostbite’s bed. “We wanted CO2 sprayers instead, but those are more expensive, and the budget’s always tight.” He tsked and shook his head. “Sorry, Frosty, but this thing burned itself out when the condensation hit the heating element. I’m gonna havta replace it.”

“Ahhh, NUTS!” Frosty snapped. “Well, what about the dehumidifier? It won’t be that bad, if there’s no moisture for me to freeze.” She looked around at the sheet of ice covering everything. “Or maybe not. ‘Scuze me, but I gotta get out of here. I’m only making things worse. I gotta get someplace warm.” She headed for the door, muttering, “When I graduate, I’m SO going to MIAMI! Or Arizona. Or someplace warm…”

But before she could get to the door, it swung open and a tall girl in what appeared to be gold power armor- or at least a gold-plated power frame of some sort. She was tall and imposing, but not exactly what you’d call stacked. She blocked Frosty’s path, but glowered at Ayla and me. She struck a pose and pointed at us. “You! You will STAY AWAY from MY MAN!”

“Oh kee-rist, this again ...” Frosty moaned.

I looked at Ayla to see if she had any idea of what this kid was yammering about. Ayla just looked at me and shrugged. “Is this one of Thunderbird’s girlfriends?”

“If she is, then they’ve been holding out on me.”

“Thunderbird? Who is Thunderbird?” the gold-plated chick asked in a voice with an accent that you couldn’t cut with a power saw, “I am talking about LANCER!”

Lancer? Hank? I looked back at Ayla, who just looked back at me. “Does Lilly know about this?”

“Lilly? Who is Lilly? Is she the redheaded whore? Or the tramp with the blue-dyed hair?”

“errr … no. She’s Hank’s girlfriend.” I said as calmly as I could.

“WHAT?” the psycho shrieked at the top of her lungs. Then she started yammering in some language that I didn’t understand, but seemed to be a great language for cussing in. Then electricity started sparking and arcing all over her.

“Oh, not AGAIN!” Frostbite shouted. Then she got up and grabbed the girl’s arms, “Dammit, Oly, we just got this place open again!” ‘Oly’- I guess that this was the ‘Olympia’ that Frosty said had started all of this. Well, at least now I know how she set off the fire alarm- just strong-armed Frosty aside. With a casual shove, she sent Frostbite flying across the room, where she hit the wall and slid down onto her bed.

Oly went totally berserk. She filled the entire room with electricity. Ernie curled himself up into a ball, and Frosty covered him as best she could.  Ayla got heavy and grabbed her. Apparently Oly was pretty tough, as she was giving Ayla a run for her money, and Ayla can lift a little over a ton when she’s hard. Neither of them had any technique that I could spot, but a lot of raw power. I managed to dodge the lightning- well, at least some of it- by using my Chi sense to avoid the high positive charge points.

Now, normally, I hate to be left out of a fight, but looking at the light show, I was painfully reminded of Blitz, and the problems that I’ve been having with her. Still, there’s more than one way to skin a cat …

I grabbed ‘Mister Mew-mew’ and heaved it at Olympia’s head with everything that I had. I landed dead on- hey, do I ever miss?- and the ice around the plushy exploded in a flash of electricity. Oly gave out a shriek, and for about five seconds everything in the room was bathed in electricity. Frost flipped Ernie over so that she was between him and the electrified ice. All the ice melted, and the room suddenly turned into a sauna.

Then, suddenly, Olympia just went limp, sagged in her frame, which teetered for a moment, and fell backwards.

“Nice job!” Frosty raised a finger, and there was a swirling, and don’t ask me how, but the room got even colder. The steam- and all the rest of the water in the room, spiraled in front of Frosty, and coalesced into a ball of ice about three feet across. Well, that’s ONE way of getting this place dry!

“Thanks, Frosty,” Ernie said as he got up. He looked around. “Well, it’s not like we weren’t going to have to replace practically everything, anyway.”

I looked down at Olympia on the floor. “Is she okay? I didn’t hit her that hard.”

“Oh, she’s okay.” Ernie said with nary a trace of concern in his voice. “She just dricked out. She’s gonna go bye-bye for a while.” As if on cue, a soft snore came from Oly’s nose.

“Dricked out?” Ayla asked, “What the hell is ‘dricked out’?”

She’s a Deidrick’s Syndrome case,” Ernie said, as if that explained everything. He looked at us. “Didn’t they get around to that in Powers Theory?” I looked at Ayla, she looked at me, then we both looked at him and shook our heads. Ernie shrugged. “Well, y’know when a supervillain or mad scientist goes off on a roar, with energy arcing everywhere, all ‘I will take over the world, rant, rant, rant’? Well, that’s a classic demonstration of Deidrick’s Syndrome. Y’see, using some mutant powers upset the chemical balance in your brain-”

Ayla looked at me with a wise-ass smirk. “Oh, so THAT’S what’s wrong with you!” I just stuck out my tongue at her.

“ANYWAY, some powers’ll do that to you. The neurotransmitters get all bipolar, and the poor sucker gets all talky and overemotional. They get upset, and the more upset they get, the more they use their powers, and the more they use their powers- well, it escalates like that, until they’re practically ripping up the place, because they can’t find their keys. And it tends to kinda set off a bunch’a other stuff- paranoia, megalomania, delusions, like that. That’s Diedrick’s Syndrome. They can treat it with medication, but they’re having a real hard time finding anything that works on Dozer here, without fucking her up even worse in some way. It’s always the side effects.”

“Why’d she crash like that?”

“That’s the down-stroke. Diedrick’s is sort of like being Bipolar- first, you get all hyper and manic. Then, your brain is trying to balance itself out, so it cuts the production of various neurotransmitters, and you crash emotionally. Some people get hyper-rational, some people get depressed, some just go flat emotionally; the really annoying ones get all weepy and suicidal. Now, ‘Dozer’ here,” Ernie patted Olympia’s frame, “the one thing that she’s not a pain in the ass about, is she just goes beddy-bye for a few hours.”

“Hey, if she’s that big a pain in the ass, howcum you let her wear that weapons harness?”

“Oh, it’s not a weapons harness.” Ernie started flipping catches at the joints on Olympia’s frame, “It’s a restraining frame. Y’see, she has problems controlling her strength, as well as her temper. We also got energy dampers and absorbers built into it.”

“Then howcum it looks like a weapons harness?”

“Only way we could get her to wear it.” Ernie finished securing the harness, and flipped out two casters that were set into her ‘boots’, turning the frame into a hand truck.

“Yeah,” Frosty said, as she cradled her water damaged and slightly singed ‘Mr. Mew-mew’ to her chest, “in case you haven’t noticed, Dozer here isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. Do everyone a favor, and don’t tell her? God alone knows what we’d do if she ever figured it out and stopped wearing it.”

I shattered the ice ball into two equal halves, so that Ayla and I could carry them out. “By the way, why was she in here talking about Lancer, anyway?”

A persecuted look passed over Frosty’s face. “For some bizarre reason, Dozer thinks that I’m her friend.”

Okay, now THAT is just SAD. 


When I told Ito- sensei about my deal with Sahar on Monday, he didn’t even blink an eye. Well, he did raise an eyebrow when I mentioned Sahar’s name, but he didn’t really object. “So, Chaka, you feel that you are up to teaching?”

I shook my head. “No, and that’s sort of the point. I hear that you learn more about something by teaching it, than you do by just studying it.”

He gave me a searching look “Qi Gung is not something to putter about with.”

“I know, Soke- that’s why I’m starting with Sahar. She’s a trained Psi AND an Exemplar. If anyone would be able to survive if I screwed up, it would be Sahar.”

Ito-sensei gave me another of those looks, and seemed to settle on something. “Very well. But I will insist on both of you signing documents attesting that you are doing this on your own initiative. Also, I and a few other instructors will be watching you carefully.”

I bowed deeply. Good, then I won’t have to ask them to watch us, for when I’m over my head. Tolman-sensei quickly ground out a ‘we’re letting the Academy and the dojo off the hook’ form on her office computer, and printed out two copies for Sahar and me.

Tolman assigned us a mat, and I set about trying to figure out exactly how the fuck I was gonna teach Sahar. The simplest thing to do would be to form that rapport that Sahar was talking about, and have her ‘peek over my shoulder’ as I worked by Ki. But there’s one thing that you learn, going to a school like Whateley: never let a Psi in, unless you’re 100% sure about her.

And I wasn’t 100% about Sahar.

But then, I did know a way to be sure.


Cantrel blinked at us, when I showed up at Hawthorne with Sahar. “Who’s she?”

“Another of my Tai Chi students. I wanted her to see Babs, and maybe hang out with Diz for a bit. I figure that if I can teach her how to get past Diz’s force field, then Diz won’t form some sort of psychological dependency on me.”

Cantrel gave me a strange look. She looked at Sahar. “And how do you feel about this?”

Sahar just bowed, and said, “Chaka-sensei thinks that this will give me a better insight. I’m willing to see if it does.”

Cantrel cocked an eyebrow at me. “And how do I know that this isn’t just your way of getting out of work?”

I assumed a ‘Zen master’ pose. “There is no work. There are only useful ways of training.” Cantrel just kept giving me the medusa eye. “Besides, she can just hang in the common room, while I’m doing floors and stuff.”

Cantrel let out a heavy sigh. “Okay, okay. Just don’t get weirded out if the kids don’t know what to make of you. We don’t get a lot of visitors.”

“Just to show you that I’m on the up and up,” I offered, “I’ll take over shoveling out Fubar’s pool first, if that needs doing.”

Cantrel’s expression barely flickered, but she seemed to catch my drift. “Oh, Fubar’s place always needs to be mucked out.” She turned to Sahar. “But you don’t need to see that. And believe me, it’s the sort of thing that you avoid if you can.”

Sahar found a seat, and waited for me. I went down to the basement, and got ready to shovel snot for an hour or so. And, as I expected, ‘Lou’ showed up almost immediately. “You have something up your sleeve.”

“Oh?” I said innocently, keeping a wary eye on the pool for icky green explosions, “What makes you say that?”

“Cantrel’s worried that you’re playing some sort of game on that girl in the common room. Are you?”

“More to the point, big guy, the question is: Is she playing a game on ME?”

“What do you mean? After all, just because I can read the mind of everyone at Whateley, doesn’t mean that I do. Or even that I’d particularly enjoy it.”

Okay, that puts my mind to rest, ever so slightly. I spelled out my little arrangement with Sahar. “So, my question is- and I realize that you probably have this whole ethical hoo-ha going on right now- should I treat her as a straight-up student? Or do I start playing really subtle mind-games, with Nikki placing booby-trap spells in my head? ‘Cause, to be honest, Foob, I’d rather have the straight-up student.”

‘Lou’ went fuzzy for a moment. “Okay, this is tricky. On one hand, Sahar down there is in earnest. Deadly earnest. BUT, she’s delicate right now. Toni, Sahar has a reputation as being a cold-blooded predator. But, she knows about me, and she knows that I’m a lot more powerful than she is. And she came into Hawthorne anyway. Also, what I’m sensing right now isn’t a psychic predator playing games. No, she has some very powerful emotions going through her, and to be honest, I wouldn’t feel right in poking around in them. Toni, like I said- she’s very delicate right now. Be very careful with what you do.”

“But you’re not telling me to back off for her good.”

“Just be aware that you’re stepping into some very involved stuff here.”

“Oh, like it would be the first time!”


After I got Foob’s pool de-gunked, I went up to the common room, where Sahar was holding a very stilted conversation with a tall, rather regal looking girl wearing what looked to be a power suit. Sahar broke off the conversation as gently as she could, and joined me. When we were around the corner, Sahar sagged with relief. “Well, that was… odd ...” She gave me a rather sharp look. “So, what did the monster in the basement say?”

Okay, she’s sharp. “He said that you’re- and I quote- ‘very delicate right now’. But he didn’t say that I should pass you up. As a matter of fact, he called you- I quote again- ‘deadly earnest’. Well, if you’re being straight with me, I’ll be straight with you.” I gave her a sharp look right back. “And as for you being ‘delicate’- well, I figure that you’ll tell me about that when you’re good and ready. In the meantime, I didn’t just bring you here just to have you checked out by Fubar.” I led her to Babs’ door, and filled her in on Babs’ condition. “They say that you can learn more about something by observing the abnormal than the normal. And Babs’ is the most abnormal chi pattern that I’ve ever seen- well, except Sara’s, and I wouldn’t inflict that on anyone in your delicate condition.”

I knocked on the door, and a tall, almost six-foot tall, but rail thin girl with glossy black hair opened the door. She wasn’t that bad looking, yet I got an almost immediate ‘creepshow’ reaction from her. “Hi! Is Babs in?”

She looked back in the room. “Hey, Babs-”

Babs voice called back, “Sure! It’s my Tai Chi instructor!”

I explained the situation to Babs and her visitor. “So, my Ki is that weird?” Babs asked, worried.

“No, just oddball enough to be useful by way of contrast.”

Babs shrugged. “Okay. By the way, this is Simone. We sort of hang out in a group of amateur writers. We’re not very good, well, not yet anyway. We write stories for each other, and rip them apart, and like that. Simone’s helping me out by taking dictation. I have a keyboard that’s designed for bricks, but it’s on the fritz right now.”

“Right.” Simone said as she sat down at the keyboard, “Okay, Caitlin and Crystal are wrestling with the naughty tentacle monsters- do you want both of them to lose their underwear, or what?”

Babs hissed Simone silent. “Later! It’s time for my Tai Chi lesson.”

“Oh, don’t worry, it will take Sahar a while to focus. She’s going to use her psi to ‘see’ through my senses, and I’m going to examine your Ki as you do the moves, so that she gets an idea of how it works. Or at least, as well as your Ki works.”

I let Babs and Simone work on Babs’ story- don’t ask, you don’t wanna know- for about a half hour, while Sahar tip-toed around inside my head until she had a sense of what I was talking about, with the Ki.

Then I guided Babs through her Tai Chi lesson. Sahar mimicked Babs’ movements, ‘seeing’ her Ki flow through my Ki senses, and seeing why it was wrong. As always, I felt that intense temptation to ‘help’ Babs by using my Ki to guide Babs’ Ki to flow through the right channels. And the unconscious feedback that I was getting from Sahar didn’t help things. Sahar was getting the idea, but even Psis don’t awaken their Ki on their first day.


Diz wasn’t exactly overjoyed with Sahar. Even when I guided Sahar’s fingers past Diz’s force field, and Sahar gave her a massage. “She doesn’t do it as good as you,” she pouted.

“Now, that’s not fair.” I reproved Diz- don’t ask me where I got ‘reproved’ from, but there you are- “Sahar’s doing her best. She just can’t give it the old Ki jazz, ‘cause she’s only beginning.”

Diz looked up at me with huge sad eyes and waggled her feet at me. “Lord,” I sighed, “you’re like a cat!” But I gave in, and gave her a Ki-boosted foot rub. I see myself doing this a lot in the future.


As we walked from Hawthorn, Sahar sighed, “Well, that wasn’t exactly how I envisioned training in Chi.”

“What? You were expecting to get inside my head, get the secret, and *snap!* you’re a Qi Gung master?”

“Well, to be honest, it’s a little more involved than that, but YES!” She gave me a sharp look. “After all, isn’t that the way that it was for you?”

“Okay, y’got me there.” I nodded, “But, Sahar, that’s the basic nature of my mutation. Hey, look at you. For most norms, even the really talented psychics, training their talent is all fuzzy impressions and years of training and meditation before they can really do anything. But you? You’re, like, what? Seventeen? And you can browse through someone’s mind like it was a library. Now, can YOU teach a non-mutant, but reasonably psychically talented norm how to read minds?” 

Sahar chewed on that for a while. “Okay. So, this is for the long haul.”

I shrugged. “Hey, you’re several years ahead of the curve. A few more deep sessions like today, and your Ki might awaken. Then, we’ll have to figure out which technique to start you out with. It should take you, oh, maybe a year or two to perfect that. But, I want you to know, you didn’t sign anything in blood. You can beg off any time that you want.”

Sahar stiffened, and some sort of resolution came over her. “No. I have too many … things that I broke off in the middle of … in my past. I started this, I’m going to see it through.”

I gave her a smile and a comradely slap on the shoulder. “Good to hear it. See you tomorrow.”


At dinner, I helped myself to an extra large plateful of food. Teaching Tai Chi with a ‘rider’ is very hungry work. I still wasn’t in the ‘shovel it in’ like it’s going to run away’ league that Hank and Billie were, but I was really tucking it away. Nikki was picking at her salad. “What’sa matter, Nick? You get that skunk-girl that Jinn told us about, at detention?”

Nikki gave one of those gusty sighs. “No. I’m just nervous. I’m getting up my nerve to go out on my date.”

“Okay, Bunny’s a little weird, but how wacko is she gonna get, in public?”

Nikki gave a pained little smile. “It’s not Bunny.”

I stopped eating. My roommate is stepping out on my lover’s roommate. I can only imagine what Belle’s gonna do about this. “So, who’s the lucky girl?”

“It’s, ah, not a girl.” Oh, it just gets worse and worse.

“Oh? Who is he then?”

Nikki’s smile got even more pained. “It’s Stalwart.”

“Stalwart?” Stalwart? I racked my brain, until I found it filed under ‘never in a million years’. “Stalwart? The Backwoods King Arthur? The Lackwit Lancelot? The Stainless Steel Shakespeare? The guy who humiliated you in front of your father? The guy that you hadda pull your hand from his with a derrick? THAT Stalwart?”

Nikki’s smile got downright tortured. “He’s very sweet, once you get to know him.” She slumped down. “Besides, I owe him a date. He saved my bacon when that ninja that Tansy sent after me had me on the ropes. You don’t just give a guy the brush-off after he saves you like that. I wanted to give him a reward, and what he wanted was a date.”

I shot hard narrowed eyes at her. “And what does Bunny think about this?”

“Oh, I’m sure that she’ll be okay with it,” Nikki said airily.

I was about to put it to her, when Billie, probably sensing that things were about to get nasty, stepped in. “What we really gotta be thinking about right now, is what we’re gonna do about the Alphas? I mean, they sent freaking hit men after us! We can’t just let that go!”

“Actually,” Ayla corrected her, “that’s exactly what we should do. Act as if nothing happened.”

“But if we do that, we basically are saying that it’s okay to try and jump us, anytime that they feel like it!”

“No.” Ayla shook a finger, “If we do nothing, then we’re saying that we’re not afraid of them. We’re saying, ‘That’s your best shot? Big Whoop’. If we make a big fuss about it, then we’re saying that they almost got us, … that we’re worried. That it’s a good idea, and they should give it another go. As it stands, they came at us, and we’re still here. They might try something else, but if they do, then they’re admitting, first, that they failed the first time, and second, that we’re a threat. I mean, I just walked away from the halfwit that they sent after me.”

Billie humphed. “Maybe, but the rest of us didn’t get off that easy. I mean, Nikki only got away because she had a freaking stalker who came to her rescue.” She stopped and blinked. “Y’know, I’m still not exactly sure how *I* slapped those two bozos down. And that psycho werewolf is just crazy enough to try and make another stab at Jade!”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that.” Jade almost shrank down into her seat.

But there is no escaping Tennyo. “Oh? And why wouldn’t he?”

“Oh, I, uhm, that is, Shroud sort of- nailed him.”

“Nailed him?”

“Yeah. To a tree.”

“To a tree?” Billie’s eyebrows almost levitated off her forehead.

“Yeah.”

“With what?”

 Jade tried to disappear under the table. “A railroad spike.”

Billie almost did a ‘face fault’ into her food. “A railroad spike?”

Sara leaned over, her face alight with appreciation. “A railroad spike? You vicious little bitch!” But she said it like she was digging on it. “Sweet!”

Just her huge brown eyes visible above the tabletop, Jade said, “Yeah, so Bloodwolf won’t come after me. He’s sorta … scared shitless of me.”

Tennyo gave her roomie a harsh look. “NO, he’s scared shitless of Shroud. He doesn’t know that spooky-girl …”

“Yes?” Sara quipped.

“The OTHER spooky girl is just an extension of you. He’ll try to get you when you and Jinn are apart, and hurt you, in order to get back at Jinn.”

“eerrr ... No, Onee-san,” Jade said, looking like she’d like to sink even further, but couldn’t figure out how to conduct a conversation through the table, “he’s afraid of me. Personally.”

Billie leaned her chin on her hand, her elbow on the table, and strummed the fingers of her other hand on the table. “And WHY would a six-foot plus werewolf be afraid of five-foot on her tippy-toes you?”

“I … uhm … burned… him.”

“You burned him. With what?”

Jade held up the hand that had the ring that I gave her on it. “With this.”

“Bunny built a blowtorch into that thing?”

Jade shook her head. “No, she moved a buncha stuff into it, but that wasn’t it. The ring that Toni-sempai gave me is coated with something called Moonsilver-”

“Moonsilver?” Sara perked up, suddenly a lot more interested.

I slapped a sneaking tentacle back. “Hey! Sit down and eat your dachshund! If you want a moonsilver snack, have your cult take out a loan and buy some from Sakti.” Sara pouted a bit, but I turned to Jade. “And what does the moonsilver on your ring have to do with anything?”

Jade shrugged. “Well, you know how, in the movies, silver hurts werewolves? Well, moonsilver does even worse- it burns them!”

“Oh, Wonderful.” Erin said fatalistically. “Another thing to worry about.”

“Excuse me,” Nikki cut in, “but by ‘burns them’, are we talking ‘burn’, as in like a really bad sunburn?” Jade shook her head. “As in like a chemical burn, like you’d get from a weak acid?”

Jade shook her head. “No, ‘burns’, as in leaves a nasty scar that won’t ever go away.”

“You burned him with that ring?”

“uhm … Yeah. And I left him a message, so he’d never forget.”

“Which WAS?”

“I ... er … wrote ‘I attack little girls’. On his chest. With the ring.” 

The rest of us looked aghast at Jade, but Sara exploded with laughter, and slapped the tabletop with glee. Jade looked around desperately for another topic. “So … TONI! Yes! So, Chaka- sempai, how is your training with Sahar going?”

I glared back at her coldly. “It’s coming along nicely. I took her to Hawthorne, so that Fubar could check her out, and he says that she’s cool. More or less. Anyway, she’s doing nicely. No funny business, and I think that she’ll stick with the training. For a while, anyway.”

“Fubar?” Sara asked snidely. “They have somebody there named ‘Fubar’?”

I grinned at the ‘Demon Princess’. “Oh yeah! Fubar. Nice Guy. You should definitely meet him, Sare. Definite date material there. Hey, I’d say that he was the perfect guy for you. Somebody that you could take home to meet Daddy.”


Like I said, the real bitch about detention- or, at least detention the way that Team Kimba does it- isn’t so much the actual duty, as the time that it cuts into. Hours of primo dating, hanging, goofing, and even homework time cut into. If one of my major duties weren’t playing Scrabble ©, I’d be really pissed.

Still, I was a little surprised when Zenith walked up to the Kimba Korner. She got my attention by jiggling the rope I was dangling from. What? You sit still while you study? How do you learn anything? “Excuse me, Chaka? I’d like to talk to you.”

I looked around the area, and all I got were ‘go ahead’ looks. Well, we sort of owe Zenith. After all that she did, helping to keep Tennyo out of Hawthorne. And it’s not like Zenith’s hard to look at. Z’s not just a blonde Exemplar, she’s THE blonde Exemplar; an exemplary Exemplar, if thou wouldst. I mean, she was wearing just a hoody and some grungy old jeans, and she still looked better than some of the supermodels coming down the catwalk. She took me up from ‘the Nursery’ to the lounge in the ‘Executive Suite’ (as the Fourth floor is called). Y’know, it wasn’t as All That as the freshmen make it sound?


ZENITH

Zoe led the obstreperous freshman up to the ‘Executive Suite’ on the Fourth floor. Chaka looked around curiously while trying to not look as if she was. Zoe waved her over to one of the couches in the lounge. Chaka sat down with a bounce- Good Lord, did that girl ever do anything without a bounce? “So? You want?”

Zoe sat down, took her face in her hands, and took a deep breath to center herself. Once she was sure that she was up to it, Zoe looked Chaka square in the face. “Toni, I understand that you’ve hooked up with a girl called ‘Sahar’.”

“Hey, it’s strictly business! Rip is already giving me shit about it, Belle looks like she’s whipping up another ‘Tiger’ scam, and now I’m getting guff from YOU?”

“Chaka …”

“Look, I’m just teaching her how to use her Chi! I cleared it with Ito-sensei, if you don’t believe me! I …”

“Toni!” Zenith cut into the younger T-girl’s rant, “I’m not talking about you and Rip! It’s about Sahar!” 

Toni stopped, and looked into Zoe’s eyes with guileless openness. “Oh? What about her?”

Zoe took another deep breath. Oh God, where to start? Where did pain stop, and justifiable concern begin? <sigh> “Toni, Sahar is… dangerous.”

“Zee --- I hang out with a demon princess and a girl who almost got chucked in Hawthorn. I have a jealous girlfriend, and a boyfriend who doesn’t know about her. I have one of the most powerful cliques in school out for my head, and there’s a school administrator who wants to give it to ‘em. Hey, Danger is my middle name.” Toni blinked. “Actually, it’s ‘Marc’- I gotta look into changing that. Toni Danger Chandler; has a nice ring to it. ”

“TONI!” Zoe snapped. “I’m not talking about the kind of danger that you can punch or kick your way out of! I’m talking about getting USED.”

“Used?”

“Yes. That’s what Sahar does. She makes friends with people. She gets close to them … she makes them trust her … and then …”

“Yo, Zee! All she wants is to learn how to use her Ki! Hell, if anyone’s in danger in this relationship, it’s her.”

“NO, that’s all that you can SEE that she wants! You don’t understand! She’s very tricky! She can worm her way in and …”

“And what? Learn all my secrets? The only secret I GOT is that I’m TG, and the Administration would turn her into couscous if she let that slip! Turn me to Evil? Get real! Why would she bother turning a freshman evil? Set me up for the Alphas? Hey, I got my team watching my back on that one! Hell, even Fubar says that she’s on the up and up!”

“Fubar?”

“Yeah, big guy, lives at Hawthorn, kinda quiet, doesn’t get out much, has his own pool- Fubar. I asked him if she was on the level …”

“Why did you ask Fubar about her?”

“Hey, she admitted that she was a psi, and I’ve heard that she was bad news-” Zoe snorted at that, “- so I figured running her past the resident psychic instructor would be a smart thing to do.”

Zoe looked at Toni guardedly. “And who told you that Sahar was bad news?”

“Alakazam. She’s one of the Tigers. Y’know, the bald one with the ponytail? But I figured that a dis from Alakazam was as good as a recommendation from almost anyone else, so I gave Sahar a chance.” Toni fixed Zoe with a harsh eye. “So far, Sahar has played it straight with me. So, what did she do to get your panties in a bunch, Z?” 

Zoe started to say something angrily, but caught herself. “Sahar … is … untrustworthy.  She …” but the words caught in Zoe’s throat. The pain was too great, and even the thought of Semi still confused her.

“Look.” Chaka stood up. “If you give me a reason, a real reason, to cut off Sahar, I’ll think about it. But as is, she’s going through a rough patch-”

“A rough patch?” Zenith snapped.

“Yeah,” Toni said warily, “even Fubar said that she was *ahem!* ‘delicate’. So, I’m not gonna shut her out, just ‘cause you don’t like her. Hey, I owe you for what you did for Billie, but …”

Zoe just waved her silent. Chaka didn’t understand. She wouldn’t really understand, until it was too late. At this point, all that Zoe could do, was be there and hope that there would be enough pieces to pick up and put Chaka back together with. God knew, Zoe had been warned, and she hadn’t listened either.


CHAKA

Zenith just dismissed me with a wave of her hand, and sort of crawled up within herself. Okay, definitely a lot more going on there than anyone’s told me so far. Still, she dragged me up here out of some homework that needs to be done by tomorrow, so I’d still say that she owes me something more. But it didn’t look like anything was coming, so I headed for the stairs.

I was just rounding the landing on the Third floor, or ‘Damnation Alley’ as it’s called, when Hippolyte blocked my way. And Hippolyte could block the Mississippi river, if she put her mind to it. “And what are YOU doing up here?”

I jerked my thumb up the staircase. “Zenith wanted to do the ‘Big Sister’ routine, and warn me about that girl from the wrong side of the tracks that I been hanging out with.”

Hippo glowered at me- what does Sara see in her?- and folded her arms across her chest. Jeez, I thought that her getting her ashes hauled on a regular basis was supposed to be mellowing her out. “Oh. So, she told you about Sahar?”

I shrugged. “She told me that she was bad news, but that was about it. So, Lyta, exactly WHAT about Sahar is so flipping bad?”

Hipp started to say something, flicked a glance upstairs, and grunted. “Not mine to say.”

Typical! Fucking Typical! Usually, I can’t get Two-Ton Tina to shut up, but when I actually WANT her to keep talking, she shuts down. Just Typical!


It actually took the better part of a day for someone to warn me about my newest student. Lunch, to be honest. It came pretty much out of left field as a matter of fact. He just walked up to an open spot at the table near me. “Hey, Chaka! Mind if I sit down?”

I looked at him, and to be honest, it was the Workshop lab coat that reminded me. The Gadgeteers and Devisors who work in the Workshop have these specially made labcoats that are coated with some kind of acid, cold, electricity, soil and God-alone-knows-what-else resistant lining, and they have ‘anchoring points’ so that the gearheads can equip their coats with all sorts of stuff. Lots of gadgeteers and devisors wear them outside the Workshop as some sort of uniform. Well, having a photographic memory helps, too. Mind you, I don’t always remember everything, but when I know that there’s something to remember, I remember it. “Oh! Right! Rack, right?” He nodded. “Say, how’s Sakti doing in Workshop? I only see her in Intro to Mystic Concepts these days, and well, I don’t think that she likes the class much.” 

Rack put his tray on the table, opened his lab coat, and climbed out of his chest. It turned out that he was a dwarf, wearing a sort of exoskeleton that made him look like he was a good three and a half feet taller, with robotic arm extensions. Three guesses why he called himself ‘Rack’. He hopped into the chair and smiled at me.

“So,” I started, needing a topic that didn’t involve height, “what’s with the robo-suit? I mean, they let you walk around in that thing?”

“Yeah, I sorta made having it with me all the time a condition of my coming to Whateley.”

I gave him the Spock eyebrow. “Howcum?”

He gave me an ‘okay, y’got me’ smile, and shrugged. “I, ah, used to be kinda sensitive about the whole height thing. When my powers first kicked in, I built the rack-” he jerked a thumb at the exoskeleton, “-and, well, it made me feel y’know, big. Not afraid. Like that.”

Okay, if nothing else, this guy is more honest that most people I know- including me. “And you don’t feel that way anymore?” He shook his head. “Okay, color me impressed! Howcum?”

He shrugged again and started tucking into his food. “Long story. Y’see, despite appearances, I’m not a devisor or a gadgeteer.”

“You’re not?” Jade asked as she cast curious eyes at his ‘rack’. Well, guys are always looking at girls’ racks, so it’s only fair.

“Nope. I’m what’cha might call a ‘pseudo- gadgeteer’.”

“Oh, Lord, another pseudo.” 

“Hey, it could be worse, I could be faux-something.” 

“Ack! Heaven protect us! So, you’re a pseudo-gadgeteer. And you built yourself a Self-Esteem Enhancer?”

He laughed and shook his head. “No, I’m a pseudo-gadgeteer, because I’m really a Package Deal Psychic. I can use my ESP to sort of pull off what the real Gadgeteers do, but I’m not as good at it, and it takes me longer. And, I use my PK to manipulate the old rack. I’ve got some killer fine control with the waldos that I don’t get with direct PK lifting. Anyway, when I was first getting used to the Workshop, I sort of… peeked over the other kids’ shoulders, telepathically.”

“And you got caught, were punished, and learned the error of your ways.” Sara cut in, camping it up with a John Cleese deadpan, “And in mending your ways you learned true respect for yourself and others.” Sara ended, looking heroically off into a golden sunset. Which is damn hard to do at 12:30 in the afternoon.

“Who turned on Monty Pythoness?” Rack asked. “No, I didn’t get caught. I kept listening in. Best move I ever made.”

“I take it that you got As that semester.”

“Bs, actually. Nope,” he tapped the side of his head, “what I learned, was that everybody hurts.”

“Wasn’t that a really depressing REM video, a few years back?” Nikki asked.

Rack chuckled. “Y’see, there are two ways to be telepathic: You can either shut out all the noise and just ‘open the door’ when you wanna ‘hear’ something, or you keep the door open, and just get used to the noise. When I first got psychic, I shut the door and tried to weld it shut. Hey, I had enough problems, without listening to everyone whine. BUT, when I started poking around in people’s heads in the Workshop, I discovered something. I learned that everyone was going through Hell, not just me. I thought that everyone was laughing at me, and judging me and thinking vile thoughts about me. It sorta hurt my pride, but I found out that most people just didn’t think about me that much. They had their own little crises going on.”

Rack paused and looked thoughtful for a moment. “And y’know something? Most of it was bullshit. I’m not saying that their pain wasn’t real. I’m saying that what they were hurting over was bullshit. And the thing is, once I stepped away from myself, and really gave my own life the once-over… I was as guilty as most of ‘em. Okay, growing up a dwarf ain’t easy, but there’s a lot of stuff out there just as bad, if not worse. And the thing that really got me, was that the people that I was convinced had it made: the rich kids, the popular kids, the pretty kids- they were hurtin’ just as much as anybody.”

I nodded. It was nice to hear from someone who’d come to the same conclusion that I had. “Yep, I know whereof you speak, m’man. It seems that most folks will tie themselves into a pretzel, just to find something to be miserable about.”

Ayla snorted, “And what would you know about people being miserable?”

I jerked a thumb in Ayla’s direction as I said to Rack, “I get this all the time. People think that just because I don’t make a big European Art Movie about my personal suffering, that I don’t understand it. But I do understand one thing: most of the pain and misery either comes from people making themselves miserable, or people trying to foist their pain off on others.”

Rack nodded in understanding. “Oh Yeah. You would not BELIEVE the silly stuff that people get all bent out of shape about! Sometimes it seems that people think that being miserable somehow makes them special. They’ll take anything, no matter how trivial and blow it up into something major. It got me thinking: how much of the contempt that I saw in people’s eyes was really there, and how much was all in my mind?” He shrugged and tapped the side of his head again. “It turned out that there was something there, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was. And most of that was because I was being a mean-spirited little prick.”

I leaned my chin on the backs of my hands. “And what happened when you lightened up?”

“Well, it didn’t change overnight, but it did change.”

I gave him a big grin and a thumbs-up. “Good for you, Dude.”

He smiled back at me. Y’know, you could just tell that he had a girlfriend now. “Anyway, the only reason that I cruise around in the old rack these days is, well, I’m used to the damn thing, and it’s useful. Well, this is nice, but I didn’t come over here to tell you my life story.”

“Awww … and it’s such a nice life’s story.” I mock-pouted, “Not a single bout with Alcoholism or tragic car crash in it.”

“Well, you could be heading into a crash of your own.”

I groaned, “Awww, MAN, another person warning me about Sahar?”

“Hey, when you see someone about to walk into an open manhole, you say something.”

I leaned over, “What did she DO, that was so bad?”

“Are you gonna listen?”

“I’ll hear you out, but I don’t make any promises.”

He nodded, “Okay, here goes. Your buddy Sahar has a reputation as sort of a hit-and-run artist. She gets close to a Psi or an Esper with some really neat specialty, makes friends with them, learns how they do their trick, and then she dumps them flat.”

I gave a brisk nod. “Yeah, she told me that she could do that. She didn’t mention the bit about dumping people like that.”

“Well, she wouldn’t. And she’s caused a lot of pain with that bit over the years.”

“Yeah, Sempai,” Jade chimed in, “that’s pretty cold.”

I gave Rack a look. “Hey, if she’s so cold-blooded, how can she keep getting away with it?”

He gave me a knowing grin. “That’s the really scary part. She does. Time and again. Let me give you an example. Have you ever heard of Freya?”

I blinked. “aaahhh … Lemme think … She was some sort of big noise in Norse mythology, right? I was never into the Mighty Thor©, so I’m not sure what she was about.”

Rack waved his hand in a so-so gesture. “Sorta. Freya was a student here at Whateley.”

“She was some sort of Avatar for the Freya spirit?”

“Nah, she was an exemplar, and a pretty garden variety Telepath. But, she had this one really kickass ‘knack’ with her telepathy. Y’see, they didn’t call her ‘Freya’ because she was big and tall and blonde and Nordic and stacked. Well, she was, but that wasn’t the reason that called her that. Y’see Freya- the orginal Freya, the goddess- had this power item. Thor had his hammer, Odin had his spear and that freaky ring, and so on. Freya, she had his crystal necklace named ‘Brisengamen’. When she wore it, she was, like, even more ‘All That’ then she usually was. You stood around, awed by her magnificence and like that.

Anyway, Freya- that is, our Freya, the mutant- has this one knack that she called her ‘Brisengamen effect’. It did pretty much what the original Brisengamen was supposed to have done. You looked at her, and it was like, oh wow, let me fall at your feet. But, to give her credit, she did more with it than that. She could make you feel good, real good, like you could do anything. Have you ever met one of those people who just make wanna go out and do stuff that you thought that you couldn’t, and feel good while you were doin’ it? Well, the Brisengamen effect was like that, with a nitro booster. She could walk into a funeral, and five minutes later, have the widow doin’ the Lambada on top of the casket. For four years, she was like the Alpha’s – and Whateley’s - queen bee.”

“Darn, and I was just starting to like her,” I sniped.

“Yeah, well, she’s pretty much the reason that the Alphas are what they are now. She pretty much ran the social scene here at Oddball U, and people were climbing over each other to help her do whatever screwball thing came into her mind. But she wasn’t all sweetness and light. Nope, she had a real mean streak in her too. She could rip someone apart so bad that they’d try to take the barbiturate nap, or completely lose all confidence in themselves. And she liked really nasty pranks, too.”

“Okay, now this sounds more like the Alphas that I know and despise.”

Rack shrugged. “Okay, I didn’t have much use for her- she graduated last year- but even I gotta say that Don Sebastiano is a real step down from Freya. Freya at least understood the value of the carrot. Hell, nobody used the carrot like Freya. All The Don understands is the stick. Freya used to keep him and Hekate around as sort of her personal ‘goon squad’. When Freya was around, the Alphas at least did stuff that was fun for everyone on a regular basis. Now? It’s all about The Don’s ego, and stupid power games.”

I leaned forward. “Rack, as much as I appreciate this fascinating look into Whateley’s past … what’s any of this got to do with Sahar?”

Rack held up a finger as he finished chewing. “Okay. Now, you get Freya, right? Mindfuck artist extraordinaire, right? Now get this- her first year here, Sahar just waltzed in, and not only just breezed into Freya’s inner circle, but became like Freya’s number one best bud, just like that. She’d already pulled this number a couple of times, but she still managed to get in tight with the Alpha Alpha. And then she not only rips off Freya’s ‘Brisengamen effect’- well, she doesn’t exactly steal it, Freya can still do it, Sahar just copied it- but she dumps Freya. AND, not only does she survive, but she manages to pull it again and again. Everybody knows what she’s up to, but she still manages to pull it off.”

I sat back and tried to digest that. “Okay, but why does she do it that way?”

Rack gave a ‘who knows?’ gesture. “I dunno. I’ve heard some talk that maybe she needs to establish like this really intense connection with her chump, in order to copy the mental matrix of a ‘knack’. Believe me, copying a specialist’s knack is a LOT harder than it sounds. There’s a deep level of basic comprehension that just doesn’t communicate very well. For instance, I sort of get the Gadgeteer bit, but I just don’t have that-” he snapped his fingers, “- ‘I got it!’ instant understanding that real Gadgeteers have. I gotta focus and think about it. And the stuff where telepathy and clairvoyance sort of merge, like Zenith in your cottage does, gets really complicated.”

“Zenith?” I asked, smelling a rat.

“Yeah, she has this nifty knack that she calls her ‘Database’ technique. She can sort of tap into people’s minds and access their skills, but she’s also using clairvoyance to put it in perspective. Don’t ask me how she does it- I’d love to know, it’s a kick-ass technique. That girl can do damn near anything.”

I arched an eyebrow. “And why do you mention Zenith, specifically?”

“Oh? Didn’t she mention it? I thought that she would have. Zenith was Sahar’s last victim. She and Sahar were real tight, for most of the first part of last year. Sahar stuck with Zenith a lot longer than she did anyone else, including Freya. It was beginning to look like Sahar might actually not be setting Zenith up. But then, there was a big breakup, right about Spring Break, so it looks like Sahar was just taking her time.”

I shook my head. “But I ran her past Fubar, while we were visiting Hawthorne. He said that she was on the up and up. ‘Deadly earnest’, to use his own words.”

Rack smiled smugly. “Hey, Chaka- If there was a psi who had a useful technique, Sahar got close to them and stole it. They knew what she was up to, but she did it anyway. The A-team, the Masterminds, the Ninjas, the Robo-Jox, the Leet-freeks, the Dragons, the Goobers, the Cape Squad, even the Alphas, she got in with them, even though they saw her coming. Babe, she zoomed Freya! With all due respect to the big guy, if ANYONE could sleaze in under his radar, it would be Sahar.”

“Kay,” I said through a mouthful of chow mien, “but there’s a flaw in your scenario.” I told him about the ‘ki not being psychic, but it’s own thing’ bit with Sahar.

“And Sahar knows about this?”

“Yep. And she’s sticking with the training program.”

Rack leaned back and chewed it over. “Okay, I admit it- I dunno what she’s up to. But then, it was inevitable that she’d try a new scam eventually.”

“Yeah, anyway, thanks for the heads up, Rack. Zenith and Hippolyte warned me off, too, but all they gave me were ‘booga-booga’ noises, and no real dish.”

“Hey, give Zenith a break! Sahar really did a number on her. It can’t be fun for her to talk about it.”

I gave him a hard look. “By the way, if Sahar’s such bad news, howcum you’re risking getting on her bad side by giving me all this scoop?”

Rack gave me a lopsided rueful smile. “ ‘Cause of T-bird. I’m in Barricade, Scott’s training team, along with Tesla. You’re good for him, girl. He put up with me back when I was being a little prick, and he didn’t bust my chops about it when I pulled my head out of my ass. He’s good people.”

“And what about all that Archie Comics jazz with Tesla, Widget, Sizzle and Aztecka?”

“What? Step into the middle of all that? Are you nuts? Besides,” he added smugly, “these days, I got my own girls to keep me busy.” He jerked his head in the general direction of a table, where three girls were sitting together. I noticed that they were watching us. “And on that note, seeing as how I’ve done my duty as I see it- it’s been a pleasure, ladies, guys. Bunny, I’ll see you in Workshop.” He got up, hopped up into his rack, picked up his tray and strolled over to where the three girls were waiting for him.

Ayla watched him walk over, and observed how the girls greeted him. “Y’know, I can’t help but wonder how much of that is his telepathy?”

“Almost none,” Bunny, of all people, answered her. “Rack doesn’t need to mess with people’s heads. He’s fun, he likes being around women, and he lets them know it. He knows how to make a girl feel special. Okay, maybe he uses a little empathy, to know what a girl’s really feeling, but for the most part, he’s just fun to be around.” She paused. “Y’know, if I didn’t swing the other way, I just might take a run at him? Being a part of his girl-posse is a lot more fun than being most other guys’ one-and-only.”

Nikki gave her main squeeze a sour look. “You’re getting back at me for Stalwart, right?”

Bunny sniffed, “Maybe.”


NEX

Cyril sat, eating his lunch the way that he usually did- alone, off to one side, watching Sahar. Then, he sensed someone approaching on his blind side. He smoothly repositioned himself, and at the last minute, turned to face them.

“Well hello, Cyril!” Tansy Walcutt said cheerily.

Oh lord, Cyril said morosely to himself, she’s got her backup squad of Flicker and Fade with her. “And what may I do for you, Solange?”

“My, aren’t WE prim and proper today?” Tansy sat down, followed quickly by her two ‘mini-me’s. “Can’t a person sit down, have a few quick howdy-dos, and catch up with an old friend?”

“Really? Nex said sourly. “And here I thought that you were here to upbraid me for my failure.”

“Well, Cyril dear- since you bring it up …”

“I was blind-sided by one of her suitors. My preliminary check of her habits showed that she was avoiding him, and I thought that she’d managed to shake him.”

“Well, it sounds like Mister Deadly-Ninja was wrong.” Flicker said nastily, apparently filling in the bitch void, since Tansy was playing nice. Nex just glowered at her, and she wilted.

“Truth be told,” Tansy began. And that will be a first time, Nex mused silently. “I’m here to ask as to how your date with Semi went,” Tansy finished.

Nex let out something halfway between a growl and a sigh. “The same as all the other times. She’s just not the same.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Tansy breezed. “Haven’t you heard? Or were you too busy brooding to hear the latest buzz? It seems that our little Semi is back to her old tricks.”

“What?”

“Yes, indeed! And she’s hunting big game this time. She’s after Team Koo-koo’s resident martial arts maniac.”

“With the emphasis on ‘maniac’,” Fade giggled.

What? Nex started. Sahar was back on the hunt?

“Well, that certainly got your interest,” Tansy purred.

“When did this happen?”

“A couple of days ago. I must say, Semi played her hand magnificently. She approached the little ni- er, African-American, and told her tale, and made the little snip come to her. Anyone trying to warn Chaka will have to wade through a truly masterful cover story, if I know my roomie.”

Nex said nothing, lost in a maze of calculation. “Well, I’ve done my good deed for the day. I’m off!” Tansy pranced off, Flicker and Fade in tow.


SAHAR

Semi waited for Chaka at the dojo with dread. But when Toni came onto the mat, she just went straight into the lesson. Sahar was beginning to feel the flow of Chi through her body, even without Toni’s help. There were some ‘sparks’, but she wasn’t able to really get a handle on it just yet. Still, she could feel it slightly, which put her several years ahead of the curve.

“Oh, come on, Sahar!” Toni snapped. “You could’a phoned that set in! Focus, already!” Toni waited a minute, folded her arms across her chest and said, “Okay, what’s got you all wound up?”

Sahar sighed and dropped her position. “What did the dwarf tell you?”

“Pretty much what everyone else has been saying- that you’re bad news, and that eventually you’ll stab me in the back, more out force of habit than anything. He added some actual details: Freya, Zenith and all the others, but the general gist was that you were some sort of super-femme fatale, and I’d best put some miles betwixt me ’n you.”

“And?”

“And, I’m willing to hear your side of it, before I make any decisions.”

Sahar opened her mouth to speak, but Toni cut her off. “Not here.” Toni shifted her eyes over in Blitz’s direction. “Her ladyship would love to have an excuse to bitch about us ‘gossiping’ on the mat.”

As if on cue, Blitz piped up, “Hey, no wasting mat time nattering!”

“I’m helping my student work out a minor problem that’s interfering with her workout.” Toni raised an icy eyebrow. “You got a problem with that?”

Blitz marched up onto the mat and started to say something, when there was a calm but firm *ahem!* from behind her. We all turned to see Tolman-sensei and Ito-soke standing there. “Do you have a problem with the way that Chaka-sempai is instructing her pupil?”

Blitz fussed about a Freshman teaching a Junior, but Ito-sensei waved her arguments aside. “Even with her youth, Chaka may be regarded as one of the great Ki artists of our times. Chaka realizes that teaching is often an excellent way of learning more about your own skills. Sahar has agreed to be instructed. And Chaka’s efforts at teaching are being monitored. Even after only two days, Sahar is showing noticeable progress. We, the Instructors, regard this experiment as showing great promise. So, Blitz, would you challenge Chaka for her right to instruct Sahar?”

Blitz cracked her knuckles. “Too right I would!”

“Oh? And would you challenge me for the right to decide who will instruct whom?”

With a snide grin, Chaka leaned over and whispered into Blitz’ ear, “Before you say anything, look at his feet.”

Blitz’s eyes flickered down towards the feet sticking out from Ito-sensei’s hama [hama: loose black trousers worn by men in Japan, and by both sexes in martial arts practice]. She could tell that he was wearing rubber shoes. Making the best of a bad situation, Blitz said nothing, bowed, and left the mat.


By arrangement, Sahar after their class met Chaka in front of Noah Whateley. “Okay, Sahar, this is your chance. While we walk to Hawthorne, you can tell me your side of this ‘psychic predator’ story.”

Sahar took a deep breath, centered herself and let it out. “I’m from Beirut.”

Toni looked mildly puzzled. “And? So, I hear that it’s a battleground, but-”

“You said that you were going to hear me out. It’s nowhere near as bad as it was, back in the 1980’s, with open street warfare between the Israelis, the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Christians, but it’s still bad. A few years ago, a major Shiite factionalist was blown up when someone hid a bomb in his car. And there are smaller, less publicized incidents. When I was Five, my parents were killed in some incident or another.”

“You were there?” Toni asked in a thick voice.

“No, Allah Ar-Rahim be praised. All that I know is that I was playing at home one day, and my older sister Asima came and told me that our parents and older brother were dead, and we were in danger. She took us to the house of a relative. There was a lot of fuss, I’m still not sure exactly what happened. Asima and I were shuffled around a lot, but things didn’t work out, and we wound up, two more orphans on the street. Asima tried to take care of me as best she could, but she was only Eight herself. One day ... I just couldn’t find her …

Sahar stopped, took a deep breath, centered herself and started again. “And so, I became just another motherless child on the streets of Beirut. I begged, I stole, I lied, I snitched, I ate garbage; I did whatever it took to survive. I knew that no one cared about me, so I didn’t have to care about them. I never killed anyone, but that was more that it never came up, than any scruple that I might have had.

“Then, just as I was hitting on the first stages of puberty, a local pimp decided that I was going to lose my virginity anyway, so he might as well make some money off of it.”

“How?” Toni asked, her eyes crossing.

“There are men who will pay well, to take a girl’s virginity.”

eeewww …!” Toni winced visibly.

“You asked.” Sahar said evenly. “I, on the other hand, had very different ideas. Even as he was dragging me along, I was screaming loud curses at him. He turned- I think that he was going to pimp-slap me into silence- and our eyes met, and I spat out a particularly venomous curse- something about falafel turning into shit in his mouth, if I remember correctly- and something clicked. He let go of my hand, and ran from me in terror.” Despite herself, Sahar chuckled at the memory. “He tripped over everything imaginable, trying to get away from me. Poor damned fool couldn’t do anything right for the rest of his life. All three weeks of it. Finally, he tripped and fell into the path of a bus, and well, that was the end of him.

“It was about that time that these red rings around my irises appeared. That’s a classic sign of a Witch. The word got around, and eventually a woman who had a reputation as a witch took me in as her apprentice. Actually, Najwa knew next to nothing about real magic, but a lot about herbs, drugs, poisons, and how to, as you Americans would put it, ‘pysch people out’. You see, Toni, in Arabic the ‘evil eye’ is called ‘Sahar’. For the most part, ‘Sahar’ is mostly mind games and the power of suggestion, as they say most of Voodoo is. It turns out that my main psychic talent is that I can implant a suggestion in a person’s mind that they are accursed, and that things will always go wrong for them. They think that they’re cursed, and subconsciously they make themselves do things that they would do if they were actually magically cursed. They drop things, trip over things, bump into people, say the wrong thing, things like that. Once it gets started, well, they say that expectation breeds results. And when people start thinking of you as being ‘unlucky’ or ‘cursed, for all practical purposes, you ARE accursed. She started offering my services to ‘put the Evil Eye’ on people. She did a good business with it, and it didn’t hurt her herb shop’s business either.

“Anyway, this went on for about a year, and I was getting very good at making people jump whatever way amused me. Then, one day, Najwa got a contract for me to put the evil eye on a foreigner who was asking odd questions. I managed to corner him and put the evil eye on him-”

“-and he managed to deflect it. I tried to get away, but he managed to catch me. It turned out that he was a ‘talented’ operative for the American CIA, and a very capable psychic. But, instead of killing me, he recruited me. He offered me money to help him find a Hezbollah cell that was operating in Beirut. I, of course, took him up on his offer. When we wrapped up the operation, he offered to send me to a special school in the States, with the understanding that when I graduated, I’d become a talented operative for the Company. Well, I had no real love for Najwa, or she for me, and I figured that she’d already made more than enough money off of me, so I accepted. 

“So, at Unlucky Thirteen, I came to Whateley.”

Toni looked coldly at Sahar. “Okay, so that’s your life story. Very tragic. What’s it got to do with you going around, ripping people off?”

Sahar sighed deeply. “Toni, you can take a street rat off the street, but it’s still a rat. When I came here, it was like being let loose in a pastry shop! The ‘mean streets’ of New York and Los Angeles are playgrounds, compared to the streets of the Middle East. Yes, the kids here had super powers, but most of them had almost no … feel for the kill. Now, while it can be very dangerous, being a Talented Operative for the CIA is still a very cushy gig. You can actually _retire_ from the CIA and have something that resembles a normal life. The Company sent me here to hone my psychic talents, and get preliminary training. So, I figured that I owed it to them- and it would make me more valuable to them- if I learned how to do some of those marvelous ‘knacks’ that Psis and Espers did, like my ‘Evil Eye’. It took some finagling, but I discovered that I had a remedial Esper talent, and that if I got close, very close, to a Psi or Esper, and established a real bond with them, that I could ‘see’ and learn the pattern of their knack. It’s not as powerful, of course, but it still works. And once I learned the knack, well, this technique requires a lot of concentration. And you can’t concentrate, if you’re worried about what your last pigeon is feeling, so I just cut it off, and went on to the next one. It hurts, on both sides, but if I learned anything in my childhood, it’s how to make a game out of hurting people, put a wall between myself and the people that I hurt. Luckily, my second mark was this high-and-mighty Alpha called ‘Freya’. She-”

“I heard about Freya, and her razzle-dazzle ability.” Toni cut her off.

“Maybe, but I don’t think that you really understand what the Brisengamen Effect is really like.” Sahar looked Toni squarely in the eye, and suddenly, Toni was almost overwhelmed by how absolutely wonderful Sahar was. A surge of unnamable joy arose in Toni’s chest at the very proximity to her and …

Toni had enough presence of mind to pull back mentally, and close off her brow chakra, shutting out the flood of exaltation.

“Very impressive.” Sahar said clinically. “Of course, I was being rather heavy-handed with it. Normally, when Freya or I used that power, we used a much lighter touch. We only use it at that level of intensity when we want to either dazzle an attacker or make a point. Still, I am impressed that you were able to shut it out that way.”

“And what was the point of THAT?” Toni snapped.

“I’m giving you an idea of why I was able to get close to so many people. AND, I’m letting you know what the Brisengamen Effect feels like, just in case you’re worried that I’ve been using it on you, or that I might in the future. And, just in case you ever run into Freya in the future, you’ll have an adverse reaction to her ace-up-her-sleeve.”

“Okay,” Toni said, still clearly not mollified, “and what does all this have to do with Zenith?”

A great weight seemed to settle on Sahar’s shoulders. “Zoe. <sigh> I was going around, merrily collecting as many useful techniques as I could. Friendship, Love, Sex, they were all the same to me. It was all play-acting on my part. My latest chump, a particularly vile specimen called ‘Nex’, was leaving a bad taste in my mouth-”

“Guilt?” Toni asked tartly.

“No, just a mild disgust. Nex was a bit much, even for me. I learned a few useful techniques from him, but still!” Sahar shuddered. “At any rate, I wasn’t feeling like getting involved with another man, so I decided that it was time to take on Zenith. She has this wonderful technique that she calls her ‘Database’. What she does is …”

“I’ve heard about it.” Toni saved her the explanation.

“Oh. Good.” By this time, they had walked to the Crystal Dome, where Toni broke off the conversation to buy a few things and a lunch cooler. When they were out of the dome and on their way to Hawthorne, Semi resumed. “At any rate, I wasn’t feeling like cuddling up to another boy, and I’d had the Database Technique on my ‘shopping list’ for a while, and Zenith… Well, Zoe’s beautiful in the way that most Exemplars only wish they were. And well ... she’s … So I targeted her, set Nex on her and ‘saved’ her from him. From there it was the usual matter of using delicate applications of the Brisengamen Effect, feeling out her desires and insecurities, and plain old fashioned mind games. We got close, there was some sex, and then …”

“And then?”

“And then, I made the mistake that I always told myself that I’d never make. I got too close. Before, I always got close, but I never really opened myself to anyone. I got just close enough to steal their power matrix, and not a jot closer. I always put something between them and me. But this time …”

“So, you’re saying that you fell in love with Zenith.” Toni stated in a flat disbelieving voice.

Sahar looked wearily at Chaka. “Toni, most teenagers- pfeh! most adults don’t really know how to love! They think that romance is a game of some sort, played for their amusement and their amusement only. And when the game is over, they just pick up the pieces and go on to the next playmate.

“But Zoe wasn’t like that. What she felt wasn’t about her, like it was for all the others. We actually … connected. She showed me a whole different way of looking at the world.”

Sahar was breathing hard by this time. She stopped and gathered her breath. “You know, you got through life hearing from everyone that it’s all about caring about others and sharing with them and all that. And you just know that it’s load of dog vomit, something that grifters tell their marks to get them to open their purses. It’s really all about ‘Number One’, as you Americans would say. But Zoe?” Sahar’s eyes went round and pained, “Zoe really believes that! And she lives it, down where she really lives. And she makes it work.”

“Well, that’s nice, but I don’t …”

“DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA OF HOW TERRIFYING THAT IS?”  

“Excuse me?” Toni blinked in confusion.

“I mean, there you are, a happy street rat, merrily going about your business taking a bite out of anyone you feel like, wrapped in a protective layer of selfishness. And then you meet this … Angel… and she shows you how beautiful things can actually be! That things like nobility and honor and decency and …” Sahar choked, “… and love … are more than just words… And you look at yourself, and you realize that you ARE just a Rat! Like all the rats that you hated and despised on the streets of Beirut! And you know that you’re filthy, and disgusting and diseased … and you know that your parents would vomit, if they could see their daughter now! And you know that a disgusting RAT has no business laying next to a beautiful creature of god …”

Sahar started to double over in pain, but Toni grabbed her and touched a finger to a point just below Sahar’s solar plexus. The knot of pain that had been crippling Sahar unraveled, and she was able to collect herself. “Thank you,” she rasped.

“Hey, not to worry.” Toni said cheerily, “I just untied a knot that you’d tied in your Ki. It’s a minor technique; I’ll teach it to you when you awaken your Ki. Okay, you were wigging yourself out, over Zenith?”

Sahar took a deep breath. “Yes. It wasn’t so bad while Zoe was there. But it was hard, coming back from Christmas break. And, I completely lost my nerve during Spring Break. I sent her as nasty a letter as I could write, telling her that I was breaking it off, and that she shouldn’t talk to me anymore. I said … hurtful things. Untrue things.” Sahar let out the breath in a gush. “Zoe cooperated beautifully. When we came back to school, we had a particularly nasty argument, and we spent the rest of the school year sniping at each other.”

Toni tilted her head and gave Sahar a strange look. “And you picked out your next victim?”

Sahar shook her head. “No. I … just … couldn’t. I didn’t have the heart. I couldn’t stand the idea of going back to being a rat. I wanted to be … better … than that.” Sahar’s face went empty and pained. She said in a wee, small voice, “But I don’t know how …”

Sahar collected herself. “Anyway, I’ve spent that last few months trying to get my grip back, and not doing a very good job of it. Recently, I decided that I was getting nowhere, and I owed the Company to continue to improve my résumé. But, I wasn’t going to keep ripping people off … I’m better than that.”

“Good for you, kid.” Toni said with a wide grin. “So, that’s why you were so amped about offering me a fair trade when we talked this over?”

Sahar nodded briskly. “Yes. Value for value. From now on, the other person will profit from the deal as much as I do.”

Toni nodded. “Okay. Cool. But what about the guys that you ripped off?”

Sahar looked confused. “What CAN I do?”

“Have you ever heard of the ‘12-Step Program’?” Sahar shook her head. “It’s what the people in Alcoholics Anonymous do. One of my neighbors was hitting the sauce pretty heavy, and went in. She was sort of a bore about it for a while, but she’s gotten better. Anyway, one of the steps is to make amends to those you’ve wronged. Besides making things right, you’ll feel better about yourself.”

Sahar grimaced. “Everybody? Even Nex?”

Toni paused, “Why? What was so bad about this ‘Nex’ guy, anyway?”

Sahar gave a sour twist to her mouth. “His code name, ‘Nex’, means ‘Violent Death’ in Latin. He’s THAT kind of idiot.”

Toni shrugged. “Well, I’m not your conscience or your sponsor. I’m just your Qi Gung instructor.”

“So, you’re going to trust me?”

“I’m going to TEACH you. I’m going to give you what I give everyone else: a glass half-full of trust. What the rest of the glass gets filled with, is up to you.” Toni cocked her head again. “So, what are you going to do about Zenith?”

Sahar looked down at the ground morosely. “What CAN I do?”

“How about a simple ‘I’m sorry that I hurt you’?

Sahar looked down at the ground and choked out, “I … I couldn’t.”

Toni gave a disgusted grunt and wiped the metaphorical egg off her face. <Schah!> “Oh, well, I guess little baby steps are better’n falling on your face.” By this time, they’d reached the front door of Hawthorne cottage, and Toni waved Sahar inside.


CHAKA

Missuz Cantrel gave me some shit for being late, but she still put my lunch cooler in a fridge for me. “So, what needs doing?”

Cantrel seemed to appreciate my attitude. “Well, before you begin your regulars, the back stairs need a quick cleaning. Phlegm slipped and took a fall.”

“EW! I hope that he wasn’t hurt too badly.”

Cantrel shrugged it off. “Not to worry. One of the few good things about that mucus of his is that it cushions his falls a mite. A few bruises but nothing broken. Still a great big mess, though.”

“Nice to hear that the boy got a break. It must suck, to have to wash your sheets every stinking day!”

“Oh, Phlegm doesn’t sleep in sheets- he sleeps in a specially designed tub that washes away his mucus. And if you’re that concerned, I’ll put you down for cleaning out his filters.”

Man, the world seems to look for ways to suck even worse. Well, so much for commiseration. I headed for the cleaning closet.


After mop duty, I handled a few other things before staring with Babs, who apparently goes by the code-name ‘Compiler’. But, when I went to look for her, I couldn’t find Sahar. Well, what are you filling up your glass with, Miss Semiramis?

Babs was in a chatty mood- well, she hadn’t had any visitors that day, but it still slowed down the Tai Chi lesson. Still, I did learn more about her rather … odd … circle of friends and co-writers. And they say that us Poe kids are nuts …

Once I’d led Babs through her routine and picked up a bit, I got my lunch cooler. Still no sign of Sahar. Oh well, I wonder what that means?

When I knocked on Diz’s door, a trim Asian woman in a lab coat (over what looked like a padded suit- a cautious person, whoever she is) opened the door. “Oh. You’re Chaka?”

I nodded, “Yeah, and you are?”

“I’m Doctor Cho. I’m Diz’s supervising physician and case worker.”

Oh Lord, what did I do? “Diz is okay, right?” Even I could hear the note of panic in my voice.

Dr. Cho laughed lightly. “Oh, don’t worry! Diz is fine!”

She showed me into the room. Diz was lying on her front, as Sahar was massaging the small of her back. Diz looked up and blurted out, “TONI! I lost fifty pounds!”

“Ah, sweetie, at your age, losing fifty pounds isn’t something to celebrate.” I pulled myself up in a mock huff. “And what’s this? I turn my back for a second, and you’re getting massaged by someone else? <humpf!> Hey, how ARE you massaging her, Sahar?”

Semi stopped, over a squeak of Diz’s protest. “I’m sorry that I wasn’t there to help you with Babs, Chaka-sensei, but Dr. Cho wanted to see if I could get past Diz’s force field without you.”

“Yes,” Dr. Cho said, bubbling with excitement. “I think that Diz’s force field may be … learning!”

“Learning?”

“Yes! Up to now, we’ve been taking a more mechanical approach, mostly because we didn’t have a context for a more organic approach. I think that it’s possible that Diz’s force field was always up, because on a reflexive level, it didn’t know that it could go down! But, when you not only got past it, but provided a positive stimulus …”

“Positive stimulus?”

“You gave her a hug. Anyway, positive and negative experiences are pretty much how we learn at that level, and you gave her a very positive experience. So, it learned to recognize and accept you. And, when you got Sahar here past it, with a similar positive reinforcement, it learned to recognize her as well. So, I had Sahar try to penetrate Diz’s force field without you, just to see if the force field recognized her.”

“Well, I can see that it did.” I sat down by Diz, who got up from Sahar’s massage. I leaned over and gave her a big hug. It was like squeezing jello- not the girl, Jello, she’s up on the Second floor, but the dessert- but I got through without too much trouble.

I broke the hug. “Okay, and what’s this about losing fifty pounds?”

Diz hopped up and went over to her robotic arm controller. “Watch!” She pressed the palm-button for ‘start’.

“Nothing happened.”

“Yup!” Diz beamed, “Cause I held back by fifty pounds!”

“What she means,” Dr. Cho explained, “is that normally, she exerts roughly eight tons of force- to be precise, 7.122271 metric tons, or 7,122.271 kilograms. But, now, when she chooses to, she can exert 20.73 kilograms less, or about 50 pounds. The ‘buttons’ on this controller are set for precisely 7,122,271 grams of force, the exact amount that she normally exerts.”

“So… she’s getting a grip on her power?”

“Yup!” Diz said happily.

I swept her up and squeezed through the ‘jello’. “You GO, DIZ!”

I put Diz down, and looked at Dr. Cho. “So, Doc. You up for a little supervised experimentation?”

Dr. Cho looked at me suspiciously. “That depends, on what your proposed experiment IS.”

I got my lunch cooler and pulled out the sandwich. “Well, I couldn’t get a Big Mac, but I tried to do the best I could. One roast beef sandwich on whole wheat, with the WORKS!” I looked at Cho. “She doesn’t have any allergies, does she?”

Dr. Cho shook her head.

“Okay, first, I’ll get past the force field around her mouth. Then, I’ll get this half of the sandwich past it. Then, I’ll guide your hand past the field, with the second half of the sandwich.”

Dr. Cho looked very interested. “Very good!”

“And then, we can get down to some serious experimentation!”

“Such as?”

I pulled three ice cream pints and three spoons out of the cooler. “We find out which she likes most: Chocolate, Strawberry, or Chunky Monkey!”


The experiment did return one unpleasant result: apparently, being a mutant does NOT make you immune to brain freeze.


“So, she can press fifty pounds LESS than she used to,” Ayla groused as we left Hawthorne en masse, “exactly HOW is that an improvement?”

“Hey, after months of putting out eight tons of force, it’s a HUGE improvement!” I explained. “It means that she’s finally getting some control!”

“Most importantly,” Sahar put in, “Diz realizes that she CAN learn to control her psychokinesis. Before, it was this strange curse that had settled on her, without explanation. Now, it’s a part of her, one that she can eventually master.”

“Oh YEAH!” I sang, “You better watch out, Hank! Give her a while, and you might not be numero uno superman around here anymore! Diz can press THREE TONS more’n you can, and she’s only Eleven!”

“First of all,” Hank said dryly, “I’m NOT the ‘number one superman’ around here. Sirrush, the Senior from Emerson holds that title. He presses 9 tons, can take that much impact and shake it off, and can fly up 70 mph. Secondly, Diz still has a long way to go.”

“Way to dump on the good mood.”

“Hey, I’m not trying to harsh you out or anything! It’s just that conditions like Diz’s aren’t that simple. Especially when you’re learning things. She’ll probably learn a lot at first, and then plateau out for a while, and then learn more and more in bursts. And, there’s another complication.”

“Hey, how do you know about this?”

“I’m a PK ‘superman’, remember? Studying how this complex of syndromes has affected mutants who have it too is part of my Powers Theory program. My point is that Diz is generating 8 TONS of force. Constantly. That takes a lot of power. How much does Diz eat?”

I shrugged. “I dunno. As much as the average 11-year old girl, I guess.”

“Toni, think about how much Billie and I eat every day. Even then, we’re tapping into an external source of energy. An eleven-year old girl couldn’t eat enough to power a constant 8-ton force, even if she ate 24/7. That means that she’s tapping into a MAJOR source of energy. Toni, that energy source is pumping power into her constantly. If she holds back the amount of force she exerts, then she could be holding back all that force inside her. If she can’t vent that energy, it could have major consequences.”

I thought desperately for a way out for Diz. “… Uhm, Maybe she could learn to, y’know, ‘turn down the tap’, or something?”

“Toni, the Hawthorne staff is working on that. First thing, they gotta figure what she’s tapping into to power her PK. My point is, Diz has a long way to go, and there are a lot of things that she’s gonna havta cope with.”

<humpf!> I still say that he was just harshing on my good vibe. Okay, I needed something else to think about. I looked at Sahar. “So, Semi- today, you helped a little girl on her way to getting out of Solitary. Still feel like a filthy, disgusting, diseased, verminous rat?” 

“I never said ‘verminous’, she sniffed.


Once I got my homework on English tenses done (and what psycho came UP with those things?), I still had something that I had to deal with. Ignoring a few hard looks from upperclassmen, I went up to Zenith’s room and knocked. There was the sound of voices inside, and when the door opened, a girl whom I couldn’t peg right off, asked, “Yes?”

“Excuse me, but I need to talk to Zenith.”

She quirked a smile. “Of course you do,” she said ironically. She gave a mock sniff. “Nobody ever comes to talk to me.”

“Do you even LIVE in Poe cottage? I don’t remember seeing you around.”

She nodded, “Yeah, this is my room. But I usually hang with kids outside Poe. Y’see, unlike,” she turned and sniped into the room, “SOME people, I actually have a LIFE!”

She turned back to me. “You’re Chaka, right? One of those Team Kimmie hotshots? I’m Shrike. I have the dubious honor of being little Miss ‘I Can Do Anything’ ’s roommate.”

“Actually, it’s team KIMBA.” There was something about this girl that I sort of recognized. She had a pale oval face, long dark hair, ‘exotic’ eyes that hinted of some Asian blood, and lots of swagger. Then it occurred to me that she’d be a natural for a live-action portrayal of the Kim Possible character, ‘Shego’. But she was wearing jeans and a red crop-top; if she’d been wearing green, I would’a got it right off.

“Whatever.” Well, she might not have the wardrobe, she sure had the Shego ‘tood. She waved me in. Zenith was stretched out on her bed, reading a magazine.

Zenith looked up from her magazine. “Oh. Toni. I heard that you didn’t listen to my warning about Sahar.”

“Yeah. As a matter of fact, that’s what I’m here about.”

“No.” Zenith turned her attention back to her magazine.

“You haven’t even heard what I have to say.”

“I don’t want to hear whatever lie Sahar spoon-fed you.”

“I’m not here because Sahar asked me to.”

“That’s what YOU think.”

“That’s what I know.”

“No, it’s what Sahar wants you to think. That’s what she does. She-”

“I know, I know. She gets close to people, gets them to trust her, and then rips off their prize Psi or Esper technique and then she dumps them.”

Zenith looked mildly surprised. “She told you that?”

I shrugged. “Well, to be honest, I first heard it from a kid called Rack, but, yeah, she copped to it.”

Zenith just waved that aside. “So, she’s just playing a new game.”

“What game? We have a straight-up deal; I teach her how to awaken her Ki, and she runs the real risks involved, and teaches me Arabic.”

Zenith looked at me wryly. “And, you’re teaching her your Ki stuff FIRST, right?”

“To be honest,” I said defensively, “the bit about teaching me Arabic was a sop to her conscience.” Zenith snorted. “Okay,” I said, “the real reason that I’m here, is that I think that you and Sahar need to talk.”

Zenith’s face shut down. “We said everything that we needed to say to each other, last year. It’s OVER.”

“Bullshit. Whatever you said to each other, it ain’t over, not by a long shot. You’re all tied up in knots, and so is Semi.”

Zenith shot me a ‘how dumb ARE you?’ look. “No, Toni. No matter what you THINK you’re feeling about Sahar, that’s not what’s really going down. That’s Sahar’s specialty. She’s the Madonna of Mind-fuck, the Bruce Lee of Bullshit, the Beethoven of Button-pushing and the Freud of Psych-out. Chaka, she’s a telepath, and a completely heartless one at that. She makes Don Sebastiano look like a weenie little wannabee. Believe me, I’ve been there, and you HAVE been had.”

“Ah, but I’m not working from any ‘gut feeling’ or ‘little voice inside my head’.”

“What is it, then?” Zenith said in a very tired sigh.

I gave her a superior smile. “Zee, who AM I?”

Hunh?”

“Who am I? What do I do?”

“You, ah, do that Ki stuff.”

“Keep goin’.”

Zenith looked at me skeptically. “You’re saying that you can use Ki to read people’s minds?”

I shook my head. “No. BUT, I CAN use it to read people’s bodies, which are a lot more honest.”

“Excuse me?” Zenith batted her big blue eyes, and actually looked vulnerable for a second.

“Zee, people use their ki every second of every day of their lives; they just don’t control it. Ki responds to your will, and to your emotions, just as your emotions affect the rest of your body. In some ways, they way that your emotions affect your ki in the way it affects your body, and in some ways, the way that your emotions affect your body it the way that it channels your ki. AND, since this is your emotions, your ki and your body ain’t listenin’ to what your rational brain is saying. They’re listenin’ to what you’re really feeling. Like, right now, your brain and your mouth are saying that you’re calm and in charge and you know what you want. But your body is saying that you’re upset, you’re frustrated, you’re angry, you’re lonely, you’re horny, and most of all, you’re so scared that you’re almost pissing in your pants.”

Zenith’s eyes flashed blue fire. “Oh? And what is Sahar’s body saying?”

“Lessee- that she’s WAY confused, really off in all directions at once, a lotta shame, a lotta guilt, a smidgen of anger aimed inwards and out, frustration, loneliness, horniness and I think that you can guess the rest.”

“Oh? Zenith sat bolt upright on her bed. “I’m supposed to take her back, just like that? I’m supposed to pretend that that vicious, spiteful, UGLY fight of last year just never happened? I’m supposed to let her just chew me up and spit me out a second time?”

I massaged my sinuses. “No, Zee, all that I’m saying is that you both have a lot of unresolved business with each other. I’m saying that you should face each other, thrash it all out, get it freaking over with, and get on with your lives.”

She scrunched up into a ball, and said childishly, “Don’t wanna.”

<NNNRRRGGGHHH!!!> “Zee, riddle me this: have you learned or developed any ass-kicking new psi or esper techniques?” Zenith looked confused and shook her head. “SO, even if Sahar IS looking to rip you off, WHAT is she gonna GET out of it?”

A look of total flummox washed over Zenith’s face.

I let out a long breath of frustration. “Look, when you’re willing to discuss this like an adult, you know where I live.”

I turned and nodded to Shrike, “Sorry to drop this on you, bye,”

“Oh, don’t worry.” Shrike replied merrily from her bed where she was playing with a stuffed cat, “This is the most fun we’ve had in this room all week!”

I left, muttering “Thank Gawd, I ain’t White!” just loudly enough for Zenith to hear.


SAHAR

Most people need to get a little time alone every so often, and have a ‘special place’ where they go to get it. Solange was being even a greater bedbug than she usually was, what with buying up every copy of that DVD of her that someone had somehow made, so Semi felt the need for a little quiet. She settled on the large stone that was strangely comfortable, and went step by step through her mental technique to relax and unkink the knots in her lower back. Just when she’d gotten that last stubborn knot to untie, a single black rose shot out of nowhere and embedded itself in the soil at Sahar’s feet.

That stupid anime garbage was getting all over the place. “Hello, Nex.” Sahar said in a flat voice.

“I’m glad to see you back in form.” Cyril Huntley’s voice came seemingly from nowhere.

“What are you going on about NOW?” 

“My sources tell me that you’re back on the hunt. You had me worried. What took you so long?”

Sahar very pointedly didn’t look for the source of his voice. “I’m not on any hunt. I’m just trying to get a little ‘Me’ time.”

Nex tsked amusedly. “Really, my darling! You don’t need to try to fool ME.” 

Semi sighed, “I don’t know what your problem is, Cyril, but I’m sure they have a medication for it.”

“My sources tell me that you’re working your wicked wiles on Team Kimba’s resident martial artist. Now, Semi … what could she teach you, that I couldn’t?”

“Chaka is helping me dig my way out of the hole that I’ve been spending the last four years digging myself into.”

“Now, Sahar, there was never a bill or debt that you couldn’t worm your way out from under.”

“Only the debt that I owe God.”

“Really, Semi! You, of all people, should know that God cares little about humans, and less about mutants. It’s everyone for themselves and God against all in this life. Those who get the idea early live long and well. Those who buy the Big Lies that the churches market work long hours, making other people rich.”

“There was a time when I would have agreed with you, Cyril.” Semi paused and remembered. “I could have given you chapter and verse. It’s such a nice, comforting, sophisticated and serviceable cynicism. It’s a pity that that lie has grown shabby to me of late.”

Cyril’s faceless voice chuckled, “Oh, you ARE playing a subtle hand, aren’t you, Sahar?”

Semi started to say something, but it was too late. She knew that she was alone. She looked peevishly at the black rose. Then she plucked it from the ground and casually tossed it in the lake.


CHAKA

Call me crazy- God knows, you won’t be the first, no wait, I’ve already done that joke, haven’t I?- but I was sort of disappointed when I realized that Detention was over. Oh well, there’s nothing that says that I can’t drop in and see how Babs and Diz are doing. The rest of the crew was talking about what they were gonna do with their afternoon. “So, Toni- you gonna get together with T-bird?”

“Yeah. Even the most devoted BF needs a little attention. But I’m gonna drop in at Hawthorne, just to make sure that the Alphas don’t bully the Thornies into doing their work for them, first.” I looked over at Sahar, who was sitting by herself. As Usual. “Oh, and there’s one other little thing that I gotta take care of, as well.”


SOLANGE

Tansy was eating like a hog. She was looking at a week- a WEEK!- of Detention- DETENTION!- at Hawthorne- HAWTHORNE! Freak Central! Hawthorne made those bizarroids at Whitman look normal! Beginning today! So, she was unconsciously returning to her bad old habits of comfort food. Well, she was an Exemplar- only Level One, but still an Exemplar- so she’d burn it off quickly enough. But she was still raggedy around the edges. Flicker and Fade were nattering about something or nothing, as they usually did, when Tansy wasn’t a part of the conversation to give it depth and didn’t feel like joining in. Flicker and Fade were beginning to get on her nerves. She looked over where Sahar was sitting. Well, nothing cheered Tansy up like the sight of someone else being miserable, so…

Then the little darky snip from Team Kimba walked over and started talking to Semi. Tansy slapped Flicker with the back of her hand, silencing the little nitwit. “Go. I need to know what they’re talking about.”

Flicker did something, and suddenly seemed to disappear. However, if you looked down at the floor, her shadow wasn’t just a patch of darkness- now it appeared that Flicker was a two-dimensional figure flat against the ground. Flicker was still reflecting light, but her otherwise minor Energizer powers now bent her image so that it occupied the light-vacuum of her shadow. Not perfect invisibility, but still quite serviceable. 

Tansy calmly watched the ripple in the air that Flicker made. Then she turned her attention to Fade, who looked like she wasn’t sure whether to talk to Tansy or just suffer the pressure to speech in silence. Several awkward minutes later, Flicker suddenly popped back into existence. “You are NOT going to believe what I just heard!” she gushed with all the relish of someone with a choice bit of dish.

“Tell me, and let’s find out,” Tansy said in an unamused monotone.

“Well, Chaka, y’know, the Kimba whacko that we were jazzing Nex about?” Tansy nodded impatiently. “Well, get this--- she’s trying to get Sahar and Zenith back together!”

What?” Tansy snapped.

“YEAH! I heard Chaka noodging ol’ Evil Eye, and she was all like, y’know, ‘Y’gotta do it, or you’ll never forgive yourself’- like anyone really CARES- and ‘You clean up your past mistakes, or they’ll keep coming back to haunt you’, and-”

“Sum it UP, Flicker.” Solange said testily.

Flicker deflated a bit. “Okay, it boils down to Sahar’s gonna meet Zenith at Freak House, with the Monster in the basement running some sort of interference.”

“What?” Tansy asked herself, confusion plain on her delicate face, “That makes no sense! Why would Sahar sucker Little Black Kimbo into setting up Zenith for her? Zenith doesn’t HAVE anything that Sahar wants! Anything that Sahar could have gotten, she ripped off last year!”

Fade snickered, “Maybe those lesbo rumors that we started last year weren’t bogus! Maybe Sahar’s going back for seconds?”

Both Flicker and Fade giggled nastily about that for a bit. “Hey, Tansy! It looks like yer gonna be rooming with a dyke!”

“NO!” Tansy snarled, her eyes spitting sapphire rage. There was NO WAY that she was going to sit still and let people laugh at her! Not on top of being in the shitter with the Alphas and having Detention in Freak Central! NO WAY was she having people snickering at her because her roommate was a bush-munching lesbo, and whispering snide little insinuations about HER. And she was NOT going to lie there, night after night, wondering if Sahar and Zenith were-

-unbidden, images came to Tansy’s mind, of Sahar and Zenith, naked together on a bed, their perfect Exemplar bodies intertwined, Semi’s dark olive skin contrasting with Zenith’s skim milk complexion, their lips coming together in a kiss both sacred and carnal-

“NO WAY!”

“Uhm, we was only jokin’, Tanse, honest,” Fade whimpered.

There was a way, there HAD to be a way to prevent that! Tansy scanned the lunchroom, and settled on Nex. Of course. She snapped her fingers imperiously. “Cover me.” She stood and slithered over to where Nex was seated.


CHAKA

Dude, you would not BELIEVE the hoops that I hadda jump through, to get Zoe and Semi together in the same room. Okay, I couldn’t talk Fubar into refereeing, but, hey, if they both THINK that he’s looking over their shoulders, then it’s as good as if he were, right?

And, just to show how far I was willing to go for this, I hadda beg off on hanging with T-bird that afternoon to make it happen. As Lady Lightning would say, ‘Memo To Self: do something really nice for Scotty, and soon. Patient bfs are hard to come by.’

I swear, I practically hadda DRAG Zenith over to Hawthorne! How can somebody that smart, that tough, that strong and that together, be such a BABY? And really! She’s going to go meet her ex-girlfriend, you’d think that she’d put together something with a little more zing than cargo pants, that ratty old hoody and sneaks! Tho, I gotta admit, she doesn’t really NEED to push it. She can make cargo pants and ratty old hoodies look like THE thing. Still, she could’a put in the effort.

When I finally got Zee through the door at Hawthorne, we hadda wait for Mrs. Cantrel. You don’t just ‘drop in’ at Hawthorne. Some of those kids are dangerous! As we were waiting, I spotted Aries, the Alpha’s resident speed demon, trying to bull his way through scrubbing the banisters with his super speed. But, Dr. Heavy was floating nearby and kibitzing. “Hey! Dude! You missed a spot! And look at those streaks! When Team Kimba was here, THEY never settled for sloppy work like that!” Thank GAWD we got on the right side of these kids!

Then Mrs. Cantrel found some time for us. “Well, Chaka!” she greeted me warmly, “What brings you here? Your detention’s over!”

“So, that means that I’m not welcome anymore? Besides,” I waved a hand at Zenith, “I think that I found Diz a new Scrabble pigeon.”

“Oh. Zenith.” Mrs. C’s voice lost some of its warmth. “Chaka, you DO know that Sahar’s with Diz right now, don’t you?” Good Golly Miss Molly, does EVERYONE at Whateley know that Zee and Semi had a nasty falling out?

“It’s cool!” I said as lightly as I could, “They just gotta settle some old business, so they can both get on with their lives.”

Cantrel gave one of those deep, heaving, ‘Oh Lord, the things I put up with’ sighs, “Okay, but just … don’t upset Diz, okay?”


Solange

Tansy stopped mopping for a moment, as the two bimbos went to their little lesbo rendezvous. Well, if there was one thing that this particularly degrading form of cruel and unusual punishment was good for, it was learning the basic layout of the Freak show. Also, it was a decent enough reason to keep moving. The In/Out board said that the First Floor RA was out, so Tansy ducked into her cubicle. She made sure that there was enough space in the office-let and pulled a small transparent crystal pendant from her décolletage and then pulled out her cell phone. “Okay, Gerri- just as we planned. NO, I don’t care how much you all weigh! DO IT.”

Tansy put away her cell and focused on her crystal. There was a blurring in the center of the room, and slowly three figures appeared. The figures resolved into Fade in the center, holding Flicker and Nex by the hands. All three were in ‘disguise’- Flicker and Fade were wearing black wigs over their blonde hair and sunglasses. Nex was wearing a grayish ‘ninja’ outfit with a utility vest. As soon as they had completely come ‘into focus’, Fade gave a loud whoosh, and collapsed into the RA’s visitor chair. “MAN, am I glad that’s over! I’m wiped!” She pulled out a Snickers© bar and started gnawing on it.

“Don’t get too comfortable.” Tansy said with a steel edge in her voice, “You still have to take care of the Monster in the basement.”

“aaahhh, Maaannn …” Fade whined.

“Do you know what you’re supposed to do?” Nex said in a quiet toneless voice that carried more menace than Solange’s snarl.

“Ah … Yeah. I got the layout you gave me, and the schematic.” Fade took the two slips of paper from her pocket and showed them. “Hey, where did you get this, anyway? This schematic ain’t exactly listed under the FAQs, y’know.”

“Just GO.” Fade sullenly finished her candy bar and faded out of the chair.


‘This is SO not fair!’ Hayley ‘Fade’ Kleisch thought to herself snippishly as she returned to the basement hallway. ‘I’m the one taking all the risks, and I won’t even get in on all the fun!’ Of course, she verbalized these thoughts only when she knew that she was well away from Solange. She got her bearings on the map and found Fubar’s compartment. She ‘faded’ to the far side of the ‘pool’ and found the aeration pump. eeeYEWww…!!! Monster boogers! She carefully placed the electronic induction doohickey where Nex had told her to, pried the right hatch open, delicately being careful not to let the gooey snot seep through her gloves. She found the rotating drum in the diagram, and squirted the whole squeeze bottle of chemical smelling stuff into the works. The machinery gave a rattling cough, shook, a foul smell wafted up, there was the sound of metal shredding, and the aerator came to a shuddering stop. Then she shut the hatch and ‘faded’ out. When she was back in the corridor, she pulled out her cell phone and hit her speed dial. She said one word. “Done.”

The reply was almost as eloquently terse. “Get going.”

“Gone.” Fade gave a relieved sigh. She’d been worried that Flicker and Nex were going to rely on her to get them back out again. It looked like Nancy was on her own, and Fade didn’t really give a shit if Nex got caught or not. With that, she faded away, glad to have it all over with.


Solange nodded at Flicker and Nex. Flicker did her thing, where she shifted her image onto her shadow, becoming effectively invisible. Nex knelt down and laid the palm of his hand on the black rubber matting that ‘carpeted’ almost every walkway in Hawthorne, so that the freaks wouldn’t hurt themselves when they fell down and went boom. Nex’s ninja-suit suddenly turned the exact same shade as the matting. Ooohhh … Tansy sniped to herself, badass techno-ninja with state-of-the-art ‘stealth’ suit that can blend into any background; we’re ALL impressed. Still, between his psychic invisibility and his actually rather impressive stealth skills, he should be able to avoid the notice of both the security cameras and any random passersby.

As Nex assumed a crouching position on the floor, Solange stepped out of the little office, and began slowly mopping the floor, making her way to the stress-reinforced door marked only ‘Diz’. And if her mopping happened to confuse Flicker’s shadow-image, well it’s not like Nancy minded.


ZENITH

Zoe fidgeted as she and the other three girls set up for their next game. Diz, the little girl didn’t seem to notice. She was too amped with all the company. Poor thing didn’t get a lot of visitors it seemed. But for the rest of them, the tension was thick enough to cut with a knife. Chaka was trying to keep the mood light with her manic joking, but Diz was the only one laughing. Then, Zoe felt the tension come to a peak. “Zoe …” Semi started hesitantly, “I’m sorry.”


SAHAR

Semi was so nervous that she wanted to throw up. She was going to ruin this, she just KNEW it! She was going to say the wrong thing, she just knew it. But what do you say  to make amends for what you’d done, what you’d said? ‘I’m Sorry’, is so weak, so trivial! Allah Al-‘Alim, what are the words? Are there words in Arabic, let alone in the gabble of words that are English, to convey her regret? But she knew that she had to say SOMETHING, so she just said, “Zoe … I’m sorry.” Oh, Allah Al-Khafid, that was just as wretched as she thought it would be!

“You’re sorry?” Zoe croaked, rage making her voice harsh.

Yes, I’m sorry! I’m sorry that I lied to you! I’m sorry that I tricked you! I’m sorry that I hurt you! I’m sorry that I dared to love you! I’m sorry that I’m a RAT that doesn’t deserve to be anywhere near you! All that was in Semi’s heart, but it all rushed into her throat, and all that squeaked out was, “Yes. I’m sorry.”

“What are you sorry for, Semi?” Diz chirped as she fiddled her control to lay her next tile.

Maybe Chaka is wiser, or Allah more forgiving than I thought, Semi thought to herself. Maybe I can say to Diz what I need to say to Zoe, but can’t. When did I become so religious? I never called on the 99 names of Allah this much in Beirut. But now? Maybe it’s because I’m seeing miracles… “Diz, last year, Zoe and I were friends … very good friends. Best friends for a while. But I wasn’t a true friend. I tricked Zoe, and I hurt her very badly. Have you ever had someone that you thought was your best friend, turn out only to be using you?”

Diz pursed her lips and nodded.

Semi took a deep breath, and let it out. “Well, in case that foolish girl never told you that she was sorry, let me speak for her. I’m sorry that I hurt you. You were a better friend to me than I could ever be to you. I didn’t realize that the friendship that you gave me was a thousand times more precious than the trifle that I swindled you out of. I didn’t realize how much I’d hurt you or how much I’d diminish myself by hurting you. I’m ashamed that I was so stupid not to think of that.” Semi’s eyes were torn from Diz’s uncomprehending ones toward Zoe’s. “And I miss you. I miss you more than I have any right to. I know that I don’t deserve your forgiveness …”


SOLANGE

“Oh, this is getting maudlin.” Tansy sniped. “Let’s end this, before the melodrama police come and arrest everyone.”

Timing is everything. Tansy sent the tiniest, most imperceptible mind thread into the room at Zenith, and waited for the overblown bimbo to open up. Besides letting Tansy in, this had to be when Zenith was the most vulnerable psychologically, as well as psychically.


ZENITH

Zoe listened to Semi has she kept rattling on, pain obvious in her voice and eyes. Maybe … she was sincere?


SOLANGE

Tansy’s patience was rewarded. Just as Zenith opened her mouth and started to say something accepting, Tansy sent in her own version of the Brisengamen Effect. Tansy had never been able to get close enough to Freya to examine it firsthand, so her attempts were lamentably crude and overbearing. It tended to alienate the other party rather than seduce them. But then, that was exactly what Tansy wanted.


ZENITH

Suddenly, just as Zoe was flooded with a smothering, overwhelming sense of how wonderful Semi was. It was too much! It couldn’t be real! It almost bowled her over. Zoe struggled to keep the seat of her own identity, and finally shut Sahar out of her mind. “WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT


 

SOLANGE

Tansy gave an acid smile, and pointed at where she knew Flicker was standing. Flicker concentrated on the hand drawing in her hand and sort of slid her ‘shadow’ under the door. Waiting for Flicker’s cue, Nex had a sort of oscillator set on the metal door, which would turn the slab into a crude speaker of sorts. The timbre would be way off, but if they timed it right, they wouldn’t notice.


 

SAHAR

Semi reeled, not knowing what to make of Zoe’s outburst. Couldn’t she SEE that she was sincere? Couldn’t she HEAR her pain? Then, suddenly, a menacing figure that looked like Fubar, if he had been a prosecutor of the damned, materialized out of nowhere. “LYING WHORE!” the figured thundered in a voice like Final Judgement, “HOW DARE YOU USE SUCH VILE LURES IN MY HOUSE? GET OUT! LEAVE! NOW!”


NEX

Cyril concentrated, and using his ESP, sent a subtle PK attack at Semi. Trying to directly affect Sahar’s mind would have been futile, but the mind and the body aren’t as cleanly separated as some people like to think. The mind affects the body, and when the mind is vulnerable, it believes what the body tells it, even if it’s false. Nex sent a ‘hand’ of PK force into Semi’s midsection and twisted a knot into it. It wasn’t enough to harm her, but it was enough to suggest that she was tying her own insides into a knot, and she’d react along those lines.


SAHAR

As Semi reeled from the second accusation, she felt a knot of tension almost rip her insides out. She gave a cry of pain.

“OH GIVE ME A FREAKING BREAK!” Zoe snarled. She launched a furious tirade at Sahar. Semi only cringed under the onslaught, neither of them noticing ‘Fubar’ fading away for some reason. After venting for a while, Zoe turned to Chaka and spat, “Gee, THANKS, I really NEEDED this!” She headed for the door as if she was marching on Berlin.


SOLANGE

Just before Zenith came storming out, Nex ripped his oscillator off the door and headed out. Tansy gave Flicker a shove, and the girl started to make her own way out of the cottage.

Then Zoe came barreling through. No one was paying her any attention, so Tansy peeked through the open door, just in time to see Sahar come scurrying out, her face scrunched up, trying to fight the tears. Ah, sweet victory!


CHAKA

What the HELL just happened?

I tried to stop Sahar, but I would have had an easier time stopping the Grand Miskatonic Shuttle at full steam.

When I came back from not being able to keep Semi from running off in tears, I stomped back to Diz’s room, but Fubar wasn’t there anymore. “What just happened?” Diz asked, almost in tears herself.

“I dunno,” I grated, “but I’m sure as hell gonna find out.” I stomped out, and headed down into the basement. There were a couple of technicians tinkering at some of the equipment by the side of his pool, but I barged down into his viewing room without saying anything. I battered on his viewing glass and yelled. “HEY! DOCTOR CALAMARI! What the HELL was all THAT about?”

Fubar showed up, but he was a lot wispier than he usually was, “Excuse me, Chaka, but I’m in the middle of something here.”

“YEAH! But you still had time to stick your ectoplasmic nose where it wasn’t wanted? And what were you talking about? Semi was being totally on the up and up there!”

“What are you talking about?”

“Just now! You show up, all booga-booga, and you blew Semi totally out of the water with that ‘Vile Whore’ and ‘Lying Lures’ crap! Or was it ‘Lying Whore’ and Vile Lures’? WHATEVER! You said that you were too busy to referee, but you’re not to busy to just STEP all over Semi?”

“Yes, I was too busy to sit in, and I’m too busy right now. My main aerator pump got all gunked up, and I’ve had my hands full keeping it going with PK while the techs get it running again!”

“You mean you didn’t just show up in Diz’s room, and lay this whole big trip on Sahar?”

Lou shook his head, and jerked a thumb upwards. “I’ve sort of been busy breathing for the past five or so minutes.” His face went stony. “Are you telling me that somebody showed up passing themselves off as me?”

“Ah, Yeah. And they laid a really heavy head-trip on both Zenith and Sahar. And just when it looked like they were getting past all the hurt!”

Fubar went absolutely grim. “Someone’s playing games. I don’t like it when people play nasty games in Hawthorne.” He looked upwards. “And if I find out that they sabotaged my aerato, just to distract me, whoever is playing these games is gonna find out that there are things you just don’t DO in Hawthorne.”

On that rather ominous note, I left him to go find Diz, who was probably freaking.


SOLANGE

Tansy came back from Hawthorne, tired but game. The same couldn’t be said of her roommate. Tansy kept a satisfied smirk well hidden as she watched Sahar meditate with a furor and intensity that sane people reserved for tennis. Oh Yes, this was the Sahar that she’d come to know and rely on, flying off in all directions under a mask of calm.

For a moment, Tansy sat back on her bed and enjoyed. But what’s the point of opening a wound, if you can’t rub a little salt into it? “Oh, Seeemmmiii …” Tansy sang, “Are you all right?”

Sahar said nothing. If anything, she concentrated with even steelier determination. “Aaww … c’mon roomie! Tell me, what’s bothering you?”

“Go Away.”

“Aw, now, how can I do that, when you’re SO upset?”

“And why should you start caring about that now?”

“Well, I couldn’t HELP but noticing how you ran out of Freak House, almost in TEARS, right after that big blonde stormed out of the place. What happened, dear? You know that you can tell ME!”

“I’m sure that you would find it terribly boring, Solange.”

“Why so formal, Semi? And what were you doing over at Creepy Cottage, anyway?”

“Why are you asking this, Solange? It’s not like you don’t already know, or that you really care.”

“Oh, come ON! I’m only superhuman! I’ve just GOT to know! I mean WHY did you even GO there if you knew that Zenith was going to be there?”

Sahar opened one red-ringed eye. “So. You do know the details. Why go any further?”

“Oh,” Tansy said breezily, “I can understand why you’re so reluctant to talk about it. I mean, you swallow your pride, and go crawling to Zenith. And then she goes and STOMPS all over your heart! And after you opened up your HEART to her, and …” Tansy was just really getting into the gory stuff, when there was a knock at the door.

Sahar went to the door, grateful for the respite. Still, she was more than a little surprised to find Toni on the other side.

“OkaysemibeforeyoushutthedoorIgottasaysumthin!” Chaka put her foot forcefully in the doorjamb. “Something hinky happened back in Diz’s room. I dunno what Zenith was yellin’ about, but what popped outta nowhere, was NOT Fubar!”

Sahar snapped out of her funk for a second. “What?”

“Well, first of all, I sort of stretched the truth when I said that Fubar would be reffing your meeting. After you left, I went down and checked with Fubar. He said that he was busy just keeping himself alive! The pump that keeps his water aerated  so that he can breathe, went on the fritz! Now, what are the odds that a sturdy piece of equipment like that is gonna kablooey, just in time to keep him busy, just when a trash-talking twin pops out of nowhere?”

Sahar stopped and gave Toni a hard look. “And how do you know that he was, as you say, ‘talking trash’?”

“Hey, I may not be psychic, but I can read Ki; you were going every which way but up, mentally. You had as much chance of affecting Zenith psychically as Paris Hilton has of winning the Nobel Prize for Physics.”

“And how do you know that the monster is telling the truth?”

“Okay, I know that you’re upset, so I’m gonna overlook the ‘monster’ crack. But I’m telling you, straight up, Fubar is cool.” Toni paused and centered herself. “Besides, Diz told me that whoever did show up, didn’t really look that much like Foob. But neither of you have really seen that much of him, so …” Chaka blinked at Sahar and said "Lift your shirt a second."

"Why?"

"Your Don Tien is looking funny, Like some one twisted it or something."

Sahar lifted her skirt, and said, "Where did that bruise come from ...?"

Chaka led Sahar to the bed "Lay down a moment ..."

“Hey, hey, HEY!” Tansy snapped, “None of that Lezbo crap in this room!”

Chaka ignored Tansy as she examined the bruise. “It’s like someone sort of … grabbed you in the pit of your stomach somehow, without really touching you.”

“So, THAT’S what I was feeling! Not some spasm of guilt or a surge of hate from Zoe!” Sahar was visibly shaken. “Then … I was … set up …” She spun around, and snarled at Tansy, rasping out a spate of furious Arabic- which is a _VERY_ good language to get angry in, by the way- for at least a solid minute. Then she regained her command of English. “You lying, treacherous, back-stabbing… OOOH! English doesn’t have WORDS for a kalb like you! YOU set all that up! Now I remember! You were out in the hallway when it all turned to shit! I don’t know how, but you …”

“Did what?” Tansy purred. “Am I supposed to have sabotaged something, created an illusion that fooled all three of you, and somehow wrecked your tearful little reunion for no discernable reason- while I was in the hallway mopping?

Toni folded her arms against her chest, and matched Tansy, smug expression for smug expression. “You’re lying.”

“Oh? You’re Psychic, maybe?” Tansy sneered.

“Nope!” Toni sneered back, “But, as I keep telling people, I read Ki, which means that I can read the way that people are focusing their attention. And you’re being just as creative and twisty as you possibly can. That, and the general underhanded, nasty, pointlessly vicious tone of the *ahem!* ‘prank’, so consistent with your kidnapping Jinn, all add up to, ‘You’re lying!’ ”

“My, aren’t WE clever?” Tansy sneered even harder, “Like you’re really going to get anyone to believe THAT load of shit!”

Suddenly, Chaka lashed out, grabbed Solange by her blouse, and shoved her halfway across the room into the wall with a thud. “Listen up, Bitch, ‘cause I’m only gonna say this once.” Chaka growled, more like her namesake leopard than she usually went for, “You ain’t getting’ away with shit.”

“Oh?” Tansy tried mightily to keep her voice steady, “What are you going to do? Beat me up? Because I wouldn’t let you get your dyke bitch friend back in bed with my roommate?”

Chaka got her face in close, locked her amber eyes with Tansy’s cornflower blue ones, and smiled acidly. “I don’t NEED to beat you up. You think that Detention was hard today? Bitch, for the next six days, you’re gonna be on a guided tour of HELL.”

Chaka let go of Tansy’s blouse and let her slip to the floor. She turned to Sahar. “Semi, maybe we can still pull this out of the shithole that Mega-Bitch over there chucked it into. Maybe I can talk Zenith into giving it one more try. Are you still up for it?”

Semi took a deep breath, let it out, and nodded her head shakily. “Good girl.” Chaka gave Sahar a big hug, and left.

And, from her position on the floor, Tansy was coping with the fact that, for some inexplicable reason, she was more sexually aroused than she could ever remember being.


NEX

Later after sundown, Nex slipped out of his room and ghosted unseen in the direction of Kane Hall. It was Wednesday, and just after lights out, so odds were that at least a few of them would be there. It would have been easy just to pick the lock and get past the alarm. But being a ninja wasn’t about doing the easy thing. Not that the gits who styled themselves as the Whateley Academy Ninjas had anything like the discipline to be real ninjas. No, they were all about playing at being ninjas, and pulling practical jokes and all that drivel.

He came in through the most difficult means possible, and still went unnoticed.  The others were already there, and he had no problem picking out where they were, who they were, and the flaws in their positions. If he wanted to, he could have killed them all before the last one alive even realized that there was a lull in the conversation.

They were discussing their next ‘target’. It was another student, of course. You just don’t prank Whateley teachers. It wasn’t so much that the ninjas respected their teachers any more than most students respect their teachers; it was more that they were justifiably scared to death of them.

“Even by your wretched standards, this is bloody pathetic.”

Wendy ‘Spooky’ Soames refused to startle like the others. Though she was only 14, she’d come to Whateley when she was twelve, and she had years of experience in dealing with Nex. “Why CYRIL! I didn’t see you come in!”

She shifted from cheery insolence to blunt rudeness, “So, Glowworm, you finally got rid of that stupid spell that the Kimba Elf put on you. How’d you get shuck of it?”

“I managed, thank you very much!” Nex grated.

“Hey Man,” Bernardo ‘Ghost Boy’ Hidalgerra adjusted his visage, so that his reflection was suddenly staring Nex down while his actual form remained well out of reach, “we didn’t COME here to listen to you RIDE us. Now, if you don’t got anything that we wanna hear, shove off, and we’ll get back to business.”

“Oh Yes,” Nex sneered- and a good polished British accent sneers so well- “by all means, go back to planting stink bombs, while THE coup that would make your reputations slips past you.”

“What ARE you talking about, Nex?” Abigal ‘Tabby’ Kitteridge asked, tensing for her shift from her default human form to her faster, stronger and more deadly feline demi-human form.

“Why, I’m talking about THE target. The bust of Edgar Allen Poe! Poe Cottage’s mascot. The bust that that team from the Yama Dojo FAILED to acquire.”

The Yama Dojo was a none-too-secret school for ninjas and paranormal operatives in Japan, something of a knock-off of Whateley, except that it was rumored that it had the official backing of the Japanese government. The Senseis of the Yama Dojo felt it necessary to periodically make a point about how much better trained and disciplined their students were than the Whateley kids, by sending in teams of ninjas to steal something noticeable.

Later, these things would be returned with a token ‘ransom’, which mostly consisted of Whateley officially admitting that the Dojo had put one over on them. As long as this had been going on, decades now, not a single one of those ninja teams had even so much as been spotted in passing, let alone resisted or captured.

But, at the very beginning of the school year- why the year hadn’t even officially started yet!- that had abruptly stopped. A team of freshmen from Poe Cottage had spotted one of the ninjas swiping the cottage’s mascot bust of Poe. Not only did the freshmen catch up with the ninjas, but also they fought them and won. The bust of Edgar Allan Poe was back on its perch and a point of considerable pride for the Poesies.

“We’ve tried, and the best we’ve done is not get caught and turned over to Security.”

“Well then!” Nex was heartier than his normal wont; “You must persevere! After all, ‘ninja’ means ‘the persistent ones’!”

“What’s it to you, Nex?” Although she was only a freshman, Spooky had been at Whateley since she was twelve. She’d known Nex for years, and they’d been close. At least, until Nex had taken up with Sahar. “Since when do you give a rat’s ass about what we do? You were always all het up about your plans to become a professional murderer.”

*I* know what it is,” Bobby ‘Spandex’ Villemare gloated, “I heard that his guurrrlll-frieennndd, Sahar, is trying to set up Chaka, that black chick in Team Kimba- and Poe Cottage. If he rips off Poe’s pride and joy, maybe he thinks that he can get back inside Sahar’s silky drawers.”

Nex glared daggers at Spandex. Still, he  kept his voice even, “Actually, Rubber-boy, you’re on the mark for once. Sahar is targeting Zenith in Poe cottage again, using Chaka as a cat’s-paw. I haven’t heard anything about Zenith having developed any spectacular new Psi applications. That means that Sahar has moved on to a new ploy.” Nex’s voice went even colder and harder. “I don’t know what this new scheme of hers is. I want to find out.”

Aaannnddd … what’s this got to do with US?”

Nex settled into his ‘spelling out the plan’ posture. “Zenith is, understandably rather wary of Sahar. Once burned, and all that. If I can situate myself between Sahar and her prey, then she’ll have to let me in on the scam.”

Spooky sighed, “ONCE AGAIN, what’s this got to do with US?”

“My plan calls for rattling Zenith’s cage until she blows. Odds are, she’ll blow at Sahar. Now, I ask you- what would rattle Zenith’s cage more than losing Poe cottage’s pride and joy?”


 

SOLANGE

Tansy was running away. The beast that followed her aroused- no, FRIGHTENED her more than anything she’d ever seen. She ran through the jungle, despite the fact that she was almost nude. The beast followed silently, inexorably closing the distance between them.

 Tansy ran with all her might, but she could feel it catching up to her. Then she tripped- or did the beast knock her down?- to the soft moss-covered jungle floor. Then the beast crouched over her, a huge, gorgeous- no, deadly!- sleek velvety black panther. Completely cowed, Tansy looked up into the panther’s glowing amber eyes.

The magnificent cat lowered its head and sniffed all over her face, then her neck and then down into her cleavage. The panther opened its mouth and tore off her spider-web sheer brassiere. Then it began licking at her breasts. But its tongue wasn’t sandpaper rough, as a cat’s tongue should be. No, it was smooth and warm and wet, and it felt sooo gooood against her breasts. It toyed with her nipples with its tongue, and then down her stomach to her hips, where it ripped off her panties.

“Noooo! Not down there!” Tansy pleaded.

The panther brought its head back up to her face. She dared to reach up and stroke its glossy black fur, its powerful flanks, its delightful breasts- And then the panther came down and kissed her with full pillow-like lips and-

NO! Tansy woke up with a start, awash in sweat. She looked around her and found nothing in the darkness. Then she remembered where she was. She checked Sahar’s bed. Semi was fast asleep. There was no way that she could have telepathically ‘overheard’ Tansy’s dream.

Tansy relaxed. Then, she suddenly realized that she wasn’t bathed in sweat.

But she was quite moist.


CHAKA

Peacemaking is, like, so TOTALLY way harder than kicking ass. I managed to catch Zenith on the way out of Poe to breakfast, and spent the entire meal lobbying her to give Semi another chance. But she wasn’t having any of it, and having that dweeb Adam Ironknife - I mean, Stormwolf – come over and pontificate about how ‘leopards don’t change their spots’ didn’t help. I mean, really! If anyone should know about leopards, it’s ME. I mean, my name means leopard! Do *I* go over to HIS table, and make ‘wolf’ comments?

I gave it another go at lunch. Zenith was sitting with Blackrose. Roz was unexpectedly helpful. “Y’know, Zo, the munchkin does have a point. What happened at Hawthorne, they way you described it to me was pretty heavy-handed. And what I remember of Sahar, she is anything but heavy-handed.”

Zee scowled at her. “You’re only saying that because you don’t have any powers that she can steal.”

“And now, neither do you,” Roz pointed out. “Look, from what Chaka says, you both got sand-bagged. You gonna let some sleazebag slam you like that?”

Zenith just grumped.

Roz sighed gustily. “Zoe, you laughed more when you were with Semi. You need to laugh more.” Roz leaned in predatorily; “Maybe you just need to find a new lover. I think that I could help you there.” A tendril of rose vines grew up along Zenith’s arm and caressed it.

Zenith pulled the vine off and handed it to Roz, who pouted prettily. Then, Zee looked at me. “Are you sure about this?”

I shrugged. “I’m pretty sure that what happened was Solange’s- y’know, Sahar’s roommate?- her idea of a nasty practical joke. Though, I think that she had help with it. I’m not sure WHO helped her, but I’m sure about Solange.” I shot Zee my patent pending ‘leopard grin’; “And I’ve made arrangements to deal with the nasty Miss Walcutt.”


SOLANGE

Well, back to the salt mines, Tansy thought as she trudged up to Hawthorne Cottage. One down, six to go. Just hunker down, and get it over with.

The Alphas ignored her with icy disdain as the chores were assigned. The gross fat freak in the flying chair waited for the very last to give Tansy her job. “Okay, Solange, we have a special job for YOU. You’re to clean the toilets. ALL of the toilets. And you don’t get to leave until they’re ALL spotless, and the weapons have been checked and re-charged.”

Weapons? Who has weapons in their toilets?

Toilets, Tansy muttered as she pulled on the rubber apron, glove and breathing mask, of all the nasty, disgusting, loathsome, demeaning jobs! Mexicans do toilets!

Then she opened the yellow-and-black edged, biohazard-marked door. Her eyes went wide, her face went pale, and she let out a scream of primordial horror. The scream resounded through Hawthorne cottage.

Down in his pool in the basement, Fubar heard the scream and smiled as much as his GSD would allow him to.


CHAKA

The entire afternoon was an utter fucking nightmare. It was like somebody’d put a jinx on us or something. Zenith, Sahar, and I simply couldn’t connect, no matter how much we hustled. I was constantly just missing one or the other of them, and we kept running into the dumbest shit you could imagine. If T-bird were involved in this, I’d say that his entourage of secret (from him) girl friends, Widget, Tesla and Sizzle were razzing us. But he wasn’t, so who’d be pranking us? 


NEX

Perfect. Zenith was in exactly the right frame of mind. He hit his communicator. “The fish is ready to bite. Bait the hook.”


CHAKA

When I caught up with Zenith, she was ready to commit mass murder. “WELL? Where IS she?”

“Hey, I dunno, but the last time that I saw her, she said that …”

“SCREW THIS, screw her, and screw YOU, too!” Zee grated, “I’ve had enough! I’m going home!”

“Aw, c’mon, Zee! It’s only a total waste if we let whoever’s doing all of this keep you and Semi-”

“I DON’T CARE!” Zenith stomped off in the general direction of Poe cottage.


SAHAR

Semi ran as quickly as she could to Poe cottage. She had to get to Zoe before she got into the cottage. Once Zoe was inside, there was no way that Mrs. Horton would let Semi speak to her, and she just HAD to talk to Zoe. Then, just as she was coming out of the copse of trees that shielded the cottages from each other, she spotted Chaka and Zoe walking towards the front door. They both looked worse for wear.

Semi kicked in the afterburners, and was almost there, when a figure in a dark gray ninja suit seemed to pop out of the front door, carrying something large and bronzish. “Sahar! Relay!” He- the ‘ninja’ was a boy, judging from his voice- tossed the whatever-it-was at Semi with both hands.

Semi caught it, half out of reflex, half out of curiosity. It looked like a bronze bust, but it was far too light to be real metal. Before she could really react, the bust was snatched out of her hands by an unseen force, and flew off into the woods.


CHAKA

I admit it, I was completely flat-footed when I saw Semi relay Edgar from the Ninja at the door to another partner in the woods. But Zenith wasn’t. “I DON’T BELIEVE THIS! All that, just so that she could steal freaking Edgar?” She lit out, full-tilt into the woods in hot pursuit of our mascot.

I looked at Semi, who gave me a, ‘what the hell just happened?’ look.

Hold it. Ninjas. Sahar said that the guy that she screwed over, just before Zenith, was that idiot ninja-wannabe, ‘Nex’, who tried to hurt Nikki. And all that running around and all those booby-traps that we’ve been running into …  There’s no way that Semi would go through all that, just to pull off a prank. And Tansy’s probably still scrubbing out those gawd-awful toilets in Hawthorne, so she’s not behind that. And there’s no way that Tansy could have pulled that stunt in Hawthorne yesterday alone. Tansy’s partner was Nex. They’re trying to keep Sahar and Zenith apart, for some reason.

Then, I heard a loud voice yell, “HEY! Somebody ripped off Edgar!”

Oh, there is NO WAY that this is not a set-up. “ZENITH! Come BACK! It’s a trap!”

Of course, she didn’t listen. Nobody ever listens to freshmen.


ZENITH

INCREDIBLE! In-fucking-credible! Zoe knew that Sahar was an evil, manipulating bitch, but that she’d go this far, just to help those idiot ninjas steal Edgar? Zoe tore off into the woods. She was gonna get Edgar back, and THEN she was going to shove him right up Semi’s lying, cheating Ass!

Of course, Zoe wasn’t exactly thinking clearly by this time. Otherwise, she’d never have just walked over and picked up the bust when she spotted it on the wood’s floor. The second that she picked it up, it discharged several hundred kilowatts of electricity into her. Besides stunning her, the charge also affected the metal cable mesh hidden the carpet of leaves. The mesh not only grounded Zoe, but it magnetized and wrapped itself around her. Before you could say ‘Framke Jansen’, she couldn’t move a finger.

Then a figure stepped out from the bushes. It was like a piece of the underbrush took human form and walked out. Then the effect faded, and a wiry man in a ninja suit was there. Wordlessly, he reached behind his back and unsheathed a ninja-to.

“Hey!” Zoe snapped, “What’s this? You have the stupid bust, what’s with the sword? What are you up to? Did Sahar put you up to this? What’s she really up to?”


NEX

Can’t – let – Zenith – trick – me – into – explaining! Must – resist – the – urge – to - monologue!  


ZENITH

Zoe tried to balance herself within the steel cocoon. Maybe, if she timed it just right, she could finesse this goon into splitting the cables, instead of her head.

But, just as the ninja was about to start his down-stroke, a flurry of playing cards came flying at him. Two caromed off this head, distracting him. Others tore at his clothes. One embedded itself in the tree just behind him.

Both Zoe and the ninja turned to see the newcomer. Chaka stood there in a crouch, two fans of cards spread in her hands. She said with a wise-ass grin, “Is this a private game, or can I deal myself in?” 

The ninja wordlessly sprang at Chaka in the classic ‘leaping sword-stroke’ maneuver. Chaka emptied her hands, throwing the cards at him in a deadly spray, but they all scattered at the last movement. Chaka ducked out of the way, but the ninja turned his downward motion into a nasty sideways slice. As the sword was almost at her face, Chaka reached into one of her sleeves, and pulled out a long chain. She not only blocked the sword-stroke, but bound it, and used it to hold the ninja long enough to give him a roundhouse kick to the jaw.

The ninja went sprawling, and lost his sword to the chain, but recovered fluidly. In an instant, he had both his footing and his backup sword, and was ready. As the ninja took her measure, Chaka pulled the rest of the nine-foot chain from its rather meandering sheath, hidden in the lining of her jacket. She lazily spun the weight at one end, and purred, “Okay, lemme guess … Your name is ‘Nex’, right?” Chaka paused and said in a snide tone, “Gee, you’re not as … bright … as Nikki described you …”

Nex started to say something, but kept it in. Zoe could tell that he was fighting to keep his focus.

“Y’know,” Chaka continued, “the ninja-to isn’t anywhere near as nasty as the movies make it out to be. The design is second-rate, and the material is third-rate--- at best. Hey, it’s designed to be made by everyday blacksmiths on the cheap, not expert sword-smiths. Just use it, and throw it away. Piece of shit, really. But the manriki-gusari? Now, that’s a whole different story … fast, effective, and it’s got a reach like Michael Jordan. Guys who’ll face a sword without a second thought, will beg off taking on a chain fighter. Only so many strokes, with a sword. But there’s no end to the different moves that you can make with the ‘thousand lightning chain’.”

Why are you wasting time blithering? Zoe wondered. Then, she almost kicked herself. Of course, Chaka was trying to get Nex talking, instead of focusing. Maybe even get him to start a monologue. If anything, the stress of NOT talking was slowing Nex down.

Then, it suddenly seemed to dawn on Nex that Chaka had him playing her game. He threw a smoke pellet, and ‘disappeared’ in the smoke.

“Oh, Yeah, RIGHT!” Chaka snarled as she lit out after him, “Like I haven’t seen THIS in a thousand Anime!”

“HEY!” Zoe shouted, still bound in the steel cocoon, “What about ME?”


Okay, if you’ve ever watched an Anime or a samurai movie, you’ve probably seen the bit where one of the combatants in a sword-fight suddenly breaks off, and his opponent chases him, usually through a forest or bamboo thicket. And, you’ve probably asked yourself, ‘WHY are they doing that, aside from the fact that it looks cool?’

Well, the idea is that if one guy loses sight of the other, then the one who still has his opponent in sight has the advantage. So, if you think you have the upper hand on the other guy, you try to keep pace with him, and you force him to fight while he’s running. Then, he’s in a position where he had to keep track of where he’s running, where you, are, and fight, all at the same time. If you do it right, you can sucker the other guy into running into a tree, and boom; he loses tons of face, right there.

Besides, it does look VERY cool.

Nex tried to run away from Poe cottage, keeping up a stead barrage of sword-thrusts with both of his ninja-to. Don’t ask me how he got his first sword back. He’s fast, but I’m faster, and I managed to steer him back in the general direction of Poe.


SAHAR

As Semi watched Chaka disappear into the woods, there was a general commotion in the cottage, “What? Somebody tried to steal Edgar again?”

Several of the Posies came out, loudly wondering what was going on. “What’s all the fuss? Edgar’s right here!”

The large girl that Semi recognized as Hippolyte, from her visits to Zoe at Poe last year, came over to her and asked in brusque Arabic, “What are you doing here? What’s all the fuss about?”

Semi gave a Gallic shrug and replied, “I have NO idea. I’ve been trying to meet with Zoe all day, and when I finally catch up with her, one of those idiot ninja-people threw a bust at me, and something grabbed it out of my hands. Then people start yelling and running off."

Hippolyte looked at her with a baffled expression. “It can’t be Edgar.” She said in English, “He’s still in his nook.”

“Hey!” Benny ’Flux’ Hardew said, as he looked at ‘Edgar’, “Maybe it’s a dummy bust, or a hologram or something, put here to confuse us!”

As Flux reached for the bust, every gadgeteer on the scene yelled ‘NO!’ in unison. But it was too late. Benny lifted the heavy bronze bust, and set off the alarm. Flux was a ‘Magneto’ type Energizer, with an ability to create, manipulate and, fortunately, absorb electromagnetic fields, so the 50 Kilowatt jolt didn’t hurt him that much. But that didn’t do anything to affect the gooey capture gel that encased him, or the Adamantex© sphere that clamped around him, or the blinding spotlights that were beaming at him.

As the Poe bust dropped to the ground, Tabby sprang from her place of concealment, grabbed the bust, and exited with a sprightly “Then KEW!”

Once Tabby was out the door, she tossed the bust into the air, “Relay!” Then she headed off in the other direction, only to run into one of the Poe boys.

Brandon ‘Risk’ Fellows grinned and, somehow, managed to catch Tabby at exactly the right angle to flip her up into the air. But then, strange, one-in-a-thousand things happened to Risk on a regular basis. Then the rest of the Ninjas appeared in puffs of smoke.

Edgar Allan Poe’s bust never managed to reach the ground. Spandex stretched out from his hiding place in the bushes to catch it. He paused just long enough to recover from catching thirty pounds of bronze and tried to take off.

But Risk, who HAD been at least 20 feet away, was somehow right in front of him, and Spandex went sprawling. Spandex rolled into a ball around the bust, and bounced away.

Or, at least, he TRIED to. That ‘Plastic Man’ stuff doesn’t really work that well in the real world.

He uncoiled on the ground and looked up at a mountain with tits. “Hello, little man. I think that you have something that doesn’t belong to you.”

As Hippolyte reached down, Spandex made a break for it. As he stretched his legs- literally- Hippolyte grabbed one of his arms. He tried the ‘I’ll just keep running while you ineffectually hold onto my hand’ gag. Hippolyte just gave Sahar a martyred look and snapped him back, using his own arm as a ‘rope’.

The bust went flying, but Sahar managed to catch it without too much trouble. hearing a sound just behind and to the side of her, Sahar whipped the bust around without turning, catching the ninja-wannabe square in the breadbasket.

Around them, the battle was fairly evenly matched. The Posies had the raw numbers, but the ninjas had come ready for a fight. They’d even gone to the precaution of laying booby traps around the cottage, and those traps were taking their toll on the Posies.

Then there was a crashing noise, and a ninja that Sahar recognized as Nex, and Chaka came racing out of the woods at full speed, trading blows with swords and chain. They dashed through the milling crowd scene, and then ran straight up the cottage wall.

Their passing brought the fight to a screeching halt. “Whoa. Swords!. Chains! That’s harsh, dude,” said someone who could have been on either side.

Hippolyte took advantage of the lull, and snapped Spandex as a whip to club the four other ninjas in fast order.


CHAKA

Okay, whatever else you wanna say about this Nex asshole, the boy’s got moves. Sahar only mentioned him in passing, but what I’ve learned in the brief period of our acquaintance, from the way that his ability to guess what I was gonna do dropped after I shut down my Brow chakra, I’d say that he’s probably telepathic. From the way that he managed to avoid running into the trees that I’d been aiming him at, I’d say that he’s at least clairvoyant. And from the way that he’s moving, and the way that he was able to scatter the cards that I threw at him, I’d say that he’s psychokinetic.

And from the way that he slows down when he’s about to strike, I’d say that he shares out the power. In other words, he’s a ‘Package Deal Psychic’. Which means that I could probably stop him with one of my ‘Kiai’ yells.

But if I hit him with a Kiai, I’d have to do it all-out. And then, Security would know that something was up, and that I was in the middle of it. And I don’t want Security involved in this. If nothing else, there’d be paperwork.

We hit the wall and didn’t slow down. Apparently, Nex was shifting from ESP and Psi to all-out PK. This was not good. I don’t have a very good track record against PK. Yeah, I know, I could get past Hank or Diz’s PK any time that I wanted. But they let me do that, and I doubt that Nex is gonna let me just sit there, concentrate, and get all touchy-feelie on him.

Touchy feely on Nex? Oh God, I think I just made myself sick.

We were still trading blows all the way up the wall, but the tenor of the fight changed once we got to the roof. The roof of Poe cottage (and I assume most of the other cottages) isn’t a smooth open, if uneven, surface. No, it’s a forest of chimneys, smoke-pipes, antennae and a whole bunch of other stuff I was too busy to identify.

Nex was in his element here. I assumed that he’d spent a lot of time learning how these things were set up.  And, he was obviously shifting to using his ESP to keep track of me. Of course, I had the advantage of a weapon that could strike around corners and over ledges. We kept each other hopping in a fast-paced game of cat and mouse. Or maybe, leopard and rat.

After a bit of parry-and-thrust, I got the impression that Nex was trying to herd me towards something. Well, whatever it was, it wasn’t on the roof, or I’d have spotted it by now.

As I was looking for Nex’s Ace-in-the-hole, he almost kicked me off the roof. I was able to use my chain to snag onto a pole and swing back onto the roof. But, I was able to spot what Nex was aiming for.

Down on the ground, Blackrose and the rest of the Posies were still rumbling with the ninjas that weren’t down for the count. All both of them. Blackrose’s mutant trait is that she’s a manifester, whose manifestations take the form of thorny vines and decorative black roses. BR had erected a ‘spider web’ of sorts, made of her vines. And it was right where Nex was aiming for.

And then, I spotted something in the woods. Well, it was about time!

I cartwheeled a couple of times, and let Nex set me up for his big kick again. I went flying, and managed to land in the vine web without getting TOO badly scratched up.

Back up on the roof, Nex sheathed his blades, and did a big dramatic PK assisted leap over the web, and landed facing the cottage.

Predictable chump.

As I struggled, I snarled at Nex, “Oh, don’t act so damn tough! You don’t dare hurt me! Security knows who all the ninjas are, and if you really hurt me, your buddies will rat you out in a second!”

“Hurt you?” he said in one of those snooty Brit accents that make you wanna kick their snaggle teeth down their throats. He drew one of his swords, “No, I’m just going to do what I was going to do to Zenith, and failed to do to your friend- I’m going to mark you. So that you’ll always remember this.”

I smirked back at him. “Y’know, Nex Nuthor, I knew that I could get you to monologue. And, I knew that I could get you JUST where I wanted you.”

“Oh, please! That’s the oldest trick in the book.”

One cue, Zenith dashed out of the underbrush and clocked Nex on the back of his pointy little head. “And yet,” she heaved, “it still works.”

Nex barely managed to recover, and spin around to face Zenith, which left him open for me to lock my legs around his chicken neck, and scissors-choke him into unconsciousness.

“Thanks, Chaka.” Zenith said, helping me out of Blackrose’s trap, “It took me longer to get out of that idiot snare than I thought it would. I owe you a big one. And I never forget a debt.”

Zenith carried Nex over her shoulder to the front of the cottage. The ninjas had obviously gotten the worst of it once Bunny had sent her rob-bits out to defuse the traps. Plastic Girl and her elastic counterpart among the ninjas were sort of wrapped up in each other. Literally. And Plas doesn’t much like boys. Like, not at all. Hippolyte was sitting on what appeared to be thin air, but there was a rather slight ninja sitting crushed against the grass, groaning under some invisible weight. And Sahar was kneeling with her knee into the small of the back of an even slighter ninja, and was saying in a chiding voice, “Naughty, naughty Spooky- I mean, really! That trick didn’t work last year; why should it work now?”

Then Semi saw Zenith. “Zoe! Zoe, are you all right? I knew that Nex was still pining for me, but I never …”

“SHUT IT!” Zenith snapped, dumping Nex in front of Sahar. “I don’t want to hear it! You don’t have ANY shame, do you? You come on to me, play these moronic games and then sic your fucking boyfriend on me?”

“Zoe, I swear to you …”

“You’d swear on the fricking Koran and your mother’s grave for a plugged nickel!” Zenith waved her hands in exasperation at Sahar, “Just! Just! Just get away from me! I don’t want to hear it!” Turning, she stormed through the front door, and charged up the stairs as quickly as she could.

“What the hell?” I asked. Sahar looked like she was on the verge of tears. “No! We have gone too far, done too much, just to let that nin-jerk win in the home stretch! Let’s go!” I grabbed Sahar’s hand and dragged her toward the door.

Mrs. Horton stopped us. “I’m sorry, Chaka, but you can’t bring that girl into this house.”

“But Zenith …”

“I’m sorry,” she repeated herself, a tad more strongly, “but Sahar made herself quite persona non grata in this house last year, and I’ve seen nothing to make me change my mind.”

I took Sahar a few steps away. “Semi, stay here. Don’t move. I’m going to get to the bottom of this, if it kills me!” Then I trudged past Mrs. Horton, and went up the stairs.

When I knocked Zenith’s door Shrike, her roomie,  answered. “Okay, what happened this time?” She asked snidely.

I pushed past her. “Okay, what the HELL was all that?”

“All What?” Zenith asked mulishly.

“That spazz out, down in front! You ripped Sahar a-freaking-part! She didn’t deserve that!”

“She deserved that, and a whole lot more!” Zenith snarled, “She orchestrated this whole farce, just so that her boyfriend Nex could get the bragging rights for swiping Edgar!”

“Oh, that is the stupidest thing that I’ve ever heard coming from someone who wasn’t wearing a ‘Humanity First!’ pin!” I snapped back. “Didn’t you hear Nex? He was going to ‘mark’ you! As in permanently disfigure you! Do you honestly think that Semi would be a party to that?”

“Sounds t’me like ol’ Nexie’s jealous of you and Sahar,” Shrike quipped. “He’s afraid that he’s not MAN enough to come between you two.”

Zenith visibly flinched.

“Okay,” I demanded, “what was ‘that’?”

“’That’ what?” Zenith asked like a guilty child.

“THAT!” I pointed at her. “Your Ki … it’s all … going in all directions… like you’re afraid ...” Then it all clicked. “You’re afraid. Of Sahar. You’re afraid that she’ll hurt you again?”

“No.” Zenith choked, standing there head down, shoulders slumped, fists clenched, the very picture of agony. “I know why Semi left me last year. It wasn’t that she’d gotten what she wanted, and was moving on. That, I could take. No, she’d gotten my Database months before. But she stuck around. No … the reason…” she choked out, “that she … left me … was that … I wasn’t … a man … any more …”

“Ah, Zoe, Honey?” Shrike said in a sweeter voice than I normally associate with her, “You haven’t really been a man for years. It’s sort of the reason why you’re HERE, in Poe, I mean.”

“No, Della,” Zenith said harshly, “I mean, I couldn’t be … a MAN…” she waved in the region of her crotch, “… anymore. We were having sex, and ‘Mr. Johnson’ gave up his last gasp… She said that it didn’t matter, but I knew that she was disappointed. She kept up the lie, but she couldn’t keep it up forever.”

“Especially since you weren’t keeping it up at all,” Shrike snickered under her breath.”

I saw red. “ARE. YOU. TELLING. ME. THAT. I’VE. BEEN RUNNING. RAGGED. ALL OVER. THIS. CAMPUS. JUST because YOU can’t cope with the fact that you don’t have a dinky anymore?”

“Hell,” Shrike muttered, “I’m appalled that she had a name for it in the first place!”

Zenith raged at me, “Dammit, I’m not a MAN anymore!

I fixed her with my frostiest glare. “And yet, Semi still loves you. She loves you so much that she’s been scraping her knees bloody, crawling to you on them, begging your forgiveness.”

Zenith just choked, and looked down at the ground.

I wiped the metaphorical egg off my face. “Okay, I’m going to go get Semi, and we’re going to settle this, once and for all, before Don Sebastiano, or Mrs. Heartless, or Dr. Doom decide to get in on the act!”

NO!” Zenith shrieked, her voice full of panic.

I turned to Zenith and locked my eyes on hers. “Zee, you just told me that you owed me one, and that you never forget a debt. Well, I’m calling in that marker, RIGHT NOW! YOU are going to stay here, and I am going to get Semi, and we are going to finally GET THIS OVER WITH!”

Zenith glared at me in equal parts rage and panic.  “And how do you know that’s not exactly what Sahar’s been playing for, all along? A BIG dramatic scene, where I open myself to her, and then, *bang!*, she’s got me wrapped around her little finger! GOD knows what she’s really got planned!”

I gritted my teeth and snarled in pure fury. How can someone so SMART, be so STUPID?

“Nice try, Kid.” Shrike drawled, “But, in the state of mind that she’s in, there’s no way that Little Miss ‘I can do anything’ is gonna come to a meeting of the minds with Sahar.”

“Hold on.” I stopped her, “What did you just say?”

“I said, ‘Nice Try’.”

“No, you said something about a ‘meeting of the minds’.” I gave Zenith a measuring look. “Okay, if you’re so sure that Semi is up to nothing good, why don’t you find out what really IS on her mind?”

Hunh?”

“A ‘meeting of the minds’. You’re a telepath, she’s a telepath- read each other’s mind! Lovers are always saying that they’ll open their hearts to each other- so let’s do it for real! Sahar hurt you, right? Well, let her know exactly how that felt! This is your only real opportunity! And you’ll KNOW- for a fact- what’s really in Semi’s heart!”

“OH! I’m supposed to just let her in and-”

“And do all sorts of blah, blah, blah- paranoid thumb-suck #135, in a series, complete with a stick of bubble gum! Buy ‘em all, folks!” I scowled at her, “Okay, I said at Hawthorne that I’d have Fubar ‘fly overwatch’, so why don’t I-”

“No! This is a Poe cottage matter!”

I turned up my scowl a skootch. “Technically, it’s a Poe AND Dickinson matter, but I’ll let that slide. For now. Okay, we keep it in house.” I looked at Shrike. “Hey- Della, right?- do you have any telepaths on this level that you can trust?”

Shrike chewed on it for a second. “How about Nasty? Hey, Zo, if there’s anyone who could spot a dirty mind trick, it’s the ol’ Nasty-boy!”

Zenith gave Shrike a disgusted look. “Would YOU let someone named ‘Nasty’ into YOUR head?”

Shrike smirked, “I’d let him into more than that, but he doesn’t swing that way… Okay, Zo, it’s your head … How about Gorgon?”

As Zenith tried to find an objection to ‘Gorgon’, I had to ask Shrike, “ ‘Gorgon’?”

“Y’know how ‘Knacks’ work? Well her knack is that she can make you think that you can’t move or talk. Like a gorgon’s gaze.”

Zenith was having trouble finding an objection to Gorgon. “Okay, we’ll take that as a ‘Yes’. Della, you go find Miss Medusa. I’ll go get Sahar.”

“Oh? Della purred, “And HOW are you going to sneak her past Mrs. Horton, pray tell?”

Oh Lordy, it’s always something! I stalked over to the window and looked down. Sahar was at the bottom, looking up in forlorn hope. I turned to Shrike. “How? As usual- the hard way!”

I jumped down to the ground. “Toni, what’s the matter?” Semi asked.

“Oh, Zenith’s having a little baby fit, and we gotta convince her that you’re not gonna beat her up and take her dollies.” With that, I swept her up into my arms, gave a soft *chuh!* to center myself and ran back up the wall. As I swung Semi in the window, she started to say something, but I stopped her. “Sorry, but Zee insists on a referee.” I leaned over to Semi and muttered, “And you wouldn’t believe what I hadda go through, to get even THAT.”

Semi slumped down, looking incredulously at Zenith, and then started scowling. Good for her. From what I could tell, Zee was as much to blame for their big blow-up as Semi was. It’s good to see

We spent a rather tense few minutes while Shrike rounded up this ‘Gorgon’. Gorgon turned out to be a tall, slightly gangly girl of about maybe 17 or 18, with a long face, great eyes, and green hair.

Yes, I said, ‘green hair’. Tell me about it.

Shrike filled Gorgon in on the situation. Gorgon crossed her arms. “Hey, it’s not like I don’t have anything to DO tonight, y’know. It’s Friday night, fer cryin’ out loud!”

“And yet,” Shrike said over-brightly, “I caught you playing ‘The Sims’ on your laptop!”

“Okay, okay, let’s get this over!” Gorgon muttered, “No need to get nasty.”

“Oh, I wanted to get Nasty, but Zoe wouldn’t go for it.”

Semi and Zoe faced each other like they were both jumping into rilly cold water. Gorgon placed a hand on top of each of their heads and concentrated. “Oh, will you two grow up? Now, go to the Second Stage. Okay. Approach the door. Okay, on ‘Three’- One, Two, Three!” 

Both Semi and Zoe looked at each other, and their faces went through this whole ‘Silent Movie’ bit, where they directly experienced what the other had gone through. Then, as one they looked at each other and mewled, “Oh, I’m so sorry!” They clinched, and then they melted into the sort of passionate, totally committed kiss that you only see in movies.

“Man,” Gorgon said, “Two Giga-Hot Exemplar babes going at it, and me without my video camera.”

Semi and Zoe looked like they were going all out, but neither Shrike nor Gorgon were moving. “Hey, guys, I think that we should get out of here, and give them a little privacy.”

“Why?” Gorgon asked, “It’s just getting good!” Semi was pulling off Zoe’s hoody.

“Yeah,” Shrike said, as Zoe unzipped Semi, “and this is MY room too, y’know!” I grabbed them both by the elbows, dragged them out the door, and shut it behind us. I rather doubt that either Semi or Zoe noticed our leaving.

Gorgon gave the closed door and disgusted look. “Ah, maaannn … Oh well, back to the Sims!”

I yelled at her back as she slouched off, “Yeah, God forbid that you should do any homework!”

Shrike and I looked at each other. “They should be at that for a while.” Shrike said with the certainty of experience, “Wanna try out Askey’s latest game?”

“Who’s Askey?”

“Gadgeteer gayboy; he’s got this kick-ass Total Immersion multiplayer Third-person video game that he’s beta testing. Wanna give it a shot?”

I heard a whinny from inside the room. “Why not? But I get first call on the icons.”


SAHAR & ZENITH

Roughly two hours later- please, keep in mind that both the girls were in their late teens, both Exemplars, and neither’d had any sex in months- Semi lay dozing, blissfully spent, her head on Zoe’s breast. Zoe stroked Semi’s long midnight-black hair contentedly, and kissed her forehead. This idyll lasted for a timeless while, until Zoe sensed something wrong. “What’s wrong, Semi?”

“I’m scared,” Semi replied in a small voice.”

“Of what?”

“Of being good.”

Zoe laughed gently, and Semi punched her lightly in the arm. “No, I’m serious!” Semi nestled to Zoe’s breast again, this time, more in need of comfort. “How do you do it?”

“Do what?”

Semi searched for the words, but couldn’t find any. She settled on, “How do you keep doing what you do? How do you keep caring about people? People …” Semi’s voice trailed off in uncertainty and terror. “Before I met you, I thought that I knew how to cope with people; you just assume that they’re selfish, vicious, greedy animals, and you get them before they can get you. But you … You go out of your way to help people, you get them to see reason, you trust them, and you get them to be trustworthy.” Semi clutched Zoe. “I want to be like that … but I don’t know how …” Semi mewed like a lost kitten, “How do you DO it, Zoe?”

Zoe pulled Semi closer. “Well, you just have to accept that there’s some good in most people and …” Zoe laughed, “Oh, I can’t put it in words, Honey. I guess that I’ll have to show you. I know that you’ll pick up on it, no problem.”

“How do know that?” Semi looked up into Zoe’s eyes.

Zoe looked back at her with unconditional adoration. “Because, I know that you have it in you. And I have proof- after all, you gave ME the courage to be a woman, didn’t you?” Semi melted into Zoe, and they just lay there, listening to each other’s heartbeats.


CHAKA

I was just about to finish off the Crimson Head-ripper, when I felt a tap on my shoulder. Since there was nothing behind me in Game-reality, I shucked off the visor and looked. Semi and Zoe were standing there, basking in that cat-that’s-been-in-the-cream glow of women who’ve just had their ashes hauled but good. “So? Everything cool?”

Semi just wrapped herself around me and gave me a big kiss. Thank God Rip’s not here. Come to think of it, I really should drop in on her, and let her know that everything came out okay.

Zoe grinned at me. “Hey, Toni- you know that favor that you cashed in, to get me to stop and listen? Well, I still owe you that favor. Hell, now I owe you two.”

“Actually, I’d say that you owe me a lot more, but I’m willing to be short-changed.” Together, we walked down from ‘the Executive Suite’. As we passed Hippolyte on the staircase. Hipp paused, gave Semi and Zoe a long look, and kept going, a puzzled look on her face. “So, what are you two gonna do now?”

Zoe shrugged. “What CAN we do? We’ll take it one day at a time, just like everyone else.”

“I think that Toni means, ‘what are we going to do about our living accommodations?’ Well, Toni, I’m still persona non grata here in Poe. Besides, it would rather be advertising it, if I moved into Poe just after reconciling with Zoe, no? And besides,” a bit of what I think the old Sahar was like peeked through, “I think that Tansy still needs someone to keep an eye on her.”

Zoe gave Semi a side-shoulder hug. “That’s my girl!”

Semi gave me the predatory smile of a veteran femme fatale, “If I pick up on anything coming in your direction, I’ll let you know, either through Zoe or during our Qi Gung sessions.”

“You’re going to keep taking lessons from me?”

“Why not?” Semi bowed, her hands clasped flat in front of her in the best ‘humble Asian student’ manner, “Some day, I may be able to boast that I studied under the Great Ki Mistress Chaka! Besides,” she grinned evilly, “someone has to save you from Blitz!”


Zoe and I showed Semi to the door. But even as Zoe was heading up the stairs, I heard a discrete cough and *ahem!* I turned around with ice running down my spine, to see Mrs. Horton standing there. “Chaka, would you please explain to me, exactly HOW Sahar got in here?”

Oh Well- at least Diz won’t have to worry about me forgetting about her! I think that I’m gonna be visiting Hawthorne on a regular basis.


SAHAR

Semi walked home to Dickinson cottage by the light of the full moon. As she walked, she looked at the moon, and realized that, back in Beirut, they would be celebrating the Holy month of Ramadan. Allah As-Salam, she hadn’t even thought about Ramadan in years! Maybe, Allah Al-Latif, I will come to you. But one doesn’t come to Allah Al-Kabir, after just leaving the bed of a woman, where you have every intention of returning! No, Allah Al-Mu’Izz, I’ll take the Shahada, the declaration of faith, when I’m a better person. I know that you are Allah Al-Baaqi, and you will be ready for me, when I am truly ready for you. And if I’m still with Zoe? Well, you are also Allah Al-Khabiir; you will know what is best.

Semi walked into Dickinson cottage, and gave Emily a fond pat on the head. And then she apologized to Mrs. Selkirk, the Dickinson housemother, for being out late.

When she got to her room, Semi found Tansy curled up in a fetal ball on her bed, rocking back and forth, humming tunelessly. Her second day at Hawthorne must have been harder than her first. Semi made a mental note, to avoid getting on the monster in the basement’s bad side.

Still, that was Tansy’s problem, and not hers. Still, what would Zoe do in a situation like this? Offer some comfort? Possibly, but it was much more likely that Tansy might actually learn something from this. Best not to interrupt Solange’s education. Semi sprawled out on her bed like a cat, and luxuriated in her remembrance of how Zoe smelled and tasted.

Then, suddenly, Tansy snapped out of her funk. She started sniffing at the air like a bloodhound. She followed the scent over to Sahar. “SEMI! YOU SLUT!