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A Whateley Academy Adventure

Buffalo Gal Won't You Come Out Tonight

by ElrodW

Chapter 2

 


Friday, February 24, 2007
Black Hills, South Dakota - Homestake Paranormal Activity Research Center

Below the seven-thousand foot level of the former Homestake Gold Mine, a strange ripple of energy penetrated the magic wards and physical barriers, into a sealed-off tunnel. Behind the massive magic-reinforced alloy vault door, a shadowy, snake-like creature stirred from its enforced slumber. An eye laboriously opened, looking like something belonging to hell spawn. It seemed the effort that had nearly overwhelmed the creature. With a massive effort, its snake-like lips curled back into a sort-of sneer, revealing its spear-like teeth and razor-sharp fangs. "The fourth age has come."

The massive creature ponderously lurched its massive, scaled body, awkwardly thrusting its head toward the door, but the magic wards snapped at it like millions of volts of electricity, throwing it back to where it lay quietly, recovering from the jolt.

After a long pause to soak up the meager energies which penetrated this dungeon-like prison, the snake-being opened both eyes and concentrated. There were always options, it said to itself. "Awaken, my children," it said in the old language of the People, a tongue dating to antiquity that hadn't been spoken in the land for several millennia.


Elsewhere in the Black Hills

The members of the Paha Sapa Grotto spelunking club paused in a large chamber deep beneath the mountains. The flicker of head-mounted carbide lamps and battery-powered LED lanterns gave faint illumination to the cool, damp subterranean cavern. Four of the six cave-crawlers sat down on larger rocks, stretching after crawling through miles of dirty, cool tunnels and caves.

"Hey," the leader said as light from the reflector lamp danced across a strange formation twenty or thirty yards distant. "What does that look like to you?"

Another member of the club turned his lamp. "I don't know. Maybe like a coil of something?"

"Damned strange rock formation," another guy said. He lifted his lithe body, perfectly suited for caving, off his rock and strode cautiously through the rock debris on the floor of the cave. "It's ... it's like a huge snake coiled around something."

"That's nuts," the leader said. "But we ought to measure it and get some pictures." He walked to join is companion.

A sound like thunder reverberated through the cavern, stunning the cavers. They glanced around nervously. "What was that?" one asked.

"I dunno," another answered, his lamp bobbling around the cave walls as he sought the source of the sound. His lamplight went across the coiled formation, and then snapped back to what looked like a huge snake's head. The man's eyes widened in shock. "Guys!" he cried as he began to back away. "It's alive!" A scream died in his throat as the suddenly-living stone snapped forward, its huge, gaping mouth crushing his chest.

Near the chamber, the remaining two cavers were finishing making notes on the trail when they heard three loud screams ahead of them, and the brief sound of stones smashing together, and an unearthly splat of bodies squishing against the granite rocks. The dim glow which had been visible in the narrow opening to the large cavern went dark. One of the cavers started forward to the sound of the struggle, but the second was overcome with an overwhelming sense of fear radiating from the chamber, and he scrambled back toward the cave entrance, leaving his daypack and maps behind.

Behind him, among the shattered bodies, the snake-like living rock creature paused, lifting its head. "What do you need, my father?" it asked in response to the psychic cry it had heard, using the same ancient tongue that had resonated in the cavern of the underground prison.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


February 25, 2007
The Franks Family Farm

I woke up, sore and stiff, but feeling a lot better. I suspected, based on the pain, that by the end of the day, the casts on my legs and left arm would be of no value, and I could remove them. I looked around and saw Mom sitting in a chair, sleeping. "Mom?" I asked hesitantly.

She snapped awake from her vigil. "Yes, Brandon? Are you okay?"

I nodded. "How long have I been asleep?" I'd had no sense of time, but based on the first attack, I suspected that I'd been out for quite a while.

"It's late Sunday night," Mom said, caressing my cheek. "You've been unconscious for almost a day."

"Oh." I thought about that. "You tried to tell me it was stupid, didn't you?"

Mom didn't speak, but just nodded.

"I guess you were right." For a teenager to admit that his or her parents were right was a hard thing, possibly criminal in some circles, and the more extreme would probably say it was a sign of the impending apocalypse. The words nearly stuck in my throat. "I just wanted to do something that felt ... normal."

"And you missed your friends, right?"

I nodded. "It's hard ... not having anyone to talk to, or to do things with." I managed to control my tears so I wouldn't cry in front of Mom. The attack, proof that my friends were forever gone, was an almost overwhelmingly depressing thought. I decided to change the subject, "Wakan Tanka and Tatanka came to me in my dream again. She gave me her medicine and told me that it would help me heal."

"You look a lot better. Most of the bruises and cuts are gone already."

For some very strange reason, that was important to me. If I had to be a girl, then I wanted to at least look good. Gak! Where the _hell_ had that thought come from? But I'd been told that I was a cute girl, and I couldn't help smiling to myself. I was unexpectedly assailed with thoughts that I _knew_ mentally that I shouldn't care at all about what I looked like, but instead should be fighting to not give up my maleness, to not give in to being a girl that I didn't want to be. As the war of the sexes raged in my cranium, the memory of Julie telling me I was cute and that we could do girl things together struck me, and I started bawling.

"What?" Mom asked, rushing to my bed and carefully sitting down on the bedside.

"Julie ... set me up!" I cried. "I thought she wanted to be my friend, but she's just like the rest of them." I couldn't stop the water-works that my tear ducts had become, and I really didn't want to. I needed an emotional release. Mom started to say something, but she held her tongue as I cried and cursed my friends in general and Julie in particular. She just held my good hand, afraid to lean over and hug me because of my injuries, but letting me know that she was at my side and willing to help. I bawled for probably forty-five minutes until I felt exhausted emotionally. "Thanks for being here for me," I sobbed to Mom after my tears had ceased. "No-one else is."

"Your Dad is. Daniel hasn't abandoned you. And don't' forget Grandma Little Doe. Not everyone has abandoned or betrayed you."

I felt a bit ashamed of feeling so totally sorry for myself, because I did have some people around me who cared. "Yeah, I guess."

"No guessing about it. And though no-one has said anything, I bet some of your friends still care."

"Funny way of showing it," I snorted in disgust. "If they did care ..."

Mom shook her head. "A lot of people in town are afraid, and that's led to a mob mentality. It only takes one or two hotheads to whip a crowd into a frenzy. Those who would still accept you are most likely afraid of the angry group-think."

I thought some about what she'd said; I hadn't seen everyone in town in the mob that tried to kill me. As I thought about it, I realized that the mob consisted of the angry hot-heads, the types that seemed to react without thinking. Maybe she was right, but at that point, I really would have liked one or two of my friends to show even a tiny bit of support, which so far, they hadn't.

There was a hint of worry in her expression that puzzled me, like she was keeping something secret from me. She straightened and put a smile on her weary face. "Now, would you like some dinner?"

"I suppose. I'm kind of hungry."

"I'll get you something. The rest of us had supper a while ago, but I didn't want to wake you while you seemed to be healing."

After dinner, I fell asleep almost immediately. I kind of wanted to sleep, both because I was tired, and also so that I could be in dream-space with Wakan Tanka and Tatanka. They were always very comforting, and although I really hated to admit it, sometimes more-so than Mom or Dad. Maybe it was because they were now part of me.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Monday, February 26, 2007

I was quite relaxed when I woke up; Tatanka and Wakan Tanka had spent dream-time with me just resting in Paha Sapa, just resting so I could recover. I suspected, and Wakan Tanka confirmed, that using my healing power left me physically drained, and would continue to do so until I was used to using magic like that. It was like lifting weights; I had to start out light and build up muscles until I could do heavyweight lifting, and if I overdid it, I'd strain something and not be able to do magic for a while.

I sighed, feeling pressure in my bladder, and yelled for Mom. With three casts, there was no way I could walk to the bathroom. What frustrated me most about my situation was how completely helpless I was. Mom had to take me to and from the bathroom, help me with simple tasks like brushing my teeth and hair, and help me dress. Clothing, however, was reasonably easy; I simply pulled on my old sweats, even if they were way too big and baggy. They fit comfortably over the casts.

At least when I looked in the mirror, there were no more change. I harbored a secret fear that whenever I healed, I was going to change more, to mutate into something new and different, or completely hideous. It was an irrational fear, I knew, but given all the other catastrophic things that had happened to me, I couldn't help imagining yet more bad news.

After I got back in my bed, Mom got me a couple of my books to read, and then asked about breakfast.

"That sounds good. But not as much as you usually make."

Mom grinned. "I didn't think so. You have to worry about your figure now, you know."

"Mom!" I protested, blushing. Again, I was torn. Brandon cringed that the thought of 'watching my figure', while Kayda was more annoyed by the teasing and knowing that Mom was right. I felt like I was schizophrenic.

"By the way dear, who's Wihakayda?"

"Huh?"

"You were repeating the word 'Wihakayda' over and over in your sleep."

"It was in my dreams, Mom," I muttered. "Wakan Tanka and Tatanka called me Wihakayda. I was a Lakota girl, and I looked exactly like Wakan Tanka! Like I do now. Both Wakan Tanka and Tatanka call me Wihakayda whenever they speak to me.

"That reminds me. There's one other thing that we have to eventually do," Mom said hesitantly.

"What?" I cringed at her expression and tone of voice, expecting something unpleasant.

Mom sighed. "You're going to have to face the fact that you're a girl now, and that we can't call you Brandon anymore, can we? You look like a girl, not a boy. Physically, you're a girl, completely."

I started to protest, but halted before I could even get out the first word. "I ... I guess," I said, my voice tinged with sadness at the prospect of losing yet another connection to my past life. It was going to take me a while to accept what I'd become, and I didn't want to get a new name, but Mom was right. I couldn't go by Brandon any longer.

"Brandy sounds nice," Mom suggested tentatively. "And it's close to Brandon."

I shook my head. It was _too_ close, and would always be a bitter reminder of what I had lost. Then I remembered my dreams. "Kayda," I said with more conviction than I'd felt before.

"What? Kayda?"

I nodded, feeling contentment flowing into me. Maybe that was the last part of accepting Wakan Tanka and Tatanka - that I accept a name that they'd given me. "Kayda is short for Wihakayda. It's what the Wakan Tanka and buffalo call me in my dreams. I think Kayda is ... nice."

"Kayda. Hmmm." She thought for a moment. "It's pretty. I like it. Kayda it is, then." She kissed me on the forehead, like she was christening me into my new name and new life.

"I know it'll take me a while to get used to it," I added, so Mom wouldn't think I'd suddenly flipped out, "like everything else that's changed that I have to get used to again." I knew that my parents and Danny would have trouble reconciling that I was no longer Brandon, but Kayda. "But that's what I guess I want." I wasn't certain if I was trying to convince her, or me.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The morning passed in a sleepy haze, because I was too tired and too sore. Something was bothering me about some of my pain, but I couldn't put a finger on it. I knew that a lot of what had happened in the last attack was fuzzy; I'd passed out almost immediately, mercifully knocked unconscious, so I didn't remember the details of how I'd received my injuries. That was probably best, I figured - not knowing who had hit me or had broken what bones or inflicted what other injuries. Mom brought me lunch in bed.

Dad and Danny had taken some extra tires, already mounted on rims for convenience, and had gone to town to retrieve my truck while I stayed in bed resting. When they got back after lunch, Dad reported on my truck, just to reassure me. "I'm glad we have locking fuel caps," he reported with disgust. "All four tires are slashed on the sidewalls, so they're shot, and they keyed the paint all over. But it's still in good shape mechanically." At least there was something. I lay back, unhappy, but glad things hadn't been worse. I was alive, and my truck was drivable - not that I was going to get a chance to drive it soon because first, I no longer had a drivers' license that was valid after my change, and second, I feared what would happen to me if I was caught off our property. About mid-afternoon, when my legs and arm were itching too badly in the casts, I called out, "Mom!"

"What is it, dear?" Mom asked from the bottom of the stairs.

"Can you get something from the shop so I can cut off these danged casts? They're itchy, and I think my bones are completely healed again. I don't feel any pain from my legs or arm."

"I don't think you should ...," Mom started before she remembered how fast my arm had healed. "Are you sure? It took a couple of days for your arm to heal last time."

"Yeah, I'm sure. It's been long enough already, and Wakan Tanka told me that I heal much faster now that we're joined, and that I don't need the casts anymore. The itching is really driving me crazy."

"You're ... joined?" Mom gasped, her eyes wide as saucers. She probably thought that I'd gone off the deep end.

"I've been reading up on mutants on-line. From what I've read, I'm pretty sure I'm some kind of avatar," I explained, "and I host the spirits of Wakan Tanka and Tatanka. We're joined. She told me that I have their powers, even though I don't know how to use them yet."

"She ... told you? Just now?"

I smiled sheepishly. "I guess since we're joined, I can speak to them any time."

I could imagine the expression on Mom's face. "I don't' know if I like you having so-called spirits in your head," she said in a typical worried-mother tone. I could almost hear her sigh as she considered that she had a lot to learn about mutants. "Okay. I'll get your dad to help you. What kind of tools do you need?"

I had to laugh to myself. "Tin snips, side-cutters, a Dremel with a cutoff saw, and a piece of flat steel bar stock. Just not a circular saw!"

Mom laughed, and then I heard the door shut. Fifteen minutes later, Dad was back with Danny and an assortment of tools.

"How did you get the arm cast off?" Dad asked.

"Tin snips and a lot of patience. I used the nippers to cut chunks of it off, but then I switched to the Dremel and a flat backing bar, and cut it much faster," I answered.

I showed Dad and Danny how to use the snips on my left arm cast, and they started on my leg casts, while I used the Dremel and bar stock to make short work of the arm cast. Once that was done, Dad started to use the Dremel on my leg cast - the one that went all the way from ankle to the top of my thigh, while the other was only my lower leg. "Ouch!" I cried out.

Danny looked sheepish. "Sorry."

"You'll be sorry if you do that again!" I said angrily. "You're not the one who feels the pain or gets the cuts from your goofs!"

"Sheesh, such a grouch. I said I was sorry," Danny complained. He was a lot more careful, though, and by the time Dad got the full-length leg cast split with the Dremel, Danny had the lower-leg cast split. I felt the glorious sensation of cool air on my sweaty, hot, itchy skin.

"Mom," I cried out again.

"Yes dear?"

"Can you get some lotion? My skin is all irritated and itchy."

Dad scolded me playfully, "You can get it yourself now that you're mobile again, and your mom can get dinner ready for us at a reasonable hour."

It felt glorious to be free of my plaster prison and to walk to the bathroom, but the feeling of lotion soothing my red, irritated, soft, smooth legs was absolutely heavenly. Gak - did I just say that they were soft and smooth? Well, they were, and I was torn between loving the silky feeling, and hating the way they looked so girly. I sighed - it was something I was going to see for the rest of my life because I couldn't change it, so I better get used to it. And why were they so smooth and hairless? Girls grew hair on their legs. The only answer that made any sense is that either Doc had shaved my legs prior to putting on the casts, or my body-hair had a reset when I changed into Kayda.

Even though I felt healed, I was exhausted, probably from how much healing I'd had to do. Without needing to have a doctor tell me, I somehow knew that I'd very nearly died, and that my beating had been far more severe than the first one. I fell asleep after a light lunch, waking only for dinner, after which I slept some more.

"You have rested long enough, Wihakayda," Tatanka said as he approached the bluff on which I sat, a perch with a lovely scenic view of a stream that had long ago carved a valley way through the mountains, leaving small spots of meadows, one of which had several deer grazing.

"What are we going to do?"

"It is time you began to learn about some of the bad spirits. Not all spirits in the land are good or peaceful. Some are mischievous, some are neutral but they can seem harmful, and some are very evil. I will begin by teaching you of Unhcegila, a demon from ages past and one of our enemies."

I gulped nervously; her tone was deadly serious. I didn't miss that she'd said 'one of', implying that I had suddenly inherited multiple enemies.

Unhcegila, the serpent demon had originally come from the icy waters of the North Atlantic to bring chaos, fear, and death to the nations of the northeast, even to the point of destroying a few of them totally. He left a trail of destruction in his wake as he lumbered westward, until he found Paha Sapa, where he settled to dwell. Many of the People perished at his hands, or at the hands of his children. No warrior had been able to pierce Unhcegila's thick, armored hide with any of their weapons, though many had died trying. It still lived somewhere beneath Paha Sapa, waiting for something unknown to return and wreak its havoc upon the land.

Great. One of my enemies was a snake demon with impenetrable armored skin that could use magic_and_ had forearms with razor-sharp rake-like claws. I felt like it would have been simpler if she'd just have said Godzilla was my foe.

I don't know why she chose that particular demon, or that particular night, but it had rattled me, unlike the previous dreams. When I asked, Wakan Tanka merely said that I would need to understand the enemies of Ptesanwi and the People, and then she let Tatanka teach me about the spirits of the land, which was a much more relaxing lesson. It didn't, however, diminish the dread feeling I had about Unhcegila.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Mom called the school again to tell them that I was still sick so I didn't have to go, but they had to already know that I was a mutant and wasn't taking any chances. Danny had to rise much earlier to catch the school bus on its long, convoluted route since he couldn't ride in with me. With what had happened in town twice now, there was no way Mom and Dad were going to let me leave the farm and go to school, or even drive Danny to school and drop him off. I never thought I'd miss school, but I did.

After an early breakfast, I wandered out to the shop. The wind wasn't quite as brisk, and the temperature was only about five below. I turned up the heat in the shop and sat for a bit, looking at grandpa's car and the scattered pieces of the engine. The assembled tailshaft and input shaft were on a clean workbench covered with a shop cloth, waiting for me to continue reassembling the transmission. After fifteen minutes or so with the heater blasting, while I thought of what improvements I'd like to make to the car as I rebuilt it, the temperature was raised enough that I started working again.

I was amazed, as I seemed to constantly be, by some of my changes. Hefting things like the transmission case and countershaft, which should have been challenging for a petite girl like me, was relatively easy. I got so distracted working that Mom came out to check on me, carrying lunch. I hadn't realized that it was already two in the afternoon. As I chewed on the sandwich, I was doing some mental calculations. Fifteen minutes to make an alignment tool, and then two hours to get the various parts into the case, and I should be done. I know a professional shop could have done the overhaul much faster, and to be honest, so could I, but I was enjoying taking my time _and_ they had the proper tools, whereas I had to either improvise or make the tools. Mom didn't understand, but feeling the parts and their interactions was a big part of my joy of mechanical work, and it took time to really appreciate the intricacy of how the parts flowed together. One thing that Mom didn't know, but Dad did, was that when I was working on a project, I was also thinking about how it could be better, of what little tweaks or design changes would improve the mechanism. I'd already identified twenty-three things I'd do differently, if I had the proper shop and tools, to improve my transmission.

Once the transmission was assembled and I'd checked out the mechanisms, I cleaned up, reset the heater for the normal lower temperature, and went inside to clean up. When I came out of the bathroom, Mom sat me down. I could tell from the look on her face that it was going to be one of 'those' discussions.

"When I talked to the superintendent today," she began, "he was pretty insistent that you should attend classes."

"Does he know what they did to me?"

Mom nodded. "I explained it, and insisted that for your safety, you wouldn't be, at least for the foreseeable future.

I felt like I'd been punched in the gut as something I hadn't considered hit me with the force of a bomb. My plans had been to get a mechanical engineering degree, but now that was gone, hopeless, unless I got a high school diploma, and with me being persona non grata in town, there was no safe way for me to attend school. Mom read my reaction well. "I've called to get information on home-schooling. It's not going to be the same as going to school with your friends, but it will get you your diploma."

"I suppose I don't have much choice, do I?"

"He was very sympathetic, and he explained that, by law, the school couldn't discriminate, but he also understands that the other students could make it very difficult for you. He's going to get us an official copy of your transcripts, so we'll have that available as we look through our options."

Talk of school piqued my interest, so I went up to my room and began working on my college-level math, until dinner-time and then again after, right up until bedtime. I'd missed several days, and I was behind my self-imposed schedule.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Wednesday, February 28, 2007

I started the day recovering from my 'lessons' with Wakan Tanka. She wouldn't answer directly, but since the discussion had continued around Unhcegila, I suspected more strongly than before that my role was inextricably tied to that demon snake, although she had mentioned other demonic beings, like Iktomi, the spider-trickster, and Iya, the storm demon of Lakota lore. She also promised that I would learn of demonic beings of other Peoples.

I was losing hope that Mom had been right about not everyone hating me, since I got zero texts, zero phone calls, and zero e-mails from kids I knew. Of course, Mom noted my morose mood, and she immediately zeroed in on the cause. When I explained how the lack of contact hurt, she suggested that the kids were afraid of the mob mentality, and that some might have parents who were bigoted against mutants to the degree that the kids were afraid of making any kind of contact for fear of being discovered and punished. It was flawless in its logic, but that didn't reduce the pain or sense of abandonment and isolation.

After dinner, when "Tales of the MCO" came on television, I hastened upstairs. I'd always enjoyed watching that show, but now, as a mutant myself, I was recognizing the subtle anti-mutant bias in the stories, characters, and presentation. Instead, I dug out an old novel I'd had, 'Adam Link, Robot', which was pretty derivative of Mary Shelly's 'Frankenstein'. The hero was a self-aware mechanical construct, and because he was better and different than baseline humans, he was feared. I could really relate to the story now that I'd mutated. Like the self-aware robot, I was ostracized and misunderstood all because I was different. I fell asleep with the book in my lap."

Wakan Tanka spent her time split between her healing spells and tales of the various evil spirits and demons. The healing spells were pretty cool to learn about, but the tales of the demons was rather depressing, and she presented it with a pretty ominous tone, almost like she was expecting that we would have to confront these demons now that we'd joined.

I finally had enough of her seemingly fatalistic descriptions of the demons. "Are you trying to tell me that now that we're joined, I'm going to have to fight all these demons? That sure would have been a nice detail to know before I agreed, you know."

Wakan Tanka was taken aback at my statement. "I didn't mean to make you think that you had to fight the demons. You will create your own path in life. Such is the way of Ptesanwi - what she does for the People is because of her choices, _your_ choices. You are not bound to a path you do not choose."

"So why the crash course in Native American demons and evil spirits?"

"Now that we are Ptesanwi, we might attract some unwanted attention. It is better to be prepared than not."

I couldn't argue with her reasoning, even if I wasn't completely certain about the truthfulness of her statements that everything was _my_ choice.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Thursday, March 1, 2007

After breakfast, I started work on rebuilding the short-block of the engine; I installed the camshaft bearings and the camshaft, and then put in the new main bearings and the crankshaft. I torqued the main bolts down with a special measuring plastic between the crank surface and the bearing, then removed the bearing caps and checked the fit. All of the bearings were within tolerance, precisely as I'd planned, so I cleaned up the surfaces again, lubed everything with some assembly oil, and reassembled the crankshaft. I'd just finished torqueing down the main bearing caps when Danny came tearing into the shop.

"Kayda, Mom and Dad want you in the house NOW!" he yelled. He didn't wait, but instead grabbed me by the arm and pulled me toward the house. As I ran beside him, I couldn't help but notice a cloud of dust or snow in the distance on the road leading to our house.

Dad was looking out the window at the dust cloud as he got spare magazines for his pistols from the gun case. Dad was in the habit of concealed-carry of at least one pistol, but at that moment, he had on his visible dual holsters, with a pistol in each, and he was stuffing mags into his pockets.

He turned to me. "Kayda, you and your mom get the hell out of here."

"What is it?" Mom asked, frightened by the reactions from Danny and Dad.

"A lot of trucks coming down the road." He glanced at me. "I got a tip from Marv that some of the local idiots were planning to stir up some trouble, and it looks like he was right."

My heart stuck in my throat. Trouble? After I'd been beaten and nearly killed twice already? I knew what they were after - me.

Dad had long since made his decision. "Kayda, you and your mother get in your truck and go through the pasture and the fields. Get yourselves out of the county and find a place to hole up. Maybe you can hide in Mitchell, but if you have to go to Sioux Falls or even all the way to Minneapolis, do it."

"But the fences!" I protested. If I knocked down the fences, we could lose a lot of livestock.

"I don't give a damn about fences or the cows. Get going. Now!" His voice carried a sense of urgency that spurred me into immediate action.

I ran upstairs, grabbed my drivers' license and keys, and met Mom on her way out the door with her purse and coat, and a coat for me. "We don't have time to pack. We'll have to get stuff later when we need it," she said, pulling on her winter coat. I'd never heard Mom sounding so frightened. Meanwhile, Dad was running to his truck, which he quickly drove and skidded to block the driveway. He must have coordinated something with Danny, because Danny had gotten a couple of hunting rifles and Dad's AR-15 from the gun cabinet and was loading them, a very grim look on his face. I got choked up, and gave him a quick hug. Danny and I had squabbled all our lives, but now he was willing to go to war, so to speak, to defend me so I would have a chance to get away.

I hopped in the driver's seat and started the truck, shifting into 4x4 low range, and spun the tires as I drove toward the pasture. There was a barbed-wire gate blocking the way, but it was no match for my three-quarter ton four-wheel-drive pickup with a 7.3 liter diesel engine. The last thing I saw in the mirror, before I went over a small rise, was Dad crouched behind the pickup, guns drawn, like he was ready for an OK Corral shootout. I wondered if I was ever going to see him again. I got choked up again at his bravery in defending me, a mutant that everyone else in town seemed to hate. Despite the fact that I'd become a girl, he undoubtedly loved me unconditionally.

I drove right through another fence that separated the pasture from a corn field. The rutted field caused the truck to bounce and shake wildly, and snow was flying everywhere, stirred up by the frantic passage of the vehicle. When I glanced, I saw that Mom was clutching the "Jesus handle" for all she was worth. I had a plan; I'd get onto the next section line road, and then drive toward the old highway - and hope and pray I didn't get stuck in a snowbank somewhere in the fields we were traversing or on the unimproved path that was the section line. A few miles beyond that was the highway to Mitchell, a modest-sized city that should give us a bit of respite. We'd been there frequently, since we could shop for things that would never be found in the limited stores of a dinky little town. Also, Mitchell was the location of the doctor and hospital that had delivered me and had saved me from a ruptured appendix. "Doctor Martin?" I asked Mom knowingly.

She nodded grimly without answering, too busy hanging on for dear life. Doctor Martin was a little friendlier, and hopefully more tolerant of mutants, than Doc Robinson. We'd have to cross that bridge when we came to it. First, we had to get out of the county, before the county sheriff decided to join the pursuit and add legal troubles to the simple fear for life and limb we already had. I knew that if Sheriff Clarkson got me in the county jail, under any pretext, I'd leave covered with a white sheet. His outspoken view against mutants was head and shoulders above anything else I'd heard in town, and he wore a "Humanity First" pin like a badge of honor.

The truck went airborne at one fence line because of the terrain, and we landed in a snow drift and bounced pretty hard twice, sending snow every direction and blinding up momentarily. Mom was as pallid as the snow. "Uh, let's not do that again," she muttered softly.

I grimaced. While this was true four-wheeling, in snow no less, I had to be careful that we didn't get stuck, and while the truck's suspension was tough, if I broke something in the driveline, we were well and truly screwed. "Okay," I said grimly.

We broke through two more fences and pulled onto the section line, and so far, it didn't seem that anyone was pursuing us. Because of the snow pack, I left the truck in four-wheel-drive, but I shifted into high-range, and with a little throttle, the truck sped down the road, far faster than the speed limit, but not as fast as either Mom or I would have liked. That was the downside of the truck as opposed to Mom's car. Then again, Mom's car couldn't have done the cross-country escape, and we would have been trapped by the house. I was worried about Dad and Danny, and I could see that Mom shared my concern. "They'll be okay," I said, trying to sound confident as I patted my mother's arm. She clutched my hand tightly, expressing more in that firm grasp than words could have; we were both frightened for Dad's and Danny's safety.

After about five miles, we turned on the main highway and tried to blend in with the other traffic. I relaxed a bit, and I could see that Mom did as well. When we passed the county line, I relaxed even more, since we were beyond the reach of Sheriff Clarkson. On the other hand, he could call the next county and alert them that we were fugitives, even though we were innocent of anything except me being a mutant.

In Mitchell, Mom directed me to a modest mom-and-pop motel. "Wait here," she instructed me after I parked, and she went inside to register and get a room key. I watched every car coming and going nervously, paranoid that someone was going to find me again, but Mom emerged with a key and smiled at me. I moved the truck, and we went into the motel room.

I wanted to collapse, but Mom had other ideas. She called Dad from her cell phone, and was anxious until Dad answered, at which point she put it on speaker.

"Are you okay?" Dad asked immediately, concerned more for our safety than for his own.

"Yes, dear, " Mom answered, relieved that he was alive and apparently unharmed. "What happened? Are you and Danny okay?"

Dad chuckled. "Jim Reynolds was leading the mob, and things looked a little tense, until I reminded them that I had a security camera recording the whole thing and that our land was posted for no trespassing, which they were trying to do. They weren't quite certain what they should do because I was holding my pistols ready. The clincher, though, was when they saw Danny aiming the rifle at them." He snorted. "Big, tough, men, as long as they're picking on someone younger, but they showed their true colors when they faced a confrontation."

"They'll get Sheriff Clarkson," Mom fretted.

Dad chuckled. "Let them try. I already called Senator Jennings, and he's got the state patrol on the way. If Clarkson tries anything, they'll intervene immediately, and he'll find himself on the receiving end of a lot of nasty state inquiries." He laughed aloud. "It's nice to be good friends with a politician at times.

"Are you and Danny going to be safe?" Mom continued to worry. "What if they come back, with guns and ...?"

"Don't worry. When I told them that you'd left, after I'd already won the first showdown, they seemed to all puff up at how they'd run the 'dangerous mutant' out of town. They got their moral victory, so give it a couple of days and things will be back to normal."

"Except that I can never come home again," I sniffled, knowing that I'd put my family in danger, and feeling the burden of losing everything. Now, that long list included possibly my family. "If I'm not safe on the farm, where am I safe?" I bawled softly so that Dad didn't hear. Damned female hormones were making me emotional, or at least, that's what I blamed.

"You stay safe," Dad and Mom said at the same time, and then they chuckled together. "I've got to get things taken care of. The pot roast is in the oven, so you and Danny should have enough for a few days. Make sure you put the leftovers ...."

"... in containers and put them in the refrigerator right away, so they don't spoil," Dad laughed. "I know, hon. You've gotten me trained, even though it may have taken you a few years."

We said our good-byes, promising to call with any news, and then Mom sighed. "In all the excitement, I kind of forgot how hungry I am. How about we get something to eat, and then we'll go shopping to pick up a few things?"

"Shopping? At a time like this?" I stammered, dumbfounded at Mom's apparent priorities.

"We need toiletries essentials, like toothbrushes and toothpaste. I don't know about you, but I didn't have time to grab any spare clothing or underwear. Yeah, shopping at a time like this is appropriate. Besides," she added with impeccable motherly logic, "it's the last place they would look for someone trying to hide out _if_ someone were looking for us."

I sighed. There was no way I was going to win. The ace in my sleeve, though, was that Mom didn't know how to drive a stick-shift, so I was the chauffeur. When I was ready to leave, we were going to leave. Mom just gave me a knowing smile. "Don't try to pull the chauffeur thing on me, either. I have the room key and the money, remember."

Damn. How did she know what I was thinking? "Okay," I answered with a sigh. We walked out to the truck, and after we were buckled in, Mom fiddled in her purse. "Put these on," she said to me, handing me her sunglasses.

"Oh, yeah," I answered sheepishly. I'd forgotten how much I stood out with my emerald eyes. "Okay, where to? Target or Walmart?"

Mom flashed me a smile again. "Target. Better quality and it's a less likely hiding place."

The _easiest_ things we picked up were toothbrushes and toothpaste. After that, things went downhill fast, at least as far as I was concerned. Panties? No big deal; it's like buying men's underwear, right? Yeah ... not so much. What style, what size, what color? Lacy and daring or plain? After ten minute of arguing with mom, I grabbed a package that was mom's size and threw it in our shopping cart. Mom picked them up and looked at them, and then looked at me with 'the look'. "What?" I asked, instantly defensive.

"If you want a bikini-cut panty with lace, go right ahead."

"Underwear is underwear," I retorted, to which Mom just laughed.

Next on the list were bras. Mom knew immediately what size and style she wanted, so I decided to go with the same. Mom stopped me. "They don't fit you very well, and frankly, you're already a bit bigger up top than I am."

I shook my head. 'Great - now my mother is comparing her boobs to mine!' I thought. 'This has gone from bad to utterly humiliating!'

"You need to find something close, and then try it on for fit," she added.

"Sheesh, Mom," I protested. "It's only underwear!"

"And if that underwear doesn't fit you properly, you'll be sore all around your ribcage and shoulders, to say nothing of your breasts." Again, it was hard to argue with mother-logic, no matter how much I wanted to. So I tried on probably two dozen bras before I found one that Mom was satisfied with the fit. "Get one in white, and two in tan." I picked up the two tan bras from a rack that was labeled with the same size, and then found myself eyeing a pink one with some lace, reminiscing about the very sexy pink bra that Julie had worn one time we'd been ... making out. For some reason, it held my attention far more than it should have. Mom noticed. "Okay, first, you have to get the same brand. Second, if you want a pink bra, then ...." She searched the racks for the right brand and size, and put one in the basket, which made my cheeks burn with embarrassment, mostly because I'd brought that on myself.

Okay, so that's done, right? Not quite. It was back to the panties section to find a pair of pink lacy panties that matched the pink bra. And I had no idea why the heck I had even looked at that pink bra in the first place!

T-shirts were easy. Blouses weren't; the reversed buttons were my nemesis when I had to try them on for fit. I got a white blouse, but Mom insisted on one with floral embroidery on the collar. Then I had to get a couple of polo shirts. The variety of necklines and styles amazed me. No wonder it took forever for women to shop! Jeans were another harrowing experience in trying to find a decent fit in a style that I could live with. There wasn't a pair in the store that wasn't overly tight and accentuating my rear-end and legs! I got a pair of slacks, and then Mom made me get a skirt. Shoes, panty hose for when (if) I wore a skirt. Socks. Purse. Gak! - it seemed to go on and on. And when I thought the torture could _never_ be worse, Mom smiled and told me that once I started wearing makeup, I'd have a lot of choices to make there as well. I think she was enjoying tormenting me - probably as payback for the twenty-six hours she claimed she was in labor delivering me. Either that, or she was making up, in one trip, all the shopping she wished she could have done if she'd have had a daughter - and I was the lucky recipient of that 'personal' attention.

Then we went back for hair products and personal hygiene, again in a dizzyingly large array of styles, colors, sizes, scents, and on and on and on. When we finally left, after Mom put a pretty sizeable dent in the bank balance, it was almost three hours later. And we hadn't stopped to eat, so I was famished. It wasn't the pot roast we'd planned on for supper, but we got burgers, and it was enough to fill me up.

We settled in to sleep, but I kept having nightmares. Whenever I drifted off, something horrible woke me up, screaming a couple of times. I cursed that I hadn't brought the medicinal herbs Grandma had given me; otherwise, I could have made some calming tea to help me sleep without the nightmares. I realized that I was going to have to include the ingredients on my next shopping list. Mom moved to my bed and hugged me; I felt a lot safer with her beside me, and I managed to get back to sleep, and when I started having another nightmare, she could soothe me before I woke up screaming. The night must have been hell for her.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Friday, March 2, 2007
Mitchell, SD

I was awake before the alarm went off, even though I was very tired. I know the nightmares really interrupted my sleep, enough that they were probably the reason I was awake. I would have given anything for a peaceful dream with Wakan Tanka and Tatanka instead of dreams of my old friends beating me, throwing me in an open grave, and burying me alive - and that was one of the more pleasant ones. Mom was still sleeping, exhausted from being up with me most of the night. I decided to let her rest, and went to clean up. Maybe I'd go get some of the free continental breakfast for the two of us while I let her sleep a little longer.

I gritted my teeth and went through what would eventually become my morning routine, even though it was far from routine and quite alien to me. Sit to pee, make sure the seat is down. Showers hurt some parts of my body. Wet hair is a complete mess full of tangles. I wondered if there was something for that; if so, Mom hadn't clued me in yet. As a result, I fought tangled hair for a good twenty minutes before I got it semi-straight and knot-free. Only when I'd finished with my hair did I notice a bottle of cr?me rinse on the counter, which would have helped me with the tangles immensely, if only I had known it was there and how to use it.

I put on panties and a bra - the pink ones; that surprised me that I would have gone for pink so soon after my transformation. I chalked that decision up to the Brandon part of my brain still being exhausted by our frantic escape and not objecting strenuously enough to the still-developing Kayda part of my brain. Then I put on my jeans and one of the T-shirts. A pair of sandals, and I was ready to go get breakfast for Mom and me.

She'd left the room key on a small dresser, on which also perched an old television. Entertainment would be handy if we had to hole-up here for a while. I slipped the key into my pocket, unlocked the door, and walked outside, pulling on my sunglasses as I did so. Even that reminded me of the change, since Mom had insisted on a style of sunglasses that was decidedly feminine.

Fortunately for my frazzled nerves, there were only three people in the breakfast area - a couple and a noisy brat that was obviously their son of around 4 years of age. I tried to ignore them, but the brat was just too noisy. He wanted juice. Wrong kind. Why don't they have Cap'n Crunch cereal? He wanted Cap'n Crunch, not raisin bran! Have some toast. He didn't want toast, and threw it at the garbage can. Donut? Even chocolate iced donuts didn't make the kid happy. I wondered if I'd ever been that impossible when I was his age.

I put two pieces of bread in the toaster, and while it was toasting, I got a cinnamon-raisin bagel and some cream cheese. I knew that Mom adored cinnamon-raisin bagels whenever she got a chance to treat herself. I debated cooking a waffle, but I wasn't very hungry, and Mom wasn't a big breakfast eater. When the toast popped out of the toaster, I buttered the slices, and spread on the little packets of what was claimed to be strawberry jam, knowing I'd been spoiled by the stuff Mom made. We had a huge vegetable garden, and Mom was an expert at making jams, jellies, pickled beets, pickles, and just about anything else that could be canned. I especially loved sweet corn fresh from the garden; when all the fruits and vegetables ripened, Mom spent weeks in the kitchen preserving the food, making jams and jellies, canning food, and freezing other produce. I was going to miss those delicious home-made jams because I couldn't go home again. I started feeling melancholy.

I added a donut to the plate, and then poured Mom a cup of coffee, adding the creamer and sugar, and got myself a glass of an apple-juice-like substance. That made me choke up again; long ago, Dad had planted some fruit trees, including apples and cherries, and Mom made homemade apple sauce and apple-butter. I was going to miss those, too. And I was stunned to realize that I was going to miss Danny, even if I had kidded him mercilessly while we were together. I didn't think it would ever be safe for me to go home again.

When I got to the room, Mom was in the shower, so I set down the breakfasts. "Brand ..., I mean Kayda, is that you?" she called from the bathroom.

"Yeah, Mom. I got us some breakfast." She came out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel, with a second towel around her head. Without batting an eye, she dropped the towel and began to dress. I don't know if she subconsciously didn't think of me as Brandon since I was a girl, but it was highly embarrassing for me, and I quickly turned away. Imagine feeling like a guy, despite your body, and having your mom completely naked in a room with you as she dressed. She paused after she slipped on her bra, and noticed me trying to avoid looking at her.

"Oh, yeah. You're not used to women dressing, are you?" She chuckled. "I forgot, I guess."

"I have to get used to it sometime," I stammered. In the fraction of a second between Mom dropping the towel and me turning away, I couldn't help but notice Mom's figure; she was in her mid-thirties, with the figure of a curvy college girl, but with a few stretch marks from childbirth - but she was my MOM! Since she spent a lot of time helping around the farm and in the garden, she was very fit and had a nice tan - mostly because she wore shorts and a shirt with the tails tied beneath her breasts as she did all her outside chores. What was worse about looking at her was realizing that _my_ body was curvier, and that I was undeniably much better looking. Aaarghh! This was not supposed to happen to a teenage boy!

Mom grinned. "You probably never thought of your mother as a looker, did you?"

I was certain that I was turning green of the direction this was going to go. "Uh, no. And I don't want to know more," I added quickly.

Mom laughed as she pulled on her pants. "You're going to _have_ to know more. Remember the talk you had with your dad? None of that applies now. We're going to have to teach you about feminine hygiene, contraception, hair care, makeup ...." She was looking a little excited, like she was going to get to interact with a daughter in a way she never could with her sons, but the more she talked, and the more enthusiastic she got, the more my stomach churned unpleasantly, almost making me wish that I'd skipped breakfast.

We ate, with me being mostly silent while Mom talked. I felt a little queasy at what she was saying, but I kept my mouth shut for fear it would make 'the talk' longer and even more embarrassing. At least Mom didn't do it via 'show and tell', which would have probably made me faint or throw up. When we finished, it was almost eight in the morning, so Mom called Doctor Martin's office.

"Hello, Maggie?" she said. "It's June Franks. I've got a big problem, and we need to get in to see Doctor Martin as soon as possible. It's kind of an emergency." I wondered what the receptionist was saying.

"Yeah, it's very important. It's about Brandon."

"He's okay, well, sort of. It's complicated."

"Okay, we'll see you around nine. We're in town, in a motel. Can you give us a call when the doctor is in? This is kind of sensitive and we'd like to be ... discrete."

"No, it's not that," Mom laughed. "Okay, we'll wait for your call. We're only a couple of minute from your office." She hung up the phone. "Doctor Martin only has one patient in the hospital now, so his rounds should go very quickly and there's a gap in the schedule. We've got an appointment at nine."

"I heard. I noticed that you didn't tell them, and you asked them to be discrete."

Mom shook her head. "I've known Maggie since we were in high school, but I don't know the other staff that well, and I didn't want to take a chance." I understood exactly what she was talking about. We didn't know how the staff felt about mutants, and we didn't want to spend time in the waiting room as later patients came in. Mom continued, "She asked if you had gynecomastia or something embarrassing like that."

"Gyne-what?" I'd never heard that term.

"It's breast growth in men and boys."

I gestured at my ... healthy ... chest. "And these aren't?"

"Well, yes, but technically, since you're a girl now, that's not what it is."

"Not helping here, Mom," I said with frustration. Joking around was something our family always did, to keep things friendly and light-hearted, but right now, I didn't want to joke around. Instead, I sat back on my bed and closed my eyes. I wondered if I would be able to talk to Tatanka and Wakan Tanka when I wanted, or only when _they_ wanted.

I sat at the fire circle again; across from me were Wakan Tanka and Tatanka both. Tatanka was full-sized, which was more than a little intimidating since I'd become used to seen him the size of a large dog.

"We are here when _you_ want," Wakan Tanka said, almost chiding me. "Did you forget what Tatanka said? You are in control, and we are joined. We will always be here for you."

"You are learning to talk in your mind without going into dream-space," Tatanka said. "When you are in danger, and only then, will we come to your mind to tell you even if you are not in dream-space."

"All I had to do was close my eyes and meditate, and I'm here?"

"You will be almost like a dream-walker, able to enter dream-space at will. In time, you will learn all the skills of a dream-walker, including helping others with their own visions. And with more practice, you won't even have to close your eyes to see and talk with us."

"That sounds kind of creepy."

Wakan Tanka smiled. "It is a great responsibility to dream-walk for others. You will have the power to influence their dreams. Once you learn dream-walking, you must never violate the dream of another without their permission, except in cases where their life is at stake."

"You must go," Tatanka said. "Your mother is calling you."

"How can you tell? And why don't I know this?"

Wakan Tanka smiled. "You are still learning, Wihakayda. Right now, you can only be in one space at a time until you improve your control. We sense both real-space and dream-space, and soon, you will, too."

I snapped out of my trance suddenly, feeling Mom shaking my shoulder lightly. "I got a call from Maggie. We need to go now."

"Uh, okay," I said, sure I was only half-coherent. Moving to and from dream-space was disconcerting, and it took me a while to re-orient myself. I stood, took my purse - yes, Mom had me carrying a clutch purse now - and followed her to my truck. As soon as we were outside, I fished out my sunglasses, cursing once more the girly style of the things, while at the same time, grateful that they hid my eyes from others.

When we got to the clinic, Mom turned to me at the door. "I'll go to the window. You just hang back, so no-one can see you." Mom read my frown. "I don't know how anyone in the office feels about mutants. We don't want another episode like Doc Robinson, do we?"

"No. I guess not." I didn't like to hide; I'd never been shy before I manifested. Now, though, I found myself constantly fearful of everyone and everything. After the two nearly fatal beatings I'd received, I think anyone would have been fearful, since I didn't have any cool mutant powers to defend myself.

We went in, and I took a seat. There weren't any other patients - yet, so I could be unobtrusive. Mom went to the window, which slid open. "Hi, Maggie," Mom said warmly.

"Hi, June. It's been a while. Is everything okay with the family?"

Mom shrugged her shoulders. "Sort of."

"Why the secrecy?" Maggie asked in a low voice, but still loud enough that I could overhear.

Mom sighed. "How do you and Doctor Martin feel about ... mutants?" she asked softly. I guessed that Maggie's eyes were wide as saucers, even though I couldn't see them.

"I've never heard anyone talk like those Humanity First jerks, but I'm not sure how they feel privately. I know Doctor Martin is okay, so long as they're not trying to destroy the office." I could hear her frown. "Why? Is there something wrong? Wait, you said this was you and Brandon? Don't tell me ...."

Mom nodded. "Brandon manifested a few days ago. He also got severely beaten, and our doctor at home is pretty anti-mutant, so I didn't feel safe taking him there."

Maggie's head popped up from behind her counter, and she started glancing around the waiting room. When she saw only me, she looked confused, and then astonished. "You're kidding, right?"

Mom shook her head. "I wish I was," she said through clenched teeth. "That's Brandon. Or rather, it was Brandon. Now, we think she's a mostly-normal girl."

"Wow!"

"And her friends tried to beat her to death - twice."

Maggie gasped. "No wonder you were insistent on discretion. Let me get you to the back before other patients come in." She closed the window and opened a door, leading Mom and me to an exam room. There was a stool for the doctor, a chair which Mom took, and the examining table, which I sat on, quite uncomfortably, I might add. The lack of back support, coupled with the damage I'd undergone in the past couple of days, really made it unpleasant. I decided to lie down, curling up on my side.

As I lay, waiting, my cell phone beeped to announce an incoming message. I instinctively reached for my pocket, and remembered to my chagrin that the tight, girly jeans didn't have a place to comfortably put a phone. I opened my purse and dug out the phone, looking at the text message.

~Are you okay?~ It was from Julie.

"Like I'm going to answer that after she set me up!" I snarled, slamming the phone back in my purse. A few moments later, it beeped again. I sighed, and then looked at the message.

~I need to talk. Please!~ Again, it was Julie.

This time, I was furious that she'd have the nerve to text me after what she'd done. ~So you can set me up so they can try to kill me again? I don't want to talk to you again - ever!!!~

Mom was watching me, curious about the message I was pounding into the phone with great malice, and she read my expression. "Who is it?" she asked.

"Julie." I spat her name as if it were the most distasteful thing imaginable. "I thought she was my friend, even after I manifested, but she betrayed me, just like everyone else. She set me up so they could try to kill me again," I snorted in disgust.

"You should talk to her," Mom strongly suggested in her 'mommy' voice and look, which was nearly impossible to resist. This time, though, I was determined to.

"Why?" I scoffed.

The door opened, interrupting Mom before she could answer, and Doctor Martin stepped briskly in. "Okay, Brandon," he said, looking at my file, "what seems to be ...?" He stopped, staring at me, as soon as he looked up. "You're ... you're not Brandon."

I nodded. "Yes, I am. I'm a mutant, and I manifested a few days ago."

"You're ... you're a girl?"

I pulled off my sunglasses. "And a mutant," I said slowly, a little afraid of how he'd react.

"I see," he said, sitting in the stool. "And you came to me because ...?"

Mom jumped in. "Doctor Robinson hates mutants, and he wasn't treating Bran ... Kayda ... properly, certainly not with the compassion and care I'd come to expect from the medical profession." Mom was very pointedly making her feelings known, and setting her expectations for Doctor Martin.

"What do you need of me?" he asked straightforwardly.

"Some kids in Kayda's school tried to kill her twice. She was left pretty battered, with broken bones and really bad bruises." She shook her head. "She's got some kind of healing powers, but I want to follow up to make sure she's healing properly, even though she claims to have recovered already."

"Ah, so we're talking X-rays to make sure the bones healed. Anything else?"

"We need to have her get a checkup, to see if her change to being ... female is complete," Mom continued, to which I blushed furiously, feeling my cheeks burning like red-hot stoves. She handed Doc Martin a sheet of paper, on which she'd written everything she and dad had observed.

Doctor Martin read the paper, and his eyes narrowed as he finished. He said nothing, but simply nodded. "First things first. I'm not a member of, or a believer in the warped philosophy of, Humanity First. They're a bunch of bigots, and I have no time for that. Mutants are human beings, too, and deserve to be treated as such." I felt much safer after he said that, and I could see Mom relaxing quite a bit. "Now, as to the injuries, Brandon,"

"Kayda," Mom and I both interrupted him.

"Kayda," he corrected himself. "Why don't we start by you telling me all the things that you know were broken or bruised, or otherwise injured in the attacks? I suspect, from what I know about mutants, that you have some kind of regeneration power to have healed so quickly, if you say some of these injuries were just two days ago."

Mom and I went down the list. Left lower leg and ankle, broken. Right thigh - broken. Eight or nine ribs, front, back, and sides, broken. Broken left collarbone. Shattered wrist. Broken left and right arms. Broken cheekbone. Broken nose. Probable skull fractures. Possible hip fracture. As the list continued, and Doctor Martin took notes, he grew increasingly amazed that I was even alive, let alone that I had apparently healed. I added all that I could think of for soft-tissue injuries, like the pounding one kidney had taken, resulting in bloody urine, and the twisted knees that I feared had ACL tears. The list of injuries went on and on. When I finished my list, he shot a glance at Mom, his expression carefully neutral. I wondered what that was all about.

I had probably twenty X-rays covering almost all of my body, followed by testing of my reflexes, strength, flexibility, and joint motion. After checking my chart, Doctor Martin's head nurse, Lisle, checked my eyes and hearing. She asked me a lot of questions about my past, my family, and she had me do a few math problems that should have been suited for my age, but were woefully easy for me. By the time they finished all the tests and had the X-ray results, it was nearly noon. Mom and I were ushered to an exam room to wait for him to finish with a patient so he could discuss his findings with us.

Doctor Martin came in after a few minutes and sat down on the stool again. "Well," he began, "you've got some gift of healing or regeneration."

"What does that mean, Doctor?" Mom asked before I could.

"In all the X-rays, we can't even find where the breaks were, like you never had any broken bones. Your joint motion is normal, and your flexibility is above normal. You have above-normal strength in all your muscle groups, which tells me that you have no residual joint or soft-tissue injuries. In fact, you're a lot stronger than you should be. Blood count is normal, as is your urinalysis. In other words, you're perfectly healthy." He looked at Mom warily, as if there was some secret they shared. "There's one more exam we need to do."

"What's that?" I asked, suddenly feeling like it was something I wasn't going to like - at all.

Mom put her hand on mine reassuringly. "Every young woman has to have a gyno, to make sure she's healthy. Since you just became a girl, you need to have ... those parts checked out."

My heart raced, and I scooted back on the exam table, away from Mom and Doctor Martin, drawing my legs up to my chest and clutching them tightly. "No!" I practically screamed. "Uh, uh! No!" Mom told me later that the look on my face was one of sheer terror.

Mom stood and held my hand. "Kayda, it's important that we make sure you're healthy."

"No!" I was in a full panic-attack, but I didn't know it. All I knew was that I was nearly paralyzed with fear of getting an intrusive, personal exam. I scooted further back.

"I'll be here with you," Mom reassured me.

"I'm a professional physician," Doctor Martin reminded me. "I do this type of exam frequently, and we'll have a nurse here to help assure you that nothing untoward happens."

"No!" I screamed again, not really understanding why I was reacting so strongly.

Doc sat back on his stool. "You need a gyno, but if you're unsure, we can do it later, when you're more comfortable." Again, he shot a curious glance at Mom.

I felt myself relax a little bit, though I was still tense that the subject had even been brought up. I hadn't understood why the thought of a gyno exam terrified me so; was it because that was proof-positive that I was irrevocably female? Or was there something more to my reluctance? I couldn't help wondering.

"So what can you tell us?" Mom asked as I slowly recovered from the panic attack.

"As far as we can tell, you are a healthy young woman, with healing or regenerative power. You are definitely a mutant." He shrugged. "Beyond that," he shook his head, "I'm not the one to tell."

Mom frowned, then a thought occurred to her that was a visible eureka moment. "Should we contact the MCO to help understand Kayda's powers?"

"No!" Doctor Martin said instantly and very emphatically.

"But ... they're the group that helps mutants."

Doctor Martin shook his head. "Do the names Roberta Jennings or Sara Johnson ring a bell?"

Mom scowled as she thought. "I can't say they do."

"Wait," I began. "The name Sara Johnson sounds familiar." I wrinkled my brow as I tried to think. "That's right! A bunch of us were talking about Sara the other day. Wasn't she a mutant girl from Wessington that disappeared?"

Doctor Martin nodded. "According to her parents, the MCO took custody of her. According to the MCO, they interviewed her at her home and left, never taking custody of her." He shook his head. "They're just the latest two. There are too many rumors of mutant children just ... disappearing when the MCO gets involved."

"But ... they're the good guys!" I protested. I'd watched 'Tales of the MCO' frequently.

Doctor Martin shook his head. "Some are, and some aren't. Many members of the MCO are also members of Humanity First."

I gasped aloud. H1 was as anti-mutant as they came. "You mean ...?"

"I mean, if you call the MCO," he said, looking solemnly at Mom, "you could just flip a coin as to whether you'll ever see her again, or whether she'll just disappear, like too many other youth mutants such as Sara Johnson and Roberta Jennings."

Mom gulped, and I was right with her. All these years, I'd thought the Mutant Commission Office was the good guys, protecting all of us from dangerous mutants. Apparently, though, the truth was far uglier than the carefully-crafted public image, I was forced to admit. 'Tales of the MCO' suddenly seemed a little too formulaic when I thought of it in light of what Doctor Martin was telling Mom and me.

"What can we do?" Mom asked the question that was on my mind.

Doctor Martin smiled, which was curious, given the serious nature of the discussion we'd just been having. "I know of someone in Sioux Falls that can help you. He's a superhero named Farm Boy, one of the founders of the Sioux Falls League, and he's really on the level. He's such a noted public figure that the MCO just leaves him alone. I'll get the contact information before you leave. Now, do you have any questions for me?"

"This," I stammered, needing to confirm what I already suspected, "this is permanent, isn't it?"

"Yes, I'm afraid so." He looked at me. "I take it that you were pretty certain, but you needed confirmation, right?" I simply nodded. He turned to Mom. "I'd strongly suggest that you get to Sioux Falls as soon as possible. There are a lot of Humanity First members in this area, and I'd bet that someone has already called the MCO. That means you might be in danger. They'll probably get records, and search for your vehicle. If I were you, when you get to Sioux Falls, ditch it and rent a car. Or do it here, before you leave." His somber tone let us both know that he was deadly serious about the threat to my life.

Doctor Martin escorted us from the exam room, but he paused with Mom while I walked ahead, not realizing they'd stopped. I turned, and saw him talking to her in a hushed voice. Nevertheless, I heard part of the conversation.

"She doesn't remember, does she?" Doctor Martin asked Mom, to which Mom just shook her head. "I'm worried about depression," Doctor Martin whispered to Mom.

"I was wondering about that," Mom answered, looking relieved.

"I'm going to give you some sample of an older anti-depressant. I'd give you a prescription, but filling it could be ...."

"I understand. I take it this isn't one of those new drugs we hear about on the ads?"

Dr. Martin shook his head. "Those are called SSRIs, and they can be very dangerous in mutants, sometimes causing them to go into rager fits. No, this isn't one of those." He turned to a cabinet and rummaged through the contents a bit until he got a small box of sample meds. "The problem with this is that it usually takes two weeks to be really effective, if it works on Kayda at all."

"Huh?" Mom asked, confused.

Dr. Martin explained, "In some types of mutants, especially exemplars and regenerators, drugs don't work normally. Their bodies burn them out very, very quickly. But we'll try anyway. The Sioux Falls League has access to specialists who can tell you more. In the meantime, it doesn't hurt to try."

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Interstate 90 in Eastern South Dakota

Mom drove, since we'd ditched my pickup and rented a car. I texted Dad with the location of the truck, knowing that he and one of the truck drivers would retrieve my truck and take it home, not that I'd ever see it again. I hung my head sadly; I was leaving behind yet _another_ part of my life. As the mile passed, and we got further and further from home, my mood darkened more and more. I was leaving a life behind, and the degree of loss was slowly becoming apparent to me. I wasn't much of a traveling companion to Mom, because I was brooding over what I'd lost.

"Why are you so sad?" Wakan Tanka sat beside me at the fire circle.

"I'm leaving everything behind. My family, my school, my friends, my home - everything." I fought the sting of tears.

"You have what's important," Tatanka said, surprising me.

"What? You?" I demanded. "That's hardly ..."

"Even though they may be far, you have your family. They love you and are doing everything they can to help you," Wakan Tanka said. "They feel the pain of your departure as much as you do, but they're being brave for you. Shouldn't you be brave for them, too, to help ease their pain?"

I sat at the circle, stunned into silence. There was truth in what they said; I could have far less. My family could have turned on me when I became a mutant, but they didn't.

"You were anxious to leave to take the danger from your family, weren't you?"

I nodded slowly, acknowledging the truth. "I ... couldn't let anything happen to them because of me."

"And they are doing the same," Tatanka said.

"Your brother and father are brave warriors," Wakan Tanka said. "They put themselves in danger to protect you, as any warrior would do. Your mother, too, put herself in danger to help you."

That made me think. I could have lost so much more than I had. I still had my family's love and support.

"Now, let us work on the healing skills you will need."

"What other things will I learn?" I asked meekly.

Wakan Tanka smiled. "Eager to learn? Good. That means you will be a good student." She began to get out her things. "First, you must learn the names of the plants and herbs you will use, and how to identify them."

"Oh, great, more memorization," I muttered under my breath.

Tatanka smiled. "If you use the wrong plant in a healing potion, you could end up turning one you would help into an animal such as a snake."

My mouth dropped open in shock. "Really?" I gasped.

Wakan Tanka chuckled. "No, Tatanka is making a joke. Really, the magic wouldn't work as well, if it worked at all."

Before I knew it, we took the exit into Sioux Falls to find reasonable and out-of-the-way lodging to hide. After Mom checked us in, we put our stuff in the hotel room. The first thing Mom did was to give me one of the anti-depressants to take. Mom used the room phone to call the number for Farm Boy, the guy Doctor Martin had recommended, while I lay back on a bed, bored out of my mind and getting more and more depressed with every passing minute. I'd lost so much, and I was quite probably wanted by the MCO. What else could go wrong with what was left of my life?

"Sheesh," Mom said through a heavy sigh, "it's a damned answering machine." She rolled her eyes as she listened to the message. "For superhero help, press 1," she parroted the machine in a mocking, sing-song voice. "For press information, press 2. To schedule a public appearance, press 3. If you are a supervillain calling in a threat, press 4. For medical emergencies, call 911 or go to the emergency room. For all other matters, press 0 or stay on the line. Good grief!"

"I'm June Franks, and I was given this contact number by Doctor Martin in Mitchell, with a request that you help my ...child ... who recently manifested. My cell number is ...." She stopped suddenly, and her eyes widened.

"Yes, she manifested a few days ago." I noticed that Mom was talking as if I'd always been a girl. Given how people reacted to sexuality issues around here, her use of a female pronoun was probably wise, even though it was a reminder of what I'd lost.

"No, her school friends almost beat her to death - twice."

"No, we haven't contacted the MCO. Dr. Martin warned us not to."

"No, I don't know if anyone is following us. I don't think so."

"Yeah, there are some Humanity First people in our hometown, so someone _may_ have contacted them."

"Okay, what time and where?"

"Yeah, I've got it." Mom glanced at me. "Kayda, look out the window carefully and see if you see anything that seems odd."

I did as Mom asked, cautiously pulling back one edge of the curtain a crack, and glancing around the parking lot. "I don't see anything," I reported. "What am I watching for?"

"What should we watch for?" Mom asked into the phone. She waited a few seconds.

"Parked cars with people in suits sitting in them, like they're watching. People whose clothes look out of place, walking slowly and looking our way a lot."

Geez, this was like a Bond movie or something. "I didn't see anything like that."

"She doesn't see anyone like that."

"Okay, we'll meet you in a few minutes."

"Yeah, we know where it is."

"What? Oh, yeah, when my ... child ... manifested, she got some rather unexpected changes."

"No, we don't know what she can do, except heal pretty well."

"Okay, twenty minutes." Mom hung up and grabbed her purse.

"Aren't you going to tell me what's going on?" I demanded, somewhat impatiently.

"In the car," Mom said as she handed me my purse. We walked out to the car, and I couldn't help but glance around. As I looked, I saw something that made me gasp loud enough that Mom heard me. "What?"

"Over by the restaurant, there's a car with two men inside, watching us, I think."

Mom nodded slightly. "Pretend you didn't see them and get in the car." I don't know how Mom kept her cool, but she did. We got in the car and drove out of the motel's parking lot. "Are they following us?"

I glanced around quickly. "Yes." Oh, shit. I started to panic, but Mom just drove like there was nothing wrong. We drove down Twelfth Street, past the battleship South Dakota memorial, and then we turned onto a major southbound street, passing the Great Plains Zoo. I used to love coming to Sioux Falls to visit the memorial and the zoo, and shop in the mall, and .... I realized that I'd probably never get to go the State B basketball tournament, which was _the_ social event for high school kids from all over the state. I sighed heavily; I'd lost _that_ part of my life as well. I glanced back again, and saw the car with the two men in it, still following, but not closely enough to arouse suspicion, or so they thought.

"Where are we going?"

Mom didn't take her eyes off the road. "The mall." She was reading my mind. "I know it sounds crazy, but he said to go to the restrooms near the JC Penney store."

When we got to Forty-First Street, Mom proved that she could be devious; she hesitated until our light was red and we had to stop, and then she darted around the corner quickly before the cross-traffic could block her way. Traffic on Forty-First Street was heavy enough to prevent anyone else from making a right-turn on red to follow us. That bought us a minute or so lead.

We pulled into the mall parking lot, and quickly parked the car and dashed inside. I glanced over my shoulder, and saw our tail just pulling into the parking lot. Once more, I felt panic, but Mom just held my hand and pulled me forward. Inside, Mom oriented herself quickly. I'd forgotten to put on my sunglasses, and I was getting a lot of strange and fearful looks.

We had a ways to walk to get to the indicated restrooms; I could tell that our tail was back, but a long ways behind us. Now that they were in the mall, though, they could walk more quickly or even run now that they didn't have the constraints of traffic and cars to deal with, and I knew that they were closing the distance between us. We turned down the short corridor to the restrooms, and as we passed a janitor's closet, the door suddenly opened and hands pulled us inside, holding us firmly and covering our mouths so we couldn't make a sound despite our struggles. Two other figures walked out of the closet, but I didn't get a close look at them because I was busy panicking about being grabbed.

Mom and I were carried through another door and into an elevator that descended a _long_ ways. Then, still restrained and muffled, we rode some type of silent underground car through a dark tunnel until we stopped at what looked like a subway station. A door opened, and we stepped into some kind of foyer or antechamber, and once the first door had closed, another door opened into a large area that looked somewhat like a living room, with conversation groups of sofas and chairs, coffee tables, and comfortably plush carpeting. Paintings hung on the walls to add some color.

That didn't mollify the fact that I was in a state of panic. I was lowered to the floor and the arm around my waist relaxed and let go, while the hand over my mouth went away. I spun, angry and spitting nails. "What the hell ...?" I started to say.

I never finished my question, because I found myself staring up into the eyes of a thirty-year-old man who I thought was, to my utter shock, attractive. Farm Boy was just over six feet tall, with well-defined muscles that rippled when he moved even the slightest amount. Blonde hair, long enough to be a little rebellious, framed his movie-star face. His smile probably set a new scale for white teeth; they positively gleamed. And his eyes - deep blue, almost hypnotic orbs that made me think that girls would do anything if he merely stared into their eyes and smiled. I felt my knees wobble, but I also felt the icy grip of panic about my throat. Despite the strange sense of attraction, I was trembling with fright and fighting the urge to flee. I had no idea why I felt so fearful of a superhero, only that I did.

Gak, I thought a man was attractive! Ugh! But he _was_ quite handsome, and he exuded charm that seemed to be affecting me in a strange way. "Erk ...." I tried to continue but found myself tongue-tied, caught between an unwelcome physical attraction and a strange terror.

The man smiled pleasantly. "I get that a lot. I have a 'glamour' field that I can't completely turn off," he explained, "and it has an effect on women." He evidently hadn't picked up on my unspoken fear.

"But ... I ...!" I wanted to deny that I'd felt anything remotely resembling attraction. And in my moment of panic, I'd come close to blurting out my secret. I had to watch my words more carefully. I was a little unnerved by the way he was staring at _me_ the way I used to stare at attractive girls. And there was still that unexplained, paralyzing sense of fear.

The man stuck out his hand to me to shake. "I'm Farm Boy," he introduced himself. "My accomplice over there is Tractor. Cornflower is out with Vanity Girl, and Twinkletoes is in the lab, but you'll meet them soon. Welcome to the home of the Sioux Falls League."

Tractor chuckled, seeing my plight. "Your reactions to Farm Boy are pretty common, so don't feel bad." Tractor was built like, well, a tractor - a well-muscled man of about twenty-four or twenty-five, with a small double chin and a tiny hint of a beer belly. His hair was cut conservatively, or at least what I could see of it beneath the cap with a famous green tractor logo on it. Where Farm Boy looked like a playboy, Tractor looked like he was a friend from next-door, on whom you could rely when you needed help, and to whom you'd gladly give help if he needed it. Not that someone like Tractor was ever likely to need help. I could tell he was trying to not gawk at me the way Farm Boy was.

"Not helping here," I said with a scowl.

Mom was laughing at the exchange. "I'm Mrs. Franks," she said once she could speak again, extending her hand to Farm Boy. Her cheeks were a little flushed, which made me think that she, too, was being affected by his attractiveness aura.

"Let's see - Farm Boy, Tractor, and Cornflower for a team of supers, in an agricultural state. Who'd a thunk it?" I chuckled, trying to regain my composure and change the subject.

"Why the ... extreme way to get us here?" Mom asked once the intros were all done. "And where is 'here' anyway?"

Farm Boy gestured to seats, so we could take a load off our tired feet. "Let's take the second question first. Our headquarters used to be a super-secret, super-secure, military command and control bunker. It doesn't exist even on official military documents. Since it was abandoned years ago, we took possession - through some very challenging legalities - and made it into our headquarters. No mortgage, low cost, and very well hidden. We've turned the living space into apartments for each of us, with a few extras for guests such as you. As to the way we brought you here, you were being followed," he reported as if reading a weather forecast. He seemed to not be able to stop himself from glancing at me.

"We know," I said calmly.

"By the MCO."

My eyebrows rose with my surprised expression. "How ... how do they find us so fast? "

Tractor shrugged. "They've got in's with most of the police departments around here, and they've got some world-class software that can cross-correlate records pretty quickly. They probably found your car rental agreement. If they hacked into traffic cameras and used a little image processing software, they could find you pretty easily."

"Stupid fucking Patriot Act!" I swore. I knew that damned thing wasn't good for domestic security so much as a means of helping control the populace through domestic spying.

"Kayda!" Mom snapped. "Language."

Tractor and Farm Boy laughed at Mom's and my interchange. "It's not like we don't hear a lot worse," Farm Boy said. "And she's probably at the 'rebellious teen' age."

"So they were following us," Mom grimaced. "Now they'll search to find ... this place."

"I doubt they'll even be looking, but if they do try, good luck to them," Tractor laughed. "Two shape-shifters we have on retainer disguised themselves as you two, took your places, and are giving the agents the runaround of a mother and daughter on a shopping trip. After that, they'll take your rental car and drive around a bunch, seeing the sights of lovely Sioux Falls, and then they'll go back to the hotel. At a convenient time, they'll change their forms and slip away from the tail."

"Wow!" I muttered. "I'm impressed. You guys think of everything."

Farm Boy laughed. "Let's just say this isn't the first time we've had to help someone who the MCO was tailing." He sighed. "A lot of the agents are pretty conscientious, but some are members of H1, and think nothing of using ... extreme methods to 'protect' the public from the mutant menace. It's the bad ones that give the MCO a bad name."

"What am I going to do?" I asked in a frightened, tiny voice. "If I leave here, I'll never be safe again." My eyes were misting, and my cheeks were damp. "I'm a prisoner here?"

A stunningly beautiful, deliciously curved woman, who I hadn't seen enter the room, walked over and gracefully eased herself to sit beside me, on the opposite side from Mom. She put her arm around me in a comforting manner. She was about eighteen, blonde, well-built, incredibly attractive, and had the sweetest looking cornflower-blue eyes, projecting a sweet innocence. "No, honey," she said in a calm, soothing voice. The look in her eyes seemed to scream, 'I want you', and she touched her tongue to her lips in a playful way, a gesture unseen by Mom - fortunately. She saw my reaction and winked with a grin and a silent chuckle. "We need to take care of a few legal formalities, and then you'll be able to go."

"But ... go where?" I exclaimed. "I can't go back home! They tried to kill me - twice!" I was getting more emotional than I realized, probably as a result of those damned female hormones and my stress level.

"Have you heard of Whateley Academy?" Farm Boy asked. I looked up at him, dumbfounded. He continued, with a smile, "It's a private boarding high school just for mutant teenagers. Because of some legalities, it's neutral territory, and the MCO has absolutely no jurisdiction or ability to interfere with the students. In situations like yours, it's a perfect place to finish school and remain safe."

I looked at Mom, seeing a ray of hope. She nodded, but then turned back to face the guys. "Where is it, and how do we get her in?"

Tractor answered, "It's located in Dunwich, New Hampshire." He winced. "You didn't ask, but it is kind of ... pricey."

Mom laughed. "You don't know our net worth, do you? We own a lot of land, with cattle and hogs and a feedlot, farm a lot of corn and wheat, own a trucking company for farm purposes, and own the implement dealership in town. I don't think finances will be too much of a problem."

The woman smiled warmly. "There you go. That's two questions answered. Now, as to how you get in, we'll help you fill out an application and get it faxed." She grinned at me. "But just to be sure, a few alumni wrote recommendations for you, too."

"You went there?" I asked.

All three of them nodded. "We all did," Tractor answered.

The woman beside me slapped my knee lightly and stood. "How about we get some dinner? I don't know about you, but it's late and I'm starving."

"You energizers are _always_ starving!" Farm Boy laughed. I saw a smile on Tractor's face, and when I glanced up at the woman, she was smiling, too. I figured that it was an inside joke.

"Ha, ha!" the woman said derisively. "Just because I'm a healthy, growing girl that out-eats both of you combined!" She turned to me. "By the way, I haven't introduced myself. I'm Cornflower." She had that playful flirting twinkle in her eyes again.

My eyes widened, and I couldn't help but look at her ... generous assets. She noticed. I put out my hand. "I'm Bran ... Kayda," I said, correcting myself quickly and hoping they hadn't noticed my slip. I smiled shyly. "I'm not quite used to ... the way things have changed." Damn, but she was pretty. If I was older and still male, I would have been very interested in her flirting. Maybe I could play that game, too. I gave her what I considered a 'come hither' look, and then winked at her.

I saw Cornflower's eyebrow rise at my wink and my comments, and I suddenly suspected that either she had figured out what I'd almost accidentally divulged, or if there was something she wasn't telling me.

We went to the dining room, which was set up like a small cafeteria. It was certainly larger than was necessary for three supers. "How many are in your team?" Mom asked.

Cornflower didn't turn from the warming table as she heaped food onto a plate on her lunch tray, just like in a cafeteria. "There are five of us here permanently - the three of us, Vanity Girl, and Twinkletoes. We've got lab staff here, a well, and we usually have two or three Capes interning from one of the bigger metro areas. Once in a while, we get a student between their junior and senior years."

"Capes? Interns?" I asked.

Farm Boy smiled at me, and I wanted to melt again. Damn hormones, and his damned glamour! "The formal name of the Whateley Club is the Future Superheroes of America, but everyone calls them the Capes. They're on the superhero career path. You'll find out all about that in a few days. And we're a relatively mild area for heavy-hitting, major super-villains, so some of the more metro super-groups send their newly-hired rookies here for training." He smiled. "We get a stipend for every intern we train, which helps pay the bills. And with training, it's a lot more likely that a rookie's first outing won't also be his or her last."

"I was wondering something," Mom chimed in as she started dishing up some food - in much smaller quantities than Cornflower - on her plate. "Isn't it too late to get an application for the spring term? That started five or six weeks ago for most schools around here. Won't Kayda be really far behind?"

Tractor shook his head. "Not really. Whateley is usually around eighty percent full, so there are always spots for late arrivals. And as to being behind, because of its unique nature, Whateley gets students in through the entire term. Allowances are always made."

"And Whateley has a unique term system. You will have just missed the special winter term, where the courses are more heavily oriented toward mutant-specific needs. The spring term, a regular school term, probably only started a week or so ago." The woman speaking from the doorway was a very handsome woman in her mid-twenties, attractive in a way that was timeless and not subject to the fickle styles and fashions of Hollywood. She was tall, nearly six feet, and even in casual clothes, appeared lithe and athletic in build. Her dark hair hung about her shoulders with the ends curled under, and feathered in front, neatly framing her slightly-oval face. Her eyes sparkled like golden-yellow orbs illuminating the room, pools of warmth that instantly calmed and soothed like sunshine on a spring day. Her lips were perfectly formed and proportioned, lusciously inviting to be brushed against the lips of another, and colored with a light maroon tint to announce to passers-by that the woman was sophisticated and mostly serious, but perhaps a tiny bit naughty. Her super-suit was a stylish white, pink, and purple ensemble that looked so utterly girly that I felt embarrassed, even though she looked like dynamite in it.

She stepped briskly into the room and extended her hand. "I'm Vanity Girl," she said in a rich contralto that, even if she was trying, couldn't be anything but seductive. "Welcome to our humble abode."

I returned her handshake. "I'm Kayda. Uh, thanks."

Mom decided that she needed to speak as well. "We really appreciate your hospitality. With everything that's happened, it's been rather ... hectic."

Vanity Girl chuckled with the others; calling things hectic was quite an understatement. "Do you have any idea of what your powers are?"

I shook my head. "I have no idea. I've got spirits in my head, and they told me that I'll be able to do magic and manifest a white buffalo."

A tall, slender, well-dressed gentleman strode easily and gracefully into the room and went straight to the serving line. He looked like he was in his early to mid-thirties. His outfit looked like nothing so much as a tuxedo, and his expression radiated charm. "Ah, you must be Kayda," he said, smiling to me. "I heard you were coming to pay us a visit." He turned to Mom, and when he went to shake her hand, he kissed it instead, causing Mom to blush. "Surely you can't be Kayda's mother. You look far too young."

"I'm June Franks," Mom replied, half blushing and half-smiling at the compliment.

"They call me Twinkletoes," the man responded. "I'm the resident old codger, and the last of the founding members of the League."

Cornflower took a break from shoveling vast quantities of food in her mouth, and stood up. She gave me a quick smile. "Since the 'old farts' won't do it, I suppose it's the duty of the resident youngster to introduce everyone else." She elicited a chuckle from the others in the room.

"Compared to me," I said, spontaneously deciding to add a little ribbing since Cornflower seemed to be teasing toward me, "you're ancient, too! You must be, what, a whole two or three years older than me? That's so over-the-hill!"

Cornflower shot me a look that playfully said, 'I'll get you for that!' After a brief headshake, she continued, "Our interns are Wish List, a rookie from the Salt Lake Supers," she paused while Wish List half-waved at me. "Card Trick is from the Twin Cities Overseers." Another pause for the girl to wave at me, "and Ping Pong is interning from the Cajun Criminal Counter Force in New Orleans."

Wish List and Card Trick both looked eighteen or nineteen, but that was where the similarities ended. Wish List was a nice-looking brunette, while Card Trick looked like an average perky blonde. Compared to Vanity Girl, Cornflower, and Card Trick, Wish List seemed average, but my old Brandon brain reminded me that she'd be the prettiest girl in my old school. It was just unfair to compare her to the exceptional beauty of her fellow mutants. The third intern, Ping Pong, looked like an average high-school senior guy; he wasn't nearly as physically imposing as Tractor or Farm Boy. He must have been suffering in the bitter cold of the north-central plains states.

Farm Boy stood, and gestured for Cornflower to sit. "I'll finish the intros, so you can get your face back in that ginormous plate of yours," he laughed to Cornflower, who made a face at him, but then resumed eating.

"Don here," he pointed at a nerdy-looking guy, "is our resident gadgeteer and devisor, who provides us with all the toys we use."

"And break," Don protested jokingly.

"Yvonne and Javier are our lab techs, who handle just about everything, and our resident medic is Dr. Winkler. Romeo Foxtrot is our comm guru, but he's on duty in the comm shack. And we have a couple of others who I'm sure you'll meet later, who work evening and night shifts for comm and operations."

I looked over the newly-introduced people. The 'gadget guru' was one of the older members of the League; I'd guess his age at mid-forties, and the other old guy was the doctor. Yvonne was a handsome woman about Mom's age, while Javier, the other lab tech, was Hispanic and in his mid-twenties.

As Twinkletoes joined us at one of the two large tables, I glanced around. "What do you guys all do? Powers, I mean?"

Farm Boy smiled, and I felt that attraction aura at the same time a wave of fear coursed through me. "I'm stronger than normal, and I do telekinesis."

Tractor laughed. "And you fly. Don't forget that you fly. Sort of." He got a scowl from Farm Boy, which made him laugh harder. "I'm what's called a PK superman. My psychokinetic field gives me super strength and protection, and it is a perfect reflector for all attacks directed at me."

Cornflower paused in her ravenous eating. "I'm an energizer, and I send pressure waves out, like big shoves." She smiled at me again in what seemed to be a friendly, flirty game, and then resumed feeding on the massive plate of food before her.

Vanity girl took her turn. "I'm a magic user, and an empath, and Twinkletoes there," she indicated the older member who had a mouthful of chicken sandwich, "is a warper and telepath." She looked at the table of interns. "Wish List is an energy absorber and package-deal psychic, Card Trick is a magic user, and Ping Pong is your basic fire-ball energizer and empath."

We settled down to small talk as we ate. Periodically, I'd glance at Cornflower and make a silly face at her, trying to get her to smirk or chuckle, while she did the same to me. Mom noticed, and just shook her head.

After we ate, Cornflower presented Mom with a folder. "You can start filling this application packet out while we take Kayda for some basic powers testing tomorrow." She turned her head slightly, and I saw her gazing at me again. When our eyes met, she grinned, because she knew that I'd been gawking at her.

"Powers testing?" Mom and I asked simultaneously.

Tractor nodded. "Every mutant has different powers, like manifester, energizer, exemplar, regen, psychic, magic, and so on. Power testing determines which you have, so your powers can be listed on their MID, or mutant identification card. It's an international requirement that anyone flying or traveling across national borders has an MID. In the US, anyone traveling by air must have an MID. So we do some testing, we'll get you a temporary MID, and you can travel to Whateley."

I shrugged. "That sounds harmless," I said as I took my tray to a table, trying my best to sound confident and calm.

After dinner, we were shown to our rooms, and then the whole group sat in the lounge area watching a movie. I noticed that Tractor was cuddling with Vanity Girl, to whom I'd been introduced at dinner. It seemed odd to that the superhero group would have relationships, which could lead to jealousy, and breakups might shatter a team. Plus, a super might be inclined more to help an injured partner than to fulfill his or her role in the team. It didn't make sense to me, but then again, everything I'd known about relationships was now completely worthless, and I had to start learning from a whole new perspective. That thought slammed home the persistent dichotomy in my thinking - I had male thoughts from my fifteen years of experience conflicting with only a few days of my body and brain being flooded with female hormones. No matter what the hormones were trying to tell me, my old memories couldn't be ignored.

The movie was an oldie, and I really didn't like it, but it was a distraction, especially when Cornflower and I traded barbs at the movie plot, actions, and actors. The interns joined in, but when Cornflower and Wish List started to direct their comments to double-entendre and suggestive female-oriented commentary, Ping Pong dropped out immediately. I was about to quit as well, but a glance from Cornflower practically dared me to continue. Our little game entertained the others while we laughed and tried to outdo each other. Twinkletoes, Farm Boy, Tractor, and Vanity Girl seemed a lot less approachable, because they were older, but Cornflower and the interns, being much closer to my age, were easy to interact with. I felt much more relaxed after an evening of fun, and glad that Cornflower was helping me feel welcome and safe so that I could de-stress.

By nine, I was so tired that I was ready to go to bed. I figured it was because we'd been on the run since Saturday, and it was wearing on both Mom and me, although Mom tried to keep up a brave front. One of the supers went out and got some snacks that I personally liked, and he got Mom a disposable cell phone, figuring that the MCO might be tracking her own phone. As a precaution, Mom powered off her phone, even though we figured that the cell phones wouldn't get good reception this far underground.

Tatanka showed me the spirit of the squirrel, tasnaheca, and taught me that the squirrel taught preparation, planning, and conservation. This seemed pretty obvious and in line with Western cultural teaching of the significance of these animals' traits, but I didn't know that the squirrel also represented adaptability. Tatanka asked what trait of tasnaheca was most important to me. When I didn't answer, he told me that being adaptable was the most important lesson to learn. I had changed. Life around me was changing, and I had no control over those changes. I had to adapt, as tasnaheca adapted, so I could thrive.

Tatanka told me that I would one day meet the animal spirits directly. First, though, Tatanka said I would need to learn much more about nature and the balance of life.

When Tatanka finished, or possibly before but when Wakan Tanka became impatient, she took me to the fire circle and we continued to learn about medicinal herbs and plants. She told me, but didn't show me, that some combinations of plants and herbs would induce a dream-walk. I asked if that was like a drug high, and she puzzled a bit before she acknowledged that yes, it was a drug high. Great - she wanted me to distribute controlled substances now, too!

She also knew magic, and she told me the types of spells she would teach me. I wanted to start learning immediately, but she told me to be patient. I would learn in plenty of time. The way she phrased that made me nervous. In plenty of time for _what_? She'd once hinted that these were dark times for the People, and I was to help them. Now she was hinting that I'd need the skills she was teaching. A movie plot couldn't have this much foreshadowing if it tried. Together with the crash course in evil spirits, I had a very bad feeling, despite her repeated assurances.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Saturday, March 3, 2007
Sioux Falls League Headquarters

At breakfast, I was more relaxed; another night with Wakan Tanka and Tatanka in dream-space left me feeling energized and ready for a new day. I was enjoying a full plate when Tractor smiled at me and suggested that I take it easy. I frowned.

"You've got power testing. A full stomach doesn't go well with power testing," he said with a grin.

"How hard could it be?" I asked, which received chuckles and guffaws around the table. Okay, so there was another omen of something bad in my future. And here I thought power testing would be harmless.

Harmless, indeed! It was a serious torture session. I was tested to see how I healed, since I told them that I'd completely recovered from being nearly beaten to death only a few days prior. That led to a deliberate cut on me to see how fast it healed. It healed in about ten minutes, leaving not even a scar, but it hurt like hell. The technician running some of the tests took a few notes, and we continued. There were blood samples, as expected, and tests that seemed bizarre. In one, I was on both ends of trying the psychic 'guess the card shape' game. I did lousy, which meant that I had no psychic powers.

I was shown a table full of parts, and told to reassemble it. After ten minutes, the technician told me to stop, and was amazed that I'd correctly deduced that there were parts from six mechanisms, and had reassembled five of them properly and very quickly. Further, I assembled them in a little different way than the test expected, and all of the mechanisms worked at least as well as they were supposed to. What I didn't know is that the sixth mechanism couldn't work unless I was a devisor, someone who could apparently cause the laws of physics to be altered, so there was no reason for me to know how or what to assemble. If I had assembled the last set of parts into a working thing, then it would have shown that I was a devisor of some type, and I'd have been subjected to even more testing in that area. In the second part of the test, I was shown several mechanisms on another table, and asked to identify what they did and how they worked. Again, some of the mechanisms were trivial to figure out, while others took a little experimentation and hands-on observation, but in the end, I got eight out of the ten correct. When the testing was done, they rated me as a Gadgeteer 3 or 4, which meant that I had almost an instinctive knowledge of machinery, and the technician admitted that the rating may be low because they weren't equipped for full gadgeteer testing. I grinned at his comment, and the technician noticed. "What?" he asked.

"I've been working on things since I can remember. When I was four or five, I took apart my Mom's grandfather clock to see how it worked, and then put it back together."

The technician frowned. "So part of your mechanical aptitude isn't part of your mutation?"

"I don't think so. I've got a car completely apart back home, including the engine and transmission, and I'm reassembling it, or I was," I corrected myself, feeling a sting of regret that I might never get to finish the project car, "without any instructions or shop manuals."

The technician made some notes in my folder, which I assumed were to help assess my skills. "I suspect that your mutation enhanced this skill."

I was tested to see if I could do any magic, which was interesting, mostly because Card Trick came in with some odd stones and crystals on strings. She held them up to me, and wrote down the reactions. After consulting her notes a bit, she put down the clipboard. "According to my readings, you have magic potential, and it seems to be highest in manifesting and healing. Can you manifest anything?"

I closed my eyes for a silent conversation with Tatanka. When he agreed, I thought about him being real, and he appeared in the room, startling Card Trick. She looked at the furry white buffalo, and then walked around, holding her crystals as she gazed intently at what they were telling her. "Can you do anything else with it?" she asked after she was finished her examination.

I smiled, and then thought about him being smaller, like a poodle. With a swirl of white mist, he shrank until he was the same size as a twenty-pound dog. Once more, she scrutinized him with her 'instruments'. Another thought, and he was gone. Card Trick looked at her crystals. "Bring him back, please, if you can. I want to test something." She walked out of the room, and returned with Tractor. By that time, I had Tatanka, at about half-size, by my side, and I was petting him, which surprised Card Trick and Tractor.

"Tractor is a brick, which means he's nearly invulnerable. More specifically, he's a PK brick, which means he has a psychokinetic field protecting him from most harm," Card Trick explained. "The readings I get from your buffalo are very strange, so I want to see what he can do to Tractor."

"You want me to have Tatanka _hurt_ Tractor?" I asked, astonished.

"I need to see if your buffalo can penetrate a PK field. According to my crystals, he should be able to."

I looked at Tatanka while Tractor took a position across the room. "Can you lightly poke him with a horn, but not hurt him?" I asked him in Lakota, which drew puzzled looks from Card Trick and Tractor.

Tatanka grinned. "I will try." The fact that Tatanka answered me aloud in Lakota further astounded the two.

"Ready," Tractor said confidently. "Give it your best shot."

Tatanka ambled leisurely to Tractor, then, after glancing at me, he swung his head quickly at Tractor, poking at him with one of his horns. To the amazement of all of us, Tractor most of all, Tractor was hurled across the room, with his shirt torn and a little blood coming from his side.

"That's ... impossible!" Card Trick stammered. "He went through a PK field like it wasn't even there, and he injured a brick!"

"Pretty good," Tractor said, slapping me on the shoulder, even though the motion caused him to wince in pain.

"I asked him to take it easy," I admitted sheepishly.

"That was taking it easy?" Tractor stuttered. "God, if he'd have been going full-force, he could have seriously injured me."

"If Kayda was in danger," Tatanka said solemnly in English, "I would have killed you."

Card Trick's eyes widened when Tatanka spoke to me, and she frantically scribbled more notes. "We're going to have to talk about this one. I'm not sure if I should put you down as a manifestor and wizard, or as a wizard and avatar." She wrinkled her nose, which made her look even cuter. "Your powers are kind of a puzzle."

After that, I played dodge ball in a strange room with lots of pitching machines. I lost pretty badly, I might add, and those balls came out of the machines hard! I was given weight tests, and found that I could lift more than I did when I was Brandon and did weight training. My limit was about 270 pounds. I ran on a treadmill; my speed was about thirty percent faster than a baseline could attain, and I didn't tire for over forty minutes.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Mom and I sat in the cafeteria with most of the group. I looked around anxiously, hoping to find a clue about what they thought my powers were. Vanity Girl had some notes in front of her.

"Well?" I asked impatiently and nervously.

"We have a preliminary assessment," Vanity Girl said with a smile. "Our rather simplistic tests rate you as an Exemplar 2, a Wizard 3/1, which means you are highly rated for your manifestation and healing, but lower wizard power otherwise. You have some regenerative or healing power, as demonstrated by the healing you did from multiple broken bones, so I'm putting down Regen 1 for your temporary card." She wrinkled her nose. "I'm not sure if your healing was due to regen or your own magic potential. You'll need more testing at Whateley for that, but I'm listing that under wizard for now. You are a natural mechanic, so we're rating you a Gadgeteer 3, although that might be low, because it appears there's some innate ability from basic curiosity and mechanical skill, apparently from a young age, and that your mutation greatly augmented this skill."

Mom took a moment to glare at me; she hadn't forgotten about finding me playing happily in the middle of pieces of her grandfather clock.

"And you have an avatar spirit, so I'd ..."

"Two spirits," I interrupted her. I could hear jaws dropping around the table; the looks of disbelief told everything.

"That's very unlikely, unless you're a very powerful avatar," Vanity Girl explained skeptically. "Very, very few avatars have two spirits, and almost nobody has two completely independent spirits! You must be mistaken."

I smiled and shook my head. "I have two spirits. Both of them came to me, and I talk to them in the dream-world."

"Tell me something about these who you think are your spirits." The technician sounded more than a little skeptical

"I _know_ they are my spirits," I countered angrily. Why wouldn't they believe me? "The first is Ptesanwi, the spirit of the White Buffalo Calf Woman, who lets me talk to Wakan Tanka, and the second is Tatanka, the white buffalo spirit."

Vanity Girl frowned, and turned to one of the interns. "Wish List, you're pretty high as an esper, aren't you?"

The intern Wish List nodded. "Yeah." Damn, but it seemed like all the mutant gals around here were stunningly gorgeous.

Vanity Girl turned back to me. "Would you mind if Wish List does a psychic probe of you, to explore your spirits?"

I glanced at Mom, who shrugged with an 'I don't know' expression. Cornflower nodded with a slight smile. "It won't hurt, but it will tell us a lot about your spirit or spirits."

I looked around the table and saw nothing but support from the supers. "What do I have to do?" I asked nervously.

"Nothing. Just relax." Wish List's gaze seemed to be fixed somewhere behind me, almost like she was staring through me. I could somehow _feel_ something starting to push into my head, into my consciousness. It felt a little odd, but not uncomfortable.

Without warning, the presence was slapped away, hard. It was simply gone, and I had a mental image of Tatanka standing atop a hill, glaring angrily as he snorted with fury.

"What happened?" I asked Tatanka.

"The girl was intruding in our dream-world. I pushed her out to protect you."

Wish List had been physically thrown back, knocking her chair over, and she looked stunned, holding her head and wincing in pain. "What did you do?" she complained. "That hurt!"

I flinched from the accusation. "Tatanka didn't want you in my head," I explained.

"Can you make him stop, to let her in?" Vanity Girl asked.

"I ... I don't know," I replied. "I can try."

"Tatanka, I need to ask something of you."

"What is it, Wihakayda?"

"The girl needs to get into our dream space. I would like you to let her in."

Tatanka snorted. "Is it safe?"

"I believe she's trustworthy, and it will be safe."

"Very well, Wihakayda. I will not block her."

"Tatanka won't block you this time," I said to Wish List and the others.

She'd apparently noticed that I'd zoned out for a moment. "Were you talking to your spirit, er, spirits?"

"I used to talk to them only in my dreams, but now, I can close my eyes and talk to them. Wakan Tanka told me that I'd learn to talk to them anytime even without closing my eyes."

"Okay. I'd like you to close your eyes and talk to them, one spirit at a time," she directed. "I'll be listening psychically."

"Don't be surprised when you find yourself in my dream-world," I replied with a smile. I sat back and closed my eyes. In a fraction of a second, I was in dream-space, even though I was awake.

"Wakan Tanka," I asked as I sat down by the fire. Wish List was sitting near me, but not too closely.

She emerged from one of the tepees and sat beside me. We looked like twins now. "What do you need, Wihakayda? Why do some seek to know that we are joined?" She spoke in Lakota, as usual.

"It is important for my life in the real world that people understand how we are joined."

Wakan Tanka nodded. "It is a strange request, but I know you believe it safe."

"Where is Tatanka?" I asked.

In moments, the white buffalo walked through a gap between two tepees and lay down beside me; he was St. Bernard sized this time. I couldn't help scratching his back and behind his ears, like he was a loveable, cute, big puppy. I was getting very used to Tatanka, and I think he liked when I treated him as a cuddly pet. "This stranger in your mind - is it safe? Should I block her?" He spoke English, though he could have easily spoken Lakota. I suspected that he knew what this was about from my thoughts, and was doing his part to convince them that he and Wakan Tanka were two separate spirits.

"It is safe. It is to help me in the real world. Some people who are trusted must know about my spirits and other powers."

"Then it is good that Wakan Tanka has not yet instructed you in all her ways," Tatanka replied, in Lakota this time. "Like wiciteglega, the raccoon, disguise and misdirection is important to you. When one knows all your capabilities, that one also knows all your weaknesses. Learn from wiciteglega, and disguise who you really are and what you can truly do.

"Tatanka speaks wisely, Wihakayda. Even though you trust the stranger in your mind, I do not. It would be dangerous for one to know all we can do as Ptesanwi, Wihakayda," Wakan Tanka added.

"I understand. I thank you for help me. We will talk often I hope, because I have much to learn. There is much that I do not understand, and I need to remedy that situation."

"You are wise to understand what you don't know yet, and to be willing to learn," Tatanka said with a smile. I gave him another scratch. I couldn't resist the cuddly guy.

I snapped my eyes open and looked anxiously at Wish List. "Well?" I asked.

Wish List was shaking her head. "There are two individual spirits in her. My first impression is that they are very high-level spirits as well, at least Class Two. Maybe Class Three. I didn't' understand what one of them was saying to Kayda, though, because it was in a different language."

I smiled smugly. "I speak to them in Lakota."

"That's impossible!" Vanity Girl exclaimed, her mouth hanging open in disbelief.

"Nevertheless, she has two spirits - a woman and a buffalo, and they both seem very strong." She frowned. "There's something else about Kayda and the woman spirit, but I couldn't tell what it was."

Farm Boy stared at me, incredulous. "That's not possible. How the hell are we supposed to rate something this rare?"

"And I think the buffalo spirit is the thing she manifests," Vanity Girl continued.

Jaws dropped. "What?"

"Since we can't test her properly, I suggest we rate her as an Avatar 2."

"Only a two when she has two apparently high-level spirits? Shouldn't she be a 4 or a 5?"

"I really don't think we want to call attention to this, do you?" Wish List commented. "At least not until someone understands it better."

"I suppose you're right," Tractor sighed. He wrinkled his brow. "Is the buffalo spirit the same one that gored me half to death?"

"It's just a flesh wound," I commented in a smug British accent.

The technician who'd been assisting added, "Tis but a scratch."

A few of the crew chuckled, while the younger interns didn't get it. "So much for their cultural background," I chuckled at their befuddled stares. Cornflower winked at me with a knowing smile; obviously, she understood the reference.

"What _are_ they teaching the youth of today?" Mom added her comment.

After a few more jokes and chuckles, Tractor returned to his original question. "_Is_ the buffalo spirit the same one you manifest?"

"I ... I think so. Yeah, I'm fairly certain of it," I said.

That brought another round of open-mouthed stares directed my way. Finally, Tractor broke the awkward silence. "Okay, let's call it an Avatar 2 and let the pros figure it out. I think we have everything we need to get a temporary MID from the MCO office."

I blanched when he mentioned MCO. "Uh, does that mean I need to go ...?" I couldn't hide the panic in my voice.

Cornflower smiled, placing her hand on my arm to calm me. "No. We have the data, so our lawyer will handle that. With the MID, you can fly to Boston, and take a train to Dunwich."

"I know someone at Whateley that would probably be very interested in her, since she has Native American spirits," Vanity Girl noted. "Mr. Lodgeman. If he's still there, that is. You know, the guy who has the Native American culture group?"

"Mr. Lodgeman?" The name meant nothing to me.

"I believe Mr. Lodgeman is a shaman, and I believe he's somewhat of an expert on Native American lore and mythology. He's one of the trustees of the academy."

"Yes. I think we should call him," Wish List said to me. She _had_ been paying close attention to what I was thinking. That disturbed me, because now she probably knew that I was transgendered by my mutation. On the other hand, I knew that Tatanka could block psychic probes if I was in danger. "I'm sure he will be very interested."

"I guess. But won't I meet him at Whateley?" I asked. I was starting to suspect that there was something they weren't telling me.

Farm Boy and Cornflower exchanged a glance, and then looked at me. "It'll take a few days to get your MID, and you can't travel without one, especially since your eye color is too distinctive for you to pass as a Native American. They mark you as a mutant. And with the complaints to the MCO from H1, your file will probably get more than a little extra scrutiny. I think it's safer to keep you in hiding until you've got the MID."

"How long?"

"To be honest, I don't know. Since this is a small office, they're not as quick as the larger cities, but they usually deliver an MID within a week."

"Another week?" I asked, astounded. "School started already! I'm _already_ behind!"

"You and your mom can stay here with us while you wait, and we'll help to learn more about what you can do."

"As long as it doesn't involve me getting gored by that buffalo again," Tractor said with a grin.

I sighed heavily. "I guess I don't have any other options, do I?"

Vanity Girl shook her head. "I don't think so. Not any good ones, at least."

"Shit. It's bad enough starting in the middle of the year, but now, by the time I get to Whateley, all the new kids from this term will already know each other, they'll have made friends, and I'll just be 'the weird new kid'! I'll be behind in classes!" I was starting to really doubt the wisdom of going to Whateley if I arrived late. Once, long ago, I'd been the 'new kid', and it really sucked to feel like an outsider for a very long time because all the groups and friendships were already firmly established. Thanks to those stupid girl hormones, I was getting emotional again, and my eyes were leaking. I hated what hormones were doing to my emotions.

"I wouldn't worry about it," Farm Boy tried to reassure me.

"Oh yeah? Do you know what it's like to be in a group of people, and know that you're alone because all the rest have already formed their little cliques and groups? Do you know how hard it is to get in a social group when it's already set?" I was nearly in tears, and almost screaming incoherently. The group stared at me, concerned about my emotional breakdown.

Mom scooted her chair closer and wrapped me in a 'mommy hug'. I started crying. "My life sucks! I didn't ask for any of this! I didn't want to change into this, or get spirits in my head, or become a mutant! Everything I knew and liked has been taken from me!"

Cornflower scooted on the other side of me, joining Mom in hugging me, while I cried and cried, until they half-carried me to my bed, where I fell asleep from physical and emotional exhaustion from the day's activities.

I was sitting on the log, my face in my hands as I bawled. Wakan Tanka wasn't there when I walked into the camp, and I felt alone, just like I knew I'd feel if I even got to Whateley.

I felt an arm around my shoulder and a hand gently touching my other shoulder. "Wihakayda, are you that upset that you have us?"

I was taken aback by her question. "I ... I don't think so," I finally said. "No. I know I can always count on you and Tatanka, even when everything else is crap. All I have to do is dream, and I'm in a land surrounded by beauty and peace. It feels ... refreshing."

"Then why did you complain that you didn't want any of this?" Tatanka asked from my other side.

"I ... I was feeling sorry for myself. When I was young, we moved, and I lost all my old friends. I had to make new ones. It was really tough to be left out of groups that had already been established. It wasn't easy to fit in when everyone else already had best friends. It ... hurt, a lot. Now, I'm a freak, and I'm in the same position."

"Why?"

"Because I changed from a guy into a girl! Can you imagine what it will be like to be with other students, knowing that someone might be psychic and find out my secret? I'd be ostracized, or worse. I won't know who I can trust."

"You are strong, Wihakayda. You will do well."

Tatanka nodded his agreement. "You must be like igmu taka, the cougar. When he hunts, he must be very patient so he does not startle and frighten away his prey. If he is not patient, he will go hungry. In the same way, you must be patient waiting for what is to come."

"You make it sound easy," I said angrily. "It's not. The only way I can see myself doing well is if I put up my shields to keep people from hurting me."

"What do you mean, put up shields?" Wakan Tanka asked.

"I mean, not let anyone close to me. Not show anyone any emotional attachment or friendship. Not letting anyone get in a position where they could hurt me ... again."

"You describe a life without joy, without happiness, without companionship, without so much."

"No, I describe a life without pain, without heartache, without betrayal."

"You have to risk pain and heartache to have joy and companionship."

"After the betrayals I've experienced? No thanks!'

Wakan Tanka pulled my head onto her shoulder and held me the way Mom did when I was little, letting me cry on her shoulder as she comforted me. After a bit, when I wasn't crying any more, she guided me in making some tea by myself, and then she and I drank the soothing beverage.

"There is another animal spirit you must learn from, Wihakayda," Tatanka said softly. "Pispiza, the prairie dog. Pispiza lives in a connected community. Alone, they would perish quickly. As a community, they are strong enough to survive."

"So, you're saying that I _have_ to be part of a community, that it would be bad for me to isolate myself emotionally from others?" I asked him. "That's not easy."

Wakan Tanka smiled. "You learn quickly, Wihakayda." She held me some more, and I fell asleep in her arms, feeling protected and safe.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Somewhere in the Black Hills

The giant snake creature, over forty feet long, and easily six feet in diameter, with glowing red eyes and fang-lined maws that could easily swallow a man whole, coiled deep in a cavern splattered with blood and human remains "What must I do, my father?" it asked in the old tongue.

In two other tunnels elsewhere in the mountains, similar snake creatures had been awakened, and they repeated the question in turn.

Deep in the HPARC, in the most secure isolation tunnel, the giant serpent demon Unhcegila spoke. "You," he said, causing a thunderous echo in one of the caverns, "must find the one, she who hold the spirit of my enemy. She is young, and inexperienced, and you must destroy her before she can gain power and learn how to destroy us."

One of the snake creatures nodded its head. "It shall be done, my father."

"Do not fail."

The snake creature shook its head. "I have not failed you before. I will not fail you now. She who holds the spirit shall die."

A thunder sounded in a second cavern. "You must recover the sacred sphere from where the People have it hidden, so that when the time is right, I may control it. If she who holds the spirit should live, I will need the energy to defeat her. If she should die, I will use the magic it produces to destroy all who would stand in my way, until I reign supreme over all spirits."

"It shall be done, my father."

Again, an echo sounded in the third cave. "You must journey here, and weaken the barriers which hold me captive. Burrow through the rock, being careful to leave no trace of your coming. I will direct you, and tell you how to weaken the barriers. It will be slow, and you must be patient."

"Yes, my father."


Black Hills, In the HPARC Control Center

A technician looked up from a monitor. "Sir?" he interrupted the research director, who was typing his weekly status report.

"What is it, Carl?" the research director asked, focusing his attention immediately on the technician.

"Sensors are reading some type of psychic signature down in the eight-thousand foot security level."

Dr. Ernst Schmidt's attention was completely focused on the technician. "What kind of psychic wave, and did it originate inside the security level, or from the outside?"

"Both," Carl reported immediately. "Alternating incoming and outgoing."

"And it penetrated the barriers and wards?"

"Yes, sir."

Dr. Schmidt frowned. "See if you can isolate where in the security level the wave originated." He thought of something. "And get a message to Hazel Two Bears at the research center at Crazy Horse that I need her to have a look at the data to see if it makes any sense to her. With the crazy stuff we're holding down there, it might be something Native American that she can decipher." Schmidt exhaled heavily. He really, really hated it when his supposedly isolated captives pulled some kind of crap like this. He would have preferred a quiet term supervising these unholy, nightmarish relics and spirits until he was transferred to another assignment.. Schmidt thought a moment. "Better yet, let her know I'll be coming over in the tube with our results. Print out everything you have on the psychic energy. And get Harrington in here to cover for me while I'm out."

At times like this, Schmidt was grateful for the high-speed underground tube-transport connecting HPARC with the Native American research center at the Crazy Horse Native American Center and College. Few knew that the university housed, in underground labs and libraries, a very thorough research team into Native American paranormal activities and beings. If anyone could help decipher what was happening in the security level, it was the NACAC, and more specifically, Dr. Two Bears.