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      While revising Masks XII before posting on my Web page, I came up with an idea for a character whose story would begin late in that tale and continue in XIII. However, I soon realized it worked better as a stand-alone. So, this story became XIII and what would have been XIII is now XIV.

      Note that this story has much teenage angst, swearing, sexual situations and so forth. Here we go...


Masks XIII: The Other Half


by


Rodford Edmiston





Part One



      "Vic! Do you have to come thundering down the stairs like a herd of elephants?!" said Alissa.

      "Sorry, Mom," said the young man, as he swung 'round the handrail post at the bottom.

      Tall, fit and even a bit handsome, Vic Peltior was obviously in too good a mood to let the mild rebuke affect him much.

      "I'm not sure I like this," said Alissa, eyeing her son as he made ready for a night out with friends.

      "Mom, you trusted me with the same guys when I was sixteen and seventeen. Why not when I'm eighteen?"

      "Oh, let him go, Alissa," said Arnold, grinning. "The party we gave him was pretty sedate, and now he has something else to celebrate as well. Let him have a fling."

      "Mom, it's okay," said Vic, as a car horn began blowing outside. "We have a designated driver!"

      "What?!" said Alissa, as her son ran out the door. "Wait! Vic?!"


       * * *

      The four tired youths rode along through the gathering gloom for several minutes in silence after leaving the parking lot. Then Thomas, in the back on the left, impulsively punched his seatmate Vic in the arm.

      "Congratulations, black belt!"

      "Thanks," said Vic, tiredly, smiling as he absently rubbed his arm. "Thanks for the belated birthday gift, too."

      "Hey, we kept promising you something special to celebrate when you turned eighteen. Figured waiting to give it to you after you passed would just make the day even more special."

      "What if I'd failed?"

      "Consolation prize."

      "Well, I'm glad I passed," said Vic. "I'm also glad I finally got to see a real strip club."

      "Yeah, it's about time," said Carl, in the right front seat, teasing. "Just because you're the youngest of us doesn't mean you can slack off like this."

      "Well, I'm glad you finally got your belt," said Thomas. "I just wish you hadn't had to wait so long."

      "So I had to skip a test, because Dr. Thom doesn't award black belts to anyone younger than eighteen. It's not a big deal. I just had to wait another four months to test again."

      "Yeah," said George, the driver, and the only one who hadn't had anything to drink, "but..."

      There was a horrible impact, just outside where Vic was sitting. They were all belted in, but a hit that hard still jolted them severely. The right side of the car caved in, and Vic's head hit the upholstery, just behind the window, hard enough to briefly knock him out. As a result, he missed the rest of the wreck. The car spun clockwise, the rear swinging into the oncoming lane. A delivery truck coming the other way smashed into the left rear, shearing off much of the trunk and spraying gasoline from the car's ruptured tank. The truck then hit the car which had run the stop sign to hit the boys' car. Those two vehicles quickly dragged to a stop, with much sparking and shrieking of tortured metal.

      George was stunned but still reflexively trying to control the car, not knowing there was so much damage to the rear axle that this was futile. The car went off the road into the wide, deep ditch on the right, rolling onto its right side in a shower of safety glass fragments and bits of metal as it slid to a stop. The occupants were too battered to react, Carl and Thomas as unconscious as Vic, George semi-conscious but hanging from his restraints at an awkward angle. All were injured, the two in the back seat seriously.

      Vic returned partially to consciousness just in time to see the fire start.

       * * *

      "His injuries are serious, but he's currently stable," said the doctor, as he escorted Vic's parents to his room. "Frankly, I'm surprised he wasn't hurt worse. The other three boys were all hurt badly enough they... were gone before the paramedics got there."

      "Those poor boys," said Alissa, quietly. "Their poor parents, too."

      Arnold hugged his wife, briefly but firmly.

      "He hasn't regained consciousness, yet," Doctor Jones continued as they approached the door, "but that's largely due to the medication. Despite a mild concussion there doesn't appear to be any brain damage. His worst injuries are the burns, and those are not life-threatening. We think that, being in the lowest part of the car, he was below most of the heat. Though if that truck driver hadn't had a fire extinguisher...

      "Anyway, he's out of danger for shock, and if we can keep the burns from getting infected - which is unlikely, with us paying attention - he should make a complete recovery."

      Inside, Vic lay motionless, only his arms, shoulders and head above the bedclothes, and those mostly swathed in bandages.

      "Oh, Victor," Alissa whispered, moving quickly to the bed.

      She wanted to hug him, but the bandages prevented that. She settled for kissing the right side of his forehead, which was bare, if red from a mild burn and glistening with ointment.

      "He's going to be all right," said the doctor, firmly. "If he weren't stable we'd have him in intensive care. Frankly, we're surprised at how well he's doing. He's a very strong young man."

      "All that karate practice must be paying off," said Arnold, moving to stand beside Alissa. "Any idea when we can talk to him?"

      "We're amazed at his progress. I guess a lot of that is due to his excellent physical condition." Dr. Jones shrugged. "I don't recommend staying the night, since he'll be out at least the next ten or so hours just from the sedation. However, we're planning on trying to give him some food during lunch tomorrow. If you're here at ten, you should only have a short wait until he comes around."

      "Doctor, I'm a pharmacist," said Arnold. "I know a bit about medicine and a lot about medicines. If you need to discuss something technical about his treatment, don't hold back."

      Dr. Jones nodded, and he and Vic's father talked quietly for a few minutes while the boy's mother held his uninjured hand. Finally, the two men finished.

      "I think we need to get home, now, hon," said Arnold, gently.

      "I hate to leave him..." said Alissa.

      "We'll both be better able to deal with things if we get a good night's sleep," said Arnold, gently. "You heard the doctor; he's not in danger and won't be awake for hours. Let's get home. Joline said she'd come there, anyway."

      "You're right," said Alissa, nodding. "We need to be home when she arrives."

       * * *

      "Chief Portman?" said the uniform, as he caught up to his boss the next morning. "I have the preliminary report on that fatal car crash last night."

      "Show it to me in my office," said the police chief, gesturing down the hall.

      Moments later, he was seated, with the younger man standing beside him.

      "The driver of the car which hit them was drunk," said the officer, putting the folder on his chief's desk, opening it and pointing. "Preliminary blood test showed a blood alcohol well over the legal limit. He had a couple of DUI already. That, combined with the truck driver saying he ran the stop sign..."

      "There's a lot of talk about the boys in the car being drunk," said the Chief. "Even though two of them were underage."

      "The driver of the boys' car was stone sober," said the officer. He turned to the appropriate page and tapped the blood alcohol result with his finger. "Fits the testimony of the people at the strip club; he only drank soda. The survivor was spotted buying some drinks, even though he was under twenty-one. Two of the boys were over twenty-one, the other - the driver - was twenty. He was actually the youngest-looking one; the survivor looked of age. Still, they were all young enough their IDs should have been checked. However, only the survivor was illegally drinking."

      "I'll recommend that Vice check the place," said the Chief. He gave a wry laugh and shook his head. "Ironic, isn't it, that it's legal to enter a strip club if you're eighteen, but you have to be three years older to legally drink."

      "The real irony is, even though they broke the law, they were careful," said the officer, sadly. "Took a friend out to a strip club to celebrate, didn't drink that much or stay too long, had a designated driver, then got hit by a drunk driver. Poor kids."

      "I hear the survivor is doing well," said the Chief. "He's supposed to be conscious, soon. I'll send a detective out to get his statement later today."

       * * *

      Vic woke to pain. Not a great deal of pain, but enough that he groaned as he opened his eyes.

      "Good morning," said his Mother, smiling down at him. "Well, you're up a lot sooner than the doctors thought you'd be. We just barely got settled in."

      "Okay, cliche time," said Vic, hoarsely, as he looked blearily around the small room. "What happened?"

      "Your car was hit by a drunk who ran a stop sign."

      "How are the other guys."

      "They... didn't make it, honey," she said, putting a hand on his least burned arm. "I'm sorry. They all died quickly, so they didn't suffer."

      His reaction startled her. There was grief, yes, but the predominant emotion was rage.

      "I hope they give that bastard the electric chair!"

      "They won't have to," said Arnold, also angry. "He died in the crash."

      Joline, Vic's older sister, joined her mother in putting a comforting hand on her brother.

      "Looks like the Foley family luck we got from Mom carried you through again," she said, softly. She smiled at her little brother. "You look so young laying there. Like you were fifteen again."

      "They think the driver of the delivery truck which was also involved in the accident saved you," said Alissa. "He had a fire extinguisher and put out the fire."

      "Thomas, Carl, George... They're really gone?"

      Now came the grief. Arnold felt a bit uncomfortable, watching his nearly grown son cry, but it was definitely justified. He carefully put a hand on top of his wife's.

      "Anyway," said Arnold, a catch in his own voice, "the doctors say you should be ready to come home in a few days. Your burns are healing nicely, and you're out of danger. You'll heal better at home."

      Especially emotionally, he finished, silently.

       * * *

      Only Vic's Mother came to visit that afternoon. His Father had to work, and his sister was busy calling her friends and teachers at college to let them know where she was, and getting assignments. However, as Alissa was walking down the hall toward her son's room, Dr. Jones headed her off.

      "Could you come in to my office for a bit?" he asked. "I need to talk to you about something before you see Vic."

      "What do you mean you're keeping him longer than planned?" said Alissa, a few minutes later, as she sat across from him. "You said he'd be here less than a week, then could finish recuperating at home. That he was doing fantastic."

      "It's been less than a full day, but he's almost completely healed," said Dr. Jones, looking puzzled. "We were astounded when we checked his injuries this afternoon."

      "Isn't that good, though?"

      "It's not natural," said the doctor, obviously unsettled. "Ironically, if he hadn't healed so quickly we'd indeed be considering sending him home soon. However, there's a good chance he may actually have a power."

      "Isn't that good?" said Alissa, insistently.

      "If his healing is due to a power, yes. However, whether it is or is not due to a power, we need to keep him under observation. I don't mean to worry you, but we have to figure out what's going on in case there are side effects."

      Alissa nodded slowly, not convinced but willing to let the expert persuade her.

      "So, what do I tell him about this?"

      "I don't see any need to tell him anything which might worry him. If you don't think he'd be upset over possibly having a power, go ahead and let him know what I suspect."

      "I'm pretty sure he won't," said Alissa.

      "You know him better than I do, so I leave it to your judgement."

       * * *

      "Good morning!" said Alissa, when she finally entered her son's room. "How are you feeling?"

      "Really good, though bored and a bit worried," said Vic, as he and his Mother hugged.

      "About what?"

      "The police just left. Well, one police officer. He took my statement about the accident. Which I totally don't remember. He didn't like that. Kind'a got accusing. Told me it was illegal for me to be drinking, even though I'm eighteen."

      "Twenty-one is the national legal limit," said Alissa, nodding.

      "Wait... You mean I was drinking illegally?!"

      "Are you telling me you honestly thought you could drink at eighteen?" said Alissa, astonished.

      "Yes," said Vic, in a small voice. He sighed. "Sorry. We all thought it was eighteen."

      He suddenly scowled.

      "That still doesn't explain that cop asking me the same things, over and over."

      "Honey, you had a concussion. The doctors told you you might have memory problems for a while. Maybe he was just making sure you actually remembered and not guessing."

      She sat in the chair beside the bed.

      "Anyway, there's good news and bad news."

      "Oh, please," said Vic, rolling his eyes. "You know how I hate playing that game."

      "Oh, you know you love it!" said his Mother, cheerfully. "Anyway, the doctor says you need to stay here longer than originally planned. The good news is, it's because they think you have powers!"

      "Yeah, I actually figured that out for myself," said Vic, nodding. He smiled a bit. "Cool."

       * * *

      "A power?" said Joline, that afternoon. "You mean like Great-Uncle Huskins had?"

      "He'll like that," said Arnold.

      "Well, they're not sure," said Alissa. "However, given how he's healing and fighting the pain killers and - before - the anesthetic, they're all but."

      "Hmph," said Arnold. "Good thing this isn't a couple of years ago. Though there are still a lot of bigots out there, and some of them are still in positions of authority. We better plan on how to handle it if he does have powers."

       * * *

      "Okay, what did you want to see me about?" said Dr. Jones, as the door to Vic's room closed behind him.

      Three days after the accident the boy was almost completely healed, barely showing any sign of injury and no scars. Even the previous IV puncture sites were now invisible. He was also eating like there were three of him.

      "I think my penis is shrinking," said Vic, blushing.

      "Well, that could be a reaction to some of the medications," said the doctor. "Stand up and take off your gown."

      He put on some exam gloves and sat on a wheeled stool while Vic did that.

      "Okay, pull down your shorts."

      Blushing even harder, the young man did so. Dr. Jones frowned, leaned in, looked and felt.

      "Yeah, there's some definite shrinking, of your penis and scrotum. Pull your shorts back up and turn, slowly."

      Vic obeyed, especially glad about the first part. He'd always been a bit shy about his body. One reason he'd started martial arts was to build himself up.

      "Raise your arms," said Dr. Jones, as Vic turned. "Have you noticed any swelling and tenderness of your nipples?"

      "Yeah."

      "Well, I'll review your medications and see if any of them could be causing this. I don't think it's anything to worry about right now. We're having to keep you on such high doses to have any effect at all, that could explain it. I'll leave a note to take you off the drugs, if you think the remaining discomfort won't be a problem. Keep tabs on things, though, and let me know if the symptoms persist."








Part Two



      Vic woke to a bladder uncomfortably full. He slid from under the covers and staggered into the bathroom, still mostly asleep. That changed when Vic flipped on the light.

      The first thing which caught Vic's attention was the twin mounds, barely muffled by the thin hospital gown. Vic stared at the mirror over the sink, looked down, cupped those breasts which should not have been there, then looked back at the mirror.

      Vic's hair was unchanged from before bedtime, but the face was distinctly feminine. Dreading what he would find but knowing he had to look, Vic peeled off the gown. Then whimpered at the perky pair of breasts thus revealed. Trembling, Vic pulled out the waistband and looked inside.

      "Oooooh, fuck..." said Vic, in a distinctly feminine voice.

      The situation was so bizarre it had an unreal air about it. Vic felt disoriented, disconnected, but the stark light of the bathroom left no doubt as to what had happened. Vic whimpered, and felt... something release inside, and saw a few golden drops appear.

      "Shit!" Vic hissed.

      Quickly, she - definitely she - spun around, yanked her shorts down and dropped onto the seat. Vic gave a little gasp of relief as the pressure faded. Once the flow stopped, Vic sat numbly on the toilet for a long while, too stunned to even think. Finally, she stirred.

      "Reaction to medication my currently shapely ass!" Vic muttered. She grabbed the alert cord.

       * * *

      Hours later, Vic's room was still in an uproar. Some people had accepted the situation immediately. Others still weren't sure they weren't being pranked.

      "Yes, for the fifteenth time, I really am Victor Peltior!"

      "Well, this is unprecedented," said Dr. Jones, as he had repeatedly since being called in early from his home.

      "Has anyone called my parents, yet?" said Vic, voice a bit shrill.

      "What? Oh, yes; we need to do that, now that I'm convinced you're you," said Dr. Jones.

      "Who else would I be?!"

       * * *

      "Oh, my..." said Alissa, stunned when she saw Vic. "Your sister and I thought you looked younger, but you must have looked more feminine."

      "Whoa, bro," said Joline, just as affected. "What happened?"

      "I turned into a girl, is what happened!" said Vic, angrily. "I thought stuff like this only happened in anime!"

      "That's what you get for watching so much of that stuff," said Joline.

      "Not funny. Not funny at all."

      "Sorry. Uhm, do the doctors know..."

      "Well, obviously, it's due to a power. They just don't know which. Or why."

      "So... if you could turn it off..." said Alissa.

      "Some powers do cause permanent physical changes," said Joline, doubtfully. "We studied it in one of my classes. Also the problems that can cause. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you could be stuck like that, bro."

      "Oh, come on! I can't be stuck like this! I'm graduating later this month!"

      Joline chewed her bottom lip and shifted uncomfortably. She knew this was a case where there might not be a cure. Before she could speak, though, there was a knock on the door. Dr. Jones then entered.

      "Uhm, good morning," he said, uncertainly. "How are you feeling?"

      "Like I'm the wrong gender," said Vic, angrily. "What's going on?!"

      "We're still checking into the matter. The reason I wanted to speak with you is that we have contacted an expert on the medical complications of powers. Dr. Nathan Harvest. If you agree, we'll call him back and arrange transportation and lodging."

      "Oh, definitely," said Alissa.

      All three of the Peltior women nodded emphatically.

      "Good. Are there any questions in the meantime?"

      "Why do I look younger?" said Vic, plaintively. "Girls mature earlier. I should look older."

      "If you do have some power-related recovery working to heal you, it could have healed you to an optimum physiological age," said Dr. Jones, trying to sound like he knew what he was talking about.

      He wasn't very convincing.

      "When will this specialist get here?" said Vic, practically growling.

      "Dr. Harvest should arrive on the redeye late tonight," said Dr. Jones. "Uh, if I call him as soon as I leave here, I mean. He's standing by."

      "Another night like this," said Vic, tears starting to form.

       * * *

      The whole family - along with Dr. Jones - was present the next day at one-thirty when Dr. Harvest arrived. Despite his precipitous journey, he was neat in appearance and brisk in personality. After introductions were made he set right to work. First, he took an extensive medical history, not just of Vic but of Joline and their parents. He asked several questions which seemed odd, which turned out to be intended to ferret out signs of powers in any of them, including pre-accident Vic. He also asked about any incidence of powers further back in the family line. Upon hearing the information about Arnold's uncle he became very excited.

      "I wonder... If pyrokinesis runs in the family, that would explain why fire awakened Vic's powers... but in that case, why were the burns so bad? Or did he get his injuries before the powers activated? That could be why they weren't worse..."

      Dr. Harvest gave the other three Peltiors questionnaires to complete, then shooed everyone out except for a nurse and a female technician. He proceeded to give Vic a thorough exam. A very thorough exam.

      "I have no conclusions, yet," he said later, to the assembled Peltior family and Dr. Jones. "Preliminary results show Victor is a healthy young woman of an apparent age of about sixteen. The pelvic exam was normal, and the ultrasound showed no internal abnormalities."

      "All of this is abnormal!" said Vic, gesturing at herself.

      "Medically normal," said Harvest, with emphasis. "However, considering the larger situation, there are several things which are definitely odd. Besides the gender change, Victor has lost a significant amount of weight. This despite eating a huge amount the past few days. The blood type is also different. I'm sure you've noticed that she no longer looks much like the photo you showed me. I'll know more about that once the DNA test results come back. However, it would help if you could examine old family photos and see if she currently resembles any of her ancestors."

      "How common is it for powers to cause a permanent physical change?" said Joline.

      "Very rare. The fact that Vic's mass changed suggests this is being caused by some sort of active power effect. If so, and we can figure out what the power is and how it works, simply stopping it working will - well, should - return her to normal.

      "For now, though, my recommendation is for Vic to go home and try to resume normal activities. You should schedule a follow-up visit with Dr. Jones in two weeks. By then I should have finished my preliminary analysis and consulted with some other experts, and given him my findings."

      "You're just letting him go?!" said Arnold.

      "Frankly, I can't find any reason to keep Vic here," said Dr. Harvest, a bit embarrassed. "She's completely healed and perfectly healthy. If you're still concerned you should find another specialist in powers complications and get a second opinion. The field is still very young and no one person knows all of it. Keeping Vic here is just running up your bill for no reason."

      "I'm afraid your health insurance won't pay for calling in another specialist," said Dr. Jones, also apologetic. "Or pay to keep someone not actually ill or injured here."

      "First you say he can go home early," said Alissa, in slowly rising pitch and volume, "then you say you need to keep him, now you say take him home!"

      "I'm sorry," said Dr. Jones, a bit timidly. "We just don't know what else to do."

       * * *

      "I'll be so glad to get back home," said Vic, tiredly, as they drove along. "All this still seems unreal. Maybe, back in familiar surroundings, I'll be able to get my head around it."

      "Familiar activities will also help," said Joline. "I doubt you're ready to go out with your friends, yet, but you should be able to find plenty of familiar stuff to do around the house."

      "You're favorite show is on tonight, remember?" said Alissa, suddenly. "Esper Jack."

      "Mom, I like that show, but it's never been my favorite," said Vic, with a tired sigh.

      "Of course it is," said Alissa, nodding cheerfully. "You always watch it."

      However, the first thing which happened when they opened the door drove home the changes Vic had experienced. Coco, the family dog greeted everyone with her typical excitement... except for Vic, whom she treated with polite curiosity. However, once she got a good sniff, she seemed confused.

      "She's not sure who you are," said Joline. "Good thing you're wearing your old clothes."

      "Great," said Vic, voice choking. "Even the dog can't recognize me."

      She suddenly started sobbing. The retriever and parents stood around in confusion.

      "I'll handle this," said Joline, softly, as she ushered Vic away.

      She guided her sibling upstairs into Vic's room, sat her on the bed and closed the door.

      "Go ahead," she said, handing over a box of tissues from Vic's desk. "Get it out of your system."

      "I hate this," said Vic, hiccuping through tears. She blew her nose, loudly.

      "You've had a huge shock. You probably need a good cry."

      Joline turned Vic's desk chair around and sat patiently, waiting for her sister to finish. This took a while, but she finally ran dry. Then came a long silence.

      "I hate that you're missing classes over me," said Vic, finally.

      "Actually, I plan to use you for extra credit," said her sister, with a mischievous grin. "There's a required lab for one of my psych courses this semester, and one of the options is Gender Roles In Society: Nature vs. Nurture."

      "You've got to be kidding me," said Vic, dismayed.

      "I'd pretty much already decided on that, actually," said Joline. She laughed. "You know I'm a bit of a tomboy."

      "You're going to be asking me all sorts of intimate, awkward questions, aren't you?"

      "Just think of it as payment for me helping you adjust to the concave side of life."

       * * *

      Joline didn't leave Vic alone until the younger sibling recovered enough to satisfy her.

      "Guess I should shower, now," said Vic, dreading that procedure.

      "Why don't you change into your workout clothes and get some exercise, first," said Joline. "That's another routine which is important to you. Also, the endorphins that generates should help your mood."

      "That actually sounds like a good idea." Vic grimaced. "Oh, goody. I get to see how much strength I've lost."

      Joline started to rise, but Vic caught her arm.

      "Please stay while I change," she said, softly. "Keep... keep talking with me. It'll help keep my mind off... things."

      "Sure," said her sister, smiling and patting Vic's hand on her arm.

       * * *

      Vic finished setting up the weights and lay down on the bench. With a resigned sigh, she pushed up. Then gave a little involuntary yelp as the bar jumped off the stand. Startled, she lowered it back down, got up and checked the weight. It was still her - or his - usual amount.

      "Okay, maybe I also got superhuman strength," she said, feeling a bit disconnected from reality. "That would be a nice compensation for the sex change. Let's double the weight and see."

      More effort was definitely required this time, but she still lifted the weight with little trouble. Having a real Unbreakable moment, Vic decided to pile on all the weights. She lay on the bench and pushed up. The bar resisted a bit, then lifted with an ominous creak.

      "Holy crap!" said Vic, her voice strained.

      Realizing her arms were trembling, she carefully lowered the bar back onto the stand. She sat up, spun around and double-checked the weights. The amount was still a hundred twenty kilos.

      "I'm strong," she said, awed. "Not... superhumanly strong, but... really strong."








Part Three



      The workout that afternoon was long and vigorous. Nothing Vic did seemed superhuman, but she could now do more, faster and for longer. She was so stunned when she finally tired and decided to get clean she was actually standing naked in the basement shower stall before remembering she was female.

      Vic gave a thoughtful report on her workout discoveries at supper.

      "Interesting," said Joline, looking thoughtful. She suddenly grinned, and looked at her sister. "So, how was your first shower as a girl?"

      "Joline..." said Arnold, rolling his eyes.

      "Uncomfortable," said Vic, blushing. "There are certain places a gal shouldn't aim a shower spray."

      "Well, that depends on why you're aiming it there," said Joline, smirking.

      "Joline!"

      The next day was Saturday, so the whole family stayed up late, watching TV, talking and eating too much junk food. Eventually, though, came time for bed.

      Vic's dreams that night were... weird. Some had a distinct sexual tint. Others simply involved remembering things in a scrambled sequence. None were clearly remembered in the morning, as was usual with Vic's dreams.

       * * *

      "So... Did you masturbate yesterday, after your workout?" asked Joline.

      They were again in Vic's room, door closed and locked, talking quietly about things which before recent events Vic would never have thought of talking with his sister about.

      "I... kind'a felt myself up," said Vic, shifting uncomfortably on the bedspread. "It felt good, but..."

      "It's okay. You definitely don't want to rush into that. If you want some pointers just ask."

      "Thanks," said Vic, blushing all over. She sighed and looked down at her still unfamiliar form. "I suppose I need new clothes."

      "Don't jump the gun. If this is power related, it could be shapeshifting expressing itself." Joline smirked at her sister. "You had just come from a strip club. Maybe you were thinking about girls when your powers activated. Stop thinking about girls and you'll stop being one. Oh, wait; you're really a boy inside. You'll never stop thinking about girls."

      Vic nodded absently, barely paying attention to Joline and not noticing her teasing. Her sister had a long interest with supers and powers, partly due to their great-uncle, who had used his flame powers in Korea. There had been a few other examples of powers in their Dad's family, and even hints of a couple in Mom's. Vic hadn't paid that much attention - though during the fuss with arresting supers a while back that had changed for a while. She figured that now maybe she should.

      "Remember, Dr. Harvest suggested we have your hearing and eyesight checked. Also, take your measurements and keep track of them. Including your weight."

      Vic didn't really see the point, but knew from long experience that once Joline started rolling it was either go along for the ride or get flattened.

      "What else could I have? Powers, I mean."

      "Okay, we know you have quick healing - maybe regeneration - and you're very strong and fit, and you changed shape. What else have you noticed?"

      "Uhm, well, nothing, actually," said Vic, a bit startled. "Isn't that enough?"

      "Hearing strange sounds?" said Joline, sticking out a thumb as if counting something.

      "No," said Vic, shaking her head.

      "Any other unusual sensations? Scents, sights..."

      "Yeah," said Vic, in sudden realization. "I kept thinking the hospital stank, and it did... but even in the car and here, things smell more."

      "Heightened senses usually come as a package, though women also - on average - have a keener sense of smell. Have you heard people talking when you shouldn't, or seen things more clearly at a distance than usual, or maybe have better dark vision?"

      "Okay, I may be seeing in the dark better than before," said Vic, doubtfully. "I mean, I haven't really paid much attention, but thinking back, I remember that I almost didn't turn on the bathroom light at the hospital, there was so much light leaking under the room's hallway door."

      "Hold on," said Joline, moving to Vic's computer. "I think I remember the search... Yeah, put those fancy headphones of yours on. You like to brag about the wide range and good fidelity they have; let's do a quick hearing check."

      Vic obeyed, and Joline started the test. Not long after that, Vic took them off, looking a bit stunned.

      "Everything," she said. "I could hear every tone."

      "Okay, that's a hard data point," said Joline, thoughtfully. "We'll have to test for ultrasonic later. Now, strip to your underwear and let's get your measurements."

      "Underwear in this case being a pair of jockeys," said Vic, blushing as she pulled off her clothing.

      Joline used a cloth tape to measure various parts of Vic's body, noting the numbers each time. She was quick and businesslike, which helped reduce Vic's embarrassment at being nearly naked in front of her sister. Not to mention her body's reaction to the cool air and the touch of the tape on certain parts.

      "Yeah, you're a full C-cup," said Joline, checking a chart. She snickered. "Or should I say a firm C-cup."

      "Har, har," said Vic, shivering a bit and wrapping her arms around herself.

      "I think I'm envious," said Joline, a bit wistfully, as she put away her tape measure.

      "Why? You're a D-cup. I've heard you brag about it."

      "Yeah, but you're so... perky."

      "I don't want to be perky," said Vic, feeling tears well up.

      "Hey, hey," said her sister, moving in to hug her gently. "I'm sorry you're going through this. Just remember, you've got me and Mom and Dad to help."

      "Th-thanks," said Vic, still sobbing but actually feeling better. She pulled away a bit, until Joline's hands were on her shoulders. She wiped her eyes and sighed. "Jeez, I hate this weepy, girly stuff."

      "You wanna get smacked?" said Vic's sister, raising an eyebrow.

      "I know it's a cliche, but... ever since I changed I just..."

      "Gee, you don't think all this emotional stuff could be due to having a traumatic car wreck and undergoing an unexpected physical transformation, do you?" said Joline.

      "Okay, okay, point. It's just... I feel different. Emotionally, I mean."

      Joline squeezed Vic's shoulders, suddenly serious.

      "I'm not belittling the hormones. Believe me. I'm just saying if you go into this expecting the stereotypes to be true, you'll live down to them."

      "Another point."

      Vic sighed, and sat on the bed. She winced.

      "Okay, I need a shirt. Having these things bouncing around is just too distracting."

      She looked up to see Joline smirking.

      "I was waiting for you to realize you needed to put more on."

      One shirt later, Vic was feeling much more comfortable.

      "I know I said, earlier, that it's too soon to think about new clothes," said her sister, thoughtfully. "However, I also think you need at least a few basic things. Like a couple of bras."

      "Bras," said Vic, sourly. "I was just getting good at taking them off. Now I gotta put 'em on."

      "Wait, what?!" said Joline, in mock surprise. "My little brother was taking bras off?!"

      "Quit it," said Vic, though she was grinning.

      "Tell me you were still a virgin!"

      "You know good and well when I lost it," said Vic, mock sternly. "You're the one who set me up with her. Shirley Kale."

      She sighed, and the levity evaporated.

      "I wasn't a Lothario, but in the couple of years I did have sex several times. Now I may never be with a girl again..."

      "Don't be so sure," said Joline, playfully. "I know some local lesbians who would likely be interested."

      "How would you know any lesbians?"

      "For one thing, they hit on me," said Joline, a bit smugly. "Oh, don't worry. They're polite. Once I made it clear I was straight they stopped. A couple are still friends."

      She examined her sister for a moment.

      "Are you still interested in girls?"

      "Yeah," said Vic, after a moment. She nodded. "I am. I sure am glad that didn't change."

      Joline left unsaid her suspicion it might not stay unchanged.

       * * *

      Shopping the next day was a painful experience, physically as well as emotionally. Joline volunteered to help Vic obtain a basic feminine wardrobe, which Vic grudgingly acknowledged as necessary. Unfortunately, their Mother insisted on going along.

      "No dresses," said Vic, firmly. "No. No. No."

      She was wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt, just a bit warm for the cool Spring day. Underneath she had on only a pair of her sister's panties, which were a bit loose on Vic. Her feet were still close enough to the previous size that she could manage a pair of her old athletic shoes with two thick pairs of socks.

      "She's right," said Joline, when their Mother looked determined. "Not only is it too much to inflict on her right now, but if this is temporary neither you nor I could wear them. Let's stick to slacks and blouses, and proper underwear."

      Alissa reluctantly agreed. However, once they were actually in the first store she promptly forgot that and repeatedly recommended skirts. Her daughters ignored her, pointedly.

      Several pairs of panties and bras later, Vic was finally ready to consider outer clothes.

      "I have to admit," she said quietly to Joline, "it's a lot more comfortable with these things secured."

      After settling on the underwear the siblings agreed on three pair of plain slacks and several shirts - not blouses - with a proper cut. Their Mother added another pair of slacks, two blouses and a sweater.

      "Now for the shoes..." said Vic, tiredly, as she looked down at her scuffed, old sneakers.

      Again, it was a battle to keep their Mother from going too far into the feminine spectrum on footwear. They settled for a pair of athletic shoes and a pair of nurse's shoes.

      "Odd how your feet are now wider in proportion than before," said Alissa, puzzled. "In fact, they're almost as wide now as then, but distinctly shorter."

      "Okay," said Joline, "I know this won't be pleasant for you, but we need to get you some special equipment and supplies at the drug store."

      "Feminine hygiene products," said Vic, even more tiredly.

      "Your sister and I will have to give you a crash course tonight," said her Mother, nodding firmly.








Part Four


      "I got the weirdest call, a few minutes ago," said Arnold, when they got home, loaded down with bags. "I'm not even sure it was for here. The person asked to speak to 'the murderer of those fine boys' then insulted me and hung up when I told her she had the wrong number."

      "Her?" said Alissa.

      "Sounded like an adult woman. She might have been drunk."

      Just then the phone rang.

      "I'll get it," said Alissa, sternly. She answered, listened for a moment, then told the caller in an icy voice: "You listen to me, Mabel Thompson! Yes, of course I know who you are! You call here with this nonsense again and I'll have the law on you!"

      She slammed the phone down and gave it a curt nod.

      "Mabel Thompson?" said Arnold, obviously confused.

      "Yes. Worst busybody on this side of town. Always trying to knock other people down."

      "How did you know it was her?"

      "Arnold, how long have we had caller ID?"

      "We have caller ID?" said the girls' father, startled.

      Alissa rolled her eyes and turned to head for the kitchen. Besides clothes for Vic - and a few for Joline - they had also bought some groceries. The rest of the family trailed after Alissa to help her put those away.

      "That was weird," said Vic, as she and Joline entered her room a few minutes later. "The call, I mean. I feel bad enough about my friends dying, while I get powers. Why would someone accuse me of causing the accident? It doesn't make any sense!"

      "Well, I'm afraid you can expect more of it," said Joline, sympathetically. "I've had several people stop me in just the few days I've been here and ask weird questions, even make veiled accusations. Someone is spreading a rumor that you were driving the car, and drunk, and caused the accident. The fact you didn't go to any of the funerals is seen as proof of your shame over causing the deaths."

      "What?!" said Vic, voice a shriek.

      "I told them you were A) a passenger in George Finger's car, that B) the police said the other driver was at fault and C) you were in the hospital with serious injuries during the funerals."

      "Well, technically, by then I was mostly healed, but still under doctor's orders to stay in the hospital." Vic sighed and dropped onto the bed, the bags she carried sliding off her arms onto the floor. "I really wish I could have gone to the funerals. Those guys were my friends. I just..."

      "Are you going to start crying again?"

      "No!" said Vic, who actually had been tearing up.

      "Good. We've got a lot to do tonight."

      "Wait. Did any of those people asking about me know I turned into a girl?"

      "Some did. Some didn't. I didn't bother enlightening members of the latter group. Now, get your clothes off. I'm going to show you the basics of female underwear."

      "Joy..." said Vic, sighing and sitting up to unbutton her shirt.

      "So, you updated your JiveJournal and FacePalm profiles, yet?" said Joline, as she pulled the reluctant Vic onto her feet.

      "No," said Vic, dumping her shirt. "I'm dreading that. Actually, I'm not sure how to do that. Set up a new account, sure, but I've never changed either of those before."

      "You're stalling," said Joline, unsympathetically, as she tugged and examined.

      "You betcha'."

      "You're stuck in this house until Monday. Might as well get started."

      "Great," said Vic. "Do I just change my gender and icon and ignore the questions? Or do I write out a long, torturous tale of my involuntary sex change?"

      "Make a project of it. Write out an explanation, like a school assignment. Okay, that bra is now fitted properly. Here's how you do it..."

       * * *

      That evening - while Vic was online, catching both herself and others up on recent events - some of her friends dropped by for the first time since the accident and transformation.

      "Vic!" Alissa called out. "Teddy, Linda, Julian and Jillian are here!"

      Ted, Linda and the twins had been family friends since Vic was able to remember. They were all part of an informal anime club with Vic, Joline and a few others, and often traded DVDs. Vic dreaded seeing them, now, but figured she had to start somewhere. She swallowed nervously, checked to make sure her clothing - especially the bra - was properly arranged, and left her room.

      Vic came down the stairs and tentatively entered the family room, stopping just inside the wide doorway. There was a sudden, collective silence.

      "Vic?" said Julian, just as tentatively. "My God... It's true!"

      "I told you so," said Jillian, rolling her eyes.

      "But this sort of thing only happens in anime!"

      I'm going to hit him, thought Vic.

      "Don't be shy," said her Mother, waving her in.

      Vic timidly walked over to the facing couches and coffee table, acutely aware of the new sway to her hips, the slight bounce of her breasts, even with the bra. She sat between her sister and Mother, knees together and hands folded in her lap, facing their visitors.

      "You don't even look much like Vic," said Julian, blurting out what all of the guests were thinking.

      "Tell me about it," said Vic, sourly. "I've been checking into updating my driver's license, and even with notarized statements from doctors and family, they do a full background check. They told me to mail in the info and not even bother going to their office until they call me. Which could take weeks."

      "Well, we could drive you around!" said Linda, a bit too cheerfully.

      "Thanks, Lin," said Vic, with a forced smile.

      "So, uh, what's it like?" said Julian. "Being a girl."

      "Ask them," said Vic, indicating Joline, her Mother, Linda and Jillian. "They've been girls longer."

      Another uncomfortable silence followed.

      "So, did you bring the homework Vic is supposed to catch up on?" said Alissa, smoothly.

      "Oh, not just homework," said Jillian, with a malicious grin. "Class notes, too."

      One reason for this particular assortment of friends to stop by was that between them they covered all of Vic's classes.

      "Thank you for bringing all this," said Vic, quietly, as they put the materials on the coffee table. "I guess I'll try to catch up tomorrow and get back to school Monday."

      "About that..." said Jillian, looking very uncomfortable. "You can expect a lot of trouble. Donald Sonders is spreading rumors about you. Weird rumors. Not just that you caused the accident, but that you used your powers to... Well, he's claiming that you made a pass at George and when he rejected you, you killed him and all witnesses."

      "I don't get it," said Vic, too astounded to be angry or outraged. "Sonders didn't even like George. Why use the excuse of defending him to slander me?!"

      "Like he needs an excuse," said Julian, rolling his eyes. "This gives him a chance to pretend to be magnanimous towards a dead football rival, while getting revenge on a nerd who cheated in a fight."

      "When did you cheat in a fight?!" said Alissa, eyeing Vic with surprise.

      "I didn't. It wasn't even a real fight. He decided for reasons known only to him to just walk up and punch me. I spun out of the way by reflex, and he put a dent in my locker door. He also broke two knuckles. I never even touched him."

      "Well, you should have reported that!"

      "Wouldn't have done any good. Even if they'd believed me over him, I couldn't 'prove' he meant to hurt me."

      "Well, I've got a good mind to..."

      "Mom, please!" said Vic, a little too loudly. She took a deep breath. "This was six months ago. It's not important."

      "It is if he's using you're beating him as an excuse to make trouble for you!"

      "I didn't beat him!"

      "Yeah," said Ted. "He beat himself. Like usual."

      "What do you mean by that?" said Joline, in an unnervingly predatory fashion.

      "He's one of those loudmouth, egotistical jocks who go out of their way to cause trouble for everyone," said Julian. "Especially for himself. He's not even our best jock, though he acts like he's a superstar. He's been suspended several times, for stuff he's done at school and in town. Even been arrested. He never seems to learn."

      "Anyway," said Linda, trying to change the subject, "if you need any help with the assignments just let me know."

      "Me, too!" said Ted, nodding.

      The twins also offered their help.

      "Thanks, guys," said Vic, a catch in her voice. "That really means a lot to me."

      "Well, if you don't mind my asking," said Linda, cautiously, "what changed besides your appearance? Oh; and getting powers."

      "Power. They think regeneration - or maybe just fast healing - is all I got."

      "Yes, but what else changed?"

      "It's funny," said Vic, thoughtfully. "Not much else changed. Most of the foods and drinks I used to like I still do. There are a few I don't like any more, but no old favorites I really hate. I also like a few things I was indifferent about before, now, but nothing I did hate. I like the same music, the same TV shows... it's weird."

      "The same gender?" said Linda, almost hopefully.

      "Uh, yeah," said Vic, blushing.

      At that moment, the phone rang.

      "Oh, let your father get it," said Alissa, as Joline rose and headed for the extension phone in the corner.

      "Dear, the caller ID says it's Mabel Thompson again!"

      "I'll handle it," said Joline, loudly, with an evil grin. She lifted the receiver to her ear and dramatically proclaimed "'Curfew must not ring tonight!'"

      They could hear the click across the room as the caller hung up.

      "Works every time," she said, smugly, as she put the handset back in its cradle.

       * * *

      "Now that was interesting," said Joline, later, in Vic's room.

      "What?" said Vic, tiredly flopping onto the bed.

      "Their varying reactions. Especially Linda's. I'd swear she was actually eager to hear that you still like girls."

      "I'm pretty sure she's not a lesbian," said Vic, wondering what her sister was getting at.

      Before Joline could answer, Vic shifted uncomfortably. After trying and failing to either get comfortable or ignore the discomfort, she sighed, sat up and began unbuttoning her shirt.

      "I didn't say that she was. I remember she was fascinated with Halfway Ranma and some of the other anime you have which feature gender change. At the very least, she may have a mild fetish."

      "Maybe," said Vic, absently, as she unhooked her bra and pulled it off. "Damn, these things are a pain."

      She scratched a few places, then began rubbing her breasts.

      "Keep that up, and you'll go blind," said Joline, deadpan.

      "Huh?" said Vic. "Oh. No, it's not like that! It's like when you have too-tight shoes on and finally get them off. I'm just getting the circulation back in 'em."

      "Oh, you've definitely improved the circulation," said Joline, smirking.

      Vic glared at her, but stopped. She pulled her shirt back on, but left it unbuttoned.

      "Just between you and me, I'm not sure I should even go back to school."

      "I do think Monday is too soon," said Joline. "Maybe next Monday."

      "Yeah, but Mom and Dad are pressuring me to 'get back into the routine.'"

      "That approach does have its advantages, but I think getting back into the routine of family life for a few days would be better for you."

      "Fine. You convince them, then."








Part Five


      "Now that you're feeling better, your Mother and I have been discussing your punishement."

      "Punishement," said Vic, blankly.

      Her parents had called her down to the family room and sat her on one side of the coffee table, while they sat on the other. Vic was baffled, even after hearing her father say this still confused.

      "For drinking and going to a strip club."

      Vic was stunned.

      "I lost three friends and turned into a girl. Isn't that punishement enough?"

      "That was misfortune, not discipline."

      Vic scowled, but held her tongue.

      Arnold put his hand on Alissa's arm and gave Vic a stern look.

      "We have decided... that you will stay home for the next week."

      "Wait, what?!" said Vic suspiciously. She glared back and forth between them. "You both know very well I don't feel ready to go to school or out with friends."

      "Again, that's misfortune, not discipline," said her father, innocently.

      Vic suddenly started laughing. She jumped up, moved around the coffee table and hugged both of them.

      "I love you two so much..."

       * * *

      The week actually passed quickly. Various of Vic's friends came by with school assignments, and to visit. By the next weekend, Vic was feeling much more confident, and looking forward to the "punishment" ending. Next Monday, Alissa dropped Vic off at school on her way to work.

      Vic looked up at the entrance as her Mother drove away, sighed, and walked up the front steps. Several of her friends were at the doors, waving her on.

      Alissa had been at work less than an hour when she got a call from her son-turned-daughter to come pick her up.

      "What happened?!"

      "They said I wasn't a student there. Told me to go home."

      "I'll be right there!"

      She considerably exceeded several speed limits, arriving a very short time later. Vic was standing outside the front of the school, looking forlorn, still holding her cell phone, book bag on the walk beside her.

      "You get in the car and wait..."

      "Mom, please," said Vic, holding up a hand. "Just... take me home. You can get Medieval on them later."

      "All right, dear," said Alissa, her anger evaporating. "Let's go home."

       * * *

      "Maybe when your license gets in..." Joline offered hopefully.

      "Damn powers," said Vic, in a loud mutter, from where she lay on her bed. "You'd think I'd get something fire-based, given family history, but noooo. We still don't know for sure exactly what I can do."

      "They saved your life," said Joline, deciding to accept the change in subject. "With either regeneration or rapid healing you'll be healthy and fit for the rest of it, too."

      "Why do I look different?" said Vic, throwing her arms wide across the covers. "My roots are even coming in darker!"

      "Genotype vs. phenotype?" said Joline, frowning. "Epigenetics is a funny field. So many things are determined by non-genetic factors. Even identical twins - essentially clones of each other - have different finger prints."

      "So... My different appearance could be my body resetting to a base state? Unaffected by environmental factors?"

      "I really don't know enough about biology to even know what terms to use," said Joline, in an uncomfortable confession. "Or what to search for."

      "Wow," said Vic, shuddering and rubbing her arms. "I could have completely lost my memory... Everything!"

      "Normal healing doesn't erase memories," said Joline, firmly. "Why should super healing?"

      "Point," said Vic. "Since it didn't happen yet, I'm guessing it's not going to happen, either."

      "So... what are your plans?"

      "Dad has already spoke with the family attorney," said Vic. "He says we've got solid grounds for a discrimination suit. All we have to do is prove I'm Victor Peltior. That may take a while, but even without the new driver's license it shouldn't be all the difficult."

       * * *

      At supper that night they deliberately avoided why Vic wasn't back in school yet. However, they did discuss how she would catch up, and whether she might need to repeat all or part of her senior year.

      "That shouldn't be too hard," said Joline. "Vic would likely do better, the second time around. Not just because the material would be familiar, either."

      "Oh?" said Arnold, puzzled.

      "Thanks to Joline evaluating me for her paper, I've learned that I'm smarter than before," said Vic. "My IQ is up by about fifteen points. My memory is better, too."

      "At a guess, all this comes from the healing," said Joline, repeating for their parents what she had speculated about with Vic earlier. "All the little damages we accumulate, from conception on, are corrected."

      "Speaking of missing classes, how much longer are you staying?" said Arnold.

      "Just until the end of the week," said Joline, with a sigh. She rubbed her sister's head. "Sorry, Bro."

      "You were here when I needed you," said Vic, softly.

      "So, you gonna let your hair grow out, or keep it short and go butch?"

      "Joline!" said Arnold.

      "I think I'll just skip haircuts until I decide it's long enough."

       * * *

      Vic missed the rest of the school year, and graduation. That is, she did not graduate. She did attend - with her parents - sitting in the audience and cheering her friends on. Only her friends seemed to recognize her. If anyone else wondered who she was, the excitement and confusion of the event prevented them from pursuing the matter.

       * * *

      "Come on, celebrate!" said Julian. "You get to go back to school!"

      "While the rest of you go to college or work," said Vic, with a sigh.

      She shook her head, getting her hair behind her shoulders, and looked around the burger joint. Not just at her nearly dozen friends but the others there as well. The courts had finally come through, less than a week before the new school year began. Most of those here were having one last fling before the start of high school. Vic knew some of them, and would soon be in class with them.

      "Hey, I never heard," said Ted. "What was the decision?"

      "The judge ruled that I must be treated the same as any other female student," said Vic, sourly. "I have really mixed feelings about that."

      "I heard you have to take the whole year over, though," said Jillian, patting her hand.

      "Yeah. It was a negotiated settlement. Which means nobody is satisfied. I think the school board deliberately stalled long enough that I couldn't make up what I missed this Summer."

      "Speaking of going back to school," said Linda, "did you ever go back to karate class?"

      "No. I... there's just too many memories, there. I did stop by and see Dr. Thom, between classes. He said he understood. I think he was relieved I wouldn't be coming back."

      "Why?" said Julian, startled.

      "I think he didn't want to have a super in class with unpowered folks."

      "Yeah," said Ted, nodding. "Too many liability problems."

      "I've been practicing on my own, but there's only so much you can do by yourself."

      "You'll be able to get some sports practice once school starts," said Ted.

      "I'm dreading gym," said Vic, shuddering.

      "From what I've heard about boys' gym, you shouldn't have any serious problems with the girls' side," said Linda. "Besides, I'll be there, and a few other girls you know."

      It took some work, but they managed to improve Vic's mood by the time they were ready to leave. She was actually feeling pretty good as they headed out. Naturally, someone just had to come along to ruin the fragile mood.

      As they walked through the parking lot towards their cars, a group of husky young men approached. Vic and his friends were instantly on the alert, through years of sometimes painful experience. Not just because of what the newcomers were, but because they looked like they meant business. Someone was going to get hurt that night; they were going to make certain of that. The group of Vic's friends reflexively veered to the right, but that only caught them against a wall when the jocks altered course to head them off.

      The jocks moved between the others and Vic, backing her against the wall while moving them away. Some of those held back protested, but were shoved and threatened by the jocks. Several began dialing 911 on their cell phones. The jocks quickly grabbed those and smashed them, which was just about the worst thing they could have done for their purposes. Tim Horton threw a punch, and was quickly knocked to the ground and kicked unconscious.

      The situation was very serious. Vic took a defense position, more worried about her friends than herself. The leader - Chad Bremerton, who was the chief football player now that Donald Sonders had gone pro - approached Vic. He scowled unpleasantly, while repeatedly smacking his fist into his palm.

      "There's no way you're showering with my girl!" said Chad.

      He abruptly swung. Big, roundhouse punch, a haymaker. Vic simply pivoted out of the way. Chad overshot and nearly fell. What stopped him was his fist hitting the brick wall.

      Vic took advantage of that distraction by delivering a left hook punch to Chad's solar plexus. He dropped. There was a moment of stunned silence. Then the mob was on her, nearly all the jocks trying to dogpile her, ignoring her friends. Which was fine with Vic.

      Vic felt oddly calm, though she was also angry. Very angry. In spite of this she held back. She deliberately avoided lethal strikes, and only used a few moves which broke bones or dislocated joints. After several frantic seconds, she stood alone, surround by a pile of moaning jocks. She had the beginning of a black eye, and was bleeding from the nose and mouth, and her clothes were torn, but she was obviously very much the victor. The few jocks still herding her friends stared for a moment, then ran.

      "Idiots," she said, spitting blood onto a couple of the fallen jocks. "Even if you'd beaten me, some of those calls went through. Having a 911 call interrupted just means they put a higher priority on it."









Part Six


      "Well, I made the paper," said Vic, with a sigh her sister clearly heard over the phone connection.

      "I saw it on the local morning news as I was getting ready for class, then bought a paper to read more. Not exactly in your favor, but not overly critical. Of anyone, unfortunately."

      "I'm just glad there were so many witnesses besides those in our group," said Vic. "Some of them even managed to record part of what happened. Including the jocks destroying my friends' phones when they called for help or tried to record things, themselves."

      "I can't believe some of their attorneys claimed you started it."

      "In their minds, I did," said Vic, anger in her voice. "I turned into a girl and killed Thomas, Carl and George. Oh, and then I had the nerve to insist the school actually treat me fairly."

      "Well, I'm glad you weren't seriously hurt."

      "Wouldn't matter," said Vic, with more than a touch of fatalism. "I was completely healed in a couple of hours. Another reason that some folks recording the fight is a good thing. The defense attorneys could point to them in casts and bandages and me in perfect condition and make up some wild story about how I was never in danger and injured them without justification."

      "Ow," said Joline. "Never thought regeneration could have that sort of a disadvantage."

      They chatted for a while longer, then Vic got a notice she had another call.

      "Well, I guess that's all for now," said her sister. "Love ya!"

      "Bye!"

      Vic picked up the call, but at first there was no response. She was about to disconnect when a breathy, obviously disguised voice started talking.

      "You go back to school, you little pervert freak, and you'll leave in a body bag."

      There was a click, ending the call before Vic could respond.

       * * *

      "I checked the caller ID," said Vic, after alerting her parents. "I recognized the number. It's a pay phone outside that burger joint. I've used it before, when I forgot my cell phone. Even talked to friends there when they forgot theirs."

      "You recognized the number?" said Arnold.

      "Perfect memory, remember?"

      "Not funny," said Arnold, and Vic winced as she realized what she'd said. "I don't think you or Joline ever mentioned it."

      "We didn't? Okay, yeah, we talked about how my IQ was now 135, and how school would be easier for me, but I guess we really didn't talk about my improved memory."

      "You'd think you would have remembered to mention it," said her Mother, dryly.

      "Well, it's not a perfect memory, actually. I'm a lot better at rote things, especially things I'm exposed to several times, like that phone number. My - What was it Joline called it? My housekeeping memory is only a little better."

      "I was already thinking of buying an answering machine, to screen our calls," said her Father, thoughtfully. "I'm definitely going to do that, now. Let it pick up, unless you recognize the caller ID."

      "Good idea," said Vic. "If they're stupid enough to leave a message, even if they do call from a pay phone that could give us enough clues to find them."

      They brainstormed for a few minutes, both about phone matters and some general security upgrades. However, they were interrupted by a loud, emphatic knocking on the front door.

      "I swear, I'm going to paint that doorbell button fluorescent puce so people can find it," Arnold muttered, as he rose from his recliner.

      The man at the door was large and very angry. Vic quickly moved close in behind her father, in case the stranger became violent. Fortunately, he seemed more a yeller than a hitter.

      "You will take those videos down right now or I will have the law on you!"

      "Excuse me," said Arnold, trying to be icy but too confused to be convincing. "Who are you?"

      "Oscar Bremerton!"

      "Chad's father," said Vic, now seeing the resemblance.

      He now noticed Vic.

      "You! You will take those offensive videos off the Internets or I will have the law on you!"

      "What videos?" said Arnold.

      "You know very well what videos! Those... photoshopped ones showing my son throwing the first punch!"

      "This is the first I've heard of them," said Arnold.

      "There were several people using their cell phones to record the attack," said Vic. "One or more of them must have posted them on YouTube or something."

      "Yes! You're making my son look like a villain! You will take them off or face the consequences!"

      "I didn't put them there!" said Vic. "I didn't record them, either. I was too busy fighting for my life."

      "How dare you say my son was trying to kill you!"

      "The assistant DA said that's exactly what it seemed like he meant to do," said Vic, hotly. "That's why he was originally charged with attempted murder."

      "Which my lawyers got changed to attempted manslaughter!" said Mr. Bremerton, drawing himself up and giving them a nasty smile.

      "You're proud of that?! Your son tried to kill me, and you're proud..."

      "You shut up you lying bitch!"

      Bremerton tried to lunge past Arnold. Who, though a bit shorter and much leaner, played a lot of racquetball. He grabbed the door frame with one hand and shoved Bremerton out of the house with the other.

      "Call the police!" he shouted, as he slammed and locked the door.

      "I'm already talking to 911!" Alissa shouted back.

       * * *

      Bremerton was still there, shouting and beating on the door when the patrol car arrived. He then made the mistake of trying to walk casually to his SUV. The officer saw this and deliberately parked to block him leaving. Bremerton tried to bluster his way out, but the officer told him plainly that he had to wait until he - the officer - responded to the complaint.

      After a bit of discussion, Vic's parents decided not to have Bremerton charged. This time.

      "It's your choice," said the officer.

      "You're free to make it clear to him that if he comes here again, he'll be arrested for trespassing," said Alissa, icily.

       * * *

      Vic disagreed with the decision to let Bremerton off, but decided not to confront her parents over it. Instead, she went down to the police station that afternoon. She asked the desk sergeant if she could speak to a detective.

      "Now why would you want to do that?" he said, smiling in a patronizing way.

      "I have been told - in no uncertain terms - that if I go back to my school I'll be killed," said Vic, angrily. "Anonymous call about two hours ago, someone disguising their voice."

      That made him much more serious, and he immediately called in a superior. However, after half an hour speaking with a Detective, Vic was growing increasingly frustrated.

      "Listen, this is just people blowing off steam. School politics. I don't know what you did to piss someone off, but it should blow over soon."

      "I was attacked last night. The father of one of the attackers came by my parents' house this morning and tried to force his way in. This isn't blowing off steam. This isn't just people making idle threats. This is people trying to hurt - probably kill - me. Worse, they may target my whole family!"

      "Wait... Who did you say you are?"

      Once he made the connection, the Detective's attitude was much less friendly.

      "The troublemakers have already been charged," he said, flatly.

      "All of them?" said Vic, pointedly. "I mean, there's bound to be more than just the crew from last night. The phone call and Bremerton's visit prove that."

      "We can't do anything until they do something," said the Detective.

      "I just told you, I'm getting threats."

      "The only people who actually did anything are in jail or the hospital, and have been charged," said the Detective. "Even if someone else attacks you, given that you're a super, and they're unpowered, I don't think you have anything to worry about."

      Something in his tone, in the way he looked at Vic, told her the man would have been happy if someone did hurt her, and positively ecstatic if she were killed. No, she wasn't going to get any help from him.

      "I thought about talking to someone else," said Vic, sourly, that evening, to Joline, as they spoke on the phone again, "but figured that even if I found someone who didn't hate me because of something that happened before I was born there wasn't much they could do. You know how hard it is to deal with bullies, or even real harassment."

      "So what are you going to do?" said Joline, concerned. "School starts next week."

      "There's more than one school," said Vic, tone defiant.

      "You're going to transfer to Western? Things would be almost as bad, there."

      "I was thinking about going farther."

      "Oh?"

      "Still checking, but there's now several colleges and technical schools which handle supers. Maybe they'll be sympathetic enough to take my existing credits and a test and let me in."

      "It's possible," said Joline, though she sounded doubtful. "Anyway, I tracked down those videos. They've gone viral. Most comments are in your favor, too, since it's obvious they attacked you and you had a tough fight. Oh, and may I say 'Way to go, Bro!' It was good for my soul to see those guys taught a lesson in pain."

      "Yeah, Mom and Dad were impressed."

      "You don't sound very pleased."

      "You know, I started martial arts because I wanted to learn martial arts. Not because I wanted to hurt people."

      "Look at it this way. If you weren't so good, with your strength and speed you might have killed or crippled some of them, while getting hurt a lot worse yourself. So stop beating yourself up over them not beating you up. You did the right thing. Now, I need to get my homework done. Keep me up to date on this super school thing."

      "Will do. 'Night, Sis."

      "Night, Bro."








Part Seven


      "A boarding school?!" said Vic's Mother, later, downstairs in the den.

      "Not exactly," said Vic. "The Ramsey Technical College is adding classes for supers this semester. It's one of five schools for supers in the US which start those classes this Fall. It's the closest of the five to here, just about a two hour drive away, so I'll be as close as Joline; just in a different direction. The tuition is high, but not outrageous, and they have arguably the best instructors and the best overall program of the five. They have remedial courses for kids who lack a high school diploma. They also have engineering programs, which is what I'm interested in."

      "This is why you came home for the weekend," said Alissa, eyeing her older daughter. Who simply smiled sweetly.

      "So... This is an accredited school?" said Vic's Father.

      "Yeah. It's a real school. This year, it has added people who know supers and powers - and some of the new staff are supers themselves - and includes courses and training appropriate to the students' powers."

      "She was telling me about this earlier," said Joline. "She'll have to retake her senior year because of missing the last month and the school being jerks, but all her other credits will carry over, and she'll also be able to work on college level courses the first two semesters. They'll even allow her to test for some courses; if she does well she can skip them. If she likes it, she can start college full time there next year. She has to sign up this week, though. Actually submit the online form by Monday, Noon. That's why we're in such a hurry about this."

      Vic and Joline had agreed to let the older sister do most of the talking. Their parents usually automatically went to her between the two of them, anyway.

      "Would she be able to get in, applying this late?" said Alissa.

      "Yeah. They're holding slots open for supers, especially supers who have been discriminated against because they're supers. Right now, they're about ten short of their goal. So the sooner she applies, the better."

      "Let me see that printout," Arnold said, reaching for the papers Vic was holding. He read for a bit, then nodded. "They also do powers testing. Another point in their favor. They look expensive, though."

      "That includes room and board," said Vic. "I've got enough saved for at least three semesters. I'd really like to try them."

      Her parents conferred quietly for a moment, then nodded together.

      "Go for it."

       * * *

      "So when will you know if you got in?" said Jillian.

      "Well, since classes start next Monday, I'd say by Friday."

      Vic hadn't gone out, even with friends, since visiting the police station. Fortunately, several of her friends stopped by to visit. Jillian was here without her twin brother, but with Linda. The three teenage girls were in Vic's room, the occupant and Jillian sitting on the bed, Linda in Vic's computer chair.

      "Isn't this weird?" said Linda, with a nervous laugh. "Vic has three girls in the bedroom, and nobody cares."

      "Very funny," said Vic, in a stage mutter.

      "Hey, I'm the one in bed with Vic," said Jillian throwing herself flat on her back and grinning.

      "I can fix that," said Linda, jumping up and moving onto the bed.

      "Ah, come on!" said Vic, in mild protest. "You two don't know what you're doing to me!"

      "We're not even touching you!" said Linda, defiantly bouncing up and down on the firm mattress.

      "Please," said Vic, more seriously. "Stop. You're teasing me and I don't like it."

      "Sorry," said Linda, abashed. She stopped and swung her legs over the side of the bed. "I mean... we used to play on this bed when we were kids. Before it mattered what boys and girls were."

      "It's always mattered," said Jillian, giving Linda an odd look. "We'd do it on a dare."

      She grinned and knuckled the top of Vic's head.

      "Also, to tease Vic."

      "I knew it," said Vic, accusingly.

      "Okay, if I can be serious for a moment," said Jillian. She shifted position to look Vic in the eye. "You have a very steep learning curve ahead of you. There will probably be more boys than girls at this school. You are very striking, and will probably receive a lot of unwanted attention. You can't simply swat them all down."

      "Sure I can," said Vic, with a smirk.

      "No. Seriously. You need to keep your cool. Even if you have to get physical, don't simply hit. Push them away, joint lock them, whatever it takes, but don't cause any damage unless you really have to."

      "Ditto," said Linda, nodding. "There will be guys who go after you just because you're 'playing hard to get.' They can be really persistent. They will get really violent if you get violent with them. Only they won't fight fair."

      "I hear hints of things I didn't know about before," said Vic, examining her long-time friends.

      "Oh, it never got serious for me," said Jillian, "but it could have. Some guys - not all, most are like you were, but some - get funny in the head when a girl is violent with him. You remember Kathy Halpern?"

      "Yeah," said Vic, quietly.

      "I know she got attacked and her whole family moved out of town," said Linda, just as quietly. "What happened?"

      "She punched out Andy Jacobs when he copped a feel. The next day he ambushed her, just two lots away from her home, as she walked from the school bus stop. Maced her, beat her with a jack handle until she stopped moving, then tore her clothes off and raped her. He even bragged about how he'd 'put the bitch in her place' to friends, though without any details.

      "People who knew her knew who did it, of course, and told the police. Who decided a nice, clean-cut boy like Andy couldn't possibly do something so heinous, and started arresting homeless men and local sex offenders. None of his buddies told the police anything. They had DNA from the assault, but didn't even bother to get a sample from Andy.

      "Kathy survived, and when she regained consciousness told them Andy did it. Even then, the police just shrugged it off, making excuses about how she was confused due to the head injuries. Then Andy got stopped in Midvale for speeding. The officer was suspicious - he thought Andy might have drugs in the car. He got Andy's permission to do a search and Andy said yes, because he knew he didn't have any drugs. The officer found the bloody jack handle in the trunk - not cleaned or put back in place for two weeks - and arrested Andy. The blood was matched to Kathy, and only then did someone get Andy's DNA and confirm him as the rapist.

      "After that the police here fell all over themselves catching up. Andy never showed any signs of remorse, saying it was worth it to teach Kathy the lesson that she couldn't go around hitting people. He was killed in prison less than a year later."

      The room fell silent for several long minutes. Then Vic sighed.

      "Yeah, okay, point. I'll be careful. Not just about where I am and what I'm doing and who I'm with. I'll be... restrained."

       * * *

      Vic stepped off the bus, carrying her backpack by the handle on top. She moved out of the way of the others debarking and stopped to take a look around while the driver unloaded the luggage.

      The bus was a charter by the school, sent to pick up students at the closest airport and bus terminal. Vic had planned to drive her battered old Corolla wagon. However, two days before she planned to leave someone had jabbed a screwdriver repeatedly through her radiator while the car was parked at a local shopping center, while Vic was getting some final school supplies. Her parents and sister had all volunteered to drive her here, but Vic insisted on taking a bus instead. Her parents would bring the car up after repairs were completed.

      There were several adults around - whom Vic assumed were school personnel - and a number of likely students. One of the adults approached the bus, carrying a clipboard.

      "All right, let's get you sorted out!" the man shouted, sounding like a cross between a drunk drill sergeant and a washed-up high-school coach. "You see those poles with the numbers? Go to the one with your grade level!"

      Vic gathered her foot locker - surprising the driver by the ease with which she lifted it - and her backpack and moved to the appropriate sign.

      She gave her name and the ID number the school had e-mailed her to the woman sitting at the table for Vic's grade.

      "Oh! You're one of our empowered students. Welcome!"

      "Uh, thanks," said Vic, uncertainly. Some of the other students were now giving her odd looks.

      "I'm afraid that besides the usual forms and procedures, you will also have to go through the line for super evaluation. First, take your belongings to the luggage corral and get your tags. Then come back here, use that table over there to fill out these forms. Give me the forms, and I'll direct you to the super line."

      Vic wondered why she had to fill out yet more forms, when she'd sent them everything pertinent. However, she quickly realized that these forms were more to tell her things, with most of the "filling out" being acknowledging she had read them.

      The "super" line was different. As Vic took her place at the rear she surreptitiously examined her fellow superhumans. She wasn't exactly impressed. There were eight others already in the line when she arrived, and two more quickly fell in behind Vic. There were quiet introductions and some small talk, but none of them really felt much like talking. They all seemed a bit embarrassed. Vic remembered that the school's goal was fifty super students. Likely, most of them were already here.

      Finally came Vic's turn. She was given a slip of paper and sent in a side door of a nearby building. There, she showed the slip to one of the adults waiting, and was directed to a small office.

      "Hello," said the man behind the desk, rising and offering  his hand. "I'm Dr. Niels Thorvald. Welcome to Ramsey, Miss Peltior."

      "Uh, thanks," said Vic, sitting.

      He asked several questions from a list he had on his desk, marking the answers down. First came some basics, though it was obvious he had her info there. Maybe he was just confirming or clarifying some things. Then he got down to his real business.

      "What are your powers?" said the man behind the table.

      "Uhm, I don't really know..."

      "Just tell me what you can do. They'll give you a full exam later."

      "Uhm, I heal faster and more completely than normal..."

      "Enhanced healing," said the man, checking a box. "Go on."

      "I can lift over a hundred twenty kilos, I'm really fast..."

      "Super speed or quick reflexes?"

      "Uh, the latter. I'm smarter than I was, my memory is better..."

      "Enhanced intellect. You shown any propensity for building gadgets?"

      "No."

      "Keep seeing things you think should be improved, either equipment or society as a whole?"

      "No."

      "Not a gadgeteer or a mastermind, then. Probably just a general mental boost."

      He checked something.

      The rest of the interview was pretty straightforward. When they were done he thanked her and told her to go back to the luggage corral.

      "The attendant there will have your room assignment. Again, welcome to Ramsey! I hope we'll have you here for the full five years."








Part Eight


      Back at the luggage corral, the check guy took Vic's tickets and brought her foot locker and backpack, as well as handing her a thick manilla envelope.

      "Your dorm address and room number are on the envelope," the young man explained. "The top sheet inside is a map of the campus."

      "Thanks," said Vic, reaching for her stuff.

      "There's carts over there."

      "For what?" said Vic, absently, as she lifted the heavy foot locker with one hand, her other already holding the backpack.

      "Uh..." said the check guy, wide-eyed.

      Vic suddenly realized he hadn't seen her carry the foot locker to the corral, being busy with someone ahead of her, and had struggled to bring it to her.

      "I'm one of the fifty super students," said Vic, with an odd mix of embarrassment and pride. "Which way is the dorm?"

      He pointed, wordlessly.

       * * *

      Vic didn't need the map. The building name was on the envelope, and prominently on the building. With the initial start in the right direction provided by the luggage corral guy she quickly found it.

      As she walked across the parking lot towards the building she looked around at the area, the buildings and the people. The place was relatively new, founded in the late Sixties and occasionally prosperous enough for significant renovations. Two of the buildings she could see looked brand new. One even still had barriers up to keep people off the freshly-poured sidewalk.

      The people were also an interesting mix. Vic saw a few people old enough to be staff, but - naturally - far more in their teens and early twenties. One person took a few moments for her to parse. With a start, Vic realized that she was looking at a young woman with wings. Huge, blond wings, the same color as her hair.

      Vic had of course heard of other supers whose powers brought transformations. Among other exposures, Joline had made certain to show some of them to her. Largely to make her realize she was not alone. Typically, when activation of supers' powers caused a physical change they grew more muscular, or put on a growth spurt, or something else unusual but comprehensible. Sometimes eyes, skin and/or hair changed color. Vic remembered a close-up photo of the hands of one woman whose fingernails had turned into extensile claws.

      This, though... Not only was this the first other transformed super she had seen in person, but the first she knew of with features not found on non-super humans.

      Vic realized she was staring and jerked her gaze away, blushing. Just in time to get ready for the bottom step of the short stairway to the door she was headed for. Only, there was someone already standing on the small porch.

      "That's Angel Florello," said a young girl, wearing slacks and a t-shirt, leaning casually against the stair railing. She was rather undeveloped, so Vic actually needed a moment to confirm to herself that this person actually was female. Even with no bra under her shirt, that distinction was not immediately obvious. "Yeah, that's her real name, from birth. Interesting coincidence, huh? She's nice, but really fed up with people making a fuss about her wings."

      "Uh, okay," said Vic. "I'm Victor Peltior."

      "'Victor'?" said the girl, perking up. "Either your parents have weird senses of humor or you're that super I heard about who swapped genders."

      "The latter," said Vic, with a sigh, wondering how many on campus already knew about her. "Well, the former, too."

      "Hooo, hi there!" said the girl, straightening, and actually bouncing a bit with excitement. "I'm Alexia Mondergan, Sooooper Genius. Alex."

      "Well, I'm in room 212, so if you..."

      She was interrupted by a squeal from the girl.

      "I knew it! You're my roomie!" She jumped up and yanked the door open, holding it for Vic and ushering her through with a sweeping bow. "I'll show you the way!"

      "So, uh, are you in some sort of advanced program? I mean, as young as you are, if you're a student here..."

      "What? No! Okay, I'm just as tired of people making fun of my looks as Angel is of stupid questions from drooling fundamentalists. For the record, I'm seventeen. I'm just... a late bloomer."

      "Okay," said Vic, grinning at her defensiveness. "For the record, I didn't grow breasts until I was eighteen."

      "Ooooh, not bad. Stairs this way. The elevator will be very, very busy, so I hope that won't be a problem carrying that box."

      "I'm fine," said Vic, who was starting to get used to her rapid-fire and occasionally shorthand speech.

      Alex kept up an almost non-stop stream of chatter all the way to their room and well inside, only occasionally pausing to wait for Vic to answer a question or make a comment. She seemed to have a knack for knowing when to do that. Vic learned that she was a double major - biochem and physics - was from a city the next state over, had two older sisters and a younger brother and her whole family was smart.

      "So you're in the super program, too," said Vic, as she put her foot locker down beside the unclaimed bed.

      "I'm not a super," said Alex, puzzled. "What made you think I was?"

      "Okay," said Vic, feeling confused. "It's just that, given that you're older than you look, that we're rooming together and you say you're a super genius..."

      "Oh, that just means a high-level regular genius," said Alex, laughing.

      Vic opened her foot locker and started to unpack. She really needed a shower after that bus trip. Which thought made her wince.

      "How are the bathrooms here? For that matter, is the building co-ed?"

      "The building is," said Alex, sitting on her bed and watching Alex. "However, this wing is all girl, the other wing is all boy, and the middle is for support, storage and staff. There's actually a kitchen! I love to cook!"

      "Bathrooms," said Vic, getting her back on track.

      "Very nice. Individual toilet stalls, individual shower stalls."

      That was good news.

      "Have you had lunch?!"

      "Had a couple of burgers at the bus station."

      "Oh. Well, as soon as you finish I'll give you the guided tour and introduce you around."

      "How long have you been here?"

      "Two days. I already know everything!"

      I just bet you do, thought Vic, with a smile.

      "Hurry up!"

      "Why?"

      "I want to show you off! So, do you still like girls?"

      "Uh, yes?"

      "Well so do I! Anyway, I've already made contacts among the local chapter of the Citizens of Lesbos, and I can't wait to introduce you, but I can't do anything until you finish here!"

      "Okay," said Vic, rubbing her hands together. "This won't take long."

      She increased speed, moving with great quickness and precision, snapping drawers open, tossing items in and shoving the drawer closed. Vic finished the foot locker, closed it and shoved it aside, then started on her backpack. The total elapsed time was just over five minutes.

      "That fast enough for you?" said Vic, flushed and breathing hard, but grinning.

      "Wow... Wait, that's not super speed."

      "Yeah. I'm just very fast and very dextrous."

      "Wow..." the younger girl repeated. She grinned, chuckling evilly. "Oh, we are going to have fun."

      Vic wasn't sure, but thought this did no bode well. She felt more certain when Alex rose and moved to Vic's dresser.

      "Mind if I check something?" she said, not waiting for an answer but opening the drawer immediately. "Okay, thought so. I'd expect a guy-turned-girl to either have thongs or grannie panties. These are all, well, practical. Not to mention comfortable."

      Speak for yourself, thought Vic, with an odd twinge in her nether regions. She pushed the drawer shut pointedly.

      "I have a Mother and an older sister."

      "Ah. That explains it."

      "Now, can you show me the bathroom, please?"

      Vic wanted to shower before meeting anyone else, but as part of showing her where the bathrooms were Alex introduced her to everyone they met. Since the hallways were busy with people coming and going, the relatively short trip took a while. Alex also insisted on announcing that Vic used to be a boy, but not to hold that against her. In the bathrooms Vic was very relieved to see that the shower stalls had a small dressing area with a bench, a shelf and a coat hook on the door. The actual shower had an additional curtain.

      "Okay," said Vic, firmly. "No more tour, no more introductions until I get clean."

      "You're such a girl," said Alex, with a smirk.

      "Do you want peace with your roommate?" said Vic, with mock menace.

      "Nope. I get bored easily."

      On the way back to their shared room, though, they got waylaid. First by Betty Gonzales - who got the whole introduction treatment - then by a male student, hurrying towards them waving a sheet of paper.

      "Alex! Got something to show you!"

      "Hi, Don! Vic, this is Donald Thurber. Don, this is my roommate, Victor Peltior."

      "Hi," said Don, absently, ignoring the mismatch between Vic's name and gender, and cutting Alex off before she could explain it. He triumphantly held up the sheet. "What do you think?"

      The image thus displayed was of an interesting creature, resembling several real animals without quite being any of them.

      "I call it... Catmouse!"

      "Huh?" said Vic.

      "That name, alone, should trigger the Apocalypse," said Betty, rolling her eyes.

      Alex took a long, deep breath, then let out a squeal which threatened every window in the building.

      "It's so cute!!!"

      "It took you how long to realize she was a girl?" said Betty, dryly.

      "Hey, I always knew she was a girl," said Vic, defensively. "It's just that things like this make me doubt she's any older than she looks."

      "I finished the simulations just a few minutes ago," said Don, oblivious to everything except his achievement. "I knew from the genome design they'd be good, but this is better than I'd hoped!"

      "You're actually going to grow these?" said Betty, uncertainly.

      "Well, if my advisor and my teachers approve," said Don, with an uncertainty which was the first hint of any emotion which was not excited triumph.

      "How do you plan to handle the epigenetic influences?" said Vic.

      There was a moment of silence. A confused one on the part of Betty; a stunned one on the part of Alex and Don.

      "Omigod!" said the only guy in the group. "I completely forgot to take that into account!"

      He spun around and hurried off, muttering loudly about things several years of study more advanced than he should have been concerned about.

      "You're welcome," said Vic, with a sigh.

      "Wait," said Alex, eyeing Vic suspiciously. "How do you know about epigenetics? I thought you were in the engineering program."

      "How do you know that? No, never mind, I'm the subject of a lot of gossip, so my curriculum is public knowledge."

      "Pretty much," said Betty. "Wow, you were really a guy? You're all girl now?"

      "Yes and yes. That's how I know about epigenetics. For a while my older sister and I were speculating that my healing removed all epigenetic influences. That this is how I would have looked if I'd been born XX and without those affecting my development. Of course, we now know my genes changed too..."

      "Wow..." said Alex, looking like she wanted to do a dissection right then and there.

      "I bite," said Vic, casually. "Oh, and I was a black belt before my powers activated. Even in my sleep, you wouldn't have a chance."

      "What kind of girl do you think I am?"

      "The kind who would put a hallucinogenic in someone's toothpaste, if you thought that would generate valuable data. Or cause a good laugh."

      "Bingo!" said Betty, laughing.

      "Rassa-frassin..." Alex turned around and marched off, the image of affronted dignity. Or frustrated ambitions. Maybe both.








Part Nine


      "So, have you had your first period, yet?" said Alex, as Vic returned from (Finally!) her shower.

      "That's a pretty personal question," said Vic, in an irritated mutter, as she searched in her sock drawer.

      She found what she wanted and sat on her bed to pull on the tube socks.

      "A) Scientific curiosity, B) I saw you putting your hygiene products away, remember and C) we're rooming together so I qualify for fair warning if I have to help you deal with it."

      "Okay, point," said Vic, wincing. She temporized by pulling on her right shoe and starting to tie the laces. "Yes. It's been over four months, so of course I've had periods."

      She glared suspiciously at the younger, smaller girl, as she reached for her other shoe.

      "Wait. Didn't you know that, already? You seem to know a lot about me."

      Alex struck a stereotypical "Who, me?!" pose, then became more serious.

      "I knew you'd been a girl for a while, but not exactly how long," said Alex. "I knew it was a few months, 'cause I knew you missed the last few weeks of your senior year. I also know you apparently age regressed. Given those and other unknowns, you might not be physically capable of menstruation, yet."

      "Well, I am," said Vic, unable to avoid a grimace of distaste. "I won't say I'm an expert at dealing with it, but I haven't had any major problems, yet. In fact, I seem to be one of the lucky ones, and have less intense than average symptoms. It's still a messy, smelly embarrassment."

      "Welcome to the other half of the human race," said Alex, with a wry laugh

      "Now, tell me something," said Vic.

      "About what?"

      "Tell me about this school. I've been in such a rush the past week I didn't have time to do much research beyond the minimum needed to decide if I wanted to come here, and then what I needed to know to apply."

      "Oh. Okay. It's a young school as colleges go, moderately successful, but hasn't done great. Keeps getting bought by this company or that foundation and held for a few years while they try to make it bigger, more profitable, more respected, or whatever. Then they give up and someone else takes it over. Despite all the changes of ownership it hasn't changed much, until now. The latest owner - Dorton Industries - is a small, very diversified corporation which bought the school two years ago and has poured a shitload of money into this place."

      "I noticed," said Vic, nodding. "So is there a Dorton?"

      "Maxwell Dorton. Millionaire recluse. Supposedly made a bundle in the Seventies supplying high tech equipment to the government to help fight the Cold War. There are rumors he's a super, himself."

      "Which would explain his interest in helping supers," said Vic, nodding some more.

      "Who says this is to help you?" said Alex, with an impish smirk. "Other rumors say he's studying you folks to build more and better high tech. If only by watching what the gadgeteers like Don do."

      "Wait... Don's a super?!"

      "I told you that," said Alex, tipping her head to one side a bit and thinking. She nodded. "Yeah."

      "No, you didn't."

      "Regardless, what's next on your agenda for today?"

      "Meeting with my guidance counselor. I know I'm just trying to complete my senior year right now, but even for that he should be able to help me."

      "Where's your map? I can show you..."

      "Why? I can read it as well as you can."

      "I can optimize your path and..."

      "I can read a map," said Vic, firmly.

       * * *

      Dr. Edwin Hoskins turned out to be younger than Vic expected, but once the introductions were over he proved competent and businesslike.

      "Your grade transcripts show that you were doing well, but not spectacularly so," said Dr. Hoskins. "I'll get with you later to schedule some tests to see if you can skip any of the required high school and freshman courses. I hope you can, because I believe you actually need to add some different things to this semester and the next."

      "I can change classes this late?"

      "It wouldn't work for the college level classes," said Dr. Hoskins. "However, the remedial classes are under assigned, so there's plenty of room to add students."

      They spent over an hour discussing and planning out not only the next year but Vic's entire college syllabus. Naturally, the further in the future they planned, the less detailed they could be. However, both were satisfied they had a strong framework with distinct and realistic goals. Vic left the counselor's office with a heavier starting class load than originally planned, but actually quite pleased. The revisions would result in a much more solid foundation for starting an engineering degree next year. Even though Vic wasn't sure just yet which type of engineering to pursue.

      When Vic returned to her dorm room Alex was gone. Vic felt a small pang of guilt, and hoped she hadn't offended the little genius.

      The day had already been a busy one and it was only late afternoon. Vic decided on a nap. Naturally, no sooner did she close her eyes than Alex came buzzing back into the room.

      "Oh, hi! You were gone a long time..."

      "...and you got bored," Vic finished, grinning.

      "Am I that predictable?" said Alex, startled.

      "For some things."

      "So how'd it go?"

      "Pretty good. He certainly sold me on the school wanting to give me a good education. He also scheduled me for some tests and evaluations to investigate my powers in detail, though the first of those won't be for three weeks."

      "So you got everything you wanted?"

      "All the regular classes. I have to get permission from the head of the PE Department to take martial arts instead of gym."

      "You have to take gym?"

      "Yeah. There's a PE requirement to graduate high school. If they'll let me take martial arts - even sports instead of self-defense, which is what I'm trained in - that'll meet the requirement and I should do well."

      "You'll still have to shower with other girls," said Alex, slyly.

      "Thanks for reminding me," said Vic, in a stage mutter.

      "No, seriously. It's fantastic."

      "You've been a girl all your life. I've been a girl for four months."

      "You'll get used to it," said Alex, firmly.

       * * *

      At supper that evening Vic met several more of the super students, including Angel. Vic was startled to see that severaly of them were wearing costumes. Most appeared to be home-made - and exhibited varying levels of skill - but a few seemed to be professional grade. The costume wearers and a few others also introduced themselves by a Mask name, sometimes with their birth name appended but sometimes exclusively.

      "Vic, eh?" said one rather muscular and perpetually beaming young man who preferred to be called Objective. He wasn't in an actual costume, but his jeans and t-shirt were tight enough to clearly show his bulging muscles. Vic strongly suspected that was quite deliberate. "That must be short for Victoria. An impressive Mask name. I hope you can live up to it."

      "Actually, it's short for Victor."

      "Eh?" said Objective.

      "She used to be a guy!" said Alex, cheerfully.

      Objective stared at Vic for several frozen seconds. Then suddenly looked to his right and stood.

      "Oh, there's Teddy. Excuse me, I need to talk to him."

      He grabbed his tray and quickly walked off.

      "Not the most graceful of exits," said Angel, sliding her tray down the table and dropping into the recently vacated seat. "You really were a guy?"

      "Uhm, yeah," said Vic, who had only revealed her full first name to try and get rid of Objective. She tried to look at the other super without staring at her wings, and was mostly successful. "Alex told me you didn't have wings until your powers activated."

      "Beautiful, aren't they?" she said, looking over her right shoulder as she carefully spread them. "Too bad they're useless."

      "You can't fly?"

      "Nope. I can sort-of glide, but just can't pump enough air fast enough to lift off."

      "Oh..." said Vic, not sure what else to say.

      "Would you believe I got them because I caught an avian virus?"

      "After what I went through, I'd believe anything," said Vic, sympathetically.

      "My Dad and I are licensed raptor rehabilitators. One of our golden eagles was sick, with a mystery virus. While I was tending him he nipped me. Then I got sick. He got well. I started growing wings. He stayed an eagle. My hair also turned from brown to blond."

      "Weird," said Vic, startled. "Uh, I hope that wasn't offensive."

      "No, it's appropriate. *I* think it's weird."

      "Many viruses incorporate DNA from the nuclei of the cells they take over to make more viruses," said Alex. "The one which infected you could have easily had the instructions for making wings and copied that into your cells. If you had the right super genes, the bird genes would have filled in a gap, and guided your change, and even have triggered your powers to develop."

      "Yeah, they explained all that," said Angel, nodding.

      "What other powers do you have?" said Vic.

      "Extremely good senses," said Angel, as she popped the last bite of a roll into her mouth. "Especially vision. A little faster, a little stronger, a little taller and leaner, even. That's it."

      "We think the only real power I got was healing," said Vic, commiserating. "I have better senses, I'm a little stronger, a little faster... and a little shorter."

      Angel laughed, which was a rather pleasing sound.

      "From what I've been hearing the other supers saying, none of us here really won the jackpot. Objective is a low-level general physical super. Hover can - barely - levitate. Trapper has super accurate aim. Speedy Sue - the only girl I know who can talk faster than Alex - can hit just over a hundred kph without a vehicle. Apparat Chick is a pretty successful gadgeteer, already has some patents. Capacity has some pretty impressive electrical powers. Those are the only ones I know of for sure."

      Vic nodded. She hesitated a moment, then leaned forward a bit to speak confidentially.

      "I'm noticing something odd. Many of the super students here are acting like they expect to be trained in how to become masks. That's not what this school is for."

      "Yeah, that'd be the Pine Island Academy," said Alex, just as quietly, nodding in agreement, "and they're mostly for middle school and high school kids."

      "I know," said Angel, barely suppressing a giggle. "You should hear some of them, see some of them, parading around like something out of a bad TV show."

      "They're in for a big disillusionment," said Vic.

      "Maybe not," said Alex, with a shrug. "They do have criminology courses here. I don't know what you need to go into law enforcement, but those would surely be useful for detectives and such. So, maybe those students can organize their courses to pursue a crime-fighting career."








Part Ten


      Vic had no trouble getting to sleep that night. Though there was a minor amount of noise from the building around them - mostly from students socializing - both Vic and Alex got to bed at a reasonable hour. Vic was relieved when the hyperactive little genius crashed before she did.

      The next morning meant more paperwork, as well as personal visits with several of the teachers. Vic had long since memorized the map, and used her errands as an opportunity to correlate what was on it with reality.

      As it turned out, getting approval from the head of the PE Department to attend karate instead of gym was neither easy nor routine. The person of interest was the same burned-out, gravel voiced man Vic had seen at the bus the day before. His name was Dr. Vince Cargraves. Vic found herself waiting on the edge of one the campus' outdoor basketball courts for the man to finish harassing some freshmen. Several others were also there for the purpose of speaking with Dr. Cargraves. Vic got the distinct impression he was not an easy man to talk to, in any sense of the phrase.

      "You're one of the super students, right?" said one young man, to Vic, as they waited. "I'm Melvin Garadino. Call me Mel."

      "Vic," she replied, shaking hands a bit awkwardly.

      Vic assumed that Cargraves would deal with his petitioners in a first come, first served basis. However, once he turned his attention to those waiting it turned out that the most aggressive were dealt with first. Vic clenched her teeth, but waited patiently. Finally, the old man looked at her.

      "Now, what do you want?"

      "I want to take the martial arts class, in place of gym."

      "Who are you, now?"

      "Vic Peltior."

      He thumbed through the sheaf of papers on his clip board.

      "Oh, right. I don't really see any reason to make the change."

      He let the papers fall back and started to turn to the next person.

      "I want in the class!" said Vic, quickly. "I've been in martial arts for several years and I want to continue."

      He scowled, obviously not liking having his decision protested or challenged.

      "You sure you want to take the martial arts class?" said Cargraves, pointedly. "Positions are limited, and there are students here who would be far more suitable."

      "I want to keep in practice," said Vic, a bit confused by his objections. She knew there were women in the classes.

      "We really don't want to waste our limited resources on someone who won't make an effort, wouldn't stick with it."

      "What makes you think I wouldn't?" said Vic, starting to get angry. "I made black belt last year. How is that not sticking with it and making an effort?"

      "I hear you dropped out of your high school," said Cargraves, with a slight sneer. "Did you think your powers meant you didn't need an education?"

      "I didn't drop out," said Vic, hotly, "I was expelled for being a super. Won the lawsuit over that, too."

      "Did I ask?" yelled the man.

      "This isn't boot camp," said Vic, irritated. "I'm paying to come here for an education. Not be insulted by some R. Lee Ermey wannabe. I want in the class."

      The man's face turned red and his mouth opened and closed several times. Abruptly, he spun around and stomped off. Much to the annoyance or even dismay of the few still wanting to speak with him.

      "I think you broke him," said Mel, with a smirk. He gave Vic an odd look. "Listen, you're a super..."

      "Yes," said Vic, tiredly.

      "Why would you want to be in the regular karate club, when there's a special super martial arts class you can get credit for?"

      "There is?" said Vic, startled. "Dr. Hoskins didn't mention that. Neither did Cargraves."

      "Well, it's a college-level course - actually, a series of them, but all taught by the same instructor - so he may have thought it wasn't appropriate."

       * * *

      Vic was tired that evening, but the sort of tired where she wanted distraction, rather than rest.

      "So, what's happening on campus tonight?" said Vic.

      "Nothing organized," said Alex. "However, if someone has their door propped open it's an invitation to come in and introduce yourself."

      "I still haven't met even everyone on our floor," said Vic, swinging her legs off the bed. "Let's go!"

      "Yeah!"

       * * *

      That evening started out as girls-only socializing, but soon turned into an impromptu fashion show. As well as something else for Vic and Alex...

      "What do you think?" said Cindy, striking a pose she obviously thought was heroic. "I'm going to call myself Tigerl!"

      "Girl, I can give you a gee-wye-en exam from here!" said Candy, not impressed. "Aren't you supposed to at least wear a g-string under that stuff?"

      "That's optional, with this Aerocloth."

      "It's... very revealing," Vic confirmed, staring. "What's with the waist cape?"

      "A brilliant fashion touch!" she said, proudly. "You have to lube your body, get someone to spray this on, then wait for it to cure. That's revealing."

      "I don't know if costumes in general are banned," said Vic, "but I'm pretty sure that one will be."

      "What are you talking about?"

      "It's too revealing."

      "No," said Cindy, with a quick shake of her head. "What do you mean about costumes in general? I thought they were required."

      "Why would they be?"

      "This is supposed to be a superhero school!"

      "No, that's the one on that island, near Bermuda," said Alex. "This school is a regular technical college with some extra stuff for supers."

      "But... but... but..."

      "Why do you think you're the only person here parading around in a costume?" said Vic. "Well, there are a few others, mostly guys, but..."

      The girl collapsed onto her bunk, looking devastated.

      "My parents lied to me!" she wailed, tears streaming.

      There was a long, awkward silence. Then Vic, Alex and the other visitors started sneaking out.

      "That was painful," said Candy, in a completely unsympathetic tone.

      "I can't believe she's been here three days and only just now..." said Alex, fading to silence.

      "I'm tempted to just go back to our room," said Vic.

      "No, no, come on down to my and Melanie's room," said Candy, taking them by the arms. "She's a super, and is wanting new victims to show off her powers to!"

      The subject room was the last on the right at the end of the hall furthest from the center of the building. As with Vic and Alex, she was a non-super rooming with a super. Melanie turned out to be a strikingly tall athletic blond with a deep tan. She might have been a surfer. Vic was instantly in lust.

      Introductions were made all around, with Melanie being genuinely interested in Vic's powers.

      "...and that's about it," said Vic. "So, uh, what can you do?"

      "Watch this," said the girl, her voice almost a purr.

      She struck a pose, and her skin changed color and texture.

      "What do you think?" she said, proudly.

      "You look like a lobster," said Alex.

      "A lobster who can stop bullets!" said Melanie, proudly. "Not to mention lift a delivery truck! Hang on, you're not getting the full effect."

      She quickly stripped out of her straining clothes. Vic was startled at first, but figured that with that hard shell on she didn't really need them. However...

      "Why do you still have nipples and ripped muscles?" said Vic. She only remembered to blush after she said it.

      "The shell follows the shape of my skin," said Melanie.

      She grinned and tapped herself in the chest, producing a rather solid sound.

      "I haven't done this outside my room since getting here; didn't want to scare people."

      "Can you pee like that?" said Alex.

      "I can't take you anywhere," said Vic, with a snort.

      That brought some laughter.

      "Yes, actually."

      A newcomer stuck her head in the door.

      "Hey, have any of you... Whoah!"

      "Welcome!" said Melanie, grinning. "Come on in."

      "Melanie? Is that you?"

      "Who else would it be?"

      "I remember you talking about your powers, but seeing it..."

      "Folks, this is Harriet," said Candy. "Yet another super."

      More introductions, and again Vic had to explain her powers.

      "C'mon," said Melanie, in a daring tone to Harriet, as she struck a pose. "You've seen mine. Show us yours!"

      Harriet smirked and matched Melanie's pose. Her skin changed color to roughly match the color of Melanie's and took on a similar smooth texture.

      "You're a power mimic!" said Alex, excitedly.

      "No, I'm a low-level shapeshifter with lots of experience in makeup, costuming and modeling."

      She shifted smoothly into a near duplicate of Candy.

      "My former boyfriend is an artist," said Harriet, her voice still the same. "We entered a body painting competition at a local night club."

      She laughed.

      "Boy, did my parents freak! Anyway, we won! That started a career. Only, he got kind'a intoxicated with the fame. A half a year later we broke up and I started modeling for a company that does a lot of fun stuff, including body painting. During one show we were 'way behind, and I kept getting shuttled from one airbrush station to another. Only, they noticed that I was already mostly done, so they sent me to the next station after just a touchup. I wound up being the first one to go on stage, and was a big hit. Later, backstage, I relaxed... and found myself mostly naked, with just a few dabs of paint! That's when I realized I was a mutant."

      "Powers are hereditary," said Alex, absently.

      "Yeah, I had a great-aunt who could change her hair color at will."

      "So stop calling yourself a mutant."

      "Huh?"

      "Mutation is the opposite of heredity," said Vic. "So, you can change your skin color and texture?"

      "More than that! Watch!"

      She began peeling off her t-shirt. 

      "Whoa!" said Vic, scandalized.

      "Hey, we're all girls, here," said Harriet, smirking. "Otherwise I'd have to charge you."

      "Yeah, but my roomie and I like girls," said Alex, leering.

      "Well, who doesn't?" said Harriet, a bit puzzled. By now she had stripped as naked as Melanie. Or perhaps moreso. "Okay, watch."

      "Hey!" said Vic, startled. "You have no nipples."

      "Oh! Silly me. I get rid of 'em so I don't have to wear a bra."

      Her nipples and areolas suddenly appeared.

      "So you can change your shape, too?" said Alex, fascinated on multiple levels.

      "Well, mostly the texture. Though you better believe these babies," she indicated her large, unnaturally perky breasts, "are augmented with my mutant powers!"

      Harriet struck a pose, and her skin turned deep blue and her hair red. Then her skin took on an odd texture.

      "Oooh, I love those movies!" said Alex. "Do Nightcrawler next!"

      "Okay, but I can't change my fingers or toes."

      Her imitation of that character was less perfect, but still passable at a distance.

      "Yeah, yeah, you're a shapeshifter and an exhibitionist," said Melanie, in a good natured ribbing. "Can you lift a truck, though?"

      "You're like one of those mimic octopi," said Alex, getting up and walking slowly around Harriet. She frowned. "Octopuses?"

      "Just, please, don't call yourself Octopus or anything like that," said Vic, rolling her eyes. She laughed. "People might expect your powers to include squirting ink."

      "Eeww..." said Harriet, grimacing and reflexively turning back to her base state.

      "Do... do you shave, or is your bare look due to your shifting?" said Alex, obviously excited.

      "Well, I can shift my hair in a pinch," said Harriet, briefly turning herself bald, "but I normally shave."

      She smirked.

      "All over."

      "I think I better go," said Vic, standing with some difficulty.

      "What's wrong?" said Harriet, suddenly concerned.

      "She used to be a guy," said Alex, smirking.

      "Huh? Oh! That's what you meant by liking girls!"

      Vic nodded and headed for the door. Harriet grabbed her arm as she went by.

      "Don't go. I don't mind." She laughed. "I was joking about having to pay."

      "So why are you here?" said Vic, trying to get her mind off the naked woman. Women, actually, though Melanie looked more like someone in a modern, fiberglass movie superhero costume.

      "Oh, I realize that I could cash in on my powers," said Harriet, with a shrug, as she gathered her clothes, "but I can earn even more money with better control. I figure folks here can teach me how to use them better."

      "Can you grow fur?" said Alex, eagerly.

      "Fur..." said Harriet, blankly. She suddenly took on an astounded look.

      "You know, this is Candy and Melanie's room," said Vic. "We should pay some attention to our hosts. Socialize and stuff."

      "Hey, I'm straight, but I'm just as fascinated as you are," said Melanie. "I mean, yeah, I can do things she can't, but being able to be whoever you want... That's fantastic!"

       * * *

      "My panties are soaked," said Vic, with a groan, later, back in her and Alex's room.

      "You're not the only one," said the younger girl, her voice sounding strained. "The worst part is, she doesn't even know she's doing it."

      "Don't you believe it," said Vic, flatly. "That innocent act is just that. She enjoys the feeling of power she gets knowing she's an object of arousal. Even over other women."

      "Do Jung next!" said Alex, with a laugh.








Part Eleven


      "You look tense," said Melanie, during lunch the second day of classes.

      "Yeah, well, this being my second day at a new school, I think I'm justified," said Vic.

      Alex slid in between them, her tray sporting her usual odd mix of food and near-food items.

      "Did you hear about Tigerl? I mean, Cindy?

      "Dropped out," said Angel, as she sat across from them. "If she hadn't, they were going to expel her. Got in a scream fight with her advisor, accusing her and the rest of the staff of hiding the super classes."

      "It's like trying to convince my baby brother there are more flavors than 'salty' and 'sweet,'" said Alex. "Some people just don't want to know."

      "So, what have you learned about women since turning into one?" said Melanie, as she sat to Vic's left.

      "A gal's boobs shrink in cold water," said Vic, actually blushing a bit. "Just like a guy's junk."

      "Wait," said Alex, startled. "A guy's junk shrinks in cold water?!"

      "If you were straight you'd have noticed that," said Melanie, smirking.

      "Or had been a guy most of your life," said Vic, rolling her eyes.

      "Okay," said Alex, so distracted they weren't sure she'd heard either comment. "That explains a few things. Especially some jokes."

      "I was also surprised the first time I went swimming - at the insistence of my Mother and sister - at how... firm they got," said Vic, reflexively looking down at her chest.

      "You went swimming in cold water?" said Melanie.

      "Pond water, the first official day of Summer," said Vic. "It's this weird ritual my Mother and sister have, they jump in this decorative pond in our subdivision, every year, regardless of the weather. They kept telling me I had to go, that it wouldn't be too bad because women are more resistant to cold, and on and on."

      She shivered, dramatically.

      "They lied to me..."

      That brought general laughter.

      "Well, eat up, students," said Angel, following her own advice. "We need to fuel these brains for our afternoon classes."

      There were general sounds of good-natured derision at her overly cheerful dictate.

      "My first martial arts class is this afternoon," said Vic.

      "You got in!" said Alex, happily. "Great! I remember you weren't sure you would."

      "I am a bit worried," said Vic, trying to play her case of nerves down but not completely succeeding. "First time I tried to ride a bike after my change I fell right over. Took me a couple of hours to get a smooth ride again. All the old reflexes were gone. I've practiced martial arts on my own a lot since, but not with a partner. What if I hurt someone?"

      "You'll be fine," said Melanie, patting Vic's hand. "The teacher will know better than to simply throw you in the deep end. Given the powers of some of the students here that would be outrageously foolish."

      "Yeah, you're right. Any competent instructor would start easy, and find out what the students are capable of before doing anything demanding."

      Though she remembered Dr. Cargraves, and had an odd twinge, deep in her gut.

       * * *

      At the appointed time Vic entered the gym to find about half the class already waiting. She had worn her gi, and so had two of the others. Two more were in more Occidental workout clothes. One was in street clothes with no sign of anything else to wear. Two were in mask costumes.

      As the hour approached, the rest of the class arrived, with roughly the same mix of outfits. Right on the dot, a man in a white gi with a red belt stepped out onto the floor of the indoor basketball court where the class was held. Vic immediately felt a bit uneasy. What sort of instructor didn't greet his students and get to know them before class started?

      "I am Martin Holdouer, formerly known as Holdout," said the man, with a smirk. "I was the trainer for the Specialists. Now I'm your trainer. Okay, shoes and socks off and line up along here!"

      Vic was instantly regretful she hadn't checked out the instructor before signing up for this course. This guy had worked with that group of posers and - What was the word from World War II France? Quislings, that was it. They had kowtowed to the Thurlin administration and got bitten in the ass by it. Well, maybe he had learned his lesson. As some in the class grumbled or were obviously confused about taking off shoes and socks, Vic moved out onto the line.

      "This class will not teach you sports," said Holdout, pacing back and forth in front of the row of sixteen students. "It will not teach you to score points. It will teach you to take out an opponent quickly and efficiently. It - I - will also teach you appropriate use of force. While you will be taught to kill, you will also be taught how to disarm, pin, joint lock and stun."

      That sounded like real martial arts. Vic's spirits lifted a bit.

      "Okay, first we do a warm-up. Everybody out on the floor!"

      The next half hour was a refreshing dose of familiar routine, at least for Vic. Oh, Holdour didn't teach exactly the same exercises, or put them in exactly the same order, but overall it was pretty close. She noticed some of the other students weren't doing so well.

      "Okay, some of you need to work on your fitness," said Holdout, sternly. "Very few powers come with a fit body. Oh, and that reminds me: No powers in class unless I tell you to. This helps make an even playing field and is safer for both the other students and the facilities. There will also be times when you can't or don't want to use your powers. Okay, everyone over to the edge of the mats!"

      Vic was about to sit with the others when Holdout pointed to her.

      "You! What's your name?"

      Vic straightened and proudly held up the end of her black belt, which had her name embroidered on it in white.

      "Vic Peltior."

      "Did you earn that belt or did it come with your outfit?"

      "I earned it," said Vic, trying not to seem smug.

      "What's your training?"

      "Three and a half years with Dr. Lin Thom."

      "He's good," said Holdout, nodding. "Anyone else have any prior training? I don't count sports, only real martial arts."

      Some who had started to raise their hands quickly lowered them. A few of those looked irritated.

      "Okay, I'll start with you, then. If you are worthy of that belt you'll be senior student. Come on up here."

      "I, uh, am out of practice," said Vic, growing more and more uncertain. "Dr. Thom stopped training me when my powers activated."

      "Don't worry," said Holdout, reassuringly. "It's like riding a bicycle."

      Vic winced at that choice of words, but moved out to the middle of the mats.

      "Now, I want you to hit me, hard as you can."

      "Huh?!" said Vic, startled. "Uh, wait. You don't know how strong I am, or how fast, and we don't have pads..."

      "Come on," said Holdour, smirking. "Don't worry; you won't hurt me. Come at me with all you've got."

      "No!" said Vic, alarmed, backing away a bit.

      "Come on," said Holdout, scowling. "You afraid?"

      "Yes, of one of us getting hurt. This isn't training, it's showing off."

      She turned and started to leave.

      "Don't you turn your back to me!" Holdout snapped. He grabbed Vic and spun her around. "You signed up for this class! If you're afraid of getting hurt, drop it!"

      "I'm going to do that, all right," said Vic, furious.

      She pulled free of his grip easily and turned her back on him again. As Vic half expected, the "instructor" grabbed her and yanked her back around. Unexpectedly, his open right hand smacked her across the face. Vic immediately hit him in the solar plexus with an uppercut. She then turned again and walked away, not bothering to watch him drop to the floor.

      Vic was extraordinarily surprised when Holdout grabbed her again, whirled her around and hit her with a heel-palm strike hard on the left side of her face. She dropped, stunned, a roaring in her ears.

      "Get up, bitch!" Holdout screamed. "Get up and take your medicine!"

      Vic tried. She really did. She couldn't move. Holdout screamed insults, and kicked her in the ribs hard enough to send her rolling across the mat. Vic grayed out, only dimly aware of what was happening around her.

       * * *

      "I thought she was tough," said Holdour, his tone a mix of whining and outrage. "They told me she had potential, but had an attitude problem. I saw that was true as soon as I told her to come out on the mat and work with me. She immediately started making excuses. So I made a point of challenging her, and then disciplined her when she failed. I didn't think I was hitting her hard enough to hurt her, that she was just... unwilling to fight."

      "Well, now you're going on trial," said the Detective sitting on the other side of the table in the interrogation room. "Probably to jail."

      "What! Why?!"

      "You assaulted a teenage girl, you moron," raged the cop, jumping to his feet and slamming his fists on the table. "In front of witnesses! You even admit it!"

      "She's a super! You're supposed to treat them rough! She's supposed to be tough!"

      "You broke her jaw and gave her a concussion with one punch," said Jacobs. "Then you literally kicked her while she was down! Broke three of her ribs. If she wasn't a regenerator she'd be in the hospital for days, and require treatment for months."

      "But... but... but... they told me to get tough with her," said Holdour, his voice barely more than a whisper.

       * * *

      "At least my regeneration is working better than it was when I first got it," said Vic, sourly, the next day. "I only needed half a day to completely heal."

      She shuddered.

      "Second half of my second day of classes missed. God, I hate my life... I'll be lucky if they don't expel me."

      "Not likely," said Melanie. "Even if the administration blames you for losing their super combat teacher, if they throw you out the publicity would eat them alive! They're already potentially liable. Punishing you for something illegal one of their staff members did would be handing you the keys to the place."

      "They're really throwing the book at Holdout," said Alex. "Once he realized how much trouble he was in, he tried to claim he was acting in self defense. Except that his grabbing you when you tried to leave counts as assault, so he actually started it. Then he kept hitting you after it was obvious you couldn't fight back."

      Vic shuddered again.

      "Some of the things he said..."

      "Well, he is on the outs with most of the super community, 'cause he sided with the Thurlin administration," said Alex. She started to make a joke, but changed her mind and said it plain. "I guess he has a lot of stress to get rid of."

      "I don't understand why my punch didn't drop him," said Vic, sourly. "I know he's physically super human, but a punch there..."

      "Did some research on that, since I was thinking the same thing," said Alex. "Turns out he's not actually physically tough and strong. He has a sort of energy absorbing power. Not exactly a force field, but it protects him from harm. Anything over a certain intensity is absorbed, and just makes him stronger. Even energy blasts."

      "So the way to beat him is with a choke or joint lock," said Vic, nodding.

      "Well, you're not likely to get the chance," said Melanie, patting her gently on the shoulder as Vic sat on the edge of her bed. "He's probably going away for a long time."

      "Well, I got a very potent lesson in humility," said Vic, sourly. "Don't turn your back on an opponent, even when you're sure he's down. Especially don't do it before he actually drops."

      "I also hope you learned to keep your temper in check," said Alex, concerned.








Part Twelve


      A routine was quickly established among a small group, thrown together by circumstances. Most of the Usual Suspects - as Vic mentally labeled the group - were already gathered for lunch a few days after the assault on her person as Vic walked up. Vic put her tray on the table and sat among them, already feeling at home with this odd assembly. In part, she felt good because of the reason she was nearly the last to arrive.

      "Well, that was interesting," said Vic, mildly, as she unrolled her silverware from the napkin. "I'm late because I got called to the office of the Dean."

      "Dr. Ronald Baker?" said Mel. "I think that's his name. Yeah. He's been here for years, since well before the current owner took over. I think him staying on was part of the deal. He's supposed to be really good."

      "Yeah. I was half expecting to be chewed out and thrown off campus, or maybe receive a half-hearted apology and handed a refund check. Instead, I got a heartfelt apology from Dean Baker, with a promise from him and the school's attorneys to support whatever charges I want to make against Holdour."

      "I can see that," said Alex, nodding. "They don't want to be sued."

      "I think there's more than that going on," said Vic, looking thoughtful as she chewed some chicken pot pie. "He was upset, and angry and a few other things, all of which you would expect. However, there was also something else. I got the distinct impression he was angry at someone besides Holdour. It wasn't me, either."

      "There's always politics going at places like this," said Candy. "Could be someone gave Holdour bad information and/or bad advice to make the current administration look bad."

      "They'd be especially bad, with the new ownership," said Melanie, nodding as she sat beside Candy. "To have this happen, when they're just getting started..."

      "No wonder you're happy," said Alex, grinning at Vic. "Bad guy in jail, his boss supporting you."

      "Well, besides that, right after lunch I have my first actual super class."

      "I thought those were all college level," said Don, frowning.

      "Remember, my advisor had me add some courses. Two of those are actual, college courses. This is one of 'em."

       * * *

      "To the eye, neutralizer beams and fields usually appear to be a sickly green or weird mauve color. However, photos show a pale, violet color, and that is very faint. In full daylight they may not be visible at all to a camera, film or digital. However, even then humans - and likely many animals - can see them clearly. As best anyone can determine, the apparent color perceived by living eyes is due to the way the beam affects even non-super nervous systems."

       Vic sat, entranced, as Dr. Julia Harper went over the beginning of the basics of being a super. She'd already briefly covered the course goals and requirements, and the statistics on latent and active supers. Vic was rather surprised those numbers were so high. Roughly eighty percent of the Earth's population had at least one gene associated with powers. The vast majority had too few to ever manifest powers, of course. Most of the rest would never be triggered.

      Dr. Harper had then started on things which only affected supers, or affected them more than they did the unpowered. Super cancer was very worrying, as were the mental disorders which afflicted some classes of supers. On hearing of the side effects of a neutralizer on a super Vic was glad they were strictly regulated.

      "Many people believe - and even state - that neutralizers put supers and non-supers on an even footing. The truth is, the majority of supers are disabled by them, at least at first. The initial shock can drop even powerful supers, and several minutes are needed for most of them to recover enough to operate at normal human levels. Even after that they are not merely rendered without powers, but left with a series of symptoms resembling those of a mild case of the flu. In other words, even after considerable time under a neutralizer, most supers are actually less than human in capability."

      This affects me, Vic thought, with an odd chill.

      Somehow, the realization that she was now subject to something which was only a concern for active supers was more convincing on a gut level than her low-level powers or even her physical change.

      I'm a super.

      Dr. Harper was not a super, but she was related to several. That included the original Night Master, who was a Great- Great-Uncle to her. She had a degree in Super Studies, which included their history, their powers and what was known about the science behind those.

      "Interestingly, people - supers and not - have repeatedly tried to use a neutralizer or something like it to detect latent supers. It just doesn't work. By their nature, neutralizers work by interfering with powers. Genetic tests remain the best method for finding latents, and they don't predict how likely a latent is to become active. I'm fifty-one years old and still a latent. Likely, I'll never become an active super, despite having several super genes."

      The bell rang. Dr. Harper smiled and told them there was no assignment this time.

      As the class gathered their books and papers and rose to leave, Vic noted that the percentage of supers attending was about the same as for the remedial program in general. That is, roughly seventy-one percent.

      Guess I'm not the only young super who's curious about themself.

       * * *

      "Interesting," said Rokuro, as he read the report on the incident between Vic and Holdout. "From previous news reports and evaluations I assumed she was much more formidable."

      "Could be she just got sucker punched," said Banpresto, with a shrug. "Even when working with the Specialists he had a tendency to do that, to show them he was in charge."

      "He has no previous record of assault, or charges of abuse from his team members," said Sam.

      "Irrelevant," said Rokuro, waving the point away. He frowned in thought for several seconds. "She is one of very few super students with actual fighting skills and the only one known to have been in a serious fight. Yet she did so poorly against Holdour she might as well have been a norm."

      "Her only real fight was against high school bullies, who had all been drinking," said Banpresto. He shrugged again. "Though only three were actually over the legal limit. Still, none of her attackers had any sort of formal combat or self-defense training. Just brawling and contact sports. None of them were even in boxing or sport judo. They weren't even very experienced brawlers."

      "I'm lowering her priority," said Rokuro, after another long silence. "We keep an eye on her, of course, but there are many others who are more deserving of close attention."

      "Emotional stress can stimulate the development of powers," said Sam, helpfully, "or motivate training which likewise improves abilities. Wouldn't be hard to arrange some additional tragedy to put more pressure on her."

      "I think she has more than enough stress in her life right now," said Rokuro, with a wry laugh. "No, she's likely not worth any such effort on our part. If the natural course of events leads to her improvement, we'll take another look at her."

       * * *

      "Oh, you gotta be kidding me," said Vic, stunned, as she read her e-mail the evening of her fourteenth day at Ramsey.

      "Whatwhatwhat?!" said Alex, starting awake from a nap.

      "The judge in charge of the case against the jocks who attacked me and my friends has dismissed the charges," said Vic, sourly.

      "How could he do that?!" said Alex, sitting up on her bed and rubbing her eyes. "I mean, what grounds would he have..."

      "He declared that the video of the attack a bystander put online has prejudiced the case and made a fair trial impossible."

      "That's... that's... Oooooohhh!!!"

      "Yeah," said Vic, with a tired sigh. "That about sums it up."

      "So, what, now?"

      "Dad says that with support from the DA's Office, he's going to have our attorney take the case to the state level, and get the charges reinstated. They're going to also add civil rights charges, accusing them of... Dad says 'racism' but I don't think that's the term for hate crimes against supers. What would it be?"

      "Hate crimes against a super," said Candy, looking in through the open door. "That's still illegal in spite of all the politicians who still say it isn't. Did you know we could hear you all the way down the hall?"

      "Sorry," said Vic, blushing.

      "No, it's all right. Not late enough to be a problem. We would want to hear the news, anyway."

      "You're not going to cry, are you?" said Alex.

      "Oh, fuck, no."

      "You look like you're going to do something," said Candy, warily. "Maybe something dangerous."

      "Don't worry. I'm just gonna go pound a heavy bag until either it or I bleed," said Vic.

      Until they could get a new teacher for the super martial arts class those who were in it were excused from the PE requirement. They were also allowed - and encouraged - to use the assigned training facilities and equipment, as long as they were careful not to over use them. Vic had quickly learned where such items as the boxing and martial arts equipment were kept. She had startled some of the collegiate boxing and sport martial arts people by not only lifting more weight than nearly any of them, but by punching and kicking harder. They tended to keep their distance, making no objections to this stranger using their equipment, instead generally ignoring her. Given Vic's recent experiences with jocks, that suited her just fine.

      Vic rose and grabbed her gym bag. Scowling, she exited her room, headed down the stairs and outside.

       * * *

      Vic tiredly entered the locker room and began stripping. There was only one set of showers each for guys and gals in the athletic complex, located in the same building as the pool. That made sense; all of the dorms were close enough to make showering in the students' bathrooms convenient. The main exception was swimmers, who would want to get the chlorine off quickly. Normally, Vic would have walked back in her gi and showered at the dorm. However, she had used her last clean towel a bit earlier. Here, the towels were supplied.

      Vic had her top and sport bra off and was untying her bottoms when she heard people approaching. For a brief moment she had the panicked thought that she was in the wrong room, which she quickly quashed. Within seconds a swarm of very wet, very athletic women - most of them a year or two older than her - came rushing in, as the swim team finished practice. Chattering among themselves, they barely took notice of Vic. Some strode directly into the showers, to rinse off in their suits, but the rest began stripping. Right there, in front of Vic. After all, they could see that the only other occupant was definitely female.

      Vic managed not to stare - for the most part - though she couldn't help but grin as she finished removing her sweaty clothes and followed the other girls into the showers.

      There are definitely some advantages to my situation,she thought, as she stepped under the steaming, stinging stream and began soaping herself. Surrounded by other women doing the same.








Part Thirteen


      "Never thought I'd see you in a dress," said Alex, not bothering to cover her grin.

      "Never thought I'd be in a dress," said Vic, glaring at Melanie and Candy. "These two can be very persuasive when they start tag-teaming someone."

      "Oh, hush," said Candy, sitting at Vic's feet as she and Melanie stitched a baste in the hem. "With Cindy gone, you're the only one I know here who's my friend's size. You can bear it for a few minutes."

      "Oh, we're already well past a few minutes," said Vic, from atop the low stool. As she looked down at the two older gals working on the hem, she couldn't help but notice her own cleavage.

      "That still turns me on," she muttered.

      "What?" said Candy, absently.

      Alex burst out laughing.

      "Are you sure this thing is supposed to be worn without a bra?"

      "Yes!" said Melanie, sounding both distracted and impatient. "Listen, when we asked if you'd help us finish a gift for Candy's friend you agreed without condition. So suck it up and suck it in. We're almost done."

      "What do you mean suck it in?!" said Vic, scandalized. "I am not overweight by any definition!"

      "Yes, you are," said Candy, sternly, as she tied off a thread. "You're over-muscled for a girl."

      "I happen to like being musc... Ow!"

      "Sorry!" said Melanie, smirking. "Okay, let's step back and take a look."

      All three of the other girls straightened and moved back. There was a long silence.

      "Well?" said Vic, who was vain enough to want to know she looked good.

      "You're... very striking," said Candy, who looked a bit stunned.

      "That's definitely a compliment," said Melanie, nodding. "Wow."

      "'Wow'?" said Vic, not sure if she should be worrying.

      "When did you get boobs?" said Alex, who then blushed.

      "What?! I'm pretty sure they're the same size they've al... they've been since I got 'em! All my bras still fit fine. (A phrase which I never dreamed I'd be saying six months ago.)"

      "No, I mean... normally, you dress to minimize 'em."

      "That's true," said Candy, nodding. "I thought you were flat chested for the first few days. You even cover up in the bathroom. When Melanie said you'd be a good match for Louise I thought she was crazy, but it worked fine. You've actually got a good figure."

      She laughed.

      "In spite of the muscles."

      "Can I get down now?"

      "Huh? Oh, sure. It looks fine. We can put in the permanent stitching any time, now that we have the right length and shape."

      Vic stepped off the stool and reached around to start lowering zipper.

      "I don't know how you can do that," said Candy, who had reflexively stepped closer to help. "Most girls would need help on this dress."

      Vic started to reply, then realized just what Alex was whistling.

      "'The Stripper'?!"

      "Heeee..." said Alex, grinning and preparing to run.

      "Don't you do it!" said Melanie, quickly, to Vic. "You'd damage the dress."

      "Well, I'm not chasing her through the dorm in just panties," said Vic, glaring at her roommate as she slid the garment off.

      "Aw, please?!" said Alex, trying to give her puppy dog eyes.

      "You look just old enough that that's really creepy," said Candy, with a delicate shiver.

      "I don't know what you're so shy about," said Alex, openly staring. "You're not conventional centerfold material, but there are body building magazines who'd pay good money to shoot you. Not to mention a few lesbian skin mags. What you lack in quantity you definitely make up for in quality. Rowr, what a hardbody. Your pecs really push your tits up and out."

      "Now you know why I try to maintain my modesty," said Vic, in a muttered aside to Candy. "Say, how did she get in here, anyway? I thought it was just us three, and I know you locked the door."

      "Of course we locked the door," said Candy, rolling her eyes. "You demanded it. Besides, she just walked right in behind you. What's the big mystery?"

      "I have the power to cloud men's minds," said Alex, following that with an evil cackle. "Unfortunately, it doesn't work on women. Boy, would that be handy! Guess I'll have to be satisfied with it working on ex-men."

      "Well, I'm glad I could help," said Vic, ignoring her roommate as she pulled on her bra. "Just please don't ask again."

      "Well, how often does this sort of situation come up?" said Candy. "I promised my friend I'd make her a custom dress for her birthday. Thinking I'd finish before college started. Oh, well; it's done, and on time, with your and Melanie's help. Thank you."

      She gave the still nearly naked Vic a firm though quite sisterly hug.

      "You're very welcome," said Vic, feeling a bit breathless.

       * * *

      Vic kept getting spasms of nerves, which she firmly quashed each time. The medical staff here had finally completed their analysis of the DNA sample they took from Vic over a month earlier. She was expecting confirmation and clarification, not some grand revelation. Ramsey Technical College had a small but very competent medical staff, in part due to the research they did on new medical diagnostic and treatment technologies. That didn't mean they were going to tell her anything substantially different from what other, also competent, examiners had said. She hoped...

      "Miss Peltior?" said the nurse, actually making Vic start. "Dr. Feldman will see you now."

      Vic had met Irving Feldman before, during the initial examination the school arranged. He was a general practitioner with super experience, having actually worked as the on-call MD for a team for several years. He was in late middle age, rather grey, a bit pudgy and a bit fussy. Vic found herself liking him, despite some of the things he'd done to her and had her do on her own.

      "Good afternoon, Vicky," said Dr. Feldman, unable for some reason to call Vic by her actual name. As usual, he didn't offer to shake hands. "Please, have a seat. There's nothing worrying in the results, but there is a great deal of detail, so I hope you have your schedule clear for the next couple of hours."

      "All clear," said Vic, nodding.

      "All right, let's get right to it," said the doctor, opening the folder on his desk and adjusting his glasses as he looked down at the document inside. "We think you definitely have a form of low-level regeneration, not rapid healing."

      "What's the difference? People keep talking about them as if they were two separate things, but never tell me why."

      "The most noticeable distinction in your case is that you have no scars. With rapid healing - even thorough healing - you can still have scars. They will fade with time, but some trace will always be there. Regeneration doesn't leave scars."

      "So... that's good?"

      "Yes. This is partially - though only partially - responsible for the low noise in your nervous system, which largely explains your keen senses. One thing which kept us from being certain initially is that you didn't have any fillings before your powers activated. With regeneration, those are replaced, but you didn't have anything to replace. That would have been a sure sign."

      "My family has good teeth," said Vic, with a proud smile. "Good health overall, actually."

      "Likely due to the super genes in your line," said Dr. Feldman, nodding. "However, there's more at work in your case than simple regeneration."

      The doctor sighed in mild aggravation and rubbed his head a bit. Vic gave him a puzzled look but remained silent until he was ready to continue.

      "This next topic is most peculiar, though I want to assure you we see nothing in it to warrant concern on your part. Everyone has errors in their DNA. Since there's two complete sets, and both sets have multiple genes involved in the same functions, these usually don't cause a problem. However... Your DNA is perfect."

      "Uh, thanks?" said Vic, not much enlightened.

      "You don't understand. This isn't natural. It has to be a result of your power. In fact, we think the regeneration - everything superhuman you do, every change you've been through - is the result of one power. Only, we don't know what it is. We thought at first it might be some weird form of adaptation, but that doesn't really fit, because with that power you'd keep changing. You appear to be stable."

      "So... What is my power?"

      "Best guess, it's some form of optimization. Your power took your genes and tweaked them to best fulfill some goal or purpose. If you've ever heard of the Selfish Gene hypothesis, you know that the goal or purpose may not be anything you or I would choose, since it's not consciously selected but the result of genetic imperatives."

      "Huh," said Vic, not sure what else to say.

      "There's more," said the doctor, briefly looking like he had tasted something sour. "Your DNA has changed significantly. It's not just that the usual mistakes are gone. Sections known to be leftover from prehistoric viral infections are gone. We're not sure, yet, what replaced these sections, but we're still looking. I can assure you that it appears harmless; this is all on segments which are normally inactive."

      "That's a pretty big load to dump on me, after telling me there's nothing to worry about!"

      "As far as we can tell, there isn't anything to worry about," said Dr. Feldman reassuringly. "You're perfectly healthy and will likely stay that way. It's just that there are many things about your transformation which we have no experience with. Most supers are unique at least in part, even those with the same powers."

      "Just how much did my DNA change?" said Vic, flatly.

      "We compared your current DNA with several samples from things like a lock of your baby hair, as well as with the rest of your family. You... don't even count as a close relative - genetically - of your former self. Something which the original testers never mentioned, for some reason. The upshot is, your DNA is different from that of any other human sample we have on record, while still being without a doubt human. It's as if you were from some isolated but healthy ethnic group which only recently contacted the outside world.

      "We did find several super genes in both your parents and sister, as well as in those old samples of your DNA. Only a few of which you currently have. This is still an inexact science, but our best guess from the familial data is that your power activated, and in the process of activation changed you in a way which got rid of itself."

      "That's... weird."

      "Lots of things about powers are weird."

      "What's going on, here?" said Vic, desperately, feeling lost.

      "We have a hypothesis, but so far that's all it is," said Dr. Feldman, looking uncomfortable. "Regeneration can only heal someone as well as their genes allow. Fast or thorough healing not even that. Your genes are, well, as close to perfect as I've ever seen. Maybe even actually perfect, in some sense. It's as if your power was to make and keep you perfect. Period. Your muscles, nerves, bones, everything works significantly better than normal. I'm thinking of calling what happened to you the Optimist Effect."

      Vic considered this for a moment.

      "So. Is that why I got younger?"

      "Yes. Also, you may never look any older."

      "What?!"

      "Biologically, you're fully mature. Just very youthful. If you're like most people with regeneration, this is your physiological age. From now until something kills you."








Part Fourteen


      Vic - stunned by the revelations from Dr. Feldman - walked slowly back to her dorm in a daze. She felt like she had left that building for her appointment days ago, but it was actually only a couple of hours. As Vic exited the stairwell at the far end of the hall she saw Alex, Candy and Melanie - with a couple of other girls and some of the guys - talking in the lounge area of the second floor. Feeling a need for company, Vic headed for the central area.

      "There she is!" said Alex, in mock accusation, pointing a finger at Vic as she appeared in the doorway. She switched to a grin and an inviting wave to join them. "How did it go?"

      "Okay," said Vic as she moved towards them, not sure what to say, or what she wanted them to know. Especially Don. He'd treat the situation like some fascinating piece of scientific data, instead of something personally devastating. "Some odd quirks, like a lot of supers have, but nothing to worry about."

      She noticed Don was staring at her. Specifically, at her chest.

      "Don!" said Vic, fighting the urge to put her hands over her breasts.

      "Sorry. I just don't see what they were talking about earlier."

      "You were talking about my breasts?!" said Vic, scandalized, as she glared at Alex, Candy and Melanie.

      "Uhm, not exactly," said Melanie, who had the good grace to look embarrassed. "We were talking about how funny it was to have you in a dress. Candy and Alex kept talking about, uhm, how good you looked in it. How surprised we were that you actually filled it out."

      "Oh, please," said Vic, feeling a bit sick.

      "Seriously, you did look good," said Melanie, hoping the compliment would help mollify her. "You're... perky!"

      "Little miss implants, that's what you are," said Candy, teasing.

      "Implants," said Vic, confused. Suddenly, she twigged, and was instantly raging. "I don't have implants, you fucking moron! Why would I want bigger tits when I never wanted tits at all?! Stop projecting your own inadequacies on other people!"

      With that she turned and stormed out.

       * * *

      There was a soft knock at the door.

      "Vic?" said Alex, timidly, barely pushing the door open. "Are you all right?"

      "Noooooo!" Vic wailed, from where she lay, face-down on her bed, arms on top of her head.

      Alex slowly came in and walked over to her roommate's bed, hesitated a moment, then sat on the edge and put a hand on Vic's shoulder.

      "What's wrong?"

      "I'm a bitch!"

      "Ooooh-kay," said the younger girl, uncertainly. "About what in particular?"

      "You were therrrrre..."

      "Yeah, you kind'a scared us. None of us have ever heard you even raise your voice before. Well, I hear you talked loudly to Holdout, but... What happened to make you so angry? I mean, yeah, we were teasing you, but it was good-natured, and..."

      "I don't know!"

      "Look, can you at least roll over? I'm having a hard time understanding you."

      Vic not only rolled over, she sat up, leaning back against the wall. She looked... scared.

      "Better," said Alex. "Now, what's bothering you? Why did you flip out?"

      "I... I... I really don't know! It just hit me, suddenly. Everything that's happened the past few months."

      "Wow, you've really been crying your eyes out," said Alex, looking back and forth between Vic's face and the soaked pillow. "Okay, listen, everybody who knows you knows you've been through Hell and handled it well. I don't think they'll hold it against you that you flipped out. I think you were due, and figure so do most of the others. You really need to apologize to Candy, though. The sooner the better."

      Vic sagged, not otherwise responding.

      "Listen, I mean it. You do this now, or you're likely to have an enemy the rest of college."

      Vic sat up, sighed, then stood and straightened her clothes.

      "Atta girl! You should clean your face first, though. Make yourself presentable."

      Vic grabbed a tissue and scrubbed her face dry, checking the mirror by the door. She sighed again, tossed the tissue, and opened the door to step out into the hall.

      She took two steps - had barely pulled the door closed behind her - when she realized that Candy had just done the same. There was a frozen moment. Vic sighed yet again, gathered her courage, and stepped forward.

      "I'm really, really sorry for yelling at you earlier," said Vic, her voice barely above a whisper.

      "No, no, I had it coming," said Candy, quickly. She looked like she had been crying, too. "I'm sorry. I knew you were sensitive about the whole girl thing and I teased you and..."

      They ended up standing in the hall, hugging each other and bawling onto each other's shoulders, each trying to comfort the other while simultaneously taking the blame.

      "That was about the weirdest thing I've ever experienced," said Vic, later, still sniffing into a tissue as she sat at her desk and tried to do some work.

      "You had a real emotional sharing moment," said Alex, sympathetically. "I'm just glad you handled it so well."

      "Handled it well? I just stood there, blubbering and stammering."

      "Exactly. So did she. That's real bonding. It's the emotion of that sort of moment which counts more than what's actually said or done. Hey, I've seen guys do the same thing."

      She laughed.

      "They're just less likely to admit it, later."

      "I'm just glad Candy forgave me."

      "You kidding? She obviously felt as bad as you did. We all felt bad, even Don and Mel. We thought you'd had some sort of really bad news from the doctor and we'd been joking about you."

      She looked worriedly at her roommate.

      "Actually, did you get bad news?"

      "No. I guess it's good news. Well, some of it was good, some bad, and the rest just plain weird."

      "Oh, now I gotta hear this!"

      Vic sighed and related what Dr. Feldman had told her.

      "Okay. That is weird."

      "Try living with it."

      "So, uh, what are you going to do?"

      "What I've been doing," said Vic, tired but with a core of resolve which surprised even her. "Keep going."

       * * *

      The next few days were a period of recovery. Vic managed to make all her classes, and get all her work done, but was obviously still feeling down. This wasn't helped by one of her favorite teachers being away that week.

      Thanks to Dr. Harper being out of state at a conference, the next few supers basics classes were all taught by guest instructors. They were a mixed bunch; some employed by the college, some from outside; some male and some female; and ages ranging from late twenties to late sixties.

      "Several different systems for ranking powers have been used during the past eighty years," said Professor Bernard Hopkins, the speaker for today's supers class. He was a portly, middle-aged man who seemed more used to explaining things to government officials and business executives than actually teaching. "Two years ago a concerted effort was made by several federal government agencies to create a standardized rating system. This new system combined features of several others, so is at least partly familiar to those who have used previous systems. It's called the Combined Uniform Evaluation, or CUE, occasionally pronounced cooee."

      Hopkins kept switching back and forth between a very dry, almost monotone voice and false heartiness and enthusiasm. Vic didn't know which was more annoying. She assumed he must be qualified, since he'd been brought in by the college, but his manner didn't inspire confidence in his knowledge of the subject.

      "The strength evaluation for this new system is the simplest to explain, so I'll use it as an example. It is a percentile system, based on what appears to be a plateau. This ranking methodology has some drawbacks, but also some advantages. A ranking of one in this system is a baseline human, with three being a very fit non-super human. People like Magni and the Sailor are rated at one hundred. Up through twenty-five the number gives the multiplier of the baseline human strength rating. Someone with a rating of twenty is roughly twenty times as strong as a baseline human.

      "In the middle range this system is pretty arbitrary, giving a percentile rating based on feats or tests without actually representing anything else. However, as you get above seventy it gives a close comparison with the maximum the super can press in metric tonnes. So someone with a rating of eighty is eightieth percentile and can press about eighty tonnes, under optimum conditions."

       * * *

      "There's something wrong with that scale," said Vic, scowling as she examined her notes that evening.

      "I'll say," said Alex, smirking, as she looked over her roommate's shoulder. "He got the explanation for the numbers all wrong. The scale's logarithmic, in a weird base. I remember reading about this. The people developing it were told by the feds to make all supers fit in a scale of one to a hundred, with one being a fit but non-athletic human and a hundred being the Sailor, plus some other arbitrary landmarks. They had to do some pretty impressive math gymnastics to meet the assigned goal."

      "So politics trumps science, again," said Vic, sourly. "I wonder if Dr. Harper knows that."

      "Probably. I wouldn't be surprised if she mentions it when she gets back from that conference. If she doesn't, be sure to bring it up. Though I'd do it person to person, rather than yelling it out in class."








Part Fifteen


      A month and a half into the semester, Vic's parents finally were able to bring her car to her.

      "Hello, Monstro," said Vic, giving the fender of the old Corolla an affectionate pat. "Wow, you're looking good."

      "She greets the car before she greets us," said Arnold, dryly, as he climbed out.

      "Hey, it got here first."

      She gave her Father a warm and very firm hug which lasted until her Mother walked over from her own car; then Vic switched targets.

      "My, you must be lonely to greet us like that!" said Alissa, as the hug finally broke.

      "Not exactly. I've made several new friends. Just good to see family occasionally."

      She turned back to the wagon.

      "This looks really good. Not just repaired, but washed and waxed and everything! It didn't look this good when I got it from Grandpa!"

      "The wash and wax were to make up for taking so long getting it to you," said Arnold. "We've been very busy."

      "There's several boxes of clothes and such in the back," said Alissa, perhaps changing the subject.

      "Did you pack Smokey?"

      "Smokey..." said her Father, blankly.

      "You know. My guitar."

      "Sorry, you didn't mention it so I didn't think to," said her Mother. "We'll ship it with a care package in a couple of weeks."

      "Well, when you called you said you'd have all afternoon. So, lunch, first, before we start the tour?"

      "That sounds good," said her Father. "I always work up an appetite driving this thing, for some reason."

      "Probably from the effort to keep it under the speed limit," said Alissa, laughing.

      In the cafeteria they quickly caught each other up on recent events. Most of this was just chatter, since they all had - and used - e-mail and other digital media. However, a few details new to Vic did come up.

      "Judge Tallman was pretty incensed when Julie - Julie Cramden, our attorney for this part of the procedure - and I finished presenting the case," said Arnold. "He said that not only would he reinstate it, but start an official investigation of the previous judge and the police department. He noted that since we had already won a case against the school he wasn't going to include them. Say, this roast is good!"

      "I just don't understand why all this... prejudice happened," said Vic, waving her fork vaguely. "Neither that judge nor the police were pro-Thurlin. There's no history in the town of organized anti-super sentiment."

      "It probably had little to do with you being a super," said her Mother, reaching across the table to put a hand on Vic's. "Best we've been able to figure out, it's a combination of things. You did break the law, all four of you boys. Only you survived the accident, so you were an obvious scapegoat. You... changed, which made you appear odd, further focusing attention on you. When people tried to 'deal' with you - get you out of their sight and mind, actually, so what you represented wouldn't keep bothering them - you resisted. You - and we - kept defying various authority figures, which made some people think we must be guilty of something, or we'd just do what we were told. So, by their definition we're troublemakers and deserve whatever we get."

      "I hate to say it, but that's probably right," said Arnold, nodding. "I think all the post-accident troubles you had with authority were due to your circumstances rubbing their noses in the fact that the universe doesn't operate the way they want it to. They blamed you because you were alive and continuing to force them to confront things they didn't want to confront."

      "That sounds like a typical jock response," said Vic, acidly.

      "Oh, trust me, dear," said Alissa. "It's not just jocks who think like that."

      After lunch they walked slowly around the campus while Vic gave them a tour of the facilities and occasionally introduced them to a student or teacher.

      "Well, I originally had my doubts," said her Father, as the sun began to set. "However, after seeing this place, and how well you've settled in, I definitely approve."

      "Your sister did some checking," said Alissa, "and says this place is highly recommended. This is a good school and you indeed have settled in nicely. So, yes, I agree with your Father."

      "How often does that happen?" he teased, hugging wife and daughter.

      "Shame you didn't get to meet Alex," said Vic, as she walked them back to her Mother's car. "Her family lives close enough she goes home most weekends."

      "From what I've heard she might have been a bit much for a first visit," said Arnold, dryly.

      Vic felt a bit sad as she watched them drive away, her Mother at the wheel of her car. However, Vic also felt very accomplished. Humming a bit, she got in her old car and proudly hung her student parking permit from the center mirror. Then she moved it from the visitor parking space where her Father had put it to her assigned space by the dorm. She actually laughed when she noticed that the gas tank was full.

       * * *

      "That's your car?!" said Alex, Sunday evening. After returning to the school and hearing Vic's parents had brought the Corolla she was very insistent about seeing it.

      "Hey, don't knock Monstro," said Vic, defensively. "It's got enough miles on it to reach the Moon."

      "Looks it, too," said Alex, with a smirk.

      "This from someone who drives a beat up Honda motorcycle," said Vic.

      "Hey, it can out-race your heap!"

      "While carrying you and, how much else? Oh, that's right. Nothing!"

      "I have saddlebags!"

      "I have fold down rear seats!"

      They continued the friendly bickering as they returned to their shared room.

      "Whoof! I love my folks, but I'm glad to be back here," said Alex, as she threw herself on the bed. "I've got four brothers, you know."

      "Yes, you keep telling me," said Vic. She sat down at her computer and checked her e-mail. "What's this?"

      "Who's it from?" said Alex, eagerly, as - fatigue forgotten - she bounced off the bed and into position behind Vic, looking over her shoulder.

      "The school. Hey, great! They found a new super martial arts instructor. He starts tomorrow! Everyone signed up for the old class is supposed to contact him and make an appointment."

      "That was quick."

      "I guess they put a priority on it, given what the last instructor did."

      "Yeah, I'm going with you when you meet this guy," said Alex, protectively. "Just to make sure."

      "Oh, yes," said Vic, rolling her eyes. "I'm sure having an undersized young woman with no self-defense training will help keep me safe."

      "Not talking about physical stuff," said Alex. "You're still pretty naive about some things."

       * * *

      Right from the start, Jude Trujillo proved to be a very different type of instructor from Holdout. For one thing, he made a point of meeting with each person applying for his class, to interview them about why they wanted in and what their abilities were. He was middle-aged, slightly greying, and very fit, in the lean way of gymnasts and martial artists.

      Trujillo opened the door at Vic's knock, then looked confused as Alex trailed Vic in.

      "And this is...?"

      "Alexia Mondergan, pre-law," she said, offering her hand.

      "I thought you were biochem and physics," said Vic.

      "Lots of overlap, there."

      "Why is she here?" said Trujillo, not at all enlightened by this exchange.

      "She says she's my witness, in case you try anything," said Vic, with a sigh. "I think she's just curious, but that's enough to turn her into an irresistible force."

      "Well, I'm not planning to ask anything confidential, so if you don't mind I guess she's okay."

      "No, might as well let her stay," said Vic, with an affectionate smile at her roommate.

      "Okay, then," said Trujillo, sitting behind his desk. "Let's get down to business. Why do you want in this course?"

      "That's all in the notes Holdour had."

      "Which I didn't get," said Trujillo, with a shrug. "I have the same job, the same office and the same secretary, but half his paperwork has just vanished."

      Vic could feel Alex perk up at that, so quickly answered the still-hanging question.

      "I was in martial arts for several years before coming here," she explained. "Earned my shodan, was planning to stick with it. Then I was in a car wreck which activate my powers."

      "Gave her boobs, too!"

      Vic glared at Alex, then turned back to the instructor to see him appearing very confused. Vic sighed, and bit the bullet.

      "I used to be a guy. No-one knows why I got changed."

      "That's... unusual," said the man, valiantly trying to regain control of the interview. "Not unprecedented... but definitely unusual. So, you want to keep training?"

      "Yes. I like being able to defend myself. I also like having options beyond 'hit 'em!'"

      "I hear you got the previous instructor fired," said Trujillo, cautiously.

      "After he assaulted me in class," said Vic, angrily.

      "Feeling were hurt," said Alex, dryly, as Trujillo started, "stitches were needed."

      "Combination of bad information on my powers and a real problem with being corrected," said Vic, looking tired. "Someone told him I was physically superhuman. They also told him that I was rebellious. So when I tried to let him know I'm not physically super, he decided that was just me mouthing off."

      "The Dean told me he couldn't provide any details, due to an upcoming trial. So, what are your abilities?"

      Vic went through the list.

      "Interesting. Certainly useful, especially true regeneration. Well, I can certainly work with this."

      "So am I in?"

      "Oh, yes. Definitely. Schedule will be the same as before; Tuesdays and Thursdays, either ten to twelve or two 'till four."

      "That's great," said Vic, with a sense of relief.









Part Sixteen


      Vic was in her dorm room after her last class for the afternoon. Feeling good about her meeting with the new instructor, she was celebrating by watching a new anime before doing her assignments. Alex was already reading some abstruse technical journal on her own bed. The show was just getting interesting when someone knocked.

      "Come on in!" said Vic, hitting pause.

      Angel quickly opened the door and ducked inside, closing it behind her. She was wearing a pair of crocs and a bathrobe. Vic wondered how she got the latter on over her wings. As well as whether she had anything else on.

      "Vic, I need your opinion on something," she said.

      "Sure," said Vic, sitting up and turning around to put her feet on the floor.

      Angel whipped off the robe so quickly that Vic didn't get a chance to see how it fit. Though another reason was being distracted by first her abrupt action and then what was under the robe.

      "Do you think my boyfriend will like it?" said Angel, posing in her new swimsuit, wings held wide.

      Her left wingtip actually brushed the door, and her right was not far from the wall on the other side.

      "Oh, sure," said Vic, staring. "He'll go crazy over it."

      This wasn't one of those suits which left little to the imagination. It was one of those suits which enhanced the imagination. With her shapely body and the exotic element her wings provided, Angel looked anything but angelic. Though she definitely looked heavenly.

      "Thanks! We're hot tubbing tonight and I want to surprise him."

      "Oh, that will definitely do it," said Vic, managing to look her in the eye and smile encouragingly.

      The winged gal gave Vic a devastatingly charming smile, whipped her robe back on and departed.

      "Why do they keep asking me about these things?!" said Vic to Alex, once Angel had left.

      "To get the male perspective," said Alex, absently.

      "Oh..."

      "I'm a bit envious," said the little genius, mock pouting. "She didn't even turn around. Was the front view as good as the back?"

      "I didn't see the back, but the front was pretty spectacular."

       * * *

      Angel's visit had the unexpected benefit of interrupting Vic's mood. She turned off the TV and player and actually got her assignments completed early. She then wandered towards the central lounge, thinking vaguely of a snack.

      Vic was still meeting new people at the college. This was not surprising; there were hundreds here. Some folks she had actually met but didn't know. Some of those seemed to be deliberately avoiding her. One of those was Harvey Bailey. She had barely spoken to him, but was pretty sure he was strongly anti-super.

      Vic's suspicion was confirmed, when she overheard a rather loud discussion as she approached the lounge. She never learned what started the argument. When she realized what it was about she stopped, in the hallway, just outside, out of sight.

      "So you're having to work your way through college," said a young man whom Vic couldn't see and whose voice she didn't recognize. "What's the big deal? Most of us are."

      "You don't understand!" said Harvey, who might have been a bit drunk. "We used to be rich! Then things went all wrong."

      "What things?" said the first voice. "You mean the recession?"

      "No! Politics!"

      "How could politics cause..."

      "My family supported Thurlin," said Harvey, angrily. "We were rich, and had followed him for years. After he was elected, we felt safe, and even became richer. Then Thurlin got thrown out and the new President said what we did was wrong and..."

      "Wait," said Mel, speaking for the first time. "By 'political' do you mean that you took actions supported by Thurlin, but which are actually criminal acts?"

      "They weren't! Now they are! Only the new administration is saying they always were, when Thurlin said they weren't! How could we know things would go so crazy?"

      "Gee, I don't know," said Mel, loudly, lunging to his feet, fists clenched. "Maybe because it happens EVERY FUCKING TIME?! God damn you, and all those like you! History tells you that supporting fanatics is a bad idea, but YOU KEEP DOING IT!!"

      "Well, now we're ruined," said Harvey, looking up at Mel with haunted eyes. "They seized our assets under the RICO Act. By the time we got them released, most had been pilfered. By people we thought were on our side! Fortune gone, my Dad crippled while 'resisting arrest,' my Mother facing criminal charges for doing things which we were told were not only legal but the right thing to do. Happy, now?"

      "Of course not! Dammit, thousands of people were hurt by Thurlin, dozens killed, because people like you thought you were better than the rest of us!"

      "All right, Mel," said Candy, quietly, putting a hand on his shoulder. "If he doesn't get it by now he'll never get it. Please, calm down."

      "Get what?!" said Harvey, voice shrill, staring angrily at Candy. "That those freaks and you idiots on the other side who supported them sabotaged our work?! That you ruined us because we were trying to rein you in and stop exactly the sorts of abuses which you committed to hurt me and mine?!"

      "Yeah," said the first speaker, rising. "He's never gonna get it."

      Everyone else in the lounge except Harvey got up and left. Harvey was alone, sobbing into his hands. Vic actually felt sorry for him... but not sorry enough to do anything to help. She saw the speaker she didn't recognize walking her way hand-in-hand with one of the other girls from this floor. As they walked by, Vic joined them heading down the hall, away from Harvey.

       * * *

      "Why do you keep avoiding that super gal, Vic?" said Boyd. He laughed and rubbed his hands together. "Man, she's a real hardbody."

      "Don't even go there," said Objective with a shudder. "She used to be a guy. That's too freaky to think about."

      "Doesn't matter," said Boyd, with a leer. "She's all girl, now. She'll want girl things. Chief among them, a real man to satisfy her."

      "Yeah, you're a bit of a super groupie," said Objective, with a derisive smirk. "Maybe you're willing to overlook her, heh, shortcomings, but I'm not."

       * * *

      Vic was over half an hour early the next day for the first super martial arts class under her new instructor. She didn't know much about Trujillo, but was not surprised to see him already on the mats, in splits and leaning forward as he studied a folder of notes. Though he was about the same age as her Father - maybe even a little older - he appeared incredibly fit. Not to mention surprisingly flexible.

      "Hello?" he said, looking up as he heard someone approach.

      Vic walked towards the court, wearing her gi pants and a sport top, her gi top in her gym bag.

      "Hi," she said, a bit shyly.

      "Good afternoon! I can't actually say I'm surprised to see you here so early."

      He patted the mat beside him.

      "Come on out and get a head start on the warm up."

      "Sure," said Vic.

      She put her gym bag on the bottom bleacher seat and pulled out her gi top. With that on she sat and removed her shoes and socks.

      Without the pressure she had felt under Holdour, Vic found the surroundings reassuringly familiar. The echoes and sweaty scent of the gym, the springiness under her feet as she stepped onto the mat, the somewhat harsh lighting, the feel of the gi, loose on her skin. Comfortable, even relaxed, Vic did some warmup stretches, then dropped easily into full splits. She was to her teacher's right, turned to face him, a short distance away.

      "Class notes?" she said, indicating the folder.

      "In spite of my request for meetings, several of the students didn't make an appointment. Most because there simply wasn't enough time, I think. I managed to get them to e-mail me details of their powers. I went over them, this morning, but since I have the time figured I better review."

       He straightened and wiggled his feet a bit further out.

      "Feels good to be back in the harness," he said, echoing Vic's earlier thoughts.

      "Actually, I came by early to talk with you about a concern," said Vic. She related her having to relearn to ride a bicycle, and her concerns something similar might happen in class.

      "Interesting," said Trujillo, looking thoughtful. "Did you have any trouble the first time you walked?"

      "I was half asleep, heading for the bathroom," said Vic. "Looking back, yeah, a bit. I just didn't notice at the time, and got the hang of it pretty quickly."

      "You said you've been working out on your own."

      "Yes."

      "Well, there shouldn't be a problem. Just to check, let's do some easy drills."

      They both stood, and Trujillo had Vic do some simple techniques phase one (that is, on her own).

      "Good form," he said, nodding. "Precise and smooth. Okay, let's do some phase two."

      This time he had her perform the techniques against standard attacks, each time making sure they were both expecting the same thing.

      "Very good," said Trujillo, smiling. "We're not going any further than that today, so you're fine."

      Vic nodded, feeling reassured. She noticed something, and turned to see several of the other students milling around the edge of the court.

      "When did they come in?"

      "Now that's good focus!" said Trujillo, with a laugh. "Okay, everyone! Shoes off, gis on, out on the mats!"








Part Seventeen


      "What's all that?" said Alex, a couple of days later, as Vic entered their shared room with a couple of large boxes. She was long past marveling at how Vic's strength and dexterity allowed her to carry multiple large, heavy items at the same time.

      "Care package from home," said Vic, happily. "Two of them, actually. I assume this big one is my guitar. The other should be some clothes."

      Vic carefully placed the larger box on the bed, then dropped the smaller on her desk. It landed with a clunk.

      "Since when do clothes go 'clunk'?" said Alex.

      "Maybe Mom put something else in there..."

      Vic found a knife and cut the tape, then opened the flaps. Inside was...

      "Those don't look like very good clothes," said Alex, doubtfully.

      "There's something wrapped in them."

      "It's the bottom half of a blender, wrapped in some rags," said Alex, once Vic uncovered the core of the package.

      "So where's my clothes?" said Vic, digging around in the box. "This is just a bunch of rags."

      "Looks like they used them as padding. At least they're clean."

      "Where's my clothes?!"

      A quick call home revealed that this wasn't even the right size package.

      "No, dear," said Vic's Mother. "The one I sent you was nearly twice that size. I guess the label came off this and another box and someone at the Post Office just put them back on the wrong boxes. I remember one time, your Aunt Minnie..."

      Vic sighed and suffered through the long, boring story of Aunt Minnie's scissors yet again. Alissa finally wound down and Vic was able to say good-bye.

      All this time, Alex was examining both the box and its contents. Giving up on trying to get it to run, she unplugged the blender base from the power strip on the right side of Vic's desk.

      "That's a reasonable hypothesis," she said, on hearing what Vic's Mother thought had happened. "The blender base doesn't work. I'm guessing it was being sent for repairs. So, somewhere, some repair place got your clothes. I'm just confused that whoever packed this didn't include the paperwork. That at least would let us identify them and arrange a trade."

      "Why does this weird stuff keep happening to me?" said Vic, tiredly.

      Alex started to say something, then froze, her mouth and eyes round with astonishment.

      "That's it!"

      "What's what?"

      "Your power! You're a probability manipulator! It's a classic symptom! Before they learn to control their powers weird things - good, bad and neutral, but always unlikely - keep happening to them."

      "So you're saying I have the power of coincidence?" said Vic, doubtfully.

      "Yes! Wow, this opens up a whole range of possibilities!"

      "Fine. You figure them out. I'm going to check that the other box really has my guitar and not a nuclear warhead."

      Fortunately for the entire school, the other box did, indeed, contain Vic's guitar. She smiled as she dusted it off and tuned it. Since getting her powers Vic had trained her hearing to perfect pitch. Sitting on her bed, Vic strummed the guitar a few times, then started picking out "El Manisero."

      To her surprise, Alex began singing, in Spanish, in a high, clear soprano. Only, Vic noticed something wrong. She knew enough of both the song and the language to realize the words were... off. Suddenly, she recognized a particular word, and stumbled in her playing.

      "What the Hell are you singing?" said Vic, stopping to stare at her roommate.

      "An X-Rated parody," said Alex, with a nasty grin. "About a woman who wants the peanut vendor to put something warm and salty in her private place."

      "You creep me out, sometimes," said Vic, in a stage mutter.

      "Only sometimes?" said Alex, smiling sweetly.

       * * *

      "Interesting," said Rokuro, when he read the transcript of that conversation the next day.

      "Do you really think she's a probability manipulator?" said Sam, seeming doubtful.

      "It's unlikely. They are incredibly rare. Some people think that the universe, itself, rejects those who have the power, because they disturb the natural order. Personally, I just believe it is a very rare power, most likely due to the risk of unconsciously altering events against the favor of the possessor."

      He frowned in thought for several seconds.

      "How reliable is the surveillance we have on her?"

      "She can't fart without us hearing it."

      "Yes, but we currently have an AI monitoring her and all the other low-priority subjects," said Banpresto. "It can only flag things it knows to look for. We were just lucky they actually used several of our keywords."

      Their boss again spent a short period deep in thought.

      "Move her up one step in priority. Just in case. Add words and phrases associated with unlikely events and low probabilities and extreme luck to the AI monitoring."

      He looked off into the distance, well beyond the expensive paneling of his office walls.

      "Interesting. A probability manipulator could be very useful. As well as very dangerous. We must take this slowly and carefully."

       * * *

      Boyd saw his target approaching the line in the cafeteria and moved to intercept. He "accidentally" started to cut in front of her, then smiled and "let" her go ahead. She nodded and smiled, barely noticing but reflexively following the social niceties.

      He made small talk as they went down the row of dishes. Not pushing it, just being casual.

      "Well, so much for you getting in her pants," said Furtive, with a derisive smirk, when Boyd joined him and Objective.

      "What are you talking about?" said Boyd, puzzled.

      "You barely talked to her."

      "That's just the first step. Let her get used to me. Work out a way to introduce myself, insert myself into her sphere of friends."

      "Sounds like a lot of work, to me," said Furtive, shrugging.

      "He's a patient man," said Objective. "He's right, too. This gal has every reason to be man shy."

      "She'll be here at least the rest of the semester," said Boyd. "I'm betting I'll get in her pants at the post-exam parties, the very latest."

       * * *

      "Hey!" Alex yelled to Vic, as she started to enter their room. The smaller girl hurried down the hall towards them. "We're throwing a birthday party for Melanie this evening and we need some supplies. Can you give Harriet and me a ride to town?"

      "Sure," said Vic. "Just had my last class. Let me put my books away and we can go now."

      "Great!"

      Vic exited the room seconds later, locked the door, and turned to find Alex and Harriet waiting. Both were wearing rather casual clothes, especially the older gal.

      "You're not going to change?" said Harriet, looking puzzled.

      She was wearing very short shorts and a skimpy bandeau top, with bangle earrings, sandals, and stylish sunglasses, currently positioned above her forehead.

      "Into what?" said Vic, straight faced. "You're the shapeshifter."

      "Wonder Twin powers, activate!" said Harriet, umphing back her shoulders and threatening the structural integrity of her top. She cackled at Vic's reaction.

      "Glah!" said Vic, shying away. "Warn a gal before you do that!"

      "I didn't even make 'em any bigger," she said, smirking. "Don't need to."

      "Try not to get us arrested," said Vic, sighing.

      "Wow, this thing has some performance," said Alex, as Vic merged onto the freeway a few minutes later.

      "Yeah. Granddad is a bit of a hot-rodder."

      "Try not to get us arrested," said Harriet, from the back, in a perfect imitation of Vic.

      "Whoah!" said Alex, turning around in the seat to stare at the super. "Since when are you a mimic?"

      "Oh, thought I'd shown you two already. After talking with Miss Dawkins - one of my instructors - we worked out that I should be able to shape my throat to change my voice. So far I can do..."

      Her voice plummeted.

      "A really nice bass and..."

      Now it soared, higher than Alex's.

      "A high, high soprano."

      "Be careful about breaking glass and attracting dogs," said Alex, enchanted with this new development of Harriet's powers. "What about the mimicry?"

      "Well, I worked with a recorder to train my voice. It's more than just a matter of pitch, and I had a lot of trouble figuring what I needed to change for particular sounds, and the differences between genders. So far I can do maybe six other voices pretty well."

      "You picked mine as one of them?" said Vic.

      "Yeah. I mean, I hear you a lot. I've also practiced Alex..."

      Her voice briefly became identical to that of the young genius. As she proceeded to say each subject's name her voice turned into that person's.

      "...and Melanie ...and Mel ...and Candy ...and Don."

      "I love this school," said Alex, actually chortling.








Part Eighteen


      Vic woke from a dream of thunder. To find the whole building... thumping. She rolled over to check if Alex knew what was going on, only to see in the dim light in the room that her bed was empty. According to her clock, the time was just after three in the morning.

      Still a bit foggy, Vic exited the dorm room and walked towards the center area. Fine dust was trickling down between the ceiling tiles; just barely, at the moment, but getting worse. She tracked the disturbance to the janitor's closet in the central area. There she found Alex, slamming both faucet valves open and closed together in a quick rhythm. Since no-one else seemed to be up yet to check on the disturbance, Vic figured she had only been at it for a few seconds when the noise and vibration woke Vic.

      "Water hammer time!" said Alex, gleefully. "I found the resonant frequency!"

      "Why?!" said Vic.

      She didn't answer. Vic moved closer and noticed her gaze seemed unfocused. Vic pulled her hands away from the faucets, and turned them off.

      "Come on," she said, guiding Alex out of the room. "Back to bed."

       * * *

      "Sleepwalking?!" said Alex the next morning. She seemed stunned. "Wow. I haven't done that in years."

      "Did you do it when you were stressed? Being at a new school, hard classes..."

      "We never figured out what triggered the episodes," said Alex, looking worried, now. She gave Vic a haunted gaze.

      "I know what you're thinking," said Vic, who had a similar expression. "Maybe my powers did it."

      "It's... unlikely. I have had sleepwalking episodes before and they probably were caused by stress and..."

      "I think... I need to have another talk with Dr. Feldman."

       * * *

      "Interesting," said the older man, thoughtfully. "Very interesting. Yes, that would explain many things. However, it doesn't explain everything. Also, there are other super abilities which could explain the same effects. As could simple coincidence."

      "Naturally, there's no way to tell," said Vic, feeling depressed.

      "Eh? Of course there is."

      "There is?"

      "Developed back in the early Forties, by Dr. Fenrisa Freysdottir. Come on; it takes a couple of hours but you're obviously so upset over this that I think we're justified performing the test right now. I'll even write a note for your teachers."

      "That would be great," said Vic, with relief. "Either way, I need to know."

      The test was not just strange, it was very bizarre. Over the next couple of hours Vic was asked a raft of questions, many apparently trivial. She performed certain tasks, played weird word games and at one point sat in a completely dark, completely silent room for what felt like half an hour while wearing an EEG cap. After Dr. Feldman let her out and heard her complaints, he smiled and told her it was exactly nine minutes, twelve seconds.

      "Well, we can definitely say you don't have probability manipulation," said Dr. Feldman. "Only a handful of top experts know exactly how that tests works, but since it was accepted it has proven extraordinarily definitive."

      "That's a relief."

      "Maybe not as big a one as you think. Probability alteration is a very rare and very broad power. Fewer than a score of true cases of the full power have been positively identified. However, milder forms of it - powers which result in such things as frequently right hunches or outrageous runs of luck - are much more common. Also, there are powers which can produce similar effects through other means. Even simple heightened senses can provide subtle clues the subconscious mind pieces together and thrusts into the person's awareness full-blown, to produce a super version of a solid hunch."

      "So this was useless," said Vic, feeling an unexpected surge of depression crashing.

      "No! Listen, you need to understand that you definitely do not have the power which would most likely cause - as an example - a rash of bizarre accidents and your roommate to have a recurrence of sleepwalking."

      "I wonder..." said Vic, suddenly thinking of something. "You said before that my original power activated in the wreck and changed me in a way that removed itself."

      "That was just a guess. There are many ways things could have developed. Power expression is my no means a well-understood science."

      "Well, what if... what if my original power was probability manipulation. What if it adjusted the probabilities to change my genes in a way which let me survive the fire."

      "That's quite possible. The other effects would be incidental to that."

      "How far - I'm talking time, here - how far ahead does probability manipulation work?"

      "That's not known for certain," said Dr. Feldman. "Most often, it is immediate. That is, only affecting a particular instant. However, there is hard data that some exercises of the power have affected events up to several days later. There is some data for even longer extents."

      "Echoes," said Vic, thinking hard. "Assume that's what happened. My power was probability manipulation. It activated to save me, but for some reason it did a lot more..."

      "Many powers respond to emotional stimuli in both nature and extent," said Feldman, nodding. "Especially the mental ones."

      "So, the odds-defying events I've experienced since could be echoes. Set in motion by that original, single pulse."

      "You definitely do not currently have probability alteration," said Dr. Feldman, flatly. "However, we did see signs of something else. It might be one of the low level versions of the power, or some other power. However, we'd need more testing for that."

      He grinned.

      "Which we can make an appointment for later. It's lunchtime and I'm hungry."

      "You know what?" said Vic, actually feeling better. "So am I!"

       * * *

      Boyd had just about given up on Vic when she came walking in. As soon as he saw her, he skipped his plans for conversation. She seemed... distracted. Her mood was also obviously quite mixed. He decided to bide his time and wait for another day. Something told him now was not a good time.

      "So, what did the doctor say?" said Alex, as Vic put her tray on the table.

      "It's not what we thought, but it could be connected."

      Vic related what she and the doctor had learned and discussed.

      "Here I thought my powers were weird," said Angel, putting a sympathetic hand on Vic's shoulder.

      "Well, I'm going to be positive about this," said Vic, pausing to spoon some corn pudding into her mouth. "Even if we're right, I'm not likely the cause of all these weird events - except for my own powers - and even if I am the effect should fade."

      "That's the spirit!" said Don, a bit too cheerfully. He leaned in confidentially. "Say, I'm familiar with some of the tests used to check for luck powers. I know of a high stakes poker game..."

      "No," said Vic, flatly, rolling her eyes.

      "It's just a suggestion."

      "Which is noted and rejected."

      "Well, you better stop talking and eat fast," said Alex. "You've got just over ten minutes before the next class and we're all finished."

       * * *

      Sundays were usually pretty relaxed on campus. On Vic's floor, one of the occasional pastimes was a jam session. The first Sunday after her guitar arrived, while lying on her bed reading a magazine, Vic heard singing and instruments being tuned from up the hall. Grinning, she grabbed the case and hurried towards the common area.

      "Got room for one more?" she asked, as she approached those sitting on the couches around the central table.

      "Is that a guitar or a bass?" said one guy she knew but couldn't remember the name of. He was holding a mandolin like he knew how to use it.

      "Guitar. Six string."

      "Then you are welcome, sister."

      Vic took Smokey out of his case and joined the tuning. Once finished she played a short section of some very fast flamenco music.

      "Not bad," said the guy (she remembered now that his name was Al something, and that he was a music major), nodding. "However, we're doing something a bit more northern.

      He grinned, and played a couple of bars of something energetic and folksy. Two of the women joined in, trailing off after he quit.

      "Is that the new song from Apocalypse Jaguar?" said Vic.

      "Yeah," said Al, nodding again. "'I Don't Purr For Anyone.' I'd hardly call it new, though. Been out three months, already."

      "I've been kind'a busy the past few months," said Vic, ironically. "Okay, give me some hints, and I'll follow along the best I can."

      They played for hours, mostly Canadian folk and folk rock, but also bits and pieces from several other regions. An audience formed, most staying for only a few songs, but some coming back later and a few staying for the whole session. When they finally broke for supper Vic was in a very good mood, indeed.

       * * *

      Vic was actually enjoying several of her classes these days, as well as campus life in general. Especially with the recent load off her mind. She enjoyed the super martial arts training. Vic didn't know Trujillo's background and he didn't talk about his past, but he'd obviously worked with supers before. From some of the things he said and did he might even be a super himself, though a low-level one.

      He trained his students in a tailored fashion, helping each develop techniques appropriate to their powers and levels of skills. He also was careful about paring them for training in the two-man forms. Given that some of what he taught was for people with more than human abilities - and even powers completely unavailable to humans, such as energy blasts - Vic found herself repeatedly patching her gi. She finally gave up and bought an extra heavy duty judo gi. The greater weight and stiffness wouldn't hinder her, and it should last much longer.

      "A real judo gi, when new, will stand at least partly on its own," said Vic, smirking, as she unpacked the heavy garment. She demonstrated by posing the top, leaning it partially against the wall. It sagged, but remained mostly upright. "You break them in by running a car over them several times. Or washing in sulphuric acid. The real top quality ones you do both."

      "Buh?!" said Alex.

      "She's exaggerating," said Harriet. "A little."

      "Anyway, I'm going to wash this a couple of times and dry it with two fabric softener sheets. That actually should be enough."

      "You've been in a really good mood the past few days," said Harriet, suspiciously. "I'm wondering if there's more at work than just being relieved about your powers."

      "That's most of it," said Vic, carefully keeping her expression neutral.

      "She's been talking to a boy!" said Alex, in the manner of a pre-teen telling a dirty secret about one friend to another.

      "Hey! I talk to lots of boys!" said Vic, defensively.

      "From your attitude, I'm suspecting this boy is something different," said Harriet, eyeing Vic.

      "I'm... not really sure what's going on," said Vic. "Boyd is... nice. We talk about things, sometimes even personal things."

      "Don't leave me, sister!" cried Alex, melodramatically, as she threw herself on the floor and clung to Vic's legs. "Stay on the dyke side! Thinking a boy is nice is the first step on the long slide towards heterosexuality!"

      "Oh, stop," said Vic, trying to keep the banter light but obviously feeling uneasy.

      "Are you talking about Boyd Carpenter?" said Harriet, concerned. "He's got a super fetish. Bugged the Hell out of Angel before she convinced him to leave her alone."

      "He's been nothing but mannerly to me," said Vic, sternly.

      "Now you're defending him," said Harriet, nodding. "Well, maybe he's learned his lesson."

      "Wait... have you had lesbian sex?" said Alex, suspiciously.

      "Well, yeah," said Vic, blushing. "Three times with one gal, once with another."

      "Did you enjoy it?"

      "Well... yeah. That's why I went back to that first girl twice. The other girl... she..."

      Vic laughed nervously.

      "You want to talk about a fetish. Or maybe she's actually a transexual. She really took a dominant role. Even used a strap-on."

      "Tooooo much information!" said Harriet, holding up her hands in a warding gesture and backing away.

      "Okay, that's really more than I wanted to say, anyway," said Vic. "It's just that anything less would have left Alex bothering me all day."

      "As well as the next!" said Alex, smirking. "Ooh! Just had a thought! What's sex like for someone with heightened senses?"

      "Since I was male before I got the powers, I don't know what differences came from the sex change and what from the boost to senses," said Vic, in a tone she hoped would tell her roommate to drop the subject.

      "Oh, bother," said Alex, scowling. She grinned, looking determined. "We need more data! All we have to do is change more people's gender to get it."

      "This is one of those times when you scare me," said Vic, rolling her eyes.








Part Nineteen


      "Rex, just because you're strong that doesn't mean you can ignore proper technique," said Trujillo, firmly, and not for the first time. Not even the first time to Rex. "If you're fighting someone with matching strength, you need superior skill to win. Now, get in a proper horse stance and let's see your reverse punch again."

      "Yes, sir," said the large young man, a bit of surliness in his tone.

      Vic figured he'd soon join the dropouts. Nearly a third of the starting number were already gone. With one or two exceptions, those were all folks who shouldn't have signed up in the first place. They hadn't really known what the class was for. She figured the only reason Rex hadn't already left was pure inertia. He tended to decide on something and pursue it long after finding out he needed to try something different.

      Vic and a couple of others were considered senior students by Trujillo; they helped teach the basics and keep an eye on things for their teacher. The others were both on the other class schedule, but she'd met them in Trujillo's weekly planning sessions.

      Vic had actually heard some of the students wondering aloud why she was an assistant instructor when they were much more powerful supers. Trujillo had silenced those remarks - without directly addressing them - by using Vic for special demonstrations, and having her give special demonstrations on her own. Trujillo also occasionally gave solo demonstrations. While he admitted this was partly showing off, he insisted the main reason was to show the students what was possible. Perhaps give them something to aspire towards. It also made the point that while he had taught them much, he knew far more.

      Some of these demonstrations had also served to reinforce for Vic why Trujillo was very much the right man for the job. Seeing a middle-aged man take a short run, leap into the air, dive headfirst into a forward roll and pop up from that into a flying kick, then drop into a right shoulder roll (rinse and repeat for the duration of a one-minute kata which left even the observers sweating) in a demonstration of dragon kata was a humbling experience. Sure, with practice, there were kids in this class who could do those things, but only after he taught them, and none of them as gracefully at least for a good long while. Neither could they currently apply it as well to self-defense principles.

      "All right, mate!" Trujillo said, loudly, formally ending the class with a bow. "Good work today, everyone! Don't forget your assignment papers!"

      Because this was a graded class they did have homework. Some of it was physical, most of it was on martial arts history and different applications through time and around the world.

      That evening, Alex returned to their shared dorm room after supper to find Vic on the floor in full splits, while she worked on assignments.

      "Oooh, kinky," said the younger girl.

      "You would say that."

      "Well, I hope you've already had your shower."

      "Yes," said Vic, suspiciously. "Why?"

      "Angel wants to go into town to do some shopping for a special project she's working on. She can't fly, she doesn't have a car, the busses stop running before she can get back, and putting someone with wings on my bike is just asking for trouble."

      "Okay, okay," said Vic, laughing.

      She straightened, rolled her hips forward and bent her ankles so her feet were flat on the floor, then wiggled them in until she was standing.

      "When does she need to go?" said Vic, as she alternately lifted her knees to her shoulders to work the blood back into her legs.

      "Now. She's still trying to get a ride from someone else, but isn't having much luck. Oh, and I need some stuff, too, so I'm coming along."

      "Why do I have the feeling that your need is the primary reason for volunteering my car?" said Vic, grousing good naturedly. "Oh, well; I can use a drive and some fresh air. Some groceries, too. Had the last of my snacks earlier."

      The trip in was uneventful. Super students from the school - including Angel - had come to the nearest part of the city often enough that most folks only gave a mild double-take seeing someone with an obvious non-human physical feature. Angel's stop was at a fabric store, where she bought lots of Velcro for modifying her clothes to get on and off over her wings. Vic and Alex mostly bought snacks at a store in the same, small strip mall. Alex also bought several technology and science magazines from a specialty periodical and book store nearby.

      On the way back traffic was much lighter, especially once they left the freeway and got on the state route which went by the school. Fall was just getting underway, the sun setting behind them as they headed back east. They could see, ahead, on the outside of a banked curve, a car on the shoulder with the hazard flashers on.

      "What is that on the ground?" said Vic, coming to sudden alertness. "Is that a man?"

      "I think so," said Angel, whose eyes weren't quite as good as Vic's in low light, but were better than Alex's. "He looks like he's in trouble!"

      Vic stopped the old Corolla wagon on the opposite shoulder and rolled the window down. The man, who had been weakly waving at them, was already screaming.

      "Please, help me! The jack slipped, my leg is pinned! Oh, God, it hurts..."

      "Call 911!" Vic yelled, as she jumped out.

      She ran across the road, grabbed the front bumper and heaved. The front of the large, old car lifted a bit with an ominous groan, but the man remained firmly pinned. He was also now screaming louder. Vic eased off on the bumper and went prone to look. The front rotor, fortunately, was on the pavement, but his leg was between that and the ball joint, not only squeezed severely but taking an unknown part of the load. The man was middle-aged, balding and overweight and desperate.

      "Please, get me out!"

      Vic felt light headed, panicked. She went around to the front of the car, threw herself flat and tried to squeeze underneath. She was thinking she could either get under the suspension and lift just that part, or maybe reach the jack. However, without the left wheel for support the front of the car was just too low.

      "Come help me lift!" Vic screamed, her voice shrill, as she stood again and took another hold on the bumper.

      "Vic, stop!" said Alex. "You're just going to hurt him! There's police and paramedics on the way. He's in no immediate danger, let the professionals do it!"

      "Please, you can't just leave me here!"

      Vic dithered, mentally spinning her wheels. Part of her knew her friend was right, but another part kept insisting she do something. Fortunately, she soon heard sirens in the distance.

      Within seconds the first police car slid to a stop, the officer talking into his shoulder mike as he hurried to the man. There were more on the way, and an ambulance. The second policeman arrived from the other direction while the first was still talking to the victim. He looked the situation over, spoke quickly with the first, and then they ran to their respective trunks. Both brought chocks and jacks, and began positioning them. By the time they were ready to raise the car the first ambulance was there.

      Vic stood vaguely nearby, thinking she should offer to help, or something, but the police and paramedics were so fast, so professional, they had the car up and the man out less than two minutes after the first cop arrived.

      Vic sighed and walked back over to her car.

      "The 911 operator said we could go ahead and leave," said Alex. "They have my name if they need to contact us. Which is unlikely."

      "Why did't I think to use my jack?" said Vic, numbly, as they watched the paramedics load the man into the ambulance.

      "Not enough time," said Alex, flatly. "By the time you realized you couldn't reach his jack, the cops were already arriving."

      She gave Vic an odd look.

      "Listen, they did that a lot more quickly and safely than we could have. Two jacks, chocks, two experienced men..."

      "Yeah," said Angel, looking sick, as the ambulance pulled out, turned around and headed screaming for the hospital in the nearby city. "Let's get back to the school."

       * * *

      Trujillo could tell, next class, that Vic was in a very down mood. He let it go until after class, then stopped her as the others were leaving.

      "Okay, what's wrong?"

      "I guess you heard about the car accident Alex, Angel and I came across, on the way back to town, two days ago."

      "Actually, no," said her sensei. "Tell me."

      Vic sighed, and related the events. Trujillo noted how she kept harshly criticizing nearly everything she did.

      "Useless," she said, in summation, tears starting to form. "I was completely useless. I didn't even call 911."

      "It speaks well of you that you feel bad about not being able to help," said Trujillo, tentatively.

      "I didn't just not help, I may have made things worse."

      "Maybe. Only because you tried to help, though. There's a reason most states have good Samaritan laws. People do sometimes cause problems with the best intentions while trying to help in emergencies. Few of those on the scene before the official first responders arrive have any sort of first aid or disaster training."

      "You sound like you speak from personal experience," said Vic, sniffing and rubbing at her eye.

      "Trust me, I do."

      "Then what should I have done? Maybe find a lever, or..."

      "You broke the first rule," said Trujillo, looking her in the eye, speaking sternly. "Don't do something unless you're reasonably sure it will actually help. Rushing in, desperately doing something just to be doing something because someone is hurting, maybe dying, creates a good chance of making things worse."

      "Oh..." said Vic, weakly, the tears streaming unheeded down her face, now.

      He put a hand on her shoulder.

      "Sometimes, the hardest thing to do is nothing."

      She nodded, weakly, and began dabbing at her eyes and cheeks with a handkerchief.

      "Now, stop beating yourself up over this," said Trujillo, sternly. "You're not a trained rescue worker. Just because you have powers doesn't make you any better than a non-super at dealing with emergencies. If you feel really guilty about this, well, you could go into rescue work, even become an EMT. Don't, though, make a hasty decision."

      "O-okay," said Vic, hoarsely. She sniffed, then used the handkerchief to blow her nose. "God, I hate this weepy stuff."








Part Twenty


      "Something interesting from that accident the other day," said Alex. "The guy told the police that he saw several cars go by, and he knows some of the people in them saw him, but we were the only ones who stopped. We also made the only 911 call."

      "Unbelievable," said Angel. She sighed, looked down at her plate, and pushed it away from her. "I think I lost my appetite."

      "You're just trying to starve yourself light enough to fly."

      "Not funny, Alex," said Vic. She sighed as well, and shook her head. "Still can't believe I couldn't do anything."

      "Oh, stop it," said Melanie. "That was 'way outside your strength range."

      She joined in the sighing and head shaking.

      "Just wish I'd gone along..."

      "She'll get over it," said Alex, nodding. She smirked at Vic. "She and Boyd have been cuddling a lot."

      "She's already doing better," said Candy. "She just hates being helpless."

      "Welcome to the real world," said Mel, dryly.

      "Well, she's right," said Vic, now pushing her own plate away. "I've never liked feeling helpless. One reason I started martial arts was to give me more options."

       * * *

      Despite still feeling a bit down in regard to the trapped man, Vic overall was quite satisfied with her life. Her grades were good, she was making friends and she was learning some very interesting stuff. The weather this fall was unusually warm, and she frequently took advantage of that to go for long, relaxing walks in the woods bordering the campus. Vic was still uneasy with the fact that many of those were with a guy. She and Boyd weren't actually dating - if nothing else, both were very busy with their Freshman year - but they were spending a great deal of time together, mostly in short increments.

      Just now, though, Vic was pulling escort duty.

      While the center of the campus was very secure, some of the buildings were an uncomfortable distance from there. Given that the renovations were still underway, a few areas remained without lights, and only a few were covered by cameras or frequent security patrols. While there had been no serious crimes on the campus in years, some folks still became nervous walking alone in the dark. Even during the day - just now the time was late afternoon - some people were leery about being in isolated areas of the campus. Therefore, several supers - as well as members of both the regular and super martial arts classes and some of the jocks - had volunteered to provide escort service for other students.

      This was a pretty informal arrangement. Someone who wanted company on a walk would ask a friend or acquaintance if they would come along, or meet them somewhere to escort them somewhere else.

      Just now, Vic was taking Alex and Mel from an outlying lab building back to the dorm.

      "I really appreciate this," said Alex, smiling at her roommate. "You may not be able to lift a car but you're Hell on wheels in a fight. I don't think anyone on campus would come after any of us with you here, and anyone from off campus wouldn't likely last very long against you."

      "I hate to admit it," said Mel, looking warily around at the deepening shadows, "but I'm kind'a uneasy, too. If someone decided to sneak on campus it wouldn't be hard. The perimeter fence is a joke, and... Say, what are you looking at?"

      He noticed Vic staring into the distance, towards a decrepit parking lot which had once served a long demolished running track. Now that he had stopped talking, Mel could hear something, though he still couldn't see anything except dark.

      "What's going on over there?" said Vic.

      "I don't know and I don't care," said Mel. "It sounds like a fight."

      There was a flare of light and an odd sound.

      "That was an energy blast!" said Alex. "Let's go see!"

      "You're crazy!" said Mel.

      "Let's go see," said Vic, putting a cautionary hand on Alex's arm, "but carefully."

      "You're both crazy!"

      They crept up to a small storage building and peeked around a corner. Then stared.

      "I know those two!" said Alex, looking up. "That's Doro and Cosmic Ray! They're in that new super crime bureau."

      "Who are they fighting?!" said Mel.

      The enemy was a group of people - apparently all male - in anonymous clothes: jeans, sweatshirts and athletic shoes. What was not so innocuous were the gloves and stocking masks. Even more threatening were the clubs, machetes and hatchets, and at least three handguns.

      Besides the two costumed supers in the air, there was another in the grip of one of the hoodlums, a gun held to her head. Three more were on the ground. None of them appeared to be moving, but Vic couldn't get a good look at them, because the bad guys were crowded too close around them. She could see that the flying heroes seemed to be frustrated by something, circling overhead and looking angry and worried.

      "That's right, freaks! Back off now or I start cappin' your friends!"

      Vic was already moving, without really making a decision to. She shot across the distance to the group of men so quietly they had no warning of her approach. She darted between the standing figures until she reached the man holding a gun to the head of a still costumed figure.

      Vic slapped her left hand down on the gun, putting her little finger between the hammer and firing pin. Her right hand came up, under the muzzle while her left leg went behind both of his. She swung the gun - and the gunman's arm - up, around, over and down, dumping him on the pavement while relieving him of the gun. That got thrown at a man out of reach to her left who was also holding a gun. He dropped.

      Vic did a short hop to her right and kicked a third gunman in the arm, breaking it and causing him to drop his gun as he spun around before collapsing. The next few seconds were a frantic blur, as Vic proceeded to turn a group of no-goods into whimpering piles of pain. After the last one fell she spun around, watching to make sure they were going to stay down. She relaxed as the flying supers landed beside her.

      "That was totally wicked!" screamed Alex, jumping up and down, back near the corner where Vic had left her.

      "A) Thank you," said Ray, as he and Doro knelt to check on the other costumed supers. "B) Are you nuts?!"

      "I was a black belt before I got my powers," said Vic, a bit smugly.

      She looked around at the fallen figures.

      "What's going on here?"

      "Turbinator's out cold," said Doro.

      "Chuckles, too," said Ray.

      "Carolina South is out cold and bleeding from the ear."

      Vic stood around awkwardly, realizing she didn't know enough first aid to help. Her elation vanished, as she once again felt helpless. She glanced over to where Alex stood, and realized Mel was out of sight. She remembered him pulling out his cell phone, just before she charged in. Hopefully, he was calling 911.

      "SandTrap's coming around," said Doro. "Right, he has regeneration."

      "Hope the ambulance gets here soon," said Ray. "Chuckles is going into shock."

      "I hear..." Vic closed her eyes and frowned in concentration, turning slowly. "Two police cars and... three ambulances. Oh, now I'm hearing more sirens in the distance, but I can't tell, yet, what they are."

      "Good ears," said Ray, impressed. "Listen, can you go guide them here while we do first aid?"

      "I'm gone!" said Vic, already dashing away.

      The nearest access to this area was an old gate just off to her right, closing off a short drive which gave direct access to the state road. Fortunately, this end of the campus was nearer the city, so the arriving emergency vehicles would pass here heading for the main entrance. Vic ran to the gate, yanked hard and broke the rusted padlock. She ran out into the road and waved both arms over her head, hoping the oncoming police car would realize she was directing them

      Minutes later she returned to the location of the fight, riding in the lead cop car. Another police car was behind it, and the ambulances trailed those.

      More minutes passed while the paramedics worked, first on the fallen heroes. Additional ambulances arrived - without needing guiding this time - and began taking care of the attackers. Some were taken away for further treatment; the rest by the police. Then came time for the statements.

      "Wait," said the Detective who was coordinating the cleanup. "You mean that girl took out all the suspects?!"

      "Very efficiently," said Doro, giving Vic a grin and a sisterly hug. "While we were flying around, trying to figure out what to do."

      "Well, we did divert their attention upwards," said Ray, with a short laugh.

      Finally, everyone was gone except for Vic and the masks.

      "Okay," said the girl, tiredly. "Now will you tell me what happened?"

      "We got word a hate group was organizing locals to attack the school," said Ray. "That's why the school was locked down."

      "The school wasn't locked down," said Vic, puzzled. "We were walking between buildings like usual."

      The two masks looked at each other.

      "I think you better show us the way to the administrative office," said Doro.

      "We did get a call and did have security on alert," said Dean Baker, a few minutes later. "However, we get so many prank calls we decided against a lockdown. Especially since classes just ended for the day."

      "You get a call from a federal law enforcement agency and you think it's a prank?!" said Ray.

      "There was no verification!" said Baker, defensive but also angry. "There are verification phrases which are supposed to be given with valid calls!"

      "Okay," said Ray, embarrassed, "looks like someone on our end fell down. Sorry."

      "That doesn't explain why no-one from the school came out to see what was going on," said Doro, without sounding accusing.

      "That part of the school hasn't been used in years," said the Dean. "There's no active security there except an occasional perimeter sweep. We heard sirens, but thought they stayed out on the highway."

      "I guided them in through the closest gate," said Vic, quietly. "That's well away from the center of campus."

      "What were you doing out there, anyway?" said Baker, glaring at her.

      "Escorting a couple of my friends," said Vic.

      "She was a big help," said Ray.

      Vic noticed Doro discreetly step on her partner's foot; Baker didn't.

      "Yes," said Doro, quickly. "She guided the police and ambulances to us, and gave the police a clear and concise statement."

      "Do you know how those men got on the grounds?" said Baker.

      "Not yet. Doro and I were flying high patrol; our guys on the ground must have found their entrance point, tracked them, and gotten spotted. They're all in the hospital, but the two of us will check around before we leave."

      "I'd appreciate it if you went with some of my security people," said Baker. "More eyes on the job, and we need to know where the hole is."

      "No problem," said Ray, smiling.








Part Twenty-One


      Not surprisingly, the whole campus we still in a slowly diminishing uproar hours later. Those who had actually been at the scene of the fight were especially affected by the excitement. Though one of them for reasons not immediately obvious.

      "This is so weird," said Vic, a bit frightened, as she sat on her bed, rocking back and forth a bit. "Standing there, with Cosmic Ray, talking to him, I was feeling all those girly things from the romances. I even felt my heart flutter."

      "Well, he's tall, handsome and a hero," said Alex, laughing. "What's not to love?"

      "He's dating someone who can juggle anvils."

      "Point," said Alex, deliberately imitating Vic. "Listen, I know this is upsetting to you, but so much of sex is biological that you feeling attracted to guys may be inevitable. Unless you want to lock yourself away and be a hermit."

      She saw that Vic wasn't at all comforted by this. She moved over to sit beside her roommate, putting an arm around her shoulder.

      "Listen, you think there haven't been times I wished I wasn't queer? Biology isn't destiny but it sure as Hell has a strong influence."

      "You're not helping," said Vic.

      "Okay, okay. Let's take a mental step back and try to be objective, here. What, exactly, were you feeling towards Cosmic Ray? For that matter, what are you feeling towards Boyd?"

      "Uhm, Cosmic Ray. He's close to my age but enough older to have made a name for himself. He's, yes, handsome and in very good shape. He's a hero, like you said. He treated me like a person... Like a valuable person. Complimented me even while he was criticizing me. He..."

      "You know what I'm hearing?" said Alex, as Vic paused to think. "Nothing sexual. I think you just have a case of hero worship."

      "Buh?" said Vic, startled.

      "He's certainly an admirable person, but you're describing him a lot like I would. Not like someone who was in lust with him."

      "You... think so?" said Vic, not quite convinced but getting there.

      "What about Boyd?"

      "Uh," said Vic, shifting mental gears. "He's... really nice to me. He's a good listener. He's funny, he's smart, he likes a lot of the things I do. He... makes me feel good."

      "Again, I'm not hearing anything sexual," said Alex, thoughtfully. She looked at Vic. "You know what I think? You've really been through the wringer the past few months. You've handled it very, very well, but that doesn't mean you can't use some comforting every now and then. I think what you're feeling towards Boyd is - if you'll pardon the expression - girly affection towards a sympathetic ear."

      "I... that... but..."

      "I think you have a variation on medical student's disease," said Alex, with a smirk. "You're so worried that you'll start liking guys that you're interpreting other - though admittedly related - sensations as that."

      "You think so?" said Vic, startled.

      "Listen, if he wants to fuck you, give it a try, at least once," said Alex. "I mean, if you think you want to; I'm not saying you should force yourself. Do it if the mood seems right. You're both adults, and as long as you use protection there's no harm, right? If you like it, keep doing it. If you don't.."

      She laughed.

      "Try to break it to him gently."

      "That is very good advice," said Vic. She laughed. "I'd feel better about it if it came from someone else."

      "Hey!"

       * * *

      At about the same time, Doro and Cosmic Ray were waiting at the hospital for word of how the injured team members were doing. Doro was idly leafing through magazines, while Ray passed the time working on his palmtop, searching for information about Vic.

      "You know who she reminds me of?" said Ray, putting his little computer away. "The way she moves, almost like she's dancing through the fight. As well as her sense of responsibility."

      "Champion," said Doro, nodding. She glanced at Ray. "You think that's a coincidence?"

      "I don't know what to think. According to her history, she was transformed and got her powers a few weeks after the keep was destroyed. We know that let something lose which grabbed Paul. I'm wondering what else was released then. They're still finding mysterious stuff, there."

      "Yeah, and keeping the details of what they're finding to themselves," said Doro, scowling. She shrugged. "What can we do? Yeah, we're federal agents, but that's UN business."

      "It's UN business being handled by supers," said Ray. "You'd think there'd be more info through the grapevine."

      "After what happened, and with the Shilmek maybe invading soon, you can't blame them for keeping things quiet."

      "Well, I don't, actually," said Ray, with a sigh. "I'm just worried."

      "You know what I think?" said Doro. "We need to get a copy of that gal's DNA data."

      "Good idea. In fact, I'll call right now and ask legal to get started on acquiring it. If our supervisor asks, we're thinking about recruiting her."

      "We should do that regardless," said Doro, firmly. She shook her head and gave a rueful laugh. "That girl has a lot of potential. You saw what she can do, at her age with just a few years training. She's potentially a very valuable resource. Also, if she did get something from that keep..."

      "She needs watching," said Ray, nodding.

       * * *

      Others were also working late that evening, over the same matters.

      "I hate this," said Rokuro, snarling as he paced back and forth behind his huge desk. The lights of the city could be seen through the even larger, panoramic window in the office wall beyond him. "Why must the unexpected be so unpredictable?!"

      Pacing was a good sign. That meant he was actually trying to work things out. Something his immediate subordinates knew, and which one of them occasionally took advantage of.

      "Quantum mechanics," said Sam, absently. "Wait, was that a rhetorical question?"

      "Some day your sense of humor will get you in serious trouble," said Rokuro, giving him a glare. "Well, at least this gives us more data on her capabilities. Frankly, considering her poor performance at that accident I was ready to forget her. After this, though..."

      "Move her up a step?" said Banpresto.

      "Two steps," said Rokuro, thoughtfully. "Also, prepare for an active evaluation, Class Three. Hold off on it, though, for now."

      The others nodded and started to leave. Rokuro stopped them.

      "Vince, I want you to find out who instigated this, and make sure they are never able to do so again. In fact, I want all members of whatever groups were involved to be put in positions where it will be a long time before any of them can cause trouble, for supers or anyone else. Feel free to be creative, as well as arranging for law enforcement to feel accomplished afterwards, if feasible. No reason to present them with a reason for further investigation."

      "On it, boss," said Banpresto, with a nasty smile.

       * * *

      Vic entered the gym for the usual pre-class preparation, but knew this was not a usual situation as soon as she saw Trujillo's face.

      "What's up?" said Vic, frowning, as she walked to her instructor.

      "Vic... I have a suspicion," said Trujillo. He cleared his throat uneasily. "I suspect part of the reason for your enthusiasm to jump in and save the hostages is that you're enjoying the mood lift you get from these situations."

      "I won't deny it," said Vic, unconcerned. "My primary motivation was helping the hostages, though. I could see they were hurt. I could tell the bad guys didn't know I was there. I planned my first couple of moves ahead of time, and then just let my training take over."

      "You still jumped into a dangerous situation without considering whether you actually should have," said Trujillo, sternly. "Fortunately, this time things worked out well."

      "It's..." She frowned. "It's odd, but it was if I could see everything would work out."

      "Was that a power at work, acute tactical awareness, or simply overconfidence?"

      "I hadn't thought about that," said Vic, startled. "That it might be a power, I mean. Dr. Feldman did say he saw signs of either heightened senses of some sort or an actual perception power."

      "I didn't know that," said Trujillo. "Even if it's true, that doesn't change my concern."

      "Uh, which is?"

      "That you might become an action junkie. That you would seek the adrenalin rush to help lift your mood."

      "I don't think that's what I'm doing," said Vic, obviously uncomfortable.

      "Listen. This is just a suggestion, but one I want you to take seriously. This school offers free counseling services to students."

      "Ugh," said Vic, with a shudder. "Sorry. I know they do good work, and all, but my whole family really doesn't like psychologists, psychiatrists and counselors."

      "Wait... Are you saying you haven't had any sort of professional counseling since your change?!"

      "Well, no," said Vic, suddenly feeling vaguely embarrassed.

      Trujillo's face and posture went through an interesting series of changes. Finally settling on determination.

      "Okay. I'm not going to judge. I'm not going to preach. I am going to strongly recommend. See a counselor."

      "I don't..." said Vic, trying to pass the advice off.

      "See a counselor."








Part Twenty-Two





      "So, you think she's a potential recruit for the Bureau?" said Brade, after Doro and Ray made their report

      They were in her office, in the building where the agency was based, out in the wilds of southwestern Maryland.

      "Oh, yeah," said Ray, nodding. "She has both the ability and the attitude."

      "That's what worries me. I don't know if you're aware of how much development the human brain goes through from about twelve to about twenty-five. Simply put, most people aren't fully mature until their mid-twenties."

      "Well, she is pretty impulsive," said Doro, with a laugh. "However, as she gets older... Oh."

      "Huh?" said Ray. Then he got it. "Oh, right. She's a regenerator. She's actually a bit younger physiologically now than before her powers activated."

      "There are times I'm very glad my own regeneration keeps me in my late twenties," said Brade, nodding. "However, regeneration is tricky. I remember the experts saying that some folks who have it continue to develop neurologically, even their overall physiologies remain teenage or even juvenile."

      "Can they tell this ahead of time," said Doro, frowning in thought, "or will we have to wait five or ten years to find out if her brain is maturing?"

      "I'll check into that," said Brade, nodding. "However, the main problem with a teenage brain is not that it makes kids oblivious to danger, but that it causes them to give more emphasis to the benefits than the dangers of risk. Also, people mature in different ways, at different rates for each way. So even if her brain remains sixteen, we might still use her."

       * * *

      "Hold on," said Alex, later. "I thought your sister was a psych major."

      "She still hasn't made up her mind what to major in," said Vic, rolling her eyes.

      "So what's this about your family not liking psychologists?!"

      "Uh, well, we are all kind'a uncomfortable about using them," said Vic, uneasily.

      "Yet your sister is studying psychology," said Alex, persistently.

      "Okay, yeah, I kind'a exaggerated," Vic admitted.

      "You mean you lied to a teacher. A teacher you like."

      "What do you want from me?" said Vic, almost whining.

      "First, tell Mr. Trujillo what you just admitted to me," said Alex, firmly, pointing a stern finger at her roommate. "Second, make an appointment with a school counselor."

      "I..."

      The younger, smaller girl folded her arms across her chest and glared at Vic. Who swallowed nervously.

      "All right," she said, finally, lowering her head.

       * * *

      On top of everything else, then, Vic soon found herself seeing a school psychologist twice a week. She didn't mention this to her parents, but did write her sister about it. Joline was carefully optimistic, and very supportive. She actually seemed to be embracing psychology.

      While Vic - somewhat grudgingly - admitted that the therapy was helping, she actually found the less emotionally draining examinations performed by Dr. Feldman to be more rewarding and more intriguing.

      "We definitely have signs of some sort of extra-sensory perception," he said, less than a week after the fight in the old parking lot. "Unfortunately, this is nothing as clear cut as remote viewing or telepathy."

      He rested his elbows on his desk and his chin on the overlapped backs of his hands, considering Vic and her situation.

      "Vicky, I remember you mentioning something about your family being lucky."

      "Yes," said Vic, nodding. "The Foley family luck... That's my Mother's maiden name. Before we knew I had active powers that's what my sister attributed my survival of the wreck to."

      "As I have noted before, probability manipulation often expresses itself as luck. In the tests we ran you showed no effect on probability in straight, non-reward, non-penalty tests. However, when we paid you for each success - even a trivial amount - there was a distinct shift in your favor."

      "Yeah," said Vic, smiling and nodding. "That was fun. Though I'm still not going to let Don test that by backing me in a poker game."

      Dr. Feldman sat back in his chair, nodding to Vic.

      "Good for you. Don has the sorts of blind spots typical of many super geniuses. Anyway, besides that luck - which is both pretty minor and relatively straightforward - there also seems to be something else going on. The tests don't really give any clear results, but combined with what you've told me about other events in your life it seems familiar. However, I've only heard of it as a magical talent before."

      "Magical?" said Vic, startled.

      "Well, in the cases with which I'm familiar it was caused by magic, but the ability itself isn't magical. Therefore, it could easily be psionic or the result of a previously unknown form of probability manipulation."

      "Why is everything about my powers unheard of, unknown, or a mystery?" said Vic, in a stage mutter.

      "Well, that I couldn't say," said Dr. Feldman, with a slight grin. "The ability is known by several names. My preferred term is 'Special Talent.' It simply means someone has a talent for something above and beyond what simple intelligence and training could provide. Like Bobby Fischer had for chess, or Einstein and Tesla for visualizing physics."

      "Now it sounds like you're trying to flatter me."

      "You think that's flattering? It may also be what Alexander the Great had."

      "Wow," said Vic, startled.

      "In your case, I think - as do most of the staff, after long and sometimes heated discussion - that your Special Talent is combat."

       * * *

      "Now that is interesting," said Rokuro, thoughtfully stroking his chin, after receiving the report. "Something very much worth cultivating and applying."

      "She doesn't seem like she'd go the mercenary route," said Sam. "Too idealistic, too moral."

      "True. She has shown great resistance to any sort of substantial shift in her psyche or her world view. However, I can easily see her being interested in certain fields of law enforcement."

      "Oh, yeah," said Banpresto, nodding. "Her willingness to jump in to help people in trouble definitely supports that."

      "Well, scout fees aren't a major source of income," said Rokuro, with a shrug. "At least for legal institutions. However, the brownie points we'd earn by recruiting her for - as one example - the Bureau of Special Resources have a value all their own use."

      "You still want to run that encounter test?" said Sam.

      "Yes. Not yet, though. Soon."

       * * *

      "Why are you making such a fuss?" said Vic, as she watched Candy primp in her room's mirror. "It's just a party."

      "You never see Guardsman with a single hair out of place," said Candy, fussing at the mirror.

      "He wears a cowl," said Vic, rolling her eyes. "You can't even see his hair."

      "Exactly! Since you can see my hair, it has to be perfect!"

      "Give up, Vic," said Melanie, laughing. "Fashion logic has rules all its own. Like angels dancing on the head of a pin."

      "Aren't you going?" said Candy, who was either finally satisfied or had decided her time would be better spent focusing on some other aspect of her appearance.

      "I'm... not really sure," said Vic.

      "Oh, come on!" said Melanie, who halted her own preparations to look at Vic. "You told Boyd you'd be there!"

      "That's what has me uneasy," said Vic, admitting aloud what she was worried about. "Something tells me he's going to make his play tonight."

      "If you don't want to have sex with him, just say no," said Candy, as if reciting something.

      "Leaving him hanging is just plain bad manners," said Melanie, firmly. "Either call right now and tell him you're not going, or go. Don't stand him up."

      "You're right," said Vic. With sudden determination, she nodded and stood. Then wavered. "Oh, God... what am I going to wear?!"

      Both the other girls broke out laughing.

      "No, seriously. I've never... I don't even have..."

      "Look, it's casual," said Candy. "I'm just dressing up because I like dressing up. Though you should definitely wear something better than those clothes you're bumming around in now."

      The party was held in one of the smaller function rooms in the main classroom building. Tom Sievers - a Sophomore several of them knew - was celebrating his girlfriend's birthday by throwing her a party. Both had invited several of their friends, enough that the room was actually a bit crowded. That didn't stop half those in there from stopping and staring when Vic entered.

      Seeing that reaction, Vic hesitated... froze, actually. She almost bolted. However, Alex overcame her astonishment quickly, and hurried forward to drag Vic into the room.

      "Where did you get that dress?!" she whispered, as she guided Vic over to where Boyd was standing, staring, at the punchbowl.

      "In the replacement care package my Mother sent," said Vic.

      It wasn't a spectacular dress. In fact, it was a simple, flower print dress which revealed only the barest hint of cleavage. Vic definitely wasn't the best-dressed girl at the ball. However, for those who knew her, seeing Vic in a dress of any kind - much less also wearing a modest amount of makeup - was startling.

      "Wow," said Boyd, when Vic stopped to pose for him. "You look... stunning."

      "Thanks," said Vic, blushing. She moved in close to him. Not to flirt, but for comfort. "I feel very exposed just now."

      "Relax," said Boyd, quietly, as he put an arm over her shoulder. "You'll get used to it soon. Now, would you like some punch?"

      "Only if you can guarantee it hasn't been spiked," said Vic, fervently.

      "What do you think this is?" said Boyd, grinning. "High school?"

      Boyd was right. The other attendees - whether through short attention span or good manners - quickly turned their attentions elsewhere. After sipping her punch for a while, Vic allowed Boyd to persuade her to dance. Vic had never been much for dancing, but her martial arts training helped her move smoothly even when she didn't know exactly what she was doing. However, she soon began feeling increasingly uncomfortable.

      "Do you mind if we sneak out early?" she said, quietly, into Boyd's ear, between dances.

      "'We'?"

      "Yeah. Let's go for a walk."

      They left both the party and the building, walking among the lights and shadows of the center of the campus at night. As Vic had predicted, Boyd began putting this hands in places he hadn't before. She found herself... stimulated. As well as confused about exactly what she was experiencing. Was her arousal due simply to the physical contact? Or was being with Boyd actually turning her on? She decided to push things further. She had to know.

      "Over here," she said, quietly, guiding them off the path and into deep shadows.

      Boyd was obviously excited... as was Vic. She turned to face him, and was not in the least surprised when he kissed her. Nor was she surprised when she kissed him back.

      They kissed again. Soon, they were doing a lot more than kissing.








Part Twenty-Three


      Vic wasn't surprised to see light coming under the door to her room as she approached. She was surprised to find more than Alex waiting for her.

      "Well?" said the youngest of the three inquisitors.

      Vic looked between her, Candy and Melanie. She sighed, stepped in, and closed the door behind her.

      "Let's make this quick. I really, really want to take a shower."

      "Wow," said Candy, shocked.

      "Was it really that bad?" said Melanie.

      "No, actually, it was... pleasant. I also never want to do it again."

      "Sounds about right," said Candy, smirking. "I felt the same way after my first time."

      "No, it's... I mean it..." Vic waved her hands helplessly for a moment. "I never want to have sex with a guy again. I tried it, and am glad I did, so I can put it behind me, but... It just wasn't what I want."

      "You did use protection, right?" said Alex.

      "Yes, mother," said Vic, rolling her eyes. "In fact, he suggested it."

      "Sounds like a perfect gentleman," said Melanie, suspiciously.

      "Trust me, I was a guy, and any guy that age who is a perfect gentleman has something wrong with him," said Vic, wryly. "No, he was anxious and fumbling and got off long before I was ready, and then immediately asked me how it was."

      "Did you break it to him gently?" said Alex, with ghoulish delight.

      "I kissed him, thanked him, and told him I was glad we did it, but that I knew that I was only attracted to girls. No, I didn't say I hoped we'd still be friends! If we are, I didn't need to. If not, well, he was leading me on."

      "Okay," said Candy, nodding. "I guess that was about the best result possible, given you aren't straight. Go get your shower. You'll feel better."

       * * *

      "There is considerable evidence that not only are homosexuality and bisexuality and perhaps transgenderism the result of natural variation, but may provide some evolutionary benefit to a species," said Dr. Kessel.

      Cathy Kessel was middle-aged and still quite attractive. She had photos of her family in her office. These, combined with other decorations, gave a nice, homey touch which Vic found comforting. She actually found herself enjoying these sessions, when she could relax enough. They were still often stressful.

      "At least Boyd is still talking to me," said Vic. "He's accepted that I just want to be friends. Though I hear he's bragging about what we did to his male friends."

      "Are you upset about the bragging?"

      "A little. I know that it's a boy thing, but he's also treating me decently, not like some sort of slut or conquest."

      "Are you upset that after the 'Wham, bam, thank you, Ma'am' he's back to business as usual?"

      "I can actually understand it," said Vic, frowning a bit. "I don't think I would ever have done that, when I was a boy, but I know guys who did it. It's... Guys really want sex with girls. Usually, a lot of times. I mean with the same girl or girls, repeatedly, once they've found someone who they can, uh, have sex with. Pure breeding instinct, I guess. In some cases, though, it's like a trophy hunt. Once they have sex with a particular girl, it's like they've claimed her, and while they'd like to have sex with her again, if they can't, well, they already have. Am I making any sense?"

      "Yes," said Dr. Kessel, nodding. "That actually fits with some hypotheses which try to explain human behavior by comparing it with the mating behavior patterns of social animals. Some sex is for producing offspring; some is for social purposes. Including staking claims, or marking territory. Oh, and we're both legal adults. You can say 'screw' and even 'fuck' in front of me."

      "Sorry," said Vic, blushing. "My family doesn't swear much. Just never got in the habit."

      "How are you feeling? Not just about Boyd, but life in general?"

      "Truthfully? Better. I guess it was a relief to find out for sure which side I'm on."

      "I'm a little surprised you think one try was enough to do that," said Dr. Kessel.

      "Well, there was a lot of introspection leading up to that," said Vic, with a shrug. "The... actual act was just confirmation of what I was already pretty sure of."

      "Would you like to have children some day?"

      Okay, where had that come from?

      "I have no idea. Even if I do, there's lots of ways to arrange a pregnancy besides the traditional." She grinned. "Excuse me, by fucking a guy."

      "Okay, I think that's enough for today," said Dr. Kessel, with a tolerant smile. "I do want you to think about what having a child would mean to you, though. As well as what you think fathering a child would have meant to you if you hadn't changed gender."

      "Okay," said Vic, uncertain but willing to try.

      "See you next Tuesday!"

       * * *

      Vic was on call for escort duty again that evening. She got a call around 8:15 to come and fetch a pair of Sophomore girls who had a late lab and walk them to the dorm. She walked quickly over to the outlying building where the lab was and found the pair.

      "Hi," she said, grinning. "I'm Vic. I'll be your guard tonight."

      They looked at each other. Then back at Vic.

      "Okay," said one, doubtfully. "When someone told us to call Vic, we thought we'd be getting a guy."

      "I'm a martial artist and a super," said Vic, feeling a bit annoyed but not showing it. "There shouldn't be a problem."

      They still didn't seem too sure, the other girl even suggesting they call someone else.

      "It's your choice," said Vic, not bothering to cover her annoyance, now. "Just keep in mind you'll likely be here about another half an hour if you do that."

      They dithered, but finally agreed to let Vic escort them.

      She deliberately walked fast, both because she wanted to work off some of her irritation and to make the girls hurry to keep up. They had almost reached the nearest entrance to the dorm when Vic stopped, turning.

      "What's that?" she said, alarmed.

      "Not funny," said the first girl. "You're just doing that to scare us!"

      "No, I hear it, too!" said the other girl.

      Vic shushed them. Then listened hard for several seconds.

      "Get inside. Call 911. Tell them there's an assault on campus," she shouted, hurrying in the direction of the screams.

      As Vic zeroed in on the source of the distress she saw several other people. Some were hurrying away from there; others moving warily towards it. One of the former recognized Vic, and waved frantically to her.

      "You've got to stop him! He'll kill her!"

      Vic already suspected as much. She raced past the gradually gathering crowd, pushed through the ring which had already formed, and saw a bizarre sight.

      Rex - one of her fellow students in the super martial arts class - was standing in a drainage ditch, tearing at a culvert where a cross-campus road crossed it. Swearing fulminously and incoherently. Though what he said made no real sense, the most frequently used words were "stupid" and "bitch." Vic could also hear repeated screams echoing from inside the pipe.

      "Rex! Stop it!" Vic yelled.

      He ignored her, continuing to rip the top out of the culvert, now nearly halfway across the road. Vic moved warily closer. A change in wind brought a strong whiff of alcohol. How much did someone like Rex need to drink to affect his behavior? Of course, he'd never struck her as the most controlled person on campus.

      "Rex!"

      Still no notice of her. Vic sighed, stepped closer, and hit him with a hard side kick over the left kidney. Rex grunted - as much in surprise as pain - as he bounced off the jagged edge of the culvert roof. He staggered a bit, shook his head, then spun clumsily around to see who had hit him.

      "Stop this!"

      "Mind your own business!" Rex shouted back.

      He turned and resumed digging the screaming woman out of the culvert.

      "She's got it coming!"

      Vic moved in again and tapped the oblivious Rex on the shoulder. He spun angrily around, swinging a backfist... which was what Vic was expecting, since that was one of his favorite attacks in sparring. She put her right foot on his right knee, caught his arm and pivoted, throwing Rex a considerable distance.

      He hit, bounced and rolled to a stop. Then sat up and shook his head, looking confused.

      "Stay down!" Vic said, loudly and firmly. "The police are already on the way. Any thing more you do will just make things worse for you!"

      "You called the cops on me?!" yelled Rex, taking three tries to get to his feet. "I'll kill you, bitch!"

      "No, fifteen other people called the cops on you!" said Vic.

      "Huh?" said Rex. He looked around and noticed the audience for the first time. "You fuckers! I'll kill all of you!"

      He started towards them. Vic winced as she realized she had accidentally endangered bystanders, none of whom actually seemed to be making calls. She quickly tackled Rex and quickly put him in a solid pin. It held for a moment, but despite being so affected by alcohol Rex was just too strong for her to hold. Vic rolled away as Rex thrashed. Not wasting time getting up, she waited for the right opportunity and delivered a laying half inner crescent axe kick to Rex's solar plexus as he rolled onto his back.

      The results were stunning. Also, very nauseating, as Rex curled onto his side and vomited up what seemed like a couple of gallons of noxious liquid.

      Vic moved smoothly to her feet and backed away. Moments later, the first of the police cars arrived.

       * * *

      "I know, I know," said Vic, tiredly, after seating herself in front of Trujillo's desk. "I jumped into a dangerous fight. I had to!"

      "That's not what I want to talk to you about," said her instructor, seriously. "Well, indirectly, but I've given up trying to talk you out of helping people. Actually, I never tried to do that. I just wanted you to be more careful, at least until you got more training."

      "Oh," said Vic, abashed.

      "If you're going to go around performing daring feats, you need more than I've taught you so far," said Trujillo, thoughtfully.

      "Oh?" said Vic, perking up.

      "I didn't think I would need to do this," said Trujillo, seeming a bit distracted, and also a bit sad. "You are good, and getting better with almost frightening speed. However, if you're going to fight supers - especially tough supers, or maybe gadgeteers wearing armor - you need an edge."

      "Secret techniques?" said Vic, eagerly.

      "Listen to me!" snapped Trujillo, startling her. "What I intend to teach you will give you an edge against physically protected opponents. However, it could also attract attention which you do not want."

      He sighed, and his mood softened a bit.

      "Though that's very unlikely. The situation is very different from what it was when I learned it. Partly because my use of it brought things to a head."

      "What is this?" said Vic, awed.

      "It's called the Purple Art," said Trujillo, with sudden determination, "due to the unusual bruises is leaves. It was originally developed for use against those wearing armor. As the techniques were refined and improved practitioners began to realize they worked against any sort of protection, even magical. Or super powered."

      "Whoah..." said Vic, startled. "You're serious."

      "Very. I made the mistake of using it in situations where the results received a lot of publicity. That cost me my family, my job, my whole life. I was actually put in a witness protection program."

      "I... don't know what to say," said Vic, quietly.

      "Things have changed, though," said Trujillo. "That was over twenty years ago, so... Well. For centuries it was practiced only by the family which developed it, and kept secret from all others. That family was hunted almost to extinction by rival clans, as well as some criminal organizations, who wanted the Art for their own. Nearly all those groups are dispersed, now, and most of the members on the run, but there's a remote chance someone could recognize the results and come after you. Or your family."

      "Ow..." said Vic.

      "Like I said, that's very remote. I do think you need an edge, and that's the best one I know. I want you to think it over very carefully, don't even tell me what you decide until a week from today. Then we'll see."








Part Twenty-Four


      The next day, things were back to approximately normal. Vic heard that Rex was held overnight, and the next day claimed no memory of his attack on the girl - whom he was supposed to be safety escorting, as Vic had been her two - or his fight with Vic. His victim declined to press charges or provide any details about what happened, which confused and outraged Vic. However, the school had already expelled Rex.

      "Good riddance," said Mel, in the break room, after classes that afternoon. "He wasn't exactly a bully, but he did occasionally try to lord it over people he didn't like. That whole 'I'm a super and you're not.' thing."

       * * *

      "Incredible," said Rokuro, as he considered the report. "By the numbers she should at best have been able to delay him until the police arrived."

      "Well, he was drunk," said Banpresto. "We knew he was drinking a lot, the past couple of weeks. He hadn't shown any signs of violent behavior before this, but it's not that much of a surprise."

      "The model takes the intoxication into account. No, this means we do not have complete data on that girl."

      "Boss, seriously," said Sam. "You can't ever have complete data on anything."

      "This isn't particle physics," said Rokuro, hotly. "Given the fineness of the analysis, we should be able to fill in the blanks and get an accurate estimate!"

      "Should we? If there are probability psionics at work..."

      "Enough! You have a good point but don't belabor it. I am well aware of the limitations of computer modeling, as well as the limits of knowledge allowed by quantum mechanics. They are irrelevant for our work!"

      "Yes, sir," said Sam, expression carefully neutral.

      "Vince! How soon can you run that challenge we spoke about?"

      "Tonight, if you want."

      "Do it."

       * * *

      Meanwhile, another group of three was discussing the same topic with much less hostile intentions.

      "I feel kind of uncomfortable about this," said Doro. "We're spying on this kid."

      "True," said Brade. "However, we're doing it legally."

      "Doesn't make it right," said Doro.

      "Come on," said Ray, "it's for a good cause."

      "Yeah, and how many evil acts have been committed with that justification?"

      "Government agencies and private businesses often do background checks on prospective employees," said Brade. "Sometimes without the subject knowing it. Yeah, just because everybody does something that doesn't make it right. In this case, though, I think it's justified. If only because we think others are already spying on her. Don't worry; whether it turns out to be justified or not I'll speak personally with Vic later and tell her what we did."

      "That makes me feel a little better," said Doro.

      Her boss nodded, and turned to a manilla folder.

      "This report on her DNA is fascinating," said Brade, leafing through the thick document in the folder. "I don't understand half of what they say. I take comfort in the fact that the experts who performed the study don't understand half of what they found!"

      "Yet her abilities aren't all that spectacular," said Ray.

      "Aren't they?" said Brade, raising her gaze to give them a meaningful look. "Raw power is only one measure of combat effectiveness. Combat effectiveness is only one measure of ability."

      "Yeah," said Doro. "Seeing her in action, combined with the report about her fight with that Rex guy..."

      "I still wish we had a better understanding of what happened to awaken Vic's powers and cause that change in form," said Brade.

      Cosmic Ray frowned in thought for a few moments, then nodded.

      "I'm not an expert on powers, but I do know a lot about them. My analysis? He was tired. He was a little drunk. He had just passed an important martial arts test. He'd just been to a strip club. I think he was fixated on karate and girls, feeling confident and aroused and very good about himself. All of which affected the nature of the powers Vic got. I'd have to interview her to find out for sure, though."

      "It fits," said Brade, agreeing. "Doesn't mean it's right; but it fits. We do know that some powers are shaped by personality and/or mental state at time of activation. Since this all appears to trace back to a reality altering power, that would explain everything."

      Thoughtfully, Brade turned to the pile of documents on her desk and paged through the images of the school, its staff and students which her people had assembled. Doro and Cosmic Ray watched as she quickly leafed through several sections, until stopping at a specific one.

      "I'd swear I know this guy," she said. "He wasn't a doctor of anything when I did, either."

      "The athletic director?" said Doro. She shrugged. "Looks like every burned out coach I've ever seen."

      "Yes, but notice his official bio. It's about the same length as the other instructor profiles, but if you look closely, there's actually a lot less information. Mainly by being much less specific."

      "Probably nothing," said Ray, also frowning as he looked at the document.

      "I still think I know this guy..."

      "You could have one of the staff artists make him look younger," said Doro.

      "Younger..." said Brade. "That's it! He was younger... He was also a bad guy. I remember that much. There's definitely that connotation."

      "Just because he was a bad guy doesn't mean he still is," said Ray.

      "The feeling I get... Well, I could be remembering someone else entirely. Still, I'm going to order a quiet background check on Dr. Vincent Cargraves."

       * * *

      Vic got a call for an escort. This was later than usual - later, in fact, than she thought anyone had classes or labs - and, naturally, at the building furthest from the dorm. With a sigh, she gathered her gear and headed out. As was normal for Vic, she didn't use her flashlight, her heightened eyes making much better use of the small amount of light than a normal human or even most supers could. The light was purely for the comfort of the person she would escort back.

      When she arrived, though, the building was dark and securely locked.

      "Hello?" she called out. "Anybody here?"

      "Oh, yeah..." said a nasty male voice.

      Vic felt a surge of fear. She spun towards the sound, aiming her flashlight and turning it on. The speaker yelled as he was momentarily blinded. That was the good news. The bad news was there were at least four others with him, all dressed as the attackers from before had been. The worse news was that Vic could hear more closing behind her. The absolute worst news was that she could tell there were more further out, heading her way. There were no guns evident, but she saw knives, brass knuckles, a few martial arts weapons, and several makeshift clubs. They meant to hurt her, likely kill her, and they meant to make it personal.

      Vic froze, for perhaps half a second, as the mob closed on her in almost complete silence. Then she swung her flashlight around, sweeping the powerful beam across more than a dozen faces. She then switched it off and charged for the middle of those she had blinded, intending to break through them and flee.

      She almost made it. Unfortunately, some of those still approaching cut her off. Vic didn't wait for them to attack, but launched herself at the wall of young toughs, hoping to get past them quickly.

      Her flashlight was a gift from her sister, a five D-cell Maglight. It made a slightly heavy but very effective hanbo. Something several of her attackers came to know from personal experience that night.

      Vic dealt with the second wave before the first wave could recover from being dazzled. She tried to run again, but found a third wave of another dozen toughs - these looking older - now blocking her. Vic made an odd growling noise, deep in her throat, and threw herself into the fight.

      Panting from her exertions, Vic dropped the last of the attackers. Her light was gone by now, and smashed beyond function well before that. Her clothes were ripped, she was bruised and battered and even bleeding. She was also the only one standing. The night air was full of the moans and sobs of the injured, laid out around her.

      With a tired sigh, Vic straightened and reached for her cell phone. Only to realize a fourth group of a half-dozen attackers were closing in from three directions.

      "You've got to be fucking kidding me," she husked.

      She managed to dial 911 and yell that she was being attacked, before she had to duck an axe handle. This time she wasn't as graceful or swift as previously, and as a result took more damage than her previous total. However, she again won through, this time because most of her attackers fled on seeing her still capable of putting up a good fight.

      Vic sagged against a tree, gasping for breath, covered in sweat and not a little blood. She'd lost her cell phone, and the tear in her top was showing far more skin than she was comfortable with. Just now, she didn't care.

       * * *

      "Disappointing," said Rokuro, as he peered at the eerily green, grainy image on the large screen in his office.

      "Are you kidding?" said Sam. "She just took out fifty thugs in under five minutes!"

      "Look at her. Exhausted. She shows barely more stamina than a normal human in top condition. No, she is in an entirely different league than Champion."

      "Is that enough data?" said Banpresto.

      "Oh, certainly. By the way, that was brilliantly organized. Challenging enough to drive her to her limits while still providing a high probability of her survival."

      "Thank you," said Banpresto, smiling with satisfaction. "That's just about every militantly anti-super bigot in a three-state area."

      "So you arranged to punish them for their original attack on the school, eliminated them from causing further trouble and provided both the victim and the police motivation and the satisfaction of capturing most of them."

      He laughed.

      "Sometimes I think you should have been a mastermind, yourself."

      "I almost was," said Banpresto, quietly.

       * * *

      The Bureau of Special Resources was still getting its act together. Also, Doro and Cosmic Ray were among the first recruits. One result of that situation was very close contact between them and Brade. Neither was particularly surprised when the boss came hurrying into their shared office, looking triumphant.

      "Got it!" said Brade, slapping a thick manila folder onto Doro's desk. "Vincent Banpresto! Super criminal from the early and middle Seventies. A brilliant - high-level non-super genius, in fact - amoral, low-level physical super who committed a series of very successful crimes. Some of the stuff he stole was never found. In fact, we're not even sure we identified all the crimes he was responsible for. Then, in 1978, he just disappeared."

      "You're sure that's the same guy?" said Doro, as she opened the folder. "I can see the resemblance to Dr. Cargraves, but that could be just coincidence."

      "All but positive. I want you two to investigate this. If he's still in the business he is up to a lot more than coaching."

      "FWe have fingerprints, but those can be changed," said Ray, frowning as he glanced at the pages on his partner's desk. "No DNA. This won't be easy."

      "That's why you get the big bucks," said Brade.








Part Twenty-Five


      Vic wasn't surprised to be called out of her first class the next morning. Physically, she was feeling fine. All her injuries from the fight were healed, and she had actually slept well. Until the call, though, she heard nothing from the school administration. Both the delay and the call - when it finally came - gave her some cause for anxiety.

      Her first thought upon being ushered into the Dean's office was to wonder where the school's attorney was. Her second was surprise that once Dr. Baker's receptionist - Mrs. Gareth - left, there was no-one there but her and the Dean.

      "I apologize for waiting until you were in class to call you here," he said, face a mask. "I did not hear about the attack on you until this morning."

      "That doesn't sound right," said Vic.

      "It isn't. Now, I have one very simple question, the answer to which has some potentially serious implications."

      "Go ahead."

      "I want to know why you were out there alone," said the Dean. "Didn't you get the notice that from now on all escorts should work in at least pairs?"

      "Uh, no?" said Vic, startled. "I remember some of the kids talking about pairing up or even going five at a time. There weren't enough volunteers for that, though."

      Dr. Baker stared at her for a moment. Then he turned to his computer. He worked for a bit, and his office printer started printing. Vic rose to fetch the document, but had to awkwardly back off, because the Dean was already on his feet, heading for the machine.

      "You didn't see this?" said the Dean, handing her the printout.

      Vic skimmed through the pages with an increasing sense of alarm.

      The document stated that additional security guards would be on night duty as of the next Monday. Until then, any volunteer escorts among the students and staff would work in pairs at least. It also gave a minimum of recommended equipment, as well as stating that the college would accept no liability for any volunteers who failed to meet these standards. Once the new security guards were on duty all volunteer work was prohibited.

      "No," she said, shaking her head. "I never saw that."

      "Damn," said Dr. Baker, tiredly, as he sat back down. "I don't know what's going on around here. I love this school but sometimes I wonder if I'm the one who should be in charge. I just can't seem to keep on top of things. The emergency notification system persistently fails to reach off campus. Documents keep going missing. Orders are never received, and others are given which didn't come from me."

      Vic felt uncomfortable and vaguely embarrassed at this seeming non sequitur.

      He looked Vic in the eye.

      "I'm telling you all this for a reason. Those supers who were here gave you a contact number, right?"

      "Yes."

      "Please, use it. Tell them there's something going on here, something I suspect is illegal."

      "I will do that," said Vic, who had been harboring similar suspicions.

      "Do it quickly."

       * * *

      "Damn!" said Dr. Cargraves, after ending a a call a few minutes later.

      "Something wrong, Coach?" said his assistant.

      "Sorry. Personal emergency. Taking the rest of the day off."

      He typed rapidly on his computer for a moment, then stood, gathered some items and left.

      His assistant waved him off, not realizing that the call was from an AI monitoring various bugs strategically placed around campus. Nor that his boss' computer was now executing a series of precautionary programs which would delay all attempts to contact law enforcement and notify all of Rokuro's operatives to take appropriate action, before quietly but thoroughly destroying itself. Or that this was the last time he'd see Dr. Vince Cargraves. Though it certainly wouldn't be the last time he heard that name.

       * * *

      Vic dialed her cell phone as she exited the administration building. She got an out of service notice. Frowning, she tried again, with the same result.

      Starting to worry, Vic went to the nearest pay phone. She didn't even bother dialing; there was no dial tone. She hung up hard enough to rattle the change in the phone.

       Vic wheeled and hurried towards the dorm. She didn't bother going inside, but went straight to her car. She started the old Corolla and drove away rather more quickly than was prudent. She half expected to find the exits blocked, but everything appeared normal with the roads and security gates.

      Several minutes later she pulled into the parking lot of a gas station and tried her cell phone again. To her relief, she got a strong signal. Vic quickly dialed.

       * * *

      "Another attack on Vic?!" said Brade, startled.

      "It gets worse. It appears to have been a revenge attack, due to her 'interference' in the intrusion a few days back. Both the guys who committed the attack and the people who organized it but didn't participate think that. So does the college. So do the police. However, we had Scuppers - our tame mastermind - go over everything. He says there are clear signs of outside influence in this second attack. Nothing in the first; it was most likely just what it appeared to be. The second, however, was too well organized, too large and too - What was the phrase he used? - too many standard norms from the deviants to have been put together on such short notice by the people who think they were actually in charge of it. In plain English, such anti-social, inept, suspicious people - many of whom see each other as rivals - shouldn't have been able to organize such a large and smooth operation with people from so many groups and areas, especially so quickly. More suspiciously, we didn't hear about this attack from the school, but from the local police. The people being officially blamed certainly shouldn't have been able to keep the school - or Vic - from contacting us without on-campus help."

      "Banpresto," said Brade, nodding.

      "We've also discovered that several other staff members - all added since the new owner took over - are known minor super criminals," said Doro. "So, besides Banpresto - and we're sure by now that is him - there's Reiter, Blasteroid, Gotik, Doodlebug, and Chasma."

      "All either retired or officially missing," said Brade, scowling. "Have you contacted Vic?"

      "Phones are out for that area," said Ray. "We've already arranged a flight..."

      His phone rang. He pulled it out, glanced at the caller ID, did a double-take and answered.

      "It's Vic," he said, after a brief greeting. "There's something weird going on at the school. I mean above and beyond that attack."

      He spoke with Vic a few moments, told her they were on the way and to meet them at the airport, then hung up.

      "We okay to go?" he said, grinning at Brade.

      "Oh, Hell, yes," said his boss. "I want to find out what's going on at that school!"

       * * *

      The situation in Rokuro's office was tense that afternoon. The boss was in his "serious" costume, as opposed to his usual expensive, custom-tailored business suit. Besides all the operatives from the school, Sam was there, standing slightly apart. More worrying, there were several of the boss' highly-trained goons standing alertly along the walls. Not his cannon fodder; the elite professional troops. Guys trained and equipped to take out high-level supers.

      "Gotik," said Rokuro, with deceptive quietness. "Why did the Dean not know about the attack on Vic Peltior last night?"

      "You gave me specific orders that when he was off campus he was to be out of the loop on security matters," said Gotik, flatly. "That he should hear about things from the head of security at that man's initiative, instead of getting the automatic notifications he gets at school."

      "Except the head of security is on paternity leave," said Rokuro, carefully. "So, the task was left to his assistant. Who assumed Dean Baker had already been informed, not knowing about the 'problem' with the automatic notifications not getting off campus."

      "I didn't know about that. I didn't have any reason to. I work - worked - in maintenance. My job was to install and monitor the communications and spy gear we piggybacked on the regular systems."

      "Very well," said Rokuro, his tone slightly less ominous. "The problem seems to be an unusual confluence of events, which happened just as we arranged for something blatant and abnormal to occur. Normally, this lapse would not have caused a problem. The fact that it did... Well, our operation there had years of potential profit left, hadn't even begun to really pay off yet. I am... frustrated."

      "We can salvage this," said Banpresto, quickly but calmly. "We have decoys set up to direct attention away from our group. You - through your Maxwell Dorton mouthpiece - denounce the illegal activities and offer to open your records for examination. We'll make sure they're clean. After a few months, we start sneaking another set of agents into place, and resume operations."

      "It won't be that easy," said Rokuro, thoughtfully, his employees relaxing as he relaxed. "It would work, though, wouldn't it? They wouldn't find anything contraband connected to Dorton Industries, and they'd never suspect we'd simply come back with different people. I like it."

      Several of the others gave Banpresto subtle looks of gratitude.

      "Told you I was almost a mastermind," said Banpresto, smirking.

      "Just for bragging, you're in charge of the operation," said Rokuro, dryly. "It better work."

      "There is one other thing," said Sam, pointedly. "Was this just an unusual confluence of events? Or the result of probability manipulation?"

      "That is something we will definitely find out," said Rokuro, tone quiet but ominous.








Part Twenty-Six


      Vic wondered why the feds weren't going to the local National Guard base. There was a sizable military airport there, which was occasionally used for both state and federal government flights. Well, the commercial airport was fine with her; it was much closer to the school. Which, come to think of it, was probably why they wanted to go there. If the plan was to have Vic to take them back to the school to avoid attention - which was definitely the impression she got - then the closer airport definitely made sense.

      Doro and Cosmic Ray weren't due for several hours, so Vic took her time getting to the airport, filing her tank at the gas station before leaving it. She still arrived with a lot of time to kill. Once they were on their flight, the two feds called her again and they had a much longer discussion. Vic paced in the unsecured part of the airport as she spoke with them, occasionally drawing odd looks from both travelers and security.

      "I don't understand why you didn't want me to call the police," said Vic, quietly, conscious of the uniformed guard who was giving her the eye.

      "You don't need to. Several calls to various authorities - including the local police - have already been placed," said Doro. "We want to keep a low profile for ourselves for as long as possible. That's why we want you to pick us up and take us to the school. It's a long shot, but we might be able to take some of the bad guys by surprise if they don't know we're coming."

      Vic doubted there was any chance of that, but kept quiet. She had the definite feeling her contacts were making this up as they went. Not just because this was a breaking situation, but because they and their organization were still new to the business.

      "Listen, can you folks contact the airport management and let them know I'm waiting for you? I feel awkward just hanging around for three or four hours."

      "More like two and a half, from right now," said Doro. "We're not in a regular transport, but a high-subsonic executive plane used for getting important staff around quickly. Though, yeah, we'll call and see if they can put you in a VIP lounge or something. I doubt whoever was using the school will have contacts at the airport."

      Doro kept talking to Vic, who had the opinion she thought Vic needed the company. Well, it was good to talk to someone she knew while waiting. Fortunately, she wasn't left hanging around the lobby much longer. Ray called the airport management, got transferred to security and within a few more minutes a plainclothes security supervisor arrived. This wasn't TSA, but a member of the actual airport staff.

      "Excuse me, Miss," he said quietly. "What is your name?"

      "Vic Peltior."

      "If you'll come with me, I'll take you someplace more comfortable to wait for your, uhm, friends."

      This turn out to be the employee lounge for security personnel. The manager - thinking he was out of Vic's hearing - told a small group of security personnel that Vic was there to meet some arriving federal agents from the new super LEO organization. They all eyed her with something like awe. Vic smiled innocently at them, pretending she didn't know what they'd just been told.

      They were courteous to Vic, and even provided free drinks and snacks, but kept their distance. They knew better than to try and pump her about her "mission." Unfortunately, her supposed status also made them reluctant to engage in small talk.

      Vic wasn't sure whether this was an improvement over waiting in the atrium, but at least she was less likely to get bored. Since Doro kept losing signal for minutes at a time that was actually a consideration. Finally, the super LEO told Vic they were approaching the airport and had to shut off their phones.

      As Vic put her own phone away she looked around.

      "Excuse me," she said, to one of the security people in the break room. "The plane should be landing soon. Where do I go to meet them?"

      "This way, Ma'am," said one of the uniformed guards.

      Wow, this is great, thought Vic, moments later, as she rode down employee-only halls on one of the electric security vehicles. I think I like getting the VIP treatment.

      The plane was not coming to the commercial area, but the general aviation section of the airport. The guard drove out of the airport personnel only section through automatic doors. He wheeled the cart around the end of the general aviation building, finally parking near some hangars.

      The aircraft carrying Doro and Cosmic Ray landed just moments later, and quickly taxied to the assigned part of the apron. Because this was a federal flight, the plane was directed to a parking space well away from the civilian aircraft. Vic was rather impressed with the plane, a high-performance business jet modified for federal use but carrying only standard markings for a low profile. She couldn't help but notice that her escort's already high opinion of his charge increased substantially when he saw that plane.

      Vic and the guard waited, standing beside their transport, as ground handlers guided the plane to a stop, chocked the wheels and rolled a short set of steps up to the now open door. Doro and Ray - in their colorful costumes - seemed to take everyone on the ground but Vic by surprise. Her escort gave Vic a long, evaluating look.

      "Yeah, I'm a super," she said, with a smug grin.

      The grin faded as he unconsciously moved a bit away from her.

      Fortunately, by that time her guests were approaching. Vic shook hands with both as they briefly greeted each other.

      "Sorry to rush you," said Ray, "but we need to get going."

      "Uhm, can you take us to my car?" said Vic, to the guard.

      "Certainly," said the security guard, all business. "This way, please."

      The four of them rode in the electric cart through a security gate and into the parking lot. Vic realized she had been in a secure part of the airport without going through a security examination. Yet another perk of the current situation.

      "How do I sign up with you folks?" she murmured to Doro, half joking, as they approached her car.

      "We're actually thinking of recruiting you," said the other female super, smiling. "Even paying for the necessary training."

      "Whoah..." said Vic, eyes going wide.

      Monstro may have undone the boost the plane gave Vic's status in the eyes of the guard, but she didn't really care. She was more concerned about what the costumed pair would think about her car. To her relief they treated is as, well, a car, getting in without comment after she unlocked the doors.

      "So, what's going on?" said Vic, once they were finally underway.

      "Hold on," said Doro, as she pulled a gadget out of her belt and scanned the car. "Okay, no bugs.

      "We think - this is only a suspicion so far - that some criminal organization infiltrated the school to keep tabs on young supers and perhaps recruit them. All this fuss is them covering their tracks after something panicked them into abandoning their posts."

      "That doesn't make any sense," said Vic, startled. "I mean, yeah, I can see them wanting people like Rex, as leg breakers and such, but..."

      "Actually, someone that much of a loose cannon would be low on their list," said Ray. "They'd want dependable employees. Not necessarily for illegal purposes, either. That Don guy, for example, would be a big asset to a legitimate business once educated and matured a bit."

      "They're still committing crimes!" said Vic, outraged.

      "Slow down," said Doro, meaning it literally. "If it's not an emergency we won't fix your ticket."

      "Sorry," said Vic, backing off on the throttle a bit.

      "Anyway, it's likely that the campus is currently crawling with police," said Ray. "The last we heard, several students and staff members panicked after finding they couldn't call off campus or access the Internet, and left the school to call 911. They made the not unreasonable assumption this was part of another attack by fanatics. We wanted to perform a covert investigation, but that's out of the question, now. However, we do want to speak with the Dean. If you can bring us in a back way..."

      "Sure," said Vic. "That's actually closer than the main entrance."

      "We know we can't exactly sneak around in these costumes," said Doro. "We also don't have a warrant. If we can get into the Dean's office or have him meet us somewhere, quietly, that would be great."

      "I think I can arrange that," said Vic. She winced as her stomach growled. "Sorry. Can we stop for lunch? All I've had since breakfast is some snacks they gave me at the airport."

      "That's actually a good idea," said Ray, nodding. "I mean, if you don't mind eating in the car."

      "Actually, I have a better idea."

       * * *

      They picked up some takeout at a drive through near the school, Vic placing a call to Alex as they waited for the food. She would get the message to the Dean, hopefully without attracting attention. Vic was a bit amused when Doro ordered even more than she did. They went onto the school grounds by a back way and parked at a small picnic area near the former athletic field. Doro checked for bugs again, and again found none. They ate their lunch in the shade and the cool Fall air, well away from the furball of attention at the center of campus. The picnic table was weathered and rusty, but still sound and reasonably clean.

      "You're really thinking of recruiting me, huh?" said Vic, as they cleaned their mess.

      "Can we wait and talk about this later?" said Doro. "I think I see the Dean approaching."

      Indeed, he was walking quickly towards them, having come by a circuitous route. Oddly, he was carrying a case with a shoulder strap.

      "I hope this is important. I had to make some serious excuses to a very irritated police Captain."

      "Please, sit down," said Ray, gesturing to the bench space beside Vic.

      Once Dean Baker was settled, Ray and Doro explained their suspicions, supplying additional information over and above that which they had discussed with Vic.

      "So, you see that there's considerable justification for federal involvement," said Ray. "Our plan - approved by Brade, our boss - is to let the local cops handle the obvious investigation while we try to maintain a low profile and check on the inobvious things."

      "I definitely will cooperate with your organization," said the Dean. "The local police think this is either part of a DOS attack by fanatics connected with those who attacked before, or a prank by students to take advantage of our concerns over those maniacs. I think you know I don't agree with either assessment."

      "If you can arrange for us to have access to your records, quietly, that would be a big help."

      "That's why I brought this," said the Dean, unzipping his case. Inside was a laptop and several sheets of hand-written notes. "My personal computer, with my passwords. I use this for managing school affairs - accessing all the campus office functions - when I'm not here or at home on my tower."

      "Whoah!" said Doro, eyes going wide. "Okay, it's clear you're serious about cooperating."

      "I love this school," said the Dean, flatly. "I have invested a large chunk of my life into making it a good school. I was a little surprised when the new owners wanted to add super-specific courses, but embraced that eagerly. I want this school to succeed. I want the people who are causing this trouble caught and put away."

      Vic was impressed, even a bit taken aback.

      "I have to get back," said the Dean, rising. "That Captain was already eying me suspiciously, as if I might be part of this. I don't want to leave him with his suspicions."

      "So, uhm, do I get excused for missing my afternoon classes?" said Vic, tentatively.

      "What afternoon classes? Even without the confusion the police are causing, with the Internet and phone service unavailable so many students and even instructors were in a tizzy that I doubt more than half a dozen classes took place after you left campus."

      "All right," said Ray, rising and shaking the Dean's hand. "Thank you for your help. Here's our card. If you think that you might be under observation, give any news or messages to Vic. She'll know how to contact us. I want to emphasize, though, that she holds no official status in this investigation. She's simply our contact among the students."

      "Understood," said the Dean, straight-faced. He might have wanted to give Ray a knowing wink, but manfully refrained. "Good by. Good luck, too."

       * * *

      Once more, Vic gave the two super feds a ride.

      "I meant what I told the Dean," said Ray, sternly, as they rode along. "Officially, you're a contact, and a victim. That's all. We know you're good in a fight, but we can't officially ask you to do anything risky."

      "Can't you deputize me?"

      "We could. We're not going to. Vic, you're already a target, but right now they are busy covering their tracks. We don't expect any more attacks from either the anti-super bigots or whoever is behind this latest episode."

      "Wait... You think those are separate?"

      "We have very good reasons to think so, yes," said Doro. "We can't tell you what that reason is."

      "Because I'm a victim and not a part of your team," said Vic, a bit hotly.

      "Exactly," said Ray. "Listen, we're serious about recruiting you. Right now, though, you're still a civilian and our job is to protect you."

      "Understood," said Vic, with a tired sigh. "Okay, where to?"








Part Twenty-Seven


      As they rode along Ray called ahead. Vic was directed to an isolated townhouse in a failed subdivision. She drove the Corolla up the drive and around back, into the two-car garage built into the basement. By the time she shut off the car people waiting in the garage had hit the button to close the door.

      "This is a federal safe house," said Ray, as he opened the front passenger door. "Don't tell anyone about this. Don't come here without good reason. Don't bring anyone here unless you think their life is in danger."

      Vic was starting to appreciate just how serious the situation was.

      "Come on in and get the tour," said Doro, reducing the drama a bit as she joined the other two. "We haven't actually been here before ourselves, though we know some of the staff."

      Vic got the tour, and was introduced to the the people running it. Again, she was impressed. This was both a comfortable, lived-in home - officially owned by an older married couple who were semi-retired field agents and staffed by them and some "renters" - and a well-equipped base of operations.

      "Cool," said Vic, as she was shown - but now allowed into - the armory. "Definitely don't have stuff like this in our martial arts class."

      "There's a workout room in the basement which can be used for general combat training," said Agent Gordon, a fit and nice-looking man in his mid-thirties who was the FBI representative in this multi-agency facility.

      "You know, I never thought about going into law enforcement before," said Vic, quietly, as she, Doro and Agent Gordon returned to the garage. "Lately, though, it seems more and more attractive."

      "I understand you have a good memory," said Gordon, handing Vic a small sheet of paper. "This is contact information. When you're sure you have it memorized destroy it."

      Vic nodded as she accepted the paper. Gordon then handed her a garage door opener.

      "Try to call ahead, but if for some reason you can't this will let you in."

      "Yeah, and probably ring alarms, too," said Vic, dryly.

      Gordon just smiled.

      "Whew," said Vic, as she opened the driver's door to her Corolla. "This has been a busy day and it's only late afternoon. I'm going back to my dorm and relax."

      "There's one thing we forgot to mention," said Doro, quickly. "There's a good chance much of the campus - including the phones - is bugged."

      "So be careful what I say," said Vic, nodding. She shivered. "Just my luck if they have cameras in the showers."

       * * *

      Vic intended to rest once she was back in her room. However, even before she reached the stairs she was being bombarded with questions. People had noticed when she left campus and some knew she returned a few hours later, then left and returned after a few more hours. No-one mentioned Doro or Cosmic Ray, but a few knew she had been in the Dean's office before her first departure. Given that there was still much mystery surrounding the mysterious communications outage (now over, fortunately) and even more mysterious disappearance of several people, they were hungry for any information.

      "Look, all I know is that the campus landlines and the two local cell towers and the T1 connection were out of service for several hours," said Vic, tiredly, "and that several staff members just up and left."

      She finally managed to get into her room and shut the door. Only to find Alex waiting to pounce.

      "All right, all right, but I only want to say this once," said Vic. "Lets gather the usual suspects and go someplace with more room and more privacy."

      With that as a hopefully plausible excuse for any potential listeners, they gathered Melanie, Candy, Angel, Mel and Harriet. Refusing to answer any questions, Vic led them out of the dorm and to the picnic area. There was enough room at the old table for all of them, with a bit of crowding.

      Vic found herself sandwiched between Melanie and Harriet and sitting across from Angel. This would have been more distracting if any of those three had shown the slightest trace of being even bi-curious - Vic still hadn't had a date with a girl here - but they were so oblivious to the effect they had on both Vic and Alex she was easily able to focus on the matter at hand.

      Vic told them, first and foremost, about the possibility of bugs.

      "Don't tell Don," she warned. "He'll want to dig them out."

      "Ugh. What if they *are* spying on the showers?" said Candy, with a shudder.

      "Maybe we could pretend to accidentally find a bug and start a search?" said Melanie.

      "We check for cameras in the shower pretty often, anyway," said Shirley, rolling her eyes. "It's such a cliché, but it still happens. Haven't found any here, though."

      "I really don't know what to tell you," said Vic, sighing. "I don't want to be spied on, either. I was told, though, that the less the bad guys know about what we know the better. That means leaving the bugs, or at least most of 'em."

      "We could just keep an eye out for cameras in the bathrooms," said Mel, thoughtfully. "If you find one, act all outraged and blame it on the boys spying on the girls."

      He grinned.

      "We guys will do the same."

      "Ugh," said Angel, with a disdainful sniff. "Why would any of us girls want to spy on any of you boys?"

      "Speak for yourself," said Melanie. "That Roger guy, on the third floor, is centerfold quality. I hear he's just as well-endowed inside his pants, too."

      "Please, save that for later," said Vic, wincing. "Okay, you know to keep quiet about the bugs. Remember to not keep quiet about other things. We need as close to normal chatter and activity as we can manage. I want to emphasize that everything I'm about to tell you is confidential. Any revelation could ruin the ongoing investigation."

      "I'm assuming that federal super group is involved," said Mel.

      "The Bureau of Special Resources," said Vic, nodding. "There's some of their people here in town, and they're working with other federal agencies. This is serious, folks. Someone was likely - may still be - planning to spy on supers at the school and use what they learn to make big bucks. With little or no consideration about whether those bucks will be made legally."

      "So what's your role in this?" said Melanie.

      "I'm one of the targets. So are you. So is Don. Probably a lot of others. They want to learn from us, and maybe sell us to the highest bidder."

      "Ugh," said Melanie, looking scandalized. "Wow. Angel, you really need to be careful."

      "What do you mean? I'm so low level no-one would want me. I can't even fly."

      "Some guys would get off on just the idea of having sex with an angel," said Melanie, gently.

      Angel looked shocked. Then sick.

      "Sorry, hon," said Melanie, patting her on the arm. "You need to know that, so you can be careful. Even aside from this plot."

      "Okay, I understand everything so far except why the feds singled you out for special privileges. Given that you're actually involved in some of the incidents, they should be keeping you at a distance."

      "They are, actually," said Vic, with a shrug. "It's just that they'd already met me, so I'm their contact."

      "There's more to it, isn't there?" said Melanie, peering closely at Vic.

      "Well, they did say they were thinking of recruiting me," said Vic, casually. "Even paying for my training."

      "Hooo," said Alex, wide-eyed. "They gonna give you a costume and everything?!"

      "Well, I..."

      "You need a Mask name!" said Alex, eagerly, literally bouncing on the seat. "What are you going to pick?"

      "There's no..."

      "You'll need a Mask name," said Melanie, nodding.

      "I'm not planning on wearing a costume," said Vic, rolling her eyes.

      "The Amazon!" said Candy.

      "Taken," said Mel. "So is Amazonia."

      "The Amazone?" said Alex, giving them the puppydog eyes.

      "Victoria," said Candy, with a nod of her head.

      "I like it!" said Alex.

      "If you folks are through planning my future," said Vic, loudly, "I think we should get back to the dorm before people come looking for us. Besides, it's almost time for supper."

       * * *

      "Now what are you doing?" said Vic, that evening, when she returned from her shower to find her roommate diligently searching online.

      "Researching protective gear," said Alex. "You're no tougher than a norm. Problem is, you're no stronger, either. I'm looking for stuff that's light and flexible while also offering at least some protection. Kevlar gloves, metasilk clothing, titanium micromail..."

      "Even if I do take them up on their offer, they'll provide whatever equipment I need," said Vic, irritably, as she unwrapped her hair in front of the hanging mirror and began combing it. "Wow, this has gotten long. It's well below my shoulders. I need to get it cut."

      "Don't you dare," said Alex, tone dangerous.

      "Hey, you're the one going all combat oriented on me. Long hair is a liability in a fight."

      "Curses! Defeated with my own reasoning!"

      "Seriously, where do girls here get their hair done?"

      "There's a beauty school on this side of town which does stuff cheap. For complicated hairdos they'd be hit or miss, but for a simple cut like you favor they'd be okay. Now stop changing the subject!"

      Vic grinned. She'd hoped engaging Alex in female grooming talk might buy her a longer reprieve from the little genius' scheming, but the results were still entertaining. As well as providing useful information. Vic did need a haircut.

      "What do you think? Buzz cut?"

      "Aigh! NO, don't you dare! Besides, you need to have some hair for padding. Don't you read Heinlein?"

      "I'm joking, Alex," said Vic. She turned back and forth in front of the mirror. "I think a cut like what I had when I came here would be okay. Just a little above the shoulder."

      "Your hair grows fast," said Alex, sounding a bit envious.

      Vic finished combing her hair and left it to dry. She unwrapped the towel around her body and tossed it on the bed with the one which had been around her hair. She dug through her panty drawer, found what she wanted and pulled them on. Then came a t-shirt.

      "This would be entertaining if you weren't so... boyish in your movements," said Alex, grousing. "Why did you stop dressing in the shower? Not that I'm complaining."

      "Got complaints about taking too long after getting out of the shower," said Vic, irritated. "Melanie and Candy gave me a lecture. It's okay to shave and primp in the shower, but then you're expected to leave immediately. No thorough drying and dressing after the water is turned off. Girls are weird."

      "Hey, I dress in the shower. Never heard of those rules, either. Oh! That reminds me. When did you start shaving your legs and pits?"

      "While I was still at home," said Vic, shrugging. "My Mother and sister insisted, and once you start it's easier to keep up than deal with stubble."

      "Again, I'm not complaining," said Alex, with a laugh.

      "You said you don't find me erotic," Vic pointed out.

      "Well, not curvy erotic. You're definitely not hard on the eyes. I prefer more zaftig, but your hard body has charms of its own."

      "More information than I wanted to know," said Vic, with a grimace. "With that, good night."








Part Twenty-Eight



      "I think I broke the striking pad," said Vic, quietly, in martial arts class a few days later.

      Trujillo believed in working outside when weather permitted. This Fall day was clear and unusually warm, so he had his students in an area set aside for them to work full power without worrying about damaging something. The facilities there were hastily constructed but well thought out. High earth berms around a half acre which had at one time been a simple lawn south of the gym kept the effects and side effects of power usage contained. Special heavy equipment was installed here, much of it on deep concrete footers. One of the more impressive features of this area was a set of graduated striking pads, mounted on increasingly sturdy posts. So far, they only went up to class 20.

      "That's impressive," said Trujillo, as he examined the target, the lowest-ranked one here. "It's rated for low-level supers."

      "Well, I'm a low-level super," said Vic, with a nervous laugh.

      "It still should have held up to your use," said Trujillo, frowning and poking at the broken hard rubber pad. "Have any of the stronger students used this?"

      "I don't think so. You were pretty firm about who should use what equipment, and the color-coded tape strips make getting the right one easy."

      "Tell me what you did."

      "A reverse punch."

      "Okay, how? Tell me exactly what you did. Show me."

      "Okay," said Vic, uncertainly. She took her stance, to the side of the target, as if about to punch air. "I started with the standard load, and threw the punch, like this. Putting ki into it and striking past the surface, just like you teach."

      She threw a crisp strike with excellent form.

      "Just like everybody teaches," said Trujillo, with a grin. "Okay, let's try something else."

      He led her over to a much sturdier post. This one had a pad made of an advanced polymer originally intended for railroad crossing use.

      "That's for people who can lift up to ten tonnes!" said Vic.

      "Then you don't have to worry about breaking it. Listen, if you use proper technique you won't hurt yourself. Even if you do, with your regeneration you'll be completely healed before bed time. So, don't worry about anything, just let go and hit it as hard as you can. I'm curious about what you can actually do."

      Vic wasn't sure, having a bit of a flashback to when Holdout said something similar. However, by now she had very good reason to trust Trujillo. She got into her stance, practiced slowly a few times to get the distance and timing, then focused past the target and threw the hardest reverse punch of her life.

      The pad exploded.

      Vic stared, gape-mouthed, at the remains of a pad which had withstood strikes from people far stronger than her. She shook her head and looked guiltily around. She hadn't realized she was attracting an audience, other students who were watching what she and their instructor were doing.

      She also noticed that Trujillo had stepped back to a safe distance while she was focused on the target. He was looking puzzled. Maybe a bit worried. He shook himself, and quickly moved in to check Vic's hand.

      "Looks okay. How does it feel?"

      "Fine. Well, tingly."

      "Interesting."

      "Is this part of..." she lowered her voice to a whisper "...the Purple Art?"

      "No. I've never seen this before. Not without a power being involved. There was a huge burst of ki and the target just... exploded."

       * * *

      Vic felt... distracted for the rest of her classes. She kept thinking she heard someone calling her, or saw someone watching her out of the corner of her eye who wasn't actually there when she looked. At her therapy session that afternoon she mentioned these odd sensations to Dr. Harper.

      "That's interesting," the therapist said, frowning. "Between this and your damaging that target, I wonder if you're experiencing a power breakthrough. That's not uncommon after an extreme exertion, such as that battle you had. Especially this early in a person's power development."

      "You think that's it?" said Vic, relieved. "I thought stress was making me pump adrenaline, which would explain both."

      "Vic, when I first interviewed you I was astounded you weren't a mewling mess of neuroses. Given what you went through, most people would be. However, using that release form you signed I did some investigating. Do you remember those evaluations you took as part of your junior year psychology class?"

      "Yeah," said Vic, nodding. "They were pretty flattering. Really boosted my ego."

      "I think you don't realize their actual significance. You were already a very stable person back then. From what I've been able to learn about your family, most of them are, as well. I suspect it's genetic, though something probably not even connected to your super genes. A lot more of personality is determined by heredity than most people realize."

      "I think I already knew that," said Vic, nodding again.

      "Well, you're not just stable. You're dynamically stable. You - to use a metaphor - veer off course but keep coming back to it, even if you never quite lock on."

      "Drunkard's walk algorithm," said Vic, remembering that from a statistics lesson.

      "Now, I'm not saying you'll never need help. You have told me more than once that I've done a lot for you, and seemed surprised at that. I think, because of that inherent stability, very few people in your family ever needed much help. You, because of the extreme stress of your recent life, did. You probably would have been all right on your own, especially with the help of friends. I think you'll have to admit, though, that with professional help you've done better, sooner. It might have taken years to reach the point you are at now without therapy."

      "Yeah," said Vic, quietly. She looked up at Dr. Harper and smiled. "Thank you."

      "You're welcome," she said, smiling back. "I could demur and say I was just doing my job, but I took this job because I like helping people."

      Vic nodded, once more.

      "Now, tell me about these distractions."

      "I keep hearing something," said Vic, frowning as she swiveled her head around. "It's like a voice in a language I don't know, speaking quietly in the near distance. This and the images are like someone is trying to get my attention."

      "I remember you saying you took a hard fall during your fight."

      "Several of them. But that was, well, several healing cycles ago."

      "You sure you didn't hit your head in that fall?" said Dr. Harper.

      "No. I kept my head tucked. The fall just knocked the wind out of me a bit. Even if I had hit my head, with my regeneration I would have been fine in a few hours."

      "Don't count on that for head injuries," said Dr. Harper, firmly. "There are cases of regenerators with relatively mild head injuries experiencing disorientation because of their regeneration. The damage stimulates more healing than is needed, and the brain needs a while to retrain itself. However, that's rare."

      "That's good news," said Vic, with a nervous laugh. "I don't know how realistic it was, but I remember that movie a few years back which had the super with permanent amnesia because of hyperactive regeneration."

      "While that's theoretically possible, as far as I know there has never been a documented case," said Dr. Harper, reassuringly.

      "This still bothers me, though," said Vic, frowning. "This isn't like my heightened senses. It... feels different."

      "Like I said, you could be pushing through to another plateau. This could be a new aspect of you're heightened senses, or even a new power."

      "Weird," said Vic, with a bit of a shiver.

      "Much about powers is weird," said Dr. Harper. "Listen, how about I schedule an appointment with Dr. Feldman?"

      "Yeah, I have a feeling this isn't going away on its own."

       * * *

      "I'm glad you could see me so soon," said Vic, after classes the next day. "Especially since it meant staying late."

      "You're my favorite subject," said Dr. Feldman, with a laugh. "Now, what seems to be the problem?"

      Vic described her odd experiences, starting with breaking the first striking target.

      "Interesting. It does sound like a breakthrough. You could be reaching a new plateau in your powers. It could also be something else."

      "What could cause me to keep thinking I'm hearing and seeing things which aren't there?"

      "One possible cause, you're picking up local TV broadcasts."

      "Huh?!"

      "It's rare, but some instances of heightened senses do extend into the radio range. Most people who have that can't interpret the signals, though. They're just aware of noise. AM radio can be understood, though."

      "Why is everything about me and my powers rare or unique?" said Vic, plaintively. She sighed and firmed her resolve. "So, how do we find out what this is?"

      "More tests!" said Dr. Feldman, with far too much enthusiasm.

      "When?"

      "We'll probably need several days to prepare, and more days to run the tests," said Feldman, sobering as he considered. "If you don't mind using part of your weekend, we can start Saturday morning, say about Ten? The low level of activity in the building then should help with some of the tests."

       * * *

      "Okay, that was weird," said Vic, vaguely, after being let out of the sensory isolation booth.

      "Here, sit down," said Dr. Feldman, actually having to help her. "Now, Vicky, I want you to tell me as clearly as you can what you experienced."

      "There was this... burst of stuff. Light, sound, touch, taste, smell, and things I can't really describe. Just... huge noise in all my senses. My ears are still ringing, and all my other senses doing their equivalent. It's fading, but it's still there. I was kind'a dazzled, for a while, there."

      "Interesting. All this was supposed to do was cut off outside stimulation, let you settle into a quiet state, and then gradually raise the stimulation of each sense individually to find your threshold. The same as we did the last time. However, this time we never got to the second phase. Even before you yelled, your brain activity spiked."

      "So what was that?"

      "Do you meditate?"

      "Sometimes."

      "Well, it has been said - with some justification - that a sensory isolation box - with the sound insulation, the gel padded couch, and all the other features - is like a ten year course in meditation."

      "So..."

      "I suggest you find a quiet place somewhere and meditate," said Dr. Feldman, with a shrug. "Meanwhile, I'm going to call a specialist."








Part Twenty-Nine


      Vic was rather surprised when contacted by Dr. Feldman just before lunch on Sunday.

      "I apologize for the lack of notice," he explained, "but I only found out an hour ago, myself. An old colleague who is an expert in certain areas of powers - she developed some of the tests I've given you - called to let me know she could be here today. If you can be in my office at One, she will be glad to spend the afternoon with you, testing and analyzing."

      "I'll be there," said Vic, eagerly. Though she wasn't all that enthusiastic about having more "testing and analyzing" done to her.

      "Excellent! Just come straight to the lab. The rest of the staff is off for the weekend, so I'll leave the door unlocked."

      Vic made sure to eat a large lunch - especially since she had slept in and skipped breakfast - because she had no idea how long this would take. She arrived a quarter of an hour early and found, as promised, that the door was unlocked.

      "Hello?" Vic called out, as she entered the reception area.

      Very briefly, she considered that this might be a setup for an ambush. She went full alert, then relaxed - mostly - when she heard a familiar voice respond to her call.

      "Come on back!" said Dr. Feldman. "I'm in my office!"

      To Vic's surprise, when she entered the small room not only were Dr. Feldman and his guest already seated, but Jude Trujillo was there, as well. However, Vic paid little attention to the other two, because the third person waiting for her didn't appear to be human.

      She was small, able to sit in the chair with her legs folded in front of her on the seat. She was covered in fur - at least, Vic assumed that the fur she could see continued under the clothing - and had huge, swoopingly pointed ears. She also had a slight muzzle, and when she smiled at Vic displayed substantial canines. There was an odd, slightly wild scent in the air, and Vic had no doubt it came from this tiny figure.

      "Vicky, this is Dr. Fenrisa Freysdottir," said Feldman, proudly, as the strange woman gracefully stood and offered her hand. "You remember, I told you she developed some of the tests we used, early on."

      "I know who she is," said Vic, awed, as she shook hands. Dr. Freysdottir's was oddly shaped, and the palm and finger pads felt slightly bristly, like a dog's pads. Vic could feel the tiny woman's claws lightly touching the back of her hand. "Founding member of the Shepherds."

      "She and I have worked together several times," said Feldman, as Dr. Freysdottir sat back down, again tailor fashion. "She and Mr. Trujillo are also acquaintances, and I believe he can help offer insights into your abilities."

      "Okay," said Vic, distractedly, still staring at the elf. "Uhm, sorry. I've seen photos of you, but never expected to meet you."

      "If I didn't like being looked at, I'd never have worked in a carnival," said Fen, in her odd, high, clear voice. It was almost flutelike. "Now, I'm afraid my time here is limited and we have no idea how long your examination will take, so I would like to get right to work."

      "Oh! Sure."

      Vic dropped precipitously into the only empty chair remaining. Some part of her brain noted that Dr. Feldman had moved two extra chairs in here from somewhere. Since the three in front of the desk matched, she wasn't sure which was the one normally in the room.

      She realized she was mentally rambling, and also that she had missed the question Dr. Freysdottir had just asked.

      "Pardon?" she said.

      "Are you still experiencing strange sensory phenomena?"

      "Yes, but not as much."

      "Have you tried meditating?"

      "No. I finished all my assignments yesterday, slept in this morning so I would be nice and relaxed, and was planning to try this afternoon."

      "Excellent," said Fen, smiling. She grinned at Dr. Feldman. "Isn't it nice to see young people with their priorities in order?"

      "So what course of action do you recommend?" said Vic.

      "First, we repeat the isolation box test." She looked at Vic, tipping her head a bit to one side in a quizzical manner. "If you're up to it."

      "Sure. It wasn't painful, just... startling."

      "Excellent. First, though, I have some questions."

      Dr. Freysdottir took no notes during the subsequent interview, though Dr. Feldman did. Vic recalled that Dr. Freysdottir had a mnemonic memory.

      The questions started with family history - mostly a review; Dr. Freysdottir had obviously read about Vic's case - then moved on to the accident. Again, this was mostly a review, though Dr. Freysdottir asked a few questions Vic hadn't heard before. Over the next half hour Vic recounted in brief pretty much everything power-related which had happened to her since the accident.

      "Interesting," said Dr. Freysdottir, thoughtfully rubbing her furry jawline.

      "Don't tell me," said Vic, sourly. "I'm unique."

      "Oh, everyone's unique," said Fen, with a laugh. "Seriously, despite some common usage of terminology, every power set is different. I think you're just a few standard deviations further from 'standard' than most."

      Well, that was a little reassuring. Not much, though.

      "What next?"

      "Off to the isolation chamber!" said Dr. Freysdottir, standing and dramatically thrusting her right, claw-tipped index finger into the air. "Oh; besides the standard monitoring, I would like your permission to do my own."

      "Sure," said Vic, with a shrug.

      "She wants to read your mind," said Trujillo, a bit too loudly.

      "Oh..."

      "I promise only to monitor surface activity," said Dr. Freysdottir, raising a hand, palm out.

      "Well... Okay," said Vic, a bit less certainly than before.

      The two doctors exited the office first, chatting excitedly about what might happen. Trujillo caught Vic's arm.

      "You sure you want to go through with this?"

      "Yeah. I need to find out what's happening to me." She gave her martial arts teacher an evaluating look. "Don't you trust them?"

      "Mostly. I worry about them getting so caught up in their experiment they forget you're in there."

      "I... don't think that will happen. If it does, well, you've got my back, right?"

      "Got that right," said Trujillo, in a stage mutter.

      Soon, Vic was back in the isolation chamber, relaxed on the conforming, gel-filled couch, her vital signs monitored by built-in equipment. She was a little nervous, but also determined. Vic emptied her mind, as she had been instructed. Soon, the "distractions" were distinctly noticeable.

      Now that she was able to focus on them without interference from the world around her, Vic realized the sensations weren't voices or movement. More like vague impressions of sounds and sights, and less prominently of other sensations. Vic concentrated on them, and soon realized she was actually assembling an impression - a gestalt - of the isolation chamber. Though she was sitting in complete darkness, wearing sound-canceling ear plugs and breathing filtered air, she could envision every detail of her surroundings. More, as she continued working with these impressions she realized they were expanding beyond the confines of the chamber.

      Eventually, she was able to perceive everything within about three meters of her position. Not in high detail, but well enough Vic was sure she could have navigated her way around the scene.

      Deciding she'd gotten all she could from the experience, Vic signaled she was done, squeezing thumb and forefinger together to cut off a beam of (to her) invisible IR light. There was the faintest of clicks. Slowly, the lights came up. Vic discovered she could still perceive her surroundings. In fact, she "saw" Dr. Feldman approaching the hatch.

      "How are you?" he said.

      "I'm fine," said Vic, smiling in satisfaction. "I figured out what's going on."

       * * *

      "A sense of perception," said Fen, nodding, after Vic related her experience. "Not uncommon. I have something similar. However, for me it's part of my psionics package. This is actually closer to what Tiger has."

      "I've heard he has some sort of sixth sense," said Vic, nodding in turn.

      "Well, it's a potentially very useful ability," said Fen. She tipped her head to the side a bit as she considered Vic. "Does this seem to have solved the problem?"

      "Yes. Thank you. Once I was able to ignore everything else and focus on this it just sort of snapped into focus. No more voices or shadows. Just an continuous awareness of what's around me. It's... a bit disconcerting, but less than the distractions were."

      "Good. You may have trouble sleeping the next few nights, until you get used to it. You should be able to ignore it when you want, like ignoring a bad smell or an annoying sound."

      "Neither of which is easy," said Vic, wryly.

      "They aren't?" said Fen, looking puzzled. "Oh, right; human. Well, if you do have long-term problems there are drugs for numbing the psionic center of the brain. That's where this comes from."

      "Could she develop other psi abilities?" said Dr. Feldman.

      "It's possible, but unlikely. This is one of the powers which - if it's not part of a full psionic suite - tends to be a loner."

      "Is this all?" said Vic. "All my powers?"

      "Most likely. While increases in existing abilities are common, it's unusual to still be manifesting or discovering entirely new powers this long after activation. I suspect the reason this one took so long to show is due to its nature. It came to the front now due to a combination of that most recent assault and your previous stint in the box."

      "So how do I train this?"

      "Good question," said Fen, with a toothy smile. She suddenly frowned in thought. "Okay, some simple exercises should give you a good idea of what you can and can't do. Do things like try to read a book without opening it. Tell the color of someone's underwear. Identify the denomination of a currency bill without looking at or touching it. That sort of thing."

      Vic nodded, carefully taking all this in.

      "Also, practice blind fighting. Jude should be able to help you with that."

      "Oh, yes," he said, nodding. He was carefully showing no emotion.

      "How does this tie into probability manipulation?" said Vic. "Is that still ruled out?"

      "Not entirely," said Dr. Freysdottir. "Though I doubt you have more than a trace of it now. There is some evidence that probability manipulation is part of most or even all powers."

      "It is?" said Vic, startled.

      "Think of all the unlikely things supers do or experience which aren't actually explainable by other powers."

      They sat and talked about what had been learned for another two hours before Dr. Freysdottir called a halt.

      "My dear," she said, taking Vic's right hand in both hers and looking up at Vic as they stood outside the building while Dr. Feldman locked the door, "you have a great deal of potential. I wish you luck. If you have any questions which Irving can't answer, he knows how to get in touch with me."

      "Thank you," said Vic. She turned to glance at Feldman, turned back, and found that Dr. Freysdottir was no longer there. "Great. She's a Batman fan."

      "She does that," said Trujillo, with a tired sigh. "Child-like sense of theater."

      They said their farewells to Dr. Feldman and began walking away.

      "Okay, spill it," said Vic, once they were out of earshot. "What's going on between you and her?"

      "You know Irving Feldman was the on-call doctor for a super hero team," said Trujillo. "I was on the same team. As one of the Masks."

      "Whoah!"

      "Yeah. I was one of the few unpowered Masks, ever. Got by with hard training and my martial arts skills, including the Purple Art. That made me pretty cocky. Then a local newspaper did an exposé on us. A long series of revealing and not very complimentary articles, actually. In one of them they had a color photo of the distinctive bruises the Purple Art leaves."

      "Uh-oh," said Vic. "I remember you talking about someone watching for those. Also, what happened whey they found you. At least, some of the results of that."

      "Yes. They ambushed me. While they were trying to... extract the secrets of the Purple Art the other team members tracked me down and rescued me. However, the kidnappers had uncovered my secret ID and, subsequently revealed it out of revenge."

      "God..."

      "My wife immediately filed for divorce. Claimed I was violating her trust - which I was - and endangering her and our kids - which I was."

      "When was this? What team?" said Vic. "I never even heard about this."

      "The Core Factor," said Trujillo, quietly.

      Vic stopped dead in her tracks.

      "You were Wolfman?!" said Vic, astounded.

      "Not so loud, please," said the instructor, with a pained smile.

      "What about Dr. Freysdottir?"

      "You know she formed the Shepherds so she could study supers," said Trujillo, bitterly. "She agreed to help with our funding if she could study us, too. Ran tests, interviewed us. Some of that data she acquired was how the... How my attackers found out who I was. Not her fault, really. She wasn't expecting the kind of intensive effort they made to find any practitioner of the Purple Art. She's still the one who gathered it."








Part Thirty


      "Okay," said Alex, plunking a paper sack on her desk as she pushed the door closed behind her. "What's in this?"

      Ever since learning about Vic's new power she had taken on the task of developing methods of testing and developing it. Vic sighed where she sat at her desk, but yielded to the inevitable. She closed her eyes and concentrated.

      "Uhm, two bottles of water, a bag of beef jerky and a jar of... Salsa!"

      "Go on."

      "The cash register receipt," said Vic, opening her eyes and rolling them. "No, I can't read it."

      "That's it! Great!"

      "Now, can I please get back to work? Finals start in just two weeks and I kind'a got behind with all the stuff that was going on. You need to study, too."

      "Yeah, yeah," said Alex, throwing herself on the bed. "Oh, I am so glad they got rid of all those bugs. Even though there weren't any actual cameras, I still feel a lot safer and more... private, now."

      She raised her head and looked at Vic.

      "They did get rid of all of 'em, right?"

      "The school hired a company which specializes in that type of stuff," said Vic, absently, as she returned to reading her textbook. "They do a lot of work for secure government facilities."

      "Yeah, but these were supers."

      Vic gave a gusty, exasperated sigh, and turned to her roommate again.

      "Okay, confidential stuff, here. Had a talk with Doro and Cosmic Ray about this. They let me know there are supers on the staff of this company. Technical geniuses. Satisfied?"

      "Yep," said Alex, reaching to her desk and grabbing a book, then turning on her custom headboard light. "Oh! I just realized, they never explained how you broke that target."

      "They did," said Vic, absently. "I told you about that."

      "No you didn't!"

      "Alex, I need to study!"

      "Tell me, tell me, tell me!"

      Vic made a growling noise, and glared at her roommate. She took a calming breath and managed to respond in a civil tone.

      "Okay. It's a combination of my sense of perception allowing me to better sense the flow of ki and direct it, and also know exactly where to hit. You know that ki control is something even a non-super can learn, right? It's like magic."

      "Huh?" said Alex, startled.

      "Anyone can learn to work magic," said Vic, still politely but with a bit more tightness in her voice, "but very few can do more than the most basic stuff."

      "You're kidding!"

      "No, I'm not kidding, though I'm not surprised you don't know that. Most people don't know that. It's not something the powers that be want most people to know. Of course, for most people it also requires a lot of study and practice to generate trivial results. However, some people have a knack for it, even without actually having a power. Some people do have a power which helps them use magic. Some just work hard. My powers help me manipulate ki."

      She didn't mention that directing ki flow in a particular way was what the Purple Art was, since Alex wasn't cleared to even know about the Purple Art.

      "Oh..." said Alex, a bit startled. She frowned. "That's actually a little anticlimactic. You sure that's all there is?"

      "Yes! Now, let me study!"

       * * *

      "Can't believe they found everything!" said Sam, sourly. "I would have bet good money some of the stuff I installed would be missed."

      "That was expected," said Rokuro. "Once they knew supers were involved, they would naturally bring in supers to examine the infrastructure for tampering. I even approved the Dean's funding request, in my guise as Maxwell Dorton."

      "I hate that we don't have any way to monitor our subjects. Those clues we've been getting about Peltior are either completely wrong, or she's developed an entire new power."

      "Patience. We are keeping tabs indirectly. We should soon be able to insert new operatives. Likely in time for the start of the next semester. We will then catch up on all those persons of interest remaining at the school."

      That last sentence reflected the fact that a few - surprisingly few, considering - students had already left or planned to leave after the semester ended. Apparently, the remainder trusted the assurances of the school administration and the feds.

      "In the matter of Vic Peltior, I believe I have a way of further testing her abilities," said Banpresto.

      "Go on."

      "We wait until she goes home for the holidays. Then we post a bounty for her death."

      "I'm not sure I like this plan," said Rokuro, scowling.

      "Look, we're just as much out of the loop on her as we are with the others," said Banpresto. "Unlike the others there's evidence she's expanded her powers in some way, but we can't get any inside info. If she hasn't improved, she's only marginally interesting to our clients. So if we lose her, well, it's not a big loss. If she has improved, this will give us an idea of how and how much."

      "It would still attract too much unfavorable attention," said Rokuro. "The Bureau of Special Resources has taken an interest in her, and that pair of their top agents have apparently become emotionally attached to Miss Peltior. Her death would drive them to even greater efforts."

      "The money would be traced to a known super hate group," said Banpresto, confidently. "It will, in fact, come from them, and they'll think this is their idea. The feds might suspect that someone else is behind it, but they won't know who or be able to prove it."

      "I am still not convinced."

      "How about this, then? I hire someone low-profile to keep an eye on her. If the reward brings more attention than she can handle, they jump in and rescue her."

      "Start the work," said Rokuro, after a moment of thought. "Do not actually execute until you get approval from me."

      "Okay," said Banpresto. "Just keep in mind there's a pretty small window of opportunity."

       * * *

      The days turned into weeks, and the end of the term approached. As did final exams. Despite all the extracurricular activity, Vic had managed to maintain an adequate grade point average up to now. With the previous distractions either removed or on hold, Vic soon began to improve her GPA.

      Finally, all the classes and exams were over. The dorm would close, soon. Some students had already left, and rest were packing to go home.

      Well, not all of them, not yet. Many were attending celebrations tonight.

      "Come on," said Boyd, eagerly, as he and Vic talked in the central area of her dorm floor. "It's one of the milder parties, and you need to celebrate!"

      "I'm really not in the mood," said Vic, persistently. "Seriously. Take - Who is that girl you're seeing? - Clarice."

      "I am. She's the one who suggested we invite you."

      "Thank her for me, but I'm just too tired."

      He finally got the message and left. Actually, Vic wasn't physically tired, but she was definitely mentally and emotionally exhausted. The therapy sessions and regular meditation - which she had started shortly after Dr. Freysdottir's visit - had greatly helped with the stress in her life. However, what she needed now was a break. A vacation.

      Despite the rush of the past few weeks, Vic had actually managed to do most of her Christmas shopping. The gifts were even already wrapped, most of them by the stores where she bought them. She was looking forward to loading her car in the morning and heading home.

      Some people were, like Vic, avoiding the parties to get an early start. Some were going to the parties and planning on an early start, anyway. However, it seemed that the majority were partying tonight, with the intent of sleeping in the next day and leaving late.

      Knowing there was no way to prevent these celebrations, and wanting them to be as safe as was reasonably possible, the school allowed parties in the central area of each dorm floor. This meant those in rooms near the center would be sleepless, or wearing ear plugs tonight.

      Vic and Alex's room was far enough from the center that the party noise was down to a dull roar. Vic was almost ready for bed when Alex returned unexpectedly.

      "Thought you were going to party tonight," said Vic, standing there in her pajamas, actually reaching to turn down the covers when the door opened.

      "Ah, it's turned into a macho contest between the boys, with the hetero girls egging them on."

      "They kicked you out for being too young, didn't they?" said Vic, smirking.

      "Wanted to go to the Citizens of Lesbos party, but it's off campus."

      "They think you're too young, too. You also couldn't get anyone to give you a ride."

      "A couple of the girls' rooms are having quiet parties, but there's not really anything going on in them."

      "You got so sleepy without lots of noise and excitement you decided you better crash." Vic grinned at her roommate, head tipped a bit to one side. "What, you're not going to accuse me of developing telepathy?"

      "How long have we been rooming together?" said Alex, raising an eyebrow.

      "Point. Well, good night."

      "Good night."








Part Thirty-One


      "Oh, there's no place like home for the holidays!" Vic sang, as they walked towards the rear entrance to the mall.

      "I swear, if you sing that the whole two weeks until Christmas - like you did when you were twelve - I will smother you in your sleep," said Joline, direly.

      "Sorry. Forgot how much you hate that song."

      "I don't hate that song. I hate hearing it over and over. So don't play it, either!"

      "I'm just happy to be here," said Vic, with a contented sigh. She gave her sister a brief, one-arm hug. "I'm back home with my family for the holidays, I got good grades, and no-one has tried to kill me in most of a month!"

      "Not funny."

      "Okay, okay. I am also pleasantly surprised there hasn't been any harassment from the local anthropoids since I got home."

      "I doubt anyone who previously harbored you any ill will even knows you're back in town," said Joline. "In fact, I doubt they even think about you any more. In their minds, you're gone, problem solved. Mom and Dad say the calls stopped within a few days of you leaving for Ramsey."

      "Why would they think I left for good?!" said Vic, astounded.

      "Out of sight, out of mind. You left, they forgot about you. Just try not to do anything to bring yourself back to their attention, and they'll live out their lives in happy ignorance of your continued existence."

      "I just don't understand humans," said Vic, shaking her head. "Oh! There's Linda!"

      They came together under the roof extension over the entrance and greeted each other warmly, a small, still island in the milling humanity arriving and leaving, bundled against the Winter cold. Linda continued to hold Vic's hands after they hugged.

      "I hope you two came in Vic's wagon," said Linda, "and not that two-door Speck of Joline's."

      "Hey! My Blitz Hybrid gets great mileage!"

      "Yeah, but I'm planning to do a lot of shopping today!" said Linda, excitedly. "Remember, you said you would give me a ride home, so I took the bus here."

      "Just how much shopping do you still have to do?" said Vic, suspiciously.

      "All of it, of course! Now, come on!"

      The three of them spent the rest of the morning shopping, dropped their acquisitions off at Vic's wagon, then had lunch in the food court before resuming their pursuit of swag. They chatted nearly non-stop the entire time. The worst of this - from Vic's point of view - was when the other two ganged up on her to expand her wardrobe.

      "Still hate shopping," said Vic, tiredly, when they finally headed back to her car again. "Just glad I rarely have to do any."

      "Well, I had a wonderful time," said Linda. "Not only did I get over half my gift shopping done, but we got caught up on each other! Oh, and you look darling in that chemise. Not to mention really sexy in the bikini."

      "If I ever figure out how you talked me into buying those..."

      Linda, it turned out, was also doing well at college. She was majoring in Business, though for the first semester she hadn't really taken any business-specific courses.

      After dropping Linda at her parents' place, Vic and Joline started for home.

      "I am exhausted," said Vic, as she wheeled the old wagon onto the local road running past Linda's subdivision.

      "Well, I finished my shopping," said Joline, stretching and yawning. "You finished yours, too, right? We can spend the rest of the time until Christmas at home. Doing as little as Mom and Dad will let us get away with."

      "I do plan to socialize some," said Vic, looking at her sister and raising an eyebrow. Then she yawned, too. "Though not tonight. I'm looking forward to a hot shower and catching up on my mail."

       * * *

      Vic reached out, grabbed her towel, and started drying in the tub. After dealing with most of the water in her hair - she still hadn't gotten it cut - and on her skin she stepped out onto the bathmat. Vic had a start, catching sight of a naked female in the fogged-over mirror, then grimaced as she realized that was her reflection.

      Still occasionally surprising myself, she thought, with a wry grin.

      She definitely felt more comfortable with her new body after nearly a year. There were times when the fact she was now a bit shorter had more impact than the gender change. Still...

      Vic moved in front of the sink and wiped the fog from the mirror there. She stared at herself. Vaguely Asian features, though with Occidental eyes. Long hair, dark brown for most of the length but light at the tips. Skin a bit too brown for her Caucasian family but not dark enough for either type of Indian. Taut muscles. High, firm breasts. Slightly broad shoulders, tapering to a slightly narrowed waist, then flaring into very feminine hips.

      Vic brought her hands up to her breasts; not in an erotic manner but to see the effect in the mirror. She turned profile, watching her reflection. She posed a bit, then shrugged and reached for her clothes. Then remembered she hadn't done a breast self-exam recently.

      That done, Vic dressed and left the bathroom.

      "What were you doing in there for so long?" said Joline, sticking her head out of her bedroom door.

      "Breast exam," said Vic, flatly.

      "Oh. Right. Need to do that myself."

      Wearing a bathrobe, Joline exited her room and headed for the bathroom.

      "At least the delay means there'll be plenty of hot water."

       * * *

      Despite Joline's declared intention to stay home until after Christmas, she and Vic found themselves repeatedly driving around town for various purposes. Many of these involved errands for their Mother.

      This most recent one was to take some cookies to an elderly family friend. The two sisters were in Joline's hybrid, since there was no reason for the cargo hauling capability of Vic's wagon. However, they were barely started when Vic's cell phone rang. To her surprise, the caller was FBI Agent Abraham Gordon.

      "Can you meet me somewhere, soon?"

      "Uh, well, I'm with my sister running an errand right now.

      There was a pause, as he thought things through.

      "Okay, I guess I can brief her, too. I'd rather not face your parents with this. Not only because they aren't targeted, but because I couldn't answer their questions. You and your sister are both legally adults, so I'll leave it to you what to tell your parents."

      "This sounds pretty bad," said Vic, concerned.

      "What does?" said Joline.

      "It may be nothing," said Gordon, responding to Vic. "Listen, I'm only in town for a few hours, so the sooner we can meet the better."

      "Hang on," said Vic.

      She told Joline what Gordon had said.

      "Wow. Yeah, I guess we better talk with this guy. After we drop the cookies off, though."

      They agreed on a place - Belle's, a coffee shop near the home of the woman they were taking the cookies to - and Vic hung up.

       * * *

      Vic recognized Gordon, of course. He was sitting in the back, nursing a large double latte. Vic introduced Gordon and Joline, and the sisters sat. They both ordered hot cocoa against the cold, and waited for Agent Gordon to start talking.

      "There's a super bounty hunter in this area. He calls himself Mr. Truth. Real psycho."

      "Ugh. Never heard of him. What does he have to do with me?"

      "I've heard of him," said Joline, frowning. "I thought he was an unpleasant character but not a lawbreaker. Some even say he helps people on occasion."

      "He claims to be a champion of the oppressed, bringing justice when the system won't," said Agent Gordon, scowling at his drink. "He's actually a bounty hunter, who uses the rewards he receives to fund his activities. He'll hunt anyone, but specializes in low-level supers who have fallen afoul of the law."

      "How can someone like that not be in jail?!" said Joline.

      "There's a bounty on me?!" said Vic.

      Agent Gordon quickly shushed the two. Once they were quiet again, he resumed.

      "First, he's wanted in several states and cities, but only for questioning. Remember, bounty hunting is legal in the US, at least in most states. Second, yes, but it's not a legal bounty. It's money put up anonymously to be paid to anyone who kills you. That's illegal in the US. You can only offer a bounty for the return of a fugitive wanted in connection to a crime, and that's almost always done by a bail bondsman. While Mr. Truth normally operates within the law - if just barely - since the end of the Thurlin Administration he's been doing poorly. Too much anti-anti-super backlash. He's been getting further and further into illegal activities. We just haven't been able to prove it, yet. Partly because he knows the system, and partly because we can't catch him to start the process."

      "How much am I worth?" said Vic, with a sense of unreality.

      "Half a million US dollars, in unmarked bills, being held by a mediator."

      "That's... unbelievable!" said Vic, receiving a warning glare from Gordon. She continued more quietly, but still outraged. "So, anyone can just walk into a post office and put up a bounty poster?!"

      "You're confusing two different things. Post offices, court houses and other places put up wanted posters for governments, with offers of reward for information. Anyone can get the reward by providing the information, if it pans out. Bail bondsmen hire bounty hunters to bring back people who skip on their bail. There are a few other ways bounty hunters can legally operate, but those are pretty rare."

      "Oh," said Vic. She abruptly shook her head. "What are his powers?"

      "General physical and mental augmentations, with decades of training and experience."

      "So how do we stop this guy?"

      "I don't know, Vic," said Agent Gordon, reluctantly. "We're not even sure he's after you. We know he's in the area, though, and this is a quiet place. Combine that with the bounty on your head and it makes sense you're the target. We informed local law enforcement - that's why I'm here - but they don't seem to be taking the situation seriously."

      "Hell," said Joline, "I'm having trouble taking it seriously."

      "Why isn't the Bureau of Special Resources on this?" said Vic, barely keeping her voice low. "This guy's a super, who's threatening another super!"

      "If we can prove he's actually here and after you, they will handle it," said Gordon. "The problem is that we can't do either right now. I'm just here to give you a heads up, and not even officially. I'm doing this on my own in the time before my flight back, because I know you and I don't think the local cops are taking this seriously enough. Trust me, we - the FBI because this guy crosses state lines with his activities, as well as the BSR - are interested in stopping him. So far, there's just not much we can do."

      "So you want me to do something," said Vic, sourly.

      "We just want you to keep an eye out. If you see a strange man - I've got photos of him and his last known vehicle I'll give you - let us know. He sometimes hires locals, so if you notice anyone stalking you, anyone you don't know persistently in areas where you go, let us know."








Part Thirty-Two


      With a little discussion on the way home, Vic and Joline decided there was no reason to worry their parents. According to what the FBI knew about Mr. Truth, he never involved innocents. He wasn't the type to take hostages to bring his target into the open, and on at least two occasions broke off his operation when a child might have been endangered. He had his own code of honor, and seemed to stick with it. Therefore, he wasn't likely to go after Vic's family or friends.

      "You two certainly took your time," said Alissa, obviously suspicious, when they got home.

      "We stopped at Belle's for hot cocoa," said Joline.

      "Besides, that car of Joline's is slow," said Vic, with what she thought was casual humor.

      Their Mother eyed both of them.

      "Out with it."

      "What?" said Joline, in what she hoped was innocent confusion.

      "Unless it's some Christmas surprise. Tell me. Now."

      "Uh, it could be," said Vic, shifting uneasily.

      "What is going on?"

      They sighed, and told her.

      "Well, it's nice to know at least one of my children is worth something," said Alissa, wryly, when they finished.

      "Not funny, Mom," said Vic.

      "Well, I think this whole thing is just making a big deal out of nothing. Don't tell your father; there's no reason to worry him about this."

      "That's what we thought about both of you," muttered Vic.

       * * *

      A week passed, with no sign of anything threatening. Vic received occasional calls from Gordon, and even a couple from Doro. There were no sightings of Mr. Truth, or anyone else who might be after Vic.

      They relaxed. In fact, Alissa told Arnold about the warning, after she felt the need for it was past. He was a bit offended they hadn't told him until he was finished with work for the holidays.

      Still, Vic and Joline agreed that neither of them would leave the house without the other in these last few days before Christmas. So, when Alissa needed some holiday cooking ingredients the afternoon of Christmas Eve, the sisters went together in Joline's car.

      At first the trip was uneventful. The weather was cold and overcast, but the streets clear. Traffic was light, and they made good time. However, as they approached the entrance of the shopping center where the closest Kroger's was, Vic frowned. Something was tickling her awareness, something from that sense of perception. She looked around, puzzled. Her range was better, now but still normally only extended a few meters. However, she sometimes got vague impressions from large or otherwise significant things from further away.

      "There's something..." Vic turned and looked out the rear window. "That van is coming up behind us real fast!"

      Joline floored the pedal, just before the van hit. That greatly reduced the force of the blow, but the little hybrid still fishtailed a bit before its driver could recover.

      "Call 911!" said Joline, too focused on her driving to look away.

      "I am!" said Vic.

      The van was much faster than her hybrid, easily closing for another hit despite Joline having the pedal to the floor.

      "Go left on Hopkins!"

      Joline wondered why but didn't have the time to ask. She wheeled the tiny car onto the cross road, almost losing the van in the process.

      Point: The van is top heavy. Vic noted, as the vehicle heeled over and went wide in the turn.

      It straightened and began closing again, at a very high speed. At the 911 operator's direction they took another sharp turn. This time the van actually went onto the sidewalk before recovering. Despite the left front wheel being obviously dented, it again accelerated hard. Then the Blitz blew by a local police cruiser sitting in a speed trap. The cop car put on lights and siren and roared onto the road... right in front of the van.

      The larger vehicle braked hard and swerved wildly, leaving smoking strips of rubber on the pavement, and managed to turn a hard central impact into a glancing blow on the right rear of the unit. The cop car spun off violently to the right, bouncing over the sidewalk and into a shallow ditch, trunk lid flapping, totaled. The van had some minor damage to the front end. However, the vehicle broke off the chase of the Blitz and cut down a side road.

      Joline braked to a stop in a cloud of tire smoke, then backed rapidly along the shoulder to the cop car. She and Vic jumped out and ran to the ruined vehicle. Vic handed her cell phone to her sister and started yanking on the driver's door. It didn't budge, being locked, but the activity caused the driver to stir.

      "Are you all right?" Vic yelled, to the stunned officer.

      He shook his head, turned and looked blankly at her. He shook his head again, and started to get out. He needed three tries to open the door, and Vic had to help him undo the seat belt and get out.

      "What happened?"

      "The big, black van chasing us hit you!" said Vic.

      Joline, still speaking rapidly into the cell phone, nodded.

       * * *

      Another cruiser arrived soon after, and an ambulance soon after that. Then came more cruisers. At first the police taking statements from Joline and Vic were very polite, even thanking them for helping the injured officer. That changed when they realized the vehicle which hit the damaged cruiser had been chasing them. They were subsequently told they would be taken to the courthouse downtown for questioning.

      In the interrogation room, Joline kept demanding to call their parents and their attorney. She was repeatedly told that since they weren't under arrest, they didn't need to call anyone. Which Vic knew wasn't right, having been through similar situations before. However, she largely kept quiet while letting Joline do most of the talking. She had the distinct impression that if they'd just admit some culpability in the car wreck they'd be let go.

      They started out speaking with a Detective. When he didn't get the answers - or submissive attitude - he wanted, he called in a Lieutenant. Who soon called his Captain. Who took an even harder line.

      "If you hadn't been on phone to 911 we would be arresting you!" said the Captain, angrily. "Getting in a car chase in my town!"

      "What, we were supposed to stop and wait for help to arrive while whoever was in the van walked up, broke out the window and carried us off?" said Joline.

      "No! You were supposed to do what 911 said!"

      "The operator told us to lead the van to the nearest police cruiser," said Joline, flatly. "Then told us where it was."

      "Not at a hundred and five miles an hour!"

      "What idiot said we were going that fast?!" said Vic, outraged, speaking for the first time in several minutes. "Have you seen her car? It's a Blitz hybrid."

      "Huh?!" said the Captain, turning to Joline. "Wait. That's your Blitz they just towed into the impound lot?"

      "I have no idea, since I haven't seen the impound lot or been told what happened to my car."

      "Hold on," said the Captain, rising. He gestured for the Lieutenant and Detective to come with him.

      After they left Joline gave Vic a "Nice one." smirk.

      "Grandpa would be proud."

      That would be their hot rodder grandfather, the man who had "tuned" Vic's Corolla wagon. Rather than their farmer grandfather, who only reached the speed limit several minutes after pulling out into heavy traffic, complaining the whole time about the "tailgaters."

      The Lieutenant returned a few moments later.

      "I'm sorry," he said, looking embarrassed. "The speed on the radar gun must have been the van; not your car. You're free to go."

      "You haven't even taken our actual statement yet!" said Joline, angrily.

      "We have your description of events on record. We'll write up a statement and you can review and sign it later. We have your contact info. We won't keep you any longer."

      He held the door open, giving the two women a weak smile as he ushered them out. He even wished them a falsely hearty Merry Christmas.

       * * *

      "That was weird," said Vic, as they headed for the car. "Secondary problem," said Joline. "You need to call your friend, Gordon."

      "Yeah. I'll do that at home, while you're explaining things to Mom and Dad."

      "Me?! Why me?!"

      "They'll be more tolerant with you. They consider you more responsible. So when you tell them it wasn't our fault, they'll be more likely to believe it."

      "Well, we still need nutmeg."

      "Long way back to Kroger's. Is there anything closer?"

      "I think so. We'll head back home and stop at the first place we see on the way."

      When they reached her car, however, Joline gave a low wail.

      "Look at Betsy's bumper!"

      "Betsy?" said Vic. "Oh, right. Your nickname for that thing."

      Ordinarily, such teasing would have initiated an exchange of friendly insults. However, Joline was too distracted.

      "Look at it! It's all bent and mashed in!"

      "Looks like it's still drivable," said Vic, examining the rear wheels. "Didn't even break any tail lights."

      "I hate to call our insurance agent on Christmas Eve," said Joline, actually wiping a tear away.

      "Now you cry?" said Vic. "Not right after a violent car chase. Not when being interrogated by those brownshirts. Now?"

      "Oh, hush. If you'd been born a woman you'd know."

      "Look, call your agent. You've got a camera in your cell phone, right? Document this as well as you can. Message your agent, with the photos and a short account of what happened. Tell him we're all right and the car is drivable. If he wants to check it today he can stop by our home."

      "Yeah, you're probably right," said Joline, sighing as she dug out her phone. "Meanwhile, you call your people!"

      "Yeah, guess I better."








Part Thirty-Three


      The insurance agent replied to Joline's message with a note saying he was glad they weren't hurt. He told Joline to bring the car by his office the first working day. That was one concern dealt with, at least partially. Meanwhile, Vic called Agent Gordon, who set up a conference call with Ray. Vic's call took a little longer than Joline's messaging, but was still completed quickly. Another concern partially dealt with.

      They found a store where they bought nutmeg and a few other items, so another concern was settled. Then it was back home, where they had a long and emotional talk with their parents.

      "Agent Gordon and Cosmic Ray said this doesn't sound like Mr. Truth," said Vic. "They also said they would send someone here as soon as they could, but that would take at least two days."

      "I'm not surprised," said Arnold, rubbing his hair in aggravation. "Holidays and all. Well, neither of you should need to leave the house before then. None of us, actually."

      He grinned.

      "Not now that we have nutmeg."

      "That's a good idea, honey," said Alissa, putting a hand on his arm. "We'll make it a purely family Christmas! Just stay indoors and let the world turn without us for a while."

       * * *

      The dinner that evening was a bit late, but quite tasty. Alissa had gone all out, as usual for such occasions. The turkey was moist and delicious, with Alissa expressing her usual disbelief that Vic preferred dark meat over white. They ate until they couldn't hold another bite, and then had desert. The entire family was moving slowly as they cleared the table and put things away. Then they migrated to the den. As was the family tradition, everyone found new pajamas from "Santa" on the couches, which they would wear that night.

      The evening passed with games and movies and chatter, seasoned by snacking on the leftover deserts and speculation on what was in all those colorful packages under the tree. They were all soon yawning, but persisted for a while. Finally, even Arnold had to call it quits, and they wandered off to their individual preparations for bed.

      With everyone in the house being reasonably mature, Vic assumed that they would sleep in the next morning. Still, the day had been a tiring one, so she went to bed early. She drifted off quickly, though she soon woke to the sound of the rest of her family likewise ending their night.

      Naturally, Arnold and Alissa were up shortly after Six.

      Vic tried to ignore the signs of breakfast preparation. However, a little before Seven there was a quiet knock at her door.

      "Gluh?" said Vic.

      Joline took that as permission to enter, and opened the door.

      "Can you believe our parents? They're bigger kids now than we ever were."

      "Did you wake me just to complain?"

      "I was hoping for some commiseration. I mean, who can sleep with all those delicious smells wafting up from the kitchen?"

      Vic pushed herself up and stared blearily at her sister, made suspicious by that almost poetic language.

      "You're hungry, aren't you?"

      "Aren't you?"

      Actually, Vic was starting to feel a bit peckish. With a show of reluctance, she pushed the covers aside and rose, scratching.

      "Oog. You already been to the john?"

      "Yeah. It's all yours. Just don't wait too long. I'm heading on down, and might just eat your share if you don't claim it quick."

      With an impish grin, she exited.

       * * *

      Breakfast was too large, too elaborate. Vic actually wasn't very hungry, due to that huge meal and all the snacking. Given that both her parents had made their specialties, however - Mom her famous French toast, and Dad delightfully crisp if a bit heavy waffles - Vic had to do more than just sample everything. Then she had to praise every dish... not that this was hard to do. Finally, her parents relented. Alissa at first wanted to clean up right away, but Arnold persuaded her - by the simple fact of making a show of leaving the kitchen and heading for the den - to leave that for later.

      With breakfast out of the way, the presents were next. Full bellies and comfortable, new pajamas meant no-one felt rushed. They took their time, Arnold documenting each gift with his camera, itself a gift from the previous year. Vic very carefully kept her sense of perception on idle, just to play fair.

      Most of Vic's gifts were clothing - which she reluctantly admitted she needed - and school supplies, also needed. Especially since the latter included a new laptop. She managed to be grateful for each item, while vowing silently to never wear either of the pretty dresses or the frilly nightgown. A gag gift from Joline was a set of sheer underwear, complete with crotchless panties. Vic managed to hide this from her parents, pretending there was nothing special in the package and quickly concealing it among her other loot before they could get a good look at the contents.

      Vic gave her sister a quick, dirty glare while their parents were busy with Arnold's next gift. Joline gave Vic an innocent look, which would have instantly let her Mother know something was going on if she hadn't been distracted.

      Finally, they were finished. Just in time for lunch. Despite the recent huge breakfast they were surprisingly all in good appetite. The meal was mostly leftovers, but there are few meals in the world better than a hot turkey sandwich on Christmas Day, after presents have been opened.

      "I can't move," said Arnold, finally, pushing back a bit from the table and slumping in his chair. "I'll need to play three hundred games of racquetball just to work off this, much less what I've already eaten."

      "I am officially full," said Alissa, nodding.

      "Well, I'm going to go hook up the Wii," said Vic. She melodramatically tried twice to stand, and gave up. "In a bit."

      Joline laughed, and stood, grabbing her sister's arm.

      "Come on, lazy."

      Mock complaining, Vic let herself be led into the living room. 

       * * *

      The morning after Christmas was spent cleaning up the debris from the previous day's celebrations and organizing their gifts, as well as recovering from the excesses. In the afternoon the family drifted apart, each to their own interests. Vic and Joline were in their rooms, calling friends to find out how their holiday had gone. Vic spent over two hours talking to friends, and was chatting to the twins - Jillian and Julian - when she got a notice of an incoming call. The siblings said goodbye and let Vic get the new call. She felt a surge of mixed hope and dread when she saw who it was.

      "Ray! I hope this is good news."

      "Some of it is. The van which chased you was tracked to some local members of a neo-Nazi group which puts up a front of promoting the rigorous enforcement of law and order while actually breaking laws to practice their bigotry. The fact that you're a lesbian is likely the motivation, though they definitely have no love for supers, either. They didn't even seem to know about the reward. They did admit to being encouraged by a guy offering to pay for information about you. Instead of just following you, they decided to 'get' you. So far we don't know the details of what they planned to do with you."

      "I'm actually not eager to hear those," said Vic, feeling a bit queasy.

      "I don't blame you."

      "So, they have actually arrested these people?" said Vic, hopefully. "I guess so, if you're talking about what they intended."

      "Most of them. We got the van owner and the members of the group who were hiding it until it could be repaired, plus a couple of others. Rounded them up this morning while they were still passed out drunk."

      "That is very good news."

      "Well, there's bad to go with it. Besides the guy who talked to the neo-Nazis fitting the description, we have a definite sighting of Mr. Truth, and his vehicle. It's a full-size late model van, in urban cammo pattern. Luggage rack on top, loaded with cases, and two or three boxes attached directly to the roof. No plate, and with enough mods that we don't have a firm make or model, but it should be unmistakeable. Unfortunately, most of the local police are still on holiday, and we still don't know where he is staying. However, he was seen driving around your neighborhood two days ago."

      "It took this long to tell me?!"

      "Sorry, but we didn't get the report until two hours ago. Holiday slowness, I'm afraid."

      "Okay," said Vic, calming herself. "So, what do we do?"

      "We have people on the way. They'll be there - and I mean at your home - tomorrow by two at the latest. Just stay inside."

      "Already planning to," said Vic, nodding reflexively.

       * * *

      Vic ended the call and was about to put the cell phone down, when it rang.

      "Vic?" said Linda. "I'm worried. There was a strange man here, earlier, asking about you."

      "What man?" said Vic, alarmed.

      "He said he was a reporter - Vince Flores, I think he said - but he didn't look or talk like a reporter. He seemed more like a professional wrestler."

      Vic remembered the photos and description Agent Gordon had given her.

      "Tall, with greying black hair in a widow's peak, really muscular, scar on the back of his left hand?"

      "Yes!"

      "What did he want to know?"

      "He said he was working on an article about you. Wanted to know your habits, your friends, stuff like that."

      "Okay," said Vic, nodding. "Thanks for telling me this. Yeah. If he shows again, don't open the door and do call the police."

      "So he really is dangerous?" said Linda, voice squeaking. "Mom tried to poo-poo the idea, but she wasn't very convincing."

      "Yeah, but I'm the one he's after. I don't think he'd hurt anyone else."

      "Why?"

      "He's a bounty hunter, and a hate group posted a reward for me," said Vic, hotly. "Don't worry. I'm going to handle this. I have some people I can contact in federal law enforcement who will get this guy."

      I hope...

      Ray was surprised when Vic called back so soon. He was appropriately angry when informed of Linda's call.

      "Damnit! Well, we can't get people there any quicker, even if Doro and I were to fly out ourselves. I'll call the local police and the State Troopers and see what they can do."

      "He's talking to people who know me, gathering intel," said Vic, her voice quaking. "I have to admit, I'm worried."

      "Just stay inside!"

      "You better believe it."








Part Thirty-Four


      "Why can't you find this guy?" said Vic, annoyed but trying not to show it.

      "He's a super," said the FBI Agent, as he sat at his surveillance equipment, trying to be casual but looking worried.

      There were three Agents in the house, watching carefully from three different windows. This guy - Adams - was their field boss. He seemed a bit young for the job, but Vic assumed he knew what he was doing. Only, so far, they weren't actually doing much. Agent Gordon was in town, but at a hotel suite the FBI had rented, managing the overall operation.

      "So when do you bring in supers to catch him?"

      "I, uh, don't know if they're planning to. We're all trained in anti-super measures. Don't worry."

      Vic did worry. However, she was also becoming increasingly angry.

      Hell, I'm a super! I should act like it!

      Feeling a need to do something, Vic put on a dark green hoodie, went outside by the kitchen door - locking it behind her - and walked out onto the back deck of the house. The structure sat on a slope, so that the basement was actually at ground level around back. Vic hopped onto the porch railing and jumped from there onto the roof, landing with hardly a sound. She moved quickly and deftly to the peak and looked out over her neighborhood.

      Nothing.

      A bit embarrassed, Vic climbed down. However, she was also still angry, and growing increasingly determined. She dropped onto the deck, swung under the handrail and onto the parking area behind the house, and used her keys to let herself into the basement. She found her binoculars, then went back outside, making sure to lock the door behind her. She jumped onto the railing, again, this time into a one-handed handspring from which she vaulted onto the roof, instead of making two, separate jumps.

      The FBI people were all being discreet, those not actually watching from inside the Peltior house parked in a couple of innocuous vehicles nearby. Vic wasn't worried about discretion. Besides, who looked on the roofs of the houses they drove past?

      Still, there as no reason to be blatant; that was why she'd picked the green hoodie, to blend in with the tall, old evergreen trees around the house. Vic stood behind the chimney, actually resting her elbows on the top bricks to help steady her. She put the binoculars to her eyes and started scanning streets and reasonable parking places. The air was a bit cool for what Vic was wearing, but she could take it for a while.

      "A while" turned out to be forty minutes. Vic was starting to get cold, figured she'd better go inside soon, and took a final look around. As she passed a particular spot, though, she thought she saw something. When she swung the binoculars back, there was nothing there. Moving her view away, she again got a glimpse of... something.

      Vic put her binoculars back on that spot, and fine-tuned the focus. Nothing. She let her gaze go distant, as if viewing a mountain on the horizon, an old martial arts trick for catching movement. There was a blur, there, like a giant heat shimmer. The trick was to not look directly at it, but to just let it appear. It was definitely a van, painted in vague patterns of medium greys and browns.

      Got you! thought Vic. So that's it, why only one person spotted you driving around town. Some sort of stealth power, I bet.

      She didn't know if she could see it because of her vantage point, her heightened senses, her sense of perception, or some combination. However, see it she could, and more clearly by the second.

      After a couple of minutes she could make out details. For example, the sun roof had been replaced with a clear dome. Inside of which she could see the head, shoulders and hands of Mr. Truth. He was using much better binoculars than Vic's, and was staring straight at the house.

      Vic crawled backwards down the roof, keeping the chimney between her and the van. She figured he either hadn't seen her, or was so confident in his camouflage that he discounted her efforts at reconnaissance. She had a feeling he hadn't been there long, either. She also had a feeling he wouldn't be there for much longer. Something about his body language, his movements, spoke of a short visit.

      Vic dropped to the deck and quickly went inside.

      "Were you up on the roof?" said Alissa, startled.

      "Yeah. Good thing, too. I found the guy."

      "What?! Vic! Get back here!"

      She hurried into her Dad's corner office, where one of the FBI Agents was set up. Of the three, this one had the best chance of having a view of the van's location. As the Agent looked on, puzzled, Vic peered carefully through the curtains.

      "Yeah," she said. "Don't know how he's doing it, but Mr. Truth is parked in the driveway of that empty house for sale over there, second back from the corner. There's some sort of stealth effect. I can barely see it, and I have enhanced senses."

      She moved back and let the Agent look. He tried his eyes first, then the spotting scope. He couldn't see it and glanced at Vic doubtfully. She silently urged him on. He next tried his IR scope... and became excited.

      "Yeah, there's something there. Can't see what, it's just a blur, but there's something there."

      Relieved, Vic left him to try and figure out how to see it more clearly. She went into the first floor bathroom next to the office and looked out the window. The bottom half was frosted, but the upper part was clear. By standing on the edge of the tub she could see out through that, with little likelihood of being spotted in turn. She could hear the FBI Agent next door talking on his radio, trying to convince the others he was actually seeing something.

      Whether because of the activity, or simply because Mr. Truth felt he had stayed long enough, the van pulled out of the drive and began moving slowly away. He probably couldn't move quickly and maintain the effect.

      "He's leaving!" Vic shouted.

      "Damn," came the voice from the next room. "None of the car teams have spotted him yet! Their portable IR gear isn't good enough."

      Vic felt a surge of anger, as well as determination. Enough of hiding from this guy, enough of him scaring her friends. He was a super, and a super was needed to do something about him. He thought she was a target; she was going to reverse their roles. She hopped off the edge of the tub, spinning in the air to face the door of the bathroom. She sprinted through the house - passing her Mother who was just reaching the office - and out the kitchen door, over the deck railing, onto the concrete of the parking area below. She jumped into her Corolla and started it.

      Vic had a moment of panic when she pulled out onto the road and couldn't see the van. However, there were only three ways out of the neighborhood. She headed the way she had last seen the van going. Sure enough, within a few seconds she spotted it ahead, quite clearly, the blur gone, driving along at just under the speed limit. It was leaving by the rear exit to the subdivision, which let out onto a country road at the edge of the city.

      "Okay," muttered Vic, as she met the bare minimum requirement of the stop sign, then turned left after the van, "let's see just how good a job Grandpa did on this thing."

      Monstro would have had no chance against the supercharged (according to the notes, he always installed one) van in an actual race. However, Mr. Truth was not expecting pursuit. He certainly wasn't expecting a plain, brown station wagon to be doing the pursuing. When he did see the speeding car he thought it was simply someone in a hurry. He did a double-take as it passed his van, recognizing it as the target's vehicle, but still didn't realize the target was after him until it swerved back into the right lane too close ahead and locked brakes, to slide to a stop sideways in the road in front of him. Close in front of him.

      Mr. Truth frantically braked, realized he couldn't stop in time, and went onto the shoulder. He managed to keep the van out of the ditch, but only until Monstro - in motion again - rammed the left rear.

      The top-heavy vehicle spun a quarter turn until it was going sideways, then toppled over onto its right side and slid to a stop.

      Vic put the Corolla in park and jumped out, running towards the van. Before she got there the driver's door flew off, apparently from a kick by the man inside. Who popped out right after the door, not looking at all phased by the wreck. Though he did look very, very angry.

      Vic suddenly realized she might have bitten off more than she could handle. Mr. Truth was stronger, faster, tougher and far more experienced. He was also wearing armor. Mostly soft, but with some hard inserts, probably ceramic composite plates. Vic smiled.

      She charged in, straight towards him, and he set himself in a fighting stance to meet her. Only, at the last moment Vic dodged right, hopped up, kicked off the bottom of the overturned van, and caught Mr. Truth with a hard left side kick in the ribs.

      The blow obviously hurt him; he staggered back with a grunt, but kept his feet. Before Vic could do more than land, he retaliated. The next several seconds were full of him attacking and Vic barely defending. She didn't try to do anything else, focusing on protecting herself.

      There were sirens in the near distance. Vic figured they were from the FBI cars. Mr. Truth seemed to feel that, too. He feinted, making Vic duck, then tried to dodge around her. Vic literally jumped in his way. Mr. Truth scowled, and threw a hard side kick. This was the first long technique he had used in the fight. Vic spun out of its way and swung her left fist hard into his crotch.

      He was wearing a cup, or something similar. That should have protected him. Thanks to the Purple Art, it didn't.

      Two FBI cars came careening around around the turn onto the country road to see the stopped wagon, the overturned van, and Mr. Truth lying curled up on the ground.

       * * *

      "You are insane," said Agent Adams, giving the impression of someone barely keeping his anger in check, as he exited one of the two FBI cars and came hurrying to Vic.

      He had jumped in one of the cars keeping watch outside, and ridden with the two Agents in it. The other car was just the two who had been working in their stakeout car. All four of the other Agents had their guns out, covering Mr. Truth, while Adams checked Vic.

      "I was mad," said Vic, quietly. "Listen, this guy was a threat to my family, my friends and me, and I was in a position to stop him. So I did."

      "You could have ridden with us and given us directions," said Adams, flatly.

      "Oh," said Vic, abashed.

      "As it turned out, even that was probably not necessary. However he created that blurring effect he had obviously turned it off by the time you caught up with him."

      "Okay, point," said Vic, reluctantly. "I jumped in, because I thought he would get away. With professional drivers in cop-tuned cars, that was less likely."

      "This is the difference between supers and law enforcement. Supers - alone or in small groups - jump into situations. Law enforcement officers work as a team, and to a plan. That's something you need to learn if you do want to join the BSR."

      "Yes, sir," said Vic, meekly.

      He held the stern look for several seconds longer, then relented.

      "That dealt with, good work. You beat a guy with a history of taking out norms by the dozen. Probably saved us from some bruises and broken bones."

      "You're welcome," said Vic, with a shy smile.








Part Thirty-Five


      Monstro wasn't all that badly damaged, but it was ruled unsafe to drive by both one of the FBI men and Vic herself until repaired. Vic was pretty sure her insurance wouldn't cover that. She didn't regret her actions. She'd stopped the man who was stalking her!

      Oddly, the van had lost its cameo pattern, and now appeared to be a sort of light gray.

      Mr. Truth was on his way to a hospital, under heavy guard and in heavier restraints. As they worked the scene, the FBI Agents made numerous ribald comments about the nature of the fallen super's injury. Agent Adams finally had to sternly tell them to focus on their work. They quickly found enough illegal gear in Mr. Truth's van to guarantee convictions on multiple charges, regardless of his intentions towards Vic. Not just weapons - though there were certainly plenty of those - but surveillance gear and other items. He had better equipment than the FBI team watching for him!

      Vic, meanwhile, was in the hotel suite Gordon rented for the operation. He didn't look happy.

      "Did you know his name actually is Fentiman True?" said Gordon, offering Vic a soft drink.

      She absently took a sip and nodded. Gordon sighed, and settled himself in the chair across from her, hoping he looked sufficiently stern. He's cleared the central area of the suite to have a talk with her, since he was the only one of those working this case who actually knew her. Vic took another sip and, sensing something serious was coming up, put her drink on the coffee table between them.

      Gordon needed three tries, but finally managed to broach the subject.

      "How do you think I would feel if you got hurt or killed pulling a stunt like that?!"

      "Hey!" said Vic, defensively. "I didn't get hurt! Well, aside from a few bruises and scrapes."

      "Congratulations," said Agent Gordon, sourly. "Never do that again."

      "You kiddin'?" said Vic, grinning, trying to make light of the situation. "I'm thinking of turning pro!"

      "I seriously doubt any law enforcement agency would want a loose cannon like you on board."

      Vic started, then looked dismayed. Then defiant.

      "Aw, come on! I caught the bad guy!"

      "Yes, you did. Technically, our reports will read that you provided information and assistance which led to the Agents on the scene making the capture and arrest, without specifying the nature of the assistance. Unless someone questions us in detail, we'll leave out the fact that you took an active part. That could subject to you to being arrested for assault, interfering with our operation, and some other things. As at it stands now, ironically, not only are you not being punished, you're eligible for a reward."

      "That's handy," said Vic, nodding. "Monstro needs repairs and school is expensive."

      Gordon sighed, realizing he wasn't quite getting through to her. He wasn't really surprised by this. He remembered how high on the excitement he was after his first big arrest. Okay, he hadn't wanted to reveal anything classified, but in this case doing so might save a young woman's life. Right now, she definitely needed a reality check.

      "Preliminary examination of the van shows that the stealth feature is actually a device," said Gordon, seriously. "It's similar to that invisibility cloak tech which was introduced a few years ago. The exterior is essentially a complicated display panel, wrapped around the van. The cameo pattern was simply the default he chose for when he wasn't trying to be invisible."

      "Where would he get something like that?" said Vic, puzzled. "I thought he was short on cash."

      "You can't buy it. That's secure tech. Still in development, actually."

      Vic frowned, thinking.

      "Wait. Would Dorton Industries have equipment like that?"

      "They're one of the contractors developing it."

      Vic swore in a very unladylike manner.

      "He was never after me," she said, angrily. "They sent him to see how I handled the actual bounty hunters. That's why he never did anything but watch and ask questions!"

      "That's our current hypothesis," said Gordon, nodding.

      Vic opened her mouth to resume swearing, but stopped, took a deep breath, and looked Agent Gordon in the eye.

      "I was feeling good because I stopped him. I didn't stop anything. The bounty is still out there, the people who arranged for it are still out there, I'm still in trouble."

      "Sorry for being the bearer of bad news," said Gordon, quietly. "Still, it's better that you know."

      "When will you be ready to take action against Dorton?" said Vic, hotly.

      "It may not be Dorton, himself," said Gordon, in a cautioning tone. "Could be a rogue employee, an ex-employee with a grudge, or even someone with no other connection somehow taking advantage of Dorton's business. Actually, it probably is either Dorton or someone close to him, but I can't tell you why we think that. Too much chance of ruining an ongoing investigation."

      "I really feel helpless, here," said Vic. Moments before, she had been on top of the world, bragging and cocksure. Now... "Even if you confiscate the money, there'll still be people after me for the reward."

      Gordon was actually pleased by this change in mood on Vic's part. It might just keep her alive.

      "Maybe. As a publicly known super, though, you'd be a target all your life, anyway."

      "Point. I'm starting to understand why so many supers keep their status private."

      Vic groaned and leaned forward a bit, rubbing her face with her hands.

      "Sometimes I wish I'd died in that fire. Especially if it would mean one of the other guys lived."

      "Don't say that," said Gordon, startled. "Listen, things aren't all bad. We've already arrested the guy who was holding the money and taken it as evidence. We also put the word out about these actions, and it's been picked up by the news..."

      "Wait... you mean I'm in the news about this mess?!"

      "They were just starting to pick the story up this morning, so we had a quick press conference. Since some news was already starting to leak that there was a bounty on the head of a young super, but not any of the details. We didn't give your name, but told them that the bounty had been seized, and the people responsible had been arrested or are being sought. We hinted that the subject was underage and said we weren't releasing the name or any other details. That should keep them satisfied, at least for a while."

      "I hope that stops this."

      "Not everyone will accept that the reward is gone - desperate people will always want to believe they can make easy money - but after the way you dealt with Mr. Truth very few will want to tangle with you. Just keep in mind that even though we didn't give your name some enterprising reporter may uncover it. Also, anyone who knows the details about the bounty already knows who you are. Still, at least in the short term this will limit those involved to people who already knew something about the situation."

      Vic nodded, and straightened, but Gordon could see she was still troubled. No wonder, with all she'd gone through in less than a year.

      "Okay, here's some good news. In spite of this, I'm told that the Bureau of Special Resources still wants you to become one of their agents. If you do, that would be even more reason for anyone interested in the bounty to not want to collect. Even most greedy people won't want to cross a fed, at least not just for money."

      "I'm still interested," said Vic, quietly. "I admit it's more because I want to track down whoever is behind all this than because I want to fight crime in general... but that's there, too."

      "You'll have to talk to someone from the BSR to find out the details, but they were talking about paying for you to finish your engineering program, as long as you take some basic law enforcement classes, too. A good technical background can be useful in law enforcement."

      Vic nodded. She knew this already. Both about the potential offer and the usefulness of an engineering degree.

      "Anything else?"

      "Isn't that enough?" said Gordon, wryly. He reached out and patted her on the shoulder. "Go home. Get some rest. You've earned it."

       * * *

      Vic spent the rest of her holiday largely at home, rarely going out. This isolation was partly due to lingering concerns over the bounty, but mostly because Vic was in a quiet, thoughtful mood, not really wanting company or small talk. Her parents and sister were concerned, but didn't ask many questions. They knew the FBI wasn't telling them everything, but what they had heard was reassuring. They accepted that Vic was simply concerned about the recent events in their lives and what they might lead to. There was no reason to tell them about the suspected connection between Mr. Truth and the owner of Vic's college.

      Vic spent most of her remaining time at home talking on the phone or doing research. Her determination was back. This time, instead of being focused on Mr. Truth, it was directed towards being prepared for what she felt was the inevitable confrontation with those behind him.

       * * *

      "Well, I'm disappointed that we lost our data source," said Rokuro. "However, the fact that she apparently beat him in a short fight is telling. Very telling."

      "What next?" said Banpresto.

      "For now, let it go. We're getting some new operatives in the college. They can pick things up when classes resume."








Part Thirty-Six


      Housing policy at Ramsey Technical College was to keep roommates together for a full year, unless one or both complained. Since - for reasons most of those who knew them couldn't figure out - Vic and Alex got along fine most of the time, they were back together and in the same room.

      "Here!" said Alex, after enthusiastically greeting Vic and abruptly breaking off her hug to grab something from the shelf over her desk. She shoved a package into Vic's hands. "Got you something!"

      "Oh," said Vic, embarrassed. "I did't get you anything."

      "This isn't for Christmas. Open it."

      Alex smiled eagerly as Vic pulled her prizes out and held them up.

      "Gloves?!" said Vic. She hefted them, frowning. "Heavy gloves."

      "Riot gloves. Padded and weighted."

      Vic pulled them on and examined them.

      "Not all that heavy," she said, as she tightened the wrist straps. "However, the plates over the backs of the knuckles and finger bones are fierce!"

      "Even lead will hurt if it hits non-augmented flesh and bone," said Alex, smugly. "Lots'a people use 'em. Though not always for legal purposes."

      "I can imagine."

      Vic made a few practice hand strikes in the air.

      "Wow."

      Vic examined the gloves again, nodding.

      "Yeah," she said, thoughtfully.

      Still thinking about something, Vic put the gloves on top of her dresser and began unpacking and putting things away.

      "Hooo, pretty dresses!" said Alex, moving in to examine the items Vic had just hung in the closet.

      "Christmas presents," said Vic, rolling her eyes. "From my Mom. She made me bring them."

      "Hah! Wish I was your size, so I could borrow them! They look nice."

      "You seem to have grown at least a little in the past few months," said Vic, charitably.

      "Thanks for noticing," said Alex, with a genuine smile for once. "Yeah. I actually requested - and was very pleased to get - new underwear for Christmas. Some other clothes, too. I'm finally growing up!"

      "Now, no-one is safe," said Vic, straight-faced.

       * * *

      Vic was glad to be back at school, back in class, for multiple reasons. Prime among them, to get her mind off the events of December. Unfortunately, they weren't quite so ready to let go of her.

      "Great," said Vic, as she ended the call. "Doro says Mr. Truth is now claiming he was hired by Dorton Industries to protect me. That he was watching my house and checking on my friends in case anyone tried to cash in on the bounty."

      "I thought they already knew he'd incited some locals to go after you?" said Alex.

      "He claims he was just making inquiries and they got the wrong idea."

      "What does Dorton Industries say about this?"

      "That they hired him to keep an eye on me," said Vic, throwing her arms wide in exasperation.

      "Didn't do a very good job, did he?" said Alex, with a nasty grin. "Considering you got attacked by the local anthropoids."

      "He says if I drop the stalking charges, he'll not file charges against me for assault."

      "Well, you did crush one of his testicles!" said Alex, gleefully. "Besides wrecking his van and ruining his plan, you made him half a man!"

      "Oh, shut up," said Vic, in a mock growl. She threw herself on her bed. She grimaced as she thought about receiving a hard shot to the crotch. "It wasn't... destroyed. Just... severely bruised. It should still function properly. Well, after it heals."

      "Okay, so what are your friends in the FBI and BSR saying about this? Assuming you still have any, after this fubar."

      "Actually they're being very supportive," said Vic. "They know as well as I do that Mr. Truth was committing several illegal acts at the time. Their charges are separate from mine, too. Mr. Truth is being held without bond - given his history of avoiding facing charges - until trial."

      "I imagine Dorton Industries are being very officially annoyed about all this," said Alex, in a veddy British accent.

      "Their press releases are fine examples of presenting an outraged but struggling to be polite face to the press," said Vic, sourly. "However, the most recent statements show them pulling back from supporting Mr. Truth. They're talking about how he misrepresented himself, and wasn't quite what they thought they were hiring."

      "Sucks to be him," said Alex, smirking.

      "Well, they haven't abandoned him, and he's not convicted yet," said Vic, pointedly.

      She turned back to her homework, only to be interrupted again, this time by the ringing of the room phone.

      "When are you going to pick up this package?" said the Dorm Mother, Mrs. Dubois.

      "What pack... Oh! I bet I know what that is. I'll be right down!"

      Vic returned a few minutes later carrying a large and somewhat heavy cardboard box.

      "Whatizit, whatizit!?" said Alex, excitedly, as Vic opened the top.

      "After paying to get Monstro fixed, I had some reward money left over. Inspired by those gloves you gave me, I sprung for some specialized equipment," said Vic.

      "New toys?" said Alex, as Vic pulled separately wrapped items from the package.

      "Remember, this was your idea," said Vic, as she felt around in the packing peanuts to make sure she had everything.

      "What was my idea?!"

      "Well, your idea, and I also noticed Mr. Truth wearing similar stuff."

      Vic unfolded the packing list, read it in a glance, nodded, and handed it to Alex. Who pretty much repeated the process.

      "Oooooh! Superhero gear!"

      "Well, not quite."

      Alex looked up to see Vic holding a plastron with attached crotch piece. Alex burst out in a fit of giggles.

      "Okay, someone who didn't know what that was might mistake it for a piece of bondage gear."

      "It's a bit more... formidable than I thought it'd be," said Vic, dubiously, as she stood. She turned to the full length mirror, holding the garment in front of her. "Oh, God; it has nipples."

      Alex had another fit of giggles.

      "It's all part of what they call the costume discretion," she said, mock seriously, when she recovered. "Oooh, I remember reading about that armor. You sent them your measurements for it, right?"

      "Yeah. Though the catalog entry said the memory foam lining would shape itself to me."

      "Okay, yeah. That's good armor. Not quite modern super inventor level, but based on stuff originally developed by Pine for his henchmen, back in the early Seventies. Simplified and modified with modern materials."

      "Wait," said Vic, looking from the armor to her roommate. "You mean I'm supposed to wear this with nothing underneath?!"

      "I think you can wear panties with it," said Alex, thinking back. "Yeah. Nothing else, or it wouldn't work right. Or be comfortable."

      She leered at Vic.

      "What are you waiting for? Strip!"

      "Let's check the rest of this out, first," said Vic, suddenly feeling shy.

      She unwrapped all the pieces and laid them out on the floor, pushing the box and wrapping materials to the wall as she needed more room.

      "Wow. That's almost a full suit of armor."

      "They call this their 'Covert Protection System,'" said Vic. "It's supposed to be wearable under clothing without being noticed."

      "Yeah, I can see that," said Alex. She sat on the floor - like a pre-teen playing with toys - and examined the pieces. "High strength, light weight composite, no-lube joints with polymer bearing surfaces... Not detectable with magnetometers, barely visible on normal X-rays - though it would show on airport machines, they can spot plastic squirt guns, they're made for that kind'a contrast. Wow."

      She looked up at Vic with an innocent smile.

      "Now you gonna strip?"

      "I thought you like your girls more buxom," muttered Vic.

      "Oh, c'mon. You know I'm kidding. Look, I'll leave the room 'til you're ready."

      "No, it's okay," said Vic, placatingly. "Besides, I'll probably need help the first time."

       * * *

      "Pixane, plackard, fauld, cutlet... Where do they get these names?" said Vic, reciting the list of armor components as Alex tugged at straps.

      "Latin by way of French, mostly. There, that's it."

      Vic examined herself in the mirror. The topmost part started just below her collarbone. It was lined with memory foam, with ballistic cloth over that, several overlapping pieces of hard armor - thin sheets of a very tough cermet - over that, more ballistic fabric over that and fake breasts over that. Though the "breasts" were the same light grey as the fabric.

      "My God I'm huge," said Vic, in dismay, as she posed in front of the mirror.

      "It's actually not all that bad," said Alex, walking around her. "With your workout clothes on you wouldn't look too unusual."

      The upper third of the outfit was the only part with cermet reinforcements. The rest of the torso pieces were varying thicknesses of soft body armor - lined with a softer fabric guaranteed to wick perspiration - with some tough composite plates over strategic areas. A tapered strap went between the legs, narrowing to a thong configuration before extending up to attach with velcro to the waist piece at the small of the back.

      "Oh, that's just lovely," said Vic, sourly, as she peered over her shoulder at the reflection of her rear. "If I weren't wearing panties, my ass cheeks would be hanging out."

      "It's practical. Remember, this stuff is supposed to be worn under clothing without showing."

      More light and somewhat elastic ballistic cloth covered the back from the waist to the armpits.

      "Well, at least it protects more than most fantasy armor," said Vic.

      The fronts of the legs had hard armor plates - cuisse, poleyn and greave - attached to more soft body armor, which completely covered the legs from hip to ankle. This fabric was thinner than that on the torso, to allow more movement. For the arms, Vic had chosen simple, lightweight elastic ballistic cloth coverings, which attached to the upper part of the torso armor with velcro and ran down to her wrists.

      "I think I will try my gi," said Vic, moving to her dresser. In under a minute she had it on and was back before the long mirror.

      "Wow," was all she could say.

      Her chest was obviously bigger, but not hugely so. Aside from that, the armor only showed through the V gap in the top.

      "Wearing a t-shirt under this, like I usually do, you wouldn't see anything unusual!" said Vic, startled. "This stuff really does just disappear under clothing. Well, under bulky clothing."

      "Oh! Oh! Put on the gloves I gave you!"

      Vic shrugged, but complied, then went back to the mirror.

      "Okay, not really the image I was going for. I think I need some jogging clothes or something."

      "Actually... As much as I'd like to design your super hero costume..."

      "It's not a super hero costume," said Vic, defiantly. "It's..."

      "...I think some of the other girls would be better at it."

      "Candy and Melanie, here we come," said Vic, nodding.








Part Thirty-Seven


      Vic popped out of the hatch onto the roof of the dorm and took off running, quickly gathering speed. She leapt, pitching forward and straightening until her fingers pointed to her landing spot and her toes pointed towards the sky. At impact with the lower roof of the Hall Classroom Building she went smoothly into a tuck and forward roll. This was as much to prevent damage to the roof as to prevent damage to her.

      Vic was impressed with her rig. Aside from the armor and her new costume, she had a pair of hardwood tonfa and a rattan hanbo. All lightweight, all non-metallic. Her weapons had been positioned after much experimentation to make certain that they didn't rattle, didn't shift and were easy to get to. The armor performed as promised, once properly adjusted. It didn't hamper her movement, and once she was used to it Vic barely noticed it.

      Vic popped out of the roll into a long leap across this second roof, using her momentum to cover the distance faster than she could running. She landed out of that on her feet and smoothly kept going, full speed. She was grinning. This was fun!

      From roof to roof she ran, jumped and tumbled, the general trend towards lower and lower buildings. Finally, however, she was on a one-story building facing a three-story structure across a narrow street. She jumped, hitting the wall near a large drainpipe. Vic slid towards the ground, using the drainpipe to slow her fall, the gloves taking most of the punishement from friction and encounters with support brackets.

      She hit the ground hard enough to injure most people, but immediately took off running again. She vaulted a chain-link fence and jumped a ditch, then lunged for a doorway, landing on her belly and sliding across a line on the floor.

      "Touchdown!" she shouted, rolling onto her back while still sliding and shaking her fists triumphantly in the air.

      "I don't believe it," said Trujillo, looking at his stopwatch. "You shaved almost half a minute off the record. Which was set by a super speedster."

      "Yeah!" said Vic, doing a kip-up to get back on her feet.

      She was short of breath, but not so much so she couldn't still victory dance rather vigorously.

      "Okay," said Melanie, looking stunned. "I am officially humbled."

      "Hey, your forte isn't speed and agility," said Vic, patting her on the arm. "I sure can't lift a car!"

      There was quite a crowd here. Most of the super martial arts class, several of Vic's friends and some of the security staff, who were supervising, all having a good time.

      "Yeah, but that's the night record," said Speedy Sue Mayewski, the previously mentioned super speedster, dismissively.

      "Uh, no, Sue," said Trujillo, consolingly. "Vic set the absolute record."

      She scowled, gave Vic a brief glare, then walked out.

      "Why's she taking this so hard?" said Vic, puzzled. "It's just a game."

      "For some people, games are all they have," said Trujillo, quietly, as he watched her leave. He turned back to the crowd and resumed his previous tone. "All right, folks, I know you're all eager to celebrate - you're college kids, you'll use any excuse - but it's Sunday evening and you have classes tomorrow. So don't stay up too late!"

       * * *

      "This data from our agent is disturbing," said Rokuro, after reading an update the next morning. He frowned in deep thought, considering the situation. "Something happened. Something which pushed her to a new plateau. Perhaps it was merely a boost to her confidence, from defeating Mr. Truth. Whatever it is, she's now our priority subject at the college."

      "I think we need to reevaluate her," said Banpresto, just as thoughtfully. "Not only her abilities, either. Her threat level."

      "Come on!" said Sam, in mild protest. "I know she's got a mad on against us, but she doesn't even know who 'us' is!"

      "No-one does," said Rokuro, smugly. "Yes, we reevaluate her. That is all. She is still a child, and while physically promising has no clue about our operations, beyond the bare fact that there are operations."

      "It's not just her, remember," said Banpresto, pointedly.

      "The feds are as much in the dark as she is," said Rokuro, waving his concerns away. "No, they might have a few suspicions, but even they are directed towards others."

      Banpresto wasn't so sure. His boss was brilliant, but also egotistical. Like so many masterminds - including Banpresto, himself, in the old days - he dismissed his opponents' intelligence. Banpresto wasn't going to argue with Rokuro over this - not right now, anyway - but he decided to take measures. Nothing behind his boss' back... he had enough authority to do these things on his own initiative without problems. If he were right, Rokuro would reward him when Banpresto's extra caution paid off. If the precautions weren't necessary, the matter would likely never come up. So it was a "win-don't lose" situation.

       * * *

      "Wow," said Doro, as the morning's briefing for the top staff of the Bureau for Special Resources wound down.

      "In regard to what, particularly?" said Ray, barely stifling a yawn.

      "Vic. She's really starting to show a lot of physical aptitude. Even Trujillo is impressed. She's not quite at Champion's level, but with her still recuperating and maybe never returning to full strength, Vic would be a valuable asset to the crime fighting community."

      "We weren't the only ones to think there might be a connection between Vic and the destruction of the keep," said Ray, nodding.

      "Actually, I'm pretty sure by now that there is no connection," said Doro. "She's still impressive."

      "I think we need to reevaluate her," said Brade. "It is, indeed, all but certain her powers have nothing to do with the destroyed keep. A proper, full-scale evaluation would likely make certain of this, besides properly quantifying her abilities. It will be up to her, of course, but I think she'd welcome it."

      "We make this part of our job offer," said Doro, nodding eagerly.

      "Look, just because she's strongly motivated..." said Ray.

      "She is that," said his boss. "However... She's also begun to take things more seriously. I'm starting to think we need to act sooner rather than later, and maybe more definitively."

      "So... What?" said Doro.

      "Deputize her. Let her in on our plans."

      "That's rather a big jump," said Ray, surprised.

      "I have a feeling about that gal..." said Brade. Her gaze was thoughtful for a moment, then she got back to business. "Not yet, though. If the opportunity presents itself, then, yes. You have my recommendation. If you're on the scene, though, it's your call."

       * * *

      A few days later Melanie stopped by to ask Alex for help with some homework. The younger girl was gone, but she found Vic laying on her bed, looking up at the ceiling.

      "What's the problem?" said Melanie, sitting on the edge of the bed.

      "With all those purchases I made recently, I'm running short on money," said Vic, a bit reluctantly. "I miscalculated how much I'd have left for school, forgetting they'd take out taxes for the reward money. Nothing serious, but I'm thinking about finding a job."

      "You should sit for the life drawing classes," said Melanie. "They're always short on models, and the pay is good for just a few hours a week of sitting still."

      "No. Way."

      "Oh, come on! With that hard body of yours?"

      "Yes," said Vic, firmly. "With this hard body of mine. Why do people keep trying to get me to pose naked?"

      "It's easy money, and not really all that embarrassing. It's pretty clinical."

      "You've done it?" said Vic, suddenly curious. As well as a bit turned on by the idea of Melanie posing naked.

      "No, but I've been thinking about doing it. Harriet has, and to hear her talk about it she had an easy time. You aren't the only one who could use the extra cash."

      "I'm really not interested."

      "You sure? You could probably get a premium rate, since you're not the typical model."

      "Yeah. I'm sure. "

      "Oh!" said Melanie, suddenly, snapping her fingers. "I know! Tutoring!"

      "Huh?" said Vic.

      "You are good enough with several subjects you got credit for them with tests, right?"

      "Yeah."

      "So, you could tutor someone who is having trouble in those subjects!"

      "That might just work," said Vic, thinking it over. "How do I do this?"

      "No idea," was Melanie's airy reply. "I just remember there were notices on bulletin boards asking for tutors."

       * * *

      Speedy Sue seemed to have forgotten her pique towards Vic for taking the record the next time they had lunch together. She was older than most of those at the table where Vic usually sat, being a Junior.

      Despite the age difference, she obviously felt some kinship with the female supers in the group. Though she liked to brag too much.

      "Yeah, my powers activated really early," she said, with an impish grin, as she tore a piece from a slice of bread and played with it a bit before putting it in her mouth. "First time my parents took the training wheels off my bike, I was in the next county before I could stop."

      Vic suspected a bit of exaggeration, there. From what she had seen of the gal's powers she was barely faster than Monstro. Though she was also very, very agile, with incredible reflexes.

      "So, you been practicing?" said Vic, her tone teasing. "Now that you know you have a worthy challenger?"

      "Oh, you better believe it," said Sue, the malice in her tone just a bit too sincere. "I'm going to whip your ass good!"

      Well, it's nice to know where we stand, thought Vic. She was pretty sure all the animosity was focused on this competition. At least, she hoped it was.

      "Maybe we should find a way to add a water hazard," said Alex, thoughtfully. She looked at Sue. "Can you run on water?"

      "Barely, and not reliably," said the speedster, with a shrug. "I can swim super fast, though."

      "What's that like?" said Alex. "Running on water, I mean?"

      "Have you seen those videos of people running on corn starch in water? Like that. It's wobbly, but as long as you keep moving fast enough you stay on top."

      "Fascinating," said Alex, with a huge grin. "Let's see, corn starch solution in water is a non-Newtonian fluid, whereas water is Newtonian. Therefore it's not a perfect relationship. However..."

      Lunch over, the others rose and left, quietly.








Part Thirty-Eight



      Vic was happy. Three weeks back at school, and things were going well. No attacks. No legal troubles. Her class load was lighter. Her powers were under control.

      Still, when she was approached during a Saturday afternoon shopping trip by three men in suits, Vic came instantly alert. The nature - though not the degree - of the alertness shifted when the lead man produced an FBI ID.

      "Miss Peltior? Agent Morganstern. These are Agents Timkins and Bischoff. May we speak to you in private?"

      "Sure," said Vic, puzzled.

      The moved to an isolated corner in the strip mall and sat on some benches there. That is, Vic sat on one and Morganstern sat across from her on the other, while the other two Agents stood discreet watch.

      "Sorry for the melodrama," said Morganstern, with an apologetic smile. "The people who set up the operation at your school already have replacement spies there."

      "I'm not surprised," said Vic.

      "Yes, well, that action gave us some clues which have finally led us to the boss."

      "Now that is good news," said Vic, surprised at the relief she felt. "Who is it?"

      "I can't tell you," said Morganstern, seeming a bit embarrassed. "I was asked to emphasize that you shouldn't tell anyone about even this much."

      "Sure; I'll keep quiet," said Vic, nodding.

      Morganstern suddenly looked more serious, even a bit concerned.

      "I want you to know that I object to this next part," he said, face now carefully neutral. "My superiors and the high ups at the BSR want me to offer to deputize you to help with the operation to take these people down."

      Vic was startled. Yes, she knew that the BSR, at least, was thinking of recruiting her, but put her on the job now?!

      "That's... rather a major change of policy, isn't it?"

      "There are three factors which have led people to change their minds. First, you've shown repeatedly that you're good enough at fighting to be a definite asset. Second, we don't expect the actual arrest to involved any violence - though I can't tell you why unless you agree to help. Third, well, we are very short on super help. Between natural disasters and many supers still being suspicious of governments..."

      Vic nodded. She could understand that part. However...

      "If there won't be any violence, why do you need supers along?"

      "Intimidation, to help reduce the chance of violence," said Morganstern, again looking uncomfortable. "Also, if there is violence, well, there are supers known to be on the other side. We're trained and equipped for handling rogue supers, but..."

      Vic nodded. Having someone on their side known to be a super combatant would definitely shift the psychological balance in the Agents' favor. Still...

      "I am interested," said Vic, slowly. "But... this is such a big change in attitude... and so out of the blue... When would you need my answer?"

      "Not for at least another few days; probably longer," said Morganstern, nodding. "If you want to think it over, go ahead. I'm afraid I can't give you any contact information, but we have people watching the school anyway. If they see you heading out somewhere they'll let me know and I'll contact you again."

      "I should definitely be back here in less than a week," said Vic, nodding herself. She gave him a reassuring smile. "Thanks for the offer. I promise to give it careful consideration."

      "That's all we can ask. Thank you."

       * * *

      "You going somewhere?" said Alex, as she saw Vic getting dressed, that evening.

      "Feeling restless," said Vic, as she finished lacing her shoes. She grinned at her roommate. "Also, since Speedy Sue took back the absolute record, I'm feeling a need to prepare for a rematch."

      Vic - wearing a black warmup suit and hoodie pulled tight around her head, and a dark brown knit face warmer - headed up the stairs to the top floor of the dorm. There, she climbed the roof access ladder. Once on top of the building, she quickly closed the hatch, took a short run and jumped. She landed almost silently on the roof of the Hall building. However, on her next jump she veered left. Vic landed on the roof of the Physics Building, one of the newest structures on campus. Against its black roof she was effectively invisible. Since it was still warm from the Sun, hopefully even IR wouldn't spot her against that background.

      Vic proceeded to make her way carefully and quietly to ground level, then lifted a storm drain grating and continued down. Not needing any light, thanks to her heightened senses and awareness, she literally ran through the darkness, crouched half over.

      She came out of the drain in a roadside culvert off campus. Vic turned left and began running full out along the narrow country road. The partial Moon helped but was not really necessary.

      A bit less than a quarter of an hour later, she reached a defunct service station. There were no lights on here, the power lines actually removed years ago. However, the old pay phone was still connected, and still worked. Vic dialed from memory.

      "Doro," said a familiar voice.

      "This is Vic," she said in a normal speaking voice. Either she was completely alone, thanks to her precautions, or the spies already knew where she was and who she was speaking to. "There's something odd going on."

      "Go on."

      Vic related the events at the mall.

      "We are thinking about deputizing you," said Doro, suddenly more alert. "However, that was the just BSR, and for later. If the FBI knows who the big boss is, they haven't told us."

      "Something just seemed... off about those guys," said Vic, frowning in the darkness. "The presentation was too slick, too polished. It felt like watching an expert performance."

      "I hope you're calling from your usual place."

      "Yeah, the old gas station," said Vic, nodding by reflex. "Don't worry; I'm pretty gun shy about this."

      "What were those names, again?" said Doro.

      Vic told her.

      "I also got part of Morganstern's badge number," said Vic, giving that as well.

      "That will be a big help. Call the primary contact number tomorrow, sometime after lunch, at your convenience. Even if I'm out of the office, someone here will know about this situation and talk to you."

       * * *

      True to her promise, Vic traveled openly to that same strip mall the next Sunday afternoon. She saw no sign of observation or that anyone was following. Nevertheless, within twenty minutes of her arrival the same three men approached her.

      "Do you have an answer?" said Agent Morganstern.

      "Yes. I'm in."

      "Good. We should be ready to move in about three days. I'll have someone call your cell, pretending to be a friend from your hometown visiting the area. They will tell you when and where to meet. Naturally, it'll be me, instead."

      "Sounds like we have a plan," said Vic, smiling confidently.

       * * *

      "Okay," said the Tech, as she finished wiring Vic. "You're good to go."

      Vic nodded, and looked at Doro.

      "Thanks for getting a woman for this," she said, quietly, as she adjusted her armor. "I would have been really uncomfortable with a guy doing it."

      "Hey, I get women to do mine, too," said the slightly older super. She motioned for Vic to leave the curtained off area of the surveillance van. "Now, you clear on all this?"

      "Yeah," said Vic, nodding as she pulled her assault gloves on and tightened the straps. "I get them to do something obviously illegal, you folks raid 'em."

      "Not exactly," said Doro, quickly. "No entrapment. You let them take the lead, and wait for them to do or say something obviously illegal or trying to get you to break the law."

      "Don't be afraid to use your code words," said Ray, standing as they entered the main area. "You may see or hear something we don't."

      "Roger," said Vic, trying to be serious but unable to keep from grinning. "Hey, don't worry. I won't let you down."

      "Just don't let yourself down," said Doro, seriously.

      Vic sobered a bit, and nodded.

      "Okay. I better get going, or they'll be suspicious I'm taking so long."

      "You drove here pretty fast," said Ray, straight-faced. "You've got plenty of time. If they do make a fuss about you being late, just look embarrassed and tell them you got lost."

      "Or stopped for speeding," said Doro, teasing a bit.

      "Right," said Vic, nodding again.

      She stepped out of the van and walked quickly to Monstro. In moments she was back on the state road and headed for her rendezvous with the fake feds. She didn't get lost, though she dithered at one turn before taking the right leg at the last moment. Vic gave a gusty sigh of relief after she confirmed she was actually on the right street. Not long after that she saw what looked like a delivery van, with the markings she'd been told to look for. 

      Vic pulled into the parking lot beside the van and reached for the key. She was surprised to realize her hands were shaking. Vic stopped, took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and flexed her fingers a few times. Hands steady, now, she turned off the ignition and put the keys in her pants pocket.

      "What's with the outfit?" said Agent Morganstern, frowning, when he saw Vic.

      "You said you needed a super, so I put together a costume," said Vic, with a grin.

      That was not exactly the truth, since she'd been trying various combinations of clothing and equipment for weeks. However, this was the first time for this particular combo. Vic had on medium blue workout pants and a sweatshirt, plus a hoodie with ballistic cloth lining and pads normally used for a football helmet glued to that. The lining and padding weren't really visible from the outside with the hood pulled tight, though they did bulk out the hood a bit. Hopefully, anyone who noticed would think that was due to her hair.

      Vic was ready for her performance, as practiced as these fake FBI Agents. She stood there, confident and relaxed, actually eager to put these guys in a position to incriminate themselves.

      "She's wearing a wire!" shouted someone behind her.

      There was a frozen moment. Vic, realizing the sting was spoiled, punched "Agent Morganstern" hard in the face, as he reached for his shoulder holster. There was a sickening crunch as the hardened segments in the backs of the fingers broke not just cartilage but bone.

      Several others were also reaching for guns. However, the most urgent danger was the two actually holding submachine guns, standing guard on either side of the door. Vic did a back flip into a handspring from which she delivered a kick to the right arm of each man.

      "I need extraction now!" Vic yelled, almost screamed.

      She rebounded off the kicks into a forward roll, popped to her feet and reverse-punched the man who had been standing to Morganstern's right. She hopped onto her right leg and snapped a left kick to the chest of the man to her left. He had been sitting, and was lunging to his feet and spinning around while drawing his gun.

      The next few seconds were full of frantic activity, punctuated by several shots. When it was over Vic was the only one left standing.

      "Fuck, fuck, fuck," she panted. "I'm okay, but I took a round through my right calf. Not even bleeding much, but it really hurts. They're all down."

      By the time her rescuers arrived Vic had most of the criminals on the ground outside the van.

      "You! Sit!" Cosmic Ray ordered, as he and Doro landed.

      While the bulletproof member of the team checked the delivery van, Ray checked Vic's leg.

      "Went right through this light ballistic cloth, both sides," he said, as he pulled the cloth away from the wound used his powers to carefully cut the fabric. "I've worked with regenerators before; you should be fine pretty quickly."

      Vic gave a sharp intake of breath as Ray worked.

      "Stuff's supposed to be good for up to nine millimeter," she gasped.

      "You're right, though; it's already stopped bleeding. From the size of the hole and the way it went completely through, it was probably a 5.7 X 28 armor piercing round. Didn't hit bone or any major vessels, you lucky b... gal."

      "They knew I was wearing armor?" said Vic, startled.

      "Maybe. They could have been carrying those because you're a physical super. Which would have been a mistake."

      "This is the last of them," said Doro, as she exited the van with two armloads of perps. She grinned at Vic. "You really tore that place apart."

      "Not much choice. They were shooting at me in close quarters. I was literally running on the ceiling at one point."

      There was a moment of quiet. In the near distance they could hear cars approaching at a good clip.

      "Sorry about messing up your plan," said Vic, shyly.

      "Wasn't your fault," said Ray, putting a hand on her shoulder from where he crouched beside her on the pavement. "We had no idea they'd check for a bug."

      He stood and looking at the van.

      "We should have. We should have."








Part Thirty-Nine


      "Looks like you got hit here, too," said Doro, removing the wire from Vic's costume while Ray bandaged her leg. "Here and here, too."

      "Thought those were punches or something," said Vic, poking the holes with a fingertip. "They were all into the composite plates, fortunately."

      "Those guys must have been shooting center of mass," said Ray. "Just like they're trained. Which is why trauma plates are put there."

      "Well, you were certainly justified in getting that armor," said Doro, finishing her inspection. "Even though it's less necessary for regenerators."

      "Huh?" said Vic. "Yeah, Ray said something about that, just a moment ago."

      "Armor piercing rounds do less damage than expanding bullets to unprotected flesh," said Ray. "They just punch small holes straight through. Hollowpoints would be more effective on unarmored regenerators. Of course, most regenerators don't even bother with armor."

      "So I messed up?" said Vic.

      "Nope. This stuff didn't hamper you and saved you from at least three hits. Also, while even a shot to the heart may not be fatal to a regenerator, it can be. A shot to the head can also kill, and would probably cost some memories, motor skills, language skills..."

      "Note he didn't say most regenerators were particularly smart," said Doro, with a smirk.

      "Actually," said Ray, frowning in thought, "most regenerators I know are physically tough enough not to need armor, usually."

      "People like Tiger," said Doro, nodding. "Though, really, I think they're more the exception than the rule. Maybe they just last longer."

      "So... If they were using armor piercing rounds, why didn't it penetrate the trauma plates?"

      "It did, actually; it's just that you have plenty of soft armor inside that," said Doro. "You likely have bruises in those three places and maybe even bloody welts."

      "Their guns were good," said Ray, nodding. "Your armor is just half a generation better."

      "Now I'm thinking I should just ditch the soft armor entirely, except around my head," said Vic. She shuddered. "Ugh. This stuff is gruesome to think about."

      "Well, yeah," said Doro. "Literally life and death, with maiming in between. Though regenerators don't usually need to worry about the in between part, except for a little while."

      "Don't give up the armor," said Ray, sternly. "It doesn't seem to hamper you, and in this fight it stopped what could have been disabling shots."

      "Point," said Vic, nodding. She looked back and forth between them. "Now what?"

      "Now we see what these guys and their equipment can tell us about their boss," said Ray, with a feral smile.

       * * *

      "They did what?!" yelled Banpresto, when he was woken with the news. "Those mother fucking cunt rags went ahead without orders?! Not one of them will live to stand trial! You can tell them I said so!"

      He slammed the bedside phone down.

      "What's the problem?" said his wife, sleepily pushing herself up on one arm.

      "Sorry. Something bad at work. Go back to sleep; I'll go into the den for the rest of the calls."

      The short walk gave him time to think things through. He sat at his desk, took a deep breath, and called Rokuro.

       * * *

      The feds needed less than an hour to finish with Vic, largely because Ray and Doro told them anything more could wait.

      "Thanks for getting me out of there," said Vic, as the other two supers escorted her to her car.

      "I just wish you could get us out of here," said Doro, in a stage mutter. "While you head back to your room to sleep, we'll be stuck here or at the local FBI headquarters, doing paperwork. We don't even get to interrogate these thugs."

      "Give me a battle over paperwork any day," said Ray, with feeling. "Well, most battles. I've been in a couple which were worse than paperwork."

      As they walked towards Monstro, however, the banter ceased and Vic suddenly turned serious.

      "No," she said, her voice a groan. She hurried forward and looked under the car. "Oh, no!"

      "What?" said Doro.

      Vic stood turned to look at her, opened and closed her mouth several times, then gave up, threw her arms wide, fell back against her car and slid down the fender to the pavement.

      "Hole in the engine block," was all she could manage.

      "There's definitely something leaking under there," said Doro, sympathetically.

      "Yeah, here's the entrance hole," said Ray, moving up beside the car and pointing at the left front fender. He turned and looked back towards the van. "Looks like several exit holes, which isn't surprising considering all the shell cases in there. One round just happened to hit your car."

      "Great," said Vic, hotly. "I just got it fixed!"

      "Don't worry," said Ray. "You were doing us a favor. We'll cover it this time. Meanwhile, we'll give you a lift back to the school."

      "We better have some of the plain clothes do that," said Doro.

      "Oh, right. Yeah. Just tell your friends that the car was vandalized, you don't know by whom, and it's in the shop getting repaired."

      "In a way, it's the truth," said Vic, sourly.

      "You have to get used to shading things," said Doro, firmly. "Even to your friends. For their safety as much as yours. We're pretty sure the school hasn't been re-bugged - yet - but even if we're right, you can't say what actually happened. Not even to your best friends. It could get back to someone who shouldn't hear the details."

      "I know all that, actually," said Vic, nodding tiredly. "My sister is a bit of a super fan, and also currently majoring in psychology. She's constantly going on about the effects of double and triple lives on costumed crime fighters, and such."

      "Get what you need out of the car," said Ray, turning and heading towards the unmarked federal vehicles. "I'll get someone to give you a ride."

      "Oh!" said Doro. "Ray! Don't forget the phone!"

      "Right!"

      "'Phone'?" said Vic.

      "Our boss agreed to give you one of our secure phones. It's scrambled, so you can use it through regular cell towers without worrying. Just make your calls from places you are sure aren't bugged."

      "That will definitely be handier than that old gas station," said Vic, with feeling.

      "This will also let us call you when we want to," said Doro. "Though we'd probably text unless it was urgent."

       * * *

      "The idea was to get an angle on her," said Banpresto, tiredly, and a bit angrily. "Have fake FBI men trick her into attacking a local business. They get there, tell her to hang back, say they're going in, then call for help saying they're in trouble on an upper floor. They never went inside, of course, so she runs over, breaks in and ransacks the place and can't find anybody! Our guys are long gone, leaving her alone in a building she just forcibly entered and probably did some damage to. The police arrive to find her inside talking crazy, with no evidence supporting her claims. She has a reputation - warranted or not - of being hot tempered and flying into fights without thinking. So, we set her up, get her in trouble with the law, then have the college offer to handle her legal problems, using the justification that if she went to jail it would look bad for the school. She then owes the school, and through them, us."

      "You wanted this at night?" said Rokuro, puzzled.

      "When there was no-one actually there," said Banpresto. "No need to complicate things with casualties."

      "Hmph," said his boss. He scowled in thought... and started pacing. Banpresto relaxed, just a bit. "Okay, not a bad plan. Except that's not the way it went down. What happened?"

      "I don't know. Yet."

       * * *

      Doro and Cosmic Ray weren't allowed to interrogate any of the previous night's captives, but they were allowed to watch. The experts originally intended to save "Morganstern" for last, in the hope either one of the flunkies would say something to use against him, or they could convince him someone had. However, he repeatedly stated he wanted to confess. He therefore wound up being third in line.

      "I understand you want to turn on your paycheck," said the interrogator.

      "Yeah, I'm gonna talk," said "Morganstern" - actual name Thomas Patterson - scowling. "That son of a bitch set me up!"

      "Explain," said the interrogator.

      "He knew I was bucking for his job, so he planned all this out. Only, when I went through with his plan it all went south. Who knew that little girl was such a fighter?! I know now that he did, but he didn't bother to tell us! Now my attorney tells me he's bragged I'll never get to trial. Meaning he plans to kill me! So, yeah, I'll turn state's evidence against him and his boss! I may be dead if I do, but I'm facing that anyway. If I give you the goods, I want witness protection."

      "Maybe. That's not for us to decide. We'll pass your offer along."

      As Doro and Ray left the observation room, though, they were quietly celebrating.

      "Yes!" said Ray, shaking both fists rapidly back and forth at shoulder height. "No honor among thieves!"

       * * *

      Vic intended for the previous night's adventures to remain between her and the feds. Unfortunately, she was careless the next evening when examining the bullet holes in her outfit.

      Alex came in unexpectedly. Vic dithered briefly between pretending there was nothing wrong and hiding the damage too quickly for her roommate to spot. However, she forgot about the other damage, lower down.

      "Is that blood?!" said Alex, eyes going wide as she saw the damaged leggings.

      "Uhm, yeah," said Vic, pointing to her ear and then a wall. "Caught my leg on part of a fence while practicing last night. Don't worry; it's already healed."

      "You better soak that in cold water with some detergent," said Alex, walking over and kneeling down to examine the damage. She looked up at Vic. "Yeah, looks more burned than torn. You must have really been mov..."

      That was when she spotted the damage to the reinforcing plates Vic was holding.

      "Holy shit!"

      Vic scowled and put a finger to her lips.

      "Keep this quiet, okay?" she said, pointedly. "I don't want folks to worry."

      "Yeah," said Alex, recovering. "Let's head to the laundry and start this soaking. We can go for a walk while it's in, and you can tell me everything where the others can't hear."

      They did those things. After Alex heard the tale of the previous night's adventures - carefully edited - she walked along silently beside Vic for several minutes.

      "Okay. They wanted to set you up for some reason. To get you out of the way?"

      "Maybe. I doubt I'd have been in jail for long. Even if I hadn't contacted the feds before going to the van, they would have heard about me going missing or whatever. Even if they'd just killed me, Doro and Ray would have gone looking for them. I'm not sure just what their goal was. I can guarantee it wasn't going to be nice, though."

      "Maybe, maybe not. They could have planned to get you into trouble and then offered - through some intermediary - to handle your legal problems. Figuring they could then ask a favor in return, later."

      She shrugged.

      "That's just one possibility."

      "I'd never have fallen for that!" said Vic, outraged. "Even if I was duped, the feds..."

      "Aren't sure who is behind all this."

      "I just don't see how that could have worked," said Vic.

      "Remember, the bad guys think differently than we do," said Alex. She laughed again. "Well, differently than you do. I think I can emulate their viewpoint. At least enough to develop the sorts of scenarios they might have."

      "Great," said Vic, sourly. "I'm rooming with a future mastermind."








Part Forty


      "The whole plot depended on mastermind reasoning," said Ray, teleconferencing with his boss, and echoing the discussion between Vic and Alex the night before. "Not only following a path of reasoning most people would consider at best strained, but expecting Vic to do the same."

      "They say you can't cheat an honest man," said Brade, thoughtfully. "I suspect it's far easier to trick someone who is trying to trick you. Or something like that. So a mastermind would expect others to be as devious and underhanded and tricky as he is, and get caught off guard when they aren't. Or keep their underlings too much in the dark, causing suspicion."

      "Something like that. Patterson wasn't told what they expected Vic to do, after they tricked her, but assumed it involved blackmail."

      "The point is," said Doro, leaning into frame, "we now have testimony as to the identities of those who were behind the spying on the students and most of the attempts on Vic. The immediate boss of the fake Agents was, indeed, Banpresto."

      "We've managed to get some more info on him," said Brade, nodding. "After he tried running several schemes on his own, and never doing particularly well, he changed professions. He found his niche being a top assistant to true masterminds."

      "Well, Patterson already told us there's someone above Banpresto," said Ray. "He never met the man, but heard the name Rokuro a few times."

      "Oh," said Brade, flatly. "Him."

      "We've been looking through the database and found three different people who have used that name. They're all supposed to be dead."

      "They're all the same man," said Brade, "though you'd never convince the profilers of that. He's such a master of disguise that some of us think he might be a shapeshifter. He's also very much still alive, though, again, the 'experts' are sure they're right and the people who actually know him - both hero and villain - are wrong."

      "Sounds like a mastermind, all right," said Ray, dryly.

      "Don't underestimate this guy. He's smart, he's ruthless, and unlike so many masterminds, he's largely sane. He actually makes most of his money legally."

      "Okay," said Ray, impressed. "How do we find him? None of our prisoners know where his headquarters is."

      "I'm sending a... no, I'm sending several forensics experts out there to look over the evidence," said Brade. "There's a chance they can track him through the equipment."

       * * *

      "Our contacts say Patterson has turned state's evidence," said Sam, at the briefing that afternoon. "Damn traitors... Get this. He says he's doing it because Banpresto knew he intended to replace him - Patterson wanted to replace Banpresto, that is - and set him up to take the fall."

      "I set him up?" said Banpresto, stunned. "How could I set him up for wanting to replace me when I didn't know he wanted to replace me? Why would he even think he could replace me? He's fine handling henchmen, but not by any stretch fit for upper management."

      "Yet another ambitious minion trying unsuccessfully to be a master," said Rokuro, smirking.

      "I think I get it. He was going to go ahead with my plan before I was ready and claim it was his idea. Get brownie points for coming up with a brilliant plan to deal with a major problem. When it was actually just a reserve plan to keep a minor one under control if she became too much of a problem. Idiot"

      "So now we must prepare," said Rokuro. "Start the withdrawal process from the school. Make all the resignations and firings look reasonable. Even get rid of a few who aren't with us, for smokescreen."

      "I don't understand why Patterson is talking," said Sam, annoyed at yet another setback. "He knows if he does he's dead."

      "Uh, I sort'a already told his mouthpiece I was going to have him killed," said Banpresto, reluctantly. "When I got the news about his actions I was so mad I said none of those in the operation would live to stand trial."

      "Quite understandable," said Rokuro, completely in accord with such management practices. "Patterson has been in the business long enough to know that was said in the heat of the moment and weight it appropriately. That he didn't is yet another piece of evidence that he's not cut out for this life."

      He frowned.

      "Unless... Yes, that must be it. He's still trying to work this to his advantage. Thinking that if he can get us taken out quickly by the feds, he might be able to arrange to take over some part of the operation. Fool."

      He looked Banpresto in the eye.

      "If you can arrange it, definitely carry out the promise. For Patterson and any others who betray us."

      "Oh, you better believe it," said Banpresto, savagely.

      "Meanwhile, I think it's time for Maxwell Dorton to make an appearance at the college."

      "Do you think that's wise?" said Sam, startled.

      "Yes. While they may consider him a suspect, they aren't certain. Making this bold show would - played correctly - go a long way towards reassuring them that Dorton is an honest man, as much a victim as any of the students."

      "Might work," said Banpresto, thinking it through. "Which Dorton do we use?"

      "The real one, of course."

      He looked out the large window, at the cityscape beyond, smiling.

      "However, I've heard and read so much about this Vic Peltior I want to meet her for myself. We should be able to arrange that, too, as part of this. Yes."

       * * *

      "Dear God," said Vic, plaintively, as she closed the dorm room door behind her and slid down it to sit on the floor. "Why are they so stupid?"

      "Tough night tutoring?" said Alex.

      "She kept trying to excuse her mistakes by telling me that English is a changing language," said Vic, with a groan. "I pointed out that while vocabulary changes constantly and style slowly, punctuation and grammar were pretty much set in stone. That's why we can still read Shakespeare, with only a few notes about unfamiliar words."

      "And?"

      "She glared at me and said 'What's so great about Shakespeare? His stuff's just a bunch of quotes strung together.'"

      Alex cackled, laughing so hard she slid off her chair to lie flat on the floor.

      "Seriously. I'm starting to see why this pays so well. Tutors of high school girls need professional counseling."

      "Well, at least it does pay well," said Alex, recovering and sitting up. "So, is this the Senior?"

      "Yes. She's expecting to start college next year, majoring in - get this - business. She can't even fill out a form."

      "I fear for the future of civilization," said Alex, dramatically. She stood and resumed her seat. "You going to sit there all night, or do your own homework?"

      "Give me a moment," said Vic, melodramatically.

       * * *

      "What's with those lines on your shoes?" said Vic, as she watched Sue warm up for practice.

      "They help me run faster," said Sue.

      "Yeah, right..."

      "I'm serious. My feet move so fast, sometimes I lose track of them. The lines, combined with persistence of vision, give me a visual reference."

      "Huh," said Vic, looking more closely. "Well, if it works..."

      "Oh, it does," said Sue, with a nasty smile

      Vic knew that Sue was not a bad person; she just had a competitive streak. A very large competitive streak. A competitive streak wider than most highways.

      "You gonna watch?" said Sue, straightening, that confident smile still on her face.

      "Wish I could. I have martial arts."

      "Your... loss," she said, smile becoming more nasty.

      "Have fun," said Vic, with a casual wave, as she headed for the gym.

      "Oh, I will."

      This was the middle of the afternoon on a class day, but few people were around. Part of that lack was due to multiple staff - mostly in support positions, but a few teachers as well - leaving. She missed Dr. Kessel, but the psychologist had received an offer for a much better position at a larger school. Vic hadn't decided, yet, whether to continue her sessions with another therapist.

      The BSR was keeping Vic apprised of the larger situation with Ramsey Technical. She knew that some of those who had left were actually plants. She also knew that about an equal number weren't. Some left on their own, worried about the state of the school. Some were pressured to leave by parties unknown. (Well, officially unknown, until they could be arrested.) Some - like Dr. Kessel - were simply going to better jobs. The FBI and the BSR were checking all of those departing, and keeping a close eye on them. Except for a few who had already disappeared. Those were almost certainly among the plants.

      Vic was almost to the gym when she saw the Dean's secretary - Mrs. Gareth - rushing towards her. Curious, Vic turned and met her on the way.

      "Are you coming to see me?" she said, not sure if that would be good or bad.

      "Yes!" she said, a bit breathlessly. "We just got word that Mr. Dorton is coming to town to check on things personally and give a pep talk. He wants to make time while he's here to meet with you personally."

      "When?" said Vic, startled.

      "He'll be arriving tonight, but won't come to the school until classes start tomorrow. We'll have an assembly at eleven, in the gymnasium."

      "Okay. When and where does he want to meet me?"

      "You have a free period tomorrow at two. Would that be all right?"

      "That will be fine," said Vic, making certain to smile.

      "Oh, good," said Mrs. Gareth, looking relieved. "He'll see you in the Dean's office. We were so rushed we already told him, then realized we hadn't even checked with you to confirm!"

      "Well, that's fine. I have to get to class, now. Is there anything else?"

      "I don't think so."

      "Good. I'll see you tomorrow at two, then."

      Vic was eaten up with curiosity, and also wanting very desperately to call Doro or Ray. However, she knew there could still be observers for the mysterious mastermind on campus, in spite of the recent exodus of staff. She forced herself to walk calmly to class and participate normally.

       * * *

      "That doesn't give us much time," said Ray, when Vic finally called, that evening.

      "I couldn't call sooner without looking suspicious," said Vic, a bit apologetically.

      "No, you did the right thing. Listen, this is so open - so blatant - it's got to be the mastermind thumbing his or her nose at us. I doubt very much there will be any funny business associated with this visit. However, it would fit the profile to go through with this in a normal manner, to ease our suspicions, then do something right after. Rokuro would just assume we were taken in."

      "So... be very careful tomorrow?" said Vic, puzzled.

      "Very, very careful."








Part Forty-One


      Vic sat on the bleachers pretending a calm she didn't feel. She knew what Dorton looked like, of course, having seen photos of him. Vic was surprised, though, when he came on stage; he seemed older, more worn. Less energetic. Less there. Once he started talking, though, those changes seemed to reverse. He was one of those speakers who was energized by an audience, even an unfriendly one. This one started mostly neutral, but soon warmed to him.

      He spoke for twenty minutes. Mostly about how much promise both the school and the students had, and how he was dedicated to supporting them. He apologized, briefly, for the infiltration and the spying, promising those days were past and the responsible parties being sought, then moved on to his future plans.

      Afterwards, most of those who heard him were pretty upbeat.

      "At least I know I won't lose my tuition," was the closest to a negative comment Vic heard on the way to lunch.

      "He's good, all right," said Don, as the usual suspects gathered. "Maybe too good."

      "Subsonic manipulation?" asked Alex.

      "Nah. Not only is it over-rated, we got at least six people in this school who could detect it. Same with psionic influence."

      As they and a couple of others began a heated discussion on various methods of swaying a crowd during a speech, Vic turned her attention to Angel. She was talking to Melanie and seemed really angry about something.

      "...believe that jerk suggested cutting my wings off!"

      "Wait, what?!" said Vic, startled.

      "That new counselor. The one who replaced that nice Dr. Kessel. He said they weren't doing me any good and they got in the way, so why not cut them off?"

      "Okay," said Vic, stunned. "I'm now really glad I didn't start sessions with him. No telling what he would have recommended for a guy-turned-girl as therapy."

      That brought some laughter. Even Angel seemed in a better mood afterwards.

      "I think I better mention this to Mr. Dorton when I see him."

      That brought stares and exclamations.

      "How come you rate a private meeting with a major businessman like that?" said Boyd, sounding envious.

      Vic hesitated, mouth open, an onion ring headed for it.

      "That's a good question," said Vic, obviously puzzled, after a moment of thought. She popped the onion ring in and chewed thoughtfully.

      She didn't have to fake not knowing. Why did Dorton want to speak with her? Provocation? Bragging? Make a peace offering? Most likely, some sort of mastermind grandstanding she'd never understand... but what if it wasn't? What if Dorton really were innocent in all this? She also remembered that few of those here knew about the specific attention Vic had received from Dorton or whoever was trying to exploit the school and its students. Sure, they knew there had been attacks on people, and some sort of scandal involving staff members spying on students, but nothing beyond that except speculation.

      The fact that Vic did know more did little to clarify the situation for her. It may actually have added to the confusion.

      Vic didn't remember much about her next class. She definitely remembered hurrying from it to the admin building. She arrived at the Dean's office with a couple of minutes to spare. Mrs. Gareth smiled, showed Vic where to stash her books, then escorted her in. Dean Baker and Mr. Dorton both rose to greet her. Vic shook hands with both, barely remembering to focus her senses on Dorton. He seemed to be completely natural.

      "I wanted to speak with you privately for two reasons," said Dorton, again looking older than his photos. "First, to personally apologize for what you've been through - I should have been more attentive to what was going on here - and promise that I am cooperating fully with the authorities to find out who was responsible. Second, to offer you a deal."

      "Deal?" said Vic, a bit surprised.

      "What do you want to do with your life?" said Dorton, instead of answering.

      "That's still pretty open," said Vic, considering. "I'm actually interested in law enforcement, but I also like engineering. I'm wondering if there's some way to combine them, maybe working in forensics or something. I like the technical aspects of law enforcement better than the actual, well, enforcement part. Though that's also open."

      "What about private investigation, or even security?" said Dorton, leaning forward eagerly, again seeming to gain energy and shed years. "I don't mean walking around an empty building at night by the latter, either. There are many openings for someone intelligent and technically trained. Such as handling security for high-tech research facilities, where a person not only needs to be familiar with modern espionage techniques and equipment but also know enough about the work to be able to make educated judgement calls."

      "Wow," said Vic, surprised. "That does sound interesting."

      "I thought you might like that," said Dorton, grinning boyishly. "I made my first fortune finding people who were right for the job, and I pride myself that I still have that knack. If you..."

      A cell phone rang. With a minor oath, Dorton excused himself, fished his phone out of a pocket and answered. Vic could hear the voice of the woman calling; not the words but her tone, which sounded urgent and worried. Dorton spoke for a few minutes, then ended the call.

      "I apologize for ending this just as it's getting interesting," he said to Vic, with a sad smile. "I'm afraid this takes precedence."

      He was again looking old.

      "One of the drawbacks to having so many responsibilities."

      "I understand," said Vic, nodding.

      He rose, again extending his hand. Vic quickly rose to shake it.

      "I have an idea. I'm in town until tomorrow afternoon. If you are amenable, could you stop by my hotel suite tonight, to continue our conversation? This matter which so rudely interrupted us shouldn't take more than a few hours. If it does, I can call and reschedule, but I expect it won't."

      "I'd like that," said Vic, honestly smiling.

      "Good. I may even have time to put together a prospectus, present you with some solid examples of what opportunities I can provide you."

      "That would be great!"

      "Excellent. Until tonight, then."

       * * *

      That afternoon, Vic got Alex to give her a ride on her motorcycle to the garage repairing Monstro. She sent Alex back to the school, saying she was going to test drive the wagon. She did that, but on the way to meet Doro, Ray and their team.

      "Typical mastermind flourish," said Ray, nodding, when he heard about the meeting in the Dean's office.

      "I actually like the guy," said Vic, astounded at her admission.

      "Keep in mind that Dorton may not be behind the criminal activities," said Doro. "He said it himself; he hasn't been paying enough attention to things."

      "His profile says he's a good delegator," said Ray, pointing to a manilla folder on the desk of the small office in the disguised delivery van they were using as a mobile base. "It also says that in the past few years he's made some bad calls about delegating to others."

      "That reminds me," said Doro, to Vic. "Was he wearing any makeup or appliances?"

      "Well, I was definitely close enough to spot whether he had a mask on," said Vic. "As far as I could tell he wasn't. That was his real hair, too."

      "All right," said Ray, suddenly determined. "Do you want to meet him tonight?"

      "Definitely. Even if he's only going to make me a job offer." Vic smiled at the idea.

      "Would you be willing to wear a wire for us again?"

      "I thought you couldn't get a warrant for tonight?"

      "In this state, it's legal for one person to record a conversation without any of the other participants knowing," said Ray.

      "Okay. Sure."

      "We also have a forensic psychologist here to give you a mission specific briefing on masterminds," said Doro. "That should help you identify if Dorton is one, and maybe help you handle him if he is."

      "The Mastermind Syndrome has much in common with Asperger's Syndrome," said the psychologist, after the other supers called him into the tiny office. "They are likely branches of the same disorder... if they even are disorders, and not simply part of the normal functional spectrum of human behavior."

      Vic hated this about psychology; the vagueness, the backtracking, the conditional statements. She knew, intellectually, that the human personality - and the personalities of non-humans, for the most part - was so complicated that such tentativeness was warranted. It still made her long for equations and tables. Give her engineering, any day. Vic shook herself back to awareness, realizing she was missing part of the briefing.

      "Because of their hyperactive minds, they are continuously re-evaluating situations and second-guessing themselves. They therefore often believe things are far more complicated than they really are. Masterminds frequently literally outsmart themselves. They also have great difficulty understanding anyone whose motives differ from their own. Finally, their social development is arrested at a juvenile stage. So, while the end result of their machinations is often complicated, the motivation behind all their social interactions is this primitive, child-like attitude towards others. To the mastermind, all others are inferiors, who exist to serve his or her every whim, and reality itself owes him whatever he wants. When people - or reality - doesn't oblige these unmoderated drives, the mastermind becomes frustrated, and often violent."

      "That's pretty ironic," said Vic, as she considered this new - to her - information. "Because their brains are specialized for intelligence, they keep making stupid mistakes."

      "Uh..." said the psychologist, startled.

      "That's the best summation of a Mastermind I've ever heard!" said Ray, applauding.

       "Well, thank you," said the psychologist, modestly. Missing the point that Vic was the one being complimented.

      "I know I've asked you this several times already, but I need to ask you again," said Ray. "Are you sure you want to do this?"

      "Yes," said Vic, seriously. "I know, even if this results in this mastermind getting arrested, tried and convicted, that may not get him out of my life, but he'll be in it less."

      "All right." Ray sighed, and Doro put a hand on his arm. "You've signed the waivers and consent form. Go get wired up."

       * * *

      Vic had seen a few hotel suites before. This one was as large as several of those combined. It occupied most of the top floor of the most expensive - though not the fanciest - hotel in the city. The elevator opened onto a foyer with a security station. Not just a security desk, with a hotel person keeping watch. There were three men - two of them real bruisers - there, one sitting at the desk and the bruisers flanking it. All were wearing suits, rather than hotel uniforms.

      "Vic Peltior. Mr. Dorton is expecting me."

      One of the burly guards barred Vic's path with an extended arm. The other ran something rather more sophisticated than a mere metal detector over Vic. He showed the results to the less burly - though still obviously fit - man at the desk. Who looked at the readout and gave Vic a level stare.

      "If you wish to see Mr. Dorton," he said, calmly, "you must remove the listening device."

      This was unexpected. It didn't fit with Dorton's public image, or her own evaluation of him. This wasn't like the man who met with her and the Dean in the latter's office with no-one else present. Vic didn't make a fuss. She reached into her shirt, pulled the device loose and put it on the security desk.

      The man smiled, just a bit, and nodded. The other men stood aside; the man behind the desk stood and used a key card to open the door beyond the security desk.

      "Have a nice day," he said, giving Vic a plastic smile.

      Vic returned the smile with equal sincerity and stepped through. She checked her watch, took a deep breath, and walked down the short hallway and into the lion's den, one of the goons accompanying her.








Part Forty-Two


      As Vic approached the end of the hallway she felt a sense of menace coming from beyond the twin doors blocking the end. Was this because those in the suite intended her harm, or simply due to her own anxiety? Vic reached for the door knob and got a surprisingly strong static electric shock. Also, the door was locked.

      The goon moved smoothly ahead of Vic and - smirking just a bit, as if he knew she'd get shocked - used his key card to unlock the doors, holding them while she passed through. Vic resisted an urge to glare and mouth "bastard" at him. The doors closed behind her with a very solid - if muffled - thump. Ahead of Vic was a lounge area with a dining table, turned long edge towards her. Dorton sat in the middle of the far side, another man - perhaps in his fifties and seeming very fit - to his right. Around the room were several other men and women, all apparently there to serve, but most also giving the impression they were capable of great violence with little warning. The BSR people had deliberately not given her any of the names they had uncovered, to prevent her from accidentally revealing anything. However, they had warned Vic that the mastermind's right hand man was more than humanly dangerous in a fight, as likely were some of the heavies. Vic was not supposed to fight her way out of this. She desperately hoped she wouldn't have to.

      "Good evening, Miss Peltior," said Dorton, gesturing towards the only chair on her side of the table. "Please, sit down. We have much to discuss."

      Vic was instantly certain that despite what sight and hearing told her, this was not the man she had spoken to earlier. He was too smooth, too formal. Too superior. As Vic approached and he came within range, her appraisal was confirmed. She walked up to the chair and stopped.

      "You're not Dorton," said Vic, calmly, standing there before him.

      "Of course I am," said the older man, heartily.

      Even without her heightened senses she would have known; his attitude was too different. She wasn't going to let him know that, however. Let him think her powers were giving the game away.

      "The man I met earlier wasn't wearing a mask and wig."

      "You see?" he said, smiling to the man at his right. "This is why I wanted the real Dorton to go to the school."

      The other man said nothing, did not turn his gaze away from Vic. He was also wearing a wig, as well as a false mustache. There was something on his skin, as well, perhaps heavy makeup. Whatever the cause, to the eye none of it looked suspicious.

      "What do you want?" said Vic, flatly.

      "The same thing you were told earlier," said "Dorton," magnanimously, spreading his fingers in a gesture which she had seen Dorton make, but somehow making it a little... off. "To find the best application for your talents."

      "So why all the subterfuge? Why all the spying and attacking?"

      "To properly evaluate you, of course," said "Dorton," as if the answer was obvious. "You have a very useful set of skills, powers and talents. With the right training you could easily pull in six figures. I get a nice finder's fee for pointing you in the right direction."

      "I'm not interested."

      For the first time, he seemed caught off guard.

      "What is this, some sort of moral high horse you rode in on? Or are you just trying to get more money? You're not my only prospect at the university. You give me too much trouble, you push too hard for a higher salary or a more prestigious position, and I'll drop you. That's your only warning."

      "Consider me warned," said Vic. "Also consider me dropped. I'm not interested in you or your offers."

      "You ungrateful bitch," said the other man, voice low but even. Vic didn't need the BSR briefing to know he could be very dangerous when he wanted.

      "I'm supposed to be grateful you endangered my friends and family?" said Vic, hotly.

      "Ah, so that's it," said "Dorton," smiling again. "None of them were endangered by any of my tests. Indeed, all the assaults against you were entirely the responsibility of those who committed them. As for your assault against Mr. Truth, well, that was your idea. I understand your friends in law enforcement are letting that slide."

      "Speaking of which, they've already made a job offer, which includes paying for my education," said Vic.

      "Oh, please. We'll match that and double it. Then find you a job paying five times as much."

      "You know, it's not all about money," said Vic, sounding exasperated.

      "What is it you want, then? Women? We'll find you however many you want of whatever type. Authority? You'll be the boss."

      He leaned forward and jabbed a finger at Vic.

      "Though only if you fulfill your potential! You get no free ride with us."

      He suddenly looked startled, and sat back.

      "Is that it? You want to coast?" He looked her in the eye and shook his head, manner brusque. "Sorry. The federal government may indulge that, but we won't. If you accept our offer, you will work for a living. It will be a good living, mind you, but you will definitely earn it."

      "You will never understand what I want," said Vic, quietly.

      She turned and started to walk away.

      "What the fuck is that supposed to mean?" said "Dorton," shouting. "Don't you try to play the 'I'm more moral than you' card with me! I won't have it. Don't you dare walk away!"

      Vic ignored him and kept moving slowly towards the door.

      "You stupid cunt! You can't bluff me. You over played your hand. You're out of the college! Hell, you'll never be allowed back on any school grounds again! I'll have you registered as a pedophile before you get back to your dorm! Your whole family will be exposed as perverts and deviants. DO YOU HEAR ME?!?!"

      Vic opened one of the doors, calmly stepped through, then closed it behind her. She briefly leaned against it, shuddering. However, she didn't dare delay too long. She took a quick breath, straightened, and moved quickly to the outer doors.

      The guards seemed surprised to see her. Vic walked up to the seated man and extended her hand. Not sure what else to do, he handed her the wire.

      "Your boss is insane, you know that?" she said, angrily.

      They said nothing, did nothing, as Vic walked in quick, angry steps to the elevator. It was an express, for the suite floors only, and arrived quickly. Even so, Vic felt the seconds crawl by, expecting something to happen during each of them. When the indicator lit and the bell dinged, she barely didn't jump. The doors opened; Vic stepped inside and pushed the Lobby button.

       * * *

      Vic kept going until she reached her car. Once inside the familiar confines of Monstro with the doors locked she almost broke down. She managed to limit her reaction to several deep, shuddering sobs. Then she got hold of herself, started the car, and drove away in a very carefully controlled fashion. Along the way - as they had been very emphatic she do - Vic rolled the window down and tossed the wire. She was supposed to do that with anything she got there, or got back from them. The wire was the only thing of hers they had even touched, including her. After the wire was gone, Vic changed course. Then - because they might have bugged her car - she parked Monstro in the parking lot of a bar, where it would be watched by an FBI Agent. She got out, jumped a security fence, and hurried the two blocks to the BSR surveillance van. She clambered inside and collapsed in the closest chair.

      "Rough time?" said Doro, sympathetically.

      "Holy jumping shit, is that guy crazy," said Vic, fanning herself with some papers laying nearby. "The psychologist was right. Frustrate his plans, or even take an action for a reason he doesn't expect, and he gets very hostile. If you even hint he doesn't understand something - especially something social or moral - he immediately goes ballistic."

      "You really had us chewing our knuckles," said Ray, laughing in relief and clapping Vic on the shoulder. "I mean, we heard them tell you to remove the wire and knew you'd be out of contact, but it still..."

      "Did you get a recording?" said Doro.

      "Worked like a charm," said Vic. "They made me take the wire off, but didn't search me."

      Vic grinned and dug around in her bra to produce a small, digital recorder.

      "He never thought I might have a bug and a recorder! Much less a backup recorder! I started both just before entering the suite."

      "Did he say anything incriminating?" said Ray.

      "Oh, Hell, yeah."

      However, when they hooked the tiny device to Ray's laptop, they got an error message.

      "Looks like it's fried," he said, after checking it out with a loupe. "Probably by an electromagnetic pulse. One thing about masterminds, they can be thorough when they think they need to be. He probably didn't want to count on you voluntarily taking your wire off, or maybe did guess you'd have a separate recorder."

      "Fuck," said Vic, without emphasis. She grimaced. "Yeah, I thought that static shock I got when I touched the doorknob was weird. That must have been what did that."

      "Let's hope the watch worked," said Doro, looking at Vic.

      "A purely mechanical recorder," said Vic, still amazed, as she removed the device and handed it over. "Tiny Edison-style recording phonograph."

      Moments later, they felt a surge of joy as tiny, tinny voices could be quietly but clearly heard.

      "Oh, yeah," said Cosmic Ray, happily, when the recording ended. "That's more than clear enough to count as solid evidence. Congratulations!"

      "Have the techs put that on a chip while we debrief Vic,"  said Doro, eagerly. "Once we're done, I'll fly it to the Judge. Should be more than enough."

      "Judge?" said Vic.

      "We have a federal Judge standing by to hear what we get, and issue a warrant if he thinks it's enough. We talked to him ahead of time, and he agreed he'd wait in his office until he heard from us."

      "Let's hope 'Dorton' is still there to be served," said Vic, fervently.

      "We have several top-notch people watching that suite," said Ray. "Including a psychic looking as closely as the law allows. Besides, I don't think Rokuro is the type to cut and run because one little girl didn't live up to his expectations."

      "Rokuro?" said Vic. "Is that the guy disguised as Dorton?"

      "Probably. He's in charge and he's a master of disguise."

      "Excuse me, Miss," said one of the techs, to Vic. "We checked your car out. It's fine."

      "That's good news." Vic yawned. "Damn. Wish I could go in with you."

      "We'll be stretching the rules a bit letting you stay in the van and listen," said Ray.








Part Forty-Three


      The warrant was issued, Doro flying back to the van with it after calling ahead with the good news. All the LEOs were ready by the time she returned. Less than an hour after Vic left the suite, the law entered in force. FBI and non-super BSR agents came up the stairs, while Ray and Doro hovered above the balcony. When the signal was given, Ray and Doro crashed through the window, and the rest of the teams came in through every other entrance. As Doro put it later "Rokuro actually had the nerve to look surprised."

      Some of the muscle made half-hearted attempts to resist, but quickly desisted. Seeing the two supers and the equipment the non-supers were carrying proved a strong deterrent. Even Sam decided to yield gracefully to the inevitable. Rokuro didn't resist physically, but he did throw a world-class tantrum. He finally had to be threatened with sedation before he became quiet. However, he went from very vocal to ominous. Which turned out to be more intimidating than his ranting. All of the feds had the very definite impression he would remember their faces for the rest of his life. Or theirs...

      Once she knew the raid was successful and the bad guys were securely in custody - including Banpresto, aka Dr. Cargraves, in a room off the main area - Vic said her goodbyes and drove back to Ramsey. However, the next morning she had a text message inviting her back to the scene.

      "Why was he so surprised?" said Vic, after hearing Doro's comment. "For that matter, why was he still here? He knew I was wired, and even though the wire was left outside he must have known at least the FBI was involved. He should have cleared out on general principles."

      "Sheer hubris," said Ray. "He figured that since we hadn't raided him already, and as far as he knew we had no new information except your word - which wouldn't have been enough for a warrant in most circumstances - so he was perfectly safe. Besides, give the impression he was running from the law? Unthinkable!"

      They were actually inside the suite Rokuro had used. The whole thing was a crime scene under active investigation, forensics experts scurrying around, collecting evidence. The trio of supers was only allowed to watch from the short hallway, which had already been cleared.

      "Actually, he wasn't just sitting there," said Doro. She gestured towards where a tech wearing gloves and a mask was working on an expensive laptop, set up on the table. Vic remembered seeing it the previous night, closed and to one side. "He was busy."

      "You should be glad we got in as quickly as we did," said Ray, his tone a mix of amused and apologetic. "He was right in the middle of arranging all those things he threatened to do to you, plus a lot more. We think we interrupted most of them, but our computer experts are still checking. Stopping the rest could take a while."

      "You'll probably be getting a lot of 'enlarge your Rolex' e-mails for a while," said Doro, with an empathetic grimace. "However, he hadn't gotten around to the serious stuff, yet. That was taking longer to arrange, since he had to break into secure databases. So, no fake entries in sex offender lists."

      "You're telling me," said Vic, slowly and carefully, "that a world-class mastermind was personally wasting time taking petty revenge on someone for rejecting a 'business deal' instead of covering his tracks and getting the Hell out of Dodge?! Why didn't he just give orders for flunkies to do all that?! It makes no sense!"

      "It's just the way his mind works," said Ray, shrugging.

      "I know that fits the mastermind profile," said Vic, carefully. "It's still crazy."

      "Well, it is officially listed as a psychiatric disorder," said Ray, wryly.

      "I'm just glad it's over," said Vic, with a sigh. "Well, this much of it. Oh! Who was the Dorton I met at the college?"

       "As far as we can tell, the real one," said Doro. "We found a man matching the description drugged unconscious in one of the bedrooms. Best guess, Rokuro got control of him through drugs and conditioning years ago, and kept him around as a figurehead. Maybe even as a scapegoat."

      "Wow," said Vic, too stunned to react right away. Then she thought of something. "Okay. The guy I spoke with... yeah, that would explain why he seemed a bit out of it most of the time but would rouse himself under the right stimulation. I hope he'll be okay. He seemed like a nice old guy."

      "Both treating him and unraveling what Rokuro has been up to could take years," said Ray. He seemed tired but determined. Vic felt assured that those years actually would be spent on the effort. "Actually, one could probably help with the other. The real Dorton could provide important clues, and Rokuro's records could help with his treatment."

      "Well, thank you for letting me know what happened," said Vic. "I was up half the night worrying. Uhm, how much of this can I tell my friends and family?"

      "No names, except Dorton," said Ray, thinking. "Well, any of those which are already publicly known to be connected with the school are okay. No details about what happened to you, here, last night, or what you know about the effort to exploit the students. You can assure them that the plot is over, and those responsible in custody."

      Ray shook his head, his expression wondering.

      "Doesn't really make sense, does it? Rokuro must have schemes going - many of them legal - which make hundreds of times what this effort would have earned him. Yet he not only focused a huge amount of his attention on this plan, he actually came here."

      "Probably that mastermind thing, again," said Doro, shrugging. "He felt insulted this simple little ploy was causing so much trouble. His pride was on the line. Every frustration simply made him invest more resources. He'd justify it by telling himself - and his underlings - that they'd get it all back and more in the long run."

      "I don't think this was so minor," said Vic, looking around the suite again. "Alex says she's done some research on how much supers are worth. Even on the open market, someone like me could earn millions with the right management. It's a bit humbling."

      "The fact that you find it humbling instead of cackling and rubbing your hands greedily together says a lot about you," said Ray, with a laugh.

      "Well, I need to get back to class," said Vic, a bit reluctantly. She grinned in anticipation as she realized something. "Oh, Alex is gonna pop! Twice! First from what I tell her, then from what I can't tell her!"

      "Actually, I think I'd like to talk to her and some of the others," said Doro. "Give both the information we can reveal and the reason for the need to keep the rest secret for now. Want a lift?"

      "Wait... You mean a flying lift?" said Vic, eagerly. Then her face fell. "Oh, wait; I drove Monstro here."

      "Then I'll ride with you," said Doro. She grinned at Vic. "I could carry your car, but that might scare the natives. Don't worry. If you accept our offer you'll have lots of opportunity to be flown places."

      "I think I'll go with you two," said Ray, looking around. "They certainly don't need me in here, and that would be better than doing paperwork."

       * * *

      "So this guy set up the school just to have supers to study," said Alex, scowling, not sure she believed it.

      "Well, bought an existing school and added his own people and equipment," said Ray.

      A large number of students were gathered in the common area on the dorm's second floor, with more still arriving. However, only Vic and her associates were sitting around one of the tables, while the feds talked with them. They had stopped by the Dean's office first, to let him know basically the same things they were now telling the students.

      "Not just to study. To use. He expected to recruit some, learn from others..." said Doro.

      "What's going to happen to the school now?" said Angel, a bit desperately. "I mean, I like it here! In spite of that jerk of a psychologist..."

      "Likely it'll go into government managed receivership but keep operating," said Ray. He looked at Vic. "I don't know about the rest of the students, but you don't have to worry even if it closes down. Once you sign the papers we will pay for you to attend any school you want, as long as you get the requisite courses. We would even sponsor you to the Pine Island school. By which I mean the Bureau of Special Resources will pay for you to go there. Or here. As long as you're still interested in working for us."

      "Oh, Hell, yes!" said Vic, grinning. "Wait; I thought Pine Island was just for middle and high school."

      "They are adding more and more courses with college credit."

      "Any of the rest of us eligible?" said Melanie.

      Vic didn't know if she was actually thinking about a career in law enforcement - it certainly didn't fit her current set of courses - or was just curious.

      "We are still very much in the recruiting phase of creating the Bureau," said Cosmic Ray. "If you folks want, I can arrange to send flyers here."

      "Yeah," said Melanie, looking thoughtful. "After all this mess, I think I might."

      "You know," said Vic, just as thoughtfully, "if the government does take over the school, they can change the curriculum to include all the required courses."

      "I hadn't thought of that!" said Ray, startled.

      "Just one thing," said Doro, straight-faced, to Vic. "You'll have to get a haircut. Bureau policy."

      "What?!" said Vic, startled. "Oh, right. Still haven't cut it since the accident. Not a problem!"



      End



      This document is Copyright 2011 Rodford Edmiston Smith. Anyone wishing to reproduce it must obtain permission from the author, who can be contacted at: stickmaker@usa.net