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Masks XVII: Fallout


Rodford Edmiston

       Jenny eagerly tore open the package and lifted out her new costume. It was an updated version of her original: a long-sleeved unitard, gloves and boots in shades of green, with a red utility vest. A green mask completed the ensemble. This was a birthday gift from her uncle. Rather, his gift certificate for the professional super costume maker had been. This was the first time she had seen the completed outfit. She quickly pulled it on.

       Looking in the full-length mirror, she gathered her red hair into a high ponytail, then examined the result. When Jenny had first become Energia her costume had been intended to make her look older. Now that she was sixteen, her current ones made her look her actual age. One interesting result was that even some people who knew Energia thought she was still the same age she had been when starting out, three years earlier. This new outfit would hopefully add a couple of years to her appearance again. Energia lowered her hair, letting it hang loose. This helped with her quest to look older, but only a bit. After considering for a moment, she decided to leave it down. She wondered if the combination of new costume and new hairstyle would mean having to introduce herself to people all over again. 

       Smiling at the way some folks went by appearances, Energia transferred the gear from her oldest costume to the new one. She checked the fit and look, then left her room and walked downstairs to the den of their hidden downtown headquarters.  

       "Wow," said Gadgetive, as she looked up to see Energia make her entrance. "Must be nice to have a rich uncle."

       "Rich in contacts and influence," said Energia, turning. "You like?"

       "Not to mention favors owed him," said Blue Impact, walking around the young woman. "Yeah, that looks nice. I think I'm a bit envious."

       Blue Impact was a veteran super who had started in her early teens, much as her two younger partners had. That experience was one reason she taught at the Pine Island Academy, where her two young partners were students. All her costumes had been variations on slacks, blouse, vest, jacket, gloves, wig, mask and athletic shoes. The components were always in shades of medium and dark blue, except for the blond wig.

       "You never go for flashy costumes," said Gadgetive, whose own outfit was even more prosaic and functional than the older woman's.

       Gadgetive wore her usual mix of coveralls, military surplus shirt, boots, helmet and web belt, plus gloves and mask. Her custom backpack was on the floor, leaning against the end of the main couch, ready for action.

       "You need a job as a fashion designer," said Gadgetive, teasing. "Or interior decorator. You've sure helped spruce this place up."

       "I like this old bakery," said Energia, a bit defensively, dropping onto the couch and looking around. "It just needed a bit of work. Blue Impact made a good start, but between Gadgetive working on the infrastructure and me redecorating..."

       "I still appreciate the furniture, by the way," said Blue Impact. "Especially the new couch."

       "Well, it's hardly new. My parents offered it for my dorm when they got a new one, and I pointed out that the whole school was so new some of the furniture hadn't even been unwrapped, yet."

       "That exercise equipment is nice, too."

       "Again, that wasn't all me," Energia pointed out. "Hazel got me a big discount as thanks for finding her that job promoting the company which makes it."

       "Looks like your uncle isn't the only one rich in favors owed," said Gadgetive, with a laugh.

       "If only one of you could find us a good team name," said Blue Impact, in a stage mutter.  

       "You sure you want to wear that new outfit all day?" said Gadgetive, smirking. "Looks too nice to get dirty."

       "Like we're going to get many calls in the two days before school starts back up," said Energia.

       "You had to say that," said Blue Impact, with a sigh.

       * * *

       The farmhouse looked quite innocuous. However, the suit of powered armor standing just inside the nearby barn was definitely out of place. 

       "Looks like a Class IV," said Gadgetive, examining it through her electronic binoculars. "Probably a rejected military design. EMP hardened, cermet armor with reactive plates, two or three ranged weapons plus manipulators. Tough, but too big. Probably fast in a straight line but not very maneuverable."

       "I can handle that," said Energia, nodding.

       "Then we'll start sneaking up to the farmhouse," said Blue Impact. "If it notices us take it out. Otherwise, wait until we signal we're inside. In either case, after you're done join us."

       Energia nodded, and started off to the right, creeping carefully around on foot until she was in the fence line beside the barn. Her partners had gone the other way, to try and enter out of sight of the barn. Something didn't work; before the signal came she heard the suit powering up.

       She had noticed a discreet section of wire fencing about ten meters long. As the suit moved into the open Energia got a good magnetic grip on the wire mesh. Grunting a bit with the effort, she pushed with her hands to help her visualize the length of fencing tearing free and flying towards the armor. She had the machine wrapped snugly and falling on its face so quickly the operator had no time to react.

       Surrounded by a capsule-shaped protective field of highly charged plasma, Energia flew to the suit. She hovered above its back as she worked at disabling the weapons before they could aim at her. The suit was struggling more effectively than she expected. Energia couldn't spare the concentration to hold the wire while she worked on the weapons, and the power armor was rapidly working free. She had just finished the Minigun when the suit got its arms loose and started pushing itself upright. Energia had time for a quick, brute-force blast at the grenade launcher, praying it didn't blow, before she had to dodge away. 

       Fortunately, there was no explosion. The suit lunged upright and swung at her, but she had already moved out of reach. Energia deliberately hovered at about the height of the thing's head. 

       "Little bitch! I don't need guns to crush you!"

       "You do know my powers are largely electrical, right?" said Energia, smirking.

       "Hah! My suit is EMP hardened!"

       "Idiot," said Energia, tiredly. "That's not what I meant."

       She made motions with her hands, as she used her powers to create a potential difference between the top and bottom of the suit. Sparks flew, and she moved the field around, until all the moving parts had been thoroughly spot welded at the joints. The suit locked in place, made a groaning sound, and fell over again. 

       With a gusty sigh of relief, Energia flew towards the farmhouse. She kept her plasma wall up, in case there were automated defenses. However, she reached the shattered door on the other side without incident. She could already hear sounds of conflict inside, and flew through the broken door.

       The "farmhouse" turned out to be a concealing shell; the interior was nearly filled with mad science equipment which not only occupied the volume obvious from the outside, but extended well below ground level. Blue Impact was dodging laser blasts from a control console while Gadgetive tried to find the power cables. Energia held out a hand and sent a few thousand Volts at essentially zero Amps into the man operating the console. He jerked fully upright then crumpled to the floor. 

       Unfortunately, as he fell she felt something start to draw major power, and an odd, hazy darkness began forming in what seemed to be the focus of the machine. Energia got a very bad feeling. Literally. The thing was distorting space in a way which she found physically uncomfortable. 

       "Gadgetive!" Blue Impact yelled. 

       "On it!" she said, hurrying over to a particular console. 

       She pulled the front cover off and looked inside, while Blue Impact checked on their quarry. Energia hovered, wondering what she could do to help. 

       Over a course of five weeks, the Mastermind known as Gortner had sent a baker's dozen of henchmen - all supers - after several prizes. These events were the main reason Blue Impact, Energia and Gadgetive had gotten back together over Spring Break instead of taking an actual vacation. The criminal masks were veterans and had been drilled, so they got in and out quickly each time while leaving very few clues. Both police and - once they got into the act - the trio of supers were left playing catchup. The crimes were so well planned and executed that they didn't even know who was behind them. Finally, one of the henchmen had been spotted in a local bar. The thieves had been paid off and were supposed to go out of state before spending anything, but this one hadn't been able to resist. After his arrest, careful interrogation had generated clues which - combined with others - gave them Gortner's name and a location.

       So, now they had Gortner, and could probably find out what all the activity had been leading up to. If they survived his machine running out of control with him unable to shut it off. 

       "Just cut the wires!" yelled Blue Impact.

       "Can't!" screamed Gadgetive, frantically working inside the open panel. "It's gone regenerative! All that power would run loose in here and fry us! Well, most of us..."

       "Energia! Can you contain that thing?"

       "Watch me," said the team's youngest member.

       She flew up above the slowly growing hole in reality and reached out towards it. 

       "You had to knock the guy out!" yelled Gadgetive, still inside the console. 

       "I'm sorry!" Energia yelled back, as she held her hands in front of her. "What a way to start the morning!"

       The gesturing and posturing weren't necessary to use her powers, but helped her visualize what she was doing. The device was pulling open a hole in the structure of space, something she could feel. Energia was doing what she could to hold it back. 

       "Just a few more seconds!" said Gadgetive, somehow managing to sound both relieved and desperate at the same time. 

       "Can I tap the machine for power?"

       "Yes! The more the better!"

       Energia began drawing from the device, which not only increased what she had to work with to fight the space warp, but also reduced the strength of the field. She made headway, now, actually reducing the size of the hole. Tighter and tighter it went, the machine starting to make an odd, shrieking sound. However, once below soccer ball size it began resisting more strongly. At softball size it was barely shrinking. To Energia's extra senses it felt like a hard knot.

       A quick glance at her teammates showed Gadgetive was still working, and had actually crawled so deep inside the equipment only her boots were visible. Blue Impact was looking worried. Energia turned her attention away from her teammates back towards the warp field. She took a deep breath, and shoved inwards. 

       * * *

       Energia awoke laying on soft grass in the warm sun. She sat up, and noticed there were cows around her, paying little or no attention to the interloper. The scenery looked familiar... but there was no farmhouse. 

       She pulled out her GPS, figuring that Gortner's machine had teleported her, probably just a short distance. To her surprise, the location was right where she had been. Then she noticed the clock... and the calendar. Only the former was close to right, and even that was reading earlier than it should have been.

       "Back in time?!"

       No, that was impossible. You couldn't travel back in time; that would violate causality. Which meant...

       "Sideways," she groaned. "Great. I get the creepy stalker. I get the creepy imitator. I get the creepy fan letters. Naturally, I get sent to an alternate universe."

       It shouldn't be too different from home, if her GPS was still working. On a hunch she pulled out her cell phone and called Blue Impact, then Gadgetive. The first call was answered by a man. The second gave an out of service chime. 

       "Great," said Energia, putting on a front of annoyance, but starting to feel frightened. 

       She lifted off, noting as she did so that her store of power was nearly depleted. There were no transmission lines nearby, and recharging from natural sources was slow. Energia flew up about a hundred meters and turned slowly, getting her bearings. She kept her plasma wall off, to conserve energy. The nearest large town was Boston, that way. 

       She didn't try to hide so much as simply avoid drawing attention to herself. Few people look up much and her flight was essentially silent, so that wasn't very difficult. Once in the city, though, she faced a decision. Should she fly around and hope she could figure out the situation before someone spotted her; contact the authorities; or enter a library and hope no-one screamed? For the middle choice, which authorities? For all she knew, people with powers were shot on sight, here. 

       As she dithered, Energia flew over a newsstand. One of the papers caught her eye. There was a flying costumed man on the front page, with the headline "Skyhawk Catches Computer Thieves!"

       Okay, obviously there were at least some superhumans and  costumed heroes. Now, was her money any good?

       The news vender looked a bit startled when Energia landed in front of him. She pointed to one of the papers, and handed over a five dollar bill. He handed her the paper with the change. 

       "Thank you."

       "Not at all, miss," said the man, smiling. "You new in the area?"

       "Oh, yes," said Energia, with a sad smile.

       She flew up to a rooftop and read. One difference from home, the Sunday paper had color photos as well as color funnies. Those latter were also intriguingly similar to back home. How much of the difference was due to this being a different city, and how much to being a different world she couldn't tell just yet. Skyhawk was what the article referred to as a "cape." He wore a blue spandex bodysuit, had a very impressive chest with a thick neck and square jaw. He reminded Energia of several people back home, though he looked more like something from comic books than most of those folks. A strange hood, somehow incorporating a beak-shaped silver visor, covered most of his head, concealing it from view. A blue cape finished the ensemble.

       As Energia read the paper she realized someone was sneaking up on her. Someone with both a considerable amount of metal and some substantial power storage devices on his person. She frowned, concentrating on what she was sensing. This was someone moving slowly closer, coming on her from behind. She pretend to continue reading, while preparing to act. 

       Sure enough, less than a minute later the figure suddenly stood and aimed something at her. Something conductive. 

       Energia spun around, dropping her paper and raising her hands. A net of carbon fiber cords was flying at her. She quickly put a strong current through that, and used electrical repulsion to send it back at the shooter. 

       The oddly-dressed man squawked, started to turn away, but was caught. Throughly wrapped in his own net, he tumbled to the roof. Energia had a brief flash of deja vu, remembering the fence and suit of powered armor from earlier. 

       Energia gathered her paper, folded it under her arm and walked over to the man. Who was swearing and struggling.

       Now, what to do with him? Make an anonymous gift to the police? Find a phone book and see if there were any super hero teams listed?

       She was distracted from her deliberations by the awareness of something approaching rapidly through the air. Energia spun around, ready to fight, but saw the costumed hero from the newspaper flying towards her. She stood down, and waited to see what he'd do. 

       "Nice work, young lady," he said, in somewhat pompous tones. "I've been looking for that particular piece of criminal slime. Glad you were able to handle him." 

       Skyhawk landed on the other side of the man in the net. 

       "Trapdoor, what are you doing out of jail?"

       "Fuck you too, asshole," the man snapped, in a nasal voice.

       The fact that he seemed more annoyed than frightened or even worried told Energia that at least this good guy really was a good guy. 

       Skyhawk made certain Trapdoor was well secured, then stepped around him to Energia.

       "Why was he after me?"

       "Trapdoor has recently been trying to capture young mutants to sell for illegal research; he hasn't been having much luck," said the hero. He held out his hand. "Pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss..."

       "Energia," she said, shaking his hand, and noting he didn't think introducing himself was necessary. "With a soft gee; I'm not named after the Russian rocket."

       She suddenly wondered if they even had those here, but Skyhawk didn't seem to have any problems with her name.

       "I assume you're one of the Whateley students," he said, in a somewhat patronizing way.

       "Uhm, no. This is probably going to sound crazy, but I'm from an alternate universe."

       "Oh-ho!" said Skyhawk, smiling a bit. "Haven't had one of those in a while." 

       "My team was capturing a mastermind and his experimental device triggered. Don't know exactly what it was supposed to do, but when I stopped it, there was a sort of pop and I wound up in a field on a farm not far from here. Same geographical location, different world."

       "If you don't mind my asking, how old are you?"

       "sixteen," said Energia, reluctantly.

       "That is a problem. If you were a year older, I could help you directly, instead of trusting someone else to do a proper job. However, after some problems back in the Sixties there were laws passed making it illegal in most cases for underage mutants to work with mature capes. No kid sidekicks, here."

       "Yeah, we had a few scandals, too. Which is why we have teams and a school specifically for training young supers."

       "I'm glad you're familiar with the concept of a special school. I'm going to call some folks at the Whateley Academy, which is near Dunwich. It's our preeminent school for training young people with powers. They also do some very cutting edge research into things like dimensional travel. If they can't help you, they'll know who can. I'll call and work out a contact arrangement."

       "Thank you," said Energia, almost sagging with relief. "Uhm, what do I do with Trapdoor?"

       "I'll take him in, but I'll make sure the police know who actually caught him. If you need any favors from law enforcement in the future, that will definitely help."

       "Thank you, again."

       * * *

       Finding the school was easy. The place seemed to be an island in the middle of woods, villages and farms. Getting in was a bit more complicated. Energia was careful to avoid flying directly overhead, instead skirting around to the clearing she had been told to look for. Skyhawk had made a point of emphasizing discretion. From the roundabout way they asked her - relayed through him - to arrive, Energia would have realized they weren't eager to be known to the general public as a school for superhumans even if he hadn't told her. The school was obviously an open secret among those in the know, but still at some level a secret. Fortunately, Skyhawk had arranged a rendezvous with the school's security force for her in a wooded - forested, actually, and with some surprisingly mature trees - area near the school. 

       "Uh, hi," said Energia, nervously, as she dropped towards the clearing where the military-looking people she was supposed to meet were gathered. 

       "You the one sent here by Skyhawk?" asked the man obviously in charge.

       "Yes. Energia. No, not named after the Russian rocket."

       Again, just a knowing nod.

       "Please come with us. It's a green day, so the costume isn't a problem, and this area is a private reserve which the school is part of, so we shouldn't encounter anyone who shouldn't see strange things."

       Energia nodded, and fell in step with them. She noted that while they were watching her, they were also watching the woods. She wondered what was out there...

       Soon they came on a gravel road, with a couple of small all-terrain vehicles parked on the shoulder. The man who had spoken motioned for Energia to take the front passenger seat of one of these. A woman sat behind the wheel beside her. In minutes they passed through a gate in a low fieldstone fence, which the guards were very careful to properly secure behind them.

       "That wall marks the boundary of the school grounds proper," said the driver, who wasn't much older than Energia.

       On the other side was a paved picnic area. The paving continued as a narrow road, heading towards some buildings Energia could see in the distance. 

       "I hope you're worth making Headmistress Carson come in on a Sunday," her driver joked, as they stopped in front of one of those buildings.

       Energia was ushered into Administration, through an open office space with only a couple of people in it, and into the private office of a rather formidable looking woman who was introduced to her as Headmistress Carson. 

       After introductions, Energia was a bit surprised when the guards respectfully bid Mrs. Carson goodbye and left. On the other hand, she already had an impression that the Headmistress could handle her, and maybe the rest of Energia's team.

       "Sit down," said Carson, gesturing to a chair, as she returned to her seat behind her desk. "Now, please, tell me why you're here."

       Energia took a deep breath, and began with how she, Blue Impact and Gadgetive found where Gortner was and - since that was out of the jurisdiction of the city police and local police weren't up to handling a supervillain hideout - had gone after him. She ended with walking into Carson's office. 

       "Interesting," said the Headmistress, nodding. "Well, I think we can help you, though that might take some time."

       "You can?" said Energia, with a surge of eager relief. "Thank you! I mean, I know a few people who have had this happen to them, from our world or another, and they always complain about how difficult getting back home is. Usually because the people where they wind up aren't familiar with their home world."

       "It's not that uncommon," said Headmistress Carson, with a sympathetic smile. "I've personally encountered five dimensionally displaced people before. From what the experts tell me - an even mix of mystics and scientists - the hard part is, indeed, finding the distinctive signature of the subject's home dimension. However, the sooner they start looking the less the difficulty. Once that's done, the rest is almost trivial. Universal mechanics actually provide an impetus for the person to return home; we just provide the path.

       "There is one complication to you staying here, and I'm telling you this up front," said the Headmistress, her manner again stern. "There's an international organization here called the Mutant Commission Office. They have law enforcement powers in the US in mutant matters. If you stay here for more than a few weeks you must either register with them or be considered rogue. If you choose the latter course you'd have to leave Whateley."

       "You have super registration?!" said Energia, alarmed.

       "It's not like that. Well, it is, but with... complications. There was an event which many people feel provided just cause, a major disaster created by mutants a few years ago. Far from everyone goes along with it, but if you expect to live here without harassment from the government, you need to register."

       "We'd never trust the government with something like that," said Energia, icily.

       "We don't either, really," said Mrs. Carson, in a reassuring tone. "Not anything like completely. The MCO also isn't part of the US government, though they generally cooperate with each other. We comply enough to avoid trouble. Some students go further, those wishing to become official capes, for example. Don't worry. We're careful about what information they get and how they use it. I admit there are abuses, but they're uncommon and when we learn of them we make official protest."

       "Sorry," said Energia, blushing a bit. "We just went through a bad time, when every super who trusted the US government was betrayed by it. Along with a bunch of others who weren't careful enough or were just unlucky. Took a threat of impeachment from the vice president to get the maniac responsible to resign after all that blew up in his face, and even with a change of administration during the next election there's still people at all levels disobeying the new President's orders and going through with the pogrom. Even though it was repeatedly declared illegal by the courts and officially denounced by both the Veep once he took office and, after the election, the new President."

       She sighed, realized she was babbling, and suddenly went from outraged to tired and maybe a little frightened. 

       "They even arrested my grandmother."

       Carson winced; she could definitely understand the girl's reaction after hearing that. 

       "Hopefully, I won't have to make that decision."

       "Indeed. The sooner we get you home, the better. For many reasons."

       * * *

       Carson laid out a plan of action: Energia would officially be at the school as a special consultant in dimensional travel. If no solution to her problem was found before the start of the next semester she would have to enroll as a student. That meant either being granted a scholarship or finding a means of earning money. The cost of the search for a way to send her home would be compensated for by allowing by herself to be examined.

       "I'm not sure I like the sound of that," said Energia, uneasily. 

       "We'll give you the same tests and evaluations we give all our students and mutant staff," said Carson. "Uncomfortable bordering on unpleasant, but standard procedure."

       Energia nodded, but still wasn't sure she wanted to go through with this. 

       "We'll need to know your legal name, too," said Carson. She held up her hand, cutting Energia off. "There are several reasons for this. Among them, avoiding causing trouble for any counterpart to you in our universe."

       "Oh..." said Energia. She squirmed a bit, then realized that the rules were different here and sighed. "Okay. It's Jennifer Toulon."

       Carson reached into a drawer and pulled out a form.

       "This shouldn't take long. Once you're finished, we'll see about getting you some normal clothes and a place to stay. Oh, before that, though, I think we better have security take a look at that equipment they scanned on you."

       "Oh," said Energia, in sudden revelation. "Yeah. Some of it's technically illegal a few places back home. I guess some of it might be here, too."

       * * *

       The security techs made a bit of a fuss over some of the gear she was carrying, actually seeming impressed. They had portable equipment to detect things, like metal detectors only moreso, and other, non-portable equipment to examine things in more detail. Energia hadn't even realized she was being scanned out in the woods. After examining her gear and asking some questions, they surprised her by letting her keep all of it. 

       "Compared so some of the stuff devisor students here make, this looks like off-the-shelf," said the security tech, smiling. 

       "Is this sort of thing standard gear for capes on your world?" said Carson, frowning as she examined a long-range com unit disguised as a cell phone. A fully functional cell phone, with an actual account. One which, bizarrely, worked on this world. She wondered whose minutes had been debited in those two brief calls Energia mentioned. 

       "The type of thing is," said Energia. "Some teams require every member to carry certain identical equipment; others only care about the function. Like, everyone must have a first aid kit, but how big and what's in it is left to the individual. Some of my equipment is even mass produced, and available to civilians."

       "Interesting. I suspect several historians and sociologists would love to interview you. Not to mention the devisors and gadgeteers. Now, let's see about getting you some civilian clothes. I've already passed along word to prepare a guest room for you. It should be ready by the time we finish shopping."

       * * *

       Energia - or Jenny - definitely gave them credit. Actually, they gave her a charge card, with a balance sufficient to equip her for a stay of at least several days. The first stop after getting that was the very impressive student store, which was actually more like a small mall. Carson made her wear some of the civilian clothes she bought out of the store, and had everything else - including her costume - sent to the guest room. Energia did manage to stash some of her gear - which the locals referred to as holdouts for some reason - in her new pockets and purse.

       "Normally, new students wouldn't get this much attention from the Headmistress," said Carson, dryly, as they walked away from the store. "However, your arrival is the most interesting thing happening today." 

       Next came a guided tour. Despite Jenny's worry about being stranded here, and her eagerness to start working to get home, she found the history of the school interesting. The Homer gallery was impressive, especially the pile of gold bars.

       That over, Carson took her to the guest cottage, which was actually a small apartment building. Her purchases and costume were already in the room she had been assigned. The Headmistress handed Jenny a pamphlet with additional information, in which she had also written some phone numbers of people she might need to contact.

       "It's almost dinner time," she said. "Can you find Dunn Hall?"

       "No problem," said Jenny, nodding. 

       "Then I will most likely see you again tomorrow, when we start your testing. Good afternoon."

       * * *

       As she made her way to the cafeteria for supper, Jenny was feeling uncomfortable on multiple levels. One of the sources of her discomfort was that everything she wore was new. When they offered her the debit card - especially after being told how much was on it - she tried to decline, pointing out that she had cash which was accepted on this world. Mrs. Carson insisted. 

       "You need to save your cash for emergencies. Besides, this is part of the deal. We study you; in return we feed and house you and do our best to send you home."

       Left unmentioned was that this card also let them track her purchases. 

       Jenny felt a bit strange walking around in what most people would consider normal clothing. Over the past few years she had become very used to super materials and styles. She saw a few others also on their way to supper and, with a start, realized they were all wearing coats, jackets and other cold weather gear. Jenny winced as she realized that while her clothes were suitable for cool weather, they weren't quite enough for how cold the evening was turning. She had automatically used her powers to keep herself warm, while in civilian clothing. That was bad; it was one of the things they taught people to avoid at the Pine Island Academy. She must be really disorientated to make such a beginner mistake. With a sigh she returned to her quarters and put on a coat, knit cap and gloves. 

       Now appropriately dressed, she finally made it to supper. As soon as the odors registered, her stomach growled loudly. She realized she had missed lunch, and breakfast was a long time ago and a world away. There was a good assortment of food and drink, though it all seemed a bit plain, and some of it badly cooked. At least, that was the case in the section where she was directed, which was for those with normal dietary requirements. The food she saw for those who weren't ordinary was anything but plain... Some of it wasn't even cooked! Jenny soon had a tray loaded with a full plate, silverware and napkin, and a soda.

       Now, where to sit... The place was crowded, and most people already seemed to be with someone. Most of those who weren't obviously wanted things that way. No group or individual noticed her and invited her over. Maybe she could sit at one end of a table with another loner at the other. That would be marginally better than sitting by herself.

       As she looked around the Hall, though, something caught her eye. A pale Goth girl was sitting alone at an otherwise empty table, with a large cage in front of her. 

       She looked vaguely Asian, but the tips of her ears poked out in distinct points from under the mess of hair on her head, and the lobes merged with her jawline. As for her hair, there was one lock which was blood-red and hung just out of sight of her right eye. It didn't appear to be dyed, either. 

       Most bizarre of all was the contents of the cage: a rather nasty-tempered Chow. 

       Jenny watched the girl put her hand to the cage, and blinked as a tentacle - With a toothed mouth on the end! - extended towards the dog. It (the Chow, that is) snarled and snapped, but the tentacle jabbed it in the chest... and the dog turned to blue powder!

       The girl seemed a bit sad for a moment, as she put the cage on the floor. She looked up, and noticed Jenny staring at her.

       "You need something?" she snapped. 

       "I'm sorry. I don't mean any offense by this but... Are you a vampire?"

       "Not... exactly," the girl sighed, looking tired. 

       "It's just that you remind me of a friend back home," said, Jenny, quickly. 

       "I doubt that. She's probably not really a vampire, either. Just someone with powers and a GSD which mimic what people envision when they think 'vampire.'"

       "Pale, not lightfast, quiet, drinks blood, turns into mist or animals, dominates people, often embarrassed by what she is and does," said Jenny, with a slight smile. Her gaze became distant for a moment. "She's saved my life a couple of times. Of course, I've saved hers more than once."

       The young woman gave Jenny an evaluating look. Then motioned her over. 

       "You're welcome to eat here. If you still have an appetite."

       "Compared to what I've seen some people eat at my school," said Jenny, wryly, "that was neat and tidy. Though, if you don't mind me asking, what did you do?"

       "I just... sucked the life out of it," said the young woman, with a sigh. "All that's left are some minerals I don't need."

       "Well, that's a lot quicker and more efficient than all the chewing and digesting I have to do." She put her tray down across from the strange girl and leaned over the table, holding out her hand. "Jenny."

       "Sara," said the girl, looking Jenny in the eye as she extended her own hand. 

       They shook, the grip holding for a moment. Then they released, and Jenny sat. She had the distinct impression she'd passed some sort of test.

       "Welcome to the crazies' table," said Sara. "Well, one of them. There's a lot of outcasts, here. Eat with us at your own risk. Though it's entirely social for our little group. Well, usually..." 

       "Seriously, it's not how you eat, it's the manners you display doing it," said Jenny, as she unrolled her silverware and put her napkin on her lap. She made a comic grimace. "Centaurs eat like Charles Laughton as Henry VIII."

       "I've seen that movie," said Sara, smiling for the first time. "Wait, centaurs?! You're serious?!"

       "Well, there's just the one, but he seems to be pretty typical." She sighed. "I'm from an alternate universe. Skyhawk sent me here to see if the techs could figure out a way I can get back home."

       "You have a school there, like Whateley?"

       "Oh, no. It's much smaller and only a few years old. Though it has the advantage of being on an island near Bermuda."

       "Ooooohhh..." said Sara, grinning to reveal fangs. "Bermuda... So, do you have powers?"

       Jenny paused in her chewing for a moment to look around. Then she swallowed, put down her fork, held up her right hand, folded the last three fingers as if she were pinching something large, and made a fat, blue spark jump between her thumb and index finger. 

       "Think of me as a living taser," she said, a bit smugly. "Oh, and I checked the light to make sure it was green before doing that. The folks telling me about the school were very firm about keeping things sub rosa here. That's something we don't worry about. We're openly a school for young supers."

       "Do you have costumed heroes there?"

       "I am one," said Jenny, her smugness increasing. 

       "You're a cape?" said Sara, surprised.

       "We call us Masks," said Jenny, a bit ungrammatically. She considered, and grinned. "Not too different. I'm really fascinated by the parallels."

       "So how long have there been costumed superheroes on your world?"

       "Well, there were a few loners documented all the way back to the French Revolution and the Terror. Things were so paranoid then that people had to disguise themselves to survive doing good. That started the tradition. The first real costumed hero team was the Shepherds, which started in San Francisco in 1937, and only some of them wore actual costumes. The original members were the Night Master, the Dragon's Hand, Double Dutch..."

       "The whose what, now?" said an athletic black girl in what might have been workout clothes, as she sat down to Sara's right. Their skin tones and manners contrasted interestingly. 

       "Uhm, I was just telling Sara about the first known superhero team on my world. I'm from an alternate universe, here at Whateley hoping they can send me back home."

       Maybe she should just get the staff to make an announcement.

       "So what was this about a dragon?"

       "Toni, Jenny. Jenny, Toni, aka Chaka," said Sara, helpfully, as they reached across the table to shake hands. "Toni's a martial artist."  

       "Ah," said Jenny. "Well, the Dragon's Hand was an Okinawan immigrant, supposedly the fulfillment of some ancient prophesy. She was a super martial artist. Very skilled, superhumanly strong, tough and fast, and she could use her ki to do things like heal quickly and throw a punch at a distance. She wore a flexible golden mask wound around her head, which looked like a Chinese dragon with emerald eyes."

       "Cool," said Chaka, grinning like a much younger girl than she seemed to be.

       "Anyway, in San Francisco in Nineteen Thirty-Seven, Dr. Fenrisa Freysdottir contacted the Dragon's Hand and the Night Master - who were already working together on a case - and with her assistant Malcolm 'Double Dutch' Van de Meer they formed the Shepherds. Except for Dutch, they didn't know that Dr. Freysdottir was actually an elf."

       "Do tell," said a girl with slanted, violet eyes, a heart-shaped face and pointed ears, as she slid gracefully into the chair to Chaka's right. Jenny noted with a pang of envy that this new girl's hair was even redder than hers, and her figure...!

       "I go to school with her daughter," said Jenny, startled and trying to buy time to recover. "Uh, Dr. Freysdottir's, I mean. Elves live a long time and can have children scattered over centuries. Our elves, anyway."

       She looked at Sara.

       "You're doing this on purpose, aren't you?"

       "Not me," said the pale girl, smirking. "Honest. These are part of the group of outcasts I was telling you about. This is Nikki, who sometimes goes by Fey."

       "What's this about an elf?" said the latest arrival, as Jenny offered her a hand. She hesitated a moment, then shook it.

       Jenny sighed, and recounted what she had already told the others. 

       "Elves," said Fey, firmly.

       "Okay, when Columbus reached the New World, he called the brown-skinned humans he found there Indians and the little people with pointed ears elves."

       "Iiiiiinnnnteresting," said Fey, as something much older than her seemed to manifest in her thoughtful gaze.

       "They're naturally good with magic, and most also have at least some mind powers," said Jenny, a bit unnerved. "So, the Shepherds. The name came pretty early in their career, from a newspaper reporter, who noted that they protected the flock, returned the stray sheep of society and brought the black sheep to justice. Later, the Night Master's half sister, Mist, joined the team. She could go desolid, was super strong and could fly."

       There was a startled look on some of the faces, and Toni peered around. 

       "Yep. Here she comes."

       A brunette girl with a rather businesslike manner sat beside Jenny. 

       Jenny glared at Sara. Who threw up her hands.

       "I will swear by whatever oath you want! This is all strictly coincidence."

       "Hello," said the newcomer, with a charming smile, offering her hand. "Don't think I've seen you here before. I'm Ayla, also known as Phase."

       "Ayla, meet Jenny. She's from an alternate universe."

       "Let me guess," said Jenny, a bit tiredly, as the girl picked up her fork. "You can go desolid, you're super strong and you can fly."

       The newest of those to sit down choked on her first bite of food. (Which, interestingly, didn't look like anything anyone else in the cafeteria was eating. Was she one of those 'special diet' students?) After briefly coughing, she gave the others a suspicious look.

       "So far there's nobody like Dutch, though," said Jenny, looking around. 

       "What were his powers?" said Fey.

       "He was a drummer in a Swing band," said Jenny. "He's also supposed to have some sort of luck power. I've met him; he's one of our regular guest lecturers. Even well past a hundred, he can still wield a mean drumstick. Though being the protégé of an elf may have something to do with staying young and vital."

       "Well, we've all been lucky, lately," said Fey, thoughtfully.

       "Luckier than we deserve, sometimes," said Sara, in a stage mutter.

       They chatted about things for a bit, as several more students arrived in short order. The one introduced as "Jann, aka Shroud" made Jenny stare. 

       "S-sorry. The only person I've met like you before is Zeep."

       "Who, now?" the cloaked girl said.

       "Uhm, he's a pattern of force imposed on the structure of the universe," said Jenny. "I met him, once."

       "Iiiiiinnnnnteresting," said Toni, deliberately imitating Fey's earlier comment. "Okay, here comes the only boy of the group. Lancer, meet Jenny."

       "Hi!" he said, enthusiastically offering his hand. 

       "Super strong, super tough and he can fly," said Toni, dryly. "Though he isn't low density. Except between his ears."

       "Hey!" said the guy, in a good-natured objection.

       "And here comes our Devisor, Jade, Shroud's sister. That just leaves Tennyo - who never misses a meal - and Chou."

       "Tennyo had an early meal and left just as I was arriving," said Sara. "Something about needing to be somewhere for something, as best I could understand her through multiple mouthsful of food. You think her normal eating is scary, try sitting across from her when she's in a hurry! Chou... Isn't she working on some special sword combat project?"

       "That's right," said Toni, nodding as she remembered. "A guest clinic, today only. The only thing she has scheduled for today, so naturally it's during our regular supper hour."

       "Oh, Jenny," said Sara, with a smirk. "In regard to your earlier comment about table manners. Be glad Tennyo isn't here. She eats huge amounts of food very rapidly. Hank is almost as bad, but has slightly better manners."

       "Sounds just like home," said Jenny, sourly. 

       Several minutes passed with little conversation, as the small group ate. Jenny may have used less than ideal manners herself, due to being so hungry, but no-one complained. However, there was something nagging at the back of her mind. This group made her think of several people she knew back home, Oddly, those folks had little in common. Well, except that...

       Something pinged, just then. Something which made Jenny stop and stare for a moment.

       "You all right?" said Toni.

       "Uhm, yeah. Just thought of something."

       Okay, how to test this? Should she even try?

       "Let's play 'My school is weirder than yours,'" she said, innocently.

       "Sure," said Toni. "You're the guest. Go first."

       "One of our teachers was supposed to be twins," said Jenny, "but they fused in the womb. Now sie can change back and forth between male and female at will."

       She took a bite, noting with carefully concealed satisfaction the stunned reactions of the others at the table.

       "Well, there's lots of shapeshifters, here," said Toni, too casually.

       "Give up, gal," said Sara, smirking and speaking quietly. "We're busted."

       "I know several people who have permanently switched or can change their gender," said Jenny, noting the pale girl's lowered voice and also speaking quietly. She laughed as she remembered something. "I was even a boy for a few hours, my first Summer on a hero team. Thanks to someone you folks would call a reality warper. I think. Your powers and classifications aren't very much like ours."

       "We welcome one of us," said Sara, formally, holding out her hand. "Well, an honorary member."

       They shook hands again all around.

       "Okay," said Jade, brightly. "We had a ninja attack a few months back."

       Jenny noted the varied expressions of some of the others as their smallest - and presumably youngest - member got back on what she saw as the topic.

       "We had an attack by android pirates. Complete with replica sailing ships."

       Jade scowled, thinking hard, determined to defend her school.

       "We have several people here who have to take special precautions because their bodily fluids are dangerous or just icky."

       "Try sharing a bathroom - or a swimming pool - with a centaur," said Jenny, with a shudder. "Though I think you win on that one."

       "I've seen some of the shapeshifters do centaurs," said Fey, thoughtfully. "They're not real centaurs, of course."

       "Jana, who works in the kitchen, has a centaur form," Ayla offered. "I think that's her default form, now, but she was born human and can change back to human for a while."

       "We had a demon summoned by some students!" said Jade.

       Well, that hadn't happened back home - that she knew of - but...

       "Do you guys have Godzilla movies?"

       "Sure. Lots of 'em."

       "Well, on my world, Godzilla is fictional but inspired by a real monster, Tritonicus, created by an English mad scientist to help win World War Two. Which it didn't; wasn't ready in time. Anyway, it's still around, and last year it attacked a cruise ship near our island. A bunch of teachers and students had to go out and drive it off."

       "Godzilla attack!" said Toni, cackling. "Okay, that might just win."

       "No, wait," said Ayla, holding up a hand. "During the Hallowe'en attack, Jimmy T actually did a passable Godzilla and took out a bunch of those Tiger guys. Rumor is he even ate them."

       "We'll call that one a tie," said Sara. She looked expectantly at Jenny.

       "Sorry, I think that's about it. Unless you think our principal being a thousand-plus year old half-mortal daughter of a Greek god is unusual."

       "Our headmistress is a retired superhero," said Chaka, tentatively. "Not quite a match, though."

       "Yeah, we have a bunch of retired supers - including some villains - at our Academy."

       "Give me a minute!" said Jade, obviously irritated. She scowled. She frowned. She rolled her eyes and sighed. "Okay, I got nothin'. Not right now. But this. Is. Not. Over."

       They all laughed at that, even Jade. 

       "Anyway," said Jade, brightly, "you are now officially welcomed to Whateley by Team Kimba!"

       "Wait; Team what?!"

       "Tell me about it," said Ayla, in a stage mutter. 

       "Well, that's better than Team Misfire," said Jenny, with a sigh, as she recalled one of the more polite suggestions for her little group. 

       * * *

       This being Sunday, few of the students were in a hurry to leave the Hall. The tables were full of people just sitting and talking. The Kimba gang introduced Jenny around, filling her in on just who - and in some cases what - the other students were. 

       "That lizard guy reminds me of Velocirapper," said Jenny, after meeting the Outcasts. "He was an older student at my school, graduated a couple of years ago, one of our first. Permanently stuck in pseudo-dinosaur form and very strong and tough. His power, if you can believe it, is super speed."

       "Razorback is strong, tough and pretty fast, though I don't know if he qualifies as a super speedster by your standards. The snake girl is Diamondback."

       "We don't have anyone like that," said Jenny, thoughtfully. "She's very pretty, with those iridescent scales."

       She shuddered.

       "That guy in the jacket, though..."

       "Jericho," said several of the Kimbas in chorus, with knowing grimaces. 

       Despite her interest, and the Team's willingness, they finally had to call a break; Jenny still had a lot to do before the evening ended. Well, she would be here for days, at least. She excused herself and headed off. On her way toward the exit nearest her quarters, she was startled to see an extraordinarily beautiful blond heading straight towards her. 

       Actually, considering how many beautiful and handsome young women and men there were here, the startling part was that she was targeting Jenny. 

       "Hello," she said, not offering her hand. "I'm Solange."

       Jenny immediately perked up. Here was another similarity to her own life, something else to make her feel a little less lost.

       "That's interesting. I have a friend back home named Solange."

       Who was actually one of those people she knew who had changed genders. Solange had been a boy, but in his teens been changed into a younger girl, and was stuck that way. Another was her Uncle Randy/Aunt Template. There were others Jenny knew less well.

       For some reason, though, Jenny's response removed even the veneer of friendliness the blond was projecting. Jenny felt a surge of irrational anger, like a stabbing pain right between the eyes, but she was used quashing such impulses. She was also all too familiar with this type. People who thought that because they had looks and money they could lord it over others, telling them what to do. Worse, this one had the air of a schemer, and a clumsy one, at that.

       "No, I'm Solange," the bimbo said, hotly. "I saw you over there, talking to the Poesies. Just letting you know they're the undesirables at Whateley. No student who wants to get anywhere goes anywhere near them."

       Actually, she had wanted to learn who the newbie was. That original purpose was now subverted by the prime directive of putting this girl in her place.

       The good mood Jenny had been experiencing vanished, and the headache seemed to be staying. She wanted to scowl, but wouldn't let this girl know she was getting to her. Instead, she decided to try her "busy adult" act.

       "I'm not a student," said Jenny, in a formal manner, drawing herself up and putting on an air of mature irritation. "I'm a guest here, working with some of the staff on a special project. Now, if you'll excuse me, I haven't finished unpacking."

       She gave the woman a curt smile and a nod and continued on.

       Tansy stared after her, completely baffled. There had been no sign of defenses, yet her touch hadn't even been noticed! She snarled. No-one dissed her like that. Not student, not teacher, and certainly not some random guest!

       * * *

       "That girl is holding a lot in," said Nikki, as most of Team Kimba walked together back to Poe Hall.

       "Doesn't take an empath to see that," said Toni. "I just hope the brains here can help her."

       "I couldn't say anything in the dining hall, since I didn't want to reveal the privacy charm to an outsider, but she is deeply depressed."

       "That's to be expected," said Ayla. "She's a stranger in a strange land."

       "She's the Thing from Another World!" said Jade, with a cackle. 

       "No, this is deeper," said Nikki, ignoring Jade. "Older."

       "I felt it, too," said Sara. She frowned. "There's something else, though. Like something watching her. Something nasty."

       "Well, I did see Tansy try to collar her," said Toni, with a smirk.

       "No. This was darker than Solange could ever hope to be."

       * * *

       Jenny busied herself with unpacking, spending more time than necessary arranging and organizing. She kept the TV on as she worked, occasionally stopping to pay particular attention to some work of fiction or news item. 

       Finally, though, she had to go to bed. She was lonely, and tired, and more than a little afraid. Fortunately, sleep came quickly. 

       More fortunately, her dreams were relatively peaceful.

       * * *

       Breakfast the next morning was more of the same. Jenny made a point of sitting with Team Kimba, and this time got to meet Chou and the blue-haired Billie. They chatted a bit more about the oddities of their schools and the similarities between their worlds. Some of the Kimbas then continued introducing their guest to more of the students. However, with classes that day and Jenny's testing schedule there wasn't much time for socializing. 

       Jenny's powers testing started with a thorough physical. This was no more - and no less - unpleasant than usual. Then came the actual testing of her abilities. After interviewing her for nearly an hour, Doctor Hewley and Doctor Polland planned a set of tests. The first was for 3:00 that afternoon.

       Unfortunately, Jenny's lunch was so late she missed the Kimbas. There were a few familiar faces and she waved to them, but they were obviously almost finished with their meals. She sighed, tired from all the poking, prodding and questioning and not really hungry. However, she had no idea when she'd get supper, so she made herself eat a good lunch. She then went back to her quarters and napped for a bit. When the time came to head for her test she showered and put her costume on. This was a green day, and she wasn't sure how well her new clothes would stand up to what she would be doing. 

       The chamber the techs ushered her into reminded her of the one where her powers had been tested by the Young Guardians. It was a bit higher, and much longer, and gave the impression of having seen much more use. However, there were the same armored walls, the same viewing gallery behind protective windows for the techs and scientists. 

       "You sure you want me to go all out?"

       "There's a force field at the end of the room, in front of the target," said the head tech, over a speaker.

       "Okay. To go full power, I need to draw on sources around me."

       "The building has a five hundred amp electrical service, the force field has an independent power supply, and all our equipment has battery backups. Go for it."

       Energia nodded, though she was obviously still uncertain. 

       "I'll start out easy and work up," she said, raising her hands. 

       As a precaution, she put up her plasma wall and magnetically anchored herself, first. She decided on a pure electrical attack. The lights dimmed as she began pulling current. Energia found that the tech had spoken truly; the electrical supply wasn't quite as good as a transmission line, but it was enough for her to charge quickly. Once she had a nice store built up her extended hands began visibly glowing inside the already glowing plasma wall. Abruptly, a fat, white bolt of electricity shot towards the far end of the testing chamber. 

       Energia realized immediately that she'd made a bad choice. Electricity was too hard to direct, and wasn't naturally attracted to the force field. The bolt kept veering off target, and even grounding against the walls. Still, she kept at it.

       "She calls that starting off easy?!" said the tech responsible for the force field. "She's already solidly in Energizer 4 range."

       Energia ramped her output up to her comfortable limit, held it until her store was a bit less than half full, then backed off. 

       "Can I try that again, with a different attack?" she said, when all was quiet. "That wasn't on target most of the time."

       "Sure," said the tech in charge.

       Energia nodded, and began the process again. This time she formed the power into a plasma beam. This required more concentration and effort to produce, but it went straight towards the target, hit the force field and began digging in. After a few seconds of that she backed off, nodding and smiling this time.

       "Okay, your previous peak was middle Energizer 4, but you only hit that for about ten percent of the test. This time you were high Energizer 4, and you held that steadily the whole time you were at peak effort. You have anything else to show us, or are you ready to come out of that hole?"

       "One more thing," said Energia, with a smirk which immediately put the techs on alert. She raised her hands - palms facing each other this time, instead of pointing down range - and began glowing again. "I call this my Wave Motion Effect."

       She pulled in the power and a glowing ball appeared. It rapidly grew brighter and larger. Energia decided to show off, and built the charge until it went past uncomfortable and was actually a bit painful. Then she let it go. 

       As the spots cleared from her eyes, Energia was surprised to see that the far wall was unharmed. 

       "I think that's about it," she said, nonchalantly.

       "Thank you," said the chief tech, voice carefully guarded. "The door's open. Please return to the waiting area."

       Energia smirked a bit as she turned her back on the gallery and walked towards the door. He had been a lot less successful at sounding like it was all business as usual than she had.

       * * *

       Thursday, right after regular classes, the Headmistress met with the various doctors and test personnel to find out what they had learned. 

       "She's obviously not an Exemplar," said Dr. Hewley. "She's surprisingly not even an Energizer; not only do her powers work differently, her manipulation range is much broader than any Energizer we know of. We're pretty sure she's a TK of some sort, considering the way she can manipulate both matter and energy and forces. So far our tentative evaluation is: TK 3, EK 4 going just barely into EK 6 with that burst attack of hers, PK 4 at least, with a Dexterity of c and a Control of d. All of that while also maintaining her protective field. The thing is, both she and her testers on her home world think those are actually all part of a single power. They classify her as a General Force and Energy Manipulator. Moreover, her flying is separate! She says most flyers on her world function through graviton manipulation. They've even mapped a specific gene complex responsible, though they don't know how it works beyond that association. That type of flight is very handy. She says that, wearing a spacesuit, she has flown to the Moon in a few hours under her own power! From her description, she's given us some potential insights into how Tennyo's 'personal gravity' works. For Energia, it partially compensates for accelerations, so she can make tighter, quicker maneuvers without blacking out. We're thinking that might actually make her some type of Warper."

       "That is all very interesting," said Carson. "However, since her powers work through different genes, does it really help us all that much with anyone besides the few who fly the way Tennyo does? Or even them?"

       "Maybe not, but it helps us fill in the big picture. Anyway, finishing our part of the evaluation, her powers definitely include appropriate super senses. She can detect radio waves, and actually understand AM transmissions. In fact, her range goes from longwave radio to gamma, the same as her manipulation. She can also detect, manipulate and even generate magnetic fields, electrical fields, just about everything we tested. She can't directly manipulate gravity, except for how she flies. However, that ability comes with another extra sense, an innate sense of down. A sort of 'bump of gravity' which acts like a pilot's eightball."

       He laughed and shook his head.

       "She actually found the spin chair boring. Anyway, we're tentatively rating her as having ESP New Senses 5."

       "Telepaths say her mind is full of static unless she deliberately shuts off all her powers," said Polland. "Since they are second nature - I'd even say first nature - to her, she doesn't do that often. She said that even in her sleep she sometimes hears radio transmissions and feels things like electrical storms moving in. Usually, unless she concentrates on some part of this background, it's just white noise." 

       "That gives her ESP senses, effective telepathy since she can transmit radio as well as receive it, and TK," said Carson, scowling. "Which makes her a Package Deal Psychic. Only that doesn't actually fit her."

       "I think everyone here is familiar with the limitations of the classification system," said Dr. Hewley.

       "Doctor Bellows?" said Carson, looking over at the Psychiatrist. "What is your evaluation?"

       "We need to keep a very careful watch on that girl."

       "Oh?" said Carson, a bit surprised. "She seems to be handling this situation remarkably well."

       "Her blood chemistry is a bit worrying," said Dr. Bellows. "It's all normal human, but... well, some hormones and neurotransmitters are out of balance. Nothing major, but I'd be surprised if she weren't prone to easy rages and social distancing. When I asked if there was a history of insanity in her family she laughed and said no, but that her Mother and Grandmother tended to drive other people crazy."

       "That does sound worrying," said Carson. She laughed. "Especially with the way she's hanging around Team Kimba!"

       "They're immune," said Bellows, dryly. "Through extensive exposure."

       "Do you really think she's a rager?" said Delarose. 

       "No. Nowhere near. The thing is, anyone can go off with the right stimulus. Her blood chemistry indicates she's more prone than most, and she is currently under a lot of stress. From what we know of her powers, if she does go off she could blow every electronic circuit in the county."

       The consensus was that Jenny/Energia was both powerful and very, very interesting. Which did nothing to help her get home.

       "We have some specific tests set up for tomorrow which should give us a line on her home universe," said Dr. Hewley.

       "Let's wish her - and your techs - luck," said Mrs. Carson. She checked her watch. "Not as late as I thought. Dr. Hewley, would you be willing to stay for a bit and go over these test results with Jennifer this evening?"


       * * *

       Jenny reached the dining hall that evening a bit late. The explanation of her powers had been brief, but still kept her long enough that the new friends she had made here were already gone by the time she reached Dunn. She ate a quick meal and headed through the cold and dark for her small apartment. 

       She was almost there when she became aware of several people sneaking around on either side of the path, ahead of and behind her. Jenny stopped, frowning. The Kimbas had warned her about the pranks, and that sometimes they were more than pranks. When several young men in dark clothing moved out from cover and surrounded her she held her ground, making herself relax. 

       "Hey, there, pretty thing," said the biggest of them. "You're awfully young to be out this late... all alone."

       Jenny was worried, but only a bit. Yes, there were six of them, likely with powers. From what she had learned, the typical power level here was higher than back home, at least in some categories, so there was a good chance at least one of them was significantly more potent than her. However, so far they were just trying to intimidate her. The secret to being intimidating wasn't being powerful, it was appearing powerful. 

       The lights along the path dimmed, the diversion of electricity not only charging her but the accompanying darkness enhancing the effect she wanted. Jenny lifted off the ground a bit, and a capsule glowing pale violet and lavender surrounded her. There was a strong scent of ozone, and an electrical hum. Sparks played over her skin and through her hair, which was standing out straight. 

       "Think of me as a toaster," she said, stealing the line from a classmate's mother. "You're the toast."

       They left. 

       Well, that was easy, Jenny thought, as she let her plasma wall dissipate and settled back onto the path. 

       Maybe it had been too easy. Of course, experience had taught her that even the real tough guys had an instinctive aversion to getting shocked. Still, she kept an eye out as she resumed walking along the pathway.

       From her perch in a tree just off the path, Chou watched the older girl, and frowned. The tao had urged her here, but from what she had just seen Jenny didn't need her help to deal with some low-level bullies. However, there was still a nagging sense of need, of purpose, deep in the back of her mind. Chou light-footed to the next large tree along the path, watching and waiting. 

       Jenny's vigilance paid off as she approached a part of the path where a bulb was out. She raised her hand and made it glow, dispelling the shadows... only, some of them weren't dispelled. Worse, they were moving, towards her. Jenny felt a deep chill which had nothing to do with the weather. 

       There! Chou saw those moving shadows, and realized that was the purpose the tao had led her here for. She dropped to the ground and moved quickly across the top of the snow. She wasn't quite in time. 

       The closest of the shadows lunged at Jenny. She reflexively hit it with an electrical bolt. Which had no effect. Her scream was cut off as the thing covered her face. More plastered themselves to her body, knocking Jenny onto her back.

       The Handmaid dropped to the ground between the bulk of the shadows and their target, momentarily stopping the assault. Five quick sweeps of her sword removed those already on Jenny, the shadows dissolving into nothing at the blade's touch. Bizarrely, they had begun to merge into a single mass, covering the girl like a blanket. Chou turned towards the remaining shadows. They moved forward in a twin-pronged swarm, flanking her on both sides.

       Chou danced among the shadows, slicing them, driving them back from Jenny. They tried to go around her, determined to get to the older girl, but Chou could feel the flow of their movement, even their intent. After a few moments, Jenny recovered enough to help, sitting up and firing bolts of light at demons. Unlike the electricity, that hurt them, actually dispelled them, but they were legion.

       "Get ready to cover your eyes!" said Jenny, using her flight to suddenly rise a bit above the path.

       She held her hands high, and Chou barely ducked her head and closed her eyes in time. The world filled with light, painfully bright, for several seconds. Then it faded.

       "I think that got all of them," said Jenny, gasping. 

       Chou checked around, using more than her eyes, since they were still dazzled. 

       "I believe it did," she said. The sense of menace was gone, though there was a lingering feeling of business unfinished. She sheathed her sword. "I also believe we need to speak to an expert about this matter. After we explain things to security."

       When the security personnel arrived all they saw was two girls sitting peacefully on a bench. They naturally went to full alert. Fortunately, the leader of that little pack knew Chou. He quizzed her for several minutes - Chou was actually able to identify several of the young toughs who had surrounded Jenny - then spoke with Jenny. 

       "Weird. The first incident sounds like typical bullying here. The second..."

       "I felt something alien in them," said Chou. "I believe they are more in the province of Mrs. Chulkris, or even the Reverend Englund than regular security."

       "You're probably right. I'll file a report, with a note to send copies to the staff members who handle supernatural problems."

       "I will have Fey speak with Jenny. She may be able to find a significance I cannot. I will also ask her to introduce our guest to whomever of the supernatural experts Fey thinks would be most suitable for deciding what to do next."

       "Yeah," said the security guy, nodding. "That should about cover it. I think we're finished here. Good night. And be careful, both of you."

       Chou escorted Jenny to Poe. Truthfully, Jenny did not want to be alone right then. Bullies and even supervillains she could handle, but those shadows...

       * * *

       "I need some Doc Wilson's," said Jenny, groaning as she rubbed her arm.

       "Some what?" said Toni. 

       "Doc Wilson's Whiz-Bang Anti-Fungal Ointment," said Jenny. "The FDA in my US banned it more than forty years ago. Most likely because 'Elfin magic' wasn't an approved ingredient. Lately, though, we started importing it from England to the island where my school is. It's a general-purpose, non-prescription topical medicine which seems to work particularly well on supers. I have some packets in my costume's first aid kit, but that's in my room."

       "Chou, do you have any of that muscle cream?" said Ayla. 

       The sword girl nodded and hurried to fetch it. 

       "Thanks. In our as-yet-unnamed team it's usually Gadgetive who carries the medical supplies."

       "Gadgetive?" said Chou, returning with her salve.

       "Yeah. She's a..."

       "Gadgeteer!" Ayla, Chou, Toni and Fey chorused. 

       After explaining things to Mrs. Horton, Chou had taken the shaken Jenny to her and Ayla's room. While Chou sat with her, Phase went to fetch Fey, Toni tagging along with the elf girl. Their initial interrogation was brief, due to Jenny realizing she was more hurt than she had previously realized.

       "It's like everywhere those things touched me - even through my clothes - they left bruises."

       "Ayla, why don't you gather the others for a war session in Kimba Korner," said Fey. "We'll bring her there after we've treated her hurts."

       "Good idea," said Ayla. She scowled. "It sets a bad precedent for guests of the school to be attacked."

       Jenny felt an odd, little chill. 

       "She's pretty ruthless, isn't she?" said Jenny, as she began - gingerly - removing her clothes.

       "Phase can be the best friend or worst enemy you can have," said Chou, as she scooped some of her salve out of the container.

       As it turned out, Ayla wasn't the only one outraged over this double attack. All of Team Kimba as well as several other residents of Poe Cottage were very much on the warpath. In the sunroom several minutes later, Jenny actually found herself staring at Tennyo, who was so angry she seemed to glow. Wait a minute...

       "You're... tingly," said Jenny, looking puzzled. 

       "Tingly?" said Tennyo, momentarily distracted from the slow burn she had begun at hearing the news about Jenny.

       "Like you're giving off very low levels of ionizing radiation."

       "Uh..." said Billie, shifting uneasily.

       "Oh, it's not enough to be dangerous. It's just, every now and then, there's this little spark of gamma."

       "That must be interesting," said Ayla, leaning in. "To be able to detect radiation directly."

       "Anybody with working eyes can do that," said Hank.

       "Or even a functioning sense of warmth," said Jenny, nodding and grinning.

       "I meant what most people think of by radiation," said Ayla, irritated.

       "Hah!" said Toni. "For once, you're the one being corrected for using the wrong word!"

       "Gamma is... spicy. You don't see it often, but it does show up occasionally, at random intervals. Compared to the rest of the spectrum, it's like eating something bland and coming across a grain of pepper. X-rays are more like a bite of radish."

       They settled in for a full debriefing. Once Chou and Jenny were finished the others looked to Fey. Who was frowning. 

       "I think we need to consult an expert on demons," she said, finally. 

       "Sara," said several of the others, together, though with many different expressions and intonations.

       Jenny remembered that while she was friends with the Kimbas, Sara wasn't a team member, and even lived in a different cottage.

       "Want me to fetch her?" said the amazonian Hippolyta. 

       "No need," said Fey, with a smile. 

       She made a few gestures and said something which Jenny simply couldn't parse. Then sat back to wait. 

       Jenny looked around, and saw that the others were also waiting. Well, except for Jade and Chaka. Those two hyperactives were each occupying themselves in their own ways. Chaka, for example, was pacing in circles around the room. Only she wasn't using the floor. Jenny gaped as the athletic black girl used chair backs, hammocks and even some of the other students as walking surfaces. Fortunately, before the objections to that last could become too strident, Sara entered the room. 

       "What's the emergency?"

       Chou and Jenny again told their story.

       "These things were like blobs of darkness?" said Sara, looking thoughtful. 

       "Yes!" said both.

       "They merged together in a mass to smother you?"

       "Yes!" said Jenny.

       She looked at Jenny - stared at her in an unnerving way for several seconds - then moved over to sit beside Fey. The pair of them began a quiet discussion which seemed to be mostly in English, but which Jenny understood almost no part of. From the reactions of the others in the room they were likewise clueless. Finally, they nodded, and looked at Jenny. 

       "Yeah, this is bad," said Sara. "There's no real English - or even human - name for them. Call them shadowspawn for now."

       "Why are they after me?!"

       "I think whatever sent you here put you through their realm," said Sara. "They're not the only occupants, or even the dominant ones, but they serve as shock troops. You trespassed - doesn't matter how briefly - so the rulers there want to punish you. Also, they normally charge a toll from folks who travel through their realm even with permission. You didn't. That's two charges against you. Either would be enough for them to keep coming until they get you back there. If the shadowspawn don't do the job, those in charge will eventually start ramping up, sending real monsters after you."

       "So... What do I do?"

       "I'll check," said Sara, frowning. "Weird as it sounds, I think just retracing your steps would do it. Metaphysically, that would undo the offense. In the process sending you home."

       "Okay," said Jenny, a bit dubiously. "I don't know much about magic, but that sounds like the sort of thing folks I know who do know about it say."

       "The tao of that feels correct," said Chou, nodding slowly.

       "There's one complication."

       "Only one?" said Jenny.

       "They will try to keep you from undoing the trip. You'll have to fight every second of the way."

       "I made it in a tiny fraction of a second the first time," said Jenny, nodding. "If your techs can reproduce that, there shouldn't be a problem."

       "Meanwhile, we need to figure out how to protect you until the experts can deal with this," said Sara, thinking. "The campus mages have been reinstating and reinforcing the wards since Hallowe'en, but with everything that's happened they're still playing catchup. Still, to have something like that get through is really bad news."

       "Yes, you should spend the night here," said Fey. 

       "Oh, I definitely do not want to be alone," said Jenny, shuddering. 

       "That couch unfolds into a fairly comfortable bed," said one of the girls, pointing. 

       "The cottages are warded separately from the campus as a whole," said Fey, thoughtfully. "However, I think Sara and I should put some extra wards around the couch, just in case. Not just to keep things out, but to hide you. Tomorrow we'll make sure you see some of the mystic staff members. They'll come up with something more durable for your rooms."

       "Should I go back and get my stuff?" said Jenny, uncomfortably.

       "No. We'll find things for you."

       * * *

       The next day was a Friday. Jenny hadn't slept well, for good reason. However, as the cottage began stirring she couldn't stay asleep. Besides, today was when they tried to find her "base dimensional signature." Jenny found and thanked her hosts from the night before - including Mrs. Horton - dressed in her clothes from the previous evening and walked back to her quarters. The consensus of the magical experts was that the shadow things could not manifest where there was any sort of bright light, so she was probably safe in daytime.

       Jenny cleaned up and got into her costume. Again, this was a green flag day, so she didn't bother with putting her new clothes on over her Mask outfit. She even flew to breakfast - her first time eating here in her costume. That caused some interesting encounters with people who had met her before and now didn't recognize her. The Kimbas were especially startled. 

       "Wow," said Jade, admiringly, once she accepted that this actually was Jenny. "That is a neat costume. It also makes you look really different."

       "I have three costumes," said Energia. "That fit me now, I mean. I've grown out of several, which gets expensive. All of them are variations on the same theme. Two of my current costumes have capes, the other - this one - doesn't. One of the capes is long - that's on what I call my formal costume - the other short. It just happened that for this misadventure I was wearing the capeless costume. It's the newest and fits best."

       "That is an interesting material," said Bunny, fondling Energia's sleeve. She had finally realized who the "new cape" was and come over to get a closer look.

       "It's DynaCloth(TM). Proprietary formulation, just came out a few months ago. This material is specifically intended for people who aren't physically superhuman. It offers some protection without much restriction of movement, and with low weight."

       "It makes you look... bigger," said Ayla, a bit uncomfortably.

       "Part of what we call the costume discretion. Subtle - sometimes not so subtle - padding and airbrushing to change the way you look in costume. Helps keep your public and private lives separate."

       They talked for a bit about costume design and super fashions. Then the students had to go to class and Energia to the lab building.

       "Any of you have any idea how long they'll need with this testing?" said Energia, as they rose to head their separate ways. 

       "Knowing the doctors and technicians around here," said Ayla, with a weariness which spoke of personal experience, "several hours straight, without even a thought about lunch."

       "Ow..." said Energia. 

       "Keep track of the time and don't be afraid to insist on lunch. They'll probably be grateful for the food, themselves." 

       "Mrs. Chulkris and Dr. Otto have agreed to meet with you this afternoon at five," said Fey, as they rose from the table. "They'll be performing a... Well, doing something to try and confirm what Sara and I believe about the shadowspawn. You'll need to wear your costume; the more material from your world the easier to find it."

       "That's pretty much what they told me for the testing this morning," said Energia.

       "Meet me at Poe at a quarter 'till and I'll escort you there. It's... hard to find your way around if you aren't mystically inclined."

       "Uhm, I'm supposed to meet with Dr. Bellows at two. I should be through by then."

       "See you later, then!" said Fey, cheerfully.

       * * *

       The testing was... odd. Energia didn't have to lift weights, have blood taken or blast something, or even try to detect some sensory input. She just had to sit in a baffled chamber while a tech outside twiddled with his knobs and the scientists watched readouts. She found the process excruciatingly boring, especially since she was practically in sensory deprivation inside the heavily shielded room. She wasn't even allowed to move. 

       Finally, after an interminable period, the door opened. 

       "Uhm," said the head scientist, obviously embarrassed. "At the risk of sounding like an old joke, it's looking like you can't get there from here. In more detail, you obviously passed through multiple dimensional planes between your home and our world. Our working hypothesis is that this teleporter worked with some sort of bounce effect. It was supposed to throw the subject well away from the start plane, then swing back into it, but at a physically remote location. Probably to throw off any trace attempts. Only, when you interfered, it deflected on the return and you wound up in the same physical location but a different world."

       "So," said Energia, tiredly, "what now?"

       "We... honestly don't know. But don't worry. We thrive on challenges and plan to meet this one. It... just may take a while."

       * * *

       Security got a call at two-thirty. 

       "Do you have the current location of Miss Toulon?" said Dr. Bellows. "She missed her appointment with me and no-one seems to know where she is.

       They hadn't. 

       "Could you please make a special effort to find her? I'm a bit worried."

       "Sure, Doc."

       "Meanwhile, I'll check with her last appointment."

       That proved both revelatory and worrying. 

       "I left standing orders to notify me immediately if she got bad news about going home!" said Bellows, angrily.

       "But..." said the hapless sceintist. He swallowed. "She was taking it so well I didn't think there was any rush."

       "She's not taking it well, she's holding it in! If she doesn't find some form of release, she'll just keep holding it in until she cracks. If she does crack, a large part of Whateley will go crack with her!"

       * * *

       "Listen up!" said Security Chief Delarose to the assembled personnel. "We have a potential - and I emphasize that it's only potential - problem, here. Our special guest, Energia, got some bad news this morning. No-one has seen her since. Hopefully, she's just off brooding somewhere, but Dr. Bellows is worried she could be building up to a major tantrum. Find her. Do not approach unless she is endangering someone. Now, that last includes herself. She's probably not suicidal, but that can't be ruled out.

       "Complicating matters, we know from an incident last night that someone is out to get her. First some toughs surrounded her, then, right after she scared off the guys who were trying to scare her, someone sicced some sort of shadow demons on her. Keep in mind that she stood up to and out-intimidated a group of mid-level tough guys and natural bullies. She did this through sheer display, without hurting any of them. So, don't let her bluff you."

       "Chief!" the PA in the briefing room barked. "We finally spotted that Energia gal. She's flying. I mean, she is really flying!"

       * * *

       Energia threw herself around the sky. Like her uncle, she loved to fly, and was very good at it. Flying wasn't just fun, it was release. Right now, she definitely needed a release. 

       She started with the airshow standards, but since she didn't depend on wings and control surfaces she did them in ways no aircraft could. Then she started in on the really wild stuff. For several minutes she spun, tumbled, tucked and rolled, all at high speed, well above the ground. She didn't simply move her body like a lump, either, the way too many fliers do. Energia danced through the air, posing and posturing and reveling in her freedom of movement. 

       Finally, she slowed, exhausted, barely keeping herself in the air. She vaguely noticed a figure approaching, almost timidly.

       "Wow," said Tennyo, who parked herself in a hover nearby. "That was like... interpretive modern dance. I mean really good modern dance."

       "Thanks," said Energia, panting. She laughed. "I'm glad this new costume material is machine washable. That was a real workout."

       "No, seriously. I've never seen anyone fly like that."

       "I've been practicing pretty hard, lately, because our school talent show is in just two weeks. My uncle taught me to fly. He's been flying since he was eight years old. I've been flying since I was twelve. We used to play 3D tag."

       She sighed, the brief happiness vanishing. 

       "I may never see any of them again."

       "You had some folks worried," said Tennyo, moving closer. "That you'd stray into restricted airspace, I mean. They asked me to be ready in case it looked like you would. You didn't, though."

       "First lesson: set up your box," said Energia. She saw the other's puzzled expression. "Like an airshow box. That the planes have to stay in when they do their performances."

       "Well, you did," said Tennyo, with an envious laugh.

       "Let's get back down."

       "You're close to your uncle, I take it," said Tennyo, moving into formation with her as they flew.

       "Yeah. I love my Mom and Dad, but Uncle Randy is the only other one with powers. Well, my grandmother can change her eye color at will but that's so trivial most people don't even count it as a power."

       "Change her eye color at will," said the anime girl, dubiously. "Okay."

       "Look, on my world most powers run in families. Sort of the opposite of the way things usually are here, I think. They aren't always... useful. I just got lucky."

       They touched down on a wide expanse of bright green grass near Poe. 

       "I believe you. I... it's just that so few of us here have any relatives with powers I think a lot of them would be a bit jealous."

       * * *

       "Well, that was an anticlimax," said Delarose. "Not that I'm complaining."

       He gave Bellows an irritated look.

       "I said that she'd crack if she didn't find some way to vent her tensions," said the doctor, mildly. "Looks like she found it."

       He looked out the window, towards the sky, thoughtfully.

       "I may even recommend that as a form of therapy."

       * * *

       Energia had missed her appointment with Dr. Bellows that morning, but she made sure to make the one with the pair of magic users that evening. Fey was waiting outside Poe as promised. She led Energia to the building for magical instruction. Then through a bizarre series of corridors and concealed doors into a very ordinary looking laboratory classroom. 

       Energia was relieved to find both of the teachers to be very non-threatening in manner, though Mrs. Chulkris' appearance was a bit unnerving. 

       "Hello, dear," said the Earth mother, taking Energia's right hand in both of hers and smiling in a reassuring manner. "Dr. Otto and I will be examining you this evening. I assure you our procedures are less invasive and torturous than those you most likely have already endured at the hands of the scientists."

       "That's a relief," said Energia, smiling weakly. 

       They had instructed her to wear her costume, which meant washing it after her exertions. Fortunately, the guest cottage had a small laundry in the basement. The special fabric even dried quickly. 

       "Now, just relax, and try to empty your mind," said Dr. Otto, as he and Mrs. Chulkris began their arcane preparations. "With luck, we'll be able to not only figure out what those etheria want with you, but where you come from."

       * * *

       Back at Poe, the visitor to Whateley was the subject of both concern and curiosity.

       "I hope they can help her," said Jade, quietly. "To be an orphan, like that... To not just loose your family, but your whole world..."

       Several of the others gave Jade sympathetic looks. 

       "There's something wrong with that girl's brain," said Sara, muttering. "Either that or someone else has already claimed her. I can't think of anything else which would keep her from at least looking at me or Fey."

       "True love?" said Jade, her eyes going dreamy.

       "Yeah, ri..." The half-demon stopped, looking startled. "I'll be da... Uh, never mind. I think I need to have a talk with that girl."

       * * *

       "Well, that's that," said Dr. Otto, looking tired but satisfied. "Sara had it right. Both where these things come from, why they're after you, and how to stop them. We think we also got a line on your home dimension."

       "That is great," said Energia, with a surge of relief. "Uhm, how do I defend myself until I can be sent home? From what Sara and Fey were saying, they'll just keep coming..."

       "We'll work up some charms which will hide you from their senses. Though they may still come to this plane looking for you. We'll need to alert security to be on the watch for them."

       "We'll need some time to prepare those charms," said Mrs. Chulkris. "Fey, do you think Poe could host her again tonight?"

       "If she doesn't mind another night on that couch," said Fey, with a smirk. "Come along, demon bait. We'll stop by your apartment first and get some of your things. Then it's another happy night at Poe Cottage."

       * * *

       Jenny was surprised and flattered - and a bit embarrassed - to see herself on campus television that evening. Someone had put together a short movie, using various sources. That included security scanners, which was causing Chief Delarose some blood pressure problems. Though not as serious as the ones he was giving those responsible...

       "We need to get one of the artistically talented geniuses here to set that to music," said Ayla. She grinned at Energia. "Y'know, if you give me permission - in writing, with a proper contract - you could make some nice change from that."

       "Oh, no!" cried Toni, in mock alarm. "You've given Phase another business idea!"

       "How can someone who's not an Exemplar be so good at something?!" said Hippolyta. She seemed torn between admiration and outrage.

       "Sheer skill," said Toni, who was definitely in the admiration camp. "Doesn't take powers. Just talent and practice."

       "A lot of practice," said Jenny, rolling her eyes. 

       "I'm glad you're feeling better," said Jade, her big eyes moist with genuine emotion.

       "Thank you," said Jenny. She sighed. 

       Today had been a mix of ups and downs. Demons were after her, and the technical people couldn't send her home. However, she was protected for now, and the magical people thought they might be able to. 

       Jenny was so tired - only partially from lack of sleep the night before - that she dozed off on the couch well before the cottage residents were ready to call it a night. Being there, among people, even people she had only recently met, was comforting. 

       They finally woke her around eleven.

       "Hey," said Fey, gently shaking Jenny's shoulder. "We're breaking up for the night. You can unfold the couch, now."

       Jenny stirred and looked around. Most of those who had been gathered around the TV were already gone. She glanced at the clock. 

       "It's early for a Friday night, isn't it?"

       "Oh, some people are just getting started," said Fey, with a smirk. "They'll be in their rooms, though. You looked tired enough we figured you'd like to get to bed early."

       "You figured right about that," said Jenny, stretching and yawning. "Sorry to put a damper on your fun."

       "You didn't," said Fey, firmly. "I'm not kidding about people getting together in rooms."

       "Oh. Well, good night, then," said Jenny, getting the hint.

       "Good night," said the young elfin woman, over her shoulder, as she sashayed off. 

       * * *

       The next morning Sara made a point of getting to Poe before Jenny left for breakfast. 

       That wasn't difficult. Though she had woken a bit before most of the residents, Jenny had discovered the showers. By the time she came back downstairs Sara was waiting. She had a very large smirk on her face.

       "Oh, the wonders of advanced technology."

       Jenny had the good grace to blush. 

       "I definitely need to tell Gadgetive about the plumbing, here."

       "Well, the... 'special' plumbing is only in a few places and it's a secret shared between the people who have it. Too much demand for the supply."


       Jenny dressed, and she and Sara set off for breakfast.

       "So, who are you dating?"

       "No time for a boyfriend." Jenny sighed, looking tired again. "School. Super stuff. Family stuff."

       "Nobody you're even interested in?"


       For a moment, she saw something in Jenny's eyes. 


       "No, it's not like that," she said, shaking her head. "He's... not mine. Royalty. Literally."

       "Take my advice," said Sara, seriously. "Find this guy. Make him yours."

       At breakfast they got an update from the Outcasts, who had been called on by security to help deal with several sightings of shadowspawn during the night. They had been called on to help watch for - then deal with - the shadowspawn. Which may have been why Jericho's outfit this morning was merely annoying, instead of nauseating. 

       "Thanks to you folks warning us they were susceptible to bright lights, we didn't have much trouble," said Jericho, after yielding to a yawn. "We weren't sure exactly what to use, so all the security teams had a mix. From portable lamps to camera strobes."

       Razorback signed something, which Diamondback translated. 

       "He says we don't know which of them worked, 'cause as soon as anyone spotted any suspicious shadow, they turned every light on it at once."

       The big, reptilian guy gave a toothy grin and a hissing laugh. 

       "Well, hopefully, I won't be causing this trouble for much longer," said Jenny, feeling guilty. 

       Fey joined Jenny in the line for regular food while Sara went off for one of her special meals. 

       "You're not like the capes here," said Nikki. "You and your friends and that teacher you team with actually sound like real people, instead of stereotypes."

       "Oh, there are definitely some stuffed shirts," said Energia, waving her hand as if to chase away a bad odor. "Most of them are folks in the second tier. The real world-class folks take their work and their enemies seriously, but not themselves."

       * * *

       Meanwhile, someone else was also being briefed on the previous night's demonic exploits. 

       "How did those things get through the wards?!" said Carson.

       "The wards took a major hit during the Hallowe'en attack," said the Reverend Englund. "They're still being repaired. That first night there was an alert that something had entered the school grounds, but by the time anyone could respond all sign of the problem was gone."

       "They are attracted to Energia," said Mrs. Chulkris. "With her concealed by those wards the girls put around her couch, the intruders can only tell in general where she is at night. During the day it doesn't matter. If we can send her home, back through their realm in a metaphysical reversal, they won't have any reason to come here."

       "Actually," said Dr. Otto, "they would never have had a reason to come here. That is a realm where time works very differently than it does here. The metaphysical reversal of path will 'make it not happen.' However, the longer we take to send her back, the more difficult the task and the less likely it is to be successful."

       "Then I expect you and Mrs. Chulkris to make that a priority," said the Headmistress. "Call in whatever resources you need. Besides reducing the risk to the school, we have a promise to keep to send Jenny home."

       "We should be ready to try tomorrow. That'll be an even week since she got here."

       "That's significant?" said Carson.

       "Of course," said Englund. "The number seven has a strong mystical significance in nearly every culture."

       * * *

       Energia understandably arrived early at the prepared area in the forest. It was just on the other side of the wall around the school. Fey had explained to her that the wall actually marked the location of the school's primary wards. Left unsaid was the reason for doing this outside those wards. Energia was relieved to see Fey already there, with Mrs. Chulkris and Dr. Otto. She nervously hugged Fey as she said hello to the Teachers. 

       "Sara will be here shortly," said the elfin girl, finally prying herself loose. 

       "Sorry. I'm very nervous."

       "You have good reason to be," said Mrs. Chulkris, seriously. "We've been reviewing our procedures, and have hit a snag. We can't send you back instantaneously. You'd have to travel some distance and spend some time there."

       "Now that I know light hurts them..." Energia began.

       "It wouldn't hurt them there," said Dr. Otto. "Different rules."

       "We do know how to send you home," said Mrs. Chulkris, firmly. "However, it would be irresponsible for us to do so without providing some sort of escort."

       "A guardian," said Dr. Otto, frowning in thought. "Perhaps a substantiation?"

       "Well, yes, but it would have to be a very firm one."

       "What are you two talking about?" said Energia.

       "It's a metaphysical thing," said Nikki. "Unless we send someone with you, you would be facing those shadow alone. However, that would leave your escort facing the same problem you have now: someone from here in your world with those things after them."

       "So... What do we do?"

       "As we mentioned, there could be a solution," said Dr. Otto. "However, it is still dangerous, and requires some powerful magic."

       "You've got some powerful magical folks right here," said Sara, firmly, as she approached the small group. 

       "That we do," said Mrs. Chulkris, smiling. "Also, I think Dr. Otto is being deliberately pessimistic."

       Her smile vanished as she turned to Jenny, taking her hands and staring into her eyes.

       "Do not answer this casually. Is there someone you would trust not merely with your life, but with your soul? Someone you know would be able to protect that soul?"

       "Yes," said Energia, flatly.

       "My, my," said the older woman, eyes wide, actually pulling back a bit. "That is... a very powerful faith you have in someone."

       "I assume that's good."

       "Yes. As Fey noted, this is a matter of metaphysics. The more firmly you trust this person, the stronger your belief in them, the more effective the protection will be."

       "It's not this guy you were telling me about, is it?" said Sara, teasing but also serious.

       "No!" said Energia. Then came a startling realization. Though he's not very far behind.

       "If you're certain you want to do this..." said Mrs. Chulkris.


       "Then we need to start now."

       The four mystics had a hurried consultation, then set to work. There was plenty for Energia to do, as well, though her part was mental and spiritual. She sat on a nearby stump, clearing her mind and psyching herself up. Finally, they were ready. 

       "We'll open the portal in just a bit," said Dr. Otto. "Your guardian will appear on the other side when you step through. Please, I want to be clear on this. It will not be the person you trust, but a... An echo, so to speak. The strength of your guardian will depend on how strong your faith in this person is. From Mrs. Chulkris' reaction, it may even be far stronger than the real person."

       "How will I know where to go?" said Energia, as serious as the others despite her eagerness to go home. 

       "You will be pulled in the right direction," said Mrs. Chulkris, nodding. "No worries there. Reality wants you to return to your natural plane."

       "Then let's get to it."

       The final steps were brief and relatively simple. A hole opened in the air, hovering just off the ground.

       "Quickly, now!" shouted Dr. Otto.

       Energia didn't need to be told twice. 

       * * *

       Again, as a week before, Energia experienced a sense of dislocation. She didn't remember the actual passage through the gate, but simply found herself there. This time, though, "there" was vastly more bizarre than a New England farm. 

       She was in a blasted, distorted landscape, full of bare rock and strange, spindly plants. There were three dim suns in the sky, and they were all oval instead of round. Energia didn't really have much time to try and take things in, because there was someone there, waiting for her. 

       The figure wore a grey body stocking, with short, blue cape, trunks, booties and domino mask. At black T was printed across her muscular abdomen. She smiled at Energia. Then abruptly spun around and swatted a shadowspawn which was headed for the girl; the thing simply exploded, the pieces evaporating. More of the dark creatures were swarming in, along with others both larger and more distinct in shape. "Template" smiled again, and cracked her knuckles. 

       Energia suddenly realized that, as promised, she knew which way to go. She didn't know how far she needed to travel, but the tug was strong. She nodded to her guardian, and they lifted into the air together. She would be home, soon. 


This document - with the exceptions noted at the beginning - is Copyright 2011 Rodford Edmiston Smith.