Masks 13: Part 7

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Chapter Thirteen


Rodford Edmiston

"Never thought I'd see you in a dress," said Alex, not bothering to cover her grin.

"Never thought I'd be in a dress," said Vic, glaring at Melanie and Candy. "These two can be very persuasive when they start tag-teaming someone."

"Oh, hush," said Candy, sitting at Vic's feet as she and Melanie stitched a baste in the hem. "You're the only one I know here who's my friend's size. You can bear it for a few minutes."

"Oh, we're already well past a few minutes," said Vic, from atop the low stool. As she looked down at the two older gals working on the hem, she couldn't help but notice her own cleavage.

"That still turns me on," she muttered.

"What?" said Candy, absently.

Alex burst out laughing.

"Are you sure this thing is supposed to be worn without a bra?"

"Yes!" said Melanie, sounding both distracted and impatient. "Listen, when we asked if you'd help us finish a gift for Candy's friend you agreed without condition. So suck it up and suck it in. We're almost done."

"What do you mean suck it in?!" said Vic, scandalized. "I am not overweight by any definition!"

"Yes, you are," said Candy, sternly, as she tied off a thread. "You're over-muscled for a girl."

"I happen to like being muscl... Ow!"

"Sorry!" said Melanie, smirking. "Okay, let's step back and take a look."

All three of the other girls straightened and moved back. There was a long silence.

"Well?" said Vic, who was vain enough to want to know she looked good.

"You're... very striking," said Candy, who looked a bit stunned.

"That's definitely a compliment," said Melanie, nodding. "Wow."

"'Wow'?" said Vic, not sure if she should be worrying.

"When did you get boobs?" said Alex, who then blushed.

"What?! I'm pretty sure they're the same size they've al... they've been since I got 'em! All my bras still fit fine. (A phrase which I never dreamed I'd be saying six months ago.)"

"No, I mean... normally, you dress to minimize 'em."

"That's true," said Candy, nodding. "I thought you were flat chested for the first few days. You even cover up in the bathroom. When Melanie said you'd be a good match for Louise I thought she was crazy, but it worked fine. You've actually got a good figure."

She laughed.

"In spite of the muscles."

"Can I get down now?"

"Huh? Oh, sure. It looks fine. We can put in the permanent stitching any time, now that we have the right length and shape."

Vic stepped off the stool and reached around to start lowering zipper.

"I don't know how you can do that," said Candy, who had reflexively stepped closer to help. "Most girls would need help on this dress."

Vic started to reply, then realized just what Alex was whistling.

"'The Stripper'?!"

"Heeee..." said Alex, grinning and preparing to run.

"Don't you do it!" said Melanie, quickly, to Vic. "You'd damage the dress."

"Well, I'm not chasing her through the dorm in just panties," said Vic, glaring at her roommate as she slid the garment off.

"Aw, please?!" said Alex, trying to apply puppy dog eyes.

"You look just old enough that that's really creepy," said Candy, with a delicate shiver.

"I don't know what you're so shy about," said Alex, openly staring. "You're not conventional centerfold material, but there are body building magazines who'd pay good money to shoot you. Not to mention a few lesbian skin mags. What you lack in quantity you definitely make up for in quality. Rowr, what a hardbody. Your pecs really push your tits up and out."

"Now you know why I try to maintain my modesty," said Vic, in a muttered aside to Candy. "Say, how did she get in here, anyway? I thought it was just us three, and I know you locked the door."

"Of course we locked the door," said Candy, rolling her eyes. "You demanded it. Besides, she just walked right in behind you. What's the big mystery?"

"I have the power to cloud men's minds," said Alex, following that with an evil cackle. "Unfortunately, it doesn't work on women. Boy, would that be handy! Guess I'll have to be satisfied with it working on ex-men."

"Well, I'm glad I could help," said Vic, ignoring her roommate as she pulled on her bra. "Just please don't ask again."

"Well, how often does this sort of situation come up?" said Candy. "I promised my friend I'd make her a custom dress for her birthday. Thinking I'd finish before college started. Oh, well; it's done, and on time, with your and Melanie's help. Thank you."

She gave the still nearly naked Vic a firm though quite sisterly hug.

"You're very welcome," said Vic, feeling a bit breathless.

* * *

Sitting in the waiting room, Vic kept getting spasms of nerves, which she firmly quashed each time. The medical staff here had finally completed their analysis of the DNA sample they took from Vic over a month earlier. She was expecting confirmation and clarification, not some grand revelation. Ramsey Technical College had a small but very competent medical staff, in part due to the research they did on new medical diagnostic and treatment technologies. That didn't mean they were going to tell her anything substantially different from what other, also competent, examiners had said. She hoped...

"Miss Peltior?" said the nurse, actually making Vic start. "Dr. Feldman will see you now."

Vic had met Irving Feldman before, during the initial examination the school arranged. He was a general practitioner with super experience, having actually worked as the on-call MD for a team for several years. He was in late middle age, rather grey, a bit pudgy and a bit fussy. Vic found herself liking him, despite some of the things he'd done to her and had her do on her own.

"Good afternoon, Vicky," said Dr. Feldman, unable for some reason to call Vic by her actual name. As usual, he didn't offer to shake hands. "Please, have a seat. There's nothing worrying in the results, but there is a great deal of detail, so I hope you have your schedule clear for the next couple of hours."

"All clear," said Vic, nodding.

"All right, let's get right to it," said the doctor, opening the folder on his desk and adjusting his glasses as he looked down at the document inside. "We think you definitely have a form of low-level regeneration, not rapid healing."

"What's the difference? People keep talking about them as if they were two separate things, but never tell me why."

"The most noticeable distinction in your case is that you have no scars. With rapid healing - even thorough healing - you can still have scars. They will fade with time, but some trace will always be there. Regeneration doesn't leave scars."

"So... that's good?"

"Yes. This is partially - though only partially - responsible for the low noise in your nervous system, which largely explains your keen senses. One thing which kept us from being certain initially is that you didn't have any fillings before your powers activated. With regeneration, those are replaced, but you didn't have anything to replace. That would have been a sure sign."

"My family has good teeth," said Vic, with a proud smile. "Good health overall, actually."

"Possibly due to the super genes in your line," said Dr. Feldman, nodding. "However, there's more at work in your case than simple regeneration."

The doctor sighed in mild aggravation and rubbed his head a bit. Vic gave him a puzzled look but remained silent until he was ready to continue.

"This next topic is most peculiar, though I want to assure you we see nothing in it to warrant concern on your part. Everyone has errors in their DNA. Since there's two complete sets, and both sets have multiple genes involved in the same functions, these usually don't cause a problem. However... Your DNA is perfect."

"Uh, thanks?" said Vic, not much enlightened.

"You don't understand. This isn't natural. It has to be a result of your power. In fact, we think the regeneration - everything superhuman you do, every change you've been through - is the result of one power. Only, we don't know what it is. We thought at first it might be some weird form of adaptation, but that doesn't really fit, because with that power you'd keep changing. You appear to be stable."

"So... What is my power?"

"Best guess, it's some form of optimization. Your power took your genes and tweaked them to best fulfill some goal or purpose, or simply to achieve an immediate result in response to environmental stimuli. If you've ever heard of the Selfish Gene hypothesis, you know that the goal or purpose or result may not be anything you or I would choose, since it's not consciously selected but the result of genetic imperatives."

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

"There's more," said the doctor, briefly looking like he had tasted something sour. "Your DNA has changed significantly. It's not just that the usual mistakes are gone. Sections known to be leftover from prehistoric viral infections are gone. We're not sure, yet, what replaced these sections, but we're still looking. I can assure you that it appears harmless; this is all on segments which are normally inactive."

"That's a pretty big load to dump on me, after telling me there's nothing to worry about!"

"As far as we can tell, there isn't anything to worry about," said Dr. Feldman reassuringly. "You're perfectly healthy and will likely stay that way. It's just that there are many things about your transformation which we have no experience with. Most supers are unique at least in part, even those with the same powers."

"Just how much did my DNA change?" said Vic, flatly. "I remember our family dog didn't recognize me..."

"We compared your current DNA with several samples from things like a lock of your baby hair, as well as with the rest of your family. You... don't even count as a close relative - genetically - of your former self. Something which the original testers never mentioned, for some reason. The upshot is, your DNA is different from that of any other human sample we have on record, while still being without a doubt human. It's as if you were from some long isolated but healthy ethnic group which only recently contacted the outside world.

"We did find several super genes in both your parents and sister, as well as in those old samples of your DNA. Only a few of which you currently have. This is still an inexact science, but our best guess from the familial data is that your power activated, and in the process of activation changed you in a way which got rid of itself."

"That's... weird."

"Lots of things about powers are weird."

"What's going on, here?" said Vic, desperately, feeling lost.

"We have a hypothesis, but so far that's all it is," said Dr. Feldman, looking uncomfortable again. "Regeneration can only heal someone as well as their genes allow. Fast or thorough healing not even that. Your genes are, well, as close to perfect as I've ever seen. Maybe even actually perfect, in some sense. It's as if your power was to make and keep you perfect. Period. Your muscles, nerves, bones, everything works significantly better than normal. I'm thinking of calling what happened to you the Optimist Effect."

Vic considered this for a moment.

"So. Is that why I got younger?"

"Yes. Also, you may never look any older."


"Biologically, you're fully mature. Just very youthful. If you're like most people with regeneration, this is your permanent physiological age. From now until something kills you."

Chapter Fourteen

Vic - stunned by the revelations from Dr. Feldman - walked slowly back to her dorm in a daze. She felt like she had left that building for her appointment days ago, but it was actually only a couple of hours. As Vic exited the stairwell at the far end of the hall she saw Alex, Candy and Melanie - with a couple of other girls and some of the guys - talking in the lounge area of the second floor. Feeling a need for company, Vic headed for the central area.

"There she is!" said Alex, in mock accusation, pointing a finger at Vic as she appeared in the doorway. She switched to a grin and an inviting wave to join them. "How did it go?"

"Okay," said Vic as she moved towards them, not sure what to say, or what she wanted them to know. Especially Don. He'd treat the situation like some fascinating piece of scientific data, instead of something personally devastating. "Some odd quirks, like a lot of supers have, but nothing to worry about."

She noticed Don was staring at her. Specifically, at her chest.

"Don!" said Vic, fighting the urge to put her hands over her breasts.

"Sorry. I just don't see what they were talking about earlier."

"You were talking about my breasts?!" said Vic, scandalized, as she glared at Alex, Candy and Melanie.

"Uhm, not exactly," said Melanie, who had the good grace to look embarrassed. "We were talking about how funny it was to have you in a dress. Candy and Alex kept talking about, uhm, how good you looked in it. How surprised we were that you actually filled it out."

"Oh, please," said Vic, feeling a bit sick.

"Seriously, you did look good," said Melanie, hoping the compliment would help mollify her. "You're... perky!"

"Little miss implants, that's what you are," said Candy, teasing.

"Implants," said Vic, confused. Suddenly, she twigged, and was instantly raging. "I don't have implants, you fucking moron! Why would I want bigger tits when I never wanted tits at all?! Stop projecting your own inadequacies on other people!"

With that she turned and stormed out.

* * *

There was a soft knock at the door.

"Vic?" said Alex, timidly, barely pushing the door open. "Are you all right?"

"Noooooo!" Vic wailed, from where she lay, face-down on her bed, arms on top of her head.

Alex slowly came in and walked over to her roommate's bed, hesitated a moment, then sat on the edge and put a hand on Vic's shoulder.

"What's wrong?"

"I'm a bitch!"

"Ooooh-kay," said the younger girl, uncertainly. "About what in particular?"

"You were therrrrre..."

"Yeah, you kind'a scared us. None of us have ever heard you even raise your voice before. Well, I hear you talked loudly to Holdout, but... What happened to make you so angry? I mean, yeah, we were teasing you, but it was good-natured, and..."

"I don't know!"

"Look, can you at least roll over? I'm having a hard time understanding you."

Vic not only rolled over, she sat up, leaning back against the wall. She looked... scared.

"Better," said Alex. "Now, what's bothering you? Why did you flip out?"

"I... I... I really don't know! It just hit me, suddenly. Everything that's happened the past few months."

"Wow, you've really been crying your eyes out," said Alex, looking back and forth between Vic's face and the soaked pillow. "Okay, listen, everybody who knows you knows you've been through Hell and handled it well. I don't think they'll hold it against you that you flipped out. I think you were due, and figure so do most of the others. You really need to apologize to Candy, though. The sooner the better."

Vic sagged, not otherwise responding.

"Listen, I mean it. You do this now, or you're likely to have an enemy the rest of college."

Vic sat up, sighed, then stood and straightened her clothes.

"Att'a girl! You should clean your face first, though. Make yourself presentable."

Vic grabbed a tissue and scrubbed her face dry, checking the mirror by the door. She sighed again, tossed the tissue, and opened the door to step out into the hall.

She took two steps - had barely pulled the door closed behind her - when she realized that Candy had just done the same. There was a frozen moment. Vic sighed yet again, gathered her courage, and stepped forward.

"I'm really, really sorry for yelling at you earlier," said Vic, her voice barely above a whisper.

"No, no, I had it coming," said Candy, quickly. She looked like she had been crying, too. "I'm sorry. I knew you were sensitive about the whole girl thing and I teased you and..."

They ended up standing in the hall, hugging each other and bawling onto each other's shoulders, each trying to comfort the other while simultaneously taking the blame.

"That was about the weirdest thing I've ever experienced," said Vic, later, still sniffing into a tissue as she sat at her desk and tried to do some work.

"You had a real emotional sharing moment," said Alex, sympathetically. "I'm just glad you handled it so well."

"Handled it well? I just stood there, blubbering and stammering."

"Exactly. So did she. That's real bonding. It's the emotion of that sort of moment which counts more than what's actually said or done. Hey, I've seen guys do the same thing."

She laughed.

"They're just less likely to admit it, later."

"I'm just glad Candy forgave me."

"You kidding? She obviously felt as bad as you did. We all felt bad, even Don and Mel. We thought you'd had some sort of really bad news from the doctor and we'd been joking about you."

She looked worriedly at her roommate.

"Actually, did you get bad news?"

"No. I guess it's good news. Well, some of it was good, some bad, and the rest just plain weird."

"Oh, now I gotta hear this!"

Vic sighed and related what Dr. Feldman had told her.

"Okay. That is weird."

"Try living with it."

"So, uh, what are you going to do?"

"What I've been doing," said Vic, tired but with a core of resolve which surprised even her. "Keep going."

* * *

The next few days were a period of recovery. Vic managed to make all her classes, and get all her work done, but was obviously still feeling down. This wasn't helped by one of her favorite teachers being away that week.

Thanks to Dr. Harper being out of state at a conference, the next few supers basics classes were all taught by guest instructors. They were a mixed bunch; some employed by the college, some from outside; some male and some female; and ages ranging from late twenties to late sixties.

"Several different systems for ranking powers have been used during the past eighty years," said Professor Bernard Hopkins, the speaker for today's supers class. He was a portly, middle-aged man who seemed more used to explaining things to government officials and business executives than actually teaching. "Two years ago a concerted effort was made by several federal government agencies to create a standardized rating system. This new system combined features of several others, so is at least partly familiar to those who have used previous systems. It's called the Combined Uniform Evaluation, or CUE, occasionally pronounced cooee."

Hopkins kept switching back and forth between a very dry, almost monotone voice and false heartiness and enthusiasm. Vic didn't know which was more annoying. She assumed he must be qualified, since he'd been brought in by the college, but his manner didn't inspire confidence in his knowledge of the subject.

"The strength evaluation for this new system is the simplest to explain, so I'll use it as an example. It is a percentile system, based on what appears to be a plateau. This ranking methodology has some drawbacks, but also some advantages. A ranking of one in this system is a baseline human, with three being a very fit non-super human. People like Magni and the Sailor are rated at one hundred. Up through twenty-five the number gives the multiplier of the baseline human strength rating. Someone with a rating of twenty is roughly twenty times as strong as a baseline human.

"In the middle range this system is pretty arbitrary, giving a percentile rating based on feats or tests without actually representing anything else. However, as you get above seventy it gives a close comparison with the maximum the super can press in metric tonnes. So someone with a rating of eighty is eightieth percentile and can press about eighty tonnes, under optimum conditions."

* * *

"There's something wrong with that scale," said Vic, scowling as she examined her notes that evening.

"I'll say," said Alex, smirking, as she looked over her roommate's shoulder. "He got the explanation for the numbers all wrong. The scale's logarithmic, in a weird base. I remember reading about this. The people developing it were told by the feds to make all supers fit in a scale of one to a hundred, with one being a fit but non-athletic human and a hundred being the Sailor, plus some other arbitrary landmarks. They had to do some pretty impressive math gymnastics to meet the assigned goal."

"So politics trumps science, again," said Vic, sourly. "I wonder if Dr. Harper knows that."

"Probably. I wouldn't be surprised if she mentions it when she gets back from that conference. If she doesn't, be sure to bring it up. Though I'd do it person to person, rather than yelling it out in class."

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