The Quantum Suicides (Part 2)
A Whateley Academy 2nd Generation Tale
The Quantum Suicides
----Monday, July 4th, 2016
Whew, what a day. This Fourth of July had been light on the explosions, but oh man, what fireworks! Once the buzz over his adopted broth... er, Ches's big exit from his incubator had subsided, Dr. Dork had made Ches repeat that sneeze cannon trick over and over in the testing lab, until nothing more than sparks erupted from that arched nose. He'd helped out with the scanning equipment, which was the coolest part, and technically it'd been him who found the extra lump behind Ches's nasal arch. Dr. Dork said that it must be what allowed Ches to stock up electricity in there, but Myra said it just made him -- her -- look like a Bajoran, and then the whole thing turned into a "What Marcus needs to watch next" conversation for a while. Deep Space Nine sounded cool.
It was pretty late now. Myra'd ordered him to take a nap in the afternoon, and now he was glad she'd done that. There was no way he wanted to miss this! And the ice cream was good, too. He was trying that purple sweet potato stuff now, and it was alright, but he liked the salted caramel better. Ches was sitting nearby, finishing up his -- her! -- fourth bowl, though.
"Derek said Ches is an energizer," noted Ella as she handed the ... girl a fifth bowl. "And that means she'll be burning calories like crazy from now on. I'm going to have to double the supplies for the commissary, most likely."
"So, um... what's it like?" he had to ask. This new person talked like Ches, acted like Ches, but was really, truly, definitely NOT Ches anymore.
"What, you mean like having boobs?" He nodded. "Well, it's not like I didn't have boobs before, too," she joked. "At least these are functional and, um, what's the word... aesthetically pleasing?" The girl stretched the collar of her borrowed t-shirt and examined herself. "Not to mention smaller. I really was a lardass."
The girl who was Ches stretched out one leg, twisting it this way and that until she actually managed to place the sole of her foot on her hip. Marcus had no idea how that was even possible, because it looked like she'd inverted the knee and folded the leg back on itself.
"Woo-hoo! Bendy!" Ches sounded happy and not in pain, at least.
"So you're not going to, um, freak out?"
"Not anymore," Ches said proudly. "I had tons of time to think while you and Doc Speers were loading me through the scanners, and y'know what? This, I can live with. It's gonna be weird, yeah, prolly even freaky at times, but on the other hand, I'm past the point of no return. No way they can make me go home now, right? And if I gotta be a girl, at least I get to be Na'Chessa." She flashed him a big smile, showing off her new, slightly oversized canines at the same time.
"Why don't you tell us more about this new you?" Myra suggested as she walked into room 114 with a tray of snacks and sodas. She'd waived her usual healthy eating rules for the evening. With Ches's new-found appetite, it seemed prudent.
"My friend David was running a new campaign," Ches began. "Based on secrets. In the setting, the big temples were the main force of law, and lots of things and people were banned, so every character needed to have a big secret based on one of the banned traits. Like, one person was secretly a werewolf; another was a witch. I was dragonblooded, and we also had a psion and a cultist in the party. Only no one knew who was what at the beginning, and one character was secretly an Inquisitor. Ah..." she sighed. "That game was the one good thing about last fall for me. Most of my gaming friends went to a different high school, so I only ever saw them on weekends. Dad tolerated it because at least it meant I was getting out of the house. But then..." Her smile turned to a frown so fast her lips must've gotten whiplash.
"Your dad found the character sheet," Myra guessed.
"Ripped it to pieces?"
"Ayuuuup..." There was a short sniffle, which Ches buried under more ice cream. "I spent every weekend for three whole months living her life in the game, getting inside her head, and like that, -riiiiip!- my dad destroyed her. After that, well... I checked out two days later. Doubt my old man even realized why." Her green eyes were red around the edges, and even her spike of brown-yellow hair seemed to droop. "Guess I needed her even more than I realized."
He must have. Marcus had a hard time imagining how that old Ches must've felt, years ago. Mom and Dad hadn't let him play many games like that, with other people. They'd somehow come to the conclusion that video games were safer, or maybe just easier to control, than Dungeons and Dragons stuff. Apparently people really got into it, though. Ches certainly had, and Myra was nodding along like it all made sense to her, too.
"Why a girl, though?" he asked.
"Why not a girl?" she countered. "Na'Chessa was elegant, graceful, attractive, and she had a sixty-foot ranged electric line attack. What's not to love? I'd wanted to try playing as a girl for a long time, and a game about secrets seemed like a good place to start. Now, what's up with you and Doc Speers?"
"Marcus wants to be Mega Man," Myra teased.
"Sounds good to me. How about you, big sis? What do you want to be?"
"Supreme Empress of the land of buff, bronzed underwear models," she said with a wink. "Ain't gonna happen, though. I'll settle for being myself. I've gotten me this far, after all."
It had taken a small miracle and a promise of large bonuses all around, but he'd managed to call in his entire staff for the evening's work. The bundle of mystery that was the new Ches required more hands than he had, and more expertise as well. He'd needed to borrow an assistant from Stapleton's lab more or less permanently, but then again Jacob wouldn't be doing much for a while anyway. In the meantime, Ms. Andres was a free agent, and he was glad that Carlos had been able to convince her to sign on. The sociologist was turning out to be an excellent aide. He'd have to speak with Ella about extending the young man's contract.
"Here you are, Doc," said the man in question, handing him a small stack of print-outs. "The top page includes a doctor-to-layman synopsis," Carlos added. "Y'know, in case things get lost in translation."
"Erm. Thank you. That should be all for tonight. Tell everyone they can go home, and that their bonuses have already been processed. They should arrive in your accounts on Monday."
"Thank you, Doc. Good luck with Myra and company. Especially Myra," he added with a wink.
"Nothing, Doc. Nothing at all. Hey, Allison!" Carlos called to Ms. Andres. "We're clocking out now. Wanna go grab a burger at the all-night place?" And like that, the lab was empty. Ten minutes before, it had been thrumming with energy and life, and now it was a hollow shell once more, with only himself to rattle around inside.
When had he noticed the solitude? When had he begun to care? It was hard to say, but now his body gravitated on its own to room 114, with all its life and camaraderie. He leafed through the notes, skimming for the important information and preparing his brain for the task at hand. The assistant's synopsis was surprisingly accessible and complete, he realized. He would definitely have to hold on to Carlos.
"Want some ice cream?" Myra asked as he came in. "Current flavor is mango!"
"Thank you?" He took the bowl carefully, juggling it and the papers as he negotiated his way around to the head of the table where everyone could see. "Time to start. Er. I have good news, and weird news."
"Derek," said Myra in matter-of-fact tones. "Right now, any bit of news is weird news." He would normally have blushed and begun stammering at that, but he could tell somehow that she wasn't making fun of him, so when the laughter ran around the table he was able to join in, to share in the emotions. It was a good feeling.
"Yes, yes, quite true," he admitted. "Nonetheless, this first item is indisputably good, in that it says Ches is not going to self-destruct any time soon."
"That was a possibility?"
"A small one, yes. Highly unlikely, but it never hurts to check. Moving on," he continued. "We have confirmation of an active metagene complex and the presence of Exemplar and Energizer traits with ninety-nine percent certainty. Analysis of the past two weeks of data would suggest that what happened was actually the culmination of a long-running series of small changes, but we still cannot say for sure if it started before or after checking out."
"Does it matter?" asked Ches. "I mean, I am who I am."
"It does for my project," he replied. "And it would shed light on Marcus's development, as well as give us some clue as to what we can expect for Myra. However, it's not so important right now."
"Don't worry, Derek, I'm sure you'll figure it out eventually. Hopefully before I turn pink with purple polka dots."
"Er, thank you for the vote of confidence, Myra. Now for the weird..." He shuffled through the papers until he found the outline of Ches's corpus. "We found a series of new organs in Ches's body. One behind the nose, two on the hips, two embedded within the hands. Scans suggest they are all part of a bio-electric generator system."
"So I could shoot lightning from my hands?"
"That seems possible, yes."
"B-but, that's not on my character sheet!" The new girl looked truly bewildered at the thought.
"Buster, a character sheet's just an approximation for a person, and a ruleset's no replacement for real life," Myra advised. "Expect your abilities to differ from your expectations sometimes, kay?"
"Is there anything else, Derek?" the former schoolteacher asked.
"Yes, and this is the weirdest one. Er, Ches is still genetically male."
"How does that even..."
"Sure could fool me!" Ches was about to whip her shirt off to demonstrate, but Myra gave her a look fit to stop a bull elephant cold.
"At our best guess," he said, raising his voice over the din. "His body went through a period of physical regression, then redeveloped without the presence of gonads, those having, er, not accompanied the rest of him inside. The results are similar to the genetic defect known as androgen insensitivity, which can cause a genetic male to appear female on the outside. However," he added. "A review of the genetic testing revealed that at least one in every ten samples taken from... her today is currently genetically female, and according to the research--" which had been done very quickly this evening. Who knew gender-switching mutations were a relatively common phenomenon?-- "...this is normal in instances of slow gender change due to metagenetic influence. So in short, externally you are female, Ches, but your insides have yet to completely catch up. It may take a year, or even several years, before your female parts are fully developed."
"Be thankful," Myra told the girl. "I'm pretty sure this means no periods for you in the foreseeable future." Beside her, Ella was nodding in agreement.
"But it's still inevitable, right?" asked Ches.
"Er, yes. I'm afraid so," he said.
"Okay." The currently-technically-a-boy-but-not-really didn't seem fazed by this. "As long as I get there eventually. Chester Ferris is officially gone. From now on I'm Na'Chessa... um," she hesitated, then turned to Myra. "Is it okay if I use your last name?"
"No problem at all," said his adoptive sister. "I'm changing it to Barnes, though. That sound good to you?"
"Ayup! Na'Chessa Rakia Barnes, at your service!" The girl jumped up to take a bow. "My name, my choice, and no one... un... uh... ah...ah...choo!"
Everyone was diving for cover at the first 'ah,' but the blast of electricity was blocked by Ches's -- Na'Chessa's own hand, stretched in front of her open mouth. The crackling lines wreathed her fingers, circling them several times before settling into the limb and disappearing.
"And that, boys and girls," Myra commented dryly, "is why you should always cover your mouth when you sneeze."
"Okay, bedtime for buster," she announced. "And everyone else, too," she added, looking at the bleary eyes on all sides of the table. It was almost one in the morning, and even though it was a holiday weekend, they were sure to be busy the next day.
"No arguments here," said Ches -- Chessa. The new girl was looking wrung out, having used up all her available energy in that last sneeze. "Except, um, where am I gonna sleep?"
Now that was a good question. Ches's old room was still a mess, and the bed was probably a lost cause at this point. She hadn't explored the building too thoroughly, but she was pretty sure their wing was the only section intended for habitation, and it was full up. Even if they did repurpose another room, she doubted Derek had many beds tucked away in his handy storage space.
"Chessa can take my bed for the night," she volunteered. "The couch in here is plenty comfortable, if you could find me a blanket and a pillow, Derek."
"It's not a problem, buster. Let's get you settled in."
Her room wasn't so different from the rest, though she'd tried to add extra touches in the last week. Mostly that meant books, a small mountain of which now towered above her bedside table. Her new luggage took up one corner, and a flower-print blouse was draped over the chair. She unzipped the rolling suitcase, digging through it for a short moment before finding what she wanted.
"For you," she said, tossing the pajamas to the new girl. Chessa caught them in mid-air, then examined them at arms' length.
"Pink fluffy bunnies?" she said with one yellow eyebrow raised.
"Hey, it was cheap."
"I can see why." Chessa quickly stripped down, not seeming to care if Myra saw everything. The pajamas fit, though in much the same way a coat might on a hanger. The new Chessa was as skinny as the old Ches was not, and anything Myra might purchase to cover her own motherly chest hung on the girl like a tent. "Do I have to wear a bra too?" the girl asked.
"Not at night, buster, and to be honest you don't really need one for the support just yet, either. You're still barely an A-cup, I'd say. All you'd need is something to protect the nipples and keep them from poking out, and a simple undershirt would be good for that."
"Oh." Chessa actually looked disappointed at that.
"What, you want to jump into womanhood boobs first?" she teased.
"All or nothing," the girl replied. Fully pajama'd up, she bounced into bed. "This is me now, and I gotta be me."
"It's not that easy, buster." Myra sat on the edge of the bed and tucked Chessa in. "Your brain's not wired for this sort of change, and even if it does adapt the way Derek says it will, that doesn't mean it's going to be a pleasant ride. It's okay if you have problems, you know. If you want to cry, scream, or even just talk, let me know, 'kay?"
"Done enough crying," the girl said. "I cried when my old man destroyed my dream-self, cried when I decided to end it all, cried when the doc brought me back, and cried when I realized I hadn't lost Na'Chessa after all. That's enough for a long time. Help me figure out how to act and what to be, and I'll handle the rest."
Myra stroked the girl's hair, so cool and metallic. "When'd you get so mature?"
"About the time I threw myself off a tower and missed the ground. I wouldn't recommend it."
"Well, it would certainly be a tough sell, but I bet we could get one of those self-help gurus interested. 'Death therapy,' heh." Great, now she was getting nostalgic for old Bill Murray movies. She'd have to add to her burgeoning DVD collection. Speaking of shopping... "We'll have to take you to market next week to get you some clothes of your own. Think about how you'd like to present yourself, and be sure to ask me or Ella when you have a question."
"Thanks, Myra," mumbled Chessa, already half asleep.
Myra continued stroking the girl's head until her breathing slowed and deepened into true slumber, then kissed her on the forehead. The girl's new skin was cool and sleek, much like her hair, but with a soft warmth underlying it all. If she looked closely, she could just barely make out the first traces of fine scales. She stayed a while longer, sitting there with her new little sister. Chessa had a hard life ahead of her, but she'd have a big sister by her side to help her through, Myra promised.
Too many times, she'd lost her chance at a family. Like hell she was going to let anyone mess this up.
--- Senate Committee Hearing, Wednesday, August 10th, 2016
"And we're seriously supposed to believe this?" Senator Murtaugh was demanding as Speers flipped the slideshow through figures 10a to 10e, highlighting the progress of changes in one Chester Ferris, now Na'Chessa Barnes. "It's preposterous! People don't just, just change like that!"
"How would you expect them to change, then?" Senator Larson asked. "Your constituents love the monster line when it comes to mutants, so you obviously should recognize that change happens. How's this any different?"
"Perhaps we should review some basics for a moment," he said, quickly opening a second slideshow he'd prepared just in case. "Na'Chessa, as she prefers to be called now, possesses the Exemplar trait." The first slide was the basic shape of a person -- like from the sign on a toilet door, but with a smiley face. "When the Exemplar trait is activated, it imposes a metaphysical construct on a person, called a Body Image Template, or BIT." The next frame added a vague cloud surrounding the figure. "The BIT is believed to be modeled off of the person's conceptual ideal of strength, grace, speed, what have you. The details, and thus the extremity of the effect, vary greatly from person to person. Most often, this means they become improved versions of themselves." The third slide showed that basic figure, now muscled up and striking a silly pose. Perhaps he shouldn't have allowed Marcus to design this section, but it was such a basic concept of metabiology that he felt insulted about having to explain it at all.
"But changing from a boy to a girl?" Murtaugh seemed a little hung up on that point.
"If the person's ideal happens to be female, then yes, it's fully possible. A statistically significant number of Exemplars have BIT gender dysphoria, which leads to a transition, slow or quick, between the sexes, in addition to other applicable traits. In this case, Na'Chessa's BIT was fully informed by her old D&D character, who was female and not quite human."
He switched back to the main slideshow, which now featured Na'Chessa's happy, smiley face. There was no denying that the teenager was perky and energetic, and he wanted to impress that positive image upon the senators. Not even Murtaugh could put a bad word in while she was on screen. It was too bad he couldn't keep her up there for the entire meeting.
"Now, the big question is, how much influence did the box have here? For Chessa, it's hard to say, but it's very likely that her mutation began to activate prior to Chester's precipitous departure. The box may have exacerbated or even accelerated the effects. That sort of thing happens sometimes with devises. But then we have Marcus." Figure 10g, Marcus with a table full of random components, making a hand cannon that shot explosively charged ping pong balls. "Mental traits like devising are more difficult to pin down in the early stages, so again, he might well have begun manifesting before his untimely departure on the Brooklyn Bridge."
"That's an awful big coincidence, though," Senator Larson pointed out.
"Yes. As we say in the labs, 'Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, but three times is cause for radical reconceptualization of the hypothesis.' Let us say," he concluded with a sigh, "that the next few days were quite alarming indeed."
--- Wednesday, July 6th, 2016
There was a clock high up on the wall of the commissary. It was analog, with the standard three hands for hours, minutes, and seconds, and it was a little out of place in Derek's lab of wonders. In the silence, she could hear the faint buzz of the second hand as it traced the circumference. Whrrr... it passed the zenith, and both its sisters clicked over to announce that it was now eight o'clock in the A.M.
She was sitting at a table with her cup of tea and a volume of Maya Angelou's poetry. It was her fifth book in twelve hours. Sleep had not been forthcoming, recently. Tuesday had been one long headache -- sometimes pounding, sometimes the barest of twinges, but always present. At its worst, the world was filled with sharp lights which scratched at the spaces behind her eyes, but those instances were fortunately few and far between.
Reading actually helped, at least in the periods of lighter ache. A little bit of focus did wonders. On the other hand, sleep just let the pain set up house in her skull. She popped another aspirin, washing it down with tea.
"You're up early," Ella said as she came in with a tray of breakfast fixings.
"Ah. Your headaches?"
"And nerves," she admitted. "Do you have anything stronger than this tea? I think I need it."
"Between you and me," Ella confided, "I might just have the ingredients on had for an Irish coffee. Would that help?"
"Beats aspirin." She flipped through the last few pages of the book, admiring the shape of the poetry as much as the words. "What time are we leaving?"
"Around ten, assuming everyone arrives on time to be fed." A hot mug of extra-fortified coffee topped with cream was pressed into her waiting hand. "Don't worry; I'm making waffles. Those are better than any alarm clock when it comes to waking teenagers and gadgeteers. Just you see."
The minder was right, of course. No sooner had the first plate been set before her when Chessa skipped into the commissary looking ravenous. Marcus wasn't long behind, though he was significantly less perky. Both teens had their plates loaded by the time Derek hobbled in. The gadgeteer made a beeline for his personal coffee maker, the one with more levers and buttons than a command panel on the Death Star. She'd tasted its brew, once. You could destroy Alderaan with that stuff.
Even aided by the coffee's bolstering effects, her appetite was lacking. In the time it took to finish her plate, Marcus was done with his second. Chessa, not surprisingly, was on her fourth. She'd been told this was normal. Derek picked at his own waffle, apparently about as hungry as she was. Perhaps he was nervous, too.
There wasn't much conversation to be had. No one was in the mood.
At just past ten, they were standing outside the Speers Institute, dressed as best they could. She was wearing a black skirt and jacket with a white blouse. The silver-circuit half moon clip was in her hair, and a white carnation was pinned to her lapel. Chessa was wearing a similar outfit, cobbled together from bits of Ella's wardrobe, then pinned to accommodate her figure. As for Ella herself, she had a formal black dress with a veil.
Marcus was uncomfortable in Derek's borrowed formal wear. The pants legs were rolled up so he would't trip over them, and the shirt puffed out in weird places. Lastly, the doctor didn't seem to have any neckties that weren't handpicked by a colorblind Picasso enthusiast. Someone would be getting a decent necktie for his birthday, she decided.
The VW microbus rolled up to the front of the building. Today it was a sedate tan color, and the windows had their tinting effect turned off. Ella took the shotgun position, holding a map so she could help Derek navigate. Myra and her adopted siblings took up the middle seat. It was a little cramped, not to mention hot in the July weather, but she appreciated the comfort that contact brought with it. Marcus and Chessa had promised not to leave her side today.
Very little was said along the way. Even Ella kept her directions as a navigator brief and to the point. Derek didn't turn on the radio, and no one asked him to. It took almost an hour to reach their destination, and it felt so much longer.
Dandelion Hill Cemetery was one of the saddest possible places on the face of the earth: a burial ground dedicated to children and the unborn. It was set upon a single green hill, with different sections based on age. The lower slopes were for the young children, the toddlers and little nursery schoolers whose times had come too soon. The markers were set in little groups, providing company for one another amid small, friendly statues of angels and teddy bears. A reproduction of a tricycle stood by one set; another had a miniature slide.
She tried to keep her eyes straight ahead, to walk past these last vestiges of other families' hope and grief, but she couldn't be so stonehearted. Teardrops marked her path all the way up the hill to the small circle of pillars at its crown. Here, the ground was covered in small plaques, spaced regularly to allow careful foot traffic, but still afforded far less area than a normal grave. A small sign posted by one pillar named this as the Garden of Little Blossoms.
All over, little yellow dandelions poked up to catch the summer sunlight, allegorical stand-ins for all the lives that never were, that were blown away in one fragile instant.
And there, in the innermost ring of the garden, was a recently installed plaque. The dirt around it was freshly turned, and its granite surface was polished and new. It had been put in place before they arrived, at her request. This was hard enough as it was. The inscription was short, only thirteen letters and four numbers.
MELANIE BARNES 2016
There was a small receptacle, an indentation in the plaque intended to receive flowers. Ella handed her the bouquet, a bundle of tiny roses, chrysanthemums, and lily of the valley provided by the cemetery staff. It was beautiful and sweet, and her fingers refused to close down upon it. Chessa had to stand by her side, to catch the flowers as they dropped from her nerveless hands and place them where they belonged.
It was time for her to say goodbye, but she didn't know how. What words could ever be enough? All she could do was kneel on the grass in front of that tiny square of granite and cry. Melanie didn't deserve this, the thought ran through her head. She deserved so much better, so much more! There should have been a life for her, a place in the world, sixteen birthdays to celebrate -- not the sad, silent space in front of Myra now. For Melanie, it could never be enough. No plaque could. No flowers could. The most special thing in her life deserved something equally special, equally marvelous.
Tears rained down upon the granite square, making it wet and shimmery. The flowers in their little spot shook, as if blown by a wind that wasn't there. Myra's headache surged, more powerful than it had ever been, and for a moment she feared her own skull would crack wide open. Bright lights filled her field of vision, blinking spots and wavering lines that were neither here nor there, but felt real nonetheless.
Somewhere in the back of her mind, a word echoed, half-remembered from some unknown space. Its reverberation shook her physically, moving in time with the pounding of her fists upon the ground, catching within every fallen tear. Her coughing sobs stuck in her throat as the word gathered itself together, and she vomited the syllables in one retching moan.
The word had a presence, a mass without substance that drew those blinding spots and wavering lines to it, knotting them together to form the most wondrous patterns. She could feel the tears lifting from her cheeks, see them pooling upon the granite square, shining bright silver as they coated the flowers and plaque alike in liquid light.
That was the last thing she remembered seeing.
The world of dream was a technicolor war zone, full of explosions of soundless light and lightless sound. A full other spectrum was in play, one nameless shade melting into another, raw and molten like the primal youth of a planet. She felt each impossible hue as she fell across the abyss, pulled this way and that by forces beyond her control. They ran slick against her skin, washing through her body to make way for others.
At first, she was lost and weak, at the mercy of the colors and their flow. Then, she learned to relax, to observe the interplay of competing rainbows as they cascaded between dimensions. Soon after, she grew annoyed. To struggle against the color seemed as pointless as fighting the waves of the ocean, but the more she saw, the more she grokked, somewhere in the part of her mind that worked best when she didn't think so hard.
Control was an illusion, but it was an illusion that the colors possessed for as long as she allowed it. After uncountable eras in their embrace, she was strong enough to realize. Then the colors came at her beck and call, answering to names she herself could not hear, but twisting in upon themselves, creating little knots of iridescence at her whim.
"Stop!" she commanded, and they did.
Then she woke up.
It was the same dull, grey bedroom again. Her headache was gone, but it and the dream had left familiar afterimages on her retinas, lines and spots that danced around the solid reality of the room.
Someone had dragged the sofa from room 114 in here, along with the blankets and pillow she'd used earlier in the week. Marcus and Chessa took up opposite ends of the sofa. The boy was perched on the armrest with his Game Boy in hand, and her ears caught the faint noise of video game music through his headphones. The girl was reading a fantasy novel with her entire body upside down. Her shoulders were planted on the sofa cushions while her legs ran up the bed and against the bare wall. The skinny fit of her jeans made the changes to Chessa's figure all the more obvious, and the girl didn't seem to mind at all.
Myra let her eyes track around the room for a few more moments. After her trip through the technicolor chaos of dreams, she needed the time to anchor herself. When she did announce her wakeful state, it was by accident. A stray particle of dust stuck in her throat, forcing her to cough.
The video game paused, and a page stopped mid-turn. Two pairs of eyes, one a warm brown, the other an upside-down green, stared at her for a second before their respective owners found their voices.
"Myra! You're awake!"
"So I noticed," she croaked. That speck of dust was not leaving so easily, and she coughed a little more. "How long was I out?"
--- Friday, July 8th, 2016 5:30 PM
"Two and a half days?" she asked, incredulous.
"Just a little less than that," Derek said, which was a little pedantic of him, but she let it slide. "And I'd describe your condition as more catatonic than unconscious. You responded to some stimuli, and we got you to sip water every few hours."
"That hardly sounds better."
"It wasn't," he said. "You were in burnout, Myra. I cannot stress how much danger you were in. Thankfully, you stabilized once we got you away from the cemetery, but even with the equipment here in the lab it was very close. We had to take turns icing you down all day Wednesday, to keep your fever from burning you from the inside out."
"Why not take me to a hospital?"
"You try getting someone who doesn't legally exist into a hospital sometime, especially someone with mutant-specific symptoms. Normally, I'd have taken you to one of my medically oriented colleagues, but the only one in range would be Stapleton, and, well..."
"Never in a million years," she said, seethingly.
"I thought as much. And he would have no desire to, how did you put it? Have his gonads mulched off with a rototiller? That tirade of yours is already a legend amongst the staff in both labs."
"I meant every word of it," she declared. "Even the ones that should be mutually exclusive or anatomically impossible."
There was a knock on the door, less a request and more an announcement as Chessa barged in right after. With her was someone new, a tall woman about Myra's age, with straight black hair and a hawkish nose. She was dressed in a conservative business suit, but with a colorful pin on the lapel -- a five pointed star in cardinal hues. The spots and lines, never far now from Myra's vision, seemed to dance around the woman as she approached.
"Ah, yes," said Derek. "This is Ms. Janceena Sevcik, a friend of mine who happened to be in Chicago this weekend. She's with the Department of Paranormal Affairs."
"Am I in trouble?" That was a fair question, she figured. Whatever it was she'd done at the cemetery -- and she still wasn't sure just what that had been -- it had been paranormal practically by definition. She supposed there were laws against that sort of thing.
"No," the woman said with a friendly smile. "If the two of us could be alone for a bit?" Once Derek had ushered the quantum siblings out of the room, Ms. Sevcik pulled the chair over to the bedside. The woman placed a recorder on the table, clicked the red button on the top, and began. "Agent Sevcik, interview with Ms. Myra Barnes, July eighth, two thousand sixteen. Five forty pee-em," she enunciated clearly. "Okay, this is the standard interview required for an emergent mutant, as per various acts of congress. Would you like me to state the particulars, or shall we get down to it?"
"That's fine, thank you. Um, I thought this sort of thing was the MCO's job?"
"Well, they have the authority to do it in place of the DPA," said the woman, "but that doesn't mean they need to. And Dr. Speers thought it would be better if I came, since I was available already. I must say, this is the first time I've had this interview with someone my own age."
"It's just as weird on this side of the bed," Myra agreed. "For example, I know exactly what your first question will be: 'How much do you remember?' Am I right?"
The woman raised an eyebrow. "Should I be testing you for precognition, too?"
"Nah. This isn't the first time I've woken up in bed after something crazy happened."
"So I've heard. I had to get special clearance before I could talk to the other two about anything prior to late June. Why don't you answer your own question, then?"
"The answer is, not much. I remember the cemetery. I remember crying. I remember the headaches and the lights, but after that..." She shrugged. "Nada. It sure seemed like something odd was happening, but I didn't stick around to see." She tapped her forehead.
"I happen to have a photo of the results, right here," Ms. Sevcik said. Myra received the Polaroid cautiously, like it was a small viper ready to bite. She needed a deep breath before she could flip it over to see the damage. If she'd somehow blasted Melanie's grave, she wasn't sure if she could forgive herself.
Once revealed, the Polaroid dispelled her fears on that matter. The granite marker had not been damaged -- far from it, in fact. It had been transfigured. The bouquet of flowers, now a dozen shades of silver, rose up from a base as bright as polished mithril from the coffers of the Lonely Mountain. Every flower, every leaf was limned with a metallic gleam, down to the individual petals on the roses.
"What... what is it?" she asked the DPA agent.
"Don't you know?"
"I... I think I... wished for a monument? Something good enough for her? What did I do to it?" She couldn't really deny that this was her handiwork, even if she didn't have a clue how it was possible. Something had happened, after all, and it wasn't all in her head. Well, except for the headaches, but those were gone now as well.
"My colleagues spent most of Wednesday figuring that out," said Ms. Sevcik. "As best they can figure, you created a psychokinetic force field around the flowers, the marker, and your daughter's casket, which is why they all look silver now. Even crazier is that you somehow tied it to a small ley line that runs under the cemetery."
"A ley line?" Now she was even more confused. She recognized the term, but only from fantasy novels. How that related to force fields was beyond her.
"Yes. Holy sites tend to attract them, and few places are more sacred than burial grounds. That's pretty much universal." The agent took back the photo. "In this case, the PK field is leaching directly off of the line, so those flowers are going to be there for a very, very long time. I'm willing to bet that the line contributed to your breakthrough, and that it put you into burnout right after. You were charged far past capacity."
Myra shook her head. None of this was making sense. Ley lines, force fields, burnout... What was she now? The agent seemed to pick up on her distress, taking her hand and holding it until she got her mind back together. Then, Ms. Sevcik put her right hand in the air and used her pointer finger to draw an elaborate sign in the empty space. To Myra's surprise, a solid line of light followed behind it, like something from the movie Tron, leaving an afterimage once it faded.
"You saw that, yes?"
"Y-yes," she stammered.
"Care to take a guess what it means?"
"Some big, burly guy is about to come through the door and say, 'Yer a wizard'?"
"Only if your name is Harry Potter," chuckled the woman. "Instead, you have me, and I can now confirm your manifestation as a magically active mutant. And maybe a few other things, but those can wait for later. Ready for the next question?"
"Um, maybe? You seem to have more answers than I do."
"This is one I haven't figured out yet. Everyone who was with you at the cemetery reported that you said one word before the fireworks began: 'astolon.' What does that mean? My first thought was Enochian, but that didn't pan out. It doesn't have a match in any other systems I know of, either."
"Magical traditions," the woman, the magician explained. "Most magic-users -- and WIZ-type mutants, especially -- either build up or inherit a mental framework to support and direct their power. Certain rituals, special symbology, words of power from dead languages, things like that. My own magic draws upon the Wiccan tradition, but I know people who take inspiration from the Kabbalah, alchemy, various Christian rites, or even the visual shorthand of legerdemain. So, where does 'astolon' fit in?"
"Astolon..." The word was there in the back of her head. It had a presence, a little bundle of light to represent it. There were other bundles in that space-without-space in her noggin, apparently waiting for their names to be recalled, but she stuck with the one she knew already, somehow, intuitively? Where had she gotten the word from? Astolon. A. S'. To. Lo. N... It was five syllables, she realized, not three -- and suddenly, it all clicked together. She laughed out loud. Magic words, indeed! She willed that bundle of thought, that magic spell pulled from her memories and subconscious whimsy, and when she said the word again, she put power behind it.
And reality blinked out.
And reality blinked in. To her, there was barely a flicker, like a poorly executed jump cut in a movie. One instant, Ms. Sevcik was sitting right before her, and the next the DPA agent was on her feet, the chair pushed back to make way for Derek and some complicated, unwieldy scanning apparatus.
"Oh, thank God!" And suddenly Derek was hugging her. She allowed it, mostly out of surprise, and after a moment he came to his senses. "Er, ahem, what happened?"
"At a guess," said Myra. "I appeared to turn into a statue for... five minutes?"
"Five minutes, thirty-two seconds." Well, she could always count on him to be precise, at least. "The question, however, is how?"
"Now Derek, don't you know a magician never reveals the secret to her tricks?" She gave him a big wink, which only flustered him more. "Seriously, though, I think I should get things straight with Ms. Sevcik here first. I'll fill you in later, okay?"
Once Derek and his gadgetry had made a hasty retreat, it was the agent's turn to pry. "So, what's up with Derek, you think?"
"Dr. Speers. You're a teacher, right? You should be good with body language. Any ideas about what was going through his head?"
"Well... he was feeling socially awkward, but that's a given. And worried. Very worried..." About her. All his emotions had been on her. Worry and fear, relief, care.... She shied away from that line of thought. There was such a thing as reading too much into a situation.
"Let me fill you in on one detail, then. Remember those EEGs Dr. Speers was recording for the last few days? After you went critical, he sent them out for independent analysis, and got back vague positives for ESP activity or similar. And if I had to guess, I'd say you've got empathy of some stripe."
"I'm hardly an empath," she demurred.
"Are you so sure about that? Because from where I am sitting, it's a possibility." The woman ticked off her fingers as she spoke. "You are much too adept at body language for it to be just natural talent. Everyone I've talked to in the last two days mentioned how perceptive you are, and Mr. Ramirez has extensive notes which support this. I'd also say you're good at expressing your emotions, including getting through a certain scientist's thick skull. I went to school with Speers, and can you guess when was the last time I saw him so concerned over another human being? Never," she answered before Myra could react.
"That doesn't mean..."
"I'm just saying, whatever impressions you might get from him, especially what he won't say himself? It's probably right on the money. As it is, I'm marking you as a potential empath, pending further comprehensive testing which I am not prepared to administer at this time."
Myra shook her head again. The woman couldn't be right about that, could she? It wasn't as if someone could simply not notice having a power like that, right? Now that the idea had been introduced, she wasn't so certain. "Could we get back to the magic?" she asked. At least that was real, as strange a thought as that was.
"Yes, yes, the magic. I can test you properly for that, at least. But please, assuage my curiosity. What is 'astolon'?"
"An ultimate defense," she said. "Complete security, but at the cost of free action. From my point of view, I was only in there for a split second. As for the word itself... Could I have a piece of paper?" Myra nodded as the DPA agent lent her notebook and a pen. On the first blank page, she carefully wrote the syllables アストロン. "A-su-to-ro-n. Romanized as either 'astron' or 'astolon.' I prefer the latter because it has nothing to do with stars."
"But what is it? That looks like Japanese to me."
"That's because it is Japanese. Or katakana, at least. The word itself has no meaning out of context, and that context is Dragon Quest. That's a video game series, by the way."
"What." It took no empathy at all to hear the disbelief in that voice. It made her grin, and then laugh out loud as the woman's confusion grew.
"Magic words don't actually need to mean anything, now do they? Like you said, they provide a mental framework, but I provide the magic. And for me, 'astolon' will always be the ultimate defense spell from Dragon Quest IV."
"Yup. I really loved that game. I even brought a copy home from Japan and got my dad to rig a converter for our old NES so it would play right. It was great practice for my college Japanese course, and I can still recall all the spell names." She began jotting down the syllables, the katakana characters flowing from the pen with surprising ease. It had been years since she'd bothered practicing, but not once did she have to cross out a symbol to make a correction. In the back of her mind, she could feel the bundles of magic quiver, ready to officially receive their words. "You said something about testing?"
"I think we can skip the basic elements of drawing and storing power for now, because you obviously can. Let's get you something to eat while Dr. Speers sets up the target course."
"Sounds good to me." Her stomach grumbled. "I hope Chessa left some food for me. I think I could eat at least as much as that girl right now!"
"Hey, lookin' good!" There was no better way for her to greet her big sister as she entered the commissary, Chessa felt. Just walking in under her own power was an accomplishment, but Myra didn't look like someone who'd been completely out of it for two days. Ms. Janny had said her big sis was 'overcharged,' and even now it looked like Myra had plenty of get up and go to her. The effect was a little spoiled by those fluffy pink bunny pajamas, but big sis wore them well.
"Back at ya, buster. Where'd you get the duds?"
"Ella and Allison put their heads together and emptied the backs of their closets," she explained. A twirl was in order, to show off the skinny jeans with their embroidered back pocket, and the camisole with the A-cup bra beneath it. Sure, it had felt weird at first, but for the first time in either life, Chessa felt good about her appearance.
"No one's taken you shopping yet?" Myra asked as she sat down. Ella had a plate of Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes ready for her. Man, those mashed potatoes were good. Chessa had already had five servings.
"They offered, but I said, 'Nope! I'm gonna wait till my big sis can take me.' It'll be my first official girly excursion, after all."
"And I wouldn't want to miss that," Myra agreed, smiling broadly.
"Ayup! Oh, hey Ms. Janny!" she called to the DPA agent as she came in.
"Janny?" Myra raised an eyebrow as she stuffed her face with potato.
"Janceena. Janny. Simple as that," said the black-haired woman. "I've got your card ready, Na'Chessa."
She snatched the rectangle of plastic out of the agent's hand and held it up to the light. The vertical card was deceptively low tech in appearance, even with the obvious RFID chip insert. She put it to her forehead. In the last few days, she'd figured out how to sense basic electrical current and resistance, and while it wasn't much, she could tell there was a lot more embedded circuitry in the card than was readily apparent.
"Hey, let your big sis see, huh?"
"Sorry, Myra..." she said, passing the card across the table.
"No problemo, buster. Hm... Energizer 4? Out of what?"
"Seven, according to Doc Speers."
"And he's well equipped to measure it," added Ms. Janny.
"Yeah, that was fun." It was hard to describe how exhilarating it felt to let loose with blast after blast of lightning. She was pretty much immune to electrocution now, because those weird organs of hers sorta sucked up the excess juice, but that just meant she could feel every little pulse of voltage as it swept across her skin. It tickled in a way that made her knees jiggle from the memory alone. Maybe this was what the grown-ups meant when they said something was 'better than sex'? She'd have to try sometime, in order to compare, but that could wait for a much, much later time.
"Exemplar 3," Myra was still reading. "PSI 1?"
"That surprised me, too," said Ms. Janny.
"Well, I'd imagine that dragonblooded get access to basic sorcerer abilities every few levels or so, if only to match the lore about draconic ancestry in D&D, and a lot of those could translate into psychic abilities, I suppose. Detect poison, daze... flare and light might fall under energizer for you... the message spell is pretty similar to telepathy, and there are three in there which are practically the same as telekinesis... What?" Myra asked, noticing the look on the agent's face.
"Your memory. Do you always recall things so well?"
"Seems like it," Chessa chimed in. She'd never seen Myra fail a Knowledge check, not even once. Big sis was a Mimir's Well full of random gaming and nerd trivia; that was how it was.
"Hmm..." The agent made a note. "Possible mental exemplar trait."
"If you say so. Code name... code name?" Myra looked surprised at that.
"It's required, no matter what you intend to do with your abilities. It helps keep things organized and discrete, which helps when testing results need to be shared for research. That way, if a file gets into the wrong hands, there's no real name to check up on."
"All the good dragon names were taken," Chessa said. Not that she'd wanted one, but she felt kind of obliged to check it out anyway. The available electric-themed names weren't much better. It was worse than trying to create a unique email address! She and Marcus had spent an afternoon brainstorming possibilities.
"Maidenclaw?" And that was the best she could come up with. Myra sounded a little surprised, but not disappointed, so she figured it couldn't be too awful.
"Yeah. Because, y'know, dragons and maidens, and I'm a girl, and I'm supposed to have some sort of claw attack --" At least, the D&D homebrew rules her fiend had put together said she should, though it was really vague on how that worked. "-- and it sounded good and wasn't taken yet. Marcus had it tougher. Like, everything even close to a Mega Man style name was taken one way or another."
"What did he end up with?"
"Retrofit," the boy announced from the outside door. He waved. "It was Dr. Dork's old code name in school, and he said I could have it."
"Marcus, don't call him that."
"It's okay," said Ms. Janny. "We can all agree it's appropriate."
"That's not the ..."
"Anyhoo, target course is ready!" Little bro dashed out just as fast as he'd come in.
Chessa grinned at her big sister. "Ready to show the world your stuff?"
"I think so." Myra held up the DPA agent's notepad. The entire page was covered in columns of funky moon-letters, a few of which she sorta recognized from anime. Not that she could read them, but they looked hella impressive. "Fireballs, ice missiles, vacuum blasts -- sound like a good start?"
"Vacuum? What, are you going to suck the target up?"
"You'll see." Myra had that grin on her face, a Cheshire Cat smile that told Chessa things were never going to be sane around here again. Hells yeah.
He was rather proud of the target course, Marcus was. Dr. Dork had let him help construct specialized drones that could hover or shield themselves, and after the first few were done he'd gotten the hang of it pretty good. There weren't quite enough of the little robots to populate a level in one of his video games, and they didn't have the battery life to run too long, but Myra would have no shortage of targets.
On the plus side, this had also been good practice for his eventual re-invention of the Search Snake drones from Mega Man III. When those were done, he'd have two Robot Master tricks up his sleeve. No anti-mutant commandos were going to catch him unguarded, nossiree! And what he had planned for the future, oh yes...
But in the present, Myra was making short work of his drones.
"MELA!" A small red sphere, the size of a smasher marble, formed in her hand. Around it, a corona of orange energy crackled. With a flick of the wrist, she sent it through the air, and it smashed into a cermet shield with a -whoomph- of flame.
"HYAD!" A trio of icicles condensed out of thin air, hurtling with surprising speed and perforating a crab-walker drone before it had a chance to dodge. "IO!" And now the same drone was a scorch mark on the concrete, surrounded by bits of metal and ceramic.
"Hey, big sis!" Marcus heard Chessa call from the safety of the commissary gallery. "You gonna suck up anything with that vacuum?"
He didn't really get what his new big sis was talking about, but bigger sis -- as Myra was now officially called in his head -- had a wild gleam to her eyes that suggested it was a challenge. She braced herself, holding her left hand outstretched. As she slowly clenched her fingers into a fist, she let out one last word.
It was like a sphere was marked around the hapless drones, and all the air within it suddenly began to compress towards the center. He only understood the details after watching it much later in a slow motion video. Trails of dust and assorted robot bits added detail to the invisible currents as they swirled and cavitated, leaving behind thin blades of empty space, pure vacuum. These filled in almost immediately, to the detriment of whatever was nearby. The effect lasted only a few seconds, but nothing escaped unscathed. The luckiest of the drones came away with only heavy external damage, according to the read-outs on his borrowed iPad. Two of the lightweight flying drones had been shredded.
"Whoa..." said Myra, slumped against the nearest wall. "That's enough for today, I think. That last one really drained me."
"I'd imagine so!" said the witchy lady from the DPA. "And you say you've got more spells than that?"
"Close to thirty, if I do have an analog to everything on that list I wrote. Some are simple variations, though, either stronger or weaker."
Stronger? Bigger sis might have stuff stronger than this? He tapped an icon on the iPad, bringing up the drone-planning program Dr. Dork had set up for him. She was going to have to test those spells eventually, and when that time came, he'd have bigger and better robots to take the brunt of it.
He liked a challenge too, after all.
"Go ahead, try it," Ms. Sevcik was saying a few minutes later, after Myra had had time to steady herself. "Just this one last trick of yours. I want to see how it works."
She'd needed to explain each and every word on her list to the agent, telling her what effects it had -- or which she thought it might have -- as well as any reasons why she couldn't use it now. Quite a few spells, the ones connected to the high-level word variants, simply required too much power. Calling them to mind induced a visceral nausea inside her. There were two that were essentially kamikaze attacks, and she had no desire to put herself in bed with a coma, again. One of the shortest words, 'xaki', just plain scared her with its vague promise of destruction wrought. All those spells got marked in red.
This final spell for the day was not one of the red-flagged ones. It was tiny in her mind, actually, four little syllables that curled into a funnel as she released them. マホトラ. Ma-ho-t'-ra. "MAHOTRA," she intoned.
All the little specks of light, the drips and drabs of what she now realized was magical force, swirled around the shape of the word. True to its nature, the ephemeral funnel directed and concentrated the mana, sending it straight into her body. Her step grew lighter, and the fatigue of spell-casting fell away like a heavy cape dropping to the ground.
"Okay, that's enough," Ms. Sevcik advised. "Don't want you overcharging again."
The spell was as easily canceled as it was cast. "So will this be all?" she asked.
"For now. I'll stick around for a few more days, see how you do with the basic skills you seem to be leaping over. After that, the three of you will need to get comprehensive testing done, once DARPA lets you out of here. The local super-groups can handle it, or if you'd like to visit, my DPA branch office is in Oklahoma City."
"Lots of paranormal activity down where the wind goes sweeping?"
"You'd be amazed," the woman muttered darkly. "Lastly, we'll need a name to put on your file. Any thoughts?"
"Moonbrook." She'd thought it up right after her conversation with Chessa. It sounded appropriately magicky, she felt.
"I'm assuming that this too is a reference of some sort?" the agent asked with a resigned tone of voice.
"But of course," Myra shot back. "Isn't everything?"
"If it comes out of your mouth, it probably is," groused Ms. Sevcik. "Offhand, I don't think that one is taken, but I'll have to check to be sure. We'll have your card ready sometime this evening."
Her card... her MID. This was it. This was official. She was, impossible as it sounded, a mutant. Losing a life had led to gaining another, and she'd expected to have a new name to go with it, but now she had two. The Princess of Moonbrooke had been her favorite character when her dad had first introduced Dragon Warrior II to her in high school, and she could only hope to do justice to that memory. If anyone out there was foolish enough to mess with her family, well...
She flicked one last fireball down the alley, blowing the head off the last of Marcus's drones. Kaboom.
--- Wednesday, August 10th, 2016, post-meeting
"Senator, if I may have a word?" After an hour of debate, the Senate Committee on the Public Use and Safety of Devises let out for the day. Most of the senators had filed out quickly, with only Larson, Groves, and Ashkettle lingering to discuss some technical matters of procedure. This was a critical moment, Speers knew. A few words at the right time could swing the committee's decision either way. Unfortunately, as had been pointed out to him time and again, he was lacking in the social graces. Or as Mucus had put it, he sucked at sucking up. Myra had taken it upon herself to tutor him in how to be personable, and it was time for his first lab practical.
It was a shame Senator Larson wasn't nearly so easy on the eyes.
"Yes?" the elder statesman said, giving him the old eyeball.
"I was wondering if perhaps we could discuss some matters further, perhaps over coffee?" Lesson number one: the longer the phrasing of the request, the more polite it was seen to be. The point of diminishing returns was around fifteen -- longer than that, Myra had informed him, and the other person might forget how it all began.
The senator nodded, his beefy face showing a hint of curiosity. Not long after, they were seated in Larson's personal office in the Capitol building, pouring two steamy cups of straight black coffee. While by definition not as strong as his personal lab blend, it smelled far nicer.
"That was a good presentation today," Larson began. "Much better than the last one I saw with you."
"Thank you, Senator." He struggled not to blush at the compliment. "I've been taking lessons. With a life coach." That was probably the safest way to describe Myra's effect on him. She'd undoubtedly be pleased that others had noticed.
"I didn't want to say anything in the meeting. No need giving that bastard Murtaugh more ammunition!" the senator guffawed. "So, are we discussing the future of your project here?"
He nodded. There was no other reasonable topic for conversation. Larson was most likely mistaken about his concerns, however.
"Must say, it'll be hard to keep LIFELINE open, with all that mutation buzz. Murtaugh is on the warpath. Still, if we can get Lowrie's vote, we could probably swing it..."
"I'm sorry," he interrupted. "But in actuality, I am in favor of shutting the project down as well."
Larson's eyebrows were almost lost in the crevasses of his forehead as it wrinkled up in surprise. The senator was quiet for a long moment, examining Speers' face carefully before responding. "You're serious about this. Hmph. I assume you have good reasons, but the potential benefits are enormous."
"As are the risks," Speers countered. "Not to mention the machine's own limitations. Our ability to save the very people LIFELINE was intended for is heavily restricted, and the energy requirements make it unfeasible for general rescue. Then there is the mental, emotional, and physical cost..." He had a brief flashback to that moment three weeks before, when he'd pulled a limp and drowned Myra Paget from the box with his own two hands. Much as he'd fought it, his enthusiasm for LIFELINE had begun its slow, inexorable death there. "And that does not even begin to factor in the metagenic effect. Any adult brought through the box risks an awful second death if we're not careful, and even then the odds are that they won't be recognizable as themselves once the changes are fully active. Senator," he asked. "Would you place your trust in a devise like that?"
"Now that is a difficult question." Larson sipped his coffee slowly as he considered. "I'd like to say no, but the prospects of not dying are tempting."
"The problem with surviving is that you have to live with the consequences." Chessa had given him that little pearl of wisdom one evening, during a game of Russian ice cream roulette. It had been more amusing then, coming after a bowl of sweet habanero chocolate, but over coffee it was simply a bitter truth.
"Yes, er, true. I shall keep that under consideration." After a moment of silence, the senator continued. "So how are the subjects doing? Myra, Marcus, and, er, Chessa? Adjusting well, are they?"
"As well as could be expected," he replied. "It's not exactly a sane world we live in."
---- Saturday, July 9th, 2016
The whole world was crazy, Marcus had decided. It was a good sort of crazy, definitely better than the insanity he'd left behind, but it was crazy nonetheless. Standing out here on the cul-de-sac in front of the lab, it was still obvious. The building should've been proof against this -- it was so normal and boring to look at from this side -- but there were extenuating circumstances. Namely, his former big brother was standing right beside him in a pink poodle skirt and white blouse combination straight out of the Fifties, and looking good in it. This was not something that happened in a sane world.
The late morning sun had finally maneuvered around the building in the industrial park enough to shine directly into the cul-de-sac, and Chessa glinted. Her hair was a torch of yellow, orange, and brown pulled back into a ponytail, exposing slightly flattened ears. Her skin looked like someone had applied body glitter spray to it, only they hadn't. It was just that way.
And there was the girl thing. In his head, he understood that Chessa was Ches, only skinnier and more hyperactive. Other parts of him had different issues, which were amazingly difficult to ignore when his new big sister did one of her ridiculously bendy tricks, such as lean over backwards and place her hands palms-down on the pavement -- like she was doing now. Then she kicked, and was up in a handstand. In a skirt. Thankfully she had leggings underneath, so she didn't panty-flash the planet, or him. He turned away quickly, but still felt his face turn bright red.
"Stop giving the world a show, buster. You're embarrassing your little bro." As always, Myra was the voice of reason and sanity. Except when they had their talks about new ways to blow stuff up. Then, she was positively diabolical, but that was a crazy he could get behind. Standing in front was too dangerous.
"So, all ready?" bigger sis asked. He and Chessa nodded. "Good. Ella's going to be here in a minute, and Derek's getting the van. To market, to market!"
"To buy a fat pig?" he called back.
"Only if you do a jig on the way home."
"Well I for one can't wait to go hog-wild in the clothing areas," Chessa declared. She twirled. "I got fashion to try!"
Marcus had been listening to variations on the theme for two days now, and he still couldn't see how Chessa could get so worked up over clothes. Bigger sis had tried to explain, using terms like "self-actuation" and "establishing a persona," but he still didn't get it completely. The long and the short of it seemed to be that Chessa was changing everything about her old life, but she was the same person under it all. Only he was pretty sure that the old Ches would've hated clothes shopping as much as he did, so something had to be different up there. Maybe it was those brain changes kicking in. Dr. Dork said that might happen.
Speak of the dork, and he shall appear -- driving the VW microbus this time. The vehicle's paint job was now cobalt blue with electric yellow racing stripes zigzagging down its flanks.
"Shotgun!" he shouted, grabbing the front passenger seat before anyone could. It was only a formality, though. Ella and his adoptive sisters were perfectly willing to sit in the back and talk about different types of clothing. Chessa was determined to know as much on the subject as possible before getting dropped in the deep end.
So up in front it was just him and the Dork.
"Ready to rumble, Mucus?" the doc asked as they drove out.
"Bring it, Dork!"
"Standard rules. We both get one hundred bucks to buy all the junk we can load in the back trunk." That was a lot more than it sounded, Marcus knew. The storage space in the rear could hold three or four times more material than should be possible for the geometry of the vehicle. He would definitely have to ask about that later. Right now, the Dork was still speaking: "Step two, we build drones out of the stuff we buy. Step three..."
"Fight!" Marcus shouted with glee.
"Boys and their toys..." he heard one of the ladies whisper. Giggles followed.
Let them laugh, he thought. He didn't need to show them how awesome he could be; he already knew. Right now, the only thing he needed was to wallop Dr. Dork's future creation. Already, plans were ticking in his head.
Time to go shopping.
Butterflies were all a-flutter in her stomach as Dr. Speers parked in front of the market. This was it. The big time. She felt like a debutante at the ball, and for a moment the image of her in one of those antebellum gowns danced through her head. With a snicker and a shake, the thought dislodged from her brain to join the rest of the silly but impractical ideas she'd had over the last few days.
Simple. Practical. Feminine. Those were the defining traits she was going for today. For color and style, she could rely on Ella and big sis, but she already had a list of things to look out for. If the old Ches had ever studied as diligently as the new Chessa had over the last few days, then he wouldn't have been failing math. Today was her midterm exam in girliness and fashion, and she was determined to get an A.
"Where to first, buster?"
She thought for a moment. "Shirts. And blouses, camisoles, etc. Let's see what we can match with the skirts and pants I already have." All of her current wardrobe was on loan from Ella and Ms. Allison, on a semi-permanent basis. Apparently it was a girl thing to hoard nice clothes well after their time had passed. Hence her poodle skirt, which was so cute she was never giving it back.
Deep in the market lay stalls that were nothing but piles upon piles of clothing. Searching through them was like a huge treasure hunt through the lair of a fabric-hoarding dragon, and in her head she tracked possible combinations the way she would stats and ability scores in a tabletop game. Most every bit of material had some bonus to dexterity, movement, or appearance, though some of the tops had shoulders and sleeves that were so poorly cut that she couldn't raise her arms right in them. Penalties may also apply, it seemed.
At the moment, her choices in fashion varied between retro, vintage, and awful, but with Myra's help she was able to winnow away that third group until she had a fair, but highly eclectic, selection of clothes. There were shirts and undershirts, tees and tanks, blouses and camisoles, petticoats, underskirts, and something called a bandeau, which Myra said she could wear instead of a bra sometimes.
There was also a selection of empty spectacle frames, meant as much for appearances as for corrective use. Some of them were in really bright colors that would've gone great with a few of the flowery chemises she'd tried, but to her annoyance none of the vanity specs would fit over the bridge of her nose. The bone and cartilage had widened up near the top, giving her that distinctive 'Bajoran' ridge, as Myra liked to call it. She sometimes rubbed at it self-consciously, but it wasn't quite so large as that.
They were halfway through the process of selecting pants and overalls when she noticed the lack of crowding. It wasn't like it was an easy perception check to notice the absence of something, and she'd been preoccupied with shopping. Everywhere they went, though, the crowd of shoppers thinned out slowly but surely, until the three of them were the only people at the stall. The sellers didn't seem to mind, as long as Ella was paying, but it left her with a bad feeling.
It felt like people were avoiding her. No matter how cute she looked in her pink poodle skirt and ponytail, some folks just couldn't like her, because she had funny green eyes, glittery skin, and a crest on her nose. Well, she refused to give them the satisfaction of seeing her with hurt feelings. She was here to shop, same as everyone else, and so shop she would!
It had been too long since he'd last gone parts shopping, Derek realized. A part of him had missed the fun of rifling through the dross, the thrill of new discoveries, or the challenge of a good round of haggling. It was an old and familiar adventure for him, but this time around there was one major difference. Now he had a protégé.
He wasn't sure when he'd begun to think of Marcus less as a test subject and more as a student. As strange as it sounded, he was a role model for the boy, as close a thing to a big brother as Marcus now had. Derek was an only child, and he'd never quite gotten how a larger family dynamic might feel, but on the drive in he'd had a twinge, an inkling of what it was like. Somehow, some way, Derek Speers had gotten himself a little brother to watch over. Well, in a manner of speaking. Similarly, it was hard not to view Chessa as a little sister. Myra... was complicated, for many reasons. He hadn't yet sorted out all his feelings there.
The electronics section of the market was a kludge of mismatched shops, like a pile of random cogs and gears fitted together by a social gadgeteer. He and Marcus started along one edge, in the true junk shops. There was very little to be found in those that could be called useful, but it was all cheap. Old appliance casings made for good drone parts, at least. He had plans to build his out of an old toaster, while Marcus scored a burned-out blender with an almost-working motor.
Next came the hobbyist circles, full of raw materials and spare parts. Most of their allotted cash went to use here. Marcus paid close attention to what he was buying, Derek noticed. He was tempted to waste a bit of cash on something completely pointless, just to throw the boy off his game, but then they came to the collectors section and he had bigger fish fryers to buy.
He knew that there was a decent market for odd technological baubles, though he'd never given it much thought. Making such baubles was part of his business, and his government contacts helped him get most of the more exotic bits into his storerooms. The glass cases before him now, those held a broken treasure trove of knick-knacks. They were all devises -- or at least, sections of devises -- made from exotic alloys or amalgams and tempered in forces which he could only guess at.
"What can you tell me about this one?" he asked the shop owner, pointing to a bluish-grey canister sitting in the middle of the third row. It was squat and ovoid, somewhat resembling a miniature propane tank, if one ignored the printed circuitry lining its surface. There was a port for a nozzle attachment, obviously damaged at some point in the past, but that was the only thing to mar the devise. The rest of it had been cleaned up, and now it gleamed in the display lights. The individual threads of circuit shone in different colors, creating a rainbow patina. It was, he realized, a work of art in more ways than one.
"I got that at a meet up in Saskatchewan," the owner explained. The man was in his sixties, hair completely white where it stuck out from under his cap. "Fellow calling himself the Permafroster had a short-lived career up there robbin' banks, but managed to blow himself up the first time a hero group tried to stop him."
"Short-lived, indeed," said Derek. "This was his, then?"
"Probably. It was picked up near the scene -- well, half a mile away; the man really went boom, dontcherknow. Didn't really put the two together myself until I bought it and started the cleanup. Pretty little thing, ain't it?"
"That it is. A post-modern, techno-retro Fabergé egg, one might say. How much are you asking for it?"
"Welp, thought I might take it back east, get eight, nine hundred for it."
"Only if you can definitively show its provenance, and the big collectors are picky."
"Ain't that the truth," the old man groaned. "So, you're a collector too?"
"Here with your boy, huh?" The old man winked at Marcus. "Got some defused ordnance casings over here. Kids always seem to like those. Ever seen a missile up close, sonny?" The owner pulled a short projectile from the shelf, a surface-to-air missile with a shark's grin motif painted on the front. Derek heard Marcus inhale sharply, and when he put a hand on the boy's shoulder he could feel the tremors.
"My nephew, actually," he replied. He moved forward a step, placing himself between Marcus and the missile. "And I can say with certainty that his big sister would kill me if we brought that thing home." He could feel the boy relax a little behind him. "About the canister, though. Would you take three hundred for it?"
"I dunno..." The shopkeeper had the missile back on the shelf, and was all business now. "Like I said, it could go for eight, nine, maybe even a grand if I'm lucky."
"If." Derek stressed the syllable. "It's a risky market. Those big buyers are a shadowy maybe, but I'm here right now. Three-fifty."
"Four twenty-five, and I throw in a limited edition print collection that Devisors Quarterly had published right before their offices got melted fifteen years ago. Some great reading in there," the man chuckled. "Better than most of the crap on the so-called Sci-Fi Network these days."
"Deal." He paid the man, added the devise to his bag of junk and scraps, and then he and Marcus went to deposit their things in the van.
"Um, thanks," Marcus said when they were safely alone. "For the missile thing. It... it looked too much like..."
"Good. So, um, nephew?"
"I had to tell him something, and I wasn't sure he'd believe it if I said we were brothers."
"What's with the devise, anyway?" the boy asked, quickly changing the subject. "You're not thinking of using that in our contest, are you?"
"Of course not. It's way over our limit." He pulled the cylinder out and inspected it. "I wasn't about to let it onto the open market, though. It's still active." He could feel a pulse through his hands, though he knew the effect was largely in his head. "I'll have to give it a more thorough check at the labs, but I bet we can use this to make one of those ice weapons you were talking about yesterday."
Marcus perked up at that. A moment later, the iPad was out and they were discussing possible plans. Derek had never been much of a collaborator, except when circumstances or classes required it in school, and he'd not enjoyed the experience at all then. Now was different. Now... he had to be the mentor, the big brother. He only hoped he didn't make too many mistakes.
She was pleasantly surprised. At some level Myra had expected more trouble out of Chessa, more nervousness and panic from being thrust into the mess that was clothes shopping, but the new girl had take to it like a shark to water. There was a lot her little sister didn't know yet, but Chessa seemed to have the basics well in hand. As the girl cooed over a tight-fitting, long sleeved paisley-print tee to go with some overalls they'd found earlier, big sis was scoping out the crowds.
Once Janceena had convinced her of the reality of her sort-of-empathic sense, it turned out to be very easy to use. There were no lights or auras to figure out, no synesthetic crossover between the senses. Nor did she feel anyone's emotions as indistinguishable from her own, which had always struck her as a confusing way to go about it whenever empaths appeared in her old fantasy novels. Her method was one simple step beyond noticing, for lack of a better description. When she was paying attention to a person, she noticed the little tics and mannerisms, the whole gestalt of body language passing through her awareness and coming out as a reasonably accurate understanding of what that person was feeling. Sometimes that understanding ran counter to everything that the person was saying, but it still seemed accurate.
Right now, she understood that too many people weren't happy to have her little sister around. The shopkeepers were nice enough, and became progressively nicer the more Chessa chatted with them about clothes and sundries, but the ones who worried Myra were the other customers. Most of them didn't stay around long enough for the young mutant's sunny personality to win them over, and some were flat-out hostile but not hiding it well. It was just as well that Ella had at least two weapons secreted upon her person, in addition to whatever Myra could call up.
She closed her eyes and let herself fall backwards into her own mind. Janceena had taught her this trick before the agent had returned to her home office. It had been surprisingly simple to build up a little space within her head to serve as a sort of interface with her own magic, and already Myra had gotten into the habit of checking it every few hours to see how her levels of magical energy were doing. Janceena had called it essence, but she couldn't resist thinking of it as MP. Old habits died hard, after all. It wasn't like there was a hard numerical value to assign to magical amounts, though she'd taken to using the basic fireball spell as a base unit of measurement. One casting of ASTOLON equaled three fireballs, while that vacuum blast spell took about six times that.
The bundles of color hung in the space behind her mind, vibrant and gleaming. She checked them carefully, though they were the same as they ever were. Each responded to its own word, fluttering and quickening as the thoughts crossed her consciousness. Someday, she'd have a chance to use them all. Just not now.
"It is a pensive mood I find you in, my lady fair," came a voice from outside her head. It dragged her back with a massive rush of reality, and her body jerked like she'd woken from a daydream.
"Who?" she asked as she turned around slowly.
"Neither a dear friend nor a stranger, I," said the man, the mutant with the orange hair and stereotypically Irish face whom she'd seen the week before. "Merely a good fellow to know."
"I don't suppose your first name's Robin, is it?" she snarked at him. The man grinned puckishly, but did not reply. "Or perhaps I shall call you Boggart."
"You remembered!" said the grin.
"It was quite the performance," she replied. "Are you here for an encore?"
"Only should I be given the proper opening, which may come in time. Those intrepid imbeciles have left their roost once more to descend upon this place like the birds of the Stymphalides, but edgier and fuller of crap. You remember them, I'm sure."
Myra groaned. "The soi-disant Defenders of the Rights of Man?" That was just what they needed, another run-in with that group of impotent assholes. "What's got their jockstraps twisted this time?"
"Reports of a mutant in the market, which, I might add, is not so uncommon an occurrence as they believe," he added with a wink. "Alas, this one could not or would not pass as normal, and thus the whispers began, leading our dirty birds like a trail of moldy breadcrumbs. I don't suppose you've seen anything out of the ordinary, lady fair?"
"No," she said as Chessa burst from the fitting room in a -- a Japanese summer yukata? Where'd the girl found that? "Then again, I have a broad definition of 'ordinary.' Chessa!" she called the girl over. "You need to tie the sash from behind, like this..."
She fixed the obi sash, keeping one eye on Boggart and his reactions to the scene. Surprise, that was expected, as was the hint of shock. Then came amusement as Myra tugged and arranged the cotton kimono into something close to the right form. There was an undercurrent, however, something that began as a small trickle, but which soon built in strength until she was surprised that his smile could contain it all. She'd felt its like before, on professors and principals and her bastard of a former lover. Calculation.
Boggart had spoken right, earlier. She couldn't think of him as a friend. That left the question of who and what he represented. In the back of her head, half a dozen answers rustled in anticipation.
"Attention, Citizens of Illinois!" The voice was full of crackle and static, magnified through a megaphone in the hands of someone who didn't know how to use it properly. He already knew who it was, unfortunately, but the blowhard went on to confirm it. "We are the Defense of Humanity Troop 32, called here today for your protection! A mutant has been reported within the premises, but there is no cause to be alarmed! I repeat, no cause to be alarmed!"
No cause except what those morons brought with them, Marcus amended in his head. From his vantage point in the VW, he could see an awful lot of guns strapped to backs. Next to him, Dr. Dork was muttering about the idiocy of something called the 'open carry movement,' but his attention was on the militia leader. It was definitely the same guy, the one with the dark hair and muscled arms. The man looked remarkably like a G.I. Joe action figure he used to own. Macho for the sake of machismo, as Myra had put it. Then the meaning of the guy's words sank in.
"We are here to pursue our duty as citizens and defend ourselves and our families from the mutant threat, first by exercising our right to perform a citizen's arrest, or if necessary to stand our ground in the face of imminent danger. Because of this, we advise that all bystanders quickly and calmly remove themselves from the premises!"
If ever there'd been an announcement less inclined to calm a panicky horde, Marcus had never heard it. All of a sudden there was a flood of humanity pouring out of the covered flea market, yelling and screaming and pushing at each other to get out of the way. One of the meat smokers in the food court area was overturned, sending a thick black cloud rolling across the parking lot for a moment.
Not now! he silently cried. Marcus hunkered down in the seat of the VW, keeping his eyes away from the windows. The Dork kept a hand on his shoulder, and that helped a bit, but nothing could stop the tremors completely. There was nothing to do, nothing to say. He was trapped, and it was all he could do to keep his breathing slow and constant. In. Out. In. Out. Keep that small part of himself under control, and the rest would follow. In. Out. In. Out. Just like he'd practiced with Myra.
Myra. Ella. Chessa. They were still in there. That thought got him to look up, look at the Dork and see the worry in the man's eyes. He wasn't alone in this, Marcus knew. Not like the last time. He wasn't going to die alone today. They weren't going to die. He had his family, and they had him, and... Deep breaths. In. Out. In. Out.
From his belt, there was a beep, followed by a crackle of static. The monitor bauble was speaking, and the words were terrible enough to break him free of his own problems for the instant: "Marcus! Is Derek there?" It wasn't Myra's voice, but Ella's. "This crazy man just took Chessa!"
Marcus wasn't alone anymore. He had a new family to support him, and he them. His hand went to his belt, to the short array of devises hooked onto it. Brown eyes met violet, and the Dork nodded in agreement. Someone had messed with the wrong family today, and the idiot was going to pay for it.
She came to with a start, snorting and sneezing the last traces of the sickly sweet green vapor out of her sinuses. Her first thoughts were hardly printable. Her first words, even less so.
"Shit! Fuck! Son of a bitch bastard..." Quickly running out of convenient English cusswords, her increasingly accurate memory supplied a few international ones for flavor. "Merde, scheisse, belin, kusottare, p'tahk bIHnuch!" None of these had found a resonance with the spell bundles in her head, or else she'd literally be cussing up a storm right now. The paint was peeling off the nearest wooden partition, but that was nothing more than a coincidence.
"It's good to see you up," Ella said. The older woman helped her sit up. "That man hit us with the Cuckoo Channel's Knock-Out #6. Grey market devisor gas," she explained. "I had the inoculations from DARPA, but even so it made me terribly dizzy for a moment."
"How long?" Myra asked.
"Less than five minutes. You recovered amazingly quickly. Knock-Out #6 is rated for half an hour on baselines." The minder nodded to the bodies of the shopkeeper and a hapless fellow shopper, crumpled over the piles of clothing. "They'll be okay in a little while. Not everyone recovers as fast as you."
"Lucky me." She grimaced as a wave of nausea swamped her stomach, but stood up nevertheless. "Which way'd the bastard go?"
"Derek is tracking Chessa's monitor now." Ella's smartphone beeped. "Ah, there we go." On the screen, a compass point appeared. "Heading towards the back, it seems. The anti-mutant militia's in the parking lot, so that makes sense... Oh my word, Myra!" Ella exclaimed as the teacher took a few wobbly steps. "Are you sure you're okay to walk?"
"Gotta be," she said between gritted teeth. The sports gear stall next door was deserted, so no one could complain when she helped herself to a baseball bat. It was no magic wand, but then again she was no fairy godmother. She was someone's big sister, and she was seriously pissed off. "Got your own stuff?"
"Stun guns are ready," the minder confirmed.
"Good. Let's go relieve that poxy leprechaun of his lucky charms."
"The ladies are in hot pursuit," he told Marcus. The boy acknowledged this with a nod, but did not look up from where the middle seat was folded down and acting as an ersatz worktable. Marcus's fingers were moving with the driven speed of a devisor filled with inspiration.
The two of them had been teasing out the secrets of the Permafroster's devise before it all hit the fan, and now Marcus was putting theory into practice with an intensity that would have scared anyone but a fellow devisor or gadgeteer. Even so, Derek was concerned, and kept a close eye on the boy, should he strain too far and brainstorm his way into burnout.
On the dashboard, his smartphone showed a constant map of the area, with the relative positions of Myra and Chessa's monitors marked in blue. The positions of the militia men were marked in red. He watched as the red dots spread out and entered the marketplace from different directions. The circles lost cohesion, becoming pinkish clouds as the software was forced to extrapolate from the last known data.
Marcus had finished six of his Search Snake drones in the past two days, and the roly-poly robots, reminiscent of M.C. Escher's millipedes, were skittering through the aisles and reporting via bluetooth. The re-purposed webcams which served as their heads turned out to be quite good at identifying gun-carrying nutjobs, but their line of sight was hampered by the sheer amount of stuff in the marketplace.
There were a dozen men out there, all armed and dangerous, but none of them knew about Derek and Marcus. They were safe in here, anonymous... but the ladies were not. Chessa was still in there, along with whoever had taken her. Ella and Myra... Myra... No. They wouldn't, she wouldn't leave without Chessa, which meant a fight. He hadn't been in any sort of combat situation since he'd graduated from Whateley, and even then it had only been because of his course requirements.
Nineteen years he'd spent in one lab or another since then, with never a shot fired in anger. Quietly, Speers removed the panel on the front of the steering wheel, revealing one last set of buttons. Without an atom of hesitation, he tapped in the combination that primed the microbus's weapons array. Never a shot fired in anger...
But he wasn't angry now. He was furious.
He could feel the hum and whir all around him. Something was moving beneath the floorboard of the VW, and something else was going on up top. His brain logged these events, but otherwise didn't try to distract him from the task at hand. To his left was his borrowed tablet computer, its screen covered in notes and diagrams. Dr. Dork had explained just enough of the theory behind the Permafroster's devise, without going into too great a level of detail. In part this was because the Dork himself wasn't too sure on some of it, but the rest was for Marcus's benefit.
Like the Dork had told him during that first, awkward explanation of his new powers, a little bit of theory could be a dangerous thing. The more he understood the underlying principles, the more he could make, but also the more he was bound by them, making it harder to break the rules. Give him just enough of the facts, however, and he could make wonderful, unstable miracles...
-click- The devise came together in his hands. It was rough, makeshift, maybe even slipshod or jerry-rigged, but it fit all the points of the theory as he understood them, and to heck with the rest. "The Ice Wave is complete," he announced. While he hadn't had a chance to play Mega Man 8 yet, Marcus had spent many evenings in the past week watching boss-battle videos on Youtube for inspiration. Of the various cold-themed weapons of the series, the Ice Wave was the one that felt most right with the materials at hand.
The results were far from elegant, unfortunately. Marcus had needed to make do with all the material and junk they'd bought. The glass section of the blender had been sealed up and reinforced, and now served as a mixing chamber for the gasses produced by the canister. Routing tubes had been liberated from inside the tires of a few nearby bicycles, and the main body of the gun had obviously been a toaster and a megaphone in two former lives.
Dr. Dork took a quick look, checking the connections with his eyes and feeling them with his brain. "Good work," the gadgeteer said, "but I'm afraid the overall design is unstable. I'd say you can probably get two, maybe three good shots out of it at most. If it starts arcing, throw it away and run, understand?"
"Now let's get those doofuses back onto the parking lot, and away from the ladies, shall we?"
He could feel his nerves, feel the trembling in his body because of a fear he'd never asked for. Anxiety, Myra called it, and it had an energy of its own that leached off his fearful mind. But now he had something to counter it. He had a target, and a means of lashing out at his fears-made-real.
There was the Ice Wave, hanging from his shoulder by a bungee cord.
There was the Mega Buster mk. 1, really an air-pressure popgun with exploding ping-pong balls.
There was the Bubble Lead, currently clipped to his belt.
There was a big grin on his face. "Let's get 'em."
Her head was packed with green fog. It clouded her eyes and leaked out her ears and nose. Sweet and sickly, it bound her brain in woolly numbness, so she didn't really notice the manhandling at all. One at a time, the bits of her brain struggled free of the lotus-smoke, and she remembered things piecemeal. Some dude was talking with Myra. Some other dude made a big announcement over a megaphone. Then a bunch of little dudes sorta popped out of nowhere, and the first some-dude pulled a....
And then she came out of it. Her body was being carried flat, with the pat-pat-pat of many feet beneath her back. Chessa craned her neck around, but couldn't see who it was. Her head barely missed making contact with a display table, so her manhandlers couldn't be too tall.
"Ah, you're already awake." It was the some-dude's voice, she thought. Then she got her cute little behind dumped on the ground.
Lord Bahamut's breath... she thought. I've been kidnapped by the Seven Dwarfs! That wasn't even a joke. The hands that had carried her this far were attached to short little bodies with big heads and bigger beards -- except for Dopey, who was wiggling his ears at her comically. They had the exact same look as the Disney characters, except that they were all green: dark, verdant clothes, pale lime skin, but orange beards and hair.
She struggled to her feet, still dizzy from the gas but unwilling to let it slow her down. The Japanese robe gave her more trouble, since it wound around her legs and kept them from stretching too far. It was definitely a -2 to agility rolls when she wore this thing. Most of her dignity was still intact when she finally stood almost eye to eye with Mr. Some-Dude, and she gave him her best stinker of a look.
The guy had the same hair as his minions, like a carton of orange juice had spilled on him. Unlike the Seven Dwarfs, Mr. Some-Dude was at least five-nine in height. "Boggart, at your service, miss," he said with an elaborate bow. "Please forgive the precipitous nature of our departure, but time was short -- still is, to speak true. The local mutant hunters seek you out even as we speak."
"So you kidnap me to keep me safe?" She sniffed, then tried to look as regal as one could in a light blue kimono with pink flower print. "I fail to see how this is better. You might have asked, first."
"Your sister would not have approved, and time is of the essence. Please, allow me to help you."
"I'll help you by telling you exactly where you went wrong!" she shouted. "Instead of offering assistance like a gentleman, you up and cart me off! Myra would've just said no before, but now she'll rip off your nutsack and force it down your throat till you choke to death, see if she doesn't!" Chessa fixed a green-eyed glare on Mr. Some-Dude. "And I'll be there to watch."
Boggart tsked. "A pity. I'd much rather have a willing maiden to rescue, but if needs be...."
Chessa opened her mouth to protest the 'maiden' comment, but the man cut her of with a blast of sweet green oblivion in spray can form. She barely felt the hands of the Seven Dwarfs as she landed backwards upon them.
He checked the side mirrors, noting where Marcus was standing outside the microbus. With its internal force field generators, the old VW was more than enough to shield the boy from harm, as long as he stuck to cover. The engine was idling, far more quietly than it should. That was one of the many benefits of going electric, especially when one had access to the most bleeding-edge technology. The external tinting on the windows was active, obscuring him from outside eyes.
Six of the militia men had stayed in the lot, with their leader setting up an ad-hoc command post in the middle of the driveway. The men were positioned along the perimeter of the market, in position to catch the mutant should it escape their comrades inside. Hands were on guns and eyes were wide, but all their attention was focused on where they thought the mutant to be. On a straight line down the drive, they might as well be bowling pins.
And on that note, the ceramic shell of the Bubble Lead flew through the air. One of the militia men spied it. Derek could see the man's mouth move to form the word 'grenade,' but before he could find his voice the devise's force field had activated, ballooning to a four meter diameter and projecting three thousand newtons of force -- or three hundred kilograms of mass. The distinction was lost on the hapless mutant-hunter who took the first hit. The next target was a little faster on his feet, and was knocked to the side, where a little Mazda compact broke his fall and possibly his ribs. Two more militia men got off more lightly, but not uninjured. The biggest casualty was the command post equipment, which was scattered or flattened according to the resilience of its makeup.
As they'd planned, Marcus didn't wait for the Bubble Lead to snap back. Instead, he pumped the Mega Blaster and launched those little energy-packed orbs of his right after it. One-two-three-four-five-six, Derek counted the faint pops of compressed air, followed by much louder explosions as each ball came in contact with sufficient mass to stop it and destabilize the energy field.
Before the third -boom-, he had the microbus surge forward to block returning gunfire. The vehicle's shielding caught the bullets easily, while the top-mounted gatling guns moved from their concealment in the luggage carrier. It was a shame they were only loaded with rubber bullets, but he hadn't been expecting a shoot-out.
-rat-at-at-at-at-at- They still hurt just the same, it seemed.
His smartphone beeped as the Search Snakes registered movement in the market. The other militiamen were rushing back, alerted by the sounds of gunfire. The tracking program plotted out their most likely course on both his phone and Marcus's tablet, so they boy knew the right instant to jump out from behind the microbus and let loose with his newest toy.
Derek hadn't known what to expect with this one. His own knowledge of the Mega Man game series was limited to what Marcus had told him, and there hadn't been time for a detailed explanation. What it looked like was a tiny plug of ice, more cylinder than icicle, shooting headlong at the space where the enemy was soon to arrive. In the cylinder's wake, a flash of cryogenic gas coated everything with a thick layer of ice. It wouldn't last long, but he knew it wouldn't have to.
In the first second, the ground turned slick with ice.
By the third second, the first pair of boots met an unseasonably chill reception.
By the sixth second, the next five pairs had joined it.
After ten seconds, all the militia men were on the ground, and the ice had melted to slush. Derek pressed the last button on the weapons array, and from the undercarriage a thin wire lashed out, connecting the growing pool of water to the microbus's terribly efficient electrical power source.
He almost felt sorry for the men at this point. Almost.
Normally, the sounds of gunfire and screaming would have alarmed her, but at the moment it was music to Myra's ears. They meant one less problem to deal with. Running after a mutant with unknown powers was enough of a problem as it was, and finding him was another. The frantic exodus of the crowds less than ten minutes before had left the aisles a mess, and their only lead was the compass rose on Ella's smartphone.
That little red needle pointed the way, growing larger on the screen as they neared Chessa and her monitor gadget. Canvas tents gave way to more permanent structures farther in, until they arrived at the brick warehouse wall that formed the anchor for the market's expansion. It was the farthest possible spot from where the mutant-hunters had gathered, but also a dead end unless one could walk up walls or possessed the key to the warehouse door.
Boggart had neither option available, and when they came upon him he was busy applying a pair of tin snips to the padlock. It wasn't doing him much good. Nearby, Chessa was out for the next dozen turns at least, lying on the bare concrete with a contingent of little green guards who looked far too much like a certain band of Disney dwarfs for it to be coincidence.
"What, no super-strength?" she called out.
The man stopped, froze for a bare second before turning around. His face had the biggest shit-eating grin she'd ever seen. "Why, lady fair! What an honor to see you again! Up and walking, no less! Did true love's kiss wake you, ma belle au bois dormant?
"No, I did it on my own." She hefted her bat, stretching the arm with a threatening practice swing. "Give her back."
"Do you really believe she is safe with you? The mutant-hunters are coming; they always come. The names and affiliations may change, but the reality never will. There will always be those who hate your sister for what she is. With us, she will be free."
"And who is 'us'?" she asked. Ella was not behind her, she realized. The minder had ducked behind the merchandise of the neighboring stall, and was creeping under the cover of conversation.
"We are the ones who have heard the future's call," Boggart declared. "We are the ones who realize it shall always be us against them. Not by our choice, but by theirs will there be conflict. There will be betrayal, murder, and war, the human race that was versus the human race that will exist for ages to come. For we have seen the destiny of the world, and it is worth the bloodshed, worth the pain we endure to hasten its arrival. We are the Advent, the dawn of the new dominion of man!"
"You are a crazed fanatic. Let Chessa go, and suffer the consequences."
"Shouldn't that be an 'or' there? 'Or else'? Your sister said you'd emasculate me and then choke me on my own manhood, but I cannot believe such a lady fair would be so cruel."
Myra raised a hand, calling the word HYAD to her mind, but not vocalizing. An icicle formed in her palm, not as large or as strong as the usual spell, but good for a demonstration. "I think this situation deserves an ice-pick lobotomy, personally," she purred as the man's eyes widened.
"An ice manifestor... I knew there was something about you that I liked, lady fair. I beg pardon; it is clear now I should have invited you both to join me and the Advent..."
His face was full of twisty, conniving thoughts. Myra could read him as easily as she could a Dr. Seuss picture book, but Boggart didn't seem to realize. There he stood, extolling the virtues of his cult when with every gesture and word her gift built up a picture that was far less appealing. It was when he reached the part about the 'beauty and flower of youth' that she stopped him.
"The answer is still no. We are not going with you. We are not going to give birth to the next generation of mutants for you." Boggart hadn't said it in those words, but she'd felt the undertones nonetheless. A war for existence, continued over generations, would surely include procreation as one of its weapons. The ugly, leering impression behind the man's grin hinted at all that, and worse.
"Alas, lady fair, you have no choice." From his pocket, Boggart pulled a spray can, which released a puff of green smoke and a sad, tired sound, no louder than a dog's fart. "Damn. This well has run dry. Well then, I'm afraid we must do this the hard way."
With a snap of the fingers, the little green men gathered in front, each with a matching leer on his face. Then their bodies lost cohesion, features melting away until there were seven matching globs of slime, which reminded her of Ghostbusters style ectoplasm, of all things. The green, jelly-like masses slid and merged, building up into a towering corpus. Arms and legs shot out, fingers and claws formed, and a toothy grin split a wild face in half below an orange mane.
It was a wolfman, or at least the image of one. Slightly hunched, with muscled arms reaching outward and a tail whipping behind, it could have come from any fantasy RPG setting she might name.
"I am sorry," Boggart was saying. "He won't hurt you too much; not at all, if you don't struggle."
"Mr. Boggart, I have only one word for you." In actuality, she had over a dozen vying for her attention, but most had too much potential for collateral damage. The one she picked was a tiny thing, two syllables linked together to bind a destructive little urge in place. With it right on her lips, she kissed the wood of her baseball bat. The word hissed out, transferring its pattern to the weapon.
The word was a shining piece of darkness, so black that it hurt the eyes, and in its train followed a million little threads forming the rainbow of the night. Intellectually, she knew that 'negative energy' was an oxymoron, the sort of thing reserved for role-playing games and cheap fantasy fiction, but so what? That was her life now, and she had the Slugger of Sinners in her hands.
Whether the green beast had a mind, she didn't know. Still, she could read its movements, could see it ready to defend its face against blunt force assault. So instead of swinging high like it expected, she swung low, a golfer's drive, down and then up again, right into the crotch of the beast. She could feel a crunch, and heard the high-pitched howl of pain -- Oh yeah, wolfman's got nards. --then XAKI released its payload, and with the sound of a thousand hellborn mosquitoes the dark chains surrounding the bat lashed out and ripped a vertical seam though the monster.
Correction: wolfman had nards. And a lot of other bits too, all of which were fast becoming past tense. The spell's shining darkness burned through the green ectoplasm-ish stuff in seconds, leaving a faint outline of dust in the air. A stray puff of wind put it to its final rest.
"You, you..." Boggart was staring at her with both fear and rage warring for their place in his eyes. "You bitch! Do you have any idea how long it took for me to produce that much... Agh!" He pulled out a knife, but dropped it just as quickly. His body trembled and convulsed, bringing him to his knees and then to the floor.
Ella came out of hiding then. The minder checked for a pulse, nodded, then removed the taser lines from Boggart's body. "What shall we do with him?" she asked.
"Nothing," said Myra. They didn't have the time, and now that her outrage was subsiding she realized she didn't have the stomach to follow through on her threats. Boggart's balls and brain would remain intact for today. "We can't chance him getting up soon, though..." She walked over and placed a fingertip on his bare forehead. "ASTOLON."
This was the first time she'd used this spell while in a condition to appreciate its effects, and she watched with interest. It began with a silver fingerprint shining between his eyes, with threads of silver spiraling away from the loops and whorls. In turn, those threads spawned fractal patterns as delicate as snowflakes. They were beautiful in the brief instant they existed before merging into one homogeneous layer of silver. And then she was looking at a statue. Myra rapped on Boggart's forehead, nodding happily at the dull -thunk- that resulted.
Stepping over the gleaming silver body, she hoisted Chessa onto her back. The girl was all skin and bones; she hardly weighed anything at all. The knock-out gas still had her down for the count, but arms and legs were twitching. Myra hoped the girl came out of it soon.
"Derek and Marcus have disabled the militia men for now," Ella reported. "But we need to get going."
"Don't have to tell me twice." Run fast, run hard, and leave your enemies behind you in the dust. Those were words to live by, she felt. Especially now.
That second dose of gas was hella strong. Not that she could think about it well enough to compare -- not at first -- but her brain was stuck in gridlock for much longer than before. Somewhere in the back of her head, a little scribe was furiously jotting down notes of the details that made it through the haze, but they were few and far between. The rustle of cloth, the feeling of hands on her skin, the sound of a shout, the scream of Bahamut-knew-what -- all disjointed, disconnected in place and time with no common thread to connect. Her first constant, consistent sensation was of bobbing up and down.
Piggyback, she realized. She was riding piggyback. Chessa wanted to cry, wanted to tell them to stop the world and let her get off, but it only came out as a quiet mewling.
"Myra, she's waking up!" -- was that Ella's voice she heard? Yes, yes it was! Myra's voice followed, though she felt it more through her body than her ears. Then she was being lowered to the ground. Fingers felt her face, and suddenly one eye was pried open. A blurry image of Myra knelt before her, but she couldn't really focus or track yet. Everything felt so heavy.
"KIALIQ." That word made it through the haze intact. It practically burned its way through, piercing the green fog and driving it from her head. All the sights and sounds around her, diffused and dispersed by the fog, came back in a rush of clarity, sharp enough to make her cry out.
"Myra, what did you do?" she heard Ella ask.
"Anti-paralysis spell. Well, more or less. I should've thought of it sooner." Myra sounded tired. "That gas did more of a number on me than I thought, I guess. Afraid I'm tapped out for a while. Need to recharge my batteries, and there's not much floating freely in the air around here."
"So what are we going to do about them?"
Them? Chessa shook her head a few times and looked around. The three of them were huddled in a stall filled with plush rugs, and Ella was peeking at something outside. Chessa crawled over, wincing and shivering at the same time as the thick shag on the floor tickled her reawakened sense of touch. She hoped this was only a temporary thing, because it felt way too intense for it to be good for her.
Once she'd made it to Ella's side, she peeked between the hanging rugs and got a look at the parking lot. It was a mess; half the cars she could see were sporting bullet holes, and the ground was littered with shards of safety glass. In the center of it all, the VW stood without a scratch to mar its currently cobalt paint job. As she watched, the luggage carrier swiveled around to reveal a machine-gun-looking thing that fired a few rounds at the far side of the lot. A hail of bullets answered it, producing bright sparks as metal met force field.
"Derek says he can't force them back any farther," Ella reported. "and as soon as he moves the car around, they'll realize we're here and start firing at us. You're sure you can't whip up a diversion for us, Myra?"
"Well then," the older woman said. "We shall have to improvise. Come here, Chessa."
She waddled over on her knees, trying hard to ignore how the carpet felt as she slid across it. Ella helped her stand up, then pointed to where the stalls opened out to the parking lot. "Stick your head out that way at the right time," she was told.
"When will that be?" she asked.
"You'll know," came the answer, and then there was a bright light shining in her face. There was an instant of shock, as her raw nerves were overwhelmed by the photic assault. She pulled back, startled, but her head was already buzzing.
"Wha... uh... ah...!"
Myra and Ella took her by the shoulders and spun her around so she was facing the right direction. There was a shiver as waves of tingly static surged across her face and into the space behind her nostrils, adding to the buzz and setting off its release.
"CHOOO!" came the expected sneeze, with its attendant crackle and flash, followed by the smell of ozone. At the last second, someone grabbed her by the ears and aimed her at the the mutant-hunters, and after that she was dragged across concrete as fast as possible. Chessa landed on the car seats with an "oomph."
"I coulda done that by myself," she complained as Derek crunched glass and peeled rubber out of there.
"True, but your accidental blasts are more powerful than your regular ones," Ella reminded her. "And I figured this was an excellent time to test you for the photic sneeze reflex. Remind me to buy you a good pair of sunglasses sometime soon, Chessa."
Sunglasses reminded her of her funny nose crest, which reminded her of those vanity glasses she'd been admiring not too long before, which reminded her of all the clothes she'd wanted to wear with them, which made her realize that they must have left behind all the awesome clothes she'd spent the last hour and a half picking out. She had the kimono and her underclothes, but... "My poodle skirt!" she sobbed. It felt like she'd lost a family member.
"Girls..." she heard Marcus mutter from the front seat. Myra whacked him for her, like a big sister should.
--- Wednesday, August 10th, 2016
"...and after that, we spent a rather tense hour driving randomly through suburbs, listening in on the police bands, and changing the Volkswagen's color twice along the way," Speers concluded as the senator listened on, wide-eyed. "Ella went back the following day to check on the sellers who got gassed by the Adventist, and collected both Chessa's clothes and the boy's camera drones at the same time. The Adventist -- Boggart, that is -- came out of that stasis lock just as the actual police arrived, and unsurprisingly he had several priors on his record. He's currently in the special containment section of the Illinois state penitentiary, awaiting trial."
"Damnit, Speers, why didn't you mention that the fucking Adventists were involved earlier?"
"Because they're not. One rogue mutant was, and he had no idea what he was getting himself into. Even that much I did not want to mention in front of Murtaugh. A tale of one mutant supremacist would have set him off for hours of ranting. Can you imagine what news of an entire millenialist cult formed around total war between the branches of humanity would do to the man?"
"Make him die of fear and send him to his Maker?" Larson snorted. "If only. So the Adventists don't know about LIFELINE. Good."
"They don't know yet," Speers said. "They've got their claws into the Evolution Rocks crowd, and I know for a fact that group has partisans in the intelligence agencies. Word may already have filtered down to them that the project exists, with or without details. As long as LIFELINE goes forward, it's only a matter of time until its specifics, both positive and negative, become more widely known. I shudder to think what the Adventists could do with it."
"Afraid they'll want to revive that prophet of theirs?"
"If only," Speers said, echoing the senator. "From what I've heard the cult's current management might be happier without her presence. No, I'm worried about, well... Consider how Boggart acted. I wouldn't put it past the man, or someone like him, to utilize the box's power to forcibly convert baselines." He finished the cup of coffee, his third, while the senator chewed on that one.
"But that's a side effect. How would they harness it..." Larson's voice trailed off as the implications set in.
"If the Adventists feel desperate enough, then at least some of them might not see anything wrong with mass executions, as long as they knew that they'd be 'saving' the victims shortly after. I admit," he said. "I didn't even consider this possibility until after I'd wondered if LIFELINE would be better shut down, but it really does make things more urgent. Give Murtaugh a good fight, maybe even wring a concession or two out of him, but please, senator. Please let him win in the end. I've already removed the vital elements from the box, for storage or destruction, and my assistant is filing paperwork with DARPA to relocate my lab out of state to start a new project."
"Yes... yes, I'll do what I can to help, Dr. Speers. What about the test subjects? What will you do with them?"
"Me? It's not my place to decide, really. They are their own people. Once I was able to get them in the system, with proper IDs and all, then they were free to decide for themselves. We agreed it was best if we got them out of the immediate area, but it was Chessa who decided on a more specific goal."
---- Wednesday, July 13th, 2016
It was a grey, grey world that morning. The sky was a dark ceiling of clouds reaching seamlessly to all points of the horizon. It was actually rather dull, with no wind or storm to liven things up. Under the charcoal sky, the colors of the world were hardly at their best. The grass was brown and sickly, and the trees were dark smudges scattered around Holy Cross Cemetery. Sometimes she had to wonder how a seemingly random world could set the mood of her life so well.
Today, she didn't bother. Her attention was fully on the carved piece of stone in front of her, the one that read: CHESTER WALTER FERRIS -- 5.9.1999 - 11.15.2013. Mom was buried right beside her -- him -- and the space on the far side was reserved for Dad. Whenever his old man finally kicked the bucket, Mom would be there to keep the peace between them. It wasn't much of a plot, but she was in it. He was, rather. Technically, she was on it.
Well, time to say goodbye. She adjusted her veil, a black lace number on loan from Ella, gripped her bundle of flowers tightly, and began.
"Dearly beloveds," she said, addressing the assembled members of her new family. Everyone was dressed in their Sunday best, and Myra had even found a sorta decent necktie for the Doc. "We are gathered here to witness the passing of Chester Ferris from one life to the next. I stand here today upon my own grave to declare that my former state of being has collapsed, to give way to a new one. I declare myself dead, a suicide by quantum mechanism, and my old life is dead with me. I declare myself not dead, like the hypothetical cat, the waveform of my existence going one way instead of the other. I am now, and forever shall be, Na'Chessa Rakia Barnes. Rest in peace, me."
There was muted applause from her audience, and she curtsied -- a little unsteadily, but she was getting better at it. With that, the last strings connecting her to her old life were cut, and she truly was as free as she wanted to be. Chessa Barnes' life was a clean slate, to be whatever she desired, and the world had never felt so full of potential. She lay the bouquet of chrysanthemums on her -- or rather, his -- own grave, bowed out of respect to the way things might have been, and then rejoined her family.
"Eloquent, if not exactly Shakespeare," Myra said. "We need to get you some books on poetry, buster. You could hone your talent a bit."
"Wait until it's your turn," she said to her big sis. "You can talk the talk, but let's see you walk the walk on your own grave."
"Must you leave so soon?" Doc Speers asked as they returned to where the cars were parked. She bit back a giggle at the forlorn sound in his voice. The not-really-mad scientist was going to miss them, was he?
The Volkswagen microbus took up a fair bit of space in the lot, though the currently sedate brown exterior deflected attention towards its neighbor. Ella's car was a sassy little red convertible with Doc-only-knew what under the hood. It comfortably seated two, which meant Ella and Speers.
"You said it yourself, Derek," Myra reminded. "It's not safe around here right now, not for us. Those DoH asswipes still have Chessa's general description on their website, and there's no telling what's going on with those mutant zealots. Now, don't fret none," big sis added, patting his cheek. "You've got our itinerary, and we're going to call in regularly."
"I'll send pictures!" shouted Marcus from the back of the VW. Chessa's little bro already had the tablet up and logged into the devisor ubernet. "Say cheese!" Not to mention a bluetoothed camera with a surprisingly bright flash. She averted her eyes just in time. Stupid sneeze reflex.
"We'll be traveling slow and steady to avoid undue attention," Myra continued. "Janceena's expecting us sometime next week, so there's plenty of time to catch the sights, smell the roses, and whatever. Now relax," big sis said, straightening Doc Speers' not-so-awful tie. "Before you know it, we'll all be down in Houston for Marcus's big goodbye. See you then, Derek."
And then big sis surprised everyone -- maybe even herself. Grabbing a handful of necktie, she pulled Dr. Speers' face down to her level and planted one right on the lips. Five, ten, fifteen... Chessa counted the seconds until the two of them came up for air. Marcus simply stared in shock. At about a minute's count, Myra released the Doc, and he slumped against the convertible like his knees weren't working right.
Without another word, Myra hopped behind the driving wheel of the VW and revved the engine. Chessa could feel the heat of Marcus's glare from the back seat, even though she was seated on the right side and he was on the left. Big sis couldn't miss it, and after a moment she turned around in her seat. "Yes?"
"You... and the Dork." To Chessa's ears, it was hard to tell if that was a question, an exclamation, or a statement of disbelief.
"What can I say?" Myra replied with a wink. "He's adorkable. Now c'mon, kiddo. It's time to hit the open road. Onward to Springfield, St. Louis, and points south. Hi-ho, Scrapmetal! Away!"
As the VW trundled out of the cemetery and over to I-80, Chessa kept her eyes focused out the windows. This would be her last sight of Chicago in hopefully forever, and she gave a mental goodbye to each building in the skyline, from the Sears Tower all the way over to Lake Point, though one or two looked to have been built sometime while she was out. Her old house wasn't visible from the highway, but she imagined flipping the bird in its general direction before settling in for a long trip.
"Hey, Chessa," said Marcus. Turning around, she could see he'd gotten the VW's new games system up and running. He and the Doc had worked on it all week, and now little bro was offering her a controller. On the screen, Marvel vs. Capcom III was loading up. "Best out of five?"
"You're on, little bro."
Yeah, she decided as she clobbered Marcus in the first round. Family was what you made of it and who you made it with, and she had definitely made the right decision, declaring the three of them siblings out of the box. Life could be funny, and it would be tough. But with all of them together, it certainly was worth living. There'd be no looking back for this dragon-girl.