Note for the reader: this is Interlaced, sequel to Parallels and featuring the continuing adventures of my OC Parallel. An ongoing serial, it's being released here in 10-part blocks for your convenience.
We resume the story as our heroine has just finished explaining to the Head how with Paige's help, she obtained security recordings that implicate the Don, Hamper and Damper.
17th January, 2007, before breakfast, Whateley
Mrs Carson ends up giving Paige an essay on the ethics of using her powers to dig up dirt on people she doesn’t like, and another on the school rules that apply to hacking the security feeds without permission. Tansy has to go and swear out a statement at Security. Then she’s going to have to apologise to Elaine and Joanne. But she was going to do that anyhow. Then probably some other punishment, after they close the trap on Hamper and Damper, but the Head hasn’t decided.
As for me, well…
“I know that detention in Hawthorne is hardly a chore for you. And I know from Stan and Morrie that you can switch off your sense of disgust, so the sewers would be the same. Boredom, you switch off. Essays, you’d have done, flawless, and sitting in my inbox by the time I finished my sentence. You’re making quite a lot of money from ARC but you’ve barely touched it. And the only thing you’ve used it on is clothes.”
I raise a hand. “Yes?”
“Ma’am, I may need it soon again, I’ve had contact from my academic adviser that Lillian Dennon might want me for her class. I might need to get a dress.”
She nods. “And if I were to confiscate it except for necessities like that dress?” A pause, then, “No need to answer, I can see from your face, it would barely inconvenience you. Hmm.” She looks at Tansy, and seems to have an idea. “Well now, I have a thought, but I need to check with someone else first. So you may go for now, I’ll contact you later. Dismissed.”
Not like that’s ominous or anything.
It’s both a good and somewhat frustrating thing that the Head is smart enough not to fall for any Brer Rabbit, “please don’t throw me in the briar patch, Brer Fox” flimflam. I’m pretty sure that most of the things I’d consider necessary reasons to touch my cash are also things she’d, reluctantly, consider necessary too. But our good relationship is honestly too important to me for that kind of sneakiness anyway. Which means I have to let her figure out some way to be beastly to me. Gah.
To be fair, I genuinely should try to rein in my temper. And not drag the others into it.
My down mood gets me hugs from Sara at breakfast. Tansy’s off getting her statement recorded and the table feels a bit emptier without her. She really has become part of the family.
“Looking forward to chasing Chou’s discovery?”, Sara asks.
The obvious distraction is welcome. “A bit”, I agree. “Hey, I’m curious, didn’t you sense it since Christmas?”
“Yeah, I did”, she says, “But I’m bound by my demon nature, I could go and look at it on my own, but I can’t just volunteer it. And I wasn’t sure I could take it out solo. So I’ve just left it alone until now.”
“Lemme guess, that’s a bit frustrating?”
“Boy is it ever.”
I hug her. “Any way I can help?”
“Involve me in things. When I’m asked, or when I’m included, I can act.”
“What if I could take the restrictions off you?”
She chuckles. “I’ve thought about that. It would mean tearing my demon nature out. Not a gentle thing. Probably incredibly painful. And a lot of people only trust me because they can use that nature to bind me.”
“So how come they trust me?”
“Some don’t. That sniper was originally sent after you, remember? But you’ve gone and made yourself hard to harm, and hidden in a very secure place, and are making the right noises about neutrality and friendliness. I think half of them haven’t made up their minds and the others haven’t figured out how to get leverage. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a level where kidnapping Paige was an attempt at that.”
Paige smirks, “Which she comprehensively stomped.”
“With a little help from her friends”, Sara adds grinning. “Yeah, I think they’ve put kidnapping people on the don’t try it list, after that and Donna.”
“Good”, I say with feeling. “Because honestly, I’m sick of it, it’s scary and makes me do awful things, so if they lay off, yay for that.”
“Anyway”, Sara says, “Changing the subject a bit, I should let you know that I’ve been busy setting up the conference. Well, me and Petra, she’s coordinating the ecumenical side.”
It’s an unsubtle swerve but I’m glad of it. “Oh? Do tell.”
“We’re going to kick it off in February. First day on the first, followed by a big party on the second, which is imbolc, one of the pagan holy days. Last day on Valentine’s day. The entry and exit on Earth will be in Seattle.”
“Nowhere near here, and it’s well connected in a number of occult ways. Also the Medawihla have contacts with the Duwamish people whose traditional land the city is. We’ve been able to get a pass from them too.”
I nod approvingly. “I take it we won’t have to be there continuously?”
“Well, two of your bodies already are, up to you how much you want to reveal them. But in terms of exeats, no, just a few, for the big announcement and a few panels. Mostly my cult will be handling the running. And of course, zero commute.” Because the main part of the conference is off-world and accessible by door.
“Might take the opportunity to take a look around Seattle”, I say. “I only really know it from Shadowrun.”
Which makes her giggle. “Kinda similar, fewer flying cars.”
“You’ve been over there already huh?”
“Daddy’s doors do make it rather easy. Yes, I’ve been to and fro. We needed to set up the entrance, parking, stuff like that. The city would be annoyed if we caused a jam.”
“Don’t think I haven’t noticed that the first is also a month after you picked me out of a snowdrift”, I say with a grin, snuggling against her.
“Mhm”, she agrees, stroking my hair. “I may also have thought of that.”
The last bit of drama at breakfast is watching Hamper and Damper get frogmarched out of Crystal Hall by security guys. Goodbye forever to them I think, and no tears on my part.
Necromancy class has been cancelled for the morning, so I’ve got a four way split. One to my adviser, one to Tolman’s class, one to Dyffud, and the investigation team is rallying at Kirby, so Sara and I head over that way. We’re joined by Chou, Molly, and Molly’s friend, who she introduces as Winnie or Geomancer. She’s the one who can track the spell, but I think she’s a bit scared of Sara and me, because she stays really quiet and hangs close to Molly.
Outside Kirby, we meet Circe, and a squad of security types in body armour with big guns. Circe has a short discussion with Molly, which results in agreement to have her come along to look after Winnie, provided the two of them stay back from any danger, as they’re the most squishy of all of us.
Over the links, I say, “Circe, a moment?”
“Yes, what is it that can’t be said out loud?”
“I want to give the security people links. More precisely, I want you to give them links.”
She thinks about that, nods. “I see. Good thought. They’ll take it easier from me. Worried about them?” Because of course, she knows what I can do with a link to someone.
“I just want everyone protected.”
A word to Chou discovers she has, unsurprisingly, given Molly a link. So Molly can give Winnie one, and nobody has to deal directly with scary me. Good, good.
Meanwhile over over in Schuster I knock on the door labelled “Terri Larson”. A familiar voice says “Come in”, so I do.
Our short discussion reveals that I’m assigned remedial psychic ethics on Tuesdays and Thursdays, fifth and sixth period. Which works. The first aid class, meanwhile, is extra curricular. That will happen on three Sundays in a row and run all day. And there will be adults mixed in. Not a problem, again.
The business of Lillian Dennon is messier. “She initially turned you down, at the start of term. Not enough known about you, she doesn’t include the uncouth. But you’ve shown yourself polite, if unpolished. Now she has a hankering to polish you. It won’t be gentle. I’ve had students break down from her class. And you’ll be coming in late with work to catch up.”
I say, “I’ve already heard the scare stories, fight a combat in heels and don’t spill the tea.”
“Or smudge your makeup. Which I notice, you don’t use.”
“My chromatophores are just black right now, but I could add colours?” I simulate black lipstick and eyeliner.
Which makes miss Larson giggle. “Oh dear me no. She will definitely insist on the sticky stuff, at least knowing how. And knowing where, too. Because if it’s clear to me that you aren’t practised, dear, it will be blatant to her.” Oops.
I scrunch up my nose. “I can tolerate learning to paint myself with stickiness and goop. It seems useful to be able to mix in society. Even if the combat thing seems a stretch.”
“It’s mostly to test the rest of it, I’m told. You are assumed, already, to be capable of fighting. Or if not that’s someone else’s class. The task is doing it and maintaining decorum.”
I nod. “Well, I’ll meet her, and see if we click, but pencil me in for that, absent any major personality clash.”
She nods. “Very well, I’ll let her know. She’ll want to meet you first, but the class is Fridays, all afternoon.”
“That’s going to be an interesting set of overlaps, but I can do it.”
“She’ll want to see you either later today or tomorrow for an introductory interview. Do you have a formal outfit?”
“Not yet, I may need an exeat to jump over to Dunwich and get one.”
She considers. “See her in your uniform, then ask her what to get. Or you may end up with an expensive mistake.”
Fair point. “Okay.”
“I’ll let her know. Expect a mail. It may be needlessly flowery. Try to be polite back.”
I grin, “I’ll do my best.”
The group at Kirby has set off, and we’re following Winnie’s guidance, who’s leading, with Molly beside her chatting away. So far, she’s leading us towards the woods. Me, who’s an idiot and evidently a makeup ignoramus too, decides it’s a fun time to whistle the hi-ho song from Snow White. Which makes the security person who’s walking beside me giggle. She has a nice voice. “So this link thing, you invented it?” Maybe she’s asking to divert me from whistling. Which succeeds.
“I did, yeah. It’s kind of an advanced version of the comms thing my friends were already using, but built out of spells.”
“We’ve heard rumours about it, some of the brass have it, but suddenly, now we all have it. Your instigation, I think. Why?” She’s smart.
I consider what to say. “It has a secondary use, that might let me protect any of you who gets badly injured. I kind of set this expedition off, pushing Bladedancer to tell Circe, so I feel responsible.”
“Yeaaah… there’s other rumours. That you brought some frogs back to life. That you did it with a human, but they’re hiding who.”
“There’s personal secrets mixed up in that stuff, but yeah.”
“I see.” She sounds thoughtful. “Well, let’s just hope it isn’t needed.”
I can only nod my agreement.
Our trail leads us unerringly closer to the forest’s edge, and the group reorganises, with security moving forward to take the lead. We swing around a bit, to triangulate how far into the forest the source is, it seems to be about a hundred meters in. Give or take, because it’s resisting precise location.
After a short pause to plan, the group moves into the forest, Molly and Winnie in the center with Chou guarding them, we can’t leave them outside since we might need guiding in. Security up front, Circe in the rear, me and Sara flanking, because we’re durable and can fight. When we close in on the area, the idea is that security will split, a few stay behind on guard while most of them go ahead and make sure it’s clear.
As we go into the trees, I shift to my super suit, which blends well with the white. The forest is quiet, fallen snow eats the sound of our footfalls, it should be calm but something about it is heavy with tension. Most of the others are making slow going in the drifts. Sara and I are trotting over the snow’s surface, alert to danger.
When we get closer, I think even the security folks can feel the tension. Their radios are full of static, to the point they have to be switched off as a distraction, but the links are still clear. Whatever dark magic was done here doesn’t touch the soul level.
“Alright, civilians stay put, squad move forward”, the security squad’s leader is a guy from his voice, they’re all in the armoured suits so it’s hard to guess much. “Stay alert, do not touch anything that looks magical, I want a perimeter. Nothing gets in or out.”
I say, “Can you broadcast your vision on link, please, we might spot something important.”
“Good idea, do it”, the squad leader says. And we can see various perspectives of forest. They’re coming up close to a clearing, and I’m guessing that’s our destination.
There’s something bothering me, and I have to turn my attention to figure what it is. “Where’s the magic, we should be seeing it? Unless it’s hidden from baselines.”
Circe says, “It’s probably a circle.”
“Circle where… circle under the snow… you inside the clearing, mind where you step!”, but my warning is too late and suddenly things are happening.
Over the link I get glimpses of sudden movement as humanoid creatures burst up from under the ground. Gun-chatter as the security squad opens up on them. “Bullets aren’t doing anything! Fall back!” Sara and I glance, and we rush forward to engage. Circe is telling the others, “Circle up, Bladedancer, your sword may be able to cut these things. Don’t disturb me, I’m going to see if I can break the summoning.”
Tree boles flash past as Sara and I charge in. As soon as I can see the creatures I start throwing duplicates in teleports behind them, and lighting up sabers. Sara grabs one off a security person and slams it into a tree, and disembowels it with claws. I cut a half dozen of them down, happily they don’t seem to heal from lightsaber burns. They’re long-armed things with long, dripping slime-covered claws, wide mouths, short legs with spurs at the knee. The ears look feline, pointed and tufted. Teeth in rows, like a shark. Red eyes with no sign of a pupil, but they see well enough.
Several of the security people are in a bad way so I leave duplicates to do first aid, and jump back into the fray, sabers casting purple glows onto the snow as I slash, seeing Sara lift one into the air with tentacles and rip it in half. I think they’re still coming because the numbers don’t seem to be going down.
I can see one of them has a security person, it sees me, holds a claw over their heart. The meaning’s clear, come closer and they die. I run down my options. Slipstream in or teleport? Gets me there fast, but I’m not sure the saber cut would finish the job fast enough to stop that claw touching the heart.
There is one more option but I don’t want to use it. It was an idea I’d thought up and then set aside as too full of nasty potential. But needs must… timebase set high enough the world gets red and dim, I open out a tube of vacuum, create a sphere of atomically pure silver in the end, bend space inside the tube to give a harsh gravity field, and the sphere starts moving, even at this timebase it’s moving quickly when I release the tube wall just before it crosses into air. I can see the creature’s claw pressing inward, it’s fast, but the sphere is faster, pushing a visible shock of air, passing through the creature’s head, exploding out behind it in a spray of pink, and I vanish what’s left of the sphere before it wreaks any more havoc on the surrounding forest. Timebase back to normal and CRACK echoes around drawing looks. The monster falls, claw only scraping the security person’s uniform.
I call it my bullshit cannon, and I don’t like it one bit.
Suddenly a hush falls over the clearing as Circe’s voice echoes, she’s speaking a language foreign to me but it makes all the monsters stop, and then dissolve into smoke and vanish.
And like that, it’s over. Lightsabers off, and various of me take a look around for casualties.
Those claws had poison, but it’s not particularly difficult for me to stop that and patch minor damage. Then I come to a body without a head - I recognise her, though, we talked earlier. One of the other guys says, “Shit, McGraw.”
“What? Also who turned out the lights?” It’s her voice over the link. Which is spooky as fuck when looking at a headless body.
Okay, I think this calls for a little more than first aid, and I don’t care if Doyle is annoyed at me. “Miss McGraw, your head was bitten off, your body’s dead, but there’s enough life in it that I can rebuild and revive you. It has to be your choice.”
“What, you can grow me a new head?”
“Yeah literally that.”
“Well fuck yeah, do it, I never used the old one anyway.” Which makes the others laugh nervously.
I strip back the uniform and put my fingers against still-warm skin. Close off and seal torn blood vessels, close the severed neck vessels, flow saline into her bloodstream, restart her heart. Push oxygen directly in. Start regrowth from the neck, rebuilding the smashed vertebra and then others on top of it, muscles, tendons, skull bones starting to form, I’m using her DNA to guide the shape. Skull curves and closes, brain growing up from the spinal cord, making space for it, fitting it to the skull. Face rebuilding. Skin, hair growing. She looks asleep, and her hindbrain comes active, she takes a gasping breath, and another. Now reconnecting her soul, painstakingly, point to proper point, and her eyes flicker open. She coughs, spits out blood, looks up at me. “Well fuck me if that wasn’t a ride. Hi everyone, I’m back.”
“Hey McGraw, check out your face”, one of the others says.
“What?” She reaches up and touches her face, and then laughs. “Well damn.”
When I look confused, one of the other guys says, “She lost half her face to a flechette grenade from the bad guys at Halloween. But you rebuilt it whole. McGraw, you’re almost pretty again. Your mom won’t recognise you.” Which makes everyone laugh.
She tries to sit up, and with effort succeeds. “Ugh, this feels weird.”
“You’re using your soul’s memories, the physical ones aren’t there”, I say. “I think you might have strange perspectives on some stuff, weird dreams. And driving a body again after being cut loose from one is gonna feel odd.”
“Feels heavy, everything’s a damn chore. So we beat those fuckers?”
Circe says, “I have sealed them, yes. The remainder, I can handle myself, alone.”
We straggle back out, collecting Chou’s group who had defeated a couple of the things, and as soon as the radios work again, they’re calling in backup and medical vehicles. Which soon arrive, and everyone gets trundled over to Doyle, even the ones without injuries.
A lot of waiting and a short but thorough check-up later, I’m discharged. Although not yet free, as I have to get debriefed, this time by a familiar face, Lieutenant Forsyth. Which has its downsides as he’s no dummy and immediately picks up on the cannon.
“Why do you hate it?”
“It’s a stupid, violent, destructive, overpowered nuisance. No ammo limits because it’s created matter, I can easily push the velocity up to hypersonic with a long barrel, and because it’s gee fields, it’s independent of the mass of the bullet. When my back of the envelope calculations started rating in megatons I drew a line under it. I am not some walking weapon. Also I can vanish the bullet which lets me assassinate people and not leave evidence, whoop-de-do. Another skill I do not want anything to do with.”
He sighs. “A commendable attitude but you’re still going to have to deal with having the ability. This time, it saved someone.”
I nod. He’s right, but it still bothers me. “Worth it, in the circumstances, but it’s another reason for people to fear me. Still, that cat’s out of the bag now.”
“And it’s not the only one. You brought back Robin McGraw. One of my own platoon, so thank you. The docs are still undecided if you put her back together right, but the consensus is yes. They’re calling it a medical miracle, but it’s more than that, isn’t it?”
“If I’m doing things right, it’s the start of a shift like we haven’t seen since the dawn of science”, I agree. “What I’m trying to do is get humans to see beyond the idea the soul is intangible. To view what I did as a technique, not a miracle. And to see the wide open world which that perspective opens up. As well as the risks that they are currently blind to.”
He looks thoughtful. “I can’t stop my people from pretty much building shrines to you, but I’ll give that some thought.”
I chuckle. “You know, I might not be completely averse to the shrines. Got a big thing coming up, I might be pushing the religious figure angle a tad. Technically, I am a life power.”
“Watch yourself with that one”, he says. “That can definitely turn and bite you very badly. No prophet is accepted in his home town. Wise words of warning.”
“Duly noted”, I agree.
As the bell goes for third period, I feel the circle’s power dip, sputter and stop. Suddenly the air feels fresher, and the low sky a little less crushingly heavy.
Other me has a change of lessons to go to, but this me takes the chance to just snuggle with Sara, let out of her debriefing too.
“We did a good thing today”, she says. “I can feel the place getting lighter, happier.”
“Shouldn’t you be grumpy about that, little miss evil?”, I tease.
“Grr, yes, me grumpy”, her attempt to fake it leaves us both in giggles. “Perhaps I’m coming around to your perspective a little. I may be a creature of lust and darkness, but I can enjoy a little happiness too. Besides, your kind of happiness seems to include a fair helping of lust.” I giggle as she shares her Sara-o-vision over the mark, reminding me of our closeness with that most intimate connection, and I can feel half the buildings on campus lit up with purple flares. “Fraternisation in full swing.”
“No lessons before lunch yourself?”, I ask.
She shakes her head. “Absolutely free as a bird, darling.” And grins. “Race you, no warping”, and we’re off, dashing through the snow towards Hawthorne.
If you’re wondering how well I could manage two separate classes while all that mess was going down, it was okay while we were just walking over. But when everything went to hell, Dyffud stopped me and had me meditate, and Sensei Tolman told me to sit out and watch. I wasn’t exactly distracted, but my chi was all over the place. I still haven’t got that under control across bodies in a pinch. At least now I can feel it, though.
Luckily the actual battle was short, if very violent. Which now leaves me stuck benched and watching the others spar.
Sensei Tolman comes over and sits with me. There’s a pause, as we watch the other students squaring off in their pairs. “You’ve been holding back a lot. I can see that when you fight.”
“This class, I’m sticking to the syllabus”, I say. “For the others as well as myself. If I’m using the stuff we’ve been taught, they get to see how to do it right.”
She nods, looks at me. “Do you think you’re too advanced for the class now?”
I think for a moment, then shake my head. “What I’m learning from Dyffud is… advanced, intricate, but patchy. I either know it or I don’t. What I haven’t seen, I know nothing about. Much I’ve seen but not used. Even if I’ve used it, it’s been against him. As if I had grammar and vocabulary, but no experience speaking.”
“Good answer”, she nods. “Still, I’ll be bringing in some more advanced students in when I can borrow them, and you can let your brakes off a bit. You do need to practise that stuff he’s filling your head full of.”
I smile. “I’d appreciate it.”
“Also, blockhead, try not to get into pitched battles in the middle of my lesson” She raps me on the head, making me say “ow”.
“Sorry. Wasn’t planned, the security squad was supposed to be over-caution.”
She sighs. “Well, judging by your chi, it’s over now. Would you like to rejoin the class?”
I nod, “Yes, Sensei. Circe says she can take it from here, which means it stops being my business, I won’t be distracted.”
“Alright, next change of partners, I’ll call one out for you.” She stands and moves off.
Dyffud, meanwhile, is taking a different tack. “Why don’t you run through what just happened, for me?” He sounds genuinely curious.
So I explain, and he listens, and then we go through the detail of the fight, and he has me show - with a lit lightsaber, even - what exact cuts and stances I used. I have to stop short of scarring the floor on a few that went through and into dirt. He nods. Then asks me about the fight with Lycanthros and Nightgaunt. So I show him my moves on that one too.
He doesn’t look impressed. “Your moves were practical and they worked, against those opponents. You just moved the blade through where they were, and chop, dead. With a lightsaber, that’s effective. With a more conventional sword, you would have bent the blade, jammed it in a shallow cut, or just not had enough force to cut at all. And meanwhile your stance was sloppy, too static, flat-footed and full of openings. You weren’t even thinking about combined offence and defence. You didn’t expect a return blow, or for your cut to be avoided and used against you. Luckily, both times, you were right.”
I nod. “That’s fair. I wasn’t really thinking that way. I wanted the fight to end, I was taking the shortest path to that.”
“Which is an important start, I’ll grant you. Okay so, we’ll be adding weapons, a jo staff should be a good stand in. Not actual sabers, Elizabeth would never let me hear the end of it if I let you cut up the floor. But some of the skills should transfer. And maybe some day, you’ll prefer a wooden stick to a live blade, and that will stand you in good stead too.”
“May all my fights be ones I can resolve so peacefully”, I agree.
For the rest of the lesson, we focus on chi stuff. “This is something I’ve been talking to the other group about, but until just now, you didn’t have enough ability to sense the flow of chi for me to be able to demonstrate them to you. But I think now, you can, and it should be a welcome distraction from the adrenaline jitters over on the other side.”
So we talk for a bit about the Chinese five-element system, and how they aren’t really “elements” so much as named reference points in a transformational flow, and how they connect to different styles of fighting. And he demonstrates their chi flow for me, with quite clear and obvious differences between them. Of course I’m now going back through today’s training, and labelling stuff he did. Then guess-labelling other lessons, before I had chi sight. “Ah, I see.”
He chuckles. “Well, let’s try it”, and we’re back to sparring, except this time I have another layer to track. Not just in following him, but in attempting to make use of the transitions he’s implicitly shown me.
Lesson ends with a warm-down and meditation, but I think I’ve made a substantial advance there. It should amongst other things help me de-escalate a fight. That’s something I’m glad to have.
Third period sees a change-over. I have ranges, and flight license training. Both interesting classes.
As I make my way down into the range, Caitlin waves me over. “So what’s this I hear about you using an unregistered weapon?”
Hoo boy. “Nothing so fast as scuttlebutt, huh? It’s not exactly a weapon so much as powers stuff. I’m not sure how that gets regulated here. But I used it in a life threatening emergency, if that helps.”
“It might, what is it?”
“You saw me make the saber by creating matter in a vacuum tube. And I’ve had experience with slipstreaming, opening them up real fast. So I open a tube for a barrel, create a bullet in it, add a gravity gradient, wait until just before the bullet hits the end, let the tube and the gradient go. High timebase lets me do it all under precision control. And I can vanish the bullet at any stage in its travel. Linear accelerator, no recoil.”
“I haven’t found it, or tried. It seems very likely I could shoot as hard as a navy battleship. Possible I could stretch it into the megatons. Given I don’t know my limits…” I shrug. “The worst case scenario is I could shoot the planet apart like a Death Star. I have absolutely no intention whatsoever of doing that.”
“There’s no reason I couldn’t use it as a ping pong ball launcher.”
She considers. “Okay. I got the life threatening emergency bit from security, too, they really don’t want me going hard on you. They were pretty insistent about that. So just don’t use the thing again until I clear you, capeesh? And don’t get yourself into any life threatening emergencies. Now scram, get over to your station, we’re learning plasma rifles today.”
I nod. “Understood. Will do.” and grin, and head to my station.
Billie meets me outside Laird, in her “space pirate” gear, which is kind of a white tabard belted with a sash over a red and black outfit. “We’re over on the field today. That’s just over there. You’ll need your costume again. That’s really just a precaution in case we get spotted in the air.”
So I tease her by changing into mine without breaking stride. “This do?”
“Gah, how… no, I do not need to know.” She laughs. “I swear you invent new powers by the day.”
“I remix old ones. Should I include my instrument pack?”
“Can you read instruments?”
“These ones, yes. Direct data hookup.”
“What do you have?”
“Mostly what you’d call raw sensors. I’ll do the conversion to altitude and speed in my head. Terrain avoidance database, GPS, map. Also a very flexible radio. Transmit, receive, direction and distance. That works as a passive radar and I can pick up beacons with it.”
“Rather you than me with the raw data. But yeah, include it, can’t hurt and you’ll definitely want the radio.”
My pack appears and clings on to my costume, and I can feel the instrument feeds opening up. It’s like adding another half a dozen senses. Like for example, I can hear WARS, and I can also feel precisely where the transmission tower is. With that and a few dozen other radio sources acting as beacons, it’s going to be fairly easy to find my way around.
Mr Buttons is waiting in the field, and he’s wearing what looks like some devisor jet-pack harness. “Alright, I don’t expect to keep up with you, but I should be able to stay at your altitude. We’ll be starting with communicating with the local air traffic controller, Tennyo, you can lead us through that the first time. And please remember, both of you, keep it to codenames on the air.”
While I’m up there practising standard-rate turns (“three degrees per second, two minutes the full circle, not instantaneous, or you’ll completely confuse the air traffic control”) I’m also lounging on Sara’s bed, watching my beloved play “good and evil online”. I can tell from her villainous chuckling she’s having fun, even if her victims are not. I’ve never been much of a one for games, but for her, this is her let-off-the-leash time, and it’s sweet watching her enjoy it.
Unexpectedly I’m nudged on the links. “Hey there sweetie, it’s Donna, are you busy?”
“Never busy for Donna-mama. What have you got?”
“Couple bits of news for you. First up, some feedback on influence. The formal indicators won’t tick for another half month or so, but we’ve been keeping an eye on the informal day to day totals in places that record them. Same pattern everywhere, violence down across the board, hate crimes down, unsolicited confessions up. Also we’re getting reports from our therapists on retainer, that they are swamped for business largely with people working through their guilt. And several millenarian cults popping up claiming that the worldwide biological breakthrough events on the 8th were advance warning of a new world dawning.”
“They aren’t too wrong there.”
She chuckles “I know. But dear, it’s not just dawning. All the signs we’re seeing out there suggest a sharp rate of change. Without knowing how far we have to go, I’d still say it’s going to be over in months, not years. That is going to create some serious social disruption.”
“I may have something, or rather, someone, for you, there. If she agrees to become involved. Another student, but with her consent I’ve pulled her all the way through influence. She’s your reference endpoint.”
“Really? Please definitely ask her. We’ll be willing to provide a very generous pay package.”
“I expected as much. I’ll pass it on. So what’s news item two?”
“ARC has been contacted by a delegation of very high level wizards who want to get in touch with you.”
I wince a little. “Donna, wizards are some of the relatively few people that could still potentially do me serious harm. Do you know what their agenda is?”
“To an extent, yes. They’re members of an informal international council of wizardly types that, while it technically isn’t in charge of anything, kind of rides herd on the world’s less villainous wizards. Let’s say, if we’re talking alignments, they skew heavily to the lawful. We’ve worked with some of the people in this delegation before.”
“I’m guessing they want to decide if I’m something to welcome or something to attack?”
“That’s my feeling too. Meeting with them is risky, but it would show willing.”
“Tell them I’ll meet, but I’ll need an exeat. And not Saturday, I’m scheduled for a meeting with a local bugaboo and I feel I ought to give it undivided attention. But with school permission, I’m clear any other day.”
By lunchtime, I’ve covered the flight syllabus on following directions from air traffic control for take-off and landing, and waiting in the air for a runway. It’s not quite exactly the same stuff planes use, because mutant flyers are usually more manoeuvrable, I certainly am. But it’s still important to avoid making some innocent aircraft into aluminium confetti, due to being somewhere unexpected. The license I’m working towards won’t qualify me to fly on instruments alone, but I’m still getting good use out of the things, they make it easy to be quite precise about things like heading and speed.
An email from Miss Dennon arrives as I’m headed to lunch. “Dear Miss Parallel. You are invited to an Introductory Interview for a placement in my class, Exemplar Grace, which will take place today, the Seventeenth of January, in the Venus Inc. Clubroom of Dunn Hall, during Sixth period. The favour of a Reply confirming your Intent to Attend is requested by Fifth period.” It isn’t actually in calligraphic copperplate, thank goodness. But whee. It sounds as if it needs a herald with a trumpet to announce it. How does one formally say “yes”?
A short web search later, I write back, “Dear Miss Dennon, I am delighted to accept your invitation, and will be there at the appointed hour.” Let’s hope the phrasing meets her standards. That should be interesting.
Heading into Crystal Hall, I catch sight of Tansy in the food line, looking a bit shell-shocked, and head over to meet her with a hug.
“Hey Jules, thanks”, she says, leaning against me. “Sorry for the glum looks. It’s been a hard morning.”
“If you wanna talk, I’m all ears, if you wanna not, I can do quiet”, I say, meanwhile filling up a tray (baked garlic mushrooms, yum), and other me comes in from the ranges and begins filling up her tray too. (Tortellini in tomato sauce, looks very edible.)
“Quiet, I think, for now”, Tansy nods. “I’ve done enough baring my heart for one morning. How was yours?”
“Fighting beasties, saving a security guard who’d died, combat classes, and then zap guns and flying around in circles”, I say. “Eventful, if occasionally terrifying. Although the third period was more restful.”
She laughs. “If I didn’t know you, I’d think you were exaggerating. Did I parse that right, you saved someone… who had died?”
I nod. “Got her head bit off. I rebuilt it from genetics, booted her body back up, and reattached her soul, she’s fine.” Yes, I am teasing a little with the deadpan tone.
Which makes Tansy giggle, and I can see the weight falling off. “No, seriously.”
She pauses and looks at me. “You actually mean that.”
“Anyone who has a link, I can do that. Rebuild a body that’s mostly still functioning, or make a copy from a cellular snapshot, or just design them a new one. Congratulations, you’re immortal, kinda-sorta, provided you want to be, of course.”
“Huh.” She has to take a moment to process that. Then, “I do want to be, of course, although I hadn’t really thought about dying. It feels like that’s a deliberate part of the design? But not exactly a public one yet.”
“You know the hmm, secret information I mentioned having? One of those pieces concerns a friend, who’s scheduled to get murdered.”
“You made that impossible. I see.” She’s thoughtful, as we sit down. “Links are spreading. You’re going to be in a position to save a lot of people. That wasn’t an accident, was it?”
“I’m hoping to teach them to do it for themselves, rather than running myself ragged curing a hundred and fifty thousand people a day.”
She looks down at her plate. “It just hit me. I was kinda, unconsciously expecting to grow up into a world that looks very much like this one, but that’s not true is it? You’re going to turn the place on its ear.”
I nod, giving Sara a glance which she returns with a smile. “Kinda the plan, for a number of reasons. But I understand it’s going to be a shock. I’m already expecting the influence thing to blow up some in the short term. People won’t like being changed, and they won’t all agree that what they’re being changed into is better.”
“H-one is going to pitch a screaming fit”, Tansy says, with a forkful of tortellini. “Mutant mind control, they’ll call it. And ungodly zombie resurrection for what you call saving people. They’ll make you into some kind of Antichrist.”
That gets a nod from Paige. “I know the type, all too well. They’ll double down as soon as they realise the influence is forcing empathy on them. They already have ways to fight it.” She winces at a thought. “I think they’ll go on a killing rampage just to try and tamp it down with shared guilt. It’s effective.”
That gets a head shake from Tansy. “It was. It won’t be. Guilt in me just… bubbles, wants out. Can’t be hidden. When they get where I am, they’ll confess, they’ll have to. And empathy… it’s different. It’s richer, it burns. When I saw from Elaine and Joanne’s faces, what they thought I’d done to them… it broke me, I was crying. Old me would have just taken it.” She sighs, visibly pushes the feelings back. “But that won’t save the people they hurt trying.”
“Links will”, Erin joins in. “Not just the hard way, although that might matter. But just being able to call someone, call the cops, call you, even. You can jump over to them and pull them to safety, at a pinch. Although they have to know to call.”
That gets me thinking. “I could release a new version of links, put in an auto trigger on fear?”
Paige shakes her head. “Plenty of mental health conditions, that will trip all the damn time for no reason at all. And likely, not trip the one time it isn’t crying wolf. There’s a weird calm you get when it’s real. It’s like your mind goes, oh yeah, this is what we’ve been training for, we can handle this. No, the best answer is to get the knowledge out there that they can call you. And get the links out there too.”
Sara says, “We’ll tell the world at the conference. And Jules, my cult is busy with preparations, but they can spread links amongst themselves and to contacts and friends. Hmm, and Petra can pass them to the Knights. I’ll get them started on that right away.”
I nod. “I’m not sure the Catholic church is entirely the good guys, but, the Knights should be. Hmm, and we can get Eli to spread them to the… tribe, and their contacts.” Shouldn’t say wolves in public.
That gets a wince from Sara. “They’re in active conflict with something that attacks at the soul level.”
The Bastard and friends, right, good point. “You’re worried contagion will spread over the links?”
“Or they’ll fry everyone connected to them with class-X feedback.”
A nod from me. “I’ve already built in a level of security, but I’ll recheck the code with that in mind.” I kick off a bunch of selves to do that. “We’ll run into that problem sooner or later, the system needs to be hardened against it.”
Tansy’s looking at us with a worried frown. “What is it you guys are dancing around? Soul level attacks, class X… Oh damn, it’s GOOs, isn’t it?”
“Let’s take it to links, I don’t want to be overheard by half the school”, I say, then on links, “Yeah, good deduction, it’s GOOs. We, um, may be in a teensy bit of a war. Me, Sara, and her daddy are the ones on humanity’s side.”
Sara adds, “The others are split between indifference, predatory indifference, and enmity. But there’s a particular one who’s been attacking our friends in the tribe, and that one takes over the bodies and minds of people his minions attack. Avoiding getting that in the links is important.”
Tansy looks thoughtfully at me. “Ah. I suppose that answers the question that’s been itching in the back of my mind, what’s the ungodly rush. Everything you’ve been doing implies hurry, but you haven’t explained it. You’re in a race to enhance humans because this whoever it is is racing you back, to harm them.”
Sara nods grimly, “That one has been winning the race, inch by inch, and we couldn’t do a lot more than dig in our heels to hold his speed down to a crawl, daddy and I. We do have plans, but things took a define turn when Jules entered the picture.”
I say, “His pattern is bigotry, discord, dissolution. Look out at the world and you can see his stamp on it. What I did last week cut absolutely directly against his plans, and he knows he’s on a timer now with influence eating away at his lead. He’s certain to return fire. So the hurry is to build up a strategic position.”
Tansy takes a pause to think that through, then, “I see. That business with attacking the base to get Paige, what you did to Necromancer, the links, saving people, it’s a pattern. You’re making allies, sowing fear and respect among your enemies, building up protection for your friends. Everyone else sees just a scary powerful kid who’s close with her circle and neutral on the villains thing. But you’re thinking like a general who expects to be attacked. You’ve even made yourself a nice cosy base here, surrounded by very competent and protective adults.” She chuckles. “Dear fuck, I’m glad I didn’t come after you. You’re loaded for bear.”
“I wish I didn’t have to be”, I nod. “It’s no fun feeling like the sky’s about to fall, and it’s no fun twisting myself to become hard. Soft is really so much more my style.”
She nods. “I feel you there.” And looks thoughtful.
Sara smirks, “We do manage to fit in a bit of soft. As you’ve already experienced.”
That gets a giggle. “Mhm, and hard in all the right places. Yes, I see. It changes the pattern, when I look at you through that lens. Like a group of warriors hugging before battle. Not that there’s anything wrong with slutting around for the sake of it.” Another thoughtful pause. “Sara, you were here before Jules, I understand you a bit better, now, too, I think. You carried the weight alone. And hid it behind that miss spooky demon princess act.”
“I’ll have you know it’s not an act”, Sara puts a pointed tongue out at Tansy. “I really am a demon princess.”
“The unworried smile was an act, though.” Tansy’s not easily teased off course. A thoughtful pause. “The Kimbas were your first backup team.”
“They still are. Rumours of our breakup were greatly exaggerated. Although, there are, hmm, ethical tensions.”
“Namely they don’t slut around”, Tansy nods, amused.
“And several of them have difficulty handling the way I eat, yes. Also they don’t entirely trust me. The demon thing is hard to get past.”
“Ayla has come a long way, from when I knew him as Trevor, to even be in a room with you. Yes, I see.”
The Kimbas themselves are oblivious to our discussing them. We’ve been talking out the morning’s fight, with Chou’s perspective of an interesting contrast to mine. That was mostly a defensive action, helped by Molly’s summoned ally and the security folks who stayed behind with the group. I think it has brought them closer together, Chou was talking about forming a team. Then I got to go through my much more attack-oriented fight, and Dyffud’s tear-down of it. Which gets me onto the five elements thing, and now Toni is hot to fight me. Spar, she says, but I’m hearing “challenge”. Ah well, could be good practise. We can do that in lunch break if we don’t dawdle over out food.
My shoes crunch in snow, as I head out onto the grass field beside Crystal Hall. Toni’s following behind me, and a small group behind her. All the Kimbas, of course, and the Pack, which includes Tansy now, and a few other curious onlookers. I recognise Zenith and I’m guessing the middle-eastern girl with her is Sahar. I already vanished my other body, deciding to keep just one of me around for this. A clothing shift to my gi, and my next step is barefoot - snow feels refreshingly cool, and squeezes between my toes. I turn, grin. “Looks like a good enough spot, you cool?”
“I’m damn freezing and you are a scary spooky kid.” Toni’s grinning too. “But since the weather ain’t gonna warm itself up for me, it’ll do.”
“You say the nicest things. Ready when you are.” I take up a neutral stance, left foot stepped forward, hands up in a simple guard, open rather than closed into fists. We haven’t really discussed rules, but I’m assuming anything we’ve covered in Dyffud’s class is fair game, powers other than chi and my exemplar/regen stuff are out, but I’m cool to use my enhanced senses and fast thinking. I won’t be using claws for anything but grip.
She tips her head to one side and the other, like she’s making the vertebra pop, then she’s suddenly moving forward. She really shouldn’t be getting that much traction on snow, so there’s a chi trick behind it, I wonder if I can copy it. I’m trying a new trick myself, running different copies of me at different timebases, so the subtleties of her movement are clear. Unsurprisingly, in terms of elements, pure fire. As soon as she’s in range she swings a straight chi-accelerated punch to the face.
My response is one of Dyffud’s counters, fire within earth, step out of line with a brush-block that leaves her off balance for an instant and pivot into a dropping elbow strike, which she evades, but has to twist in a messy tumble that turns into a cartwheel-handspring, and she’s back up and in stance.
When Dyffud used that one on me, I fell for it. Cracked ribs hurt.
“Not bad, not bad. I guess you’ve been listening in class.”
I grin. “Stop trying to hit me, and hit me.” Morpheus quotes for the win. She snickers, so she knows what I’m quoting. I do the whole-hand ‘come on then’ beckon that Morpheus did.
And she does come right at me, this time with a flurry of strikes from more grounded footwork, and I’m responding with blocks and counter-strikes. It’s like push hands at Matrix speed, both of us fighting to control the center line, stepping back and forth, trying to trap feet. Fire/fire mostly, with some fire/earth. But then she slips under my strike with a water redirection and my center line’s open, and I can’t stop the palm strike that knocks the wind out of me and throws me back hard enough I have to scramble with quick steps to stay off my ass.
Takes a second for my ability to breathe to return, but I’m grinning all the time. This is fun!
“Yame!” A man’s voice, unexpectedly, from the side. Of course, when someone calls ‘yame’ in a spar, you just stop. So I release the tension that was about to propel me back towards Toni, and turn to look at the guy who spoke. While keeping partial attention on my peripheral view of Toni, so she doesn’t jump me. Which she won’t, but, yanno, practise.
Short Japanese guy. Looks old, but there’s not a scrap of fat on him. No openings in his stance, either, despite standing seemingly casually. “Ito Soke, I presume”, I say. Oh hey, we’ve picked up quite a lot more audience, while I’ve been focused on Toni.
“Miss Parallel, I also presume. And of course, Chaka, I know. Why are you fighting?”
“We aren’t”, I say. “Because of course, I’m not allowed to start fights. Nor are people allowed to start them against me.” I tap my blue armband. “We’re sparring.”
“The difference being what?” He knows the difference. He just wants us to squirm, which I’m not inclined to.
“Neither of us had any intent to harm the other. Also I’m restricting my options considerably so we can try out our martial arts technique, rather than play ‘whose powers win’.”
“And whose would?” Tsk, earning his title of ‘evil old man’, putting me in a spot.
I answer truthfully, “Against Toni alone, mine, I can teleport and fly outside her range and I have stand-off attacks. But if it were a fight, she wouldn’t be alone. That I wouldn’t care to handicap. Or try.” Thoughts of battling Billie do not fill me with glee.
He nods. “I too, wish to keep the planet intact. Very well. Fighting in public, outside of a dojo and unsupervised, is not permitted. Neither is sparring. But as I see the two of you have already stopped, I think we can leave matters there. Miss Parallel, I look forward to meeting you in my dojo. Sooner, I think, rather than later.”
He bows. I bow too, more deeply. Toni, after a moment, follows suit. And then he just walks away.
“He likes you”, Zenith from the side, smirking. “I think you impressed him, wearing a gi in the snow. Also stopping right away when he said to.”
Oh yeah, I’m still in my gi, which is pretty damp by now. Forgot that. A delete-recreate gets me a fresh body with a fresh uniform. Toni meanwhile is using some chi trick to shake herself dry.
Billie comes over, “Nice fight, Jules. You two would look like the Matrix even if it weren’t for the wisecracking. I think you impressed a bunch of people.”
“Toni fought well too”, I say, because it feels unfair to hog the glory.
Jade chimes in, “Yeah, but we all know Toni can fight.”
Zenith smiles to Toni as she comes over, then says to me, “Jules, have you met Semi?”, indicating the girl with her.
I shake my head. “Heard of, but not met. Nice to meet you.” I let her lead rather than extending my hand, in case the contact might cause unwanted telepathic leakage. When she smiles and bows, I follow suit.
“Nice to meet you too. And thank you for being considerate. Don’t worry, us telepaths have been warned that you are on the hands-off list.” She smiles as Tansy comes over to join us, “And here’s my room-mate, who you have greatly improved. I should thank you for that.”
“Shucks, I’d have probably got over my bitchy self anyhow”, Tansy says. “Maybe not for a few months yet but…”
“The winter term, at least, will be improved”, Semi says with a teasing smile.
After that, we have to hurry to our classes. Paige and Sara walk with me as we head towards the escape class.
“You’ve got pretty good at the unarmed stuff”, Paige says as we walk. “If I don’t miss my guess, you’ve learned all of that inside a week, too.”
“It’s Dyffud”, I agree. “He knows so much, even his smallest movements teach me things. I have background threads just scouring all my memories of him for new stuff, and I’m constantly finding bits and bobs.”
“Wish I could learn as fast.”
“You might be able to”, I say. “Remember how it felt when I split my focus, with you along for the ride?”
“Felt like my brain was being run through a wringer”, she winces. “Although, you’ve got me living with a two way split now all the damn time, I guess it might go easier?”
I nod. “That was always the plan. If you can handle two, then going to three, and then as many as you please, is just a bit more work. And with background threads, your ability to learn goes up a lot.”
Paige snickers. “I get the feeling you’re using me for a guinea pig. Your first multi-mind human.”
I nod. “You’ll be able to teach the others, is the plan.”
Sara says “A very cute guinea pig. Cuter than the regular ones, I think. They’re mostly just snuffles and fur.” Which gets a blue glowing tongue from Paige.
Escape class is a quiet break from what has been a fairly hectic day. We’re doing straitjackets, and I’m content to watch and learn. It’s nice to just spend time next to my loves, even if we do have to keep it decorous in class. I feel like I’ve been short-changing Sara for attention, and I should do something about that.
As fifth period draws to a close, I consider plans. Codes with Paige should be straightforward. I doubt Englund has any dirty trick to spring on me in his demon-bothering class, he’ll be saving those for the hearing tomorrow. Miss Dennon’s interview is the wild-card. My first time to Dunn Hall in a few days, I haven’t been there since I tested out of languages. And I’ve never been to the Venus Inc clubroom. I hope it’s not too hard to find.
Fifth period ends, and it’s time to find out. I give Sara a big hug, in promise of more to come, and then Paige and I head off one way, while another two of me head off in others.
Whoever redid Whateley after they took the place over had an excessive fondness for brutalist concrete, in my opinion. There are much nicer ways to make buildings, ones that would invoke the spirit of place rather than ignore it. At least Dunn Hall is comfortably modern inside, and asking around gets me directions to the clubroom. Quick check, is there anything I’ve forgotten, or should change? No, I don’t think so. Clean clothes, no makeup (as I have no idea how to do it properly), hair in place in the style I’ve chosen. I wonder if I should learn a more formal style? Too late for that now, but I’ll ask Gothmog. Although I’m not sure how current he is.
At least the door is clearly marked, rather than some concealed cubbyhole. Okay, here we go.
I step in, precisely as the sixth period bell goes. That’s not an accident, but I’m hoping it makes a good impression. Closing the door, I look around. The room is a sudden change in style from the spartan institutional cream paint of the corridor. It’s wood panelled, carpeted, there are paintings hung tastefully. G-sense shows brush strokes, so originals. Not artists I recognise immediately. Only one person in the room, an older woman with dark hair that has silver streaks.
“Good, welcome. I see you’ve chosen to come in your uniform?”
“Ma’am. I decided it was best to seek advice before trying to pick a formal outfit. I wouldn’t want Miss Rogers to feel she’d wasted her efforts.” Not stated: because I find pranks like the one on Donna’s outfit more funny when the target isn’t me.
I think Miss Dennon can read between those lines, as she looks amused. “No, that would be a mistake. Very well. We will be using prop outfits today. Strip.”
I wonder if she’s expecting me to be bashful? I’m not though, so I just vanish my outfit, my feet dropping a few millimetres onto deep carpet. She raises an eyebrow, “Efficient.” Then takes a few moments to walk around me. I don’t turn to track her, because she’s clear enough on my other senses. “The hair, looks accidental, but it’s not, is it?”
“Gothmog’s design”, I agree. “I can reshape it, longer, shorter, change the cut, it’s prehensile, but this is one I know how to do, that suits my usual mood. I could change the colour, but I rather like white.”
“I’ve read your file. Full biological control. Which means that your shape - no curves, A-cup tits, wiry and muscular, and your, hmm, mixed undercarriage, are choices made deliberately. Are you rejecting femininity?”
“If you’ve read my secret file, you’ll know I haven’t had a body capable of femininity for much longer than two weeks. I’m untrained and unused to it. I’ve picked a nice intermediate point that doesn’t get underfoot and doesn’t swamp me in boys I don’t care for.”
She nods. “I’ve read that file. If you are accepted for the class, you will learn to deal with men, and boys, gracefully, even if you don’t value their more intimate company. You’ll also learn femininity, as a tool if nothing else. Hopefully you’ll learn to see its uses.”
I nod. “I’d enjoy that.”
Did Miss Dennon get me to carry teacups by the saucer, in heels and a dress with a book on my head? Yes, she did, which was honestly quite fun. Once I got the balance point of the shoes down, it wasn’t hard at all. I was almost tempted to pull acrobatic tricks - a temptation I thankfully resisted, or I think she’d have torn strips off me. If only for panty-flashing. “You must remember that showing your underwear is a signal. At the right moment, it might cement a seduction. At the wrong moment, it will embarrass you.” Evidently the class studies how to adapt combat forms to the requirements of modesty. I suppose it matters, if you get jumped by Captain Evil while bodyguarding the ambassador at a soiree, or something. It’s a skill I might theoretically need, but I’m allowed to mock it in the privacy of my head.
Miss Dennon looks thoughtful, as I waddle back across the room with my slightly ludicrous burden. “So, it’s clear your balance is excellent, and you learn physical skills fast. It’s also clear you’ve never walked in heels before today, and you’re guessing how. That gait is very stable, dear, but it’s not very sexy. Put the tea down, and then copy me.”
I notice she didn’t mention the book, so that stays on, which gets a smile from her. “Very good. Like this.”
‘Like this’ turns out to be interesting, a hip sway and stepping across myself, literally going from crossed legs one way to crossed the other. Strange, but works.
“Smaller steps… heel down first… good, crossing right over like this exaggerates the sway, that’s a power strut, but it’s enough to just put one foot in front of the other if you’re trying to look professional or demure.”
Add those to the list of things I’ve never seriously tried to look. “I’m just so new to all of this… even this way of thinking”, I admit. “I’ll let you in on a secret. I do remember my previous life, and, well, I never cared about any of this. Not because it didn’t matter, because it wouldn’t make a difference, no matter how hard I tried. Stupid wrong shaped body meant I’d be wasting my time, you know?”
She tips her head to the side thoughtfully. “And I think you still have a bit of contempt for it.”
With my access to the workings of my head, I can’t shrug that accusation off. “Yeah. People growing up male are taught it’s both weak and somehow terribly sneaky at the same time, I kind of caught that and haven’t shaken it off… I’ve offended you, I apologise.”
She pats me on my head. “You aren’t my first ugly duckling, you know. Or my first awkward changeling. You recognise when you’ve put a foot wrong, without me having to scold you, that’s good. And so. Let’s try on dresses for you, and find what suits you best, and meanwhile, I’ll explain why this stuff matters. That one’s a skater dress, by the by. I chose it so it wouldn’t impede your movement, but it’s not really formal enough for my class. You will learn to move within the limits of something formal, rather than ripping out of it like a cartoon brick.”
“Or teleporting out of it into costume and escalating things.”
“Indeed. Not that you’ll never want to do that, but it changes the context. Instead of being a woman at a soiree who’s unexpectedly good at martial arts, now you’re a cape and it’s a cape fight. People tend to run away from those screaming. Try this one, it’s an A-line.”
I pop out of my current dress, and tentacle fold it while I’m slipping on the one offered. “I’m figuring, context is why this stuff matters?”
“Formal occasions have conventions of dress, of movement, of speech. Follow them flawlessly, and you won’t be noticed for them, you’ll just fit in. You might be noticed for other things, such as your unconventional looks. But you won’t be ostracised as uncouth, gauche, sloppy, or an outsider.” she looks at me, and then hands me another dress. “Strapless, I’m expecting this not to work too well with your figure, but it’s worth trying.”
She’s right that it kinda sags off the front, and to amuse myself I put a bit of sorcery in my boobs and grow them out some. “Ta-da!”
Which makes her laugh. “I wish any of us could do that. Yes it fits now, are you going to keep your bust that size?”
That stumps me. “I dunno, do you think I should? I know I’ve been avoiding femininity.”
She stops and considers. “Mannerisms matter more. If you want to be graceful, you’ll have to start thinking and acting with grace, all the time, all day long. But a few more curves might help set the tone.”
“I’ll see what I can get away with, without going up too many sizes and having to re-buy all my clothes. Or bust the buttons off, like Bugs always looks about to.”
She looks amused. “Yes, that would be bad, especially in a silk dress like this. Alright, next one, this is a halter neck with a wrap skirt.”
We both agree that the halter neck fits me nicely. Miss Dennon nods. “That’s the style I’m going to recommend you buy. And I’m willing to accept you for my class, if you are willing to accept my instruction. I warn you, I won’t go easy on you. You’ll have a couple weeks of term to catch up. We meet on Fridays, here, periods four through six. Can you have a dress ready by Friday?”
“I’ll see if Cecilia can do it in time. If not, I’ll make a duplicate of this one.”
“Works for me”, she says.
Over on the other side, Paige and I are working through problems in differential cryptanalysis. And on the other, other side, Englund is teaching the class about Solomonic demons, that is, those bound by the Contract of Solomon. Which includes my beloved. It seems if they’re summoned, they have to bargain, but on the other hand, they can’t cheat and go easy on you, they have to drive as hard a bargain as they can get away with. This is supposedly a deliberate safety-valve to stop people just summoning up armies. And what has been summoned can be banished.
I suspect Sara can’t be banished, because nobody summoned her. She was born here, and she’s a native. But if somebody put her name in a circle and summoned her up, then the rules start to apply.
Englund then goes into a few banishing rituals. It seems some of them work without magic, because you’re basically praying for God to intervene. (The ones he gives as examples are very Christian flavoured, to no one’s surprise.) Downside is, you’d better be a solid believer.
Since I’ve already found the books Gothmog has on demons and banishing them, this all isn’t much news to me, and I have a few tricks up my sleeve that I’m not sure they teach on Earth at all. But a quiet lesson is honestly welcome, I’m still somewhat jangled from Monday’s miniature war.
As sixth period is drawing to a close, I get an email from the Head, asking me to come over at the end of lessons. She doesn’t say what it’s about.
With Miss Dennon letting me go early, I send that body over to Sara’s room, to wait for the others - and discuss my ideas for editing my shape. I also send out an email to Cecilia asking if she can do a formal dress for me by Friday? I’m guessing the answer is going to involve sucking teeth and the phrase “it’s going to cost ya”. But I can live with that.
And as the bell rings, me-with-Paige hugs her and then heads off to the job, and I make my way overland towards Schuster. Why not take the tunnels? Well, I like the sight of the stars, even if I probably shouldn’t sing to them, and the cold doesn’t bother me these days. I love the fresh air, and the way the campus smells like trees even when you’re in the built-up part.
So tempted to break into song. So very tempted.
I restrain myself to skipping and dancing a bit as I make my way across, drawing looks, but meh, let them look. And then I’m heading inside Schuster and it’s back to inside-smells and less fresh (but warmer) air. I’m not kept waiting outside the Head’s office for long, before she opens her own door and calls me in. Unexpectedly, we have company. Two older men I don’t know. One of them has a very military look, the other not, although they’re both in suits.
The Head makes introductions. “General Miller, Mr Wilson, this is Miss Parallel, of whom you have heard. Miss Parallel, these are General Miller, representing the US Military, and Mr Wilson, representing the civilian government.”
I bow rather than offering to shake hands. “A pleasure to meet you both.”
The Head continues, as we all take our seats, “These two gentlemen and I have been negotiating a resumption of normal relations between the federal government, the armed forces, and my school. Monday’s incident was not the first time we’ve been at loggerheads, but it’s the first time we’ve had to respond in such force and with such numbers. I’ve pointed out that it was also the first time a student was blatantly kidnapped off campus, and they’ve accepted that. We also agreed that the infiltration of Palm drones into their command structure makes a difference, in that we didn’t attack a US base operating according to lawful orders, nor were we attacked by such. They’re willing to treat the whole business as ‘lawful cape intervention’ provided we help them sweep their ranks for any other similar infestation. Which leaves one last sticking point, namely, you.”
Mr Wilson picks up the thread. “We keep tabs on students here. Just on general principle, to watch for future issues. Your name came to our attention even before you led this… expedition. To date, we’ve seen you teleport an army across half a continent, shrug off anti-aircraft fire, create weapons out of thin air, and kill a well known villain in such a way, our investigators assure us, that his soul was completely destroyed. We know from reports that you can create multiple bodies, and that killing them doesn’t faze you. We know you’re capable of extreme feats of magic, without using conventional wizardry. We’ve also heard recent reports that you’ve gained the ability to fly at high mach speeds in and out of atmosphere. And finally, our more… obscure contacts tell us that two weeks ago you destroyed a mi-go abduction craft by bisecting it lengthwise with some sort of radiation weapon.”
He pauses and continues. “Miss Parallel, we’re used to dealing with capable mutants, but you’re right at the top of the scale and possibly beyond it, and your abilities show no signs of slowing their growth. Just today, I’ve been overhearing scuttlebutt about you bringing a member of security here back from the dead, in plain sight. We don’t exactly have procedure for dealing with demigods.”
“Which I’m not”, I say. “But the scuttlebutt is true, I healed someone of a bitten off head by regrowing it, and then stitched their soul back on. Partly that’s me being nice, partly that’s me pushing my self-assigned mission.”
“Which would be what?”, asks General Miller. His voice is kinda low and growly.
“Help the humans, but specifically by teaching them that souls matter, that they’re real, and that they need to start paying attention to them, because they have enemies that they can’t see.”
That definitely gets curious looks. “You don’t consider yourself human?”
“Human-aligned, but most of my nature is great old one now. I’m more outside the universe than in, but this is still my home.”
Mr Wilson sighs, frowns. “Miss Parallel, we’ve been briefed for this assignment. So we know what great old ones are. And I worried that what I’d see when I met you, is what I do see here, a kid who’s been messing with some very dangerous entities and gained a whole heap of power, and thinks she’s on a mission to save the world. Thinks she’s become one of them, even. Kid, they aren’t our friends. They don’t want to save the world, they want to eat it. They’re playing you like a fish.”
How best to approach this, hmm. “Some want to eat it, yeah. Some hate humanity, some are predators that find you tasty. Some are neutral things. A couple on the friendly side, and three, that I know of, outright fighting for humans. In a war most of you don’t even know is being fought.”
“One of which is you?” It sounds like he’s humouring me.
“Me, Kellith, and Gothmog.”
“Yes, we know the Kellith is based here too. She’s regarded by those in the know as sufficiently contained. You are not.”
“And if I’m not contained, what’s stopping me running riot? You know what I’m capable of.”
He sighs. “Honestly, answering that question is rather high on our list of priorities.”
“You’re overlooking the simple answer, Mr Wilson”, I say. “I don’t choose to and I don’t want to. I want to help, not harm. Both my ethics and my goals constrain me. And those ethics run right through me. All the way from the human level you’re talking to, to the great old one level underneath.”
General Miller says, “Miss Parallel, you spoke a few moments ago about what you consider your mission. Perhaps you can elaborate on that? It might help us understand your intentions.”
So for the next few minutes I talk them through my perspective on souls and why humanity needs to start putting attention there. They know about GOOs, but don’t seem to know about the war, so I talk about that too. And I give them both links, as a gesture of goodwill, and as an example of the importance of the soul level. Mrs Carson, who knows this stuff already, quietly makes us coffee while we talk. Then to top it off, I let them know about Sara’s and my planned conference.
“Wait, off world?” Mr Wilson sounds confused. “I don’t get what you mean by that.”
“Off world, in Gothmog’s personal realm. It’s basically a slice of astral space that’s under his personal control. The conference is going to be inside.” I look over to the Head. “Mrs Carson can confirm, she’s been there, and seen the preparations.”
Everyone looks at her, and she nods. “It was an interesting day. Yes, I’ve been there, and I’ve met Gothmog. I’m told the buildings there used to be smaller, but now they sprawl over what looks like miles. I imagine it will make quite a stir.”
“So you’re just going to open a gate to this place from where?” Mr Wilson, sounding worried.
“Seattle”, I say.
Mr Wilson shakes his head. “Do you have any idea how that’s going to go down? If I understand it right, you’re literally opening a hell-gate. In a major city. There will absolutely be riots. There will be denunciations. There will be politicians itching to either launch an invasion or nuke you from orbit.”
I shake my head. “When they see it, that stuff will go away, it’s a nice but harmless place that feels like a vast hacienda in a slightly alien version of tropical south America. And Gothmog looks like a regular, charming human man, when he wants to. Also the whole idea is that we’re inviting all the religions. So they’re hardly going to think they’re in hell, when the Pope’s there, are they? Even if they kinda-sorta technically are. But it’s still not the hell, you know? It’s just Gothmog’s personal playroom.”
Mrs Carson says, “A nuance I can guarantee will be lost on some. You will definitely have to deal with terrorists and fanatics, you do realise that?”
I nod. “I think as a group, we can handle that.”
The General stands. “Alright, I think we had better report our findings, there’s others beside ourselves who will need to weigh in on this before we can proceed further. Ladies, thank you for your time. Miss Parallel, it has been a pleasure meeting you.”
The two gentlemen shake hands with the Head, I bow to them, and they take their leave. “You stay behind, please”, Mrs Carson says to me, so I drop back into my seat once they’re gone.
She smiles. “First, thank you for that. That was a difficult conversation and I expect there’s more of them to come, but I think you’ve convinced those two in particular that you aren’t about to try and take over the world.”
I sigh. “Thanks, ma’am. Yeah, I knew I’d end up confronting the government sooner or later, and this business with Paige has rushed it. Those weren’t their real names, were they?” I’d done a little googling in the background. The only General Miller I found was a black guy. And those two names are right up at the top of the list of common surnames.
She nods. “The government wishes its negotiations to be deniable, I think. Which we can both live with. And so, on to an unrelated matter, and the reason I kept you behind. You didn’t think I’d forgotten about you and the business with Tansy, did you?”
I wince. “No ma’am. I don’t think you’re the forgetful type at all.”
She nods. “You would be correct, I was just busy all day. I haven’t decided what to do about Tansy yet, that’s a bit of a complicated situation because of her clear change of heart, which I want to encourage. You on the other hand, instigated hacking of school systems in a fit of anger, and then hid two rapists and a slaver, if only for one evening. That you did both in defence of your friend only lightens the guilt a little. And so. You having taken responsibility for Tansy, in your way, you’ll share her existing punishment. I’m making you deputy student assistant to Elyzia Grimes. And the care of those three little nuisances who I am informed, you helped to power up, will be at least partly your problem now.”
Ah, interesting. “Thank you ma’am. Although I think Miss Grimes isn’t exactly a fan of mine.”
“Perhaps both of you will have lessons to learn. Alright, I will see you at the hearing tomorrow, if not before.”
“Yes ma’am.” I know a dismissal when I hear one, so I bow, and leave. Heh, so me and Grimes are stuck with one another? That might be interesting. You have to admire how twisty-minded the Head can get sometimes.
While I’m over there talking to the Feds, at the same time I’m outside with the maintenance crew helping refit some pipes that got busted by ice. “Some kid leaves a tap running, it drips down the drain and they don’t think anything of it. Until the ice blocks the pipe, their toilets start flushing backwards, and then it’s suddenly top of everyone’s priorities. Thankfully we can get a hydrokinetic to clear the blockage out without having to blowtorch the whole thing. But even so, pipe’s still cracked, and weakened where it isn’t, so it’ll all have to come off.” Morrie waves at the pipe, which does look like it’s seen better days.
I peer at it. “Lemme guess, we take it out, replace it with one just like it. No fancy devisor insulated stuff, despite living in the ass end of winter up here.”
“It’s just plumbing”, Morrie shrugs. “It breaks, we can fix it, that’s the theory. The practise is us out here freezing our tits off.”
I shrug. “I’m fine with cold. So’s Jinn. So we do we have to do?”
What we have to do ends up mostly being holding things in place while Stan and Morrie cut the old pipe off with an acetylene torch, and then holding the new pieces aligned while they’re welded and the join cools. Meanwhile they talk, stories of the famous cave. Trying to scare me, perhaps. Supposedly there was this guy who went past the do not cross line, just poked his gun in, but the whatever it is that lives there gave a yank and he stumbled in. By the time he got his balance he was across the line.
“What actually happened to him?” When I read it, the story never said. Even my new eidetic memory doesn’t help there.
Morrie shrugs. “We got this at second hand, you know, from guys who’d been there, but it wasn’t us. This was back in the early 70s. But the best I was ever able to get out of any them was that he deflated, you know, like a balloon, like the juice was sucked out of him, and screaming all the while. Dried him into a husk, and they couldn’t do a thing about it except watch. Bullets won’t cross the line, and flame doesn’t burn hot over there, so they couldn’t even put him out of his misery. When they came back next visit, the husk wasn’t there. But old Roy was, fresh as a daisy, but he didn’t move right and he didn’t smell right, he wouldn’t say anything, and he tried to go for them. So they blasted him into meat confetti.”
Stan smirks, “You think this was the end of it? You think wrong. They go back the next time, hello Roy again. Boom-boom, goodbye Roy. And the next time after that? Hello Roy. Six years, before he stopped coming, although he never tried to leave the tunnel. Who knows, maybe when you go down this weekend, you meet Roy, hmm?”
“I kind of hope I do”, I say. “If he comes, hold your fire, let me touch him. I think I can cut him loose from that thing’s control. Or at least end his pain.” At this point I’d lay odds there isn’t enough of his soul to fit in a thimble. But worst case I can scatter it like I did with Darrow.
That gets me weird looks. Morrie says, “Kid, it’s gonna be a fair match, who’s spookier, you or that damned tunnel.”
“Me, I think”, I say. “But I’m less experienced, so I’m not sure about outright clearing it this time. But maybe. We’ll see how it goes. I should be able to tell more when I’m there. And I’ll research beforehand.”
“You still wear explosive vest. No arguments.” Stan sounds serious. “And no poking at stuff. Just because you’re spooky, no stupid risks, hmm? Or else you won’t be asked to come. Is dangerous down there.”
“If I poke at stuff, it will be with sorcery, not fingers. I want to take a look at those critters I heard about, the diamond shaped ones that jump.”
“And when you’re looking at them, they’re look right back at you.” Morrie doesn’t sound happy about it. “This is why we don’t let the brain boys down. They wanna peek and poke, they wanna take samples. That stuff, you don’t wanna look at it or understand it, you just wanna kill it. Fire does for them and that’s all you need to know about it.”
Jinn nods. “When I was down there, those things didn’t have a normal life glow. They had this weird nasty one and it spread out around them. Outside the actual body like a nasty sick cloud, and it was nothing I wanted to be near. And I’m usually invulnerable when I’m Jinn. If I was you, I wouldn’t even get a tentacle close to them.”
I kind of wonder if I can do something about them properly, and shore up the leaking seal even if I don’t yet feel up for arm wrestling with the beast behind it. But that’s something I won’t know until I get there, so for now I just shrug and say “I promise I’ll be careful.”
It doesn’t take long after Miss Dennon’s interview is over for me to realise that tailored clothes don’t fit any more if you instantaneously add two cup sizes. Shades of Halloween costume, slutty schoolgirl bursting out of her straining blouse, yikes. Giving that up for now, I remake a body in the old size and abandon the edited one. My friends and I can still have a talk about whether I should do any edits, without a need for the illustrated show-and-tell. While other me is going to see what the Head wants, I make my way over towards Sara’s room.
A weird twinge of sneakiness on my life sense catches my attention as I enter the tunnel, and puts me on alert, although nothing is obviously wrong. As I walk, I’m pondering whether I need to sharpen up my psychic side, because that’s currently my biggest open weakness. I can pick up some stuff on life sense, but it isn’t enough to tell apart, say, taking an up-skirt photo, from setting up an ambush. It’s more like, what instinctive mode they’re in. Sara might have ideas how I can improve that. I’m pretty sure it’s in my potential arsenal now, as a GOO.
Oh hey, it was an ambush. Well, a one guy ambush anyhow, the big and built kind, who won’t get out of my way. I recognise him as one of the capes, code name Iron Star. We haven’t met before, but I’ve seen him in Crystal Hall. He’s looking down at me like he’s deciding whether to scrape me off his shoe, or just throw away the shoe. “Why are you in this school?”
“Other than the fact I happened to manifest, teleport and land myself here with no memories, got adopted here, all my friends are here and I like it here?”
“No, why are you, an inhuman alien thing, allowed to be in this school?”
“Dunno, I think they have a policy to let in friendly inhuman alien things. Perhaps it helps them keep an eye on us? That and I’m a mutant and it’s a school for mutants.” Idiot.
“What you are is unwelcome. I, and the people who asked me to pass this message, don’t want you here. We don’t want your influence messing with our heads. We don’t like being ankle deep in faggots and dykes all of a sudden.”
“You mean, you liked it better when they were all scared into the closet? Unfortunate for you then, because Poe isn’t going back. And that wasn’t even me, the whole cottage decided. Nor is influence going anywhere, that’s already set in stone. Being near me just speeds it up.”
“I saw what you did to Tansy. Don’t tell me your influence doesn’t create dykes when you turned her into one.”
“She always liked girls. She just decided to be honest about it. You want to see what influence does, look to her. Honesty with yourself seems to be a component of it. So does conscience. Is yours pricking you? Is that what’s behind all this bull and bluster?”
“None of your business”, looks like I hit him where he’s sore. “The message is this. Leave the school. Take your dirty influence with you. You have until the weekend. I’ve heard all sorts of stories about how badass you are, but can you handle an entire school deciding to fuck with you?”
“I think you overestimate your support. But we’ll see, won’t we?”
“I suppose we will”, he says, grimly. And finally, gets out of my way.
A few steps down the branch tunnel to Hawthorne, and I run into Caitlin leaning against the wall. “Trouble with our noble knight there?”
“He wanted to tell me that my spooky ass isn’t welcome, and this school ain’t big enough for the both of us, or cliched homophobic words to that effect.”
She nods. “Which nobody who matters cares about. Leaving that idiot aside, I’ve got time now, if you want to show me that cannon of yours? I was hoping to catch you on your way back to your usual debauchery.”
Wasn’t what I had planned, but there’s no reason that can’t wait. “Sure, lead on.”
By the time dinner rolls around, I’m the proud owner of a certified legal ‘manifestation weapon’ which will go on my MID. The fact I’m flawlessly accurate with the thing and capable of vanishing a bullet in flight before it hits an unwanted target does help. Rules are, only using it on ranges or where otherwise cleared by instructors. Keeping the power safely down below ‘ship mounted railgun’. And the rule of never pointing it at anyone I don’t plan to kill still applies, even if it doesn’t have a physical barrel. Suits me, murdering students is not on my to-do list.
Caitlin also wants me to try out my abilities in the sims. I’m not so sure of that. Life sorcery doesn’t work on robots, it wouldn’t be a good simulation. And would the digital sims be able to cover all my abilities? But I suppose maybe, since it seems to work for everyone else. It might be a little fun, to really cut loose, too. I told her it couldn’t hurt to try. Although now do I need to get a sim-suit? I’ll talk to Ayla about that, he’s the authority.
Dinner brings a surprise. A new kid in Poe, she isn’t sitting at the Kimba table, but she stands out from the crowd. White hair, white skin, pointy nails. She’s not in the school uniform yet, and her black turtle-neck looks expensive. Kind of a budget Sara clone, except that she reads as human to my life sense.
“Vamp”, explains Toni, sounding disgusted. “We fought her twice. Necromancer’s gang. Now they put her on our floor.”
“She turned state’s evidence”, Nikki points out. “She was forced into the gang, too.” It sounds like this to-and-fro has been running for awhile.
“Anyhow, when you smashed the Necromancer’s gang, they picked her up”, Toni says. “And now she’s got a new single next to yours. You’re lucky Feral wanted to share, or you’d have got her for a roomie. Which would be bad.”
“Is she mad at me for killing her boss?”
“Nah, probably the opposite. They weren’t exactly the best of buddies, from the sounds of it. But boy does she have an attitude. And yes”, she interrupts Nikki who was trying to cut through, “she probably picked it up hanging with villains. And no, I won’t cut her any slack.”
Ayla says, “We got the introduction when they brought her in just before dinner. Along with the tragic backstory. She was forced into Darrow’s gang with a false murder charge that he set up, and she’s been through some hard times. She’s been making a living hypnotising rich people into paying her expenses, by making them think they had sex. She’s got a bright brain, and a bit of taste, but the morals of an alley cat, a dirty mouth, and a streak of overblown ham acting a mile wide.”
“More than once, onee-san had to cover my ears”, Jade agrees. “She’s all sex this and sex that, and well, maybe that’s more your thing than mine but it shouldn’t just be thrown around.”
Billie adds, “She’s manipulative, selfish, and uses her looks for control. She’s a physical hermaphrodite, and loud about it. Happy to play male or female, but it doesn’t feel genuine. Like, you can tell Peeper means it when he leers at you. Not her. She’s also an energy drainer, and she can throw lust aura or darkness at you. Not that I imagine that would slow you down much.”
“Probably not”, I agree. “Well, I’ll see how I get along with her, but it kinda feels like you all decided not to like her?”
“We’ll give her a chance”, says Hank, his usual ultra-reasonable self. “But it’s going to take work on her side.”
“Work she’s going to have to want to do”, Ayla agrees. Implying he thinks that isn’t remotely likely.
“We should work at being nice, too”, Nikki insists, looking frustrated. “You aren’t empaths, I am. The surface razzle-dazzle was genuine, but the pain underneath it was raw.”
“I don’t see what we can do about it, though”, Toni complains. “Do we just sit there and take her nonsense? She’ll walk right over us and learn nothing.”
“We set boundaries, and we’re polite and firm about them”, Nikki says. “We don’t try and scare her and we don’t give her the cold shoulder, but if she wants to hang with any of us, it’s on our terms.”
“Like for example, no turning the air blue”, Billie agrees. “I’d tell her to leave off the fake flirting, but I doubt she knows how. I think she’s a little afraid of us, and that’s how she covers it up.”
“It’s still desperately annoying”, Ayla makes a face. “If she can turn it down a notch or ten, that would be very appreciated. At least none of us has to room with her.”
There’s general agreement with that. As the topic drifts to my ideas about trying out being more feminine, I decide to make a copy and head over to find a seat next to the newest Poesie.
“Hi, neighbour, I have the room next to yours in Poe. Sorry I missed your intro. I’m Jules, codename Parallel.”
“You didn’t miss much, I think I fell flat with the audience. Vamp, alias Alex O’Brien, also sometimes Abby Carfax.” She takes a look at me. “Oh hey, another member of the white hair, red eyes club. Well, pink eyes. That glow. Hmm, where do I remember hearing about you… wait, are you that Parallel, the one who killed my old boss?”
“Well shit. Tell me he’s really, permanently dead, please, pretty please with a cherry on?”
“I did kinda shred his soul. That’s all the way permanent, so yeah.”
“That is simultaneously terrifying and also intensely reassuring. My saviour! I owe you a big one. Want to take it out in sex?”
I have to laugh, the offer is so brazen. “I don’t know you that well yet, which is not a no, it’s more like a not yet. The Kimbas might be nuns, but I’m the bridge between them and Sara’s Pack, who are definitely not. I think you met Sara once, you fought her. She’s over there, redhead, goth look. You might know her as Carmilla.”
Sara is waving with a smile. Vamp looks, blinks, waves back. “She looked different then. I guess, no hard feelings?”
“I’m over there too. I already told her the backstory I got from the Kimbas. No hard feelings.”
“Wait, you what?” She does a double take, looks at me sitting beside Sara, at me on the Kimba table, at me over here. “How many of you are there?”
“Messy question. The answer is all of one, thousands, and five. One identity, thousands of selves, five bodies, two of which aren’t anywhere near here. But I can make or delete them on a whim.”
“They’re all you?”
I make another body and sit on the other side of her, “All of me are me”, we say in perfect sync.
“Ooh kay, creeped out now. Do you do that horror twins act a lot?”
I make the new copy vanish. “Nope, mostly I have bodies in different places so I can be doing more than one thing at once.”
“Or more than one person.”
“That has been known to happen.”
“Sara and Paige - she’s the cute catgirl with the blue glow - for example.” Stepping around mention of Petra.
“You’re into girls?”
“I’ve only been attracted to girls so far, but I’m intersexed, and so are some of the people I play with.”
“Well, damn, darling. I think we are going to get along beautifully.”
Vamp’s clearly anxious as she delays stepping into Sara’s room. But I can see her steel herself, and she pushes the door open. To be stopped short for a moment by awe. “Oh my, I like the decor. Shades of brides of Dracula.” Then catching sight of Sara being her usual languidly seductive self on the bed, she gulps. “Um, hi.”
“Cat got your tongue?” Sara’s grin is teasing, and my eidetic memory flicks back to the last time the two met - in text form, since I wasn’t there but did read it. There speaks the cat who got her tongue, and more.
“No hard feelings?”, Vamp offers.
“None. I know you were under coercion. Also I did win.” Sara smirks. “You were delicious dear. But you’re safe from me here.”
“Oh dear, I had rather hoped not to be”, Vamp, putting on a smirk and getting a bit of her flirt back.
“Well, well. That can be arranged, darling. Take a seat, do.” Sara pats the bed beside her, and Vamp jumps up and sits, clearly determined not to be overawed. “But you must be careful, dear. You’ve entered a place that’s very dangerous to you.”
“Oh?” Vamp looks around curiously, at the room and the group of us. “I don’t see it. I mean, amazing place but…”
“Not this room, darling, this school. Since this last Saturday, fraternization, as they call it, is no longer forbidden. However, the Head promises to be fierce about consent. Which includes powers, dear. And ‘but I only made them think I did it’ would be the opposite of an excuse. And last I tasted you, lovely, you were a physical virgin.”
That leaves Vamp blinking. “Um. I flirt, but…”
“You might find people saying yes, dear. You will have to decide what to do about that. Tricking them would be a very unwise move. I recommend saying thank you but no, if that’s what you mean.”
Vamp is clearly enough taken aback it takes her a moment to get her response in order. “I… see. Okay I am so far on the back foot I’m practically prone. So let me just say that if I mean it I’ll say so, and otherwise you can just take my flirting as flirting, for now?”
“Excellent, I love flirting.” Sara grins. “I’m a literal lust demon, so play of that kind is right up my alley. Of course, so are other sorts of play, if you’re into that. And several of the people here both flirt, and play in other ways with me and with each other. Up to you if you want to be around that, some of us prefer not, and they just leave the room when things get that way inclined.”
Vamp nods. “Yeah. I guess I’ve got some thinking to do.” She pauses then a question clearly hits her, “how in the hell do you get a school that outright allows teens to fuck?”
“An excellent question, but it needs to be answered in the form of a long story. Which you might like to hear anyhow, as it explains a lot that’s going on.”
“Alright, I’m interested, hit me.”
“And so. One fine day in the middle of the night, a certain Jules of your recent acquaintance fell out of a hole in the sky, landed in a snowdrift, caught fire and died. You’d think the story was over, but it’s not, for two reasons. One, I happened to be going for a walk in that part of the woods, and I found her. And two, she’s one of the strongest regenerators I’ve ever met. She died, and she came back. And I carried her to the school’s hospital to recover.”
While Sara’s spinning a tale, over in Poe I’m sat in Nikki’s chair being fussed over with sticky substances. And also leaning against the wall, watching the process.
“Normally with makeup, you’d go foundation, then setting powder, then blush, to even out the skin tones, hide any blemishes, and then return a bit of lively glow. Baseline skin needs that, we exemplars usually don’t. So unless you’re being graded, those steps can be left off.” Nikki’s enjoying lecturing. Me, I’m holding very still, so as to be a good canvas. “Sometimes we have naturally long lashes, sometimes we need a bit of mascara to darken and lengthen them.”
“I can grow mine out if I want them longer.”
“Quite so. But none of us come with ready made eyeliner, eyeshadow or lipstick. So those, you will still need to apply. Please try not to blink.”
It is in fact possible to switch off my instinctive urgency to blink away the little brush drawing a line of goop along my eyelashes. But it’s still a very weird feeling.
“I tried to learn this stuff before, but I wasn’t any good.”
“I suspect you were fighting yourself. Believe me, I know that feeling.” Nikki has painted a thin line along the base of the lashes on both sides. “I didn’t want to learn this, at first. My mother made me do it because she said I’d need to know how, to be a girl. Which at the time, I didn’t want to be.”
“I wanted, but my body then wasn’t cooperating. And I was - perhaps I still am - full of negative ideas, too.”
“Mhm, girls have cooties, we learned it, and it’s hard to shake it. I believe I’m beginning to, but it has taken me months of kicking. This is just a simple line eyeliner, I’ll show you wings another day. And now we give that a moment to dry, and move on to the eyeshadow.”
Over in Sara’s room, Vamp is asking, “so you just started her transforming into the same thing you are, one of these ‘great old one’ things, on a whim?”
Sara shakes her head. “I was intimately in her mind, dear. I knew she wanted it. And indeed, she ran with it. With my help it melded with her mutant power, and she gained multiple parallel minds, and then multiple bodies. And then, much faster than I had expected, a week to the day after her arrival, she was ready to hatch.”
“That sounds a little disturbing. Like a kind of bug.”
“It’s the moment one goes from a human with potential, to a great old one with memories of being human. Mine was… disturbing, but hers was beautiful. And here we get to the tipping point in the story, because she did something that I don’t think has been done before. When I hatched, I was coming into a power that had long been defined. When she did, she was defining something wholly new. And she saw an opportunity and grasped it. You see, life has laws, and she had read them, and seen the gaping hole in them for any kindness, or goodness, or guarantee that value would be preserved by an uncaring universe. And she went and defined herself into that hole, becoming a manifestation and embodiment of a new life law. And in so doing she changed the whole universe, from its beginning to its end, and from here to the edge of beyond. And one small part of that change, was that humanity was changed too.”
“I don’t feel changed”, Vamp sounds skeptical.
“Give it time, dear. We first noticed it as an influence she has on people who are near and dear to her. Hence we’ve come to call it ‘influence’ for short. But we later learned that is just the effect of being near the law’s physical embodiment, pulling us faster than the rest of humanity. Everyone’s changing, even so. As you’ve just arrived here, you’re the least affected. Tansy here is the opposite, she’s been pulled all the way to the end of the process. The rest of us, are some way down the slope and still sliding. You may have noticed changes in conscience, a need to be honest?”
“A… little maybe”, Vamp sighs. “It’s hard to tell. I was already planning to make a clean breast of everything, and then try and poor-me my way to avoiding jail.”
Sara nods. “Other effects include a reduced interest in preserving taboos, and an increased willingness to openly express love, in all the ways. Our Headmistress knows what’s up, and where it’s going, and she had the foresight to switch the no-fucking rule to an instruction to keep it consensual, keep it private, and use contraception. That happened last Saturday, after Jules had told the whole school what was up with a broadcast on WARS, the school’s radio station.”
“And so I’m in a school that lets kids have basically open sex, and it’s all Jules’s fault, and”, she looks at me, “I’m not sure whether to kiss you or punch you. Or have an existential crisis. You’re implying that it’s a slope everyone will eventually be pulled all the way down? Society is going to collectively shit the bed.”
“For values of eventually that we don’t know yet, yes”, I agree. “But reports I’m getting from ARC suggest it’s moving fast. People are already starting to turn themselves in at cop shops for murders and rapes they got away with. That’s inside a week and a half.”
Vamp looks at me. “So I’m near you now, I get changed faster?”
“By some unknown multiple, yes”, I agree. “Unless you get like Tansy and say, fuck it, drag me all the way to done. That can be arranged too, although I ought to hold off for a bit at least, since I’ve got a disciplinary hearing tomorrow about that one.”
“Count me out on that, until I get a feel for where I’ll be going”, Vamp nods. “Honesty, conscience, taboos, love… they’re strangely scattered effects.”
Sara says, “Symbiosis, instead of parasitism. All life has been changed to favour mutual benefit over competition, at all levels. The selfish gene is no longer selfish. And instincts founded in the old world, are shifting to fit the new.”
“Ah.” Vamp lies back on the bed, with a sigh. “That sounds nice, in abstract. And terrifying personally. There’s a lot that I’ve lived through that I’m not in the least ready to be honest about.”
I say, “If they haven’t yet referred you to the mental health facilities here, get them to. I’m with Doc Bellows, he’s nice. You aren’t alone here in having had traumatic experiences. I could tell you about the time I got my brain kidnapped in a jar, and destroyed an alien spaceship in revenge.”
“I’d say you were shitting me, but that sounds disturbingly familiar.” Vamp winces. “My boss ranted up a storm. That was you?”
“Well wrap me in latex and use me for a dildo. No wonder he was pacing the floor to fuck you up.”
“His mistake. I leave villains alone if they leave me alone.”
“He came for you, and you GOOed him.”
“He accidentally gave me a link to his soul, which by the way was the most disgusting conglomeration of forced melds and dark sorcery I’ve ever seen. And I brought big me up, and we tore it down to the irreducible atomic bits, and they scattered across the universe. He’s literally as destroyed as it’s possible to get.”
“And good riddance to him. It’s weird to have that threat just lifted, you know? I was expecting to spend my life looking over my shoulder for a familiar face. And now… well, if anyone comes after me, it won’t be him. Or Nightgaunt or Lycanthros either. Did you destroy their souls too?”
“Nah, just killed them. I got the jump on them with a lightsaber.”
“Odd. They’re experienced mercenaries, you’d think they wouldn’t miss a weapon like that.”
“I didn’t have it, until I did.” I demonstrate: empty hand, hand with lightsaber, hissing purple blade.
It was an interesting evening’s chat with Vamp. We shared a few of our stories, she shared some of hers, but as always happens, the time rolled around to be heading back to Poe. I’m already over there, of course, but I decided to walk Vamp back just as a friendship thing.
Good thing too, because as soon as we step out into the tunnel, we’re blocked by a blonde girl in a plain white full-face mask and an attitude. “Ha! I thought I recognised you. And it figures that you would go to ground here, in the biggest nest of monsters and depravity on campus. Did you honestly think that you could just come here, to this school, after what you did to me?”
Codename, Pucelle, I think? Not somebody I’ve personally dealt with before. She’s speaking to Vamp, though, not me. Evidently I categorize under ‘monsters’.
“So far the monsters have been nice to me, sweetheart. And who are you?”
“I’m the girl that you made a fool of, and left for dead!”
“And? More specific please. That’s a long list and I don’t care to waste an hour guessing.”
Pucelle grits her teeth. “In Boston! At the Indian Legation! I held off you, the Necromancer and his other thug, while the others got away!”
“Oh, you’re the Pillsbury Dough-girl! I didn’t recognize you without the parka!” She looks to me. “Anyway, there’s Bonehead and Nightgaunt, and they’ve got the three other girls dead-bang, and Poppin’ Fresh here is going ‘whaddew I do now?’ That was not in the script that I was using, so I improvised, and distracted Nightgaunt enough for the blue-fire chick to turn the situation around. Like anyone sensible, she, the silver girl and the gadget-girl got the fuck out of there, but the One Woman Holding Action here decides to hold Darrow and McKinnon and me back all by herself.”
“How is she not dead?” None of that crew struck me as the sort to be gentle to minors. Or minor nuisances.
“She had the luck of having yours truly on her side, all unknowing. I drained her and tossed her aside, and they didn’t waste any more time.”
“You’re trying to make it sound like you were the hero, when you attacked me!” Pucelle is going a shade of furious red.
“All that I’m saying is that if I hadn’t stepped in, your silvery buddy would be Darrow’s slave, and the rest of you would be dead or worse, ’cause he didn’t have any use for you.”
“What’s worse than dead?”
That I can answer. “Having your soul ripped out and grafted on to his as spare parts.” Which turns her suddenly pale.
Vamp backs that up by saying, “I’ve seen him do it. It’s a memory I’d rather not relive. So perhaps you could take your self-righteous self somewhere else?”
“The one who should be going somewhere else is you, you kidnapping villain!” She pulls something cylindrical from her belt. “As Jehanne La Pucelle, Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans, the Saviour of France, bore her sacred blade into battle, so do I bear this sword of holy light against you, foul creature of darkness!”
And it’s a lightsaber, as I half-guessed. The theatricality of its blue light and movie-accurate humming is rather spoiled by the hot plasma hiss and purple glare of my saber lighting up too, in a low guard, not attacking yet.
I say, “My blade can cut security armour plate, and I’ve killed with it. Are you sure you want to start this?” Because if she makes a cut for either of us, she’s going to lose that arm, minimum. I can’t chance the risk that saber is real.
I don’t think she was counting on a stand-off. “Argh! I cannot imagine how the Head let either of you in to this school!” But she does switch off her blade, and I let mine go out too. Although I keep it in hand as a reminder.
“Then maybe you ought to trust her a bit more”, I say. “You came charging in here, without a clue as to her reasoning or ours, and waving a lit saber in our faces. You are alive and intact because I’m patient. Nobody would have faulted me for taking your arm straight off. You do not draw a deadly weapon unless you intend to kill!”
“I am willing to die for what is right.” It’s a petulant response and I have no time for it.
“You would have died for exactly nothing. Vamp is not the villain you make her out to be, and I’m not the monster. You’d have got yourself killed over a misunderstanding you could have resolved with five minutes of civil conversation. Now get out of my face before I call Caitlin down on you for pitiful weapons discipline.”
That threat bites home - I’ve half a mind to drop a word with Caitlin anyway, because that really was an unsafe situation. But it’s enough to send Pucelle angrily storming off.
“My saviour!” Vamp is making fluttery eyes at me and it’s enough to set me off giggling and defuse the tension.
I let the saber vanish and give her a hug. “Sorry you had to run into that.”
“Nah, After the Kimbas, I half expected it. There’s probably several kids here I’ve met before. It might take a while until they come around to realizing my wonderfulness.”
“So it might”, I agree. “So, not to change the subject but I was meaning to tell you about this thing called links…” It’s a digression and it’s not, because that foolishness brought home to me that I don’t have a connection to her yet, or a snapshot. She can have the whole up-front truth about what I can do with it, and make an informed decision if she wants it, because after being around Darrow, I can imagine she’s got reason to fear people who can mess about with souls.
By the time we reach Poe, Vamp is on the links, and I have a snapshot. She’s a little giddy at the thought of immortality. I’m humbled at her willingness to trust.
As we reach our corridor, I steer us towards Nikki’s room, “We’re having a kinda council of war about the Pucelle incident, and others. You’ll want to be in on this, I think. I’m already in there, you can go right in.”
“Yes, boss”, She’s teasing, and also not. I get the feeling she’s attached on to me a bit - I did save her twice, I suppose.
I vanish the body outside the room, and then get to see the astonished look on her face as she comes in to Nikki’s room where the rest of us are. “Wow, nice decor. How in the hell do you get all these flowers to grow inside like this, and why do they let you?”
“Welcome, come in”, Nikki grins. “Jules managed to um, kind of wake Poe up a bit. Ask nicely, and it’ll shape your room how you want. The school has decided to leave the uncanny stuff well enough alone, I think.”
“Huh, neat… oh, nice lewk!” She’s caught sight of me, all done up with makeup, and wearing a copy of the halter neck dress I tried on earlier. “Damn girl, you clean up fine!”
“Thanks”, I have to grin, it’s not a lie. I do look pretty hot. “Nikki’s work. It’s not what we’re here about though. Seems like Pucelle’s saber isn’t real?”
“It’s real enough” Jade says, “But it’s underpowered. She’s not a deviser, so she’s powering it with some kind of energiser effect, that’s the gossip I heard. It hurts if you get hit, but it doesn’t do too much damage.”
“It’s a relief to hear I wasn’t in any danger of being sliced into Vamp-sashimi”, Vamp says. “And it makes her a complete idiot for drawing down on us with a toy. From what I gather, yours cuts?” She looks at me, I nod.
Ayla butts in. “The thing we’re here to discuss isn’t her idiocy. Everybody knows several of the self-proclaimed heroic types here run to ‘pure of heart, dumb of ass’. It’s the fact that they seem to be all trying it on at once. Her, and Jules got threatened by Iron Star earlier, we’ve all had our rude encounters with this ‘committee to restore normality’, I’ve been threatened, Toni got challenged, when we stopped to compare notes we realised it’s far beyond normal. And quite a bit of it is coming from the self-proclaimed capes rather than the regular bullies.”
Toni says, “I don’t mind a challenge, but it looks like the smug but homophobic types are trying to push everyone back into the closet. What’s weird though, is it doesn’t feel like a joined up campaign, and yet they’re all getting in on it.”
I grimace at a nasty thought. “What if it’s influence?”
“Shouldn’t influence make people less prejudiced?”, Billie asks.
“Yeah, but that’s eventually. Right now, it’s probably just making their consciences hard to live with”, I explain. “They’re projecting.”
Ayla nods, “That makes a dark kind of sense. If that’s true, what can we do about it?”
“Hit them?” offers Vamp.
Which gets a head shake from Ayla. “That shuts them up for the moment but it doesn’t change their minds, and that’s if you win. Also if we aren’t careful, it could degenerate into what the school considers fighting, rather than bullying. We’ve already done enough detention for that. They tend to treat that as a ‘both sides’ thing.”
“Well, if violence is out, how about we defeat them with fabulousness?” Vamp gives a toothy grin. “We could have a massive pride parade. Dress up to the nines. Tell them we’re going nowhere.”
“It’s the middle of winter, and not everyone can ignore the cold”, Nikki points out. “I think parades are out, but some sort of indoor Pride thing could definitely work. But it has to be all of us, not just some of us. Or at least lots.”
“Some sort of fashion show?”, Toni says.
“Oh I like it, I like it!” Vamp grins. “Show off our favourite looks, put the bullies in their place, strut on the catwalk, I think this has great potential!”
“I like it too”, I agree. “If it’s on short notice, it could be just improvised looks, we can buy in flags for capes and stuff, it’s not like a proper show where people have been preparing for months, more of just playing around, borrowing props, rainbow feather boas, stuff like that.”
“Ask Mrs Horton to call another Poe assembly in the morning, and we can tell everyone and see if they agree”, Chou offers. “Then we could put it on for the weekend, that gives us enough time.”
“I’ll send Jinn to go ask her now, if we’re agreed?”, Jade offers, which gets nods from all around. So off she goes in cabbit form to set things up.
After that we wander back to our rooms, and I tell Vamp goodnight and head into mine. I’m getting the feeling she’ll be accepted as at least an outside ally of the Kimbas, and that’s nice. They were happy enough to run with her idea. Even if I doubt Ayla will ever grow fond of her attitude. Ah well.
Getting all of that sticky stuff off my face would be almost as much trouble as putting it on, if I had to do it the hard way. Luckily I don’t, I make a new body in pyjamas and take one last look at Nikki’s artistry before vanishing the whole thing. Colour chromatophores, for my face at least, definitely go on the to-do list. Along with a few other physical tweaks I’ve been thinking of adding. I’ll let big me put those in overnight.