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**7th January, 2007, Medawihla village, noon**
"Well, it looks like there's no immediate panic, although I suspect we haven't heard the last of Reverend Englund", I say. Me and Paige and Eloise and Ben Donner are sat at the kitchen table, I've been relaying what the head said. It seems everyone's cool with me and Paige being co-wives and playmates, as long as Sara's cool with it. She's our alpha, as they see it, so the decision is hers. Which works for me.
"Do you still want to stay over with us?" Eloise Donner asks. "We don't have room for idle hands, so we'd expect you to help around the house. And we're a robust lot. You might find yourself forced to physically defend yourself."
It's a difficult choice. "I don't enjoy pain, Mrs Donner. I'm trying to avoid learning a callous attitude to my bodies just because I can regenerate. I don't enjoy fighting, or hurting people. I did hurt someone just last Friday, and that's still a nasty itch in my mind. The kind of enjoyment I got from it, I could do with never feeling that again in my life. But I'm robust, I learn fast, I'm a low-mid exemplar. If I stay, can I be taught to fight? Not the fancy way, your way. I think I might need it, and I can't get in any of the classes over in Whateley until the spring. And then if someone has a challenge, I'll answer it."
"Call me Eloise, dear, you're family. What will you do if you get scratched up bad and catch the were virus? Mutation doesn't stop it, although regeneration might slow or stop a small dose, a big one will get through."
I glance at Paige's arm, where it's fine in her kitty form. I've never seen her all-human form where she needs the prosthetic. "Um, Eloise, I think I can kill that off. Life sorcery. It doesn't seem to cause a taint when I'm using it on myself." The markings I put on my body overnight have gone completely, now. "At least, not if I do it at a reasonable speed. I'm just nudging things along, not wrenching them magically into a new form. Stopping the reproduction of a virus should be fairly easy. But honestly, being furry would not be the worst fate in the world either." Again a glance at Paige, this time with a fond smile.
She nods. "Alright, I'm not against it. We can give you a trial run of a few days over. Ben can show you some moves. It should become obvious enough whether it's working."
I nod. "Thank you. Change of topic, there was something I wanted to suggest. First off, Petra says hi." I grin, that gets several raised eyebrows. "One of me is presently with her, inside Gothmog's personal realm. She can go to and fro to there from her Brazilian convalescent home. I was thinking, her family could come meet her inside there. That kind of bypasses the question of legality, if you're both travelling to the same off-Earth place, you aren't crossing any borders. You could meet her, Paige. Jo could. Sara already met her today, but had to hurry back out. And of course, Eloise and Ben, you could."
Paige slaps her head. "I am a hundred types of idiot for not already thinking of that. Jo came through there, but I never thought about meeting inside."
"Petra says, I know", I relay with a smirk.
Eloise grins. "That does sound like a good possibility. Although I think we might have to be a little underhanded about it, because if the MCO gets wind, they are going to pitch a purple fit. They'll see the loophole as clear as you can, and they'll see there's nothing stopping Petra stepping out this end except her choice to be on good behaviour. I think even your little stunt in the head's office will cause a bit of quiet panic inside Whateley. They'll be rethinking a few of their wards."
I nod. "Petra says she'll be looking forward to it. I think the idea has made her day."
**7th January, 2007, Whateley, noon**
We've reached a good pause point, in the devisor labs. I've learned a lot, certainly enough to get me started in class. And Bugs is hungry. I am too, but my other body is hungrier. So I'll vanish this one. I thank her for the help, and pop, that me is gone.
The me with Sara is explaining my idea to her. She nods, after our day's adventure it's pretty obvious. And the bypass on the annoying travel laws is certainly convenient. Thankfully it's a short walk to the Crystal Hall, I'm feeling a bit tired out. Other me in Gothmog's fun hacienda is siesta-ing, which I thoroughly approve of as a tradition, after a delicious light lunch of I-think-it-was-seafood. And me over with the weres is helping make bacon sandwiches. (I have been assigned bacon-frying, I think it's a test.)
Sara and Jet sort of spread out to the side of me, as we approach the crowds. Guarding. The stop-a-tank coat helps me feel better, too, as do my stompy boots of eldritch weirdness. Although the coat is gonna be too hot to keep on inside. Today feels like I rode a whirlwind, and it isn't even over. Busyness and noise inside, everyone's back, it's bedlam compared to the sparse calm of the first time I was here. For once, there's only one of me here, and I load up on food. With my guards, I only get a few sharp looks and snide comments. Jade and Billie are still off fighting spider-rats, they'll be fine. Paige is on lettuce and tomato chopping duty, over with other me. But the rest of us are here. I pick a seat right next to Sara.
It doesn't take me that long to fill them in on what the headmistress said. Ayla's main advice is to hold my nerve and not get so crazy at the waiting I kick the hornet's nest again just to make something happen. I could see how that would be tempting. But we've got all our pieces arranged, and it's their move now.
Soon enough the conversation drifts onward to Jade and her amazing babysitting adventure. Is she going to be jetting in and out on rockets every day? Probably not but it's amusing to speculate, and having major superheroes on her CV certainly won't hurt. As for me I just snuggle up against Sara, and get petted, which makes me happy.
Before I came here, I had autism. Not a lot of it, but enough to bother me. I've been wondering whether I still had it. Some of it has clearly been superseded by the changes; I've got more bandwidth than you can shake a stick at, which means no worries about being overwhelmed by stimuli, any more. But I think today answers that question, because I'm feeling more than a bit socially drained. Peeking at what's going on, it's like, I keep alerting for small things. Is this important, is that? Is it dangerous? Being around strangers, in particular, makes me second guess everything. They haven't been comfortably analysed into patterns I can predict. That, at least, is something I can deal with. I task off threads to see what I can build up as characterizations of everyone I see. I'm constantly getting input about them, direct and indirect, sound and sight, I can thread together what I hear about them too, and later I'll put names to faces. Plus there's the stuff I read. Nowadays it's all there for me, clear as text, rather than the spotty digest memory I had when I first came here. It turns out all memory is eidetic in nature, it's just normally kinda buried. But mine has been un-burying itself. I can remember all of my previous life, although it's a bit separated off. Not quite "that happened to somebody else" but certainly "that happened to a different me, in a different world".
Oops, I was wool-gathering. Sara tap-taps me for attention. People are done eating, they're standing up. Have I done eating? Looking down, yeah, I ate everything. The memory of doing so is stored away, but I wasn't really paying it attention. Definitely time for some rest and relaxation, I think. I stand up, wave bye for now to the Poe folks and walk back with Sara.
Over with the weres, Erin's already headed off, not being the stick-around type, Paige is saying her goodbyes to the Donners. No point saying bye to me, I'm both at the origin and the destination of her trip back to Whateley. Ben and Eloise are cool for me to have a nap, here, so I look for a comfortable spot and curl up. Were houses are designed for people who like to do that, and it suits me nicely.
In Gothmog's realm, I'm wandering the pretty gardens (a lot of which, on close examination, are very not-Earth flora and fauna). As I do it, I'm trying to feel out how it all works. I haven't begun to scratch the surface, it's like this unbelievably complex spell-weave. But then, it's not that dissimilar to my own body that way. That too, has started to feel like a spell, or a song, as much as thing.
Snuggling on Sara's bed, I ask her, "Do you still sing? Because I read all about the nightmare at Halloween. It just felt wrong, that you were interrupted like that."
She smiles. "I sing. Mostly solo though, or in class, I haven't performed since then. I'm not jumpy about it, just haven't had the time." A pause, then, "Okay, maybe a bit jumpy. Did you want me to sing?"
I grin. "I'd kind of love to hear it. I mean, you sang a lullaby for me once, but I rudely fell asleep". Which makes her giggle. I add, "I've kind of read a heap of music theory, now, but I'm itching to actually have something to hang it on. Could you teach me how to do it? And I went and raided every sea shanty in the Whateley library, so we could have a bit of a pirate duet."
That makes her outright laugh, and grin happily. "Excellent plan. Okay, so Middle C", and she sings a note. I try and copy, she adjusts how I'm breathing and moving my mouth with mental nudges that are clearer than any verbalized instruction. "C major scale", and she sings the notes, adjusting my pitch by tiny increments. "Now sing along", and she launches into "what shall we do with the drunken sailor", I try to avoid giggling at the implausible dire fates enumerated, as I match her.
While we're having fun, I feel the need for some instrumental accompaniment. I haven't got one, though. But a thought occurs. I should be able to copy a penny whistle from my previous life's memory. If I had a material to work in, but I kind of do - me. I can make myself appear, could I make something like my body processes could, mentally, and make it appear? Shape and detail coming together... and another me appears, with a whistle in hand - one of fresh, white-shining bone. Inactive bone, no vascularisation or blasts or clasts, just hydroxyapatite and collagen. But shaped to cellular precision. And that me jumps in with the counter-melody. Okay, that got an eyebrow raise.
We get to the end of the song, and Sara says, "okay, give, I want to see that". I hand it over with a smirk, because I know she can feel it, it's me. As much part of me as any of my other parts, just separate.
She grins, using teeny tiny tentacles to appreciate the detail. "Nice work. I wouldn't lend it out though. What can you make?"
Jet comes over for a look, Sara passes it to her.
I say, "I'm pretty sure I could do solid things, if I can imagine them. I wouldn't feel up to mechanisms, not yet, that's a lot of fiddly pieces. But if you wanted a cup, or a knife and fork..."
Jet says, "Or a sword?" She's turning the small flute over in her hands.
I consider that. "Well, it wouldn't be very sturdy or sharp. I'll need to learn tougher tissues than bone for that. But I could make daggers, I think."
Jet hands it back to me. "Daggers could be useful. That thing's pretty freaky though. It has an aura. Only living things have auras, normally. There's, like, a connection to you. Sara's right, you give that to a mage, it would be worse than them having your fingernails."
"Freaky suits me", I grin. "Making bone implements - and making them vanish again", as I vanish the flute, "that could be a fun signature move. And it's less necessarily lethal than those gravitic tricks."
And then I make the whistle appear again in the hands of other me, and it's time for some more yo ho ho.
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**7th January, 2007, afternoon**
All of me are asleep. One in a nook with a sunbeam, one on the soft grass of a place that isn't anywhere on Earth, and one on Sara's bed. We, I, draw into focus, no dreams, no sensations, just self. I rest my attention and let thoughts come.
I've ruined everything, I've stirred everyone up to hate me - this is obviously not true, but I recognise that part of me brings this sort of thing up because of slow-burn trauma in my past life. It was easier to feel I was doomed, than that I was the victim of unkind treatment. It was easier, moving into a new place, or a new school, to accept the doom pre-emptively. Thank you, thought, for reminding me of my past, which is the root of my present, but no longer controls it. I accept the thought and release my grasp. It stays for a little while, and then drifts away.
I'm a monster, I'm inhuman, I play music with my own bones because I'm amused to be spooky - well, it isn't a lie, but it isn't the whole truth. I'm eagerly reaching out towards the alien, and allowing myself to be changed, and I'm not sure really how much of the change so far is my nature, and how much is me just hamming it up because I like to. But I'm also kind and ethical, and being very careful not to let my new nature wear away my empathy either for myself or others. I've been given a new life, and I'm grasping it with both hands. More than two hands, in fact. Thank you thought, for reminding me to hold on to what I love about humanity, even as I change. I accept the thought and release my grasp. It stays for a little while, and then drifts away.
I should panic and grab onto everything I can, fill my plate beyond overflowing with experiences, because everything will suddenly vanish away and I'll be back in the old life and stuck and it will all be just a dream - this is just reaction at the newness of everything. A part of me conceals its wish to hide in the familiar with pretend inevitability, because accepting such a sudden change is hard. Especially as I haven't even experienced a full day of schoolwork yet, my new life feels very undefined. But I shall be patient, and it will define itself, and become familiar. Thank you, thought, for reminding me that the routine and ordinary is also valuable as a comfort and a foundation. I accept the thought and release my grasp. It stays for a little while, and then drifts away.
Slowly, the last thoughts clear, and I'm just there, experiencing my many selves.
An indefinable time later, I open my eyes in three places.
**7th January, 2007, Whateley, afternoon**
"Hey there, sleepyhead. Feeling better?" That's Sara, who is Paige-petting on the bed beside me. Said kitty-girl is looking as content as if she'd found the best sunbeam ever.
I smile and sit up. "Yeah. I managed to sort a few things out, I think it helped."
Sara nods. "I'm glad. We need to keep studying, tonight, and the way you were, I was worried it would be too much for you." But she would have done it anyway, that's an interesting implication. Sara's not one to lightly trample on a need for downtime, to my understanding.
I say, "Tell me about this enemy. Whoever he is, he's got you scared. Making you feel you have to rush me to learn."
"You know his name, but I can't say it, I have to be careful even not to think it too much", she says. "We, what the humans call Great Old Ones, and it'll do because we never needed a name for ourselves, in our essence we're more like potentials, abstractions. The first of us to find a foothold in this reality found one here, in a writer you know. But in becoming real, the influence went both ways. He latched onto the man's bigoted, fearful mind and became that himself." She sighs, "this is complicated, you're gonna need to learn to think us-wise about time. That writer lived only a few years ago, but this happened outside time. That one of us became a free agent in the universe from the beginning. Humans are what he hates, and he brought that hate back to our kind. As to why", she chuckles. "We've never met a species in the realities we've touched before that has the potential to become like us. You've got to understand, it's like meeting a game character who might, in potential, step out of the game. Or a puppet that might take hold of the stick and puppet us. Frightening. You didn't even need any genetic tinkering to become reachable at the imaginal level. So you can see how your change is literally the thing he fears most. Him and his faction."
I wince. "Yeah."
She nods. "So. You've already read about the three big powers of the universe. Humans call them elder gods. They've existed from the beginning of things, but they haven't. They were forced into personification by his faction, because he wanted to control the power of entropy and destruction, and he had to pull all three in to get that one. He broke the mind off personified destruction, and started worshipping the mindless shell that was left. This was their attempt to create a weapon for the big war, them versus the powers who were already here. That happened a long time ago, but it was his attempt to pre-empt humans from existing. The war ended in orgy of magical destruction that smashed up the timeline, broke the powers that used to rule Earth, and broke him. As of right now he's stuck half-dead, able to influence but not able to appear. That was the state he was in when he found Lovecraft." She shrugs. "Existing out of time makes for weird loops. Lovecraft named him, and all of the Elder powers, they have dumb racist names because they were named by a dumb racist."
I say, "Seriously? That is... if the universe has a sense of humour, I think it probably hasn't stopped laughing yet. Wow."
"Yeah, don't tell the humans."
"I can't imagine they'd believe it if I did", I say. "So wait, he created your grandma?"
"Pulled her into personification. The universe came with creation as a thing, but now creation's a someone, kinda sorta. She doesn't enjoy it, it gets in the way of doing what she does. Anyhow, so. He gets to be high priest of destruction. Relativity wants one too, because he's like grandma, bothered by being forced to be a person, and he needs someone to wield his power get that fixed, so he taps the broken off mind of destruction. Meanwhile grandma creates a new one of us to be hers, called Kellith."
"She created you?" I'm confused.
"My potential. Remember, outside time. The cause can happen after the effect. She created daddy, to be my father. And she put me in with the humans, to borrow their potential. There was always a Kellith, she defined me into the universe. But the abstraction became reality when my father loved my mother. To be what he needed to be, he had to have empathy, love, care. I got that from his lineage, and grew into a human whose life experiences turned the cold potential Kellith into who I am now. So grandma kind of created a monster, in a way, I'm a hybrid from us to you. Neither of the high priests worked out as the elders wanted. Relativity got a showboating ego. And grandma hasn't got me yet, I've been telling her no. We have philosophical differences. And now I've created you. Well, changed, created, sorta, from an us perspective it feels like created. That's the state of play and sparking you put another piece on the board. The factions are more broken up at this point, a lot of us just went off to do our own thing, but he's still playing the game, and we're playing opposition to him, and we just queened a pawn."
"Well damn." I chuckle, but it's laughing in the face of fear that I now understand too well. "So basically, I had better start learning to punch like a queen in a hurry, before he sends a bishop or a rook my way. And probably takes out the school in the blast radius."
"Got it in one. And so - sorry, Paige, I need to get up - time for sorcery lessons again."
Over in Gothmog's realm I'm listening to Sara explain but I'm also exploring his library. He looks proud of his collection. Literally every erotic novel, scroll, cuneiform tablet, fan-fiction, everything made by humans and aliens. Everything that has even a hint of kink or smut, he has a copy. The library must extend for miles. That's most of the library, but it's not the only thing he has, there's books on an eclectic variety of subjects, and a big spooky section. Unlike Whateley, that's just shelved in the open, here. Reader beware, I guess. Some of those, I expect, are going to become my textbooks.
I'm relaying to him and Petra what Sara's telling me. Petra has the incurable giggles as a result of the idea of Lovecraft naming the elder gods. Gothmog looks a little resigned. "My daughter has her way of telling things, but she isn't wrong. The two of us have chosen to become protectors of this strange, ever varying, extremely cute species called humans." He glances fondly at Petra. "There's a few of our kind out there who're on the friendly side of neutral. A significant number, who have abandoned the factions entirely, but they often see humans as playthings or prey. And a small handful who are still either obligate, or philosophical members of his faction. His mind's influence, and theirs, is why your human world is so full of darkness. Fighting that darkness is what my daughter's cult, and mine, work at in the world, even if it seems to be very indirectly."
"We've never talked about it yet, her cult", I say. "I know Paige is her high priestess, but she's never seemed that religious. And Sara knows I was interested, but hasn't raised it."
"It bothers her", Gothmog says. "Being a goddess, being worshipped, she can do it, but she hasn't fully grown into it yet. She has human feelings about it. Paige understands and doesn't press the matter. But then, she doesn't need to. Lying in the lap of her goddess, receiving loving caresses and loving her back, isn't that the very most powerful kind of ritual? Can even the Pope claim the same? They're subtle, these two." He smiles at Petra, who grins back.
We climb the stairs - everything in the library is beautiful, aged wood banisters, deep carpet, brass fittings - and we're in the spooky section. Books that look like they're made of stuff you shouldn't make books of. Weird alien gadgets. Things that rattle their chains and snap teeth or extend tendrils when you pass them. Petra doesn't look too happy about being here.
"Alright", says Gothmog. "Sara is teaching you runes, over on the other side. So over here, so as not to create interference, we're going to cover theory and abstractions of sorcery. Those are thing I judge, you, Petra, to be safe knowing. I feel, stretching a little way in that direction will help your recovery."
Petra closes her eyes, looks down, takes a few deep breaths. "Alright, I trust you. But I'm afraid. Last time I touched Mythos stuff, I got burned bad, and I know you know that. So how does exposure to more, help?"
"Your mind got twisted out of shape", Gothmog explains. "It rebounded back, but not all the way. You've had some time to get over the rawness of the injury, so now what we're doing is comparable to physiotherapy, which I know you've experienced. Stretches to regain protective mental flexibility."
"Oh Goddess, more physio?"
"I'm afraid so."
And so he brings down a book, and we start to learn.
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**7th January, 2007, afternoon, Medawihla reservation**
The weres aren't big on mod-cons. I'm figuring partly it's because they're boisterous and break stuff easily, partly to keep up appearances, partly because the things must whine and hum annoyingly to ears that aren't deaf as a human post. Anyhow, Ben has taken me out into the woods to help cut wood for heating and cooking. I suspect, also to get me away from the village where sharp hearing makes private conversation impossible. We're both strong enough to tote a big pile of cut wood, but getting it through the trees is going to be a bother. I'm concentrating hard on my gravity sensing to try and make myself better at feeling where all the obstacles are, even when I can't see them.
"So kid, you've run yourself into a bit of a complicated situation, out here", Ben says, conversationally, as we're walking. "We had a big attack about a month back. Lot of people lost family, they're grouchy and short fused. Then we had reinforcements come in, but they're strangers. So the pack ordering is still shaking itself down. Lot more dominance fights than you'd get in a settled pack. Lot more unpredictability. Not much discipline. Chances are good you're gonna get challenged. I hope that idiot boy Carl learned his lesson, but he might try for you, because you're with Sara and Paige. So I figure learning to fight is kinda high priority, if you plan to stick around."
I nod. "Whenever you want."
"Okay", he says. "We're gonna start by cutting wood, then a little jog. Then, when you're sore and puffed, you get to fight."
"Sounds fun", I say, because it doesn't sound fun at all, but there's no sense in whining.
"Ain't nobody gonna start trouble when it's convenient to you. Only when it's convenient to them", Ben points out. "Okay, we'll be cutting here. Look for dry dead wood, off the ground. Dead standing trees. Fallen trees that ain't resting up against the dirt. But keep an eye out for broken branches overhead, hung up in the tree and ready to drop. They can come down silently if you or the wind shakes 'em loose, and break your head in, and if you'd probably survive it being who you are, you wouldn't find it enjoyable. They call those widow-makers. And if the wood's hung up against another tree, call me over, I'll show you how to get it down safely. That can be trouble too."
I nod my assent and set to work. Gravity sensing helps reassure me I'm not about to get whacked upside the head by half a tree.
Other me is learning, and I'm finding the snowy forest to be full of reflections of the life runes I'm picking up. It's kind of like that Matrix movie where the forest can almost seem like one big spell, of impossible complexity. I'm reminded of Gothmog's realm, although the weave is closer to the surface there, it's more obviously made, although by an enormous and alien mind. There's a certain unity and shared tone to it. If there's anything like that out here, in the physical world, it's too vast for me to see yet.
I kind of wonder if some hint of Sara's blood-sister ritual link to Fey has come down the spark and become part of me, because I'm getting a sort of "life sense" now, a runic feel for the place around me. I can feel dead wood from live, for example, the living trees are barren at this time of year but they're brimming with respiration and cell processes. Dead ones are passive matter, but filled with decay-life. I can feel the hyphae shining inside the wood, and the little insects digging into it. Some old trees feel like a mix of alive and dead, which is strange but I guess plants are different like that.
After awhile, I've got a collection of logs and sticks, and Ben shows me how to cut them to lengths and bind them up with ropes to the backpack-frame I brought. Quite a lot of scout-type knot tying is involved, and the end result looks heavy as hell, but thankfully is under my one-and-a-half ton lift limit. It does make my feet sink in the dirt some, though. Whee, it's weird being able to do stuff like this. Even if I am thoroughly unimpressive for Whateley. Ben does up his own pack, and then says, "alright, feeling up for a run? Good, follow close."
Precision movement helps with anticipated obstacles, but my heavy feet keep slipping and there isn't always the time to optimise a path through brambles and undergrowth. I'd be cut to ribbons if I wasn't healing the scratches and bruises as fast as I was picking them up. And I'm feeling absolutely shattered. But I realize as I run that there's something I can do about that. Life sorcery with a gentle touch, I can pull scraps of sugar and minerals from the sweet tree sap that I can feel all around me, hints of glycogen from underground fungi, water and salt from dirt, never take more than a taste, but I'm continually moving on. Okay, this is cheating the hell out of training, but it's amusing. And when we pull up to a stop, I'm not exhausted. I could probably have just kept running all day. Ben sees it. "Well, damn, kid. You're spookier than you let on."
"Figured out a new trick", I say. "Provisioning on the run."
He's guessed it was magic of some sort. "You gonna harm our forest?" And he doesn't look approving.
"Shouldn't do", I say. "Lightest touch, no taint. Take less than they can spare."
He nods. "Fair enough." I feel I've shook him some though. He takes off his pack and finds a log to sit on. "Well, I can't do that, so your training's gonna wait a moment."
I take my pack off too, find a spot and toss my coat down so I can sit cross legged. Release thoughts, rest the attention on the breath. A fight is not a prank and should be approached with seriousness even if it's training, so says my inner Jedi.
Gravity sense, a form approaching fast from behind. Life sense, predator. I throw myself crudely sideways and roll, tracking the object as it moves through where I was and turns to follow. Bounce myself upwards with an arm, I couldn't do that if I were human but I've got plenty of muscle to throw my own negligible weight around. I go high enough I can grab at a branch that gravity sensing can feel. And I dangle, and look. Some guy, native looking.
"Good start", says Ben. "Didn't say I was gonna fight you *myself*. Meet Caleb Lost Feather."
"Kid doesn't move like a human", Caleb complains.
"She ain't.", Ben agrees.
I let myself drop, breaking the fall with a slight crouch more from habit than necessity. "So what's the terms of the training? I presume attacking me was to see if I'd be clueless, or fly off the handle?"
"Just to see how you reacted, kid", Ben says. "You got out of the way, you got to a moderately safe vantage, and assessed the situation. Good choices. Except that hanging off a tree doesn't give you many reply moves if they follow."
"Teleporting, or warping, or a new body and drop the stranded one", I offer. "Yank on the branch and go up, then bounce off the tree. But you're right, it's constrained. Dropping would be bad."
"If you're falling and you can't fly, you're undefended", he agrees.
"I kinda can, but it's not too coordinated", I say. "I might manage a dodge but it would be clumsy."
Ben nods. "What we're training today, using powers that aren't part of your physical body is out. No flying, no magic, no warping or teleporting, no new bodies or vanishing them. A dominance fight is a conversation. You need to convince your opponent, and your audience, that if they fight you again they'll lose again, so they stop coming. If you win by what they'll consider tricks, the first thing they'll think is, next time she won't get lucky. So they don't stop. So the terms of the training, as you asked young miss, is, to start with, I want to see you and Caleb fight. You can both use any physical tricks you know. No weapons, no shifting, full or partial. Avoid killing blows. Stop at tap out, unconsciousness, or when I say stop. No arguing with the ref." He grins. "Well, what's keeping ya? Git to it."
How to handle this? Well, I can take a lead from Ben's "She ain't". From my previous life I've a useless smattering of various martial arts, from this one I've got an inhaled but largely unexamined library of styles and forms. But martial systems are about generalities, what if I just work with specifics? I know how my body can move, I think. I know anatomy. So just take the fight like a problem to solve. Caleb's probably stronger, he'll regenerate, he can likely take the punches I can throw, or Ben wouldn't have put him in harm's way. Avoid arteries, and avoid breaking bones towards them. Spinal hits should be fine. Avoid skull and brain damage beyond a concussion. The environment is three dimensional, and I can sense it in a full sphere around me. Trees are surfaces, any orientation works. And gravity is pretty weak compared to my deadlift, so my body is a ball I can bounce.
Caleb's moving towards me at a half crouch. I'm just standing. I let myself topple forward like a log, he wasn't anticipating that at all and it throws his response, he steps back but I've caught my fall on outstretched hands and turned it into a rolling handspring that lets me kick him in the chin, absorb the reaction force with bent arms, then throw myself over his head, spinning in flight by throwing my arms out and around, twisting my waist, backhanding him into a tree. That throws me a distance away, foot bracing against a tree, I stop my momentum for a moment, then drop to an all-fours landing and push up bounce back to standing.
Caleb's up. "What the fuck style is that?", he asks, rubbing his chin.
"None. She's smart and untrained, she's making it up", yeah, Ben gets me. "Quit thinking you're fighting a human. Think terminator." Yeah, me and Arnie. But I suppose it has some merit. What would Arnie do? Smash with overwhelming force.
From standing, I slide forward into a shuffle step, then kick off hard from the back leg when the front is at apogee, heading right for Caleb, up close in his face. As I come in I feint a simple right cross to the face, he guards, then I duck, front foot touches with a forward push and brakes my lunge into a rolling forward fall but the pulled punch becomes a down-falling elbow into the hip-thigh crease with my whole weight and speed behind it, pop goes the joint. Caleb screams as he's slammed down to the ground by my weight and onto the dislocated hip, and I shoulder roll over him and turn back.
"Stop!" says Ben. I stop still. "Enough. Caleb, let me see that." Ben examines the dislocation with expert fingers, then braces a knee, yanks and pops it back in. More screaming. I wince. That sound is going to bug me, I really don't like hurting people. Caleb, panting, lies on the snow to recover.
"Alright, kid", Ben says. "I figure you know the answer I'm gonna give you. You fight okay, it's effective, that's what counts. A bit needlessly showy. But neither I nor Caleb can teach you a darned thing. You've got your own thing going. Cluttering it with proper form would just cramp your options."
I sigh, but it makes sense. "Sorry."
He shakes his head. "It works, it'll do. Now give Caleb a hand up and no hard feelings, okay?"
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**8th January, 2007, morning**
We finished "grandma's book" last night. That and Gothmog's theory book left my mind reeling overnight, and Sara rode herd on my dreams all night to make sure I didn't accidentally unleash a plague or something. I can feel it changing my perspective, and it's going to take effort to avoid being warped out of shape. Really easy to see life from her perspective, as this enormous process creating itself, where the individuals don't matter. That's one valid perspective, but it's not the only one, is how I've decided to frame it. Still, I seem to have a knack, and that's good, it means I've picked up a potent weapon. Because I really could unleash a plague, personalized or species wide, very easily now. But best set that thought aside.
Me in Whateley slept the night in Poe. In Gothmog's house, I slept alone in a gigantic, silk sheeted four poster bed. Yeah, I can see his hand in the design of Sara's room. I offered to stay with Petra, but she doesn't feel like she knows me that well yet. I can understand that. With the weres, I found a curl-up nook, and was joined by a kid called Cindy. Just sharing the space, but she told some good stories about when she first met Paige, who was really jumpy with blood rage then. She seems to have more of a handle on it these days. Spending so much time around Sara probably helps.
Today's going to be the first day of school here for me, although it promises to be weird as I'm kicking things off in the oddball, all-electives winter term. And doubly weird as I'm going to have to split myself between two and five ways at once to take the classes I'm booked for. Everyone else is a whole autumn ahead of me, although my reading should help. That means I don't have a team, and I can't get into even basic combat stuff this term, except the class called "combat movement" for non-violent types. That won't start until tomorrow, Tuesday. I'm going to ask if they can set up remedial combat class for me, so I don't have to wait a whole term and then start from zero.
**8th January, 2007, morning, Poe**
I'm up, so I might as well get clean. Getting out of bed is a short, lazy warp, and then I'm padding across to the showers, ramping up my body heat set-point a bit so the cold floor doesn't matter. It's busy, of course, and Ayla's ogling Billie, who's stark naked and dripping, floating overhead with her legs wide open and towelling off, okay, I admit the view is nice. But it's impolite to perv at friends without permission. Toni finger-prods Ayla, who jumps like she's been shocked. Ki wackiness, presumably, I really need to learn that. Billie just flies herself sideways and towards the exit, but stops seeing me. "Jules. I was looking for you when I got back. You knew, didn't you? Everything, the fake baby, the spider rats, the dungeon dimension."
"I knew", I admit. "You weren't in any danger. Weak-ass demon, and the dungeon belongs to a friendly mad scientist."
She sighs. "In hindsight that's true, but it still bothers me you didn't say anything at all."
"It was an adventure. You'd have just felt kinda continually disappointed if I'd spoiled it for you. Don't worry, I won't keep actual dangers secret, if I know them. Which is not guaranteed from roughly now on."
She nods. "Fair enough. See you at breakfast." And heads off to dress.
I must have missed some conversation because Jade zips past me doing the crazy villain laugh. Aha, that's one I think I do remember. Fun fun. And then the queue moves forward. On the way past I say to Ayla, who's on his way out, "If you want to ogle, and not be doing something that the person wouldn't consent to, its cool to look at me. Not that I'm up in the top ten like Fey..."
A voice cuts across, "You ain't in the top one hundred, why would he look at you?" A black girl, and I hush the part of me that is spitefully thinking she's not in the top one hundred either. Ayla nods, but makes his exit, he clearly wants no part of this.
Toni says, "Oh yeah, Jules meet Sharisha, Sharisha meet Jules. Jules ain't got no shame, Sharisha ain't got no sense."
"Nice to meet you", I lie, politely. "The answer is, whether he wants to is up to him. Each to their own."
"You another one of those boy girl freaks like miss thing here?" Sharisha clearly isn't making much effort to be polite. "Cuz I think it's a shame that you freaks are putting on an act and fooling people, but artificial don't taste the same as real."
I move my towel from my waist to slung over my shoulders, so she can see everything. "More ways than you know. But I suspect, you're guessing about tastes." Meow. Self, be nice.
"Oh fucking wonderful, another boy dick with tits. Like we don't have enough, are real women going out of style?"
Toni says, "Back the fuck off, Sharisha. Everyone here's got secrets."
"And I wish I'd never told mine", she says, leaving in a huff.
I smile my thanks to Toni. And then it's my turn to wash. While I'm showering (ah, lovely warmth), Toni asks me, "So how come you don't care at all about being ogled? It something you got off Sara?"
I laugh. "Sara would be like, pose, pose, did you get a good angle, should I bend over?" Which sets Toni snickering because it's true. "As for me it's more like, I'm really happy to have this body, and why not spread the love? I like being me. I like looking at me. If other people do too, then yay. I probably wouldn't date Ayla because he's such a guy and I doubt he's as poly as I am, but I don't mind if he checks out my ass. And better to aim it at me than at someone who'd be embarrassed by it."
"Huh. I guess that works. As for me, I just don't get embarrassed by anything", Toni says. Understatement of the year. "But I know it bothers Nikki. Billie's just a complete space case. I think Jade has to remind her to wear clothes out of the house." Which I laugh at the image of. Oh hey Billie, you forgot your pants, so here they are with Jinn inside. "Anyhow, see you at Tai Chi", Toni says, heading out.
Alright, shower done, water shaken off with a teleport, and I'd better get dressed and downstairs. Back to the uniform today, but I don't hate it. Even the store bought one wasn't made of horsehair and doormats, unlike some schools I could name. This one from Cecilia fits nicely and feels silky. Reminds me, I should get back over there and see if she can make me an outfit I'd look hot in, because I don't really have the practise to pick one out myself. And I'm not sure what the requirement for "formal dress" for the Exemplar Grace thing is, but I bet she could make one. They'll get me in my uniform the first lesson, though, that'll be later today.
The Tai Chi group is me, Fey, Toni, and Chou today. And this time around I'm not distracted by fun with Sara (no, must not detail-remember that memory right now, save it for later when me and my fingers have time). With enough bodies to compare to, I tighten up my physical form some, but I'm really not sure how the ki side of it works at all. Toni's helping this time. "Try to think like, you're not moving your body. You're moving your intent, and your body is flowing along effortlessly. Sink down. All your movement should come from the ki center under your belly button."
"Dantian", Chou helpfully supplies the name of it.
"Yeah, one o' those", Toni agrees.
At the end of the practise, they agree that my form's good, and I'm coming along on the intent thing. It's amusing to have this one thing I'm pretty much a baseline at, given all the other scary high-level stuff I've been picking up.
At breakfast, I double myself up so I can go give Sara a big hug while I'm waiting in line. She always feels down at breakfast when she's got to eat some cute animal in public, this time it's a big, very long haired, much beaten up looking cat, that was probably king of the strays in its time, going by the missing eye and shredded ears. "Kitty will probably have fun in your realm" I say to her, and she nods. I think I understand that place a bit better now. It's got a real "grandma" feel to it. It's kind of how she's chewing over the big hidden war she's got swept up in. I wonder how Jade and Gary will change it?
Me and other me both make it to the tables around the same time, with other me handing me the second tray before she goes to sit with the Kimbas. Sara gets eating the cat over with fast, then sets the cage down. I just enjoy listening as Paige asks about subject choices. Looks like a lot of people don't firm up what lessons to take until the first day. Everyone's shocked Paige gets along with Hartford, she's someone I haven't met yet. Not sure where I'll stand in her hierarchy of enemies and allies. I'm guessing low, on account of some of my friends, and the people they consider enemies. Glancing over, I can see what has to be the Alpha table. I'm still piecing together hints about who's who, but I know some of the dramatis personae. Although nobody looks like the Don. Oho. Today is his no good, very bad day, now that I remember.
"What's got you amused?" Sara asks curiously.
"The Don", I say. She's seen my memories of reading. And so a moment later she gets a sharp toothed smile.
"I wish I could be there for that", she admits.
"We get to enjoy the aftermath at least", I agree. "Oh, and Englund's hiding miss Seraphim from you in Dickinson, it would be a shame to mess up his plans by becoming her friend."
She snickers. "It's really not going to be his best term, with us two ganging up on him".
"His choice to start hostilities", I say. She nods.
Meanwhile on the Kimba side, everyone's talking about the courses. I'm going to be in a few of the ones they're mentioning, so I listen in quietly. Ayla gets teased a bit for his highfalutin' choices. One of the older, Asian looking Poe girls I don't know asks me, "So, Jules, Parallel, right? You're being real quiet, have you already made your choices?"
I nod. "Yeah, for me it's easy. I'll take everything that doesn't need stuff I missed in fall term. So most of the fighty stuff is out, and I'm not in a team yet, but I can take the rest. A lot of it, I didn't do the lessons, but I read the texts. So I should be able to test in."
"Uh, that conflicts, you know? You can't do them all at once." It takes her a moment. "Oh! I guess you can?"
"Yeah, my adviser is having kittens about it as we speak, but I think I'll be cool to just drink the entire fire-hose", I agree.
"Jealous now", she grins. "You're going to have one interesting time here."
Meanwhile Ayla's grousing about overlaps is cut short when everyone stares at her, and breaks out giggling. Oho, it has begun. I watch with amusement as Jade's animated shoulder angels tease Ayla. Missed an opportunity to do a suave boyish Lucifer, in my opinion. But Jade is Jade and subtle is not her middle name. Ayla-as-a-girl does look smoking hot in the smutty devil outfit. Not that he looks happy about it. Poor guy.
Okay, enough of that, I need to head to lessons.
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**8th January, 2007, Whateley, morning**
Team tactics is the first two periods of every weekday this term. That's where team Kimba are going to be, every day. It looks like the school has deliberately scheduled the overlaps to be all the soft, gentle classes for the kids who aren't training to be the next X-men. First period, I've got something called Non-linear Equations as Relating to Game Theory Calculus, which sounds fairly basic. Also, double period of "Necromancy, threat or menace", it should be interesting to see how that links up with my life sorcery. Second period I've got one on the history of renaissance Italy, that I've promised Ayla I'll share notes on. The Kimba table me can go to math, and the me with Sara can walk with her to the necromancy class, that we're both in. Then at second period I'll send the math body to Italian history. Third period will be all change.
Walking with Sara over to Kirby Hall is quiet joy. I am pouring love at her down the mark, just because I can, and she's sending love and amusement back. We may be banned from too-excessive PDA, but there's no reason I can't hold her hand as we walk. Yay, this life is absolutely the best.
Whoops! Twenty-three snowballs inbound, as clear on my gravity sense as if I was facing them. I deflect a few with warps and stop the others, tossing them back. Uh, wait, stop them how? Um, tentacles. That are not Sara's. Oh wow, they came from me.
I CAN DO TENTACLES!
O.M.G. and whee! I retract, and extend them again. Then tentacle hug Sara, completely ignoring the idiots chucking snow at us, although they've backed off a bit at the spooky display. "I did them! Mine!"
Sara grins too because my enthusiasm is infectious. "You really did! Well done, I told you you'd learn how."
"I'm not sure I really know how yet, but they're there", I admit. "Must explore this more. Hmm, but later. First..." I use tentacles to grab up a small snowdrift worth of snow and dump it on the persistent throwers, who splutter and complain. That's them sufficiently dissuaded for now. I can feel what I'm touching as if the tentacles were fingers, but the cold ice doesn't hurt. Unlike Sara's, which are opaque black and look like rubber, mine are smoky blue, and barely there to the eye. They look like that science toy, aerogel. They aren't biological. I could probably grow them out that way, now, but it would take hours of patiently instructing my cells. These appear and disappear on a whim, take whatever shape I imagine, and they pass right through my clothes without making holes. While being solid enough to grab snow. Some kind of solidified sorcery?
While I'm being fascinated, we reach class. I'm too distracted to note much except that Kirby Hall is a weird, Tudor looking style.
Necromancy class is fun. I sit down with Sara over on one side of the class, Buffy wannabe Nightbane goes and sits on the other, and gives us "I stab u now" looks, with Sara blowing kisses back. Poor Beltane is stuck in the middle between us facepalming harder than captain Picard. I give stab-girl a tentacle wave, and she goes *white*. Like if the chair wasn't holding her up she'd have fallen over white. Oh dear, poor corrupted me. Insert evil laugh here. Well, more like evil snicker, but Sara and I do a tentacle high five. (is that a high one? Anyhow.) Score one for team monster.
The teacher's a miss Grimes, who I've read about but not met before. She really does look like a Hollywood witch. It's kind of awesome, although admittedly I am happy enough right now I'd think anything was awesome. The rest of the students seem to be a mixture of goths and preppie types. Nobody Sara seems to be friends with, which gets them off on a back foot with me. Miss Grimes starts off talking about how necromancy is wrong because it breaks the cycle of life.
I telepathically nudge Sara. "Am I right this is nonsense? Souls are made of immutable, timeless stuff. You can't break them and you can't keep them in any cycle forever."
Sara telepaths back, "A lot of them cycle loads of times by human standards. But not forever, no. And the immutable unit is much smaller than one human soul, so they can be shattered apart. Or bent out of shape and it'll take awhile to unbend. But she's making mistaken assumptions. The soul gets called back here, therefore it can't reincarnate there. Wrong, it's fine with being here as its old self and a tea vendor's newborn daughter in Bangalore at the same time. That's how they can go to the afterlife, and also reincarnate. You know from personal experience, one soul, many selves."
I nod and resume paying attention to the lesson. A few people are clearly bugged by the idea of having to give up their spook-chatting ambitions. The idea of rebranding is brought up, which just makes me giggle. Miss Grimes catches the giggle and asks what was funny. So I say, "people who are going to do necromancy anyway should just own it. The idea that they can change the label and put on a suit and suddenly they aren't associated with graveyards and dribbly candles or people with goatee beards going "mwahaha" is just silly. And honestly, a bit creepy. A euphemism makes it clear you're hiding something, and you know it's something you should hide. Nobody's fooled."
Miss Grimes, who is clearly the play-it-straight type, nods her agreement. "A valid point." Beltane gives me a slight smile. I get scowled at by the preppie types. I bet they are the kind of people who invented the word "downsizing" for sacking people. Idiots. I wouldn't trust them to necromance without being assholes about it. Suddenly, I feel very protective of ghosts. I raise my hand.
"Yes, Parallel", miss Grimes sees me.
"I have a point we haven't considered yet. Ghosts are people, if temporarily disconnected from a body. Summoning people up and making them do things is slavery, which is disapproved of in most places. I don't see why that should change just because they died." That gets me a smile from Sara, who has the whole being summoned issue too.
That changes the topic to whether ghosts count as slaves, and whether one can work out a fair employment contract with a summoned being (Sara arguing for yes), which takes us up to the end of the class.
My other classes over the first two periods, well, the math is okay, although like I thought a bit basic. We're supposed to produce some sort of term project. I haven't decided what to do there. Renaissance Italy, we covered in overview in the first lesson. It seems to be an extremely stabby place. It's hard to study something I actively disapprove of as much as the so called "age of discovery" (for which read, colonialism, and the destruction of indigenous people and their cultures). But it happened, and ignoring it won't make it vanish.
Third period means the violent types are out to roam, and that means a change of tone. For me, intro to the Whateley ranges, and flight. I decide now might also be a good time to see if I can buttonhole the combat senseis and get into a remedial basic class. Martial arts are held in the same place as flight, so the me with Sara hugs her bye-until-lunch and heads there, while the me in history heads to the ranges, which are underground, under the same building.
Down in the range, I instantly recognise the instructor from my reading, even if she barely looks older than this body does. White stone skin, cobalt blue tattoos, military attitude, black jeans. Caitlin Bardue. So she's still taking classes, hmm? We all shut up when she starts speaking, giving us a litany of warnings about what she'll do to us if we twitch an angstrom out of line.
Billie's in the flight class with me. We're working in a high-ceilinged room indoors, and the intent of the class is to improve precision and grace. Definitely something I need, although I'm not sure Billie will get much out of it.
And I explore, looking for the dojo. I find it, and peek in, to see if anyone's there. There's a black woman in a black spandex bodysuit with her hair in side-bunches, doing kata alone. She stops and turns to me. "Hi kid, are you lost? There's no class here right now."
"No, ma'am, I'm not lost. Would you be sensei Tolman?"
She nods. "That's me."
I smile. "I was looking for you or sensei Ito. I'm a new student here, freshman but I joined a term late."
"Meaning you've not had any basic martial arts", she nods. "So I'm guessing you're asking after remedial classes?" I nod. She looks at me. "Got any prior experience?"
"Negligible", I admit. "Taekwondo in childhood, one yellow tab. Boxing slash kick boxing, basic punches and kicks at low speed, up to light sparring. All in a different body. In this body, what I have is improvisation and powers."
"A different body... story for another time, I guess. Alright, so it's unlikely you can just test in, unless your improvisation is very good."
"Good but unpractised, I've had less than a week, and less than two days for most of it", I say. "Got another physical capability this morning."
She raises an eyebrow at that, and nods. "List your powers. Only relevant ones, please."
"Exemplar three. Regen six. Warper with teleporting and space and gravity distortion, which also gives me flight, sorta, as well as a 360 degree gravity sense. Multiple bodies and I can appear and disappear them at whim, multiple parallel minds, extreme mental processing capability, perfect memory. Precise muscle control. I can make and unmake weapons out of biological materials such as bone. I'm not sure if life sorcery is relevant, but I could definitely reconfigure my body to be poisonous or infectious, given time to set it up. It gives me a life sense which people register on. And just today I added tentacles like Carmilla, although the means by which I create them is something I need to study."
She's scribbling it down, and looks a bit impressed. "Okay, that is a heap of raw ability and then some, but basically you have no clue what to do with it short of making it up as you go along, right?"
"I memorized every anatomy text here and at ARC, so I can deduce what to hit. But it's an intellectual exercise."
She laughs. "I never tire of learning the new ways you kids figure to do things. Okay, yes, you definitely need classes, if only so you don't go from zero to smash the knee joint on some poor unsuspecting yahoo who expected you to put up your dukes. I'll see when I can fit you in. What slots do you have free?"
"Any of them", I say. "Multiple bodies, multiple minds. I'm taking two other classes as we speak."
"Okay, that's a new one even for me. Well, write your codename and campus email on this bit of paper, and I'll mail you when I've set up a time."
"Thank you, sensei", I say.
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**8th January, 2007, Whateley, lunch**
The short gap between lessons makes lunch more of a hurried affair than it has been in the few days I've been here. Thankfully I can join everyone at the two tables while also getting in line for food, which gets me grumpy glares from a few people stuck in line. On the Kimba table, the one I was hoping to meet is there.
"Hey Nikki", I say, "I need a kind of opinion on a thing, that I learned to do today, and whether it's bad or not."
She gets that here we go again look, and says "What is it this time? You sprouted a second head?"
"Well.. not exactly..." I tease.
"Spit it out", says Billie, smirking. "Can't be flight, you do a good impression of dropped helium balloon."
"Bah. Some people aren't able to completely ignore gravity. It's this." And I show a small tentacle from my finger tip. "I can do bigger and more, but I'm not sure if it's safe yet."
"Huh, nice", says Billie.
Fey squints at it. "It's a distortion, but it isn't spreading outside the radius of the thing itself. Put it away and make it come back?" So I do that. "Okay, when it's gone it doesn't leave any taint. So it's not dangerous that way. But I think, if an ordinary person stared at it for a few hours, they might get a cumulatively uncanny feeling shading into a strong desire to get away from it. About the same as your boots. And if you made a couple hundred and grabbed them by the face, that would pretty much instantly start damaging them by class X exposure. At a minimum it would leave them with a lasting phobia. I'd avoid that."
I nod. "Wasn't planning to, but it's good to know so I don't get myself in hot water."
"Are you copying Sara?" asks Jade as other me delivers trays of food and then vanishes.
"It's more like I've wanted them since I saw hers", I admit, munching on the very passable tortellini in tomato sauce in between sentences. "They're so damn cute. besides now I can hug her on an equal basis."
Me on the other table is giving Sara a tentacle hug, and she's giving me one back.
Jade giggles. "You two are kinda romantic and cute, in the weirdest possible way."
"The queen of chaos herself has recognised me, I feel so seen", I tease with a grin. "Pity Ayla isn't here."
"I have so many ideas", Jade agrees with a smirk that is definitely chaotic evil yet cute.
Over on the other table, Paige is really looking forward to her code-breaking class. I'm going to see if they'll let me into that one on the basis of having read the texts. I can definitely work a computer a few universes over, but we'll see if that expertise translates. Paige of course is so far ahead of me she'd make Don Knuth cry. But she'll definitely be my senpai this time around. When I say that it makes her giggle.
And then I tell them my shocker. Last period of the day, I've got "special topics in religion". With Englund. Many raised eyebrows at that.
Hippolyta's impressed. "You really don't give an inch, do you?"
I say, "that man has made war on my most beloved in all the world, so no, no inch for him. He gets to have me in his lessons, and I'll even see if I can't force him to give me a passing mark. But I can afford to spot him the F if he isn't willing to be fair about it."
Hippolyta grins, approvingly. "Way to fight a teacher, is make him grudge every grade he has to admit. I like it."
The other things I have are language intensives in Arabic, Mandarin and Spanish, all three periods after lunch, Theory and Practice of the Escape fourth and fifth period, codes and religion in sixth. I suspect I'll speed-run the language classes. I can already read all three fluently, so I'll need to get the pronunciation and prosody down, and any difference in the spoken register versus written, and then maybe test out.
Sara and Paige have decided to take escape with me, which should be fun. Either Sara or I could probably just rip a lock apart - or, now, work the mechanism from inside with tiny tentacles. But it's worth learning to do it the hard way. And Paige can just walk through anything electronic, but I don't know if she's studied regular locks.
As we walk over I say to Sara, "You know, it's been bothering me since earlier. All I've done these last few days is pull you into my messes. When what I want is the reverse, to be there to protect you."
Sara messes up my already messy hair and calls me a sweetie, and says, "much as I sometimes wish, it isn't that simple. We're dealing with the whole of humanity, the local bullies are just the leading edge of that, and we can't just kill all the annoying people without wrecking the big project. So it's a political war. And you're already helping, kiddo."
"Drawing their fire?"
"Modelling what a good one of us looks like. Me, they find hard to believe. I do the scary demon thing too well. But you look like a cute moppet."
"A cute moppet with spooky tentacles" I say, doing a cartwheel on mine just because I can, which makes Paige giggle. It leaves interesting tentacle-prints in the snow.
"Pretty smoky opal blue ones", Sara counters.
"They should learn to see beyond your highly cute outside to your lovable and intensely good inside", I say. Which makes her laugh and noogie me.
Paige cuts in to say "We agree with Jules, they are being obtuse not noticing that you have done nothing but benevolent things since getting here." Hi, Mai.
I say, "Since some of them have been coming at her with one assassination attempt after another, I guess they've seen a lot of the snarling face."
"And yet she does not hunt them down and destroy them. I recognise this tactic is strategically unavailable. But they have not noticed it, or if they have, they think of it merely as an advantage, they have not registered it as goodness."
"I kind of feel like Englund's got mental health issues", I say. "It's not that he doesn't recognise it, it's that he can't. He's not seeing what we're seeing. He's still stuck in some past hellhole. Like a soldier that never came home from the war."
Sara nods. "I suspect it, but I'm the worst placed person on campus to do anything about it. If I poked into his dreams to try and give him some therapy, he'd shoot first and complain to the head afterwards, and never ask why."
"Englund's influential, but he's one man", I say. "I feel, we could change the way the campus feels about you, Sara. Even if that leaves him unmoved."
Mai says, "I admit, we have not tried this. We have our own secrets and do not wish to make waves."
I nod. "Completely understandable. However, I can make as big waves as I like."
When we get to class, the only one I recognise is the squirrel-looking girl who's probably Aquerna. I wouldn't mind seeing if I can become her friend, as she's in the parkour group, and from what I remember reading, is nice.
We sit down, the teacher comes in. He looks like the bad guy off Kung Fu Hustle, if a bit better dressed. “Good day, class. Welcome to our ‘special topics’ class on the theory and practice of the escape. I’m Mister Robertson. Now I already looked at the class list. All of you have powers. Some of them are more suited to escape than others. We've got one teleporter, give the class a wave, miss Parallel", I wave getting various mildly curious looks, "And one tentacle user, miss Carmilla", everyone knows Sara, she gives a tentacle wave. I put my hand up. "Yes, miss Parallel?"
"Two as of this morning", I wave a tentacle. Which causes a certain amount of stir.
"Two, very well." And he goes on to talk about how only a few of us are strong, and anyhow, any power set can be negated. I agree with him there, it seems valid to plan for that, no matter how confident you are. Defence in depth, and so on. We'll train for being powerless first. Then he'll go through individual abilities with each of us. We'll start with the simple stuff first.
Some guy in the front wants his qualifications, he says nope to that, but he'll show us - seems I spoke too soon about the well dressed part, because he skins down to his tank top for the demo. Practical, yet grungy.
Whoa. Slipping out of handcuffs like that is a neat trick. I'm not sure how it worked. Slowly playing back the memory of what I saw, he had his arms flexed when he was being cuffed, interesting. I'll let Aquerna answer that though. Which is good because I get confirmation of the name, as she gives her power set. And an identity on a couple other kids, Skillset and Peccary, the latter having the poor judgment to try and tease in class, which gets him threatened with a rotisserie. She gets the answer right.
Other me is picking up the spoken forms of the languages as I reply with bad pronunciation and get corrected. This is going to be, for a brief while, embarrassing. But I should get better fast.
In escape class, we get treated to a comedy skit of "Poor me, I'm so locked up... oh hey watch me lock that guy to the rail and by the way I got out of the cuffs". It's pretty cool. This guy clearly knows his stuff, and I feel we're going to learn a lot. Even if he does need to wash. And cut his hair. And wash his clothes.
Okay, I can't really knock him for not styling his hair when the most I've done with mine since it suddenly grew (aside from showering it clean) is run fingers through it to make sure it hasn't knotted. I might need to pay more attention to that stuff. Even if as it seems, exemplar hair doesn't get knots from being slept on. I got into lazy habits last life, because I didn't like the body. This one, I like.
Unfortunately my chosen companions don't exactly have any useful suggestions. Sara's hair is as long as she wants it to be because her whole body is kind of a construct. Paige has to get hers done specially, because of the zaps and because of being a kitty. But Sara suggests talking to Fey about it after classes as she hangs out with the models, and they presumably have the best contacts. There's no stylist officially on campus, so it's either find a student who will do it for cash or practise (cash may technically be illegal), or take a ride into Dunwich. Which would mean waiting for Saturday, earliest. Well, unless I do the long range teleport a body thing. I'm not sure how that works with the rules. My guess is, it would be embarrassing to be caught and I can't imagine the head having much tolerance for "well *technically*..." Yeah, no. See the bear, walk away from the bear, do not poke the bear.
And speaking of bear-poking, I'm splitting for two classes next, code-breaking with Paige, and religion with Englund. That's going to be fun.
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**8th January, 2007, Whateley, end of fifth period**
As class breaks up, I head over to see if I can't catch Aquerna, who's talking to her friends. "Hi, got a moment?"
She looks a little confused. And possibly a little worried. Since the radio broadcast, I guess I count as one of the scary ones. Well, that and me popping out a tentacle just earlier. "Uh, sure, hi?"
"Nice answers in class", trying to put her at her ease. "Sorry, we don't know each other but I recognized you by description. You're in that parkour group, right? I was looking for contacts who might introduce me."
She glances over at Sara, who's giving us space. "Yes, I am, I could certainly tell Caitlin you're interested?"
I smile, "Thanks. That's very appreciated. Tell her to look up Parallel, that's my codename. Is it really true you can talk to squirrels?" I know it is, but I feel that's a good way to break the social ice a little.
She nods, clearly worried I'm setting her up for something, but I'm not. I say, "That's pretty awesome, they're very cute creatures. Although I think the ones around here are asleep now, aren't they? Perhaps you can introduce me to them when they wake up? If that isn't asking too much."
That gets her approval. "Oh really, you like them? They're family to me and I'd love to introduce you, but yes, they're all safe in nests until spring. But I can definitely do that when they're awake." Another, worried glance at Sara. "Um, this is not trying to be rude but just making sure, you don't eat squirrels, do you?"
I shake my head. "I don't. Regular people food for me. Don't think badly of Carmilla, though, she doesn't have a choice." Using Sara's codename because Aquerna probably doesn't know her real name.
She shudders at the idea of being forced to eat like Sara does. "Okay, I can see that would be a nightmare. I'm glad you don't have to. Okay, well, I can talk to Caitlin. Then she'll probably contact you. I should go now though, I've got a class."
I smile. "See you 'round." I have hopes for that friendship. And persuading her that Sara is nice. Okay, that might be a stretch.
Englund's "special topics in religion" class is in Kirby, which is probably a bad sign. Code breaking is in Schuster. Sara has a free period so she walks the two of us over there, while other me heads towards the mages' lair. Paige is excited, and chattering math to Sara. Me, I'm feeling subdued, but not for the obvious reason. Something is itching me, not physically, but mentally. Worse, despite my abilities at self analysis, I can't pinpoint the cause. It's like, something I need to do, or something I need to become, but I'm not ready yet. That's the most I can get. I want to set it aside, but it's insistent. In the end I just forcibly silence the alarm. If it becomes something I can act upon, I'll act.
This isn't my first time seeing Kirby Hall today, but the first time solo and not preoccupied. It looks kinda similar to Shakespeare's Globe theatre from the outside. I'm in good time for class, so I just find the room, pick a seat and wait. I've got nothing on this body I can't afford to lose if I have to bail. This lecture room is constructed as tiers of seats forming a half circle around a fairly wide floor, with blackboards, but interestingly the floor is also painted with chalkboard paint. So presumably he's going to be drawing circles during the course. And there's a desk, covered in a cloth, with something long and rectangular underneath. Like that's not ominous at all.
Over in Schuster, Paige and I hug Sara and then head into the rather unassuming, obviously mathematical classroom. It's filling up fast, I guess there's lots of hacker types who find this stuff interesting. We manage to grab a pair of seats side by side. The teacher is a guy with glasses and a slight beard, in a black shirt and jeans. "Good afternoon, class. I'm a visiting lecturer here, my name is Ron Bornstein, you can call me mister Bornstein or Ron. This class is "the mathematics of codebreaking". We will be covering both the way that ciphers are created, and the mathematical ways they are broken. However, I should caution you that there are many further aspects of breaking them that go beyond the mathematical, such as side channel attacks and weaknesses in protocol design. We will be touching lightly on these when we talk about the way that ciphers are constructed, but will not dive deeply into how they are used. I can recommend materials for further study of these topics in your own time."
He continues, "You have all passed the requirements of this class, except one who has asked for special consideration." He looks at me. "You know who you are. I will expect you to keep pace or I will fail you. We will be working mostly with mathematical abstractions in pseudocode, but I expect digital assignments to be written in modern, readable C. All assignments will be handed in electronically. Today, we will be looking at the ancient history of the wonderful world of hiding information in flight, and stealing it. Despite these historical techniques being hopelessly obsolete, they will introduce important foundational ideas. Now, first, can anyone tell me the difference between a code and a cipher?"
A few people put their hands up, including me, and he picks me. I'm guessing because he wants to see who this kid is who wants into an advanced class on the basis of book-reading. I say, "A code is like, banana means attack at dawn, it's not mathematical and you gain nothing by looking at it unless you have the code book. A cipher is a mathematical operation applied to input that produces output which can be reversed back to its input by a second mathematical operation. What makes it a cipher is that seeing the output doesn't tell you much about the input, unless you know how the operations are configured. This configuration constitutes the key. The output has mathematical structure that can be analysed."
He smiles and nods. "Good answer. Depending on the operation, you can have a different key at each end, or the same key at both. The key can be information in mathematical form, or it can be something cruder like the diameter of a stick. The important difference between the two is that a cipher, even a very crude one, can be understood mathematically. And broken, mathematically."
He goes to the board and writes in Arabic. "Abu Yūsuf Yaʻqūb ibn ʼIsḥāq aṣ-Ṣabbāḥ al-Kindī" He reads the name out. "This guy, who we can call Al-Kindi for the sake of you ignorant barbarians, was one of the pioneers of mathematics and helped introduce modern numerals. He was also one of the first people to write a book about breaking ciphers. Back in the day, they were already using ciphers, although they were the same kind of trivial stuff that comes as secret decoder rings in cereal packets. But if you aren't mathematical, like your buddy in primary school who you sent secret spy messages to, that's hard to break. The important fundamental technique he invented is nowadays called frequency analysis." And he writes on the board the letters ETAOIN SHRDLU.
A hush falls in the classroom in Kirby as the reverend walks in. After largely unnecessary introductions, he says "Today's class is special topics in religion, and the topic specifically is: demons, and how to banish them. You may be wondering why I concealed the topic. Partly, to avoid the wrong kind of riff-raff expressing an interest. You are here because you're interested in religion, not because you think that demons are cool. Partly also, because we have a self declared demon in the class, and I was curious to see how she would react, stand up please miss Parallel. A little bird tells me you gained the ability to make tentacles this morning?"
I stand up and smile, and give a tentacle wave to the class. Several gasps. "Yes, you're correct, I did. And how I shall react is that I find the subject interesting, and am looking forward to taking the class." I'm not lying. This could actually come in useful. My most dangerous enemies are what he would call demons.
He looks mildly surprised, perhaps he expected a rant he could give an instant F to. "Very well, you may sit down. This class will not involve any of you personally having any more contact than you ordinarily do with the demonic, but it will involve practical demonstrations in front of the class. If you feel that exposure to these is intolerable to you for any reason, mystical sensitivity, religious requirements, simple fear or otherwise you may leave now, or speak to me after class, and I will not fail you." A few people do.
After a pause, he continues. "Demon, is a very broad brush word. As a Christian, I have beliefs about demons, but mine is not the only religion that does. The first culture to write things down was Sumer, and they have stories of demons. We have records of the same from every literate culture since. Nearly all present day religions believe in them. A demon, broadly defined, is a mystical entity that is dangerous to humans, and callous or actively malicious in intent. The reason for this cultural commonality across centuries is that *demons are real*. I have met them, and I have fought them. Some of them just want to eat you, like a simple earthly predator. Some of them want to steal your body and walk around in it. Some work evil for the sake of evil in the crudest of ways. Some have deeper laid plans, and may seem affable on the surface. They are all the enemies of humankind."
I'm going to pick my time to counter calumny like that.
After a glance at me, he continues, "When you know what a demon is, you know its weaknesses. Banishing demons is the practical application of those weaknesses. Effects vary from keeping the demon away, to driving it out of the world and back to hell, to outright destroying it. Some weaknesses are more universal, others are specific to certain kinds of demons. Unfortunately, the universal weaknesses are either very weak, as for example salt in a protection circle, or very rare and nearly impossible to obtain, such as the mystical metal orichalcum."
He walks to the desk, and whips the cover off. There on the desk is a gold-gleaming beautifully curved short sword, sitting in a hardwood and silk presentation box. He actually brought the damn thing into class for show-and-tell. The reflected light from the blade seems to fill the room with sunny warmth. "Some of which I have here today. This metal is not a natural element. It requires an alchemical, religious process to create. I had to call in favours to obtain this example for class." Oh hey, an alibi, nice to have one of those.
He continues, "orichalcum captures the energetic brightness of the sun in concentrated physical form. Sunlight is a universal weakness of demons, but one that stronger ones can shrug off. As orichalcum, this is no longer the case."
"Miss Parallel, could you please come down here for a demonstration?"
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**8th January, 2007, Kirby Hall, sixth period**
I run up my time-base a little so I can consider my response. Everything in the class goes into slow motion, Englund's voice, finishing his sentence, drops to a bass whale-song rumble.
Is he going to run me through like a shish kebab in front of a class full of witnesses? No, he's not an idiot. And I could afford to spot him the body anyway. Killing this one me wouldn't do anything other than be briefly unpleasant, and he probably knows that. If they couldn't charge murder, exactly, they'd charge him with something. Mopery and dopery. Waving around a pointy object without due care and attention. He'd certainly lose his job. Which he doesn't want. Just the fact that he's teaching this class implies an intent to stick around.
I think what makes sense is that he'll tell me to touch it. If I refuse, I get called a coward and sent back to my seat, and marked down for being uncooperative, if I accept, I get a burn and my suffering is his example of a fallible demon. I get literally branded as evil, and everyone sees me lose. Nice bit of dark side psychology there for a nominal man of the cloth.
But I think I have something else I can do with this, that messes up his cunning plan and advances mine. It's bending my usual rule against being callous with my body, but I'm face to face with an enemy, circumstances call for leeway.
Time-base back to normal, and I stand and make my way down. There are several gasps and someone calls out "hey, that's unfair". I look to note who that is, and give them a smile. The rev just stands there, waiting, with a grim look. Mister witchfinder general. As I get close, I say, quiet enough only he can hear, "Bold of you to bring an attempted murder weapon to class".
He replies, as quietly, "Bold of you to take my class." And then back at normal volume, "Alright, miss Parallel, please touch the sword, so we can all see how it affects demons." Yeah, I called it.
What he doesn't know is that for me, pain is optional. And I'm not sure if orichalcum will harm me anyway, I'm still physically human. Still, I turn off all pain sensation, best to not take the risk.
He's probably expecting me to prod it with a fingertip or something. But instead I grab a grasp of the handle - okay, this is doing damage, that's unexpected, but not so fast it will ruin my plan - and lift it overhead, fist smoking, the room filling with burned meat smell. "I swear on this sword, that there are at least some demons who are genuinely good, and who do not wish harm to humanity but only to protect and nurture it, and me and Carmilla are two of them!" Sufficiently epic, and I put it quickly back in its box before the burn compromises any ligaments and spoils the effect by making me fumble. I show the class my crispy-crittered hand, opening it takes effort and splits the skin. And they can watch as my entirely human mutant regeneration fills in the wound in a matter of seconds, ash and scraps of burned skin flaking off onto the floor. Try and brand me will you?
Back to the seat I walk, to a certain amount of applause. He looks stunned. Yeah, that didn't exactly go to plan, for him.
Still, it's an interesting question why it harmed me. I'm not a projection from outside, in the way Sara is. Something GOO-ish is up, and perhaps it's connected to my silenced alarm.
Over in Gothmog's hacienda, where I've been reading about the history of the Sundering, I ask him what he thinks it is. He rubs his chin and asks if he can check telepathically, of course I say yes. Then he says, "Well, this is unfortunately a guess because I've never been in this exact situation before, but I'd lay good odds that you're starting to hatch. The equivalent point for my daughter was when she died and was returned to life in the morgue."
Okay that's slightly terrifying, but I did sign up for this ride. "So what should I do?"
"Wait until you can clear your schedule for at least an hour or two, then un-silence the alarm. Then do what you feel. I admit I'm groping in the dark here, but I believe your nature will lead your actions. It did for Sara. You will just have to step out of the way."
I nod. "It feels like there's something I need to define, or I need to define myself. Like they're the same thing."
He says, "You know that each of us has a nature, like my domain is lust and perversion, tempered with love. Perhaps that's what you're being asked to identify. Not so much choose, it should already be who you are, but put a finger on and name. How about you go out in the garden and meditate on that?"
I nod. "Will do, grandpa. Thanks." And give him a hug. And if I hang on a little too long because I'm scared, I'm sure he doesn't mind.
In codebreaking class, we've covered the basic kinds of ancient world ciphers, transposition and substitution. We've seen how the letter frequency can reveal a lot about either of them. Simple transposition leaves the frequencies unchanged from the base language. Simple substitution can be mapped onto the base frequencies and you get a lot of the key that way, then you can guess the rest. Up until the second world war, codes used even at the highest levels of government were variations which cleverly changed the substitutions by electro-mechanical means. We've talked about the enigma machines, and the bombe machines used to break the order and setting of rotors and plug-board. And now we're looking at what Mr Bornstein calls the first modern cipher, the German Lorenz cipher, that was responsible for the creation of the first ever programmable computer to break it. Rather than being some mechanically synchronized switch-around of substitution, this was a one-time pad generator that was combined with the text using modulo two add-without-carry, or XOR. The original idea in the 1920s was to distribute one-time pads manually, but of course that requires a lot of very secure shipping. So the Germans had the bright idea of producing the pad by a mechanical pseudo-random function. It's all fascinating and I can let go of my worries a bit by just basking in the fun of learning.
Englund has recovered a bit, and continued listing off the simple shared weaknesses of all demon-kind. They might not save you from the bad ones, but they're better than nothing and will definitely stop the weaker ones. Salt, sunlight, running water, sincere prayer and religious symbols, he talks about "the pagan practise of sage smudging", gah, and how "moral probity" helps (in my opinion, self-righteousness does not), and how fire can generally destroy the weaker kinds of taint in a place or an object - or a person, he doesn't say, but I bet he's thinking it. Of course at the cost of destroying the place, object or person too. But fire can also be lit to guard a place, and some critters won't pass it. And various cultures have blessing ceremonies and seasonal rituals to make a place less hospitable to weak demons, he talks about Japanese setsubun and bean-scattering, and the call of "demons out! luck in!" I think, although you'd never catch him saying it, he sees it as a flaw in mainstream Christianity that it hasn't adopted such a ceremony of its own.
Time's up and the classes all end. A few people approach Englund after class, I'm not sure whether about dropping, or in support or opposition to what he tried with me. Myself, I just make my way out, find a discrete spot and vanish the body. I think I'll call that one a win. And crypto class is pure fascinating wonder, I can see Paige was captivated too. Definitely a favourite. Languages, I'm already doing better in. I'll see whether I can test out and drop those soon, but I feel I need more polishing. Those bodies can go too, I'll keep the one with Paige.
There's a two hour gap before dinner, but it's not really free, it's for stuff like jobs and detention. I've promised Jade I'll come along after classes to meet Stan and Morrie. She said to meet by the library, so I hug Paige and point myself in that direction. Jade's there under a street light, waving, so I trot over. "Hey there, where are we headed?"
"Headed down", she says with a grin. "Is it really true you made an oath on a sword with your hand on fire, that you and Sara were good?"
Oh hey, the rumour mill's running fast today. I nod, "Englund wanted me to burn my hand on the thing, but I saw the chance to show off and turn his game against him."
Jade smirks. "Nicely epic. Definitely some good press for you. And you may take the title of craziest kid off me yet." We're walking around to the side of the library, where a set of steps lead down to a metal door, lit by a bare bulb in a cage.
"Doubt it", I say. "I still haven't nailed anyone to a tree."
"Oh pooh, I only did that once", Jade unlocks the door with a key of her own, "He had it coming too."
"Not disputing that", I agree, as we step into a small room, with two adult men in there, large rounded guy who I guess from my reading is Morrie, short thinner guy who is probably Stan. Some shaking of hands and introductions follow.
On Gothmog's lawn, I'm sat in lotus on the grass. Warm sun shines on me, unearthly critters buzz from flower to flower, and in the trees, colourful birds call. I focus on the question, what is it that I am? It's not the only thing I am, like Sara is much more than her domain of lust, but it should be the underlying melody that shapes the song. I took to life sorcery so smoothly that it feels life as a theme should have something to do with it, and of course that's in my lineage too. I don't feel it's lust, I've got plenty of that to be sure, but it isn't the dominant tone. I haven't even got around to trying my multiple bodies on myself yet, and I feel sure Sara would have. (Definitely save that thought though.) Life... what do I associate with life? Well, I've read "grandma's book" and although I was a natural at it, it was a strain because of how impersonal it all was. I think for a regular human, that alone would have been enough to do them harm. The fundamental power of creation doesn't care if life suffers. Routinely creates life that causes enormous suffering, in fact, like parasitic wasps. It's all just a process to her, the weave matters and the threads do not. I feel that shouldn't be the only perspective, but the forms of the definitional alphabet of the universe, which humans call R'Lyehian, have no way to describe things like love, caring, grace, beauty, except as side effects of life processes. There's a gap.
And a memory surfaces of a book I read in childhood, and the phrase, "don't be afraid to make corrections" spoken by a certain macaw. Oho. Could I? If I define myself as something that doesn't, can't exist in this universe, and rewrite everything that way, can I change the underlying rules of reality? I suppose I am a power that way, now. But then, it doesn't exactly feel like a change. It's who I am. I've found the answer. Now the itch is that much worse, but I think I can hold it just a little while longer.
Stan and Morrie find my tentacles likely to be useful, multiple bodies and ability to shut down my sense of disgust at smells quite nifty. I can get as stinky as I please, and just vanish the body. Bonus, nothing can infect me, and I'd heal any accidental injury. Flight means that I don't have to worry about falling, even if I am pretty awful at it still. I can lift the weight of a small car - I haven't tried with tentacles, but I assume it's the same. That's small potatoes for Whateley, but it helps toting around pipes and whatnot. I'm not quite the bonanza that the J-team is, but I am probably a tolerable understudy, if I can hack it, is the consensus. Time for a trial run. And presumably hazing the newbie. Just to be sure, I throw a backup body down a teleport into my room at Poe. Okay, lead on.
I can tolerate the itch for awhile, and set it far enough out of attention it won't distract me while I work, but I think I'm going to have to do something about it at dinnertime.
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**8th January, 2007, Gothmog's realm**
I explain my idea to Gothmog and it makes him grin. "That's a tension that both my daughter and I have been up against. We had our natures defined for us, but chose to bend them to become something better and more humane. That puts us in opposition to the universe, somewhat. But I suspect, if you can do what you plan, it will become part of our natures too, and relieve the opposition. Where that leads, well, we're breaking new ground so I can't speculate. But I like it." I think I can see a bit of worry in his face, too. Probably he's mentally adding, if you don't splatter against reality like a bug meeting a car. Well, I don't think the outcome can be altered now, because I can feel the force of my formed, ready to burst forth nature pressing against me. And this is worth risking myself to do.
**8th January, 2007, Whateley sewers, after classes**
If I hadn't turned off my ability to feel grossed out, I would definitely be feeling grossed out right now. The sewer I'm scrubbing stinks like Satan's own ass, not that I am able to experience that as a negative at the moment, and my life sense flags up every possible surface, and the air, as crawling with microorganisms. I have background processes running to scrub lung infections as they ignite. It's a constant pop-pop-pop of life sorcery. Goodness knows how Jade avoids coming down with three kinds of lurgy a week. Still, as I am now, it's easy enough work. I think I may have impressed the duo who are watching me from a safe vantage. I'm careful and conscientious about it, and I don't get bored or become inattentive. The fact that most of my minds are turned elsewhere is neither here nor there, to them.
Soon enough I'm finished with the section, and I signal my readiness to come out, then shake off most of the gunk by getting out with a teleport - although, there's enough wedged in small places that I haven't time to detail-describe, that I still smell pretty ripe. "There we go, done."
"Not too bad", Morrie says. "That turning off the smell thing probably helped you a lot."
"Nah, I can still smell, just can't feel bad about how much I stink", I say. "Definitely going to trash the body, it's either that or run the showers cold. So what's next?"
"Next is knocking off. You're done, congratulations. But we're only offering one salary even if there's lots of you." Morrie smirks. Jade looks a bit worried.
"I'm not going to undermine Jade's arrangement", I say. "One, if I'm doing one job. And that includes many hands making light work of it. But if I end up doing independent jobs at the same time, each group of me gets paid for that time."
Morrie frowns at that. But I think he sees that I've given him enough leeway I'll mostly be picking up one salary. And paying me double or triple and getting completely independent jobs done would be worth it. "I'll run it by admin. They might or might not go for it, but I'm good, and I'll advise them to say yes."
Jade grabs me into a hug, "Yay, welcome to the team!" and everyone laughs a bit. I hug her back and say "You're my senpai now, big sis", which cracks everyone up.
It doesn't take me long to strip down and get out of the stinky overalls and wader boots. Those go in the to-wash bin, and then I warn everyone not to be alarmed, and vanish the body and the clothes I was wearing, not bothering to re-dress.
Me in Poe comes out of parked mode in a dark room, and I switch on the room light, and head out down the tunnel towards food. I figure I'll eat, then loose the itch and start doing whatever hatching involves. Over with the weres, I'm asking if they have a large clear area of ground nearby. They do. In Gothmog's realm, I'll use the big lawn out front. And here, I think I can use the area to the south-east of Poe. That's probably grass, but it's just snow-covered now. As I walk through the tunnel, I fill Sara in on my plans using the mark. She understands and sends me love and support. I can feel we're both a bit afraid, but it's obvious there's no stopping the process now.
I wait in the lunch line, only one of me now, because I don't feel up to the distraction of having several. I've told Sara I'm headed for the Kimba table, because I want to try and fill them in. She'll explain at the Pack table. Ayla's ahead of me and amusingly getting mobbed by kids admiring Jade's prank shoulder angels. He gets his special stuff from the chefs and heads to the table, I get to pick from the ordinary food, but to me right now, it's calories and it's fine. Soon I'm over at the table too, although I miss Ayla as he does the dropping through the floor thing. Leaving two angels stuck on a blazer, and much amusement.
I wait for a lull in the conversation, then say, "I gotta warn you all now, as soon as I'm done eating this stuff, I'm going to go do a big thing. Not sure exactly what that involves, but Fey, Chaka, you're likely to feel it, Chou, you too. If you wanna come watch, stick with me when I leave. And, um, I'm not one hundred percent sure I'll survive it. Or be the same me. But it's not something I have a choice about."
Okay, that definitely earned me some worried looks and questions. What is it? The best I can answer is "hatching, but I'm not sure how". Should I warn the staff? Seems like a bad idea, they'd likely try to stop me, and it's as unstoppable now as a sneeze that has begun. Is there anything they can do? Only watch, and stop anything I might accidentally unleash from causing harm. Why are my eyes pink?
Huh, they are? Well, I make a second me to look at myself, and they're cherry-blossom pink with a faint glow. Vanish that second me. Well that's odd. "I have no idea", I say.
Chou says, "It's who you will be, potentially, reflected back in time. What you are attempting will right a wrong in the great balance, should you succeed. I will not intervene to stop it." Her handmaid-nature come to the forefront, I guess I should have anticipated that.
I say, "Can you contain any possible negative results?"
"Aunghadhail and I working together, yes." Which, translation for the not magically inclined, is a terrifying accumulation of power, the handmaid of the Tao, and an ancient legendary queen wielding the power of the strongest natural mage on Earth, and they have to work together... A few of the other Kimbas get it. Toni makes a hiss sound through her teeth. Hank looks worried. That was rather like indicating I might be about to set off a nuke. Worse than a nuke. Either of the two could probably handle one of *those* solo.
Okay, I'm finished eating, and it's time. The group of us head out, Sara and her pack join us as we're leaving, Sara and Paige give me a hug as I walk in the middle between them. Everyone's quiet, it feels like the world's holding its breath. We reach the ground I'm going to use, and I tell them not to come closer than that. Aunghadhail takes over Fey, she stands up straighter. And says, "luck, lass. We're ready."
And I walk out into the center of the ground I've chosen.
And I walk out into the center of the weres' clearing.
And I walk out into the center of Gothmog's lawn.
And we loose the block, and we begin to move. I'm reminded of Clarke's "Childhood's End", we're not separate, we're moving as one. Dancing. Splitting into a scatter of bodies whose movements trace a pattern that doesn't exist yet but will. Some of us bring out bone flutes, and we're improvising a song, which follows the same pattern, although we try to shape it into something tolerable to the human ear, it probably sounds like jazz. Our hair is growing out longer, and blowing in a wind that isn't a wind as we whirl and cross. The snow is lit brightly by the glow of our eyes. And all of us are holding that one idea, that one thing that doesn't exist, which is our nature, focused upon it.
Life, but with the possibility of love, of grace, of wonder. Not as an accidental side effect, but as a fundamental.
I can feel my self expanding, parallels upon parallels coming active, there are hundreds of millions of me, billions, all with absolute focus, we push, we see from outside, something gives and shifts, we grasp reality and make the change, from the first thing to the end of days, eternity.
Make it so.
S H O C K W A V E
Needless parallels releasing, back to millions, thousands, extra bodies gone, there's three of us, and a rune carved in the snow by our dance that never before existed, and all around a hundred million green plants are bursting up through the thick winter snow and opening lightly glowing cherry blossom pink petals.
And all three of me collapse in utter exhaustion.
**9th January, 2007, Doyle medical center, morning**
Eyes open, am I me? Yes, I am me. And my abilities seem operational. But that was the longest time I've spent with no part of me conscious in a while. I sit up in bed, which is surprisingly hard. The me in Gothmog's house and the me with the weres can stay resting for a bit. The sun's up. I push the nurse button. Heh, familiar.
"Good morning", it's the guy nurse from when I was first here. "How are you feeling?"
"Hungry", I say. "A bit exhausted. But otherwise okay. Let me guess, there's a delegation outside wanting to tear me a new one?"
"And they'll stay outside until I'm convinced you're as fine as you say", he says, and brings out the blood pressure test thingy. It seems I'm normal on that. While we're doing that I make a second me to look at myself. He jumps a bit, both of me apologize, then giggle as that seems to mess with him a bit too. "Sorry, I didn't have that power last time I was here."
Looking at myself, I think I lost weight, I look like I could use several meals. My hair is now down to my ass, which is a nuisance and I'm going to get it cut as soon as I can, because that length would be way too much work. And my eyes are pink, with a very visible glow. Still outwardly human, otherwise. I vanish the spare. "Can I have breakfast? And then I'll meet the delegation of doom." Oh hey, I think I can extend my life sense down individual hairs now, hmm. "And can you bring a dustpan? Only I need to get rid of most of this hair."
"I don't exactly have a hairdressing kit" he says.
"Won't need it."
"Fair enough. I'll be back in five."
I find I can remember my old body's form, down to the cellular level. Which is new, I could go into that detail before, but only piecewise. Means I can probably come back from no bodies, now. Also means I can get my old haircut back.
He comes back, with a mound of scrambled eggs and toast, which will do nicely. A few contented minutes later, I thank him for the meal, stand up and move over a clear bit of floor, and send my attention down a hundred thousand individual hairs, stopping at the point where they were yesterday, and instructing the proteins to separate. Attention back in the room, and a cloud of hair floats down. To the nurse's evident surprise.
He hands me the dustpan, and I get to sweeping. In retrospect, I probably could have vanished it, but I think it might be useful to make things out of. He lets me have a zip seal bag to put it in, and gives me my uniform to put back on instead of the hospital gown.
Finally, it's time. In comes Carson, with somebody else I don't recognise. An older woman, with Greek looks, dark curly hair.
"Good morning. This is Circe, head of the mystical arts department. Circe, meet miss Parallel. Now, young lady, would you please give me one reason I shouldn't expel you on the spot?"
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**9th January, 2007, Doyle medical center, morning**
"Good morning, Mrs Carson, Circe, ma'am. I have two answers for that. One is that I have fixed, or at least substantially improved, the whole universe. And the second is that I had little choice in the matter. I could probably have directed it to a more conventional path, and lost the opportunity for change. But the opportunity to do real lasting good came up, and I grasped it."
Mrs Carson says, "And you asked nobody, consulted nobody?"
"To ask your permission would have made you responsible", I say. "You wouldn't have wanted the responsibility for changing the whole universe. You'd have kicked it upstream, where it would have been talked to death over centuries, if it were possible for me to hang on to my hatching that long, which it wasn't. I took personal responsibility in the moment of possibility and acted alone."
Circe asks, "Are you aware what you've done? Thousands of spells will have to be redrafted. Many established ones just shattered and can't be re-cast. Nothing about what you've done is known. Nothing about how it will affect the entire world, is known. The new rune you created doesn't even have a pronunciation yet. And we had to scrub it off the grounds where you drew it, because even if it's very benevolent as they go, we don't dare expose students to it."
"Be fair, Circe, it's the most excitement you've had in centuries", Mrs Carson points out, which gets a grumpy frown in acknowledgement. "Miss Parallel, I'm informed that the flower you created across the campus is safe, nutritious and even tasty in salad by the staff who've analysed it. It's slightly related to the pea family. The petal glow is a form of luciferin bioluminescence that has links to jellyfish genetics. It seems to tolerate temperatures down to the freezing point of carbon dioxide, a very hardy extremophile. Did you make it for any particular reason?"
I shake my head. "I didn't even volitionally make it. The splash-over from me inserting the new rune did that. You'll probably find it's alchemically saturated with the thing. And since that shockwave touched everywhere in the universe, you'll probably find other stuff springing up. Here and elsewhere. And life itself, shifting track just ever so slightly. I didn't take over from the primary power of creation, so her rules still go, but I made a new corollary, a sub clause. All life will start to reflect it, but I think slowly."
"And you did this because?"
"All the good values, love, happiness, kindness, beauty, things that make life worthwhile, were things that kind of didn't have a reflection in the fundamentals of the universe. And so they were necessarily temporary, fragile, a small target that you had to keep hitting just to stay where you already were. And forces that hate humanity, already have their thumb on the other side of the scales, making this world drift towards darkness. So I found a way to change that. Put the scales back in balance. Make goodness into something that life converges on, rather than visits by accident and inevitably falls back out of."
Circe says, "To do this, you risked rewriting the universe, that could have just destroyed all life and all value?"
"No gain without risk. And I do know what I was editing. I felt it would work. And that moment, when I was hatching, was my last chance to make it work for quite some time. Millions of years, perhaps. I'll eventually become a power that can just do that kind of change on a whim, I think. But not any time humans would call 'soon'."
"Yes, please hold back from any further tinkering of that nature, you succeeded this time, it seems, but I'd rather not risk it twice", Mrs Carson agrees. She looks thoughtful. "Inside the school, I can't see any way to hide who did it. The connection with you is too obvious, even if I tell everyone involved to keep it quiet. Which means that it will spread outside the school quickly, via the various spies and paid informants. You have made a name for yourself in high places, young lady. You're a player in the Great Game, now, uncomfortable as that may become. The neutrality here will protect you while you remain here, but I suggest you consider your future affiliations carefully."
Circe says, incredulous, "And that's it, you're just going to let her off?"
"Oh no", Mrs Carson says. She has detention. With you, helping to undo her mess. You may decide when she's had enough of it." And to me, "I'll inform Stan and Morrie, they will be happy to see you after dinner instead, young lady." Well, rats. Ah well, I couldn't expect I'd get away with it scot free. Circe smirks. I don't imagine that's going to be gentle work.
Mrs Carson says, "Alright, young lady, you have missed the start of lessons today, and you have a couple of hours until lunch, which I expect you to spend quietly recovering. Then if you feel fit, you can resume the school day at fourth period"
I nod, "Yes, ma'am."
**9th January, 2007, morning, Medawihla reservation**
"Are you sure you won't have breakfast?", Eli says. I'm up, and sitting at the table, being horribly tempted by some of the best fried eggs and bacon I've ever known. A bunch of what they're calling snow-flowers sits glowing faintly pink in a vase on the tabletop.
My stomach rumbles, but I ignore it and shake my head. "Lovely as it would be, it seems a waste to put good food in a body I'm about to vanish. Believe me, I'm going to feed the other one 'till I pop."
She sighs, and nods, it's pragmatic and the weres respect pragmatism. "Alright, well, I'll be sad to see you go, you've become one of the family around here."
"I'll miss all of you too, but I'm still over in Whateley just a hop and a skip away, and I'll visit", I say.
Ben says, "You mind yourself. You've become scary hard to kill, now, girl. That's going to make a bunch of powerful people worried. And things that ain't people. They're liable to try stuff, and soon, try and catch you off balance."
I nod. "Yeah, I'm only going to get stronger, so they'll hit me now if they have any sense. That's part of why I'm leaving here. I don't want to draw the danger to you."
Eli says, "We can handle ourselves in a fight, but it's best not to need to. I think that's a wise decision, much as I'll miss having you around. I'll actually have to do chores myself again now, I'm not sure I remember how"
"It'll be good for you", I tease, which makes her grin.
I run around giving everyone in the family hugs, even Caleb (who has forgiven me for his knee), and then wave and vanish the body.
**9th January, 2007, morning, Gothmog's realm**
I open my eyes, sit up in bed, of course my hair's down to my behind here too. I consider snipping it, but maybe Gothmog knows a stylist? Meanwhile I'll set it hydrophobic so the en-suite shower doesn't make it unmanageably wet. I seem to have really detailed control over my own body now, I suppose that gives me a shifter rating. Probably only a middling one, as I can't safely force things along faster than biological processes would allow. But I bet I could turn a body into a tree, or a deer, if I was a bit careful about how to preserve things through the transition. I have no idea what that would feel like. Hmm, and I suppose, once I've become a thing, I could make new bodies as that thing instantaneously. I could probably copy a person, too, but I'd need time enough to read their whole body at a cellular level. Just copying their DNA from a sample would be almost trivial. Yeah, gonna keep that one quiet, undetectable cloning is not a thing I want the government to know I can do. I could do without them launching ICBMs at me.
I think, at this point, my best strategy is just to move up into the category of "even the government doesn't want to mess with her" as quietly and quickly as possible.
Shower done, hair back to normal, I pad naked out into my room to pick clothes - oh hey, Gothmog and Petra are here. "Hi, noticed I was up?"
Petra turns beet red, which is charming. Gothmog grins, "Of course. How are you feeling?"
I stretch, yes I am showing off like a shameless hussy, and say "Good, but very hungry. And in need of a hair stylist."
"And clothes", Petra says.
"If I must", I tease, and go looking through the cute dresses in the wardrobe, a certain amount of reaching and showing off my ass is involved, and I pick something silky, because the near-alive fabric feels good to my life sense as well as my skin. "I haven't peeked outside yet, I hope I didn't wreak too much havoc?"
Gothmog shakes his head. "The change you made fitted nicely into my own nature, and I can feel that I've received a power boost from it. I expect my daughter did too. Since this place is built by my power, you reinforced it. There's a few new species in the ecosystem, you seem to have a fondness for bioluminescence and the colour pink."
"Comes from a movie that's two and a bit years into the future, probably, on this timeline. It's full of lots of beautiful bioluminescent plants and animals. I might have accidentally pushed some of that into the spill-over."
"I rather approve", he says, as we make our way down into the dining hall, which is set with an enormous and varied breakfast.
**9th January, 2007, Whateley, mid-morning**
It's quiet, as I walk back towards Poe. People are mostly in class, and second period won't break up for a bit. I can see what the head meant about the uselessness of hiding things - the snow is liberally dotted with pretty pink flowers, thriving despite the bitter cold, glowing gently. They have pushed up through grass, in flower beds, and they've set a few paving slabs at funny angles. I can see groundskeepers busily re-laying those, and I'm going to have some apologising to do. Actually, I'm curious how much apologising I owe. Getting in to Poe, I find my laptop in my room, and go online.
The BBC News headline sets the tone. "Pink flowers in the permafrost, blue-lit butterflies in Brazil, shining surf off Southend, what on Earth happened?" and below that, "British mages' council meets in emergency session". Well if I had any hope of a quiet life, so much for that. That said, I suppose there's an upside. Without an epicentre globally, there's no mile-high neon arrow pointing at Whateley.
Checking my emails, I have a powers re-test scheduled today in fifth period, that shouldn't be a problem although I am going to have to decide how much to reveal. There are various get-wells and good wishes from the Kimbas and Pack and a few others. Emergency extra shrink appointment in fourth period, right after lunch. And, weirdly enough, a few emails from Whateley students offering to worship me. Eh-oh. Yes, I clearly made an impression. I had better coordinate with Sara and Gothmog on that.
Speaking of which... I nudge herself down the mark. "Hey there, sorry it took me a while to check in, I think I'm still a bit shocky. Busy?"
"Nah, free period, I'm in my room."
Jumping right in might be rude, but I set coordinates for outside the door and teleport. The door sign says "congratulations", heh. I knock, peek in, she's on her computer at her desk. I come over and give her a hug from behind, watching her play some MMO. "Hey you, love you. I only missed an evening but it feels like I haven't seen you in far too long."
She leans back against me. "Hey there, just let me tie this up and I'll come and give you a proper hug."
I look at the screen, she's playing a demonic looking character. Oh, right, "Marala, hmm?"
"You read about her, hmm?" She chuckles. "Yeah. Just having some fun with a band of adventurers that thinks I'm a low level mage."
"More fool them", I say. "You're gonna harsh my oath, going about things that way", I'm teasing and she knows it.
"Yeah, heard about that. Nice bit of redirecting the crowd's sympathies. We'd have talked last night, except you were too antsy to think straight. You know, I think that sword might be enough of an artefact that it actually stands guarantor of your oath?"
"Explains Englund doing the beached fish face", I say. "Well, I was telling the truth. And I was right about you too, whether or not you play around being evil in a game."
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