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The Lovecraft room is full with Kimbas and Pack. Everyone's grabbing beanbags, except Paige, Sara and myself who are sat on the bed. Myself, I'm still happily buzzing from long and very enjoyable sex; it turns out I do have internal erogenous zones too, discovering that feels like being the first person to set foot in a new and wonderful land. But much as I'd like to luxuriate the whole day away playing around, the attack on the Kimbas earlier makes it clear that what I'm about to do is too important to put off. Ayla was a bit surprised when I asked him to get the others together here for the tactical meeting, and said that the Pack would be here too. Now with everyone here, I can see looks ranging from mild impatience to curiosity. The two groups don't really meet much. Hippolyta and Hank are kinda frenemies, sat on opposite sides of the room. But they'll sit still and listen to me and Sara, I think.
Sara rotates the room, and says "Okay, we're private. Jules, you're up."
I give her a smile. "This is a tactical meeting and it's other things too. I've been prototyping a thing with Paige here, a new spell. Sara and Gothmog have checked my working, and we've given it a thorough shake down together, so I feel safe releasing it to all of you. This spell is a communications mesh network. Similar to the kinds of networks you already use if you do team tactics together." As far as I know that's just the Kimbas, but some of the others might be on teams? I haven't asked them.
"This network, if you choose to join it, will mean you will never be out of communication reach, any of you, from the rest of us. It's connected and implemented at the soul level, which means no surface active spell to be dispelled, and it can't be blocked or snooped by anything the humans have. That means, if a situation like the one this morning happens, you can pass word instantly." I look to the Kimbas, who are still a bit pained and stiff looking, it seems healing can only go so fast.
Ayla says, "I'm sure you've worked out some way we won't just be buried in a cacophony of each other's business?"
I nod. "It's group based. There's the underlying linkage mesh, and you can one on one message anyone with direct or indirect linkage to you, but you can also create groups, for example the Kimba tactical team would be a group. You can be in as many groups as you like. The spell should make it obvious which ones you're in, and which ones you're talking on. If you can multithread your attention, you can even talk on more than one at once. We've given a lot of thought to security, Paige is a bit of an expert, so all the obvious things are there. Nobody can push into a group, nor can they be pulled unwillingly into a group. It takes mutual invitation. There's blocklists, there's no-not-disturb mode, there's emergency messages that override it. It should be intuitive."
Jade asks, "How about the J-team, can we be on it separately?"
"Yeah", I says, "It's designed around my weird-ass mindscape, so forking and joining like you do should work just fine. You get separate connections when you're separate. You can also if you like create a self-group that will automatically group up your forks as you make them. And if Jet merges back some day, you'll both inherit each other's links when you become one. Also, Nikki, Erin, your riders can have their own link should they prefer, which means they can join in chat if they'd like, even when they aren't up front. Likewise big me, and big Kellith. You don't need to be in the same universe, so if you want to speak with Gothmog, he's on our mesh already, as are me, Sara, Paige, Petra, and Donna."
"You said we can talk on two at once? How?" Hank asks. "I'm presuming it isn't subvocalizing."
I shake my head. "The interface works like telepathy, except it doesn't leave traces like telepathy, can't be snooped or blocked. You can speak down it, it feels like basically having an extra voice you can use. Depending how your mind works, you may or may not be able to overlay that with saying something completely different with your physical voice, or on other channels. You can also send concepts, sensations, imaginings, emotions down it. You'll have to be careful not to overstep boundaries. It's way more intimate than just audio. Naturally, nothing will get sent unless you're pushing it, so don't worry you'll leak."
"So how do we get it", Ayla says. "Is this something you have to hand out?"
"Nah, see, that's the kicker. It's designed to be viral. Anyone who has it, can give a link to anyone else, provided both parties mutually want it at the soul level. That means you can't be mind dominated or forced into giving links, by the way. But it also means that when we've linked you up, you can go and give links to anyone else you choose. To begin with, it's a tactical secret, I strongly recommend you don't spread it carelessly. Think not just whether you trust the person, but whether you trust them to trust others. Once you give it, you can't take it back, nor stop them handing it on. But yes, I'm sure you can see that means it will eventually spread to all of humanity. Just, keep an initial brake on the rate so we link up the nice and trustworthy people first, if you can?"
Toni's laughing. "Jules, Jules. How many times have you changed the world and it hasn't even been two weeks since you got here? This is going to change everything, you know?"
I smirk. "Haven't even got to the sneaky second function yet."
"Spit it out, then!"
"Alright, so. You know I talked to all of you about lifeboating people into backup bodies. If you've got a link up to me or Sara, we can definitely grab your soul if you die. If there's an indirect linkage, it might be possible, I think so but I'm not sure. So if you want, get a link to us, get me to take a snapshot, and it will become substantially harder to kill you. Jade, I'll snapshot you, but Billie, you'll probably have to lifeboat her if it comes to that. We can go over how afterward. Any of you who objects to this but wants on the grid, get your link off Paige. Nikki and Erin, it should be enough if you've got links to your riders, I think I can pull them along."
Ayla says, "If it turns out you can reach people down indirect links, this is going to change what it means to be human. You'll be able to offer resurrection to basically anybody you have a snapshot of."
"Even without a snapshot, I can make them a body, it just won't be a perfect duplicate of their old one."
"Better yet. So now you're a goddess of resurrection for the whole of humanity?"
"Me, Sara, Gothmog, probably Billie, yes. They can grab, I can make bodies. Even waiting for a body, souls should still be on grid. I acknowledge that bodies are a bit of a bottleneck, but there's lots of me to go around."
Toni whistles. "I feel like I'm seeing the beginning of the second age of humanity. It's that big. Damn."
"For now, please keep that bit secret", I say. "The mesh works fine without people knowing it. It's not harmful to them and none of us is going to unethically grab people who haven't consented. I don't want us attracting the wrong sorts to be the pioneer links." Which gets thoughtful nods.
"Okay, who wants to be linked up? If you want one, me, Sara and Paige are presently consenting to you connecting up. You can link to more than one of us, and you can link to each other. Oh! And before I forget. It's not useful to most of you right now, but the mesh can route IP. Later, I expect we'll work out an interface to that, even for relative baselines like me."
"Who's that for, now?" Toni asks. "I know you, you don't make things without a dozen sneaky-ass reasons."
A nudge to Paige over the mesh, go or no go, your decision?
I grin. "Meet the new invincible goddess of the internet". And give Paige a kiss.
She nuzzles against me. "If you've heard of Circuit Breaker, it's me. Well, me and my sister, equally. I'm not just programmer, I'm a cyberpath."
Ayla winces and goes a bit grey. Yeah, he's heard of Circuit Breaker. "My dear God. You realise the government is going to see you as an existential threat? They'll be sorely tempted to launch a nuclear strike."
"Which would neither stop me nor Paige, but would annoy us both", I say. "I hope that argument will convince them not to."
In the end, everyone chooses to link to me and Sara, and get a snapshot taken. Then we have fun sending each other stuff. I show how sensations can go down the wire, by licking the back of my hand and letting them feel it, the taste of salt, soft touch, cool of saliva drying. That gets amusing and weirded out reactions, but soon we're swapping random sensations and thoughts to and fro merrily. I take time to pull Billie aside.
"You up for learning how to catch Jade if she needs you?"
She nods. "I'm finding it hard to care about myself, but for her, I can do it."
So I lead her through the sensations of a soul dive, and then she holds my hand and we go for it together. I can feel her Star Stalker self watching with curiosity. There's a hint of predator watching prey there, she recognises me as the kind of creature she was made to destroy, but a friendly one. Still, even if the cat likes the mouse, it's still going to have feelings about smallness and squeakiness. We reach the soul level, and I point out the link stretching across to Jade. She's just amazed at the hugeness of everyone here, but goes over and gives Jade's soul a hug. It's sweet. I point out the upward lines to the physical. "If those get cut, you need to grab her and hold on. Then bring her to me, I'll make a body, you run new lines up to it. Sara's been showing me how she anchored Petra down, so I'll be able to give you more hands-on help with the last bit."
She nods. "Thanks Jules. It's really a weight off my heart, knowing we can protect Jade like this. You know, I've had dreams where she died, and I just completely lost it? I tore the whole world up. No survivors."
I send her comfort and understanding, as we're returning back to the surface level. "Yeah, I get that. I fear for Sara, I fear for Paige... It's why I'm rushing around making ways to save people. If any of them died and couldn't be saved, I think I'd go berserk too. But I think we have things in hand, together, now."
"You're a good friend", she says. And then we're back at the surface, watching the others play. Jade's got her eyes on us.
"Oneesan, was that you?" she asks. "It felt like you gave me a hug, but strange."
Billie goes over and explains, and I'm smiling to see her coming back out of her shell a bit.
I lie back on the bed, feeling like we did a good thing today, but there's a nudge and Ayla sends me speech over the links, "Jules, can I pull you aside and talk for a moment?"
I send agreement. "Sure, want to walk together?"
So we head towards Poe, keeping our conversation to the link so we won't be overheard.
"Jules, I'm not so stupid I can't follow where you're going, you've been pretty much frantically building power. You gave Billie something for which she'll feel indebted to you for life. You gave Paige immortality and free run of the internet. You've been sweet talking the Head. I hear rumours you're making lightsabers and begging the martial arts teachers for training. And there's all the changes you've made to yourself, they all make you much more powerful and effectively impossible to kill. It feels like you're building up to war. With who?"
I nod. "With the government, mostly. I hope to avoid war. But the way to avoid it is to become strong enough they feel that they have to come to the table. Otherwise they'll try and steamroller me. But that's part of the larger GOO war. He who I'm not gonna name owns most of them, directly or otherwise."
"Even over the link, you won't name him?"
"Soul level comms is isolated from beings who can't operate at soul level."
"Ah. Which GOOs are not."
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We're sat in Ayla's room, with the coffee machine burbling away happily.
"So why build a comms network the enemy can tap", Ayla asks.
"I'm not so sure he can, it's just not out of his reach", I say. "We encrypted it, of course. But a name is too much of a powerful connection to risk it, certainly if spoken by me. And I wouldn't trust encryption against him. He might break the codes, or he might skip the effort and tap straight into the brains hearing it. Our new comms gives us an advantage we didn't have, but it's not a get-out-of-caution-free card."
He nods. "And it should be good against human interference at least."
"Should be, yeah", I lean back in the desk chair I'm borrowing. "Again, caution is warranted, there's humans, like Nikki or Circe, that I wouldn't be so sure of. But it's less likely to be snooped or blocked than the spots. I think in particular, the human governments are stuffed."
He hands me a cup of delicious smelling coffee. "I get the feeling you don't like them."
I sip, it's as nice as it smells. "Mhm. Don't trust them. Think they're authoritarian steamrollering asses, and jealous of their power. They hurt Paige and tried to capture and own her, they tried to snipe me, they're not high on my buddies list. Plus of course, the big bad nuisance basically owns them."
"Isn't that a bit cynical?"
"By which you mean paranoid? Nah. Look, you remember how I said I'm not from around here, right?" He nods. "The world I come from has similar governments and does still have authoritarianism and bigotry, but it's way worse over here. And one of the reasons, I'm convinced, is because ol' fishface has his tentacles in things. Not all politicians, but enough, dug in and influential. Not all pushing the agenda, some of them just drag their feet and play dog-in-the-manger for anyone who might improve things. I'm not ruling out his influence in my old world either, but if so it's way more indirect. Here, it's near overt if you're looking. And because the government is top down, it infects every level. So they aren't safe to trust."
"What do you think of the Goodkinds?"
I look at him, thoughtfully. "That's not a non-sequitur, is it? You're thinking I'm going to say the same thing about them?" He nods again. "Yes and no. Complicated. I see you, I see somebody who learned nobility, and not from hypocrites. You see it too, I think. There's an unresolved tension. Why would good people do evil?"
He sighs, sets the coffee down, nods. "I find myself caught between making excuses for it and being appalled, and thinking some stuff is justified still, but then being unsure whether I'm making excuses for that too", he says. "You're right. It's really frustrating, I want to trust the ideals I was taught, but I can't."
"My suspicion is that most of the Goodkinds are like you. Caught between their heads and their hearts, trying to live up to the ideal but also wanting to trust those feeding them poison, struggling to square the two and perhaps, defensive against accusations because of it. But I also suspect that one or two, very high ranking, are suborned somehow. Bought, blackmailed, brainwashed, or cultists."
He grimaces at the thought. "That would mean one of them has to be father. And others, he couldn't do it alone, but he sets the tone. Ugh. That's horrifying."
I feel tempted to come over and give him a hug, but I feel he wouldn't like that, so I nod and say, "I'm sorry. If it's any consolation, if we win this war, it should cut the influence off at the roots." Not that I'm sure whether that would give Ayla back his dad, or drop him like a puppet with snipped strings.
"I get the feeling you don't know how you're gonna do that", he says.
"Sara's the one with the plans", I agree. "She hasn't told me details, and I trust her to have a reason for that. So I'm just doing my own thing, but I figure she'll nudge me if I'm not headed in the right direction."
Ayla puts two and two together. "You think he can tap your head? I thought that was out of the question?"
"For humans it is", I say. "Sara goes right on in there, without the least trouble."
There's a pause while we sip coffee.
"This is frustrating", he says. "I can't see a next move in the game. I want to get up and do something about it, but it's not as if I can call up father and ask him, are you being mind controlled?"
"As things stand, it feels like the opening in Go", I say. "Mostly making potential territory, trying to lay down a light framework that controls more space than it occupies. While being ready to turn any invasion into more consolidated structure. It's too early to start big fights."
He nods. "Not really my game, but I respect it. And yeah. So you think just keep doing what we're doing?"
"Grow, get strong, build alliances and networks. If you see an opening, take it. If they attack, turn it against them."
He nods to that.
Our conversation is interrupted by a knock on the door. Unexpectedly, it's Mrs Horton. "Afternoon, girls. I'm just passing around the word that we'll be having a whole cottage meeting in the dance hall tonight, after dinner. Tell the others, if you could? And keep it quiet. This is a meeting I don't want advertised outside Poe."
I ask, "What's it about, if you can say?"
"The Poe secret", she says. "I listened to your interview, and I've spoken to the Head about things. I'm sorry about how I confronted you this morning. But what you did is definitely going to affect us, given you're living right here. Can we even keep the secret? Should we? That's what I need to talk to everyone about, because ultimately it's a secret meant to protect you all."
"If we out Poe, we out everyone in Poe", Ayla says, not sounding happy about it. "Including the ones who don't want it. Collecting everyone in one place means that just living here is proof, once the rest of the school knows."
Mrs Horton nods. "That was always the risk, it's why I've been so ferocious about keeping the secret. But the other side is, if we don't, how long until it gets so obvious that we're outed by implication? Choosing to drop the secret means we can control the narrative. Choosing to do it now, means we get to hide it a bit in the noise from the other changes."
Ayla nods and sighs, "That's not going to be an easy choice for anyone, let alone everyone, if you want a consensus."
"No, it won't be. I don't expect the discussion to be resolved tonight, only started."
She leaves to continue telling people in their rooms, and Ayla passes the word to the other Poe folks over the links. As for me, I stay passive in that conversation, feeling like I'm the cause of it. I head back out, and over to my room so I can consider what to do next.
Sara was able to get Donna and Petra linked remotely, by talking to them over the mark, and then they just had to want it while Sara was wanting to give it, even despite being far away. It does make me wonder what the bounds of that would be. Could a wholly disconnected soul be linked up? They'd have to know, in order to want it. Probably means they'd have to be hanging around. If so, maybe... well, if it's possible, and I'm not going to get anyone's hopes up until I'm pretty sure, but perhaps I could make Caitlin very happy indeed? And I would like doing that.
How to figure that out, though? And would there be risks and implications?
I think I'll approach Circe, trust her with the secret of the links, and then see what she says. Thinking that, I mail off a request to meet.
Hmm, downside, making the offer reveals how much I know about Caitlin. Even implying it might be meant for her, reveals it.
Maybe I need to tell her what I know?
Reaching a decision to do that, I jump myself over to Hawthorne. Finding her room, I knock.
"Yeah, what is it?"
"It's Jules, have you got a few minutes?"
"Sure, come on in. Pardon the spooky decor."
I'm reminded of the Lovecraft room, except this one is just ordinarily physical. It's covered in power regulation and damping glyphs. I grab a spot to sit.
"Spooky is fine by me", I grin. "So. I've got stuff I need to tell you about. It needs a secured place though, I don't want to be snooped. Is this room good?"
She nods. "No magic and no tech in here that I don't know about."
I nod. "So. I need to tell you some information about me, that pertains to you. It's gonna sound weird-ass crazy, but believe me, it's weirder when you're living it. As for my reasons for telling you, I need to keep those quiet for now, except the one where now we're on a first name basis and I wouldn't be some stranger come out of the blue to spin a tall tale."
She looks at me curiously. "So spit it out already, you're making me worried."
"You should be a little. So. Begin with, I'm not from around here. You know I came to the school, just under two weeks ago?"
She nods. "General knowledge by now, yeah."
"Not so general knowledge, I didn't come from this universe. Or even one with a close timeline. Universe I came from, there are no mutants. How I mutated there and got here, I'm stuck for answers on that. Not very important either."
"Fair enough. And it sounds like you're close to reaching the point?" Sarcasm, thy name is Caitlin.
"Yeah. Where I came from, and believe it or not, it's as true as me sitting here, Whateley is fiction. Somehow, those stories and this timeline match one to one, as far as I've been able to tell. That's a secret, by the way, for a number of good reasons. I only read part of the way in before I was dragged across. There's hundreds of stories. But for example, I read about Sara before I ever met her, I read about the Kimbas before I ever met them. I read about Outcast Corner..."
She cuts across, "And you read about me."
"Yeah. Sorry. I had no idea I was being intrusive at the time, it was fiction."
"I know about Dragonslayers, I know about Halloween, I know about the artificer, and I know about Darwin."
"So basically my entire life history is there to be read?" Teeth gritted, and arcs of energy starting to form around her.
"And a bunch of other people's, which is one reason why I need to keep the existence of that universe a deadly secret. They've got zero protection against even a low level supervillain, and there's classified secrets and personal secrets out the wazoo."
She gets up and starts pacing. "Could you have told me earlier... no, I suppose you couldn't. Didn't know me. Who else knows?"
"The Head knows that I read, but no further details. The Kimbas and the Pack and a couple people ARC know that I read about them specifically. They don't know who else I read about. Sara knows the whole thing. She had to guard that knowledge before I built up enough mind protection not to get it stolen."
She nods. "Her, I can trust, I think. So when you become friends with someone, you're telling them?"
I shake my head. "When and if it becomes vitally important. Either I know trouble that's coming, because I read ahead of the present point in the timeline, or when I need to do or tell them something that makes it clear I know stuff I shouldn't. In this case, the latter. I feel like if it isn't important, I can just suck up my worries about being on an unequal footing."
"I can respect that", she says, and sighs. "It bothers me, it's going to make things weird between us, and I need to warn you that you'll be in breach of a whole shitload of laws if you spread details of my past around."
I nod. "I have literally no reason to, and don't want to."
"And what's the thing you need to do, or tell me?"
"Not ready yet. Give me a bit to make other enquiries. I promise I'll get back to you as soon as I'm sure."
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For the moment, I'm pretty much at a loose end. I can't act on Caitlin until I can talk to Circe. What else? Oh yeah, Tansy's offer.
I head outside to get some air and catch the last of the sun before it sets, and meanwhile, on the links, I say "Hey Kimbas, got a moment?" Which gets various replies of "Sure" and "A moment... okay, what have you got for us?"
I say, "So I went and had a word with Tansy, just after lunch, to ask her to end the feud. Forgot to mention that when we were talking about links, but they're the ideal way to discuss it, now."
Toni says, "Enough with boasting about your new toy, so, what did she give you? Besides the run-around."
"Well, a nice show for one thing. When I got there, her and Cody were, um, already taking advantage of the new rules."
That gets various snickers and laughs. Toni says, "Seriously? And she didn't tell you to get lost?"
"She tried. Cody told her to let me in, if she wanted to get any more of what she was getting. And she did want, so I got to watch. Turns out that's an effective way to negotiate. Also very enjoyable."
Various laughs and blushes, Nikki sends the feeling of a frown.
Jade says, "After what she did with Jinn, she deserves it, I don't have sympathy for her. What did you get?"
"Well, first up I got vengeful bullshit. But then I asked her to think again like an adult, and Cody backed me, so she had to. She'll accept an apology from all of you, in person in her room, as enough to end it."
Ayla says, "That's more than I expected her to concede. And in Cody's presence, so she can't back down without losing face. Good work."
Toni sounds angry, "You aren't seriously suggesting we come grovelling to her? She started it, she's the damn problem here."
Ayla says, "This isn't some sort of judgement about who's right, it's about ending a stupid back-and-forth war that benefits nobody. You know her, there's no way she'll buy it without feeling she's come out ahead. Otherwise she'd want to get the last word in, and the feud would still be on. An apology hurts nothing but our dignity."
Nikki says, "Jade, Billie, what do you think? Because you're the ones she's hurt the worst."
There's a pause, then Billie says, "If it means I don't have to hurt her, or someone else they send against us, I'm in. I'm done hurting people if I can help it."
Jade says, "If it's good for oneesan, it's good for me. Saying sorry doesn't mean we like her. It just means we're willing to take one unfair hit to end the fight. Only stupid people would count that as losing. She will, Cody won't. It could look good on our record, make us look better next time we're stood in front of the Head. And if she starts it again, it will be clear who's at fault."
Which doesn't leave Toni much choice, "Damn it, alright, if it's what you want, I'll go along with it, but I won't like it."
Hank says, "I'll call her and make arrangements. Thanks, Jules."
"Friends look out for friends", I say. "Besides, she was damn hot like that. That alone pays me in full. I wonder if she's game for a rematch?"
That gets giggles from all of them, and "Ew, do not stick it in crazy", from Toni.
"I get the feeling there's something under there, although it make take digging", I say. "Don't write her off entirely."
"Good luck with that", Jade says. "She will definitely want you, but wild horses wouldn't drag it out of her. Same goes for any good side she might have."
"Influence might", Nikki says. "I get the feeling it's going to make staying in the closet hard."
"Yeah, you might be right", Jade concedes. "That comes with its own heap of trouble I'm not looking forward to, though."
That gets agreement from all of them.
Outside, the low sun is casting shadows sideways through the forest. I've made myself light enough that I can run on top of the snowdrifts rather than sinking in, and that makes getting around much easier. Despite the thickness of the trees, I don't have to fear getting lost. So I can just run, and enjoy the beauty. Pine and spruce tower over me, like the cover of a De Lint book. I could imagine the forest is full of manitou and spirits and little mysteries. Perhaps it is, I haven't learned to see on that frequency yet. In my old life, I saw myself as a witch, of the animistic sort. Here, that hasn't been my focus, but maybe I should pick it back up? Certainly I ought to say hello, properly.
I stretch my life sense as wide as it will go, big me joining in a bit, I find I can cover right back out to the edge of the school, hundreds of millions of lives, birds high above, trees and the things in them, ground plants, animals, burrowing things, little sparks going deep, deep down into the cracks and voids of rock beneath me. The place feels like a song. It feels like I could sing along with it - and so I do. Dancing light on the snow, whirling between trees, singing the words that come to me, names and relationships and feelings and underlying it all, love. The life of the place, expressing itself. I leap stone-to-stone across a brook, water still freely running despite the cold. I can feel the trees, stone, water, listening. With life sense I can see the animals converging, birds whirling and following me. As I reach a clearing, they come out from the trees, surrounding me, and I sing to them, their names, their natures, their fascination and curiosity. And the birdsong becomes part of the song as they land on me. Yes, hello, I see you all, I love you all. There's deer and skunks and foxes, a porcupine, a black bear. I can feel in their life-patterns that all of them are friendly, so I let them sniff me, and I pet them. Bear fur is extremely deep and soft. It's lovely.
When I come to the end of my song, they turn and wander away, I get the feeling they won't attack each other either for a bit. Mmm, and now I feel I was properly introduced. Hello, forest.
The light starts to go from golden to dim, and it's time to be heading back. An easy, enjoyable run, playing speed games, leaping over obstacles and using trees to redirect my momentum. I come out of the shadows under the trees and into the half-lit campus lawns, with the last glow of salmon light from high clouds reflecting off them.
Does the school have a song too? I should probably be careful singing that one, it would draw attention, I feel.
"Jules, was that you?", Nikki, over the links. "Were you doing something in the forest just now? Because it kind of felt like you."
Speaking of drawing attention. "Uh, yeah, I was singing to it. Why?"
"Because you were just blasting out absolutely vast amounts of essence is why. I'm over in the magic department, they're sending a delegation your way, I'm coming with them, stay put where you are."
A couple minutes later, I see three figures making their way over. Nikki, Circe, and a larger woman who seems to be covered in plants. Mrs Chulkris? From what I remember reading, she's a magic teacher, but I don't know much else.
Once they're in voice distance, I say, "Is everything okay? Only I presume the reason you didn't want me to come to you is because you weren't sure I was safe."
"Everything is... unusual", Circe says. "Thank you for doing as you were asked. I do not see any harm, exactly, in the situation. But you are still pouring essence out like a fountain, and there is a... mantle of power on you."
Nikki says, "You feel like the forest and every living thing in it. That's what's pouring off you, and it's a small thing compared to what it was ten minutes ago. The whole forest behind you is lit up like a bonfire."
"Hopefully not in a bad way?"
"Oh absolutely not. It's like it got more solidly itself. It makes me want to run into it and luxuriate. How on earth did you do it?"
I look to the others, "Do you want a demonstration?"
That gets the three of them to look at each other. Circe says, "carefully, please".
How do I sing and be careful? I suppose don't choose something too large, like the whole school. Stretching my life sense lets me tune in to this place, and the people too. Should I sing about them? But that might be intrusive. How about the place? I suppose I've passed over the school lawns a lot without thinking too much about them, but what are they really? And my curiosity tunes me in to the smaller, quieter song of the lawn, and I can sing it. Quiet waiting of grass under snow, seed's rest, small lives burrowing, the tracks of birds, snow-melt and flowers, the buzz of bees, birds and squirrels dancing and foraging, children at play. I feel the ground reach out to me, and I crouch, putting my hands against it, unworried by the snow's cold, it purrs against me like a cat. Song finished, I look up at the three mages. "Like that."
Nikki's crying. She crouches too, and puts her own hands against the ground. "I can feel it loving us. That makes no sense at all." She shivers.
Mrs Chulkris says, "Alright, I think we should all head indoors. It's not going to get any warmer out here, and I don't think we'll be bringing any danger home with us."
Circe nods, which seems to settle the matter, and we head towards Kirby Hall. Thankfully, it's not far to there, going north-east from where we are. Nikki casts a warmth spell on herself, and seems less shivery. They're all quiet. As we walk, I can feel the subtle shift in Nikki's body language that says Aunghadhail has come forward.
"I have seen something like this before, but it was long ago, even by my standards, before the Sundering, when the world was very young. The daughters of Gaia walked the world, creating things with joyful songs. But not in that language. I have never before heard that used with love."
I say, "The first time I ever heard it, was sung, as a lullaby."
"It seems you are re-making it into something new. And I find interesting also, that which you created is what was already there. But seen anew, and with love. The same pattern."
There's a pause, then Circe asks, "The daughters of Gaia were great powers. Beyond many gods. Are you saying she is like them?"
"She is new to me. I hesitate to advise when I have no similar experience. Maybe on the way to becoming one such, that is the most I can say."
"Which is no small thing in itself", Circe says. We head indoors, and through the entrance to the secret area, making for what seems to be a teachers' lounge.
A couple other people are there. Ms Grimes, who I know, and another woman I haven't met, blonde with very long hair. She's the one who says, "Well if it isn't the three witches. And I take it, you're our anomaly?"
I bow and say, "at your service", which makes her laugh. "I'm Jules, codename Parallel. And evidently, a mite unusual. Anomaly probably wouldn't be stretching it too terribly far."
Nikki - she's back now - bops me on the head lightly. "Idiot. Grab a seat. We need to talk."
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Of course, I do grab a seat, there's a nice comfy sofa. All in all a friendly place, this teachers' lounge.
Nikki says, "Alright, introductions. Circe, Mrs Chulkris, Doctor Tenent, Ms Grimes." I smile a greeting at each. She continues, "I was just here to talk about homework, but we all felt what you were up to. And the fact that Aunghadhail has seen something like it before suggests I should stay."
Circe nods. And turning to the other two teachers, "We spoke on the journey back, the Queen of the West said she has seen similar things before, when the daughters of Gaia went around creating life."
Ms Grimes looks at me. "I have her in my Necromancy class. She's never shown signs of being one of the great powers."
"Was she singing at the time?", Circe asks. "I've noticed a tendency to sing her magic."
Which, I hadn't thought about it, but I do, when it's big stuff.
Ms Grimes shakes her head. Circe continues, "We've spoken about Majestic. That was her, too. As was the life creation spell the same day, in fact, at the same time."
Okay, that's a scary look to get from a teacher. Fear and a bit of awe. I don't understand, I really didn't do much to Majestic.
Doctor Tenent, the blonde one, sees my confusion and explains, "When you fought her, you batted aside her spells, am I right?" I nod. "If I were going to do that, it would take a working each time, and June is no weak caster, they would probably have to be specialized to the spell I was dispelling. It would drain my store of essence and be work. For you, it didn't seem to tire you any more than batting aside a ball." Which I suppose was fair. I nod again, and say "yeah, I just felt them and swatted. To be fair, big me was somewhat forward at the time."
Circe says, "Against Miss Summers, I would have a fight. Not a long fight, and I would win, but she has a lot of essence at her hands, and some nasty spells prepared."
"I was fighting her!"
"And two of the others. And not seriously. When Miss Wynguard was threatened and you chose to take it seriously, you ended the fight in the space of two breaths."
Which I suppose is fair. "It's a trade-off, using high power sorcery messes the place up. But when I had to, I did, yeah."
Nikki laughs, "Messed up, she says. That place was crawling like some elder thing's dungeon dimension. You ripped it a good one, Jules."
"How much of your power did you use?", Doctor Tenent asks.
"Eh, what I felt was enough", I say. "I couldn't spare time to do the thing subtly, but I could have gone much harder if I didn't mind leaving worse messes. But it would have been overkill."
"It was already overkill", says Circe. "She had a strong, well worked anti-magic ward up on herself and the others. It would have taken me perhaps fifteen seconds of uninterrupted concentration to take it down. For most mages, far longer, and it would be at best a quick, subtle job of unweaving and counter-magic, but you didn't do that, did you?"
I shake my head. "I just tore into it."
"Without a thought about its construction, without untying it, you ripped through the knot of the spell in one crude swipe. It's clear you don't realise it, but you used more raw magical force than the average mage student sees in a year. And you could have gone much harder. That is not the level of power one sees from human mages. Nor is blanketing a ten mile radius with a freshly created lifeform that you designed on the fly."
I look down at my feet. "I guess, I'm not so human. Which is what I signed up for, but now I'm scaring people, aren't I?"
Nikki plomps on to the sofa next to me and puts an arm around me. "Well you aren't scaring me. People fear power, I know that, but really what you need to do is use it responsibly. Which you have been doing." She gives a bit of a glare at Ms Grimes, who's looking at me like I turned into something nasty.
Trying to ignore that, I smile and accept the hug, "Yeah, I've been trying to. I hope the thing I did today wasn't bad? Because it felt good, joyful and loving, absolutely the opposite of harm."
Mrs Chulkris says, "Having seen it in person, dear, I can't possibly imagine it's anything harmful. But it is new, and powerful, and like nothing we've seen before. And it will certainly change the ecology of essence around here. While you were doing it, for every mage student on campus, it was as if the sky were raining soup and they had only to set out a bucket. Even now, that forest is absolutely ringing with magic, I wouldn't be surprised if we had some magical ecology awakening from very long slumber. Grimes, I think your three little nuisances probably got everything they wished for and more."
"Oh Goddess help us all", Ms Grimes is evidently not in favour of that.
Mrs Chulkris continues, "I wouldn't advise you to stop. But I would advise you to think carefully about what you are amplifying. Is it a good thing? Does it need and would it benefit from being absolutely drenched in power, and made into itself, only much more so?"
I say, "I was thinking of singing for the school. The whole school, that is." Which gets shudders from all four staff.
Circe says, "Not except in an emergency, please. Pieces of it, perhaps. Doing the whole thing... there might be consequences and complications I can't begin to fathom."
I nod, sadly, because I'm sure the school's song would be beyond lovely.
"Alright", says Circe. "I think that is enough for now. You emailed wanting to see me, would that be in private?" I nod. "Very well. If you all will excuse us?" That gets nods from the others, and I stand and head for the door with Circe, who leads us towards her private study.
As we walk, she says "Don't mind Ms Grimes. She has had her idea of you changed suddenly. She will adapt to it, I am sure."
"I hope so, or it will make class awkward", I say.
Which makes her chuckle as we head into her room. "I am afraid you will have to get used to awkward. I say that from experience. Very well, we are inside my domain, and we are not overheard. What was it you were wanting to speak about?"
So I explain about the links, and how I made them, and how they're still a secret because I want them to establish through the nicest people first. And I explain how they can establish between people if both want them at the soul level. And then we get to the kicker. "So what I was thinking is, if a soul is hanging around, like, watching their former love, if they can be told, if both sides reach out, perhaps we could even link in someone who was no longer alive. And then with the link, I could lifeboat them to a new body." And then I have to explain lifeboating, and how I can snapshot someone, or custom make a body in the absence of a snapshot, and move myself out of it, and them in.
Circe laughs. "And to think that Grimes has been complaining about you backing necromancy, in class, in abstract. Here you are proposing to completely erase death. And I get the feeling it isn't abstract at all."
"Someone's secret is bound up in it, I can't blab."
She looks thoughtfully. "Your peer group, a lost love, and a secret. Hmm. Halloween and Cat?" A clever bit of word games if I ever heard one.
"Sparks", I reply.
"Guns", she counters.
I nod. "Caitlin. Yes. I wasn't sure if you knew."
"Many of the staff do, dear, she hides it poorly. And you want to bring Cat back for her. Why?"
"Um, I like her and she's sad, it's reason enough."
She laughs again. "Such a clear hearted reason. Why did you want to tell me?"
"I need supervision. And advice, if I'd be doing anything terribly destructive or wrong."
"Grimes would say so. But I do not. Yes, I will supervise you, at a price."
"Let me guess, you want a link?"
She grins. "I am very curious, and I can see uses for it. Yes, that would be my price."
"Reach out for it", I say, and push it towards her. And feel it establish. I say down the link, "And there you are."
She says down it, "Here I am, indeed. Very well, when you are ready, you will be able to reach me, will you not?"
I send agreement, and a grin, which gets her looking curious. "Well. This is most certainly an interesting piece of work."
"I shall leave you to study it at your leisure", I say.
Which leaves the hard job of breaking the news to Caitlin. Unfortunately, time's not really on my side here, I may have to do it tomorrow, because we're coming up on dinner, and then it's the Poe meeting, and I don't expect that to go quickly. But I suppose I can give her a link today, and that will be a start.
I knock on her door.
"Yeah, who is it?"
"Sure, come in."
I do. "So, the thing I wanted to tell you. I can't do the whole of it now, no time, but I can give you a piece, and the piece will help tomorrow when I hope we'll both have time for it."
She sighs. "I'm sure this run-around has a good reason. Spit it out."
So for the second time this afternoon I go through the links, although without emphasizing the soul side too strongly. And after some thought, she reaches out and connects in.
"So this is it for now, then, a fancy-ass magical walkie-talkie?"
"Trust me, it's much more, but not yet. We need time, space and privacy. And I'm gonna get dragged off after dinner, so that leaves us without enough of either today. But it means I'll be able to check in with you tomorrow morning without chasing you down across campus."
"Sure, alright. The wait is pissing me off, but I've waited for things before. Just don't take any longer than you've gotta."
I feel like I've done the things I need to for now, and can give myself a few minutes to go over to Sara's room and see if she's in.
Oops, she is in, with Erin. "Hello dear, come in, you don't mind do you sweetie?"
Erin looks a bit embarrassed but says "It's okay, you can come in, but shut the door please." So I do.
"So nice not to have to sneak around any more", Sara says. And looking at me. "You're positively radiating forest energy, dear. So that was you then? You got Erin here quite worked up." And indeed, Erin's reacting to my presence I think, she's arching herself up towards Sara, who bends over and continues her teasing tongue play.
"Um, really, I didn't know", I say. Then to Erin, "You're kind of a forest animal, I suppose?"
Sara pauses, making Erin whine, and says, "She begged me, in public. She was desperate to be touched. It was absolutely delightful." Erin whines harder, and Sara returns to her tonguing task.
I smirk, and grab a beanbag to watch and rest. "I'll have to see if I can't bring you some more of that, when you'd like. I've had an interesting day."
Sara grins but doesn't reply, I know she can tell the time as precisely as I can, she's deliberately driving Erin up towards her climax. And Erin arches, and pops claws to tear into the bed, and yowls like a cat, and I can feel the room flood with her ecstasy, and I take a little portion for myself, and I see Sara did too. Immediately, I feel perked up. Well, well. Eating orgasms, hmm?
And then, with Erin gasping, spent, the bell goes for dinner.
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**13th January, 2007, Sara's room, dinnertime**
Sara and I together help Erin back into her clothes, since she's still a bit wobbly, and Sara teasingly insists on carrying her in her arms into the Crystal Hall, making her blush bright red. Technically not an overtly sexual PDA, heh. I go for the usual split, one to the Kimbas to check up how they're doing, one with the Pack, one to get food.
The Kimbas are still a bit achy and stiff after having been healed from the morning's nightmare. Billie's quiet, so I give her a hug. "Hey Jules, thanks", she says, and sighs. "I just can't help thinking how much worse it could have been."
I sit down beside her and other me delivers the tray. "How so?"
"He went easy on me, as soon as he realised what they were doing to me. Even though he still wanted me to kill him, he held them back. That saved me a lot of pain, but it makes me wonder how much I haven't confronted."
"Probably lots", I say, figuring she needs honesty here. "Like, that part of you is really old, and basically went around the galaxy being other people's weapon for centuries. There's nothing to be gained from trying to drink that firehose."
"Really, really old", she agrees. "It's broken loose a few things, I have an idea how long it was... millions of years. More."
"Time is just time", I say. "Don't let it overawe you. Several of us in this room will live that long, more if I have a hand in it. Some of us already did in a certain sense, in one way Sara probably matches you for age. Aung doesn't, but she's old enough. Chou's Tao probably is the universe, let alone being as old as it."
Chou complains, "It's hardly mine, Jules. I'm not sure time even applies."
I nod. "Anyhow. See time as a stage in which things happen. Lots of time means lots happened. Some will be worth looking at, some you are gonna have to draw a line under and say, I don't like it, it wasn't me, and I'm not going back to look at it."
Billie nods, "I'll try."
Chou says, "Oh before I forget, Jules, we're doing a tea party, tomorrow morning, and I think you should be invited."
I grin. "Thanks. That sounds nice. Formal dress?"
She shakes her head. "Casual, but harmonious, if you can?"
"Got it, no ratty rude shirts with holes in", I say. Which makes her giggle. And makes me think, I should get more options. No time to visit Cecilia, but I can visit the store? Perhaps after this, while Poe has the meeting.
Over on the other table, Paige is telling us that she's gone to Ms Hartford and talked through her situation, and her desire to get a meeting together with all affected parties and decide what to do, since it affects the school. That went surprisingly well, although she's still resisting including me and Sara. Ms Hartford agrees with our tactical analysis, they know who Paige is, which means they'll react. And she's not prepared to toss her protege to the wolves, which means that the school is going to have to take a position. She's going to get something together tomorrow. We're probably going to have to situate it in Gothmog's place, since it would be wildly unsafe for Petra to try and cross a border. I wonder how she'll take that? She's probably still assuming we'll use Skype. Heh.
On both tables, there's an undercurrent of talk about the Poe meeting. Some of it over the links, not trusted to voice. Nobody pushing a view. Everyone tentative. It feels like everyone's worried. There's no easy answer here, not even carrying on unchanged.
Personally I think the secret was... mistaken, if understandable. And that it has now grown too large to defuse without pain. Which means we're going to have to work together to turn that pain aside. I can't see any way to keep it. There's a really short line from "oh hey an unusual heap of people in Poe are gay" and "could it be that everyone in Poe is gay", and then investigating that will tear the lid right off. There are a lot of geniuses here, and not all of them are nice.
Looking around, at least the rest of them seem distracted by the new rules, a lot of them are registering on my life sense as having recently put them to use. Lots of satisfied faces, heh. And shoulder angels, with the amusingly antagonistic ones banned, seem to be falling out of fashion. At least we avoided all being dragged into an assembly and yelled at, or something.
Food finished, I send my Kimba copy off to the store, while the Pack copy heads along with Erin, Jamie and Hippolyta towards Poe. I see Sara with an arm around both Paige and Jet, and a grin on her face that promises them much fun. Good for them, at least. I can't say I'm looking forward to my own evening, this promises to be grim business.
When we get to Poe, everyone's headed into the ground floor level. It turns out the "dance hall" is just the regular workout room, with the oversized machines and foam mats dragged into storage. It smells a little sweaty, but it's big enough to hold everyone. Mrs Horton is on the door doing head count. With everyone here, she leaves briefly, then returns. "Alright, quiet down. I've closed the outside doors and set the wards, and for the moment, Poe is on lockdown. Please pay attention, and if the alarm sounds then this discussion needs to stop immediately. But I do not expect that will happen."
She closes the dance hall doors too. "I've spoken to many of you individually, others were told by friends, so to make sure nobody has a distorted idea of what's going on, I'm going to spell it out again. Then we will have a period of question and answers, then an open discussion. As we discuss, I will be going around gathering an understanding of people's feelings and preferences. I won't be taking a vote, because that might leave a minority stranded by the choice of the majority. I hope we can converge on an answer. That is going to require addressing the feelings and needs of all of us, even the awkward ones. It may not end tonight."
She takes a breath and launches in. "The Poe secret was created when this school was founded. The decision was taken to hide away those with complicated sexualities, or with mutations affecting their gender. It's arguable whether it was done to protect us or protect others from us, but in practise it has protected us. It has also given us a place, together, where we do not have to hide. I include myself in this because although most of you will have had no occasion to encounter it, I am myself bisexual."
That starts a bit of murmuring around the room.
"Hush, please. You all heard on the radio this morning, the circumstances behind this meeting. It seems it's likely that going forward we'll find it hard to hide our attractions and loves." She glances at me to check that, and I nod. "The new rules, fun as they may be for some, don't make that any easier. If others are open, why are we private? And the risk we face is an escalating series of scandals and leaks, ending in a situation where the whole cottage is outed, and not at a time or manner of our choosing. But, that is not certain. It is possible, if unlikely, that putting the issue off and continuing as we are might still work. The secret might be kept. It could continue to protect us as it has."
"Set against that, is the fact that the Poe secret is a lie. It lets the other students feel their prejudices are normal. It hides away the relative high prevalence of alternative sexuality and gender among mutants. It allows us, for the majority of students, to remain a 'them' rather than an 'us'. And I can also reveal, that Poe is not the only cottage with lesbian, gay, bi, or gender transformed students. It's just the only one where they can be open, some of the time. That must be a lonely life. They feel alone, but they are not alone. We are just hidden away from them."
She takes a deep breath, lets it out. "The final point I'll make now, is that the Poe secret prevents us campaigning. It prevents us placing pressure on bullies to change their ways. It prevents us placing pressure on the administration to take our needs into account. It is a closet. And it was not until gays, lesbians and trans people started to step out of the closet and demand acceptance, that outright legislated bigotry started to thaw even slightly in the outside world."
"Alright, I've said enough. Questions and answers, put your hand up and I'll come over."
She heads over to one of the senior girls who put their hand up. "Yes, dear."
"Um, if we choose to come out as a cottage, all at once, how would we do it?"
"If we do make that decision, that would be the next thing we would have to brainstorm together. But I have an initial suggestion, to start our deliberations. I have verified with the Head that we would be given the go-ahead to hold a Pride celebration. During that, an announcement would be made, with the Head backing it up."
Other hands go up, she moves over to an older looking boy, "Yes?" I notice that she's not calling names.
"How would we stop all the bullies from jumping us? I mean both attacking Poe with a whole group of them, and ambushing the weaker kids alone?"
"Security will protect Poe itself, as will I. We may have to organize protective details of stronger students escorting weaker ones if ambushes become an issue. The Head has promised to crack down hard enough to establish real deterrence. But I won't lie to you. We won't change people's hearts without facing opposition. There will be bullying, if we choose to come out. It will need to be fought. Yes, next?"
"Some of us aren't out to our family. What if they freak out?"
Mrs Horton winces, and nods. "That is a genuine problem. As a school, we're equipped to fight back against almost anyone - except parents. We can't protect you from their actions, unless they would be illegal. We can't prevent them withdrawing you from the school. I personally will refer you to good lawyers if you decide to seek emancipation, but the school can't openly take sides. Yes?"
"Can we just send Parallel to put the whammy on them?" That gets a laugh. Mrs Horton looks over to me, curious I think to see if I'll pass this test.
I pitch my voice up to carry. "Tempted as I am, the answer's no. The influence I'm having is just a matter of being physically close to me. I can't turn it off, but I can turn it up. If I deliberately turn it up around people who haven't asked me to, I'm exerting mind control. As I figure it, there's got to be a fairly high bar for what would turn mind control into lawful self defence, and there's no way being a bigoted parent would meet that bar. So I'm genuinely sorry, but I can't, it's too risky. Even if I did change their minds, the courts might take that as reason to invalidate their decisions and hand you to some bigot relative. Don't despair, though. What happens fast around me is still happening slower everywhere out there. Push against the bigotry, the tide is behind you."
Mrs Horton nods. "Correct answer. Any student exerting mind control for a reason like that would most certainly be facing criminal charges as well as expulsion. Please do not pressure Miss Parallel, or attempt it yourselves. Anyone else? Yes?"
She's picked Sharisha. Hoo boy.
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Sharisha looks around the crowded room. "Let's get the hard bit done first. I don't like most of you, and I know most of you don't like me. I don't expect what I'm about to say to change that, or change your damn minds. I'm just saying it because I'm angry."
"When I came to this school, I fucked up, I made one mistake, I told my secret. I'm a goddamn dyke - so what, I don't approve of it, but it's true. My stupid mouth. They assigned me to Poe. Perhaps they expected me to fit in here and make friends with the other freaks. But I don't like freaks. This place has done exactly nothing good for me except one thing: it has kept my secret. Now you're all fixing to tear that up."
"What this means to me is, I can't ever leave the shadow of Poe. I can move out, but why was I here before? I can leave the school, 'cept I don't have money and I'm still a goddamn mutant, and my record would follow me anyhow. I'd have to change my damn name. I'd have to hide in a damn hole. And why? Because what you all are about to do will paint 'goddamn dyke' on my forehead in letters I can never wash off, spelled P. O. E., and that will follow me for the rest of my life."
"And that's me done. Do as you please. Fuck you all."
Immediately there's noise. angry retorts - I think I hear Toni saying "fuck you too, bigot bitch."
Mrs Horton pitches her voice loud, "Quiet! Pipe down, this is not a forum for your grudges, save it." The room gets quieter. "Consider her point. I told you there'd be awkward people, and I want our discussion to include them too. Now, because that wasn't a question, I'm switching us to discussion. Put your hand up if you've got something you want to say. Yes?"
It's Zenith. "She's right about herself, and she's right about everyone else who ever went to Poe. We have to think about how many alumni would be outed if we go ahead. Some of them may be in positions where they aren't safe. What we do here may only have public visibility for the mutant community, but you can be sure our enemies will pick it up too and use it in the worst way they can. I don't see any way to chase up and include all alumni in our discussion tonight, but we need to be aware we're deciding for them."
That causes murmurs of agreement. The atmosphere is more somber.
I put my hand up, and Mrs Horton picks me. "Is there any way we can reach them all, ask the school to pass a message? Because although they'll be confidential, I bet the school keeps records of where everyone is. I doubt we could get into a two way conversation with them, but we could at least pass a warning."
Mrs Horton replies to that, "Yes, I feel the school would be able to do that. I'll check with the Head, but I expect that to be possible."
She looks around and picks a girl. "So, there's probably lots of folks here who think like Sharisha, at least partly. Like, maybe they're okay with being a lesbian here, where it's all lesbians, but they don't want to walk around the school with 'I munch rug' in sharpie on their forehead." Several snickers at that. "Yeah, laugh it up, but it's still an issue. And it doesn't help if we get the school cracking down on the 'phobes, if the one who's uncomfortable is them. Can you put yourself in detention for hating on yourself? That isn't a solution. So I propose we need help from the shrinks..."
Sharisha cuts across loudly with "I don't need my goddamn brain washed, thank you and hell no."
"Not brainwashing", the girl picks back up. "Like, helping us handle how we're feeling. Not trying to make us approve, helping us cope."
"Still sounds like brainwashing to me", is the grumpy response.
Mrs Horton nods. "The school can do that, and I assure you, nobody's going to march you into Doyle and make you sit there and talk about your feelings. I'm going to press for it to be offered to all of us. There might be a number of different reactions. Self disapproval is one. Fear, might be another. Embarrassment. Difficulty with being the center of attention. Tensions with friends. We are all likely to need at least a little help, although we can also look out for each other."
She picks a boy next. He says, "Alright, everyone, I know we aren't voting, but I just want to get a feel for the room. All in favour say aye!"
A loud chorus of "Aye!", it's nearly everyone in the room.
"All against, say no!"
Five noes, Sharisha is obviously one, but she's not alone.
"Alright. So, perhaps Mrs Horton, you can go to the noes and ask them why they're against? Because we need to address those things."
She nods agreeing.
The first of them is a boy, I've occasionally seen him around on our floor so that probably makes him a freshman too. He says, "My parents are strict Christians. They know I'm a mutant. They don't know I... I have attractions to boys. I don't know if they would accept me. I have enough trouble accepting myself. And if we all come out, the school will think I'm gay. I... I can't handle being thought of that way."
The kid next to him says, "What's wrong with being gay? I'm gay. Are you gonna say there's something wrong with me?"
He shakes his head, voice low enough it's hard to hear, "I... still like girls."
The kid who spoke to him says, "So you're bisexual. Say it out loud, I'm bisexual."
"I'm bisexual." He doesn't manage loud, but makes it up to audible.
"You hang onto that and be proud. Someone calls you gay, tell them that. As for your parents, you know they're pushovers in their heart of hearts. They wouldn't hurt you."
He nods, and pulls the other boy into a hug. "Okay, I... change my vote, I vote aye."
Cheering fills the room, although Mrs Horton quickly hushes it, saying "we aren't done yet", and moving on to the next, a girl.
"His folks might be pushovers but mine are not. Bible this, bible that. I guarantee you, they'll disown me. Mutant already was a bridge too far; if I have to say the L-word to them, they'll just tell me they don't have a daughter."
"I'll adopt you! Well, I'll make my folks do it!" A girl near her interjects. "We've got a spare room, you'll fit right in." She looks around the room. "Anyone else in a situation like me, if you've got room in your house and you aren't hurting for money, take on a new sister or a new brother if they're in need. Nobody goes without family." That gets a chorus of "yeah!" and "My family can do that."
The girl looks overwhelmed. "Um, thank you thank you so much. And I vote Aye."
One of the other noes, a boy, says "If I can have a family and home at the end of this, no matter what, I vote aye too."
And then there were two. One, surprisingly, is Jamie. Mrs Horton goes over. "Jamie, I'm surprised, I thought you'd be in favour."
She shakes her head. "I'm not. I don't want us to come out. Bless it! Why can I always talk correctly?"
it takes a moment, then, "Backwards talk!" says Hank. "Someone get a pen and paper, he can still write forwards."
One is fetched, and saying "throw that away", Jamie grabs for it, and writes in big letters "YES" and holds it up mutely. A big relieved cheer.
And then there was one. "Well I can see the way this is going, so I'll just step out of your way", Sharisha sounds defeated and close to crying.
Mrs Horton shakes her head. "What can we do to help? We aren't going to trample over you, dear."
"Yeah and why not? Because this fat body and this damn dyke mind have been nothing but objects of scorn all my life, so, trample away, everyone does, even I do."
A girl near her says, "Sharisha, you have to stop hating yourself, you are lovable, we won't let you fall through the cracks."
"Yeah? How many of you love me?" Something like a wind is raising in the room. "You fuckers all but spit when you pass me."
One of the kids steps forward and gives her a hug, and then another. "Hey no, stop it, you can't, it's a lie, it's a lie..." she's weeping, and the wind picks up for a moment, then collapses suddenly. She sniffles. "Damn it, back up, give me space." The ones hugging her step back and she takes a moment to wipe her face on her sleeve and visibly pull herself together. "Damn it okay. If all of you can risk it for yourselves, if you can even maybe like me... maybe I'll give myself a chance. Maybe being a freak ain't so bad. Damn it, I vote aye."
There's a pause as people grasp that it really happened, and then there's a roaring cheer. This one, Mrs Horton doesn't stop.
And in the heart of the cheer, and the quiet existence of the building under and around me, I find a song, and a choice, and I choose yes, now is the right time, and I begin to sing. I sing of Poe the place, simple but beloved, a crossroads of our lives, a frame and a shared home. I sing of a nest that protects all within, strong, keeping our secret. I sing of love shared, mutual support, our many weavings together, our shared identity. I sing of unanimity in a great choice, and a new dawn, and the coming of change but framed in love that still protects, all for all, only now proudly. I sing of us as bright lives, shining love out into the school, and the world. And I sing of Poe, us together and here, as the heart of it.
Song over, I fall silent. The room is silent, rapt. It feels more brightly lit, purer, more beautiful. It takes a moment for Mrs Horton to cough and say "Thank you, Jules. Well, everyone, it's coming up on bed time, so please head to your rooms. I need to speak to the Head, and then I'll call another meeting where we can discus the how of it."
It takes time for people to leave that room, and I can see several of them trailing fingers against walls or doors, like I've done in the Lovecraft room. Poe feels... alive, awakened. Feels like it's snuggling against their touches. I grin as I head back towards my room, catching up with the Kimbas.
"I do not know what you said in that song, Jules, and I do", it's Toni. "And that's the weirdest damn feeling. That and Poe is goddamn well hugging me every time I touch it. Did you put a whammy on a whole damn building?"
"First for me too", I say. Running my fingertips along the wall. "It feels like the Lovecraft room. I think we woke it up."
"'We', my ass, you did."
"With our decision and our unity." She just shrugs at that.
Nikki's paused at the entrance to her room. "Toni, you know I was wishing for a bit more greenery?"
"Yah, what of it? Oh fuck, pardon my French", the last said as she peers into a vine-and-flower overgrown room.
"I think", says Nikki, "That it might be wise to think twice about what we wish for in Poe, for the next little while. Yes, thank you Poe, it's beautiful, but we need room for our laptops and books." Plants helpfully move back from the desk.
Toni shakes her head. "Well I'll be damned. Our own fairytale castle."
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**14th January, 2007, Poe**
Erin and I had fun before bed, turning our room into something with the feel of a leafy forest glade, with trees and wildflowers painted up the wall and branches of wood twisting around the room, and the carpet much thicker than it originally had been. Then I had a relaxing and comfortable night of dreams. Sara and I talked over my plans for Caitlin. I want to get that done for her as soon as possible. Then there's the Kimba tea party, which I have some nice clothes for, thanks to the shopping expedition I went on while we were all deciding over in Poe. Paige's meeting might or might not be today, and might or might not include me. And maybe I can see if Donna and I can meet up? It's been awhile. But I'll probably have to ask for an exeat for that.
Morning, and I'm awake. I port out of bed, vanish this copy of my pyjamas and grab a nice robe I picked up last night. A shower is warm and relaxing, and it's interesting to feel the difference in people's emotions. There's still a lot of wall-caresses happening. Sharisha comes in, looking a bit stunned still, and gets hugs from a couple of other kids and pushes them away but still grins. Not an expression I've seen on her much, and it suits her.
Shaking the water off with a port, waving hi to Ayla as he comes in, and making sure to give him an eyeful before I put my gown back on, I head for my room. Meanwhile, over the links, "Caitlin, you up?"
"Yeah, I hardly sleep, you ready to tell me the big secret?"
"Give me two ticks to get my kit on and I'll be over."
Today I'm going with a nice skirt and a top with green vines I found in the store. Add to that a grey wool knitted armless cape cardigan. I hesitate between boots and sneakers, pick the boots. All ready. I've got the coordinates for outside Caitlin's room, so a single step takes me across campus. I knock.
"Come on in, that was fast. Ha, nice look, very cottage-witch. So, spit it out already."
I come in, close the door, grab a seat, "So yeah. I gave you two parts of the puzzle yesterday, I know your past, and the links. Here's where I connect up the lines. The links are a comms net, but they aren't only that. They were created based on what I told you, my advance knowledge from reading. I know someone is gonna get killed. I know the victim and the culprit, but not the day or the means, and I can't protect them because of who and what they are. So what do I do? I figure out how to grab a connection to their soul if they're dead, make a new body" - I appear beside myself in a Jamie-body, "like this, then I can move the soul in, move myself out, they're alive again." I look at her. "And then I realised, the way the links connect up, it's not true that both people need to be alive. They connect to souls. And that I could maybe help you." I vanish the Jamie body. "Maybe I could help you get Cat back. All the way back."
As I'm explaining her emotions go from confused, to a bit weirded out, to stunned. "Cat... how? She's dead."
"Don't you have moments when she feels so close she could be in the room? I'm nearly certain her soul will be staying with you and watching. If we can get the message to her to reach out..."
"Then we link up." She nods. "But how?"
"What I'm guessing will work is memories. Think of her, think of the best time you ever had together, remember her so clearly you could touch her. And then ask her to reach out to you."
She sits there, takes deep breaths, closes her eyes and tries. It takes a few moments, she gets a disappointed look, like it isn't working, and then a shocked one. "Cat?"
I leave her alone as she's clearly talking down the link, tears running unheeded down her face. Then she grins, wipes her face and says, "of course", and I'm in a group with the two of them.
"Thank you so much!" It's a voice I don't know. "I am overjoyed we can talk again properly, and I understand it's all your work."
"Mostly mine, with some help", I say. "And I'm not done yet. Next phase is getting you back alive."
A sensation of surprise. "How on earth do you propose doing that? I watched them bury me. I'd rather not be a shambling zombie, if that's alright by you."
"New body", I say. "And, apologies, because I never got a snapshot of you when you were alive, it won't be the same as your last. Upside, that's going to make slinking back into school as a freshman student so you can be with Caitlin a lot easier. Downside, you'll almost certainly have different powers, sorry."
Caitlin laughs. "Oh, you've got this all planned out, haven't you? I can just see it. Mysterious student without a past, well, it's clear we can handle that, we handled you. Moves in with me, happy days. Not sure how you're planning to get the Head on side..."
I say, "I'm going to ask Circe to supervise when I do the soul to body reconnection. She can vouch for new-Cat to the Head."
Caitlin says, "That works, I suppose. I'm not too fond of the finger-wigglers, but I'll tolerate it this once. I do approve of having supervision on hand. Is it the first time you've done this?"
"Yeah", I admit. "Although Sara did something like it, and she's walked me through how."
"And she can't do it because?"
"It'll be my body until I move myself out. So switching its soul connections from me to Cat has to be a me thing."
"Fair enough. So how do we make the new body?"
"I think you two need to help me design it. I'll project an image onto the links, and you should be able to nudge it until it feels right for you to move into, Cat."
"Man, I'm gonna have to change my name", Cat says. "Erik, you thief." Which makes the two of them crack up. "Okay, show me."
I show a fairly neutral naked female figure, about the same apparent age as Caitlin. "Think of this as like a character creator in a game. Suggest changes, I'll alter the image. My suggestion is, go for what makes you feel good as well as comfortable to live in day-to-day, but don't try to look too similar to how you were, or you'll make people talk."
"Fair enough, I suppose. Okay, here goes."
We spend a few minutes making and tweaking the design. Simultaneously, I contact Circe. "Hi, good morning, is this a good time?"
"Yeah, I've been up all night combing through your link spell. Nice piece of work. Now's as good as ever." She sends a feeling of tiredness. "What were you up to over in Poe? It's all but glowing. I can feel it from here."
"You'll find out the 'why' when everyone else does, but the 'what' was me singing to the cottage and the people there. I think I woke the place up. It's become very friendly and responsive to suggestions."
She laughs. "Only you. All right, whenever you are ready. Do you have a venue?"
"Not really, do you have an idea for somewhere indoors, private, that won't scare Caitlin? I doubt she'd be willing to walk into anyone's circle."
She sends agreement. "There is a lecture hall in Kirby. It has no circle, and I have the keys."
"Alright, see you there shortly."
We finish the character design, Cat slapping down teasing suggestions from Caitlin to increase the bust size, and the result is a cute, red haired pixie of a girl, with short hair and freckles, green eyes, and the build of a gymnast.
"Okay", I say, "We've got a venue, Kirby. Willing to trust me on a teleport or shall we walk over?"
We end up walking over, although I do see Caitlin's point that her aura might mess with the jump. As we walk over, I explain that I'm going to be giving Cat my exemplar and regenerator traits as hard as I can, but leaving the rest of her mutation to settle out on its own. Her soul's pattern might be able to shape that. Big me will be in charge of designing her DNA, which will be partly based on mine, partly on the planned body image. I'll shake-down the body to see it's all working, then soul dive to move us across. Circe will only be there to ensure I don't make a hash of it, but I don't expect to.
It turns out the lecture hall is the same place Englund takes his classes, wouldn't he be amused to see what I'm up to today? But let's hope it can be kept safely quiet. Circe meets us there. Caitlin takes a seat. Once again, I'm center stage. Circe's ready, I'm ready, all systems go.
"New body in three, two, one..."
Big me sliding forward, working on the detail. Shaping bones, organs, nerves, blood, lymph, muscles, skin, hair. Wrapping her in a best-effort refitted copy of my school uniform. I'm no tailor, but it should do. And print.
I have a second viewpoint. She looks good. Checking through all her cellular systems, everything's working, no faults, no genetic issues.
I soul dive. "If this hurts, say ow. We should still be in contact through the links. I'll try to anaesthetize any pain, but you may have weird, half out half in sensations while I'm working, please bear with me."
"Okay, and thank you."
With big me's help, I go deeper than ever, and I can see Cat's soul. She's already attached to a few other incarnations, which is interesting. I guess humans don't realise it, but multi-personhood is more normal than it looks. The part of her that's still Cat has physical connection points with a slightly atrophied, healed-over look, but I grab them and pull upward, following my own to the new body.
"Bear with it", I say. "Not long."
Detaching my own connections to the body hurts surprisingly much, and I can't turn this kind of soul pain off, but I bear with it too, as I weld her to the points where I just cut myself loose. There are many connections, but they all seem to be hooked up right, and, with the last of mine gone, I lose sensation of the new body, it's hers. I check the welds carefully, nothing coming loose. And surface.
"And welcome back."
She stands there blinking for a moment. Looks at her own hands. Says, croakily, "I'm... back." And stumbles and collapses to the floor. "I'm okay, I'm okay, just unused to this. Been a while. Gimme a moment. Damn, bodies are clunky." She pushes herself up, pushes too hard in fact, and bounces halfway to the ceiling, making me warp to catch her in mid fall. "Oh whee, who turned down gravity?"
"Mind your strength", I say. "You should be ex-four or thereabouts. Your own body is well below what you can bench, and your grip can crush a baseline's bones. Takes getting used to. Caitlin should be safe though."
She nods. "C'mere and give me a hug, Erik, you name stealing idiot. And tell me what the hell happened to you." The two hug, and I head over to Circe.
She nods. "No problems that I can see. Nice work, nicely thorough."
"Would you be able to take them to the Head and explain what's been done?"
She laughs. "Worried you'll get yelled at?"
"I have been making lots of work for her."
"This, she will be happy about, I think. But you are right, it might take her a bit of time to realise it. Very well. And she is to get the full story?"
"Thank you", I say. "Yeah, no reason to cut her out of the loop. She'll know how far the information needs to go."
And then I head out towards breakfast with a grin, leaving them to their reunion.
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A jump gets me back to Poe, so I can head to breakfast with the Kimbas this time. We get looks, coming into the Crystal Hall. Actually, all the Poesies do, it's like we're all radiating a gentle glamour. I'm not sure how much of that is just reaching such a momentous decision together, and how much is my song. As for me, I've got a grin - because of that and helping Caitlin, I'm feeling pretty happy with the way things are going at the moment.
"Okay, so what's got you all glowing?", asks Paige, who's glowing nicely herself but we all know the reason for that.
"It is still a secret", says Hippolyta. "But is a good thing. Not long until you find out too."
I change the subject before bright minds figure too much out. "Speaking of secrets. I can't reveal details, but I've successfully used lifeboating, just this morning."
Everyone looks at me. "On who?... no, strike that, no details", Paige says, "Did it work well?"
I nod. "Circe helped monitor. All good, as far as either of us could determine."
"That's a really comfortable thing to think about, but It's bad to know we're less safe." Jamie has feathers in his hair and is definitely on the male side today. And is backwards-talking, but that's easy to adjust around once you know it's there. "I'm really looking forward to living."
Sara says, "We'll prevent it if we can. Don't worry, dear."
I nod. "No complacency, there's ways to take injury I'm not sure I could do much about." I'm about to say more but there's a sudden hush, followed by someone shouting "Quiet!" Looking across the room, it's Saladin, who I met yesterday, he's standing up on his table so everyone can see and hear him. I wonder what's up?
He says, in a voice pitched to carry, "Most of you know me and who I hang out with and what we stand for. This fact has apparently gone over the head of one of you, as someone in this school is trying to blackmail me."
"Blackmail is a despicable practice and its weak spot is that it only works if you are embarrassed and ashamed by what they threaten you with. The problem that my blackmailer has made is that I am not embarrassed nor ashamed by what they chose to threaten me with exposing." He pauses, then says, "You see, I am gay and they wanted to show pictures of me and my boyfriend to everyone."
"I will not be blackmailed because of the truth. En'shah Allah that will be all that needs to be said on the matter." And he steps off the table and sits back down.
It isn't me who starts the standing applause, it's one of the other Poesies who I don't know by name, but I do jump up and join in, and so do both the tables I'm at, and pretty much everyone from Poe, and others get dragged in too. As well as various whoops, cheers, whistles and raised fist gestures. Perhaps we're a third of the school actively showing solidarity, and another third smiling. The number of actual frowns are few, and all the more grim for realising it. One is the black guy in the capes who I caught giving the stink eye before. He looks like he bit into a bad egg. One to watch for trouble, then.
The applause comes slowly to an end, and we sit down, but I think a point has been made, and the balance of power has decisively shifted. Backlash, is the next likely move in the game, the 'phobes will feel they need to re-establish their position at the top of the heap. I'll see if I can't keep an eye out for it.
"Well, well. This is a rather useful invention of yours." A voice I had *not* expected to hear, for a moment I startle and look behind me, but it's over the links.
"Hello, Headmistress." I can't help myself from grinning. So she's heard the story, then, and blagged a link for herself. "I hope you find it convenient, although I do ask you consider who you're passing it to."
"Yes, Circe explained, you want it to spread first among the nice people. A sentiment with which I concur. And, thank you for my former range instructor back, even if it does drop another heap of highly secret paperwork on my desk."
"My apologies for the bureaucracy. By the way, we just had an interesting incident in Crystal Hall you might want to be aware of. Saladin of the capes very publicly came out. Someone was blackmailing him and he just dropped the hammer on that. And all of Poe and about a third of the whole school clapped him for it. But a handful have a pretty serious death glare going."
She sends the feeling of an understanding nod. "I'll nudge security to be aware. Speaking of which, last night..."
"That was mostly not me."
"Indeed, although I'm informed you had a song to add."
"Poe may be a little... enchanted, for awhile, perhaps permanently", I admit. "The upside is, it's very friendly."
A laugh. "God preserve me from 'friendly' cottages. We were planning a refit in the summer, do you think that will upset it?" It's said with some sarcasm, but that's a valid question.
I send a head-shake. "No, I'm certain it will be happy to help. It has already been very willing to help us tinker with the insides of our rooms and such. If you can get me the plans, I can probably ask it to do the refit for itself. I might need to read up on building codes though, so I don't let it leave off the guttering or some such thing."
"Doing the refit for itself... Let me guess, it would be complete in minutes and move everyone's rooms and possessions intact?" She sends me an image of Poe flowing and reforming in place.
"I can ask", I grin. "Would have to be on a green flag day, but..."
She laughs. "Very, very green. Well, perhaps next recess, when the number of students is low. Worst case, we will be able to rehouse you all while we sort through the rubble. Assuming we are not at open war over this decision Poe has collectively taken."
"I hope not. But even the best case is likely to look a little guerilla for awhile."
"I will see what I can do to put the kibosh on that. But security can't be everywhere."
I nod. "Links may change that equation." An amused thought. "You're on it now, and you may want to add a few trusted security honchos, so that you're not the first port of call for every pupil in the link-equipped school."
A wince. "God help me. I'd never have a moment's peace. Ugh, absolutely, I'll get right on that. And we will have to draw up new rules for this; initially, secret ones, which means I'll have to do them myself. You do rather seem to be creating work for me, you know."
"Sorry. If it's any use, I could muck in and help?"
"I may take you up on that. Alright, over and out, or whatever it is one says on this thing."
"Speak to you later", I agree.
But she isn't quite done yet. Instead, me and all the Kimbas get a group invite, and when we accept, it's the Head. "Hello, Kimbas. I'm informed you were among the first recipients of this nice new link system, you'll be happy to know that I'm on it too, now. And I shall be adding a few trusted leaders in security, so that you all will have someone to go to if and when there is another crisis, rather than rushing in and going at it hammer and tongs all by yourselves." That cuts across and silences a conversation about how implausible it was for one of the capes to come out. Winces and looks of consternation all round.
"Uh, good morning Headmistress", says Hank, diplomatic as usual. "I'm sure we would be glad to."
"Excellent. I will inform you all of the necessary contacts as soon as I've arranged them. Over and out."
Jade says, in voice, "Oh we are so screwed."
As for me, I crack up laughing, I can't help it. Which makes Toni say "Oh yeah, laugh it up", and me laugh even harder. Unexpected consequences, oy vey. Well, the links are out there now, and they will go where they will go. Sometimes it's fun not to know what surprises the universe has in store.
As breakfast breaks up, Chou stops me. "Hey Jules. Two things. First off, tea party is in an hour, Poe's dayroom."
I nod. "I'll be there."
"And second, while I don't understand the message, the Tao says that you healed a wound in the world today, and this is a great good thing, with many future beneficial consequences."
"Tell it thanks", I grin. "It was the correct thing to do. If it has other suggestions..."
"I will bring them to you", she agrees.
That leaves me briefly at a loose end. So I wander over to a place I can sit and think, in the library, and nudge Donna. "Good morning, are you available?"
"Good morning Jules, yes, absolutely, what's up?" She sends the feeling of a warm hug.
I happily return it. "I was just wondering if perhaps I could come and visit you, at home, perhaps some time later today? Although no pressure, I know you have secret business that needs to be kept out of my head as much as anybody else's."
She nods. "I'll see if I can't make a space for you to come over. Will you be able to get an exeat?"
"I can try", I say. "Worst case we can chat. But I think Ms Hartford doesn't hate me, which is as near as she gets to friendly. So I may get what I ask for."
She grins. "I shall look forward to having you over. Oh, and while we're talking, an update. No formal indicator has ticked yet, obviously, but we're getting anecdotes in from our police and FBI contacts that the number of walk-in, unforced confessions is unusually high. So things may be going faster than we thought. Also, your little broadcast is making the rounds in conspiracy circles. The reaction varying from ecstatic peace-and-rainbows types, who think you're a Pleiadian saviour come to bring the era of disclosure, all the way down to extremely distressed H-one militias who are calling you the antichrist born on Earth. It hasn't popped up on mainstream channels yet but I wouldn't be surprised if you're a slow news day filler waiting to run."
I giggle. "Would surprise the UFO folks to know that I'm from further out than that, and yet closer to home. If I meet any Pleiadians, I'll tell them hi."
She smirks. "By the by, you might want to be careful how you get here. Our feelers in the CIA and MCO suggest they're definitely not your friends right now. You wouldn't want to be stopped en route."
"Use the links to send me coordinates and an altitude overview, Google maps with the satellite images would work. I plan to try fast-travel."
"Flying and line of sight teleporting. Horizon at a time. Probably a pretty high mach equivalent."
"Oh yeah, the fastest folks who can do that push mach numbers you normally don't see outside of orbit. But the FAA will throw an absolute shit-fit if you haven't registered a flight plan, because it looks like the prelude to an attack."
I nod. "I'll do that. Billie should be able to tell me how."
"And do you have a transponder and a radio?"
"Not yet", I admit. "I'll get one by this afternoon."
"Please do. We heard them panicking over Billie's high speed fun and games over Christmas, they weren't sure if she was an ICBM. By the board means happy, friendly bureaucrats and an absence of scrambled fighter jets. Which they absolutely will bill you for if you don't have a whole lot of good will cancelling it out."
"Duly noted", I say, amused.
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The tea party is calming and nice. After Chou hands me my tea and calls the toast to "long life", I try a small sip first, not completely sure if herbs from Taoist immortals will agree with my system, but it seems fine. My life sense registers various small toning and enhancing effects, pleasant and perhaps with continued use, cumulative. Nothing harmful. I grin. Even Ayla has to acknowledge it's damn nice tea. It seems to perk Billie up too, which is nice. I still feel on the outside of this team, but at the same time, friendly-outside, and that's good for me.
"You look thoughtful", Chou says.
I smile. "Life's been hectic of late. Mostly good-hectic, although there's all sorts of looming issues. But a moment of unworried calm doesn't hurt."
She nods. "I noticed your hesitation. But you tried the tea anyway."
"Some things, I feel I can put my safety in the hands of. Your Tao is one."
She laughs, relaxed, shakes her head. "You are a tease. My Tao, like I have it on a leash."
"Or vice versa."
"That may be closer to the truth", she admits. "You know, you seem to have a good natural grasp of it yourself. I know you don't sense it, but you move with it."
I sit and think about that for a moment. "When trouble comes to me, I end it. When my friends are in danger, I save them. When the forest is beautiful, I sing in it. On an ordinary day, I eat my food and study my lessons. I suppose I don't bring an agenda - other than the one I baked into my nature - and that helps."
"What would you do if the Tao wanted you to kill someone?"
I get the feeling that's a personal question. "I've already killed mi-go. They were probably people."
"A named, human person."
I take a minute to consider. "I don't get given job assignments the way you do. But I suppose I do have a different perspective. Humans don't lose their existence when they're killed, they're already multi-existing, even if they don't know it, I confirmed that myself today. And the singular experiential self doesn't vanish either, but it does tear holes in the web of lives when it dies. Thinking about it, I have friends and I'm not completely objective about them, but mostly I see people in terms of their wake in the world. There's a few people I've met already I wouldn't mind to kill at all, they leave hate and havoc behind them. But they haven't presented themselves as targets, except once, and I fumbled that one because I was being grumpy and a bit vicious."
She's heard the story. "You were being a bit traumatized as well, you know? Be gentle on yourself, he may yet have a part to play."
I nod. "He sure fits the part of Smeagol on looks. You be gentle on yourself too. I get the feeling that wasn't an abstract question."
Without admitting anything, she smiles and says, "Your perspective helped."
I take another sip of my tea as my answer to that.
As we're heading off on our own ways afterward, I stop Billie. "I know you're good with flying, could you help me with a thing?"
She nods, "Sure, no problem."
I outline my plans to fly over to Donna, and pick up a transponder to make it all above board. But I can tell from the faces she's pulling that I'm not going to like the answer.
She rubs her forehead with her hand. "Uh, okay, come into my room so we can sit down and talk about this."
I nod, and she leads me in. I grab a seat on the bed.
"So I'm in your classes and I know you fly okay now, indoors. So don't take this as anything against you, okay?"
"So. If you're flying at near-treetop level and well below supersonic, I don't think anyone cares to ding you for a license. But equally, you have no help to rely on, it's like you're jogging solo. The school won't let you use that on an exeat, not without a senior or an adult along. So that's one thing. It's also a pretty bad idea, there's like, birds and stuff, even at only 80 miles per hour, they whack you a good one and the bird doesn't make it. And even teleporting, your horizon is really tight."
I wince at the thought of hitting some poor innocent bird. "And I take it, higher up, I need a license. How quickly can I get one?"
She goes and gets a thick book off her shelf. "Read this, I know it'll take you like a minute. That's regulations, flight physics, the special language they speak, all of it. You need to know that. You need to get a physical, but the school can submit that if you had one recently. You need to sit an exam on the theory, which means waiting until they're ready to run one. Then, although they can overlap it a bit while you wait, you need a minimum number of hours flight time, most of which has to be with with an instructor. Then finally they make you take a practical test in the air. If you pass, they mail you your license."
Well, rats. "I suppose I can beg someone to get me started tomorrow, but it sounds like a complete no-go for tonight."
"It normally takes a term", she agrees. "For you, still weeks, unless you can find an instructor who doesn't need sleep. Ask Donna to come get you in a car."
I wince and nod. "Thank you, you're a good friend, and having bad news to tell doesn't change that."
She smiles. "As to the transponder and stuff, the circuitry isn't in that book, but it should be online. You can put one together yourself, but you'll need to have a code for it to transmit, which means a license. But there's no reason not to get started."
I nod. "Now I got thinking about it, I have some ideas for flying too, honestly I've been neglecting it a bit, but maybe we could practise together some time?"
She grins, "I'd love to. Perhaps when you're back from Donna? If we stick to treetop height and keep it on campus, I think there won't be an issue."
"Sounds like a plan", I agree.
Back in my room the exeat's been granted, an ironic victory. The text of the email says, "You will need to have an adult or a senior present with you at all times when you're outside the school grounds." Gah.
I grab a seat on my bed, and update Donna on the frustrating developments. She's disappointed but understanding. "I could drive over, but I'm worried about us being stopped. We could cloak you again, but it's foolish to try and run the same trick twice. If they're professional, they'll catch on immediately. It's a pity you can't teleport direct. But I know you don't have a link to this place."
That word, link, catches a thread's attention and it blossoms out into speculation. "Um, maybe I do."
"You've never been here, dear."
"But you're there right now, and I have a link to you." I check myself over, am I otherwise ready to go? Yes. "Find some place with space for two, indoors or outside. A place that's an actual place, not a hallway or something. Your garden, your kitchen, something like that. Then just stand there sending me the feeling of being there down the link."
"Um, this sounds dangerously experimental."
"I won't jump if it doesn't feel like it's working, but let's try."
"Alright. Here you go." She's standing in her kitchen, surrounded by a homely kind of mess. Cooking gear, kids toys, crayon drawings tacked up on the wall. Washed dishes stacked in the rack drying. Houseplants, looking healthy. I can feel like I'm there. I can feel like I could jump there. And g-sense blossoms, showing me the shape of the room and the safe empty spaces I can jump into, and I fold space and *step*.
And I'm there. "Hey Donna mama."
She startles. "And you made it! Well, well. I've never heard anything like it. Goodness, you do teleport silently though, you made me jump. Everyone else I've met at least goes 'pop'." I think she's startle-babbling a bit, so I hug her.
"Yeah, dunno why it does that." Although I've begun to suspect that matter creation and destruction may be involved - except that I could teleport silently before I could make anything other than copied bodies. It's a conundrum. Mmm, she's stroking my hair and it feels nice. I make it play around her fingertips.
"You jumped to a metaphysical coordinate, dear. That's at least an upgrade. More powers for you."
"More safety for you and the others, I can come to your rescue, and bring help with me, wherever you are."
"Well, today there's no need to go haring around rescuing people. Would you like the guided tour, or shall I get started right on lunch?"
"Guided tour please!" I'm hungry, but I'm more curious than hungry, and I think cooking together will be more relaxing once I'm not antsy.
"Alright. I warn you that there's various signs of little miss secret around the place. Please try not to draw too many conclusions, your head leaks." I put out my tongue at her and she laughs. "It's not an insult, dear."
"I know, I know. Allow me my childish frustration." I grin. "Your house is lovely."
"Although it can't quite be your house in practise yet, dear, it is, you know." I look at my feet, feeling a little overwhelmed. She carries on, "TV, of course, Gizmatic Game Toy, our DVD rack, we've still got a few VHS although it's been a long time since I dusted that one off. Garden's out there, although it'll be some months before it's good for much beside tobogganing. We're set back from the main road by about a ten minute walk down a dirt track, and all of it's dense forest. We're on the outskirts of Dunwich here. A nice quiet place. Good for little secrets to play unobserved."
I grin. "it sounds absolutely lovely. Like a meditation retreat."
She laughs. "When certain parties are being quiet, it can be. Let's head upstairs. Bathroom on the right, that one's secret so don't go in there please, and that one's mine. Come on in."
I grin and grab a seat on the bed. It's a gentle, slightly feminine room, Donna lets her agent hair down in here, I feel. I spot a few of Sara's clothes on the rack, which makes me grin, and her blush. And I notice she has a very sturdy double bed. Fun fun. "It's absolutely lovely."
She sits down beside me. "Thank you, love. I'm really glad you could visit." Then she smiles, and her mom hat is back on, "Is there anything you'd like? Soda? Milk? I'm going to go down and get cooking."
"No you won't dear, not this first time, you're the guest. From next time, I shall expect you to keep your end up on chores." Gah, I love her. I give her a huge hug. "Why don't you go and see if there's a game you like?"
So we head downstairs, and shortly I'm happily playing "Atelier stardust", which is a bit silly and repetitive but very cute.
"Um, Jules", a nudge on the links, although why she's using it from just over in the kitchen? But there's something scared in her tone. "You need to get out of here right away and bring help because *urk!*" and a feeling of very sharp deep pain in my chest, but I know it's from Donna. Oh hell.
"Miss Parallel, or should I call you Jules? Would you like to come outside and have a little conversation? I believe this woman would like you to come to her rescue, foolish as that would be of you."
I know that voice.
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Charles bloody Darrow. The Necromancer. Who I was talking about with Chou just earlier, in a conversation that no longer feels accidental at all. I poke Doc Otto. "Emergency. Necromancer and unknown crew at Donna's house. Donna hostage. I will engage. Send help. Contact the Head, she's on the links." And get back a terse, "Roger that, stay safe."
Out loud, I say, "What do you want, Darrow? A rematch?" I send a body looking through Donna's stuff for weapons or anything to help, while I walk out into the kitchen, which is empty, so I look outside, and he's there holding Donna by the neck. He must have teleported her. Something nasty and knife-handle shaped is sticking out of her sternum. Oh god.
Heading outside, Donna looks paralyzed. Darrow is holding her with ease, which indicates either strength or a powered suit. "A rematch, she says!" He sounds amused and inclined to monologue. Do it old man, I need the time. "Before we have our conversation, I want to make our relative position clear. If this knife is pulled from the chest of your so-beloved adoptive mother, or if I am killed, the blade will suck out her soul and use it to restore me. And if I am alive, I can command it to do so whenever I please. So I require your complete obedience."
"You have it", I lie. But that does cut down my options. Is it true? I split my attention. Without obviously bringing big me forward, I'm going to soul dive. But the other part of me says, "Let Donna go", obviously a futile demand but time is time.
"Hardly." I can see two others here too, now. A shaggy, ugly werewolf type, nothing like the graceful weres I know. And a faceless black guy who looks like the statues over Whateley's gates. Lycanthros and Nightgaunt, I've read about them. Nightgaunt must have been the one who stabbed Donna, that's his style. Darrow continues, "You cost me a lot of pain and suffering and a significant amount of credit with the mi-go. A little anguish is a good beginning to what I plan to do with you."
"I seem to recall you kidnapped me first."
"Because the same useless precogs who helped me find you today told me you would be a threat to me."
"I wouldn't have been, unless you put yourself right in my way. If you've been paying attention, I don't take sides."
Feeling along the links, I can see Donna's soul, and on that level, the knife is like a harpoon stuck into her, an obscene thing. Completely unacceptable. I could cut the line, but it occurs to me I can follow the harpoon-line back. He's given me a link to his soul.
"That time is past", he sounds dismissive, but I know I struck home. I'm being completely honest with him. I am not here to pick fights with villains that don't start trouble in front of my face, or attack my friends or myself. Unfortunately for him he's done all three. He continues, "You will vanish all bodies except this one. You will submit to having a warp damper and cuffs put on you by my associates. And then we shall be on our way, to evade the cavalry you have no doubt called."
I vanish the body in the house, it's needless at this point anyhow. The two Gothmog-side can stay. "Done", I lie.
I've followed the line, and I can see his soul. What I can see horrifies me. He doesn't multi-exist. He has cannibalized his other-selves, and grafted them back onto himself, his soul is a Frankenstein mess of stolen power and stolen lives. And encrusted in foul servitors, who I am sure would resurrect him if someone were to destroy him physically. At this point I understand I didn't fumble, when we first met. If I'd blown his head off, I'd have mistakenly assumed he was dead, but he'd have been back anyhow, and probably stolen more lives to do it. He's a less than human thing, a nothing-of-value that preys on value. Even his other potentials are lost to sheer selfishness. I can feel myself getting deeply, intensely angry. Not just me but big me. Her anger is slow growing but it's monstrous. The lives that he's grafted onto himself are in agony, there's no selfhood left in them, only endless horror. I can feel her starting to act.
I hold out my hands for the cuffs. And now I understand what Chou was asking of me. Can I pronounce sentence on him?
Yes, I can.
From depth beyond depth, big me is rising - and I realise now, that the part she's ever extended inside my mind has been far less than all of her, she felt like a mountain then, but what's rising now dwarfs that. Darrow's servitors panic and flee. I can see him get a confused look. She rises up around his soul and engulfs it, and curling tentacles the size of slashing skyscrapers cut deep into it, branching out into fractal knives, slicing and ripping, separating every part from every other part, down to the absolute atoms of soul-stuff, which flee in every direction like a metaphysical wind, shrieking mindlessly, too small to carry any residual evil.
Something changes behind his eyes. He is no longer there, or anywhere. And his body drops like a puppet with cut strings, Donna falling beside him. The handle on the knife evaporates into smoke, and there's just a blade tang sticking out from her.
"Boss?" Lycanthros, who's approaching me with cuffs, gets a lightsaber to the gut, pulled up through his head, then I cut it off with a backswing. Nightgaunt is caught confused and my next swing takes his head off. Donna's house is not a bit of knowledge either of them is going to be taking anywhere.
Looking around, with life sense, and there's nobody around. Several life signs incoming in the distance. Big me subsides back down into unfathomable depths. And Donna's soul is safe, the harpoon is gone. A knife's sticking out of her, but I did give her regen, that's a small problem. A touch verifies that. I could pull it out, but I remember the doc. She doesn't need first aid, so I float her up off the cold ground and wait for the first arrivals, pulling Doc Otto and the Head into a group, I say, "Danger's over, as far as I know. I can't sense anyone else around."
"Good work, but how?" The Head sounds confused and worried.
"Darrow... no longer exists. The distraction let me finish the henchmen he brought. Donna has a once-cursed knife in her but she also has regen and my life sense shows her as not in danger."
"I can see this will be quite a story", Doc Otto says. "Finish, as in dead?"
"Very dead. Unless they can survive decapitation and in the case of Lycanthros, bisection too. Which I do not think so as he shows as an ex-furball on my life sense."
The Head says, "We'll be there shortly. Don't touch anything."
The next few minutes are a rush of activity as supers pour in, flying, or in tow by flyers. They brought a small army, and the Head herself leading it. Doc Tenent the mage teacher came along, and she tends to Donna, and confirms she's okay before pulling the knife-tang out with her hair. A few minutes later, we have Donna sitting on the sofa with a cup of cocoa, wrapped in a blanket, knife-wound already closed. And various flashes outside as pictures are taken of the scene.
I sip my own cocoa and snuggle against her. "Sorry for drawing trouble to you."
She shakes her head. "His choice. He must have calculated the minute you would be outside the school's protection."
"Still. It ruined the day. Stupid food got burned." I hadn't gone and checked on the oven until it started smelling funny.
"We'll make more food." She sighs. "And that's one problem we won't have again, I think?"
I nod. "I need to not talk about it until I've talked to a lawyer. But he isn't coming back. Not any more, not ever." Doc Otto has asked Jane Harper, their staff lawyer who has been following the ups and downs of my legal situation, to drive over as quick as she legally can. She's expected shortly.
Donna strokes my hair.
Cops arrive with much noise and blinkenlights, and want to take statements, but I tell them no comment until my lawyer arrives. Which she does a couple minutes later, barging in past all the room full of busy people, "Where's my client?" I give a wave. "Is she being detained?"
"No, ma'am, we just want a statement."
"If she is not being detained, will a written statement delivered tomorrow be sufficient?"
The cops look at each other. "Those guys she took out are A-class supervillains with rap sheets as long as your arm, and bounties on their heads. She's more likely to get a medal than a murder charge. Yeah, it will be sufficient."
"Then thank you, we are leaving."
The Head says, "Back to Whateley, I strongly suggest. Do you know the way?" Jane shakes her head.
Donna says, "I do", and that suits me very well, as I don't want to lose sight of her right now.
So we all head for Whateley, Donna navigating and me in the back feeling the adrenalin shakes catch up with me. As we drive, Jane grills me. What did I do, when and why. I tell her all of it, except I leave out the fact I chose to kill rather than demand a surrender. But she picks right up on that evasion. So I have to tell the truth. It was not acceptable for them to get away and carry with them knowledge of where Donna lived. I was in a fight, killing them was permissible, I took advantage.
She sighs. "That, we don't put on the statement. Because you've told me now, I can't lie about it in court if I'm asked directly, but I can step around it. Did you also kill them because you wanted to end the fight?"
"Yeah", I agree. "Dead is ended. I think I was a pretty good object lesson in how surrendered is not."
Jane chuckles grimly at that. "How did you get him? He was nowhere near you."
"He gave me a direct line, with his soul on the other end of it", I say. "He could have been on Mars, it wouldn't have been any further away."
Donna says, sounding tired, "When this gets to the ears of people who think, they're going to upgrade your danger level, you know that? Especially when they get the mage report on what you did. Absolute destruction of a soul."
"They're indestructible, the atomic bits", I say. "But yeah, I broke them all apart. Him and all his victims both. May they aggregate into nicer existences in due time."
The sun's setting as we make our way into Whateley. Nobody tried stopping us en route, which is good because I am not in the mood. I wanted to have a nice evening with Donna. Instead some yahoo and his rent-a-mob had to crash it in a fit of childish pique. There's nothing further I can do to him, he's gone, but I blow a mental raspberry at his memory. And I hope the other two pick up some manners in their other incarnations.
Donna has already called the place miss secret is staying, and asked them to make it an all night sleepover. And so when we get there, I thank Jane, and Donna and I both head into the school. She can stay in Sara's room, with the two of us to watch her, and let that be an end of shenanigans for the day.
I should be so lucky, right?
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