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Stuff and Nonsense

4 months 4 weeks ago - 4 months 11 hours ago #68362 by Mylian
Mylian created the topic: Stuff and Nonsense
Chapter 1: In Which A Step Is Taken

My cockpit shook as a squad-mate's mech launched past my right, my HUD tagging its pilot's callsign: “Gizmocrat”. She growled almost as loud as the dash jets that propelled her across the battlefield with her particle blade extended to tear through the left flank of a swarm of crawling drones trying to break into the underground facility below us.

A volley of chaingun fire from the shoulder of Ironyman's heavy tank-treaded mech swept the area Gizmocrat had come from. “G, you're supposed to be covering the west vent shaft!”

I thinned out the wave approaching the north vent with my own mech's plasma rifle as Giz protested, “I had it under control! This is a bug hunt, I'm hunting bugs!”

Pullyu came over the comms from his rear-gunner turret on the hoversled to the south. “Venting your frustrations on the battlefield?” Pushmi followed her brother up with “Is it those test results?”

Huge missile blasts from Gizmocrat's mech lit up the northeast sector. “Damn right it's the test results! Not only do I have no gadgeteer or devisor abilities, I have the absolute lamest power on the entire! Friggin! Planet!” The last few words were punctuated by shots from her grenade launcher.

I hacked away at the drones with my particle blade to conserve ammo and interjected. “You can't give us that much and leave us hanging. What's the lamest power?”

“I have a psychokinetic field that, as far as I can tell, does absolutely nothing but stop sound. It doesn't make me strong, it doesn't keep me from getting hurt, it just means I have the fantastic power to go deaf whenever I want!”

“Could be worse, at least you can turn it off,” I remarked, lobbing a few rockets into some drone clusters. “As for the other problem, you can still invent stuff the old-fashioned way. I mean, you're not dumb, you already have actual patents.”

“I still reserve the right to be pissed off at the universe for a while and take it out on these stupid things.”

“You'd better do it while you can, then,” commented Ironyman. “I think the waves are starting to thin out.”

And do it she did, proceeding to single-handedly clear out the entire west side until the “Mission Clear” message floated across our HUDs and the battlefield froze, then faded to the hangar. Our mission stats popped up, after repairs and ammo my share of the payout left me enough that I'd finally be able to upgrade my mech's legs. I asked,“Are we taking another mission, guys?”

“We're going to be logging off, we've got chores to do.” I wasn't sure which of the twins that was, it was hard to tell their voices apart without the HUD highlighting who was speaking. The other one added, “Chores on summer break should be illegal.”

“Hey, it's not the end of the world.”

“Nope, that's next year according to the Mayans.”

“Well, then, I'm going to log too, see you guys.”

I pulled up the menu and quit. The message “Logging out pilot: Vermilion” passed my eyes briefly as I removed the VR headset and slid my chair forward to put it on my desk. I leaned back and closed my eyes for a few seconds. VR tech had come a long way in recent years, but coming back to the real world was always a little disorienting.

It was only a few moments before Aunt Clair leaned in my open door. “Hey River, I'm going to the G-Mart for some stuff. Need anything?”

“Not that I can think of.”

“Alright. Hold down the fort while I'm gone.”

“No problem.”
* * *

My dad was out on a business trip, so Aunt Clair was in charge. I'd never been quite sure exactly what it was James Westley Million did for a living, he was an “independent contractor in private collections acquisition” and I figured it was something like negotiating the transfer of pieces of art between people with far too much money. Every few months he'd be out of town for a week or two doing whatever. As I usually did when he was gone, I went to the attic to look through the chest that was my mother's, trying to get to know a woman who'd died giving birth to me thirteen years ago. It's not like it was forbidden or taboo, it's just that every time the subject of my mom came up I could see it still hurt my dad after all these years.

I knew the contents well by now. There was some clothing, school uniforms, a box filled with jewelry, and various odds and ends, but the most important to me, the reason I kept coming back, was the books. Poetry, philosophy, fiction and non-fiction, it's clear to me that whatever traits I might have inherited from the former owner of this chest, a deep love of the printed word was one of them. What made these books especially valuable to me was that a great many of them contained highlighted passages and margin annotations. Every one of these was a little glimpse into the mind of the unknown woman that had contributed to half of me. Maybe a bit more than half, since my dad often tells me that I have too much of my mother in me. But that probably comes from reading all these books.

This visit to mother's trunk was very different from all the others, though it didn't start out that way. I brought some books back to switch them out, as usual. Not that I really needed to do it that way, if I wanted I could have put them all on my shelves, but I like only having a few out at a time. It keeps me from hurrying through them, forces me to digest them slowly. Then, as usual, since the books were always at the bottom I carefully moved the rest of the contents of the chest off of them. It was when I was looking through the books for ones I hadn't read in a while that I noticed it. A knot in the wood at the bottom of the trunk that I'd noticed before, but never really looked at. What I'd never noticed before was that it was worn smooth in the middle, unlike the wood around it. I reached in and touched it, and a ring in the knot moved, almost like a button. Half in disbelief and half in random inspiration, I pushed it down until it clicked and remained depressed.

Without hesitation, I quickly but carefully emptied the chest the rest of the way. When the bottom of the chest was clear, I looked more closely at it. It had to be a false floor, though looking at the outside I estimated that it was so close to the real bottom of the chest it couldn't hold anything more than paper. But if it was hidden like this, then it was important to my mother, in which case it was important to me. I reached in and tried moving it. It slid just a little to the left, and I could just see the edge of it now on the right where the hidden button was. Bingo.

Putting my finger in the recess of the depressed button, I could feel a slight underhang, just enough to grip with my finger and use as a handle to lift the floor up. And what I saw, I was completely unprepared for. There was a space in there as big as the rest of the chest, full of more stuff. Wooden boxes, cloth bags, and leather pouches all containing who knew what. An honest to goodness cauldron. And even more books, with titles like “Fundamentals of Magic” and “Powers Theory”. I tipped the whole chest back a little and saw the attic floor still underneath, so there wasn't a hidden space under there.

I considered the contents of the space for a bit and thought, Well, I came up here looking for new books, didn't I? I took the books off the top that looked the most interesting and saw a yearbook, but it looked like it came from a different publisher than the ones in the upper portion of the chest. I grabbed that too, and then I set about putting the chest back in order.

Back in the safety of my room, the first thing I looked at was the yearbook, and immediately saw why it was in the hidden compartment. Everybody was in superhero costumes! Obviously there was more to what I thought was just a fancy prep school that my parents went to. Instead of regular names like you'd see in an ordinary yearbook, every picture was labeled with a comic-booky alias. I immediately started flipping to find my mom's picture that I knew had to be there, and suddenly a folded slip of paper fell out from between the pages. A paper bearing one handwritten word on the outside. My name. River. I nearly tore it in my haste to open it. And then it took me several long minutes to digest the sentence inside.

Hey kiddo, the chest and everything in it are yours to do with as you will. ~Mom

The words bounced around my head for a bit before settling. What did it mean? Was it just a passive message-in-a-bottle sort of thing, or did my mother somehow know I was going to need this? Why would I need this message, that simply put in writing what was already pretty much status quo? And was it just my imagination or did I really feel some sort of faint jolt or twitch in my eyeballs when I first read it? I decided it was probably futile to try and stare answers out of an inanimate sheet of paper, so I turned back to the odd yearbook. Sure enough, the note had been slipped in where Mom's picture was, and I almost laughed. There she was in a pink sundress, pink-and-white striped stockings with pink slippers, straight pink hair falling from under a light sun hat, white gloves, and a white sequined carnivale half-mask. She was holding a green apple. And her picture, instead of being labeled “Sylvian Bruno” as in the normal yearbooks, bore the name “Harmliss”.

What kept me from laughing was that the brilliance of it immediately hit me. Naming yourself “Harmliss” and wearing that costume is making a clear statement, the same statement that bees and wasps make with their caution-tape colors or poison dart frogs make with their bright blue bodies. With an image like that, you claim a specific place in the social hierarchy, not significant enough to bother with on the one hand, and on the other hand just dangerous enough to not bother with. That look and that name were no accident, no, they were a clever piece of intentional social camouflage, and most people would have no idea they were being gamed.

For not nearly the first time in my life, I wished I could have talked to her directly instead of only knowing her secondhand through her belongings and scattered margin notes. But, for the first time, it was joined by a following thought.

Maybe... Maybe I really can?

And with this thought, the world changed subtly. Or the way I saw it changed. An incredible sort of focus lined up the pieces together and connected the dots between them. Each one a discrete item in my awareness, and a conceptual web strung between them all that formed a whole.

My mother owned magic paraphernalia, presumably she practiced it.

If she could, the possibility existed that I also could.

I now owned her magical resources, plus the textbooks needed to figure out if I could do so.

In this new-found clarity, there was no need to hesitate, so I immediately began studying the books I'd brought down. If I'd taken any notice of the time I might have been surprised to find out I was reading a bit faster than I ever did before. More likely I wouldn't have been surprised, it would simply have become another point of data in this rapidly growing structure of data needed to exercise this goal. Examined, cataloged, cross-referenced, and ranked by pertinence to the goal.

The next several days ran together, and I worked steadily, appearing intermittently at meals to keep Clair from getting concerned and possibly interfering with the goal. I did exercises from the book and had successes which the book diagnosed as Wizard-2 level power. Another point of data.

I read the powers theory book for more information on such. Reading the descriptions of other powers, I tentatively noted that my current fugue state seemed to be similar to those said to be experienced by Devisers and Gadgeteers, but Wizard powers were allegedly rarely found in combination with those. Another point of data.

Returning to the text on magic, each new fundamental principle and law was logged in my incredible filing system and weighed in its importance to the goal. The principles behind what I intended to do seemed pretty straightforward. It's not like I was trying to call up some ancient god or chaos spirit, right? I only needed communication, not a full summoning, binding, or incorporation, and I had plenty of connections to the one I wanted to contact. I had a connection of blood as her son, I had a connection of her image in the yearbook, and I had a connection in her written word from the message she left. And then I needed a medium or focus. I didn't have a ouija board handy, but theoretically, I could use a number of things. In a flash of bizarre inspiration risen from free-associating cross-references, I settled on my cellphone as a symbolic communication channel.

Two days before my dad's return, I was done with my preparations. After another trip to the chest, I had all of the spell elements, I had the circle plotted out and ready to chalk, I could begin at any time. I also began thinking normally again, and suddenly a lot of little warnings that I had put at the bottom of the brain file as not advancing the goal started popping back up. I suddenly realized the number of variables I was screwing around with, and that maybe it'd be best to wait a bit before going through with it. At the very least, until dad got back. No offense to Aunt Clair, but for the kind of shit I was about to let fly in the general direction of the fan, Dad would be needed if it hit. See, I'd suspected for quite a while now that my dad had some kind of superpowers. Nothing I could pin down specifically, but in general he was way too good at doing things all the time.

So I waited the two days for him to get home, and even gave him two days to get settled in before I pushed my bed aside and copied the diagram onto the floor. I put my drop of blood, the photo of her from a yearbook, and her note in their places in the diagram. I lit the candles at the points of the circle, sat in the middle, and prepared to begin the incantation. But before I could, the phone rang.

So I picked it up and answered it.

Opening the phone and putting it to my ear was the last thing I remembered. I didn't even get as far as “hello”, just out like a light. And then after who knows how long, I found myself drifting in a quiet place. The threat of sensory overload raged beyond it, like the sound of a storm outside the walls of a safe home.

As I retraced my steps and reoriented myself, I slowly became aware of a presence here in the eye of the storm. A warm, comforting, enveloping presence, that held me for a moment. Then, it seemed to move “behind” me in my dreamlike bodyless state.

A phrase entered my awareness. Sink or swim time, dear.

And then I was thrust into the maelstrom.

* * *

“There's unquestionably brain activity here but I've never seen anything like it before. It's not random, there is a pattern, but it's also nonlinear. It's jumping from zone to zone in his brain without passing through intermediate areas. And we've got physical changes beginning to occur as well, his skin is losing color and definition and the hair on his body is falling out.”

“What the hell does all that mean? I just want to know if he's going to be okay!”

“I don't know yet, James. But I promise you, I will do all I can.”
Last Edit: 4 months 11 hours ago by Mylian. Reason: Typo
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4 months 4 weeks ago #68373 by Mylian
Mylian replied the topic: Stuff and Nonsense
Chapter 2: Down With Habit Roles

I was in a semiotic hurricane. Concepts and sensations, unidentifiable bits of idea, sight, sound, vague recollection, hit me from all sides like physical things. Just thinking took incredible effort, like trying to compose a sonnet in a typhoon. Not that I'd talked to many former coma patients, but I was pretty damn sure a coma had never been described like this. I was also starting to suspect that whatever this “place” was, being in it like this for too long could do more than just hurt. Not really being keen on being destroyed here, I grabbed on to a peculiarly purplish shade of E flat tumbling along with me and tried to keep it between me and most of the worst impacts.

As I tried, with not as much success as I'd have liked, to avoid getting non-corporeally beaten, battered, bruised and broken, I began to notice an almost imperceptibly subtle rhythm and flow in the the chaos around me, moving everything and moving me as well. Seeing this, I let go of my ersatz life raft and began moving through the vortex untouched. Not effortlessly, but I was managing it.

And then gradually my perceptions began to shift again. I saw the flowing, looping, irregular path I was taking through the debris in a kind of double vision, both as the crazy acrobatic gyration and also as a perfectly straight corridor at the same time. Simultaneously, I was both bodylessly dodging abstract concepts in a maelstrom of impressions and walking down what was clearly becoming a hallway. Like the familiar kind of optical illusion, I found that I could see it either way with just a shift of focus.

I moved completely into hallway frame of reference, aware that I was still somehow also hurtling in a vortex of chaos in some sense. I also, in this frame, seemed to have a body. My normal body, wearing the jeans, t-shirt, and sneakers I had put on this morning. Was it still that same day? Did the question even have any meaning here? I couldn't explore that train of thought, because I was interrupted by a voice from behind me.

“It,” the gravelly yet cultured voice enunciated, “is about fricking time.”

* * *

“How can this even be happening? You checked him years ago and he didn't have the mutant genes.”

“And he still doesn't. His total loss of hair and nails, the graying of his skin, and the loss of height and body mass have nothing to do with anything triggered by an active meta-gene. I can only surmise that it is magical in nature given the obvious evidence of a working around him, but without an active Wizard trait he shouldn't have been able to do anything that would result in such a drastic change. On the other hand, what limited magical diagnostic tools I have find no evidence of a persistent curse or spell still upon him.”

* * *

“Is it really? I've never fricked time before, do I get to cross that one off my bucket list?” I replied as I turned to the speaker.

Standing behind me was a little brown man. Not a person of African descent suffering from dwarfism. No, this was a perfectly proportioned man of indeterminate race, who happened to be two-and-a-half-feet tall and pretty much uniformly milk chocolate brown, save the whites of his eyes. His skin was brown, his slicked back hair was brown, his irises and pupils were brown. The thin, waxed handlebar mustache that would have made Dali sick with envy, that stuck out well over a foot from each side of his upper lip, was brown. All the pieces of his impeccably tailored suit, his dress loafers, gloves, shirt, tie, slacks, suit jacket with tails (honestly, who wears tails these days?), were brown. And the unlit cigar held between his teeth, you could probably guess, was brown.

He looked at me as if he were unimpressed, and continued. “If you're quite done screwing around, I have a delivery for you.”

I looked over his suit and asked him, “Is your van brown too?”

“You know, you think you're funny. But you are, in fact, hardly the first to make that particular inference.” He held out a clipboard and pen. Both brown, of course. “Where do you think they got the idea? Sign, please.”

I took the board from him. The paper, thankfully, was a readable light tan. “I'm not signing anything I haven't read.”

“Suit yourself.”

The paper was incredibly simple. A bare-bones delivery invoice and receipt. The only odd thing about it was that the item delivered was described as One (1) Odyssey-class Adventure.

“What, exactly, is an Odyssey-class Adventure?”

Exactly what it says on the tin. Are you going to sign for it? I don't have all b'ak'tun to wait around here.”

I considered for a second, shrugged, and signed, then handed back the clipboard.

“Great job, kid. Keep it up and you'll be a signature professional. And now that we've got that over with, I have a message for you.”

He held out an envelope with my name on it, in a familiar hand. I'd seen it before scrawled in margins, and again several days ago on a slip of paper. I tore it open, and found a card inside with a single word on it. Duck!

I actually ducked down a bit and looked around me. But the only thing that happened was the brown man complimenting me on my reflexes.

I rolled my eyes and and asked, “Okay, when am I supposed to get this 'Adventure'?”

“Don't ask me, I'm just the messenger. You signed, it's your problem now. You figure it out.” He turned around and started walking away, fading as he did so. “You must take after your father, you're not nearly as sharp as your mother.”

“Wait, what?” I ran after him, but he was gone. “Come back here! Tell me about my mom!”

I hesitated just long enough to confirm that there was no reply coming, and kept on running.

* * *

The hunter was quite certain that the creature standing before it was not any kind of spirit guide it had ever heard of. It resembled nothing in any of the legends of the people of the two lakes. It was barely half the height of an adult, with a pair of antennae sprouting to the sides of its face. Its eyes had round irises and pupils, like an animal's. It appeared to have only one lower jaw, which it was using to hold a paper cylinder. It appeared to have some odd sort of slick fibrous carapace on its head, and was wearing covering garments that would entirely inhibit any sort of meaningful communication if it didn't seem that the creature was mute. Its skin being one constant neutral color, it didn't appear to be able to speak a single hue or shade.

Thankfully, the creature was literate, holding up a sign in perfectly legible monochrome shorthand, that read “follow, please”. The hunter followed the creature through the oddly rectangular doorway behind it.

* * *

I sighed with my head in my hands, sitting with my back against a wall. Who knows how long I'd been running before I gave up. What was I even doing here? Was I trying to contact Mom, or was I trying to find my way out? I groaned as I let my hands drop to my sides.

And then I looked down, because my right hand felt wet. There was a little bit of water leaking out from under the door next to me. Curious, I got up and looked at the door. I went to open it, but there wasn't a knob. What was there instead quacked and tried to bite me.

“Duck. Very funny, Mom...”

I was now certain I had to open this door, but not at all certain of how to go about opening a door with an angry duck's head for a knob.

After a bit of consideration, I sat back down and untied one of my shoes. And then I removed the lace. I put a slipknot in the end, and tried my hand at duck fishing.

There's more of an art to catching a duck's beak in a dangling makeshift lasso than one might think at first. You've got to kind of entice them into it. Admittedly, the only experience I've had in the sport is with one restrained by the neck (or the equivalent thereof), but perhaps putting them in a box with their head sticking out of a hole might actually make for a level playing field. I might suggest that dealing with an angry duck as I did could make things more difficult, but on the other hand waterfowl in general were not endowed by nature with much of a sense of humor, so I assume that one would be hard-pressed to find a duck that wasn't angry after you'd stuck it in a box with its head poking out and harassed it with a dangling string.

Eventually, I successfully snagged the darned thing's lower beak. (Alas, for my dreams of professional duck rodeo, entirely by accident.) Then I made a wide knot around the whole beak and tugged it taut, tying the beak closed. I wound the excess around the beak and tucked the end neatly under a loop. Now that I had it wrapped up, I tried turning it like a doorknob, and it worked. It rotated with a satisfyingly mechanical click.

I didn't get much time to enjoy success, though, as the door was swept open by the wall of water behind it, which cascaded forth and shoved me hard against the opposite wall. I was disoriented by the impact, and could not have fought the force of the water if I wasn't. It swept me upward toward the ceiling, which in my dizziness I didn't notice as somehow not being there or not impeding my passage. At any rate, as I was swept upward the wave carrying me slowed, and I regained my bearings in peaceful water. Endless peaceful water. The hallway was nowhere below me, or I should say around me because I was not at all sure which way “below” was. The water in all directions was uniformly lit, so there were no visual cues to follow, and there seemed to be no sensation of gravity to give me a clue either. Even the fish I could see from where I was couldn't seem to come to consensus as to an up or a down, swimming in a given direction without bothering to change their vertical orientation.

There was also the problem that I could not, in fact, breathe in this strange underwater setting, and could not hold my breath forever. With a supreme effort, I forced myself not to panic, which would just waste what oxygen I had left in my system. This was made especially difficult by the growing certainty that I wasn't alone here. Some sort of sense beyond sight or sound was telling me there was something out there somewhere besides the squid and fish.

And that something was hunting me.

I looked around for any kind of escape route at all, but there was nothing. Just open water as far as I could see. No sign of the surface, if there even was one, and nowhere to go. I was getting short of breath now, and something out there was hunting me, circling, waiting for its moment.

There is a state of mind one achieves when one has no recourse, and surrenders utterly to fate. If you've been there, I have no need to describe it to you. If you haven't, I'd never be able to. In that moment, you lose yourself, and become more utterly yourself than you have ever been before. The pain in my lungs, and the fear in my mind, became what they always were. Actors on a stage, for an audience of me. I watched them perform their drama without comment, and also “watched” the intangible hunter as I felt its casual approach.

The world began to grow quiet, dark, and distant as I observed myself starting to drown. And then I was struck. The hunter took me, passed around me and through me, and we were folded into each other.

* * *

“Wait a minute, you're saying his changes are getting worse and that's supposed to be a good thing?”

“Imagine the body is like a flexible clay sculpture. You start smoothing out the details, that's a loss of information. If you keep doing that long enough, eventually you're left with a featureless ball. Up until this point here, that was the nature of the changes. Your son was losing definition. But now his changes, though accelerating, appear to be adding features. Instead of simply degrading, River's form is now becoming something.”

“I have to say, doc, the word 'something' there is far from reassuring.”

“It's better than an homogeneous mass of protoplasm.”

* * *

I was caught between the remains of my state of serenity and the realization that oblivion was no longer looming. Whatever it was that had been stalking me was gone. I was still holding my breath, but it wasn't such a pressing need anymore. I felt like I could keep holding it for awhile. More than that, I felt fantastic. I could feel the life around me, fish, squid, jellyfish. And for some reason, I wanted one. After discarding a shoe to match the untied one, which must have been swept away by the torrent some time ago, I circled a likely school of vertically-confused fish with incredible ease. Just moving through the water was a joy, as I somehow knew exactly how to move to propel myself. And again, with ease, I swept by, grabbing a straggler.

Without even thinking, I just bit into it. It didn't taste like fish at all, it tasted more like pork, if anything. And then I wondered what exactly the hell I was doing. Gnawing on a raw fish is not a normal thing to do, as far as I could remember. Was it? I was hit by a momentary wave of confusion so intense it gripped my head like a vise. My heartbeat pounded in my ears. But as it passed, I could still feel my heartbeat pulsing. No... this was something else. The faint pulsing was in the water around me. I instinctively spread my arms wide, feeling the currents. And then I had it. A direction. I was off like a shot, eager to find something other than empty water and fish.

Gradually, a little dark speck came into view. As I drew nearer and nearer to it, I noticed that more often I was seeing the bellies of the fish in the schools I passed. If that meant they were becoming more oriented, then was I traveling upward?

The pulsing in the water was growing too, into a repetitive booming sound that I could barely tell was coming from the direction of the roughly almond-shaped object ahead of me. Finally, I could see what it was. The underside of a ship. I was approaching the surface. A good thing too, because I was very slowly starting to feel the shortage of oxygen again.

The sound was growing almost painful, and I could now see what was causing it. From the muzzle flashes, cannons on the ship were firing in sequence, in perfectly timed rhythm.

I finally breached the surface in daylight, taking grateful gulps of air before swimming toward the ship. I reached out and touched its hull. The moment my fingers touched the barnacled wood, the cannons ceased firing.

The anchor was trailing in the water nearby, so I went to it and began cautiously and quietly to climb the chain. At the top, I looked over the deck, and there was nobody. I boarded and looked around, very quickly finding that the ship was empty. No people, no things. No crew or cargo. Empty. I couldn't even find the cannons that had been firing earlier, no shot, no powder.

Figuring I was alone, and getting uncomfortable in wet clothes, I stripped and laid them out on the deck to dry in the sun. And then I leaned over the side to look at the depths I'd just come up from. I wondered if I'd have to go back down there to return... where? Return to consciousness? Return home? I finally had a moment to think about my situation, but no way to figure out exactly what that situation was.

“This has to be just a dream!”, I yelled to the uncaring sea.

Just a dream, he says,” came a particularly brown voice from behind me. “If you had the slightest idea what dreaming really is, you'd quickly find that particular figure of speech useless.”

“So this is a dream?” I didn't bother to face him, but he joined me at the side anyway and peered out between the railing supports. I also didn't bother getting bent out of shape about some weird little supernatural guy seeing my bare ass. He barged in on me, he could damn well deal with it.

“Not the kind you've ever had before.”

“Then what changed?”

“You were touched by the hand of Our Lady.”

“Who's your lady and why me?”

Our Lady of Divine Confusion, and why not?”

I was beginning to suspect that I was getting the mushroom treatment. Being kept in the dark and fed bullshit. “So this is the kind of story where some hapless schmuck becomes a pawn for some invisible higher power and never knows the real plan until it's too late.”

“Close, but there's no plan. This game is yours to play.”

I looked out over the sea for a good long while, digesting this. Then I looked at him and asked, “Why don't you have that lit? Saving it for something?”

He chuckled and replied, “It's not lit because you're not remotely prepared for the second-hand buzz this would give you. She'd never forgive me if I messed you up.” With that, he turned to me, winked, and vanished.

Great, there went any hope I had of some exposition. And I didn't even get to ask about Mom. I tried to kick-start the weird “figure-stuff-out” mode I'd been in before, without much hope, and with zero success. The last time it happened seemed to be in response to trying to solve a very specific problem. “What the hell do I do now?” is probably as nonspecific as problems get.

I surveyed my situation. I was alone on a ship with no supplies of any kind in the middle of nowhere. No particular destination, and no idea how to sail this darn thing if I had one. And judging by the drooping sails, even if I had a direction, and the slightest clue how to make this tub go in said direction, there would be nothing to push it any direction anyway. Not a bit of wind to be had.

Hold on, there was a slight breeze after all. Not enough to push a ship, but I could feel it. And smell it. There was the barest hint of a floral scent. And flowers had to mean land, didn't they? Did I want to find land? Had to be better than sitting on this pile of planks. I did that trick where you wet your finger in your mouth and hold it up to tell the direction of a faint breeze, and it worked. Score one for trying something you saw on TV. I dove into the water and started swimming into that breeze, not bothering with my clothes. They'd just get wet again, and slow me down. I could swim faster below the surface, and I didn't have to get air all the time. If I'd had a watch I would have timed myself, but as it was I ended up surfacing to check my direction long before I ever felt the need for air. So I made steady time in the direction of what I hoped was land.

* * *

After engaging in that strange task, the hunter rejoined the odd neutrally-colored creature and was finally led to someone recognizable, the walking one, great ancestor of its clan, who made a permanent sacrifice of wing bones to dispel a curse on the clan, so they could never grow back. The hunter of the two lakes people bowed respectfully to the walking one. The walking one bowed in return, then held its hand out to the odd guide. The guide placed coinage into the hand, and then in a strange gesture the walking one and the guide each made a fist, which they both touched together. And then the guide vanished, before the walking one beckoned the hunter onward.

* * *

I looked behind me as I walked onto the sandy shore. Somewhere along the way, my stalker had returned. It hadn't gained on me, it felt like I was being followed this time, not hunted. Still, after what happened last time—I still wasn't sure what happened last time—I wanted to keep my distance.

Ahead of me was a vast grove of some sort of fruit tree. There didn't seem to be any wild growth around, just these trees, obviously cultivated in rows, that were giving off the floral smell I'd been following. The fruits were angular, with icosahedral seams, and their black skin was hard to look at. It seemed like I could see into them, and my eyes didn't really want to stay pointed at whatever they found there. I definitely had zero desire to sample one of them. Or even walk through the grove. But if I didn't want whatever it was to catch up with me, I didn't have much of a choice. I set off through the trees, not looking to my left or right at the fruit.

As I made my way between the rows, the terrain began to incline. I could also somehow tell that my follower was gaining now. I couldn't tell as clearly as I could when I'd been in the water, but I still knew it was out there and getting closer. And I could now hear rustlings in the trees in the distance. It knew I knew, and didn't care. From the sounds, it seemed like it was flanking me wide to my right.

I stopped walking for a second. And then the rustling stopped too. I walked on, and the distant rustling continued.

Up ahead, it seemed like the trees stopped near the top of a ridge. As I left the tree line and cleared the ridge (and the rustling stopped again), I saw that it ringed a massive stadium-sized crater. The dirt of its surface was packed unnaturally smooth and perfectly hemispherical. I stepped to the edge and started to lean forward to look over it, and knocked my head against something hard. Grumbling incoherent not-quite-profanity, I grabbed my skull and waited for the pain to pass.

I reached out and felt a wall in front of me. Apparently this wasn't an empty crater. It was the resting place of something that was huge, smooth, and spherical. And also completely invisible.

While I was investigating, my stalker suddenly began advancing steadily on me. There was no sound of trees rustling, it was beyond the tree line. I just knew somehow it was getting closer. I hurried to the left along the edge of the “crater” to keep my distance, with one hand feeling along the object, just in case there was an escape that way. I suddenly realized, a bit too late, that it hadn't been following me, or chasing me. No, whatever it was, it was herding me.

Fine. I'd been playing the game this long, might as well see it to the end. I continued along the side of the object, and as long as I was moving my stalker was maintaining its distance. I must have made it about a mile and a half before my hand found a seam in the object. I hadn't been expecting it to disappear, though. I could feel the sides of the crack, and it was wide enough for me to fit through if I went sideways. I just couldn't see the hand that was doing the feeling. Everything beyond the perimeter of the crater, from my wrist forward, was invisible. I pulled my hand away, and it was fine, so I reached in further, watching my arm slowly disappear.

My stalker chose that moment to start coming at me much faster. I could see a shadow on the ground and a blur in the air above it, much closer than I felt comfortable with and getting closer in a hurry. I braced myself, and slid into the crack.

And then I fell. Downward? No. Sideways. Or more precisely, outward in all directions.
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4 months 3 weeks ago - 3 months 6 days ago #68431 by Mylian
Mylian replied the topic: Stuff and Nonsense
(CONTENT WARNING: Description of alien reproductive organs near the end.)

Chapter 3: TMI

I became aware of my body and immediately regretted it. Information overload was the immediate and total condition of my being. My sense of touch was giving me too much data. The feel of sheets against my skin was nothing I'd ever experienced before. I could feel the weave of the individual threads, if you gave me a minute I could probably tell you the thread count. I could feel imperfections in individual threads. And it wasn't just feeling it, somehow I could also hear the texture at the same time. Synesthesia? Or just the way things are now? On top of that, there was a kind of uneven buzzing surrounding me that I was neither hearing or feeling or connecting to any sense I was familiar with. It just was.

I drifted for a bit, trying to get used to this sensory input, since it didn't seem to be going away. It was actually starting to feel less odd, so I took a chance and opened my eyes.

I recognized the ceiling and the apparatus on it. I was in Gena “Gizmocrat” Obertek's dad's airship clinic. But nothing was quite right. For one, it was way too big. The ceiling was too high, and the full-body scanner on it was immense. Maybe they ran out of regular sized rooms?

Then, more importantly, there were too many colors. The ceiling tiles were all white, but as the light changed across them there were more kinds of white in those subtle gradients than I had names for. Likewise, the blue trim on the white plastic on the sides of the scanner held more shades than I ever thought existed, all of them blue. I wondered if this was yet another dream. Even my mouth was proving too complex to handle, as I muttered something that came out sounding like “tud up a pish” instead of the profanity I had actually chosen.

“Watch your language there buddy!”

I laughed, turning to a voice I was glad to hear. “'Ey Deeda- oh gwap...” Way to go, Riv. Pronounce your best friend's name wrong why don't ya? And now I could see why the room was so big. She was big too, so either the whole world had grown, or I'd just shrunk. She glowed, in a blotchy pattern that I guessed from my exposure to a healthy amount of sci-fi movies was probably infrared. I also noticed a very faint buzz around her, less harsh and more like a hum, almost drowned out by the brighter one I first noticed. Once I realized they had locations, I figured out the more extreme one was coming from above me. It was the scanner devise, but still being kind of unfocused I had no clue what it could be related to both her and the machine I could be sensing.

Gena smiled reassuringly at my embarrassment. “Don't worry about it. As much as you changed, yer lucky you can talk at all. You'll probably adjust after a while and learn to talk just fine again. Still, don't take this the wrong way, you look really cool now and all but I hope you don't mind if I count myself lucky that I didn't get anything like that when I manifested.”

Ladies and gentlemen, the Queen of Tact. Still, I preferred that to somebody dancing awkwardly around the apparent fact that the scope of my current situation far exceeded “Small Problem”. I pulled my arms from under the sheets to look at them, which was easier said than done because it felt like they were a mile long. Judging by the sleeves of the medical gown I was wearing, they probably weren't that much longer in total than they were before, but due to my change in overall size they came down almost to where it looked like my knees were under the sheets. My upper arms didn't feel too long, but my forearms were much longer in proportion, even extending to protrude a few inches beyond the elbow from what I could feel inside these sleeves. And the hands that capped off those arms were definitely not human.

They had four fingers, two main fingers flanked by a pair of opposable ones. They were smaller in the palm and longer in the finger than they used to be. Flexing them, they had one less joint, it felt like the joint closest to each fingertip had fused, and looked like it had just up and disappeared. My thumbs, on the other hand, had an extra joint. My fingers seemed to thicken just slightly at the closest remaining knuckle to the end, and from that narrowed to a point tipped with a little dark gray claw. And the skin on these hands and arms was a pale gray. But with my attention on them, the skin on my hands flushed to the peachy tone I remembered before fading back. Weird.

I looked over and tried asking, “Whezh da'?”.

“Your dad? He's out cold. Dad had to sedate him, he hasn't slept since he got you here three days ago.” He wouldn't have gotten me all the way up here, of course. He would have driven me to the clinic's nearest office front, and they'd have used one of the Doctor's teleporting devises to bring me here.

I reached up to feel my face, which again was made more awkward by my forearm proportions. I had to tilt my head back a bit to bring it to my hands. My facial features seemed to be kind of smoothed out a little. I didn't have a nose anymore, just a bit of a bump in that part of my face with some diagonal nostrils near the bottom of it. My lower jaw seemed to have been divided down the middle, with each side moving independently. That made the whole speaking difficulties thing a lot clearer, and I worked them around getting a feel for how to manage them.

I asked Gena how I looked, honestly, and I'll save anyone from having to decipher a large amount of my slurred dialect by saying that getting acquainted with my new mouth helped, but I was still getting the hang of it.

“Honestly? You look like Casper the Friendly Xenomorph.”

I tried to picture that and got the most bizarre feeling, as if I should have déjà vu but for some reason wasn't getting it. I didn't have long to examine this sensation, because at that moment there was a quick knock at the door, and Gena's dad came in.

Doctor Obertek is your basic physician in business casual, well-trimmed brown goatee, he doesn't even usually wear a lab coat. The only unusual element of his appearance is the metal dingus on his head. The three-pronged chrome circlet extending from his forehead over his temples and the crown of his head is grafted to his skull. It's his personal “cure” for the stereotypical “mad scientist” disorder, Diedrick's Syndrome, which caused him to do something in the past that left him with not quite the best relation with the authorities in the US. It pumps a powerful sedative into his brain whenever it detects an episode. Basically, he's chosen to trade Diedrick's for narcolepsy, a “treatment” popularized several years ago. And when he walked in I felt that very faint hum in him too now that I knew to look for it. Around his circlet it got an edge of that harsher buzz, though not nearly as strong as the machine on the ceiling.

Before the Doc could say anything, his daughter interrupted him. “Oh no, I've seen that look before, I don't care how interesting those scans are, River's a patient, not a test subject.”

“Don't worry, dear, I assure you that I have no exceptionally invasive tests planned whatsoever. But speaking of said scans, River, I have some rather personal medical things to discuss. Perhaps Gena should leave the room...?”

I shook my head no. Judging by the slightly guilty look that crossed her face just then, she'd probably already looked at the data, and even if she hadn't, having her here would save me having to explain it right after her dad left anyway.

He nodded and looked down to a tablet he was carrying. “To begin with, the changes you are experiencing appear to be slowing to some sort of end point. Your brain is still changing slightly, but your body in general seems to have reached a point of stability. Your internal anatomy and biochemistry has altered so drastically that I would classify yours as a “Very Severe” level of Gross Structural Dystrophy. To put it bluntly, I can barely identify any terrestrial DNA in you, let alone human DNA. Such an extreme change puts you as a patient and I as a physician in a bit of a situation. I'm supposed to be helping you become healthy, but I currently have no idea what healthy is for you. This is not uncommon for those who have experienced such changes, of course, every case is unique, but yours is so particularly extreme that we're going to have to proceed cautiously.”

“What dear Daddy is saying is that you'd better be ready to be poked and prodded, 'cuz you're going to be here for a while.”

“Ahem, yes. We can't treat you until we know more about your body. As it is, well, I can't even identify your sex for certain.”

I blinked, but Gena looked like she'd known it was coming. She'd snuck a look at the data alright.

The Doc continued, “Anatomically, you seem to have structures that could be of either sex, and a few organs I can't identify the purpose of yet. Genetically, you have neither X or Y chromosomes, but what are more like 'W' or 'M' chromosomes. You are a complete mystery, and while the ceiling scanner above you tells us quite a bit, it has its limits. So later today we will begin with a full physical examination, but before that I think you should try to eat something. We'll start with some very basic nutrients that shouldn't harm you until we know more about your digestive system, I'll have some things brought in shortly. Before that, however, can you tell me what this is?”

He showed me a little plastic container that held what looked to be an inch-wide glass marble with something that had thin glittery branches suspended in it. I shook my head, I'd never seen it before.

“When you were brought in, this was in your right hand. Embedded in your right hand, which was... twisted around it.”

The only thing I had in my right hand at the time was my phone. I shrugged.

“Well, there will be plenty of time to figure this mystery out later, I just asked in case you could give us a quick head start. For now, though, Gena, I think we should give our patient some quiet rest.”

In a bit of a daze, I had no response as they left, still processing this new information. But before too long a conclusion floated to the top of the static. I had to see what I looked like. According to stories I would hear later from other transformees, this was not an uncommon reaction, and thinking about it later it was probably why the normally wordy Doc was so quick to give me some privacy.

I managed to clumsily cast aside the thin hospital coverings, which didn't reveal anything. I was still covered by the hospital gown. And in that moment, I was suddenly filled with a claustrophobic loathing for this garment, as if it were a gag and blindfold. I tore at it, shredding and tearing it away from me. Apparently, those little claws were only the tips of larger claws with retractable sleeves. With the skin pulled back from them, they looked much more dangerous. But this was far less compelling than what had been revealed by my momentary fury.

My legs were even less human than my arms. They weren't lengthened like my arms were, but the shape of them looked more appropriate for a dinosaur than what I thought I should be seeing there. When I got around to walking again, I'd be doing it on my toes. Just two large toes on each... should I even call them feet anymore? They seemed almost to spring directly from what used to be my ankle. I supposed it was as good a word as any. And coiled neatly beside them, probably done by some nurse, was an exceedingly long tail split into two tips. Both ended in a small claw, sheathed like the ones on my fingers. I could tell that it had to be longer than I was tall.

I was starting to get giddy and a little light-headed at the surreality of it all. This wasn't some funky dream. This was the real deal. Just like on that show Tales of the MCO, I'd turned into a bizarre monster, though the producers of Tales could only dream of having the budget to make something that looked like me. Forget TV, I could be the next big movie monster if Hollywood's special effects and makeup guilds didn't have an unwritten ban on actual metahumans. No need for someone's expertise in creating and applying facial prosthetics or giving millions to a company for CGI wizardry if they let people like me into the biz. Suddenly, a mirror was my highest priority.

Of course, on television it's so simple, anyone who wakes up in a monstrous new body is perfectly ready to immediately take it on a violent rampage. Most of the time, it doesn't work out like that in real life. I was actually ahead of the average in that I had enough motor control to sort of talk and manipulate my limbs with some semblance of intention, but walking across a room? That requires another level of coordination entirely.

I managed to roll myself onto the floor, and now that I was beyond the influence of the scanner's buzzing feeling, I could feel it in the walls in linear patterns. I realized that I was picking up electromagnetic fields. Electricity moving through the wiring in the walls and the appliances in the room. Had I been sensing Gena and her dad's bioelectric fields? File it for later.

I then contemplated my next step. Crawling would probably be the easiest to manage, so I struggled up onto my hands and knees. I hesitated there unsteadily until I tried to move, at which point I collapsed.

Trying to get back up, I discovered something odd. I was sticking to the floor. There was a sensation of tension in my skin where it touched the floor. And then I relaxed and it went away. But this was progress. If I could figure out how to do it on purpose... there. I didn't have to worry about the whole issue of balance now, I just sort of shuffled and pulled myself across the floor toward the bathroom.

The moment of truth. The bathroom doors in these rooms opened outward, had full-length mirrors on them, and were always left open. All I had to do was shimmy up a little more, and I'd see myself. And now I was having doubts. After a long moment, I figured I'd better do it quickly before I lost my nerve. I covered those final few feet and turned to look.

The eyes were the first thing that struck me. There were five of them, a pair where you'd normally find them and a smaller trio above those. One vertical in the traditional “third eye” position, and the last two diagonal, slightly wider apart than my regular eyes and slightly higher than the one in the middle. And that wasn't even the weirdest thing about them. The irises on every one were oval, stretched out horizontally, and the pupils were like stretched asterisks, with one longer horizontal bar crossed by two shorter ones. My face in general wasn't featureless, but rounded roughly where a nose would have been. Casper the Friendly Xenomorph indeed, my cranium wasn't bulbous like that cartoon character's but I could see Gena's comparison in the face. No hair of any kind anywhere, no ears or ear canals. I looked at my dark gray teeth, instead of incisors I had beak-like plates, one larger one on the top jaw and a smaller one on the tip of each lower jaw. These were flanked by the sharp canines of a meat eater, but I had molars back there so I figured I was still probably reasonably omnivorous.

I managed to pull myself up to a seated position and considered the whole image. Taken as a whole, I didn't think I looked malformed at all. I looked like something that was the way it was supposed to be. I saw the image in the mirror two ways at once. The first was an ordinary room with an unusual creature in it. But at the same time it also looked like a perfectly familiar me in a wildly unfamiliar environment.

The stress of all this finally began to overtake me, and I slumped against the wall, exhausted. I must have fallen asleep, then, having no current driving concerns left to keep me going. Some time later I became vaguely aware of being picked up and moved to the bed.

* * *

Judging by the light in the room it wasn't too much later when I woke back up, and I could tell before I opened my eyes that there was someone in the room by the humming sensation off to my left. Sure enough, my dad was sitting where Gena was earlier. He was very unshaven and looked liked the past few days had hit him hard. He looked up when he noticed me moving.

“Hey. The Doc said you should try to eat some of this stuff when you wake up, but between you and me, he's no chef.”

He wheeled a bed table over and I could see his point. The bowl on the tray in front of me contained colorless, translucent, gelatin-like cubes.

“Apparently they're synthesized basic proteins. Yum.”

My first instinct was to use my claws to eat these things, but I realized I needed practice with the whole manual dexterity thing. I grabbed at the plastic spork and attempted to scoop a cube up. Clumsy as I was, it was still less of a challenge than lassoing a duck. As I sampled the cuisine, dad pulled the chair closer.

“You scared the hell out of us, Riv. There were mystical symbols scorched into the floor of your room. Half the windows in the second floor blew out. What were you trying to do in there?”

“Tryna tog to Mom.”

That quieted him for a bit. He leaned back in the chair, and rubbed his face with the heel of his hand. I considered the gelatinous cubes, and decided they really didn't taste like much of anything at all.

“Don't suppose I can blame you for that. Tried to do the same myself, at first, asked all of her magically-inclined friends if they could do it. There were only a couple willing to try, but after doing some planning they changed their minds, got all mysterious about it and wouldn't say any more.”

“Sheh did'n die, did sheh.” I more stated it than asked.

“That's hard to say. When you were born, your mom disappeared on us.”

“Ran ou'?” If Mom just left, why would Dad try to contact her spirit like I did?

Dad started laughing softly, and tears came to his eyes as the wonder of what he remembered that day hit him again as fresh now as ever. “No, no, she disappeared. Vanished. In a cloud of gold butterflies. And you were there when she was gone.”

He looked away for a moment, sighed, and turned back to me. “When you were born, the Doc ran all kinds of tests, he said you didn't even have the mutant genes. It looked like you were only ever going to be a perfectly normal baseline kid, I wanted to give you a perfectly normal life. I didn't want you to feel... different from me. Excluded. So I didn't tell you everything. It was the wrong call. I fucked up.”

“Shokay. I guessht it.”

“Figured out I'm not a regular baseline dad, huh? Well, time to come clean, my line of work is not quite... in any way... legal. I'm a burglar. Very rich people pay me to get very secure things for them, because in the right conditions I can guarantee results. If there is a possible sequence of actions that'll take me into and out of a place, I can follow it perfectly. But anyway... I don't want you to feel bad about this, but what you did brought some unwelcome attention to our house, and we can't safely stay there anymore. Fortunately, I know some guys. They packed all our stuff and warped it out real quick, we'll be fine. The only thing you need to worry about right now is following Doc's orders and getting back on your feet.”

* * *

It was some time after my particularly uninspiring but thankfully inoffensive meal. Dad had gone to find out if the Doc had figured anything more out, and I wouldn't be surprised if he'd been told (or forced) to get more sleep. I was trying to find something on the TV worth watching, but the picture was odd. It was evenly jittery, like stop-motion, and whenever anything moved quickly I could see the motion-blur on the frames.

I was beginning to consider giving it up for a lost cause when Gena came in with a med cart. “I'm here to take your blood, muhuhuahahaaa!”


She started setting up.“Seriously, you wouldn't nearly be the first. I've helped dad treat people in all sorts of outbreak zones. Besides, this way I can show you what I found out about my PK field. When I touch things with it on I can send soundwaves through them and tell what's going on inside, like a sonogram. I can find a vein better than almost anybody here. You're blue, by the way.”

I looked down and she was right. My arms and presumably the rest of me were a light blue. The exact blue of the bed sheets. Not only the same color, but the same texture.

Gena grinned. “Instinctive defensive camouflage. You don't like needles, or you just don't trust me? Lemme see yer arm you big baby.”

She had me there, needles did make me uncomfortable. I held my arm out and looked at the TV screen across the room as she tied an elastic band above my elbow. “D'dja noh?”

She started prodding my arm. “Make a fist. Did I know about what, your dad's job? Nah, they kept me in the dark too, probably so I didn't let it slip accidentally when we were little. Gimme a sec, I can't hear when I'm doing this.” She ran her hand across my arm and I could feel the pulses of vibration coming from it. She turned my arm a little and did it again. Then she untied the band and stood up. “I can't find any veins. Or arteries. I'll have to get Miz Pierce.”

She left and came back with a tall, thin woman who would look like a librarian if she weren't in scrubs, with wide, narrow glasses and her hair in a severe bun. “Well, let's see what we've got.” She stepped closer and touched my shoulder. “Hmmm. She was right. Most of your flesh is homogeneous, no variations between until you get very close to the bone, and then we see very thin layers of muscle, ligament, blood vessels. Let's try the hand, where it's thinner...”

Ms Pierce lifted my hand and an invisible force constricted my wrist to make the veins swell, no need for a rubber strip when you've got tactile telekinesis. She swabbed my skin and brought a needle close, but when it touched the back of my hand the skin there twitched and shrank away, a depression forming below it. She pressed closer and the skin bucked and pushed the side of the needle away.

“That does present a difficulty. I could try to go through it anyway, but I don't think I'd have much success hitting the target with it wrestling the needle like that. The only surface on you that doesn't have that skin is... the inside of your mouth. We could make that work, but it'd probably be unnecessarily painful.” She considered for a moment. “I was going to perform an examination after this, let's move on to that and see if a solution presents itself.”

She lifted the sheet covering me and it folded itself in her hand. “I noticed you destroyed your gown earlier, did you want another? No? Then we'll proceed.” She put her hand on my shoulder again and pulled me weightlessly in front of her into a seated position with my tail coiled neatly on my lap. With her hands on my shoulders she pushed me to an examination room as if there were a wheelchair under me. On that journey my skin turned white like the clinic walls.

What followed was one of the most awkward and uncomfortable events of my entire life, and I will spare you the complete details but many things were discovered. Turns out I'm just under 90 pounds and just over 4'9” when stretched out to my full height. My prehensile skin makes blood pressure cuff readings completely useless. It also is self-sealing, all of my personal pelvic orifices are only there when in use. Of those orifices, full medical description time. Yes, I do have a vagina, the muscular lining of which can evert and curl forward around my urethra to act as a flap-like sort-of-tube for good old male genetic material. What look to be labia minora that abruptly end at said vagina are actually the base of this flap and bunch up when in use to prevent leakage. Up inside that vagina is a womb, flanked by fully functional multi-purpose ovotestes that produce everything necessary to start the process of making a new whatever-it-is-I-am, thankfully putting those things in different places to prevent accidental self-impregnation. Right above all of these mostly familiar orifices is the entrance to a marsupial-like pouch that opens upwards to the front of my abdomen. It's lined with a very thin non-motile type of the weird skin that covers the rest of me, and just for historical accuracy it was in there that Miz Pierce found her way to a blood sample, a nice deep purple in color. My brand new digestive system hadn't been operating long enough for other samples.

After that, I was brought back to my bed, where sleep thankfully took me. And that was how I spent the first day of the rest of my life as an alien.

* * *

-have flagged poss., attaching case synopsis, advise

-making priority target, will notify when extraction ready
Last Edit: 3 months 6 days ago by Mylian. Reason: Content warning
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4 months 1 week ago - 4 months 3 hours ago #68548 by Mylian
Mylian replied the topic: Stuff and Nonsense
Chapter 4: An Avalanche Of Days

My daily life settled into a stream of discoveries, frustrations, humiliations, and small victories as I learned to use my body again. The first few days while I was learning to crawl, I found out those extensions on my elbows were actually the tips of wings folded along my arms. While my skin normally couldn't stretch more than a few inches away from me, apparently I had a very thin membrane running down my sides and halfway down my legs underneath the skin that allowed it to stretch out into wing surfaces. There turned out to be a similar membrane between my tail tips. Spreading all this out stretched the rest of me pretty thin, but it seemed like at some point after I learned to walk I could learn to fly. Did I remember flying? The thought, like so many these days, seemed oddly familiar.

After getting crawling down, I proceeded fairly quickly to being able to get around mostly manageably on all fours, which was pretty much the best thing since getting here because I could get myself to the bathroom without a nurse's help. (I absolutely refused their offer of a diaper, and why they already had ones that would work around my new pelvis I didn't want to know.) Though it was a mixed blessing because the facilities were not designed with me in mind and awkwardly lining up output with receptacle was still a reminder of this every single time. Monster Tip: if you end up getting claws, toilet paper must be handled with utmost care. You will never again be able to use it in a hurry.

In just under a week, the Doc had found that my bones, teeth, and claws were some sort of very light carbon-fiber structure, and that a pair of long, thin organs running through the sides of my torso down into my tail were the source of my magnetoception. I was basically a biological antenna, and given the sensitivity of these organs he strongly recommended I avoid MRIs from now on. My two sets of eyes saw different ranges of light, the main pair saw fewer colors but also saw near-infrared and had better night vision. The smaller trio was tetrachromatic and also saw ultraviolet. All of these eyes had second lids. My skin had a different genome than the rest of me, neither of which resembled anything else on earth.

He'd also gathered enough data on my digestion to identify me as an omnivorous obligate carnivore and pronounced me able to eat anything fit for human consumption. My body had handled the small amounts of certain softball toxins he'd thrown at it like ethanol completely and so quickly that I'd probably never be able to get drunk. It handled microbial invaders so thoroughly that I neither had nor needed a gut microbiome for digestion. But he hadn't been as thorough as he could have been and his all-clear turned out to be a premature assessment. With my first “real” meal (of hospital-type food), I was permitted a celebratory eight-ounce can of Goodcola. Moments after the caffeine hit my bloodstream, it became incredibly hard to focus. My vision started to blur, and I just kind of spaced out. Then my grasp on reality took a vacation.

* * *

You are of me, Wounded Hand, but you are not me. Remember this.

* * *

I was on the floor. I was pretty sure the floor was real. I could focus from moment to moment again, that was progress. The beach and the orchard weren't real, were they? At least they weren't anymore. Here was real. There were real things here, microscopes, test tubes, the walls, I knew these walls. I was still aboard the clinic. Had I been somewhere else? A... round... leafy... building? Was there a mirror? It called me Wounded Hand. I remembered that. I looked at my hands, and in my right hand was that weird marble. Embedded in my right hand. I poked it, and it sank deeper and popped back out, but I didn't feel any pain, it was just passing through me. I turned my hand around and pushed it again, and I didn't see it coming out the back. So it wasn't just noclipping through my hand, it was going somewhere.

It was then that the Doc and my dad came in. I was still a little out of it, but apparently I'd been missing for a few hours, and there were some weird lines and symbols scratched into the wall of my room. That sounded familiar, I looked more closely at my hand and there were flecks of paint on one of my claws. I managed to get up and quadrupedally stumble with them to another room. They wanted to keep me away from whatever diagram I'd created for now, just in case.

In a new bed, still mildly in a chemically-affected semi-stupor, my attention went back to my new jewelry. Instead of pushing it, I pulled it and it came away with no resistance. It felt like a regular glass marble. I could also feel my fingers holding it as if it were a part of me. I then looked at my hand where it used to be. I couldn't see anything anomalous about it, at least anything that wasn't already anomalous this morning. I felt around my palm with a finger and felt it catch on something invisible, then sink in. I pushed my finger all the way into the spatial discontinuity and didn't find anything stopping it. My dad said something, I guess he was still there. The Doc was also there probably making sure the scanner was getting all this. He said something about a strict meat-only diet until further notice, sounded pretty good to me.

I turned my dubiously effective attention back to the marble. I thought about putting it back, and it slipped out of my fingers. No, it vanished. Wait, it was already back in my palm. Haha, that was great, I took it out, tossed it across the room, abracadabra, back inside my hand. Look, if I flick my hand like this it pops out and then I bring it back, it's like a yo-yo if yo-yos teleported. Holy crap, this was the most amazing thing ever in the entire history of amazing things. I tossed it to my dad, he asked the Doc if it was safe to handle, the Doc said that it was chemically and magically inert. Hahaha, he said my ball was inert, I rolled over laughing. And then at some point I fell asleep.

Over the next few days I progressed to getting around naturally and easily on four limbs, and then quickly learned to swing out my wing bones and use them as walking sticks to walk upright. Once I could pretty much walk, I started getting out of the room more. (The Doc had me back in the first room again after he'd documented the scratchings, and had the wall sanded down and repainted.) So soon enough I was hanging out with Gena getting some fresh air on deck under the shade of the ocean hologram hiding the clinic from satellite observation, the Atlantic below us. We were at the railing, and I was alternately examining the thin glittery branches in my marble and throwing it over the side just to bring it back again.

“You know, you could have ended up a lot worse. At least you ended up with a body capable of actually living. Not everybody who comes through this clinic does. One patient ended up with half-formed gills and non-functioning lungs. Dad tried to create an oxygenated enough medium that he could breathe in, but he still eventually suffocated. There was a lady whose brain basically turned into a flatworm's, it wasn't complex enough to run her body and she just... stopped working. When you think about it, you are one lucky guy.”

I watched the marble shrink into the distance as I considered. Gena had a point, but that last bit... it felt weird to be referred to as a “guy”. “Nod a ghy.”

“I guess your parts have changed, but that doesn't mean anything, unless you feel like you're not a guy?” I gave her a thumbs-up at that.

“So... you're a girl now?”

I thought a moment, then shook my head. That felt just as weird.

“That's going to make paperwork more complicated, but I think you can make it work. I mean, you don't look more like one or the other, you don't even look human.”

I shrugged and nodded. Gender was not going to be the worst of my social integration issues.

“So I guess that makes you... non-binary, I guess. Do you have pronouns you want me to use?”

I shook my head. I only just now came to this realization, I hadn't had time to figure that out.

“I'll just wing it then, and you can tell me if I get something wrong.”

I shot her another thumbs-up, and finally brought back the marble. Wait, it felt different. I grinned, and handed it to Gena, this was a new development.

“What, it's... wet? Sea water. Wait, this means you can bring back other matter with it!” Her calculating grin matched mine as the possibilities dawned on us.

* * *

We went back below deck and when we passed through the small dining hall, we found it already occupied. At one of the tables sat Dr. Obertek, a girl about as old as Gena and I with dull green hair on the far side of the table, and a woman facing away from us in a suit of mechanical armor who I recognized as a hero called Steel Clarion. She was saying to the Doc in a familiar voice, “...would have taken her to The Clinic in Pittsburgh, but you're more of an expert in extreme changes like-”

“Eep!” The green-haired girl made a stifled noise as she saw me. I didn't blame her, my current look was pretty surprising. The other two at the table turned to follow the girl's gaze and I suddenly recognized Steel Clarion all over again. And then Gena ran between us and said, “Wait, re-introductions are in order! Riv, this is your aunt Clair, also known as Steel Clarion (I'm a massive fan, bee tee dubs) and Clair, this is your brother's recently transformed now non-binary child, River! They haven't decided on specific pronouns yet.”

I rolled all five eyes at Gena. “'Ow lonk?”

“Oh, I've been sitting on this one since your dad came clean.”

Clair came over and hugged me. “Dammit, all your dad told me was that his cover got blown and you... guys? had to go to ground. If I'd known you were here I'd've come much sooner.” She turned to the green-haired girl. “Will you be okay here with the doctor while I catch up with my neph- er... relative?” The girl shyly nodded. I noticed then under the table that she wasn't sitting in a chair. Instead, from the waist down she was a turtle. There was a turtle shell right there on the floor below her, and it was shaped so that her torso, coming out of the hole that would normally accommodate a turtle's neck, was oriented more upward than forward had she actually been a turtle.

“So where's your dad?”

“Shomwhere heer.”

Gena interjected. “I think he's probably avoiding you, actually. Should we go try to track him down even though he can probably avoid us forever if he really wants to? Also, who's the girl? New patient?”

“Um. Yes. Way too common story, her parents kicked her out for manifesting as a mutant. Me and a few other capes kept the MCO from hauling her away. Well, she did most of that, actually. You noticed her shell, right? Well when she pulls into that, apparently she becomes pretty much invulnerable and immobile. After about eighteen hours, they gave up trying to move her. They even destroyed the sidewalk under her and she didn't budge an inch, just hovered over the crater they'd made. They let us call someone in to talk her out, and we snuck in a teleporter to do it. As soon as she dropped whatever effect she was using, he blinked her right out of there. But enough about work, what the hell happened to you Riv?”

So with Gena's far more articulate assistance, I began bringing Aunt Clair up to speed on recent events as we eventually tracked down my dad. Or rather, he stopped avoiding the confrontation with his sister and let us find him.

* * *

After a few more days, I'd finally learned to walk steadily enough that I could go through an official powers test. The turtle girl, Tara, was still getting the hang of getting around on the stumpy legs coming out of her shell, but even though the front pair were a foot longer than the back pair it looked like her top speed might eventually barely reach a pace describable as “brisk”.

Gena and I were waiting in the gymnasium when Miz Pierce brought in a guy with light brown ruffled hair, in a gray suit, green tie, and thin-rimmed glasses. To his credit, he came over and shook my hand showing no surprise or hesitation at my appearance.

“Good afternoon. I am Agent Lemin of the DPA. I'll be filing your results here so you don't have to deal with the Mutant Commission Office as you are not, in fact, a mutant. You will still be getting a Mutant ID card, but it will declare you as a magically altered individual. Now, when I start recording we'll be operating strictly with codenames only, do you have one in mind?”



Gena corrected, “They said 'Nonsense'. They're still getting the hang of speaking with their new mouth, so I'll be translating their particular dialect of mumble.”

“I appreciate that. I presume you have a codename as well?”


“Very well. Your father will, of course, not be attending. Despite his humanitarian efforts throughout most of the world he is still considered a criminal in the US, and his presence on this recording would be awkward for everyone involved.”

Click. “Speaking is Arthur Lemin of the Department of Paranormal Affairs, conducting the powers test of codename Nonsense. Having conducted the investigation of the original incident site and reviewed Nonsense's medical records, I am confirming here for the record that this individual has been subject to a paranormal alteration and is not now nor has ever been a mutant, thus this case is quite clearly within the purview and jurisdiction of the DPA. With me are codename Miz Pierce, who is one of the physicians that treated Nonsense during post-incident recovery, and codename Harmonica, who will be assisting Nonsense in being understood despite a severe speech impediment caused by a drastic change in vocal morphology.”

We began with the easy stuff. I held a compass with a crystal needle for a few minutes, which showed that I had absolutely zero ability to gather and hold the magical energy in the world that is usually called “essence”. Even the average baseline human would make the needle twitch a bit, ordinary people could learn magic with enough study and determination, but I didn't even have that anymore. Whatever I had before my transformation was gone. There was, however, my magic marble, and my hallucinogen-fueled teleportation incident. Agent Lemin reviewed photographs of the wall etchings and didn't recognize any of the symbols or writing, but noted that the diagrams “bore some resemblance to higher-dimensional geometry employed by certain individuals I will mention in my written report.” Since I couldn't recall what any of it meant and could not replicate it offhand, he gave me a tentative WIZ-equivalent rating of 1.

For the next test I was given a pile of mechanical parts. A few of them clearly fit together, that segment must have a motor inside and it connects to this module, which means these wires should go here and those go there into a battery pack, and that... makes a dial spin around. Whee. My mechanical intuition earned me a Gadgeteer equivalent of 1 and a fistbump from Gena who had the same equivalent rating though neither of us had the mutant power of accelerated invention. This led into tests for any ESP, telepathic, or telekinetic abilities which included the stereotypical cards with various shapes on them, looking for a hidden item, guessing what was in a sealed box, all kinds of stuff. Nothing special turned up there beyond my existing senses and I couldn't make anything move with my mind, not even my marble. It just sat where I put it, unless I popped it back to my hand.

Then came the most absolutely thrilling part. A math test. On the other hand, it came much easier than math had been before, but the combined general knowledge quiz that came after that was a little harder. I was relieved when we moved on from mental to physical capabilities starting with my skin mimicry. I'd gotten pretty good at simulating different surfaces, if only in appearance. I can look like metal, but if you touch me it'll just feel like really smooth skin. That got all kinds of categorization: 'SH2(eq)' for Shifter equivalent, 'p' for partial because I could only change my skin, 'a' meaning I could only change appearance and not composition, 'w' because I could change at will, 'm' because my mass stayed the same.

More physical tests, I had to lift a bar on a machine that had resistance that could be scaled from dozens of pounds to hundreds of tons. I had a feeling I wasn't going to be setting any records here. I managed to top out at a respectable 835 lbs, but the machine's actual upper limits kept me from being too impressed with myself. Then came... The Treadmill. Oh, don't be fooled, it started out innocuously enough, just ramping up in speed gradually until I couldn't keep up at just over 70 mph on all fours. Then we tested how long I could maintain that speed, about a minute and a half. The belt was moved down to a more casual 20 mph, and I kept that up for a bit. Then the belt began to slowly tilt upward. No big deal, my fancy skin could still grip the belt easily, as it had gripped the floor on my first day here. It gradually reached 90 degrees sheer and I was still galloping right up. It held there for a moment, and then started slowly back down. It was at about 30 degrees when the medicine ball swung at me from behind. The instant before it struck, I felt/heard it moving the air and time seemed to slow down. In slow motion, I threw myself to the side and rolled to my feet, hissing with my wings half spread and my skin flashing in colors of rage. Time returned to full speed and Gena was approaching me slowly and nervously. Agent Lemin was holding on to some sort of device and looked ready to throw it if he needed to. Miz Pierce simply watched.

“You, uh, you okay there? We're not gonna have a rager incident, right?”

I sat down on the floor and shook my head. “S'fine, juz' s'prize.”

“Yeah, well, you gave us a surprise too. Agent Lemin, I think you can go ahead and put away that glue bomb.”

“Of course. Shall we mark that as a check on the danger sense?”

I shook my head. “Reg'la senz. Herd et.

“Man, I wish I could've heard it over the sound of the treadmill. It ended up hitting me square in the back of the head.”

I punched her lightly in the shoulder. “Coulda ward me!”

“I wasn't allowed to warn you. It would have invalidated the test.”

“Quite,” added Lemin. “Let's take a break, and we'll pick this back up in, say, twenty minutes or so?”

* * *

When we came back, we started on my senses. My vision was more impressive than I thought when we pushed it. Not only did I have a broad range of wavelengths, but my distance vision was 20/5, about as good as an eagle's. My hearing was in about the same range as a normal human being, but as the treadmill surprise showed, I could pick out sounds from different directions better than people usually do. My sense of touch, as I already knew, was ultra-high-definition. Smell and taste were also within human norm. And there was my magnetoception. Agent Lemin decided to lump all of these, my physical strengths, and my slight mental acceleration under Exemplar equivalent 3. Again, equivalent because “Exemplar” describes a specific mutant trait.

He then asked Miz Pierce about my rate of healing. “That is an interesting question. During my initial examination I made a small abdominal surface incision.” (This surprised me, but she very probably told me at the time, I'd been doing my best not to pay attention to what was going on down there.) “It sealed quickly, but only due to the self-adhering properties of the dermal mass. The tissues beneath healed at an unsurprising rate, on the quicker side of baseline, but when they did heal they did so without any discontinuity. This complete knitting, in my experience, is an indicator of at least Regen 2. Possibly Regen 3 if there is full regeneration of severed appendages, but we have not and will not test that.”

“That is standard operating procedure, of course. We'll mark it down as REG-2 for now. Nonsense, is there anything further you can think of that we haven't covered here?” I shook my head. “Well then, I think we have enough here, you are free to go while I wrap this up.”

* * *

That night, I was looking forward to being out of this place. My dad said he'd found a quiet place in Nebraska where we wouldn't be bothered. This would be my last night here. Then in a couple of months I'd be going to probably the only school that somebody who looks like me could attend, the same school my parents went to. Whateley Academy in New Hampshire, an actual secret school for mutants. Life had certainly gotten strange in the past few weeks, but maybe I could find some kind of normality sometime soon. Life then instantly punished me for that thought.

The door to my room opened, and in stepped a woman in a gray dress, knee-length silver hair in a loose ponytail, and her face covered by a curved blank oval of birch bark. I tried to react, but I couldn't move. She flung out her hand, the room filled with swirling dust, and I lost consciousness.

* * *

“Are you saying you've seen the woman in this footage before?”

“Yes, it was after my parents kicked me out of the house, but before the MCO showed up. She gave me something, an old coin. She said it was lucky, I just put it in my pocket. Now it's missing too. D-did I screw up?”

“Don't blame yourself, you had no way of knowing.”
Last Edit: 4 months 3 hours ago by Mylian.
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3 months 3 weeks ago - 3 months 6 days ago #68685 by Mylian
Mylian replied the topic: Stuff and Nonsense
Chapter 5: Mother Of Monsters

When I once again regained consciousness, I was draped over my kidnapper's shoulder. We were on the deck of some kind of large oceangoing yacht, and I still couldn't move. “I'm really sorry about this. Usually when someone wants an abduction it falls outside the contract. Hopefully that means you'll be getting out of this okay.”

I heard someone approach, and a gruff voice said, “Are you going to need to see Echidna about payment?”

“No. That... happens automatically.”

I was handed off a man who looked more like a stereotypical biker than a deckhand, except the left side of him was covered in an insect-like exoskeleton. The girl in gray disappeared in a cloud of dust, and I was brought into a huge elegant stateroom. The woman sitting on the massive slab of a desk across from the entrance did not match her surroundings. Her hot pink steel-studded leather jacket was the immediate contrast, but her pale skin, porcupine quill hair, and completely jet black eyes caught up quickly. Those eyes were looking at me with avarice, and she actually kicked her feet and squee'd in delight.

“My prize is finally here! You have no idea how long I've waited to find someone exactly like you, kid.” She propped me up in a chair next to the desk-hemoth. “Now I know exactly what you're thinking, 'I've been taken away by those who surely mean to harm me!' Trust me, you're better off here with me than on Doctor Fraud's Flying Circus. At least I'll be honest with you about what I want. Just one little snippet of your genome is the most tantalizing thing I've ever seen, and I want more. I want to know what makes you tick. And I'm far better equipped to find out than Doc Tinhead. Sure, he's a devisor, he can break the laws of physics, but that's exactly what makes his science bad. His power doesn't even specialize in biology, he's a glorified mechanic. But me, even though I'm a 'mere' gadgeteer, I can read DNA like a book. Dear misguided Elias, he could study you for years and never guess the things I will know about you.”

She picked up a glass tube, then reached behind her ear and plucked a quill from her head. “And all I need is access to your DNA.” She leaned in, nudged my jaw open, jabbed the inner surface, and held the tube under it to fill it with rich grape-colored liquid. Then she used what looked to be a cigar cutter to snip a chunk off one of my wing tips, which leaked a bit of clear fluid before the exposed surface reflexively pulled itself closed. “If you were most other people, all I'd need is one little sample and have more than enough to work with, after all, it's over ninety percent stuff I already know, but I can tell that you are going to be the kind of page-turner worth reading again and again.”

She sealed her samples, pocketed them, and turned to half-bug-man. “Stow our guest. It'll be obvious to Doc O that magic was used to subvert his security, I want to get this tub moving before he brings in somebody who might be able to trace whatever the errand girl did.”

* * *

As Half Bug carried me deeper into the ship, I noticed the faint hum of life signs scurrying somewhere below us. I was fairly certain that the hull would be insulating me from anything in the water, so there was something living in this ship. A lot of somethings. Eventually we reached a small guest room and I was dropped onto a bare mattress. A firm thunk told me I was locked in.

I have no way of knowing how long I was immobilized, maybe an hour, maybe less, maybe more. As soon as it started wearing off, I dragged myself off of the bed and started exploring the tiny room I was in. Barely enough room for the narrow bed, adjoining bath with just enough room for a toilet with a sink above it. The door between them had been removed. There were cabinets under the bed, also with doors removed. Above the bed was a porthole-style window. I unscrewed the wingnut and opened it, the gap was about a foot across but it was blocked by a grating of intersecting bars of some kind of clear plastic, probably some fancy devisor stuff. Even with my full strength I couldn't move them. The spray coming in from the wake was freshwater, couldn't see land in the distance, we were probably one of the Great Lakes. I sealed the porthole and laid on the mattress. I wasn't uncomfortable, my body seemed to be able to adjust to a wide variety of temperatures. With nothing better to do, I decided to go back to doing what I was doing before being kidnapped and go to sleep.

* * *

The next day I was awake for about an hour when the door opened. Half-bug was standing there. There was a pack of a dozen medium-dog-sized bipedal creatures at his feet and behind him. They looked to be part insect, part fish, and part dinosaur, each with a pair of large faceted eyes and a face full of dangling tentacles. He held out a metal collar with a length of cable attached to it.

“You got a choice. You can wear this, or you can cooperate. You can try to run, but I guarantee these little bastards can swim faster than you, and they have nasty beaks under those tentacles.”

“Dot gudda rud.”

“I'm gonna assume that means you're coming quietly. C'mon, Echidna wants to talk to ya.”

He escorted me back to the stateroom, where “Echidna” (sans her pink leather jacket, revealing a black tank top) was laying on the intimidesk, holding a smaller version of one of the creatures. A baby? “Hooooooz a widdle sweetie! Hooz momma's widdle guy!” The pack of monsters ran over and jumped up excitedly on the desk, and she sat up and hugged the ones closest to her, the little one on her lap. She looked at me and gestured to a folding chair near her. “Have a seat, Roadie'll get you some breakfast.”

The chair thankfully had an open space in the back that my tail could fit through. Still, I found that it was most comfortable to bring my feet up under me and perch on the seat. She opened another chair and sat down facing me.

“Okay, you have to spill. As far as I know there's nobody even close to doing work like this. I know Ubergeek couldn't possibly have done it. I've literally never seen anything like it. I have to know who designed your DNA.


“Who. Wrote. Your. Genes?”

She was close enough now that I could see the subtle difference between her black sclera, black iris, and black pupil. I started mumbling an answer too quickly, before giving up, holding a forearm in front of me, and just changing the color to print words across it. 'Nobody. I woke up like this. I know you read my file. I was changed by magic.'

She sagged visibly. “Ugh, I was afraid you'd say that. You are definitely an extensive custom job, alterations to DNA are always pretty obvious. But if whoever did the designing did it with magic, that brings up the depressing possibility that this whole thing was a waste of everybody's time. I can't reverse-engineer magic or devisor work! I may have blown my one chance, even if I had another one of those stupid coins, Elias is going to tighten security after this. He'll get somebody to patch up whatever hole in the wards the elf chick used, he'll root out my mole and I won't even be getting samples out anymore. I've been watching his clinic for friggin' years waiting for a goldmine like you to show up, and now that I have you, I may not even be able to get anything from it.”

'Does that mean you'll let me go?'

“Course not. There's still a chance you have something I can use.”

'Is that the only thing I am to you? Some DNA to study?'

“Oh, no, you're also revenge, a lucky side effect. Your bitch of a mother stole James Million from me, so thinking what a state he must be in now is some comfort. It's just the most beautiful coincidence that my prize target ended up being you.”

It was at that point that “Roadie” came in with a serving cart loaded with enough breakfast foods and dishes for all of us. I did notice that there was no coffee, and wondered if these people just weren't coffee drinkers or if it was omitted because of what Echidna read in my file. But that thought did give me an idea.

* * *

After I was brought back to my room I put my plan, such as it was, into action. I opened the porthole, tossed out the marble, and closed it back up. When I tripped out on caffeine and warped out of my room in the clinic, I ended up where the marble was. If I could manage to do it again, I'd be out of here. The only question was, could I swim from the bottom of whatever body of water we were on to the surface? I had a strong feeling that I could, but it'd be wiser to test a few things beforehand.

I decided to try holding my breath. I couldn't time it, but I could get an idea of how feasible this plan was going to be. The sun was pretty high in the sky, it was somewhere in the vicinity of noon, give or take a half hour or more, I wasn't very good at this. While I was doing that, I considered all the other things that were going to have to come together for this to work. Most significantly, one way or another I'd have to find a a way to reach an altered state of consciousness.

The most straightforward option would be to find something with caffeine to drink and hope for a repeat performance. Unfortunately my captors were likely aware of that, and would probably not just hand it over to me. But there was another possibility suggested by what happened on the treadmill. I hadn't been chemically affected, but I was momentarily... out of my head? It wasn't an out-of-control rager event. There was anger, but it was situational, controlled. I wasn't myself, but maybe that other me was the one that knew what that diagram was for. Some part of me obviously did, and there was an unknown and unexplored version of me, logically it was a sound plan to try and find that me, right? As I tried to remember how it felt in that moment, I noted that I was still holding my breath and felt just fine. By the time I actually started to feel like I might want to take a breath, I was pretty sure I would have had more than enough time to get to the surface, so I stopped holding my breath. It was about the same amount of time after that before Roadie brought me a steak on a tray, and when I was done with that the sun was at about mid to late afternoon. I didn't see either of my captors for the rest of the day.

* * *

At some point during my dreams that night, I ended up on a familiar old wooden ship, a far cry from Echidna's yacht. I looked out over the bow of the ship, land was in sight and the sails were full, a strong wind carrying the ship toward it.

“Good to see you've found your way here again,” grated a familiar brown voice from behind me. “But you came in from the wrong direction. You're going to need to bring your flesh with you in the future if you want to use the exit you're looking for.”

I whirled on him and asked, [Just who in the worlds are you anyway? And why do you keep coming to assault me with your riddles?] I did not ask him in mouth sounds. I asked him in shifting hue and pattern of skin, and nuance of projected emotion. Apparently he understood well enough to form a response.

“I was beginning to think you might actually never ask. I am Gulik. Saint Gulik. I would say I am at your service, but I am not. I might consider it, once you know me by another, older name.”

[At whose service are you?]

“For the most part, your mother's”

[That's right, you know] “her.” [Where is] “she?” [Where has] “she” [been all this time?] That was weird, I guess the chromatic language didn't have certain words or concepts and I ended up speaking them.

“Would you like some pseudo-Zen bullshit about how she was nowhere and everywhere? Perhaps I could reply with a question and ask where a song is when it's not being sung. Before you read her note and claimed her gift to you, she was not in a place. After that, she was.”

[And where is my mother now?]

“Like me, she has an older name. When you know it, she will be close to you. But you will not be able to see her until you understand what it means.”

[I'm guessing you aren't just going to tell me what it is and explain it to me now.|

“Of course not. It would be actively counterproductive. If you tell someone a punchline before the joke, they will find it meaningless, and explaining it completely destroys it.”

[So is this mother's gift to me?] I gestured to my transformed body.

“That, as far as anything can be said to be so, was a genuine accident. You'd torn open a layer of yourself into an upper dimension and were bleeding... information, you might call it, into the void. You needed a new form transplanted onto you with enough structural definition in that dimension to seal the leak. No organism on this planet was suitable, but fortunately I am acquainted with someone of a race that fit the necessary requirements, and could find a suitable donor among the spirits of an ancient extraterrestrial people. I very coincidentally was playing poker with that esteemed one and a few other interesting individuals at the time I was call upon to bring you aid.”

[In other words, you grafted part of an alien ghost onto me.]

“Accurate, and concise.”

[Then what's the gift?]

“What did the note say?”

[The chest... and everything in it.]

He spread his arms wide and gestured to our surroundings. “Marvelous, isn't it? Though it looks much different now than when it was hers.”

[You're telling me that all this is inside the chest?]

“From a certain topological point of view, yes.”

[While I've got you in a forthcoming mood, how does the marble fit in?]

“That's entirely new. A side effect of whatever insane spell you cooked up. Physically, it is the matter that was in the instruments you used in that spell.”

[My phone, the note, the photo...]

“And your drop of blood. Precisely. It's been transmuted into your clever bauble. As for what exactly it has become, I frankly don't know. Based entirely on its behavior so far, I think we can safely say that it is both a material part of this place, and also of you. Is there any further exposition I can deliver for you?”

[Um, not that I can think of, no.]

“In that case, it looks to me like you're waking up.”

And then at that moment, as the vessel ran violently aground and embedded itself in the sand, I did exactly that.

* * *

The next day pretty much followed the precedent set by the first. I sat around for a while until I was brought to breakfast. Echidna was happier today.

“It looks like I was panicking for nothing. What I've got out of you so far looks to be all within the bounds of mundane physics. Even that weird skin, it doesn't seem to be cheating at all. The first warning sign is usually proteins folded in ways that shouldn't be naturally possible. That leaves a very distinct feeling. Everything you can do seems to be strictly physiological. That is what makes you so unbelievably valuable. Reverse-engineering mutant powers from genetics is a crapshoot. It's almost never simple, some of it you can get from the genes and some of it happens in weird ways that nobody understands. Like, I sampled a guy who had laser beam eyes, tried to replicate it, but all of my test creatures ended up exploding. I'd rather work with animal DNA. Mother Nature has given me the absolute coolest stuff to work with.”

After breakfast it was back to the cell again. With nothing else to do, I kept more or less meditating on altering my point of view until Roadie showed up with dinner, then again until I went to sleep.

* * *

I was on the beach. Beside me, the ship was irrevocably beached deep into the sand. Ahead of me, the orchard with its trees bearing peculiarly straight and uniformly angled branches with icosahedral fruit. I went among the trees, marveling at how different the fruit felt. Before, the blacker-than-black skin of the fruit felt uncomfortable to look at, like human eyes weren't quite designed to take in such a sight. But now, they felt familiar. Homey, even. Further ahead, there was someone else among the trees looking at the fruit. Someone who looked a lot like me, except they seemed older by some features I wasn't sure I could define, and there was something strange about their forearms. The strangely familiar figure lacked the bones one would need for flight that would show beyond the elbow. I approached, and had the feeling that it would be appropriate to put my hands and forearms together in front of me and bow, so I did.

“No need for those ancient formalities, now. The last world that knew them has been an unlivable oven for longer than your former species has existed. No need to introduce yourself, I know the collection of names you've gathered so far. River Chance Million, Nonsense, Wounded Hand. I had quite a few myself once, but there's only one that matters now. You can call me Walker.”

We strolled between the rows. [Why are you] “speaking English” [and not using chromatic?]

Walker plucked a fruit, brought it faceward, and sniffed. “Same reason, kid. Who would I have spoken it with in all this time? Just another dead language. This world alone has forgotten enough of them, what's one more?”

“Why did they die?”

“Old, old story. We were made. We were weapons. An apex predator. Seed a few of us on a planet and throw ecosystems into ruin after only a few generations, program us to attack specific individuals, or bloodlines, or even make entire species extinct. But they made us a little too adaptable. We got smart, decided we didn't particularly care for the role we'd been cast in and started making plans to escape to a nice quiet part of the galaxy. At about the same time, our creators' neighbors had all finally gotten tired of them and tired of us. Our existence was made illegal, and the homeworlds of our makers were all simultaneously reduced to asteroid fields. We... thought the world we'd evacuated to would hide us from pursuit. The next planet over shone brightly with inherent power, enough to hide the gates we'd learned from our masters to travel with. The inhabitants of the third planet weren't interested in the second, because it didn't have nearly as much of that magical power they called essence, but we didn't care. We'd been created incapable of accumulating that kind of power, our masters were afraid of us learning to do something they couldn't and turning against them. But even though we shut down every gate after that, it didn't last forever. Eventually, we were tracked down. The bastard elves next door had no problem with our destruction, they merely insisted that the planet we were on be incinerated and sterilized instead of reduced to rubble, to avoid littering their system with debris and affecting their orbit. But they ended up getting theirs. They were almost completely wiped out in a temporospatial cataclysm of their own. Turns out this corner of the galaxy is only mostly quiet.”

“And you survived?”

“I'm... well I hate to call it 'ascended' or 'on a higher plane', that just makes me sound full of myself. I haven't been mortal in a long time. There were a few of us, we stuck around for a while but there's only so many millennia you can wander in mourning through an inferno before getting bored. They all moved on, one by one, but I decided to check out what was happening over here. And the one thing I can say is it hasn't been boring. There are even quite a few immortals in this world, some Taoists actually used the same method I and my fellows did.” The self-proclaimed immortal peeled away the skin of the fruit revealing a gently glowing pithy interior, pulled a tetrahedral wedge out, and sampled it.

[If the race-of-hunters is dead, what does that make me? What am I now?]

“That depends.” [What is it that you want to be?]

“I want to be whatever me it is that can walk out of the cell I'm in. I've done it before.”

“Then do it again.”

We had reached an end to the orchard. In the distance, at the edge of a tree line, there was a cylindrical building covered in leaves. I thought it was odd that there was only one building there, and then thought it odd that I thought that specifically odd and not the building itself before I started waking up. Within moments, I was instead looking at my cell.

* * *

While I was waiting for my captor's assistant to arrive, I tried to vocalize speech like I did in my dream, but there was still something about my word-hole that I wasn't getting. It was pretty clear that making certain sounds the human way wasn't going to work. But it didn't matter much. I was not human, after all. If yesterday was any indication, my jailers would pay no heed to a lack of communication, and this proved true not much later when I was brought out for a meal. Today's new development was the spine-headed one taking more samples. The ones already taken had “worn out”.

Back in the cell with time to think, I considered the ancient Walker's words. Two things in that tale stood out as very important to me. First was the mention of traveling with gates. That sounded like it could have something to do with my own traveling event. The second was the empathic connection. I could feel it with that enlightened one when in that one's presence. Perhaps if I tried I could also reach out and find the strange spherical part of me I'd left in the water, hopefully a significant distance back.

As ever, I could feel the sensations from the object as if it were a limb of my body. I could feel the cool wet pressure, the slime and sand. But I needed more than that. I needed to know it in the way you know where your hand is when your eyes are closed. Would a connection to a part of yourself feel like a connection to someone else? I didn't have much else to go on. I wasn't sure how much progress I'd made by the time my captor's assistant arrived with food, so I didn't begrudge the interruption.

After eating, I renewed my focus on my situation. My task was to do something I had already done. I had done it. It was in my reach. I was the ancient hunter, the Venusian colonist. As I was in body, I must also be in mind. I knew the smell and taste of the life of other worlds. I stepped between them through gates... and I knew what a gate was. I couldn't build a proper world-spanning bridge without a team, but alone I could slip through a minor twist on my own with a connection target. Another of the race-of-hunters. Or, in my unique situation, a remote part of myself. The equations and geometry sprang readily to mind as I worked out the dimensional structure on the back of the cell door. It was a much longer arc than the last one, but with the right vector, I could push myself outward and be pulled back in by the linked target. After triple checking my math, I tilted myself just a little into the proper dimensional angle and pushed off.

* * *

As my body settled into mostly three dimensions, I collapsed onto a firm soil. I sat up and looked around me, I was in the center of a huge crater. How did I get here? I was so disoriented, I must have gated myself, I never really was the best at calculating a trajectory through the fifth dimension. The crater wasn't volcanic or impact, the rim was too steep. It looked like a huge spherical scoop had been precisely cut out of the ground.

I galloped to speed and took off, flying up to the rim and turning back to look down the crater. I reached out over the edge, for some weird reason expecting something to stop my hand, but just ended up sticking my hand out in the air and feeling rather foolish.

This place was strange. Over the rim to my right was a familiar kind of orchard, but beyond that was a beach. Not a pair of things one usually saw in close proximity. Down on the beach there was some kind of alien sailing vessel I'd never seen. Behind me, in the distance up the incline, was a single residential tree. No other buildings around it. Well, it was the only sign of civilization around, so I flew to it.

When I arrived there was, surprise surprise, no one there. The bark-covered tunnels inside were empty. But the layout was familiar. On a hunch, I followed a certain route until I came to one suite in particular. I swept aside the vine curtain and entered... my home. This was a perfect copy of a building I once lived in. I went to the room that had been mine, there was my sleeping nest filled with soft cloth, the first desk I'd grown myself, I went to the round window and ran my finger along the underside of the large leaf covering it which opened and revealed... not the same view I used to see from here. The vista of this strange world seemed to be made of familiar things juxtaposed in weird ways, and peppered with things I'd never seen before. I sat at my desk, lifted the top, there was the mirrored surface underneath and compartments filled with various trinkets. I took out a web of silver chain and draped it over one shoulder, the skin there holding it in place. But my reflection suddenly frowned, darkly disapproving, and flashed [You forgot!] before I fell. Upward? No. Diagonally, or more precisely, inward from all directions.
Last Edit: 3 months 6 days ago by Mylian. Reason: Funky formatting.
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