Due to the worst illness I’ve had in decades, I’m taking a week off for recovery.
Apologies for the delay!
Tam couldn’t beat the High One. She knew that the moment he arrived. From the sizzling aura of power he carried, to the thoughtless ease with which he broke the wards she’d erected, it was perfectly apparent that he carried more than enough power to simply brute force a path to victory through any fight she could put up. That alone was almost enough to seal his doom though.
As Val moved to draw the High One’s attention, Tam tried to step forward. The High One carried too much power to be a native of any Earthly realm. That gave her one weakness to work with.
She gathered the shreds of the wards he’d broken and read from them the core nature of the power the High One wielded. Each erg of it came from a the spirit energy of a willing sacrifice. That was another weakness to use against him.
Anna stopped Tam before she could move further. Val wasn’t going to win her fight against the High One but Anna saw what Tam wanted to overlook. Every moment that Val spent fighting was another Tam could spend observing and preparing.
The High One’s existence was was anathema on Earth. Tam spent a moment confirming that, to be sure the rest of her observations were corrected for accurately.
With a blink her eyes were covered in solid shadows, turning a shade of black deeper than the farthest reaches of space. Gazing into the blinding light at the core of his being, she saw that the avatar before them was conjured and fueled entirely by his faithful. The god’s investment in the matter did not equal theirs however.
Where the High One’s followers threw themselves onto bonfires in his name, giving every spark of energy left in their lives to his cause, he sat someplace impossibly distant, far away from any peril and directed his avatar with no more concern for its safety than a chess player had for one of their pawns.
Tam followed this one further, peering down into the roots of the magic that let the High One bridge the gap between their worlds.
That magic started in the High One’s world, and through it, Tam caught glimpses of how alien its landscape was.
Cities rose over desolate fields where chained demons slaved to pull life from the ever eroding soil. Each city was dominated by a massive central edifice which exalted the High One’s likeness above a population that huddled within the high walls, ever fearful of the heretics who lurked beyond.
Across a globe larger than the Earth, billions were clustered in these massive enclaves, each singing the praises of the High One and each hating the others for not signing his praises in the same manner they did.
From his throne on high, the High One offered his followers nothing, and collected from them everything they had, and they gave it willingly and eternally and without question.
Or most of his subjects did.
There were whispers of the Unfaithful. Of those who sought to live outside the High One’s dominion. Who refused to immolate themselves at his whim. Even moreso than the Heretics who lived within the other great cities, the Unfaithful served as the great boogeymen of the High One’s world.
Unlike many worlds however, the High One’s boogeymen were real.
Tam saw the reflection of the group the High One was looking for in the intent to which his power was leashed. All of those who fell upon the fires, a new soul igniting every second to add to the the thousands and tens of thousands who’d burned to fuel the avatar’s crossing, all of them understand that the Earth was where the Unfaithful had fled, accepting sanctuary from those who were forever lesser by virtue of having no place in the High One’s creation.
To the best of her knowledge, Tam didn’t think the Unfaithful had reached out to the Second Chance Club yet, but she wasn’t surprised that they had heard of Charlene’s offer of sanctuary for those who were being oppressed. For as much work as Tam and her teammates were doing on the ground, Charlene was clearly doing more behind the scenes, handling the sort of issues that would have taxed any of her associates beyond the breaking point.
That was another mark against the High One’s seeming omnipotence.
For all of the trouble they’d gotten themselves into and out of over the years, the one thing Tam knew was that if they ever truly needed her help, Charlene would be there for them. Since they seemed to be on their own for the moment, that suggested that the High One was a threat that was still in their league, appearances to the contrary.
Buoyed by that thought, Tam began to pick apart what she could see of the mechanics of the High One’s avatar.
They were a compromise between the mystical laws of his realm, where all magic was bound to his will, and the Earth’s laws, which could never be constrained under a single yoke. The High One was only able to bridge that fundamental gap by spending the steady stream of mystical energy to, essentially, pay for the use of Earthly magic which would normally be untouchable by something not of an Earthly realm.
That was good for the Earth, in the sense that the ambient level of magic would rise from the exchange while remaining free and clear of the High One’s influence. It was less good from Tam’s perspective though since it meant she couldn’t simply call on a great Earth spirit to disperse all otherworldly magics and be done with the issue.
For as long as he could afford to pay the price, the High One would be tolerated by the fundamental laws of the Earth. The moment he chose not to though, he would be expelled. Unfortunately, waiting him out wasn’t going to be an option. Even with a life being lost every second to allow him an agent on Earth, it would take centuries before his power ran dry.
Val was helping to spend that along by forcing the High One to draw on more power to defend himself from her, but even her efforts weren’t going to amount to enough in the end. Especially not once he starting being more efficient with the force he brought to bear against her, blinking away from her attacks rather than blocking or absorbing them.
It was the blinking evasion that gave Tam the final weakness she needed to turn against him.
Each time he disappeared and reappeared, the High One wasn’t teleporting. He was making use of the Earth’s animosity to his existence and letting it push him out of existence before clawing himself back within it somewhere else a fraction of a moment later. Watching that process, and the after effects it produced, gave Tam that last pieces to the binding spell she’d been working on.
As Val fell at the High One’s feet, Anna finally allowed her to act and Tam uttered a single word.
She couldn’t overcome the High One’s power, couldn’t bind him in mystical chains too strong for him to break. Any amount of power she put against the High One would fall far short of the power he could raise to oppose it.
So she didn’t use her own power. She used his.
Every drop of energy that the High One paid to remain upon the Earth, Tam turned against him. Any power he spent trying to do anything in fact, got turned against him. Assaulting the High One would serve no purpose. She knew he was too disconnected to feel anything that happened to his avatar, and he could oppose any change to it with the power of his world which it carried.
So she didn’t try to change the avatar, or injure the god, she just made the price of doing almost anything at all, impossibly steep.
“Thank you Tam,” Anna said. She’d remained standing and watchful during the whole confrontation.
“He’s not going anywhere now,” Tam said. “Or doing anything.”
Frozen in place like a statue, the High One couldn’t even glare in defiance of his fate. Tam could feel the scorching energy he put out as he fought the binding, and then watched the High One cool as he worked out what had been done to him.
“Can you allow his to speak,” Anna asked. “He seemed chatty and I have a few questions for him.”
“Sure. That’s no problem,” Tam said, relaxing the part of the spell that left the god mute.
“Very clever,” the High One said as the binding fell away. “I’m glad to see you can do that.”
His meaning was crystal clear. In trapping him, Tam had revealed one of the tricks she could use against him, and herself as a caster able to pull such a feat off. When he returned, and she knew that he would, it would be armed with that knowledge.
“You spent a great deal to interrupt our conference,” Anna said. “Next time it might be more efficient to simply send a letter requesting a meeting of your own.”
Anna’s meaning was clear as well. She’d spoke with James about the requirements for crossworld incursions like the High Ones, and she was offering him a less costly rematch whenever he desired, so long as he left the others who were present out of the matter.
“Our worlds are moving ever closer,” the High One said. “I achieved my position by taking power that was being squandered. I see you traveling along a similar path. Soon you’ll close enough that we’ll be able to meet in a more personal manner.”
Tam wasn’t sure which of them the High One was addressing, but she knew that comparing himself to Anna was not a good play overall. Anna could be a forgiving person, but that didn’t mean she was equally forgiving of everyone.
“Don’t worry,” Anna said. “As your world drifts closer to ours, we’ll make sure to point out the differences between what we have to offer and what you supply your followers with in ways that are clear for all to see.”
Billions supported the High One. Which also meant that billions could turns against him.
“Please do,” the High One said. “Show us all what you have to offer. The strife, the wars, the chaos. Let’s let everyone see the misery and anarchy your sins bring. I’m sure once the truth of this world is revealed, people will still flock to embrace it. That sounds so much better than the peace and community my creation enjoys.”
“Wonderful,” Anna said. “So you agree to let your subjects freely choose which world they wish to live in? They can leave your dominion and embrace our, presumably, far more terrible world?”
The High One sneered but before he could respond, Anna continued.
“But no, that’s not what brought you here is it?” she said. “You don’t wish to see the truth. You can’t bear the idea that, for all its faults and flaws, someone would choose the Earth over you.”
She walked up to him, and stared directly into his eyes.
“You call our world a sin, because it doesn’t give you what you want, and so, like a crying child who can’t get what he wants, you lash out. Not out of fear of what we might do to you, but because you know what you are, and how unworthy a thing that is.”
Watching his eyes for a moment, she turned and walked away.
“Your people say they love you,” she said. “They sign your praises, but you know what they are truly praising. You know the image they hold of you, the great lie you have sold them, and how, for all your power, you will always be so far from true greatness.”
“We’re done here,” the High One said.
“I didn’t say you could leave,” Tam said. The High One’s avatar offered all sorts of insights into his power and his mind. She saw no reason to give up her investigations of it.
Until it began to go critical.
“Oh, I’m not leaving,” the High One said. “And neither are you.”
The explosion that rocked the abandoned subway terminal was at first mistaken for an earthquake, and then an underground nuclear test, before knowledgeable experts were able to review the pattern and determine that it could only have been from something out of the world.
Anna looked at the destruction of her meeting and flicked a chip of concrete from her shoulder. A powerful being, probably a god, stood before her, but all she felt was annoyance.
“Get on your knees, crawl on your bellies, and your punishment will be lightened,” the High One said, smirking in triumph as the light from his body bleached the room to ever paler shades.
A tremor ran through the room as even the walls felt the gravity of his words.
The High One looked around the assemblage, and the crowd bowed further. For all the crushing weight of his command, falling under his gaze was a hundred times worse. Try though they might, the onlookers’ struggles against his will were ultimately futile. In the end, the High One knew, they would all prostrate themselves before him.
“And you would be?” Anna asked, standing before him without bothering to hide the chill of her accent.
She could feel the authority radiating from the High One. He was larger than she was. He commanded more resources than she did. Trillions of souls gave him obedience and would swear that he was right in all things. It didn’t mean that he was however.
The High One’s presence sought to fill his onlookers with fear but the frosty center of Anna’s heart was where fear went to die.
“I owe you nothing,” the High One said, sneering at her question. “You violated my realm. You stole those who belonged to me and gave safe harbor to blasphemers. I will not abide this.”
“Is this what the conference was meant to discuss?” Mezzinora asked, her voice trembling and she fought to bring her shaking limbs under control. For all the outward display of fear, the act of speaking at all was a testament to abundant reserves of courage she could draw on. None of the other guests were able to even manage that much in the face of the High One’s divine majesty.
“No,” Anna said, offering Mezzinora a small, reassuring smile. “This one is uninvited.”
She glanced over to where Val and Laura stood by the main entrance to the impromptu meeting room. Meeting Val’s gaze, Anna lifted a questing eyebrow and nodded towards the High One. Val returned a noncommittal shrug.
Anna understood her young friends meaning entirely. Val wasn’t sure how strong the High One was, or what her chances were against him, but, from the fire in her eyes, she was more than willing to find out the hard way.
“Do you think you can eject me from this world?” the High One asked. “Come, try then, let’s see what your pet sorcerer there can do. You should learn to despair properly.”
Anna placed a hand on Tam’s arm as the magician began to step forward.
“Like we need magic to beat your ass down?” Val said, strolling into the space the High One’s aura had cleared, and rolling her shoulders with a satisfying crack.
The other people in the room backed further away, in part to give Val more space to work, and in part because the show of resistance was enough to lessen the strength of the High One’s command.
The High One raised his hand in a slow, unconcerned gesture with his palm open. Before anyone could see what happened next, there was a loud boom and Val was across the chamber, embedded half a foot into the concrete wall.
“Please, come at me again,” the High One said with a smug smile.
Val had just extricated herself from the concrete when the High One waved his other arm. He did it slower this time, so that people could follow the gesture as another thundercrack sounded and Val was smashed deeper into the wall.
“That’s enough,” Anna said. She knew how things were going to end, and found it tiresome to listen to the godling prattle on.
“No. I don’t think it is,” the High One said and flicked a finger at the depression Val had been smashed into. An even louder boom followed as the wall collapsed entirely, sealing Val under tons of rubble.
“You will regret that,” Anna said, her tone calm and matter of fact. “What do you want?”
“I want you all to burn,” the High One said. “Not perhaps the whole of your world, not the ones who give themselves to my dominion freely and fully. Those may be spared. But those who have the idea that they exempt from my law, those who would reject my love? You will be reduced to ash, and from your ashes a better world will be formed.”
Val’s growl as she broke free from the collapsed stone and concrete was only technically a human sound.
The High One met her charge with a weary look and a blast of force that pushed her back harder than she could fight against.
Silver and blue lines of force burst to life along her skin as she pushed the enchantments she carried to their utmost extent.
Tam began the gestures for a reinforcing charm, but Anna restrained her again with a small hand motion.
Though the High One’s force seemed overwhelming, Val was able to advance against it, pushing forward by inches with each ponderous step she took.
The High One sneered at her approach at first, but grew amused as she drew closer.
“That’s it,” he said and turned to address the crowd. “Feel hope rise within you. Watch as your champion struggles to overcome my might.”
Val looked up, meeting his mocking expression with a snarl on her blood strewn face.
“Come on now, don’t let them down,” the High One said. “You are clearly the strongest one here. It is up to you to show them that they can stand against me.”
Tam made a small growl, but Anna didn’t remove her hand from Tam’s arm. The High One had probably just made a critical mistake, but Anna needed to sure.
“Just a few more steps and you’ll be close enough to strike me,” the High One said and then blinked, sending Val tumbling backwards.
Undeterred, Val halted her flight by digging a hand into the floor and leaving five long gouges where her fingers tore through the concrete. She rose in time for the steady wave of pressure to change to a hail of individual blows.
One snapped her head back, another crashed into her shoulder, spinning halfway around, while the next knocked her right foot out from under her.
Blow after blow landed, but Val pushed through them, the jerks of her body and head singing a lament of the punishment she was enduring.
“Such spirit,” the High One said. “I would say you would have made a fine warrior in my armies but you really wouldn’t have. No one could ever rely on a damaged, soiled thing like you to be their Champion could they?”
A faint smile crossed Anna’s lips as she got the confirmation she was looking for. Even gods could reveal weaknesses if you gave them the time to do so, it seemed.
Val cast a glance over to Anna as she rose again, and from the trickle of a smile that flashed across her lips Anna knew she’d seen the same opening Anna had.
With renewed strength in her step, Val pushed forward again, shrugging off the invisible blows as they intensified in speed. The glowing lines on her body had multiplied and cast off almost enough light to overwhelm the High One’s radiance.
“And now it comes,” the High One said. “You’re great, final effort. The single blow into which all of your hopes and…”
He didn’t get to finish the sentence.
All anyone saw was the comet trail Val left in her passing. All they heard was the deafening shockwave of her first connecting with the High One’s jaw.
“Almost good enough…” the High One said. He hadn’t been thrown back, hadn’t moved a muscle except for his neck which was slightly turned in the wake of Val’s titanic assault.
She hit him again, drowning out his speech with the thunder unleashed by her fists.
The High One tried to casually backhand her, but Val blocked the attack. Even from several feet away, Anna could hear the audible cracking of bones heralding the price Val had paid for that defense though.
With the High One’s arm temporarily immobilized, Val smashed him in the eye with the back of her free fist.
The strike didn’t disable, or even inconvenience, the High One as it would have anything mortal, but he still reacted to it with a displeased frown.
Instead of taunting Val further, he threw spoke a word in a language no one on Earth had ever heard. The wave of force that erupted should have done more than knock everyone to their feet. It should have obliterated everyone present. Instead it met Val’s enchantments and was drawn inwards, charging them to dazzling brilliance.
When Val next hit the High One, his blithe facade vanished. Her punch to his throat sent him staggering backwards two full paces before he regained control. For a moment of look of real anger flashed across his face before it was covered by a smarmy smile.
Val tried to follow up the successful attack with a vicious kick to his legs but the High One stopped her with a and open handed palm strike to center of her chest.
“You scored a hit!” the High One said, his voice dripping with feigned surprise as though he was congratulating a child on managing their first few steps. “Is the tide turning?” he added, gesturing to the crowd to the cheer Val on.
Val tried for another kick, but he simply wasn’t there in the instant it was meant to land.
“Oh no,” the High One said, vanishing again to evade another blow. “Your foe is using trickery. You’ll need to get clever or this fight that you were clearly winning will turn against you.”
Val swung in one direction, and then kicked in another, but the High One blinked away from the blows as though he’d never been there at all.
“Look people of Earth,” the High One said. “Look at how close the strongest among you is. Give her your trust. Sing her your praises. Let her draw from you all the strength she needs to save you from the terrible foe before you.”
Val continued to punch and kick, attacking faster and faster.
“Does she have your faith?” the High One asked. “Don’t hold back now. She’s almost fast enough. She just has to push a little bit farther. Try a little bit harder.”
Val let out a feral scream and her attacks blazed into a sphere faster than the eye could follow.
There was another thundercrack and for a moment the air was obscured with so much dust that no one could tell what the outcome of the fight had been.
Anna knew though.
As the dust settled, she wasn’t surprised to see Val laying at the High One’s feet.
“Or perhaps she wasn’t that close after all,” the High One said, a disappointed frown on his lips.
He peered down at the fallen woman at his feet.
“You didn’t even put up a good fight,” he said with a sneer, “So don’t try to comfort yourself with that. Trying your best wasn’t enough. Giving it all you had didn’t matter. All your resistance insured is that when your world burns, I will make sure to roast the ones you care about first, and I will keep them burning until the end.”
He turned to the crowd.
“This is all any of you can hope for,” he said. “To perish swiftly for your crimes, or to perish in agony for your resistance. As the mightiest of you has fallen, so shall the rest.”
His attention was drawn back Val as a low, pained laugh wheezed out of her.
“You’re demise will have no space for mirth in it,” the High One said.
“It’s not…why I’m…laughing,” Val said, fighting to get the words out through the pain.
“Then tell me, what hope still lingers in your heart,” the High One said.
“Come…come closer,” Val said, the effort of speaking clearly taxing her. “I’ll tell you.”
“Yes, please do,” the High One said. “Try to trick me. Lure me in for one final gambit.”
He bent down, within reach of her hands but keeping just enough distance that Anna could see he wasn’t perfectly confident in his ability to react to whatever Val had in mind.
“You made a mistake,” Val said, coughing up a bit of blood as she spoke.
“Because I am within your clutches now?” the High One said.
“No,” Val said, her voice only a whisper. “Not my clutches. You don’t get what I am.”
“And what are you?” the High One asked. “A god in disguise?”
“No,” Val said. “I’m not the strongest one on my team. I’m the weakest.”
And with that Anna let Tam go.
Anna was happy to see her teammates assembling, enough so to override the concern for what had brought them together.
“This is an interesting meeting place you have chosen,” Mezzinora said, peering over the edges of her sunglasses.
Anna followed the Dark Elf’s gaze as it tracked across the hastily arranged conference area setup in the unused rail station under the airport’s main terminal. The collection of people were a more motley group than any boardroom meeting Anna had ever chaired, but each of them also held more power than any corporation short of the now-defunct PrimaLux.
“I apologize for the somewhat ramshackle conditions,” Anna said. “Time is of the essence though, and this was the most accessible venue which could meet all of our guests needs.”
Jimmy B had boggled when Anna presented him with the list of requirements for the various attendees to her hastily assembled summit. Normally all he had to worry about was dietary restrictions and occasionally ley line issues which he could recruit James to work out. This meeting’s guests however had specific needs in terms of subterranean depth, ambient radioactivity, wavelengths of light which must and must not be present, and a dozen different compounds which were required to remain present in the air within fairly tight concentrations.
Anna had chuckled to see the look of disbelief that had crept over Jimmy B’s eyes as he read through the list. As expected though, when he got to the end he’d flashed her his usual smile, given a thumbs up, and said, “don’t see any problems here, I’ll have a spot for you in ninety three minutes.”
In the end, it had, in fact, taken him ninety two minutes and twelve seconds, but Anna suspected he’d hurried the last few preparations just a little to claim victory on his original prediction.
“There’s no need to apologize,” Mezzinora said. “I wouldn’t be here to represent my people at all if you hadn’t saved us from the Fire Servants.”
Anna looked out over the crowd and looked for the form of a miniature dragon composed entirely of lava that she’d seen earlier. Spying Xores speaking with one of the goggle wearing velociraptor’s off to one side of the group near the stairs, she drew Mezzinora’s attention to where the Fire Servant was floating.
“How is the reconciliation going?” she asked. “Our seating arrangements are still flux, so if you’d prefer to be on the other side of the chamber from Xores, that can be arranged.”
“That…that won’t be necessary,” Mezzinora said. “After you brought our peoples to the negotiating table we’ve discovered that we have quite lot in common. Xores and I came together in fact. We think we may have similar arguments to advance to the group as a whole.”
Anna blinked. It had been an unexpected task to prevent a war at the Earth’s Core (or one version of the Earth’s Core at least), and one that she hadn’t been sure she’d been wholly successful at.
No two peoples who have battled for centuries were likely to establish truly cordial relations within a span of a few weeks, but once the main source of their conflict (the limited space in the hottest areas around the core) had been addressed (by providing access to new hot spots for both the Dark Elves and the Fire Servants to grow into) there had been a road opened for them to find a new future down.
“And you each carry the full ambassadorial powers of your governments?” Anna asked.
“Yes, it’s what we commiserated about on the trip to the upper lands,” Mezzinora said. “Xores thinks you meant to punish us both for being the most strident voices against the Armistice when you set us up as the ones to speak for it in the end.”
“It wasn’t a punishment exactly,” Anna said, “You were just the most effective people to convince to change your minds.”
“Is that what you plan to do here?” Mezzinora asked.
“I think this is more of an informational session,” Tam said, joining them with her laptop open as she put the finishing touches on the presentation she’d put together for Anna.
“There must be some sort of argument you wish to convince us of though, is there not?” Mezzinora asked.
“I believe they expect the information they have be convincing on its own,” Duinella said, joining the group along with Tam, who she’d been speaking with a moment before.
Anna gazed up to take in the giant woman’s expression, which held the look of guarded concern Anna had expected to see there.
Despite her human appearance, Duinella was more of an alien than either the Dark Elf Mezzinora, the Fire Servant Xores, or any of the other attendees of the meeting. She hailed from another world where a group of tyrants who called themsevles “The Pure Holders of the Sky” held sway. The only thing “pure” about them however was their pure hatred of “less species” by which they meant anyone not part of their hierarchy.
That heritage provided Duinella with an insight into the problem Anna had assembled their guests to debate. If debate was the right word. Debates at least had the possibility of reaching a consensus something Anna suspected wasn’t going to be very likely when the topic was the impending end of the world.
Once those assembled had time to mingle, collect refreshments and sort themselves into their proper seating locations, Anna took the small stage in front of them.
“Thank you for coming,” she said, quieting them down without having to raise the volume of her voice noticeably. “I know you each face significant challenges, some of which we have been able to assist with, some of which still require attention. That is part of the reason I called you all here today. There is a more pressing overall concern though.”
“More pressing than finding a source for the dwindling wonder which sustains Our Realm?” Duke Wellbagun, the unique noble, asked.
“Yes,” Anna said. “In short, we are faced with the end of the world.”
There was a ripple of disbelief from the crowd as muttering broke out. Anna pointed at the screen to her left and clicked forward to the first slide Tam had prepared for her. It showed a vision, in picture perfect clarity of the Earth burning in a rain of Divine Fire.
“I am not speaking in general, or uncertain terms,” Anna said. “We are roughly six months away from an extinction level event which will destroy life on the prime Earth we are on now and any mirror or shadow Earths which retain a connection to it.”
“That’s not possible,” Sycorax, the Queen of Atlantis said.
Anna clicked forward to the next slide. Equations and arcane symbology covered the screen. A few gasps arose from those in the crowd capable of reading and understanding it.
“It is not only possible, at this moment it appears to be inevitable,” Anna said.
“But there are no signs or portents to herald such an apocalypse,” Xores, the lava dragon, said.
“The threat that can do this comes from worlds which are beyond our immediate sphere,” Tam said, stepping forward to support Anna. “You can see the warning signs, but you need to know where to look. Since the aggressors aren’t part of our realms, their fate is disconnect from ours and the usual future castings don’t acknowledge what we can do to each other.”
“This is all going well over my head,” Mezzinora said. “Could you give it to us in simple terms?”
“Of course,” Anna said, “For those who wish to discuss the more specific details of how we know what we know, Tam will be available until we break up for the day.”
“The simple version is this,” Tam said, stepping in front of the podium to more directly engage her audience. “Some of us come from very different versions of this world. At one point in the past, those different realms were more closely aligned with each other, with what we call ‘the Prime Earth’ acting as the foundation they were all connected by.”
She looked around and saw everyone was following her and continued on.
“Over time, the realms became more distinct and, in many cases, more isolated. There are ones where transit is still relatively easy, such as to the lands of your King and Queen, Duke Wellbagun. There are also ones where the transit is not so easy, such as to the Risen Atlantis you rule over Sycorax. In all cases though, there are paths that can be taken to get from one realm to another. We are all, ultimately, part of the same whole.”
“Well, not all of us,” Duinella, the giantess, said.
“Yeah, and that’s the heart of the problem we’re faced with here,” Tam said. “See, the multiverse is a lot broader than just Earth and the realms that grew out of it.”
She nodded and the presentation clicked to the next slide.
The image began with a view of the Earth, which separated into the mundane planet and a million overlapping shadow layers. As the camera pulled back, the solar system and the Milk Way galaxy became visible, rendered with artistic license but showing all the while the same bifurcations into separate but connected layers.
“On the physical plane, we have the cosmos of space,” Tam said. “Out as far as information can travel, and expanding faster than light, we have endless space, filled with endless varieties of peoples and places, though all bound by the same fundamental physical laws.”
The video had pulled back far enough that the superstructure of the universe itself was becoming apparent.
“Most of the diversity in the physical cosmos is unexplored, and beyond a certain distance, unexplorable. We can never travel by physical means to the farthest corners of our physical universe, and the isolation of distance acts as an insurmountable barrier to prevent many far flung worlds from ever meeting each other.”
The view in the video began to move back inwards, rushing through the Virgo super cluster, into the Milky Way and speeding towards the Solar system.
“So, aliens from another galaxy, or even from another solar system, aren’t much of a problem,” Tam said. “We’re not likely to run into them and even if we do, there’s so much space out there that we should be able to coexist.”
The display reached Earth and began to pull out again, this time passing through a scintillating crystal sphere that surrounded the planet at an unspecified distance.
Outside the sphere, there was a constellation of similar spheres, each with a different world inside, each with their own shadow layers.
“This is where our problem comes from,” Tam said. “Worlds beyond our own which are not part of our physical cosmos. Ones which should not be part of ours and yet…”
The video showed the crystal spheres touching, and occasionally overlapping, as the worlds moved in dizzying celestial dance
“And yet, sometimes there are connections that are made,” Tam said.
“Why is that a problem? Is one of them going to crash into us?” Mezzinora asked.
“No, for various reasons, worlds within different spheres don’t collide with each other,” Tam said. “The apocalypse that we’ve seen coming isn’t a natural or supernatural disaster. It is intentional and perpetrated with malice against us by the rulers of these worlds.”
The video highlighted a half dozen of the nearest crystal spheres.
“What motivation do they have to destroy us?” Sycorax asked.
A lightning bolt split the ceiling and cast the room into darkness.
As the thick haze of smoke and dust rolled away from the center of the room, the darkness was broken by the harsh white light streaming from the golden haired man who rose to his feet.
“You have transgressed against your betters,” the High One said, his voice crack the stone foundations around them. “Now you will pay for your presumptions.”
Val wasn’t used to riding in limousines, but under the circumstances, she found she quite enjoyed it.
“We should be at the airport in plenty of time,” Laura said from the front seat. Outside the limo’s window Val watched as a highway full of cars sat in bumper to bumper traffic, inching forward across ever road rage inducing mile to the next exit. By contrast, the surface road Laura had pulled off onto two exits back had virtually no obstructions on it. The nearest vehicle ahead of them was a bike that was good quarter mile away and gaining distance as the rider ignored even the pretext of observing the speed limit.
“Think we should tell Anna that?” Val asked, smiling as she sank bank into the cushy rear seat. For as good as it felt to relax after a successful mission, not having to race (and lose) against Anna again arguably felt better.
“Are we supposed to tell her anything?” Laura asked.
Val laughed. Anna hadn’t intended to be intimidating. Val had seen her when she wanted to cow someone and nothing about the quick mission to resolve Laura and Stephanie’s difficulties had called for that level of force. Even without meaning to though, Anna radiated an aura of confidence and leadership that was damn hard not to get swept up in.
“You can tell her, and any of us, anything,” Val said.
“Really?” Laura asked. “I mean it’s kind of my first day on the job.”
“All the more reason,” Val said and did her best impersonation of the Russian accent Anna occasionally lapsed into when she wanted to appear more serious than she was. “You bring fresh perspective, yes? See things with new eyes, things rest of us might miss.”
“Ok. I can’t get over all this though. I mean, twenty four hours ago I thought I was going to be on the run for the rest of my life, and now I’m…in a club I guess?”
“As long as you want to be,” Val said. “From what Tam said, you’ve earned it.”
“All I did was hit a few guys with a stick.”
“Yeah, but who those guys are matters kind of a lot,” Val said. “Most people wouldn’t try that with a mob boss and two corrupt cops. In my book, that took guts.”
“Didn’t you walk into a whole warehouse full of his goons though?” Laura asked. “Alone.”
“Kinda had to. Didn’t want anyone getting too hurt,” Val said, and shrugged. It was probably the least dangerous thing she’d done that week. Just getting out of bed was a bigger peril some days, given how cranky Aranea could be when it was cold and she hadn’t gotten to sleep in properly.
“They brought six ambulances in when you were done though, didn’t they?” Laura had only been arrived at the skirmish after the shooting stopped and it was safe enough for Jimmy B to call in a ride to take Val home.
Technically the EMTs who’d shown up had only had to render first aid to most of the goons who’d been in the “all hands” warehouse meeting. The police had been the ones to take the majority of them away on various charges which they now had confirmation of thanks to the wire Val had worn. A few though? Well there was the saying about omelettes and eggs, but in this case it was more “crime rings” and “bad guy’s arms and legs”.
“There’s an excellent chance that everyone they took away will regain the full use of the limbs within a few months,” Val said. “Which, I will remind them is a lot better than things could have gone when I stop in here next time.”
“You’re coming back?” Laura asked.
“Yeah. Charlene, our boss, doesn’t like to give up on people,” Val said. “She usually checks in on the people we deal with, or has us check in on them, to see if they can learn from their mistakes.”
“Does that happen often?” Laura asked.
“Eh, I never count on it, but I’ve been surprised more times than I expected. I don’t know how this crew will go. The cops are probably a wash. There’s too much of a support network for ones who misuse and abuse their power, and they have too much invested in their self justifications. The other ones though? The career gangster types? Maybe? It’s a tough job to pull out of, but the ones who don’t get jail time might be willing to take up the offer to get out of that situation and move elsewhere.”
“I feel like I got really lucky there,” Laura said. “A few more years, and I could have been in that warehouse too.”
“That’s why we try to reach out to people we hurt as well as the ones we help,” Val said. “You can wind up in a bad place through a bunch of decisions where you didn’t have a lot of good options. Doesn’t mean you didn’t chose to be there but it might mean you’ll be willing to chose something better if you get the chance.”
“I can’t believe I get to chose this,” Laura said, her voice quiet and respectful.
“Driving for a living?” Val asked. “Or did you want to tackle more of the stuff we get involved in?”
“Stuff like taking down mob families?” Laura asked. “I don’t know if I can handle things like that.”
“You definitely don’t have to put yourself on the line like that,” Val said. “If you want to work with Jimmy B on the transportation side of things, that is going to be incredibly valuable.”
“Come on, anyone can drive a car,” Laura said.
“Yeah, and anyone can be there for someone else when they need it,” Val said. “Doesn’t mean it happens often enough, or that the people who step up aren’t doing something special.”
“I’m just a kid though,” Laura said.
“You’re a young lady with a hell of a lot of guts,” Val said. “And before you try to deny it, please remember that I just walked into a building with about a bajillion guys with guns who were ready to shoot me as soon as they saw me, so it’s just possible that I know what I’m talking about there.”
“See, but I couldn’t do that,” Laura said. “I can’t take down entire criminal organizations by myself like a superhero or something.”
“To be fair, I just dealt with the armed goons,” Val said. “It was Anna and JB tag teaming them on finances and administration that really closed things down.”
“What did they do?” Laura asked.
“I don’t know the exact details, but what Anna usually does is put together a pretty clear trail to lead the official investigators to where the bad guys have all their money hidden,” Val said. “JB’s got contacts basically everywhere, so Anna’s breadcrumbs get fast tracked to people with jurisdiction who we know will handle it right.”
“I thought things like subpoenas and warrants took time to put together though,” Laura said. “You always here about cops working on cases like this for months or years.”
“Cops can’t do the kinds of things Tam can,” Val said. “Some of which is just unreal. Like not ‘sort of illegal’, but like ‘sort of impossible’.”
“What does sort of impossible mean?” Laura asked.
Val hesitated for only a moment, and then sighed.
“Ok, this is something you’ll run into sooner or later since you’re in the Club now,” she said. “Short form: magic is real, and the world is about a billion times weirder than you can imagine.”
“You say that like it doesn’t explain how you managed to go all action movie hero on my old bosses crew,” Laura said.
“You believe me? Good. You don’t know how hard that is for some people to accept,” Val said. “Of course it doesn’t help that magic is flakey as hell. I was able to take on the building like that because we had the right alignment of stars and there are about fifty club members who lent me their speed, and toughness, and strength.”
“That sounds kind of cool. What other kind of stuff can you do?” Laura asked.
“It varies a bit from day to day. If you’re interested, James is our resident mentor, and he will happily talk your ears off for days if you get him started.”
“Is it hard?” Laura asked.
“Even that varies,” Val said. “I’ve tried to cast spells a couple times and that is just not my jam. They either fizzle or something completely unrelated happens. Tam though? She’s one of the best casters on the planet I think, and she only picked it up a few years ago.”
“What determines if you be good at it?” Laura asked. “Is it like a blood thing, or do you make a pact or something?”
“Nope. Or at least not for the kind of broad spellcasting Tam does. From what she said, real magic working skill comes from the caster being able to see a different world and needing to make it real. There’s a lot more to it than that – rules upon rules upon rules, built on math, and lost languages, and mythology, and so so many books. Magic supposedly always has a price but I think in a lot of cases the price is just all of the random stuff you need to keep crammed into your brain and all the time you have to spend on the most boring research in the world.”
“Would it be hard to learn just one spell do you think?” Laura asked.
“Depends on the spell,” Val said.
“I was thinking something to make transitioning a little easier,” Laura said.
“Good news/bad news there,” Val said. “One thing that our world doesn’t support is permanent transformations, so there’s no simple spell that will do all the work for you. Which sucks. Good news though is that there are definitely spells that can help the body heal and process things better and faster. So the hormones and stuff you’re working with now? James can probably set you up with some techniques that will make those a lot more effective and/or remove a bunch of the side effects. Just, you know, expect a migraine or two trying to memorize all the things you have to in order to make the spells work.”
“That would definitely be worth it,” Laura said.
“Yeah. I wish we could share things like that with the whole world, but up until recently it’s been more likely that people would hurt themselves with miscasting than that they’d get anything good out of it.”
“It’s different now? What happened?” Laura asked.
“There was an organization called PrimaLux,” Val said. “They were one of the major players in the mystical world. They’d scored a bunch of the paths that let magic flow into the world and closed them down so they’d have a better hold on it. They wanted a monopoly but they never quite managed to it get. Then we sort of destroyed them.”
“You destroyed them?”
“They messed with us one too many times. Even sank a boat we were on. After that they had to go. So we took them out of the picture. Without them around, there were a bunch of power vacuums and a lot more power on the table, so things got a bit unstable for a while.”
“How did that turn out?”
“There’s a couple of problems that we’re still working on,” Val said with a sheepish grin/
“Like what?” Laura asked, genuinely curious.
“The world’s kind of going to end,” Val said. “In about six months as far as we can tell.”
“Six months?” Laura laughed, having reached the end of what she could take seriously.
“That’s what the current forecast says. We’ve managed to change it by twenty minutes recently though.”
“Wait, are you serious?” Laura asked.
“Unfortunately, yes,” Val said. “For what it’s worth though, we are working the problem, and we’ve worked against some really long odds before.”
“You sound awfully calm about it,” Laura said as she pulled up to the entrance to the private airfield beside the main airport they’d been heading towards.
“My girlfriend has assured me that no one other than her is going to get to cast me into the abyss,” Val said. “Since she’s literally a goddess, I figure it’s safe to trust her when she says that.”
Before Laura could process how likely Val’s words were to be real, she saw the plane which had landed a few minutes earlier open it’s door and let its passengers out.
It’s not even vaguely human passengers.
With a shrug, she put the limo into park. This was her life now. Time to get used to it she guessed.
Finances had never been a specific area of focus for Tam, but she’d brushed up against different parts of the credit industry both as part of her work with the Second Chance Club and the hacking she’d done on her own before then. Almost universally those contacts had been unpleasant for one or both parties, so she wasn’t surprised to hear that an 18 year old girl who was on her own for the first time had run afoul one or more money related disasters. What did surprise her though was the apartment that Laura had secured for herself.
“This place is nicer than I expected,” Tam said, turning off Jim’s bike.
Behind her, Dixie waited until the kickstand was down to hop off the seat and start looking for her sister’s apartment.
“Laura said it wasn’t bad. I guess she made up her mind that she was moving out about two years ago and she’s been making plans for it ever since.”
The apartment building wasn’t one of the “great edifices of the wealthy and powerful”, but it was in a convenient location, with a nice view of the nearby park, and access to a bus stop. The grounds were clean and, at least from the outside, the six story building seemed to be well maintained. In terms of living arrangements it beat most of the ones Tam had managed to find for herself until she was well into her professional career.
“Is she expecting you?” Tam asked.
“No,” Dixie said. “I kind of didn’t have time to call her before I left.”
“Is she even home? Can you give her a call?”
“She said she’s working nights, so she should be home,” Dixie said. “I was thinking we could surprise her though.”
“Does she like surprises?”
“I don’t know. Sometimes?”
“Call her then,” Tam said and offered Dixie her cellphone.
Dixie waved the offer away and pulled her own phone out. Calling her sister took only a moment, but her expression turned to confusion.
“It says the number’s not in service?”
“That’s not a good sign,” Tam said, the information pointing to a pattern she didn’t like to see forming. Mysterious banking problems plus unexpected phone disconnections could easily be the result of malice rather than stupidity.
“Are you looking for someone?” a heavy set man asked, as he stepped out of the doors leading to the apartment building’s main stairway.
Tam glanced over to him, smelled a scent of the ocean that wasn’t supposed to exist this far inland and did a double take. The man was many things. Large. Powerfully muscled, though bulky enough that he merely appeared obese. And wearing a coat with the building’s logo on it.
What he wasn’t, was human.
“Wahlri?” Tam asked, trying to place the specific sea breeze that she was smelling.
The man scowled and glared at her for a moment before his expression softened.
“You’re a sharp one, magician,” he said. “Not looking for trouble I hope?”
“That depends,” Tam said. “What sort of trouble do you have here?”
The Wahlri were a race of shapeshifters, primarily aquatic but it wasn’t uncommon for them to venture onto land, and even create lives and build families for themselves there. Unlike the more protean form of shapeshifters who could assume a wide variety of shapes, the Wahlri only had an oceanic form and a land form. That limited the sort of the problems they could cause but their tempers could be as mercurial and violent as the sea. That combined with their surprising physical power made them dangerous opponents to underestimate.
“No trouble here, unless you bring some and we don’t need any of that,” the Wahlri said.
“Have you seen the woman who lives in apartment 2C?” Dixie asked. “She’s…umm…a little big.”
“Laura?” the Wahlri said and then brightened. “Oh, you must be her sister Dixie! She talks about you a lot.”
“You know her?” Dixie asked.
“Yeah, she just moved in here a few months ago. Good kid. My name’s Owen. I’m the super here.”
“Do you know if Laura’s home?” Tam asked.
“I’m not allowed to answer questions like that,” Owen said. “You can use the callbox to see if she’s available though. It’s just inside the door there.”
Dixie looked at Tam, as though Tam needed to give her permission. Knowing it would speed things up, Tam nodded approval and remained behind to speak with Owen.
“Everything really ok here?” she asked.
“With Laura? Yeah, as far as I know. I know she had some trouble at home, but things seemed to working out for her here.”
“Any reason her phone would be out of service?” Tam asked.
“I don’t think so. It was working yesterday at least. How do you know her?”
“I don’t,” Tam said. “I ran into Dixie and saw she needed a hand.”
“And you dropped what you were doing to drive her out here?”
“It’s kind of my job.”
“That’s a heck of a job. Only place I know of that does things like that is the Second Chance Club.”
It was Tam’s turn to react in surprise. The Club’s existence wasn’t a secret but it also wasn’t widely known of or talked about.
“You’ve worked with the Club before?” she asked.
“Not me. My great-grandparents were members back in their day though. They said a woman named Charlene helped them get settled here when the tides turned against them.”
The coincidence of running into someone, especially a somewhat magical someone, who knew about the Club left Tam yearning to turn to her spell craft to find out if Owen was telling the truth.
He could be luring her into a trap. He could have done something to Laura with the intent to draw in family members like Dixie and people like Tam. She could be standing on dangerous ground and not even know it!
With controlled breath, Tam put those fears aside. Sure, things could be bad. But she could handle bad, and leaving room for the good to flourish in life sometimes meant taking a few risks.
“The Club’s still around,” Tam said. “Dixie didn’t write to us for help, so I’m a little outside my purview, but there’s no restriction on helping people we run across and once you start doing it, it gets hard to stop.”
“That sounds like the club my Great Grams told me about.”
“What club is that?” the woman who spoke was on the largish size, as Dixie had said. She was also dressed in the sort of baggy, comfortable clothes that said she was more likely running personal errands that coming back from a work break. Her makeup however was done with the kind of expert craftsmanship Tam only enjoyed when she had a professional handle it for her before a show.
“Where I work,” Tam said. “We help out people with special requests. At the moment that means giving a ride to someone who’s car broke down on the way to help out her sister.”
“I guess it’s kind of the day for that,” Laura said, stepping to the side reveal an even younger girl who’d been hiding behind her.
“That’s not your sister is it?” Owen asked, looking towards the building where Dixie was emerging with a frustrated look on her face.
“No. This is Stephanie,” Laura said. “Is it ok if she stays with me for a little bit. She’s kind of in a bind.”
“Sure, but what’s the matter?” Owen asked, offering his coat to Stephanie without appearing to think about it.
“Better to talk about it inside, I think,” Laura said.
“Is everything ok?” Dixie asked. “I tried calling the Limo company and they said they were looking to have you come in early and that I should call them as soon as I knew where you were.”
“You should call them?” Tam asked. “Shouldn’t an employer ask the employee to call in?”
“Let’s get inside,” Owen said and herded the lot of them into the building and led them to his apartment rather than Laura’s.
As they walked, Tam glanced at Stephanie and noticed the wary look in the young girl’s eyes. It wasn’t unreasonable. There were a lot of stranger around her. But she wasn’t paying any attention to Tam, Dixie, or Owen. She was looking behind them and ahead of them. Tam had seen that look before. She was looking for monsters, the kind whose inhumanity was all on the inside.
“So I lost my job,” Laura said to begin the conversation.
“But you said working as a limo driver was good pay and good hours,” Dixie said.
“It was, except for the part where my boss is an abusive ass,” Laura said. “Oh, and in the mob.”
“Those aren’t great traits on their own,” Tam said.
“Well, he’s in the hospital now, so, that’s…probably not all that great,” Laura said.
“What happened?” Dixie asked, her eyes narrow as though she could guess most of the details already.
“I wasn’t supposed to be in today,” Laura said. “But I needed to pick up my paycheck early to deal with the bank stuff. Turns out there was just a typo on my account, so that’s fixed but the wireless deposit didn’t go through like it was supposed to.”
Tam blinked. Sometimes corporate stupidity really was the reason things went wrong when dealing with banks. Every day held its own surprises it seemed.
“You walked in on something you weren’t supposed to I take it?” Tam asked.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“The police were supposed to take me away from my Dad, but they were working for him,” Stephanie said. “I didn’t know that.”
There was a lot to unpack there, but Tam could guess the general shape of the it when she added mobsters into the mix.
“Steph was really brave,” Laura said. “She called in a tip on some things her father did with a promise that they’d get her somewhere safe, only that didn’t work out.”
“How did you get involved?” Owen asked.
“With a 2×4,” Laura said. “I mean, it was just laying there, and when they started dragging Steph away, I…I couldn’t just do nothing.”
“How many were there?” Tam asked.
“Three, counting her father,” Laura said.
“Two armed cops and a mobster? Not bad. And they’re only in the hospital?” Tam asked.
“As far as I know, yeah,” Laura said.
“Do they know where you live?” Tam asked.
“No. I put a PO Box down on my application because I was still looking for a place when I called them the first time,” Laura said. “That’s why I thought it would be safe to hide out here for a few days.”
“What kind of plans do you have then?” Tam asked.
“I kind of hadn’t thought that far ahead yet,” Laura said. “One problem at a time right?”
“I wish it were ever that easy,” she said.
“I really don’t know where we go from here then,” Laura said.
“It’s my fault,” Stephanie said.
“No. It’s not. You stopped something bad from happening to other people. You deserved to have someone stop something bad from happening to you,” Laura said.
“Yeah, but now they’re going to…do bad things to you,” Stephanie said.
“Not necessarily,” Tam said. “Am I right here Laura, that all on your own you decided to take on a group of people far more powerful and well connected than yourself for no other reward than the safety of one person who was in trouble? Just because you wanted to give her a second chance?”
“I mean, I didn’t put that much thought into it. It just seemed like the right thing to do,” Laura said.
“It was,” Tam said.
“Can you do anything for her?” Dixie asked.
“Oh, I think I know a few people who can help,” Tam said, hitting the speed dial keys to conference Val, Jimmy B, JB, and the rest of her immediate teammates who were available.
The local mob and their crooked cops were going to have a very bad few days indeed. All without a single spell being cast.
They drove past three auto-body shops before arriving at Second Star Car Repairs. Tam trusted Jim to know a good garage when he saw one, but even so Second Star seemed like an odd choice.
From the outside the building stood out from its neighbors. Old decorations of what had once been a tropical island motif adorned the walls and roof of the garage, and the lot was packed with cars whose only common trait was that none of them looked in any condition to run.
With few other places to park, Jim pulled up near the front door and cut his bike’s engine.
“Think they’ll have the parts we need?” Tam asked, looking for any sign that they worked on motorcycles at all.
“We’ll see,” Jim said. “If not, they should know the best place to get them.”
Tam followed Jim inside the small office and cast a glance around. There were enough chairs for four people to sit crunched close together, but one of them was already occupied by a child who was leaning forward with her head cupped in left hand.
As Jim and the owner got down to business, Tam siddled over and took a set so far Jim could sit beside her while still leaving an open chair between them and the girl.
“Goddammit,” the girl whispered. Tam looked over to see if she’d done something wrong, and noticed several things.
First, the girl wasn’t talking to her. She was unhappy about something on her cellphone. Something Tam wasn’t about to eavesdrop on, magically or technologically. She hadn’t developed the skills had to invade people’s privacy unless there was good evidence they were hiding something that would hurt someone else. That rule did enough to help her sleep easily at night that she didn’t even think of breaking it casually.
Second, the girl wasn’t a child, just short. Tam wasn’t sure when 20 year olds started looking like children to her. Being only a little over 30 herself, she couldn’t lay claim to a vast wealth of experience a 20 year old would be lacking. It wasn’t all 20 year olds either. Val was only a bit over 20 and Tam had never looked at her as being a kid. On the other hand, it was rare to see Val looking as miserable as the girl beside her did.
“Things not going so great?” she asked. Rather than make guesses or wonder if she should step in, Tam took a page from Anna’s book and simply asked a question that the girl could engage with or not as she chose.
“Yeah, my card got declined and I can’t get into the account,” Dixie said. Her hand wobbled as she gripped her phone, the tremor of anger was familiar to Tam from the recent frustration of being unable to find any cell coverage when she needed it most. Like Tam though, Dixie wasn’t willing to damage her phone to release that anger.
“That sucks. Were you close to your limit?” Tam asked. A part of her mind was already dashing off to consider the security holes in the various credit organizations she could slip through to determine what had gone wrong.
“No. This card is always paid off each month,” Dixie said. She was still staring at the phone, as though the force of her displeasure might be enough to unlock the recalcitrant web page on the phone’s browser.
“What about calling the number on the back?” Tam asked. There were many illicit avenues open for fixing a simple credit card problem but, for the sake of novelty, and because it was the least risky option, Tam opted for suggesting the official and legal answer for addressing the problem.
“I can’t,” Dixie said and didn’t elaborate.
Not a good sign from what Tam could tell.
“No cell service?” she asked, checking her own phone and finding it had full bars of coverage now that they were in a city rather than the middle of nowhere.
“No,” Dixie said. She’d closed her eyes and the lack of affect in her voice made it impossible to tell what the ‘no’ referred to. Was it ‘no, there is no cell service’ or ‘no, that’s not the problem’?
Tam had to guess it was the latter since asking the repair shop to make a call on their phone would have been a simple workaround for a lack of cell coverage.
“I’ve work in computers,” Tam said. “Want me to take a look?”
The phrase ‘worked in computers’ was vague enough that it was effectively meaningless, despite being true in a variety of senses for Tam. The overwhelming majority of people whose work was related to a computer, even including programmers, had no real knowledge of how to circumvent security measures. Even among those who did know how to break into a secured system, most wouldn’t be able to do anything without time to research the target, or at the very least more resources than an old model cell phone.
Tam, of course, wasn’t most people.
It was a sign of how desperate, or lost, Dixie was that she was willing to gamble on that.
“The password’s not what I thought it was,” Dixie said, handing over the smart phone.
Tam felt a thrill tingle through her fingers. Cracking into a credit account wasn’t exciting but touching a smart device on a day she’d planned to be ‘unplugged’ felt like caressing a taboo.
Which didn’t mean it was necessarily entirely fun to work with such a restricted tool.
“Looks like someone dropped a lock on the account before you hit the password retry limit,” Tam said. The return text from the last transaction packet had a lot more information than what was displayed on the normal screen, but the debugging window offered all the details Tam needed.
“Yeah, I only tried once,” Dixie said, her voice stumbling under the weight of the resignation that was bearing down on her.
“That explains why the card was declined,” Tam said. “Fortunately that’s pretty simple to correct.”
She hated the hopelessness in Dixie’s voice and was willing to break her vow of ‘no magic’ to fix it if need be. Before she was willing to give up on it though, she knew she had to at least try some mundane approaches first.
“What if the card’s been canceled?” Dixie asked. “Or reported sto…lost.”
The card had been reported lost. Tam knew that already. Once she’d slipped inside the card company’s internal systems she’d been privy to the rather appalling amount of data they had collected on Ruth Beauchamp, the card’s primary holder.
From Ruth’s picture, Tam was hard pressed to imagine she was anyone except Dixie’s mother. Or older clone. Sometimes family resemblances are frightening like that.
The rest of Ruth’s information laid out a trail of clues that sketched the outline of an oddly shaped problem. One that Tam puzzled over for a few moments too long.
“Can’t get it to work?” Dixie asked, gesturing for her phone back.
Tam was saved from making an immediate reply by Jim’s return.
“They can do the work we need here and Jen, the owner, has got a trailer we can use to pick up your bike,” he said, sitting down beside Tam and looking to see what she was working on.
“Fantastic, will we be able to get back on time?” she asked, omitting the ‘without using magic’ addendum that she would have normally offered.
“We? No. You? Sure. You can take my bike,” Jim said.
“And leave you here?” Tam asked with a raised eyebrow.
“You’ve got a date tonight don’t you?”
“I have a date every night,” Tam said. “Cynthia’s not going to be upset if I miss this one.”
“Yeah, but this is my fault. I just maintained that engine. It should not have blown like that.”
“Can I have my phone?” Dixie asked.
“What? Oh, sure. Just one sec,” Tam said and lifted the flags on the account, erasing the record of the loss report and the order for the replacement card. “There. You should have full access to the account now.”
“You got in? Wait, how did you guess the password?” Dixie asked.
“I didn’t,” Tam said, technically being honest, and then added, “I’ve had to work with credit systems a bunch of times in the past. They’re a pain and they mess up often enough that I’ve had to find work arounds for a bunch of problems. Yours was pretty typical. It just needed a few flags cleared.”
“Wait, this has my name on it now?” Dixie asked, looking at the unlocked account summary screen.
“Yeah. I think that was part of the problem,” Tam said. “It had glitched and put someone else as the primary on the account.”
“How did you know my name though?” Dixie asked.
“It was on the account record,” Tam said, still being technically truthful. Dixie hadn’t been listed on the account itself, but she was referenced in some of Ruth’s biographic data along with an 18 year old son, a deceased husband, and a series of boyfriends (classified as ‘associates’) which the credit card company had no business being aware of or keeping tabs on. “You are Dixie Beauchamp right? I’m Tam Le Li.”
It seemed only polite to offer her name after discovering Dixie’s.
“Tam Le Li? Like the magician?” Dixie asked, her eyes going wide. “Oh I loved your show! I went to one in Vegas. You know computers though?”
“Yeah, that’s what I studied in school,” Tam said. “The magic thing came later. Or as a professional thing it did anyways. I started messing around with it when I was little kid.”
“Wow. Thank you,” Dixie said. “How can I pay you back?”
“Just answer one question for me, honestly,” Tam said.
“Ok?” Dixie said, drawing back a few inches.
“Do you need a hand?” Tam asked.
“With what?” Dixie asked.
“With anything,” Tam said. “But probably with whatever you’re running away from.”
“I’m not running away,” Dixie said, her eyes fixed on her shoes.
“I know. You’re twenty. You don’t have to stay at home any more if there’s trouble there, but I don’t think this is a trip you’d been planning to make, is it?”
“It’s not,” Dixie said. “I need to help my sister out.”
Sister? Tam thought. Ruth’s records hadn’t mentioned her having another daughter.
“What’s up with your sister?” Tam asked, rolling with the new information.
“She’s living on her own now, and rent is eating up most of the money she makes,” Dixie said. “Since she can’t live with our mother anymore, I’m going out to live with her and share the expenses.”
“What happened with your mother?” Tam asked, her curiosity outmaneuvering her politeness. Dixie seemed more than willing to talk about it with a sympathetic audience though which made Tam feel like she was intruding a little less.
“My sister is trans,” Dixie said. “Mom said she was okay with that, but she wouldn’t use Laura’s correct name. She kept calling her Derrick, and getting upset the more steps Laura took to transition. It got kind of bad when Mom’s new boyfriend moved in because he’s…I don’t blame Laura for leaving as soon as she turned 18.”
“Sounds like Laura has some great support with you in her corner, at least. That can count for a lot,” Tam said. “Does she have a job where she’s living now?” It was a small issue in the grand scheme of things, but Tam had no problem with using the club’s resources to make sure an 18 year old trans girl got the second chance she needed to make a real life for herself.
“Yeah,” Dixie said. “She was doing really well for a few months. She’d set everything up before she left and had a whole plan worked out.”
“It went off the rails though I’m guessing?” Tam asked.
“Yeah. She lost her bank card about a week ago and the bank’s saying it won’t issue her another one because her account was overdrawn by too much.”
“But, that’s not how bank cards work?” Tam said, confusion parting only to allow a variety of distasteful possibilities to suggest themselves.
“Well, she needs some help then, because no one’s willing to talk to her, or help her out and her rent’s due tomorrow.”
“Jim,” Tam said. “I think I’ll take you up on that offer to use your bike. I suddenly feel the need to pay a visit to a bank and have some words with them about a girl named Laura.”
“Ok, but please don’t make JB put together bail for you. You know I’m not going to live it down if I’m the one who took you out and got you arrested.”
“I make no promises,” Tam said.
Miles of open road and the roar of wind and engine joining together let Tam breath for what felt like the first time in as long as she could remember.
There were plenty of worries and cares. No matter how far she drove, or how fast she pushed her bike, she couldn’t really leave them behind. As long as her vision was focused on what was ahead of her though, the problems of yesterday felt like they grew smaller behind her with each landmark she passed.
“You’ve really got your throttle opened up,” Jim said, speaking over their helmet radios.
Tam glanced behind her and saw Jim lagging a good quarter mile back.
“You said to give it a workout,” Tam said. “And you’ve got to admit, this still isn’t as bad as what Anna would be doing.”
“Yeah, her bike takes a special kind of handling.” From how he said them, the words sounded more like a confession than a boast.
“Sounds like she’s gotten some modifications done?” Tam asked.
“You’ve all got special modifications,” Jim said. “Anna’s are just a bit…more special.”
“How special?” she asked, wondering if Anna’s constant wins in every race they’d ever run might have involved a little bit of underhanded help. As a stage magician Tam could appreciate a good bit of misdirection and technical cheating, but even more appealing was the idea of having Jim make the same modifications to her bike so that she could run an even race with Anna the next time they were riding together.
“You’d have to ask James about that,” Jim said.
Tam gave out a small gasp.
“She’s been cheating with magic?” she asked.
If so that would be worse than if Anna’s bike had purely mundane modifications to it that Tam lacked. Tam knew a bit about gadgetry but she’d never studied motorcycles in detail so she could forgive herself for missing any unusual but mundane tweaks Anna’s was using to juice some extra performance out of her ride. If Anna’s bike was enchanted though, Tam definitely should have been able to notice that.
“I’m not sure it quite qualifies as cheating,” Jim said. “Her bike’s not magicked up or anything like that. I asked James about that the first day I was here and he said it was too dangerous.”
“It is,” Tam said. “Our world’s magic isn’t all that stable. The last thing you want to do is put it on something where random breakdowns might come at a potentially fatal moment.”
“That was what James said. He just used about three times as many words to say it.”
“He likes to cover all the bases,” Tam said, easily able to hear James giving the ‘don’t enchant things you don’t want to have turn to dust’ lecture. “But, anyways, if Anna’s not driving a magic bike, what did James do for her?”
“Got her better wheels,” Jim said. “Literally, just the wheels though. She was going through them so fast I could hardly keep them in stock in the garage, so she went to James and asked if he could find ones that were made of tougher stuff. I don’t know where he gets them from, but he came up with this weird brand of tires that are nearly indestructible from what I can tell.”
“Do they help her drive faster?” Tam asked. Tires were another thing she wasn’t overly familiar with. Given the time she’d put into mastering spell casting, security cracking, and stage magic, Tam didn’t feel like she had much to be embarrassed about there, but some part of her rose to the challenge anyways and tried to make the case for how any form of ignorance was just an excuse for being lazy.
She stuff those feelings into a box, cramming them down with the thought ‘I am on vacation’ but self doubt works 24/7/365 and doesn’t get any paid time off, so the mental box holding her feelings didn’t exactly close entirely.
“I don’t know, if anything I think they make it harder to drive fast,” Jim said. “Which might be part of why they last longer.”
“So, wait, Anna’s an even better driver than she lets on when we’re racing?”
The idea was disturbing enough to make Tam question whether Anna was actually as human as she appeared to be.
“She’s probably even better than that if you never noticed the tires slowing her down,” Jim said.
Tam opened her mouth to speak but couldn’t find the words she needed to encompass how simultaneously unbelievable and yet also entirely in character that would be for Anna.
“Looks like I need to practice a bit more then!” she finally settled on saying and opened up her bike’s throttle all the way.
Even cruising well above normal highway speeds, the engine still had plenty of pick up left in it. Just driving fast in a straight line down an empty stretch of highway wasn’t going to do much to hone her riding skill any closer to Anna’s but that wasn’t really her goal.
There was an electric surge that came from riding fast. One with no mystical force behind it, just the raw wondrousness of being alive and fully within a moment.
Reaching for the fastest she could go was exactly the sort of challenge she needed after spending months tied up in either her own head, her sanctum, or alien realms where sanity was an optional accessory at best.
For a long moment, Tam melted into the vibration of the bike and the billowing pressure of the wind.
Then something went clunk.
Clunks are never good. Clunks accompanied by black smoke and a deep grinding noise go beyond ‘not good’ and land somewhere between ‘a terrible mess’ and ‘a complete catastrophe’.
To her credit, while Tam’s riding skill may not have been up to par compared to Anna’s, she was able to get her bike down to reasonable speed before safely pulling off the road.
That was where the good news ended.
Looking at her poor machine, Tam sighed. It didn’t take an expert’s eye to tell her that she wasn’t going to be getting it restarted any time soon. The hole in the engine which was still belching black smoke made that point exceedingly clear.
By the time Jim pulled up, Tam had her cell phone out and was busy trying to see if she could catch even a single bar of service.
“That…should not have happened,” Jim said, bending down to look at the bike up close.
“It picked a great place too,” Tam said. “I’m getting nothing here.”
“I thought you’d gadgeted your phones up so they worked anywhere?” Jim asked without looking away from the engine that he’d begun fiddling with.
“Today was supposed to be a no magic day, so I left all of the special gear behind,” Tam said.
“Cut temptation off at its source? Sounds like a good idea,” Jim said.
“It was Val’s,” Tam said. “She was the one who suggested I make it a real day off and unplug for a change.”
“But you still brought a normal cell phone?” Jim asked.
“Cynthia commented on that too,” Tam said. “I point out that there are no plugs on this cell phone.”
“That seems to stretch the definition of what ‘unplugged’ is supposed to mean doesn’t it?”
“It’s not even a smartphone!” Tam showed him the phone’s tiny screen. “I just figured I could relax more if I knew that if any real emergencies came up they’d still be able to get in touch with me. So as long as this isn’t ringing it meant nothing too bad was happening”
Or whatever it was happened so fast that they didn’t have time to call. Tam’s worries were champions at poking holes in her rationalizations, but age had given her some ability to poke holes right back in them.
“I can see that,” Jim said, nodding in agreement and added, “It’s a good idea for traveling too. Keeping something to be able to make a call in case of breakdown that is.”
“Yeah, except when you breakdown in a dead zone. What is this, the mid-90’s?”
“Nah, if this were the mid-90’s that phone would be cutting edge and it would have a battery life of about 30 seconds.”
“It might as well have for all the good it’s doing.” Tam did not pitch the phone away. It might be underperforming, but taking her anger out on inanimate object, especially ones that might be useful later on, was just not her style.
“Fortunately, you also had the best fallback plan in place,” Jim said. “Hop on and I’ll take you to the next town down the road. Hopefully we can get the parts I’ll need there.”
“We’re just going to leave my bike here?” Tam asked.
“Well you definitely can’t ride it, and we don’t exactly have a trailer to haul it in.”
“But what if someone comes by and takes it?”
“It’s still got a GPS chip in it. Plus it’s not that easy to take a bike that’s in a condition like this one is.”
“Unless you’ve got a trailer, or some empty space in the back of a pickup truck.”
“True, it’s not impossible to steal an abandoned bike, but most people aren’t going to want to bother with the kind of trouble that would bring.”
“And fixing it here is definitely out of the question right?” Tam asked, knowing the answer but needing to hear it so she could move on.
“”Unless you can conjure up the spare parts I need?” Jim said. “I’ve got the tools with me, but I don’t stock a lot of spare engines when I’m out on the road.”
The question sent a jolt of temptation through Tam.
She couldn’t fix the bike with magic directly. To do that she’d need to understand how it functioned on a much deeper level – not just motorcycles in general, or even the details of the model she rode, but the specific elements of the bike in front of her.
Conjuring parts for an expert like Jim to work with though? That was another matter entirely.
Magic was unstable, in general, but it wasn’t likely to shift wildly before they reached the next town. A replacement piece, assuming Jim could describe it well enough, should easily hold together until they reached a shop that sold the spare parts they needed.
Those options weren’t what tempted Tam though.
Transmuting the bike back to a working state might be beyond her, but as challenges went it could be fun. Conjuring replacement parts was definitely doable, and might save her a lot of headaches later. The problem was that both were glaring violations of the ‘no magic’ day she’d set out to have.
There was a simpler option though. The parts they needed were mostly still on the bike. The metal was shredded and there was a hole in the engine where there wasn’t supposed to be one, but with fairly little effort she could correct that.
It wouldn’t be transmuting the bike back into working condition, and none of the parts would be conjured (and therefore only partially real). It would be more similar to using her hands as hammer and forge to sculpt the metal to whatever specification Jim said was needed.
The upside with that approach is that the bike would bear little to no signs of the magic used on it once the reshaping was done. No matter what happened with the world’s magic, the bike would stay as it was because no part of it would be enchanted or supported by an ongoing spell.
If people looked at it, the repair work would probably look like the kind of thing Jim could have cobbled together on short notice with the right tools. It’d be ugly, but functional.
And still the product of magic.
Even if no one else ever knew.
Tam sighed and put the temptation aside.
She had an answer to breaking down on the side of the road. It wasn’t the crisis for her that it might have been for someone else, so she didn’t have to magic up a solution.
She could almost feel Cynthia’s smile of approval.
Tam had a day off. Several days in fact. It felt alien. Like time that existed in some nebulous, unreal space.
Except she’d been in unreal spaces. Three of them the previous week. Those had been fun to deal with. Fun in the “this shouldn’t be happening, and we’re all probably going to die sense”.
So, normal 9 to 5 stuff.
This day off thing though? That was weird. Creepy almost.
“You look like you want to start climbing the walls but you’re afraid the walls will try to eat you,” Cynthia said, a hint of amusement coloring her voice to the accompany the smokey, wood-fire scent she wore after getting off duty.
“The walls haven’t done that for at least a month,” Tam said, eyeing them closely nonetheless. Turning one’s own apartment into a carnivorous beast was the sort of thing one neither forgot quickly, not lived down easily, even when one’s significant other was endlessly understanding and forgiving of slight magical mishaps.
“And you know they’re not going to do anything today,” Cynthia said. “Isn’t that right?”
She wasn’t talking to Tam. Which was good, because it wasn’t Tam who answered.
“We’re not even hungry today,” the eastern wall, also known as ‘Artie’ for the various pictures hung on him, said. “Plus we can’t eat you. Where would we get new decorations from if we did?”
It turned out that walls, or at least the walls in their apartment, loved having pictures hung on them. Also bookshelves. And random chotchkies. Pretty much anything but motivational posters. Those tended to spontaneously catch on fire within a minute or two of being displayed.
Tam drew in a breath. It wasn’t the weirdness in her life that was alarming when she reflected on it. It was how comfortable it all felt. Talking walls should have been at least a little unsettling, but when she tried to imagine moving to a house that didn’t speak to her at odd moments the thought left her cold.
“I thought you were going out?” Cynthia asked.
“I was,” Tam said and then amended, “I am.”
“And you weren’t going to go looking for trouble right?” Cynthia said. It was more a reminder than a question.
“Right,” Tam said. “Just going to go and have an enjoyable, and completely mundane day. No magic for me.”
There wasn’t a particular reason she had to avoid magic. With Sarah, James, and a half dozen other club members helping, she’d been able to ease back on the amount of casting she had to do on a day to day basis. She’d avoided magical burnout, or overload, by a narrower margin than she’d have preferred, but thanks to people looking over her she had avoided it.
That was better for the less advanced club members, the part-timers who hadn’t been pulled quite as far into the supernatural as she had been. Tam scaling back her efforts gave them more of a chance to deal with some real issues too, which helped them grow both as casters and people. For the problems that turned out to be a bit bigger than expected, James was there to make sure that none of the learning experiences proved to be ones were the lessons could only be absorbed posthumously.
“No magic.” Cynthia’s eyes were narrowed in suspicion. She knew that’s what James had suggested, and she knew Tam had agreed to it readily. She also knew her girlfriend though.
“Really!” Tam said. “I will be good. I promise.”
Technically she didn’t have to defend herself. It wasn’t like Cynthia was going to scold her if Tam cast a spell. Probably.
“You’re always good,” Cynthia said. “Come here and let me give you a stinky hug before I hit the shower and the sack.”
The wood smoke odor was mixed with a fair amount of sweat, but Tam didn’t mind it Cynthia had been in regular duty for the last week, and so smoke and sweat had become hard wired in Tam’s brain as a signal that the woman she loved was nearby.
“If any actual problem comes up…” Tam began.
“…you’ll probably know about it before I do,” Cynthia said, holding Tam in close. “If a call comes in here though, I’ve got three different ways to contact you, and that’s not counting getting the club involved.”
“And you will right? No ‘let Tam rest, she needs this day off’ nonsense?”
“I’m not sure how good a case you can make for it being nonsense, but yes, I will definitely call,” Cynthia said. She yawned. “Assuming I’m awake.”
“That’s fair. I’ll be back by tonight so we can head out to Silver Specter’s show then.”
One problem with Cynthia being on regular duty meant her hours didn’t line up with Tam’s perfectly well. That wasn’t a problem when Tam was busy since she was either at the Second Chance Club or so engrossed in her studies that literal bomb blasts had low-ish odds of attracting her attention. When Tam didn’t have a crisis to distract her though, she tended to tinker and as that occasionally produced bomb blasts it wasn’t the ideal sort of activity when someone else needed to get a reasonable allotment of sleep in.
Their compromise to that dilemma had been to make plans for the nights Cynthia was free and for Tam to promise to find something to do with herself for at least a few hours each day so that Cynthia wouldn’t risk self-immolation at the next fire she fought due to being over-fatigued.
It was a good plan, except for the part where Tam discovered that she had no idea what to do with herself when she wasn’t dealing with an ever escalating series of crisis.
In a sense, the crisis were still growing. Her vision of the Earth’s impending fiery demise remained unchanged. Future casting showed the end of the world drawing steadily closer, but Charlene had been adamant that they not try to tackle the problem directly.
“If fate is a river that runs from the past to the future, you don’t overcome it by wrestling it onto a new course,” she said, before providing some more concrete details around what she was thinking.
Tam would have worried more about taking a ‘hands off approach’ to the end of the world, except that wasn’t what they were doing either. There were plans in motion and work being done. The key that she’d finally understood was that she didn’t have to be the one to make all of it happen.
With that in mind she let go of Cynthia and turned to look for her messenger bag. She wasn’t going to need any of the spell materials she routinely carried, and probably could have left the laptop behind as well, but somehow abandoning all of that felt like she would be abandoning too much of herself.
“Do you know where you’re going yet?” Cynthia asked as she started to get ready for her shower.
“I was thinking I’d play it by ear,” Tam said. “There’s a lot of things I could catch up on, we’ll see which ones wind up being the most appealing.”
The answer to that question turned out to be “heading back to work”.
Tam knew how that looked. The Second Chance Club should have been the last place she wound up on her day off. She justified the trip to herself by noting that she wasn’t heading towards her sanctum, or any of the meeting rooms, or working on preparations for any of the operations that were upcoming or underway. She a specific destination in mind and a specific objective, which was completely selfish.
“Haven’t seen you in a long time,” Jim said, as he slid out from under one of the club’s delivery vans.
“I think this is the first time I’ve been able to get away from things in a month,” Tam said, knowing that the real answer was noticeably higher than that. When she said she’d been working round the clock for half a year though, people tended to worry.
“Going to put on few miles on your bike?” Jim asked.
“I was thinking something like that. Unless it’s still under repair?”
“Well, I might have been tinkering with it a bit a few days ago, but it should still run just fine,” he said.
Tam thought back to the last time she’d seen her motorcycle. Unsurprisingly it hadn’t fared well when a Sewer Octopus had decided to crush in four of its tentacles.
To be fair to Squillioog, the Sewer Octopus, he had been very contrite afterwords and had offered to pay for the full repair. Tam had assured him that transdimensional cross cultural incidents were covered in the Second Chance Club’s basic operating budget. Getting him back home after that had been simple enough, though getting him there safely had been an adventure and a half.
Jim rolled out the fully restored motorcycle, which did indeed seem to have a few more bells and whistles worked into its design. Apart from those however it was exactly as it had been when she’d taken it out on the ill-fated Sewer Expedition.
“You know people give me all the credit for working amazing magic, but I swear you’re the actual miracle worker on our team,” Tam said, running her hands along the blemishless frame.
“Nah, what I do is simple stuff,” Jim said. “A little bit of welding here, some polish there, new coat of paint on top of it all and it’s good as new.”
“I can’t even find the welds here,” Tam said, tracing a finger over the midpoint of the gas tank which she was sure had been torn in half.
“I wanted to make sure they were solid,” Jim said. “So I spent a bit of extra time on it.”
“Thank you,” Tam said. “I feel like we don’t say that often enough.”
“Ah, no need for thanks. We’re all part of the same team.”
“Same team should mean same recognition,” Tam said. “You work hard to keep what you do invisible though don’t you?”
Jim cocked his head to one side and leaned back against the side of the delivery van he had been working on.
“I never thought about it like that,” he admitted. “I guess a mechanic’s job is to make sure you don’t have to think about the things they’ve done though.”
“But you’re always there for us,” Tam said.
“Well, to be fair, more than half the time it’s Jimmy B who’s got your transportation needs covered,” Jim said.
“Yeah, and he’s enough of a ham that he gets plenty of thanks for it,” Tam said. “You handle more the operations teams though. In fact, when was the last time you had a day off?”
“It’s been…” his voice trailed off as his gaze grew distant.
“Longer than it’s been for me, hasn’t it?” Tam asked, detecting the familiar signs of someone who’d let their work become their life.
“Well, yeah, but it’s not the same.”
“Right.” Tam said. “Because my long hours are obvious to everyone, and so they dragged me away from the pile of work I was under with a team of wild horses eventually.”
“I can’t help but notice that they didn’t drag you fall enough to get you out of the building,” Jim said.
“I’m a tankful of gas away from changing that,” Tam said.
“If that’s all that’s holding you up, I can have you topped off in two minutes,” Jim said.
“And what about you?” Tam asked. “What’s holding you here? Are there any critical projects you have to tackle?”
“There’s always maintenance to do,” Jim said. “But I’m waiting on some parts for the two major restoration projects I’m going to tackle next.”
“Sounds like the perfect time to get out of the shop then,” Tam said. “If you need a riding buddy, I’d be happy to head out in any direction you’d care to name.”
Jim chuckled at that.
“No offense, but I’m pretty sure I can’t keep up with one of your days. I’m fine if things get rough, or if the road’s a long one, but I kind of need things like gravity to work more or less all the time.”
“You’ve been talking with Cynthia haven’t you?” Tam said, feeling slightly sheepish. It had only been one date that had landed them in a dimension with variable gravity. And a few others where gravity was more or less absent. But really, she thought, those weren’t bad odds.
“She’s kind of inspiring,” Jim said.
“Yeah,” Tam said, nodding in agreement before offering Jim a bright smile. “But she also made me promise that today wasn’t going to be like that. No magic. No weirdness. Just a calm, and peaceful, normal day off.”
“And if the wild and weird comes looking for you to change that?” he asked.
“The, if it’s very lucky, the wild and weird will live to regret that choice,” Tam said, without her bright smile fading at all.
Connie hadn’t ever piloted a submarine before and as crash courses went she felt she’d managed to keep the amount of crashing to a reasonable minimum.
“Is it strange that the weirdest thing about this is that I keep wondering how our lights are shining through blood?” Jen asked. “Blood’s not exactly transparent, but our headlights are making it look like water with some red food coloring spilled in it.”
Connie hadn’t bothered wondering about that. It was a key to dealing with magical stuff successfully. Roll with the weirdness or get rolled over by it.
“What we’re seeing is more of a projection than strictly objective reality,” Sarah said. “Bogoroa and the other physicians are taking care of that so that we can navigate in here and won’t go bonkering in the process.”
Connie corrected their course almost in time to miss a collision with a red blood cell.
“Oops,” she offered and spun the orb under her left hand to mitigate the rebound acceleration as the cell’s spongy wall hurled them away like a trampoline.
Their craft was a soap bubble, an iridescent sphere with enough room for a crew of twenty, though Jen had insisted that no one but the three of them be risked on the journey. Connie had been impressed with both its size and the fact that the Telidees had something like that available on the spur of a moment.
“Microscopic bio-exploration was the first use we put shrinking technology to when we discovered it,” Bogoroa said. “It’s one thing to look at a sample in a lab, but nothing comes close to watching a biological agent in action for truly understanding how it functions.”
And so Connie had gotten to drive a submersible blood exploration vessel. She like ‘bloodmarine’ for a name, but no one else seemed to agree with her. Jen objected to the name due to it being a mismatched combination of terms, and Sarah simply thought it sounded ridiculous.
“Are you sure you didn’t need a longer training period on this?” Sarah asked. “You only spent about ten minutes with the instructor.”
“It’s not working the controls that’s the problem,” Connie said. “I can make this thing go where I want, but this blood has some funny currents in it. It’s almost like it’s fighting me.”
“Could it be?” Jen asked. She was at the primary telemetry stations, monitoring their progress through Pynni’s body towards the principal weaponization sight. Predictably that was right outside Pynni’s heart, because why not be as horrible to your living weapons as possible.
“Probably,” Sarah said. “Pynni’s body shouldn’t be rejecting us, but any weaponeer would be an idiot to leave their creation undefended from this sort of attack.”
“I thought the bio-weapon spells were still inactive?” Connie said.
“Inactive is such a broad term,” Sarah replied, checking her own display which was monitoring the temporal and spatial shifts around the craft.
When they’d first seen the bloodmarine it had towered over them, all clear crystal outer hull and sleek (and sterile) stainless steel appointments. The spells that shrunk it and its occupants down to microscopic scale weren’t fire and forget affairs. They required careful monitoring both from inside the ship by Sarah and outside the ship by Bogoroa’s team.
“We brought our own time with us,” Sarah said. “As we move through Pynni’s body we’re bringing the nearer pieces of it into that bubble so that we can move through them. If we did that without allowing any time to pass for the areas outside our sphere of influence our passage we’d be creating tiny micro bursts of speed in the cells and fluid we encountered.”
“We knew that we’d be facing an active version of the bio-plague spell as a part of this,” Jen said.
“Yeah, I’m just concerned with how much of a headstart the plague spell is going to have on us.”
“As little as possible,” Sarah said. “We’re coming up on the primary activation site now.”
Outside the bloodmarine, the sea of red they were drifting through didn’t change. Only the indicator icon directing Connie towards their destination looked different, growing with each passing second as their target came into view.
The “bio plague” was beautiful when Connie finally caught sight of it. Against a wall of red that either was or represented Pynni’s heart muscles, a glittering blue white jewel hung glittering like a star. Inside the jewel there was a man suspended as though he was floating on his back.
The closer Connie guided the bloodmarine, the more resistance she felt to its forward movement until she was barely able to make any progress at all.
“I think the spell defenses are active,” she said, gritting her teeth as the controls fought to escape her grip.
“That’s my cue,” Sarah said and began tracing glowing glyphs in the air.
“Hold on,” Jen said. “Bogoroa’s team figured this might happen. I’ve got it covered.”
“You’ve what now?” Sarah asked, the strings of light she’d been tracing falling away like confetti.
In response Jen only smiled and smack her hands one at a time into her forehead. Lights along and within the prosthetics came to life as a suit of liquid metal flowed over her body.
“I don’t…what are you doing?” Sarah asked.
“Going out the airlock it looks like,” Connie said as Jen departed the craft. Apparently the metal exo-suit did not come with communications gear.
It did however come with its own thrusters which churned a wake behind Jen as she pushed forward through the force that was holding their ship back.
Connie wondered briefly if Jen intended to make contact with the Nano-soldier on her own, but instead she stopped once she’d reached a point that felt like a hundred meters from the ship and reached out in a beckoning gesture.
Connie felt a rumble go through the ship and watched as the disembodied force that held them in its grip materialized into a pair of grasping hands.
Jen brought her prosthetics together in an X across her chest and grew (or unshrunk) to the point where she could engage the spectral hands on their own scale. As she did she glanced back to the ship and nodded for them to proceed.
“She’s literally wrestling the defense spell?” Sarah said. “I knew I should have asked about the stuff Bogoroa hooked her up with!”
“I’m taking us in,” Connie said. “You ready in case they have any backup spells waiting for us?”
“Yeah. Let’s not waste this opening,” Sarah said, unable to take her eyes off the giant form of Jen straining against the crushing hands to hold them at bay.
As it turned out there was not a backup spell for the main defense spell. There were three. None as powerful as the first, but each one deadly, and each more subtle than the last.
They just weren’t deadly or subtle enough.
“Here’s where things get difficult,” Sarah said, wiping an amount of blood off her arms which included all too much of her own.
“We’ll need to be quick about it,” Connie said. “Jen’s beaten the main spell about a dozen times now, but it keeps regenerating. Sooner or later she’s going to run out of stamina.”
“From what I can see in here, it’s pretty much what Bogoroa’s people predicted,” Sarah said. “The control for the defenses all runs through him.”
She gestured at the man who was floating a few feet above the floor in the small chamber within the crystal jewel they’d docked with/
“He looks like he’s moving?” Connie asked since whatever the man was doing looked only marginally related to moving. It almost looked closer to vibrating, but his changes in position weren’t that regular and he stayed too long in spots randomly.
“He’s skipping through time,” Sarah said and walked closer to him. As she did, his jittering slowed and finally stopped.
The first word out of his mouth was a scream.
“Definitely not good!” Sarah said and rushed to his side.
Connie followed her and helped hold the man down, though there wasn’t any structure like a bed to hold him too.
“The spell defenses are trying to either wake him up or kill him and they’re being very insistent about it,” Sarah said. “If he wakes up, talk to him, I’m going to need to keep him from being shredded into a lovely shower of neutrinos.”
With that she got to work, tracing her fingers an inch over the man’s chest as though she was marking out mathematical convergences from one point to another.
“What happened?” the man asked, being to move before falling back onto the invisible bed.
“You’ve been assaulted,” Connie said, thinking it was the simplest version of the truth she could think of. “We’re here to help. What’s your name?”
“Smooh,” the man said. “Smooh Davo. Why was I assaulted?”
He was trying to open his eyes, the eyelids fluttering but Sarah passed a hand over his face and he relaxed instead.
“You are very open to mystical augmentation,” Sarah said as she came to the end of one set of images she was tracing over Smooh’s body.
“I have to be, I’m only first tier scum,” Smooh said. “We have to be able to take whatever we can get, and we’re too impure for anything good.”
“That doesn’t sound all that great,” Connie said.
“Sorry to disappoint,” Smooh sad with a rueful laugh in his voice.
“No, I mean that doesn’t sound like a great system,” Connie said.
“It is for people above the fourth tier,” Smooh said.
“Can you hold this?” Sarah asked and passed Connie a long spiral of red light. Connie followed it back to find that more and more of it was emerging from Smooh’s chest and abdomen.
“What is that?” Smooth asked, still without opening his eyes.
“A weapon,” Sarah said.
“Am I being Pronounced upon? Was there already a trial?”
“No, nothing here is about you,” Connie said. “Someone has wrapped you up in some pretty nasty stuff. We’re trying to get it out you.”
“Nasty stuff? Wait, I smell iron. This isn’t the Infinite Blood Flu? It can’t be?” Smooh asked.
“Don’t know what that is, but the name sounds on the money,” Sarah said.
“No! That was just a story,” Smooh said. “Something to scare the First Tiers with. They can’t have grabbed me for that!”
“We’re not sure what brought you here, but you’ve been stuck into something like a plague machine,” Connie said. “We’re going to get you out of it though.”
“You can’t,” Smooh said. “I heard them talking about it. I was just a maintenance worker, not fit to speak, but I could listen, and I didn’t matter so they talked around me. They couldn’t get the Flu to work, not fully, but they could geas the subjects. I can’t be part of the Flu, I couldn’t speak to you if I was.”
“Yeah, I worked on that first,” Sarah said. “There’s no point saving your body if the spell vaporized every trace of your personality in the process. I’ve got your mind fully cleared now. The rest of you is proving to be a bit more difficult. I don’t want to mess up your natural casting ability either.”
“What are you doing? I don’t have any magic.” Smooh asked.
“Sure you do, you just don’t know how to use it,” Sarah said. “Going to fix that too or die trying.”
“Uh, is that a good idea?” Smooh asked. “My memories are coming back. They definitely dragged me into an Infinity Chamber. I’m a weapon now.”
“No, you’re a person,” Connie said. “The weaponization is just an add-on.”
“And add-on which is almost ready to come out,” Sarah said. “The question is, are you ready for this?”
“Ready for what?” Smooh asked.
“You’ve been abused by people who should have respected you,” Sarah said. “I’m about to cut all hold they have over you. That is going to make them pretty unhappy. If I do this, you don’t have to fight with us, but you’re never going to be able to go back to your old life.”
“What other alternative do I have?” Smooh asked.
“I can disable the spell work but leave it intact,” Sarah said. “We can deactivate this cloning pod so you won’t be a danger to anyone. You could go back to being who you were and the Higher Tier people would have no cause to distrust you. They’ll think we weren’t able to break the seals on your spells and that you might even have use to them still.”
“Or, you can work with us,” Connie said. “There’s a lot of other people in cloning chambers like this. Our plan is to free you one by one and have each of you who will join us start freeing other people too. We can’t get the job done in time to save everyone if we work on our own, but together we can spread out like a wave of hope rather than a plague.”
“Cut me free then,” Smooh said. “And let’s give the people like me their second chance.”