Val stood on a street that looked like the street where she’d grown up, it had the same houses, the same streetlights, and the same fire hydrant. The road under her feet had almost all the pieces she remembered it having, but it was completely different nonetheless.
“We didn’t know if we’d be seeing you any time soon?” Elena, Val’s sister said.
“It’s too easy to stay busy these days,” Val said. “I figured I’d better make some time to swing by before Mom makes surviving the wrath of god look like a walk in the park.”
“Depending on the sort of park your walking in and which god is feeling wrathful there may not be much difference between the two,” Aranea said.
“Wow, you are much taller in person,” Elena said, holding out her hands for a welcoming embrace, which Aranea obliged her with. “Skype doesn’t do you justice.”
“Your hair looks fantastic,” Aranea said. “Did you have it done before the End of the World?”
“Nah, I was chickening out till the last minute,” Elena said. “But then when we came back? Well, I decided if I was going to have a new me, it might as well be a new me I want to be.”
“I take it that explains the arm band tattoo?” Val asked with a raised eyebrow. The artwork of the band which encircled her sister’s bicep was lovely, but the thought of how their mother must have reacted to it left Val glad that she’d had a few things to take care of before heading home.
“I had the design for that one ready beforehand,” Elena said. “I even showed it to Mom, but she wanted me to do all this research before getting it done, so I kinda hadn’t gotten around to that either.”
“It looks nice!” Connie said. “What do the symbols within the band mean though?”
“They’re charms of protection. Each one’s supposed to keep me safe from something,” Elena said. “I don’t think they do anything, but having them there helps me remember the people I can turn too.”
“You left space for more it looks like?” Val asked.
“Yeah, I wanted to be able add ones to it,” Elena said. “You know, in case any new problems come up.”
“Maybe I?” Aranea asked, holding an outstretched finger over a blank spot in the band as though she was going to poke Elena in the bicep.
“Sure?” Elena said and held her arm out for Aranea to get a closer look at.
“<Protected>,” Aranea said in a voice that echoed against some impossibly distant sky which had drawn instantly near. When she pulled her finger back, a new symbol had been added to the band, a tiny eight legged spider in exquisite detail.
Elena managed not to stumble back but still stuttered her words when she said “Thank you!”
“You are dear to one who is dear to me,” Aranea said. “Also, I like our video chats.”
“You have helped me a ton with those,” Elena said. “If you hadn’t studied with me for my Comparative Biology exam, I would have died.”
“Join the club,” Val said. “Without Aranea around, we’d all be gone now.”
“I did very little,” Aranea said. “But I am glad it was enough.”
“You saved us at the End of the World too?” Elena asked.
“No, you saved yourselves,” Aranea said. “I did nothing more than ensure the one responsible was fully committed to destroying the world.”
“And that helped how?” Elena asked.
“If the guy responsible for everything had pulled back we’d have been toast. He could have held onto his strength and wrecked us all even if we recovered from his final attack,” Val said. “It was only because he grossly overcommitted himself that we had enough power available to bring everyone back, and that he wasn’t strong enough to stop us. And the reason he made that mistake is that Aranea wrapped him up in the truth’s he wanted to believed and made him believe he was destined to win.”
“It’s not as though it took an exceptional amount of effort,” Aranea said. “Like any goodl little bug, the High One did all the worked of tangling himself up. All I need to do was put the proper strings in places to trap him.”
“That still seems like a lot,” Elena said. “How do we ever say thank you enough for that?”
“You don’t have to,” Aranea said. “I owe you just as many thanks. If you, everyone, hadn’t managed to return, the High One would have destroyed me the moment he was confident I was the last denizen of Earth who remained in existence. And only the ploy I perpetrated on him would have kept me alive that long.”
“I still think it’s pretty cool though,” Elena said, smiling as she turned to lead them into Val’s mother’s home.
Connie sat on the steps outside Val’s home, enjoying the night breeze and the sounds of a city teeming with life around her. Dinner and drinks had left her in a mellow, and contemplative enough mood that she didn’t jump at all when the door opened behind her.
“We’re going to make a run for ice cream and klarg in a little bit,” Val said. “Want to come along?”
“Sure. What’s klarg though?”
“It’s a new thing,” Val said. “Sort of like fried dough, but savory and a bit bitter. There’s an apartment building that was empty for about thirty years, that came back bright and shiny clean, so a refugee group from Greenglim put down roots there. Literally in about half the cases since they’re tree people. I guess there was a block party to welcome them and they brought this vegetable dish that everyone says goes perfect with ice cream. I’m still reserving judgment though.”
“That sounds like the whole world now,” Connie said. “So many new people, so many new ideas and customs and traditions.”
“It’s what we were fighting for,” Val said, sitting down on the step beside Connie. “I don’t know if that makes it any easier to believe we succeeded though..”
“It does feel kind of weird doesn’t it?” Connie asked. “I mean there’s just so much out there now and everything’s so different. It’s like I don’t even know where to start.”
“I’m going to suggest with ice cream,” Val said. “And maybe the klarg.”
“I am a fan of dessert,” Connie said. “But food only take you so far.”
“Yeah, but you know there’s going to be some kind of crisis coming at us soon enough,” Val said. “I say take the quiet, tasty moments when you can get them.”
“It’s certainly tempting,” Connie said. “The last few months were kind of unbelievable. I mean I thought I was an explorer before because I’d been to some old ruins and tangled with a few mystical forces, but in just the last couple weeks I’ve stood on the core of the Earth and walked on the surface of other worlds. Plural.”
“Imagine all of the people who are doing that right now?” Val said. “We’ve got Greenglim folks living about a block away and we’ve got Lafly family across the street who are renting their house out because they all packed up and moved off world to one of the islands on Castorvell.”
“Does it feel like we should be managing all that somehow?” Connie asked. “Or that someone should?”
“I know Tam and Sarah are doing some work on that,” Val said. “I don’t know that the state we’re in now is one that anyone can ‘manage’ though. The world is too big and there’s too many different ways in and out of it. I’m sure that’ll have it’s own problems but I think it would take more that one group to sort those out.”
“I guess I’m just worried that we’re going to slide right back into a bunch of bad habits,” Connie said. “There’s some much potential in a fresh state.”
“Don’t worry, much of it will go to waste,” Aranea said, joining the other two on the steps. She offered each of them one of the drinks she was carrying. “Much but not all.”
“How can you tell?” Val asked,turning to bring Aranea into the conversation as she sat on a step above the one Connie and Val were sitting on.
“In part because of the klarg,” Aranea said. “However it tastes, it shows that there are already new ties forming between people. Also, we stand on a much wider stage now. Our actions are visible to far more people than they were before and the consequences for what we do are more lasting.”
“You’re saying people will be on better behavior because there are aliens watching us?” Val asked, grinning at the silliness of the question.
“To an extent, yes, but also because there seems to be a greater awareness of what it means to be a part of a larger whole.” Aranea said. “Those who have migrated to our world, enrich us, just as the Potestates, Charlene, claimed they would. There are those who reject that enrichment, who see only enemies and danger, but their words are being accepted less and less.”
“I think if anything, that’s the real miracle that occurred at the End of the World,” Val said. “Earthling’s kicking an invader’s butt? Sure, that’s what we do. Earthling’s agreeing on anything for more than a nanosecond? Are we sure we came back on the right planet?”
“I came back to the planet you are on, so I am content,” Aranea said. “Also this planet has ice cream and klarg.”
“Ok, now I have to try this stuff,” Connie said, and hopped up to her feet.
Val knew where they needed to go, so the other two let her lead. She didn’t take the most direct route, instead stopping in along the way to see new families who were settling in, to chat with solo travelers who’d fled a variety of different circumstances and all wound up in the nearby newly refurbished apartments, and to spend time with the people who were trying to reach out and forge ties between the newcomers and the people who had lived in the area for generations in some cases.
There were problems of course. Everyone seemed to have them, but so to did more than a usual number of people seem willing to pitch in to help with them.
One new family needed a special sort of rock powder to feed their infant. The child wouldn’t die without it – the rock dust acted more as a pacifier for the Gorgona’s digestive system – but in the middle of the night one of the locals was calling up a brother who worked at a quarry to see what sort of selection they would have available, and whether any could be delivered right away.
“I think I see what she did,” Val said, as they started to draw close to the ice cream shop which was thronged with people.
“Charlene? You mean how she saved the world?” Connie asked.
“Sort of,” Val said. “But even beyond that. When you think about the Second Chance Club overall, this organization she setup that was a lot bigger and older than I think any of us knew, it was really all about one thing.”
“I was under the impression that the Potestates tended to have many plans underway at once,” Aranea said. “Even in regards to the End of the World, she had doubtlessly planned for both its salvation and the position of prosperity and harmony we find it in now.”
“Yeah, it’s a lot to ask for, but that seems to fit with how she worked,” Connie said. “She liked to shoot for the best resolution to a problem, not necessarily the easiest one.”
“It’s how she did that though,” Val said. “Think about, did she ever ask us to do the impossible? Did she even really ask us to help other people?”
“Now that you mention in, she never really made direct requests like that,” Connie said.
“She didn’t have to,” Val said. “Her point, and the point of the Second Chance Club, is that people want to help each other. It feels good to make things better for someone else. We just need to believe that we can.”