Category Archives: Second Chance Club

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 5 – Act 2

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.”

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 5 – Act 1

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.

Val smiled.

“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.

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 4 – Act 4

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.”

Owen chuckled.

“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?”

Tam chuckled.

“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.

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 4 – Act 3

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.

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 4 – Act 2

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.”

Jim laughed.

“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.”

Tam grinned.

“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.

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 4 – Act 1

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.

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 3 – Act 3

The question of whether to murder one species of sapients individuals in order to save another wasn’t one that any of Jen’s teachers had ever posed to her, and even if they had she suspected they would have missed the wrinkle where one of the species was also a bio-engineered weapon designed to eliminate all life on a planet.

“We’re going to save them,” she said, plans turning in her mind like the clockwork designs she’d built her arms around.

“Them who?” Bogoroa asked. Body language varied across cultures but Jen was fairly certain that Bogoroa’s expression indicated the same sort of surprise any of the Earthlings she was familiar with would have experienced.

“All of them,” she said. “The former prisoners. The nano-soldiers. And the people of both our worlds.”

“Not all patients can be saved,” Bogoroa said. “It’s one of the guideposts which even our newest apprentices are taught to accept.”

“That’s understandable,” Jen said. “In this case though, choosing to execute one species to save the rest would work directly against what we’re trying to achieve.”

Sarah and Connie nodded in agreement, allowing Jen to speak for the both of them.

“I thought you were hoping to protect your world from a global scale biological attack?” Bogoroa said.

“That’s the immediate concern. Only preventing this attack however doesn’t address the overall problem though.”

“And what would that be?” The ghost of a smile graced Bogoroa’s lips, as though the questions were leading a pleasing direction for the Telidees physician.

Jen smiled in return. It was nice to work with people who played the game a few steps beyond the present moment. Sarah and Jen could usually keep up with her, and keeping up with Anna was always a challenge, but in Bogoroa Jen found someone who always seemed to be in synch with where her thoughts were going.

In one sense that left the questions Bogoroa asked feeling like a test. Bogoroa’s people had spend time and effort working out the ramifications of scenarios that were too fantastic for Earthly philosophers to give serious consideration to. Even in cases where there were no ‘right’ answers, the Physicians Guild was at least fully aware of the choices they were making. In that light, Jen’s answers were less important in terms of the absolute correctness (which might be impossible with subjective issues) and better measured based on how well she could show she’d managed to grasp the complexities of the situation.

“The problem beyond the immediate attack is that we have an enemy who is capable of, and willing to, launch an attack in the first place,” she said. “Eliminating these people because they’ve been made into weapons does nothing to prevent other people from being subjected to the same process and a second attack from being launched.”

Bogoroa nodded. It was obvious larger issue to contend with, and addressing it opened the next obvious question.

“How do you plan to meet this larger threat?”

“War is the typical answer,” Jen said. “Destroy your enemy before they destroy you, but that’s not what we’re going to do either.”

“Interesting. Why?”

“It’s a poor use of resources,” Jen said.

“You mean your weapons have better targets to be used against?” Bogoroa asked, without disapproval, but Jen knew that was leading towards the sort of answers the Telidees had walked away from.

“Not our weapons,” Jen said. “Our people. And theirs. There’s too much that needs to be done, and too far that we need to go. To create a better future than today we need as many people as we can get working on it together.”

“You would save them in order to subjugate them with gratitude then?” Bogoroa asked.

“No. People don’t work like that. We’ve seen that from our history too often,” Jen said. “Working together takes work. It takes finding common goals, and bringing interests together. Sometimes it means fighting, and sometimes it means compromising. The thing is you can’t do any of that with dead people. Dead enemies may not be opposing you anymore but they can also never show you where your ideas are wrong, or be convinced that your ideas are right.”

“And it’s not just dead enemies that we’d make in a war,” Connie said, chiming as the conversation swept her up. “I wrecked a city in saving your patients, but I could have as easily destroyed it and still gotten the people out that I had to. If I’d done that though, a lot of people who were opposed to what the Pure One’s leadership was doing would have been killed. And a lot of people who had no idea what was going on. And people who supported their rulers but didn’t really understand what their rulers were doing beyond a basic idea of ‘defending them from enemies’. None of those people need to be our enemies, and none of them deserved to die.”

“That leaves you with a larger problem to deal with however,” Bogoroa said.

“It’s even bigger than that,” Jen said.

“Bigger than converting two races from enemies to allies?” Bogoroa asked.

“Yes,” Jen said. “The Pure Ones aren’t the only realm which is unhappy with our policy of offering sanctuary to those in need, regardless of where they come from.”

“I must confess, that did strike us as poking a particularly ornery nest of trouble,” Bogoroa said. “I wouldn’t guess from your behavior though that your species is particularly intent on self-destruction?”

“Oh, there are days…” Connie said.

“We have a conflicting history when it comes to how we treat each other,” Jen said. “We’ve made some strides forward, and fallen back just as often it feels.”

“That was our experience as well, or I should say is our experience,” Bogoroa said. “Even a little bit of forward motion over a long enough time can yield worthwhile results though.”

“That’s the next broader level we’re looking at,” Jen said. “This crisis is a chance to show ourselves and anyone else who’s looking that we can find better answers than what people might imagine would be available.”

“But first you must resolve the issue with the Nano-Soldiers as you call them,” Bogoroa said.

“I have an idea for that,” Sarah said. Jen had wondered when she would join the conversation. She’d had a distracted look that said she was considering some other angle of the problem which Jen hadn’t wanted to interrupt.

“Will you require our aid?” Bogoroa asked.

“If you’re offering it, then yes, I think we will,” Sarah said.

“What’s your idea?” Connie asked.

“You’ve got the patients in a timelock, right?” Sarah asked. “Can you handle some spatial manipulation as well?”

“Within certain limits, yes,” Bogoroa said. “The more we adapt the space around them though, the more difficult it will be to maintain the timelock, and the failure mode for the timelock is not graceful.”

“That should work out fine,” Sarah said. “My idea is less about the space around them and more the space inside them.”

“You wish us to open a pathway so that you can peer inside the patients?” Bogoroa asked.

“Not look inside them. Go inside them,” Sarah said. “The people we need to talk to have been shrunk down to a microscopic level. If we want to work things out with them, we’re going to need to meet them at a scale they can relate too.”

“Is that going to work?” Jen asked, several complication arising in her mind.

“In theory? Sure,” Sarah said. “Bending space isn’t intrinsically harder than bending time. Though I suppose to do both at once and in different, unconnected directions is pretty challenging.”

“How challenging?” Connie asked.

“Tam would probably ask James and me for help,” Sarah said.

“Oh. That kind of challenging.” Connie gulped, looking a bit paler than she had a moment earlier. Assaulting an alien prison on her own was one thing. Tangling with a magic spell so advanced that Tam would ask for help in casting it was a whole other level of peril.

“We are capable of doing what you require,” Bogoroa said, “But there are other issues involved than the mere spellwork involved.”

“Right,” Sarah agreed. “We’ll need to bring our own time with us, or we’ll wind up just as timelocked as they are.”

“That will present still further challenges with the spatial spells,” Bogoroa said. “I will request the service of the Deep Exploration Guild for that. They are familiar enough with medical timelocks and have more experience with esoteric spatial magics than my staff.”

“I don’t know if magic will be able to help us with the primary problem we’re likely to run into though,” Jen said as her mind furiously chewed away at the puzzle in front of her.

“Yeah, that’s why I think we all need to go in on this one,” Sarah said. Her grimace was apologetic but somehow reassuring too. She wouldn’t have asked for their help if she didn’t think it was necessary but she also wouldn’t have asked for it if she knew the mission was doomed to failure.

“What can we do to help?” Connie asked, color returning to her face and confidence to her voice. Being needed helped a lot when it came to pushing aside worries, at least in this case.

“We’re going to need to get shrunk down and shot into one of the patients,” Sarah said. “Their frozen in time, so we’ll have to carry a bubble of our own, external time, with us so that we can remain unfrozen. To talk to any of the Nano-Soldiers though we’re going to have to unfreeze them too.”

“And they’re not going to be too friendly are they?” Connie asked, seeing the problem.

“It may be worse that that,” Jen said. “None of them have been activated yet have they?”

“We do not believe so,” Bogoroa said. “Once the activation signal is given, they will begin destroying their host and dividing, replicating more of themselves in an exponential manner. Their only goals will be personal survival and the destruction of anything unlike themselves. We’ve seen a weapon like this deployed before.”

“What did you choose to do in that case?” Jen asked.

“It was over a millenia ago, so our options were more limited at the time, but in that case it didn’t matter,” Bogoroa said. “We weren’t there when the weapon was activated, we only saw the aftermath. We called the world we discovered Haelem’s Tomb once we understood what had happened to it. We didn’t know what name its natives had called it because they were gone. The targets of the weapon and its maker as well. Our archaeologists eventually discovered that they’d called it ‘Garden’ and so we spread as many different flora and fauna as we could there to honor their memory.”

“There wasn’t any contamination left from the plague?” Connie asked. “Or you were able to clean it up?”

“No, the plague was gone with its victims,” Bogoroa said. “It destroyed them all and then perished itself. That’s not underheard of for a microorganism without a host but our research showed that the plague was engineered to die off after a set time. Its makers simply hadn’t picked a short enough time frame to prevent it from killing them all.”

“That’s not going to be a problem for the Pure Ones, is it?” Connie said. “They planned to dump it on a whole other world.”

“The Nano-Soldiers seem to be close cousins to the weapons which laid waste to Haelem’s Tomb. They seem to contain the same safeguards,” Bogoroa said.

“Earth is a resource too, even without any Earthlings on it,” Jen said. “I’m sure anyone who’s thinking of wiping us out is well aware of the value an empty but material rich world could  offer them.”

“So how do we keep the Nano-Soldiers from going into armageddon mode?” Connie asked. “Did your people have any luck finding a cure?”

“We never had the opportunity to study them further,” Bogoroa said.

“Well, I think you’re about to get a second chance at that,” Jen said as she exchanged glances with Connie and Sarah. There were nods all around. They were ‘Go’ for a fantastic voyage.

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 3 – Act 2

Sarah hated hospitals. Even beautiful, and serene otherworldly hospitals. Being in a hospital meant something was wrong. Something that she couldn’t fix. For someone who knew how to spin people around her fingers and make magic dance to the tune she called, being unable to change something as critical as a life threatening medical condition was galling.

“It was nice of the Telidees to setup a suite for us,” Connie said. She bore scattered patches of the gold paint that served as the Telidee bandages on at least a dozen places on her body. Or a dozen places that Sarah could see. Sarah didn’t want to think of how many other wounds her companion had sustained fighting through an entire prison.

“I’m not sure this is so much a suite as an observation room,” Jen said. She was tinkering with her left arm, installing a new sealant ring Bogoroa, their primary contact with the Physicians Guild, had claimed would be far more comfortable and durable than the Earth tech she’d been using.

“It’s got plentiful sweets and no one’s trying to shoot me at the moment,” Connie said. “I think that qualifies it as a spa in my book.”

“We need to get you out more,” Sarah said. “I know a nice place in Aspen. Chocolate for days there.”

“Sounds delicious,” Connie said. “You know, as long as there’s still an Aspen left by the time we get back.”

“Anna’s handling a couple of other crisis that came up while we were dealing with the Pure Ones and their bio-bombs,” Jen said. “They could probably use our help with those but Charlene’s saying we need to stay here and make sure everything is fully resolved before we worry about heading back.”

“I wonder when we’ll get word on the prisoners?” Sarah asked.

The Telidees Physicians’ Guild were miracle workers. That wasn’t surprising. Many doctors were, and Sarah herself could work miracles by some definitions of the term. Healing though was an endlessly deep art and one Sarah had never been able to manage more than the raw basics of in terms of spell casting.

Mystical healing was only one tool in the Telidees arsenal though. They didn’t stop at finding a cure for the conditions they encountered. A spell to cure the common cold was amusing in their view, but what they really desired was a complete understanding of the virus, including its full lifestyle, it impact on the host and the host’s overall population and, of course, every possible method of destroying it, including every variation the virus could mutate into. If science offered an answer in one world, they would find it. If in another world training and meditation could promote increased health, they would dedicate lifetimes to understanding the mechanisms for how that worked.

The Telidees weren’t uniformly focused on medicine of course. No species could be. They had plenty of artists, and construction works, and farmers, just as most other advanced species did. Their amazing medical advances weren’t in spite of those other professions though, but rather driven by them. Some medical researchers stayed in pristine labs working on ideas that needed that sort of isolation and focus. Others tended the soil on farms to discover exactly what influenced a herd animals health and longevity, while others traveled with diplomats to encounter new worlds and new civilizations and learn about things they’d never thought to question before.

Thanks to thousands of generations to develop in maturity and wisdom, the Telidees commonly understood that there was no one right path, or one more prestigious calling. What you did mattered, and if helped someone else, it mattered even more.

Those generations were the foundation of the Telidees miracles. Their world was an old one, and home to so many cultures and peoples that no one even tried to keep count. Age hadn’t directly given the Telidees their miraculous advances. It had been the work and passion that was invested in improving their world for each other and the generations to come that allowed the Telidees to advance as far as they had.

Age, they said, had simply been the reward for finding paths past the conflicts that had held them back when they were a younger and more isolated world. The miracles had grown along with that age, as each generation added to the one before it, legacies building on top of legacies instead of being torn apart by old hatreds or forgotten by closed minds.

Despite all that though, Sarah knew there were still limits to their powers. They couldn’t cure every malady, or heal everyone who was sick. Some people were simply too far away, while others were afflicted with conditions for which no cure had been found. Connie had solved the first problem by bringing the people who’d been converted to bio-bombs to the Physicians directly, but it was still an open question of whether the process that had turned the prisoners into living weapons could be reversed.

“I could go check on them,” Sarah said, addressing the question of the prisoner’s current state without speaking to directly to anyone in the room. She knew it wasn’t the right approach to take to convince Connie or Jen to be onboard with her venturing away from the room Bogoroa had escorted them to.

“Probably better to wait for them to come to us, don’t you think?” Jen asked, glancing up from her tinkering to meet Sarah’s gaze.

Jen wasn’t wrong. Sarah knew that. She could recognize an isolation chamber when she saw one. Even if it was nicely appointed and stocked with tasty treats.

Intellectually she could see the value of it too. Jen, Connie, and Sarah were among the first Earthlings to be permitted onto Telidee. The chance that they carried biological contagions which were new to the biosphere was a near certainty. The chance that the biosphere of Telidee carried pathogens which human bodies hadn’t encountered before was also a near certainty.

“They didn’t lock us in here did they?” Connie asked.

“No, but that may be as much an experiments as anything else,” Sarah said.

“Experiment?” Connie asked, pausing as she sipped on one of the fruity beverages that had been left for them.

“We were a bit of curiosity when we arrived,” Jen said. “Telidee is still fairly remote from Earth so they haven’t sent any expeditions to our world yet.”

“How did you know about them to come here then?” Connie asked. “I know you’d mentioned have a number of leads but these folks sound like they would have been the top of the list.”

“They would have been if they’d been any more than a myth,” Sarah said. “The cycles of the realms is, well, eccentric would be a gentle description. The only report I had of them was a third hand account of a lost traveler who saved an entire world with unbelievable medical acumen.”

“Time was short, but our list was shorter,” Jen said. “So we went with a high risk option and Sarah managed to make it pay off.”

“Getting here was the tricky part,” Sarah said. “We were lucky that Bogoroa and the rest of the staff are genuinely kind people. With the time we had left I don’t know that we could have talked many other people into providing the kind of help we needed, even if they were as capable of it as the Telidees are.

“So what experiment do you think they’re running on us?” Connie asked.

“Several probably,” Sarah said, and stopped pacing. She hadn’t been fully aware that she’d been pacing but in her defense, it had been a very long day. “First, they’re certainly evaluating what our microbiology is like. From what our breath contains, to how eating different foods affects us, to the biome that lives on our skin and that we leave behind when we touch things.”

“So, War of the Worlds kind of stuff?” Connie asked.

“Not quite,” Sarah said. “If we were going to pose a danger to them, they would have met us in their equivalent of a fully body bio suit. People who deal with plagues are generally pretty reliable about that.”

“We are,” Bogoroa said, entering the room silently through the door behind Sarah. “Though, in the interest of open communications, I should explain that we have had our standard biologic and etheric isolation fields in place since you arrived.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Jen said. “The last thing we wanted to do was pose a risk to you.”

“Risks gladly accepted are the fire of life,” Bogoroa said. “I should note as well that you have enjoyed the protection individual of the isolation fields since you arrived as well. We would have spoken of this sooner, but in the case of an emergency safety of all parties concerned is our primary concern.”

“Speaking of the emergency,” Connie said. “Can you tell us how our new friends are doing?”

“We have moved them successfully to timelock chambers,” Bogoroa said. “Those are delicate to configure and it took some work to adjust the for the alien anatomy but we have achieved proper suspension across the board.”

“Timelock? So they’re basically frozen then?” Connie asked.

“It’s similar,” Bogoroa said. “We considered cyro-freezing them at first, since it’s a simpler procedure to administer and reverse, but even from our early testing it was clear that the weaponization which was performed on them held triggers for that sort of the attempt to disarm them.”

“They’re not literally stuck in one moment of time though are they?” Sarah asked. Her knowledge of time magic was slightly deeper than with medical magics, even though it mostly boiled down to ‘don’t fool with time, magically or scientifically, you can break a lot of stuff’.

“No. Far too easy to lose patients forever like that, and it’s impossible to observe them,” Bogoroa said. “This timelock is essentially skipping them forward from one moment to the next, so they’re still a part of our flow of time, but they’re only present in moments when no changes in their state are occurring. That’s not exactly accurate, but I would need to call in a specialist to give you the full details on the procedure.”

“That’s ok,” Jen said. “I think the critical thing is that they’re out of immediate danger.”

“Yes,” Bogoroa said. “They will undergo no further weaponization, nor will the triggers which exist within them be able to arm themselves. The problem is, they remain a danger to themselves and others.”

“Can you fix that?” Connie asked. “Pynii and Horold and the others were so brave to manage even getting here in the first place.”

“That is where this becomes complicated,” Bogoroa said.

“If you attempt a procedure on them while they’re under the timelock, the procedure won’t be able to make any changes to them either will it?” Sarah asked, seeing the most obvious problem.

“That is one complication, yes,” Bogoroa said “Not an unforeseen one though. We can work out a protocol to follow that will keep us ahead of any weaponization effects, given time to study them.”

“Is there a risk in studying them?” Connie asked. “Could whatever plague they have escape the timelock?”

“No that’s not a worry,” Bogoroa said. “The plague, as you call it, is just as locked down as the patients are. That was one of the delays in declaration the procedure stable. We had to make sure that all of the sapients affected by the timelock were properly synched to it. If we’d missed any then the stress of temporal shearing could have ripped them apart on a subatomic level.”

“All of the sapients?” Jen asked. “Were there more prisoners than you expected?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes,” Bogoroa said. “The weaponization work that was done on them created a most unique pathogen you see. The life forms being produced inside our primary patients are not typical microbes.”

“What are they?” Sarah asked, her imagination seething with all of the phantom horrors people found methods of creating.

“They are miniaturized people,” Bogoroa said. “Humanoids, such as you or I, but reduced to microscopic scale. It is part of what makes them so deadly, and so capable of overcoming counter measures which are thrown at them. That is the true complication we face. We can save our primary patients, but the clearest method of doing so involves the genocide of an entire separate species. So. What would you have us do?”

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 3 – Act 1

Connie needed to stay calm. Despite being perched on an uneven and rapidly fracturing sheet of glass the size of a parking lot, she had to show confidence and hide any traces of the terror that was pulsing through her fingertips. Watching one particular crack as it spread made that a trifle difficult though.

The crack hadn’t been there when she’d set out across the glass sheet. Without it she’d wagered on there being about a 80% chance she and the people following her would make it across the transparent ground that served as the last path from the jail cells they’d been condemned to rot in and the portal that would take them away from the ones who enslaved them. The farther the crack spread though, the lower she had to lower those odds, until it looked like they were going to reach the single digits.

“We’ve got to turn back,” Horold said. He’d was the oldest of the prisoners, and had survived the work pits by playing it as safe as he could. Connie knew he’d only come along on the escape because his captors were going to put them all to death anyways.

“It’s too late,” Pynni, the youngest of the prisoners said. She’d been the first to raise her voice in support of Connie’s plan when she explained it to the prisoners. It wasn’t a just fear of her jailers that convinced her to take Connie’s side. Pynni had been able to make most of Connie’s arguments for her because she’d seen all the signs that confirmed the change in the jailer’s agenda.

“No, we can make it!” Horold said, his breathing short and ragged with fear.

Behind them, close to the access duct they’d managed to sneak out of, a piece of the glass flooring let loose with a courage sheering crack. Everyone in the escape party froze and watched the jagged fragment plummet into the cloud layer below the floating city.

Rather than being swallowed by the thick gases in the clouds, the fragment burst aflame as it touched them, setting off a firestorm and opening a hole that showed the distant ground, miles below them.

As the fragment fell, burning through the sky, Connie had a vision of her party’s probable fate.

If she hadn’t been leading them.

“No going back now,” she said, her fear flipping to the perverse resolve she often felt when faced with a truly challenging obstacle. “Don’t worry though. We’ve got this.”

The crack that had been spreading towards her seemed to take issue with that statement, accelerating at a rate that told her there wasn’t any chance everyone would make it to the next solid section before the one they were on detached.

“Horold, time’s up, fast forward, get your work unit to the portal. Best speed,” Connie said as she began taking stock of the pylons and support structures that dotted the underside of the Celestial City of the Pure Ones.

“But, that’ll make everything collapse faster!” Horold said, looking at the other work crews that were following them.

“Yep. Got it covered. Move now,” Connie said.

To his credit, despite his heart pounding so hard that Connie was pretty sure she could hear it across the dozen feet that separated them, Horold dug deep and found the courage he needed. With a nod, he got up and waved his crew to follow.

Their flight alarmed the rest of Connie’s followers, but the smile she flashed them kept them from panicking or revolting.

“Pynni, we’re taking the rest of the crew and heading for the edge of the Under Shield,” Connie said, gesturing towards to the edge of the glass parking that acted as part of the floating city’s levitation mechanism.

“That part’s definitely going to fall off,” Pynni said. “And it’s the opposite direction from that very safe looking portal.”

“I know,” Connie said.

“Ok,” Pynni said and gestured for the other half of the prisoners to follow them.

Connie knew she didn’t deserve that sort of trust. She’d known Pynni for all of a few hours. That was hardly enough time to form the sort of bond that would support requests to rush towards certain doom. Pynni wasn’t wrong to put her faith in Connie though, Connie did have a plan to save everyone, and contingencies for when that plan inevitably failed, also she was really good at making stuff up on the spur of the moment, but Pynni’s trust still felt more a result of Pynni’s intelligence and perceptiveness than any special way with people Connie had.

That had been the part of the plan that Connie had objected to the most strongly. The Celestial City of the Pure Ones had appeared on the Second Chance Club’s radar after the Ghost of Christmas Future that Anna, Tam, and Val rescued let them know about the then-current most likely future. According to the Ghost, who used simple, direct language instead of the cryptic and vague nonsense she was supposed to use to communicate about upcoming events, the Pure Ones intended to purge the Earth of its corruption before anything could spread across the realms to their world.

Their plan, as explained by the Ghost, was to convert their prisoners into biological plague bombs, and then detonate them at key positions around the Earth to ensure a complete collapse of the Earth’s biosphere.

By the time Connie and the rest had started planning it was too late to prevent the prisoners from undergoing the procedure. That had left them with two unpleasant alternatives.

The first plan was, as Connie understood it, to slam the doors between Earth and the Pure One’s realm shut. Between Tam, Sarah, James and the growing army of experienced and fledgling spell casters they had as back up, the Club had been quite certain they could hold any portals between the two worlds closed. Even new ones the Pure Ones might try to open.

In that sense the plan was a solid one. It guaranteed the survival of everyone on Earth.

It had been unanimously voted down though.

Closing the door meant that the prisoners would eventually detonate on the Pure One’s world. Even with the assumption that the Pure One’s could safely isolate the prisoners and somehow destroy a legion of biological weapons that were meant to survive every conceivable defense the Earth could mount against them, that still meant that all of the prisoners would die.

From what the Club could find of the Pure One’s legal codes, execution level offenses were reserved for two types of crime; heresy (as defined by whoever was currently in charge of the central authority) and treason (defined as any crime against anyone above a certain level in the hierarchy).

That left the club with the second plan. Someone had to rescue the prisoners, while the rest of the Club found a friendly realm with medical tech or magics beyond the level the Pure Ones had achieved.

Connie hadn’t felt great about taking either job. While the exploration aspect of finding and navigating a new realm was appealing, she’d doubted she was the one who was best suited to talking alien beings into undertaking an urgent and incredibly dangerous task.

Sarah had pointed out that convincing a bunch of prisoners to escape on nothing more than an ephemeral promise of rescue and transport to a magical fairytale land wasn’t likely to be any easier. Connie knew she was right, and had wished there was someone else who could handle all of the tasks, but with the time limits they had to work under that simply hadn’t been an option.

And so she’d stepped forward and called dibs on the rescue.

Breaking into the prison had been easy. Just being an Earthling had been enough to get her arrested. Punching a Cardinal in the sensitive bits had, strictly speaking, been unnecessary, but given what it did for Connie’s mood, she felt it was worth the extra bruises she’d earned.

Apart from the brutal treatment by the guards, Connie’s next problem was finding the prisoners who’d been converted into bio-bombs. For obvious reasons, they hadn’t stuck her in the same cells as their apocalypse weapons. In fact, they’d placed her on the exact opposite side of the maximum security detention compound. It had been exactly the right thing to do on their part. A wise course of action.

Of course a much wiser course of action would had been to avoid drawing Connie and the rest of the Club’s ire in the first place.

Connie wasn’t the existential horror of a combat monster that Val and Jen were. She hadn’t trained herself to carry the sort of enchantments that could allow her to beat an actual deity senseless with her bare hands. From the point of the view of the guards in the Pure Ones prison though, the difference was difficult to distinguish.

For most of the guards their day had begun as a tense one. With the leadership’s plans so close to fruition, they’d been on high alert, armed and ready for any sort of trouble, but otherwise sticking to their normal schedule and procedures.

Then Connie got loose.

There’s a moment in many horror movies where the hapless victim is forced to wander into an area that should be all rights be completely safe and yet they’re terrified because they just don’t know where the monster is. Inevitably, no matter how alert they are, and no matter which shadows and noises they jump at, they’re never quite ready for the monster when it shows up from the one spot they didn’t think to check.

That was how the guards of the Pure Ones jail spent their day.

Hunted.

Connie didn’t bother killing them. She just made them disappear. Occasionally with a brief, truncated scream to mark their passing.

The prison wasn’t holding her in, it was preventing anyone from escaping her.

In the panic that realization bred among the guards, Connie slipped into the highest security area and found roughly ten times as many prisoners-turned-bio-bombs than she’d expected to need to rescue.

That had been the first thing that put the impossible challenge smile on her face.

Breaking them out had been difficult – the guards in that particular section had been selected for both exceptional skill and courage. They hadn’t been intended to fight both Connie and the prisoners though, so that went rather poorly for them.

Getting the prisoners on her side had been simpler than she’d expected, largely because of Pynni’s support, and from there it had just taken a little bit of sabotage to clear a path back to the hidden portal that waited to rescue all of them.

That the sabotage had grown somewhat beyond what Connie intended wasn’t her fault. She was willing to swear to that. Anyone who stored one of their primary weapon’s caches in a room adjacent to their central power generators, regardless of how thick the walls were, deserved what they got when the later of the two rooms experienced a minor little problem and an explosion or three.

The resulting destruction had opened the doors that Connie needed to pass through. It had also shattered the glass Under Shield the city relied on and probably doomed it to an eventual crash. The Pure Ones had enough escape craft to survive that, but losing an entire city would be an economic blow they weren’t going to forget any time soon.

As the cracks continued to spread and multiply through the Under Shield, Connie knew she wasn’t going to need to worry about the new nation of enemies she’d made if her plan didn’t work. She considered a few extra contingencies but just as she reached the edge of the glass plate, she heard the ping in her earbud of the communication link with the rest of the Club coming online.

“How’s it going there?” Sarah asked. “We’ve got the Telidees Physicians Guild on tap to handle the patients.”

“Good. I’ve got them ready for transport now,” Connie said. “It looks like the first batch is at the portal and starting to pass through.”

“Wow, yeah, good timing, I see them now,” Sarah said. “But there’s about twice as many as we’d expected.”

“Yeah, there’s another eight times more than that with me,” Connie said.

“Where are you?” Sarah asked.

“About to dive into to incendiary clouds,” Connie said. “Remember the Sunlost Aerie?”

“Wait? Incendiary clouds? What happened?” Sarah asked.

“No time. Call the gryphons. I need them. Now!” Connie said.

Pynni looked at her hopefully as the glass behind them shattered like a wave, the Under Shield losing the last of its cohesion.

“Jump!” Connie said, diving off the edge of the glass as a wave of prisoners poured off into freefall behind her.

The clouds weren’t as far below them as she’d hoped.

It was going to be a short trip to a fairly spectacular end unless…

Portals began to open in the sky below them.

Surging through the rifts in space, a flight of a hundred creatures, each larger than the biggest horse flew, carried on wings of sky blue feathers.

“You could have given us just a little more notice,” Skydancer, Connie’s best friend among the gryphons, said as the flight gracefully snagged each of the falling prisoners from the air and carried them away to safety.

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 2 – Act 4

It’s in the nature of the Past to be hidden and murky. The Present too can easily be lost to daydreams or the rush of time of events pile up and slip by. Losing the Future however was a special kind of problem.

“Are we sure that a Ghost of Christmas Future was even supposed to visit you tonight?” Val asked. “Maybe they went to haunt someone else?”

“Technically it would have been a Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come,” Tam said. “From what Karen and Lilly, the Past and Present ghosts, said though, Anna definitely should have been visited by one of the Christmas Yet to Come ghosts.”

“Was the problem that I wasn’t alone?” Anna asked. “I know in the Dickens story, Scrooge had no one else to witness the ghosts, and in both of your cases no one else was aware of the ghosts being there.”

They’d gathered in the pre-dawn hours of Christmas morning once Anna was convinced that her visitor wasn’t going to arrive before the sunrise.

The Second Chance Club’s latest headquarters was dark and foreboding under the cloud choked sky, but it held Tam’s sanctum as well as their armory if a need should arise for it. The street lights along the block were all in working order, but for a long stretch the apartment buildings had windows that were either dark or so heavily curtained that no light escaped from them. With razor sharp winds biting its frosty fangs into anyone who dared roam the streets, there wasn’t even the occasionally glow from a pair of passing headlights. It was like the world had frozen without a hint of ice to show for it.

Inside the club’s headquarters, Tam guided her two friends to her sanctum with only the light of a single candle.

“Karen and Lilly both knew you and Zoe would be there, so I think being alone wasn’t a problem for the Future ghost,” Tam said.

“That leaves us with some obvious questions then,” Val said. She was walking behind Tam, but staying close enough that she could leap into the front spot if something unexpected was waiting for them. They were in their stronghold, but something about the night felt off to all three of them.

“Yes,” Anna said, keeping an eye out behind them. “First who would have the capacity to interfere with a Seasonal Spirit and second who would have a reason to do so.”

“Especially one that targeted to you,” Val said.

“That may have been the result of an opportunistic action,” Anna said. “Perhaps my ghost was the easiest to waylay.”

“Let’s hope so,” Tam said. “If not it could say something pretty bad that the one ghost that got taken out was the future.”

“Yeah, that kind of sends an uncomfortable message doesn’t it?” Val said.

They began to descend the stairs to Tam’s sanctum as the candle’s flame sputtered and flickered.

“That’s my concern,” Anna said. “It doesn’t feel like this is a moment in our history when simple misadventures or routine accidents are the most likely explanation for things, but they can still happen.”

“I get that we can’t afford to jump at every problem like it was an omen of doom, but this one feels different somehow,” Tam said as she keyed an unlock code into her sanctum’s security system.

Inside, the room was a mess. If a hurricane had been concentrated in the small space, the results would likely have been the same as what they found waiting for them. It was disturbing since that was the usual state of Tam’s sanctum. The green wisps of balefire though were new and more than a little concerning.

“You weren’t redecorating in here for the holidays, were you?” Val asked.

“Not with death magic, no,” Tam said, as she began to weave a series of detection spells.

“Is it safe to be here?” Anna asked after Tam had completed a series of intricate gestures.

“Not particularly,” Tam said. “The wisps are the most obvious of three deadly traps that someone setup. I’m going to assume there are more than that until I can get my scanner online again and get a better look at how they got in here.”

“So where should we go next then?” Val asked.

“Right into the room I’m afraid,” Tam said. “The second trap is set to trigger if anyone opens the door and then tries to leave. I can disarm it but it’s going to take a little bit of time.”

“Oh you needn’t worry about that,” a solidly built, older man in a white business suit said from the center of the room. “Come in. We have much to talk about.”

He hadn’t been sitting at the center of the room’s casting circle a moment earlier, but there was no trace of a teleportation spell, or flicker of an invisibility cloak when he appeared.

“We do?” Tam asked, not hiding the hint of irritation in her voice.

“Yes. You’ve been getting out of line. It’s time you were reminded of your place before we have to do something drastic.” The man’s smile held the satisfaction of a someone who was planning to enjoy any drastic actions he could even begin to justify.

Tam nodded to her friends and stepped into the room, her fingers continuing to twist and flicker as she held them low behind her back.

“And you would be?” Tam asked, circling to the left and being careful to stay outside the radius of the casting circle.

“One’s such as I collect many names. You are allowed to address me Majesty Grey,” Grey said.

“And what reminder do you bring to us, Mr. Grey?” Anna asked, circling around the circle to the right.

“Majesty,” Grey said. “You stand in the presence of the divine. You will acknowledge it or suffer the consequences.”

“About that…” Val said and mashed his face in with a punch that drove his head backward to the point that she knocked him out of the casting circle and into one of the shelves.

She then grabbed the self proclaimed deity by the throat and squeezed as a storm of bright red light surged from Grey’s wounds and poured into the tips of Val’s fingers.

“How!?” he managed to croak out a moment before Val picked him up and slammed him onto the floor, shattering one of the metal stools Tam had balanced a box of tools on.

Grey tried to fight back but the relentless fury of Val’s attack had taken him wholly by surprise. No one laid hands upon the divine, and so he had never experienced the all too mortal pain of someone shattering the avatar he commonly wore.

In a panic, he tried to escape. He called to his divine power but he found his reserves dwindling away faster than he could marshal them. The more power he called for, the brighter the light at his throat grew and the weaker he felt.

Finally, after it felt like Val had destroyed most of Tam’s sanctum with Grey’s avatar body, including running it through every one of the lethal traps he’d set to secure the room, she tightened her grip further and he felt the sweet release of mortal death step close to sever his connection from the Earthly realm and allow his to return proper home.

Except Val stopped.

“You have a binding on him yet?” she asked.

Somewhere behind her, Tam finished speaking a spell in a language so old even Grey didn’t recognize it.

“Yeah, he’s not going anywhere,” she said. “Nice work keeping him distracted.”

Grey called for his divine power again, reached out across the worlds to feel the hearts of the billion followers who mindlessly sung his praises. He would still a million of those beating hearts for the power to smite the women before him. Even a single life would empower him enough to end them, but he would spend a river of blood making sure their suffering was legendary.

His anger flared at the thought. He’d come like a benevolent master, ready to accept their complete and utter subservience as was right, as was the natural order of how things had been and how they must always be.

If they’d resisted, he was prepared to give them clean deaths. Their world didn’t need to burn for the foolish actions of a misguided few who couldn’t be happy with what they’d already been given. Better to break the recalcitrant to a new, heavier yoke than to destroy the whole herd.

That had been his mistake. Thinking that he was dealing with reasonable beings. As he called for the death of ten million worshippers, set to die with his name on their tongues and in their hearts, the resistance he felt to burning away the whole world crumbled. All would know his pain. All except for the three who’d wronged him. They would know an eternity of suffering like no others could imagine.

All he needed was lives freely given.

His power.

Which wasn’t coming.

Val slapped him again.

“Focus,” she said. “Anna asked you a question.”

“Did you do anything to one of our Seasonal Spirits?” Anna asked again, her words slow and weighted with soft spoken menace.

“Bound her to lure you here!” Grey didn’t answer anymore than that. He couldn’t. He was too confused by the silence he felt in answer to his call. He was his power. He was supreme. The greatest of the great. His will couldn’t be denied.

“That connection you’re not feeling anymore is because we severed you from your heavenly mandate,” Tam said. “It was clever using the weak spot between our realms that was created by all the travel we’ve done through my casting circle. You either burned a lot of power or you’re damn good with spellcraft to flip the wards meant to keep you out into summoning glyphs to pull you in with. There’s just one problem with that though, see if the person who made the wards knows there are more powerful spellcasters out there gunning for them, then they can put in all sorts of other traps that you can’t see until you extend yourself into this world.”

“I am supreme,” Grey gurgled, fighting to make what was left of his avatar’s body function.

“Right. Supreme. All Powerful. In your own realm,” Tam said. “And if we’re being honest, not even there right? You’re not the only god in your realm, just the one with the biggest chip on his shoulder. This whole project was probably suggested to you by someone else? A smaller, smarter god I would guess?”

“How?” Grey managed to croak out. On the other side of the sanctum, he saw Anna find the black star ornament that the Ghost of the Future had been trapped in.

She broke the rapidly withering divine seal he’d placed on it and in a shower of silver and gold sparks, a young woman in green and red garb emerged. The ghost he’d trapped was free and she didn’t look any happier with him than any of the other women in the room did.

“How could I know there’s a smarter god than you behind this?” Tam asked. “Because if you were smart enough to come up with this plan, you would have been smart enough to know what a bad idea it was to expose yourself all alone like that. But that was the draw wasn’t it? That’s how they lured you into the idea in the first place. Come in alone, whip us into line and you get eight billion or so new followers that you don’t have to share with the rest of your godly siblings? It’s a terrible plan from your point of view but an excellent one if we assume they hate you and were looking for a convenient method of taking out of the picture.”

“Speaking of exposure, how exposed are we to the rest of this guy’s buddies?” Val asked, her hand continuing to drain the red light that flowed from the wounds on Grey’s throat.

“Not very,” Tam said. “Thanks to that Vampire Dust nail polish you’ve got, it was pretty easy to transfer Grey’s divine mandate to you. There’s smarter gods in his realm, but now that you’re the big fish in that pond, we can make sure someone more reasonable is put in charge. We just need to do it before the nail polish starts to chip.”

“What happens if we take too long?” Val asked, her hold on Grey’s neck briefly loosening.

“You start leaking divine energy,” Tam said. “Which would be bad if there was nowhere for it to go, but, oh, that’s right, we happen to know a goddess don’t we?”

Val chuckled.

“That we do. So, on a scale of one to ‘oh my god they’re everywhere’, how much would your realm like to be ruled by spiders?” she asked the now mortal and depowered god at her feet.