Monthly Archives: December 2018

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 1 – Act 3

The world was going to end, but, predictably, there were more pressing matters to deal with.

“How is the food distribution going?” Jen asked. From the back of the gymnasium’s stage she couldn’t make out much that was happening in the throng of people who’d spread out over the hastily put together cots and blankets that filled the space.

“Slowly,” Connie said. “Jimmy B has people bringing in the basics like water and some simple meals that we’ve been able to confirm are compatible with their diet but we have to be careful. Turns out they’re all allergic to peanut butter. And nuts in general.”

“How did we find that out?” Jen asked, hoping the answer wasn’t going to be via the most obvious and painful manner.

“One of the kids,” Connie began and Jen’s heart sank in concern. “They popped open a pack from one of the vending machines and complained that it smelled like a skunk’s butt.”

“Are they ok?” Jen asked, clinging to hope that the smell would have prevented any further contact.

“Yeah,” Connie said. “They threw the pack away and grossed out some of the others. We had to have that area sanitized with bleach, which they love the smell of by the way, and the people who were near it are still feeling a bit queasy but no one’s broken out in hives or had trouble breathing.”

“Did they have anything like peanuts on their homeworld?” Jen asked. That people from another planet had become her primary concern seemed somehow less strange than that even transdimensional aliens could have peanut allergies, but it was also more or less the life she knew she was signing up for when she joined the Second Chance Club, so Jen just rolled with it.

“I guess they do,” Connie said. “When we described what kind of food peanuts are and how they’re grown, it rang a bell with one of the Ulitani biologists.”

The Ulitani weren’t human and their planet wasn’t a different Earth. Despite that though, the similarities between the two species of sapient life were unbelievably numerous.

Physically the Ulitani were indistinguishable from Earth’s humans unless you looked down into their  DNA. Culturally they were as diverse as any metropolitan city on Earth and despite the small number which Jen and Val had been able to save from the warzone there was still a wide variety of body types and ethnicities present. That they should be affected by some of the same issues as Earthlings were made sense when viewed from that angle.

None of that changed the fact that it was statistically implausible that life had somehow managed to evolve so near to identical under the different environments presented by Earth and Ultil.

“The last of the portals are sealed tight,” Sarah said, joining her team as a small pack of Ulitani headed past them to the restrooms.

“Will that be enough to keep any counter attacks from coming through entirely, or will it just slow them down some?” Connie asked.

“For the present, they’re bottled up,” Sarah said. “Probably.”

“That’s only possibly terrifying then,” Connie said, looking up from the paperwork she’d been filling out.

“What options do the Law Binders have for reaching us here?” Jen asked.

“On their own? None. At least as far as James and I have been able to determine,” Sarah said. “The problem’s going to be when someone else decides to lend them a hand like we helped these people.”

“We knew that would be a possibility going into this though, didn’t we?” Connie said.

“It’s not just a possibility,” Jen said. “It’s going to happen. If not with the Law Binders at first then with someone else.”

“We were talking about plans to pre-empt that though I thought?” Connie said.

“We were,” Sarah said. “Still are in fact. You can put that down as a work-in-progress. James has some ideas he wants to try, a few of which even sound like they could work.”

“Expect them not to,” Jen said.

“Can we afford to be that negative?” Connie asked.

“I’m sorry,” Jen said. “I should be more specific. Expect them to accomplish a different goal than the obvious one that’s tied to them.”

“Meaning what?” Connie asked.

“Meaning anyone who knows how to move an army from one world to the next is going to be aware of the kind of traps and defenses we can set up to block their efforts,” Sarah said. “We’re pretty good, but there are people and powers out there that are a lot older and a lot more specialized than we are.”

“Some of them might wind up on our side, but we’re just as likely to make even more of them into enemies,” Jen said.

“Does that mean we’re going to need to run away again?” Elteri, a young Ulitani who was passing by asked. Her older sister paused with her and looked eager to know the answer as well.

“No,” Sarah said. “We’ve got what’s called the homefield advantage here. If anyone comes to get you here they’re going to have to get through us. They might know more about moving from one world to the next, but no one knows more about this world than we do.”

“Us and our friends at least,” Jen said. “That’s the reason we brought you here and that we’re going to bring all the other people who need help to this world.”

“Someone might be able to follow you, but if they do they’re not going to be very happy about it,” Sarah said.

“What do you mean?” Elteri asked.

“Let’s say some of the Law Binders showed up here now. Do you know what would happen to them?” Sarah asked.

“You’d blast them?” Elteri guessed.

“I wouldn’t even have to,” Sarah said. “Here try to shoot that crate with this.”

She handed the girl one of the Law Binder’s disruption pistols. The girl checked the safety on the pistol, verified it was loaded, and turned to Sarah after assuming a firing stance with the weapon pointed at the ground and her finger resting away from the trigger.

“Is there anyone over there?” Elteri asked.

“No, that’s just a box of old flyers for last year’s play,” Connie said.

“Clear, clear, clear,” Elteri said, and when no response was forthcoming, sighted down the pistols barrel and then squeezed off a single shot.

There was no bang or flash of light. The only change was a translucent bubble which formed a few millimeters out and all around the girl.

Sarah reached forward and touched the bubble, popping it with an audible snap.

“I couldn’t move,” the Elteri said. “But it didn’t hurt. It was like everything was frozen.”

“That’s exactly what will happen to any Law Binder’s who try to attack us here,” Sarah said.

“Why would anyone try to bring them over then?” Grashia, Elteri’s older sister, asked.

“Many reasons, most of them bad,” Jen said. “In part it would make the frozen Law Binders a problem we’d have to deal with eventually. When you assault a fortress you usually want to plan for a number of different offensive options, some of which will be designed to work together.”

“What can we do about that?” Elteri asked.

“Like Sarah said, we have the home field advantage,” Jen said. “So there’s a lot we can do to set up the conditions for any battle before an attack even begins.”

“What about us though?” Grashia asked. “What can we do? Probably nothing right?”

Jen could hear the pain and weakness in Grashia’s voice. Losing not just a home but a homeworld left deep wounds in any psyche and these were children who’d grown up being persecuted since they were born, for no other reason than the beliefs their parent’s held. Elteri’s familiarity with the Law Bringer’s disruptor was probably only part of a wide knowledge of stolen weaponry. It wasn’t the sort of thing a girl her age should have been force to learn.

“Right now, there are some things you can do,” Connie said. “If you’re settled in, I can take you over to JB and get you into one of the volunteer brigades. We didn’t know we’d need to extract you as quickly as we did so there’s a ton of logistical stuff that we’re behind on.”

“Longer term, there’s something even more important you can do though,” Sarah said.

“Like a mission?” Elteri asked, offering the disruptor back to Sarah. Jen noticed that Elteri had placed the weapon’s safety back on and had disconnected it ammo pack, performing both actions without apparently being consciously aware of what she was doing.

“Yeah, it’s fairly long term,” Sarah said. “And a lot more crucial than you’re going to believe.”

“What is it?” Grashia asked, doubt clouding her features.

“We need you to make this place your home,” Sarah said. “You and the others.”

“Why?” Elteri asked.

“The spell that froze you? That’s a blanket restriction that exists here and applies to everything from your world,” Sarah said. “If a bunny rabbit tried to nibble on someone, it would get frozen. If you can become a part of our world though, we can start setting up even stronger defenses that will affect only new arrivals like the Law Bringers. We need to be able to tell you apart from them, magically speaking that is.”

“What do we need to do to do that?” Elteri asked.

“Meet people here, form relationships with them, even something simple like ‘that bus driver that I say ‘Hi’ to every morning helps, and get to know the place well enough that you just know where things are and who lives around you,” Sarah said.

“But that is a bit longer term,” Jen said. “We’ve got you setup here for tonight, and maybe a few days longer, but we’re going to need to find you all a real place to live before too long.”

“And for that to happen, we need to get everyone squared away with a place to sleep, their food plans, and any medical care they need,” Connie said. “The volunteer squad is handling those things, but we have over three hundred Ulitani and about a dozen Earthlings, so they can definitely use some help.”

“We’ll get to it!” Grashia said, and lead Elteri away towards where JB was gathering a small crowd.

“I’m glad there’s something for them to do,” Connie said after the girls had left.

“Yeah, this is a big change for them. Keeping active should help give them time to process it better,” Sarah said.

“It does leave open the question of where we’re going to find for them to live though,” Jen said. “We had to get them away from the Law Binders. That’s certain.”

“But this is earlier than we’d planned to start taking in mass refugees from other worlds,” Connie said.

“And this is only the tip of the iceberg,” Sarah said. “On Ultil there are still thousands of people hiding from the Law Binders, and Ultil is small potatoes compared to some other worlds.”

“A lot of those worlds we can’t do anything about though. They’re too distant for us to reach yet, right?” Connie asked.

“But they won’t be forever,” Jen said.

“Yeah, over time our celestial position will drift and new worlds will come in range,” Sarah said. “Some of which we know are locked away for very good reasons.”

“We can’t hide what we’re doing either,” Jen said. “For people to know we can offer them sanctuary, we need to be seen taking people in and protecting them. That kind of information spreads, usually to all of the places you don’t want it to.”

“The worlds we most want to save people from, they’re going to be the most ready for us aren’t they?”

“Not at first, but over time, yes,” Jen said. “They’ll learn all of our tactics, our strengths and our weaknesses. They’ll learn how to plan around what we can do and how to exploit the things we can’t.”

“That doesn’t sound like a recipe for long term success,” Connie said. “How do you fight a war like that?”

Jen smiled and nodded towards the Ulitani.

“Simple. You don’t fight it alone.”

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 1 – Act 2

There was a ring of worlds in the sky, planets hanging like jewels on a string, arranged in a circle that curved out to infinity and beyond. From each world to the next, currents of light flowed carrying hopes, dreams, terrors, and the sound of countless voices. On some worlds the light shone brightly, on others it suffused the land, and on some it found new expression in the souls that called to it and gave back their own light in return.

Spinning along on the string, not so different from the rest, the Earth hung serene against a sky of endless stars until flames began to rain down on it.

Oceans were stained red as the falling fires burned everything they touched. On the land a single spark was enough to set a continent ablaze and in the storm that followed everything was reduced to ash.

The threads of light that bound the worlds together weren’t spared the violence either. Out into the heavens, cosmic bands of light burned along with everything else, snapping one by one, until the planet finally spun loose, spiraling off into an ever emptying cosmos, it’s untethered orbit carrying it beyond sight, sound, or hope.

Tam closed her eyes and the maelstrom of electricity which surrounded her faded away. Breathless, she drifted back down to the center of the scrying circle she’d assembled in her sanctum.

“You look like you’ve seen about a thousand ghosts,” Val said, stepping forward to offer her a hand up. She hadn’t had a chance to clean up after her last mission so the smoke of a battlefield still suffused her and reminded Tam uncomfortably of the vision of the burning Earth she’d witnessed. She hadn’t been close enough in the vision to see any people, but she could hear the echoes of a world screaming.

“More like a few billion,” she said, wiping her face and pulling in a deep breath to reclaim what sense of calm she could manage to find. “That wasn’t one of the fun visions.”

“What did you see?” Anna asked. She looked like she wanted to offer Tam a comforting hug but held back knowing how raw and scrambled Tam’s emotions could be come out of a taxing vision.

“This time it was the Earth burning in divine fire,” Tam said.

“You’re sure you’re safe when cast those divination spells, right?” Cynthia asked. She was sitting glued to her seat, just as she’d promised. Like Anna, she visibly was holding herself back to give Tam to recover from the spell.

She could have waited elsewhere, but the strain of watching her girlfriend casting such taxing spells was less than the strain of imagining all the things that could go wrong. Or of not being there to offer what support she could. With the evidence before her of the kind of price Tam paid for glimpses of the future it was always tempting to interrupt Tam’s casting, especially when the visions Tam saw tore cries of pain and anguish from her, but those visions had saved too many people already for Cynthia to try to argue that Tam should stop.

“For reasonable definitions of ‘safe’, yeah,” Tam said. “This one bordered on dangerous only because of the divine element, but gods-who-might-yet-be aren’t quite as troublesome as ones who are, if that makes sense.”

“It sounds suspiciously like an admission that you’ve been pushing farther than we discussed would be wise,” Anna said. “Was it worth it?”

“I think so,” Tam said, grinning sheepishly. She hadn’t known she would turn up something as profound, and she had overextended herself, but her intuition had paid off. “Since we declared Earth as a sanctuary world, we’ve been making our share of new friends, and with them come a whole lot of new enemies.”

“You don’t say,” Val said probing a bullet hole that had punched through her enchanted shirt and been stopped by the under armour she wore.

“Remind me to fix before we leave,” Tam said, nodding at the damaged gear.

“Sarah can handle it,” Anna said. “Or James. You are going to rest and cast nothing until your eyes stop glowing.”

Tam held up a hand to her face and saw a golden radiance reflected off her palm.

Yeah. She’d definitely be pushing it she decided.

“Ok. That might be good,” she agreed, mentally pushing off the debut of her next show by another month. “Let me fill you in on this though before I turn in.”

“I’m going to call in sick too,” Cynthia said. Tam flinched at that. Cynthia had responsibilities too and while the side work she did with the Second Chance Club was every bit as life saving as her fire fighting, there was a limit to how much the two activities could co-exist.

“I’ll be ok,” Tam said.

“I know,” Cynthia said. “I’m going to make sure of that.”

“I’ll get JB to talk with your chief if you like?” Anna said. “I’m sure we can work out an arrangement so you won’t have to spend time off. I have a feeling we’re going to need all the recovery opportunities we can get from here out.”

“That’s ok,” Cynthia said.

“Hey, we’re all about helping people right?” Val said. “So let us help you help us.”

Tam smiled and sighed. That was what she was fighting for.  Everyone around her and everyone who supported them. She thought of the angry gods in the vision raining fire down on the Earth and felt a fierce determination rise within her.

“She’s right,” Tam said. “We’re going to need everything we’ve got for what’s coming next.”

“You said the Earth was burning?” Anna asked. “Were you peering into the Nightmare Realm again?”

“No,” Tam said. “That’s the problem.”

The Nightmare Realm was one of the many psychoplanes which captured and reflected the thoughts of the minds in worlds it was adjacent to. It was an avenue Tam had turned to several times in order to discover information that was otherwise hidden behind strong wards or stronger wills. Visions from the Nightmare Realm tended to be more symbolic than literal in nature, but they could still offer valuable and surprisingly detailed insights into the plans and ambitions of people with malice in their hearts.

“You saw the real Earth on fire?” Val asked, her brows furrowing in concern.

“Yeah, and I got a sense of what brings us to that juncture too,” Tam said. “Before I worry you too much though, any kind of future sight is inherently unreal.”

“What does that mean, exactly?” Cynthia asked.

“Basically? There is no future. Or, if we’re being accurate, no past either,” Cynthia said. “In a metaphysical sense, the future is always the possibility of what can be, and the past is always the collection of what might have been, both defined by the conditions which exist in the present.”

“Ok, so because I have a bullet hole in my jacket the past has to be one where I was shot sometime recently?” Val asked.

“Yep. Or one where you cut a very convincing fake bullet hole in the short, or where there was a freakish manufacturing defect in it that just happens to look like a bullet hole. There are other factors, like the bruise on your side, that help solidfy the idea that its a bullet hole, but on a fundamental level if we could change that hole so that it wasn’t there now, we could make it so that it was never there at all.”

“But the past can’t be changed like that can it?” Cynthia asked.

“No. Not by mortals or gods,” Tam said. “What’s done is done, barring some really unwise uses of time magic and even those tend to use cheats. The future isn’t quite so set in stone though.”

“Makes sense,” Val said. “I can either fix the shirt or leave the hole there.”

“Right, and when I look forward, I’m going to see a future where you did one of those two things,” Tam said. “My looking forward though doesn’t determine which one you do. I’ll probably see a future where you do fix the shirt, since that’s the most likely outcome, but if you choose not to then that future simply doesn’t come to pass.”

“Does it not exist or is it a parallel timeline that we simply don’t encounter?” Anna asked.

“How could you tell the difference?” Val asked.

“Normally we could not,” James said joining them with tea for all. “Mortals can’t normally move across time. We go forward and that’s pretty much it. Sometimes things, or even people, fall through from one timeline to another though. It’s not common but it’s happened enough that there is a general consensus that some things do cause parallels while others don’t. Obviously it is not an area which is very conducive to study.”

“Yeah. Make a mistake and your timeline implodes, which tends to reduce the number of papers you can publish a bit,” Tam said.

“What about immortals?” Val asked. “They’re not quite as limited as we are right?”

Aranea stepped out from empty air to fold Val into a hug from behind.

“We pass through time the same as mortals do, we just see a bit more of it usually,” she said, revealing that she’d been spying on the proceedings without displaying any shame over it.

“Forwards and backwards, right?” Tam asked. Aranea was a fascinating person to question, but she tended to grow cryptic and silent when probed for details on things outside a human perspective.

“Yes, though as you say, looking forwards is often either depressing or infuriating,” Aranea said, apparently in a rare communicative mood. “What’s the point of watching a version of tomorrow which never arrives.”

“In this case, it’s to make sure that tomorrow never arrives,” Tam said.

“Avoiding the Earth being reduced to cinders seems like a good thing,” Anna said. “Did you vision show you enough to tell you how to avoid that fate?”

“Not precisely,” Tam said. “But that’s how future visions are. What I can say for sure is, people are going to escalate. We can’t be a refuge for the oppressed and not get their oppressors all kinds of bent out of shape about it.”

“From the pep talk Charlene gave us, I think she has every intention of bending some oppressors out of shape,” Val said.

“Yeah. The problem comes in when we have to stand alone against all of them,” Tam said. “Earth’s not a naturally high magic realm. We don’t have the kind of casters other worlds have, or the same sort of spirits and gods protecting us, no offense Aranea.”

“None taken,” Aranea said. “My dominion is what it is. It is what I am. I need not be supreme outside it.”

“How did they move against us in your vision?” Anna asked.

“They came at us from beyond our sphere,” Tam said. “They never manifested on Earth, they attacked the strands that bind us to the rest of the multiverse. After destroying everything on the surface of the planet.”

“That doesn’t sound easy to fight against,” Val said. She wrapped her arms around Aranea’s which were hugging her around the waist. It was a scene that would have been surprising if Tam didn’t know Val as well as she did. For all that Val was tough in a fight, she wasn’t hard or brittle.

“I suspect if the burning Earth  was easy to avoid, Tam would have seen a different vision,” Anna said. Tam could almost hear the wheels turning in Anna’s head. Plans were forming there.

“Yeah, that’s kind of the problem,” Tam said, hoping to help bring clarity to Anna’s thinking. “I saw this vision because I was looking for our world’s most probable future. To get to it I had to skip over a bunch of other ones where things went even worse but there was a good chance we could find an answer to avoid them.”

“When did you’re vision take place?” Anna asked. “It can’t be soon can it?”

“Six months,” Tam said. “What I saw takes place a bit less than six months from now. That’s how long we have to figure out how to save the world.”

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 1 – Act 1

The battlefield was alive with explosions, shrapnel and little else. The war had raged for only three days but already the front line of the fighting had been rendered lifeless, weapons with no will or vitality of their own either programmed or enchanted to seek out foes had lost the ability to distinguish what a friend looked like.

In their wake, fields that had once been green were scorched ash gray and torn apart.

Val and Jen raced from one crater to the next, each dodging automatic weapon fire with a fleetness that only their rapidly dwindling enchantments could grant them.

“Can you see who’s shooting?” Jen called and they both rolled to their backs on the edge of a crater than provided far too little cover to be considered safe.

“No,” Val said, wrapping a length of duct tape around a grazing wound she’d taken on her leg. “I don’t think the Devouring Eye’s troops could have flanked us like this, unless Tam was wrong on their dreadnaughts still be operational?”

“That wouldn’t be like her,” Jen said. She wrenched one of her fingers back into its socket and turned it 360 degrees so that the threads would catch and hold it in place properly. Her other hand was missing below the wrist but it had been worth it to trade even a nice enchanted silver hand for surviving the grenade that had landed at their feet. “With comms down we can’t check though.”

“Thoughts on how we get out of this?” Val asked, peeking over the lip of crater at the legion of troops advancing through the distant smoke. “We’ve got a company of Law Binders inbound. With James’ primary portal down, and about a legion of other Law Binders sitting on our alternate gateway out, I’m feeling like we’re a little short on exits.”

“If it was just the two of us, this would be trivial,” Jen said. “We could sneak past that primary line and have our pick of escape options.”

“Yeah, but we’ve got three hundred refugees who aren’t going to be so easy to sneak past the army that’s here to kill them,” Val said. She traced a glowing glyph on her arm and flinched as a bomb burst just outside their crater sending a hail of hot rocks peppering over them.

Three more bombs detonated, bracketing the crater Val and Jen were huddled in. They froze as the last one fell and Val finished tracing her arm glyph. Shadows stole up from the earth and wrapped each woman in a cocoon of sheltering night. No eyes could see them and no sensors detect them as long as the mystical darkness shrouded their presence.

After a few minutes of silence, the air above the crater flashed with heat but no light was visible.

“Broad field laser weapons,” Jen said, nodding in approval at the weapons efficiency. One sustained blast put out enough energy to vaporize any human target within two thousand yards. “That complicates things.”

“Yeah, we can’t exactly sneak through those,” Val agreed.

“No, I mean it complicates things for them,” Jen said. “They really should have held those in reserve. Poor tactical management to break them out at this stage.”

“Our enemies can cook everything on this battlefield, us included, and that’s bad for them?” Val asked, a moment before a thought occurred to her. “Oh, wait, I guess it is.”

“Yeah. Area denial weapons are great but they deny the area to your troops as well.”

“Unless you’re troops have armor that will leave them unaffected by the beams,” Val said, understanding where Jen’s thoughts were going.

“Armor that, by its very nature has to offer full body concealment,” Jen said.

***

Two minutes later the pair was clad head-to-toe in the shimmering, mirror armor worn by the special forces infantry who’d been sent out to neutralize them. The armor wasn’t a perfect fit, but it was close enough that by the time anyone thought to question them, a quick snap kick would make for a viable answer.

“I can get our refugees,” Val said, adjusting her helmet and turning to see if Jen needed any help. “This will let me get through the Law Binders perimeter and from there I can use one of the short distance teleport enchantments Tam gave us before we lost her.”

“Good,” Jen said. There was a tear in one of her sleeves, but the enchanted silver of her current set of arms made the gap in the armor irrelevant. Her arms could protect her from more punishment than a tank’s frontal plates. All the stolen armor needed to do was provide her with a disguise “I can take the Law Bearers primary control nexus down. It would be more efficient to suborn it and issue false orders, but without Sarah…”

“Yeah, I know,” Val said, putting a reassuring hand on Jen’s shoulder. “Opening the Earth as a sanctuary world wasn’t going to be easy but I don’t think any of us fully anticipated what we were getting ourselves into.”

“Anna knew,” Jen said. “She talked with me after we made our original vote on how we were going to handle the Preservers. This kind of warfare? She knew it was exactly the kind of thing we’d been landing in the middle of.”

“She was still in fully favor of it though,” Val said, not having to guess at her absent teammates state of mind.

“She was,” Jen said. “I don’t know if it was that she thought we could handle it based on our past successes or if it was just inevitable.”

“Knowing Anna? A little bit of both probably,” Val said.

She looked out at the blasted wasteland in front of them. It hadn’t even been two weeks since she’d first visited the area and she could almost see the ghost of the green fields rolling before her leading to the quaint hilltop village with cheery little puffs of white smoke coming from a half dozen chimneys.

The reality before her was far bleaker though. The green fields were gone. The village was gone. Even the hill the village had stood on was gone. Wiped out by a merciless force bent on conquest and subjugation.

Exactly the sort of force that Charlene had pledged them against.

Val sighed. She wished, for the hundredth time that she could have been faster, or stronger, or offered better planning options.

“It’s going to be ok,” Jen said.

“No, it’s going to be better,” Val said. “Ok would have been if the people we’re helping didn’t lose their homes.”

“Ok, yeah, that suck,” Jen agreed. “But even if we’ve lost contact with Anna and the rest, you know they’re still working on the problem on the Earth side of things. All we need to do is get those people off this planet and back to ours. Anything past that is a problem for tomorrow, and for more of a team than just you and me.”

Val huffed a short laugh.

“I thought I was supposed to be the one giving pep talks to the newbie,” she said.

“You looked like you needed one more than I did,” Jen said, smiling.

“Have you seen anything like this before?” Val asked, curious about the lack of impact the carnage seemed to have on her companion.

“Exactly like this? No, but I mean we don’t have Law Binders on Earth. Similar to it though? Yeah. I traveled a lot in my training and there’s a lot of places in the world where bad things have happened, and a fair number where they’re happening still. I’ve heard stories from people who’ve lived through some of the worst things that humans have done to each other.”

“Military training is supposed to help with this, but I guess it only goes so far,” Val said. “And I never saw duty in a combat zone. I can’t help thinking what it’s going to be like if one of these groups tries to bring the fight over to us.”

“It’ll be ugly. People will get hurt. Probably a lot will die. From what Tam and Sarah have worked out though it sounds like that will mostly be on the invaders side.”

“Yeah, and that makes sense I guess. Moving troops isn’t easy under the best of conditions, and this would be harder than shooting a company of them to the Moon.”

“Speaking of which,” Jen said. “We’re going to need to make sure that the stable portal we have Tam and Sarah open for our refugees gets taken down thoroughly, so the Law Binders can’t send a few squads through after us. That’s going to mean someone needs to stay behind here, makes sure it’s closed, then finds their own portal back. I know you have seniority here, but I’d like to be the one to do that since I was part of the initial team that connected with these people.”

It was a reasonable argument, but Val was still going to refuse it and claim the responsibility for herself until an even better idea came to her.

“Just meet me at the refugees hold out,” Val said. “I have a short detour to make first, then we can all get out of here.”

***

Jen almost felt bad about taking down the control nexus. None of the people inside were carrying the sort of enchantments she bore and so it was less of a battle to overwhelm the forces present and more of a trivial chore. Kick here, head butt there, a leg sweep just to mix things up. Most of them didn’t even get the chance to reach for their weapons before they were on the ground and unconscious.

The only members of the aggressor force Jen put a lasting hurt on were the ones who carried the insignia of the Law Binder’s Inquisitors. The refugees had painted a frighteningly clear picture of the atrocities the Inquisitors were responsible for and given that their standard weapon loadout included variable setting pain sticks and vials of flesh dissolving “Confession Enhancers”, Jen had little trouble believing the accusations were true.

With their commander out of commission and the Law Binder’s central nexus a burning ruin, Jen’s run back to the refugee’s hold out was a thankfully untroubled one. The troops acted on the last orders they’d received by thanks to the work she and Val had done which had left them stranded on the wrong side of the Law Binder’s advancing forces, the army’s troops were all marching in the wrong direction to find their quarry.

Checking with an aerial spirit to make sure she was unobserved, Jen sprinted the last quarter mile to the hold out and arrived to find the refugees all prepped and waiting within the transit circle Tam had drawn on the ground before stepping back to Earth to setup the matching circle there.

Everything was ready. Except for Val, who was nowhere to be found.

A wall of the stadium sized hidden venue exploded and in drove one of the Law Bringers Laser Pulse Field Tanks.

Jen lept at the tank, her few remaining enchantment glyphs blazing. She didn’t have enough left to destroy the tank, and she probably wasn’t fast enough to get inside before it fired and killed everyone in the building, but she had to try.

Or maybe she didn’t.

Halfway through her flight, Val popped out of the top of tank.

“Sorry! Little late!” she said. “Time to go though!”

Jen landed on the side of the tank and shook her head.

“What did you do?”

“Grand Theft Tank? Is that a thing?” Val asked. “We really have to leave though. Like now.”

The two of them sprinted towards the refugees, each activating the emergency recall glyphs they carried. The primary teleportal had been destroyed, and the alternate mana reserve to power the emergency portal had been overrun by Law Binders. That left only using their personal teleport glyphs inside the unpowered confines of Tam’s emergency portal and hoping Tam could find the magic needed to power the entire affair from her sanctum on Earth.

“The portal’s going to remain open if we don’t close it,” Jen said.

“I don’t think so,” Val said. “Remember how Tam said nuking a portal was a really bad idea because the portal stays open but it’s orientation is shifted off into warp space or something?”

“Wait, a nuke?” Jen said. “What did you do?”

“Those Laser Tanks put out a lot of power,” Val said. “I don’t know the math, but I know it’s enough to make a really big boom.”

“You fed its output back in on itself!” Jen said, listening for, and hearing, the high pitched whine of a reactor going critical.

“Yep. I think we have about a minute and then this place is going to be glass.”

“Think Tam can get us back in a minute?” Jen asked, pressing her glyph tighter against the ground.

“Definitely,” Val said. “But that reactor is sounding a bit louder than…”

She didn’t get to finish her sentence before a blinding flash burst over them.

When her eyes cleared three hundred refugees, plus herself, Jen, Tam, Anna, and the rest were standing in the middle of a football field whose stands were on fire.

“Made it out in plenty of time,” Val said and swayed back in Aranea’s arms.

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 12 – Act 4

Jen paused a moment to catch her breath. Her plan had worked to about 90% efficiency, which was a fair bit better than she’d been expecting it to work. That last 10% though? She was going to be feeling the bruises from that for the next several days.

“I didn’t think they’d fight quite so hard,” Connie said, panting harder than Jen. She’d taken a few nasty hits too, but nothing appeared to be broken or busted, which was something of a miracle given the sort of armaments the Preservers had been packing.

“You should have let me help,” Aranea said, rubbing her fingers together as though to sharpen them.

“No, Jen was right.” Sarah avoided the need to pant for breath by remaining collapsed on the ground where she’d tumbled at the end of her banishing spell. “This had to just us mundanes. If you’d joined in, we’d have to deal with the Preserver’s gods too.”

“They have my Val,” Aranea said. “They will have to deal with me shortly anyways.”

The party was still outside the limits of the farmhouse sanctuary the Preserver refugees had fled too. Following the Jen’s declaration that they would not be allowing the Preserver War band to drag the refugees back into slavery and/or death, a minor scuffle had arisen. There were trees left standing in a half mile radius  anymore, but Jen still counted it as a far more restrained conflict than several of the worst cases that she had planned for.

“No worries there,” Val said as she pulled herself through a faintly shimmering field in otherwise empty air. Jen suppressed a chuckle at the weird struggle. She would have offered to help but Val managed to pop herself out of whatever the obstruction was that was blocking the partially formed gateway. Tam followed a moment later, slipping through the portal with the quicksilver slipperiness of an accomplished escape artist.

“You made it back!” Cynthia shouted, glomping Tam into a hug before the magician could answer.

“This wasn’t meant to be a one way trip,” Anna said, pulling herself free from the portal as the air fizzed with light and grew still. Zoe helped her up from the ground where she’d stumbled and raised an eyebrow at the disheveled state of Anna’s mountaineering clothes.

There were burn marks on each of the three and bright red stains that could only be one thing.

“Don’t worry,” Anna said, noticing the detail Zoe had picked up on. “None of its ours.”

“You folks had some fun too?” Sarah asked, no rising from the ground or even turning to look at the new arrivals.

“A little bit,” Val said. “Looks you had nice little dust up here too. I take it the ambassadors weren’t feeling very diplomatic?”

“Not after we explained they weren’t going to get their people back,” Jen said.

“I still think carrying a pocket nuke counts as cheating,” Sarah said.

“Pocket nukes? Lovely. Are we going to need a radiation scrub if we stay here any longer?” Val asked.

“Sarah dealt with the device before it went off,” Zoe said. “The devastation you see around us came from some of the other devices they carried.”

“Sent it down a transdimensional warp?” Tam asked, looking over to Sarah without leaving Cynthia’s embrace.

“Just the fissionable material within it,” Sarah said.

“Clever.” Tam said.

“I asked myself ‘what would Tam do’ believe it or not,” Sarah said. “The misdirection seemed to keep them guessing for a a few extra moments.”

“They were willing to destroy themselves to get at their runaways?” Anna asked.

“Not exactly,” Jen said. “The bomb was on a timer, and they had some means of recalling back to the Tower of the Sky. I think the plan was to arm it on a short timer and then head back to their own world to avoid the blast.”

“Those are pretty nasty tactics,” Val said. “Fighting them’s going to be all kind of fun.”

“I’d hate to do it on their homeworld,” Connie said. “They could barely deal with the air or the gravity here and they still put up a hell of a struggle, even after Sarah rendered their weapons inert.”

“What did you do with them in the end?” Anna asked.

“Sent them home,” Sarah said. “Just like we’d talked about. Connie had just finished planting the last of the Banishing Mines when they arrived. Knew we’d have to use them on somebody and fortunately I think it turned out to be right people that we sent back.”

“Good. Were any killed or seriously injured?” Anna asked.

“No deaths – and that made fighting them more than a bit tricky I have to confess,” Jen said. “Serious injuries? If we don’t count their prides then nothing too serious. They’ll all be able to walk again, eventually.”

“Even better,” Anna said. “That leaves the chance of finishing this up peacefully still on the table.”

“You just assaulted both their primary stronghold and a fully armed diplomatic team,” Zoe said. “Peace seems like an odd thing to be hoping for at this point.”

“She’s right,” a giant of a woman said, appearing before them as she stepped off the farmhouse’s property. “They’re not going to let us live in peace. They can’t.”

More giants joined her as a contingent of the Perserver’s refugees emerged from hiding.

“Oh, I think we’ll find they’re more than capable of letting the matter drop,” Anna said. “It’s largely a question at this point of what it will take to convince them of that fact.”

“If they let us go, others will flee too,” the giant said.

“Then we should help you prepare for that,” Jen said.

“I can arrange for a number of new Club membership applications to be drawn up,” JB said over their comms.

“We do not understand this,” the giant said. “Why did you fight with them?”

“Because what they intended to do to you is abhorrent,” Connie said.

“Why should that matter to you?” the giant asked.

“Because how we react to actions that are unconscionable determines who we are,” Cynthia said.

“The history of our people contains an uncountable number of hideous crimes,” Anna said. “We’re a species drenched in massacres, and oppression, and hatred. We know those things all too well.”

“Some of us are unwilling to allow that continue,” Zoe said. “The mistakes of our past have to be something we can learn from. We have to better than we were. Striving for that is the definition of what makes us human.”

“Those sound like your words, Duinella”, one of the other Preserver refugees said.

“We have not met many on your world who feel as you do,” Duinella, the refugee’s apparent leader, said.

“There’s more humans out there who would agree with these people than you might imagine,” Aranea said. “Most of them seem to be content to lead their lives quietly and enmeshed in their own problems. It’s strange given Earthling’s reputation for violence, but if you engage with enough of them it becomes easy to see.”

“The answer seems obvious but I must ask anyways,” Anna said. “Do you wish to request asylum on our world?”

“We do not know how to do that,” Duinella said.

“Or what it costs,” another refugee said.

“Why would the Earth want us?” a third refugee asked.

“I can’t speak for the Earth,” Anna said. “The words I can offer come only from myself.”

“No,” Jen said, putting a hand on Anna’s shoulder. “She speaks for all us too.”

“All of us,” Aranea said.

Anna smiled at the support.

“There are those who will disagree with me, “Anna said. “There are people who will raise valid concerns and ones who thrive on fear and hatred who will find you the perfect scapegoats to target. I cannot claim that any solution we can offer is perfect, but what I can offer is this; if you ask for our aid, we will work with you to bring you into our fold. If you need housing, we will find communities you can live in. If you need food, we will share our surplus and help you find jobs and a means to support yourselves. I’ve left notes in your previously dwellings making similar offers to any of your other people who are still assembling or remained behind, and you are free to accept or reject it as individuals or as a group.”

“And what do you ask in return?” Duinella asked.

“The same things that we ask of each other,” Val said. “Try to make this world a better place. Help out the people around you who need it. Give what you can and stand up for the people who can’t stand up for themselves.”

“And when the others come back?” Duinella asked.

“We just showed them that we can pass in and out of their most secure stronghold,” Anna said. “The note I left with Ambassador Bram explains that our visit was a polite one. If they refrain from further hostilities they won’t need to see what an impolite visit looks like.”

“All they need to do is wait and our two worlds will fall out of alignment,” Tam said. “We can be a temporary problem or a long term one. The ball’s in their court on which way things go on that front.”

“What if they demand our return before the alignment ends, as a price for peace?” Duinella asked.

“Peace can’t be bought with injustice,” Jen said.

“If they come back looking for a fight, we’ll dissuade them,” Tam said. “There’s lots of tricks that can thrown off their aims.”

“And if that doesn’t work, we’ll spread the world about the kinds of resources the Tower of the Sky has,” Val said. “Open warfare’s not going to go well for anyone, and if it takes a massing of troops from every world that’s even barely aligned with theirs to get them to realize that, then so be it.”

“We place nice when we can,” Anna said.

“And when we can’t, we play to win,” Zoe said.

***

Charlene sat in her customary seat at the Council’s convocation. Being called before the assembly for the second time in a year was an interesting change from the decades where she hadn’t seen them at all.

The current session was better attended than even the case brought against her by PrimaLux had been. There might have been a few open seats left, or their owners could have been obscured by concealments of one kind or another. Charlene had no interest in piercing the veils of emptiness in either case. She wasn’t in attendance to listen to anyone else. She was there to make sure they listened to her.

“Potestates,” the Chairman said, calling the meeting to order with the mere mention of her name. “We are gathered again due to your actions.”

“Yes,” Charlene said.

“You do not seek to evade your responsibility this time!” one of the PrimaLux founder screeched. “You’re not going to blame it all on your little humans?”

“My agents carry no blame here,” Charlene said. “Even the ones who formerly swore their allegiance to you.”

There were muffled guffaws from the chamber, but Charlene paid them no mind. Even the oldest of the council’s members could appreciate a few dramatics but clever quips decided very little in the grand scheme of things.

“The charge against you this time is violation of another realm’s sovereign rights.” the Chairman said. “What answer do you make to this?”

“I could answer that the incident in question involved both a conflict within my realm and one provoked in a foreign realm by the powers there in violation of diplomatic protocols. That would be answer enough.”

According to the Council’s laws, Charlene’s people had every right to defend themselves while under a diplomatic charter, and every right to banish the Preserver War Band once the War Band attempted violence.

“But you are not going to make that answer?” the Chairman said, a note of uncertainty hanging in his otherwise calmly eternal voice.

“No,” Charlene said. “That answer supposes that I am willing to accept that status quo we have engineered. That is no longer true.”

“What do you mean by that?” the Chairman asked, his tone turning grave.

“Plainly, if my realm, if the Earth, can be a haven to anyone who is oppressed, who is enslaved, who is beaten, or degraded, then we will stand on the shore of the sea of worlds and welcome them,” Charlene. “Too many of those here, too many of those in power everywhere, draw their power from debasing others. That will not stand any longer.”

“There are those here you are declaring war upon with such a pronouncement,” the Chairman said.

“Then they should run,” Charlene said and with that she left, a single white feather drifting through the air the only mark of her passing.

The Second Chance Club – S2 Ep 12 – Act 3

Jen wasn’t interested in hunting under normal circumstances, but tracking down the otherworldly interlopers from the Preserver’s realm had put a spark to her imagination.

“We know at least one of them has been here a while,” she said as she turned through the old binder of rental receipts that had been left behind.

“That would explain how they’ve got so many bolt holes to run to,” Connie said, picking up a suitcase that had been similarly abandoned. It’s contents included an assortment of plus sized clothes which matched the ones strewn about the otherwise empty apartment.

“They must be really annoyed that we’re finding them this quickly,” Sarah said. Between her fingertips she held a lattice of light that slowly morphed from a revolving pyramid to a smooth sphere to a multi-pronged ball of spikes.

“I have the next location identified,” James said over their comms. He’d been making it a point to be more ‘present’ for the various teams assignments, despite remaining incapable of being physically with them most of the time. “Thank you Sarah, the fidelity on your tracking spell has been superb.”

“You’re quite welcome James. I’m going to release it for a bit, until we find their next sanctum,” Sarah said. “I don’t want the pattern getting flooded with the markers we have here.”

“I’ve got a plane on standby at the FedEx airfield for you,” Jimmy B said also over the comms. Road noise was clearly audible in the background as well as chatter between his car’s driver and another passenger. Like the rest of the support staff Jimmy did a lot of multi-tasking to keep the Club’s activities running smoothly. “From the coordinates James gave me, the nearest runway I can put you into will be about thirty minutes from the target site.”

“That’s going to give them a fair bit of time to see us coming,” Jen said, brushing through the pages of receipts with her prosthetic fingers. There was a pattern in the rental bills. she could see it’s outline but she wasn’t sure what the various bits of data added up to.

“They might be able to see us already,” Sarah said, slowly collapsing the spellwork lattice to a point of light.

“They do seem to be keeping a pretty substantial headstart on us,” Connie said. None of the clothes in the abandoned suitcase held any identifying information.

“They can’t track any of you with the same tools you’re using to locate them,” James said. “You’re a part of this world, your essences are indistinguishable from the overall background of Earth’s vitiac field.”

“We need to come up with some more comprehensive stealth options then,” Jen said. “They’re definitely aware when we get close, but even if they can detect us this far away they don’t seem to be willing to act on it until we get closer.”

“They must have a limited number of escape options, and yet something about meeting with us is causing them to burn them without hesitation,” Connie said.

“It’s not one group fleeing us,” Jen said, the secret in the receipt numbers crystalizing at last in her mind’s eyes. “They have so many hideouts because they have more than a single cell here. They’re burning them because they can’t afford a cascade failure of their secrecy if we apprehend one or more of them.”

That insight suggested a number of other facts about the interlopers. The primary one in Jen’s view was that they would only need to be worried about a cascade failure, one where a single group could expose the whole organization, if they weren’t using classic ‘cell network’ tactics where each group was isolated from the rest. That put some significant boundaries on their level of training and their likely goals and motivations.

“How did they have time to put that together?” Connie asked.

“I can think of one option, and it’s not a great one for Anna’s team,” Sarah said.

“Yes. If the Preserver’s have sent these people over in organized teams, they could have been trained and prepared to move in weeks ago, when the alignment just began to make travel practical.” That was one possibility, and likely the worst when coupled with the lack of long term security in their organizational structure. There was another explanation though, less hostile in a sense, but no less problematic.

“That would mean that Anna and her team are walking into a trap then?” JB asked. “What options do we have to address that?”

“Very few,” Sarah said. “Moving within the Tower of the Sky via Earthly magic takes longer than standard modes of locomotion which means any help we could send wouldn’t arrive there for a week at a minimum.”

“Unless we violate the warded doors and force a path directly to their central palace,” Connie said.

“I don’t think we’ll need to,” Jen said, biting her lip as her visions of the Preserver’s plans spun together and flew apart, seeking the ones that fit the available data. “Whether the governing powers there are behind this or not they’ll want to send a team through for ‘investigation’ purposes. We can discuss the matter with them and base our actions on what they have to say.”

“I have a return portal opening in Tam’s primary conjuring circle,” James said.

“Excellent timing,” Jen said. “The coordinates we found for the next sanctum are closer to the Club than here correct?”

“Yes. We’re about half as far away as you are,” James said.

“Good, let’s meet the new arrivals at the next sanctum then,” Jen said. “We will wait for their arrival before entering so they can see a pristine site.”

“I’ll give them the record of our investigation so far, as Anna requested,” JB said.

“Signal us to let us know who came back with them ok?” Jen asked. “I have a suspicion who Anna would have sent home under ideal circumstances, but who’s actually there may tell us more than the Preserver’s realize.”

“Should we get going to airport then?” Connie asked.

“I’m not racing you this time,” Sarah said.

“I let you use magic last time!” Connie protested.

“And I learned my lesson, thank you very much.”

“There is one thing I want to do before we leave,” Jen said, looking around for any writing instruments that might have been left behind.

***

The party from the Tower of the Sky consisted of Aranea, Cynthia, and Zoe. Just as Jen had been afraid it might. Anna knew there was trouble brewing on the Tower of the Sky, and she’d gotten the primary team’s loved ones to a less dangerous spot. On the plus side though, she clearly felt her primary team could handle staying behind. That she valued the prowess of Val and Tam over the might of an actual Goddess and a professional first responder said a lot about the bonds between them, as well as Anna’s estimation of their chances versus the odds arrayed against them.

“This is our investigation team leader, Jen,” Zoe said, leading the party of Preserver diplomats forward.

The Preserves were massive by Earth standards. While they appeared to be human, the shortest of them stood six foot and eight inches tall and had a physique a body builder could spend a lifetime trying to acquire. Despite his rippling muscles though, the diplomat looked winded from even the short walk from the car to the edge of the farm house’s property than Jen and her team waited outside of.

“A pleasure to meet you,” Jen said, offering the Preserver’s a short bow. She was wearing her “nice” arms but after all the martial arts instruction she’d pursued, a bow always felt more appropriate, especially when meeting with people who might or might not be adversaries.

“The renegades are in there?” the leader of the Presever’s team huffed, fighting to draw breath from Earth’s thinner air and heavier gravity. For people who lived on top of a mountain higher than any on Earth, it seemed strange that they would find Earth’s air pressure thin, but such were the oddities of transdimensional physics. Different worlds meant different rules.

“Yes, quite a few of them in fact,” Jen said.

“What is your perimeter detail?” the Preserver Captain asked, without wasting time on pleasantries.

“You’re looking at it,” Connie said from the bottom of a hip deep hole she’d dug at the boundary of the farm’s property.

The Preserve Captain huffed in disdain. “No wonder the quarry has been escaping you.”

Jen suppressed a smile. It was a joy to work with people who couldn’t see beyond the noses on their face. It was the ones who knew to ask the right questions who were occasionally troublesome to predict.

“This site is unique,” she said, gesturing to the farm house in the distance and distracting him from the seemingly menial work Connie was doing. “At previous locations we’ve arrived to find them empty. This time we seem to have caught up with your errant citizens.”

“They are no citizens of ours,” the Preserver Captain said.

“You’re turning them over to us then?” Jen asked.

“No. We still own them. They have violated the Supreme Order and will be sentenced accordingly,” the Preserver Captain said. “Merely by being here without a Sacred Writ, their status and rights have been revoked. The Justicars will determine what their punishments will be beyond that.”

“You still own them?” Jen asked, lightly. It was exactly the phrase the Preserver’s shouldn’t have used, but before she authorized a the diplomatic incident Jen calmly gave the Captain a chance to back away from his blunder.

He wasn’t going to. She could see the nature of their society too clearly in the pieces and clues she’d picked up so far. She knew the broad strokes of the reality which had driven the people huddling in the farm to flee their world for one where they could barely stand without pain or manage to catch their breath after the faintest of exertions.

“They are not your concern,” the Preserver Captain said. “Leave now. We will deal with them, and any others you have allowed to escape.”

“I’m afraid it’s not that simple,” Zoe said.

“These are ours. Your rules and laws do not apply to them.”

“Do any of the laws of this realm apply to you?” Aranea asked. There was a hopeful note in her voice and hunger in her eyes which reminded Jen that Aranea was, at heart, something decidedly inhuman.

“Before we get into esoteric topics like that,” Sarah said quickly. “Perhaps our guests would like to review the data we’ve collected about the people waiting in that building? There might be options for approaching them peacefully.”

“Peace with the corrupted?” The Preserver Captain took a half step back as though to ward off the terrible idea. His troops seemed similarly disgusted with the concept.

“How did intend to apprehend them?” Cynthia asked.

“They will be leashed as the corrupt must be,” the Preserver Captain said.

“And how will you get these leashes on them?” Zoe asked.

“Our binding circles can ensnare a simple dwelling like that. It will be a simple matter to pacify them with Barrage cannons once they have no hope of escape.”

“Barrage cannons?” Aranea’s eyes were alight with a hungry joy. The Preservers were far over any tolerable line which meant there was very little to hold back Aranea. Jen knew they had to at least make the attempt to prevent an incident that would spark a war between the worlds though.

“There is a complication to your plans,” she said. “Whatever rights these people do not have on your realm, there are inalienable rights we grant any sapient being here.”

Or, at least there were rights which neither Jen nor anyone else associated with the Second Chance Club would ever allow a person to be deprived of.

“We will not allow you to drag these people off into slavery or death,” Connie said, climbing out of the hole to back Jen up.

“We’ve let that happen before. We’ve been a people who did that to ourselves,” Sarah

“Never again.” Jen said it first but every one of her friends echoed her.

Except for Aranea who smiled and asked in a slow voice, “But, please, do try to argue the point.”