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.

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 2 – Act 3

Calls in the middle of the night were never good things. Despite working in high finance and organizing teams around the world and in all time zones, Anna still knew that calls which came in the dead of night were never ones that were enjoyable to receive.

In the best case scenario, someone had simply forgotten about the fact that the time in London was not the same as the time in San Diego and “Oh, I’m so sorry! Did I wake you?”

As often as not the answer was “no, you didn’t wake me”, but that didn’t mean Anna necessarily enjoyed being interrupted from what she’d been involved in doing.

“Another crisis?” Zoe asked, her breath slowing as Anna scowled and unlocked her cell phone.

“Probably,” Anna said, punching in the access code and picking up the call. There were many people she would have let pass to voicemail. Tam however was not one of them.

***

Anna found Zoe in the kitchen brewing up a pot of particularly strong coffee a few minutes later.

“It’s not a substitute for sleep, but I hate facing a crisis half asleep,” Zoe said, gesturing to the cups she’d placed out for the two of them.

“Thank you,” Anna said, sliding into her seat at the small counter that separated the kitchen from the living room.

“So how dire is it this time?” Zoe asked, filling first Anna’s mug then her own.

“Not terribly it seems,” Anna said. “Certainly not anything Earth ending like we’ve been dealing with. We have a visitor to expect though.”

“Please tell me Santa is not literally stopping by.”

“No, though you’re not far wrong. Apparently Val has been visited by a Ghost of Christmas Past, and Tam is entertaining a Ghost of Christmas Present.”

Zoe blinked.

“You’re not kidding are you.”

“With the things we’ve seen, does it seem like I would be.”

“I think I would have preferred Santa Claus,” Zoe said and passed Anna the cream and sugar.

Anna chuckled and sipped from her coffee without contaminating it with either of the offered items.

“And which list would you be on?” she asked.

“I’ve been trying to make sure I was on the Naughty list, but midnight calls are making that difficult,” Zoe said with a playful smile and a hint of regret of her eyes.

“We’ll have to see what our Ghost of Christmas Future can offer us in that regards,” Anna said, relaxing into her chair.

The coffee’s warmth was relaxing, though thoughts of what a ghost of the future might hold for her brought a long familiar troop of concerns to mind.

“It’s funny, for all the planning I do, I don’t really like looking at the future,” Zoe said. She was leaning on the counter, hands wrapped around the coffee mug to absorb the heat that her bare feet had lost to the kitchen tiles.

“You have plans for yourself though don’t you?” Anna asked. “Where do you see yourself in five years, and that sort of thing?”

“In a professional sense, sure,” Zoe said. “As we’ve seen though, those can go rather astray.”

“I can’t say I’m unhappy with that,” Anna said. “I rather like where you’ve found yourself straying to these days.”

“I do too,” Zoe said. “This life, being with you, it’s not at all what I imagined I’d be doing, but I think it’s so much closer to what I wanted than where I was heading.”

“You’re a better planner than you realize, I think,” Anna said.

“I should hope so,” Zoe said, her smile growing sharp. “After our first struggle, I began to think I was absolutely terrible.”

“And now?” Anna asked.

“Exceptional with room for improvement? That seems about as kind as I can be.”

“You’re more kind than you realize too, but ‘room for improvement’ is a good thing for all of us to remember, so I’ll grant you that,” Anna said.

“How about you?” Zoe asked. “Can you see what you want the future to be?”

Anna took another sip of her coffee to organize her thoughts.

“Only in broad strokes,” she said. “Happiness for you my family, and my friends. Those are the stars I navigate by, but like stars you have to look at more than just the points of light in the sky. I’ve learned that what happens people far removed from me and mine can still have an impact on the ones who are closest to me.”

“That’s why you’re helping the refugees isn’t it?” Zoe asked. “You’re making everyone a part of your family effectively.”

“Not quite my family, but perhaps my world,” Anna said. “I’ve seen what unchecked tyranny can do. It seeps out and corrupts even parts of the world that aren’t under the tyrant’s control. Love can spread, but the same is true of hatred and fear.”

“I can see that,” Zoe said. “And I can see where that could be a powerful motivation.”

“But it’s not yours, is it?” Anna asked.

“No. I’m glad you’re there to help the refugees, but for me the real thrill of this is taking on people and organizations who think they’re untouchably powerful and still feel the need to misuse that power,” Zoe said, glancing down at her drink. “So, earlier versions of myself, I guess.”

“I’m not sure that’s quite accurate,” Anna said.

“Oh, trust me, I’ve been ruthless,” Zoe said. “When I worked for Prima Lux, I destroyed any number of people who got between me and something I wanted.”

“As someone who was in the line to be destroyed, I have no problem believing you,” Anna said. “But your misuses of power aren’t quite the same as someone like the Chief Law Binder we’ve had to deal with. For you, there was a goal, and there were obstacles to that goal, and you did what was necessary to remove those obstacles, without much regard for the damage the obstacles suffered.”

“Yes. Even when the damage was horrific.”

“And that bothers you now.”

“But it didn’t then.”

“Perhaps not,” Anna said. “But it also wasn’t your end goal, or desire.”

“I don’t think that made much difference to people whose lives were destroyed.”

“And those are the sins we must carry, and make what amends we can for,” Anna said. “Or did you think I wasn’t guilty of the same things in my heyday?”

“The same as what I did? I doubt it.” Zoe said.

“Do you think as a woman and a mother, I was able to continue moving up in influence and power among the elite without crushing those who had what I wanted? Or do you think that there wasn’t collateral damage when I destroyed someone who was above me? Or who’d simply been obnoxious? I may not regret all of the choices I made then – some of those people deserved the destruction they received – but that doesn’t mean I don’t regret the damage I did.”

“So you’re saying we’re both on the Naughty List?” Zoe asked with a smile.

“Well, yes, but that’s more by design than accident.” Anna said, hiding her smile with her coffee cup.

“Our ghost isn’t likely to confront us with our past though, are they?” Zoe asked.

“Not if Dicken’s story is to be believed.”

“I’m not sure how I feel about a trip to a graveyard to see my own tombstone.” Zoe frowned and wiggled her toes. “I’m not exactly dressed for it either.”

“My guess is that the ghost wouldn’t show us an image we’d be expecting,” Anna said. “In the story, Scrooge was shown how the world didn’t miss him when he was gone, and then confronted with a reality he’d been refusing to consider – that his life did have and end and that all that would linger beyond it would be his legacy.”

“I don’t know what sort of legacy I would leave at this point,” Zoe said. “I don’t know if my scales can ever be balanced.”

“I don’t think they can be,” Anna said. “Or mine. Or anyone else’s. It’s not as though doing one good deed can cancel out doing a bad one. I think what we leave behind is much more complex than that. Like children. Good? Bad? You don’t sum them up like that. You take them as they are and appreciate what each one has to offer.”

Zoe gave a short laugh.

“I wouldn’t know about that,” she said. “Of all the things you’ve done, the one that seems the most impossible to me was having kids.”

“Did you ever want ones for yourself?” Anna asked.

“I don’t think so,” Zoe said. “I know I’m supposed to say that I had to fight to put aside my maternal instinct in order to get ahead, but I think that was a part of me that didn’t get installed early on.”

“It’s not as uncommon as you might think,” Anna said. “I’ve met so many different kinds of women. Mothers who never expected to have kids and discovered that their children filled their lives. Mothers who felt broken for not feeling that bond with their children. Women without children who knew they never wanted one and women without children who would have given anything to have one of their own. Foster mothers, adoptive mothers. I think for all the possible variations out there for how to be a woman there must be millions of people who fit each niche.”

“There are definitely variations that are less accepted than others though,” Zoe said. “I remember explaining to my grandmother that I wasn’t going to have kids. You’d think I’d burned all the babies I was supposed to have right in front of her.”

“I wish I could have lent you my grandmother,” Anna said. “When I told her I was never going to have children, she said ‘good for you, you do what you want, with whoever you want, and you don’t let anyone give you any trouble about it’. Then two years later I showed her her first great granddaughter, and she loved me for that too.”

“You’ve had a blessed life, haven’t you?”

“In many ways, yes,” Anna said, and reached across the counter. “Including the people I’ve been able to spend it with.”

Zoe laughed. “And then there’s me. I must be part of paying back you’re corporate karmic burden right?”

Anna rolled her eyes and got up from her seat. At Zoe’s questioning look, she simply smiled and moved around the end of the counter.

Zoe’s eyebrow raised a bit further as Anna leaned in for a kiss and then, without any particular warning, hoisted Zoe out of her chair.

Suspended in Anna’s arms in the classic bridal carry pose, Zoe let out an unabashed laugh.

“You don’t seem to be much of a burden to me,” Anna said, lifting Zoe up and down like she was in the middle of a bicep workout routine.

On one of the lifts, Zoe reached out her arms and placed them around Anna’s neck, drawing her in close for the offered kiss.

“We’re supposed to be too old for this you know,” she said.

“So long as I am not too old for you, we do not need to be too old for anything,” Anna said, and gave Zoe a nuzzling kiss on the neck.

“Perhaps we should get back to bed then?” Zoe asked.

“That is most tempting,” Anna said. “Except, weren’t we expecting a visitor?”

She put Zoe down so they could both stand and look around their apartment.

“We were,” Zoe said. “Did we chase them off?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Anna said. “I had Tam put in some extra security for us. If a ghost had shown up, we should have heard their arrival.”

“Maybe the security kept them out?” Zoe asked.

“It didn’t keep out Tam’s Ghost of Christmas Present.”

“What about Val’s ghost?” Zoe asked.

“Val didn’t have the same security setup. She has Aranea.”

“Then that opens a disturbing quesiton,” Zoe said.

“Yes,” Anna agreed. “What’s happened to our future?”

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 2 – Act 2

Tam’s first impulse was to smack her alarm so that she could snooze for another five minutes. That impulse evaporated as bits of consciousness collected together and she noticed that it wasn’t the alarm on her night stand that had woken her. It was one of the alarm spells she had set to let her know that her protective wards had trapped an unexpected visitor.

Gazing carefully over her shoulder, Tam made certain that Cynthia hadn’t been woken up too, and slipped away as quietly as she could to deal with the interruption.

The truth was, they both needed several nights of decent sleep in a row, but Tam was willing to settle for at least one of them being well rested for a change.

Rather than walk down the stairs to the kitchen and living room level of their townhouse, Tam took the unusual step of conjuring a silent zephyr to allow her to float over the railing and directly down to the spot where her snare had trapped a new intruder.

“You have very nice restraint wards here,” a woman said. If she’d been living she would have been pale and almost silver haired. As it was the translucent quality of her body was a pretty clear give away as to her post-mortem state. Far from a terrifying presence though, the ghost looked downright cheerful.

“Thank you?” Tam said, keeping her voice calm and quiet to avoid disturbing Cynthia’s slumber. “Why are you here?”

“That’s an excellent question,” the ghost said, matching Tam’s hushed tones. “At the moment, the answer ‘getting a moment to relax at last’, thanks you I think.”

The capture spell hadn’t been intended to cause any pain or discomfort, so in a sense it was relief to see that it was working properly even against a target Tam hadn’t thought to specifically calibrate it for. On the other hand she was a bit concerned that she’d cast the mystical equivalent of ghost catnip, given how unperturbed the ghost seemed to be at finding herself stuck in the spell’s lattice work.

“Who are you?” Tam asked.

“I’m the Ghost of Christmas Present. Or one of them. You can call me Lily though if you like. It’s what I went by before I took this role.”

“If I free you, will you leave here?” Tam asked. Being in bed seemed like such a nice thing. Her floating spell meant she didn’t have to walk on the cold floor, but hovering in midair was still chillier than being tucked under the covers and wrapped up in warm, loving arms.

“I suppose,” Lily said. “If it’s all the same to you though, I’d prefer to just stay here for a bit.”

Tam groaned.

“Is someone chasing you?” she asked, knowing the sort of troubles that could plague ghosts who attracted the wrong person’s attention. As a seasonal spirit, Lily would have been protected from a lot of that, but also a more valuable prize for those who could threaten her.

“Oh, it’s nothing like that,” Lily said, reacting to the concern she could see in Tam’s eyes. “I’m not in trouble, just overworked.”

“Gee, what could that ever be like?” Tam asked, more bitterness coming through in her sarcasm than she intended.

“I’m sorry,” Lily said. “I’m not here to drop my problems on you. I know a lot of people have it worse than I do.”

“Well, you’re dead, so that gives you a leg up in the misery sweepstakes than a lot of them,” Tam said, softening a bit towards her uninvited guest.

“Oh, I can’t complain about that,” Lily said. “I had a great run. A lot of special experiences and special people. I got more out my life than most, I think, and when I passed on, well, I had some wonderful options there too.”

“One of them being to become a Christmas ghost?” Tam asked. Part of her wanted to get back to bed, but she knew she was too awake to slip back into the embrace of dreams easily. If she left now, she’d be tossing and turning, thinking about Lily’s story anyways.

“It was always my favorite holiday,” Lily said. “Giving gifts and watching people’s faces light up when they saw the things I made for them would give me as big a rush of happiness as they felt. When I had the chance to give people the gift of a new perspective for Christmas? That sounded close enough to heaven for me.”

“It sounds like the job turned out to be a bit more than you’d signed up for though?” Tam floated a cup, some water and a tea bag over to her hands. As the water streamed through the air, it heated up, joining the tea bad in the cup at just below a solid boil.

“I thought I’d be inspiring people to remember the same magic of giving to people that I’d felt,” Lily said. “It turns out, that’s not what most of my cases wind up being though.”

“More like a Christmas Carol?” Tam asked. “If I remember right, Christmas Present showed Scrooge the kind of hardships the people around him were laboring under right then. And what they really thought of him? It’s been awhile since I read it though.”

“That’s fine,” Lily said. “It’s a good story, but it’s not exactly our operating procedures manual or anything.”

“You have manuals for your seasonal spirit duties?” Tam asked. It wouldn’t have been the most surprising thing. Different spirits followed all different sorts of organizational schemes, including, frequently, none at all.

“I think we did once upon a time,” Lily said. “Now it’s more a matter of just knowing thanks to mantle of the role we wear. More importantly though, you’re right. A lot of the people I get sent to help don’t need to be reminded of how good it can feel to give to others. They would only understand that as a plea to their greed, and it would wind up feeding the wrong side of their souls.”

“I can see how that would get tiring,” Tam said, enjoying a sip of her tea. “What do you do for those people? The Christmas Carol treatment? Or does that not work either because they lack the empathy to absorb that lesson too?

“Each case is a bit different,” Lily said. “That’s the official answer I’m supposed to give. Honestly though, it feels like I haven’t had any successes in a long time. Nobody wants to see Christmas as the time of sharing and connection that its supposed to be.”

“Maybe it’s hard for some of them to have that connection?” Tam asked. “There’s a lot of people who are alone, or who have family that they may not be able to be close with.”

“That’s what’s got me down,” Lily said. “What if my whole role is to talk people into a version of a holiday that worked for me because of all the wonderful things I had in my life, but can never work for them?”

“That would be a pretty lousy afterlife,” Tam agreed. “Which is why I’ve got to believe there’s more options open to you than you might think.”

Lily brightened at that suggestion, leaning forward in the small area she was trapped in.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to let you out of there?” Tam asked.

“Not yet! Please!” Lily asked. “As long as I can’t work, I don’t feel the compulsion to seek out the next person who needs my help.”

“So the job comes with a geas?” Tam asked, thinking of the various magical compulsions she knew that could work on a ghost.

“Not precisely,” Lily said. “I can resist the pull of the next job if I need to. There’s no pain, or loss of autonomy. I just always have a sense of someone needing my help and where I can find them. It gets distracting sometimes and I feel bad for making people wait. In here though, that’s all on the other side of the barrier you’ve got me in, so I think the calls are going to some other Ghost of Christmas Present.”

“Have you tried talking with any of them?” Tam asked. “They might have run into the same things you have.”

“We never get called to the same person,” Lily said. “No one wants to see the present, and another, alternate, present I guess.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s not true,” Tam said. “Leaving that aside though I think there’s one simple thing you can do that might make your cases turn out better.”

***

Lily manifested at the side of Jacque’s bed and saw the shimmering haze of dreamlight that surrounded him dissipate as her presence brought him slowly back to consciousness.

“Hi,” she said and remained sitting calmly in the chair at his desk. Living people reacted poorly when they found ghosts hovering over them in the night. They reacted poorly to ghosts in most circumstances, but a friendly expression and a lack of sudden movements did a lot to provide reassurance that no one’s life was in mortal peril.

“You’re a ghost,” Jacque said, blinking as though to clear the dreams from his eyes.

“Of Christmas Present,” Lily said. “Yes.”

“I…I don’t do Christmas,” Jacque said, inching away on his bed as his fight or flight response went for the sensible option.

“I know,” Lily said. “It’s why I’m here.”

“Is this what Santa’s naughty list looks like?” Jacque asked.

“Separate department,” Lily said, allowing a smile to grace her lips.

“So I’m not in trouble then?” Jacque asked, his terror held at bay through the sheer power of disbelief he’d summoned.

“Not with me,” Lily said. “I’m not here to punish you. Just the opposite in fact.”

“What? I get presents for saying ‘No’ to Christmas?” Jacque asked, relaxing more due to disorientation than any actual sense of relief.

“Would you come with me?” Lily asked, not answering Jacque’s question. “There are some things we need to see.”

She stood and offered Jacque her hand. Still as confused as he had been, Jacque rose and took Lily’s ghostly hand in his own. She saw his eyebrows twitch up when he felt the warmth of her touch.

Most ghosts are frost cold, but then most ghosts aren’t filled with love and good cheer.

“Where are we going?” Jacque asked, his gaze darting around the room as though a secret passage was going to open through the walls.

“Wherever you need to show me,” Lily said. “I need to see what Christmas looks like to you, I need to listen to what you’re bringing to Christmas already, and who you would want to celebrate it.”

“Why?” Jacque asked.

“So that I can show you what Christmas could really look like for you.”

***

Jacque was sure he’d just been through the weirdest dream in his life. He couldn’t really have talked with the Ghost of Christmas present? Could he?

If not though, how else could he explain all the things he’d seen. From living memories of his childhood rendered in more detail than he could ever have possibly remembered to the scene’s from Lily’s life that they’d walked through, pausing and rewinding each piece of them to review at least one path a loving family could follow.

Lily’s family hadn’t been all related by blood. What bound them together went far deeper than that.

“Hi,” a woman said, her voice holding traces of uncertainty in it. “If this sounds weird, I’ll just go, but I had the strangest…dream I guess? I was talking to the Ghost of Christmas Present and long story short, she said to come here because there was someone else who needed a friend to spend the holidays with?”

“You saw Lily too?” Jacque asked.

“Oh my god! It was real!” the woman, Gillain, said.

“Are you guys talking about a ghost? A Christmas ghost? That asked us to meet here?” Thalia, a young black woman asked, with the same surprised look on her face that Jacque and Gillain wore.

***

“I think your idea worked,” Lily said, watching from a nearby rooftop with Tam floating beside her.

“Listening to people can make a big different when you want to help them out,” Tam said.

“They might have found each other on their own though,” Lily said.

“Yeah, but probably not tonight, and probably not at a point when they’d all be as open to seeing each other as the kind of friend they really need,” Tam said. “Unless I miss my guess, I think their little group is going to draw in a bunch of other who need the same thing, and I think that’s the best second chance, or Christmas present anyone could ask for.”

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 2 – Act 1

The last thing Val had expected when she at last tumbled into her bed after several weeks away from home was that she would spend the night entertaining a ghost.

“It’s dark o’clock,” she grumbled, clutching a pillow over her head.

“Tell me about dearie,” the heavyset ghost said as she plopped down onto a chair at the side of Val’s bed without any weight or impact at all.

Val grumbled louder and peered out from under the pillow. She’d been dealing with all sorts of metaphysical wackiness for weeks without a break. The Winter Solstice had passed with her and Aranea literally visiting the sun. As in the cosmic ball of fire in the sky.

She wasn’t a diplomat but it had still been her job to convince the source of nearly all warmth and light on Earth that putting in another year of lighting up the sky was a worthwhile effort. Forget about physics. Forget about the fact that luminescent gases heated to the point of nuclear fusion weren’t sentient and couldn’t be reasoned with. The spirit of the season demanded someone go harangue the sun into doing it’s job and Val  had drawn the short straw.

“If the problem is urgent, please press one and our operators will get back to you during waking hours,” Val said and beeped like an answering machine.

Ghosts didn’t show up in Val’s life casually, especially not since she’d started dating a spider goddess. That Aranea was off taking care of an incursion into her domain was probably coincidental with the ghost’s appearance, but Val was all too ready to believe that fate was conspiring against her personally.

“No message to leave here,” the ghost said. “Just taking a load off.”

Val looked out from under the pillow.

The ghost had pulled over another chair and had propped her feet up.

She wasn’t sleeping but the slump in her posture as she sagged into the chair suggested an identical level of weariness to what Val was feeling.

“Seriously? You just need a place to crash for the night?” Val asked, emerging from under her pillow.

“Nah, I’m supposed to be spreading all kinds of Seasonal Reminders,” the ghost said. Val could hear the capital letters and groaned. The last thing she wanted was any more mystically significant trash to clean up.

“Why are you here?” she asked. “Am I lacking in Christmas Spirit or something?”

She felt a pang of guilt over the notion that she’d only picked out half the gifts she intended to give and for Aranea, her hardest subject, she was completely without a clue in temrs of what she could get that would be appropriate.

“You?” The ghost huffed out a disbelieving chuckle. “You spend all year giving people the things they need to turn their lives around. I’m surprised you don’t poop candy canes with all the Spirit of Giving you’ve got in you.”

“Why the haunting then?” Val asked. She needed sleep. Her body knew that. Her mind though was rapidly burying that desire under a landfill of questions and curiosity.

“I don’t know,” the ghost said as she massaged her temples. “This spot seemed open. Probably a reason for that, but I’m past caring what it might be. Heh. Past caring. Aren’t I funny?”

“You’re the Ghost of Christmas Past?” Val asked.

“Something like that. You can call me Karen though. Being a ghost gets old after a while.”

“I thought ghosts were supposed to be eternal? And how do you get aches and pains after you’re dead?”

“Same as the living do I guess,” Karen said. “One step at a time.”

“For the Ghost of Christmas Past you’re painting a pretty bleak picture of the afterlife there Karen,” Val said.

“Oh the afterlife isn’t that bad,” Karen said. “Strictly speaking though I’m not in the afterlife.”

“You’re looking a bit see through to me. Are you only ‘mostly dead’ or something?”

Karen stirred a bit, dropping her hands from her head and turning to look at Val.

“Nope. I’m a good and dead as you get,” she said. “Passed in 19 hundred and eighteen.”

“Happy Centennial?” Val asked.

“It’s funny,” Karen said. “I don’t feel a day over 66.”

“That’s not a bad run,” Val said.

“It’s a long run. Or it at least it was in my day.”

“What did you do? When you were alive I mean?” Val asked.

“A bit of everything,” Karen said. “Hard to remember it all at this point to be honest.”

“Kids?”

“Oh, yeah. Plenty of those.”

Val did the math in her head.

“I’m guessing they’ve all passed on too?”

“Yeah. Most of the grand kids too. I don’t get to keep track of them like I’d want to, but every once in a while I can pop in and see how they’re doing.”

“How did you get stuck being a Spirit of the Season?” Val asked. “I’m guessing it’s kind of a rough gig?”

“My own fault,” Karen said. “I always loved the holidays. Especially Christmas time. Then I went and got hit by a sleigh on the solstice and my kids and everyone else spent the next twelve Christmases memorializing me.”

“So they stuck you as the Ghost of Christmas Past?” Val asked.

“Not my family, no,” Karen said. “It’s just a role some of the departed can take and it gave me chance to interact with some of them, so I jumped at it.”

“Wait, did you actually Christmas Carol them into turning their life around?” Val asked.

“Oh heavens, no. That’s not how this works at all,” Karen said. “You can’t really convince people to change by showing them how great the past was. Or at least I can’t.”

“A hundred years sounds like a long time to go without a win. You had to have some impact right?”

“Oh I made people feel better,” Karen said. “For a while anyways. Pleasant memories only take you so far though. Especially when they’re lies.”

“What do you mean by lies?” Val asked.

“I’m supposed to remind people of how good things used to be,” Karen said. “I can show you how much simpler life was long ago, and how everything was a bit brighter, and a bit more joyful.”

“That sounds like some ugly mind control stuff there,” Val said.

Karen laughed again.

“It’s not like that. Here let me show you.”

She held out her hand but Val back away on the bed.

“No thank you! First rule of magic stuff; no letting it get to your head.”

“Probably a wise move,” Karen said, drawing her hand back. “I can’t show you things that aren’t real though.”

“Didn’t you just say the things you show are lies though?” Val asked.

“There’s lies and then there are lies,” Karen said. “My job is to remind people of how good everything was. The problem is if I show you all the times when you were truly happy, and the times when other people were happy, even if all of those memories are real, I’m not showing you the whole picture am I?”

“So it’s a lie of omission?” Val asked. “And that’s what’s got you down?”

“Maybe?” Karen said. “I know I’m pretty tired of pretending like yesterday was this great golden paradise that we all left behind. The truth is, yesterday had some terrible problems. I never had the right to vote. People with my color skin had laws passed against them. Nobody could get divorces, so you had people stuck in miserable, hate-filled marriages that bent up and twisted whole families.”

“Some of that’s gotten better, but a lot’s still the same. At least in terms of what really goes on,” Val said.

“That’s exactly my point,” Karen said. “I’m tired of telling people how great everything was only to leave them looking around at the world they’re in and leaving them to think that it’s gotten so much worse.”

“It sounds like you want to give up the Holiday Spirit act?” Val asked.

“I probably should,” Karen said. “The problem is I know some of poor ghost will just get roped into it if I do pass on.”

“Would that be so bad?” Val asked.

“I’d feel like I’d left the problem here unfinished,” Karen said. “I don’t know what that would do, but I’ve never heard of unfinished business being good for a ghost.

“What’s the problem. In your view I mean,” Val asked. “Is it that your job misleads people? Or that it doesn’t give them lasting help?”

“A bit of both,” Karen said. “It’s just so hard to try to help people all the time and know you can’t fix them.”

“You don’t really have a problem then,” Val said.

Karen narrowed her eyes and sat up in the chain.

“Excuse me?” she said.

“You don’t have a problem,” Val said. “You’re just tired and need a rest. Basically like everyone else I know.”

“Oh child, I need a lot more than a nap to make up for this,” Karen said.

“Let’s break it down then,” Val said. “You’re worn out because you think you’re not peddling the truth to people right?”

“Yeah. That’s part of it.”

“Do you think your voice is the only one they can hear?” Val asked.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean do you think you show them these visions of yesterday and that’s all they can think about? Do you think it erases everything they already know.”

“Well, no…”

“I get what you’re saying. Clinging to the past, especially some candy colored vision of it doesn’t help anybody,” Val said. “I talk to my Mom, and my Grandmother, even my Great Grandpa and they had rough times. Some of the worst. Turning back the clock wouldn’t make things better for them at all. My grandmother though? Those aren’t the things she tells me when I ask her to tell me what it was like when she was a kid. She remembers the good things too. All the wild times she had. The people she loved. That’s what’s given her the strength to hang in there through it all.”

“She’s a special lady then,” Karen said. “Most people can’t change their whole lives on a few good memories.”

“She is pretty special,” Val agreed. “But I never said it was a few good memories that made everything ok for her. Let me ask you this; do you work alone?”

“There are other Seasonal Spirits, other Ghosts of Christmas Past,” Karen said. “Usually for someone who needs my help I’m the only Christmas Past that shows up for them.”

“What about Present and Future?” Val asked.

“They probably come after me,” Karen said. “I don’t know how they’re handled. Seems like it would be weird to use a ghost for Christmas Future. Maybe even for Christmas Present too. Ghosts can be a little shaky at first.”

“However they’re setup, the point is, you’re not alone,” Val said. “Yeah, you can’t solve someone’s troubles all by yourself, but you don’t have to either. There’s probably at least two other spirits out there backing you up. I know that might not seem like much, but if the last couple of years have shown me anything it’s that if you put the right three people together they can do a whole lot more than any one of them could do on their own.”

Karen tipped her head, considering Val’s words. She didn’t leap out of the chair, or start glowing but the weight of fatigue that was dragging down her incorporeal bones seemed to lift.

“If you need to move on, that’s your decision to make,” Val said. “I think one hundred years of service is a lot to ask of anyone. All I’m saying is, if you help remind people who are down what it feels like to be ok, if you remind them that being okay is real when they’re losing the ability to believe it can be? That’s a priceless gift to give someone. Sure it’s not everything, but it’s something, and sometimes that’s all people need to take a second chance at life.”

The Second Chance Club – S3 Ep 1 – Act 4

Traveling with over three hundred people in tow was difficult in the best of time. When those three hundred people had lost their homes, their jobs, and the entire planet though there were a few extra challenges that arose.

“The Ulitani get car sick? All of them?” Connie asked, looking at the long line of buses that was pulled over on the side of the interstate. A small army of people had fled from them and some had even made it to the bushes on the side of the road before losing their lunches.

“Wheeled vehicles,” Val sighed and buried her face in her palm. “This is the first time any of them ever rode in something that wasn’t hover equipped.”

“We probably should have thought of that,” Jen said, surveying their ragged charges. None of them looking to be in dire condition, but getting ill wasn’t any more pleasant for an Ulitani than it was for a human.

“It’s easy to forget what a change this is for them,” Anna said, emerging from one of the buses with a mop and a bucket. Zoe emerged after her carrying her own mop and bucket.

“They’re going to have a lot of other ‘fun’ learning experiences like this to look forward to,” Zoe said, and began wheeling her bucket over to the rest areas washroom. The busses weren’t going to clean themselves and asking the Ulitani to clean up after the mess they’d made seemed a crueler request than anyone was willing to ask of them.

“That leaves up with a pretty serious problem in terms of what we do next,” Val said, hoisting her bucket to take the next pass at cleaning out the bus and making it livable again.

“We’ve got about a hundred miles left to go still,” Connie said. “That’s a long hike to ask them to make. I know the Oshari family has some people with mobility issues and I don’t think any of the kids will do well if we ask them to walk that far.”

“I don’t think setting them up here is going to be a viable option,” Jen said, following onto the bus with a mop lodged under her armpit.

“What other choice do we have?” Connie asked, following the other two in.

The inside of the bus had already had a round of cleaning but the smell remained, mixed with the caustic odor of cleaning chemicals. All it had taken was one person losing the battle against the queasiness and that had tipped the rest over the edge.

“I’m working on that,” Jimmy B said, glancing up from scrubbing down down one of the seat backs that had caught an unfortunate amount of splatter. The wireless headset he was wearing had lights on that indicated he was on a call but had put it on hold. “Was thinking we could try to air lift them out. Unfortunately I can’t find enough helicopters available to get everyone to Judestown by tonight.”

“You’re thinking they might be more accustomed to air travel?” Anna asked, returning with Zoe and buckets of fresh soapy water.

“Seemed like it was worth a shot but I don’t think it’s going to pan out,” Jimmy said. “I’ll keep working the air travel angle though if you think it’s worth pursuing?”

“I think there’s a simpler solution,” Zoe said.

“What’s that?” Val asked.

“Talk to them,” Zoe said, gesturing to the Ulitani who had recovered and were returning to the bus.

***

The trip resumed a few hours later, after a few test drives had been made to prove out the Ulitani’s plan.

Packing them together into a bus hadn’t worked, in part, because they were too isolated from the environment. The simple expedient of opening the buses’ windows had addressed a significant portion of that problem. For further stress reduction though, the Ulitani had turned to prayer.

It wasn’t quite like an Earthly church service. No specific requests or offerings were made to the divine, no songs were sung, and no speeches made to the gathering. Instead the Ulitani sat down together in irregular groups and began to hum wordlessly.

Over time the humming grew deeper and more synchronized as the overall tension of the group ebbed away. After a half hour of their prayers, the Ulitani rose and moved back to the buses, their steps slow and plodding, like they were walking through in a half-slumber.

“Is that an alien super power they have?” Connie asked, watching the crowd sleep walk in an orderly fashion back to their seats.

“No,” Anna said. “Anyone can reach that sort of state with practice.”

“Though reaching it that quickly takes significant practice,” Zoe said.

“Talking to them was a good idea,” Val said. She’d never fully warmed to Zoe, despite Anna’s connection to her, but she was at least willing to acknowledge good work when she saw it.

“We’ll be a few hours late arriving in Judestown but I think our setup crews are grateful for the extra time,” Jen said, tapping the comm control built into the back of her left arm to end the call.

“I thought they were on track to be done this morning?” Val said. She glanced back at the half-dozing Ulitani to see if any were disturbed by, or even aware of, the news that their new housing might not be ready for them.

“We have hit a few snags,” Anna said.

“It turns out that re-establishing a defunct town is subject to some federal regulations as well as state ones,” Zoe said.

“At least in the case where a large part of the land has been used as a federal toxic waste disposal site,” Anna said, sighing as she sank deeper into her chair.

“Oh, that’s a new wrinkle, isn’t it?” Connie asked, the same concern that weighed Anna down beginning to percolate through Connie’s expression.

“We’re lucky James knew of it,” Anna said. “And that someone thought to bring him in on the plan.”

“It was such a good plan too,” Zoe said.

“Where did you get the idea to use a ghost town as our refuge home anyways?” Connie asked.

“From Anna,” Zoe said. “Indirectly at least. I remember her telling me about a location Prima Lux had turned into a ghost town which she and Val, I believe, fixed?”

“Oh, yeah, the time loop town,” Val said. “That was fun.”

“It got me thinking about resources that are forgotten about or have been laying fallow for a long time,” Zoe said. “Some ghost towns, most of them I believe, dried up and died because people were drawn off to better places to live.”

“So where better to put people who don’t have anywhere to live than somewhere that no one is interested in living anyways?” Connie asked. She’d been pulling a needle and thread through a ripped jacket one of the Ulitani kids had given her. The resulting fix wasn’t perfect but it gave the tear an artistic flair, as though it had been made deliberately.

“That was the general idea,” Zoe said. “I thought there would be less pushback to their arrival if they were taking up space that no one was really paying attention to anyways. I’d hoped we could have them in their new homes for a few months before anyone even noticed they were there.”

“The car sickness could have helped with that,” Val said. “I’m guessing once we get them settled in, these folks won’t be going out all that much.”

“That presents its own problems,” Anna said. “We’d planned for the settlement to become self sufficient over the course of a few seasons.”

“They’ll need time to learn how to adapt to life on Earth, including the basics of agriculture here,” Zoe said. She rubbed her temple as though to squeeze further thoughts from a tired and overworked brain.

“Is it all that different from what they’re used to?” Connie asked.

“In the sense that many of them weren’t farmers, yes,” Anna said. “Also the general methodologies of agriculture on both worlds are similar, but the specifics of which crops to plant where and how often are something that they will need local experts to help work out.”

“Or they would have needed that,” Val said. “I’m guessing we don’t intend to have them farming in toxic waste right?”

“Is it toxic to them?” Connie asked. “I mean, they are essentially aliens. Maybe they would react differently to whatever’s in the ground there than we would?”

“In theory the toxic waste is all buried so deeply that there wouldn’t be any contamination issues, but if that proved to be incorrect it would be a problem,” Zoe said. “Biologically, the Ulitani are close enough to us that almost anything toxic for one species will be a problem for the other too.”

“Should we turn the buses around then?” Connie asked. “The crews will have the temporary shelters we had assembled in the gym mostly torn down by now but we can reassemble those a lot faster than we can go finish a remediation project on an ghost town.”

“It’s an option, but not a viable one long term,” Jen said. “And I think we still have a better one.”

***

The town meeting in Candle Falls was the most well attended one in the small town’s history. Nearly half of the small village’s five hundred people were able to attend thanks to a variety of fortune circumstances such as child care options opening up, days off from work being declared, and a general order for all town employees to be present.

When the townsfolk arrived they saw a much larger group than they’d expected waiting for them.

“Thank you all for coming,” Anna said as the new arrivals settled themselves into seats that had been set up on the football field that was serving as the meeting place for the day’s meeting.

“Before I begin, I’d like to introduce you to the people here you won’t recognize,” Anna said. “They have come here from a long way to make a single request.”

Anna gestured for one of the Ulitani to step forward.

“My name is Belisha Pondogrove,” Belisha said. “And I speak for my people, the Ulitani. We are refugees, driven from our homes by war and oppression. We ask if you will welcome us, and if we may live together with you in peace for the prosperity of all.”

A chorus of voice arose from the assembled townsfolk, people talking among themselves loud enough that the ones who wished to ask questions had to shout to be heard over the din, and in turn drowned each other out.

“Please,” Anna said, her enchanted voice projecting over all other conversation. “We have setup a microphone at the front of each aisle. If you have questions, approach and we’ll have everyone ask whatever they wish to know one at a time so we can all hear the answers.”

The people who had been so raucous a moment earlier were strangely shy. Or at least the adults were. In each of the three aisles, children began to step forward and head to the microphones.

“Why do you want to come here? It’s boring here,” a young girl asked.

“Boring is not so bad,” Belisha said. “The last thing we want is excitement like we saw on Ultil.”

“Where’s Ultil?” a young boy asked.

“On another planet,” Belisha asked.

“Are you human?” a girl asked.

“No, though I think you are very like us,” Belisha said.

“Yeah, you’re Cotton Candy is amazing!” a young Ulitani boy shouted from the group behind her.

“I know!” the girl said. “I can’t wait for the carnival! It’s so good there!”

A small round of laughter swept through the room at that as an adult finally stepped up.

“What do you mean by another world?” the heavy, bearded man asked.

“Exactly that,” Anna said. “We explain that part in detail, and show any of you proof that other worlds exist. In short though, the are many places out there, and many which our world will soon be exposed to. We know Candle Falls has been suffering lately, your population dwindling as people move out and don’t move back in. We’re not asking you to take on a new burden, what we’re hoping is that you’ll be willing to let the Ulitani move into the places that have been abandoned, and begin to renew the parts of your town that have fallen into disrepair.”

“And you say we can ask any questions we want?” an older woman asked, stepping up to the mic for her turn.

“Yes. This is something you should all go into with open eyes. If there are problems then we might be able to work them out, but we need to know about them first,” Anna said.

“Ok, then, Belisha tell us about yourself. Do you have any children?”

***

The meeting lasted for hours and was still going when Anna next caught sight of Estella Carmicheal, the older woman who’d gotten the real conversation going. It was a discussion that had continued well into the night,prompting JB and Jimmy to arrange for delivery of food fit to feed the entire town so the meeting could continue.

In ones and twos, the rest of the town had arrived over time, and as they’d arrived, the overall conversation had broken up into many smaller groups with a handful of Ulitani talking to a like number of Earthlings here while a pair of each species spoke beside them and a larger group of mixed children played a game of their own invention in a corner.

“So, other worlds?” Estella asked.

“And even stranger things,” Anna said.

“Good,” Estella said. “Nice to know there’s some other people out there.”

“What do you think of these ones?” Anna asked.

“I think we’ll make a home for them here,” Estella said. “I was talking with Belisha and I like how she sees us. I think we all want to live up to that image of what we can be. More than that though, I think they want the same thing we do, maybe the same thing everyone does.”

“What’s that?” Anna asked.

“A second chance at making a good life,” Estella said with a smile and a twinkle in her eye.

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.”