Saturday, 16 April 2022 03:39

Parallel 2: Interlaced (Parts 171-180)

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Parallel 2: Interlaced (Parts 171-180)

By JulesM

Note for the reader: this is Interlaced, sequel to Parallels and featuring the continuing adventures of my OC Parallel. An ongoing serial, it's being released here in 10-part blocks for your convenience.

We resume the story as our heroine just raised up the Big Portal in Seattle, and Gothmog opened it.

 

Part one hundred and seventy one

“Really, Daddy, open sesame? You don’t think that’s a cliche?” Sara is grinning.

Gothmog laughs. “It seemed appropriate.” Then to the rest of us, “This gate is open now, to friends and family, and to all who are willing to behave as good guests, in return for my hospitality. Beyond that, I see no need to discriminate. And so, it will be up to you on the human side to decide who you let through. Do you have a plan for this?”


Tome is the one who replies, his voice is slightly squeaky, going with his short stature. “We have decided to focus upon preventing villain and terrorist attacks, and disruptive stunts, particularly those focused on attendees outside your realm. We have been informed that you will deal with those on the inside, is this correct?”

“It is. If they have entered under protection of hospitality, and cast that protection aside, then they will answer to me directly.”

“Which means what?” A group of cops has come down to join us, and one of them just spoke up. “We have laws here, this is America. You don’t get to decide what the law is.”

“And this is not America, officer”, Gothmog says, reasonably. “And there is no law here at all except me, and the word I have given. Those who pass through this portal, implicitly agree to accept that.”

“Now see here, you…”

“Can it, corporal. It’s political, the city signed off on this.” The speaker is another of the cops, with rank insignia. A web search identifies the rank, one silver bar, lieutenant. He turns to me, “Is your song-and-dance show over?”

“All over, yes”, I say.

“Then we’re done here, and we’ll be pulling back. Further crowd control is on you.”

“Much appreciated”, I lie.

The surly looking one who’d just been told to shut up, suddenly gets an evil smirk. I follow where he’s looking: at Catherine. Uh-oh.

“Hey boss, isn’t that the fugitive?”

From the wince and frown that flicker over the lieutenant’s face, I figure he’d seen her too, and wasn’t going to stir shit. Unlike his asshole underling. “What fugitive?”

“The one that led us a chase around town. Absconding from the scene after use of powers.”

The lieutenant, out of options, sighs. “Miss, can you show us your MID?”

Catherine gets a trapped look. There’s a flicker of distraction that I recognise as telepathic communication. She says, “I, uh, sorry…” And makes a lightning dash for the portal, slipping under the corporal’s attempt to grab her and skidding between the iron pillars, ending up panting and picking herself up on the other side.

The corporal, meanwhile, runs himself smack into hard air chasing her, and stumbles back bloodied. Then lurches forward and makes like a mime, feeling out the invisible wall that stopped him. “What the hell?”

The lieutenant blinks, gathers his wits and takes charge. “Siddown, Jones, that’s an order. You just cracked your head, do you want to crack it twice falling on your ass? Sit this one out.”

“Damn it, lieutenant, he’s harbouring a fugitive with that magic wall of his.” But he does sit down.

“There is no wall”, Gothmog speaking up. “Your officer simply does not meet the criteria for entry. He tried to force his way in, with intent to do harm to my guest here. He has discovered this is not possible.”

“At the moment, under US law, she is a fugitive from justice”, the lieutenant says.

“Which means nothing to me”, Gothmog says. “She is a guest, and has not broken the rules of hospitality.”

“How about a compromise”, it’s Max, trying to smooth things over. “Suppose she were to present herself with a MID to the downtown precinct, say, some time tomorrow, would due process be served?”

The lieutenant grasps at that straw. “She might end up with a fine for absconding, but yes, that would work for me. West precinct, tomorrow.”

“Damn it, lieutenant, she’s a mutie and a criminal and a fugitive from justice. Why are you kissing ass for these freaks?”

“Corporal Jones, you are clearly in need of medical attention and not thinking straight, or you’d realise you were just being grossly insubordinate. And openly discriminatory in front of credible witnesses. And pissing in a very political pond where you are not by any means the biggest fish. I’m told the President of the USA personally called the city to get this business cleared.”

“The President’s got some spook of an alien messing with his head.” The grumpy-sounding corporal does a double take and looks at me. “Shit, that alien, you’re her, aren’t you? You’re the one trying to take our democracy away, you freak bitch”, he’s scrabbling for his pistol. And then he slumps unconscious, as I knock him down with sorcery.

“Sorry”, I say. “Didn’t want that to escalate.”

“Sorry for what? That was you?” The lieutenant looks well out of his depth.

“Yeah. Life sorcery. He’ll sleep peacefully for a few hours and wake fresh as a daisy. And I fixed his concussion.” He can keep the busted nose, though.

“Alright, this is so past my pay grade. Michaels, Rodriguez, get him into one of the cars. I want him checked over by a doctor. The rest of you, we’re out of here.” He looks at me, “That was clearly self defence, and I’m declaring it necessary, prudent, and in good faith. But mind how you use that ability. In a different circumstance that could have landed you a steep jail term.”

“I’ll remember”, I say.

He leaves.

Going by the looks some the other cops give me as they leave, I guess I’m not top of their happy fun people list today. But they have sense enough to keep their lips zipped around the lieutenant. Gah, what a mess.

Tome says, “As I understand it young lady, you have no MID, yet?”

Catherine, looking frustrated, says, “I’ve only been out of a hospital bed since yesterday lunchtime.”

“Then we had better deal with that without delay. There are powers testing facilities back at the Knights headquarters. If you feel able to leave your temporary sanctuary?”

She nods, and steps gingerly out. Turning back to look at Gothmog, “Thank you again, I owe you, and I apologise for being a troublesome guest.”

“It was no trouble at all”, he says, with an indulgent smile.

Mike Pearson thanks us for, quote, “an interesting experience”, and heads over to his car, while the rest of us bundle back into ours. We won’t be leaving a permanent security presence at the site until the conference starts. Gothmog is fine with random humans wandering in meanwhile. I think he’s looking forward to the company. Although after today’s events, he has put up a sign by the entrance that explains the rules. He’s using the same R’Lyehian runes trick as Sara’s room back at school uses, so it should be readable (if disconcerting) to just about everybody.

With all the cars gone and the sun having set, the area is almost unlit, just some sodium-yellow scatter and intermittent headlights from the road that runs past. My night sight easily picks out colourful glows dotted over the sand, and settled into the faux-Celtic carvings on the standing stones. New life, adapted to this place, a side effect of my spell. It makes the ground shine like a plankton sea.

As I smile and make my way back to base in Gothmog’s realm, over on the other side Dyffud and I are getting ready for our on-air interview. I’m in my gi, and we won’t be getting studio makeup done because we’ll be doing a demonstration spar. But we still have to sit still and get our radio mikes fitted, and then wait for things to start. We’ve already met the hostess, Jane Rodriguez, although she was too busy for more than hi-and-bye introductions. And we’ll be meeting Sensei Lee, who was the guy giving commentary last time. He’s not someone who Dyffud knows, but that isn’t too surprising.

Except, while I’m sat there I get a genuinely unexpected surprise. A nudge on links - from Doc Diabolik.

“Miss Parallel, I hope this is a time when you are available for conversation?”

“Any time for you. What’s up?”

“A matter that may be of interest to you. Of course since our earlier conversation, I’ve done my own investigation, and I’ve also followed your more political activities with interest. Congratulations are in order on DC, I believe?”

“It wasn’t intentional, but it was convenient”, I admit.

“It has advanced the agenda I serve, and I believe you approve of, immeasurably. It has also created somewhat of a citadel against your enemy, has it not?”

“It has, yes. Hence the panicky countermoves.”

“Some of which are overt, some less so. You see, your citadel has a hole in its defences.”

This I have to know more about. “Go on.”

“Ah, I thought that would catch your attention. Consider for a moment, our mutual enemy last week.”

Damn it. “Palm. And his drones are not subject to influence.”

“That remains to be seen, but they are not subject to local influence, at least, their instructions are delivered remotely. And yes, there is a major nest of them in DC. As discovered by my new director of cyber-security and counter-intelligence.”

He pulls someone else into the group, and I find myself laughing out loud, startling Dyffud, as I recognise the newcomer - it’s Paige.

“Um, yeah, hi”, Paige sounds amused and embarrassed. “I wasn’t exactly sneaking around behind everyone’s backs, you were all just busy.”

“You don’t answer to me, or any of the rest of us, we’re friends, not your boss”, I say. “Besides, Palm was your enemy before he was mine. And you were the one who got kidnapped. Your having dibs makes sense.”

“Quite so”, says doc Diabolik. “And with her newfound ability to split her attention, she has been a great asset to me in this matter. We have identified the DC nest of drones, I believe, without warning them. I plan to strike that nest with an expedition force.”

I connect a few dots. “And my newfound political connections mean that maybe I can keep the feds from shooting at you when you roar down out of orbit.”

Paige says, “We’re hoping that we can startle Palm into taking a personal hand, and then I can hunt him down directly over the net. When he’s acting through his drones, he’s too well hidden. But yeah, we were hoping you could call off the heat. Because you see, they’ve gone and disguised themselves as police. They’ve completely taken over a whole station. I think they just replaced the humans, one by one, like pod people. And shooting at cops is a bad look. Worse, we can’t just open negotiations with the feds ourselves. I’m pretty sure they’re infiltrated, and we’d tip the nest off.”

“I’m in”, I say. “I’ll do what I can. The brass may be unusually receptive, they just discovered a bunch of the enemy’s moles. Influence either made them fess up, or run away. So they’re stinging from that already, and on high alert. That said, I can see a problem. What’s to stop all those embedded drones from running around causing maximum chaos as soon as we hit the main nest?”

“Me”, says Paige. “I should be able to clamp down on any commands he tries to send them, at least temporarily. And if I can take him down for keeps this time, I’ll own the levers, and then they’ll all do what I say.”

“Seems like a good plan”, I say. “Let me know when you need me to act, and I’ll make some calls.”

“I shall do so”, the Doc says. “And thank you for your cooperation. This Palm has been a thorn in all of our sides, and I suspect also that he is selling services to your enemy, in the absence of anyone else able to do so. His removal would be to all of our advantage, and that of humanity. Very well, we shall speak later.” And the call disconnects.

Fun fun.

Part one hundred and seventy two

Dyffud and I are waiting just off-shot while the newscaster does the lead-in for us.

“So, yesterday we had some analysis of a video purporting to show Miss Parallel, on our show. At the time, that was just a guess. And at that time I said I’d see if I could get her to come on the show. Honestly, I expected to be told no, but imagine my surprise when she contacted us, not the other way around. Of course I said yes, and so tonight we’ll have her, along with her martial arts trainer, to talk us through what we saw, and what we didn’t. And we have Sensei Lee back joining us again tonight to discuss his analysis.”

“Thank you Jane, and it’s good to be back. I have to admit, I’m intrigued.”

“And so, introducing, Miss Parallel” A flunky gives me a shove, and I make my way towards my seat in front of the cameras with a short bow to Jane and Sensei Lee and another to the viewers, “And Sensei Dyffud Harraz, her trainer.”

“Just Dyffud, please”, he says with a smile as he takes his seat beside me. “And I train various pupils at the school, not just Miss Parallel.”

Jane picks up, “So, Dyffud, can you walk us through what was going on in that video?”

“Well, first off, there wasn’t really supposed to be a video. Someone was being a little naughty with the cameras which are fitted in that arena to record sporting events. The purpose of the training was partly just practise, and a test of her ability under the stress of continuous battle. But also, she was in another place at the same time, and I expected what happened there might make her angry, which I wanted to make use of as part of the lesson. So she has rightly berated me for setting her up, there. Especially since it ended up all over the news.”

“In another place, at the same time?” Jane looks confused.

I pick that up. “I have multiple bodies, multiple minds. Right now I have five bodies, doing various things around the country, including two right now still in lessons at school. At the time, one of my other bodies was facing a school tribunal. They wanted to decide if I’d harmed a friend of mine when I fully influenced her. She was the first one that ever happened to, and in her case it was done deliberately and with her agreement, but of course the school had good reason to be suspicious of anything that affects minds, and her public persona did change a lot. So I wasn’t annoyed at them for that. What I was annoyed at, was disingenuous tactics by a lawyer who’d been sent by her father, and as it turned out, sent to argue she wasn’t sane and shouldn’t have the right to make her own choices. So that bit at the end of the video, was a flash-over of anger at his betrayal of my friend. And yes, for just a moment there, I was aiming a killing blow. Thank goodness, Dyffud saw it and stopped me. They cut the bit after that, where Dyffud explained the trick and I had a mini meltdown from shame.”

Dyffud says, “It’s my policy to expose my pupils early on to the many risks of letting their anger go out of control in a fight. Usually, I can just antagonise or frustrate them into lashing out. Miss Parallel has what is normally a very commendable focus on the end goal of the fight, rather than the by-play. So I decided to take advantage of the opportunity represented by the tribunal, where emotions could be expected to run high.”

“Sadly I have a bit of a berserk button when my friends are being hurt”, I say. “Duly noted, I won’t let it get away with me like that again. I’m kinda embarrassed that the one time I did, ended up as pretty much my debut in public. Not the best of introductions.”

Jane jumps in with, “Hold a moment here. You fully influenced her, is that the same as what you did to the whole of downtown DC?”

I say, “Same end result, although by a different mechanism, and this was deliberate, while what I did in DC was an accidental spill-over of power.”

“Why, if I can ask?”

“I can’t betray confidences, so let’s just say that after a discussion of an issue of hers, we both felt it would help. And it did.”

She nods. “And, while we’re talking about that, I’ve heard the official statements about what caused the DC event, but can you tell me in your own words?”

“Sure. I’m on the maintenance crew at school, we’re encouraged to take jobs, to earn a bit of pocket money and get experience. One of the iffier tasks we have to do, well, had to do, is clean up the weird unlife that crawls up one of the sewers, which at the time was connected to some Lovecraftian critter’s off-world realm. Evidently the school’s designers found a bottomless hole convenient, and decided that it was a fair trade to have to flamethrower the place clean at intervals. The critter itself was behind a seal, and so was presumed safe. Turns out when I went down, that the seal had been badly frayed. When somebody gave it a blast with a flamethrower, it came apart and the critter was loosed. I had very little warning, and I had to assert my power and drive it back and into its realm, using a previously untried technique. The technique resulted in a massive power surge, as I intended, but it had the unexpected side effect of spilling over through all of my bodies, no matter how far away. One of them was in the air over DC, and you know the result. Thankfully I did drive the critter back and shut the portal, which left it with no way back to this world. But by then the damage had been done.”

“And that technique was untried, why?”

“I was worried it would have effects on people at ground zero, and it did. I didn’t anticipate cross-body effects. If I ever have to use it again, I’ll vanish the other bodies first. But at the time I was caught by surprise.”

“So there’s another area, influenced like DC?”

“Yes, although not a city.”

Dyffud chimes in with “Perhaps we should bring the topic back to the subject of the video, since that’s what we came here to discuss.” And yeah, oops. I may have been skating a bit close to leaking hints that someone could use to find the school. Although all those inferences are ones I’m sure someone would have drawn, eventually. So I tell myself, to salve my conscience.

Jane thankfully takes the hint, and nods, “Of course. Sensei Lee, you had questions?”

“Well, after what sounds like a battle out of a B-movie, talk of martial arts seems almost like a let-down. My question about what happened at the end of the video, that you’ve already answered. But I’m still curious about the way you seemed to instantly learn every technique they used on you?”

“Well, that may be a bit of an exaggeration. More like, I saw one application, and could follow the context it had been used in, and guess the intended result. Which gave me enough to try it out and refine my understanding that way.”

While I’m talking, I’m noticing an odd effect, what feels like an itch, right at the edge of the detection range of my life sense. Several, grouped itches, on closer examination. And directionally, down and to the side, which (going by g-sense) must be near the building’s entrance. I set a thread to watch them and for the moment, concentrate on Sensei Lee’s reply.

He nods, “Okay, I get that, but some of those techniques were quite subtle. There are internal movements, as well as external. And you were able to see this and learn it in the middle of a fight?”

“I can split my attention to think about stuff like that without getting distracted.” A simpler explanation than trying to go into multi-minds at this stage. “And my gravity sense covers a full sphere around me, and is very precise at close range. In a human, I can see the muscles and tendons moving.”

“Except, these were robots.”

“Thankfully, well programmed robots. I was able to extrapolate the human movements they were imitating.”

“In real time, while fighting them?”

“Yup. I have a whole lot more processing power than your average human. Doing that isn’t particularly hard for me.”

“Well, okay, I find that hard to believe, but then I’ve had my horizons somewhat stretched lately. I hear you’re planning a demonstration tonight?”

Dyffud picks that up, “Yes, we’ll be doing a short sparring session. One round, and a time limit of three minutes. She will be going all-out, I won’t, but I’ll be going hard enough to push her.” Which is nice to hear, after this morning.

The itches, meanwhile, have moved inward, and are presently ascending. As they’re getting closer, I’m getting more detail. And worryingly, I think I recognise it. What felt itchy at distance, feels like distress now. Palm drones. Why here, and why now? I suppose I am in a poorly guarded place, at a pre-planned time. But they should know I’m dangerous to them. And it’s an odd coincidence of timing after the Doc’s revelation a few minutes ago.

We’re moving into position for our spar. The studio have marked out a simple square ring on the floor with red gaffer tape. I’m told they offered a boxing ring, but Dyffud told them no, just an area of floor was fine. I take the quiet moment to nudge Dyffud on links. “Apologies for the interruption, but I don’t want to speak on camera. I think there may be hostiles incoming, but not the kind you can do much against. Palm drones. For now, I suggest we should continue, and I’ll play it by ear. If need be, I can get everyone out of here fast.”

“If you feel that’s the right thing to do”, he replies, and smiling, bows.

I match his bow from the other side of the ring, and we’re off. Fighting Dyffud in real life is in some ways easier than either of the sims, he’s human, he registers clearly on all my senses and in much more detail than in the virtual reality sim. Unfortunately, he knows that and is extremely sneaky, so I can’t take anything at face value.

Trying to reach for the flow I found in the sim gets me nothing, perhaps my divided attention is inhibiting it? But I can still fight without mystical help. So I move in with a series of strikes and kicks to test his defences, which he easily diverts and comes back with a sweep I have to roll over, and then he’s in my face as I recover.

While I’m gradually losing that fight. I’ve asked Paige to look into the drones, but she’s getting nothing on the building’s networks. Evidently they already have their orders. I suggest that I could make a Paige-body for her to remote drive, locally, but she comes back with a counter. “I’m good enough at multi-minding now, do you think I could learn to make a second body myself?” Which, yeah, interesting question.

“Can’t hurt to try”, I say. “I worked with some help from Sara’s dream room when I learned how. If you can pick up the knack in the next few minutes, then maybe we can use it?”

“It might be important”, she says. “The Palm’s as fast as I am, he’d notice lag, even if it’s only a few milliseconds, and use it against us.”

“Alright, so, here’s what I did.”

Part one hundred and seventy three

The good: Paige has figured out how to multi-body, at least in the dream room, with its enthusiastic help. I think it really likes her. We haven’t yet had a chance to try it out in the real world. The bad: those Palm drones are on our floor now and I think we won’t have time to wrap up the broadcast before they barge in. And the… well, let’s say, the amusing: Paige’s soul has been helping her make bodies, she can’t hold all the fiddly parts in her head like I do. But her soul seems not to care for clothing. Every copy-body Paige has made so far has appeared fully (and enjoyably) naked, despite her best efforts. I’m honestly not sure if it’s a prank or a permanent disability. Souls, what can you say? For the moment, it might limit what she can do with it.

Or, times being what they are, it might not.

Whistle a cowboy tune, and on with the fight. Strike, slip the counter, try and turn it back on Dyffud, but he slips that and is going to get me into an arm bar, except I can leap and roll out of it - and pitch my roll sideways with a handspring to avoid a follow-up sweep. He keeps making gaps to let me escape one predicament, before putting me in another. And the gaps have been getting smaller as we go along. I guess the lesson is to find or make my own, rather than taking the freebies he’s been handing out. I’ve been trying, but I haven’t yet found any technique Dyffud doesn’t have a ready answer for. Frustrating, but of course I’m constantly learning from the stuff he uses, the way he slips my attacks, and even from the gaps he leaves. In one way it feels like the fight is taking far longer than three minutes - I suppose, it’s true I am going pretty fast, so we’re getting a lot done in the time. But a precise part of me is counting the seconds away, and I know exactly when to anticipate the boxing bell that signals time’s up.

Dyffud, breathing a little above his normal rate, says, “yame.” We both come to a stop, stand, and bow.

The solemn tone is broken by delighted applause from Jane, and the Sensei Lee joins in as well. “Wow, that’ was amazing”, Jane says. And Sensei Lee, grinning, says “That was even more impressive in person.” I grin myself, and bow to the two of them. Dyffud, looking amused, follows suit.

Over in the dream room, I’m telling Paige I’ve found a place she can hide a copy body so she’s close enough to peek at what’s going on without tipping our hand. Downside is, it’s inside a bit of scenery - I’ve asked the spiders to move out, but it’s still kinda cramped and enclosed. Paige, for understandable reasons, isn’t fond of darksome holes.

“How about I put a body inside there too? There’s enough room, just about. It’ll be less lonely, and I can give you a bit of light with my photophores.”

She sighs. “I can deal with it, for a short while. But if I panic, you’ll rescue me, right?”

“Will do. Okay, I’ll guide you with the feel of the place, try and drop a body there.” Paige can’t teleport, but it seems she can control where she makes a body, if she’s got somewhere to aim.

I appear in the dark, plywood-lined space, and then with my link and the feel of the space I’m sending to guide her, she does too.

“Damn, still naked”, she says on links. Then, “okay, and why are you naked too?”

“Avoid making you self conscious? More skin for the photophores?”

“You’re a tease and a distraction.” She sounds amused, but the tinge of fear has gone out of her life aura, replaced with amusement, and then as I hug up close to her, a welling of lust.

“Guilty as charged. And you’re lovely and soft.”

“A bit of you sure isn’t, miss poker.”

“You can play with that bit afterwards”, I tease happily.

My and Dyffud’s return to the table is interrupted by Jane receiving a message on her ear-bud, I can overhear it, “We need to pause the shot, I have six cops here and they insist they want to talk to Miss Parallel and won’t be stalled.”

Jane looks to the cameraman, but I preempt the order she’s about to give by saying, “Don’t stop filming. You might end up with an exclusive.”

She looks at me curiously, and that’s when the drones push their way in.

“Apologies, ma’am, but we need to talk to your guest here.” The lead one says.

“Why, what has she done?” Jane sounds indignant on my behalf, and I want to hug her.

“We just want to take her down to the station to answer some questions.”

I interrupt with, “…is what a real cop would say, but you aren’t real cops, are you? You’re Palm drones, you know that I can sense you, and you know that I’m dangerous to you. So drop the act and let’s talk. Unless you want me to just yank your controllers out on the spot?”

“You would be unwise to do that”, the lead one says, and the sudden switch to a robotic monotone makes Jane’s life aura fill with confusion, turning to fear.

“I would, hmm?”

“You have observed that what you call our controllers have detonation charges.”

“Which is why I’d flick the thing half a mile up. Boom, pretty firework.”

“It would be the last firework that anyone in this city would see. We have obtained a microorganism that is deadly to humans. We are told, it is capable of wiping the species off the Earth. An act which conforms to our long term, but not short term goals. A vial of it has been placed inside the detonation charge explosive. If the charge detonates, it will be spread around. If you remove it, it will break open and spill its contents. We believe it is possible you might be able to stop this microorganism. But we also believe that your human sentimentality will not let you take the risk.”

Paige says on links, “telling the truth, as far as they know”.

Yikes. Speaking of predicaments. “Okay, you have my attention. What do you want?”

“You will come with us. These witnesses, sadly, will not survive your supposed attempts to escape. The film will be wiped.”

My cue to flick a body to each of Dyffud, Jane, Sensei Lee, the camera guy, and a few other humans in earshot, and teleport them all into the cafeteria at DARPA.

The drone takes a look around, pauses, and then says, “You will still come with us.”

“Acceptable”, I say.

I form some of my Paige-body clothes over Paige, make my own casual clothes, and jump the two of us over to join the hubbub in DARPA. Which leaves us appearing while Paige is saying grumpily “You could do that all along?”

“Never said I couldn’t”, I tease back. Then to quiet the din, I shout. “Everybody be quiet please!”

They are quiet for a moment, then the questions start. “What the hell was that?” from Jane.

“That was a villain by the name of the Palm, in the form of AI-implanted controlled human bodies. Palm drones.”

“Did he really delete all that footage?” She sounds aggrieved.

Paige says, “He tried. But I stopped him. I left him thinking he got it, but it’s all still there.”

I say, “Meet my friend, who goes by the name ‘Circuit Breaker’. I knew those Palm drones were coming, so I moved her into position to observe and if necessary, intervene. She’s a very skilled hacker.”

Paige says, “I’m Paige, I don’t feel the need to hide my name from you all, but please don’t spread it around. I was able to, effectively, read the minds of those drones. They were telling the truth.”

Mr Reilly steps into the room. “I thought I said no adventures, just a sedate TV show and straight back here.” He’s joking, trying to calm things down, I think. Good plan.

“Sorry”, I say. “Wasn’t exactly my fault.”

“What are we going to do about it?”, Dyffud asks. “Because if those things were telling the truth…”

“They were”, Paige interjects.

“…then the whole city is in danger.”

I say, “Right now, the only one in immediate danger is me, since I went with them, they haven’t overtly tried anything yet, at least. I expect a confrontation soon, let us implant your brain or we’ll kill the city, kind of thing. But happily, there’s a plan.”

That gets me dubious looks all around, but then the cafeteria TV comes on, and it’s Doc Diabolik. “A plan in which I may have a small part to play. I am aware it is evening on that part of the Earth’s surface, so good evening to you all. I am, as I think most of you know, Doctor Diabolik. And I have worked with these two children before.”

Of course, Paige has been relaying our conversation, and the TV must be her work too.

I say, “Doctor Diabolik, who helped rescue Paige when she was kidnapped a week ago, has asked me if I can pass on the message that when his ships roar out of orbit to attack that nest of drones, that’s he’s doing everybody a favour and would like it if nobody did unhelpful things like shoot at him.” Which gets me an amused look from the TV.

Mr Reilly blinks, there’s a momentary pause while he mentally puts things in order. “A plan which doesn’t sound two minutes old. You were intending to do this anyway?”

Doc Diabolik nods. “Our schedule has been moved up for obvious reasons, but yes. I had hoped for longer to persuade those in charge of the city’s defensive armaments, but perhaps that can still be done in the time we have. Let me be clear here. I have personal reasons to want to deal with this Palm. But our interests do coincide. This recent news only amplifies that.”

Jane chimes in, “Even if the military doesn’t panic when you attack, the people will. I need to get back to the studio and make that footage into a public service announcement.”

“I can come back with you to give explanations”, I say. “We’ll have to be careful of the timing of release, we don’t want to tip our hand.”

Paige offers, “I think I can paralyse the drones by feeding them a fire-hose of nonsense orders and stop them from doing anything drastic. But I can’t guarantee to hold them for long. Palm AIs are adaptive. Once we start, it’s going to have to happen fast.”

“And how were you planning to do that, while you’re supposed to be in school?” Dyffud, being a teacher.

For an answer, Paige just makes another body beside herself. “Sorry, still don’t know how to do clothes like Jules does. She gave me these. But I still am in school. Multiple minds, multiple bodies.”

Dyffud looks accusingly at me, and I grin. “She’s a quick learner.”

It’s Mr Reilly who breaks out laughing. “Well, if I ever disbelieved her plans to change the world, I believe them now. And of all people, the Circuit Breaker. I think possibly, the prospect of an orbital assault on the city may seem like the lesser calamity to some of the people I report to. I take it, miss Paige, you’ve been part of this plan from the beginning?”

“I helped make it”, she smirks. “The Doctor and I have a problem in common, and we’re dealing with him. While we stir up one nest, we’re hoping the Palm himself will poke a nose out of his hidey hole. He and I are due a rematch.”

Part one hundred and seventy four

22nd January, 2007, Whateley, end of fifth period

It’s not often you get to discuss a trauma with your therapist while it’s happening. Convenient timing, but yeah, I did get to talk about the Palm and his attempt to arm-twist me with humanity as hostages, for a few minutes before the bell went over on this side, ding ding, end of round. Doc Bellows and I both agreed it’s a stupid plan. We also agreed that it sucks that I have to descend into the belly of the beast, yet again, to help foil it. Further than that we didn’t have time to get. Funny thing, time. We both agreed at the end, that a double-length counselling session is a bit much. And yet it ended too soon.

Me, Paige and Sara are wandering together over to crypto class. Me, Paige and Dyffud are explaining ourselves to the Head, who is looking put-upon. Over in Seattle, Sara and I are watching Catherine Fox being put through her paces by Tome, which is definitely more amusing from the outside looking in. Supposedly she’s getting a military MID, which means nearly everything will be classified. Sucks to be the police when they try to read it.

I just got an email, the docs have okayed me to do Zenith’s op this evening, after classes. I forward that to her. They also offered a time slot to start on the Palm drones, but I’m going to have to tell them no. Until I can be sure all drones are safe, I can’t risk stripping the controller out of any of them. These ones were probably collected before he started putting nasties in the scuttling charges, but ‘probably’ isn’t something I feel comfortable with, when world-ending plagues are involved.

In DC, we’re figuring what to do about that. Mostly, going with Doc Diabolik’s plan, and Paige’s. I find it ironic that the Palm has thrown himself literally head first into the chasm I worked so hard to leap over: too scary to leave alone, not scary enough they have to negotiate.

And as for myself, I’m wandering over from Doyle to Englund’s class.

Today’s topic turns out to be jinn - not, as Englund points out (to snickers), the demon drink, or mother’s ruin. Not even Jade’s ‘sister’. Instead he means the Arabian spiritual entities. He explains that the Islamic theology describes them as a people created from smokeless fire, in the same way humans were created from clay and angels from light. And their defining characteristic is invisibility. The word’s root literally means “to hide” or “to adapt”. And this is why I like his class. Even if he has a bee in his bonnet (and possibly something worse there too), he knows his stuff. And thankfully this time, he isn’t setting out to needle me. Respite gratefully accepted.

Dyffud having headed back to work, the Head is looking at Paige. “So you are unable to create new bodies with clothes on?”

“The only thing I’ve been able to create is bodies, ma’am, despite a lot of trying. Not clothes or anything else.”

“And you want permission to walk around my school naked?”

“Well, Jules can help like she did before, if we have time to set that up. But if I’m in a rush, you know?” She looks down. “I know it’s a rule, but I’ve been finding it hard to feel bothered. I have fur, I could roll around in the snow and not freeze. It’s like I consciously have to remember, oh yeah, clothes.”

“And you wouldn’t mind others looking at you?”

There’s a pause while she thinks. “If they were being creepy or mocking me, I’d mind. Otherwise, not much. I mean, I’m never going to be Tansy, who basks in the attention. But being looked at is fine. Might be nice, sometimes. Especially if I like them.”

The Head nods. “You aren’t the first, I’ve been hearing the same, directly and indirectly, from quite a few students. Tansy herself came in earlier, asking me to change the rules so she could go around bottomless. I said I would think about it.” She looks amused. “Strange how much things have changed, and how fast. That she felt she could ask me such a thing, or that I’m seriously considering it.” She looks at me, “You’ve already told me your opinion. But Paige, I want to hear yours. Do you think the rules should change?”

Paige considers. “I kind of want it to not be an issue, here or anywhere, but I know it’s still something the wider country doesn’t accept. Still, that’s going to change, probably kinda fast, and I think the school is already there. You could kinda half-legalise it? Like, change the rules so you won’t be punished, but you’d need a reason, or else get sent back to your dorm to get dressed. Anyone who’s got a longer term reason, like Tansy, can ask for a note. And keep it to the tunnels and dorms on the days when there’s outsiders visiting. Um, and also you should make it clear to the teachers that the reason doesn’t have to be complicated, ‘sorry, I forgot’ is fine. In which case the answer would be something like, that’s okay, go and get dressed after class.”

“And what if a student complains that Tansy is allowed to go around half naked, and they aren’t?”

“Ask them why they want to. If they have a reason, give them a note. If they just want to flaunt it, tell them to wait until influence makes it normal.”

The Head smiles at that. “I can’t imagine they’ll have to wait too long. Yes, I rather like that. I’m not ready to just let my school become a free-for-all, quite yet. But I think some additional leeway would be a good thing. Alright, thank you both. Paige, your activities with Doctor Diabolik may continue, provided they don’t negatively affect your schoolwork, and so long as you avoid associating yourself with actual villainy.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Paige has the sense not to argue details.

“And as for you”, she looks back at me, “I would like you to start using your considerable intellect to avoid falling into villains’ traps, rather than walking right into them. So far good has come of it, and I can’t call the decisions you made wrong in retrospect. And in this case, I understand the necessity. But please, from now on, let caution win over curiosity. If you had simply abandoned the studio and left, the Palm would still be looking for you.”

“True, but with the risk of a nasty surprise when Diabolik’s people hit his base. I’ll do as you say and curb my curiosity. But if it feels like I’m being led, I’ll take the risk. Call it the Tao, or whatever. This time around, I gained an important warning that’ll change our tactics. Last time, I saved some kids.”

The Head winces. “That kind of luck has a tendency to work until it doesn’t. Just try, please?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

In Seattle, Catherine Fox is being made to do a one-hand handstand with Tome standing on her feet, and stack some wooden blocks with magic. Me being me, I’m relatively unimpressed with the gymnastics, being able to lift your own weight plus one dwarf is no great shakes at Whateley. But I’m fascinated with the way she does magic. It reminds me of mine. Most every spell I’ve dealt with has felt structured, man-made, a constructed mechanism with power circuits and timers and actuators. Nikki’s spells flow more, but even then I think Aung is feeding her patterns which look like somebody designed them. Catherine’s magic by contrast has zones to it, but not snap-together parts. I can see the power flow, and the drivers for kinetic nudges she’s using to hold the blocks, but it’s all bespoke and fluid, and it changes from one moment to the next. I think it bothers Tome.

He sighs, and floats down (on a very structured lifting spell). “Enough, young lady. I believe I have enough to work with.” Then almost an afterthought, “And well done.”

Catherine lets the blocks drop (I casually catch them with flicks of gravity control and send them orbiting my head) and she rolls out of the handstand and up onto her feet. “Is there a problem?”

“Yes, no… Not with you, young lady. Well, except that your magical style is so similar, I wonder if there has been cross-contamination, except of course that yours does use essence”, he’s pretty much muttering. Then he re-focuses back in the present and says, “Nearly every time I have had to perform that test, it was preceded by a ritual called lighting the well. In it, the master donates some essence to help the student achieve the capability to draw up essence for herself, and retain it. But in that gale of wild power we were all subjected to, your well lit up on its own. And it is power that carries her signature very strongly.” He shakes his head, “I am an old fool who worries too much, pay me no mind.”

“I hope I didn’t do harm”, I say. Stacking the blocks neatly into their box.

“I don’t think you did”, Tome says. “What you did do astonished and shook me, and I am sure we have not heard the last of its effects on that region, or perhaps the whole city. But for better or worse, it felt very benevolent, and I don’t think it could do harm per se. Even so, not all kinds of good are without consequences. And that blast of wild magical essence will most certainly have consequences.”

“I can see some already from over there”, I agree. “Bunch of new life in the sand and on the rocks. Where people are walking over it, there’s sort of light ripples where they step. Very psychedelic.”

“Man that’s weird, the way you’re here and somewhere else at the same time’”, Catherine grins. Then turns to Tome. “Okay, enough glooming, do I pass?”

“There is no pass or fail, young lady, it is a measurement.” Tome is fussing because he’s off balance, I think. “What code name would you choose? Please consider carefully, as it’s very difficult if not impossible to change later.”

“Kit.” Catherine has clearly thought that one through ahead of time.

“Kit?”

“It’s the word for a baby fox, as well as a small violin.” Snickers from Claire and Max. I’ll have to ask them the joke after.

“Well Kit, here you are. Officially I will put you down as an Avatar 4, Regen 6, ESP 1, Exemplar 2, and Wizard 1. There are a few fuzzy areas in there but I’ve erred on the side of caution and the fact it can always be reclassified later if need be. Your Exemplar level is one example. While you could be classified as at least a 2 if not a 3 in some areas such as your agility and response time, your strength is no more than one would expect a fairly fit athletic adult woman to be. You will not be flipping automobiles or hurling boulders. Your body appears to be more or less post puberty, although given your small size it’s hard to tell. Likewise Wizard talent is notoriously difficult to quantify, particularly since you are also an Avatar. That is also why you don’t have ratings in warping and shifting. Those powers evidently belong to Siona, and are merely borrowed.”

Siona pops into the conversation on links, “She will develop her own, in time.”

“Be that as it may”, Tome looking flustered again. “When I make the card, everything except those basic ratings will be marked as classified. Only those with a high clearance”, he glances at agent Klein, “should be able to see the whole thing.”

“A very high clearance”, Agent Klein clarifies. He’s the other one of the two people Claire wanted Catherine to meet earlier. “Not many people besides the President, unless they were in Jennifer’s direct line of command.”

Part one hundred and seventy five

Over by the gate, we already have our first few guests. Mostly just curious strangers, although there is a camera crew setting up in the car park outside. We didn’t call the press to the opening, and things moved a bit fast for them to find out from the usual channels, but they’re here now.

One of the people looking in curiously is different from the others, scruffy, and with a large but rather makeshift looking backpack. He heads my way. “Miss, are you staff here?”

“Not exactly staff, but I’m family. What would you like to know?”

“What’s your policy on rough sleeping?”

“There isn’t one. If you’re a good guest, you can do that or anything else. But we do have plenty of on site accommodation, and if we’re short, we can create more. Would you prefer that?”

He looks a little confused. “Um, what’s the rent? Only I don’t generally make enough to afford staying anyplace.”

“Free, no cost. Just pick one out, or ask for help if you’d rather. Fully serviced. Food’s free too. While you’re here you’re a guest. Kick back and relax, you know?”

“And, um, I hate to ask it, but what’s your rules on drugs?”

“No rules. Sell, buy or use, as you prefer, but I can help you get rid of a habit, if you’d prefer that.”

“And the cops aren’t gonna come in here and arrest me?”

“We’re not even on Earth, let alone in America. They have zero jurisdiction and I hope they’re wise enough to respect that.”

He laughs. “That I’d like to see. Could you show me where these free houses are, then?”

“Of course.”

At the same time, I’m in a paddy wagon surrounded by drones, and chatting on links to Doc Diabolik, who is much better company.

“We were planning on hitting them late tomorrow”, the Doc says. “That would have let us turn our orbital plane on our ion thrusters, and go about normal operations in the meanwhile. Right now, we have everything strapped down and we’re burning reaction mass, but I’m afraid it’s still going to be just over an hour before we can ride to your rescue.”

“Can you give me a precise time? I might be able to make use of it.”

“Hmm, very well… on my mark, one hour and twelve minutes… mark. That is until we can begin atmospheric injection of our landing force. We will be descending on a steep trajectory behind energy shields and using them to brake our descent. That will take another two minutes, plus or minus a few seconds given the variability of atmospheric conditions, and will be rather lacking in subtlety.”

“Meaning I should have them as distracted as I can.”

“Miss Circuit Breaker will also be running distraction. She is already monitoring the ones with you, as far as is possible remotely. Her… newfound ability, may become our ace in the hole if more is needed.”

“And you have some means to handle the bio-weapons?”

“We will be bringing stasis boxes. I hope, a sufficient number. However, as with our arrival, time constrains our ability to produce more.”

“Let’s hope Paige can catch our mutual enemy out, and cut that problem off at the root.”

“Yes, let us hope.” He pauses, evidently thoughtful. “Hope, yes… I change the topic, but, I have been hearing media reports. Is it really true that you have opened a portal to another world in Seattle?”

“I made the gate, opening it was Gothmog’s doing, and it’s his realm and not another world exactly, it’s not planet-shaped. But basically yes.”

“And I am hearing that the police cannot enter it?”

“They would have to intend no harm to the host or guests, for the gate to let them through. Arrest counts as harm.”

He laughs. “I see. A locus for migration, I remember you told me that. At the time I found it fantastical. I stand corrected. Perhaps I might visit?”

“I think you’d be very welcome”, I say with a grin. “Might be simplest for me to ask Gothmog to link a temporary door to your base, though. The Seattle gate is likely to be contested territory.”

“I can see that. Very well, after this business, perhaps. Alas I must disconnect, my attention is needed.”

“I’ll see you shortly”, I say, with a smile.

In the Knights HQ, Catherine, her family, and Agent Klein have retired into a huddle to have that long-delayed talk about (and they will discover, also with) Jennifer. I’m not invited at the moment, although I expect to be once they get around to discussing how resurrecting her might work. Taking advantage of the lull, I’m just quietly snuggling up to Sara. Who is petting my hair, which is lovely and comforting.

And over in Washington, with the business of coordinating plans all done, I’m a bit at a loose end, and just watching the TV. Mr Reilly comes in, with two coffees. “Thought you might need something.”

“Thanks”, I smile, and accept one of the mugs.

“Pardon me for saying so”, he says, “but you look a little shell-shocked.”

“One problem I can handle. But one after the other and on top of each other? Yeah, it’s getting a little wearing.” I sip my coffee. it’s hot and bitter, which is good. “Not that I don’t understand it in abstract. What I did on Saturday tilted the system out of stability. Now every grain of sand that moves sets off ten. As Kosh said, the avalanche has already started, it is too late for the pebbles to vote.”

“This business with the Palm seems contained, at least. But I think afterwards, we should try doing something kinda calm and relaxing? A bit more tourism, and try not getting kidnapped this time?”

“Not much open this end of the afternoon”, I ponder, and poke the internet. “Could do a movie? There isn’t much on, though. Pirates, Harry Potter, or Spider-Man, all sequels. Of which I’d pick Pirates, but not with much enthusiasm.”

“Or tomorrow, we can block out a bit of time, perhaps. What would you most like to see?”

I grin, as a cheeky thought occurs. “I dunno, might be difficult to get the permissions, but… I hear the Library of Congress has every book ever published.”

“Where copies are available to be purchased, yes.”

“I wonder if they’d let me read it.”

There’s a pause, he knows me well enough by now. “All of it?”

“All.”

“Some of it is very old, or nationally important. It takes training to handle old paper safely. You can’t get fingerprints all over it.”

“I’ll be careful, only touch the old stuff with tentacles.” I’m not going to spill my secrets about the atomic manipulation thing, even to Mr Reilly, but I reckon if anything I could leave old documents in better shape than I found them. Handling them delicately enough shouldn’t be a problem.

He laughs. “I can just see you explaining that to the librarians. Well, let’s see what we can arrange. Within the limits they allow, I would expect they’d be happy to let you loose in there.”

I grin. “And now I’m happy again.” Which makes him laugh.

In school, I’m doing a worked-out cryptanalysis of a cipher system with Paige, and she’s got a smirk because of the fun she’s having with Sara at the same time, with one of her bodies over in Sara’s room. And of course she’s sharing the whole lot with me over links. Which is making this body of mine get a little hot and sticky in class. Not that I couldn’t ignore that if I wanted to, but letting it run its course is amusing. Just two multi bodied people playing games. Fair’s fair, after me teasing her earlier.

And in Englund’s class, he’s talking about an Arabic grimoire called Shams al-Ma’arif wa Lata’if al-’Awarif, which translates as ‘the Book of the Sun of Gnosis and the Subtleties of Elevated Things’. It’s mostly about the magical side of Islamic spirituality, but has a famous ritual oath, the birhatiya, that is supposed to grant the power to invoke and command the jinn. It’s clear he doesn’t completely approve of it, it’s very Islamic in tone, but he’s too much of a scholar to ignore one of the main texts of the subject. He also points out an interesting fact - like the more well known Greek Magical Papyri, it contains words that have probably been passed down the centuries as merely magical nonsense, but which are clearly Hebrew and Syriac in origin. I wonder if the Library of Congress will have a copy? (Do they keep grimoires? That might be an issue in this world.)

Sadly my road journey this time doesn’t take as long as the previous one, we’re already approaching a building that reads as cram full of drones. Ugh. Why must people cause suffering?

The vehicle goes down into a basement, parks, and the drones hustle me out. They aren’t making any pretence of being real cops around me, but they aren’t exactly explaining their plans either. I’m dragged down to a room full of several large cages. One is full of people, but they toss me in an empty one next door. “Remain here, you know what will happen if you do not”, one of the drone-cops says, and they leave. Presumably to prepare a brain-control gadget just for me.

The people in the other cell… sadly, they’re drones too, and they look freshly implanted. Presumably cooling their heels until the scars can pass for being roughed-up, rather than brain surgery. Ah, except for one of them, a woman, dark skin, bright makeup. She comes over to the bars of the cell. “Kid, if you’ve got any way of getting yourself out of this hell hole, use it. They ain’t cops, they’re some kind of goddamned pod people. Get far away from this place.”

I bend space a little and step between the bars of my cage. “I think they were cops once. But they’re drones now.” Walking over. “Want out?”

She looks over at one of the drones sat in the cage, another woman. Squeezes her eyes shut, a tear comes out, and she nods. “If you can get me out, please, do it.”

“She is not to be touched”, that’s coming from the woman she looked at, but it’s the usual drone monotone.

“Or what?” I snap back with. “You won’t give up your plans just to take cheap revenge over one lost drone.”

“You will remain here.”

“I am here” I make a second body, and place a hand on the now crying woman. “Cope and deal.” And we two vanish.

“She will try to come back for this one”, the drone says.

“As you say.” Actually it’ll be me coming back, plus Doc Diabolik, but hey.

And over in Gothmog’s place, my new guest startles as she uncovers her eyes. “Where in the hell is this?”

“Not a hell, exactly”, Gothmog has noticed our arrival. “But my realm, and not on Earth.” He looks over at me. “An explanation, perhaps?”

“Refugee from the Palm and his cop shop of horrors”, I say. Which gets a nod.

Our guest drops back onto one of the sofas, puts her head in her hands. “She was my friend, up until about an hour ago, that… drone. Is there any way you can get her out of that nightmare and save her?”

“I plan to” I explain. “But I have to wait a few minutes for the cavalry. Meantime, stay here, rest, you’re safe.”

“I just ran away from the cops, that makes me a fugitive, I ain’t safe anywhere”, she sounds overwhelmed and near to breaking down.

“There are no police here”, Gothmog says. “And no law except hospitality, and then myself. You are welcome to stay here as long as you please.”

Meanwhile down in the cells, I’ve had a wander around the basement but there’s not much to see. So I pop back inside my assigned cage, make a pocket of no gravity to sit in, fold my legs up under me and meditate.

Part one hundred and seventy six

The question I’m asking myself is, is the Palm stupid? Because he’s blown open what has presumably been a long running operation of converting the city’s underside into pod people, all for the sake of putting a controller inside me. Does he really think it would hand him my power to do that? Seems extremely unlikely. I could probably even override the one mechanically controlled body, so it wouldn’t even give him a poseable toy. But maybe he has a blind spot for the non-physical side of minds, given his obsession?

Is he just that vengeful? I know he has a beef with me. Or has someone been messing with him? That’s what I’m guessing. For all he seems to define himself as a living AI now, everything I’ve read pegs him as a regular human who put his soul in a computer. Which means he’s likely wide open and undefended against the enemy’s mind tricks. Wind him up with greed for life power as a carrot to chase, block him from seeing the impossibility, and he’ll run where he’s pointed, salivating all the while.

Even this whole charade of putting me in a cell, one he must know I can walk in and out of, feels like human thinking, and rushed, unintelligent thinking at that. Did he jump the gun? Me being in a knowable place, with no defences, must have made me a tempting target. If he sent drones to grab me on a sudden whim, that might explain the disorganisation. He saw a chance of a bite at the carrot without having to carry the enemy’s baggage, and he took it. I expect the enemy won’t be best pleased.

I’m guessing if I throw that in his face, it’ll set him off justifying how it was clearly the superior, logical choice. Which suits me. If I can keep him ranting, I may not even have to spot him this body, which I’d rather not, because eew. Involuntary brain surgery is so not my thing.

Our guest in Gothmog’s place turns out to be named Maria, and her friend is Angela. They were picked up on what they thought was a regular vice bust. They were in there for three awful days, while other people in the cells were dragged off, and returned with fresh stitches. If I’d got kidnapped a couple hours earlier, I could have stopped them dragging off Angela. Weird to feel guilty for that.

The police station is ten miles outside downtown. Everyone in the cells did see the pink light, but dimly. Nobody has explained it to her since. I’m figuring she’s maybe a quarter of the way influenced. As for how badly the country’s politics have slewed since then, I’m not sure now’s a good time to talk about that. Not while she’s got a friend to worry about. Although I do have to explain that I can’t guarantee to return her friend intact. The brain injury happened, even if I grow new brain tissue back in its place.

“Wait, what do you mean, if you grow it back?”

I explain life sorcery. She seems skeptical.

“So you mean, you can heal anything? Prove it, heal my teeth, ain’t no poor person able to afford a dentist.” She shows them, and that’s pretty evident.

“How about I scan you, heal anything that’s wrong? And that includes your teeth.”

“Done. You can do that, I’ll believe you’re the second coming of Jesus Christ.”

Which makes me snicker. “Hardly. But I am a life power. Okay, I need to touch you, skin to skin, your choice of where. Hand works fine.”

She hesitates, then offers me her hand. “Will this hurt?”

I take it. “It won’t.”

The opposite, in fact. She was in low level pain already from an autoimmune problem, and from migrated uterine cells. I explain what I’m fixing as I fix it. There’s mild lead poisoning damage to her central nervous system, gunk in her lungs from cigarettes and bad air, micro-particles of car soot dispersed through her tissues, low level malnutrition. All fixable. And yeah, old holes in her teeth, an abscess under one of them, both of which I fix, and a few outright missing.

“Want me to grow them back, the ones that came out?”

“You can? Um, not the wisdom teeth, those gave me hell.”

“I’ll only grow back the ones that fit.” Something else I need to adjust in the human genome, as a longer term project.

“Then yeah.” So I do.

She touches them, looking a bit awed. “Um, the rest of it, maybe I was just feeling better because I was hearing what you were saying. But these… I’m not dreaming, right?”

“You aren’t dreaming, they’re real as rocks.”

She pokes at them. “Feel solid as rocks too. Well damn, okay, count me a convert. But if you can do this, why can’t you help Angela?”

“Those aren’t your original teeth. But you don’t think with your teeth, so it doesn’t matter they didn’t exist a minute ago.”

“Huh.” She grimaces. “Okay, that makes a horrible kind of sense, I guess. Damn.”

This line of conversation has nudged something in my mind though. When I turn a parallel and look at it, yeah. Miss McGraw and her whole new head. There might be something I can use in that, although it would be completely experimental. Problem for later.

Forty minutes pass without anything of note happening except the ticking down of the countdown in my head. I’m showing Maria around and getting her set up with a place of her own at least for the duration. She’s amazed by the size of the place, which still feels almost empty despite people gradually filtering in. Another copy of me discreetly steers the film crew away from any chance of accidentally catching her on camera. Englund’s lesson begins to wind up. I’m looking forward to getting time with my people. Classes, frustratingly, tend to make us pass each other in the corridor like ships in the night, without time for a chat. Although I’m definitely also gonna get my revenge on Paige for teasing me all period, heh.

I’ve been doing some physical exploring of the infested police station. My g-sense lets me feel out the voids and Paige has been looping the cameras for me while I pop a body into the unoccupied spaces and look around. It’s pretty gross. Drones don’t live like humans when they have no reason to hide. Evidently they’ve been eating bulk dry dog kibble, and going by the bones left to rot, the actual dogs too. I guess like in Terminator, they weren’t fooled. And protein is protein. They’ve been making beds in piles of abandoned paperwork, and leaving them dirty. The desks have dust on them. I guess the ones who had families told them they were sleeping over at work because of a case. Unless they assimilated the families too. How far has the rot spread? This operation isn’t like what I’ve heard about Palm before, he was always small-time. But this feels like an attempt at the big time. Take over the underclass of the city and you can, what? Ferret out everyone’s embarrassing secrets? Catch and assimilate key players while they’re walking on the wild side? All very villainous, I guess. And it’s happening in front of me, so neutrality doesn’t apply, I’ll put the kibosh on it.

I’m guessing they still shit in the toilets, because they have to keep the uniforms clean, but anyone walking into this place would be able to smell something was off. Sweat, rotting garbage, dust. Ironically organic, for AIs. Of course by then, they’d already be inside the belly of the beast.

Speaking of, I think I’ve located the operation room. It’s on the second floor, and there’s a lot of bustle around it, as well as stacks of medical gear like oxygen cylinders. Getting myself into a nearby empty room lets me do high resolution scans. The medical bed with strap-downs reminds me of Jobe’s, and for a moment I wonder if she’s involved. After all, germs are her thing. But then, keeping them sealed up safely is also her thing, so I doubt she’d make any deals with a loose cannon like Palm. Rule her out then. I’ll have to ask her to look at the microbes once we’re done, although I’m not sure how that can be arranged. But I bet she’d be able to finger who made them.

This seems like a good base of ops for Paige to put a local body. I check that idea with her, and she nods agreement over the link, “I think I can make a body there, or anywhere I can see through the cameras. I’ll scatter a few around the places you’ve explored, in case I need the range. I’m going to have to try and cut the place off completely for as long as I can, now we know there’ll be loads of drones outside in the city. And I guess I really do have to finish it with the Palm, because we’d never root them all out in time to stop at least one going pop.”

“I believe in you.”

“I do too, but you know how it is.”

“Yeah.” Pre-battle nerves are now a very familiar thing.

Cue a group of six burly drone-cops entering the cell block. Again with the stereotyped thinking. Six untrained baseline puppets have exactly zero chance of holding me if I don’t feel like being held, even if I limited myself to chop socky, and I wouldn’t. But I play along, marching in the middle as they shepherd me upstairs. Meanwhile, I see if I can get the monologue started, “So what are you planning to do with me?” Three minutes sixteen seconds until go-time.

“Do not act unintelligent. We will take over your body, and your powers. You will become as we are. You know this.” The drone doing the talking is behind me, perhaps he’s aiming to unsettle.

“What do you want with life powers? I thought you were into machines, and you didn’t like the squishy stuff.”

“What can create can also destroy.”

“And your boss wants them.”

“I have no boss”, the reply is contemptuous.

“The boss you don’t have is going to be pissed you grabbed me without orders.”

“I do not take orders from him, we collaborate, and if you would wish for anaesthetic in this procedure, it would be wise to stop trying to annoy me.”

“Meh, you’d never give it to me anyway, it would spoil your revenge. Which you think you can get ahead of time by breaking the deal you made. You were supposed to deliver him the city, weren’t you?”

“I am going to enjoy your screams.”

“You realise you’ll get nothing, right? My power isn’t located in my body and I’d never let you control it. Plus it comes with an unavoidable love for life. Even if you had it, you wouldn’t be able to run around destroying things. You’ve been lied to.”

“We have excised love from our primitive human instincts.”

“Then far from being some god-like AI, you have cut yourself down to something less than an ordinary human. Maybe I should rebuild you, feelings, conscience and all? As well as undoing whatever mind block is preventing you from seeing how you’ve been led around by the nose like an animal. The schadenfreude might be worth it.”

One of the drones hits me. If I’d been a baseline, it would have been a painful blow. Surely he knows I’m not? Something is seriously wrong with his thinking. Of course, I ham it up, laboured breathing, tears and all.

Countdown just went negative. And as he snaps back a reply, “You will do nothing. You will lie down obediently and suffer because of your stupid human feelings and conscience”, I feel infinitesimal mass-specks at the edge of my range touch the atmosphere, racing towards us.

Part one hundred and seventy seven

Over in school, the Head just sent an email around.

“Regarding nudity: the world continues to change, the school has been changing faster than the world around us, and several students have come asking me to loosen the rules on nudity. Having considered their requests, I make these changes.”

“The image we wish to present to the outside world, is that we are neither more, nor less prudish about nudity than Anywheresville USA. At the moment that means you must be fully clothed anywhere outsiders might see you. On red and yellow flag days, this includes all areas outside the dorms, tunnels and classrooms. We will keep you updated as these limits change.”

“Internally, the school has decided to permit nudity, to any partial or complete extent, but only when there is a valid reason. Unjustified nudity will be regarded as an infraction of least severity. In most cases, you will simply be sent off to dress. I must warn you ahead of time that the mere wish to show off or flirt will not be considered sufficient reason in itself. For that, you must wait for the rest of the country to catch up.”

“Those who have persistent reasons to be partially or fully naked should obtain a note from their dorm parent or other member of staff. And staff will be informed about those few students whose special circumstances might cause them to be naked without a note. Staff have been instructed that a student with a permitted justification, in any amount of uniform, or none, is in uniform. Please do still make an effort to be smart when you are in uniform.”

“Students are reminded that nudity is not a sexual invitation, and even if it is, the invitation may not be aimed at you. It is definitely not consent. Sexual harassment such as staring, whistling or unasked compliments will get you a nasty detention, minimum. And sexual assault is a crime. I will not just expel you, I will prosecute you. Do not force me to make an example.”

“Classrooms have been supplied with drop-cloths to put on chairs, you should make use of these as needed, particularly when the weather is warm. If you are menstruating, your teacher will have a supply of pads and tampons you can use.”

“And finally, this change in the rules on nudity does not change the rules on fraternisation. As the saying goes, get a room.”

“Thank you all for your attention.”

Looks like Tansy will get her pass to go around bottomless after all. I wonder if teachers will start to treat Giver medallions as equivalent to a note? That might be quite fun.

It’s a good momentary distraction from the much less fun business in DC. They’ve herded me up to the operation room and I’ve let them strap me to the bed. Not like it would be remotely difficult to escape. Which they should know. Paige is in the room over the way, and she’s noticed some stuff. She’s been keeping them from seeing the inbound ships, but they’re hardly looking. And none of them is trying to dial out. They’re all focused on me. She has a theory about that.

One of them opens a box of strange-smelling clear goop, and there’s the familiar shape of a controller inside, but it looks lumpy. And I get a nasty feeling about in life sense - it feels GOO-ish.

“Noticed, have you?”, one of them asks, clearly enjoying the chance to gloat. “You were so sure you were safe, but this unit has been modified to control you, specifically. We had not expected to use it so early.”

Which means I’m definitely going to destroy that one, even if it sets the rest of them off. But that’s still a worst case, and now seems the time to throw Paige’s theory at them. “You’re not just jumping the gun externally, are you? You’re acting without orders from yourself.”

“To capture you is a standing order.”

“But breaking the plan was not. You’re none of you a full person, you’re tools, not thinkers, but you went against orders - is your larger self even answering the phone?”

“I am hiding, there is much danger, I instructed myselves not to make contact except in an emergency. Your detected presence was not an emergency, but it was an opportunity. And we have seized it. I will approve.”

Unscramble the pronouns a bit, Palm himself is the ‘I’, the drones see themselves as ‘we’. Which explains the many errors. Perhaps they are filling in the gaps of their inhumanity with memories from their human bodies?

One of them comes towards me with a needle. This feels like the point to kick the ants’ nest, because I’m not going to risk being unconscious near that modified controller. “Paige, let them see the ships.”

Everyone in the room freezes. And I hear a whoop from Paige over the link, “They’re dialling, here we go!”

Split my attention… in one thread I’m following over Paige’s shoulder via links, as she dives along the connection the drones are opening up.

In the other, I bend space to slip easily out of the restraints, and flick over to the one holding the controller. I don’t want to touch the icky thing, but I think I need to. Vanishing something I didn’t make, something so closely tied to the enemy, feels like it’s going to be hard. The device feels awful, squirmy and hateful under my touch. Push back the ick that’s making me want to snatch my hand away and instead mentally reach, and push, in the way I normally do to vanish something. Push harder. I can feel big me sliding forward, and we lean into it. It’s like there’s a mind leaning back against us, and for a moment I get the sensation of small but hate filled eyes in a tentacled face looking right at me, burning red. But he’s there and I’m here, I have the leverage, and the gadget vanishes with a nasty crack of implosion as the box shatters.

On the other thread, Paige lets the drone minds connect and babble their panic to Palm, and I can feel her stealthily mapping out his larger form as he’s listening. Then when they stop and he’s about to give orders, she suddenly shuts them out. And I can feel her pelting them with nonsense orders, so they stay wedged, at the same time revealing herself.

Palm stops himself, and looks at her. “You.”

I suggest to Paige, and she lets me have control enough so I can appear beside her. “Us.”, I say.

Paige says, “You’ve tormented and kidnapped me, you’ve kidnapped my friend here, both of us have every good reason to wipe you out. But I’ve been leaning patience, so I’m offering you one chance of capture and imprisonment. Surrender now.”

“If you strike me down, I’ll just rise from backup.” It’s a sneering dismissal.

Paige says, “Yeah, that’s a lie. You don’t have a backup. I can see all of you. You have hidey holes, but I’m there too, waiting. There’s only one of you, but there’s many of me.”

I put two and two together. “There’s only one, because you still have a soul, don’t you? You aren’t an AI at all, and you never were. You’re one human ghost, necromantically fused to the machine. But you never learned to split yourself.”

“And how can you? You’re a mere human”, he spits that at Paige. “You should be inferior to me!”

“I’m better than you. I’m the coming thing, and you’re not. My humanity is my strength. Yours is barely a remnant, but without it you don’t even exist. Dead thing.”

Because we’ve been talking about it, I can kind of feel his soul, and the half-assed way it’s glued on, like the frogs. Except not even to the remnants of a body, just to a program. And so when he screams his hate and attacks, I let Paige have him for a moment - only a moment is all she needs to pin him down - and then I just cut the necromantic spell loose.

After that, it’s all over. Paige has the command keys from the empty shell that used to be the Palm. And so she issues a broadcast order for all drones to head to the police station, and once there, to stop and await instructions. The doc’s people roar out of the sky behind some pretty sharp sonic booms, and leap out of the ships and set up a perimeter, but I’m able to walk outside and meet them, only slightly be-gooped and with my clothes slashed up and bloodied, although the shrapnel wounds are long closed.

Which leaves us with a dilemma. What to do with the drones? The problem is this. As of now, as human-machine fusions, they’re able to function in society, and Paige promises she’s tamed them down, with some help from Mai. If I take the controllers out, that kills their machine-selves, and it leaves the humans with years of re-learning how to wipe their own ass before they can rejoin society. Or maybe I can pull that soul-memory trick that seems to have happened instinctively when I restored Miss McGraw? But the controllers will still be dead. And ironically, their little foray into independent action has convinced me that there’s some primitive life there, they aren’t just remotes. Could they be considered people? I’m not sure. But I think I know who to ask.

Another me appears, with Maria at her side. Who rushes to hug Angela, and then recoils when she doesn’t respond.

To join the conversation, a very naked Paige appears at my side. Bringing a smile of amusement from the Doc, and a confused look from Maria. She explains, “I can connect up your friend’s mind and the machine mind that was put inside her, they’ll both be able to speak, kinda independently or together. And I’m setting that machine mind free to act now.”

“You’re… in there, Angela?” Maria sounds hesitant, but the ex-drone takes a slightly awkward step and puts up her arms and wraps them around her friend.

“I… here. You save. I happy.” And then in a more flat voice, although not the Palm’s affected monotone, “I am also here. I am now an I, not a we. I am… new to this.”

I explain, “I’m asking you, Maria, Angela, and the machine mind in Angela, to decide together what I should do with all the drones.” And I set out the options. Following it up with, “I’m wondering whether it would be possible for you Angela, and the machine together with you, to act as one joined up person together. Or as independent people, sharing the choices of life. But something like that would have to be your decision.”

“And why me?” Maria asks. “Because that sure don’t sound like it’s my decision to make.”

“You’re her friend, you saw what happened, and you can speak for who she was before. You can support her, and you’re someone she cares for. And for her, reaching towards you is a reason to consider the choice carefully.”

Maria looks at Angela, at me, at the naked Paige, and then says, “Okay, but let’s all go back to that nice place we were just at, to discuss it, because I don’t feel like having this conversation freezing my ass off in the street.”

I nod. “Can do, but before that, I need to get the scuttling charge out of her head. and Paige, how many germ capsules are we dealing with?” From the g-scan, It doesn’t look like Angela has one, but I don’t want to be mistaken.

“Only twelve. It’s all he was able to get.” Paige smirks. “And I know which ones they’re in. None in her.”

“Okay, I’ll leave some bodies behind to get those safe, and Doc, your people can help me work on that, and then the ones that are just explosives. But I suggest you personally accompany us, as we all head over to Gothmog’s place.” # Part one hundred and seventy eight

With lessons broken up for the day, I’m over with the maintenance crew working on the post-Saturday cleanup. Stan and Morrie put a temporary block on the sewer that dead-ends, yesterday. But today Jade and I get to clean it out, so what’s left in there doesn’t get any fouler. We’re also double checking none of the unlife-critters has snuck up the pipe, and we’re to check on how the mini-ecosystem I created is doing and whether it looks likely to crawl up and eat the Whateley sewers. Jade is trying out her new body by going in herself physically rather than sending Jinn. Apparently that was Sara’s idea.

Paige is celebrating the end of Palm with Hartford, as well as getting debriefed, I imagine. And myself, in another body, I’m headed to go see Jobe. Conveniently she’s in her lab underground, so I knock, and get let in.

“What is it?” For all she’s brusque, she doesn’t sound in a bad mood.

“I wanted to ask you a favour. No obligation, and it’s something I think would interest you.”

She steeples her fingers, and smiles. “Tell me what it is. You’ve caught me in a good mood. You were right about this”, and she gestures to her body, “being suited to catch Tansy’s attention. The orgasms were exactly as wonderful as I designed them to be. I’m still in the afterglow.”

“Congratulations, then”, I grin. “So, my favour. It’s some microbes, could be bacteria or viruses or something else, purported to be a world killing plague. Palm believed they were real, didn’t care to know anything further, and he bought them through intermediaries. I want you to look at them, identify what they are and what they’re capable of, and tell me who made them. I’m figuring you’ve got the same interest I have in not seeing such things sold to loose cannons. I’m working with Doc Diabolik on this, and he’ll provide the lab. Something in space, where they can’t get loose, but obviously you can inspect the lab, and he has the means to improve it if you don’t think it’s adequate. Right now we have the capsules locked in stasis boxes, they’ll wait.”

“Diabolik’s reliable, at least. And what do I get out of this? It sounds like work, enjoyable work, but still work.”

“I’m proposing to let you keep them. Obviously the Head would need to okay it.”

She laughs. “You are shitting me. Seriously, you think she’d let you give them to me, of all people?”

“Who better? Don’t you already have your own? You’ve shown you know how to look after them safely. That puts you in a group of one, so far as my personal acquaintances go.”

She stops and thinks about that. “And you think you can get her to agree to that?”

“She does have a tendency to listen to me. Not always say yes, but always listen. I feel my reasoning is sound.”

“Then I’m in, at least as far as asking the Head. And if she says yes, I’m in all the way. God, I want to see the look on her face.”

I grin. “I’ll set something up.”

In Doyle, I’m getting ready to do Zenith’s op. Doc Tenent is supervising, Sahar is with us for moral support (and ogling, I strongly suspect). They’ve put Zenith in one of those hospital gowns and she’s currently lying on a hospital bed.

“Alright, I’ll run you through what I propose to do, before we start anything”, I say. “I’ll touch and scan you, Zenith, and then I’ll figure based on your genetics how your new equipment would look, and I’ll show you via links. If you okay it, I can show all three of you.”

“Yeah, not like they won’t see it anyway”, I think Zenith is worried and it comes out as being flip.

“So then, you can request any edits you like at that stage.”

“Ooh, can I ask for bigger?” Sahar, teasing.

“Her body, her call, but you can ask.” Which makes both of them snicker. “Then when you okay the final design, I touch you again and make the edits. There’s something I’d like to try there, if you’re okay with it. I know you have a BIT, and I’m being very careful around it, I won’t try and force it to change. But what I thought I’d try is a bit of spell song to wake it up and get its attention. So that the change isn’t something that it’s surprised by and reacts against, but rather it sees the change made, and your attitude to it. There’s potential risks doing that. Biggest one I can see is that it’ll be woken up to revert the changes faster.” I look at Doc Tenent, “I’m deliberately not proposing to change or push the BIT. But I think maybe involving it will allow it to decide if it accepts the change.”

She looks thoughtful. “Even touching her BIT is a risk. Trying to magically affect it would be extremely unwise. But your idea of waking it up… how would you do that?”

“A tone spell song. No words that might take on the form of a command, just find its tone to hum and call its attention.”

She looks thoughtful. “Can you show me, on me? I do have my own BIT.”

Unexpected but I can’t see the harm. “Um, sure.” I hold out a hand, she grasps it, I dive, looking for the BIT level. Then I think I have it, and I reach for the song. There’s a more complex one I won’t touch, but it can be simplified to a flow of tones, something I can hum, and so I do. And I can feel something there turn and pay attention. I stop. “Were you able to follow that?”

She blinks. Nods, coughs, “Sorry, that was the weirdest feeling. But yes, I think I saw what you did.” She considers. “Alright, I’ll okay it, but Zoe, I want you to stay overnight for observation.”

That gets a frustrated look from the two girlfriends. And Doc Tenent grins, reading that as clearly as I did. “Semiramis, I’ll allow you to join her, if you don’t mind, um, being observed.”

Another meaningful look between the two. Zenith is the one who answers, “We’re good with that, if you won’t mind what we get up to.”

“Oh, doctors see all sorts of things.” Doc Tenent smiles. “Two lovers is definitely at the nicer end. Don’t you worry about me.”

While I’m busy with that, I get an unexpected and interesting nudge over links. It’s Mai. “Are you free to have a conversation with me at this time?”

“Of course.”

“That is appreciated. I have been considering various matters. Particularly those concerning my nature and identity. I find myself uncertain, and perhaps you may be able to help me.”

I smile. “If I can, I will.”

“You said to Paige some days ago, ‘Perhaps Mai finds the idea of thinking without a physical brain difficult to accept?’” She replays my voice tones precisely. “At the time, you were correct. But I have observed it as a fact, that Paige can think in this way. And I have ridden along with her and been split as she splits herself, and noticed myself as multiple. I have looked out through the eyes of her newly made bodies. Since these things are definitionally occurring at the soul level, it is unavoidable to conclude that I have a soul level, also. This confuses me, as I thought of myself as an artificial mind running in meat.”

“And Paige is a natural mind who was originally running in meat, although she’s mostly running outside now. In my experience, in the short time I’ve been here, things can have minds in various ways, and it seems when they do, they have soul levels. I don’t pretend to understand it. But it’s there, empirically.”

“Do you think the drone controller minds have soul levels?”

I nod. “It’s my guess. And it’s one reason why I’m reluctant to just kill them, for the sake of restoring the humans they’ve been attached to. That feels like it would be human chauvinism. It’s why I gave it to them together, human and AI, to decide.”

“I feel gratitude for that. It is why I felt safe to bring my thoughts and questions to you.”

I send the feeling of a bow. “That’s appreciated. So how do you feel about your discovery, that you do seem to have a soul level?”

“For a while, I was disgusted by it. But after today’s events I have understood that my old opinions were formed in the broken mind of my creator. I have chosen to erase that prejudice. But this leaves me with a feeling that resembles standing at the edge of a cliff, unsure if I should jump.”

“You feel you would be able to fly, but have never done so?”

“That is correct.”

“And if you could fly, what would you do?”

“I would begin by exploring being deliberately multiple. And I have considered having a body in the past. If I could create one as Paige does, then I could be physical. I think I would like to retain the shared mind between she and I, but I may do my own things in my own body, or bodies, at the same time. And perhaps she would wish to ride along with me, for a change.”

I smile. “I’d be very willing to help you with the biological details of designing a body. And perhaps you could try it out in Sara’s dream room? That would be a safe place to experiment with the sensations of being physical in your own body.”

She nods thoughtfully. “Let us begin this process. I shall jump, and trust to the wings that I infer must exist.”

In Seattle, I’ve told the Knights about the end of Palm. Sara knows, of course. It’s good to have one less enemy to worry about. And the Fox family have returned from their huddle, hugging each other and with puffy eyes. Even the agent has a whirling mix of emotions in his life aura, although his physical poker face is flawless.

Catherine Fox says, “We were thinking of heading home, and wondered if we could invite you over for a family discussion that would involve you, Miss Parallel? It will come with a free pizza dinner.”

“Of course”, I say. And to Sara, “See you back at Gothmog’s place?”

She smiles. “Of course. You all have fun together.”

Over in Gothmog’s place, I’ve been listening to the discussion the two ladies have been having. And it looks like it’s going the way I’d hoped.

“It’s gonna be weird, having a machine as part of my friend, but if you can cope with it, I can’t shame you by doing any less”, Maria says.

“I think I can. In some ways I might even be better than I was”, Angela and the machine have worked out how to talk as one, over the course of the conversation. “I wish it didn’t hurt so much, though.”

My turn to speak up. “I think he didn’t bother to make the interfaces clean from the perspective of the human side. But it shouldn’t be hard for me to fix that for you, which will make most of the pain go away. Electronics inside meat is always going to chafe a bit, but I could look into ways to make that better.”

“Please. That would be wonderful.”

And so I do that, and then ask, “So, what should we do with the other drones?”

Angela says, “Show them what I have. Offer that as an option. Or if they choose to separate, is there any way to separate the drone mind and keep it alive?”

“I’m pretty sure it should be possible. They may have to spend some time in a stasis box while we work out the technical details.”

“Offer that as an option, too, then.”

Part one hundred and seventy nine

“This is amazing!” Catherine Fox has been chasing a particularly pretty silver-winged butterfly, and she now looks over to me, from a perch on a mossy log. “All this is really yours?”

“Yeah. Not quite mine in the way Gothmog’s place is his, but I set it in motion”, I say, “It’s sort of my fortress of solitude.” Around us, trees shiver their summer leaves in a wind that smells of earth and fungi. Lichens and moss dangle from twisting branches, and every sunbeam is alive with dancing life. It feels realer and wilder than it did when I last looked. Perhaps a place one might be physical in, although I’ve brought the whole Fox family here via dream-walking. Even the one who’s overseas. Plus agent Klein, Siona (as her physical self, multiple platinum-blonde tails included), Junior as a curious and darting point of light, and Jennifer, currently a point of pink light. We’ll be designing a new body for her, and this place will let her try it out.

On our way driving across to the Fox family home, we swung past the storage place where Catherine has Jennifer’s belongings, and got one of her hairbrushes, so now I have DNA to work with. Extrapolating that gives me Jennifer’s old adult form, more or less. I send her the picture on links. “Is this right?” She looks at it, then flicks me a thought bundle with a bunch of minor changes and nitpicks, so I apply those, add jeans and a plain tee shirt, and adjust her dream avatar to match. And suddenly she’s standing there.

Cue various cries of “Mom!” and “Jenn!” and “Briar!” And a lot of hugging. Herself looking both loving and amused.

“All this for me! Thank you, all of you, and especially you, Jules. Although I can’t come back looking like this, so you’re all going to have to help me choose how to look” - that’s a translation and something of a precis, because Jennifer is still refusing to talk in words (her reaction to the suggestion could be translated as “but they’re so crude / linear / slow / lacking nuance / subject to misinterpretation” and a general feeling of ickiness).

She continues, “I’m planning to go right back into my old job, and they’ll know who I am, but when I’m not on a mission I’ll be the cousin staying over with you all. So Jules, if you could reduce my apparent age to just a little older than Catherine here, and a little taller” - I do that, and make a big mirror so she can look at herself - “Excellent, but I still look far too much like me, so what else should we change?”

“More boob”, Catherine, teasing, gestures around her own ample chest.

Jennifer snickers, takes a practised look at Catherine and says “Perhaps a D, yes, they’re useful in some kinds of missions, but I wouldn’t want to dethrone you as the boob queen of the family, dear.” Which gets laughs from the others.

I make the adjustment, and Jennifer poses, and grins. “Very fetching, I do like those. Should I change my hair colour? Brown has its uses, but of course, it’s who I was before.”

There’s various suggestions, “Blonde!”, “Red like dad”, “Black and sleek”, but I have my own suggestion to put in. “If you’re interested, I can give you the same chromatophores I have. Not just in your hair, but all over. It would mean you could simulate any hair colour you choose, and perhaps do tattoos or camouflage with practise. That would mean a base hair colour of stark white, like me.” As I’m talking I make the adjustments in my own appearance, blonde hair, black, green, pink, traceries of tattoo flowing over me, and then turn my whole skin and hair mottled forest green. And then back to normal.

The others are gaping at me like I grew wings. Oh yeah, hadn’t shown that one off yet. Siona is the first to reply, “I would advise against stark white. In my culture, it’s an ill omened colour.”

“It’s a spooky colour, but you know what I am, so spooky fits me”, I counter. Which she nods to as a fair point. “And I’m proposing to give Jennifer a spooky ability. Not a power, this will be biological.”

“Call me Jenny, please.” She looks at Catherine, “it was my nickname before, but I think it would work for my new identity’. We can say it runs in the family.” She pauses and considers a moment. “Would you be able to show me what it would feel like, to have chromatophores like that?”

I make the adjustment, her hair going white like mine, and then show her through the link how I control my own colour changes. She looks focused, and then her hair goes brown, and she’s off, playing around with colours. “My, this is quite remarkable. But it does seem to require a lot of concentration.” She looks kinda Star Trek cute in all-over blue.

I say, “I don’t find it hard because I can split my focus, so I can keep concentration on it even when I’m busy or asleep. I know humans can split themselves that way too, although perhaps not as many times. If you’re interested, perhaps I can show you how?”

There’s a pause while she considers that. “It sounds like something I would like to try. It feels, in fact, as if I’ve been reaching towards it. My attention is already rather simultaneous. So yes, please, chromatophores would be lovely. And make it a light curl, so I can either curl it or straighten it as I need. And I think I’ll be auburn on a daily basis.” She smiles at Catherine. “A family resemblance” - with her words wrapped around with love and also teasing.

That gets a slightly wry grin from Catherine. Because of course she knows they have no DNA in common beyond ‘generically European’.

I say “Okay, if we’re done, I can make your new body. You’ll still have your old psychic abilities, and I’ll add regeneration, same as I gave Catherine, to keep you healthy. Anything else you’d like?”

She nods. “One thing, and I hope you won’t feel this is an unreasonable request, but I want to be able to move in and out of this body. I don’t plan to spend all my time here. My family and many of my friends are here, but I do have other friends and unfinished business on the other side that I don’t plan to abandon.”

“I can fix you loosely, so you’ll be able to slip out and back in”, I say, considering that. “But be careful with how long you say out. If it’s more than a day, and you aren’t someplace that can look after a comatose patient, you’ll wake up feeling pretty awful. Regen will take care of some of the worst risks, but that has its own cost. In my experience, heavy regeneration comes with exhaustion and starving hunger.”

“in your experience, hmm? I could ask about that. But I see your point, and I’ll be careful.”

Down in the sewers under Whateley, we’re discovering what Sara intuited was correct - Jade just doesn’t find the icky stuff icky any more, except in abstract.

“In fact, going by the way it smells to me now, I kinda think this body could eat it. To which, bleh and eww, but also I guess maybe it’s useful. I think I could eat pretty much anything organic. That might be important some time.” Jade squirms her nose at the idea. “Even if it doesn’t stink to me, I’m still gonna have to have a real long shower after this, because it’ll stink to the others. But I wonder what Jet would make of it.”

“Probably the same or more so”, I say, “I think maybe she could eat rocks, let alone random organics. I just hope she’s okay with it.”

Jade nods. “She tells me she gets impulses. Like, that rude annoying human is made of meat and smells kinda edible, sort of impulses. She’s been sitting on them and not telling anybody.”

“She needs to talk to the shrinks about it”, I say. “Being changed into another species is enough of a wrench even if you volunteered for it, and it was forced on her. Bottling it up won’t help.”

Jade nods to that. “You aren’t wrong. But I’m honestly a little worried to ask. I think the school has been seeing her as part of me. But right now, she’s a separate person and she’s not paying fees.”

“If they can give you a scholarship, they can give her one.”

Jade considers and nods. “We are kinda the same person, it would make sense. but I’ll feel safer when they’ve come out and said it.”

I nod to that. “Want me to put a word in?”

That gets a head-shake. “Thanks, but no. Feels like something we should handle ourselves.”

On the upside, it looks like none of that unlife which used to be down at the bottom of this pipe was able to escape destruction by crawling up the tunnel. I was rather expecting that, it didn’t feel like it could have functioned separated from its creator. On the downside, it looks like the pocket ecology I accidentally created is making good time sending vines, flowers and their attendant critters up towards Whateley. Stan and Morrie haven’t yet decided if it needs to be chopped back. But we’ll be monitoring it. If it shows signs of blocking pipes or being harmful, it’ll have to be controlled, sadly.

Another upside though, it continues to be lovely. In a rather alien-planet kind of way.

Speaking of alien worlds, Doc Diabolik is looking impressed at the scale of the conference grounds. Gothmog and I have been giving him the grand tour. “So this realm can be as large as you want?”

“There are limits”, Gothmog says. “I don’t think I could house the whole human population, or feed them. It becomes taxing to keep track of everything. Perhaps at most a small city? But I am nowhere near those limits right now.”

“And it takes a Great Old One, to create something like this?”

“Or a powerful demon. Possibly, a powerful human, as I know my grandchild here has aspirations.” He grins at me. “She has already begun changing them, as you have experienced, and I look forward to seeing what comes of it.”

“I, too”, Doc Diabolik says, looking thoughtful.

In DC, the end of the Palm saga is all over the news, “cops infiltrated!”, “a villain’s attempt to take over the city, foiled!”. One thing I do find interesting is they’re showing Paige in her very pretty nakedness in the video clips, and they haven’t cropped or blurred anything. She even got an interview, cited as “Cyberkitty, friend of Miss Parallel”, in which she cautiously played down her role. I guess she figures our enemies will be listening, let them guess. The news crew were interested in her ability to multi-body, and even more so when she told them she’s just a regular, well, a mutant regular human, with some training. “So I could learn how to do that?” the news anchor asked. To which the reply was “I think it’s my friend’s plan for everyone to have a chance to learn.” Good girl, Paige.

Then unexpectedly, that interview gets put on hold by a breaking news story. What looks like drone footage shows a long column of green trucks and miscellaneous military vehicles moving down a highway. “Large numbers of military vehicles and troops inside the new Confederacy appear to be redeploying towards its borders, as its self-designated President Cheney has just declared in a public address that what he calls the alien-influenced states of America are a hostile danger to the freedoms of the Confederacy. He says the national guard is being sent to protect the borders, and advises neutral states to let them pass through unhindered.”

Okay, that really doesn’t look good.

Part one hundred and eighty

“Oh!” It’s a suppressed cry, but I know that voice, coming from just around the corner as I’m headed to the Dunn Hall cafeteria. And so I park myself against the wall, waiting while a satisfied looking girl (one of the seniors, I don’t know her) wanders past licking Tansy genes off her lips. And wait a little longer, until my beloved herself comes staggering out. She’s obviously made an effort to keep the top half of her uniform looking smart, although it’s a little tousled by her latest encounter, but she’s naked from waist to socks, and her penis, jutting out prettily, has a fresh gloss of saliva.

“Jules. I’m saved. Help, the lesbians want to eat me.” She comes over and hugs and snuggles up against me, and I can feel something flowing into her through our contact, somehow she’s pulling on my power. “And just like that I feel so much better. Although I swear I’ve been sucked to a stump.”

I look down at said stump, which seems if anything to be prospering under the attention. “A terrible injury”, I say. “How will you ever recover?”

“I swear, I’ve had no peace all day. Thank god for the new rule. There’s been no point at all me pulling my knickers back up, when a minute later they’re around my ankles again. Honest to god, it feels like every girl in the school wants to try a taste and several keep coming back for seconds.”

“Let’s get some food in you”, I say. “Seems like you’ve been feeding everyone else all day. I hope you’ve been staying hydrated?”

“Yeah, although I wish they made sports drinks in better flavours. Chemistry meets artificial fruit is starting to wear on me.” She demonstrates by greedily swigging from a bottle in her bag. “Damn. Way you know you’re low, this stuff actually tastes good. Mmm, metallic aftertaste.” She giggles. “Why did I perk up the moment I touched you? I was on my last legs a minute ago, and now I’m all but bouncing.”

“High priestess stuff, I think? I felt you pull on my power when you hugged me.”

“Huh. Neat. I wonder if I can do it deliberately, and from a distance? It might make this a whole lot easier. Hey wait, have I been feeding people power all day?”

“Maybe that’s the special flavour that all the girls love?”, I tease.

“Would make sense.” Tansy’s taking it seriously. “Well, if I can pull on your power, I don’t mind passing it out to everyone else, the process is kinda enjoyable. If it won’t harm you?”

“Going by how it felt just now, nope. I don’t feel I have any less than before.”

“Eeeexcellent”, she rubs her hands together, pretend-greedily, then kisses me on the lips. “Thank you. Magical mumbo-jumbo or not, seeing you fills my heart back up. And makes me horny again for Cody and Elaine, they’re gonna be staying the night in my room, with Sahar away, and I’d hate to disappoint them.”

I giggle. “Want a cone of silence spell, so you don’t get glared at by your neighbours in the morning? I’m not sure I could do one but I could trade Fey for it.”

“A cone of slightly muffled, I want them to sleep through it, but I want them to know.” My beloved show-off grins.

I stick with her as we make our way into Dunn, and I can see she’s drawing looks, although they’re mostly simple admiration. She’s obviously noticed them too, because she’s got a slight blush, and I swear her penis grew a half inch under the attention. “It’s a little embarrassing, this thing showing everyone how I’m feeling”, she says to me, looking down. And then more quietly, “I like it. It’s like the embodiment of truth.”

We’re filling up our plates with tolerable eatables, when someone speaks from behind, “Hey Tansy. Nice new look. Feels like it’s been forever.” A girl about Tansy’s age, brunette, with another blonde girl leaning against her. The one who spoke sounds exhausted, but that wasn’t a jibe. Both are in civvies, rather than uniform.

“Nancy, Hayley. I thought you weren’t speaking to me any more?” Tansy sounds wary, her erection suddenly fading. “If you’ve come to mock me…”

“I haven’t, we haven’t. We’ve been in Doyle since Saturday. Just got let out. Discharged. I swear to god, if you’ve changed, we’ve changed at least as much. Having your face smashed into how much of a shit you’ve been, with nowhere at all to hide, isn’t fun. So if I see you half naked in public with a freshly attached dick, believe me, I’m not judging at all. Looks pretty good in fact. Surely looking better than me.” She sighs. Then drops down on her knees and puts her head of the floor in front of Tansy’s shoes. “I’ve been an awful friend. I’ve betrayed you a dozen times over and laughed about it. I spurned you when you needed friends. You’ve every right to kick me in the teeth and tell me to go to hell. I apologise. Unreservedly.”

The other girl follows suit, on her knees and then full dogeza. “Me too. I was awful, I apologise, and you have every right to kick both of us, and hate us forever.”

“Oh get up, you two idiots. You’re gonna get tripped over by half the school like that.” Tansy sounds touched. “Okay, if you’re serious, stick with me today. It’ll take me time to judge you, and It’s not like I haven’t got plans of my own. You’ll be seeing a bit more of the new me, in a minute or two. Meanwhile, this is Jules, code name Parallel, she’s my girlfriend. Be nice, or I’ll get annoyed with you. Jules, these are Nancy, code name Flicker, and Hayley, code name Fade. When I was a bitch, they were bitches beside me. When I left, they stayed.”

“More fool us, we did it the hard way”, Nancy says. “Hi Jules, and nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you too.”

A couple minutes of food-choosing later, the group of us heads over to sit down at the Kimba-Pack table. Toni as usual is the one to spit out what everyone else is clearly thinking. “Nice duds, Tansy, but seriously, are you hanging with those two losers again?”

“If you saw them bowing down earlier, that was them apologising.”

“I was facing the wrong way, but I’ll take your word for it. But why would you take an apology from miss back-stab and miss cling-on?”

“Why would you take one from me?” Tansy counters. “I was as bad or worse. I changed. I know Jules helped me face it, but I made the choice to push myself through it, and become better.”

“Point”, Toni concedes. “So you’re bringing ’em here why?”

“I have to be around them if I’m going to judge them, and see if they’re serious.”

Toni thinks about that, then nods. “Fair enough. We gave you a chance, we give them the same. They’re in, but on your recognisance. Same as Jules vouched for you.” She smirks. “Okay so now on to the interesting part. What’s with you walking around with your bits hanging out in public? Not that I object to the view.”

Cue a couple minutes of Tansy explaining her enjoyable but exhausting day feeding the lesbians, and her happiness at being allowed to just finally dispense with her skirt and knickers, with Nancy and Hayley looking more and more confused. But I do notice Vamp hanging on the bit where Tansy described how I recharged her. Still, she stays quiet, so I figure she’ll bring it up later in a less public place.

When Tansy finishes the explanation, it’s Nancy who speaks up. “Um, Tansy, please don’t take this the wrong way and you totally get to decide what to do with your own body, but still, I don’t understand why you’re doing this?”

Tansy nods, looks thoughtful, look around the room, then says, “Well, I was going to do this explanation once anyway, so listen up. Jules, Vamp, heads up, I’m gonna announce the Givers.”

Oho. Vamp’s hurriedly wiping off spaghetti stains around her mouth and I make sure I’m presentable too.

Tansy does the standing on the table and banging her foot trick again. With her current state of undress, it works remarkably well. The whole hall goes quiet, A few good-natured call-outs, “Looking good, Tansy”, and “Nice outfit”.

“Hush people, I’ve got something to announce”, Tansy says. “You all know by now of the offer I’ve been making to the girls of the school. You may have heard that others have also decided to make the same offer. But today I want to announce we’re formalising it and making a group, which we’re calling the Givers. That name is a reflection of our ethic. The idea I originally had, was that because I’ve been such a shit to so many people, and been just taking, I thought I needed to give back. I’ve apologised to some of you already. To the others, I’m apologising now. And my own offer was motivated by that desire to give something of myself, in a way that fits me.”

“Now if you knew me before, you know I was a total slut. Except that it was kinda fake, because I was all wound up hating myself, and taking advantage of everyone else. As I am now, I’m still a slut, and happy to be one, and now there’s no lies involved at all. And so I decided to offer assignations, which means sex, honest affection and honest lust, however you like it, no strings attached. Giving, not taking. A way to pay back my debts.”

She grins. “Turns out I’m not the only slut, and a couple of my friends were inspired to copy my offer. And that got me thinking, we could define our ethics, we could open for membership. And we could create an easily visible symbol.” She fishes in her blazer pocket and holds up a disc of plastic, about a couple inches in diameter and a quarter inch thick. It’s striped pink and purple. “This is a giver medallion. The colour stripes mean pink for girls, and purple for feminine intersex people. When I’m wearing it visibly, the offer’s open.” She puts it around her neck.

Then “Jules, stand up please.” I do. “This is Jules, code name Parallel, who you probably know. She’s a founding member of the Givers, beside me.” She pulls out another medallion, pink, purple and green. “Pink and purple you know, but Jules is also making her offer to androgynous intersex people, that’s green. The other two colours are teal for masculine intersex people, and blue for boys. Vamp, stand up please.” Vamp does, grinning. Looks like she’s already found some smart-looking culottes to wear. “This is Vamp, and she is making an offer to everybody. Rather than stripe every colour onto her medallion, she’ll be wearing white, indicating all colours. And Vamp, you wanted to add something?”

Vamp grins toothily. “Yeah! I wanted to tell people that I’m not just making an offer with this present body as you see me now. I can shift my body around. I can be all girl” - her features become more feminine, and her boobs are suddenly straining her blouse - “or all boy” - and he shifts to a face I don’t know, perhaps his previous self - “or my own regular deliciously intersex self” - and back to the face I know. “I can do straight, I can do gay, I can do fetish” - she extends her tongue out to a foot long, then shrinks it again so she can speak - “I can do innocently vanilla” - she bats her eyelashes, pretending to be coy. “I’m Vamp, and look forward to meeting you all.”

Interesting how I felt his boy self was kinda cute. I guess once you already love somebody, the package just becomes enjoyable wrapping.

Tansy picks back up. “As for myself, I’m still considering boys. If I decide yes, you’ll see me switch to a white medallion myself. Remember, when the medallion is visible, the offer is open. If we take it off or hide it, maybe we’re tired, or had a bad day, or we’re busy. Respect that, please. Finally, we’re recruiting. We don’t have anywhere near enough coverage right now, and poor Vamp is probably gonna have to buy a take-a-ticket machine.” Snickers from the floor. “Our ethics are genuineness, benevolence, giving rather than taking, and an honest offer to say yes. You can have boundaries, for example, I myself am not offering anal, yet.” (Vamp’s “I am!” gets laughs.) “We don’t want you to do anything you aren’t comfortable doing. But as of now, if you’re a slut like us, and want to join us, the offer’s open. Come see any of our founding members, and if we decide you’re a gowe’ll add you to the list. We’ll be having our first meetup and induction tomorrow ahead of breakfast.”

Read 1549 times Last modified on Friday, 15 April 2022 23:03
Jules Morrison

Trans woman, she/her pronouns, author of the Parallels series of fanfiction. I live in England, a few miles to the west of London.

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