Monday, 25 July 2022 00:08

Nonsense, Book 1 (Chapter 1)

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Chapter 1: In Which A Step Is Taken

My cockpit shook as a squad-mate's mech launched past my right, my HUD tagging it with its pilot's callsign: “Gizmocrat”. She growled almost as loud as the dash jets that propelled her across the battlefield with her particle blade extended to tear through the left flank of a swarm of crawling drones trying to break into the underground facility below us.
A volley of chaingun fire from the shoulder of ironYman's heavy tank-treaded mech swept the area Gizmocrat had come from. “G, you're supposed to be covering the west vent shaft!”
I thinned out the wave approaching the north vent with my own mech's plasma rifle as Giz protested, “I had it under control! This is a bug hunt, I'm hunting bugs!”
Pullyu came over the comms from his rear-gunner turret on the hoversled to the south. “Venting your frustrations on the battlefield?” Pushmi followed her brother up with “Is it those test results?”
Huge missile blasts from Gizmocrat's mech lit up the northeast sector. “Damn right it's the test results! Not only do I have no gadgeteer or devisor abilities, I have the absolute lamest power on the entire! Friggin! Planet!” The last few words were punctuated by shots from her grenade launcher.
I hacked away at the drones with my particle blade to conserve ammo and interjected. “You can't give us that much and leave us hanging. What's the lamest power?”
“I have a psychokinetic field that, as far as I can tell, does absolutely nothing but stop sound. It doesn't make me strong, it doesn't keep me from getting hurt, it just means I have the fantastic power to go deaf whenever I want!”
“Could be worse, at least you can turn it off,” I remarked, lobbing a few rockets into some drone clusters. “As for the other problem, you can still invent stuff the old-fashioned way. I mean, you're not dumb, you already have actual patents.”
“I still reserve the right to be pissed off at the universe for a while and take it out on these stupid things.”
“You'd better do it while you can, then,” commented ironYman. “I think the waves are starting to thin out.”
And do it she did, proceeding to single-handedly clear out the entire west side until the “Mission Clear” message floated across our HUDs and the battlefield froze, then faded to the hangar. Our mission stats popped up, after repairs and ammo my share of the payout left me enough that I'd finally be able to upgrade my mech's legs. I asked,“Are we taking another mission, guys?” 
“We're going to be logging off, we've got chores to do.” I wasn't sure which of the twins that was, it was hard to tell their voices apart without the HUD highlighting who was speaking. The other one added, “Chores on summer break should be illegal.”
“Hey, it's not the end of the world.”
“Nope, that's next year according to the Mayans.”
“Well, then, I'm going to log too, see you guys.”
I pulled up the menu and quit. The message “Logging out pilot: Vermilion” passed my eyes briefly as I removed the VR headset and slid my chair forward to put it on my desk. I crashed on my bed to decompress, VR tech had come a long way in recent years, but coming back to the real world was always a little disorienting. Full-sensory immersion VR was available to the military and big companies, but even the best of the widely available consumer models were audiovisual only with screens and speakers.
It wasn't long before Aunt Clair leaned in my open door. “Hey River, I'm going to G-Mart for some stuff. Need anything?”
“Not that I can think of.”
“Alright. Hold down the fort while I'm gone.”
“No problem.”
*   *   *
My dad was out on a business trip, so Aunt Clair was in charge. If you look at his business cards, they declare that James Westley Million is an “independent security consultant” and he'd tell you he tests security systems. Though he actually does test security systems he does so as The Slip, superpowered burglar, and the party that pays him isn't always the one that owns the system in question. Two or three times a year he'd be out of town for a week or three doing whatever and Clair would come watch the place. There was always a tension between them and she never made it a secret that she didn't approve of his career, but she always kept it civil.
I grabbed a stack of books from my desk and headed to the hall to pull down the attic stairs. As I usually did when he was gone, I went to the attic to look through the chest that was my mother's, trying to get to know a woman who'd died giving birth to me thirteen years ago. It's not like it was forbidden or taboo, it's just that every time the subject of my mom came up I could see it still hurt my dad after all these years.
I've never seen another chest quite like this one. An imposing rectangular prism of polished black wood with brass fittings. All the brass parts have intricate hand engraved patterns on them except for the rounded parts of the corner protectors. After years I knew the contents well. There was some clothing, school uniforms, a box filled with jewelry, and various odds and ends, but the most important to me, the reason I kept coming back, was the books. Poetry, philosophy, fiction and non-fiction, it's clear to me that whatever traits I might have inherited from the former owner of this chest, a deep love of the printed word was one of them. What made these books especially valuable to me was that a great many of them contained highlighted passages and margin annotations. Every one of these was a little glimpse into the mind of the unknown woman that had contributed to half of me. Maybe a bit more than half, since my dad often tells me that I have too much of my mother in me. But that probably comes from reading all these books.
This visit to mother's trunk was very different from all the others, though it didn't start out that way. As usual, since the books were always at the bottom I carefully moved the rest of the contents of the chest off of them. It was when I was looking through the books for ones I hadn't read in a while that I noticed it. A knot in the wood at the bottom of the trunk that I'd noticed before, but never really looked at. What I'd never noticed before was that it was worn smooth in the middle, unlike the wood around it. I reached in and touched it, and a ring in the knot moved, almost like a button. Half in disbelief and half in random inspiration, I pushed it down until it clicked and remained depressed.
Without hesitation, I quickly but carefully emptied the chest the rest of the way. When the bottom of the chest was clear, I looked more closely at it. It had to be a false floor, though looking at the outside I estimated that it was so close to the real bottom of the chest it couldn't hold anything more than paper. But if it was hidden like this, then it was important to my mother, in which case it was important to me. I reached in and tried moving the bottom panel. It slid just a little to the left, and I could see the edge of it now on the right where the hidden button was. Bingo.
Putting my finger in the recess of the depressed button, I could feel a slight underhang, just enough to grip with my finger and use as a handle to lift the floor up. And what I saw, I was completely unprepared for. There was a space in there as big as the rest of the chest, full of more stuff. Wooden boxes, cloth bags, and leather pouches all containing who knew what. An honest to goodness cauldron. And even more books, with titles like “Fundamentals of Magic” and “Basic Powers Theory”. I tipped the whole chest back a little and saw the attic floor still underneath, so there wasn't a hidden space under there.
I considered the contents of the space for a bit and thought, Well, I came up here looking for new books, didn't I? I took the books off the top that looked the most interesting and saw a yearbook, but it looked like it came from a different publisher than the ones in the upper portion of the chest. I grabbed that too, and then I set about putting the chest back in order.
Back in the safety of my room, the first thing I looked at was the yearbook, and immediately saw why it was in the hidden compartment. Everybody was in superhero costumes! Obviously there was more to what I thought was just a fancy prep school that my parents went to. Instead of regular names like you'd see in an ordinary yearbook, every picture was labeled with a comic-booky alias. I immediately started flipping to find my mom's picture that I knew had to be there, and suddenly a folded slip of paper fell out from between the pages. A paper bearing one handwritten word on the outside. My name. River. I nearly tore it in my haste to open it. And then it took me several long minutes to digest the sentence inside.
Hey kiddo, the chest and everything in it are yours to do with as you will. ~Mom
The words bounced around my head for a bit before settling. What did it mean? Was it just a passive message-in-a-bottle sort of thing, or did my mother somehow know I was going to need this? Why would I need this message, that simply put in writing what was already pretty much status quo? And was it just my imagination or did I really feel some sort of faint jolt or twitch in my eyeballs when I first read it? I decided it was probably futile to try and stare answers out of an inanimate sheet of paper, so I turned back to the odd yearbook. Sure enough, the note had been slipped in where Mom's picture was, and I almost laughed. There she was in a pink sundress, pink-and-white striped stockings with pink slippers, straight pink hair falling from under a light sun hat, white gloves, and a white sequined carnivale half-mask. She was holding a green apple. And her picture, instead of being labeled “Sylvian Bruno” as in the normal yearbooks, bore the name “Harmliss”.
What kept me from actually laughing was that the brilliance of it immediately hit me. Naming yourself “Harmliss” and wearing that costume is making a clear statement, the same statement that bees and wasps make with their caution-tape colors or poison dart frogs make with their bright blue bodies. With an image like that, you claim a specific place in the social hierarchy, not significant enough to bother with on the one hand, and on the other hand just dangerous enough to not bother with. That look and that name were no accident, no, they were a clever piece of intentional social camouflage, and most people would have no idea they were being gamed.
I wished I could have talked to her directly instead of only knowing her secondhand through her belongings and scattered margin notes. But even though it looked like my mom owned magic paraphernalia and presumably had some kind of enhanced magical ability, there wasn't much possibility of me having inherited it. It was confirmed a long time ago that I didn't have the genes necessary to develop mutant powers. Even though I now owned her magical supplies and textbooks, there wasn't much chance of me learning to talk to dead people any time soon.
I picked up the Powers Theory book and skimmed the section on Paragon abilities. According to dad's Mutant ID card that was his major power. He described it as a kind of autopilot that, when combined with a limited situational precognition power, allowed him to basically get into and out of anywhere it was theoretically possible for him to. Which essentially lined up with what the book said. I flipped forward to the section on the Wizard trait, presumably that was mom's power given the ample evidence in the chest.
The book had the occasional margin notes that were familiar to me, and the page introducing the Wizard mutant trait was no exception. There was a single sentence picked out in yellow highlighter. While the Wizard trait facilitates the use of magic, it is not absolutely necessary and even baselines can learn to perform magical workings. And beside that in the margin were three words in that familiar handwriting. Go for it. It wasn't the first time one of these notes gave me the funny impression it might be addressed directly to me, but this was plain uncanny.
I moved on to Magic Fundamentals and started really reading. The basics made sense, especially with ample annotations. The text said most schools of magic involved gathering a sort of metaphysical potential energy and directing it with various techniques. The Wizard trait was a cheat code to make gathering and holding this “Essence” much easier, but apparently it was possible for even non-mutants to learn to do it. The chapter ended with some visualization exercises, and along the bottom of the page was a weird doodle. A row of sigils with two parallel lines connecting them through the middle. Below this was written “MOJO TESTER”, and the whole thing was encapsulated in some kind of knotwork growing out of the connecting lines. But what I was completely unprepared for was the way it flickered with faint light when my thumb brushed against it. I cautiously tapped it and glowing pulses coursed through the knotwork whenever my finger hit it. I hesitated just a moment, then held my finger down.
The entire border of the design lit up softly, and the glow raced up the line until it hit the first sigil which started steadily filling like a glass of water. It overflowed into the next sigil, which filled like the first, but more slowly and unevenly. When the second sigil overflowed, the glow barely crawled to the next, and it didn't start filling up. The edge of sigil three just flickered like a candle flame. There were five sigils in all, and I had no idea what the scale was, but from what I'd been reading two out of five anythings didn't sound like the kind of result an untrained baseline human would get on any kind of magic test. But I didn't get long to chew on that thought before Aunt Clair called me down for dinner. I looked over at the clock, it was later than I'd thought. I was so focused on reading that I hadn't heard her come home.
*   *   *
The next few days were a crash course in hocus pocus guided by scribblings that I couldn't be sure were not meant for me to find. I found most of the basics much easier than I had any apparent reason to, given my supposed lack of any metahuman genes. I even found tips on channeling the spirits of the dead in “Ye Neophyte's Grimoire”. The principles behind what I intended to do seemed pretty straightforward. It's not like I was trying to call up some ancient god or chaos spirit, right? I only needed invocation for communication, not a full summoning, binding, or incorporation, and I had plenty of connections to the one I wanted to contact. I had a connection of blood as her son, I had a connection of her image in the yearbook, and I had a connection in her written word from the message she left. And then I needed a medium or focus. I didn't have a ouija board handy, but there was a handy list of alternatives in the spell book. After searching boxes in the attic, I settled on an old rotary dial telephone.
I was still in the middle of preparations by the time dad got back, so I tried to act normal as I kept working. I had all of the spell elements, I just needed to finish plotting the circle. It was a few more days before I was confident enough in the diagram to finally push my bed aside and chalk it onto the floor. I put my drop of blood, the photo of mom copied from a yearbook, and her note in their places in the diagram. I lit the candles at the points of the circle, sat in the middle, and prepared to begin the incantation. But before I could, the phone rang.
So I picked it up and answered it.
Putting the phone to my ear was the last thing I remembered. I didn't even get as far as “hello”, just out like a light. And then after who knows how long, I found myself drifting in a quiet place. The threat of sensory overload raged beyond it, like the sound of a storm outside the walls of a safe home.
As I retraced my steps and reoriented myself, I slowly became aware of a presence here in the eye of the storm. A warm, comforting, enveloping presence, that held me for a moment. Then, it seemed to move “behind” me in my dreamlike bodiless state.
A phrase entered my awareness. Sink or swim time, dear.
And then I was thrust into the maelstrom.
*   *   *
The car tearing down the back roads at normally unsafe speed was whisper silent, its engine clearly not factory standard. Its driver trusted his powers enough to steal a glance at the unconscious boy in the passenger seat. He wasn't looking good. His skin was smooth and rubbery, his hair was more like a flat layer painted on his head, there was a tennis-ball-sized dent where his ear should be, and his hand... 
Jimmy the Slip turned back to the road. His arms and legs moved with almost mechanical precision, keeping him on the probability path to bring River to help. And the fact that there was a path to feel meant there was help to be had. Judging by the road he was on and the direction he was going, he could guess where that help was going to be, and that guess was confirmed when his thumb hit the hands-free and his mouth opened. “Dial Doc Emergency.”
Read 525 times Last modified on Monday, 25 July 2022 01:18

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