Saturday, 16 April 2022 03:35

Parallel 2: Interlaced (Parts 161-170)

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Parallel 2: Interlaced (Parts 161-170)

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 has had a big press conference. Meanwhile, Tolman and Dyffud are planning something.

 

Part one hundred and sixty one

21st January, 2007, Poe, night

The rest of the evening ends up being quiet. The news stories from my press conference started to come out an hour or two after, overall positive. Sample content: “Meet Miss Parallel, the earnest and whip-smart fifteen year old behind the pink light phenomenon. She says she’s on a mission to help humanity, and that she’s a new ‘life power’, but she doesn’t want to replace God. She also believes in Lovecraftian monsters, not least because she says she is one herself. The friendly variety, if you believe that.”

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I get the feeling they’re hesitant to take me at my word, but that’s fair, it is a lot to take in. But they did get to see me handle over a hundred simultaneous conversations in the same room, so they don’t entirely think I’m a crank, either.

Dyffud told me he’d decided, after confirming with the Head, that he’d be okay skipping school briefly to come on an interview with me - provided he gets to be absolute boss for any martial arts content. So that’s currently in negotiations with the station. Although it’ll have to wait until after my test, Dyffud has to be in Whateley to grade that. I really do wonder what they’ll come up with.

After the tea party, Toni badgered me into making her a lightsaber, like I’d thought of doing for the kids. She didn’t particularly mind that it’s part of me, or that I can extend my powers through it. She was a bit icked out when I explained that the ‘power’ button had to be sensory, not electrical, because it was me who would need to supply the power. I can’t just leave the reactor running when the blade isn’t out. So pushing the button is asking me to feed in power, and letting go is asking me to stop. I can afford a dedicated instance to watch that. Bonus, no redesign of the circuitry means no need to re-test it. In the end she was too enthralled by ‘shiny purple blade go hiss’ to care much about details. She, of all people, I’d trust to use a saber safely, if not necessarily responsibly. But she’s still going to have to register it, I’m proof that the thing is extremely lethal.

Ayla, Chou and Jade skipped out on dinner in Dunn Hall, I think they were doing their own thing, with Jade and Jinn playing waitress again. They didn’t miss much.

Then after food, I asked the Head for a chat, which suited her because she was going to call me in for one.

From her side, she just wanted to tell me that the kids I’d rescued were going to be staying with the school until their parents could be found and decisions taken as to whether to return them. And that in the circumstances, she felt bringing them in was completely justified. But I should try to avoid making a habit of it, since they will each be an expense the school’s scholarship fund will have to cover. Also apparently the docs in Doyle want to talk to me. I’ve been doing a heap of medical stuff recently, and they have opinions. They’ll arrange a meeting for that tomorrow. Okay…

From my side, I countered with the medical stuff they’d already asked me to do, the Palm drones. Got an easy okay to do that. And then raised Zenith’s request.

That one made the Head pause. “You’re going to get more requests like that, if I clear you to do this one. Word will get around quickly. Some will be matters of great personal importance, some will be frivolous. If someone just wanted to be a girl for the weekend, could you do it?”

I think about that. “Rearranging the genitals alone is a whole lot less complicated than doing a whole body. Especially if they don’t have a high regen rating I could lean on to do the work for me. It would have to alter every bone, every organ. I suspect, most people would be knocked flat for a day or two by the sheer exhaustion of so much change. On the other hand, if they just wanted different undercarriage for a weekend, I can’t see why not.”

She nods thoughtfully. “The question is, how it will interact with a BIT? I know that Zenith has one. And I definitely don’t want you trying to tamper with BITs themselves.”

“A small change like that, I think worst case it would reabsorb and revert, but if the person isn’t a rapid regenerator it could take months. If it starts to do that, I could undo it and avoid leaving them in a halfway state. In Zenith’s case, I have hope her BIT will reconfigure based on how she feels about the change, and not undo it.”

“It sounds worth trying, at least. I can accept that as a plan. Generalising for a moment, let’s suppose someone actually wants a halfway state. Or nothing there at all, or something outside the human norm. Would you be able, and willing, to do that?”

“If they can describe it and I can figure how the cells would go and how the plumbing would link up, I can make it. Worst case, I can put it back how it was. I can’t see any reason to object ethically. It’s their body.”

She nods, then pauses a moment to consider. “Alright. You are cleared to change genitals only, under medical supervision, for both serious and frivolous requests, and for both conventional and unconventional arrangements, provided you never do anything you might struggle to undo. I will leave that judgement to you. You are not to do a full body change without consulting me first, and those will need serious reasons. Jobe is, for reasons we discussed before, not to be touched. If she comes to you asking for a change, bring it to me.”

That was a better outcome than I’d been expecting, so I had no objections.

Then a bunch of us watched Chou and Molly’s pick for a movie, Shaolin Soccer, subtitled, on Ayla’s gear. Including Sara - and Hippolyta, who turned out to know Chinese the best of all of us. We ended up heckling the bad subtitles, and Vanessa was copying the actors’ voices and complaining at us for changing their lines. It was fun.

Over on the other side, a quiet journey back to Mr Reilly’s place, visible this time, and a simple delivery pizza for late dinner.

And then bed.

Unsurprisingly, my dreaming mind has opinions about the last two days, various fearful scenarios swirling up at me, although I’m also watching them from outside. Myself losing to the monster and being torn apart and all my loves being devastated. Myself abandoning those kids, coming back shamefaced at the head of an army, but too late. Saturday’s monster ignoring my singing and swallowing me up. Worst cases and might-have-beens. Each of them runs out of steam after a bit. There’s only so far you can drag out “but what if?”. Those things didn’t happen.

Instead I center myself in contemplating the present. So much has happened that doesn’t feel accidental. The world has moved in a matter of two days from a gradual slope of influence, to a crescendo of change. I’ve found myself fencing in the near-open with my enemy - his storm, and my tearing it down, his trap, my riposte which indirectly became the most geopolitically influential event since the two towers fell, his panicked counter with Cheney. His feint at me with Hammond and the bugaboo, my parry that probably told him a lot about what I can do, and what I will and won’t do.

Our plan for the conference in eleven days feels almost lost in the flood. But I feel it has its role to play. And what of the other things swirling around me? Tansy becoming High Priestess. Strega’s rapprochement with Sara. Connor’s awakening. Palm’s drones. Even Zenith’s change, and the Head’s ruling on that.

I cannot see the water, but I can feel the current flowing around me. And it seems, I do move with it. How should I move next?

Part of how I seem to be doing these things, is responding from my heart. So I should continue doing that, and resist over-intellectualising. Downside of an off-the-charts IQ, it gets easy to think yourself into a tangle. What is the next simple right thing to do?

I suppose that one’s easy: focus on my test tomorrow.

I end up spending the rest of the night re-analysing all the fights I’ve ever been in or observed, all the books I’ve read on the subject, and even a few martial arts movies I saw before coming here. Although in retrospect, most of those don’t really stand up to close scrutiny. My current mind finds it very easy to follow the choreographed flow. It’s like in swashbuckling movies. They want the swords to go ting-ting-ting for a second or two, and then a pause to quip. Fun, but not serious.

22nd January, 2007, Poe, morning

I’m awake, and a flick of teleport takes me out of bed, quietly so as not to wake Erin, who’s making cute noises in the bed above. Going by the bloody paw-prints on the desk under the window, she must have been out late hunting. I touch the blood, scan the genes. The shape that resolves has long ears, long back feet, fairly large and lean. Some kind of jackrabbit or hare, I don’t know the exact species. Good hunting, then.

A quiet word with Poe sees the blood disappearing into the furnishings and carpet, it can go to feed the plants. Then I flip clothes to my gown and head out for a shower.

Chou catches me on my way in. “Good luck with the test, today.”

“Thanks”, I say. “Does everyone know?”

She nods. “They sent an email around. We’ll be watching you in team tactics rather than the run they had planned. And, um, critiquing, but don’t take that badly.”

I grin. “Wouldn’t be a school if they just said, well done, you already know all the things, have a pat on the head.”

“Fair point, I suppose. Want us to tell you what gets said?”

“Please. I seem to be getting all too much real world use out of this stuff. I want to be doing it right, it might matter.”

She winces at that, and nods. “Yeah, I know that feeling.”

While I’m enjoying much nicer feelings in the showers, over in the Reilly house I’m catching up on the TV news. It seems the Confederacy has deemed my influence alien and inimical, and closed its borders to full-influenced people. And the President has hit back with a press conference where he said that Cheney was in DC with him when the pink light hit. Without needing to throw any accusations yet as to how he escaped the effects, the implication isn’t lost on anyone.

Nobody’s really noticed links yet. They may be our ace in the hole. Perhaps I should work on rushing them into the Confederate states? I do have plenty of contacts I could use.

Tai Chi, with Chou, Nikki and Toni is an enjoyable pause of relaxed, focused motion, trying to move from my chi. I think I didn’t do badly.

At breakfast, Ayla has managed to get eggs Benedict, which I am absolutely certain they weren’t serving for anyone else. I’d assembled a more crudely poached egg on buttered white toast, but it’s the first time I’ve been jealous of one of his foodie specials. Memo to self, ask how he gets them. Not here, though. Besides, he’s glued to his smartphone. It seems he’s got an IPO going with Marvel movies, or something like that. Not my business, but it seems to make him happy - and a few of the others too, who are counting their Ferraris before they’re hatched.

And then it’s time to head to lessons, and my test.

Part one hundred and sixty two

Following instructions takes me down underground to the VR simulators, where Sensei Tolman is waiting for me.

“Alright, good morning, and welcome to your mini combat final” She smiles. “You’re here because I feel you’re ready to graduate early out of my special class. You’ll still be working with Dyffud. But first you need to pass this. I have to warn you, this is being watched by other students, and you will be recorded. I’ll do my best to ensure that recording won’t wind up on CNN, but no guarantees. This will also be graded. If you receive a failing grade, you’ll be back in my class, and it will be because you still have lessons to learn, so don’t whine to me about it. You will be graded on both effort and ability. Any questions?”

“What’s the scenario?”

“You’ll find out.” She smirks. “Chair’s over there, dive in when you’re ready.”

A surprise, then. I should go in ready to enter battle on no notice.

I get in the chair. Cue a moment of Matrix-like disorientation, and then I’m scanning, all senses open. Big room inside a square building, wooden construction, two stories, many brightly dressed people on bleachers and a balcony, many brightly coloured flags. I’m standing on a raised walkway leading towards a slightly higher raised white square of what looks like canvas nailed down over ply-board. I’m in my super suit.

A loud, very deep gong sounds, bwannnnggg! And for a moment the loudness and unexpected noise startle me. I need to work on that reflex. A booming voice announces, “The challenger! Miss Parallel!”

They’ve got me in a martial arts movie. Well, damn. But I see how this works. No monster, no hostages, nothing that could make me flash back, only fights. I can do this.

I walk out onto the square. It gives lightly underfoot. The voice booms out, “Rules of the challenge are as follows. The challenger will face a series of opponents, singly or in groups. In the final combat, if they have made it that far, the challenger will face the reining Champion. Fights occur serially, one after the other, with a short break between. There are three ways to lose, unconsciousness, yielding by voice or by tapping out, or exiting the stage, on your feet or off them. No powers may be used, except the strength, speed, dexterity, and resilience of your own body, and the quickness of your mind and senses. No weapons except those of your body, unless the opponent is also armed, and no projectiles of any form.”

I’m comparing that list against the one Dyffud gave me for the earlier practise against the ANTS, and there are some interesting differences. I suppose, in context, it makes sense. They’re measuring my ability to handle a real fight. Because I also noticed the rules don’t contain any strictures against dirty fighting, or killing your opponent. Sharp-edged, am I?

“The first opponent! Leopardess!” A dark skinned woman wearing what looks like an actual leopard pelt bounds up onto the stage. The pelt goes over her head like a hood so she’s looking through the eyeholes, and the forelegs go over her hands, which look to be tipped in claws. G-sense and life sense show they’re her claws, not the leopard’s. Or perhaps some sort of skin-wearing shape shifter?

The leopard ears on her head twitch, they’re hers too.

The referee, a short bald guy, joins us on the stage. He holds his hand between us. “Ready!” He looks to confirm we are. “Fight!” And he steps quickly back as Leopardess and I circle each other.

Her movements are bouncy, smooth, testing me with feints. And then she suddenly comes right for me, claws out and aimed at my face. I step into her distance and strike to the face, which forces her to slip, and then we’re toing and froing with quick slashes on her part and brush blocking and counter strikes on mine. I don’t think she knows that my own claws can flick out like a switchblade, which means that she gives me an open target and I pop one to full length and run it right along the tendons of her forearm. And the momentary flinch of pain and horror lets me kick her right off the stage. As she’s airborne, she just looks so frustrated.

Insight: she was fighting below her ability, unused to claws as a weapon, unable to use her normal techniques. A real person playing a hastily scripted part. Some of those movements felt like her own, though.

I grin, I think I see what’s going on here. Just a guess, but…

“And the next opponent, Man Mountain!”

The heavyset figure stomping up onto the stage makes the stairs creak, and the stage floor bends ominously under his weight. And while we’re lining up and the referee is saying “Ready!”, I’m thinking, yup, nailed it. Although that doesn’t mean I can slack even a little. Because I think I have an idea what this guy’s techniques will be, and I’m not going to be able to make a frontal assault. On “Fight!”, he confirms it, leaving himself wide open for my full-strength punch that hits him as if he were a couple tons of granite. Much to the detriment of my wrist, but I expected that and the pain of the break doesn’t faze me. I ham it up though, holding the wrist and staggering back as he belly laughs, and then he’s coming for me with thumping steps making the stage boom and arms outstretched. I roll to evade, shoulder landing so as to keep my hands off the ground. 20% re-mineralised, fully re-aligned.

He turns, grins, and comes at me again, but I know the techniques he’s used to but can’t use. As things stand, I’m faster than him, and he’s not completely used to that. Nor, I think, is he used to being so big. Which means I can, for example, leap between his legs as he grabs for me and kick him in the back of the knee. His momentary stumble tells me what I can work with. Cradling my ‘ruined’ hand (60% and capable of bearing my weight, if not happily), I bounce up to my feet, presenting an appealing target at the edge of the stage. He comes for me, arms wide, like he’s got me and he’s going to shove me off the stage. Picking my moment carefully… I leap into a two-footed stomp kick, and he must think I’m an idiot, what gives him only a momentary stumble is throwing me backwards off the stage, airborne - except I spin in the air by flinging my good arm out and my fingers touch fabric and claws flick out, arrest my movement with a wrenching jerk, and meanwhile he’s made exactly the misjudgement I’ve expected and he’s just a little bit overbalanced at the very edge, and my bad hand grabs his trousers and yanks, he flails comically for a second and then gravity does its thing. And me, I roll back onto the stage, and take a moment to swear up a blue streak because ow and also yikes, doing that with an incompletely healed wrist hurts.

Sorry, CNN.

Thankfully, the break between rounds is long enough for me to finish regenerating. And if I hadn’t figured it out by now, opponent number three would have clued me in. The Dollmaker, a girl in an Alice dress with a featureless opaque mask, with two creepy knife-fingered mannequins which she controls with wires. I guess that makes them not projectiles, but it also makes them weapons, by the rules of the game. And that makes this the shortest round so far as I light up sabers, slash them both in half and then step in with my sabers crossed at her neck. She yields.

The next opponent is a woman in a flowing silk kung fu uniform, with a jian sword, her eyes covered by a blindfold, announced as “Lady Steel”. What’s the betting that sword can take a saber and not get cut? Yeah. I light up my saber on “Ready!” and take a light, mobile stance. On “Fight!”, I have to step and parry a lunge, and as expected, my blade fizzes along the length of hers like it was made out of pure beskar.

And then we’re stepping to and fro, cut, parry, lunge and riposte, with me drawing on a bunch of sword movies (thank you, Crouching Tiger) and some of the moves Monkey used when we were fighting with sticks. Her moves look practised and fluid and, of all of the opponents so far, she feels like she’s in her element. Given the hissing of my saber and her ability to keep blade contact, the blindfold is barely an inconvenience. I’m learning from her as we go, but I’m not sure it’s enough, she isn’t letting me press the fight at all. On the other hand, she also isn’t rolling right over me like the Handmaid would. Which means I’m just fighting Chou. Not that there’s a lot of “just” about it, she’s better than me and I’m not improving quickly enough. I think honestly, she’s stringing me along.

She isn’t being led by the Tao. And that makes me wonder if I could use it, somehow, or flow with it, I’m not sure what the terminology would be. But suppose I quit seeing this as a fight, gave up my need to win, and let it be a dance. What would the next move be? Can I let her lead me?

And then, suddenly, for a moment we’re moving together, and there’s no disharmony between us. She lunges, I absorb and follow back, and my saber touches her wrist. Hand and jian fall to the floor.

She goes white and grabs the wrist, and falls to her knees. I step back, saber off.

“I yield.” Her voice is clear but pained, and sounds nothing like Chou.

Guilt comes crashing down on me. I’ve hurt my friend. But I grit my teeth and push it back. This is a sim, she will be fine. Although if she wants to give me a punch for that after, I owe her.

As she’s helped off the stage, the gong sounds again. And the announcer says, “the Challenger has passed the initial trial of opponents, and earned the right to face the Champion!”

The crowd goes wild, stomping and clapping and calling out a name, “Dragon! Dragon!” And a figure steps into the sand, walking towards the stage. Someone is going to get sued, because he looks exactly like Goro from Mortal Kombat - four arms, three fingered hands, eight feet tall (plus or minus depending if you count the high ponytail). But he moves with a very familiar fluidity. He poses for the crowd, arms wide, thumps his chest, he’s having a great time. And then leaps up onto the stage with a smooth motion that completely belies his giant size.

The announcer says, “The reigning Champion, Dragon!”, cue more crowd noise and posing.

I’m going to need everything I’ve got for this fight, but ironically I can’t use my most effective tool - he’s unarmed, so I have to be too. Even while he’s four-armed. And forewarned. Okay, rein it in, that thought had an edge of hysteria. Let’s try and find that calm flow that I found a moment ago. Deep breaths. There is no fight, only the dance.

“Fight!”

And then we’re dancing. He may be in an unfamiliar body, but it doesn’t seem to faze him in the least, he’s coming at me with all four hands, striking, blocking, cutting down the space in which I have to move. I can feel the dance, but he’s controlling it. His hand closes around my arm and I have a moment to know he’s got me. Then I’m being yanked up into the air, and his knee comes up, and I can hear the crunch as my back breaks. And then a moment airborne, and I hit warm sand.

The crowd is back to chanting “Dragon! Dragon!”, as things fade and go black.

“Hello Parallel. Welcome back. It is Monday, January the 22nd, 2007. It is now 10:15 AM. The opposing team is the victor.”

Part one hundred and sixty three

I… lost. And in a messily painful way too. In the time it takes me to open my eyes and sit up in the chair, I’ve run over that scenario a hundred times and I still can’t find a way I could have won. He was just overwhelmingly better than me. Did I fail my test? If I did, then it was rigged. But if they rigged it, they’ll have good reason. Calm, have patience. Although I can’t stop tears running down my face. I wanted to win!

“Do you need a moment?” It’s Sensei Tolman.

I nod. Deep breaths. Focus on the present. Whatever happens, I will move forward from where I am. Open my eyes again. “Thank you. I’m good now.”

She gives me a soft smile, not an expression I’m used to from her. “Please follow me through to the observation area for your evaluation.”

I jump up and follow, switching from sim-suit to uniform as I go.

As soon as I reach the observation area, I’m swarmed with Kimbas, all wanting to give me hugs.

Jade says, “Holy wow, Jules, you were amazing. And I think it was pretty mean what he did.”

Ayla says, “It looked uncomfortable, are you okay?”

To which I nod, “Just a sim, although it briefly sucked.”

“Like hell your fingers can do that knife thing!”, that’s Toni.

So I show her popping out my claws. Which makes her do the WTF eyebrow thing. “Since when?”

“Since Tuesday two weeks ago. I even showed you at the time, although they didn’t get top billing.”

“So why didn’t you use them Friday?”

“You want me to slice your arm open in real life? Cause I’d rather not.”

A wince from her acknowledges the point. “Okay, I can see that.”

Dyffud, pitching his voice to carry, says “Settle down, people! Jules, your self evaluation, please.”

I take a deep breath, then, “I figured out what was up after I saw the frustrated look on Toni’s face, and recognised some of her moves. Had to trick Ayla into a position where he could fall off the stage, because nothing I had could harm him. Jade’s dolls counted as weapons, sorry J-team, so I could end that one quickly. Chou gave me some trouble, and I’m really sorry about your hand, Chou. But I think I figured something out fighting her. I tried to apply that fighting you, Dyffud, but I might as well have been blowing raspberries at you, I was completely outmatched. If you wanted me to win, sorry, I’m not there yet.”

Dyffud nods thoughtfully. “There was a moment when you were fighting Chou, when your attitude changed completely. Your actions started to flow with hers, rather than being dissonant. And almost immediately you were able to win that fight. Then, I could see you tried to use that same thing against me. Don’t abandon that technique because it didn’t work on me. I know of it, and I know how to blend with it and take control. Work with that skill and develop it, and you’ll be able to counter me.” He smiles. “And no, I didn’t expect you to win. Against me, going full out, I expected you to lose very quickly. That was a test of your character, how you’d take a defeat.” He looks to Sensei Tolman. “How did she handle it, Amanda?”

“Stoically. Tears, deep breaths, and up and at ’em.” Sensei Tolman sounds approving. “Looked like she was steeling herself for a failed grade. But not angry or trying to bargain.”

“And were you?” Dyffud asks me.

“I was. Am. If you’ve decided to fail me after that, then you have your reasons, and I trust you. Although I would be bitterly disappointed.”

“Well, you can relax, I’m not going to fail you. Your grade, taking into account your fights, your effort, your improvement during the test, your mercy to defeated opponents, and your ability to handle your own defeat, is A+. You pass.”

And then everyone’s whooping, and I’m crying freely again.

Even over in Necromancy class, I find myself shedding some tears, and getting a hug from Sara, who has of course been watching everything.

Circe catches me at it. “Is there a problem?”

“I just won my combat final”, I explain.

To which she nods. “Congratulations.” And then continues with the lesson, where we’ve been talking about the replies June sent to the questions everyone emailed.

“So tell me”, Dyffud asks me, “Why did you break your own wrist? There’s no way that wasn’t deliberate.”

“Partly proving a hypothesis. I guessed that even full force would do nothing, so it would be pointless to try and chip away at him with strikes. Partly setting up a tactical advantage. I was pretty sure I could heal it more quickly than he expected, and then play it up as still damaged, and it would become a blind spot in his plans.”

Ayla says, “I didn’t expect you to grab me like you did, your good hand was busy, so that worked.”

Dyffud says, “You had that specific move in mind?”

I shake my head to that. “More like that broad class of scenarios. He needed to be near the edge, off balance, and not expecting a throw, or he’d set himself in a stance. The only way I was going to win that one was by making him fall off, and it had to be by deception.”

Dyffud nods, and looks to Ayla, “You should have made that calculation yourself, and anticipated a trick along those lines.”

Ayla looks a little embarrassed. “I may have been acting in role a little too much. I was just enjoying playing up the big strong brute.”

“You were enjoying being a guy”, Jade teases.

“That too”, Ayla looks sheepish.

Dyffud smiles indulgently, and says, “In the end, it was an enjoyable romp for all of us, but I want even those of you who are not my students to consider how you did, and what you’d do better if there were a next time. Four of you lost to Jules here. With substantial handicaps in most cases, yes, but you lost convincingly. I expect your Team Tactics instructors will want a report on how and why.” He looks around. “Alright, you have some time left until next period. That time is now your own. Go buy Jules a coffee, or something, she’s earned it.”

There isn’t really time to go all the way back to Poe and get some of Ayla’s good coffee, so we end up parked in Dunn, ironically using the cafe for its intended purpose. Chou still looks subdued and pensive.

I try and mend fences. “Seriously, sorry about your hand. I owe you one, if you wanna punch me or something, you can.”

She looks frustrated. “No, it’s not that. I felt you reach out for the Tao, and then move with it. Why won’t it do that for me? I’ve tried, and it won’t come. I can’t use it unless I’m the Handmaid.”

I give that one some thought. “Feels like you’re still treating it as something outside yourself.”

“So?”

“So for you, metaphorically, the Tao is a high wind that threatens to blow your identity away. The Handmaid is an alien force that swoops in and takes you over. You didn’t ask for either of them, and you resent them both. You close your fist around yourself, denying them entry. This is me, that is not-me.”

That makes her pause and consider. Then shake her head in frustration. “How can you let go of yourself so easily?”

“Who is doing the letting go? Your real self isn’t going anywhere.” I finish up my coffee, just in time for the end of period bell to ring. “If you want to talk about it later, or on links, I’m available.”

That gets a frustrated nod from Chou.

Necromancy class was interesting. June had an experience of an afterlife, but it seems to be frustratingly hard for her to articulate in English. And her focus on unfinished business on Earth kept her from diving as deep into it as she might otherwise.

In particular, what caught my interest was the fact that the beings she interacted with treated her as if they knew she’d be coming back. It confused her at the time, but she recognises it in retrospect. And that implies they must have known about me and my plans long before I even popped out of my cross-universe teleport.

When I put it to Sara, as she’s walking with me over to the ranges, she shrugs. “Time’s weird. There was a Kellith before there was a me, we even overlapped for awhile. Our kind aren’t really too anchored in time, and from this side, it can look like a number of things. Backward causation is definitely on the list. From over on the other side, I suspect it just looks like having a finger in many pies.”

“Or many cuties”, I tease.

“I wasn’t going to go there, but now that you’ve said it…”

While Billie and I walk together towards the flight field, over on Gothmog’s side, Sara’s other body and two of mine are having a lazy late brunch. Well, she’s sat with us being social, anyway, she had her dog for the day over in Dunn.

The plan today is to try and get the big portal open, bureaucracy permitting. I’m really not sure what the political developments will mean, but the two Washingtons are still talking to each other, which seems to be a positive sign. Plus, now they have a much better idea who they’re dealing with, and are probably not filing me under “ridiculous loon” any more. I’m looking forward to meeting Miss Valocco and Fina again too. I’m tempted to suggest bringing the two of them over here to visit, like we did with Donna, but given I’m about to open a gigantic portal over where they live, it seems a bit redundant. They’ll be able to drive over. They’re very much on our permitted guests list.

My reverie is interrupted by something unexpected, a link nudge from Connor Fox. “Um, is this thing on? Miss Parallel?”

“I’m here, what’s up? You sound like you’re worried. Anything I can help with?”

“I’m horribly lost, and I’m being hunted.”

“Do you need extraction? I can jump to your link, and then pull you out.”

A pause. “My spirit hates the idea, but please.”

“Okay, she may hate where I’m taking you even worse, but I promise you it’s safe.”

“Any port in a storm. Soon would be good.”

Of course I’ve been relaying to Sara, so she isn’t shocked when one of me vanishes, and I appear on a road next to a panicked looking Connor, match speeds with her, touch her, and jump us both back to Gothmog’s place. Where we both end up running splat into the sofa, inertia is a bitch. At least it’s a soft landing.

She untangles herself from a coat, scarf and cowl that have all fallen over her face, and looks around. “Okay, where are we, because this place looks crazy expensive, and my spirit is all but panicking.”

Gothmog steps into the room. “You’re in my realm, my dear. You aren’t on Earth, and whatever was chasing you will no longer be a problem. If it follows you here, I shall deal with it. Would you care for something to drink?”

She looks at me. I guess at her thoughts. “It’s safe to eat and drink here, you won’t be trapped, it’s not fairyland.”

She nods. “Water. Please.” Looking overwhelmed and a bit terrified. As Gothmog heads to fetch water, she says to me, “My spirit says he is a demon. And this whole place is a kind of hell.”

Sara says from over at the table, “Both accurate. I’m a demon too. Care for some caviar on blinis? I’m told they’re good.”

Part one hundred and sixty four

Connor looks almost ready to run, which would be pointless for her and frustrating for us. So I decide to interrupt that by giving her something to think about. “Have your kids filled you in about the thing they’re helping with, the Kellith cult’s religious conference, the reason I was in Seattle yesterday?”

“Uh, yeah, although I can’t say I understand. An off-world religious conference?” The distraction works a bit as she goes from panicked to confused.

“This is my beloved Sara, and yes she is a demon, she’s also the Kellith. And the religious conference will be being hosted here, in this realm.”

“Here? Seriously?”

“Not in this exact room. But there is a whole sprawling complex. Want a tour, before we head back over to Seattle?”

She looks distracted. “Um, a moment. I need to bring you in to the conversation with my kids, because they’re all talking at cross purposes with you. How do I do that?”

“On links? Just want me to be a member of the group. That should add me.”

And suddenly I’m in a group with her and the Fox family I met yesterday.

Claire says, “Are you safe? Ah, I see she’s here.”

I say, “Sorry, I didn’t realise she was in a group like this or I’d have asked to join. She’s safe, she’s in the conference venue. What was after her? Should I expect it to try and chase her over?”

“Just the police, although they’re bad enough”, that’s Max. “Seems she saved some kid from getting run over by a bus, but she doesn’t have a MID, and the police were trying to arrest her for illegal mutant activity or something.”

“We couldn’t keep track of where she was, she kept blinking around”, Claire says. “And we couldn’t risk a search ourselves, not with the place crawling with police cars. If we found her, we might draw the pursuit down onto her. So I suggested she try calling you.”

I’m confused. “Why on earth would police chase someone for saving a kid? Surely they should be giving her a medal?”

A peeking Sara nudges me over the mark, “Loop me in, will you?” And so I do, and she says, “Hello everyone, If you haven’t already met me, I’m Sara Waite, also known as the Kellith. Connor is safe here in my father’s realm. And the answer to my beloved’s gentle yet naive question is that the SPD are assholes and they don’t like mutants. There’s a reason we went to the Knights for conference security.”

That gets general feelings of agreement from people, and Claire says, “I can see that. Jules, how did you get her over there? We thought you might be able to help, but…”

“A link is a coordinate I can teleport to. I was able to jump over, grab her and jump back. Since we’re not on Earth right now, they shouldn’t be able to trace our destination, even if they have a warper.”

“And if they could, and intruded themselves, they would regret it”, Sara says, “This realm is completely under daddy’s control. And he takes hospitality very seriously. Connor is invited. They are not.”

Anna says hesitantly, “Um, it’s Monday, shouldn’t you two be in classes? I thought you were students at Whateley and I know the timetable so, um…”

“We both are in classes”, Sara manages to project deep amusement. “Jules is currently in two of them, in fact. Myself, I can currently only manage two bodies, one here, one there. But neither of us are skipping school, you needn’t worry.”

“Oh man, that has to be so weird. But okay, people, I think we can leave them be? Dad’s safe. I presume you’ll bring um, her, over with you when you come over yourselves?”

I say, “That’s the plan, if everyone’s good with it?”

Connor says, “Siona isn’t entirely fond of the idea, but caviar on blinis sounds nice.”

Cue Gothmog coming in with a tray of extra blinis, in both salmon and caviar toppings, as well as a tray with an elegant cut-glass carafe of ice water and a tumbler for Connor. I really am getting a bit spoiled, living over here, he’s the best host. Connor’s stomach rumbling suggests she agrees. I guess she’s been using up the energy dashing around.

“Eat as much as you like, there are more where those came from”, Gothmog says with a smile. “Please feel welcome here, Connor Fox.”

Connor does a sort of bow, looking overwhelmed again. “Um, thank you. And… I think I owe you a sort of binding debt for this. And Jules, for saving me. Somehow, that seems to be a thing.”

“All things will come due in the fullness of time”, Gothmog says. “There may come a day when I shall rely upon your hospitality and protection. Or perhaps you will pay it forward, with forbearance. My daughter and I are demons, but demons are not what you have been told. Less evil, as a rule, and more chaotic and single-minded. To be a demon is to be the embodiment of a concept. My daughter and I adopted demon nature for certain protective reasons. I am a demon of lust and perversion, tempered by love. She is a demon of lust. I hope you are not too prudish?”

That gives Connor pause for a moment. “I… am not sure? I know that the self I was a month ago would have said yes, he felt there was a place for these things and it was in private. But I find myself thinking of that abstractly, at a remove, it’s who I was. I don’t think it’s who I am. And that confuses me.”

“Influence?” Sara says.

I nod. “Connor, have you been following the news?”

“I tried, but I couldn’t find the news channels. Kept hitting some sort of show about a new Confederacy, that has to be fake, right?.”

“Sadly not”, Sara says.

“Here I was, hoping for a War of the Worlds problem”, Connor says, sighing.

I say, “Short timeline. On the first, you got injured, and fell into a coma. On the eighth, I hatched as a Great Old One, and defined myself into the metaphysics of the universe. Soon after that, we observed that people around me were changing. We called it influence. And then we discovered that everyone everywhere is changing, because of what I did to the world. Being around me just makes it go faster. Then two days ago, I fought a monster and used a power I hadn’t tried before. One of me was in the air over Washington DC at the time. The result was a massive accidental surge of my power, that fully influenced everyone in downtown DC, including basically the entire federal government. By the afternoon, several states weren’t taking orders from the central government. Then yesterday around lunchtime, soon after I woke you from a coma, the Vice President, who had been missing, popped up in Texas and declared himself President of a new Confederacy.”

Connor winces. “Okay. That sounds like science fiction, but the fact it was all over the news is enough to make me at least defer judgement. But how does it relate?”

I say, “What we’ve been calling influence is just the human mind adapting to changed instincts, ones that fit the new metaphysical pattern. And there are what you might call, consistent symptoms. Amplification of love, and loving relationships. Amplification of conscience, particularly around consent. Inability to self delude. Inability to care much about social taboos. The fact you feel detached from your previous ideas about keeping sex under wraps is characteristic. What’s strange, though, is that you’ve not been anywhere near me before yesterday. So why are you reacting like someone who’s already fully influenced?”

“Could it be her regeneration?” Sara wonders.

I squint. “New body, new cells, laid down in the new world. That does make a kind of sense. Connor, to explain, Sara and I are suspecting that because your body got rebuilt for the most part after the changes on the eighth, it was built fully influenced. Without the old patterns that would have needed to be gradually changed, which is what’s happening to everyone else. Unfortunately for you, that means you get dropped right in the soup, rather than getting to dip a toe.”

Connor laughs. “To be honest with you, so far I have no complaints. It’s just weird, sometimes. Like here I am looking at another of you sat down for breakfast, younger than my youngest, wearing a nightgown that might as well be a light morning mist, and visibly pregnant. And I’m just kinda feeling, oh how cute? Also the blinis look nice.” She reaches to snaffle one, munches.

“Please, do sit, help yourself, they’re for you”, I say from my pregnant self. “And thank you.”

And other me says, “Before you worry, I’m the father. Bilateral hermaphrodite, and I control my own genetics, so Junior is fine.”

Connor sits, looking amused. “Junior, huh? No name yet?”

“I figure she’ll name herself”, I say. “She’s a precocious little thing already, although she isn’t verbal yet. She’s on links, if you want to meet?”

“Before we go there”, Sara says, “Siona isn’t on links? You should be able to give her one, if you can talk mentally. Only it feels like we’re leaving her out of the conversation.”

“She refuses to take one”, Connor says. “It’s dark sorcery, apparently.”

I say, “It is Great Old One type sorcery, yes, specifically it’s mine. I made it, with some help from my friends. Siona, I promise it’s harmless. And it will mean you can communicate directly to people who aren’t Connor.”

There’s a pause. I think the two of them are arguing internally. Then Connor shakes her head. “She still refuses. She says, if she needs to speak to you, she can tell me what to say. And that she is not interested in meeting another demon right now. I on the other hand, am very interested. How did you manage to give a link to an unborn baby?”

“New version of links. I added the ability to make a connection where there’s already love, and push over an offer to link up.”

“And she understood it?”

I pull all of us into a link group. “See for yourself. Junior, this is my friend, Connor Fox. Also Siona, listening but not on the link.”

Junior responds with friendly greetings for Connor, tinged strongly with curiosity. And then unexpectedly, I can feel her building power for a moment, and then: GREET! AMUSEMENT! She’s pushing out ideas in the way big me did, wordless but very clear.

Connor says, “Okay, wow, Siona is saying, you don’t need to shout. Actually…”

A moment’s pause, then someone else joins us in the group, and I think I recognise her from the foxy feel. “If you are going to thrust things into my mind anyhow, I might as well join the conversation. Yes, hello, child. You needn’t shout at me, I’m here now.”

Junior dashes around us projecting excited happiness. It really is amazing how she can make the link feel like it has depth and space. One of several anomalies I should look deeper into.

“She’s lovely”, Connor sounds both a little awed, and very charmed. Junior projects a feel of snuggling up to her.

Siona sighs. “What a world. Demons so cute you can’t even dislike them. Anyhow, since I’m here, greetings to you all, I am Siona. Which you already knew, but a proper introduction is an important thing.”

“Of course. Gothmog, also sometimes known as Antonio Marques Dominguez.”

“Sara Waite, the Kellith, codename Carmilla.”

“Jules, codename Parallel. Pleased to meet you again.”

And Junior projects a feeling of herself-ness, a happy, secure, curious and playful sort of self. Which makes Siona giggle, then catch herself and project a feeling like a bow. And suddenly Junior is snuggling up to her too.

Part one hundred and sixty five

I’m in the air over Whateley’s practise flying field, and the view from up here is lovely. The whole area around the school is heavily forested, and enough of the trees are conifers that even in the depths of winter they’re a sea of green, lightly dusted with white.

Unfortunately that’s the only thing that’s going well for me up here, as I’ve just discovered a severe disadvantage of my slipstreaming technique: it really doesn’t like turbulent air. When I get buffeted with wind, I can lose the stream and end up smacking face first into the air rather than falling into vacuum, Which at this speed is just disconcerting, but I sure am glad the air was so still over Utah the other day. I’d have lost that body like splat.

Of course the answer is pretty obvious, I need to get back that ability I had temporarily on Saturday, to feel the air’s currents. Then I could adjust for the buffeting and be fine. The trouble is, the how is much less obvious. That was the product of an impromptu spell song, it wasn’t a directive spell that I could just cast again. And the result somehow felt much more like a living relationship with the air than a spell effect.

“Problems?” Billie on links, she’s been watching me flounder.

“Wind keeps knocking me out of my slipstream.”

She winces. “That sounds bad. Back to the drawing board?”

I shake my head. “This one, I think I know how to solve. I just don’t know the how for the how. If that makes any sense.”

“Does to me”, she grins. “Try and keep up with the lesson in the meantime, even if you have to do it with gravity flight.”

I nod to that, I don’t want to miss this lesson, even if unprotected flight at this altitude gets chilly. Flying means a lot to me. I’ll just have to eat a bigger lunch to recharge all the energy I’m burning.

But I do put the question to Becca. A few minutes earlier, as Billie and I were walking over to the practise field, she stopped by to grab a copy of me. First time since I met Sun Wu Kong, nearly a week ago. I guess she has her own schedule, or knows when a thing would be beneficial? At the moment we’re just sipping some tasty tea in her office, in companionable silence.

“Suppose I was for a short time last Saturday attuned to the currents of the air after a spell song”, I say. “And suppose I want to get that back, but kinda naturally, not by forcing it with sorcery. How’d you think I ought to go about that?”

She looks amused. “Why ask me?”

“Don’t immortals do that kind of stuff, walking on the wind, riding clouds?”

She nods. “Some do. But I’m curious. Why don’t you tell me the story of how you got that ability in the first place?”

And so I tell her about the storm and the helicopter, and our mad dash over the mountains for safety. And the spell song that helped us dodge swipes from the sorcery-tainted wind. And how the helicopter became a living thing, in its way. And all of us were left with the ability to sense the flow of air, but then I had to vanish that body a bit later, and lost it.

Becca looks thoughtful for a moment, sitting in silence. Then, “Alright, I’m not going to answer you directly. But I’m going to show you a technique. I presume you already know how to meditate? But you probably learned the Westernised version of the Buddhist insight meditation technique.”

“If you mean, resting the attention of the breath, and allowing thoughts to arise without grasping them, then yes.”

She nods. “It has been simplified out of its context, and it has its uses, but also its risks. The technique I’m going to show you appears superficially similar, but the intent is quite different. The destination it will take you is different too, and might be more suited to your needs. To begin with, we sit, we relax. And we think of a time in the past when were simply calm and happy, and let that turn into a smile.”

I let that smile spread to myself in the air over Whateley, and down in the ranges where I’m enjoying the simple (and very easy) task of target shooting with a handgun, and over with Connor Fox and Sara as we drive from her cult base in Seattle to the Knights HQ again. In Washington, we’re in a meeting to discuss the new Confederacy and how I can help, I choose not to let it show there, but I feel it.

Becca says, “You should be able to feel that smile become relaxation in the muscles of your face, without any need to push it. Allow the feeling of the smile, and the calm relaxation that goes with it to spread to your whole head, relaxing all the muscles. Let it become a feeling like a warm glow, melting away all your worries, your anger and your fears. And then we spend a moment just feeling that.”

In the air, I ask Mr Buttons if I can pause study for a few minutes, as I feel I can see where Becca is going with this. I want to do this meditation in flight, where I can feel the blustery air buffeting and swirling around me while I’m relaxed like this. When I explain that I think it will help with my slipstream, he agrees.

“Now let the warm glow you feel flow down your neck, and into your shoulders, relaxing away the tensions that you’ve been holding onto. Let your head become centered naturally, a feeling like invisible hands are holding it up. All the tense, angry, aggressive feelings, all the troubles can melt away.”

In the car, Connor looks at me. “What’s up, you’re suddenly looking way more relaxed?”, and I explain I’m learning a meditation technique in my other body and kinda doing it here too. Which amuses her. “Your life must be full of weird overlaps and contrasts between what you’re doing at the same time, in one place and another.”

That makes me giggle, because it’s true. “Sometimes I feel like I’m interlaced with myself. A tapestry pattern only I can see.”

Becca says, “Let the glow flow down through your chest, freeing your lungs to breathe more deeply and slowly. Running down your arms, loosening the urge to grab and shove, replacing it with calm repose. Down your back and spine, releasing tension, and feel the way your posture becomes naturally more upright. Down your stomach and through your intestines, releasing the tension you hold in your gut. Down your hips and buttocks and down your legs and feet to the tips of your toes, loosening and releasing the urge to run and flee. So you are filled top to toe with the glow and the smile.”

I’ve been watching the trajectory of the bullets in the range, and my newly relaxed arms are showing me how much tension I had still been holding, wasted effort, muscle against muscle, even if I could move precisely despite it. My aim just got better, too. Only by a few arc-seconds, but it let me notice something - the bullets aren’t going in perfect gravity parabolas even after they come out of the barrel. The air is moving them. Just a smidge, but even in this enclosed range underground, the air isn’t dead. I can infer the currents by the way they make the bullets drift. If I could feel them ahead of time, I could adjust.

“Now shine the glow inwards”, Becca says. “On all your organs, all your blood vessels, all your interior spaces. And then when you can feel that warmth all through you, allow it to collect and focus together in a point inside your head, just above the middle of your eyebrows and a few inches in, your upper dan tien.”

I’m floating, cross legged in the air, gravity supported, letting the air push me where it wills, feeling the glow above and between my eyes. Attention on everything else - on Billie, Mr Buttons, the lesson, all falls away.

“Put all your focus onto that spot, that glow, see it as a round, bright glow. Allow yourself to be totally absorbed into that. Let go of all external thoughts. Even those of relaxation, of the glow, just allow yourself to exist and feel it.”

There is no separation between me and the air I’m floating in, and I find I am flowing, I am the air. And like a word on the tip of my tongue suddenly remembered, I am the whole of the air around me, and I can feel its constantly shifting shape. In the ranges, I’m dropping bullets one after another through the same single hole. In the car, I can feel the wind displacing around the curves of the chassis. And in the meditation room, I can feel my breath and Becca’s, and the curl of convection rising from the teapot and our emptied cups.

“Just like that, hmm?” Becca’s voice holds a hint of resignation under the amused tone.

It takes me a moment to return to voice, and it’s interesting feeling the air moving and vibrating inside myself as I say, “pardon?”

“You found your lost power again. Yes, I noticed. I hadn’t expected such quick results.”

“I felt, I feel, like the air… um, like there isn’t a boundary between myself and the air. I’m feeling it because I am it. The me who is the air is moving.”

“Which is something most trainee immortals would take decades to realise. This type of meditation is about reaching back to find your own original self, because it’s the Taoist understanding that this unclouded, pure self is one and the same with the Tao. And therefore, even experienced partially, it helps bring you into harmony with everything surrounding you, as well as with yourself.”

I ponder that, and reach an understanding. “What you said earlier about the Buddhist style, you think that’s driving me too inward?”

“The Buddhists have a counterweight to that inward tendency, Metta Bhavana, the cultivation of loving kindness. And they teach in context of ethics and metaphysical understandings. Not all of which we Taoists agree with, although we understand that they work, in their way.” She smiles. “There’s a traditional artistic metaphor, the three vinegar tasters. Confucius, Buddha, and Lao Tzu, all dipping a finger in a pot of vinegar and tasting it. Confucius finds it sour, like the world he saw, full of bad deeds and in need of rules. Buddha finds it bitter, like the world he saw, full of suffering due to attachment. And Lao Tzu finds it sweet, because we Taoists believe the original nature of reality is joyful.”

“But the vinegar is the same.”

She nods to that. “Yes. And so to an extent it can be a matter of which approach is suited to the individual.”

“You think that for me, a meditation that brings me back to my original self would be more beneficial than one which detaches me from conditioned things.”

“I’ve been considering you, and what to do with you.” She gestures around. “The Tao is this whole universe, everything. And there is a part of you now, which is not of this universe. But it seems, also not in conflict with it. Founded in love, defined by compassion, it seems even your inhuman nature has roots that are in harmony with the Tao.”

On the ranges, I’m explaining to Caitlin, who has noticed, how I gained the ability to see the wind and adjust for it. And in the air, I zip back over to Billie and Mr Buttons, feeling the air flow and swirl, and playfully countering the buffets as I slipstream through them, a big smile on my face.

Part one hundred and sixty six

“I am leaving. I have accomplished what I came to do.” The man who just stepped into Becca’s office is tall, broad shouldered, wearing a dark blue suit, somewhat red of face, and he has a long beard and moustache, both black without a speck of grey. His eyes catch on me, and he takes a moment to look, then, “Oho. Is this our foundling?”

“Guan Yu, meet Jules, no surname, codename Parallel. Most people call her miss Parallel.” Becca’s tone is respectful.

I take a lead from that tone and bow. A decision quickly reinforced by what my internet search brings up. God of war, hmm? “A pleasure to meet you.”

He considers me. I can see his face with g-sense, even though I’m looking down. “Interesting. Child, I know that you have an adoptive mother. Why have you not taken her family name?”

“Partly because it’s complicated, in a metaphysical sense Sara Waite is also my progenitor and I consider her my mother too. Partly because it doesn’t feel right to do so, not yet. Partly because the old name is not gone, only absent. And so it can best be spoken with silence.” First time someone’s asked me that, but not the first time I’ve thought about it.

He nods thoughtfully. “I see. And I also notice you’re respectful. You may rise from your bow. The Handmaid has told me you can fight?”

I rise back up to sitting straight. “I’m a beginner at hand to hand fighting, and Monkey thrashed me thoroughly at stick fighting. I’ve also had occasion to be in a few encounters with real enemies. I didn’t use hand to hand fighting in those.”

“And what did you use?”

“A power that lets me cut things, although it leaves them radioactive. The ability to destroy a soul. A lightsaber combined with surprise. An army. Lightsabers again. A spell-song. And combat on the soul level. Not sure if I should count what I did to Hammond, that was less of a battle and more of a judgement.”

He looks amused. “Spoken so prosaically. I see you are making yourself a legend, but you don’t care for it?”

“For the most part, it’s not the job I set myself to do. It’s just an incidental result of having enemies. The legend I’d like to have is one where I helped make the world a nicer place. Although some of the fighting also helped accomplish that, in small ways.”

He nods. “I can understand that. A prince’s perspective, not a warrior’s. May I see this lightsaber?”

I make one, without the usual decorations since I think he might not appreciate those, and hand it to him. “Blade comes out of there. It runs when I feed it power and stops when I don’t. If you want to see the blade, I can do that.”

“Please”, he says, and so I feed power to the saber, filling the room with sharp purple light. He waves it around experimentally. “No weight.”

“It does have drag, I designed that in, it won’t move through something faster than it can burn through it. It can block and bind other sabers, and I expect it would block and bind anything too tough to cut.”

He nods, handing the saber back, which I make vanish. “The lack of weight puts you at a disadvantage, but not disastrously so. That which cannot be stopped with direct force, can be avoided or diverted. What style do you train?”

“No style, yet. I’ve picked up some of Monkey’s stick techniques, some of Dyffud’s footwork, and some of Chou’s fencing. And some stuff from movies, although most of that was wire-work and not useful. But I’ve had to adapt whatever I pick up, because sabers are different. No mass as a counterbalance, no flat, and on the other hand, no worries about edge alignment or cutting force.”

He chuckles. “I see, I see. Perhaps you shall make your own style.”

“I may have to”, I say. “I think I’m the only person taking the things seriously. I know a lot of devisors here make one. But perhaps they figure out quickly that you need to remember where all your bits are, and where the blade is.”

“And it is much easier to shoot a gun. Tell me if you would, why you choose such an inconvenient weapon?”

I have to stop and think about that. Because it’s true. Guns are for plinking at targets. I have a rude name for my bullshit cannon for a reason. “It isn’t inconvenient to me. I do know where my bits are. I designed and built my saber, I create one afresh when I want one, and so I’m never unarmed. But then, all of that is true for my own projectile ability too. I think perhaps, it’s that I don’t like to kill. And so if it needs doing, I won’t let myself do it from a comfortable, callous remove. I choose to swing the sword myself, and feel the slight catch as it cuts bone, and know that it was a person, not a game. That feels like a kind of respect, too.”

He narrows his eyes for a moment and considers. “Understandable, honourable, but naive. Battle isn’t about honour or how you feel, it’s about all other roads having failed. The best war is the one not fought, and I say this myself as a warrior. Seek reconciliation first. But when the path to peace is closed, you must use what works. The lives of others may depend upon it. That may be your sabers, and it may not. But you must take your feelings out of the decision.”

I bow again. “You are of course correct. Thank you.”

He looks at me for a moment again, then nods. “Well, I shall be leaving. But it has been an interesting meeting.” And true to his word, strides out immediately.

Becca looks at me thoughtfully for a moment. “Many people wouldn’t take correction so easily.”

“I realised I had my priorities backward as soon as he pointed it out. It was my first time properly thinking through an unconsidered, emotional approach. Makes me wonder how many more mistakes like that I’m making.”

“Look for the things with self-image and ego wound up in them, particularly anything that makes you feel bombastic, or self-sacrificing.”

I nod to that.

She smiles and pours me another cup of tea.

In the car, Connor says to me, “You know, I was thinking. If you knew me when I got injured, you could have healed me looking how I did back then.”

“On the first I was human. I wouldn’t have been able to do anything.”

“I know, but just like, if you’d got here a month earlier.”

“Regrets, hmm?”

“Nostalgia. I don’t know if I really liked that body any better, but I was used to it, dodgy knee and all. This one’s bouncy and fresh, but it doesn’t feel like me yet, you know? It’s hard not to feel it’s all a dream. Especially with…”, she gestures to the car, with Sara in shotgun, Connor and I in the back, and a cultist playing chauffeur.

“All the weird shit, huh?”

“My own kids are mutants, and they covered it up for years. My wife was a mutant super-spy, and I had no clue. Then I got turned into some sort of spirit powered fox girl, and now I’m hanging out with demons and watching the South rise again on TV. It feels like something off Mystery Science Theatre 3000. And the most dream-like thing is that I’m thinking completely differently. It’s like I’m a guest in my own head, I don’t know where anything is.”

I wince. “Sorry.”

“Not your fault. I even approve of what you did, and I don’t hate the changes in my own head, so far. I just keep being surprised by them.”

“Would you go back to your old body, if you could?”

She considers a moment. “I guess what I’m nostalgic for is the life. The simplicity of it. And I couldn’t go back to that, could I? And I find I don’t want to give up the upgrades, either. So I’d be what, old man fox-Connor, with his two tails, fluffy ears and spirit friend? Nobody manifests as an adult. I can’t imagine I could stay with my family, like that. I’d draw a spotlight onto them, and some bright spark of a journalist would dig up their secret identities. About the only thing that bothers me about this body, aside from losing access to the top shelf in the kitchen, is these”, she gestures at her chest.

“They’re cute”, I say.

“And they feel nice. Squishy and fond of being petted. But they’re in the way, I can’t even see my own toes.”

I look at her feet, and send her the vision with links.

Which makes her grin. “Okay, maybe I can see them with your eyes. Not with my own. And… I’m just not used to them, all up in everyone’s face, sticking out by a mile. I bump into things. It hurts when I bump into things.” She winces, evidently at a memory.

“Sorry, again. I’m not really qualified to advise. Those are pretty much the reasons I’ve been keeping mine small. That and the bouncing.”

She laughs. “I guess it’s a choice, for you, isn’t it? Do you think you could reduce mine?”

“Not sure, I’ve not tried reshaping anyone with a BIT yet. Assuming I could, would you want me to?”

She pokes at them, as we’re drawing up to the Knights HQ. “For now, no. I need to get used to who I’ve become, first. Who knows, I might grow fond of ’em.”

“They do have their uses”, I say with a smile, remembering much fun had.

We’re headed into the basement entrance this time, to avoid any chance of unfriendly eyes on Connor. When we get out, the kids are already there, and Connor gets picked up with an “eep” and passed around from hug to hug. I hang back a little and let the gaggle of them have family time as we all head upstairs, picking up my own hug from Sara. But I do overhear Claire saying, “There’s somebody you need to meet. Well, two somebodies. But first…” And I’m out of eavesdrop range.

Curiouser and curiouser. Although I suppose it’s not my business. Still, one of the somebodies is very obvious as we reach the big meeting room, a young woman, perhaps college age, Asian, dark hair, tanned skin, in what looks like a bee-themed yellow and black sailor senshi suit. Also wings, long transparent ones that fold against her back and hang down like a cloak, but look like they’d have quite the span when deployed. She sees Connor, and looks so relieved. The family group goes over to meet her.

Curiosity is not a license to snoop. So I hang back, looking around the room, until Claire motions me over. “Meliferra, this is Parallel. She was the one who pulled Kitty out.”

Kitty, hmm? Okay, I can roll with that, so I nod, “Nice to meet you. I already knew her and her family, and they have links, so I was able to jump and pick her up.”

Meliferra says, “I’m the cause of her troubles, because the girl she saved was running towards me. I’m an independent here, but I do a lot of outreach, so kids know me. So I was really worried when Kitty here did her thing and then ended up being chased by the police on my behalf. I reached out to the Knights on a hunch, and they knew her, but couldn’t give me directions to go help, because she was blinking around. So I’m glad you could do it. But I feel there’s a lot of backstory I’m missing here. Are you really the same Parallel that’s been all over the news? I thought you were in DC?”

I grins. “I am. And New Hampshire, and here, and off world. Long story, if you want to hear it?”

Part one hundred and sixty seven

content warning: cutting

We’re sitting in a fancy video conference room. Here in DARPA it looks like half a conference table, and the screen shows the other half, which is somewhere in the Truman building, with several people in uniform and a couple of civilian types. On this side, it’s just me and Mr Reilly.

Someone comes into the room, and everyone on their side stands up, so Mr Reilly and I do too. I recognise him, it’s Colin Powell. He’s the same over this side as he was in my original universe, but he looks younger than I’m used to seeing him.

He says, “Alright, for those of you not in the know, I’ve been recalled to duty as acting secretary of state, after Miss Rice’s disappearance. This meeting is top secret and classified, but Miss Parallel has been given a temporary and limited clearance to participate, because she’s involved. Gentlemen, ladies, please sit.”

We sit, and he presses a button that projects an image on the wall, an outline map of the USA as was. States are shaded with various colours.

“This is a summary map of the political situation as it stands this morning. Who is still with the DC federal government, who is with the Confederacy, who is staying neutral for now, or wavering.”

He points with a red laser dot. “We have the eastern seaboard down to Maryland, and the western seaboard down to California. We have the whole of New England, New York, and Pennsylvania, although some of them are being polite but not really committing. Our opponents have the the old Confederate states except Virginia and North Carolina which are sitting this one out, and they have Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri, although the tribes in Oklahoma are staying neutral. Most of the Midwest is neutral, but Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois are ours. Our analysts believe the Dakotas want to flip, but they’re landlocked. The west is nominally neutral, but leaning their way, not ours.”

He takes a breath. “The neutral states have formed a loose alliance of their own, which they are calling the Neutral Group. They have collectively agreed to keep their borders open to normal travel and trade, but have requested both sides not to move troops through their territory or overfly it without clearance. We will be acceding to that request. The states in the new Confederacy have partially closed their borders. They are permitting travel and trade, but they have the national guard out searching every vehicle, and turning away mutants from entry.”

Another pause. “National guard units are obeying their state governments inside the new Confederacy. Federal military units are so far all loyal to DC, but some are stuck very far behind enemy lines. Assuming that each side can control the materiel stored inside their territory, both sides easily have enough weapons, conventional and nuclear, for mutually assured destruction. Gentlemen, ladies, the President has made it very clear, we will not rise to any level of provocation.”

He pauses to let that sink in, then, “Diplomacy is necessarily the order of the day. Unfortunately, that seems likely to result in unpalatable compromises. In my opinion, one which our analysts share, their closed border to mutants is a very bad sign. They may be building up towards a pogrom, and we won’t be able to do much of anything to help, other than accept those refugees they allow to leave.”

I raise my hand.

“Miss Parallel, yes.”

“I have a possible answer there. I can personally evacuate anyone in danger, if they have a link. I can jump to their location and pull them out. I don’t suggest the government involve itself directly since I’d likely be breaking any number of laws doing that, but you can help by encouraging the spread of links ahead of time.”

That gets various glances between the people at the table, and there’s a noticeable pause before Mr Powell says “Thank you. We’ll take that suggestion under advisement.”

It isn’t until after the meeting’s over that I get an explanation for that strange response. “Your links scare them”, Mr Reilly explains, looking weary. “Influenced or not, they’re still used to a world that salutes and follows orders. They look at links and see untraceable spies, soldiers mouthing off at their officers, a breakdown in discipline. And you just added the ability to infiltrate yourself past security measures. Is that a general feature, by the way? Should we worry about any teleporter doing it?”

“Only me that I know of. It needs the ability to feel along soul-to-soul links, which I do with my GOO side. Maybe some mages might be able?”

He nods. “I’ll go and ask my people. What’s the range?”

“I did a jump from Gothmog’s realm to a link in Seattle and back, carrying someone on the return journey, just earlier this morning. No noticeable difficulty.”

“Out of universe, hmm?” He looks amused. “Chalk that up as range: ‘yes’, then.”

“I think it’s the same principle as links themselves. The connection is at a soul level so the distance is always zero.”

“That does make sense.” He looks towards the now quiet meeting room. “They’ll listen to your suggestion, they won’t like it but they’ll see the use. Everyone there realises that links are a genie that can’t be put back into its bottle, and they do have a lot of positive uses. You’re just a little casually anarchic for their tastes. That crack about breaking laws”, he chuckles. “They could hear in your voice the unspoken assertion, laws that get in my way will be stepped upon. I don’t think you even framed that explicitly, it’s just your nature, but I could see them wince.”

My turn to do the wincing. “I mean, it’s like Monkey said, I act when I see the need for action. I try to work within the system, but I won’t take a ‘no’ that stops me from doing what I know I must. Sometimes avoiding that means acting first and getting permission later.”

“Monkey, hmm?”

While I’m explaining Sun Wu Kong to Mr Reilly, I’m heading over to lunch, and I run into Jade along the way. She smiles and joins me.

I decide to open with “How’s things? I’ve been wanting to check in with you, but I was a little distracted.”

“With your test, yeah”, she grins. “Well done, by the way. And yeah, being a girl properly is brilliant. Being a shifter, I’m still getting used to. They had me in for a powers re-test third period, and more after lunch, but they’ve already told me I’m a shifter six. Which is just whoa.” She grins. “I haven’t even begun to think of all the cool things I can do now. And being stuck separate from Jet but having all her memories, that’s weird too. And some of those memories are still really icky. They’ve got me down for counselling later this evening, after they’re done with the powers test.”

“Priorities, huh.”

She laughs. “Yeah. Oh, and I’m sorry, I may have accidentally suggested to Dr Hewley that they need to re-test you. And he sounded interested.”

“Probably true”, I admit. “I’ve added a few since they last looked, even if some of them are remixing stuff I already had.”

“Your remixes are insane, though. Like you remix matter creation into lightsabers that appear and disappear on command. And you remix gravity flight into zipping around like a UFO, onee-san has been telling me stories about that.”

“You’ve done some interesting remixes yourself, you and the J-team.”

She grins. “Okay, I guess that’s true. And I’m looking forward to figuring what new ones I can make with my new shifter power.”

“Like maybe Jinn without pours?”

She thinks. “The idea you gave to Jet. Splitting my mass down. I haven’t tried to do that.” She snickers. “Project multi-body orgy. You and Jet have dirty minds.”

“Guilty as charged.” I can’t help but grin. “I suspect you will too, once you grow into it. What’s your plan for that, anyhow? I know you could shift yourself older.”

“I don’t want to go too fast, I’ve tried it and it’s disorienting and just not me. I mean, it’s me when I’m Jinn, but it’s not me when I’m Jade. But I don’t want to stay stuck three years behind either. So I decided I’d speed up the clock. If I age myself a month per day, it won’t show, day to day, but I should catch up with my real age in just over a month. And I think my body was already trying to do something like that.”

“Remember what I said, on Saturday? I suspected your body was trying to get older. And that was before you picked up the extra whammy from Jet.”

“I’m a lot more in control now”, she agrees. “Then, my body was just doing it for me. Now I decide. It’s kinda weird, to be in the driving seat so much.”

“Don’t I know it”, I smirk.

She laughs. “Yeah. I guess you’ve got the same thing. A whole lot of control over stuff that just used to run itself. Do you tinker a lot?”

“Mostly I let it run itself, I just watch. I’m planning on getting older the normal way, my exemplar rating and regen should leave me looking about twenty something. And then I can just keep an eye for damage over time and tidy it up.”

That gets Jade curious. “I just had an idea. Damage. They haven’t tested me for regen yet, that’s after lunch, but I wonder if I could use this shifting to regenerate myself. Like, shift the damaged bits into repaired ones? I could get a rating higher than five.”

I grin. “Greedy. But maybe. Your body’s own regen knows where to put things. If you’re doing it manually, you need to learn where to put them, yourself. If you try and bodge it together in a simplified way, you’ll end up with ischaemia. If you want, I can show you?”

“Like how?”

“Make a small cut in your arm. Let you ride along watching it regenerate, all the tissues, all the cells.”

She smirks. “See, this is why I like you. We think alike, sometimes. Any of the others would have run a mile from that idea. Sure, do it. I can suppress pain.”

“I’ll show you a simpler way of doing that, too.” I send her a link of the sensation of looking at my own mind. “Pain lives here. Can you find that in your own?”

“Huh, yeah.”

“Just suppress it like so. Don’t forget to turn it back on after.”

“I see. Kinda explains how my hypnosis technique works, too. Okay, let’s do this.”

I pop a finger claw out. “This is sterile. Now watch inside the muscle here.” I start feeding her my experience, only filtered a little. I figure her shoggoth-adjusted mind can take it. “Too much?”

“Yeesh, it’s always like this with you?”

“It’s more, I get the genes and stuff too. Observe, I’ll cut.” Claw tip goes into flesh, and she can see the severed capillaries and muscle fibers. “See how the damaged cells are a signal to regeneration? All busy busy, but not random. Plugs to close off the blood vessels. Bridging fibers to pull the cut closed. White cells cleaning out the damaged stuff and recycling it. Cell growth melding the cut walls together. Blood vessels reconnecting. Nerves reconnecting. See the skin layers, how they each close up. And done.” I let the link connection drop. “Can you reach into it with your shifting, and feel that level of detail?”

She looks thoughtful. “Not sure. I think I’d have to practise. That was a lot to handle, and”, she looks down at the small smear of red on her arm, “It was just a teensy cut, wasn’t it?”

“Like about five millimetres deep.”

She looks thoughtful. “It feels like I would have to grow and grow before I could handle anything big. But maybe I can.”

Part one hundred and sixty eight

“Got a minute?” It is, unexpectedly, Wyatt Cody, stepping into my way as I’m about to head into Dunn Hall for eats. He’s got Tansy with him, and another girl too, Elaine Nalley, Loophole, I’ve seen her around but we haven’t spoken.

I wave Billie on in without me, and nod. “Sure, what’s up?”

“Your girlfriend came to me with a proposition earlier, and well, I thought you ought to be involved. That and it conveniently overlaps a problem I wanted to speak to you about.”

Snap judgement: that sounds kinda private. “Shall we grab an empty classroom and talk about it?”

He nods. “Let’s do that.”

When we’re in the classroom and the door’s shut, Tansy starts. “So I wanted to find out if I still actually like boys at all. And the only one I’ve ever known to be a gentleman is Cody. So I went to ask him.”

Cody picks up, “What she didn’t know, was that me and Elaine have been dating seriously a few days now. I took her out on our first date Saturday.”

Tansy says, “I apologised, of course, I don’t mean to come between them.”

“And I said, don’t give up your plans until we ask Miss Nalley what she thinks”, Cody says.

“Which they did”, Miss Nalley says. “And when they did, ah realised it might be what you might call a fortuitous meeting. Ya see, and this sounds like a digression but it ain’t, when Cody and I went on our date, I took him up to Berlin in my Mustang, and well, if you don’t count the local fools making a nuisance, we had a very enjoyable pizza lunch there.”

I see what she’s implying. “Berlin, at lunchtime, on Saturday. About fifteen miles away. You were out of range when I went boom.”

She nods. “First ah heard of the ‘pink light’”, she makes air quotes, “was when we got back. Whitman was like a bomb went off. Girls crying, everywhere. Girls hauled off to Doyle with suicidal breakdowns. We missed the Head’s announcement, but we got the email. Influence, and almost everyone affected. Ah don’t know if we were the only ones out of range like that, but ah haven’t met another.”

I consider that. “So, you’re less influenced than everyone else, and that’s a problem?”

She sighs. “We’re out of step. Everyone’s more open, and it makes me feel like ah’m suddenly the prudish one. They’re more direct, and it makes me feel sly and low down sneaky. It’s just the small things, but it adds up. Wyatt and I, we talked about it. We were meaning to come to you, anyhow. But well, this seemed like a god-send, if you get me.”

I nod. “An example of the kind of openness you feel out of step with. And a chance to meet me, and ask me to do what, pull you into sync with the rest of them? I have to warn you, I’m not sure I can be so precise. It may be all or nothing.”

“All would be acceptable”, Cody says. “It hasn’t seemed to do Tansy any harm.”

I look to Tansy. She picks that up, “At first I was out of step, as you put it, pretty badly. But I didn’t mind it much. I was just feeling out what it meant to be myself, really and truly, and not some put-on mask. Saturday did change that, though. I feel like the others have come closer to where I am. I’m not sure if I could describe the difference. There’s more connection. I think both of you, you’d be happier. But you need to brace yourselves for a lot of change, and facing up to your own conscience.”

I say, “Not everyone changes a lot. Jade hasn’t. She and Stan and Morrie got the pink light from touching distance, and they’re still the same, near as I can tell.”

Miss Nalley says, “Question is, can you do it? And are you willing?”

“I can and I’m willing, but I gave my word I’d clear anything like that with the Head before I do it. Are you both okay to involve her? I expect she’ll want an explanation.”

They look at each other. Then both nod. Cody says, “We’re good with that.”

So I nudge the Head on links. “Ma’am, do you have a couple of minutes? It’s low priority, but it does require you personally.”

“As it happens, I do. What is it that requires my personal attention?”

It doesn’t take me long to explain the situation. I leave out Tansy’s business as tangential. Then I pull Cody and Miss Nalley into a group with the Head, and she grills them a bit, and well, they give a good accounting of themselves.

“If either of you feels like you’ll have to miss lessons because of this, it will have to wait for the weekend.”

“I don’t, ma’am”, Cody says.

“Nor I”, Miss Nalley agrees.

“Then you may go ahead. And Jules, I’m rescinding the requirement to clear it with me, if circumstances are similar. I expect you to use your good judgement. We all have a bit more experience of what influence means, now, than we did then.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“See that you do.” And she disconnects from the chat.

We all look at one another. I say, “Well, we’re good to go. Do you want me to try and bring you to the same level as the others, or do you want to just go all the way?”

They look at each other. Miss Nalley is the one who answers. “Ah think, what ah’ve seen of influence, ah like it. Ah say we go all the way.” Cody thinks a moment, then nods. “If everyone’s already headed thataway, might as well just get where we’re going ahead of time.”

Actually influencing them only takes a moment, with Tansy watching curiously. I let go their hands, and wait to see how they feel. The smiles on their faces make me smile too, looks like a good result.

“Ah don’t feel much different, ah think”, Miss Nalley smiles. “Except well, now ah can say what ah wanted to before, and was tongue tied about. Tansy, you want to borrow my boyfriend? The answer is yes. But ah want to watch.”

Tansy laughs. “You’ve got yourself a deal. I don’t think I’d mind that one bit. In fact, you’re welcome to do more than just watch.”

“Ah believe this may be the start of a beautiful friendship.”

Lunch, when I get there, turns out to be tolerable beef casserole, although I catch Ayla making ick faces at it. Instead he heads off to the sandwich table, and then vanishes through the floor. I grab a bowlful, and once I’ve filled up the tray I make my way over to the Kimba table, even as Jade and other me are joining the line.

After I’ve touched in, Billie asks, “What’s with the grin?”

“Romantic episode. Not my secret to tell. But it’s put me in a good mood.”

“Like you weren’t already, from kicking all our asses”, Toni says.

“With one or possibly two hands tied behind your backs”, I say. “Reminds me, Chou, Guan Yu was here. Did he come to talk to you?”

“Not much more than hello and goodbye, although he did ask about you.”

I nod, looking up for a moment as Jade takes her seat. “We met after he spoke to you, I think. He stopped by Becca’s room, and I was studying with her. Interesting guy. You know, he gave me an idea. I don’t think there’s any such a thing as a lightsaber form, yet. I was thinking, you, me, Toni, perhaps Billie if she’s interested, we could work on making one?”

That gets an excited look from Toni, but Chou says, “How do you mean, no form?”

“No weight past the handle, no mass as a counterweight, no flat, no need for edge alignment or cutting force. All the sword forms assume things sabers can’t do, and contrariwise, ignore some of the things they can. When I was stealing your moves in the sim, I had to change them to fit.”

She looks thoughtful. “I haven’t got a saber.”

“I can lend you one. But you have got a conventional sword that can fence on equal terms with sabers, and that could be important in shaping the form, too.”

Nikki says, “I have Malachim’s Feather, and that’s another one that can fence with sabers. I might be interested in joining in with this, it does sound fun. I’ll have to talk to my fencing teacher first, but I expect in the worst case, I can be another foil to try your ideas against.”

I grin. “Welcome to the group, then. Billie?”

She shakes her head. “I’d be too worried about my sword harming someone. Maybe I can learn it when you’re done making it.”

“Or I can walk you through the kata as we make them, without an opponent”, I nod. “I can respect that. Although if you want, you can borrow one of mine to practise with?”

“I’m not sure they’d be much safer”, she says. “At least, not if I’m the one waving them around. I’m fast and I’m strong, but I don’t have the same insane level of physical awareness you and Toni do, or the Tao helping me, or magic. It wouldn’t matter much if I cut my own foot off, but I might slip and cut off one of yours.”

“Your decision”, I say. “If you feel up to it later, I’m sure we can catch you up.”

“No cutting off anything”, Chou agrees with a wince. “That was bad enough in the sim. Not just the pain, it’s horrifying to feel a part of you missing like that.”

“I wasn’t planning on us doing any lopping off of body parts”, I tease. “Although if we did, I’m sure I could just put it back in place, and tell it to reconnect. Wouldn’t even leave a scar.” Which gets the expected wince from everyone. Got to keep my spooky cred.

“Okay, I don’t care what anyone else says, I’m in.” Toni at least is undeterred by my teasing.

Pleasantly full after lunch, I’m heading out towards Doyle when I spot a familiar face. Spellbinder, plainly waiting for someone, and when I catch her eye, it’s clear the someone is me. I change tack and head over. “Hey there, you were waiting for me?”

She chuckles and looks down. “You remember everything, don’t you?”

“I do.”

“Majestic gave me an earful about trying to mind-control you. She said it seems to work, you can feel it working, but somehow you just shrug it off.”

“Less human than I look. Don’t worry too much about it, I let that spell latch on because I thought our conversation was a good thing. I didn’t need it to keep me honest, but you needed it to feel safe talking to me.”

She nods with a rueful look. “Majestic told me you’re a schemer, and you were probably playing me. But that you scheme to help people.”

“I try. How was my offer received?”

“About as well as you’d expect, at first. Hekate didn’t like your tone one bit. But she’s sat on it a bit, and came back with a counter-offer. She wants to talk. Just talk, no assumptions.”

“I’m game. How would she like to go about it?”

“Over links.” When I raise my eyebrow to that, she adds, “Yeah, I know. She knows what they are and what they do, she’s heard stories about you using them to raise the dead, and she’s looked at the spell. She called it insanely complicated, but I think it impressed her.”

“Makes more sense when you see it as stacked layers. But I guess I should be telling her that. Did she have a time in mind?”

“As soon as possible would be best. I get the feeling she’s pacing a rut in the floor.”

“Alright, let’s do it now. This body needs to head off, but I’ll be talking to her from my non-physical side, I won’t be distracted. Can you introduce us?”

Part one hundred and sixty nine

“Hekate.”

“Miss Parallel. I received your offer. I’m curious why you think I’d want it?”

“Well, setting aside Miss Reilly’s spell. I think you know that I could shred that in short order. I also think you have your own plans to deal with it, that don’t need my help. My bet is that you’ve started to feel your changed instincts kicking against the hole you’ve dug. Powerful, nasty people have their hooks in you, and they’ve helped you to burn a lot of bridges. I felt like, maybe you might welcome someone willing to build a bridge. I felt like also, maybe you’ve started to notice that the power they’re feeding you is a slow poison?”

“Like I care about that. Power is power.”

“Mythos power is a little more than that, it has opinions.”

“Opinions I was fine with, until your influence started bending me out of shape. What I want to know is how you presume to have a right to rewrite everyone’s private thoughts, against their wishes?”

“I could and I wanted to, isn’t that enough for your power-first ethic? But what I’m wondering is if you’ve studied what I actually did.”

A frustrated, grumpy feeling. “I haven’t had shit to do, so yeah, I studied it.”

“So tell me.”

She sighs. “It isn’t even about humans, we’re just caught up in it. You saw the way life always bent towards the simplest, most worthless things. Fighting and fucking, killing and eating, being born and dying, for nothing. You put a thumb on the scales to keep the complexity going, and make things work together.”

“You’re right it’s about all life, yeah, but it’s about humans too. I had to make it work at every scale, to make it work at all. What I think it’s doing inside your head is gradually remaking you into someone with the instincts of a creature that evolved in a benevolent world. And it’s rewriting society just as fast.”

“Benevolent, huh. That sure ain’t what I see when I turn on the TV. Why don’t you explain to me how your benevolent world looks like we’re on the edge of world war three?”

“There’s always been a war. A very old one. A gradual sowing of hate and bigotry, setting humans up against humans every which way, with the eventual intention of wiping us all out in one big civil war, everyone against everyone. What I did on the eighth tipped that war from icy cold to warm, and then what I did in DC has panicked the opposition into trying to make it hot.”

“The opposition? Seriously?”

“A certain big mythos power, who hates humans, along with his cultists, dupes, and puppets. You’ve probably never met him, but you know him. He feels like his sorcery feels. The sorcery you’ve been using.”

A pause. “You know, there was a time I’d tell you that you were full of shit, and that’s just what all mythos power feels like. Did Spellbinder tell you I was picking apart your links?”

“Yeah.”

“I can’t make head nor fucking tail of them, but they feel completely different. I’m not even sure how. Something about the tone?”

“It’s my tone. Not his.”

There’s a long pause. I almost think she’s given up on the conversation. Then suddenly she says, “I don’t wanna rot in jail. And if I took your deal and admitted everything, I’d be lucky to get that, and not just tied to a stick and spat at while I burn.”

“For what it’s worth, I expect influence is going to take the vengeance out of the legal system, pretty fast.”

She sighs. “Yeah, I can see that. That was how I knew it was messing with my head, I stopped caring about the list. You know, the big list of everyone who’d ever wronged me, who I was going to get back at? And now I can’t even work up a proper rage at Nikki damned Reilly, and her spell is banging at my door. It’s left me at a loss for things to think about.”

“You realise the people dangling you on strings probably encouraged you to waste your time thinking about that, right? It’d keep you from wondering what their own agenda for you is. Keep you hot to chase power, no matter the cost.”

“So what, you think I’m a pawn in their chess game? Please.”

“A queen, if you like that better. Filled with the power they’ve trained you to use, an important part of their grand strategy. But in the end all the chess pieces are expendable. And when you’ve finished the game, you put them back in the box. They aren’t players.”

Another pause, then, “I wanna go back to the bit where I don’t like the idea of rotting in jail. How about instead, you get me out, I change my name and go live someplace else, and we both forget about each other. No revenge, no jail, we’re quits, and I just walk away?”

“I know what Jade saw in your athame, so I know some of the things you’ve done. You realise your former masters will hold those over you, right? They’ll track you down, and they’ll say, come back, be a chess piece for me, or everything comes out. And if you’re still desperate to stay out of jail, you’ll walk right back into their clutches. And probably into their fool’s circle, because they wouldn’t risk an important chess piece rebelling twice. There is exactly one path which leads out of that trap.”

“Admit it all. Go to jail.”

“And face the possibility of coming out the other side with your debts paid.”

A long pause. “Okay. You’ve made your pitch, and I’ve understood it, and I’m gonna think. Don’t call me. I’ll call you, got it?”

“In your own time. I’ll be here.”

“Then bye”, and she disconnects.

Doyle’s mental health wing is, unsurprisingly, pretty busy. The receptionist waves me through distractedly, and Doc Bellows is already waiting with his door open and my usual coffee ready made.

He smiles as I grab a seat and sip, but in a concerned way. “It seems we can’t keep you out of trouble. A killer storm, two monsters, two fights, and the geopolitics of the country upended. In one weekend.”

“And a bunch of kids dumped on Doyle.”

“Yes. Twenty-one severe cases as a result of influence, and a great deal more asking to schedule sessions for less severe issues. Thankfully, your rescuees seem to have gotten off lightly, we’ll be seeing a few of them for trauma, but they aren’t on the urgent list.”

I wince a bit. “Sorry for the extra load.”

“It’s what we’re here for. Don’t let it worry you too much, the Head has briefed me and I know you didn’t do it deliberately. And the effects of influence do seem likely to be beneficial in the long run.”

I nod. “They should be. But for all it’s convenient suddenly not being subject to bigotry and hassle around the school, I do regret the way it was sprung on everyone. And even more so for DC, where there’s a lot more people caught in the blast, and a lot less medical help available.”

“Do you know what’s being done about that?”

“Going by the news channels over there, there’s lots of community organising going on. Some rich people have bought up unused buildings and donated them as ad-hoc mental health field hospitals. Currently mainly staffed with grannies and people being loaned on paid leave by their employers.”

He makes a face at that. “Better than nothing, I suppose.”

I nod, “Needs must. I hope in the medium term, it inspires a more compassionate system, but the immediate situation is more like a big bomb went off. Even if steady-state facilities were available they’d have been overwhelmed.”

He nods. “I can see that. But I get the feeling you blame yourself?”

I consider. “Very mixed feelings. I know I hurt a lot of people. And I’d never have done it volitionally, it completely stomps all over my principles of respecting people’s autonomy. But the result has been a major political win in some ways, even if it has also destabilised the country. It may end up being a decisive blow for humanity in the GOO war. I suppose, in the end, how I feel doesn’t matter. I’m going to have to work with the situation as it stands.”

“And you feel burdened by that?”

“Yeah.” I sigh. “Got that carrying the world on my shoulders feeling. A lot of people’s lives rest on the consequences of my decisions. Not me alone of course, but I’m one of the ones closest to the center of it. My actions, large and small, make big ripples. Not something I’ve experienced before.”

“And this comes on top of a couple days of intense action and trauma that you’d probably prefer to rest from.”

“Pull the covers up and wake me in a week”, I laugh ruefully. “Not going to happen, sadly. Life marches on.”

“You know, we could arrange to lighten your class load.”

“Classes aren’t the problem.” I sigh. “The political stuff, the GOO war, trying to help humanity, that’s stuff only I can do. Classes on the other hand, well, right now I’m in escape class. I’m learning how to bust out of prisoner transport vans. It’s relaxing. I anticipate a little tension later on, because I’ve got Englund’s class and he has it in for me, but he’s still a good teacher and I often enjoy his classes.” I take a breath. “Sorry. I know that feeling of frustration at being unable to help, and it’s not fun.”

“Not your job, to worry about how I’m feeling”, he sounds amused. “But I suppose that does lead to a possible answer. Think carefully about what is, and what isn’t your job. Just because you can do something, does not mean you’re necessarily the right one to do it. You’ve got a lot of burdens, don’t take on new ones carelessly. Try and make time to rest.”

“I can do that”, I agree.

Over in Seattle, things are moving. Connor Fox has a new name, Catherine Jennifer Fox. Inspired, I’m told, by the nickname “Kitty”, which she got from the child she saved. Strange how these things have knock-on results like that. And we have permission from the city to open the big portal. Supposedly the SPD have insisted on being involved in crowd control while we do that. I get the feeling they’re smarting at being passed over for the security job. If they get heavy handed, it’s going to leave me in a troublesome position. Bleh. But at least we’re all decamping for the site, now. Catherine included, since her kids are here.

And in Washington, we’ve got a reply back from the TV station, they’ve agreed to Dyffud’s terms. So I’m going to be in an interview later today, and then we’ll do a sparring demonstration, live on air. Which should be fun.

Meanwhile, we’ve been talking about how to defuse the other side’s propaganda, and as it were “humanise” me. The idea amuses me, but yeah, I can see where it’s coming from. So we’re currently talking about two tacks. The first is to get me out in the city in DC, meeting people, visiting those makeshift mental health hospitals. Doing politician stuff, because it looks like I’ve become one of those, whether I like it or not. Also, going on diplomatic missions to the state governments. Those will take longer to arrange, but they’ll let the wavering ones see me, and hopefully that will help.

I’m told the President can’t officially back my religious conference, first amendment yadda yadda, but he’s asked his people to help clear any obstacles. I think it might have been their intervention that got the Seattle city government on side. Funny how these things go sometimes.

Part one hundred and seventy

While Doc Bellows uses the extended session to walk me through my trauma over the weekend, in Seattle I’m slightly squished in the back seat of one of the cars headed over to the portal site. Me, Sara and the newly renamed Catherine Fox, being the most compact (except Tome, in the other car), are all sharing the seat. I’ve noticed Catherine’s been giving me and Sara looks.

“Penny for your thoughts?”, I ask her on links.

“You don’t want my thoughts, they’re a mess. I’ve got Siona and Junior playing silly games inside my head, which is at once adorable and annoying, and I was just distracting myself by watching you and Sara snuggling together, and feeling kinda sad and nostalgic. I don’t think I told you, a year ago I had a wife? I loved her very much, and then she died quite suddenly. And now I’ve been hearing that she was some sort of hush-hush super spy, and that she died in the line of duty. Everyone seems to owe her favours. I had no idea, while she was alive. Sorry, ignore me, I’m wallowing.” Then she looks closer at me. “Penny for your thoughts? You look like you just swallowed a bug.”

“More like unsure if what I’m about to say makes me an angel or a devil. But I’ll risk it. I can reach out and touch the soul of anyone with a link, even if it isn’t in their body any more. I’ve already used that five times now to bring people back from the dead. It’s um, possible, I can’t guarantee it, that you may be able to push over a link to your wife, in the afterlife. Where things go from there would be up to her.”

Catherine blinks. “You’ve brought people back from the dead?”

“Yes. And fully healed, not some kind of shambling revenant. Either by repairing their own body, or if that’s too far gone, making them a new one.”

“For real?”

“Really real. I can’t give guarantees you’ll be able to connect up, after a year apart. And I can’t decide for her, whether she wants to come back physically. But well, you can see why I had to speak up.”

“What do I have to do?” She sounds determined.

“Think about your shared love. Feel it, as clearly as you can. And imagine pushing a link through it to her. Links will understand that and try and connect. If it connects, she will get a package along with an explanation of what’s being offered. If she chooses to open that package, she will be on links. And well… if it doesn’t connect up right away, have patience, keep trying. She might just be busy doing whatever people do over there.”

Catherine nods. “And if we get her on links?”

“Up to her if she wants to stay over on the other side, or come back. If she wants to come back, I’d have to work with her on how she’d like to look. Do you have anything with her old DNA? It would help, to give her back the powers she had before, and as a starting point for appearance.”

“In storage. There’s bound to be a hairbrush, or something.”

“That works. We can go fetch that after we’re done setting up the portal. Then I bring her back by creating a body of the shape she’d like, and moving my soul out and hers in. And voila, resurrected.”

“Huh. Just like that.” She’s thoughtful for a moment. “Okay, I’m going to try this. The worst case is just where I am, already. So let’s give this a go.”

The next few minutes of quiet feel like building tension. Will she get through? All the machinery is there, although it’s never been used in quite this way before.

Her look of determination is shading over into sadness and resignation, and I’m wondering if I’ve made an awful mistake, when suddenly she looks shocked, and then joyful.

Claire, driving, turns to peek. “Everything okay?”

“More than okay”, Catherine says. “But tell you later.” As we’re pretty much there, at the portal location.

Scuttlebutt must be fast, as there’s already a small crowd of people lining the road next to the site, and cops holding them back. After a bit of showing of papers, they let us through the cordon.

The site we’ve chosen is on industrial land to the south-west of downtown, on the west bank of the river. Sara’s people have cleaned it down and put in proper roads, and a small parking lot. We decided against fences and security barriers, so it’s pretty wide open. Rather than put in plants, which wouldn’t be growing at this time of year even if the ground weren’t an inhospitable mixture of sand and gravel, they’ve put in some rather nicely placed arrangements of standing stones. Right now there’s one car in the parking lot, a big Range Rover type thing. That would be our contact with the Duwamish, I presume.

We pull up, everyone piles out, Catherine still looking a bit dazed and distracted. Sara and I head over to the Range Rover, and the guy inside gets out.

“Afternoon, ladies. Mike Pearson, at your service.”

Sara and I introduce ourselves, and he fills us in on his role. He’s here officially-unofficially. He’s not a member of the tribal council, but he has relatives on it, and they were careful not to formally send him, but they know he’s there. City politics, gotta love it. As for himself, he’s kind of a spiritual leader, ceremonialist type. Mostly here as a witness, but he also offers to do a short site blessing before we begin.

Of course we’re happy to accept, so he fetches a drum from the car, and the whole lot of us head over to where the road dead ends. As we walk over we talk about what I’m planning to do, which is sing iron up out of the ground and form the arch. Then Gothmog should be able to open the connection from his side, where there’s an identical gate structure.

“Some problems I can see with that”, Mike says. “First up, the rock under here, it’s nothing but glacial rubble and sandstone and clay. Not much iron in that.”

“I checked out the geology maps, there should be volcanic basalt underneath”, I say.

“True, but it’s way deep down. Second, the ground at the surface here specifically, by the riverside, it’s any old crap they could scrape together when they were regrading the place. Sand, builder’s rubble, rocks, garbage, you name it. If an earthquake comes, they’re worried it could all shake apart into mush. Like maybe an earthquake caused by a careless magician pulling up a line of hot iron from rock a mile down, you know?”

I nod. “I’ll be careful. I should be able to hold things together while I’m pulling it. And I know about the fault nearby too, I’ll do my best not to set it off.”

He smiles. “It’s nice to see you’ve done your homework. Still I have to ask, why’d you decide to do things the hard way? It would have been a lot easier to get the pieces you need cast elsewhere and trucked here. Or even the raw iron, if you want to melt and shape it yourself.”

“Two reasons”, I explain. “First, if I leave a line of cooled metal along the channels I make pulling it up, that’ll be a good and solid foundation. But second, and the main reason, if I use local rock as the source of iron, it’ll belong here. I think the local geology won’t feel it’s an imposition. I know most people would say I’m nuts, considering that. But places I spell-sing tend to wake up a bit.”

He nods thoughtfully. “I wouldn’t be one of the folks who think you’re nuts. The place will wake up, hmm? Well, then maybe I have a suggestion for you. There used to be a village hereabouts, it was called Herring Home, when you translate the name. Perhaps if you include a call out to that somehow, it’ll help the place approve the changes you’re making.”

Sara offers, “We could call it Herring Gate. It’ll even look a bit like the shape of a fish’s head, when it’s done.”

That gets a grin. “Yes, I like that. I think my ancestors who lived here would too. Alright, time for me to do the blessing.”

While he’s beating his drum to accompany a song in a language I don’t know yet, Catherine fills me in on developments. “So, Jennifer and I, we’re talking, kinda. Except I think it’s going to take her awhile to get back in the hang of using words. Right now, she’s talking like Junior, blasts of feelings and thoughts and information all piled up in a heap. And I can parse it out into words, but it’s generally like a whole paragraph, all tangled up and connected. And footnotes and references. Weirdest feeling. Anyhow, she’s grateful for what you’ve done, and interested in being back in a body, at least part of the time. But she wants to talk to her old employers before deciding what to look like.”

“She figures they’ll want her back?”

“Seems so. She says they were always the people who dealt with the way out there stuff, and they’ll take it in their stride. But she was known, her death is public knowledge, just coming back as her old self would set off all sorts of alarm bells. So that can’t happen.”

“She could match your new age?”

“That’s what she was thinking too. She could be a cousin or something. But she’ll see what they say.”

With Mike’s song over, he grins and says, “Okay, so where should we stand?”

“Pretty far back. I should be able to control the heat, but just in case, right back to the edge of the parking lot, please.” I’m planning to use a variation of my go-to-space spell to keep the heat penned in. But this will be the first time it’s been used in anger.

I reach for the song of the place, and it takes a little while to find it, because the area has been so messed about by recent human activity. But somehow the blessing song helps, I still don’t know the words, but the memory of it connects me back to how the land remembers itself. This place was estuary salt marsh, not so long ago. And under it, the leavings of glaciers and ancient lakes. Under that, deep down, volcanic pillow lava, long cooled, but as I begin to sing, I’m reminding it of when it was hot, and flowed. Specifically, I’m picking out the iron in it, and when it’s ready to flow, I sing of it rising together into a column and pushing upward. Careful to sing the other rock out of its way as it pierces its way towards the surface.

As it rises, I feel the curiosity of this place, focused on me and what I’m doing. A giant slow consciousness, wakened out of half slumber. It knows the humans have built a city here. It appreciates my care to not harm them. It’s watching me work.

When the iron approaches the surface I divide it like a Y, and let it rise as two parallel lines. Singing the heat shield spell into place, I watch as the rumbling ground erupts into two columns of brilliant sun-yellow, curving together, thinning and pointing like two giant tusks, touching at their tips. And then it’s in place and I let the iron forget being liquid, and it goes from yellow, to orange, to cherry red, to oxidized black. I wait until the heat spell relaxes, and then let the song end.

“I name you Herring Gate, and may you be a path between worlds.”

And on Gothmog’s side, where he’s been watching via the links, he grins and says, “And I name you Hacienda Gate. May you too be a path between worlds. Open sesame.”

And just like that, it’s open. The sky through it looks the same, but the wind that comes through is warm and smells of alien flowers. And Gothmog is standing there, and so am I.

Read 706 times Last modified on Friday, 15 April 2022 22:31
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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