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We got close, so here's the episode a little early! I'm afraid you all will have to hang onto your seats over the next few weeks -- I don't want to post beyond my writing buffer, since I'll be going to WisCon at the end of the month and will need that buffer. However, I'll post 2 episodes next week because Friday, May 9, is the Wonder City Stories 5th anniversary! By then, the Wonder City TOC will have 220 episodes, 8 short stories, and 1 novella, plus a 21-part first episode for our spinoff series, Compass Rose. :)


They're Watching

One of the Hoovers screeched to a halt in my office, the second being of the day to take me by surprise. "Renata Scott," it snapped, "you must tell the ones below something."

I spun out of my chair and onto my feet again. "What the hell?" I said, for lack of anything better to say.

"You must tell them that the world is in danger," the alien said, and I squinted closer. I thought the bag had the markings that indicated Joshua on it, but it wasn't talking like Joshua, or even like one of the ones accustomed to talking to Mark West. The words were coming out in a rapid staccato, harsh and unlovely, but not devoid of inflection. Related to Joshua, maybe?

"We knew that," I said after a moment.

"No," it said. "The head family has lost patience and will shortly leave the world to determine its own fate."

"Good," I said.

"You do not understand," the alien said with the most impatience I'd yet heard from one of them. "I have come to tell you that the lead family is powering up the Inversion Layer Generator."

"What does that mean?" I said.

"The one you call Joshua asked me to tell you that it will reflect and enhance any psychic emanations present on the planet, redoubling any effects they have," it said. "It is a device designed to prove that those who inhabit a planet are either benign or malignant."

The information rattled around my brain for such a long moment that the alien started to roll away. I called, "That will destroy everyone, won't it? With the… the general temperment?"

"That is the point," the alien said, continuing to roll away.

"Where is Joshua?" I said.

It didn't stop. "The one you call Joshua is… no longer. The lead family felt it was too involved with its research."

I staggered back into my chair, soaking in all the implications. Then I leapt up and started to run for my apartment, for Floribunda, and meanwhile, shouted at the top of my brain, Sophia Jean Thomas! You had better be available!



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When last we gathered here in Wonder City, Tinkermel and Tizemt, with help from Angelica, Simon, Ivy, and the Sparklebutch Posse, had just put in motion the resistance's initial plan to resist the alien invasion of Earth. And now we continue with weekly posting after our slightly-longer-than-we-meant hiatus. Thank you so much for your patience!


Go to Yellow Alert

There was one head of state in Africa who I had a very pleasant conversation with, letting him know just enough to guess that he was under the dictates of an alien invasion fleet (I'm not sure he got to the "alien" part, but he got the "superior firepower" part). He agreed to pull in the reins on some aggressive initiatives his government was considering toward a neighbor. Another became reasonable when I possessed his motor centers so he wrote himself notes, in his own language and handwriting. The notes revealed to him at least the superior firepower part of things, and that the way to avoid "action" was to find a way to create peace in his rather turbulent region. He wasn't sure how to go about it, so I made a few suggestions in terms of intelligent advisors (who I'd done some research on) he could consult, and left him to it, promising that he was being watched.

Two countries down, 60-odd to go. I wondered if I would continue to feel as disgustingly colonialist after every subsequent conversation as I did after those two, or if it wore off, and that's how Western politicians managed.

Apparently, I was using my powers enough, though, to avoid more meetings with Sara West, Mark West, or even Fluffy.

I was working out when the door ping came. I rolled to my feet, mopped my brow, and picked up a kettleweight that was near at hand. Floribunda attempted to compress herself into the space under my easy chair. (Note to self: Get one of the psychic dampeners for her collar to see if that helps her reaction to the aliens.) I gestured to turn down my fast-paced workout music and said, "Come in."

The Hoover rolled in when the door slid aside. There was something odd and reluctant in the motion, I thought. Or maybe hesitant? It was so hard to tell with a vacuum cleaner.

I had, however, learned to spot the markings on the bag (while ignoring the way it seemed to breathe) that indicated that this was probably Joshua.

We waited for the door to shut, and then I said, "What do you want, Joshua?"

It started to speak in the usual stilted monotone, but adjusted on the fly to my preferred speech mode. "I wish to confide in you, Renata Scott."

"Do you?" I said, and I could feel my eyebrows rising right on off my forehead. I bent over to set the weight in its rack.

"Yes," it said, totally missing the tone, which meant it was distracted, because it liked to catch nonverbal meanings. "I wish to tell you… something I have been told I should not."

More and more interesting. "I'm listening," I said, and even turned off the music.

It lowered its vocal volume. "The family in charge of this mission has, as you may have gathered, a militaristic viewpoint."

I nodded.

"Its decisionmakers are also…" Joshua paused. "... short of patience?"

"Okay," I said.

"Our mission is under some considerable pressure from our home fleet to clear the interference out of this region of space," Joshua said.

"Meaning psychic interference that keeps you from moving unimpeded?" I said.

"Yes," it replied. "We have been here for a long time. Several of your planet's years. And the mission is… not moving according to schedule."

"Humans are less tractable and peace-inclined than you'd hoped," I translated.

"I wanted to impart the knowledge that time is short," it replied, and began to roll away from me, toward the door.

"What will they do if they lose patience?" I said.

Joshua stopped rolling for a moment, then went on to the door. "I do not know," it said. "I have never participated in one of these missions before. All that I know is... hearsay." It managed to hint via tone that said hearsay was pretty doomful.

When the door shut, I went and dragged Floribunda out from under the chair and fussed her for a little while, chewing on the news. Then I had a seat (complete with Floribunda lapwarmer) and tightbeamed, We have a deadline now, but I don't know what it is, down to Sophie.
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And we return to Wonder City Stories volume III, already in progress, with an update on Renata.



My Crown Too Heavy

"It is extremely pleasing that you have chosen to help us," Joshua said as its Hoover rolled sedately down the corridor.

I walked alongside it, eyeing what appeared to be peach-painted drywall and medium-brown wood paneling on the walls. The floor was fake hardwood so the Hoover's rolling things could roll, otherwise I expected shag carpeting. Especially when I noticed the variety of (not very good) landscape and still life prints placed at strategic intervals. "Who decorated your ship?" I finally asked.

"My family studied many transmissions from your continent and others, and discovered a convergence of taste..." Joshua stopped rolling when it discovered I had stopped walking. I was giving it my best side-eye. A moment later, it said, "We did research and attempted to make the space more favorable for your species. And then Mark West ordered one of his assistants to decorate."

I didn't say that Mark West's assistant must have played The Sims a lot, but that's exactly what it looked like to me. I decided that line of questioning was unprofitable. "Where are we going?"

"I thought perhaps you would care for a walk beyond your previous bounds," Joshua said diffidently.

I made a noise that wasn't quite acceptance. I was, in fact, enjoying walking somewhere I hadn't seen before. After so many years of becoming accustomed to the same spaces, even my prison had been novel and interesting for a short while (after tamping down the initial agoraphobia). More, I was enjoying the sensation of walking among so many minds and not being crushed under their weight.

"So why can you produce something like this--" I said after a moment, fingering the strange necklace of peculiarly iridescent metal at my throat "--when you can't read human minds?"

"Your people need not be able to perceive certain kinds of radiation with your eyes to be able to shield yourselves from them," Joshua said, and I could tell that it was pleased with its metaphor.

"No one but a few mad scientists have been able to create machines that detect 'psychic emanation,'" I said, making the scare quotes with my fingers, though I wasn't sure Joshua would understand them. "And here you are, referring to it as radiation."

"It is," Joshua said. "Humans and other beings emanate this radiation, but the reason that your kind cannot normally detect it is that it is produced in another dimensional space, and your kind limits itself to four dimensions, despite existing in far more."

I considered this for a moment, and decided not to give my opinion on either the term "limit" or the number "four." Instead, I said, "Is there somewhere in particular we're going, though?"

"Yes," Joshua said. "I am taking you to your office."

"My office?" I said, staring at its hairdryer dome.

"Your... work space," Josua said, apparently attempting to clarify.

"No, no, I got that. But why would I need an office?"

"For your new responsibilities," Joshua said. "You will see when we arrive."

And oh, I did see.

Standing there in fucking mission control with a huge-ass map of Africa floating on the two-story-high screen in front of me, I said, "You want me to do what?"

"It was suggested that you would be the best-equipped of our operatives to work on bringing peace to the African continent," Joshua said.

I put my fists on my hips and cocked my head at it. "By who?"

"The... er... human liaison," Joshua admitted.

"And Mark West based this piece of brilliance on... what, precisely?"

Joshua's systems hummed almost agitatedly. "On your physical similarities with many of the denizens. This similarity is apparently important for humans."

I hadn't changed my posture. "Did your family's studies indicate this?"

"Er."

I was actually pleased that I'd stumped it. I suspected that this situation might just be Joshua's personal naivete at work. Fluffy had not struck me as the sort to fall for a line like that from a human; it would've gone along with it, consciously and knowing it for the bullshit that it was. Whether or not Fluffy was capable of identifying it as the systemic bullshit it was wasn't an issue. It wasn't interested in that level of detail; it just wanted us to sit down, do what it told us to, and shut the fuck up.

"Look," I said, feeling vaguely sorry for Joshua in its stupidity, "what have you observed about humans and physical similarities?"

"Oh!" Joshua said, its hairdryer perking up a fraction of an inch. "We have observed that humans of the same gender understand each other much better than cross-gender people do."

"Uh-huh," I said, losing most of my sympathy. "And do you attribute that to physical appearance?"

"Oh, uh, no," Joshua said. "It appears to be... cultural, if I understand your language's term for the concept correctly."

"And so, if you extrapolate that finding to people who happen to be of similar skin color but not the same culture..." I said, just to hammer it home.

Joshua was silent for several long moments. Then it said, "I understand."

"Yes?" I said.

"Unfortunately," it said, "we are unable to discuss this issue with the family who is currently in charge of this mission until the next family conclave, and we have no other operative to work on this continent's issues. I hope you will be able to make some impact with your significant abilities."

It started to roll toward the door, the paused and said, "You can ask the door computer to plot you a path back to your apartment when you leave for the day."

"Let me guess, I should plan a forty-hour workweek, per Mark West?" I still hadn't moved except to continue looking after Joshua.

"You should work as much as you think you can, physically and emotionally, to accomplish the task you have been given," it said, and departed.

I stared at the door for a while, then turned back to mission control and threw myself into the chair with possibly more violence than necessary. I stared up at the map disconsolately. "What steaming bullshit," I muttered.









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First Contact

I had a few moments' warning that I was going to start having a really terrible day: Floribunda scrambled out of my lap abruptly and disappeared into the kitchenette. I had time to frown, and just as my girl Ella on the sound system busted into, "Oh, the shark has/pearly teeth, dear," the door chime came.

I could feel something strange outside the door, so I stood up and said, "Come in."

In rolled an alien Hoover-hair dryer, which I had expected. The door slid shut behind it, and unexpectedly, I could sense a human outside that door.

"Greetings, Renata Scott," the Hoover said in the smooth, modulated voice from last time. "I am the one you may call Joshua."

"Hello," I said. I almost asked about the human outside, then decided against it -- it would be bad to indicate that I could reach outside their barrier at all. I locked my mind down as hard as I could. "To what do I owe the honor?"

Joshua paused, and I wasn't sure whether it was to process my question or because it was reluctant. "I have been asked to introduce you to the human liaison," it said. "It is felt that perhaps another human can convey the information you require without damaging other aspects of our cause."

Now that was interesting. It implied that either the human was expected to be better at filtering information or that the human didn't know enough to damage their cause. "Well, I'm a captive audience," I said. "With an emphasis on 'captive.'"

A little arm of Joshua's suit extended a small wristwatch-looking thing toward me. "This is a piece of technology some of our people use to reduce external psychic impingement. We have tested with other human telepaths and it seems to work similarly. It does not reduce your ability to reach out, but it provides some psychic quieting."

I took it and eyed it. Holding it, I did, indeed, feel a blanket settle over me that muffled the alien's mental activity. I reached out and could find the alien's mind again easily. I shoved the item into the pocket of my trousers and nodded.

Joshua opened the door remotely, and I heard Ella singing, "So there's not, not a tra-a-a-ce of red," as the thirty-or-forty-something white man in a suit walked into the room.

He had one of those really generic, square-jawed, square-browed white faces and the politician-smooth brown hair with just a few white threads showing. His dark blue suit was expensive as hell, and the plain red tie was set off with a tastefully small diamond tie tack, but neither could conceal his big square worker's hands or the pot-belly at his waist. This, I thought, was a man who had recently risen in the ranks. What made him so special that he was the human liaison for the aliens?

"I'm Mark West," he said, stopping a good ten feet away and not even offering me a nod. He had an accent, but I'm terrible with American accents. It could've been Midwestern or Southern or something I just wasn't familiar with. "You're the super-telepath the aliens have been telling us about?"

"I'm Renata Scott," I said, "and yes, I'm a telepath."

"Well, you can kiss messing with my mind goodbye," he said, with an ugly little smirk. "My good friends here have given me something that stops all that."

I didn't disabuse him of this notion. His mind was noticeably fuzzy around the edges, and I expect that most of the other human telepaths couldn't read him at all. But if I'd wanted to walk in to that mess I could sense from where I stood, I could have. "I have a strict code of ethics about mental invasions of that sort," I said.

His lips compressed. "How strict is strict?" he said. "Am I just wasting my time here?" he added impatiently to Joshua.

Joshua said, in the stilted 50s voice (which told me exactly where I stood on the who-needs-to-be-impressed ladder), "You are here to discuss why we need Ms. Scott's assistance."

"We don't need her," Mark West said, gesturing at me and grimacing.

"We need her assistance, Mark West," Joshua said, very slowly and carefully. Even with the stilted voice, I could tell the alien was being condescending.

"Don't you sass me, you... scientist, you," Mark West said. "The people I usually talk to are more reasonable about this sort of thing."

"What sort of thing, Mr. West?" I said as politely and icily as I could manage.

"You stay out of this," he snarled.

I said, "No. I won't." That made him stop and stare at me. "You will tell me what you have been ordered to tell me--" he started to turn brick-red at that "--and get the hell out so I can talk to someone civilized--" I gestured to the Hoover that held Joshua "--about your information."

"You do not have a say in this," he said, forgetting himself enough to take two long strides toward me and shake his stubby damn finger in my face.

Okay. I showed off. I wasn't smart about it. But I was really fucking angry.

He turned an even darker red as I seized hold of his motor centers and forced him to cock that hand back and back until he stuck the finger into his mouth and pressed the tip against the roof of his mouth.

Then I said, "Bang," and let him go.

He staggered back until he was pressed against the wall and he stared at me for several moments. He straightened his suit coat. Then he ripped the diamond out of his tie and threw it at Joshua disdainfully. It pinged off Joshua's hair dryer. The fuzziness cleared away from West's mind, and I regretted being able to perceive more of what was going on in there. "The aliens think that they need your help," he said, spitting the words in my direction, "to bring peace to the world. There are large sections that are out of control. At war. We humans are working, with their help, to make it a better world."

"And how, exactly, are you working to make it a better world?" I said, watching him like I'd watch a rattling rattlesnake.

"Politics and media, mostly," he said, staring at me challengingly. "We use paras to control and cure the worst troublemakers."

"I see," I said. "You've had your say. Now get out."

"I don't take orders, missy," he snapped. "I give them around here."

I gave him my very best bored look. "You will address me as Ms. Scott. I'm nearly old enough to be your mother." Not exactly true, but I know I look older than my years.

He turned on his heel and stormed out. The gentle swish of the door shutting behind him was such an anticlimax.

"And so we leave you, in Berlin town," sang Ella after his departure. "Yes, we've swung old Mack, we've swung old Mack in town."

"I apologize for the disruptive nature of this meeting," Joshua said, back in his human voice.

"He's your human liaison?" I said. "You have got to be shitting me."

"He is an ambitious human, if I understand the concept correctly," Joshua said. "And I believe he is attached to his life-partner's position as the most powerful paranormal human in our employ."

I blinked at Joshua's hair-dryer a few times, chose not to ask about West's "life-partner", then said, "You people have a lot to learn about human competition. And racism too. That man hates me for my skin color, you know."

"We had guessed that would be the case," Joshua said, sounding almost mournful. "I have studied some humans who have experienced similar but not identical intolerance based on their ancestry. And Mark West seems to possess a..." It paused, apparently searching for a word.

"A larger share of intolerance than the average Joe?" I suggested.

"As you say," Joshua said vaguely.

"I'm not interested in helping you 'bring peace to the world', Joshua," I said. "Not by the means that your human flunkies are using."

"Please do consider it further," Joshua said. "Perhaps out of the agitating presence of Mark West, you will find advantages in the situation."

"I doubt it," I said.

"We feel that your ethics could be a valuable asset to the humans in our employ," Joshua said, trying another tack.

"Please go away, Joshua," I said. "I have a headache from that man, and I would like to be alone."

"Of course," Joshua said, and it hurriedly rolled out the door.

I hunted for my dog, who had hidden inside a cabinet I didn't even know she could fit in. Spending the better part of the next hour coaxing her out with treats while trying to figure out if I had any tools for taking the cabinet apart helped my headache a lot.

---

Renata has had a bad few months.








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How Dystopically Futuristic

The aliens arrived at least a year before I was given my luxury condo with a magnificent view of Earth in the window and a lock on the door.

I had refused to help the aliens with... whatever it is they wanted -- at least partly because they wouldn't tell me what they wanted -- so they'd given me a choice: prison or death. I chose the lesser of two evils, and refused to leave without my dog Floribunda. So Flori and I had been spirited away from my lonely underground bunker/household and we'd been in this weird shipboard prison for at least two months.

There was something about the walls of the place that flattened out even my telepathy. I think it was meant to completely suppress it, but I don't think they knew the extent of my power, so I could still feel and "hear" the minds on the ship beyond my walls. I was grateful for the suppression, though, because being around so many minds unprotected would have driven me mad fairly quickly, and we all know how productive that is.

I did, however, hope for a short while that maybe some para would happen to fly through my narrowed field of transmission and I could pass on what little I had found out. But then I recalled that Ruth and the rest of the Gold Stars had been off on some farflung space mission for at least the last six months, and they were the most likely "good guys" to be found in orbit.

I worked very hard to make the aliens believe they'd completely contained my mind in these bare white walls. Since it was clear from the first that the aliens themselves were skilled telepaths, this required a lot of self-discipline. Luckily, it became clear pretty soon that they really didn't understand the human mind. I couldn't understand their minds either, but that didn't worry me too much. There were non-telepathic humans on board whose minds I could understand, and they were working with the aliens. Some of them were telepaths -- and by definition (Class 10 means, in the government's books, "off our charts and easily the most powerful para of that class known to be in the world"), they were less powerful than I am. Some of them were other types of paras whose power I couldn't immediately guess, and I didn't go digging, so as to avoid detection. Some were just plain jane humans.

Flori didn't like the ship, and so I spent an inordinate amount of time with a large brown Pit Bull glued to my leg or lap. She drooled a lot and was very, very stressed.

So there I was, watching the Earth turn under us, Flori curled into a ball on my lap, when my door chimed. It chimes once per day, first thing in the morning, when the cleaning robot comes through. All my food -- and Flori's -- would appear mysteriously in the small pantry next to the kitchenette where I could do a modicum of cooking for myself with a set of saucepans and cast iron frying pans that would do credit to many kitchens. It required that I bust out my rusty skills, of course, but I managed.

So the door chimed out of time, and I said, "Come in," because I figured that anyone walking the halls could walk in anyway, and it was too much trouble to pry the dog off me and go be polite or something. Because, really, why should I be polite to my jailers anyway?

What rolled in looked like an unholy fusion of my mama's 1950s-era sea-green-and-gunmetal Hoover upright vacuum cleaner and a massive beauty salon sit-down hair dryer. The vacuum cleaner bag expanded and contracted, for all the world like someone breathing. The hair dryer hood was all closed in and dark, so there was no seeing whatever was inside. I could feel, though, that there was a mind in there, one I couldn't decipher at all, so this was not a robot.

"Greetings," it said in a tinny, stilted voice. "You are Renata Scott, yes?"

"I am Renata Scott, yes," I said. Flori attempted to hide behind me in the chair. I sat forward some and let her. "Are you seriously telling me that a species that can build this ship and wish food into my pantry can't make a decent imitation human voice?"

The vacuum cleaner stopped rolling toward me, and the voice said, still tinny and stilted, "The other humans we interact with prefer a less fluid vocalization."

"I prefer you to not sound like some bad BBC-alien knockoff," I said, putting as much boredom into my voice and mental emanations as I could.

There was another pause, and then a rich, mellifluous male voice said, "Is this preferable?"

"Yes, thank you," I said, impressed despite myself.

"Thank you for expressing your preferences so clearly," the alien said, and I thought there was some relief in there. "You are the greatest mind on this world, and we would rather have your respect than ridicule."

"Flattery," I said, "will not get you far. You obviously don't value my mind that much, since you threatened to kill me if I didn't consent to be locked up."

"I regret that you were contacted first by one of our more aggressive families," the alien said. "I was to be the liaison with all humans, due to my experience and research, but... plans changed."

"So you've been researching humans," I said, leaning back against my dog and crossing my arms, not willing to play "good cop, bad cop."

"Yes," the alien said, almost eagerly. "It has been a longstanding project for my family, you see..."

"Maybe some other time," I interrupted, "you'll tell me all about your sciencey science of science. But right now, I'd like to know why you're here." Yes, I'm rude. It was my only advantage, if advantage it really was.

… Okay, it just made me feel better.

The alien paused again, and I suspected it was studying me, or making notes in its lab notebook or something.

"We would like," it said hesitantly, "to know if you would be willing to cooperate with us yet."

"That depends on what you call 'cooperation'," I said. "I am not down with mind control, and as far as I could tell from what was going on down there two months ago, that was exactly what you were up to."

"There are other humans cooperating with us," it said. "They are knowledgeable about human minds and reactions, and therefore, we allow them to pursue our ends by their means."

I gave the vacuum cleaner the side-eye and stayed quiet.

"Your abilities show what your species is capable of," it said finally. "We would like your assistance in helping your species reach greater heights."

"You will forgive me if I don't believe a single bleep of your speaker system," I said.

"Yes, of course," it said. I doubted it could really "get" sarcasm. "Please consider it, though. I am not permitted to give you more details until you indicate your willingness to cooperate in a manner the other humans find convincing."

"Oh, we'll get real far then," I said, thinking about some of the human thoughts I'd overheard.

The vacuum cleaner turned and rolled to the door. "Goodbye for now."

"Do you have a name?" I said. "If you've studied humans so much, you know we like to have names to call people. Or we make up our own."

It seemed to consider, then said, "Our names are private, but... you may call me 'Joshua'." And then it let itself out.

I hauled the dog out from behind me and wrapped my arms around her. She was, of course, shivering like the big old coward she is. Comforting her gave me something else to think about for a while.

---

Author's Note:

For those of you who check out the source of every title, today's episode title is from the song at the climax of the musical, 2010: Our Hideous Future, a show in which a good friend of mine, Julia Lunetta, plays the MC, the evil AI who has taken over Earth. The show is unbelievably geeky, unapologetically queer, and funny as hell. 2010 is in what is very likely its final tour of shows. If you are in or around Salem, MA, Providence, RI, or Brooklyn, NY? MAKE TIME TO GO.

No, seriously, if you are a fan of Wonder City, you NEED to see this show.

Barring scheduling hiccoughs, I'm going to try my damnedest to be at either the Salem or Providence show. Extra bonus points if you want to meet me!

And if you aren't in the Northeast? See if you can get your local college or queer theater group to put it on, because the creators would LOVE to see that too.

The soundtrack is on Spotify. Just search for "our hideous future". The music is worth it. And I don't say this lightly -- I say this as someone who is very picky about musical theater, okay?

Don't forget to vote for Wonder City Stories at Top Webfiction!








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