Oct. 31st, 2016 11:50 am
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EPHEMERA is here!

Megan Amazon has a world of problems, and the fact that her girlfriend is possessed by the ghost of a wannabe superhero is at least 90% of them. Nereid's girlfriend's soul has gone on walkabout to Faerie. Simon Canis has joined the cast of It's a Wonderful House, and it wouldn't be reality TV without a boatload of roommate drama. There's also a serial killer stalking Wonder City, and Suzanne and Ira Feldstein are just a few steps behind him.

And then there's Renata Scott: the most powerful telepath in the world, who lives in a bunker a mile beneath Wonder City for her own sanity. Yet somehow she's now in the center of this messy Venn diagram: ghost stories and fairy tales and serial killers and an addictive trainwreck of a reality TV show.

Love, lies, murder, and a long con collide with a band of reluctant heroes in an explosive battle to save the world, Wonder City-style.
Ephemera deals frankly with sexual consent, homophobia, transphobia, racism, death and injury, and graphic onscreen death.

Print book available now here, Amazon to come.
eBooks available ASAP for Kindle and non-Kindle ereaders
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The Art of Losing

"The thing is," Madeline Fukuda told us, "I've regenerated the parts of the brain that were damaged by the bullet. Also the bone and skin, both lungs, her liver, and the damage to her leg and hand. Fortunately, there was no intestinal perforation, but she'll still need to be on antibiotics for a while. But she's going to have to reeducate the portion of the brain that was damaged."

Ruth sat in her chair there in the basement of the Gold Stars facility, radiating rage like a dark star, her forehead contracted in a frown. "Can you guess at what kind of therapy she'll need?"
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TRIGGER WARNING: Mention of gun violence

Be Firm Till I Return from Hell

My sister Reesy hadn't spoken to me since Mama's funeral late last year, so I was wracking my brain for why she would be calling me now. She'd been pretty clear that if I didn't show at the funeral in person, I was persona non grata for life. I had shown, for five agonizing minutes of enduring everyone's grief—Mama had been the neighborhood matriarch—but apparently that wasn't enough to satisfy her mysterious requirements.

I resolved to be the adult in this situation. I put a smile on my face and answered the video phone, "Reesy, what a nice surprise!"
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Happy sixth anniversary to us! More things to be said tomorrow; for now, please enjoy this finale for Volume 3, with its special surprise just for you all.

Everything Dies

Angelica was changing into her new dress in Madame's bedroom—carefully, carefully, so as not to muss either hair or makeup, done professionally less than an hour earlier—when she heard the commotion out in front of the house. X knocked on the door a few moments later and said, "Our chariot is here."

"Come give me a hand?" Angelica said, after struggling with her dress halfheartedly and deciding she'd rather have a handsome helper. She deserved it for dealing with today.

X came into the room. Sie was wearing an exquisitely tailored black three-piece suit and a snow-white dress shirt with French cuffs and onyx rose cufflinks. The tie was deep blue silk with a pattern of pale grey gingko leaves, and was restrained by an onyx rose tie clip that matched the links. Angelica gave a low whistle.

"You're too kind," X said with a small smile. "What can I do?"
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Apparently, even the lighter episodes are hard to write as I come up to the end of the book. Two more episodes, I think.

ETA: I have been unforgivably lax in tagging for volume 3. My policy is to tag someone if they physically appear or speak in the episode (speaking includes emails and chats). If you notice that I've failed to tag someone in an episode, please do let me know!

Per Angusta Ad Augusta

I had told my mother, "I'll be damned if I'm going to shake the hand of our first African-American President with a robot proxy, but I don't have a damned thing to wear!"

And so there I was, getting out of my sister Reesy's car with Mama and my other sister LaShawna, going shopping like a normal person.

Well, not really normal. The shop we were going to was a little boutique that LaShawna's friend Majestiq ran, and it was after normal hours. It was a hot, thick-aired, breezeless August evening, tall buildings shading us from the late rays of the fast-approaching sunset. I could hear the music down the block, and the kids shrieking as they played some game, and traffic noises. I could smell people's late dinners cooking, the rich, savory scents of the Haitian restaurant the next block over, and my sister LaShawna's perfume, floral and sweet.

I wasn't in my bunker. I was dressed in my breeziest (and best) black dress and flats. I was going out with my mother and sisters. They were taking me shopping for the first time in thirty-odd years.

Majestiq, a gorgeous dark-skinned black woman, unlocked the front door for us. Her natural hair was in an updo and she was wearing the most gorgeous purple dress I'd seen in a long time. She was a good three or four sizes larger than me, at least, I guessed.

While Majestiq and LaShawna hugged, Mama gave me a "Told you so" look—we'd had an argument about whether my tall, skinny sister could possibly know someone who could clothe me. Reesy looked vaguely uncomfortable when Majestiq hugged her too.

"LaShawna's told me so much about you, Renata," Majestiq said, not attempting to hug me, but shaking my gloved hand when I offered it. She gave me a delighted grin. "Us big girls gotta stick together, right?"

"You bet," I said, and we fistbumped. Reesy rolled her eyes, but Mama jabbed her (always very sharp) elbow into her.

The boutique was small. When we walked in, there was a set of drawers up on a table on our right, against the wall, a cash register podium in front of us, and the rest of the room to our left, containing one long rack of dresses, two stacked racks of blouses, and a long rack of slacks. There was a short rack, tucked in the odd corner next to the door to the changing room, which held coats. There were hatboxes stacked on shelves above the racks.

Majestiq walked around me thoughtfully, biting her dark-red glossed lower lip. After completing her circuit, she nodded and said, "I got a few things for you to try." She walked directly to a spot on the dresses rack and started pulling tea-length afternoon dresses out for me to look at.

We all decided that the flounced chartreuse trumpet dress and sun-yellow one-shoulder dress with the pencil skirt were probably not for me, but the emerald green strapless fake-wraparound was a possible, as were the scoop-necked royal blue sheath with the three-quarter-sleeve jacket, the sleeveless purple keyhole neckline, and the short-sleeved Queen Anne a-line in black silk jacquard. Back to the changing room for me.

I was wearing my little alien charm and I was also on some serious meds, but that didn't stop my ears from overhearing my mother explaining to Majestiq, possibly after some other comment, "She's my daughter from my second husband, God rest his soul, and favors him more than me."

Reesy said, "I'm the one who looks like Mama, so at least I know how good I'm gonna look when I'm 84."

That froze me right there. Was Mama really 84? I did the mental math… oh, lord, yes, she was. It took a lot of effort not to burst into tears—the meds always made me a little weepy—thinking about how much I'd missed of her because of the institution and then being trapped in my bunker. Because of a stupid accident of genes.

As I slipped on the dress, I did more mental math. I was 47, going on 48, which meant LaShawna was 61 and Reesy was… 65? Seriously? That meant my older brothers, Raymond and Darius, were 64 and 62. My younger brother Michael was 45. I was always grateful for the younger sibling when I was growing up, because the others were so much older than me.

The black jacquard was too much like a funeral, and was a little tight in the shoulders ("Damn, woman, I wish I had shoulders like yours," Majestiq said, tugging gently on the fabric. "You work out?" "All the time," I said.), but the emerald green wraparound looked amazing—in the body at least, but there was just something off about it. ("Mmm, no, Rennie," LaShawna said. "She's right," Mama said, "though I can't quite say why.") I nearly cried then, because I really wanted the sleeveless purple one to work on me, since a very similar one looked so good on Majestiq, but I kept it together and it was worth it. The keyhole neck showed just enough cleavage and my admirable shoulders apparently looked great in a sleeveless dress. Through the body, it was a little big. ("Don't you fret," Majestiq said, "I do alterations.")

But the royal blue was flawless, if a little plain. "Oh, you just wear a scarf and that dresses right up!" Reesy said, deflecting my worry with a dismissive little handflick.

I ran a hand over the raw silk covetously. "You think so?"

"Oh, honey," Majestiq said, "have I got a treat for you."

She fetched out a ladder, climbed up, and brought down a hatbox, which she set on a little pedestal table. Then she went to the drawers and fetched out another slim box. Then, with a wink, she opened the hatbox: inside was the most amazing feather-bedecked cartwheel sunhat in a perfectly matched royal blue. Then the smaller box: dress gloves, dyed to match the blue.

I tried on the hat reverently. I'd never gotten to an age where I could wear to church the kinds of hats my mother and her friends did. Well, I mean, yes, of course I had gotten to the age, but I wasn't going to church then. So I'd never had the chance.

I stared at myself in the mirror. The dress and the hat and the gloves all went together to turn me into a woman I'd never seen before.

"You need your hair done properly before you meet him," Mama said. "You come with me to the salon—Florence will open up just for you, I know."

"You are stunning, Rennie," LaShawna said in an awestruck tone.

Reesy, I saw in the mirror, got teary and turned away, and said, a little muffled, "Yes, she is."

"Oh, Majestiq," I breathed. "You have some serious talent."

"Baby, the talent's all you in that outfit," she said. "You go take that off, and I'll get out some shoes for you to try on. We'll find the most comfortable and we'll dye them to match. You can't go this far and not have matching shoes."

"No," I said, unable to look away from the mirror.

"I have always said that all my daughters are beautiful," Mama said, defying some invisible person. "And I have always been right."

"We know, Mama," LaShawna said, and she joined me in the mirror, her long light-skinned smiling face next to my rounder dark-skinned one. "You're gonna give the FLOTUS a run for her money, Rennie."

"Not a chance," I said, finally turning from the mirror. I set the hat gently back into its box and tugged off the gloves. "I'll go change. We don't want to keep you in your shop any later."

"Oh, I wouldn't have missed this chance for the world," Majestiq said, boxing things up neatly.

There was some murmured discussion in the outer room while I changed back into my own dress. I didn't pry, though it would have been easy enough.

When I emerged, I tried on several styles of silk shoe, and inevitably settled on the lowest heel in the lot.

"I can pick up the shoes for you, Rennie," LaShawna said. "I drive right past here on my way home from work."

Majestiq wrapped up everything with violet tissue paper watermarked with her shop's logo and slid it into a big bag with a silky rope-style handle. When I stepped toward the cash register, though, Reesy touched my arm to restrain me, and Mama stepped forward. Mama gave me an arch look when I started to protest. "I couldn't buy you a prom dress or a graduation gown or a wedding dress. I will buy you a dress in which to meet the President after you have saved the world."

I swallowed hard and said, "Yes, Mama. Thank you."

Reesy slipped me a clean handkerchief to dab my eyes with; I hadn't thought to bring even a tissue.

I asked Majestiq if I could hug her as we left, and she accepted graciously, though I could sense she was nervous. She was all smiles as she closed and locked the door behind us.

We walked to the car, and Reesy said, "How are you feeling, honey?"

I knew that this was the point at which I needed to decide if I would take them up on their offer of a little family party (LaShawna had promised it would be quiet, and I knew she was lying, because there was nothing about our family that was quiet). My head was starting to ache a bit, and I was starting to feel like all my skin was raw from the pressure, but I also knew I'd disappoint everyone terribly if I didn't come home with them.

Hell, I'd disappoint myself, I realized.

"Let me take something for my head," I said, opening my purse and reaching for the medicine bottle, "and I think I'm good."

Darius had brought his grill, and so everything spilled out naturally into the joint backyards of Mama's row of houses. Everyone was there: all my brothers, all my nieces and nephews, half my cousins, aunts, and uncles, and pretty much Mama's whole neighborhood.

The migraine lasted a week, but I didn't give a damn.

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Goodness, these are getting long.

Deny Everything

Absolutely the only reason I agreed to meet with Sara West (her request, and also the government's) was because Ruth needed an excuse to get into orbit—to dispose of Jane Liberty's body before too many questions started getting asked. So Ruth boosted me and my little lifepod (the one she'd brought me home in) up to New Alcatraz. I was wearing my alien technology that let me leave the house and retain my sanity, but I left my dog in the bunker. Orbit just doesn't agree with her, poor thing.
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There has been a lot of freelancing and some writer's block lately, therefore this update is stupidly late. I apologize. However, I have attempted to provide you with downloadable versions of this episode -- I hope they work for the folks who want them!

Of All My Demon Spirits

Normally, I have a professional ethic against looking up any information I accidentally glean from telepathic contact with anyone. I don't want to violate their privacy more than I've already done. I don't want to become curious for more information, because even that subconscious urge might be enough to allow me to walk into their minds again in search of more tidbits. I do my best to forget it.

After waking up from incredibly intense and vivid dreams for a week, though, I got online and looked up just who the flaming hell this "Bernie" was I was, as Jane, sleeping with.

Some poking around found me this entry on Parapedia:

Bernadette Andruzzi
Code Name: Spare Change
Born: June 14, 1923 in Philadelphia, PA
Died: April 10, 1965 in Wonder City, PA
Para ability: Shapechanging

Bernadette ("Bernie") Andruzzi was a Class 7 shapechanger, capable of exactly reproducing another human being's form, down to details such as the fingerprints and retinal patterns. It is unknown as to whether she also replicated the powers of paranormals she changes into—there are no records of her using powers other than her own Class 2 superstrength and Class 3 invulnerability.

Her shapechanging ability was originally rated by the U.S. Army as Class 3 [this cited her declassified enlistment record]; it is unknown how her abilities were enhanced.

Very little is known about Andruzzi's private life. She was born to a large family in Philadelphia, the second generation of the family born in the United States. Andruzzi rarely discussed her parents or siblings. (Searches of ParaDB.gov find two other people with her surname, neither identified with a similar paranormal ability, and no indication of relationship.) She enlisted in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in May 1942.

Her service throughout World War 2 is still classified, but biographers have gleaned enough information to determine that she mostly served as a spy in fascist Italy, passing information to Allied forces. After the war, she remained on the Gold Stars roster until her death.

In 1964, the Gold Stars announced that Andruzzi was being placed on indefinite medical leave. In a rare interview with Andruzzi in late 1964, she stated that she had inoperable pancreatic cancer and expressed frustration that her paranormal abilities were extending her life in a way that was "nearly intolerable." She died at the home of her longtime friend Jane Liberty on April 10, 1965.

Personal Life
Andruzzi never married, nor was she ever romantically linked with any of her colleagues. She occasionally appeared at Gold Stars events with a nonparanormal celebrity companion. In the 1964 interview, she stated that her friends in the Gold Stars were her family and she had never had a need for romance in her life. Her closest friends were Jane Liberty and Betsy Starr. Andruzzi and Liberty both attended Starr's college and law school graduations, and Andruzzi appeared at the baptism of Starr's daughter Florence (of the team known as Ebb and Flo) as her godmother in March 1965.

There were very few pictures with the article: one of her during the War with Jane and Betsy, one of her appearing at the Hollywood premiere of "The Three Musketeers" in 1948 as Vincent Price's date, and one of her in a Gold Stars lineup in 1960. She looked a lot like Jane, actually, though she was taller and more statuesque to Jane's shorter and chunkier look.

I shut the windows and sat back, staring at the screensaver. I knew why I'd been having the dreams. Given my own history, with its dearth of consensual sexual experiences, one of the things my subconscious seeks out—and which I try desperately to guard against—is other people's experiences to fill the gap. Unfortunately, when I'm distracted and can't guard against my subconscious, I'll pick up way too much information. And that whole situation was one giant distraction. I expected that in addition to the Jane stuff, I probably had too much information about Brainchild's pansexual adventures stuffed away somewhere in my head.

A tiny corner of my mind was paranoid that Jane may've been consciously thinking about some of those things in order to leave some sort of legacy, or explanation, or something, after her death. I had known Jane for many years, and I knew that she had a manipulative streak in her. I suppose some of that comes from having to lie for so long to both the government and the public at large. She just got in the habit of lying to everyone, making all her own plans, and carrying them out without asking for permission.

I wondered if she'd enhanced Bernie's powers without asking, or if Bernie had asked, or if the government had ordered Jane to do it.

I resigned myself to a few more months of these dreams and occasional flashbacks while conscious, because my mind was going to continue to chew on these stolen memories, will I or nil I. And I would rather have obsessive thoughts about some people who were dead than end up having to talk to a living person, like Nereid, whose sex life I probably knew way too much about anyway, while thinking naked thoughts about her.

Floribunda came thundering in at that moment and bounded into my lap, which, of course, knocked the wind out of me and spun the chair around with both of us in it. She had that crazy, wild-eyed look of a dog who just decided that it is the Time of Scampering and after one full rotation of the chair, she leaped off and galloped out, butt slightly tucked under and ears swept back in full-speed mode. When I could breathe again, I started laughing and couldn't stop until I staggered out of the room to strip off and throw myself into the swimming pool. I think she's glad to be home too.

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Of course I knew what had happened.

Jane had tried her best to cut all the mental ties between us, but she and I were well intertwined. She managed to break most of them, and I managed to break more when I realized what was happening.

But I still woke up on the floor of my "office" with Flori worriedly pressing her cold, wet nose to my cheek and neck. As I painfully pushed myself up to a sitting position, I broke, just fucking broke, crumpled back down onto the floor weeping.

"Rennie," Ruth said, kneeling down at arm's length from me. "Rennie, what can I do?"

I dragged myself to her and clung to her, like I did that day she took me out of the hospital, clutching at her black spandex and just wailing. A piece of me had died, had just stopped being, and it was like someone had cut me open and tore my liver out while I was conscious.

I really can't explain more than that.

Ruth held me, and Flori pressed herself against my back, whining, and life went on around me as the Gold Stars presumably took possession of the ship and did whatever the fuck it is superheroes did when they weren't dying in my head.

I could feel them all, despite the weird protective thing the aliens gave me, and was of course tangled up in Ruth's mind, but she had practice with me doing that. She rubbed my back, and rubbed Flori's ears, and generally just tried to get us both calmed down. I think Sekhmet came to talk to her over my head once—I could feel Sekhmet close by, and I knew she was telling Ruth about Jane. Ruth had, I think, figured it out already from things running through my head. She didn't really react, she just kept projecting her stolid facade at me.

Eventually, I did calm down. I don't know how long it took. I just finally subsided into hiccoughs and shudders.

Ruth said, "What do you need, Rennie?"

I took a deep breath and tried to talk like a grownup, but it still came out pathetic. "I want to go home."

"Okay, baby," Ruth said. "Okay, I'm gonna take you home."

They rustled up an air-secure escape pod or something and put me and Flori in it, and Ruth flew us home. Flori snaked out of her restraints to huddle in my arms the whole trip down.

And then we were on Terra Firma.

Ruth cracked open the pod on the lawn of the house under which my bunker resided. I had pulled most of my shit together on the trip down, and the alien artifact around my neck kept the worst of the city's psychic explosion away from me. While Ruth moved the pod back to the Gold Stars compound, I took my dog for a walk in the well-trimmed grass and through the less-maintained back yard. There were trees, and birds, and a breeze, and just me and Flori (and a crowd of minds, held at a slight distance) walking in the twilight.

It had been years since I felt free air. My bunker had never—well, okay, rarely—felt like a prison to me the way the spaceship had. This was… therapeutic.

Ruth came back, carrying my mama, and that made me cry again. I hadn't touched my mother in thirty years, I think, and here I was, able to hug her because of those fucking aliens.

At least one good thing came from it.

At least one.

"I've gotta go, Rennie," Ruth said. "There's cleanup to do."

"I know," I said around my mother's embrace. "I know. You'll come back, though? Coffee?"

"You know it, baby," Ruth said. She hesitated, and I reached out for her. She kissed me on the cheek and gave me a quick squeeze before she took off.

"That Ruth," Mama said, and Mama was looking so much older than I remembered the last time we'd talked on video phone—ages ago, more than six months, I know. There was grey in her hair now, and I could swear there wasn't before. "That Ruth," she said again, shaking her greying head.

"I know," I said. "Would you like to come down and have something?" I added, inviting my mother into my house for the first time.

"Are you sure it will be all right?" she said, peering into my face worriedly.

"Please, Mama," I said, stroking my dog's head. "I don't want to be alone right now."

"All right," she said, gathering herself up like she was visiting her sister's house. "Just for a bit, then."

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Made it! Thank you so much!

I Am Nobody's Friend

"That's the last one we need to hit," Sophie said. "The whole system is destabilized, but we need to take out the projector now. Come on up, Jane."

I felt the G-force rip at my consciousness as she changed directions to fly upward. How did she manage this kind of flying without passing out or puking? I was carefully not looking not looking out through her eyes unless I had to, because I was afraid of agoraphobia or acrophobia or everything-phobia.

Oh my god, how was space going to feel?

"Hal, you shithead," I whispered over the coffin. He'd been fucking around with some of the other women on the team ever since I just couldn't do that to Dottie any more. We hadn't spoken since. Now he'd keeled over and we would never...

The chill went straight through us and snapped me out of being swamped.

"I'm turning off Blinken's power now," Jane said. "I think that will help."

"Thanks," I said. I didn't actually think it would.

My body was shivering, I could feel it, even though it was physically warm and snugged up against Floribunda. Sophie was cursing with my mouth, trying desperately to type.

PSA: Space is fucking cold.

The headline—Lady Justice Declared Dead—shredded between my shaking fingers. They'd never let me go look for her, never let me try to find the body, and when I'd finally worked up the courage to disobey them, I couldn't find the original base to search, someone had obliterated it.

Never again. Never fucking again. I would damn well do what I knew was right.

"Right there!" Sophie said, mentally drawing a circle with an arrow pointing at the center on a mental schematic of the spaceship for Jane. "Hit it right there!"

"Trying to find that," Jane said. "Fucking assholes parked in the shadow, of course, and I can't fucking remember who had see-in-the-dark vision."

Sophie scrambled for an exterior view of the ship, but failed. I held onto Jane's mind and let Sophie look out her eyes.

Jesus, every time Jane blinked, she shattered the ice over her eyeballs. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.

"There!" Sophie said, spotting it, and I steered Jane.

The acceleration dropped my stomach into my toes, even though it wasn't in that body. The impact of both Jane's fists reverberated through my arms. Something exploded around us. Something rocked the ship.

"She's not killing us all here, right?" I asked Sophie.

"No, she just took the projector offline," Sophie said with a mental sigh of relief. "It's over."

Jane snapped, "Where are the ones responsible?"

The tone chilled me more than space did.

"The aliens?" Sophie asked.

"The humans," Jane snarled.

Sophie gave her a mental map of the ship, drawn from the computer files.

I swung through the corridors with Jane, hanging on for dear life. I heard someone scream as she tore his power out of him, then another, then another.

She was taking the powers of the telepaths.

I had to look out her eyes to keep from getting sick this time.

The Liberty Girls was a stupid, stupid, STUPID marketing ploy from the fucking Gold Stars Corporation. It was stupidest when I held one girl—16 years old, bulletproof, could fly a little—in my arms as she fucking bled to death after one of the Gladiators put a spear through her throat. An accident, he claimed, just before I shattered every bone in his body…

Jane hovered at a stop, having torn through the ten foot thick bulkhead into the West's quarters.

Mark West looked up from his desk, where he'd been sitting with his head in his hands.

Sara West stared at her a long moment, surprised with a toddler in her arms. She stood up, handing the toddler to a girlchild of about 8, then pushed as many of her children behind her as she could.

I think that saved her life, honestly.

"I am Jane Liberty, Defender of Earth," Jane intoned, floating a foot above the floor, looming.

"Oh my god, she did the line," Sophie squeed to me.

"Fangirl in your own head," I snapped.

I felt Jane's upper lip curl into a sneer. "You disgust me. I've spent my life walking a goddamn tightrope, trying to make life better for the most people I could. And you just spent a year of your life doing the opposite, on a huge scale. At least when I killed people I hated, I did it honestly." I felt her power reach out. "I'm shutting you down, you pathetic little girl."

Sara's eyes got big and what little color she had in her face drained out. She wrapped her arms around herself, tried to keep her feet, but collapsed in a heap. She didn't make a sound as she went down.

Mark was standing, but just stared at the crumpled shape of his wife.

Jane looked at him and said, "She'll live. I'd like to end you, but there are children here. I'll leave your punishment to someone else."

She looked back at the little knot of kids—5 of them, I think?—and thought to Sophie and me, "All of them inherited it. Especially the baby. Take care of that. I don't have time now."

Sophie said, "Jane, I need you to come here, if you're done."

Bernie was really invested in it being Hal's, so I let her think that, though I knew it was hers all along, from some time when she'd been a boy with me. Because it was hers, I wanted it. I wanted it so much. But I just wasn't made to be a mother—War is a terrible, awful, abusive mother—and my body knew it. It never happened again after that one ended.

We were there so fast I felt like my eyes were the spinning things in a one-armed bandit. It was really fucking weird, looking at myself: I recognized my own long-chinned, dark brown face and my big boobs and hips, my muscular forearms and hands, the comfortable clothes I'd put on that morning. But I didn't recognize that manic grin, or the wide eager eyes, on my face. No wonder Floribunda was so freaked out. I was freaking out.

In my body's voice, Sophie's brusque, syncopated words came out: "I need you to put some extra power into that conduit right there." My finger, pointing at the corner.

My perception swung around—the cognitive dissonance was too much and I reverted to my own body for vision—and watched frail, birdlike Jane Liberty float over to the corner. I could see her face was pale, that she was panting a little, that there was a fine sheen of sweat over her whole face. She was really fucking good at clamping down on some things, I guess, despite the dementia. She put her hand on the indicated spot and dumped a huge quantity of electricity into it.

"Now, Renata, you need to find the opening!" Sophie said to me.

"Opening?" I said—I had not been privy to this part of Sophie's thought process.

"My mother," she said with a surge of raw anguish. I reached out to that psychic space I'd been exploring for years—to which Jane had first introduced me, I remembered.

The opening had been nearby all along, right in the damn ship, right here and all it needed was some extra juice to the magic psychic generator become obvious.

I ripped that fucker open, projecting into it as hard as I could: RUTH.

Jane caught them, somehow, despite how shitty she looked, as the Gold Stars all tumbled out of the dimensional pocket. She did let Ruth hit the ground, but I understood—she was more likely to hurt the metal floor than herself.

"Okay," Jane said through gritted teeth. "Okay, they can handle it now." She looked into my eyes. "Renata, I need you to get me back to Larentia's house."

Sophie's control slipped and I said, with my own mouth, "Jane, you look like hell, let's get Ruth to get you to—"

Inside our shared head, Jane said, "RENATA. NOW." In the reverberating aftermath, she added a sheepish and pathetic, "Please."

Sophie pointed us out the nearest airlock, where Jane waited impatiently for the atmosphere to cycle before rocketing into Earth's atmosphere. Where I'd been too cold before, I was cooking now, like the world's worst hot flash. We fireballed downward on a direct course for Professor Canis' house.

"Oh, Mama," I sobbed, holding her hand gently, so, so gently.

"Be good, Jane," she whispered on the thin stream of air that would move in and out of her lungs. I couldn't see her face any more, all I could see was the thing, that horrible thing the doctors couldn't take from her, that I couldn't cure, that she wouldn't let me try to cure. "Always. Just. Be good."

I wasn't, Mama. I'm sorry.

The house had just come into view when Jane said, "I'm all right now, Renata."

"Jane, let me help yo—"

Then I was back in my body on the ship, thrown in with the force of someone who could move planets, her voice shouting, "GET OUT, YOU FOOL."

"Jesus," I said to Ruth as she clambered to her feet nearby. "Oh, Jesus."

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This just gets harder and harder to write...

Only Got Four Minutes To Save The World

I'm pretty sure I was getting seasick, even though I'd never been on a damn boat in my life. Poor old Flori wasn't sure what to make of me—my scent had changed, I think, with Sophie driving, and all my body language was different. Poor baby kept trying to crawl into my lap to make things better, and when Sophie wouldn't let her, she settled for crawling to the chair behind me.

Allow me to remind you that Floribunda is not a small dog.

So there's my gloriously fatass body with a brainiac twenty-something running it, teetering on the edge of my seat with a giant coward of a pit bull squished in behind it.

And there's me, mashed into Jane Liberty's tempestuous head, going down for the fifth or sixth or hundredth time.

... I looked at the President and said, "Sir, it's time."

He blinked at me. "For what?"

"For the bunker at Fort Wilson," I said, looking as grave as I could manage.

"But if I..." he said. He ran his hand through his salt-and-pepper hair. "Can't you just wait another few months, until after the election…?"

"No, sir," I said. "I can feel myself slipping away, day by day. How long will it be before I slip in a way that kills people? No, sir, I would feel much safer if you gave the order." And maybe this would kill his party's chance in the next election…

I couldn't afford to be curious, because I'd get pulled in, but this woman kept a fuckton of shit in her head.

In the present: she'd destroyed six of 25 generators. "How many before you can bring her up here?" I asked Sophie.

"Another six or seven generators, I think," Sophie said, mentally gritting her teeth at me. "Hang…"

I could see the thing growing in Mama, I could see it growing, but I couldn't figure it out, I couldn't fix it. "Go to the doctor, Mama," I pleaded.

"There is no money," Mama always said.

"... I think the reason you're getting swamped so much is the power she's using," Sophie was saying. "There's a temporal element…"

I handed Mama a wad of cash and said, "Now you can go to the doctor."

She looked at me so gravely. "Where did you get this money, Jane?"

I looked at her, seeing the thing inside her staring back at me, and said, "Does it matter? You can go to the doctor!"

She exclaimed something I'd never heard her say in Spanish before and threw the money in my face. "It matters. If you don't think it matters, then you are not my daughter."

"... can feel it fucking with the telepathic link, can't you?" Sophie was saying.

"I can, but there ain't shit I can do about it," I said.

Dottie understood, Dottie always understood. I was legally too young—I'd told her that when she asked me, though I hadn't intended to—but she could see the potential. She brought me into the Gold Stars and gave me the advance on my pay I'd asked for.

I handed Mama my check, my check with its shiny gold foil star in the corner, and said, "Now will you go to the doctor?"

Mama gave me her most beautiful smile, the smile I knew had won my father's heart, and said, "Yes, now I will go."

"Get her back on course!" Sophie snapped.

I gently wrenched Jane's mind back on topic, and our stomach clenched painfully with shame, and stayed that way, agonizing, though I tried to soothe her embarrassment. I felt her punch through the next one in Africa.

"That's perfect, Jane," Sophie said. "Now I need you to cut across the south Atlantic…"

I made myself look at Bernie at the end, even though all I could see at that point was the thing that had taken her body from me. I could just see, through the thing, that she was smiling at me as I gently, so gently, held her hand. "It's okay, Jay," she growled in the voice the thing had given her, "it's really okay. I'm ready."

"You're leaving me alone, Bern," I said, and I couldn't stop the tears then.

"I know, I'm sorry," she whispered. "But you've got Hal now. He's kind of a shithead, though," she admitted.

"And he's not you. None of them are," I said. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry I couldn't do anything."

"Jay, even you can't work miracles," Bernie said.

I managed to stop Jane from overshooting her destination in south Chile, and she came around in a sharp turn that made our stomach lurch. Jesus, had she always flown like this?

"Got it," Sophie said. "There are three more in the mountains up the coast, just run up the coastline, just like that…"

"Mama, please let me try to fix it," I said quietly.

"No, Jane," she said, just as quietly but firmly. "God put it there, and if He wills, He will help the doctors take it away."

"Mama, please," I tried again, wishing God would just fuck right on off.

"No, Jane," she said. "Healing is not your gift. You know that, I know that. The doctors will help me."

We were navigating the complicated coastal mountains of South and Central America all together, so that kept me from going under for a while.

"Why are you using this blinking ability?" I asked her at one point.

"Because I can't use Blitzkreig's full speed in atmosphere," Jane said. "Using Blinken's power lets me move nearly as fast without the atmospheric disruption. I'll drop it when I head to space." After a moment, she said, "I'm sorry it's making it harder for you."

"It's all right," I said, though we both knew it wasn't. Jane had been my first teacher in reining in my telepathy, and she knew what riding another's mind was like. She knew, possibly better than anyone else, what my history was with that.

I stripped Blitzkreig's powers from her as she ran past me. She had just killed the first American Dream, an earnest young man with beautiful blue eyes and a big voice who now had a hole where his chest used to be. (I'd copied his eyes whenever the Army wanted me blonde and blue-eyed for photos.) I tried not to hear her screams as she shattered her feet, but at least they didn't last long once she started sliding across the ground at just sub-sonic speed…

"All's fair for War," I said, not quite to Sophie, feeling a little glazed.

Floribunda's tail thumped against the arm of the chair, and we felt her shove her cold, wet nose against the skin of my back where my shirt had ridden up.

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I'll be at WisCon this coming weekend! I'd love to meet any of my readers who are going to be there. Let me know to look for you, if you like.

It Is Hard to Shake Hands With Her

"Okay, Jane," said Sophie, telepathically, in my head, "the first generator is here." Sophie presented Jane with a mental map of Europe, marked with a big red circle.

"Acknowledged," Jane replied tersely, sounding and feeling like she was talking on a walkie-talkie instead of mind-to-mind. "Please monitor my progress and… and… I need you two to be my brain. Just fuckin' steer me, girls."

I watched my hands dance over the keyboard, lines racing by on the screen. I said, privately, to Sophie, "I told you this was a bad idea."

Sophie snapped, "And who else was gonna do this? We don't have another spaceworthy flier with my mother locked up. Jane Liberty just handed us the second biggest gun in our corner of the universe. We just have to point it at the right things." She paused. "I… need you to be the one riding in the back of her head. I'm sorry. I need most of my concentration to hack this damn spaceship. I don't read their language."

I shuddered, which made Sophie mistype, so we had a little confab of apology. Then I said, "Fuck. All right." I had already violated one of the things I'd sworn never to do that day: letting someone else into my head to run by body. Now for my second stupid trick of the day, I would ride herd on someone with dementia.

Let me explain: I think of a neurotypical person's mind as being a familiar ocean. I can sit on the surface without problems—think of me as a telepathic duck, I guess—and float there, watching the waves and tides, the winds and upwellings. There are currents and rough seas, and of course there are the rogue tides that can swamp me-the-duck, but I mostly understand and can predict the physics of the place. Mostly.

The kids I work with, the ones on the autism spectrum, are unfamiliar seas, even the ones I work with all the time. I've grown to know the particular shifts and gravities and weather of the minds of the individual kids I work with all the time so I can read something of what's going on for them without diving in. But I avoid even doing my duck thing with those kids if I can help it: I prefer to let them communicate for themselves in whatever media they prefer. (It's my job to help their families learn to understand them, not to try to "fix" their minds, as some parents fail to understand.)

And then there's dementia.

I settled as lightly as possible on the surface of Jane's mind. It all seemed very understandable, as calm a surface as I could ever ask for.

Then the gravity shifted and turned everything at not-right-angles to itself and the water was blown into my face as I was falling down and sideways and the surface under me lurched and swept over me…

... Hal—The Flag—turned the corner toward the locker rooms and nearly ran into me where I was leaning against the wall. We both knew I'd been waiting for him—waiting for an hour at least for that damned meeting to end—and he wasn't surprised when I grabbed the front of his shirt and the front of his jodphurs—a handful of Old Glory, I used to call it back when we were actually together, and dragged him into the empty locker room behind me, kissing him hard. He was taller than me—taller than most everyone—but being able to levitate makes things easy, you know. Even when he was kissing me back, the bastard making my head spin like always, though, I kept praying that Dottie would never ask either of us what we did in the evenings these days...

Usually I'd pull up out of the water completely when something like that happened, but I couldn't leave Jane's mind at this point; all I could do was hang on and try to point her in the right direction. I clamped down a little to keep some portion of her mind on her job, paying attention to Sophie's instructional monologue. Damn that girl could talk.

"Right, you've hit it, that was perfect, Jane," Sophie said. "Now we've got a building in the middle of Kazakhstan…"

Ah fuck bigass wave.

... the Great Gulf was chewing away at the fabric of the world under my feet. Someone I couldn't see—two people? three?—threw themselves into that maw and for a moment, the pull on me let up. I tore away from that ravenous gravity and lunged for Dark Universal, who'd been laughing at us, calling us fleas and mites and insignificant just seconds before. I rammed my fist into his open mouth, crunching through constructed teeth and bone, and out the back of his cosmic skull, and then I dumped all the energy I'd sucked up from Sun Master's overload death down his measureless throat, shattering his empyrean construct...

"Head for north Africa," Sophie was saying. "Right here, see? I'm trying to plot a course that's reasonable…"

"You've got me jumping all over the globe like a frog," Jane groused.

"... but I'm getting my information piecemeal, I was going to say," Sophie snarled. All of us were tense. "I'm doing my best to run you over wilderness too, so you don't cause speed damage."

"You're doing fine," I said, trying to keep the peace in my poor skull while also trying not to be sick. "Both of you."

Then. There was. A goddamn. Tsunami.

... Bernie breathed my name into my mouth and shuddered under me, and damned if I didn't come too. It didn't matter if she was herself or someone else when we were fucking, just knowing it was her made the whole thing hot as hell. She changed then, changed her smooth arms, her round hips and legs, into knotty muscle and bone, and under my hand the softness and slickness surged into something else, and she grinned at me with Midnight Mask's broad jaw and slightly crooked teeth…

Jesus Christ, I didn't want to see these things. I didn't want to know these things. Who the fuck was Bernie? No, goddammit, this was too personal, too in-person, all these dead people and loosey-goosey time slipping back and forward, running me down. Go, go, Jane Liberty, and smash the thing in Sudan.

"How many more?" I asked Sophie, feeling like I was losing myself so, so fast.

"There's two dozen," Sophie said, like she was gritting her teeth. "I think we can get away with only destroying some of them, but I have to figure that out. And then I need her to go to the ship you're on and smash all their damn weapons."

"And we need to get Ruth and the rest out of limbo," I said. "Don't forget."

"I'm not forgetting," Sophie said, and I worried briefly about her snapping.

All the air went out of me.

... I was holding the heart of the man I'd just killed in my hand. It was hot and still pulsing, the steaming blood all over my hand. I held half a tank in the other hand. He'd been a butcher of a man, experimenting on para children in Italy, stealing away their parents to see if he could make more to serve the Axis. This was War, right? I was War. I am War. Someone else is Death, but I am War. I will always BE War...

"Jesus God, hurry up!" I shrieked in my own head.

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Second episode of anniversary week!

When It Rains, It Pours

Out of the corner of her eye, Nereid saw Sophie turn and bolt for the Cosmic Flyer. So she stopped looking like she was making it rain (appearances were everything in the superhero game), kept making it rain, and followed, soggily, into the Flyer.

When she got inside, she heard Sophie yelling: "You have the biggest goddamn processing center available right now with full surround-sound imaging coverage of the planet. Let me in!"

Nereid ran and caught herself on the doorjamb of the cockpit. Sophie was sitting in the pilot's seat, staring upward, looking distraught. She wasn't on the communicator, the speakerphone lights weren't on, she was just shouting at the sky.

"Jesus Harriet Christ, Renata, we need to know where the goddamn ground-based generators are. You've got all the locations in that system in front of you. Yeah, you could probably look for them, but do you know how long it will take them to power up?"

Renata. She was talking to Renata Scott in her head. Nereid stared—she couldn't remember a time she'd seen Sophie look or act this rattled. Sophie had never spoken aloud to Renata, though she'd told Nereid when she was talking to her.

"I know, Jesus fuck, I know," Sophie said, her voice breaking over tears. "Please, please, I can do this, just let me do something that's good."

There was a moment's pause, and then Sophie's body fell forward over the controls. Nereid stepped forward and pulled her away from the controls so if she had any random twitches, the Cosmic Flyer wouldn't suddenly take off. She knelt next to Sophie and held her hands, half of her mind still concentrating on the rain outside, trying not to feel a little jealous of Renata. Both Sophie and Renata were such intensely private people; the level of trust—or desperation—between them to do this was astonishing.

She reached up and gently wiped the tears off Sophie's face with her thumb. Appearances were everything in the superhero business.

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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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Sick as the proverbial dog this week. Glad I have stuff written ahead!

Resist or Serve

I was so interested in keeping an eye on the newsfeeds spinning by on my screens that Mark West managed to surprise me in my office.

He burst through the door, which had me on my feet facing him in a split second. He was pale and furious; even his perfect Ken hair was askew.

"They're going crazy down there," he began.

"About damn time," I said.

"No, you don't understand!" he shouted, and he actually clutched at his hair.

He was so agitated that he was projecting his thoughts hard, as agitated people do. As I often have to do, I was working hard to ignore that, but the repeated epithets were getting on my nerves.

"What's the matter, Mark?" I said, taking a step forward. "Feeling a little threatened? Feeling like you might not win? How much of the US were you promised for your very own after subjugating it and making all the freaks commit suicide?"

He looked shocked. Horrified, actually. "You really don't get it," he said faintly. "You don't understand that everything I've done has been to try to keep the aliens out of our affairs?" His voice was rising in volume with every word, and his face was going brick-red. "You don't understand that they came to my wife and made her more of a freak—yes, a god damned freak—because they were going to use her to do whatever they wanted to our world, and I put myself forward to try to save our world, our damned, damned world, because I want somewhere for my children to grow up that isn't under the heels of some alien dictators? That I wanted the world that was given to us by the lord to be our own to stay our own?" He was raging at me, walking toward me without fear. At least his rage was focusing his thoughts so I could ignore them. "I could tell these… people had more power than all the mightiest heroes or villains our planet could muster and the only way we would conquer would be to work along their plans until the lord pointed the way to overthrow them, escape them, cast them away from our world. My boys—and my girls too—would inherit our world, a human world, ordered by human minds and choices, as the legacy of their parents." He stopped two paces in front of me, panting, weeping with his fury. "I knew you would fuck it all up, you ignorant bitch."

For just a moment, I had a glimpse of him as a human being, as a father and husband, as a desperate human facing impossible odds just trying to do what he thought was best. I knew he'd fuck it all up.

"Maybe you should've trusted to the rest of the human beings on the planet, instead of trying to play god," I said, glancing back at the images of resistance and revolution playing across the screens.

"You have to stop them," he said, suddenly falling off his high horse. He gritted his teeth and said, "Please. They say you have enough power to control everyone on the planet. If you do, you have to stop them from doing this."

"Even if I had that kind of power," I said, making the effort to explain though I knew it was pointless, "what no one really understands about psionic powers is that it's a two-way street. Even if you think you're purely projecting, there's a little piece of you inside that person's mind. You can see what that's done to your wife."

He blinked and looked alarmed.

"She's more tired than ever, isn't she?" I said, almost sympathetically. "She's exhausted. Barely enough energy to sort of take care of her children, and nothing left for you because you're nominally a grown-ass man and can take care of yourself. That's what trying to control millions of minds does to you, if it doesn't drive you stark raving mad immediately."

I had hit awfully close to home. He rubbed his face, muttering, "Oh, God, Sara, what have they done to you?"

"You've got to see that there's no way anyone could survive being inside the minds of seven billion people," I said. "Because actively controlling takes more energy than passively projecting."

"But if you don't," he said in an exhausted tone, still staring into his hands, "everything will be for naught."

"If I don't," I said as gently as I could muster for this horrid little man, "then people get to choose their own fates, which is what humans with free will ought to be able to do."

He gave me a defeated, dead look and took himself to the door. At the door, he said, "You won't be able to say that I didn't warn you." And before I could answer, he went out.

I looked back at the screens nervously. That was the thing we'd not been able to predict: what would the aliens do in response? What tricks did they have up their Hoovers?

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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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The Only Winning Move

After considering the task to which I had been set, I did pretty much what I expected to do when Joshua first told me about it: nothing.

At first, I sat in my extremely comfortable chair in front of my two-story-high set of screens, with my keyboards and virtual mousing controls and voice controls and stared at the enormous live satellite map of Africa. I eyed it thoroughly; I expected it to bite me, at least metaphorically. Then I opened up Wikipedia and other parts of the Internet and started reading, because I had no idea what countries were extant in Africa right then. From there, I jumped to the surprisingly healthy African blogosphere (surprising because the American blogosphere was a censored wasteland). I got hints that the non-English and non-French areas were even less restricted.

There are, for your information, sixty-some-odd countries in Africa. The actual number is in constant flux because there are about half a dozen para individuals staking territorial claims to regions, usually sub-regions of countries, at any given time. Some of these are flat-out supervillains -- well-heeled First-World-backed almost-locals with some flavor of superpower, major gizmo arsenal, or mystical army. A few are well-meaning people trying to improve the quality of life in some specific area. Then, in addition to the countries on the map, there are also the so-called "lost" civilizations that pepper the continent, with some confirmed and in communication with the UN and local governments, and others that withdrew from detection after first contact.

Then there are the UN Emergency Exclusion Zones, of which some have their own governments, completely separate from the countries in which they occur. For instance, the area around what the Great White Victorian Explorers called a "gate to hell" (a gate to another world) that periodically emitted "demons" (people from that other world), the region around which was populated by "demon worshippers" (people who'd had diplomatic relations and trade with the otherworlders for thousands of years). Or the empty land that was barricaded off by NATO troops because, forty years after The Atomaster blew himself up there in a fight with one of the South African para teams (killing himself and the para team and a dozen villages of innocent bystanders, the area was still hotter than the site of the crash of Doc McGee's airship in Montana.

Of course, while I was engaged in all this research, I was looking up the shit that was going on in the US and being horrified. Mark West's cronies had clamped down on the press so there was very little mainstream coverage of, say, the water riots in LA and San Diego, or the large-scale extremist violence in suburban areas, or the enormous suicide clusters blooming like bloodstains across the countryside. Twitter was mostly a wasteland, but it did have tidbits. What West's people didn't know about particularly were the locked-down sites where a small group of mental health para professionals interacted. I didn't use the onboard computers to view those sites, of course, but contacted the psi-activated robot waldo in my old home and had her bring up the screens on my home computer.

I researched for a week before Sara West showed up in my "office."

I felt her sticky-sweet oozing presence as she approached. I braced myself (imagine: slick smooth stainless steel outer shell coated in oil) and said, "Come in," when she knocked.

She hung in the doorway, like she did before. Floribunda wasn't in the office that day (sometimes the ship just freaked her out too much for her to emerge from whatever hiding place she'd crammed herself into), so I was able to turn my full attention to the uncontrolled empath in my space.

I made her wait a full minute, as I closed windows on my displays, leaving only the massive image of Africa, clouds drifting over the equatorial region. Then I turned my chair toward her.

"Yes?" I said.

Dame Shirley's voice faded out on the speakers (at least they gave me decent speakers) and was replaced by Tracy Chapman.

"Last night I heard the screaming/Loud voices behind the wall..."

The dark circles under Sara West's eyes were deeper than before, her pale skin more transparent. She smiled wanly at me. "I just wanted to look in on you and see how you were settling in."

I gave her a tight smile. "Just fine, thank you." Internally, I cursed my mother for instilling indomitable politeness in me. I didn't want to thank this woman. I was smoldering, thinking about the children who were hanging themselves in Chicago, and the immigrant women who were poisoning themselves in Arizona, and the young gay men who were drowning themselves in Virginia.

"I…" she began, and then her gaze travelled over my screen, apparently taking in the custom markings I'd put in to denote the various conflicts that were actually being covered in the press. "What's that?"

"Places where people are killing each other," I said, nastily pleased by her flinch.

"Always come late/If they come at all," Tracy sang.

"Mr. West is wondering," she said, averting her eyes down and to the right, "why you're not using your power more."

"And Mark West sends you to ask his questions for him?" I said.

Tracy added, "They say they can't interfere/With domestic affairs…"

She shook her head and glanced at my face furtively, then looked away. "I heard him talking to one of them about it. I think he's trying to get you locked up again."

"And you're hoping I'll be grateful to you for this information?" I said. I wasn't really surprised that the aliens were monitoring my telepathic output. Joshua had intimated as much, if I read between the lines.

Tears overflowed and she said, "Why are you so mean? I'm just trying to be nice in this… this horrible place."

I set my jaw. "I don't care how 'nice' you're being to me, you're killing people down on the ground. You and your husband are mass murderers."

"I'm trying to stop the killing!" she wailed, her saccharine emotional spray turning cold and jagged and sandpapery. "I just want to go back to raising my kids and cooking for my husband and being normal, but while I've got this god-given power, he says… I know I've got to try to make the world better!"

Kids, of course, that was one reason she looked so fried. But the pictures of the kids who'd died just in the last month in the drug violence that was erupting in pretty much every city in the US wrote over the images of the children floating on the edge of her consciousness.

"Then a silence that chilled my soul…" Tracy crooned.

"You've tried, and you've failed, and the more you try, the more people you kill," I said as brutally as I could. It's hard when another person is facing you in tears, especially when they're an uncontrolled Class 9 or 10 empath projecting all their mess all over you. "Unless you believe in a very different god than I do, then you need to stop, right here, right now, or have more deaths on you."

Tracy added, "And the policeman said/I'm here to keep the peace…"

She covered her face with her hands and said, muffled, "I can't believe what you're saying. I can't believe you. You don't understand!" And, finally, she fled and the door slid shut behind her.

In the fresh silence, Tracy's song finished mournfully and I took a few deep breaths.

Then I turned back to the screen and started considering how to make it look like I was using my power just enough to keep my job.

wonder_city: (Default)
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?"


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.

wonder_city: (Default)
Sorry about my post-fail last week. It's been a little rough weather here. But so is it rough weather in Wonder City.

Partying the Hard Way

Tam Lane was pressing her up against a cold metal wall, bending over her, his long auburn hair shading their faces. "Come on, baby," he was whispering, pulling her hand against the bulge in his jeans. "Do it."

Before Nereid could say anything past her horror, Tam was dragged away from her and thrown to the ground. Sophie brought a baseball bat down on the man's pretty face. There was a crunch, and a wail, and Nereid turned away.

A warm hand pressed against her back. "It's okay, Pacifica," Lucid's sympathetic voice said. "It's just a dream."

Nereid turned back to look at her, slowly rising into lucidity through her paralysis and confusion. "Really?"

Lucid smiled at her. "Yes, really. I should know, right?"

Nereid looked toward Sophie, who was still plying her baseball bat, even though most of the dream was fading away around them. Lucid said, "Sophie, time to go."

Sophie dropped the baseball bat with a little grimace and nodded, pushing some of her hair out of her face.

They walked silently away from the disintegrating scene, Lucid keeping an arm around Nereid's shoulders. Shortly, they came to a train station and mounted the steps into one of the waiting silver cars. They sat down along the side of the subway car, and the train started into motion, the rubber loops swinging silently with the motion of the car.

Nereid blinked, and took deep breaths, and looked down at herself. She was wearing her uniform, the swirling blues and greens in close-fitting spandex. She ran her hands over the fabric and forced herself to feel the texture, still breathing deeply. She'd done this a number of times, visiting Lucid's Dream Party, but it had been a while since their last trip.

"Just a baseball bat this time?" Lucid was saying curiously to Sophie as the train slanted downward into a dark tunnel.

"I've got a lot of anger issues right now," Sophie said.

"Apparently," Lucid said. "How've you been doing, Pacifica?"

Nereid blinked hard and smiled. "All right, I suppose, Leah. Wonder City is just kind of... hard."

Lucid nodded. "Seattle's no bed of roses but at least we're not having a modern-day Les Mis, like in California."

Nereid looked at her and said, "Les Mis?"

Lucid smiled briefly and bitterly. "Food riots. Water riots. Police declaring martial law and killing people left and right. It isn't just the LAPD, but that's where it started."

Something flickered in the window opposite Nereid. It was one of those advertisements consisting of a series of stills posted on the subway tunnel wall that become a little animated movie when the train rushes past them. This one only had a man's face in the center of a bright starburst. He was a handsome thirty-something with short, sleek ash-blond hair and bright, earnest blue eyes. He was speaking in the image, enunciating carefully so, Nereid supposed, someone could lip-read what he was saying.

Almost against her will, she was drawn to stare at his mouth, trying to puzzle out the words.

Lucid got up, walked across the car, and yanked down a window blind that Nereid hadn't seen there before, breaking the spell. "I am so very tired of that fucker."

"Who is he?" Nereid said, rubbing her eyes.

"Pastor Al," Sophie growled. "Tent revival boy. Is he appearing in the dream world a lot?"

"All the fucking time," Lucid said. She sat down heavily. "He's always trying to say something to the dreamers. It's not like he's actually here -- believe me, I've looked. I think that he's just a really potent symbol."

Suddenly, his face reappeared in every window of the car, and each face was saying something different, smiling a slightly different way.

Lucid's eyes narrowed and she stamped on the floor. Blinds snapped down over every window.

"We'll be there soon," she said after a moment.

"Good," Sophie said. Then, more softly, "Thanks."

Lucid squeezed Sophie's knee and patted Nereid's shoulder. "I couldn't let down some of my favorite people."

The Dream Party was less populated than Nereid had ever seen it before. The buffet was still busy. There was still a small jam session in the corner, consisting of variously-dressed people playing guitars, Vulcan harps, and drums. But there were definitely fewer beings chatting in little groups, and they spoke in lower voices.

Nereid noticed a woman sitting nearby, calmly watching roses grow from her left arm. Green sprouts burst through her skin, grew and extended, and eventually exploded into blood-red blooms. When one bloomed, she carefully snipped it off at the base with a pair of scissors, and slid the rose into a nearby glass vase that was overflowing with flowers. The water in the vase was red.

A small blue dragon alighted on the table, arranged its feathers carefully, and watched this ritual for a few moments before asking, "Does that hurt?"

The woman said, "Like a bitch. But it's the only way I know to get rid of them."

"Your friend is waiting in the private room," a second Lucid said, gesturing over her shoulder toward a door. The two Lucids nodded to each other and stepped together into a single Lucid. "Let me know if you want anything."

Sophie cast a longing glance at the buffet, but said, "Thanks," and, taking Nereid's hand, went through the indicated door.

X was seated on a straight chair with long legs crossed in the very masculine way Nereid had noticed before when X was angry. The outfit for this Dream Party outing consisted of a dark blue velvet cutaway coat over tailored black trousers and waistcoat. X was also wearing sunglasses.

X looked in their direction but didn't get up or say anything, though there was a nod to Nereid.

Sophie shut the door and said, without any introduction, "This is why I asked you both to come here." And then there was a sound like wrenching metal. Sophie let out a little gasp and staggered to one side, while another woman staggered away from her in the other direction.

The other woman was a stocky, dark brown African-American woman of medium height. Her dark hair was shaped into a short afro. There were deep lines around her eyes and mouth, lines that made her look a great deal older than Nereid would have guessed from the rest of her body. She was wearing a t-shirt and old jeans. After she caught her breath, she straightened up and put her hands on her hips.

"This is damned weird," she said, looking around at the three of them.

Sophie coughed and slid into a chair. "X, Pacifica, meet Renata Scott."

"Oh!" Nereid said, then covered her mouth with both her hands. Renata, the telepath who'd been in her head when she'd killed Sator. Right.

X rose, swept off the sunglasses, and crossed the room, extending one elegant hand. "So pleased to meet you."

Renata looked at X, grinned, and -- somewhat gingerly -- shook hands. "Hah!" she said. "This is damned weird. I'm glad to meet you finally, X. I saw you at Ruth's birthday party and didn't get introduced." She looked at her hand, then Sophie. "You must be filtering me big time."

"Well, me and your prison, I think," Sophie said, then waved a hand. "Tell them what you told me."

Renata shook hands with Nereid. Nereid gave her an embarrassed, somewhat hopeles little smile.

Then Renata threw herself into an overstuffed chair and said, "Sit yourselves down, and I'll tell you about the aliens."

X sat obediently, eyes fixed on Renata. Nereid sat down more slowly, glancing over at Sophie, who was leaning her forehead on her hands.

"They've been trying to get me to work for them," Renata said. "They won't say outright what it is they want me to do. But I suspect."

"They're projecting some sort of psionic energy via mechanisms Brainchild built," X said, and Nereid was a little startled by hearing X use Sophie's spandex name.

Renata nodded. "I know," she said, and glanced aside at Sophie, who hadn't raised her head. "And I know whose psionic energy it is."

X sat forward in the chair, perching on the very edge. Nereid blinked at Renata.

"Look," Renata said, looking at them, but running her fingers over the tooled leather of the chair she'd ended up in, "I'm imprisoned on the spaceship until I either work for them or they decide what else to do with me. They've given me a very comfortable apartment, and I'm heavily shielded from psionics there. The only reason I can project to Earth, in fact, is because I stuffed Sophie back into her head a few years ago, and so I know her better than any other human on the planet and could probably find her anywhere. The aliens have captured and imprisoned Ruth and the rest of the Gold Stars in an interdimensional prison, and they've got some jackass as their 'human liaison' whose wife is an empath. Somehow, they amped her up and she's projecting her own emotional dogma down at the U.S. of A."

X slumped back in the chair, exhaling, "Shiiiiiittttt."

Nereid looked over at Sophie again, but Sophie wasn't moving. So Nereid said, "Does she know about the new church and stuff down here?"

"Probably," Renata said with a shrug. "What little I got during my brief interviews with them was some serious right-wing religion."

X said, "That's probably what's doing it, then."

"Doing what?" Renata said.

X sat forward again, counting off on slender fingers. "Here it is: resource riots, little teams of men in black roaming the streets, martial law, nationwide mental health crisis, tripled suicide rate."

Renata stared.

"I can't get hold of Simon any more," Nereid said slowly. "Every time I call, his friend Megan answers, and she doesn't seem to know that... that Simon's human. I don't think he can be human any more. He told me he was feeling horrible about himself about and... you know he's trans, right? He was even thinking about... going back to living as a girl, just to try to make it easier to be human."

"I think the men in black may be minor telepaths," X said. "I think they may be altering potential troublemakers. A therapist I know told me that people who say they've met up with a group are often... never quite right afterward."

"I met some," Nereid said with a shudder, and started remembering like a nightmare. "For a little while afterward, I felt better. Or I thought I did. Everything was so clear. They gave me a ring. Every time I met them, they gave me a ring, and Sophie took it away from me. But after a couple of days, things weren't so clear any more, and my brain was like thick soup, and I'd feel even stupider than I used to in high school."

X reached over and put an arm around her shoulders. Nereid could feel herself shaking in the circle of that arm, but was so grateful for X's familiar warmth.

Renata's face had grown stern. She looked like an old woman, Nereid realized, though her body was young. "I can't play any more," she said. "I can't hide in my room. I didn't... I wouldn't face what was going on, but I've got to do what I can to... make it less horrible." She stood up, and her hands were clenched into fists.

"We're doing what we can," X said, also standing. "Or we'll try. I have friends who're trying."

Renata nodded sharply. "Once I know more, I'll get Sophie to bring us together again. Perhaps Lucid will be willing to bring in some of your friends, X."

"Will you come if we need to talk to you?" X asked.

"Tell Sophie," Renata said. "She knows how to get in touch."

Renata walked over to Sophie and laid a hand on the younger woman's shoulder. "Quit beating yourself up," she said quietly. "You can't help anyone that way." And then she vanished.

X sighed and said, "She's right, you know. We all need to work together in any way we can."

"Easy for her --" Sophie said, gesturing over her shoulder and upward violently "-- to say. She's not party to mass murder."

"You made an outstandingly shitty choice," X said, going to stand over Sophie, hands on hips. "I'm certainly not going to argue that you didn't. But you've got to find a way to try to make up for it now. It isn't like you're the first para to accidentally almost destroy the world."

Sophie snorted. "I could at least have done it more cleanly if I'd done it myself."

Nereid walked over to the two of them. "Yes, we all know how much better you'd be as a supervillain. You tell us all the time." She crouched down in front of Sophie and butted her forehead against her girlfriend's, looking up cross-eyed into Sophie's glasses. "But you're not, and I won't let you be, all right?"

Sophie almost smiled as she pulled back, shaking her head. "Puppydog eyes don't work at that range, dammit."

X smirked. "They do, though. From Pacifica, at least."

"That's her other damn superpower," Sophie said, standing and pulling Nereid up too. "Class 10 puppydog eyes. Let's eat, for fuck's sake."

wonder_city: (Default)
Many of Renata's episodes in this story arc have been punctuated by the music she's listening to at the time. I thought I'd do a little collection of that soundtrack -- let me know if I've forgotten something!

Cut for videos )
wonder_city: (Default)
We have heat! It's amazing how grateful one can be for singing steam radiators.

All the Pretty Little Horses

The door chimed, and this time, before I could acknowledge it, the door popped open and in rolled one of the alien Hoover suits.

"Excuse you," I said, deciding to get up, wanting the advantage of height. My dog had abandoned me for whatever hiding place she'd found this time.

The Hoover hesitated, swiveling its hair dryer toward me. It said, in the 50s machine voice, "Unclear transmission."

I crossed my arms and stood with as much hipshot attitude as I could muster. "Well, you sure aren't Joshua."

"You may address me as Joshua if you wish," it said.

"I'm not buying this 'We are all Josh' shit," I said. I noticed a few little differences in this Hoover from Joshua's Hoover -- a subtle metallic weave through the breathing bag, a very slight difference in color. "You can at least introduce yourself after busting in here."

"Our names are private," it said. Although I couldn't read it telepathically, I could certainly perceive an aura of what I chose to perceive as annoyance. "You may address me by whatever misnomer you prefer. Clarify your first transmission."

"I was telling you that you were being rude," I said, deciding that blunt communication was the way to go with this Hoover. "And I think I'll call you Fluffy."

"Ah. In the future, you will perceive that humor does not translate," Fluffy said.

"Oh, I knew that," I said. And neither does politeness, apparently. "What do you want?"

"Our peacebringing efforts are not working with adequate speed," Fluffy said. "We require your powers. You will cooperate."

Although humor doesn't translate, I couldn't help mocking its machine voice. "CO-OP-ER-ATE," I said. "No, it just doesn't have the same ring."

Fluffy apparently had decided to ignore anything I said that it didn't understand. "My family is now in charge of this mission. We require your cooperation."

"What exactly is your glorious mission?" I said. "No one has been able to tell me."

"That is why I have been tasked to be your liaison in place of the one you call Joshua," Fluffy said. "Your world is excessively turbulent. Your people are reaching out beyond the bounds of its orbit and of your solar system. We bring peace to newly developed worlds so that the dimension your people call Psychespace does not become cluttered with your unpeaceful transmissions and interfere with our movement through it."

"Peace through force," I said.

"However necessary," Fluffy said. "We will only interfere for one of your generations, but we will educate your telepaths and others with similar abilities so they can maintain the peace."

"I doubt you'll manage on this world," I said.

"We have successfully pacified hundreds of worlds," Fluffy said.

"How many of them did you pacify by killing everyone?" I said, fists on hips.

"That was unnecessary," Fluffy said. "If they did not accept peace, then they destroyed themselves with their unpeaceful transmissions."

"I begin to see that by transmission you mean speech, thoughts, or bullets," I said.

"You will cooperate," Fluffy said, its aura of annoyance increasing. "We have studied your transmission archive and have identified the individuals with whom you have familial connections."

"You will not fuck with my people," I said, my stomach twisting in a knot at the thought of these fucking vacuum cleaners taking up my mama or my sisters.

"We have no need of further acquisitions," Fluffy said, and something blinked on its hair dryer.

I felt the telepathic screens on my holding apartment fall for just a moment. If I'd been prepared, I suppose, I could've grabbed someone's mind on Earth and told them where I was. But I hadn't expected the exposure, and the sudden influx of the shipboard human minds -- as well as the weird pressure of what was probably thousands of Hoovers -- brought me to my knees.

There was an agonizing psychic ripping sensation nearby, and for a split second, through all the psychic noise in my head, I could feel Ruth. She wasn't conscious, but I'd know her anywhere. And so help me, I recognized the feel of the place she was in on the other side of that bleeding dimensional wound.

The Hoovers had stuck her in the psychic dimension I'd been slowly exploring for the last decade or more. It was just a pocket, but it was stuffed with a bunch of other minds that I didn't have the energy or attention to focus on beyond Ruth. I didn't feel any way out before it sealed back up and my apartment's shields came back up too.

"You fucker," I spat, wiping my face where the involuntary tears had started to run down as soon as the shields dropped. "You shit-sucking sockfucker." I crawled slowly to my feet. "I will see every one of you passive-aggressive imperialist weasels in hell for this."

Fluffy said, "You perceive the reason for your cooperation."

One mistake a lot of people have made with me is assuming that because I'm a fat girl, I don't move fast. But I have spent a long time with not a lot to do but work out and swim, and I am lightning when I put my mind to it, which I did, right then. I had one hand wrapped around the neck of Fluffy's hair dryer and the other bunched into the breathing bag, and I ripped those things sideways with all my might. There were one or two pleasant rending sounds.

"Cease! Stop!" Fluffy squawked.

I lifted the Hoover over my shoulder -- it wasn't much heavier than my mama's Hoover at home -- and walked to the door, which opened for me. I threw Fluffy down as hard as I could on the deck outside the door, and it bounced on the metal floor, pieces clattering off it. It squawked wordlessly.

"You don't come back in here," I said, careful to stay inside my shields. "You send Joshua. Or no one at all, by preference."

I stepped back inside and let the door shut.

I cussed and cried and even screamed for a while, and smashed a couple of plates against the not-glass of my view of Earth. If Ruth was captured, I was utterly screwed. So was the Earth. So was the whole human race. I couldn't think of anyone else who had the ability to stop this fucking huge ship while it was outside of Earth's atmosphere.

I finally settled down and extricated poor terrified Floribunda from my closet. I cried with her on my lap some, and finally settled into the kind of flat vagueness I get after a psychic thumping like I'd just had. My dog tucked her head under my arm and shivered.

My music started to sink in through the exhaustion after a while, though, and I tuned in just in time to hear Sister Rosetta singing,
Everyday (everyday)
Everyday (everyday)
There are strange things happening every day.

If you heal right through the lies
You can live right all the ties
There are strange things happening every day.

I thought, slowly, There's one person who I know feels the same way I do about Ruth, and I have spent considerable time inside her head.

And then I thought, even more slowly, Tomorrow. I'll take that right up... tomorrow.

And Sister Rosetta sang me to sleep.


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