NUMBERS GAME, PART TWELVE: CHOOSE YOUR PATH
Alison took a step closer to Alice, so that they were nose to nose. “Listen Alice, Alison, or whatever your name is…”
“You can still call me Alice.”
“We are NOT going ANYWHERE until you explain to our satisfaction WHAT this project is, WHAT you propose to do with Lissa, HOW–”
“Alison,” Para murmured, reaching out to tap the brunette on the shoulder.
Para shrank back momentarily as Alison spun to face her instead. But she held her ground. “It’s just, even if this Epsilon Project is a shadowy group controlling everyone behind the scenes, I don’t think that’s Alice’s fault…” She looked to the other woman. “Is it?”
“Not in the strictest sense, no,” Alice answered. “I simply do what God tells me.”
“God?” Mason said, arcing an eyebrow.
“Well, since I’ve never met her, I think of her as God,” Alice answered with a smile. “She rescued me from a Hell Dimension and all.”
Alison pursed her lips. “I think I need to sit down,” she decided, rubbing at the bridge of her nose.
Alice gestured to the side of the room, where chairs were arranged about a small table. “We can all sit for a quick Q and A, if it will make you feel better?”
After a moment of hesitation, Alison nodded and went to sit, the others trailing after her. “Are we in Heaven then?” Para mused as she sat.
“No,” Alice answered. The side of her mouth twitched. “Or I don’t think so.”
“So WHERE…” Alison paused, to rein in her irritation. “So where are we?”
Alice leaned forwards, clasping her hands together. “The Hub. A self-regulating station, tracking right and wrong, located in neutral territory. A place of projects of deep mystery, for an unspecified number of humans and aliens. A shining beacon in space-time… all alone in the night.” She paused. “So, Purgatory maybe?”
“You mentioned different dimensions,” Mason reminded.
Alice nodded. “There’s the one you and Alison come from, and Para’s, and the one you were all just in, and a multitude of others. I mean, you could have a world with no shrimp, or with nothing but shrimp!”
“Then which world are we in now?” Para asked, growing confused.
Alice’s nose crinkled up. “You got me there. I’m not entirely sure. All of them. None of them. Does it matter?”
“Well, yes!” Alison shot back. “I mean, are you floating overhead, tracking everybody, planning to abduct any one of us again at a moment’s notice??”
Alison visibly flinched. “Words cannot even describe the levels of creepiness which you have attained by uttering that one single word.”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong. You could always tell us to go to Hell, or whatever your equivalent is, and refuse to help with the problems we find,” Alice amended. “But our tracking software pinpointed you not merely because of your skill set. It also told us that statistically, you were the individuals who would be the least likely to turn us down. So, are you in?”
Alison looked to Mason and Para, her eyes widening. “Please tell me that the more she talks, the more she’s creeping you out too. That this is not all mere paranoia on my part.”
“It’s… troubling,” Mason admitted. “But at the same time, Alice, your system isn’t infallible. That letter we received said there were to be two of us. Somehow you got that wrong.”
Alice beamed at Mason. “You ARE good at the details, huh? Yes, we had everything set up to summon you, and then snare Alison from the same dimension through the wake of your TARDIS – only to discover the possible Lissa Jous connection. So my superiors-“ (Alice pointed up at the ceiling) “-roped in Para as well. And, go figure, she arrived first.”
“But then why didn’t you just talk to us then?” Para protested, shaking her head. “Why such limited information at the beginning?”
“I’ll point out that you took off before I could come here to explain,” Alice reminded. “But besides that, we didn’t know for sure that Lissa was involved. We didn’t know if you would go along with us once you knew how we’d tracked you down. We didn’t know if you would be willing to help a world that was not your own. We weren’t even a hundred percent sure of the Big Ben landing site. We’re not omniscient here. Or at least, I’m not,” Alice amended. “I can’t speak for God.”
“There you go invoking religion again,” Alison said, frowning. “Who is this God?”
“She’s…” Alice smiled and shook her head. “On second thought, I won’t tell you everything. Or you might not come back.”
“We’re not coming back either way!” Alison said angrily, rising to her feet. “Or at least, I’m not,” she amended, glancing again to Mason and Para. “I can’t speak for them.”
“You’re not returning? Not even if doing so becomes the only way to save one of their lives?”
Alison’s gaze whiplashed back to Alice. “Is that a THREAT?”
Alice shook her head, continuing to sit calmly. “Not at all. But everyday life isn’t safe. Just ask Para about Sine.” The parabola flinched. “So, Alison, what if one day your hacking skills become the difference between life and death? Would you help us then?”
Alison’s hands balled into fists. “That’s not a fair question.”
“It goes both ways. While you’re working for us, if we discover your everyday life is in danger, we’d make an effort to save you too.”
“My life is always in danger! Even ignoring the Biochemical company, and the chances that I could accidentally teleport myself into a wall, my depression could simply consume me one day and cause me to kill myself!”
“I’m sure we can recruit a good psychiatrist or psychologist to help you.”
Alison glared. “You don’t get it. At all.” She looked to Mason. “You explain. I’m out. I’m done.” She began to stalk across the room, towards the only obvious point of exit, the door opening to a walled off area within the cylindrical room.
“Alison!” Para called out, jumping to her feet and running after the other woman.
Mason half turned in his chair to watch them go, then turned back to Alice. “It really wasn’t a fair question. Alison has legitimate concerns regarding people in positions of power who are after her. Saying that the only way for her and her friends to be safe… is to give herself over to some Project that has even MORE power? It’s not a choice she should have to make.”
“True. But making the hard choices is something we all have to do at some point in our lives. Don’t you agree, Chief?”
Mason narrowed his eyes slightly at the use of his former name. He slowly shook his head. “You have the data. And your goals, I think, are noble. But that doesn’t make what you’re doing here right.”
“The right choice isn’t necessarily the most popular one,” Alice countered.
“So you’ve been told,” Mason retorted. “Tell me, the idea that you’re only following your God’s orders – is that what makes it easier for you to sleep at night?”
Alice’s expression morphed into one of surprise, then quiet sadness. “What helps me to sleep is the knowledge that I’m giving something back to the multiverse. And that I’m not in a Hell dimension.” She stood. “You know what? You and your group saved the Roman Numerals of an entire world. Let’s celebrate that, rather than dwell on the circumstances.”
She then interlaced her fingers and extended her palms out in a stretch, smiling again. “Speaking of which, are you going to let me see Lissa Jous already? Because we really don’t know how she managed a dimensional jump, or where that Phillip guy ended up. And we still want to set that right, don’t we?”
Para found Alison in the small, darkened storeroom, sitting on the floor next to a cylindrical container. She was hugging her knees. Not sure exactly how to help, Para crouched down and adopted a similar position. Alison glanced over. Para smiled uncertainly, and her bunny ears twitched. Alison shook her head, smiling ruefully. “You are so not-human and yet near-human that I don’t even know how to react, Miss Sexy Cute.”
“Para,” the blonde said quietly.
“Para. Sorry,” Alison apologized, looking back at her feet.
“You can call me whatever makes you feel more comfortable!” Para hastened to add. “Just… yeah. I thought we’d started using proper names and such.”
“We had. Are. Should be. You know what? Call me Alijda. I think I’ve missed that.”
They both sat in silence.
“I can’t justify joining this Project to save you,” Alison said at last. “Or Mason, or even Erika back home. But at the same time, if I cut out, I’m not sure if I could live with myself, knowing my leaving may lead to your death. It puts me between a rock and a hard place, where the only viable alternative becomes killing myself-“ (Para let out a gasp) “-but I’m not willing to give in to that side of myself. Not yet. Not over this.”
“I can handle myself,” Para pointed out. “I don’t need you to save me. This Alice, she’s dealing in hypotheticals.”
Again, a short silence. “So would you think less of me if I cut and run from all of this?” Alison asked. “Potentially leaving you and Mason in the lurch?”
Para slowly shook her head. “I’d understand.”
“Because here’s the other thing. This Project is RIGHT. Statistically speaking, I should do this. I’ve spent most of my adult life looking back over my shoulder, wondering when my misdeeds and twisted sense of reality will catch up with me. But finally, I’ve got a corporation – or maybe religious cult – who is not only willing to protect me, but who are trying to do GOOD, if in a bad way. And is their data mining really any worse than all the hacking I’ve done, looking into people’s lives?” Alison let out a bitter laugh. “Hell, I’ve probably broken more laws than this group!”
“Laws are relative to who’s making them, Alijda,” Para pointed out. “Lots of human governments do terrible things without breaking any laws.”
“Hum. Valid.” Alison lapsed into silence again. Then she stretched her legs back out. “Para… if I join them, saying my ultimate goal is to take their whole network down, do you still think they’d want to recruit me?”
The blonde shrugged. “Seems like what they’re looking for is, for lack of a better term, field operatives. I’m not sure what harm you could do to them if you’re never around this Hub place.”
Alison turned. “Might be interesting to find out.”
“Then you’re pulling a Skye,” Alice said. “That’s fine. We operate on a ‘Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You’ basis anyway.”
Alison stared back at Alice for a moment. “Okay – you realize that what you say means nothing without context, right?”
Alice blinked. “Do you not have the ‘Agents of SHIELD’ show in your reality? Skye – not her real name – joined a team but had her own agenda.”
Alison sighed, pressing two fingers to her temple. “Whatever. If that means we’re done here, let’s move on.” She looked towards Mason, now standing with Lissa Jous, who was still in handcuffs. Lissa was again keeping quiet, looking about warily while scowling. “Is the Lissa issue resolved yet? Is Phil back, and is Lissa going to prison?”
“Alice took some scans,” Mason remarked. “She thinks the technology exists to restore Phil. I plan to stay until she does so. In particular, upon Phil’s return, I rather hope he won’t be too upset by the fact that all the clocks that are supposed to read IV have returned to doing so.” He glanced to the pink haired woman. “With that done, we’ll see about restoring Lissa to her own dimension.”
Lissa let out a “Humph”, but otherwise made a point of ignoring them.
Mason turned back, stroking his beard. “As to this place – I’m not the sort of person to interfere. But it’s hard to turn down a distress call. So it could get interesting.”
“While I was kinda MADE to be helpful,” Para remarked. “Particularly where numbers are involved. So… yeah. We might see each other again. Alijda.”
“That might be nice. Para,” Alison admitted, with a half smile. She looked to Alice. “Okay, I’m done here. Get me home before I change my mind.”
Alice beamed. “Easiest thing to do is dial up the coordinates from where we took you. Which was actually your house, in the instant after you teleported. But it would be better to do it with our whirlpool. You okay with that?”
“Maybe?” Alison said warily.
Alice strolled back to one of the computers. She pulled up a virtual keyboard, tapping at it. “Dialling now!” she remarked. A rumbling noise began, and the whole room started to subtly vibrate. After a few seconds of this, a light on the floor suddenly switched on. Looking over, Alison realized that the light was located within one of nine different chevrons. All of them equally spaced around a large ring device, embedded in the middle of the room. The ring itself was large enough to accommodate a small car.
A second chevron illuminated next to the first. Alison’s eyebrows shot up. “Okay, I have seen SOME science fiction shows. Surely you CAN’T mean…”
“Same planet. Different dimension. We’ve found the gateway,” Alice chirped. “Wrong show, but you get the idea.”
A third chevron illuminated. “I’m headed over the rainbow,” Alison concluded dryly.
WHICH CHARACTER WOULD YOU MOST LIKE TO SEE AGAIN?
(Alice isn’t listed because you’ll see her again for sure.)
(Feel free to explain your choice below too!)
Voting will… probably remain open, actually.
Votes for the next story and character set will occur in a week.