EPSILON DELTA, PART ELEVEN: TRAIL MIX
Alijda stared at the station’s computer output. Despite the clues pointing to Kat’s childhood friend Fate being mixed up in whatever was happening on the planet, there was no sign of any anomaly. Human or otherwise. Meaning this mission was over. Meaning… Alijda clenched her jaw, and turned to her companion. “I’m going down.”
Alice flinched. “To the planet?”
“No, for limbo practice. Yes, to the planet!”
“Alijda. Sorry, but no.” Alice began to dance nervously from one foot to the other. “Army’s been deactivated. These scans show no further technology is present, so Beam’s mission is done. Protocol dictates that we get everyone back up to the station and vamoose.”
“You don’t work for Epsilon any more,” Alijda pointed out. “Why enforce their rules?”
Alice added hand wringing to her dance. “To atone for my sins? To keep Beam from getting in even bigger trouble? To get everybody home in time for lunch? C’mon Alijda. We can’t interfere with planets that are simply doing their own thing. That’s wrong, and we both know it.”
Alijda looked away from Alice’s pleading gaze. She didn’t like that her friend was making sense, because she didn’t want to be talked out of her decision. “You once told me that signing up for this Project meant we’d get help,” she stated. “If we ran into problems. Well, I think Kat needs help.”
“The deal was, you’d be helped within your personal multiverse,” Alice said. “Not out here.”
“How is out here so different? Either way we’re getting external help.”
Alice poked her head back into Alijda’s field of vision. “Look. Even if this Destiny woman Kat mentioned IS Fate from his world, the only reason she wouldn’t show on our scans is if she breached the barriers herself. Thus not our problem. Moreover, she’s obviously started living a life down there. We can’t simply abduct her away from that, there would be repercussions for anyone who knows her.”
“This project abducted me. Twice.”
Alice stamped her foot. “That’s different, and you know it! Stop bending the rules to suit your narrative.”
Alijda spun away from her roommate a second time. “Why? That’s what I do, right? I’m questionable morals woman with enough l33t h4x0r skills to enforce my choices on others.”
Alice sighed. “Alijda, think. We don’t know anything about this Destiny. What if it’s all some sort of trap? To catch the original owners of the cyber arm?”
Alijda ran her fingers back through her hair. “Fine. We call Rose first – she’s technically in charge. If she feels like Kat’s behaving irrationally, we pull them up. Otherwise, I’m going down to help.”
“To help with what, reprogramming the local abacuses?”
Ignoring Alice’s little jab, Alijda paged Rose. They’d restored communications nearly half an hour ago, but Alijda had wanted to be sure there was no chance that they’d missed something on scans before making contact. To avoid being the bearers of bad news.
When Rose didn’t answer, Alijda wondered if that had been a mistake. “I’ll try Kat,” she decided.
Kat answered. He quickly brought them up to speed, in terms of Rose having been rendered drunk and unconscious from a magical police stamp, and Beam running off after having been screamed at by Rose in that state.
“It’s my fault,” Kat concluded. “I told Beam to act like Rose was a male lesbian, then paid little attention to issues arising from that decision. Worse, I prolonged the mission and brought us to the police station, instead of waiting for you to resume contact.”
“You meant well,” Alijda said, rubbing her forehead.
“Did I?” Kat challenged.
“Eh. Better than I probably would have under the same circumstances.”
Alice spoke up at last. “All three of us are kind of bad for breaking rules, aren’t we,” she reflected. “Hold on, I’ll see if I can pick Beam up on sensors.”
“The good news?” Kat offered. “According to the papers I signed, the magical tracking effects will wear off of Rose within a day. Two at most. I’ve pulled her off the main streets, we can lay low until she regains consciousness. And Beam might come back here in the meantime.”
“That doesn’t solve the question of this Destiny woman,” Alijda pointed out.
Kat was silent for a moment. “No,” he admitted. “It doesn’t.”
“I can’t pick up Beam anywhere around you,” Alice remarked. “Could she have been teleported away?”
“Seems unlikely, unless that’s another trick she had up her sleeve,” Kat said. “She did go insubstantial. Maybe that blinds her to your sensors?”
“Or Beam was abducted too,” Alijda said. “Making this an Epsilon mission, meaning I should go down to help with the search.”
Alice cleared her throat. “How can someone abduct a person who is insubstantial?”
Alijda resisted the urge to stamp her foot. “Look. We can’t just stand here and do nothing while they’re in trouble down there, can we?”
“Can’t we? It is hard. Doing that. Isn’t it?”
It was Alice’s tone of quiet sadness that made Alijda flinch more than anything. Because, of course, that’s the reality Alice had been faced with many times – sending people away and doing nothing, or the bare minimum, to help them. A boundary that Alice had ultimately overstepped. One which had gotten her fired.
Even now, there was no malice in Alice’s expression. If anything it was a searching, a pleading, a longing for confirmation of some feeling she had somehow never fully managed to articulate.
“Yeah,” Alijda agreed. “It’s hard. And… and there’s no need to put you through that again, Alice. How about you go down to help Kat out and assess the situation. I mean, it would seem to call for a level headed woman to put things right, and you’d be more objective about it than I would be.”
The two roommates stared at each other.
“Kat?” Alice said after a moment. “One of us will whirlpool down to the previous coordinates we used. Can you give us directions to your present location from there?”
“I can, but do you think having more people here might make things worse?” Kat said.
“Let us worry about that,” Alice stated.
Kat told them how to reach his position, adding that it might be a good idea to pick up Firestorm from the occult house on the way. Alice then closed the channel. The two women continued to stare at each other in silence.
Just as Alijda was about to ask Alice if she’d need anything, the younger woman spoke up.
“You can go down,” Alice said. “If you tell me why you want to go.”
It took a moment for Alijda to formulate her argument. “Think about it, Alice. Why would this Destiny woman magically give a cyber arm some ‘desire’, which included accessing computer records, and pulling Kat onto the Station? Why have the arm cause another crisis as soon as Kat left, then spout ‘Fate’ from a computer program? Between that and the symbols, there must be some connection to him. To his world. This might even be a cry for help, from Fate. We need Destiny, and we need Beam, and me going down can help us get them back as fast as possible.”
A smile tugged at Alice’s features. “No, you silly. Tell me why YOU want to go.”
Alijda frowned. Slowly, her eyes widened as she realized what Alice was getting at. She pursed her lips. “B-Because Kat’s an amazing guy and I screwed it all up with him once so I want to make that up to him?” She hoped she wasn’t blushing or anything so ridiculous.
Alice clapped her hands. “We now fail the Bechdel test, but as long as you’re AWARE of that issue, I’m okay with being the one staying behind. Let’s get you a communicator.”
Alijda stared. “Are you truly okay staying here? Really?”
It was Alice’s turn to look away, as she tucked some hair back behind her ear. “Old habits die hard. Besides, I need to think of a good way to incorporate initials for Rose and Beam into my pin design. This’ll give me time to do that.” She turned back, and winked off Alijda’s nonplussed look. “You know, the pin I made for Epsilon, based off Steins;Gate? I showed it to you a couple months ago.”
Alijda shook her head. “Oh, Alice. No matter what I might say about how weird you are, never change.”
“Same, honey.” Alice reached out, then seemed to think better of it, turning the movement into a stretch.
Alijda stepped forwards and grasped Alice, pulling her into a quick hug. “Thank you.” She pulled back, holding Alice by the shoulders. “Now yes, let’s get me a communicator.”
Firestorm was gone. All Alijda found in the house that Kat had directed her to was a note, left on the table, reading ‘Onto something, can’t wait’. There was no sign of Destiny’s diary.
“Sorry, Kat,” Alijda finished, after explaining. They had met up near the police station, in what passed for a park. The unconscious Rose had been laid out on a bench, Kat leaning over her, to monitor her condition.
Kat shrugged. “No need to apologize, doesn’t sound like you scared him off. We probably shouldn’t have left Firestorm alone. That’s another thing I’ve messed up planetside.”
Alijda put her hands on her hips. “Oooh, don’t you even start.”
Kat frowned. “Start what?”
“I’m a depressive. I know all about the spiral down, pinning extra blame when it’s not really warranted. I mean, if you’d left Beam behind with this Firestorm, her memory might have glitched again, or Firestorm might not have read something important, and so we’d still be in some sort of trouble. So don’t dwell.”
Kat shook his head. “Alijda, you forget, I’ve trained for off-planet missions. The repercussions of messing up in these sorts of situations…”
“Still lie in our future. We can salvage this situation, so for now we focus forwards. Okay?”
Kat chuckled. “Oh, very well. But only if you take your own advice. Particularly with respect to whatever you were doing in your six months away from me, versus my six hours.”
Alijda let out a quick breath. “Fine.” He was pointing out a conversational door there, one related to them, but this hardly felt like the time. “So, now three missing people and no way to track them. Beam’s habits we know, more or less. Tell me about the other two.”
Kat filled in the information about Firestorm easily enough, Alijda pacing back and forth as he spoke. Kat then gave what cursory information they knew about Destiny, before visibly hesitating. A few people had wandered through the area during their conversation, but there was no one there now, so Alijda knew it had to be about her.
She stopped in place, turning to face him. “If you don’t want to tell me about Fate, you don’t have to.”
“It might be relevant. It’s just…”
“It’s not on your business cards, as you said. I get it.”
Kat shook his head. “No, it’s more like, I’ve never really gone in depth with anyone about it before. So I’m not sure how to do it now. But…” He came around the bench and leaned against the side, near Rose’s feet. “Okay. Fate was my first serious relationship. Could even be why I don’t take them seriously now, you never know when the other person’s going to up and disappear.”
“Meaning you took relationships seriously before Fate?”
Kat seemed about to reply, only to rub the back of his neck, sheepishly. “Hah, okay, no,” he admitted after a moment. “But I was a teenager, and with a name like ‘Katherine’, it was all about being as manly as possible. That said, Fate was the first rejection in high school that truly bothered me. She said she was upset that I was wasting my ‘gift’. It was only by looking into her occultish things that made me realize, she’d somehow sensed my ability for fire control. And it was only by proving a genuine interest in learning more that got me into using that ability, which led to us hooking up.”
“So Fate was the first girl you actually cared about,” Alijda realized. “As far as relationships go.”
“Huh. You may be right there,” Kat said. “We went to prom together, but our paths diverged in post secondary. What with my Dad wanting me at military college. For a time, Fate and I corresponded back and forth, but then it suddenly… stopped. Fate’s parents thought she’d gone out west. I wondered as to an occult connection, but there were so few leads. I’ve searched for her, on and off, ever since.”
Alijda chewed briefly on her lower lip. “Guess I’ll just ask this then. Kat, could Fate truly have breached dimensional barriers by herself?”
“It’s possible,” Kat granted. “She was always deeper into occult things than I was, and she never told me what her gift allowed her to do. I just always figured she’d been recruited for something top secret, the way I was with the ‘Doorways’ program.”
“Did Fate have any interest in potions?”
“Like Destiny, you mean? Not really. But she could have grown into it, using that rare skill to maximize her chance of meeting someone like her elsewhere on the planet.”
“And you have no idea where Destiny might have been taken?”
“Not off the top of my head.” Kat shook his head. “It’s funny, now that I think about it, Fate did tend to wear a lot of black. Kind of like how you do. I wonder, could it be I have a different attraction to a certain type of woman?”
“Meaning you think Fate could have black, suicidal thoughts, like me?”
“Whoa! Whoa, no,” Kat protested, jumping back to his feet. “I didn’t mean… it’s only… yeah, I’m not sure why I said that. Sorry.”
The man had been pointing out how he’s attracted to you, dumbass, Alijda realized moments later. And you had to go and turn that into depression. Sabotaging the conversation, and yourself, like always.
“Hah, no, I’m the one who’s sorry,” Alijda said quickly. “I’m just terrible, in how my mind interprets…” She also needed to stop putting herself down. “I mean, not always, but my default it’s, er…” Still talking about herself. “Whereas you, uh…” Oh, just say you like him already. “See, I failed the Bechdel test with Alice.” Damn it!
Kat’s eyebrow arced up, but before he could say anything, Rose let out a gasp. The redheaded teen’s eyes snapped open, and she jerked herself up into a sitting position, breathing fast.
Kat and Alijda moved to sit on either side of her, to prevent her from slumping back down, Alijda reaching out to touch the young girl’s arm.
“Rose? Rose, you okay?” Kat asked.
“Feel all funny,” Rose wheezed. “My tongue, my eyes, my ears, my fingers, my…” She sniffed in a long, deep breath through her nose. Only to wince and reach up to touch it. “My nose. Ack, now all the weird tingles are zeroing in on my poor nose.”
Alijda met Kat’s gaze. “That signed police form, giving Rose tracking powers. Did it mention turning her into some sort of bloodhound?”
Kat considered it. “You mean, allowing her to track someone or something by scent? Yeah, it could be interpreted that way.”
Rose poked at her nose. “That’s non-scents. In fact, my nose is feeling more and more stuffed up. Like it’s waiting for the right thing to smell, or something.” She looked around. “Hold on. When did Beam turn into Alijda?”
“This means we need to give Rose something of Destiny’s to sniff,” Kat decided. “Let’s get back to her place.” He started to rise, then sat back. “Unless, should we track down Firestorm instead, using that note he left? He knows the terrain, has the diary, and might already be onto something.”
“Do either of you have a tissue?” Rose asked.
“Hell, maybe Rose should track Beam,” Alijda suggested. “Using some item of hers from the station. Alice had noticed upgrades to the sensors that she didn’t understand. If Beam could get those working, and if Destiny is Fate, and if that means the Station can pinpoint her, we’d be able to go into the situation much less blind.”
“Beam,” Rose gasped. Her hand slid to her mouth. “I told her… I said she was… oh no. Oh NO, I’m HORRIBLE.”
“That was lots of ‘ifs’, Alijda,” Kat said, looking troubled. “And what if we track down Beam only for her to tell us it’s time to leave the planet, by the book?”
Alijda shook her head. “If Rose finds Beam, it shows she cares. And I doubt Beam would shut down a friend in need after that.”
“Wait, what is going on?” Rose looked back and forth between the two of them. “What’s the next move here?”
VOTING CLOSES NOON EDT SATURDAY SEPT 30th
PATHS NOT TAKEN:
My main thought behind the vote had been secret picking of point-of-view. (Alijda, Alice, Kat.) Second guessed it later (we hadn’t had Alijda POV yet, and it’s getting to be late in the story). If I had time to do it over I’d likely have an Alice/Kat split, but hopefully it worked okay. Alijda also pulled the narrative focus onto the Alijda-Kat relationship (as Steve S surmised), whereas with Alice, I’d likely have focussed more on Alice-Rose leadership talk. The tracking without extra help was vague, but may have meant Kat talking to Rose about the complexities of relationships (including Alijda and Fate).
THE ORACLE PROPHESIED:
Subtle decision from the Part 9 vote: When Firestorm was left behind, it meant no tech would register on the Epsilon scans, as revealed in this part. (After all, Rose being deputized has kept them tied to the planet.) Had Firestorm been the one deputized, there WOULD have been signs of a tech component, as a reason to stick around and not turn everything over to Firestorm. Thanks for reading and voting!