SMOKE WITH MIRRORS: PART SEVEN
Alice counted down the seconds until the designated arrival time. She was ten seconds over the limit when the shimmering whirlpool finally appeared at the end of the alleyway. Not bad, all things considered.
A redhead with twintails slid out of the portal, landing on her behind. She was wearing the same kind of protective face mask as Alice herself, though her glistening white blouse and dark leather pants were a departure from the pink T-shirt and blue jeans that Alice had selected that morning. As were the woman’s ankle boots.
Alice approached as the wormhole closed back in on itself. She extended her hand.
“Hello! Trixie, I presume?”
The woman eyed Alice for a moment before reaching her arm out to accept the help rising to her feet. “Correct. And you’re Alice, I recognize you from the videos.”
“Only the public ones, I trust,” Alice chirped. “I’m more interesting in person.” She gestured at her new companion. “Did you dress up special for me? I thought you preferred skirts.”
Trixie dusted off her pants. “No. This simply seemed more practical for the mission, while still being prone to distract anyone that I’d want to keep off balance.” She looked back up at Alice, her eyes worried and searching. “Please tell me you’re not aroused.”
“Oh no. I’m not Beam,” Alice said, laughing. “Just, those wouldn’t be my first go-to after ditching a skirt.” She hooked her thumbs into the belt loops of her jeans. “Gotta stay comfortable.”
Trixie dragged her fingers back through her twintails. “Oh, tight leather’s comfortable, if you wear it enough. And it’s not like you’d see my ass less if I wore jeans.”
“I suppose,” Alice granted. She gestured down the alley. “So, shall we regroup back at the apartment?”
To Alice’s surprise, Trixie shook her head. “I’d rather start by taking readings from the nearby park,” she said. “The one Beam used to frequent.”
“You think that’s the place we want?” Alice asked. They had no conclusive proof yet about where Beam might have been infected, only that it had likely been a deliberate act.
“I don’t know,” Trixie said. “Hence the taking of readings.” She pulled some sort of small device out of her blouse pocket and waved it in the air.
“I did take a few preliminary scans of all locations where Beam hung out,” Alice remarked. “Including there. Though I guess if that’s some magic detector, you’ll register things I didn’t.”
“It’s Rixi,” Trixie stated. “I downloaded some of the data on this Earth into her, but for the most part, I’m starting from scratch. At worst, this gives me a baseline. At best, we find something’s up.”
Alice nodded. “This way then,” she concluded, turning the opposite way out of the alley from her original plan.
Honestly, Alice was just as happy to start their association by doing some investigating. She had been getting tired of all the dead ends, and after the recent Station news, had been tempted to start looking into infection sites on her own. However, once she’d learned of Fate’s decision to send Trixie down, she’d decided to wait the additional day.
For her part, Trixie seemed to be warily looking at everything and everyone as they walked down the street. It was a bit hard to tell how she felt given the mask over the lower part of her face, but she seemed troubled.
“You won’t see many late-stage infected,” Alice remarked. “The bunny ears are a dead giveaway, so they tend to stay at home. And while there could be people in the early stages of Smoke, as there’s been no way to identify such cases – I mean, beyond a test that takes a couple days to produce results – we just have to keep our distance.”
“It’s not only the virus that has me on edge,” Trixie admitted. “This is a whole new world. Yet it doesn’t look that different from being in some foreign city on my world. It’s weird. Will we turn a corner and see dogs walking upright? I keep expecting some other shoe to drop.”
“We can only hope that this will be the last footwear to fall,” Alice quoted.
Trixie focussed in on Alice. “What?”
Alice smiled back, despite knowing that Trixie wouldn’t be able to see her expression. “What?”
Trixie continued to stare for a moment, then looked back down at her Rixi device. “Okay then. So, is this park we’re going to still closed?”
“All of them in the city are,” Alice confirmed. “Except to walk through. Beam kind of ignored that, it gave her a quiet place to think.”
“Right. I’d ask why she didn’t think the apartment was a quiet enough place for that,” Trixie remarked. “Except I read your report about the lady across the hall.”
“And her boyfriend, and the fact that they’ve both turned bunny?” Alice considered. “Yeah. I mean, don’t get me wrong, they’re nice enough. But they need me to do grocery runs, and the other day, one wanted me to fluff their tail.” She lifted up her palms. “I wash my hands a lot.”
“I don’t blame you.”
“Yup. If I’m gonna be a bunny, it’s gonna be on my terms,” Alice stated, clenching the hands into fists. “Or possibly because I’ve become so popular that my merchandise warrants the Playboy Bunny variation. Ehhh?” She winked.
Trixie blinked back. “Sorry, are you… famous on some world out there…?”
“Nope. Not yet,” Alice sighed, clasping her hands behind her back. “Infamous, maybe. Unless being part of Epsilon itself counts.”
“Um. Well, you are unique,” Trixie said after a moment.
Alice again gave a hidden smile. “Thanks! So I’ve been told.”
Trixie cleared her throat. “So, Beam did her thinking in a park?”
“Yes. She also investigated at city hall, the airport, and on a carrot farm outside town,” Alice reminded. “But it’s true the park is the most suspicious case, since others have done reporting in the other places without any consequence that I’m aware of.”
“Are there more bunny cases among those living closer to the park?” Trixie asked.
Alice shrugged. “I’m good at tech tinkering but I’m no hacker. So I don’t have that data. However, the property for the park changed hands a bunch of times before it became what it is – that’s in the public record – and this whole neighbourhood is a pretty large subdivision. So maybe someone’s been hiding out or running experiments? I dunno.”
“Hmmm,” was all Trixie said. She looked back down at her device.
They didn’t speak again until reaching the park, though Alice did notice how more heads turned to look at Trixie and her outfit than had ever looked her way. Meaning it would probably be up to Alice to do any covert work while the eyes were on her companion. She was okay with this.
It was as Alice started to walk through the park gate that Trixie reached out to grasp her arm. “Hold up,” Trixie murmured. “I think there’s a drone in there.”
Alice reached down to pretend to tie up her running shoe. “You sure? My earlier scans were inconclusive for electronics.”
“I don’t think that was a bird I saw,” Trixie said, dubiously. She tapped at a few buttons on her device. “Maybe it was some kid who… hold on. This world has no magic? Aside from me?”
“None that I know of,” Alice said. It occurred to her belatedly that they should have tested out some of Trixie’s magic. Different Earth dimensions could react differently to individual abilities. Hopefully it wouldn’t be an issue.
Trixie remained silent for a moment, then started to walk down the sidewalk, parallel to the park. Alice finished with her shoe and hurried after. “What’ve you got?”
“I’m reading something. Something like when I access my Hammerspace,” Trixie muttered. “That is, I don’t think someone’s accessing a pocket dimension, but the more often you cast a spell, the more I can register it’s existence, given how it becomes less effective.”
“On your Earth, at least,” Alice pointed out.
“True,” Trixie granted. She came to a stop at a thick telephone pole on their side of the park fence. “But something’s been cast here. A lot. Rixi, can we duplicate?”
“Working,” came a sound from Trixie’s device, as the redhead touched a small red crystal. To Alice, it sounded like an electronic version of Trixie’s own voice.
Alice took the opportunity to look around for signs of another drone, or anything that might indicate that they were being watched. They were in the shadow of a large tree, which helped to conceal their presence, and she didn’t see anything in the branches that might indicate spying.
Too bad she hadn’t thought to bring any of her own scanners to the meet-up with Trixie.
“Analysis complete. Greatest chance of success, fumus ignis,” Rixi intoned.
“Huh,” Trixie mused. “That’s alarmingly relevant.”
“Was fumus a reference to Smoke?” Alice asked. “Something about the virus?”
“Not directly,” Trixie answered. “There’s a few catch-all spells that can be used to, well, in a sense, hack someone else’s system. In this case, we try… ubi fumus, ibi ignis.”
As Trixie spoke, she waved her hand out in front of her body. There was a click, and the telephone pole swung open, revealing a hollow with what looked like an elevator panel inside. “Translated as, where there’s Smoke, there’s fire,” Trixie finished.
“Got it,” Alice remarked, leaning in to look at the panel. “Only one other floor. Going down?”
“If you think we’ll fit,” Trixie said, dubiously. “It’s obviously made for one.”
“I’d rather not split up,” Alice insisted, moving to press herself up against the back wall. Though it was true that the cylindrical space would not fit the both of them very comfortably.
Trixie seemed to agree with the sentiment, moving in to press her body up against that of Alice. Alice suspected that the only thing that kept the shorter woman’s breath from being hot against her neck was the mask. “Pull me as close as you need,” Trixie murmured. “But try not to grope my ass too much.”
“Only a little bit then?” Alice quipped, as she fumbled for the elevator button.
“I’d hate to think I was completely unappealing,” Trixie giggled.
The door slid closed, leaving them in almost total darkness as Alice felt the platform they were standing on descend. Trixie squirmed against her body, seemingly looking for more space that didn’t exist. Eventually, she gave up.
“Alice, do you wear perfume?” Trixie murmured after a moment.
“Not usually,” Alice answered. “Though I notice you do.”
“Um. Yeah,” Trixie admitted. A pause. “Sorry if that bugs you.”
“No, no,” Alice assured. “It’s a way to distract people if they’re not keen on leather pants. I get it.”
Trixie took in a deep breath, which Alice felt more than heard. “Right.” The elevator continued to move very slowly. “Mmmph. So what are you thinking about?”
“Right now I’m thinking about horror movies that take place in elevators. Devil, Elevator, The Lift…”
“Yikes. Okay then,” Trixie said, as Alice let her voice trail off. Then, after another pause, came a mutter that sounded like, “Why am I thinking about my last Tinder hookup.”
Alice wasn’t sure how to respond, but before she even could, the door slid back open. And after Trixie had pulled away from her with a faint sigh, Alice stepped out to see what they were dealing with.
Problematically, it seemed to be a dead end. For all intents and purposes.
“Decontamination chamber,” Alice remarked, taking a couple strides to look at the exit on the other side of the small room. It was sealed shut with a sign and a keypad.
“But also some files,” Trixie remarked.
Alice turned. Sure enough, the room they were didn’t didn’t have much aside from what looked like an emergency generator, a coat rack, and a table… but on the table were a few file folders. Alice glanced over Trixie’s shoulder as the other woman flipped through them.
“I think these are all viral analyses,” Trixie said after a moment. “Of Smoke in different settings. But it’s not clear whether it’s related to causing the pandemic, curing it, or something else.”
“The dates seem to be from after the first case,” Alice noted. “If that’s relevant.”
“It probably is,” Trixie said. She put the files back down. “So, we keep going?”
Alice sighed. “Do we? Someone will surely notice when their decontamination chamber is in use. If not now, then when someone checks the inevitable video footage.”
“They might have already noticed their elevator was active,” Trixie pointed out. “We should get as far as we can before they’re really on to us.”
“Let’s at least call for backup,” Alice decided. She pulled out her Epsilon communicator… only to find that no signal was available when she attempted to use it.
“That’s that then. We could leave the area to call, but I think by the time Beam or Para got down here, we’d have lost the element of surprise,” Trixie insisted.
Alice crossed and uncrossed her arms. “Maybe we should split up then,” she yielded. “You can go up top to check in, as well as be distracting to anyone monitoring the park. I’ll keep trying to sneak in the back way here.”
“What? Why should I be the one to go topside?” Trixie argued.
“Because you have the spell ability to get back down, if necessary,” Alice pointed out. “Along with your claims of being a better visual distraction.”
Trixie’s nose crinkled. “Ah. You’re not wrong.”
Alice nodded. “So, what do you think?”
VOTING CLOSES ON SUNDAY AUGUST 16th?
PATHS NOT TAKEN:
Beam joining Alice would have thrown off their quarry, as previously stated… but at the same time, they would have been seen approaching. Alijda joining Alice would have meant Alice was missing, having gone to investigate during the additional quarantine time; Alijda would likely have joined up with the person across the hall from Alice’s apartment and done some hacking. Of course, we got Trixie joining, meaning some Rixi and tracking with more stealth, as seen.
I actually had all four votes within 6 days. Maybe I was talking about it more? Maybe you’re more eager? Either way, thanks for reading.