SMOKE WITH MIRRORS: PART TEN
Beam felt violated. It was one thing for an individual to not be cautious and catch a virus. It was quite another for that individual to be targeted and infected. Simply because Beam was (presumably) unable to catch the disease otherwise, and someone felt paranoid.
Despite that, Beam was trying to remain impartial. And not stare too much at Para’s curves, even as her libido kept telling her to.
“These pylons should work much like the amplifier Alijda and I installed in the station, right?” Para remarked, breaking Beam out of her thoughts.
Beam looked down at the one she was carrying, as the two of them walked along the sidewalk. “Close enough,” she agreed. “We simply anchor them in a triangle and use the field they generate to punch down through the interference, pyon pyon. Should let us get a lock on our team.”
They had already set one pylon up at a telephone pole, their arrival site, and roughly the location of Trixie’s mayday call. Their scanners implied something existed inside the pole itself – an elevator? – but they had no idea how to gain access. It likely required magic.
Para nodded, her bunny ears bouncing. Beam found herself wondering if her extra ears did the same.
“We could split up and each do one then, right?” Para continued. “That would be faster.”
“But not as safe,” Beam insisted.
Para nodded again. She seemed to want to say something else, but wasn’t sure how to phrase it. Or perhaps wasn’t sure if she even should say something.
Beam sighed. “Speak up, pyon pyon,” she prompted. “If nothing else it keeps my mind occupied more on the mission, and less on how sexy you are.”
Para’s cheeks bloomed a bit pinker. “It’s not exactly about the mission though,” she admitted. “It’s more, when you say safe… I was wondering if you meant, without me, you’d be inclined to wander off and find someone to… um… you know. Get satisfaction.”
“What, on account of every lady on the station turning me down?” Beam quipped.
Para seemed unable to meet her gaze.
Beam sighed. “Don’t worry about me, Para. While I grant that sex is one of my primary tools for solving problems, I am a professional. And as much as I might want to get it on, pyon pyon, for now I care more about rescuing Alice and Trixie. Okay?”
Para nodded. “I didn’t mean to imply–”
“No offence taken,” Beam assured quickly. “I’m not exactly myself.”
“Right. Okay.” Para nibbled her lower lip. “Meaning it’s more me that you’re worried about, should we split up.”
Again Beam shook her head. “I trust you to get the job done too. But one, I know the area already, and two, I worry that there’s a drone out there with a knockout dart. Or worse, pyon pyon. I’m not merely scanning our surroundings here for pretty girls, you know.”
“OH,” Para realized. Beam could only assume Para had thought that their plan to move around the perimeter of the park, rather than through it, was enough to keep them safe. “Sorry. I… I didn’t…”
“Para, stop apologizing,” Beam insisted. “We’re stronger together is all.” She realized her eyes had wandered south again. “All I ask is that you don’t suddenly decide to take me up on any prior offers. I don’t want to have to run a willpower check, pyon pyon.” She smiled.
Alas, Para’s face became even more red. “That’s SO unlikely,” she blurted. Then she flinched. “I mean… it’s like I’ve said before, you’re not undesirable, it’s… uh… I… um…”
Beam could tell Para was trying not to say ‘sorry’. “Ugh, again, no offence taken,” Beam broke in. “Calm down, Para. I get it. You’re not human. Possibly not bi either. My remark was more an attempt to defuse tension, pyon pyon. Along with being a commentary on… how do I put this.”
Beam paused to find the right phrasing. “Listen. I think certain people infected with the Bunny Virus are more prone to want to engage with other infected, rather than the general population.”
Para considered that. “Then you want to, er, be with other bunnies,” she clarified.
Beam nodded. “The pull is stronger. Now, maybe that’s because I, as an individual, would rather not spread the virus, pyon pyon. Even though I’m not contagious. Might be different for others, particularly if they had strong emotional ties, and wanted someone in particular to be converted with them. But if not, well… we stay together.”
Para fell silent, seemingly thinking about that as they continued their walk. “Does that mean if we run into other infected, they might try to jump me?” she said at last.
“Didn’t want to come out with it, but yes, maybe, pyon pyon,” Beam concluded.
“Ah. Thanks for being here then,” Para decided.
They reached the second point of the triangle then and set up Para’s pylon in silence, before continuing to walk around the park to get to the optimal site on the other side. They were walking, rather than running, to avoid drawing attention to themselves.
Beam checked her scanner. Ideally, they’d wanted their points to form the largest possible equilateral triangle. They didn’t know how big the underground complex was.
It was as they turned the final corner, that Beam was forced to shoot out her hand to keep Para back.
“Heck,” Beam muttered. There was a police officer down there. A female one. And while anchoring down their pylon wouldn’t take long, there was no way it wouldn’t be seen as suspicious, particularly since it would seem like infected people were doing it.
“What do we do about her?” Para murmured, peering past to see the issue.
Beam handed her devices over to Para. “I’ll try to lure her away, pyon pyon. When I do, you set up the pyon. Er, pylon.”
Para looked unconvinced. “You think you can?”
Honestly, Beam wasn’t sure. She couldn’t rely on her sexual wiles to manage it, that was the one thing everyone would be guarding against with an infected person. But a transparent lie such as ‘come here, someone’s been mugged’ might not hold up.
Para didn’t have to know any of that though. “I think so,” Beam answered. “Unless you know of some alternative?”
Para winced. “We could hope that Fate and Alijda are having better luck on the Station?”
Beam shook her head. “We’re not going to wait around on their plan, pyon pyon. Er, my plan. My plan that they’re enacting. Whatever.” She took in a deep breath. “Here goes.”
Beam headed towards the officer.
“This was a good idea,” Alijda remarked. “Working two angles simultaneously, in case one fails.”
“Except this splits our focus at a critical time,” Fate lamented. “Plus Beam knows the Station’s history a heck of a lot better than me. But she needs to be down there, as she presumably cannot get infected.”
Alijda noticed Fate continuing to work through the security locks for the Station’s artifacts as she spoke. She could watch the other women via the Pad being carried, but was, of course, still stuck in the quarantine room.
“Don’t beat yourself up over it,” Alijda said. “Besides, this beats sitting up here spinning our thumbs.” She looked back down at the artifact listing on her terminal.
There was a click, and Fate headed into the next room. “I will admit,” Fate said after a moment, “every time I walk in here I half expect that phone to ring, and discover that God is on the other line.”
“Phone?” Alijda asked, without looking up.
“The one on the wall here. I don’t think it’s real,” Fate added. “But it wasn’t listed in artifacts either, so it must be part of the station. Unless the other administrators weren’t that great at records.”
“Ooh, don’t let Alice hear you say something like that,” Alijda remarked. “She can be a real stickler for the rules at times.”
There was a pause, as Fate presumably looked at the physical items while Alijda continued her scrolling through the catalogue. There were only around a dozen artifacts whose home dimension had not been located yet, but there was a fair amount of detail to go with them.
“Alijda?” Fate asked after a moment.
“Mmmm hmmmm,” Alijda answered.
“Did Alice ever talk much about that God? The one who, I guess, set all this up?”
Alijda shook her head, finally taking a moment to look back at the monitor. “Just, female, rescued Alice from a Hell Dimension, never met in person, seemed to give good advice. Depending on your definition of good. Granted, I never pried. It didn’t seem right, given how Alice revered her, yet got fired.”
Fate nodded, looking troubled. “Okay then.”
“Why, do you know something about this God that we don’t?” Alijda asked.
Fate sighed. “No. If anything, I know less. I’ve never received orders, the few items retrieved in my time have been due to scans we made. I’ve been wondering though, whether She is the reason we picked up on this dimensional pandemic in the first place?”
“Huh. You think our mystery message was sent by God?” Alijda tried not to sound incredulous. It seemed even less plausible than their current ‘message from the future’ theory.
“I don’t know,” Fate said, visibly frustrated. “But if it was Her, well…” Her voice trailed off.
“Well?” Alijda prompted, her attention having gone back to her item list.
Another sigh. “Well, if there is a God, doesn’t that imply the existence of a Devil?”
Alijda frowned. “Huh. I’m… not the best person to be talking to about religion. Are you implying the Devil started the pandemic though?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what to believe about all this,” Fate said. She pressed her palm to her forehead. “I need more sleep.”
“We all do,” Alijda agreed. Her finger hovered over the current item. “Hold on. Something here, maybe. Found on an Earth denoted… PX-75309?”
“I’m listening,” Fate said, sounding more business-like.
Alijda cleared her throat. “It’s a helmet that lets you swap minds. You merely need an item belonging to the other person to make it work. And Alice has stuff up here, yeah?”
“Hmmm. You’re thinking I could briefly take over Alice’s body to learn the layout down there,” Fate deduced. “While she could be up here debriefing you.”
“It’s a thought,” Alijda agreed. “It’s unclear whether the range works when we’re not on the planet, but nothing can block mental brainwaves, right?”
“It’s worth an attempt,” Fate decided. “Reminds me of a gun enchantment in Chartreuse’s last mission, actually.” A pause. “Nothing in the room looks like a helmet though.”
“This says helmet, but the image is more like a metal fruit bowl,” Alijda clarified. “Also, uh oh, Beam’s notes say that the transfer time is random. Moreover, the person you swap with now has the helmet. If they swap with someone else, you could be stuck in the body you transferred to.”
“Unless I got the helmet back,” Fate reasoned. “Though I guess a lot of damage could be done in the interim.”
“Yeah. I think that’s what happened on PX-75309. Anyway. To activate you simply concentrate on the item you have, and on what the other person looks like.”
“Okay. I’ve got it now,” Fate said, holding up the mind helmet.
“You do,” Alijda confirmed.
Fate turned to exit the room. “I’ll get some clothing of Alice’s and bring it to an isolated area of the Station to activate. Just in case.”
“That’s prudent,” Alijda agreed. “Keep me on video to monitor the situation.”
Fate had everything set up less than ten minutes later. Alijda tried not to laugh as the woman lowered the bowl onto her head; it covered most of her face.
“Okay then. Does this look as silly as it feels?” Fate asked, as she sat down and clutched a pair of Alice’s jeans to her chest.
“Would you believe me if I said no?”
“Not really. And no word from Para or Beam yet?”
Alijda shook her head. “No, though they’re still on sensors. Should we wait?”
“No point. This might not even work.” Fate drew in a deep breath. “So here’s wishing that I could swap minds with Alice.”
“Mmmm. At times, we all wonder what goes on in her head,” Alijda joked.
At first, nothing seemed to happen. But then, Fate sat up straighter. “What is this?” Fate’s voice demanded. She pulled the helmet off of her head and looked around. “Where am I? Where the hell did my underground lab go?!”
“Oh. Oh, that’s great,” Alijda muttered.
VOTING CLOSES AFTER SEPTEMBER (Thurs Oct 1st).
PATHS NOT TAKEN:
No one chose contacting Vortex Ltd, which would have brought us back to an Alice or Trixie POV. We might have obtained more information, but one of them would have been infected, what with mentioning putting them in more danger. Instead we had a tie. Sending down Beam and Para would have resulted in an error, potentially extracting the scientist down there as well. Exploring the station was giving us the mind swapping as seen, except it would have worked… swapping with the scientist seemed like a reasonable compromise for the tie.
THE ORACLE PROPHESIED:
I’m not sure about prophesied, but early drafts had Fate and Alice already having swapped minds (likely if we’d gone the romance angle). It seemed like a useful device to have during a pandemic, when the limitation is your body cannot leave the house. Nixed when we started with Trixie.
I kept the last vote open to see if the tie would be broken, and because it was my first full week of classes under our new pandemic teaching model. So I was busy. Closed it Friday, but before I could start writing in earnest, my daughter got sick, and gave us her cold, and we all needed Covid-19 tests to avoid being at home for 14 days which was not a feasible situation. Hence the part is late. Thanks for waiting, and reading through to this point.