6.14: What the H?

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SMOKE WITH MIRRORS: PART FOURTEEN

It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that Alijda would have changed clothes once they’d gone their separate ways on the planet. But Alice didn’t think that was very likely.

Meaning, who was the woman who looked like Alijda, standing across the market square?

The more Alice watched, the more she was sure that this was not her roommate of six months. The mannerisms were all wrong. So either this was Alijda being mentally controlled, she would have experienced a major temporal issue in the future/past, or… something else. But what?

Alice decided to dub the woman ‘Alijdah’ in her mind.

She also decided to wait until Alijdah had left the area before approaching, and even then, she went up to a woman who had only been observing the scene, like her. Better to scout out the situation first.

“So, that brunette woman is back, huh?” Alice remarked, with a smile.

The other woman turned to look at her. She had dark skin, and wore a dark, battered cloak to help conceal her features and other clothing. Her mask told Alice that she was sensible, given the pandemic, and her piercing eyes told Alice that she was observant.

“Who the heck are you?” the woman demanded.

Maybe a bit too observant.

Alice commission

ALICE VUNDERLANDE
Commission by Cherry Zong

Alice looked down at herself, then back up. She hadn’t wanted to give up comfortable pants to wear a dress or skirt, but in general thought her clothing blended in fairly well with the others in this area of the planet. On the bright side, the question confirmed that Alice didn’t also have a doppelgänger running around.

“My appearance has become that of some illusion girl, off some guy who got powers,” Alice offered up. “Maybe you saw me around before that? I’m Avril. Avril Carroll.

“Doesn’t ring a bell.” The woman peered at her more closely. “Getting hit by a projectionist though? That’s not unheard of.” She seemed to relax a bit. “I’m Harriet, and yes, Alijdah’s back. If indeed she ever left.”

Alice felt a chill at the woman’s name being the same, mental addition of the ‘h’ notwithstanding. She tried to nonchalantly clasp her hands behind her back. “She still doing the same thing as before?”

“Trying to recruit?” Harriet supplied. “Yes. Though if you ask me, her organization is only interested in the one guy.”

Alice clicked through her mental file folders to remember what Alijda had said about the last time she was here. Regarding the old man in the jail who had seen Alijda’s doppelgänger speaking to a friend of his. “The guy who can read people’s futures,” Alice recalled.

Harriet nodded. “That’s the one. Jonas only seems to see the BAD stuff, of course, but it didn’t work on her. Piqued his interest. And if things continue to turn around here, Alijdah’s recruitment drive might work.”

Alice tilted her head. “Turn around?”

Harriet stared, visibly troubled, despite the mask. “With the government officials listening to us and stopping the arrests. Avril, are you sure your brain wasn’t affected by that projection too?”

“Ooh, I hope not,” Alice said sincerely. “Not sure we can really believe the government’s sincerity. That’s all.”

Harriet grunted. “Okay, fair point. Some of ’em are still massive bastards. We’re trending in the right way though, enough to the point where Jonas and some others might feel they can leave.”

“With Alijdah,” Alice clarified.

Harriet nodded. “I mean, personally? I don’t think I’ll miss him. But I worry about that Alijdah woman. I don’t think anyone should go with her.”

“Bad news,” Alice summarized.

Harriet nodded again. “I’m pleased you agree.” She looked Alice up and down once more. “You do also give me a vibe, incidentally. Not bad news, exactly, but you strike me as a woman on a mission.”

“That’s not inaccurate,” Alice admitted. “It’s one related to Alijdah, as you’ve likely guessed, so if you know anything else about her…?”

Harriet slowly shook her head. “I think I’ve already told you enough about her and Clover Enterprises.”

Alice was grasping for Harriet’s cloak almost before she realized it, and it was only in retrospect that she applauded the other woman’s ability to dodge. Harriet then smacked her outstretched hand away.

“Correction, I’ve told you too much,” Harriet decided. “If you’re going after them, you leave me out of it. Good day.”

Without another word, Harriet spun on her heel and stalked off, leaving Alice rubbing her hand as her thoughts pinwheeled through her head.

Alijdah? Connected to Clover Enterprises? What sort of science fiction madness was this?

***

“Don’t look at me like that,” Alijda said. “I legit have no idea what that conversation was about, or what my supposed double has been up to.”

Alice had spent the better part of an hour trying to get more information from anyone in the square about Alijdah or Clover Enterprises. To no avail. She supposed she might have come across as a bit manic.

Alice had then reunited with Alijda, who had spent her investigation time in the Hall of Records. But Alijda hadn’t turned up anything new about the pandemic or her earlier ‘visit’ to the planet.

“Okay, well, we just need to get you to pose as Alijdah-with-an-h,” Alice decided. “That should get us what we need to take down Clover for good.”

“Or I’m arrested. Again,” Alijda noted. She shook her Epsilon communicator. “What’s with you using an ‘h’ anyway?”

“It’s a recognized symbol for hydrogen, which is explosive, medical attention, which she’s gonna need after messing with you, and the letter H itself is full of controversy,” Alice explained. “Also, you’re non-h, meaning non-hentai.” She smiled.

Alijda pursed her lips. They both knew hentai was sexualized animation. “Sorry I asked.”

“Hello?” came Fate’s voice through the communicator. It was loud enough for both women to hear.

Alijda lifted the device back up. “Hello! Where have you been?”

Fate sighed. “Sorry for the delay. Trixie’s thing caused a thing.”

Alice leaned in. “Has Trixie been doing something new since she started sleeping with Beam?”

“No, this is a project she was working on even before that,” Fate corrected. “It’s just she’s been doing more with it since the two of you went planet-side. To the point of even asking Para for help.”

“Hm. Makes sense. I guess if Beam were the one helping, the two of them wouldn’t get much work done,” Alice reflected, tapping her chin.

Fate sighed again. “Can we not be talking about who’s sleeping with Beam?”

“Oh, whoops,” Alice apologized. “Forgot you might be jealous.” She really didn’t see the hologram’s appeal, but that was no reason to be rude.

“I’m NOT,” Fate said, in a tone which implied to Alice that she was, at least a little bit. “I’m trying to focus on WORK. Does one of you have a report?”

“Alice does,” Alijda said.

She held out the device and allowed Alice to fill the Station in on the earlier conversation with Harriet.

“Okay,” Fate said after a moment. “So on the plus side, I was right about Clover’s interest in that planet. On the negative side, suddenly wondering if Alijda is a security risk. Given how you’ve been against this Station’s mission from the start.”

“I was against the Station’s creepy oversight,” Alijda said, visibly irritated. “I have no plans to become Alijda-h.”

“Yet,” Alice intoned.

Alijda looked at her. Her expression above the mask showed she was hurt. “Et tu, roomie?”

“Not ruling out mind control is all,” Alice soothed. “More to the point, have you two made the link yet? Between the pandemic and the recruitment?”

Alijda quirked up an eyebrow, but it was Fate who spoke, asking “Link?”

Alice nodded. “Clover Enterprises gets Vortex technology. Leaves techno-magic soup in it’s wake, which becomes a pandemic bridging dimensions.” She began to gesture as she spoke. “Said pandemic finds it’s way here to Fantasy World, where it starts activating magic powers. At THAT, Clover swoops back in to recruit those people. People who wouldn’t be of interest if not for Clover’s earlier interference.”

“Hold on,” Fate said. “Are you suggesting Clover deliberately put the pieces for the pandemic in place, hoping that they could get employees out of it?”

“If the shoe fits,” Alice said, shrugging. “And I know. I know. It sounds a bit like my conspiracy theory about leprechauns and rainbows, but seriously, Fate – HOW can this be coincidence?”

“She may have a partial point,” Alijda put in. “In that while I’m not sure Clover set up the pandemic deliberately, they have to be monitoring. This communication is encrypted, right?”

“Yeah,” Fate said. “But now that you mention it, I’m going to rotate the bandwidths.”

“Clover. They appear, observe, then vanish in the chaos,” Alice intoned.

“That is their standard operating procedure,” Fate yielded. “Much like how their involvement in ‘Chanced Erasures’ might have gone unseen, had that world’s attempt to seal themselves away had worked. The question becomes, can we shut this down?”

“I seem to be the key,” Alijda admitted. “Without my double, we wouldn’t have twigged into this scenario at all.”

Alice nodded. “That’s why you need to pose as Alijda-Hentai.”

Alijda cringed. “Alice. Do NOT call me that.”

“I’m not calling YOU that, I’m calling your cloned mind controlled double that.”

“Still,” Alijda said. “My body. You’re making Alijdah-with-an-h sound good.”

Alice grinned; she couldn’t help it, that had been part of her plan. “That’s settled then. So, I can describe what the other you was wearing, and we’ll get you–”

“Hold on,” Fate cut in. “Maybe sending Alijda into this is exactly what gets her caught and sent back in time working against us.”

“In which case this is a predestination paradox and we have to do it,” Alice concluded.

“Or by not doing this we change history,” Fate argued.

“Alice, maybe we send YOU,” Alijda fired off. “If I go into the square, I might meet my mirror image, or say the wrong thing, and everything goes sideways. Possibly gets violent. Whereas you’ve already been asking about Clover and being recruited. Maybe we follow that through to its natural conclusion.”

Alice considered that. It wasn’t a bad plan either, to be honest.

“Okay,” Alice declared, putting her hands to her hips. “Avril will take a stand until the end! I’ll get by. I’ll survive.”

“Am I still in charge here?” Fate said dryly.

“For the moment,” Alice yielded, dropping her hands. “You have another idea?”

“Hey, yeah, what is Trixie’s project about?” Alijda mused. “I don’t remember her talking about it with me.” And the two women had indeed been conferencing about a number of things, Alice recalled. “Is it magical? Can we use it?”

“I don’t think so. It’s not even virus related,” Fate explained. “Something about an idea for station upgrades, after seeing the analysis of the scattering field that Vortex Limited was using. No, I was considering Beam’s angle.”

Alice tapped her chin. “I’d make a quip about Beam actually working, except I know that beneath her bunny hormone exterior, she is a good Station Administrator,” Alice remarked. Even if the two of them had wildly different operating procedures.

Something clicked for Alijda. “The Para DNA.”

“Or whatever passes for it, yeah,” Fate agreed. “Beam spoke with you about it?”

“In passing,” Alijda said. “Given how Para’s a regular bunny instead of a pandemic one. Trixie was going to extract Para’s ‘blood’ for further analysis, right?”

“She did. Beam’s taken up the analysis herself now,” Fate explained. “And she’s making progress to the point where we might have a workable vaccine soon.”

“In a DAY?” Alice said, incredulous.

“Beam went hyper speed,” Fate explained. “Something she’s been loathe to do since catching the virus, because it’s a massive power drain and had the chance of just making her hyper horny. But she had been feeling better, and Alijda, you got us access to some of the files on the other planets for cross checking, so… yeah.”

Alijda stared at the communicator. “Then this vaccine would work on humans, not just maths or holograms? For real?”

“That’s where we’re less sure,” Fate said. “But we’ve got enough that we could be suggesting a recruitment drive. For testing.”

“Ohh,” Alice said, nodding. “You’re suggesting we recruit for the exact opposite reason that Clover’s recruiting. That might annoy them, draw them out.”

“Or cause more unrest down here,” Alijda said. “Fate, wouldn’t this be against Epsilon’s laws of interference? Or something?”

“Well, the way I see it,” Fate stated. “Is that unless the Epsilon God personally conveys to me a reason that this is a bad plan… we have the chance to stabilize the situation and maybe save lives. They didn’t ask for this pandemic, why should they have to ask for a vaccine?”

“I could say something about us pretending to know better than they do,” Alijda pointed out. “Which we don’t. But I do see a potentially larger downside to us doing nothing, so I’ll stay quiet.”

Alice clasped her hands behind her back. “So which one of us does the vaccine trial recruiting?”

Alijda looked at her. “Are we for sure rejecting our earlier plans of getting at Clover then?” she asked. “Since there’s no guarantee this will work. Clover might simply decide to vanish again.”

Alice nibbled her lower lip. That was a problem. But didn’t seem too likely, given how Clover had already invested at least a couple weeks in courting that Jonas guy.

Still, Alice was now torn. Which was the better plan?

OPTIONS:

VOTING CLOSES SUNDAY JANUARY 31st.

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PATHS NOT TAKEN:
If Alijda had gone solo, she would have been abducted, requiring a rescue. If she had gone with Trixie, the techno-witch would have initially been fooled into thinking alternate Alijda was theirs (likely approaching her). With Alice, she wasn’t fooled, and they were able to make the Clover link and devise a new plan.

THE ORACLE PROPHESIED:
Alternate Alijdah has been planned since the start (hence the “mirrors” part of the title). The votes have not been going her way. A romance vote (at the very start) would have pivoted around Alijda, Kat and Alijdah. While our Alijda did get voted into the plot to end part four, we then pivoted away to Mason. Voting options to end part eleven and twelve would have involved Alijdah, but were not selected… ALL paths this time led to Alijdah. Feel free to speculate more.

EXTRA ASIDE:
Last poll got one vote initially. Posted to social media again after Xmas, we got to three. Closed it all down January 1st, barely got to writing, and then the past week of remote teaching kept me away. Marathoned an afternoon yesterday; I don’t see being able to do that again until February. Hence the long voting time. You’re welcome to return every week and vote again, if you feel strongly! (If the recruitment option wins, the runner up will decide who takes point.) Thanks for reading, share if you’re enjoying. 🙂

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