A Virga Mystery: BALANCING ACT
ACT 6c: OF MELISSA AND JAMES
Annie Potts looked about the same as I remembered her – a whole foot taller than Melissa, with dark hair to her shoulders, on this day wearing a casual dress in green. Her apartment wasn’t huge, but seemed to be the right size for her, her cat Tabby, and a wide variety of plants that extended onto her balcony.
Gardening struck me as being a new hobby for her, and I said as much.
Annie grinned. “Yup!” she asserted. “That’s my new thing, been growing my own herbs, along with plants and flowers. Selling some of them too, as the couple years since graduating haven’t been good for finding stable work. Particularly since I prefer non-technological jobs. But I get the occasional contract here and there to make ends meet.”
“You’ve kept up with spells too,” Melissa said with a measure of surprise. “I wondered if you might have given that up, to try and keep from being discovered again.”
Annie put her hands on her hips. “Okay, spill. How did you know I was casting?”
Melissa shrugged. “No deduction, per se. Not even a scent. Just a vibe. From you, from Tabby, even from the plants.”
“Ah.” Annie adopted a more neutral pose. “Well, and I did avoid it while I was still in school,” she replied, “But once I was done, and then unemployed for six months with no interest in pursing personal relationships, I needed some other ways to fill my time. Plus I was hopeful of there being a good job interview spell or something. Instead, I latched on to communications.”
“Communications?” I wondered. “Are there magick phones or something?”
Annie chuckled. “Not that I know of. But that brings me to why I wanted you to drop by. I need your opinion on something.”
After pulling down the shade on her window, she ushered us over to her kitchen table, where she had laid out what looked like some homemade variant on the ouija board.
Melissa was immediately walking around it, crouching down to see it at eye level, and standing on her tiptoes to get an overall sense of it.
“You’ve been trying to contact other realms,” she concluded at last. “Surprisingly professional setup. Did you search the web for this?”
“No, I still avoid the web for magick,” Annie admitted. “It’s my grandma who gave me some advice. We’ve connected more since my graduation, and my growing interest in spells. She told me that I had to be very careful not to create an open connection, and that I had to have a sense of where I was going to be transmitting. I’ve been pretty careful.”
Melissa tilted her head to the side, as if she was trying to divine exactly to whom Annie had been speaking. “So you’ve been talking to…?”
Melissa nodded. “Right, makes sense. This flow is connected to that weak point at the North Pole.”
As to me, I was startled. “Hold on. There’s actual elves at the North Pole?”
“No, no,” Melissa said, gesturing vaguely as she continued to admire the setup. “Though that was a logical place for their realm to gain access, as a number of regular humans already have the belief of elves existing up there, even though the elves they picture are very different from the real thing.”
“So they don’t have pointed hats and help Santa,” I reasoned. “Are they more like Tolkein elves then? Because I only ever saw the movies.”
“They are long lived, and can be beautiful, but are mostly my height, with no dark vision,” Melissa said idly. She turned her attention back to Annie. “Who is it you’re talking to then? While most elves aren’t evil per se, a number can be particularly mischievous.”
Annie smirked. “Iantneth has a similar opinion of humans. I really only speak with her about fashion, relationships, daily life stuff – though she’s been instructing me a little on how to grow better herbs.”
“Aha, that explains the magic I sensed from the plants,” Melissa concluded.
“So, be straight with me. This seems safe and all?” Annie said, hesitantly. “I mean, I’ve spoken to my grandma about it, and sent pictures, but it never hurts to have a second opinion from someone in the know who’s actually here.”
Melissa looked once more under the table, then stood up and shrugged. “I don’t see any problems with this. Have you noticed anything strange?”
Annie breathed a sigh of relief. “Well, I noticed a pine tree had morphed into an oak tree last week, only a block away. I figured it was unrelated, but…” She gestured vaguely.
Melissa pursed her lips, then nodded. “I have been aware of a few incidents like that of late. Don’t worry, it’s not you. We’re approaching a sort of supernatural turning point.”
I was reminded then of Melissa’s knife turning into Amy’s lamp three months ago. “Could talking to other realms be upsetting supernatural balance even more though?” I wondered. “Not exclusive to Annie, I mean.”
Melissa shook her head. “No, the balancing issues are related to the weak points that these devices exploit. It’s those areas which can allow entities though, and these visitors cause much more of a problem than what’s more akin to a radio transmission.”
I nodded. “Meaning, going after communication tools is a bit like shaming someone for not using a reusable bag, when the plastics industry is really at the core of things.”
“I guess?” Melissa mused. “Except it’s more like you’re reusing a plastic bag in the first place. Things won’t get worse than they are already.”
“A-Am I doing a bad thing then?” Annie asked. “Because I’m getting confused.”
Melissa waved Annie off. “No, no, you’re fine. This setup isn’t even electronic at all, is it?”
Annie shook her head. “Nope.”
“Okay. So do you use electronics at all?” Melissa pressed. “To the point where your grandmother might have told you when NOT to use them next week?”
Annie now looked very confused, which led to me jumping in with an explanation of the problem we were facing. I left out the Chosen One aspect, playing up the secret spell part, and wrapped it up by remarking, “Ideally we’d want you to find out the time without making it clear that that’s what you’re asking.”
Annie pressed her index finger to the side of her mouth. “Funny you say that. Iantneth said there would be some sort of disturbance in our realm coming up, so I can use that as a basis. I was planning on driving around town next week on another job hunt too… so yeah, I can probably get Grandma Lindy to spill something.”
“I’d need the exact second,” Melissa reminded.
Annie nodded. “After your help back in University, I’ll see what I can do. And if it doesn’t pan out, I’ll try to let you know sooner rather than later.”
“We appreciate that,” I said, reaching out to shake her hand. “And hey, let us know what herbs it is you’re selling, in case we need a supply of anything.”
Annie grinned. After a few more quick pleasantries, and Melissa declining the offer of home brewed tea, we headed on our way. I sensed she was turning a new thought around in her mind, and called her on it shortly thereafter.
“Well,” Melissa admitted. “It occurs to me that with the balance fully back in place, and the other realms cut off, potentially beneficial conversations like the one between Annie and Iantneth would be lost as well.”
“Ah. Throwing the baby out with the bath water?”
“Not quite so crude, and we do need a way of preventing the bad from getting worse. But it makes me wonder about loopholes… would Trixie’s AI be able to handle those, even with my engrams?”
“It might depend on whether it was something you’d thought of before they got mapped,” I reasoned. “Do you think many would come up?”
“I don’t know. I’m realizing more and more that there’s a lot I don’t know.”
“Maybe some of the literature from the rational faction could help,” I quipped.
Melissa made a face. “I tuned out a lot of the faction stuff. This sort of decision calls for an opinion that hasn’t been biased one way or the other, after all.” She paused. “I guess it’s harder to ignore the occasional benefit when you see it in person, that’s the only problem. Makes me wonder if there’s a lot of others like Annie out there, who need to see that there’s a good side to being a witch.”
I wasn’t sure what to say to that, so I simply let the matter drop.
We heard back from Annie within 48 hours; she was able to give Melissa the precise timing that she needed. It would be early in the morning, three days before Decision Day. That is, the day her final decision would need to be rendered… assuming the reinforcement spell failed, which Melissa was certain would happen.
Melissa started to prepare for her own spell. Me, I got a ring, and decided to propose to Melissa one day before all of that went down.
Unfortunately, while I had the ring, and some phrasing in my mind, what I didn’t have was control over the other circumstances surrounding me.
It happened about five minutes before I felt I’d have the nerve to drop down on one knee, as Melissa sat looking over some papers at the main desk. Guess I should have been braver. As it was, the delay meant Trixie’s door burst open first. She bounced out, and practically off the walls, she was bursting with such enthusiasm.
“It’s DONE,” Trixie shrieked. “I DID it. I am like a TECH GODDESS, ha ha ha!”
“The artificial Melissa?” I said, startled. “I didn’t think you’d be ready for another day or two.”
Trixie grinned at me. “I haven’t slept in a while. That helped.” She bounded back into her room, then emerged, holding up what might have once been an iPhone. “The new Rixi is ready! I shall call her Mixi. Missy, I’ll need you for a couple hours now, to deal with the memory engram side of things.”
I fidgeted with the ring still in my pocket. “Um, Trixie, you don’t want to sleep first?” I suggested.
Trixie’s hair was rumpled, to the point that she had a single twintail, versus a ponytail. One of her knee high stockings had fallen nearly to her ankle and she’d made no attempt to correct it, and as to the rest of her clothing, I could see stains from either sweat or drool, which was completely out of character for her. She had definitely been pushing herself.
“Nope!” Trixie chirped. “I am SO ready to put this to the test. To cement my brilliance in the history books. Today’s the day, James! So, Missy? Let’s get to it.”
Melissa hadn’t even looked up yet. “It will have to wait until after tomorrow’s spell.”
The redhead’s gaze took on a slightly murderous tinge off Melissa’s casual response. “Are. You. FUC–”
“It’s not that we don’t appreciate EVERYTHING you’ve done, Trixie,” I cut in swiftly. “And the fact that you have things ready in advance of your own timelines is amazing, particularly in light of some of the challenges that you’ve been telling us about along the way. It’s just, I think Melissa needs some time herself now in order to get more in tune with the spell she needs to cast herself.”
Of course, there was also the matter of my proposal, though given Melissa’s reaction to Trixie, I was fast thinking I might want to hold off on my revelation as well.
“It’s not a matter of tuning,” Melissa said idly. She looked up for the first time then, and sucked in her lower lip briefly as she diagnosed Trixie’s expression. “Of course, what you’ve done is AMAZINGLY AWESOME, and worthy of praise.” Her gaze shifted from Trixie to me. “People still say ‘awesome’, yes?”
“Ugh, forget it,” Trixie said in exasperation, flopping down onto the couch and throwing her shoulders back. “It’s enough that I’ve done it, that James appreciates it, and that you’re not lashing out at me for being smug. Adding extra flattery on top would be weird, particularly when it sounds like it might be sincere. That’s not the Missy I know and love.”
Melissa half smiled. “I may still get you a cake. Or some cheesecake. The thing is, the new memories I’ll be gaining in the next day or two may be critical for decision making on the part of your device. I don’t want there to be any chance of corruption between my mindset now, and what my mindset might be like on the day I have to decide.”
Trixie crinkled her nose cutely. “No biggie, I can wipe the engrams if necessary. It’s a feature, for testing purposes. Though I grant that would be easier to do with a completely different person.”
“Meaning you could test it on yourself for now?” Melissa checked.
The redhead crossed her arms. “Playing to my vanity? Mmm, I’ll allow it. But honestly, as a test run, it’d be better for me to have a measure of separation from the data.” She turned to me, and grinned almost wickedly. “So I’ll co-opt James. Then purge and overwrite with yours later, Missy. Speaking of, what kind of waiting period are we talking about here?”
Melissa ran her fingers back through her hair. “How much time do you need, from starting to pull in my memories, to complete implementation? Bare minimum.”
Trixie looked back. “For serious? Bare minimum? Three hours. But that would cut it awful close, and it would be better to allow for the case of needing a reset.”
“I’ll try to give you more time,” Melissa concluded. “Though it seems like, the closer we get to the event, the more I’m starting to doubt myself, wondering if I’ve missed an alternative along the way. Please bear with me?”
She smiled, a bit sadly it seemed to me.
I decided that today was definitely not the day to propose.