Alison

4.12: Non Scents

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EPSILON DELTA, PART TWELVE: Non Scents

“The next move… should be yours, Rose,” Kat remarked.

Rose listened as Kat and Alijda caught her up on what had happened since she’d fallen unconscious. At one point, she had to force herself to focus on their words, rather than listen to the inner voice that was screaming at her about how any decision she made here would mess things up again. The way she had messed up with Beam.

When they finished explaining, Rose rubbed her nose, wondering idly if it was going to be perpetually itchy now that she was the vessel for some magical tracking spell.

“O-Okay.” Rose bit on the edge of her tongue, trying to swallow the quaver in her voice. “Okay,” she repeated, closing her eyes momentarily. There was only one right thing to say here. She turned to Kat. “So, we go after Firestorm.”

Kat crouched down in front of where she sat on the bench, to better meet her gaze. “Rose, are you sure?”

Rose let out a quick laugh. “Oh, heck no. I mean, I think the Destiny thing might lead us into a trap, so that’s out. But while my heart says to patch things up with Beam, my head says Firestorm. And in the end, he’s closer to the mission here, right? Get the diary back, figure Destiny out. So, we track him. Beam will find her own way back to the Station. She doesn’t need me.”

Rose held Kat’s gaze levelly until he nodded, and turned to look up at Alijda. “You have Firestorm’s note?”

“Mmm hmmm,” Alijda responded. There was a silence then, to the point where Rose had started turning her own head to see what the older woman was doing. “We’re not going after him though,” Alijda finished.

Kat stood back up. “Alijda…”

“Come on, Kat! We can’t,” Alijda said. She pointed at Rose. “We’re not going to leave this poor girl to wonder for months about how her situation might have turned out better, if only she’d made a different decision in this moment. Because I know what that’s like. Both given my history, and given… I mean, listen, it’s even more terrible when this is filtered through Epsilon, because you can’t simply call up someone you’ve wronged. Not when they’re in another multiverse. So, I’m contacting Alice, to send something of Beam’s down. We’re going after Beam, and that’s all there is to it.”

Rose tried to smile bravely. “Alijda, that’s not necess–”

“Don’t care, doing it anyway.” Alijda spun on her heel and walked a couple paces away, tapping at her communicator.

Rose stared at Alijda’s back, then slumped to look at the ground. So she was screwing it all up regardless. Damn it. She ground her palm in against her freckled nose. It didn’t help with the itching.

A moment later, Kat sat back down next to her, and reached out to pat her shoulder. “Alijda does have a point,” he soothed. “This mission, it’s becoming more about feelings than logic. Given how the logical thing would have been to leave as soon as we’d figured out Beam’s memory loss. Right? But I want to connect with Fate. The same way you want to with Beam. So let’s follow your heart, and let Beam lead us to Destiny.”

“Hah. Me, connect with Beam?” Rose scoffed. “I told the poor girl to go away forever. Because of how I’m attracted to her. Which is my issue, not hers. It’s not even the same attraction as my Paige-love, with Beam it’s this… this… ugh, it’s so confusing! I don’t even know what I’ll say to Beam now. It’s all so…”

Rose slid her palm from her nose up across her eye while turning her head to the side. “Kat, you ever wanted to be someone else?”

Kat reached his hand to the back of his neck, rubbing. “Not really? I mean, the pyrokinesis took some getting used to, but I’ve accepted it as a part of me.”

“I ask because, see, I wanted to be Paige,” Rose clarified. “After I met her. It took a while, but eventually I realized that what I truly wanted was to have Paige as a constant presence in my life. Like, to always be surrounded by Paige’s pleasant demeanour, by that cute French accent, and oh God, by those long, gorgeous legs…” Rose felt her heart rate increasing. She pulled her brain back on track.

“The thing of it is, the more I learn about Beam, the more I want to be her too,” Rose admitted. “Her attitude of, oh yeah, I’m a lesbian, I know what I want, and rawr, girl power all the way – it’s like, that’s sexy! Or at least, it’s a goal of mine. So there’s an attraction there, but… well, is it a surround me with that kind of attitude desire? Because I’m acting like it’s a surround me in a sexy way desire. Which is supposed to be my Paige feelings. Agh! I think I’m defective.”

Kat chuckled softly. “Rose, you’re not defective. If anything, this explains why you resent so much how Beam was able to turn off her sexual feelings towards you. You want to do that with her, so it’s yet another aspect of Beam that you wish you had yourself.”

“Meaning you also think those feelings are there.” Rose looked back at the ground, wishing her nose would stop itching. “What bugs me is, while I couldn’t turn my feels off with Angie back in high school, I could at least rationalize them away. So why is it so much harder now? I mean, sure, I’m more hella gay, but I’m also older and wiser. So how can I possibly see Beam as being attractive when I’m already dating someone else?”

“Honestly? How could you not see Beam that way,” Kat said. “She’s a cutey.”

Rose frowned. She turned her head back to check his expression, but he didn’t look like he was pranking her. “So you think I’m a horrible cheating bitch. Great.”

Kat sighed, and shook his head. “No, Rose, you’re not. But you are young, and still figuring out what love means for you personally. Consider that there’s a difference between appreciating feminine beauty, and actually following through on feelings of attraction to someone. It’s a philosophy I kind of adhere to, actually.”

“What, looky’s fine, nookie not so much?” Rose scratched her nose. “Thanks, but I’m not adopting that philosophy. I mean, if Paige was drooling over every redhead we passed in the street, I’d be hurt. Even if she didn’t act on her desires. This is the same thing.”

KAT CONWAY
(Commission from Jakface)

“You think?” Kat leaned back on the bench. “Okay, Rose. Two comments, prefaced with the remark that I do have a tendency to romance any woman who looks to be in my wheelhouse, while making it clear to them that I’m not looking to settle down. So I might not be the best person to give responsible relationship advice.”

Rose gestured towards him. “Yeah, well, I’m a teenager. I may not be the best person to take responsible relationship advice. So it works out.”

“All right. First thing, more of a question, do you drool over every blonde you see?”

Rose glared. “Don’t be silly. My drooling remark was exaggeration to prove a point. Even one drool is too much.”

“But there are blondes you don’t drool over, yes?”

She had to grant him that point. “Duh.”

“So you don’t have a wandering eye. And remember, we’re in a highly charged situation here. You said it yourself, you’re lost and scared. Adrenaline is high, and when coupled with how pretty Beam is, it’s only natural that you might want to get in one last fling before the big goodbye. It’s the fact that you’re torn up about those feelings, rather than simply acting on them, which speaks volumes. Don’t you think?”

Rose felt forced to give more ground. “I’ll grant this isn’t a normal situation. But I’ve been in tight places before, and my thoughts didn’t trend towards pre-death sex.”

“Bringing me to my second point. Some of this IS Beam. She made blatant advances towards you earlier. That’s hard to shrug off. So tell me, would your girlfriend truly think you were being unfaithful merely because another girl was flirting with you, accidentally or otherwise?”

Rose squirmed. “Maybe?”

“If so, that seems rather controlling. But even setting that aside,” Kat continued before Rose could interject, “what if we flipped this situation around? What if Paige came to you tomorrow, and said that she’d been in a near death experience, and that in the heat of the moment, she’d kissed another girl. Would you forgive her?”

Rose stood up, balling her hands into fists. “How dare you say that. You don’t even know Paige.”

“Look, maybe Paige was receiving mouth-to-mouth. Work with me here, Rose. Hypothetically, could you forgive?” Kat crossed his arms and looked up at her.

Rose squared her jaw. It was a stupid question. Her perfect Paige would never do such a thing! Moreover, CPR was CPR. … Then again, French people did kiss each other on the cheeks when they met. So what if Paige did that with an ex-girlfriend? And what if someone’s head slipped? …

Well, so what? Rose had made a point of saying that she wasn’t the possessive type. Hell, there was also that little voice inside, speculating that it was only a matter of time before Paige realized she could do better… whoa, okay, check that thought. Paige thought that Rose was already the best girlfriend to date. For whatever reason. … Why was that again?

Maybe that was part of the problem here. Rose had no practical experience with girls being attracted to her, outside of Paige. And given how she was still processing Paige’s feelings, throwing Beam into the mix as another suitor… someone Rose hadn’t even been trying to flirt with…

Fine. It was true, she could forgive Paige kissing an ex, depending on the circumstances. Meaning Paige could forgive her for getting flustered about Beam. As long as nothing happened. And nothing would. If only Beam weren’t so aggressively cute in the ways she expressed herself! But Beam couldn’t help that, any more than Rose could help finding it a-dork-able.

Rose flexed her fingers back out, then ground the palm of her hand in against her nose, hard, trying to stop the damn itchy feeling. “Kat, when do relationships get easier?”

He chuckled again. “They don’t. They only get different.”

“Figures.” Rose sat back down. “Okay. I see forgiveness as a thing. Here’s hoping Beam can forgive me. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. Any time.”

Rose angled her head. “So, speaking of flipping situations around, how about you? Assuming we do find this Destiny, and she’s Fate, will you be hooking up with her again, relationship-wise? Alternatively, will you cultivate whatever’s happening between you and Alijda? Or will you just keep hitting on random cops for all time?”

Kat flinched back, his eyebrows going up. “Uhm?”

Rose felt like it was her turn to cross her arms. “C’mon Kat. That decision HAS to have occurred to you. I saw how Alijda was looking at you earlier.”

“Euh, I think Alijda feels badly over how she acted on our last mission together,” Kat explained. “So she wants to make it up to me here. That’s it.”

“That’s it, suuuuuure.” Rose quirked her eyebrow, to emphasize that things weren’t as clear cut as he was trying to make them.

Kat looked away. “Look. Alijda and I, we haven’t known each other that long.”

“No? It’s been something like six months on her end, hasn’t it?”

Kat grimaced. “Well, yes, but I haven’t… that is, we were hardly communicating back and forth during that time.”

“Okay. So you don’t think you could date Alijda.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“What about this Fate then, your communication with her has been even worse lately.”

“That’s different!” Kat said sharply.

Realizing she’d jabbed a nerve, Rose quickly lifted her hands up, palms out. “Whoa, sorry. Just, you did tell me this mission was all about feelings, right? So you might wanna do some advance thinking on that front yourself. Because if you’re all about Fate, or at least more about Fate than Alijda, then she should know sooner rather than later. Yeah?”

Kat looked at her sidelong, tight lipped. Then slowly, he nodded. “Point taken. Thanks, Rose.”

Rose offered up a partial smile. Before she could properly reply though, there was a large puff of purple and black smoke, and Alijda appeared before them. She held a pair of jeans out towards Rose. “Here you go. These are Beam’s.”

“Alijda! Did you just teleport up to the Station to get them?” Kat demanded, even as Rose accepted the clothing. “That was hardly safe!”

The brunette woman shook her head. “No, no, not depressively suicidal at the moment. I merely had to go to a convenient doorway outside the park so Alice could pass them off to me, after which it was faster to teleport back to you.” Alijda smiled wryly at Rose. “For the record, Alice wanted to root through Beam’s lingerie drawer. I talked her out of that, since we’ve already had enough comments about underwear choice today.”

It reminded Rose of the first conversation she’d overheard between Alijda and Kat, only a few hours ago. As Rose watched Alijda’s gaze flicker towards Kat, Kat cleared his throat, turning to look at Rose instead.

It was true, relationships really didn’t get easier with age.

“Okay,” Kat said. “So, let’s get to the tracking. Rose?”

“Uh. Yeah.” Rose stared at the jeans in her hands. So she was supposed to just… sniff them? Yeah, hey, that wasn’t weird at all. She slowly brought them up towards her face and, trying not to feel self conscious, gave a quick inhale.

Nothing happened. Her nose still felt itchy.

“Longer, maybe?” Alijda suggested.

Rose lifted the pants again, wafting her free hand towards her face, inhaling, trying to pick up a whiff of… whatever this spell was looking for. Beam pheromones? Did holograms have pheromones? Ones they could leave on jeans? Beam HAD said she could get hot and bothered, with a body that reacted in the same ways as a human. But right now, Rose couldn’t even smell denim, let alone Beam sweat.

“Beam isn’t from this world,” Kat remarked. “So maybe it won’t work.”

Screw it, Rose decided. She smacked the jeans right in against her face and gave a long, deep sniff. Not once, but twice. Let it not be said that she hadn’t been trying.

It did nothing but make her want to sneeze.

“Maybe Beam hadn’t worn those much,” Alijda confessed. “I could ask Alice for something else.”

“No. Know what? Just give me Firestorm’s letter,” Rose decided. She smiled, and for once, found that she didn’t have to force it. “I mean, the important thing is that we tried. Right? I feel better for having done that, so… so yeah. Back on mission. We’ll figure out the Beam stuff later, this is a sign that it’s time for us – for me – to move on.”

Alijda and Kat exchanged a glance, and Alijda seemed about to say something, only to think better of it. “Okay, Rose.” She pulled out Firestorm’s letter. “I, uh, hope this doesn’t smell more like me now, or the tracking will be pretty quick,” she realized.

“I’ll try to tune into male smell more than female smell,” Rose quipped. “Despite my obvious preference for the latter.” Never mind that she had no idea what that even meant.

Rose took the letter. She first sniffed the middle of the page, then around the outer edge. Much like the jeans, she couldn’t pick up anything. For the second time, she stifled a sneeze.

“Maybe Rose needs to be where the note was found for this to work?” Kat suggested, lifting his hands into the air. “The police form I signed really wasn’t clear.”

“Firestorm would likely return to Destiny’s house too,” Alijda remarked. “So we might as well go back there. In the meantime, I’ll contact the Station. They should have more power restored, and maybe Alice can spot something on surveillance for how this tracking is supposed to work?”

The three of them started heading back out of the main area of town. Based on how much lower the sun was in the sky now, Rose judged that it was probably dinnertime. At any rate, even fewer people were around them now. No one approached. And Alice simply said she’d get back to them, following Alijda’s request.

It happened as Rose was grinding her palm in against her nose for at least the twelfth time. She felt a tickle, and before she could stop herself, she sneezed. In an instant, the itching sensation was gone, replaced with the very faint smell of… of something wondrous.

“Bless you,” Kat said.

Rose moaned. That scent, it was so good. Where was it coming from? She sniffed in a breath, turning in a slow circle. Yes, that way.

Alijda’s hand landed on her shoulder before she could take a step. “What is it, Rose? Nose suddenly behaving?”

“Oh yeah,” Rose huffed. She started to walk, sniffing the air as she went. Ohh, more of that smell, yes please.

Alijda’s grip tightened slightly, slowing Rose’s pace without forcing her to stop. “Are you picking up Firestorm? Or Beam?”

“I dunno. It’s…” How did one even describe it? “It’s the scent of fresh cut flowers. Of homemade baking. Of the air after the rain has fallen. Of… oh, of all that and more, Alijda! It’s just so good, please, we gotta get to the source.”

Alijda glanced at Kat, then nodded. “Okay then. Just make sure we can keep pace.”

Rose nodded back and resumed her tracking, no longer caring about the scenery around her, totally focussed on her goal. On the scent.

As she began to jog, she heard Kat remark, “Neither Beam nor Firestorm smelled like cooking. So we may not know who we’re tracking until we get there, huh?”

“Guess not,” Alijda’s voice agreed with him. “It does make me wonder though, would we be smelling the same thing in Rose’s place? Or would I be picking up aftershave or alcohol or something?”

Rose didn’t know. All she knew was, she wanted more of what she smelled now. Granted, she kind of hoped the source was Beam, not Firestorm, given how much she wanted to sniff at the target for a while after arriving, which felt wrong with a guy. Actually, no, it felt wrong no matter who it was. No wonder this spell was regulated by police. She hoped she’d be able to control herself.

Ohhh yeah. The aroma was stronger in this direction, Rose was sure of it.

(Heads up, Beam and Firestorm will be found in close proximity. WHAT’S NEXT?)

VOTING CLOSES NOON EDT SATURDAY OCTOBER 14th

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PATHS NOT TAKEN:
I kept the vote open to Sunday morning, then decided, heck with it, I can run with a tied vote this time. It’s been a while since we had a good one. So Rose’s intended conversation “en route” (which would have included Alijda) ended up being solo with Kat instead, as she awaited nasal input. Tracking Destiny? That would have been the shortest path to the end, with the most danger (keeping Firestorm and Beam in reserve, if these characters got badly ensnared). Saying anything about the tied choices now would involve spoilers. So, who do YOU think Rose is tracking?

EXTRA ASIDE:
The first 1,000 words of my story about Rose (“The Girl Who Speaks with Algebra”) actually placed in the Top 10 of the “Ink & Insights” writing contest for 2017, out of over 150 entries. There’s a page here looking at the other winners. My link simply directs back to this site, but it’s prompted me to update my story catalogue. And as long as we’re talking about eyes on this site, consider a TWF vote for Time & Tied? Thanks.

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4.11: Trail Mix

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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?”

WHAT’S NEXT?

VOTING CLOSES NOON EDT SATURDAY SEPT 30th

Previous INDEX 4 Next

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!

4.08: The Arm of Fate

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EPSILON DELTA, PART EIGHT: The Arm of Fate

“Wait, wait, I want to hear more of the cute girls flirting!” Alice pleaded. But it was too late. Even as she spoke, Alijda was tapping the button turning off communications to the planet. Alice made a pouty face at her. “You’re no fun.”

Alijda sighed. “Alice, sweetie, roomie, we’re trapped on a space station with a freaky magical cyber arm. Priorities?”

Alice crossed her arms. “Alijda, doom and gloom, also roomie, one of my priorities is staying sane. Pretty girls who want to kiss? It’s a sanity branch, showing me love can survive in a screwed up multiverse.”

Alijda matched her pose, not backing down. “You DO realize Beam’s attention makes Rose uncomfortable, yes?”

Alice couldn’t help but smile. She liked how Alijda challenged her opinions. It had been like that since their first encounter. Actually, no, what she liked even more about Alijda was how the teleporting woman would challenge, up until the point she realized that Alice wasn’t going to budge, then back off. There were even times when Alice yielded to logic. On occasion.

“Two girls can be good friends and share sexual pleasure stories without being actual make-out girlfriends,” Alice fired back. “Look at us!”

Alijda’s cheeks tinged a shade darker. “That’s different. Rose is half our age, she’s still figuring herself out. Also, I maintain that I really didn’t need to hear that vibrator story.”

Alice’s smile widened. “Ohhh, yes, you did. You were whining so much that afternoon about how you chase all the good guys away, how you were never going to find anyone, and how you’d never know the pleasures of a relationship again. You needed SOMETHING to take your mind off of it.”

“Most women would have suggested a day at a spa!”

“Most women didn’t find themselves alone on a space station for soooo looooong. Did you even try using one that way?”

“Oh, for–” Alijda closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose, and seemed about to turn away, when her posture straightened. “Wait. That’s it.”

Alice also liked when Alijda surprised her. “Really? Should we find you a–”

“NO. Stop, Alice, those images, Gods. I meant, you know this station. You know where to go to evade the sensors, yes?”

Alice shrugged. “I used to simply turn off the ones in my bedroom when I wanted–”

Alijda grasped her shoulders. “Please focus. Fo-cus. If this arm is smart, it’s going to be hiding somewhere. In a place where, even if we get all the sensors working, it’ll still be shielded from detection. Possibly even from force field confinement. Where would that be?”

Alijda’s line of thinking clicked. “There’s a few places that would work.”

That’s when the station vibrated, some red lights lit up on the console, and a warning klaxon sounded.

Alijda glanced around, then back to her. “Does one of those places also let the arm do something like that to us?”

Alice nodded. “I know exactly where it is.”

***

Their first major stop was auxiliary control.

“I should be able to pull something together here that’ll neutralize both the Army’s tech parts and its magical occulty parts at once,” Alice remarked. She dumped all the items they’d picked up en route onto the floor.

Alijda sighed. “Can you not call it ‘the Army’? It’s one cyber arm, not a platoon.”

ALICE VUNDERLANDE Commission from Cherry Z

Alice grabbed the nearby toolkit and sat down to begin sifting through the assemblage of parts. She’d had something in mind ever since discovering that magic and science were blending together on that world of scale, her last Epsilon mission. She’d never thought she’d get the opportunity to build the thing.

“Army needs a name,” Alice countered. “Do you have a better one?”

Alijda’s grumble implied she didn’t. She turned towards Mr. Smith instead. “What’s the situation with these new alarms?”

“Automated,” came the computer’s reply. “Orbit is now decaying due to internal interference. I’m prioritizing the stabilization systems over everything else, save necessities like life support, so communications are down. You have approximately ninety minutes to regain control.”

“Of course. Any clue as to why the Station wants to kill us again?”

“Unknown.”

“Never easy,” Alijda mumbled. She looked back at Alice. “Can I help you build?”

It had been months since the vague blueprints had been a thing in Alice’s mind. But now that she was focussed on it, she found she could pick up where she left off. Much like remembering the next line of dialogue in “Back to the Future”, once given the right prompt. That was simply how her mind worked.

“Sorry Alijda, hardware thing here, not a hacker thing,” Alice said. “Would take longer for me to explain than to simply do it.” She snapped on a pair of goggles and began to solder. “We could talk about Kat though, that’d help.”

Alice wasn’t looking up, but she suspected that Alijda rolled her eyes. “No.”

“Totes serious,” Alice insisted. “I can work better if I’m not consciously thinking about what I’m doing. I’ve had Ziggy or Smith play music to me in the past, but the computers are kinda preoccupied right now. So come on, what did you two talk about when getting the power for Beam?”

“Nothing.”

“Ooh, yuh huh, sure, a ‘nothing’ that’s got you all bitter about relationships again. What, did you hope Rose would pick me to go to the planet? Giving you two more quality time together? You shoulda described me better than ‘walking encyclopaedia’, that’s not really a selling point.”

Alijda let out a breath of exasperation. “I was trying to sum up your skill set as best as I could. I was NOT trying to– look, don’t even start with me, okay?”

“Okee dokee. If you’re sure?”

Her roommate remained silent, but now it was the sort of silence that felt uncomfortable enough to warrant a follow up. Maybe? It took a couple minutes, but at last Alijda continued with, “It’s just… Alice, am I an egomaniac?”

Alice started splicing the necessary wires together. “I didn’t notice any huge, framed pictures of yourself on the walls of your home.”

“I don’t mean like that,” Alijda grumbled. “I mean, in how I make things about me. Because of how I shut other people out. Doing that, all I have is me, so everything becomes about me, and that shuts people out even more. A feedback loop of me, me, me.” She stamped her foot on the ground. “Damn it! I’m an uncaring bitch who should have died years ago.”

Alice spat the paperclip out of her mouth and looked up. “WHOA. Back up. That’s the depression talking. You do care. You jumped through a doorway to be with me, up here, now. You didn’t have to do that.”

Alijda shrugged, looking sullen. “Yeah, well, maybe I’m trying to find new, more exciting ways to die. It’s been all downhill since plummeting into the Thames on my first Epsilon mission.”

“Oh, stop. I’ve never been keen on black humour, and that silly show ‘A thousand ways to die’ is fiction. I hope you’ve never watched it.” Alijda didn’t even react to the random reference. Thrown off by that, Alice looked back down at her work. “Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to send you to the dark places.”

“I know. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry too.”

“Remember, deep down, I don’t think you want to die, Alijda. You want to stop hurting. Totes different. We’ve had that argument before, yes?”

“Yeah, yeah. Things are always an argument with us.”

Alice looked back up. “Oh no. No, honey, they’re really not,” she countered, with a sincere smile. She hoped.

This, Alice granted, was something she was lousy at. Appropriate reactions and proportional response. Maybe she should have quoted Monty Python there. Maybe adding ‘honey’ had been stupid. She hoped she didn’t sound glib. Please, her friend had to know by now when she was being serious. Right?

Alijda simply smiled back. There was another protracted pause. Unable to gauge the uncomfortableness of it all this time, Alice kept working, glancing up every so often.

Alijda finally crouched down. “I’m reminded of how you’ve read Kat’s info file.”

“Yuppers. Yours too.”

“And you remember everything you’re exposed to.”

“More or less. Junking a lot of my hell dimension memories helped free up space.”

“Then tell me, what do you know about Kat’s childhood friend, Fate?”

Alice shrugged. “Aside from her vanishing? Not much. Why, did he tell you about her?”

“Sort of. In passing.”

It felt like there was more to say there, but Alice wasn’t sure how to prompt. More to the point, she was finished building. She banged the last piece into place. “Done. We have an EMP.”

Alijda blinked. “You’ve been making something that generates an electromagnetic pulse?”

“Nope.” Alice shook her head, then flicked her hair off her shoulder with a wink. “This’ll create an Electro-Magical Patch. Press this end against Army, hit the trigger, you’ll render our target inert in both sparks and spells.”

“Meaning it needs to make direct contact.”

“Well, yeah. That’d be where your teleporting comes in. Also, we have the cliche one shot only, so make it count.”

“Right. Okay, let’s get to it then.” Alijda pushed herself back to her feet. “Lead the way.”

Alice nodded, holding out the EMP device. Alijda took it, then reached out to touch Alice on the shoulder as she walked by. “Also, thank you. Really. I mean that.”

“Sure,” Alice said, blinking in surprise. After all, it was just a tech gizmo, nothing to get overly dramatic about.

***

The ventilation systems on the Station weren’t large enough for a person, and there were very few sensors there. But, Alice reasoned, Army could fit in many of the ducts. And while the vents could be closed off to impede it, there was a manual override.

Army had to be near that room, the override room. The terminal there could be configured to manipulate other overrides on the Station, affecting their orbit. Thus, their plan was to shut the ducts, and when Army went to trigger the override and escape, nail it.

Unfortunately, she and Alijda had needed to waste time setting the commands up, because if Army was tracking their location on sensors, being direct could tip their hand, while splitting up might equally allow it to keep them separated. Fortunately though, they were able to route the necessary shutdown to a room near Army, meaning Alijda wouldn’t have to teleport into a live video feed. She was never a fan of doing that.

“I’ve been thinking,” Alijda said slowly as they finally approached their destination.

“Do tell,” Alice encouraged.

“Something Rose said, about the Station stabilizing once it had us. Yet now it’s in trouble again. Maybe that’s because some of us went to the planet? It has to be more than coincidence.”

“Ooh. Working theory. Maybe Army’s got internal memory, and you can hack it to learn if there’s something to that. You ready?”

The two women were now strolling nonchalantly past the override room. Alijda nodded.

Alice took a right at the next doorway, tapping the code she’d set up into the terminal there. Alijda vanished in a teleport cloud of purple smoke, back down the hall.

Alice then quickly ran back after her, to cut off any chance of escape if Army somehow got past Alijda’s teleporting by not using the vent. She saw Alijda run inside the room. Moments later, Alijda let out a shriek.

“What? WHAT?” Alice gasped, half expecting Army to jump out at her as she closed the distance, her stun grenade at the ready. The purple smoke of Alijda’s teleport dissipated enough to allow for visibility.

Alice peered around the corner. Army didn’t launch itself into her face. Instead, she saw Alijda lying on the floor of the room, with Kat standing over her. Kat?! It couldn’t be! Had Army learned to project holograms??

“OW,” Alijda said, rubbing near her bottom. “A little warning next time?”

“Communications are down,” Image-Kat said. “Or I would have.”

Alice caught herself up. “Magical projection from the planet,” she realized. “Using a variation of that spell that the Chris woman did on your last mission. Smart.”

“Thanks,” Kat said, glancing her way. “Listen, you two need to scan for–”

“Where’s Army?” Alice interrupted, looking to Alijda.

Kat flinched, looking over his shoulder. “You’ve got an army…?”

Alijda pointed up at the open grate in the ceiling. “Vent. Kat appeared between us as I was reaching out. Which made me scream and flinch back, so the cyber arm managed to trip the override… I jumped to hit it as it was trying to escape though. So I don’t think it got far?”

Alice looked up. “Leaving us with inert Army stuck in the ventilation. Good times.”

“Also a station falling out of orbit, so let me see if I can’t fix that,” Alijda remarked, pushing herself up off the floor and moving to the nearest computer keyboard. She began typing, as Kat returned his attention to Alice.

“You’ve been busy,” Kat observed.

“Nah, not really,” Alice said, firing off a grin. “Scan for what now?”

Kat shook off his confusion. “People. A person on the planet. Someone who’s not supposed to be down here, the same way that cyber arm wasn’t supposed to be here.”

Alice pursed her lips. “What, you mean you think someone fell through the multiverse cracks along with the arm? That’s not very solo-missiony. Are you sure?”

“We found a diary,” Kat explained. “Supposedly written by a women here who calls herself Destiny. Thing is, I recognize what’s in it. Not just the occult symbols, but some of the shorthand the writer was using.”

Alice peered closer. This scenario was a bit too weird. Was the image of Kat speaking to them under duress? “Blink twice if you’re being held captive.”

“Alice, I’m serious. I think that, somehow, it’s–”

“Oh my God,” Alijda gasped. She turned to them. “The computer. It’s…” She took a step back, pointing at the screen. “There was already a program in active memory to fix our orbit. I gave it a quick scan for viruses, then ran it. Look at what else it’s doing now.”

Alice took a few steps closer and leaned in to get a better look. One single word was typing and retyping itself, filling the screen with a single word, over and over.

Fate. Fate. Fate. Fate. Fate.

WHAT’S NEXT?

What happened to this Destiny woman?

VOTING CLOSES NOON EDT SATURDAY AUGUST 19th

Previous INDEX 4 Next

PATHS NOT TAKEN:
With the cyber arm taking second place, the writing mostly followed that thread. If magic had NOT won the vote (thereby interrupting them), they would have caught (or deceived) the arm, using it to reinitiate contact somehow. The arm still being missing path would have had Alice’s focus be on sensors and/or occult research instead. (A tie, which was possible at one point, would have had them both initiate contact at once.)

THE ORACLE PROPHESIED:
The section for events you indirectly voted on returns. The “Fate” connection (misdirection?) was locked in place with Vote 3, “Beam’s memory is damaged” (focussing attention on the artifact). That’s why Part 4 had to close off Kat’s loose plot thread of “Fate” on his home world, and why I had him recognize the symbols. It’s ALSO why Rose’s decision of who to bring down to end Part 5 was KEY, thus why I felt I couldn’t break that tie, and got so crushed at the low vote total. Anyway. All out in the open now! More or less. 😉

EXTRA ASIDE:
Heyyy, we’re back to zero view days over this three-year-old site’s 247 posts (we’ve had two empty days in the last ten). A weekly vote for T&T still helps to get eyes on us… though really, better than that is sharing a link out to anyone you think might enjoy interactive fiction. No pressure though, I’m happy you’re still here, voting and morphing the story. Ciao for niow.

4.06: She Loves Me Not

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EPSILON DELTA, PART SIX: SHE LOVES ME NOT

Kat was the last to arrive out of the transportation whirlpool. He tucked his body and rolled on the field of grass as he landed, looking up in time to see the vortex shut behind them. He first looked over to where Beam was helping Rose up to her feet, then tapped at the watch device on his wrist.

“Alijda?” he asked. “Any problems your end?”

“Aside from having a magical cyber arm stalking us? No, no, we’re good,” came Alijda’s voice.

“How’s it look down there?” Alice asked.

Kat stood up, brushing off his pants as he looked around. They were in a field of grass, by a dirt road, with a cluster of houses not very far away. Logically, that village had to be the origin for the arm, as the three of them had been transported to the planet at the same coordinates Beam had used for her first visit. It seemed to be late afternoon here, based on the location of the sun.

“Civilization’s nearby,” Kat reported. “We’ll go check it out. I figure we’ve got to hit something within twenty minutes, since Beam had less than an hour to come down, get the arm, and return.”

“Might take you thirty minutes,” Beam spoke up. “My top speed is a bit faster than that of a normal human.”

Rose tilted her head. “So do you sweat like us when you run?” She immediately smacked her palm over her mouth, as if she hadn’t meant to speak aloud.

Beam clasped her hands behind her back, wiggling her eyebrows and letting out a giggle. “Ooh, Rose, yes. Every time I get all hot and bothered, my body reacts JUST like yours does. Thank you for asking?”

Once again, some of Rose’s freckles began to wash out as her cheeks darkened.

“I heard just enough of that to not want to hear any more,” Alijda remarked. “Be careful down there, Kat, okay? We don’t have the power to pull you back yet.”

“Understood,” Kat said. “Signing off.”

“Wait, wait, I want to hear more of the cute girls flirting!” Alice’s voice came, right before the connection ended.

Kat shook his head, then looked over at his two companions. They were standing side by side, though Beam was leaning in towards Rose, looking hopeful, while Rose was staring down at the grass. Or rather, sidelong at Beam’s legs. He sighed.

“Alice makes a good point, if accidentally,” he remarked. “Rose? Beam? We really can’t afford to have you two making eyes at each other right now, not if there’s someone or something dangerous lurking down here.”

Rose snapped her gaze up towards him. “What? Oh, Kat, I wouldn’t. I mean, I’m not. I mean, I have a girlfriend, a wonderful girlfriend! I would never cheat on Paige. No way!”

Kat crossed his arms. “And I believe that. But you DO seem to be affected by Beam somehow, whether it’s physical, owing to her greater romantic expertise, or because this situation has turned her into a damsel in distress. I know I’ve fallen for a few pretty girls under that sort of circumstance. And Beam is a curious technological marvel, isn’t she?”

Rose visibly swallowed. “Well, yeah, I want to help Beam. B-But I would never cheat on Paige,” she repeated softly, before looking away, towards the settlement.

Kat looked to the blonde hologram. “Also, Beam, you’re not helping. For now, can you modify your algorithms, or set Rose as unattainable or something? She is, as she points out, taken. Not to mention very possibly your superior officer.”

Beam leaned back away from Rose, her smile disappearing as she focussed on Kat. “Under these circumstances, I cannot help but flirt with Rose.”

Kat lifted his eyebrow. “Why’s that?”

Beam sighed. “Honestly? Rose has become more than a run-of-the-mill cute, funny, intelligent redheaded girl. She has now also saved my life, as it were. Meaning I owe her. And by default, I am programmed to repay debts to girls like her in a very specific way. By cozying up to them, until such a point that I can reward her with–”

“Space?” Rose squeaked, cutting Beam off.

“–kisses,” Beam finished regardless. She eyed Rose. “So many kisses, Rose. Kisses… everywhere.” Yet even as she generalized, her gaze seemed to focus in somewhere more specifically. “All very commitment free. Whenever you’re ready.”

Rose let out what Kat interpreted as giddy laughter. The teenager began to backpedal. “Wow! Okay, so, I’m sorry Beam, that’s not happening. Like, ooh, I’m sure you’re awesome and good at what you do, but not only am I off the market, I’m sure no parts of me taste sweet at all. Besides, mission! Big mission here! We gotta get back on track, right Kat? Time’s a-wasting, we gotta get going here, we gotta–”

As Kat raised his hand, palm out, Rose stopped a few steps away. “Rose, wait. Please. Remember, you wanted me along with you? Not Alijda, who might have tried to ignore this relationship, or Alice, who probably would have encouraged it. I think we need to put it to bed.” He frowned. “Though, bad choice of words.”

“Kat, I wanted you along since you recognized the occult symbol,” Rose mumbled. Though she did stop, executing a series of such rapid fire toe-taps on the ground that the tip of her shoe began to make an indentation.

Kat peered closer at Beam, who was now looking at the ground with a pouty expression. Almost like she was a young twenty something who wasn’t being allowed to borrow the family car. It was sort of adorable – but surely that too, had to be programming.

“Beam?” he said. “I’m sorry if this sounds indelicate, but I’m not sure how else to put this. Were you created to be some sort of high-tech prostitute? Is that part of the problem here?”

Beam’s pouty lower lip started to quiver, as if she was upset. From the corner of his eye, Kat saw Rose smack her hand over her face – while still peering out between her fingers. For a moment, he was worried she’d jump in and say something to deflect before Beam could speak up, but Rose held her tongue.

“I do not know,” Beam answered at last, her expression becoming more neutral as Rose failed to react. The hologram again looked at Kat. “I can tell you this. I have experienced memory loss before. My first memory ever is waking up in an alleyway on my Earth, with no idea as to how I got there. At the time, I knew little more than my name, and my basic programming.”

Her shoulders slumped. “I like to think that my creator, whoever they were, had honourable intentions, and was sadly forced to leave me behind on that day. But it is equally possible that I was discarded there by a creator who became disgusted by my settings, and was unable to reformat me. Which, yes, might make me nothing more than someone’s off-the-market high-tech sexual plaything.”

“Ohhh, Beam, you poor–” Rose froze in the process of reaching back towards the holographic woman, leaving her fingers twitching in the air. Apparently, her desire to help out was still battling with her fear at being seduced by the pretty hologram.

Kat wasn’t entirely surprised by Beam’s answer. Granted, he’d thought that maybe the holographic girl’s reluctance to give Rose space was due to a different sort of boot-up imprinting, but… “Then did a redheaded woman take you in on that day, and treat you nicely as you coped with your memory loss?”

Beam shook her head. “No.” She looked sidelong at Rose. “But your thinking does match my own here, Kat. For while that woman did not have red hair like Rose, I repaid that debt in much the same way I want to here. She was even funny in a similar way to Rose.”

“Ah ha ha, funny looking, you mean,” Rose muttered.

Beam smiled. “Oh, no Rose. Have I mentioned yet how much I love seeing your shirt?”

Rose pounded her toe into the dirt. “Don’t even. I hope they’re still growing. That is, oh, DAMN it, you meant the pun there, huh?”

Lia even drew the shirt
Such a good commission

Beam giggled. “Yes. You can handcuff me whenever you want. To whatever you want. Commitment free, Rose.”

Kat had been vaguely wondering about the meaning of Rose’s T-Shirt, which sported a squiggle leading down to the single word ‘YOU’RE’. With Beam’s remark, it suddenly clicked – the squiggle was music notation for a quarter rest. Rose’s top read: YOU’RE, under a rest.

Rose buried her face in her hands, turning away. “Should I die now? Because under the circumstances, I think dying of embarrassment is the only proper thing for me to do. Solves everything. Give my love to Paige. Not literally.”

“Ohhh, Rose, you poor–” Beam froze in the process of reaching back towards the other girl, leaving her fingers twitching in the air. Kat wondered whether the blonde was mimicking Rose’s earlier actions deliberately, or instinctively. At least she seemed to know enough not to hug Rose just then.

He sighed. “Beam. You have GOT to scale it back, for Rose’s own sake if nothing else. Is there any way you can just… reclassify Rose as less your saviour, and more one of your girl friends?”

Beam turned to look at him, lowering her arm. “I could. That would stretch out the time frame for intimacy.”

“I meant, your friends who are girls,” Kat added quickly. “Not girlfriends as in girls you might one day end up sleeping with.”

Beam canted her head to the side. A puzzled look crossed her face. “I’ve never been clear on that distinction.”

“Girls that you simply get along with,” Kat pressed. “That you don’t sleep with, who aren’t into you sexually. Heterosexual girls, for instance.”

Beam shrugged. “On my Earth, the default is that people feel they are compatible with everyone, regardless of gender,” Beam said. “That’s partly what made my programming so unique, its inherent rejection of the unfairer sex. It’s why I had to remain in hiding, why my existence was looked down upon by most men, even some women. It’s also why I saw my recruitment to this project as a form of escape, rather than as an abduction.”

Kat shook his head. “Wait, no. You’re from some free love society? Where every female on your Earth is open to any gender, no exception?”

Beam tilted her head the other way. “It is the same for the males.”

Kat swallowed. “But then, you’ve… with ALL your female friends? But that’s impossible. What about marriage?”

“Marriage unites one woman with one man, for procreation, but she is still welcome to have as many female partners as she requires for pleasure. As is the man with other males. Cheating doesn’t apply with the same sex.”

Kat let out a low whistle. “Huh, unique. So you really… like, you mean ANY girl you’ve met, you eventually kiss and… damn, really? Seriously?” Kat said, starting to feel flustered himself at Beam’s penetrating, yet increasingly inquisitive look.

“If I have become friendship bonded with the girl, it is only natural,” Beam admitted. “Now, I do recognize this custom as different across the multiverse, and I have tried to never initiate until I am sure. But here, we’ve established that Rose is compatible with me. So my program compels me to flirt with her, until she is no longer my lesbian friend, or my debt is repaid.”

Rose had dropped her arms to her sides and was now staring up towards the sky. “Ohh, yup, Lesbian Rose Thorne is now dead of embarrassment,” she sighed. “So, we gonna have an open casket funeral for the poor dear, or just a big ol’ girl love orgy in her honour, ooooh, choices, choices…”

Kat rubbed the back of his neck. “Can’t you make some new classification for Rose?”

“I would need a point of reference. I am still desperately trying to compute your distinction between lesbian girlfriends and friends who are lesbian girls. Because I…” Beam bit down on her lip. “I don’t want to lose Rose’s friendship. That would hurt my heart.”

Rose turned her head, eyes widening. “Ohh, Beam… if only I could lie to you about my preferences? It’s just, I spent so long lying to myself…”

Kat clapped his hands. “Wait, got it. Classify Rose as a male lesbian friend.”

Beam gasped. “Oh! Of course, it’s so simple.”

Rose shifted her wide-eyed gaze to Kat, then let out a moan as she dropped to her knees, placing her hands back over her face. “Y’know what? I can’t even tell if I’m offended or relieved. But know that Lesbian-Boy-Rose is ALSO DEAD. He/she/we are all dead, dead, stone cold dead. Uhh, as long as that’s doesn’t categorize me in a fetish way instead, Beam, cuz if so, I’m only mostly dead. Also, ew.”

Beam let out a soft cooing noise. “Oh, Rose, don’t worry. I could never truly see you as a boy. You’re too curvy, not to mention adorable. But I can overlay my feelings for men onto a new subclass of girl. Making you my first real girl… friend. If that’s acceptable?” Her look was hopeful again, her body faintly quivering with excitement.

Rose looked back upwards through her fingers. “Why do I feel like I’m being put in charge of teaching boundaries to a hot lesbian hologram?” Beam clasped her hands together, silently pleading. Rose pulled her hands down. “Um, okay, acceptable.”

Beam blinked a few times. Then she squealed in delight. “Oh, ROSE, is this how you see me?”

Beam knelt down next to her, grasping Rose in a sideways hug. Only to immediately pull back slightly. “Hugging like this, I can mean it non-sexually, right?” Rose nodded mutely in response, only to be pulled back even tighter into Beam’s bosom. “Oooh, it’s so weird and different, but I feel like I really get your reluctance now!”

“Urk. Yeah, uh, so I guess Rose lives again?” Rose wheezed. “She needs to breathe though. Beam, please let Rose breathe?”

Kat found he could only shake his head in wonder. And as Beam released Rose and then tried to engage the stunned redhead in a discussion of sports and beer, he realized he had probably only served to trade off one problem for another.

***

The first two houses they passed on the road, which were spaced a few city blocks apart, looked unremarkable. They continued on, Beam practically skipping along the dirt road, all smiles, as Rose trailed long looking sheepish. But, Kat suspected, secretly relieved.

Kat extended his arm as they came up to the third house, bringing the two girls up short.

“I see it too,” Rose remarked. “Another occulty symbol, on the wall there.”

“That’s no desire symbol though,” Kat revealed. “It’s used for protection.”

“So is it protecting someone who’s inside the house?” Beam wondered. “Or is it keeping something in there from getting out, like a freaky homicidal robot who’s short one cyber arm?”

Kat could only shrug. “I don’t know. We could call Alijda for an update, see if maybe they have the arm, or can get something from the station’s database about how common these symbols are on this world.”

Rose expelled a breath. “Well, it’s only a one story building, and I’m feeling amazingly brave given all my resurrections of late. We could at least look in the window.”

Beam pointed down the road. “Or, look, someone’s in the street, closer to the heart of this village. They’re coming this way. Could be a local. Or maybe they saw me here last time? We could always talk to them before messing with the spells in the area.”

NEXT?

What should they do about this symbol? OPTIONS: 

VOTING CLOSES NOON EDT SATURDAY JULY 22nd

Previous INDEX 4 Next

PATHS NOT TAKEN:
We were probably following Kat. If Rose had brought Alice, we’d have stayed on the station to look at the Alijda/Kat relationship (possibly in contrast to the Rose/Beam one) as they repaired the internal sensors. If Rose had brought Alijda… I wasn’t quite sure, but we may have stayed on the station, with Alice giving Kat more information about the “Epsilon God”? Anyway, we got Kat, meaning planet, meaning no delay for the Rose/Beam fallout. Which gave Beam a backstory that I hadn’t originally planned out at all. Woo hoo?

4.05: Holo Victory

Previous INDEX 4 Next

EPSILON DELTA, PART FIVE: Holo Victory

Rose repeated the “hand squeeze of support” with Beam once more before releasing her, rising to her feet at the same time as Alijda. “If the planet already knows we’re here, they know more about us than we do about ourselves,” Rose pointed out. “We need to fix that fast. So, we scan them. Which will also tell us if there’s still an artifact to be retrieved.”

Beam blinked up at her. “Rose, you already know that much about Epsilon’s missions?”

Rose nodded. “Alice explained. Collecting stuff or people which are drifting between the multiverses. She did some solo missions when she started out too.”

“Yuppers. Never send others to do things you haven’t already tried yourself,” Alice remarked. “But in the end, this place REALLY needed maintenance. Plus some artifact stuff is a lot harder to pinpoint without ‘boots on the ground’. Ergo, recruiting.”

“Except, Rose, can’t we check containment here to know if an artifact was retrieved?” Kat insisted. “That would also tell us whether any prior artifacts have gone crazy.”

“We could,” Rose admitted. “But we’d probably have to split up then, plus that won’t help Beam’s memory loss. Fixing Beam is our priority now.”

“Oh?” Alijda said, raising an eyebrow. “Why, so that she can take control of the station back from you?”

Rose frowned at Alijda. “No. So that we’re all on the same page, and not making the same mistakes twice with whatever’s on the planet.”

BEAM (Approx)
A modified Haruki

“I don’t think Rose or I will be allowed to retain control anyway,” Beam murmured, lying back on the floor. “Not after bringing Alice back in.”

Alice winced. “Geeeez, Beam. You’re making me feel like I killed kittens while I was in charge here.” She eyed the others. “I didn’t, for the record.”

Alijda glanced from Rose to Kat and back. Then she stepped to the side, gesturing at the computer. “Well, you are technically in charge, Rose. Scan away.”

Rose blinked. “What? Er, I mean, right.” She exhaled. Why had she insisted on taking this stand?

To help Beam. Yes, that was her cause now, Rose decided. And not merely because the two of them were the youngest, or the only ones into girl love, or the most inexperienced with whatever was going on as compared to the others. It was because Beam had asked for her help, so damn it, she was going to stop acting like a scared teenager, and start doing more to provide that help.

Rose interlaced her fingers and pushed her palms forwards, cracking her knuckles. “Right,” she repeated, staring at the computer. The problem being, Paige was techno-girl, not her. Hell, pretty much everyone in this room was more tech savvy than she was. Too bad the interface wasn’t a piano keyboard.

Rose chewed on her lower lip. She looked back at Beam, then extended an arm down towards the other girl. “Let’s have you do whatever it is you would have done here, as if you were first arriving at the planet,” Rose suggested. “I’m guessing that would include a scan, and it might trigger a memory for you.”

“My memories may have been deleted, versus being rendered inaccessible,” Beam murmured.

Rose shrugged, keeping her arm extended. “Won’t know until we try.”

“I guess.” Slowly, Beam’s smile reappeared. It became hesitant as her gaze drifted back over everyone else in the room, but finally the blonde hologram looked back to Rose, and took her hand. Rose pulled the other girl to her feet.

Beam turned and stared at the computer. Seconds ticked by.

“Whenever you’re ready,” Rose encouraged.

Beam nodded. “Just a moment. Normally I interface directly, but I believe it’s better for you to see what I’m doing in human time. Also, the station is actually in synch with, and orbiting, the planet. Not usually something we do. Adjustments are needed.”

“Truth,” Alice observed.

“Oh. Okay. So just tell me if I’m being a moron then,” Rose said.

Beam turned, still smiling. “Oh, you’re not. You’re very sweet, Rose.”

“You haven’t tasted me, how would you know I’m sweet?” Rose shot back.

She immediately wished she could rewind the last five seconds. Rose spun away, pounding her fist into her forehead. Damn it! Bad Rose! Do not make sexy jokes at the pretty holographic lesbian!

Rose heard Beam giggle, and saw Alice mutter “Adorbs” towards Alijda. Kat seemed to take a sudden interest in the computer hardware. Before Rose could recover by saying ‘tasted my cooking, I meant my cooking!’, Beam was speaking again.

“I’ve now mentally run through everything I would do prior to a scan,” the hologram said. “Having the computer execute another one seems like the best plan now.” Beam reached out, tapping at the computer interface. Images began to appear on one of the monitors.

“First, it’s a magic pure world,” Beam said.

Alice let out a sigh of relief. “That means less stuff in orbit for us to possibly be crashing into,” she explained off Alijda’s look.

“But it means they probably won’t have the technology we need to restart the station’s systems either,” Beam pointed out.

“Sooo computers can’t run on magic, huh?” Rose asked, hoping to lighten the mood.

“Hmmm,” Kat said, rubbing his chin. “Rose raises an interesting point, given how that small world we visited had been trying to find some sort of fusion.” Rose arced her eyebrow back at him.

Alijda clasped her hands behind her head. “That also tells us the artifact Epsilon wanted from that world is technological, yeah? Tech being the sort of thing that would stand out as wrong on a magic world.”

“Correct,” Beam confirmed. “And I’m not reading any such signs now. Either the tech is being magically shielded, or I already brought the artifact back.”

“My money’s on that,” Rose said, pointing. “You brought something back, and that tech is what messed up the station tech.”

“Or maybe the tech messed with Beam’s tech, and her tech transferred it to the station tech?” Alijda mused.

“Oooh, technobabble,” Alison purred.

Alijda rolled her eyes. “Anyway, this would explain why the virus wasn’t in the communication logs.”

“Hold on. Is the entity up here some sort of sentient computer virus then?” Kat wondered.

“Perhaps I should access the transport logs,” Beam decided. She continued to type. “All right. It looks like I whirlpooled down to the planet, and returned less than an hour later. There is no record of any entity accompanying me.” She frowned. “There is also no record of me checking in a new artifact afterwards.”

“So this problem hit pretty fast,” Alice remarked. “Since that’s the first thing you should do upon retrieval.”

“I know that,” Beam said. “Could be my programming was already glitching by then.” She sighed. “I wish I could remember any of this.”

Rose turned from the monitor displaying the planet. “This is the station of creepy oversight, right? Couldn’t we see a video of your return, Beam?”

Beam blinked. “Oh, yes, of course! Let me pull up the last activation time.”

Everyone clustered around the monitor as Beam tapped the necessary keys. “Uh oh, looks like a lot of the feed is unavailable,” she remarked. “Could have been damaged or blocked off, as has been done to me. I do have something from one camera though, here we go…”

Beam paused, her fingers over the ‘Return’ key. “Rose? Your idea, and you’re in charge, you want to do the honours?”

Rose opened her mouth, but before she could say ‘No, do the thing’ she saw Beam’s eager expression. “Oh. Uh. Sure,” was what came out instead.

She reached over. Her hand brushed against Beam’s. Before she knew it, she was staring into Beam’s eyes, and Beam was staring back, and it’s like the hologram was searching her for something. For some deeper connection, maybe…

Alijda cleared her throat behind them. Rose quickly tapped the key and turned back to the monitor, inwardly cursing herself for getting flustered. Again.

The image of the room they were in appeared on the screen, with a big blue whirlpool in the centre of the floor. Moments later, Beam was spit out into zero gravity, floating towards the top of the monitor screen. She appeared to be carrying something.

Alice let out a low whistle. “What is that, like Cyborg’s arm or something?”

Then things began to happen quickly. Rose’s attention was on the floor irising shut over the whirlpool, so it wasn’t until the others gasped that she looked back up. In time to see the arm device jet away from Beam, the holographic girl in the video letting out a rather human shriek.

“What? I missed it, what did that?” Rose asked.

Alijda held up a finger, as if to say ‘wait a moment’. They continued to watch, as the Beam in the video said, “Computer, normal gravity!”

Beam plunged back down towards the now sealed whirlpool, Rose wincing in anticipation of the impact – but Beam managed to land on her feet without injuring her legs. In fact, she bent her knees and pushed off, running in the direction of the computer banks. Right. Holographic legs, Beam likely had no bones to break. So then why give her… Rose pushed that thought aside.

“No, no, no, NO!” came Beam’s voice from off the screen. There was a zapping sound, and then Beam’s body flew back through the slice of the room visible to the camera. Sparks were flying from her hairband. Again she was gone, there was a smacking sound, then a dull thud. Then the picture cut out entirely.

Rose licked her lips as she glanced at the others. Alice looked surprised, Alijda looked wary, Kat looked worried, and Beam was simply wide eyed.

“You gonna be okay, Beam?” Rose asked. Beam cleared her throat. (A human mannerism, programmed in? Did Beam even eat with that throat? Why did she keep thinking about this stuff, Rose wondered.)

“I’ll be fine,” the hologram said. “That even explains a few things. Namely, me regaining consciousness in this room, learning of the station’s problem, and hooking myself into the system to summon you, Algebra. Um, I mean Rose.”

“Beam, can you rewind to when that symbol appeared?” Kat asked. “And pause?”

Beam nodded, turning back away from Rose to reach for the controls.

“That was a magic thing then, right?” Alijda said. “That symbol on the arm?”

“I’d say so,” Alice agreed.

“Sorry,” Rose apologized. “I missed it. A magic symbol on the cyber arm what now?”

“Pretty much just that,” Alijda said. “Somebody booby trapped the tech artifact with magic.”

Rose tilted her head. “But why would someone do that?”

“Good question!” Alice grumbled. “Want another good question? How could anyone down on magic planet even know to magically program that tech to go and mess with other tech like our tech, when tech down there is not technically a thing?”

“Oooh, technobabble,” Alijda murmured, half smiling. Alice stuck out her tongue.

“Maybe someone figured out what Beam was, in the time she was down there?” Rose guessed. “And thought she was part of some advance strike force?”

“I’ve got the symbol up,” Beam remarked.

Rose looked back at the screen. She saw it now, glowing white on the cyber arm Beam was holding. For all she knew, it was a Chinese character. Yet Kat’s worried expression had shifted to alarm. “You know it?” Rose asked him.

“It’s an occult symbol I recognize,” Kat said. “Someone imbued that arm with a… desire, that’s the best way I can put it.”

“A desire to screw around with advanced technology?” Alice said.

Kat shrugged. “No way to know specifics unless we find the caster.”

“I guess we’re going down to the planet then,” Rose decided. “That’s where the caster would be.”

“No way,” Alijda asserted. “We’re going to figure out where on this station that damn cyber arm is now. If it gets to Mr. Smith? We could be done for.”

Rose put her hands on her hips. “Exsqueeze me? What happened to me being in charge? The station self corrected, remember. The arm might have screwed things up by accident. And Beam’s answers are down there, not up here.”

“Sorry Rose, I have to agree with Alijda,” Alice said. “I mean, there’s probably enough power now to make a whirlpool down once, but then you’d be stuck on the planet with no backup for at least an hour of recharge time. Whereas Kat, if we found the arm, could you reverse engineer something occultish to find this caster’s ’desire’?”

“Uh? Well, maybe,” Kat said. Rather unconvincingly, Rose thought.

Beam latched onto Rose’s arm. “I’m with Rose. My answers are down there, with my past. You three can stay up here if you like, but the two of us are going.”

Rose smiled at Beam, glad for the support, while simultaneously worrying that she was somehow giving off all the wrong signals.

Alijda rubbed her forehead. “Oh boy. Look, Rose, Beam, if you’re dead set on going, please bring one of us along? Because I can teleport people out of trouble, Kat seems to know something about that symbol, and Alice is a walking encyclopaedia. Whoever’s left on the station can search for the arm.”

Rose pursed her lips. “I guess that’s fair.” This way, she and Beam could have an experienced chaperone.

NEXT?

Who should Rose and Beam bring with them? OPTIONS:

VOTING CLOSES 7am EDT THURSDAY JULY 6th

CORRECTION: It closes when I get more than 3 votes. I guess everyone’s on vacation. I dunno. Maybe I should take one too. Peace.

Previous INDEX 4 Next

PATHS NOT TAKEN:
If the planet had been bigger on tech, first the artifact would be magic, and second the planet would have launched missiles at them. If the station artifacts got checked, first the RUNNER UP would determine the artifact (or in the case of a tie, the first vote, which was for tech, meaning magic artifact). Second, an artifact in the vault would have helped to restore more functionality to the station. Instead, magic world, which was a real come-from-behind victory. For “Point-Of-View”, Alijda POV could have involved planet negotiations, and Alice POV a greater artifact focus. We got Rose, meaning more Beam. I admit to some curiosity about the Rose-love, feel free to comment.

THE ORACLE PROPHESIED:
New section. This will chronicle events you voted for indirectly. (For instance, the firing of Alice in Story3 occurred after a vote, not to fire her, but to have her break the rules.) Here, the fact that Beam was voted to have a memory loss, followed by a Rose point-of-view? Means we’re getting more of Beam than we would have had with any other combination. To the point of me hunting for a reference picture. I am totally fine with this, but it was unexpected.

4.04: Turnabout

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EPSILON DELTA, PART FOUR: Turnabout

Kat Conway made his decision before arriving at the auxiliary control room. He would let Alijda resume the conversation between them, assuming there was even a conversation for them to have.

She barely addressed him as they reunited. Their group of four then headed back to the large cylindrical arrivals room, looking for Beam. He ended up sidelined with Alijda as Alice and Rose discussed the unconscious blonde holographic woman, and Alijda still said nothing. Then Alice asked the both of them to get a power pack, back in the auxiliary control room.

“I can just do a series of teleports to get there faster by myself,” Alijda pointed out.

“Oh good, so we’ll do the horror movie trope of splitting up after all?” Alice said, smiling and clasping her hands together.

Alijda glared. “Sarcasm isn’t a good look on you.”

Alice shook her head. “No, seriously, I’m curious if something will try to pick us off, and you’re the best equipped of any of us to get away from an attack.”

Alijda sighed.

“Maybe Rose should go with Alijda instead,” Kat suggested.

Rose stood from where she had crouched next to Beam. “If you like?”

Alijda looked from Alice, to Rose, to Kat. She shook her head. “No, that’s silly. Rose, you keep learning more about the station from Alice. Kat, you’re with me.”

Kat nodded, and he allowed himself to be teleported back into the hallway. They walked from there. He continued to wait to see if Alijda would resume a conversation.

It wasn’t until they’d hooked the power pack device into Mr. Smith to recharge that she finally spoke up, and even then, it was without turning to face him. “So. Kat. You were gone less than a day, huh?”

Kat Conway
Never commissioned art for him, but he looks a bit like Colin Ferguson.

“Yeah,” Kat answered. “Gone just long enough to be disappointed by what I learned.”

There was a brief silence.

“I’ll bite,” Alijda yielded, still looking at the power pack. “What’d you learn?”

He found himself wondering what Alijda would make of it. “I’ve been searching for this girl. Er, woman. Well, childhood friend,” Kat explained. “Named Fate. She’s the one who first got me into the occult, only she disappeared after high school. I’ve been searching for her, off and on, for over fifteen years now. I finally thought I had a lead, a phone number I’d snared right before I was abducted by this station for the first time. In fact, that’s why I was keen on getting sent back to my Earth when we first met.”

Kat paused, wondering if Alijda even cared to hear more. She continued to stare in the other direction. He waited.

“False intel?” she said at last.

“Not exactly,” Kat elaborated. “There was, indeed, a woman named Fate trying to organize an occult group in the town I went to. Once I left this station, I wandered, returning to my hotel room only after 8pm, in order to phone the number. This Fate didn’t know what I meant, seemed to be the wrong age, and had no other useful information. She invited me to her meeting though. I was just heading out to it when I found myself back here in zero gravity instead.”

“Oh.” Alijda finally turned, biting down on her lower lip. “Kat, you must think I’m terrible.”

Kat lifted an eyebrow, trying to connect the dots that had led the brunette woman to make such a statement. “Actually,” he pointed out, “I’ve called you attractive on more than one occasion. Despite your protestations of being ugly on the inside.”

“Except I didn’t know any of that about you,” Alijda said, her gaze slipping to the side. “We had an entire mission together and I didn’t know you’d lost a childhood friend. Even now, you’re hesitant to tell me about her.”

That at least helped to number the dots for him. Kat shrugged. “I don’t put it on my business cards. Anyway, you said it yourself back then, we were going our separate ways once that whole shrinking mission ended. Why talk about ourselves?”

“Because we talked about me. And now that our ways didn’t turn out to be so separate…”

Alijda looked back at him. Then she turned and gave a side-kick into the wall. “This isn’t FAIR,” she hollered. “I’ve had six months of thinking about you, on and off, wondering about what-ifs and might-have-beens. You’ve had six hours, if that! Now you’re back, and I have another chance, and all I can do is act like a stupid tsundere from one of those animated Japanese shows Alice likes.”

Kat smiled, catching the reference. “To be fair, I think you push everyone away, and it’s regardless of any feelings you have towards them.”

Alijda snapped her gaze back over to him. “Did you just mansplain tsunderes to me?!” She gave the wall another swift kick.

Mr. Smith made as noise as if he was clearing his throat. “Alijda, if you could avoid potentially damaging–”

“Oh, shut the front door, Smith!” Alijda shouted.

“The front door is not open, or we’d be exposed to the vacuum of space.”

“Damn it, I meant I don’t need you butting in on top of my angst with Kat on top of my writer’s block issues from before I even got here today!”

“Ah. Very well,” the computer said, falling silent again.

Kat managed not to laugh at the exchange. “If it makes you feel better, Alijda, I’m sure all of the information about my connection to Fate is in whatever file this station has on me,” Kat said. “I remember how you didn’t read it, feeling that would be unfair. So points in your favour.”

“That doesn’t help.” She drew in a deep breath. “Kat, it’s your turn.”

Kat blinked. “My what?”

“Last time we went on about me. My shrinking, my depression, my hacking, my friggin’ issues. I need to stop with the ego trips. Your turn now. It’s only fair.”

“What makes you think I even have issues?”

Her gaze softened. “Kat, I overheard you, that time you mentioned to Para about your mother dying in childbirth. And Alice has told me about the fire manipulation you can do. Now we’ve got a lost childhood friend in the mix. Granted, I don’t know whether any of that stuff necessarily connects to your hormonal interests towards anyone wearing a skirt, but you have issues. Unless your issue is that you don’t see your issues.”

This time it was Kat who felt like he couldn’t look Alijda in the eye. Part of him wished she’d kept ignoring him. “Okay,” he said, after a minute of scrutinizing one of Mr. Smith’s keyboards. “I suppose I don’t take relationships seriously. And I might have female abandonment issues.”

“Did you join the military so that you’d be able to form bonds with men?”

He laughed, despite himself. “Alijda, I’m not gay. Not by a long shot.”

“Didn’t mean to imply you were. But people with abandonment issues, they sometimes cling to close friendships or bad relationships. In the military, you’d get more of the first and less of the second.”

Kat realized he was now clenching his jaw, and he forced himself to stop. “I went to military college because my dad felt I needed more discipline in my life. Don’t get me wrong, I had a good relationship with him, but he was pretty lax with me. Particularly when it came to my hanging out with occult people all the time.”

“Were any of the occult girls pretty?”

“I really don’t want to talk about my sex life.”

“Hmmm. That escalated quickly.”

“DAMN it, Alijda…” He rounded on her, only to see an expression of genuine concern. There were no hints of a self-satisfied smirk. He looked away again. “We need to focus on the mission here.”

“That’s an excuse. Besides, right now, all of us getting along and making peace with ourselves kind of IS the mission,” she pointed out. “Because whatever’s out there, manipulating the situation? It’s probably been able to access our files. So it’s liable to go after our weak points, to try and fragment us.”

Kat found he had to grant her that. Whatever faults Alijda had, being timid was not among them. “I guess. Though you’re assuming that whatever put this station in danger will be actively targeting us.”

“Until we get more information, I figure we might as well assume that.”

Mr. Smith made a throat clearing noise. “Then would now be a good time to mention that your power pack is fully charged? Meaning more information is possible?”

Alijda sighed. “There would never be a good time, Smith. So sure, now works.”

Kat heard Alijda approach him, then felt her hand on his arm. “Kat, let’s leave our talk at, I do want to get to know you better. Okay?” She pulled back. “After all, one thing I’ve realized after six months with Alice is that I need to have more well rounded friends. Ones who aren’t inclined to run through the entire ‘Back to the Future’ movie for me, from memory.”

“Right. Okay,” Kat said, turning back to her. He smiled. “And hey, look on the bright side. At least Alice only quotes, she wouldn’t act that movie out for you at the same time.”

Alijda seemed to deflate a little, her eyes rolling back in her head.

Kat did a double take. “She didn’t. Did she?”

“Never give that woman alcohol,” was all Alijda would say as she turned to retrieve the power pack.

***

Soon, Kat was watching as Alice hooked some cables from the power pack into the hologram’s hairband. Or what had obviously been made to resemble a hairband – it had now been popped about an inch up from her hairline, exposing what looked like a number of ports and lights beneath. And while Kat was pretty technically minded, he didn’t recognize this technology, and had no idea what Alice was doing.

At least Mr. Smith had managed to restore the proper lighting to the room by now, so Kat could watch, in case he needed to do this himself later.

“Uh, so how do you know that setup will work?” Alijda asked Alice, apparently having similar reservations.

“I don’t,” Alice said brightly, dusting off her hands as she seemingly finished up. She looked up from where she was crouched. “But from what Rose has told me, I’m pretty sure all this holo-girl needs is some power. And plugging the pack into her hairband seems the best way to juice her up.”

“Oh no, no no, Alice, don’t put it that way,” Rose moaned. “Not after what you did earlier.”

Alice grinned at the redhead. “C’mon, we had to check her body for other ports. And you were wondering, you know you were.”

Alijda looked back and forth between the two of them. “What ports? Wonder what?”

Kat cleared his throat, having realized what they were getting at. “So this Beam is anatomically correct?”

“Ooh yes, she is fully functional,” Alice purred, waggling her eyebrows. “And if she’s an artificial life form anything like Star Trek’s Data, she’ll be programmed in multiple techniques. Lesbian ones, to boot.”

“ALICE!” Rose said, her face getting red enough to start washing out some of her freckles.

“I’m sorry I asked,” Alijda sighed.

“Oh Rose, don’t be like that,” Alice assured the younger girl. “I’m not saying you should cheat on your girlfriend. But there’s nothing wrong with talking, yeah? Swapping techniques? Knowing that this Beam might have felt first hand whatever she–”

“Alice, maybe you should drop it?” Kat interrupted. “Rose looks very uncomfortable.”

“But…” Alice paused, as she looked from Kat to Rose, and then the ground. “Okay. It’s just, I hate how Rose got pulled into this. I… I want her to get SOMETHING out of it, at least.”

Alijda reached out to touch Alice on the shoulder. “She is getting something out of it, Alice. New friends.”

Alice looked back up and smiled. “D’awwwww, Alijda. See, Kat? She really is a softie underneath it all.”

Kat saw Alijda’s grip tighten on Alice’s shoulder. “You need to stop pushing your luck, friend.”

Alice nodded, without losing her smile. Then Rose was smiling too, looking back and forth between the two other women.

That’s when the new voice came, slightly higher pitched than any of the other females present. “Reinitializing.”

Kat turned his attention to the blonde hologram, as Beam blinked her eyes open. One of her palms reached up to touch the cord that was running up to her hairband interface. “Power source. Confirmed.”

It idly occurred to Kat that he was becoming increasingly outnumbered as far as gender went.

Rose reached out to grasp Beam’s free hand. “Beam? You back? You okay?”

“I am. Unsure.” Beam blinked her eyes several times in rapid succession. “Resynchronizing. Time stamp. Confirmed. Congratulations. Are in order. Restoring. Full power. To communications.” Her hand squeezed back at Rose. “We’re not dead, and the station’s still here. Oh Rose, you were successful!”

“Uh, not exactly,” Rose admitted. “Also kinda brought in the first string team to help.” She gestured over towards Alice and the others.

Beam’s gaze followed the motion, the holographic woman freezing up as she saw Alice. “Oooh. We are so fired.”

“Eh, I was fired too. It didn’t take,” Alice chirped.

Alijda joined the other women in crouching down beside Beam. “Beam, I hate to impose on you right away, but we think there’s an entity on board. Because the station’s problems somehow self corrected. I don’t suppose you can confirm that? Or offer any alternative reasoning?”

Beam blinked twice. “I cannot.”

Alijda glanced up towards Kat before looking back at Beam. “Well, anything more you can tell us about what happened would be helpful.”

Beam opened her mouth, closed it, then opened it again. “My memory is damaged.”

Alijda palmed her face, sliding her hand down and off her chin.

“It’s never easy,” Kat remarked.

“No, you misunderstand,” Beam said, squeezing again at Rose’s palm. “That’s helpful. I run occasional diagnostics. Everything was in order prior to my coming to this planet. Whatever damaged me, it must relate to my mission here.”

“Or it’s due to some artifact you were storing here, on the station,” Alice said, standing and bringing her hands to her hips.

Beam’s gaze tracked over to Alice’s shoes. “That is possible,” she admitted. “Containment could have been breached during the time of my memory loss.”

“So we scan the planet for more information about Beam’s mission,” Rose decided.

Kat cleared his throat. “Ah, except shouldn’t we check on Alice’s artifact containment before potentially alerting said planet to the fact that we’re up here?”

“Kat?” Alijda met his gaze. “We’re in orbit. They might already know.”

NEXT?

What should the group do? OPTIONS:

We were overdue for Kat point-of-view. Now what?

VOTING CLOSES 7am EDT THURSDAY JUNE 29th

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PATHS NOT TAKEN:
If Beam had been voted unfindable, we’d have had the two entity plot, one in Beam and one, well, not. Cue some sort of chase? If part of Beam had been Ziggy, then Ziggy would have been the entity, somehow wanting freedom, or it’s a backup copy, or honestly that plot hadn’t fully gelled yet. Now it doesn’t need to, as memory loss was the unanimous choice. So here we are, and I know more about the “entity”, but telling you would be a spoiler.