Story4

4.13: Search and Re-Skew

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EPSILON DELTA, PART THIRTEEN: SEARCH AND RE-SKEW

They had soon left the vicinity of the village entirely, Rose continuing her enthusiastic jog through the fields, occasionally pausing to sniff the air once more.

“It’s been over fifteen minutes,” Kat mused to Alijda as they kept pace. “What’s the range of this spell I wonder?”

Alijda shrugged. “Maybe Rose isn’t homing in? If she’s tracking Beam, could be we’re simply retracing her route. And as a hologram, Beam could move pretty quickly.”

“I guess,” Kat yielded. He sighed. “If only I’d had Rose wait outside the police station.”

“Hindsight is 20/20,” Alijda retorted.

Kat chuckled. “I seem to recall using that argument on you once.”

“Hmph,” the brunette said. “Bear in mind that you’ve also been fortunate – or possibly unfortunate – enough to have been placed in an advisory role to the people who are actually in charge twice now. Namely me and Rose. There’s a good chance you couldn’t have changed Rose’s mind about something any more than you could have changed mine.”

“I’ve gone rogue before. Hallucinogenic gas,” Kat reminded her.

“Oh, well, you’ve got an answer for everything, don’t you.”

“Not everything.” Kat wondered about filtering his next thought even as he spoke it aloud. “Not you.”

Alijda didn’t say anything for a moment. Then, “I haven’t made that easy. Did I even properly thank you for saving my life last mission?”

Kat hesitated. “In your own way.”

Alijda winced. “Meaning no. I was mostly focussed on Chris, and myself. So thank you. And know that I have been working on being less negative, and some of that is thanks to you as well.”

Kat eyed Alijda, remembering what she’d been saying right before Rose had regained consciousness. “I was getting that vibe. That’s good. But don’t feel you need to do it for me.”

ALIJDA VAN VLIET Commission from Shirochya

They fell silent again, climbing over a fence as Rose continued her tracking. At last, Alijda spoke up again. “Kat, do we have a thing?” she asked, without looking at him directly. “Or, that is, might we have a thing? A together thing? If I don’t sabotage it? Or am I imagining things?”

“Hey, I have already seen your underwear,” Kat remarked, before he could stop himself. He rolled his eyes, pushing off from the ground a little harder than necessary on his next stride. “Sorry. Bad time to joke.”

Alijda didn’t answer.

“We might have a thing,” Kat granted after a few more paces. “Though this Destiny/Fate situation has me more than a little mixed up right now. Also, remember how I’m not the most mature person as far as relationships go. You think you can deal with that?”

“Nobody’s perfect,” Alijda said after a bit. “Am I hearing you’d be willing to give an actual dinner with me a try sometime though? Assuming Epsilon allows it?”

“Dinner works,” Kat agreed. “Do you like Thai food?”

Alijda finally looked over at him, offering up a small smile. “We can negotiate.”

He fired a smile back at her, and the two of them resumed their jog after Rose.

As they were coming up on more of a forested area, the young redhead tripped and went sprawling, letting out another sneeze. She managed to roll and come up on one knee, only to let out a whimper. “Oh noooo, it’s GONE.”

“What’s gone, the scent?” Kat asked, coming up next to her. She turned to look up at him and nodded.

“A sneeze to turn tracking on, a sneeze to turn it off?” Alijda hypothesized as she joined them.

“Oh, that could be,” Rose realized. She stood and turned to look at the closest tree, only a few paces away. “I feel like I was getting close too. Should I tickle my nose to turn it on again? Or would that intoxicating smell convince me to run into some kind of trap?”

“It’s starting to get dark, and we wouldn’t want to lose track of you in there,” Kat added. “Let’s have a quick look around first. See if there’s signs that anyone’s come this way.”

The group started to walk along the tree line, looking for a path or obvious entry point into the underbrush. It wasn’t long before Kat heard some noises. An animal? He held up a hand and flattened himself against a tree trunk, Alijda and Rose following suit nearby.

Something was definitely approaching their position. And as much as it had made sense for them to come down without weapons, that did feel like an oversight now. All they had on hand was Beam’s jeans. Then again… Kat reached into his pocket for his matchbook. He could manage something with fire, in a pinch.

Fortunately, it didn’t turn out to be necessary. Even in the fading light, Kat recognized the human figure as he jogged out into the open a few paces away.

“Firestorm,” Kat called out.

The redhead spun in place and nearly fell over. “Don’t DO that,” he accused, brushing off his robes before shaking what looked like Destiny’s diary in their direction. “You’re as bad as your blonde companion for sneaking up on people.”

“Beam?” Rose said, stepping forward. “Do you mean you’ve seen Beam?”

“Yeah, sure, we teamed up,” Firestorm said, lowering his arm.

“Then where is she?” Rose asked, turning to look at the trees.

“Caught by the enemy,” Firestorm said, shrugging.

Rose’s gaze snapped back to him. “WHAT?”

“Look, that wasn’t MY decision,” Firestorm sighed. “But Beam figured being intentionally caught would provide her with useful information. I was just on my way back to tell you guys what had happened.”

“Why did you even run off in the first place?” Alijda asked.

Firestorm peered. “Who in blazes are you?”

“Time out,” Kat sighed. “I think we need a moment here to get caught up.”

***

After a quick introduction to Alijda, Firestorm answered her question. He explained that he’d seen mention in Destiny’s diary of a “dimensional weak point” with occasional activity “around sunset”. So he’d headed off to check out the area, not wanting to miss the time frame. Unfortunately, he hadn’t managed to find the clearing that she had described.

“What I DID stumble onto,” Firestorm concluded. “Was Compton and two of his friends, with Destiny in tow, all tied up. They seemed to be looking for this dimensional thing too.”

“You haven’t mentioned Compton before,” Kat accused.

Firestorm snorted. “Not much to mention. His father was a big shot a few towns over, because he managed to become a pretty successful businessman. Guy passed away a couple years back, and Compton inherited everything, but he is pretty clueless. Both in business and in interpersonal skills. I sure wouldn’t have figured him to resort to kidnapping.”

“So what would motivate kidnapping Destiny?” Alijda wondered.

Firestorm rubbed the back of his neck. “Maybe he wanted her for her potions, stumbled into whatever you guys are looking into, and is now hoping that Destiny has dimensional knowledge he can use to make it big? Honestly, I’m not even sure how he pulled off the abduction in the first place. Maybe he was coached?”

“Or there’s something bigger going on here,” Kat cautioned. “What did Compton say to you when you ran into him?”

“Whoa, whoa, I didn’t let myself be seen by that guy,” Firestorm protested. “Just heard his crew stumbling around in the underbrush and hid, to see what I could learn. And what I learned, I’ve already explained. It’s as I was backing away from them, figuring I might need backup, that I ran into that Beam woman again.”

Rose leaned forwards, looking worried. “Oh yes?”

“Yeah, she just seemed to be running right through, uh, everything. That’s a hell of a power, by the way. I made motions to flag her down, lest she freak out Compton and initiate an unfortunate chain of events. She came to her senses long enough to listen to me, and we decided to team up to help free Destiny. Beam apparently wanted to ‘do something right for a change’, whatever that means.”

Rose winced, as Firestorm paused, eyeing the rest of them. “And that’s when Beam proposed getting herself caught. To learn more. And given her ability to pass right through stuff, it didn’t sound like a bad idea.”

“Except it turned out to be a bad idea?” Kat said dryly.

“Eh, maybe? I’ll let you be the judge,” Firestorm decided. “Beam marched out to attract Compton’s attention while I hid and watched. She pretended like she’d come through a portal and wanted their help to know where she was. Compton was intrigued at first, but freaked the heck out once he realized she was some sort of ghost. Screamed at his friends to tie her up.”

“Oh no. And Beam didn’t run away at that?” Rose said, clasping her hands together.

Firestorm shook his head. “She doubled down, saying ‘I can be corporeal if you want’ even as Compton screamed at her to ‘Get on the ground’. She must have turned her magic power off too, because one of Compton’s guys was able to tie her hands behind her back. And after Beam wouldn’t explain to them what part of the forest she’d come from, she was gagged too. That’s when I figured I should hightail it back to Destiny’s place, to get you for backup.”

“So Beam’s been with them for a while and might have useful information by now, we simply can’t get to her,” Kat reasoned.

Rose’s palms separated into fists. “Well, he’s messed with the wrong girl. One sneeze, and I’ll have us back at Beam’s side in no time. As long as Firestorm being here doesn’t mix me up.”

“Um, I’ll try not to?” Firestorm said, scratching his head.

“Hold on,” Alijda said, crossing her arms and leaning against a tree trunk. “No need for us to charge in. This is kind of perfect, actually.”

“Perfect?” Rose gasped. “Alijda, how can you say that?”

As a response, Alijda reached down to tap at her communicator. “Hey, Alice?”

“Hey Abbott![1]” Alice’s voice chirped in response.

Alijda rolled her eyes. “Remember how you were wondering how to abduct a person who is insubstantial?”

“Ooh, doing six impossible things before breakfast down there, are you? I hope one of them was talking to Kat.”

Alijda coughed, as Kat let out a quiet chuckle. “Fo-cus, Gods Alice,” Alijda said. “Beam’s become less holographic. Meaning not only is she caught, but you should be able to pick up her communicator now.”

“Oh? Gimme a second, I’ll check.”

“You figure we can track her,” Rose realized. “Maybe even listen in on what’s happening.”

Alijda nodded. “And more than that, if Beam’s been kidnapped, this becomes an Epsilon mission again. We’re within our rights to interfere.”

Kat rubbed his chin. That seemed like a bit of a reach, given how Beam had created the situation herself. But if it helped them to pursue the goal of getting Destiny back, he wasn’t about to object.

Firestorm threw his hands up into the air. “Okay, seriously, who ARE you people?”

Kat looked over at him. “I don’t think you really want to know the answer,” he remarked. “After all, your imagination can probably dream up something far more interesting than reality, and we’ll be leaving soon enough anyway.”

Firestorm looked Kat up and down. “So you’re some sort of magical special ops unit? Looking into these portals?”

Alice’s voice came back over the comm. “If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire…”[2]

“Alice, do you have a fix on Beam?” Alijda interrupted, palming her face.

“Yup, got that,” Alice confirmed immediately. “At least, I presume it’s Beam, I don’t know what else this signal could be. She’s about a kilometre away, in some sort of clearing within that forest region.”

Firestorm grimaced. “So Compton and his buddies found the clearing.”

“Is that bad?” Rose wondered. “What did Destiny’s diary say about it?”

“Not much,” Firestorm admitted. “Just that she’d used some of her occult tricks to pinpoint it, yet had no idea how to open an actual portal.”

“Could be how Destiny got the cyber arm,” Alijda mused. “If it came through there?”

“Maybe,” Kat said. “Though given her tendency to ask travellers about objects, maybe she traded for it or something.”

“Either way, we need a plan to get Beam and Destiny out of this Compton’s clutches,” Rose broke in. “Alijda, maybe your teleport…?”

“Limited to one person at a time,” Alijda said. “Meaning the first retrieval would tip them off.”

“Not if we arrange a distraction,” Kat remarked.

“Hold on. Once you get your people, what then?” Firestorm protested. “You just leave? What if Compton’s doing something illegal, are you just going to let him get away with it and prosecute him later?”

Kat exchanged a glance with Rose and Alijda. They couldn’t really interfere with that – except what if it was dimensional? “Firestorm’s got a point. Maybe Alijda should try to get more information before springing them. Beam might even be able to do something from the inside, even goad Compton into spilling the beans on his plans, if he hasn’t already.”

Alijda let out a breath. “Careful, Kat. How much of this is our fight?”

“We won’t know until we have more information,” he insisted.

“Information that we might get at this clearing,” Rose supplied. “If it looks like Compton’s setting up weird ritualistic rocks or something, that could tell us everything we need to know.”

“My fellow redhead has good advice,” Firestorm remarked. “One thing at a time. Now, do we have to walk there, or do your supernatural abilities allow for a more instantaneous transportation?”

They walked. Even if power had been fully restored to the Station, Kat knew that providing Firestorm with even more evidence of what they might be capable of could only be problematic in the long run.

As they got close, Kat offered to scout up ahead. He had a certain amount of experience through his military training, and while Alijda could vanish faster with her teleportation, the purple smoke she left behind was a dead giveaway. Even if it was dark by now.

On the one hand, a quick surveillance of the clearing showed that Compton and his men weren’t doing anything obvious that might involve creating a portal or otherwise affecting the dimensions. However, they’d set up a tent, added perimeter lighting using some sort of spell, and one of the guys seemed to be keeping an eye out for anyone watching them, implying suspicious behaviour.

Kat was just about to retreat when he saw her.

Compton – it had to be him based off of Firestorm’s description, a shorter man with a scruffy beard – pulled her out of the tent. Destiny. Her long blonde hair trailed behind her as he muscled her over to a part of the clearing and pointed at the ground. Kat couldn’t properly hear what they were saying, but he was more fixated on Destiny’s features. Her mannerisms, even with her hands tied behind her back. And he couldn’t be certain, not a hundred percent, but on some level, he knew. He knew.

After years of searching, he had finally located Fate Wallace-Wray. His childhood friend.

[1] From “Abbott and Costello”, parodied here.
[2] …the A-Team. (Or this crew, I suppose.)

WHAT’S NEXT?

OPTIONS:

VOTING CLOSES NOON EST SATURDAY NOVEMBER 18th

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PATHS NOT TAKEN:
Obviously decided to run with the tied vote again. If Firestorm had been working with the enemy, Beam would have noticed and tracked the man, providing exposition to the team here in Firestorm’s place. If Beam had been caught, it would have been the other way around, as it kind of was, but of course I had them team up first. Had there only been a team-up, the plan would have been for Alijda to get herself caught next, as someone who could teleport away. (Incidentally, this also explains why Rose tracking Beam/Firestorm last time would have been spoilers, as the person to provide the information would have been the one she found. Compton’s been in the outline since that vote.)

EXTRA ASIDE:
I’m leaving the vote open for two weeks, as I indicated in this post, which gives me time to deal with report cards as I return to work from medical leave. Plan is to have another part up for the last weekend of the month. Thanks for sticking with me. In other news, I’m doing a sort-of NaNoWriMo on Time Untied. We’ll see how that goes. Consider a TWF vote for Time & Tied? Thanks.

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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

Previous INDEX 4 Next

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.

4.11: Trail Mix

Previous INDEX 4 Next

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!

4.10: See Deuce

Previous INDEX 4 Next

EPSILON DELTA, PART TEN: SEE DEUCE

“Okay, good idea,” Rose decided, nodding at Firestorm. “See what you get from the diary, there could be something in there about where Destiny’s technology came from.” She glanced to Kat. “We could use the techno tech know, you know?”

Kat seemed to hesitate before nodding. Rose chalked it up to the possible invasion of Destiny’s privacy – but they needed every angle here, right?

ROSEMARY THORNE
Commission from Lia

She was second guessing her decision within five minutes of leaving Firestorm at Destiny’s house. True, he had given them the information they’d need for dealing with the police, including the location of the station, but what if something unexpected happened? Maybe the only planetary resident they knew should have come along. Rather than leaving him to snoop. Then again, maybe they had the Station for backup by now?

Rose tapped her communicator. “Rose to Alice, are you up there?”

Kat reached out to seize Rose by the arm, though he stopped short of actually touching her. Still, Rose flinched at his sudden movement.

The tall man cleared his throat. “What’s wrong, Rose? Anything I can do?”

“I wondered if they’d managed repairs up there yet, I guess,” Rose admitted. “But I probably shouldn’t disturb them, huh? They’ll call us?”

“Probably,” Kat said, smiling wanly at her. “Don’t worry, Rose. I can handle talking to the police.”

“Yeah. I just… yeah.”

“It’s just, you’ve been abducted from your Earth and are feeling a little out of sorts. I get it.”

Rose let out a long breath. “Don’t forget, I’m also in charge somehow. If this goes pear shaped, it’s on me.”

“Oh, Rose. Oh no,” came a soft voice from her other side. Beam reached out and touched Rose through the shoulder, with her incorporeal hand. “It’s on me. Because I’m the one who pulled you into this. I’m so sorry it’s distressing you.”

Rose turned to look at the blonde hologram, and immediately had to look away. That tender, apologetic gaze… Rose wasn’t sure if she was more irritated at the sense of being pitied, or more rattled by how her first instinct had been to give Beam a reassuring hug. Her feelings for the pretty girl were still rather mixed up.

“Let’s all talk about something else,” Rose suggested. “Your previous missions, maybe? Were any of them as screwed up as this?”

Kat spoke first, as they walked down the dirt road. He offered up some highlights of his only previous Epsilon involvement, where he, Alijda and a personified parabola – Rose idly wondered if this “Para” was in any way related to “Sine” – had come together to look into dimensional tears on a scaled-down world. It had apparently led to Alice being fired.

Though the way things were going here, Beam might end up fired too, so that wasn’t entirely comforting.

Then Beam launched into a tale of her first Epsilon involvement. She had been pulled onto the station, where some higher entity had communicated to her through the computer. They had provided her with the station’s mission, requesting equipment repairs at first. After Beam had agreed to and accomplished those, there had been the actual prospect of a retrieval mission.

“It’s like it had been hand picked just for me too,” Beam remarked. “Very tech world, but with a magic amulet. Which had been buried in a lava flow, so the Station couldn’t get a positive lock until it was uncovered by an archaeologist centuries later. So, fine, I devised a clever plan. I appeared shortly after said archaeologist found it, pretending like she’d released me from being confined in said amulet. After rewarding her for my freedom, I left with the artifact, mission accomplished.”

“Rewarding her?” Kat asked. “Like with money?”

“Oh, no, no. With me. She swung my way.” Beam raised a finger to her chin. “Interesting thing is, she tasted spicier than the women of my world.”

Rose stumbled and nearly face-planted into the dirt.

“I mean, sure, every female tastes different,” Beam chirped, without breaking stride. “And it’s connected to diet and all that, but sometimes I wonder if it was that Earth? Or maybe being an archaeologist contributed to her–”

“BEAM!” Rose cut in, wide-eyed. “TMI!”

Beam turned to her. “The Michener Institute what now?”

“Too. Much. Information. Ix-nay on the Issing, ‘kay?!”

Beam glanced from Rose to Kat, whose eyebrows were up, and then back again. “‘k-kay. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to overstep. I really haven’t had occasion to socialize much since leaving my Earth. Except with the Epsilon computer.”

“We know you didn’t mean anything by it, Beam,” Kat soothed. “But don’t forget, Rose was a tad conflicted about you, particularly on that sort of subject.”

“I haven’t forgotten.” Beam nibbled on her lower lip. And it was cute, and Rose had to look away again. She took a moment to take in the village (town?) that was now around them. They had covered a fair bit of ground during story time.

The three of them were still on the dirt road, but there were now other roads crossing it, and wooden or stone structures surrounding them, versus having houses appear only every so often. There were a few people about too, though they were not paying much attention to them. Well, aside from the occasional sideways glance at their outfits – their lack of cloaks might be making them stand out. But the residents themselves seemed more intent on getting to wherever they needed to be.

It was probably close to dinnertime. Or maybe, on a magic world, you simply took things at face value and didn’t ask too many questions.

Rose also noticed that the tavern that Firestorm had told them to be on the lookout for was up ahead. The police station would be down on the cross street, not far away. Making it easier for the cops to get to refreshments whenever the work day ended, the fire mage had griped.

“R-Rose…?”

Suppressing a sigh, Rose looked back at Beam. “Yippers?”

“I’m used to talking about – um, let’s say kissing of girls – with both girlfriends and guy friends. But I gather that’s a bad topic for girls who are friends? Or is it more a case of too soon?”

“Yes. That is, maybe. That is…” Rose paused to press the heel of her palm to her forehead, before sliding her hand down over her face. “Flûûûûûûûte.” As she said it, Rose realized something. The mild french swear word was becoming a way for her to feel closer to Paige. Her girlfriend. A multiverse away.

With effort, Rose swallowed away the lump in her throat.

“Look, Beam,” Rose began. “You said all girls… taste different?” Damn it, normal girls didn’t talk this way when they got together. Beam simply nodded back. “Well, girls as friends have different tastes in conversation too. Meaning for me, right now? Sexy time talk is a no-no. But maybe the next girl you befriend will be different. That make sense to you?”

Beam nodded again. “It does. I guess I’m just hoping some universal truths will come up. Ones which will always apply for your new subclass. Like how the male subclass is all just kind of ugh.”

“Oh, thanks,” Kat remarked, a hint of amusement to his tone.

“Oh no, I mean, you’re nice enough. It’s only you’re lousy lovers,” Beam clarified.

“Thanks again,” Kat said. He apparently couldn’t resist adding, “you know our anatomy is the basis for how toys are shaped?”

“Pffft, it’s not about anatomy,” Beam scoffed. “It’s about the five senses. For instance, compared to a man, ooooh, the scent of a woman, that’s so…” Beam paused, hands partially clasped, looking sidelong at Rose. “So totally a movie. Yippers, on some Earths ‘Scent of a Woman’ is the name of a movie.”

Rose wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry at the conflicted expression on Beam’s face. She settled for lifting her finger and pointing. “There’s the tavern. We’re almost to the police station here. Destiny awaits?”

“Right,” Kat agreed. “Let’s get to it.”

***

Rose felt a tingle as she walked through the doorway into the police station. Shaking it off, she held the door for Beam, so that the hologram wouldn’t need to phase through the wall. Kat walked up to the main counter before them.

The station itself looked like a small time police department out of a TV show. A female officer was looking over some sort of newspaper as Kat approached. There were a couple more male individuals in the back, one reading, another looking at papers he’d taken out of what Rose took to be a filing cabinet. A door in back led to where they presumably had a jail cell or two.

“Take a number,” the desk officer said, before Kat could speak.

Kat looked around. “We three are together though,” he said. “And there’s nobody else in here.”

“I’m on break. More people might come,” the officer said, not looking up from her news article.

“Okay, well, crime waits for no one,” Kat said. “So maybe you could take a break from your break?”

She looked up, irritated. “Why, are you about to go commit a crime?”

Kat smiled. “Heeey, only if it’s a crime for me to look this good. Though I will grant that, next to you, I pale in comparison.”

Rose considered gagging. Until the officer folded up her newspaper and smiled. “Well played. I can appreciate an ego that rivals my own. What’s the trouble?”

Kat gave a quick rundown of their situation. They used the angle that Firestorm had recommended, saying they had come in from out of town to find Destiny missing. As the story came out, the interest of the desk officer gradually faded, and neither of the cops in the back paid them any attention. Soon, the woman was reaching back for her newspaper.

“Fill out an initial report form, then come back in a couple days,” she said.

Kat winced. “Isn’t there anything that a charming and intelligent woman such as yourself can do for us in the meantime?”

She eyed him sidelong. “Fishing for special dispensation? Fine, fill out the waiver form.”

Rose had already noticed the various forms in the slots near the door. Grasping the one they needed, she took it over to Kat, placing it on the countertop. He grasped a pen and filled it out as Beam paced back and forth, occasionally looking over their shoulders.

The desk officer scanned over the form after Kat pushed it at her. “Hmph. I guess this is in order,” she sighed. She reached underneath the counter and brought out some sort of stamp.

It happened quickly. Before Rose could react, the cop had seized her by the wrist and brought the stamp down onto the back of her palm. There was a chiming sound. “Hey!” Rose protested, jerking her arm away.

Now she was seeing double. Much like how she had seen two cauldrons after charging into Destiny’s place. It was making her nauseous, so she closed her eyes and fell to her knees, judging that to be more dignified option versus falling on her ass.

“What the hell?” Kat’s voice was saying. “I’m the one who filled out the form, lady! What did you just do to Rose?!”

“This isn’t our first rodeo,” the officer answered. “You know magic potential gets scanned as soon as you walk in here. That girl’s is the strongest, so she leads the search. We’re not going to let you file a complaint as if we didn’t notice that.”

“What?? But Rose doesn’t do ANY magic. And I’m the one who handles fire!”

“Oooh, good for you. Look, either fill out a rescinding form, or get out of here.”

Rose reopened her eyes. She was still seeing double, so it looked like Beam’s concerned gaze included four pretty blue eyes and two sets of kissable lips. Whoa, no, no, bad thoughts! “Bye bye bad thoughts, go away now!” Rose gasped.

“Rose, are you okay?” Beam asked.

Rose hiccuped, then giggled, despite trying to suppress the urge. She smacked her palm over her mouth. “Oh, ah feel shooow gooood,” Rose cooed. “‘Cept mebbe ah’m too shexhy for dish magicks.” Wait, she was saying that aloud?

Rose pulled her hand back, glaring at both her right palms, as if they were to blame for letting those words escape. “No!” she accused. “Bad hand! Ooo, filtersh, filtersh, come back brain filtersh… ah neeeed youuuu… ah neeed yoooouu lik a lite houshe needs a coasht…”[1]

Rose had no idea why the lyric of that hokey country song had suddenly come to mind, and she dissolved back into giggles. It was just too FUNNY, that a song she’d heard maybe ONCE would come back to her now, in the presence of a seductive lesbian hologram while on some alternate magical Earth.

By the time Rose was able to stop laughing, she’d been helped outside, Kat leaning her up against the side of the building. He was saying something, but Rose wasn’t entirely clear on what.

“Youse haff two hedds,” she pointed out to him. Granted, they were sort of focussing themselves into one, but they didn’t seem to want to stay that way.

Kat said something else while waving six fingers in front of her face, as if that would help anything. Rose closed her eyes, turned to the side, and reopened them. Beam was standing there. Oh no.

“Rose…” Beam began.

“Nooo!” Rose yelped, trying to step back, and only succeeding in flattening herself against the wall. She hiccuped again. “Know what? You my anti-Angie. Shtay ‘way, anti-Angie!”

Beam frowned. “Auntie Angie?”

In a flash, Rose realized what the root of her problems was. And she couldn’t stop her stream of consciousness from running out of her head via her mouth. “Angie. I liked her ’n high schewl. An’ she pulled back, an’ so I diden go deeper, an’ so I diden figger me out. But now’n I know, wif me an’ girls, an’ here you are.”

Rose took in a deep breath. “An’ Beam, you go thuther way, instead of no deeps, you want ALL the deeps, Beam, ALL the deeps, an’ I canna take it. I canna, cuz I wanna wif Paige, but ’m lost n’ scared here, ’n you is pretty, ’n you lead me to titillation, and you don’ deliver me from evil, and thine is a kingdom, an’ power n’ glory, uh…”

Rose steered her thoughts back on track. “Yis, so Beam, you an anti-Angie cause jest like wif Angie I wanna but I DON’ wanna, cuz it’ll mess all life up. Which, okay, we deal wif it, maybe? Until you TURN LOVE OFF. Is NO FAIR BEAM, I no turn it off, not wif Angie, or Paige, or you, an’ then you make me all confuzzled about friendships. Why you do this to me, Beam? Why?? DAMN it, I HATE you!” She was almost screaming by then.

Beam flinched back. “Rose, stay calm. Okay? Y-You’re being affected by that police stamp. You d-don’t really mean you hate me, right?”

“I DO. I hate YOU, an’ I hate bein’ in CHARGE, an’ I hate my head’s HURTIN’ now, an’ somehows I gots magicks so I canna even flee to Station no more,” Rose sobbed. “So know wha? YOU, Beam, I wan YOU t’go ‘way frum me.”

Beam reached out, so Rose lifted her arm to point for emphasis. “NO. Go ‘WAY, y’hear? Go ‘WAY Beam, you an’ your cutesy love off switch. Mk? JEST GO FAR ‘WAY FRUM ME F’REVER!”

“Rose, stop, that’s enough,” Kat said sternly, grasping her by the shoulder. She swatted his arm away. Alas, the movement unbalanced her enough that she felt herself sliding down the wall and onto the ground.

The last thing she saw before closing her eyes again was a sideways view of Beam sprinting away as fast as her legs could carry her.

The last thing she heard before falling unconscious was the sound of the Station communicator on her wrist.

[1] “I Need You”, Tim McGraw featuring Faith Hill.

WHAT’S NEXT?

VOTING CLOSES NOON EDT SATURDAY SEPT 16th

Previous INDEX 4 Next

PATHS NOT TAKEN:
If the police had been no help, the group would have been approached by a thief or someone from the underground in order to further the investigation (and runner up would decide if Firestorm came along). If Firestorm had been deputized, well, he would have been able to handle the “drunk” effects a lot better, and Rose-Beam tension would likely have continued (though I hadn’t expected it to burst quite that way here). There was also another plot effect, we’ll see it in an Oracle Prophesied segment later on.

EXTRA ASIDE:
There was a post last week with information and a poll about where to take this site in 2018. Also, voting for the time travel story never hurts… this site just had two consecutive zero view days in a row (plus nine spams).

Behind the Scenes 4

Number four! This site’s first two “Behind the Scenes” talked about how I fit writing the first Epsilon serial into my busy teaching schedule. The third such post, from the third Epsilon serial, talked about a rough patch in April (third busiest teaching month of the year).

I won’t really be talking about writing timelines here, but with this being the start of September, and being at roughly the midway point of Epsilon Story Four (when I would normally do a “Paths Not Taken”, which is now integrated into the posts), I figured it was time for another one. To keep you up to date on things. The TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read) is at the bottom.

First of all, I’ve finally decided to consolidate my writing on a Facebook Page. My “Epsilon” updates, my “Any QBars” math webcomic updates, and any non-fiction writing I’ve been doing, I’ve been posting up there for the past month. I’m pretty sure Facebook’s algorithm sabotages any attempt to see it in a FB timeline, because I don’t pay, but it’s there, at any rate. That said, twitter (@mathtans) tends to be the first place I post.

CHIBI BEAM
Commission from Gen Ishihara

Second, I went a bit crazy at ConBravo 2017 this year with commissions. (After not being sure if I would go.) You should have noticed the new pictures for Beam and Kat, featured in recent “Epsilon” updates. I also got art for two characters for “Time Untied”, Sherlock (seen briefly in the Book 5 Teaser) and Peaches (you haven’t met her). I plan to include those images in my ConBravo recap, which will be flagged on the aforementioned FB/Twitter.

Third, I’ve just launched “Any Qs” (my personified math comic) on Tapas. So if you don’t know what that is, and want to follow that storyline along from the beginning, you can check it out here. (Alternatively, binge on my other blog site.)

Finally… where is this site headed?

A LOOK AT 2018

The last couple “Epsilon” have aimed for 16-18 parts, meaning we have 8 or 9 remaining (it will depend on pacing from voting, etc). Continuing every two weeks is extremely likely, because I’ll be back in the classroom for the first time this year, and teaching a new course on top of that.

This takes us to late(?) December 2017, which works out well. It means I can rerun content in January, the second worst month of the whole year. (Seriously, there is zero turnaround between marking exams and second semester, yet report cards still magically have to be completed.) What will I post in January? Well, I’m going to toss that option back at YOU, my readers. There is a poll below. Note we’re not setting anything in stone yet, it’s just to get a sense of what I should be cleaning up over the next couple months.

I am also not certain whether I’ll shift back to weekly posts or not in 2018. It will depend a lot on my mood in four months’ time, along with how well this site (and my writing) is doing generally. At any rate, here are the options.

OPTION 1: ROSE ORIGIN STORY

Rose seems to have become the lesbian darling of the latest “Epsilon”, which is impressive considering she’s less than a year old creatively. She’s part of a 90,000 word novel I wrote in Nov-Dec last year, “The Girl Who Speaks With Algebra”, which I re-edited in April. It’s a 31 part story that blends a mathematical fantasy land (and math facts) with Rose’s coming to terms with liking girls during her first year at University. It’s written in first person.

On the up side here, more Rose. On the down side, at 31 parts, I’m probably going to split it. I’d run 16 parts (which could mean 32 weeks, into summer), take a break for another “Epsilon” story, then run the last 15 parts. Well, unless a majority of people think that’s a terrible idea generally. I also suspect it means Rose won’t feature in that middle “Epsilon” story, because yes, she’s a-dork-able, but I don’t want there to be too much of a good thing. (I might bring back Chartreuse instead.)

OPTION 2: VIRGA MYSTERIES

MELISSA VIRGA
Commission from Shirley

Back in 2003, I created the character Melissa Virga, an upper year University student who is also a witch and who takes on supernatural cases in her spare time. The story is written from the (first person) perspective of James Conway (no relation to Kat), a first year student who ends up rooming off campus with her. So effectively Watson to her Holmes. I wrote three cases, each of which splits into 4 parts, meaning it would run 12 (or 24) weeks.

On the up side, you get to see some new characters – and in fact, there was a SEQUEL, written in 2012, that we could then tackle at some point further down the road. (The sequel is “Rose Origin” levels in length, as it takes place as James graduates, and he has to decide whether to stay with Melissa’s agency or not.) In case it’s incentive, selecting this also means Rose is more likely to return for the next “Epsilon” (even meet Chartreuse). The down side? Well, supernatural might not be your preference, there’s no math, and the writing is less polished than Rose’s story.

OPTION 3: OLD FUSION FANFIC

This option will take some explaining. One of the first stories I ever wrote involved taking the characters from “Sailor Moon” (specifically its second season), the plot of the anime “Marmalade Boy” (and its relationship polygons) and fusing them together. I wrote 13 parts over the span of four years (1996-2000). Then last month, August 2017, I wrote two more parts to complete the series. Meaning “Marmalade Mercury” would run for 16 parts (there’s a backstory entry too).

The good news for you is how it DOES bug me when things are incomplete (I’ll discuss more T&T below), and this would be an interesting window into some REALLY old writing of mine… along with what happens when you revisit a story 20 years later. On the down side, if you’re expecting action and magical girls, sorry – again, I used the plot of a relationship-heavy anime (in fact, “Marmalade Boy” was relicensed this year). Meaning this is more Rose levels of angst, played out with Ami Mizuno and her friends. (Melissa Virga would have been your magical option.)

OPTION 4: OLD PARODY STORIES

Back in University, I used to write for the campus math newsletter (and even edited a few terms). This included the serial “General l’Hopital” (5 entries in 1997, 6 in 2001) a soap opera parody full of every math pun that exists, the serial “Quantum Loop” (6 entries in 1998, 6 in 1999) a parody of “Quantum Leap” which was somewhat more mathematically educational, and “Sine Field” (4 entries, sporadic) a sendup of “Seinfeld”.

This option is the most flexible. We could run all the “QL” for 12 parts, leave for an “Epsilon” story, then come back for “l’Hopital”… or not come back at all. Or do one of each for 12 parts, to see which one you might want more of. Or we stick “Sine” on the end of 12 parts to make 16 parts. Or not. If this is selected, there would likely be a sub-vote to gauge preference (meaning you’ll have some input, even if your top choice wasn’t picked). On the down side, these stories are shorter, and rather silly.

So there are your options. I’ll simply leave this poll open for a while (so if you REALLY can’t pick, come back in a couple weeks and vote for your other preferred choice). In December, I’ll do some sort of runoff vote (of the top two choices?).

CURRENT WRITING

As far as “Time Untied” goes, I have a file of key characters, and my work from a couple years ago. I actually submitted “The Girl Who Speaks With Algebra” for a critique, which has helped give me a sense of where to take my writing in general. My HOPE is that, by November, I’ll be enough on an even keel with the teaching, and have enough of a buffer in my comic, to start tackling Carrie again in a NaNoWriMo sort of way. But anything can happen in two months.

I am pretty sure “Time Untied” won’t start a blog run until 2019 though. The in-universe timelines for it are… messy, to say the least. Fabulous, but messy.

Also, know that for the last six months, I have been putting “Time & Tied” on the RoyalRoadLegends (RRL) website, daily. It hasn’t changed too much, aside from edits to remove extra exclamation marks, tighten dialogue, and remove instances of ‘mama’ so Carrie doesn’t sound like a Southern Belle.

However, I *did* change the “Woodlands Detour” segment to place it at the end of Book 3, which I think I like better. There were a few changes to make that work. Also, I streamlined Book 4 so that each part didn’t have it’s own title. In case anyone wants to check that out (it has some character polls too). It’s currently on pause after ZERO comments through Book 4. Like, I think people gave up reading entirely.

I’ve put in a timeline for my RRL rankings at the bottom of this post.

And then, of course, there is “Epsilon”. I imagine my habit of banging out a new episode whenever I feel like it from Sun-Fri will need to change, what with the teaching. I do have the new graphic for Story 4 though! It’s usually around the halfway point when enough has happened to crystallize an image in my mind. What do you think?

On the plus side, we see the Epsilon Station for the first time. I had very vague sketches back with Story1 – the reason the main room was called the “Hub” was because the station was circular. I’ve now fleshed it out. There’s a vague “Deep Space Nine” vibe which I noticed after the fact. (Also, Beam’s appearance gives me a Carrie vibe, but wow are they different personalities.) On the not-so-plus side, the ONE guy (Kat) gets centre stage. But I do see him as the link between the lesbians on our left, the ladies to the right, and the problems on the station below.

It’s also occurred to me that I do put a fair bit of thought into the poll options that I create, which might not be obvious to anyone but me. I bring it up here in case anyone might want to try this sort of story themselves. For example: in the previous vote? I mentioned that Rose would be the person who would be deputized by police. Yet I wondered, was it wise to do that, or should I have kept it vague? Because I could just as easily have had it be Kat, or Beam.

I chose to mention Rose, because (as I said earlier) she’s kind of the lesbian darling character, and as such it might sway some people into picking that option, which they wouldn’t have otherwise. By the same token, I needed to match the Rose choice with a consequence (leaving Firestorm behind), so that it wouldn’t be picked out of hand and feel like railroading. A lot of my thinking is trying to create balanced options.

In fact, I probably overthink some of these vote choices. Only the readers can tell me if I’m succeeding in crafting something that makes them pause to think before they click “vote” though.

STATISTICS

It wouldn’t be a “Behind the Scenes” post without some mention of statistics. As you can see from the monthly graphic below, August fell short of scraping to 300 views. Because of the less frequent posts, maybe? Well, the last time we had a month below 300 was November 2016, a couple months after I shifted to twice weekly posts. So I really have no idea. Nothing I do seems to have much permanence.

You can see peaks where I guested on other sites though. July 2016 (technically end of June), December 2016 (somewhat coincidental), and May 2017. May is also when I got a boost from Tartra’s review at WFG. (I think that’s it; I peaked. It’s all downhill now.) There was also April 2017 (the April Fool Swap), and February 2017 (guest post on a time travel site)… these apparently helped preserve status quo more than anything.

As far as the “RoyalRoadLegends” site goes, RRL allows overall rankings (max 5 stars), review+ranking, and full ranked reviews in categories (for character, plot, etc). I began posting on February 23rd with Part 1a. At the end of the month (6 days later), February 28th, I was ranked #8430 with no followers or ratings. From there:

March 2nd: First rating (5 stars) which ranked me #4250.
-March 3rd: First full review (all categories) by someone with “free time on their hands”, which put my average at 4.75 and ranked me #2688.
-March 26th: Over a month in. Third rating, which overall ranked me #2213.
April 1st: Guest post (Apr Fool) at Fantasia, at a time when I had 7 followers. Also applied to “Order of Phantasmal Architects” (went nowhere).

-April 6th: Having briefly peaked at 12 followers, dropped back to 10. A poll on Part 23b managed 3 votes (one came via Fantasia).
-April 16th: Into T&T Book 2. Still only 3 ratings, rank down to #2275. Only one person commenting semi-regularly. Had never posted much in their forums, soon stopped monitoring altogether.
-April 25th: Two months of daily posts. Rank #2328, no new ratings or favourites for April, average Rating 4.83.
May 1st: Existing rating was revised higher, jumped to #1942.
-May 2nd: Second full review, jumped to #1230.

-May 15th: Fifth rating, jumped to #1155.
May 31st: Into T&T Book 3, halfway (three months) produces A SECOND favourite (first was in March), now 17 followers.
-June 9th: A THIRD and FOURTH favourite, rank having slid to #1208.
-June 14th: Sixth rating, jumped to #1004.
-June 15th: Existing rating revised, jumped to #905. 21 followers.
-June 19th: Third full review, jumped to #611.
-June 20th: Eighth rating + review, plus a message, jumped to #511 at four months in. Average Rating 5. It’s downhill from here.

July 8th: Existing rating revised down, slid to #676.
-July 16th: Into T&T Book 4. Ninth rating, boosted back up to #599.
-July 31st: A FIFTH favourite, now at 25 followers. Five months in, I’d started automating posts by this point. Average Rating 4.94.
Aug 1st: A SIXTH favourite, 26 followers, rank #613.
-Aug 8th: Tenth rating, rank back to #605.
-Aug 24th: Cannot seem to maintain 30 followers, keeps sliding to 29. Average Rating 4.9, rank #624. Most recent poll (July 12) has only 1 vote. Only 1 comment in the last 30+ posts/days, on an early post; nothing about Book 4. The post from Aug 1st has 36 views.

At that point, with twelve days worth of posts remaining, I stopped posting daily. Then I stopped posting altogether, saying if anyone actually cares to see the edited finish, just leave some kind of comment, anything really. The “mathtans paradox” (term from grishnax, for if a consistent writer is never noticed) may be in effect. I can’t market. The T&T story isn’t normal fare for the RRL site though.

So, I’m kinda depressed! But that’s standard fare for me. Though this site has only been going strong for three years, I think you need ten before anyone’s talking about you? To close things off on a SLIGHTLY brighter note, the song parody I did for the cubic formula is up to 900 views (as of Sept 1) on YouTube, after 14 months, which is unprecedented considering my holiday videos can’t even claw their way to 100. So something I did is getting traction.

Thank you for reading to the end! This post got away from me a bit. O.o

TL;DR: Math comic’s on Tapas, T&T isn’t forgotten, vote for 2018 content, and new “Epsilon” in a week. Spread the word.

4.09: Destination: Destiny

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EPSILON DELTA, PART NINE: DESTINATION: DESTINY

Kat suspected that his brain was trying to interpret what he saw as double vision. But what surrounded him was actually overlapped images, and he wished his head would figure that out already. As it was, he was trying to focus on the Epsilon Station by targeting the people there, largely because they tended to be the things speaking and in motion.

Still, when Alijda stepped back, overlapping with Beam, who was rocking back and forth on her heels… the one person passing back and forth through the other person forced him to close his eyes and shake his head to readjust.

When Kat reopened his eyes, all he saw was Destiny’s house again. He snapped his attention over towards Firestorm. “Hey! Turn that back on!”

“I’m surprised the spell lasted as long as it did,” the robed magician grunted. “Never tried communicating in quite that way before.”

Rose coughed. “The place is kind of smoky now, can we go outside?”

KAT CONWAY
(Commission from Jakface)

Kat took in the scene that now surrounded him. He was standing in the middle of the room, on Firestorm’s fire-resistant tarp. The wood in the circle around him had been burned down to ash. Beam stood to one side, monitoring, unaffected by the fire owing to being insubstantial. Firestorm was at his other side, holding up some magic symbols. Rose was halfway across the room.

“No, listen, I just needed another minute or two!” Kat insisted. “Find something else to burn.”

“That was all the firewood, and we’re not burning Destiny’s stuff,” Firestorm objected. “In fact, I’m starting to think you weren’t talking to someone on the other side of the country at all.”

“Maybe the communicators will work soon?” Beam suggested. “Now that the others know you need to talk?”

“And what was up with your muttering about Alijda building an army?” Rose asked. “Also, can we go outside?”

Kat pinched the bridge of his nose, forcing himself to remain calm. If Destiny really WAS Fate, from his world, she’d apparently already been here for a decade or more. Another few minutes wouldn’t change things. Would they? Well, he’d at least give Alijda and Alice some time, in order to avoid interrupting them while they stabilized the station.

“It wasn’t an army, it was the arm they were catching,” Kat explained. “And before we go outdoors, we need to figure out if Destiny left her home voluntarily. Because if they can’t track her from the Station, we’ll need to track her ourselves.”

“Swell,” Rose said, coughing again.

“Would you like a soothing massage, Rose?” Beam said brightly. “Once I can touch things again? Or can girl friends not do that without it getting sexy?”

“Oy,” was Rose’s only comment, looking sidelong at Beam.

Firestorm cleared his throat, setting aside the pages with the symbols on them. “Kat, you really think Destiny would have left her place looking like THIS if she’d left by choice?” He made a shooing motion in Kat’s direction.

“For misdirection, sure,” Kat retorted. Realizing what Firestorm wanted, he moved off the tarp, to allow the man to start retrieving it.

“Oh, hey, the front door,” Rose remarked, walking towards it.

“Yes, fine, Rose, I get it,” Kat sighed. “If the smoke’s bothering you that much, we’ll catch up with you out front.”

“No,” Rose said, pointing at it. “I mean it was locked. Beam had to muscle her way in. Isn’t that a clue?”

Kat again tried to keep his emotions in check. “Good point, sorry Rose. Firestorm?”

Firestorm nodded. “Yeah, if it was police cracking down on Destiny for spell casting, they would have busted that thing down. So she wasn’t arrested. Or if she was, it wasn’t here.”

Kat nodded. Firestorm had explained to them that magic was highly regulated on this world. That was the whole reason they’d had to perform the communications spell indoors, to avoid detection.

“But if Destiny locked herself in, why isn’t she still here?” Beam wondered.

“*I* locked the door,” Firestorm said, shooting her a look as he swept the last of the ash away. “After your unauthorized access earlier!”

“Oh. That,” Beam said, nibbling on her lower lip.

Rose turned away from the door. “Firestorm, can you maybe explain what happened the first time Beam arrived? We’d like to, uh, hear it from your point of view.”

Firestorm looked towards the ceiling. “You people… but very well.” He continued to speak as he folded up his tarp. “I was supposed to meet with Destiny tonight. As it turned out, I got a lift into town, so I came by early. The place looked like this when I arrived. I’d barely had a chance to start looking around when blue-eyes there,” he jerked his thumb at Beam, “appeared in the doorway, saying she had ‘come for the technology’.”

“I was polite about it, yeah?” Beam asked.

“You acted as if I knew what the hell you were talking about,” Firestorm said, shooting her a look. “We argued, I made a fireball, you did some freaky acrobatic jumping moves, I grabbed the fireplace poker to defend myself, and you used it as some conduit for a lightning attack. Which knocked me out.”

“Again with the lightning? How did I…” Beam’s eyes widened, and she reached up to touch the side of her head. “Oh no. No, no, did you hit my hairband with that poker? Or my earrings?”

The man rolled his eyes. “Girls and their trinkets.”

“They’re my control mechanisms!” Beam snapped. Her hands fumbled over her hairband, touching it and tapping at it. She didn’t pull it out to look at it though. Actually, Kat recalled, hadn’t the hairband popped up from her head, to let them power her up? Perhaps it was a part of her. If they removed it from Beam’s hair, might Beam herself vanish?

“Major systems all functional,” the holographic girl muttered, seemingly to herself. “If I had been damaged, I’d have rebooted after self-repair. The mission would still be in short term memory. Or I might have contacted the Station… but it means I was already partly damaged when I returned with the arm… what if I’m prone to blackouts now?”

“ANYway,” Firestorm said pointedly, ignoring the rambling blonde. “When I came to, alone, I locked myself in here. Took a closer look around, found the diary, and was reading that when you all showed up again.”

Rose had approached Beam by now, reaching out to touch the troubled hologram on the shoulder. Of course, her hand passed right through, but it got Beam’s attention. She turned and fired a grateful smile at the younger girl, pulling her hands away from her hairband off Rose miming the action.

Kat decided to refocus the conversation back on his original question. “Firestorm, during that closer look around, did you see anything that might have explained what happened to Destiny? I mean, you know her better than we do. Does this seem more like the results of a struggle to you, a search, something staged…?”

“She’s a fighter,” Firestorm said, tucking his tarp away in his robes. “But her opponents wouldn’t be able to use spells in here, unless they were on the list. I’m inclined to say a search. But I don’t see her that often, so I don’t know what ‘technology’ she might have had that everyone’s obsessing over.”

Kat rubbed the back of his neck. “Would that have been the target though? I mean, they left before finding it. Didn’t they?”

He looked to Beam, who seemed to have calmed back down. She shrugged. “I didn’t know what I’d find here,” Beam answered. “There could have been more than the arm, if it was removed before I arrived. All I know is, Destiny couldn’t have had too much, or the initial reading would have been bigger.”

“Maybe there’d be information in Destiny’s diary?” Rose suggested.

Kat frowned. “Yeah. I’m hesitant to read that without permission. She kept it hidden, it feels like an invasion of privacy.”

Firestorm grinned. “I didn’t care about that.”

Kat shot the man a glare. “I noticed.”

Firestorm seemed unfazed. “You want to know about what I read, or not?”

Kat waged a brief internal battle between his morals and their mission. “Fine.”

Firestorm’s gaze became smug. “Destiny started it by saying she was ‘resigned to living out her days here’,” he said, picking the book up off the table and holding it aloft. “There’s a bunch of stuff near the start about our customs, and her symbol magic which ‘works more tangibly here’, which is why I wonder if she was originally one of the fae or something.”

Firestorm paused, as if hoping that one of them might confirm or deny his belief. When no one spoke, he continued on. “She mentions deciding to specialize in potions, because it’s the best way to encounter people from all over. And she’s right about that, it’s not a simple trade, people travel to find potion masters. And speaking from personal experience, I know Destiny liked hearing stories or seeing objects related to the unusual, things outside the norm.”

He paused again. “Things like you?” Beam said in the ensuing silence.

Firestorm shot her a look. “I’m not that unusual. Not everyone on her list has unusual beliefs, okay?”

“Yeah, hey, what is the story of this list?” Rose wondered.

He peered closer at her. “Don’t you know? Aren’t all of you ON the list?”

“Actually, Rose isn’t. Yet,” Kat said quickly. “She came with us in order to join. We were reluctant to give her the details, but now that Destiny’s gone, maybe you should tell her…?”

“Oh, sure. Just tell strange people ‘on the list’, who never saw Destiny in person, about that list.” Firestorm looked back and forth between them. “Ah, hell, you might be playing me, but at this point it’s probably in the diary anyway.” He adjusted his robes. “We’re the few mages who can imbue objects with powers. Meaning we’re able to use Destiny’s ‘occult’ symbols, as she calls them.”

“Anyone who can do that ends up on the list then?” Rose asked.

“No, we have to be vetted, directly or indirectly,” Firestorm said. “Destiny didn’t want this going to our head, leading to us trying to take over a city or anything. It was a way to spread the word though, in an urban legend sort of way.”

Kat rubbed his chin. “That symbol on the arm,” he mused. “That desire. It could have been a desire to connect up with others who know the symbols.”

“And your symbol knowledge would be in the Epsilon database,” Beam remarked. “How DID you end up on the Station, Kat?”

“Alice thought it was a glitch,” Kat said. “Because I left right after her, so when she was pulled in… but maybe…” Could his being here be more than random chance? His hands curled into fists. “We have to find Destiny.”

“Well,” Rose put in, “if we assume Destiny let people in the front door, or was lured out, it had to be by people she knew. Probably either occult-list people, or rare-potion people.”

Kat nodded. “They subdued her, and then searched the place for… that list?”

“The list wasn’t physical,” Firestorm said. “Or at least, I didn’t think it was.”

Rose looked at Firestorm. “If we check out the storage-and-potions room, do you think you’d notice anything out of place?”

Firestorm hesitated, then shrugged again. “Maybe.” He headed towards the other room, Rose falling into step ahead of him. Kat moved to follow, only to have Beam step in front of him – he almost walked right through her.

“Kat?” the hologram said. “I am on the cusp of a logic error.”

Kat blinked. “Related to damage on your hairband?”

Beam shook her head. “No. This mission. Because it’s over. The station is safe, it sounds like the women have secured the cyber arm, and I know what happened with my memory. There is no reason for us to remain here.”

“No reason?? Beam, DESTINY–”

“Is internal to this world. Not our problem.”

“Not if she’s Fate!”

Yet again Beam shook her head. “No. This Fate may have breached the dimensional barriers herself, without external interference. That’s also not our problem. The Project cleans up rogue anomalies, it does not correct for human error.”

Kat felt a hand closing around his heart. After the years of searching, of wondering, it felt like he was suddenly so close. They couldn’t take that away from him! “The… there might be other technology,” he blurted. “Taken by whoever took Destiny away.”

Beam nodded. “That is the loophole I am holding onto. But you should know that, if further technology is not the case? I will advise Rose that our mission is over.” She glanced down at his communicator. “As such, I’m not certain how eager you should be to hear from the others.”

Kat flinched, one hand automatically covering the wristwatch device. He swallowed, and pulled both hands back to his sides. “Understood. Thank you for the warning, Beam.”

Beam nodded, her more serious expression dissolving back into a smile as she pivoted on one foot to follow after Rose and Firestorm. They met the two of them right outside the storage room, as Firestorm was emerging.

“Healing potions are gone, as are a few of the more powerful ones,” the redheaded man remarked. “But it could be Destiny simply sold out. Her permit’s not there though, her storage permit, that’s weird. Her permit for manufacturing, which she likely would have hidden, might explain the search. Rose may be onto something with her potion people abduction theory.”

“But it could still be technology!” Kat put in quickly, before he could stop himself. He bit down on the edge of his tongue.

Firestorm shrugged. “Hey, all we can do is theorize. I almost hate to say it, but maybe we should go to the police station, open an investigation? They might grant us special dispensation to use search-and-tracking magic, assuming there’s anything here to track.”

“Wow, seriously? They’d just give that kind of power to random civilians?” Rose asked.

“Sure. Because they can always revoke it, and then they’re able to say that the early interference makes solving the case unlikely,” Firestorm grunted. “Holier than thou jerks. Hence my hesitation. Thing is, police won’t investigate directly until Destiny’s been missing for a couple days.”

They couldn’t wait a couple days. Kat knew that much. Either the Epsilon Station would locate Fate – or rogue technology – probably within the next hour or two… or it would all be over. Unless they somehow ingrained themselves more into what was happening on this world, such that they couldn’t simply step away.

“We’re off to the police station then,” Kat decided. Belatedly, he looked at Rose. “Er, if that’s okay with you. You’re still in charge.”

Rose let out a long breath. “Well, is there any real alternative?”

Firestorm shrugged. “I’m cool with staying here and reading more into the diary, maybe I’ll stumble on something more concrete about Destiny’s stranger associates in her more recent entries.”

Rose pursed her lips.

WHAT’S NEXT?

VOTING CLOSES NOON EDT SATURDAY SEPT 2nd

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PATHS NOT TAKEN:
Here’s a prime example of me biting off more than I could chew. With “being kidnapped” having won, the plan had been to flesh out mages/magic and then go to the police station. We didn’t quite arrive there, because of other exposition elements that I felt you, the audience, needed to know about. Had “being arrested” won, we would have fleshed out rural life and made inquiries about police, maybe at an inn or something. Had “fled of her own volition” won, I would have looked to the second most popular option to determine their destination (police/inn) but Firestorm’s role there would have flipped… as it is, his role (if any) is still partially up to you.

EXTRA ASIDE:
If you hadn’t noticed, I like grabbing throwaway things (like Beam breaking down the front door) and twisting them to be significant. If it now feels like “kidnapping” was always in the cards, then I’m probably doing my job right. Had “arrest” been chosen, I’d have obviously gone a different direction with that. Is this a skill? I don’t even know. Anyway, thanks for reading. Voting for the time travel story never hurts, August has been the worst month for views in 2017.