Masks 24.2 - Into the Sepiaverse! (Jason's Tale) [Recap]

[A recap of Issue 24, or parts of it, from Jason’s 1st Person perspective.]

I’m racing around like a lunatic, getting the lab set up, identifying and routing power supplies to feed the portal I’m going to create. I’m grinning like a lunatic, too, because I’m finally –

– finally going to the Sepiaverse? Finally going off to rescue Charlotte? Finally going to find Dad? Finally going to be –

– doing something.

I mean, I’ve been doing stuff left, right, and center, but this whole adventure – an adventure! – feels like something that’s mine, something that’s going to be something that I’ve accomplished, not just something I’m stumbled through, or dragged down on myself.

With Numina at my side, which makes it seem all the more –

– and Alycia might be there.

Well, she might. I know she’s been trying to get to the Sepiaverse, to rescue her dad. (How can she stay loyal to him. I might ask the same question of myself, but Dad’s sins toward me are personal. Achilles Chin is a terrorist, no matter what she used to argue.) I gave her the tech, the nanobots with the memory of what we know. It should be enough to help her get through if she hasn’t reached out to me again.

(Her encounter with Harry flashes through my mind again. She was looking for me, via the nanobots. She threatened Harry to get him to call for my help. Dammit, why didn’t she try to get hold of me again? It can’t have just been to try to kill me – I’m sure of it.)

So Alycia might be there. An added bonus, right?

I throw a glance at Numina, my smile become more forced. Yeah, that light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train. I can see it all too clearly. But I don’t see a way off the tracks and, honestly, I just plain don’t know the answer here. Every problem has a solution, usually more, Dad taught me that – but not all solutions are without negative consequences. I really don’t want to –

She catches my eye, smiling as she rewires a console to my specs (and doing it far more neatly than I would). I feel something in my gut that should feel good, and does, and also feels –

Shift thoughts. Let’s not dwell on that crisis-in-the-making. Enough other stuff to worry about, to take that smile off my face.

This is going to hurt. I know it is. It’s one of those “Don’t do it if it hurts” things that I never used to pay attention to. (It’s a wonder I every grew up with arms and legs that were straight, for all the breaks I had and how bad a patient I was). I might be able to get Harry to help for part of it – he’s crossed over before.
But the whole HHL thing with Vyortovia, and all those intersections to the Sepiaverse, and that stuff with his father – I don’t want to put him on the spot quite yet.

If I had Charlotte here – well, she already knows how to cross over, and I could probably find some refinement to keep this from overtaxing my connection to the bots. But she’s not here – she’s my excuse for doing this.

Weird, that I’ve needed an excuse. Hecate’s veil (goddammit) kept me from really pushing to look for Dad. With that gone, and with Charlotte’s absence becoming a thing after that cryptic message, those cobwebs are cleared from my brain. And, hey, I’ve figured out a way to do it without further damaging the fabric of the multiverse, so _yay me, can I submit this as a project for AP Physics, Mr. Rodocker?
A glance at the security cams, as if I expect the rest of the Menagerie, or AEGIS, or even Alycia, to suddenly show up to try and stop me. All I see is Brigand, sacked out on the sofa in his old favorite place, just like he never left it.

_This is crazy, doing this by myself. If Numina weren’t here, I’d have to ask her if I’m doing something nuts.
I wish she wasn’t going. I’m so incredibly happy that she’s going.

This stuff is hard.

* * *

At last, everything is ready. Power supply is secured (re-routing Reactors 3 and 7, and drawing on all the banks of capacitors buried deep in the ground below us), so no browning out a chunk of the city (man, I was really out of it when I did this before). I just need to unleash the bots in just that way, and have a it.

I’m going after Charlotte, but parachuting on top of someone’s tracking signal who might be in trouble is often a way to get into trouble, too. Rusty’s Commando Craft 101. So I’m “aiming” 200 meters south of her. Hopefully she’s not 200 meters north of an active volcano, or having luncheon atop Half Dome, or something, but I have to trust the bots to not drop me into instant fatality. (The whole idea of “north” in relation to a interdimensional hop is so silly that I have to treat this as magic a complicated and transcendental act of will and quantum outcomes that create a correspondence to a logical outcome.

I stand in the center of the room. Numina is at the main console. Lab 4 is in the core of the building, but high enough up that if this causes a massive explosion, the whole building won’t fall. Let’s not think about that.

She looks at me. I smile and give her a thumbs up (as lame as that sounds), and she presses the appropriate contact point. Yes, yes, dramatically it should be a giant red button, or even better, a massive double knife switch that starts up Jacobs ladders, whining … generators and …

… and …

_… my vision blurs, vision and hearing and feeling and smell and taste and thoughts, smeared across multiple locales, experience without meaning, action without movement, locked in time, a thousand overlays of reality pressing in on me while I’m unable to think or feel or shift or change, a floating out-of-body experience that’s not only more like out-of-multiple nanobot-sized-bodies, and is anything but “floating” – stretched across the lab, but also the weird caves and growths and strangeness of that shadow realm that Charlotte’s body took me through, and a cityscape but horribly wrong –

… and suddenly some vision does come through, another control room (the same, but this time with giant knife switches and Jacobs ladder and whining dynamos and sparks and there’s Li’lycia in a lab coat and goggles, running back and forth like a lunatic, like me, flipping switches and twirling dials and – she looks at me, eyes wide beneath the goggles, shaking her head,_ I can’t handle this, I’m so s–

She flickers. Derezzes. Is gone.

And I’m in the lab, cramps of nausea in my brain, feeling like something has gone away, been lost, Jesus K. Christ on a Cosmic Surfboard what just –

“Jason, are you all right?”

A hand on my arm, pulling me backward. Numina, looking at me, face wrinkled with concentration and concern.

When I don’t answer (largely because the answer is No, but not in a way that I can grasp, let alone articulate), she gestures. “The portal.”

And there it is, a roaring, swirling, grinding mess of a tear in the universe – the universes – but more like a surgical slit than a tear, if my calculations were correct. And I checked my math twice, so they should be.

Beyond it, I see something in the distance (how can there be distance? why wouldn’t there be?), a dreary light, a bit of broken brick and a bare tree.

I turn back to Numina. You shouldn’t go, it might be – yeah, even I can learn new tricks, and that is exactly what I shouldn’t say, even as part of me screams to say it and another part is still screaming from what just –

I put on my game face, give her a slight smile, a firm nod, hold out my hand –

– and we jump.

* * *

It’s a step that seems to stretch a thousand miles, but still just a single step.

* * *

I choke for a minute, air laden with ash and dust, feeling a weird flicker of feedback from the bots as whatever physical rules apply here adjust to me, or me to them. Out of the corner of my eye, in the pressure in my hand, Numina flickers for a moment, before the hard light shell returns. I give her a quick look of worry but she returns a wan smile, eyes slightly wider than usual.

Like a tub full of boulders rolling down the drain, the portal behind us closes in a swirl of debris, leaving a line of metallic goo on the ground. Dizziness washes over me, the world goes even more dim for a second, and then –

We’re standing in a street lined with (but most cleared of) rubble. Shattered buildings around us (though I can see patches of repair). Before us – the Capitol of the United States, its dome partially broken, but some sort of flag mounted atop it.

The air is still thin and wrong, the sky overcast but with a few patches of pale blue sky in it. The light …

Numina says, “You did it. Congratulations are probably in order – as long as we’re looking at this without context.”

“Yeah, not exactly a great vacation spot to – go with you. Maybe – next time?” The emotional turmoil from that statement, started off-handedly, goes on even as I am taking in and analyzing more of the scene.

Which, itself, has emotional turmoil written all over it.

Washington, DC, after a (non-nuclear) bombing raid or twelve. Flashbacks of the US Strategic Bombing Survey in Germany and Japan. Footage of the post-war years, civilians employed in clearing rubble, making the devastated cities living and operating urbanations again. Those films (thanks again, Rusty) were all in black and white, which resonates well with the sicky yellow-brown lighting of this place (thus Harry’s “Sepiaverse” nickname).

Broken buildings, but cleared streets with vehicles (unpowered, horse-drawn automobile as well as cruder carts) trundling along. People building, or rebuilding, or going about their business, but few, far too few. Ramshackle dwellings scabbed onto broken walls, people living in lean-tos in the street. Another flash of memory, being driven through the streets of Mumbai, safe within our hire car but watching the disintegrating structures, incomplete construction, people camped along the sidewalks – only Mumbai was filled with people, this is more like –

_Wait, people –
– looking at us. Pointing. Talking with their neighbors in excited but muted tones, as if voices are never raised loudly here.

Down the street, at that broken capital building – soldiers, visible even from this distance, trotting in this direction. Guns at port arms – not pointing at us (yet), but not slung, either.

So much for the subtle, covert approach. Sorry, Rusty.

“Do we run?” Numina asks. Part of me wants to, not deal with this danger yet. Keep her away from it (and, yeah, me, too). But it’s too late for that. We’ve been noticed. We don’t know the terrain. There are no safe spots here. So figure it out, Jason – what’s the alternative to running? Fight? Or --?

People in – well, not quite rags, but a worn and tattered mishmosh of clothing. Soldiers in fatigues that look like they were fighting on the front for months without any new uniforms issued. A broken, bombed-out city. People excited to see us – not fearful, not alarmed, but excited and almost –
– in awe?

Yup, it’s an adventure all right, because the stuff Rusty taught me is a lot more useful in adventures than the stuff Dad taught me (and the rest of the time, usually vice-versa). And, in this case, it’s combining the dystopian SF I’ve read with Rusty’s lessons in how to deal with primitive people who are or who can be overawed. Which lessons were not terribly politically correct: Rusty playing technology tricks on Congolese tribesmen, Rusty pretending to be a volcano god in New Guinea …

Yeah, let’s think instead about Bing Crosby in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. We’ll pull out the equivalent of a Zippo in Medieval Times.

“What do you think we should do?” Numina says again.

I smile, like Rusty used to smile. I hope he felt more confident than I do. “We make an entrance.”

[More to follow …]

author: *** Dave H.

Bonus: The big Alycia reveal.

author: Doyce T.

Are Alycia’s half-assed plans more or less half-assed than Jason’s half-assed plans? Asking for a friend.

author: *** Dave H.

Her half-assed plan actually has ‘plan’ in it. Make of that what you will.

author: Doyce T.

[This answer had the approval from my family. Sigh.]

author: *** Dave H.



author: Bill G.

“When I come up with a way to defeat the Vyortovians, fix world hunger, and resolve my love life, all in the middle of a monologue about my doom, you’ll all owe me an apology.”

author: *** Dave H.

Funnel the Yule Lads holiday magic into National Pizza Month for October. Vyortovia is drowned in marinara, and the Dread Queen surrenders after nearly choking on a pepperoni. Rains of pizza fall all over the world, giving Harry a much needed rest. Jason cleans pizza sauce and cheese off a surprisingly grateful Alycia. Everyone wins except gluten-free people.

author: Bill G.

Continued …

I stride with confidence toward the capitol building, toward the approaching soldiers, letting the nanobots slide around my body into sleek, futuristic-looking armor. It should stop any shooting toward me, and, I hope impress the hell out of them.

“Stay close by,” I tell Numina, who’s matching my steps. “I’ll protect you.” Could you get any more corny, Jason? Jeez. Not “Stay frosty” or “Follow my lead” but “Stay close by, I’ll protect you.” She should punch my arm, right now.

As if in reply, Numina’s hard light image takes on armor similar to my own. Which is cool (and much cooler that she thought of it). But the hard light is – well, hard, but it’s not bullet-proof. The casing that Numina resides in is decently armored, but the hard light projector extending from it is not. She’s not going to be “killed” by random shots, but her appearance will not benefit by them, and –

– When did she take her last backup? This morning before we left for Florida? Did she get an incremental in after we got back and were prepping?

I don’t want her to lose any of her memories. Even if, in some ways, she’s more immortal than I am (or I appear to be). For her to lose her experiences, even for a partial day, still feels like a weird loss to me. Even if Numina is (was) herself a backup of Pneuma, I don’t want –

_Focus. Breathe.
We walk toward the building, large and in charge.

The soldiers, a dozen or so, trot up to intercept us, spreading around us as one of their number approaches more closely. Male and female, most are bearing long arms – a variety of rifles, some military-looking, others hunting rifles, a few of a design I don’t recognize. The one coming up – wearing the insignia of a captain – has only a pistol. It’s still holstered.

My eyes take them in quickly. They’re wearing fatigues, urban camoflage, but it’s irregular, beaten and worn. These aren’t Vyortovian troops. It’s all more individual, like GI Joes – pieces of uniforms, shirtsleeves rolled up, varying hats and helmets. They look like guerrilla fighters from some army that lost a long time ago.

The one approaching has fabric insignia on his shoulders, a captain. His breast patch says “Thomas.” He’s in his late 30s, maybe, face worn and weathered, dark hairline receding around his fatigue cap, mustache peppered with gray.

“Master Quill!” he says.

Master? Game face, Jason. “Yes?” I reply, as though people call me Master every day (the last time was some old fogie butler when I was eleven and we were investigating that thing in Scotland with the Loch Ness monster and --)

“We were told to keep an eye out for you – would you like to come in for a talk?”

I give him a look. Then, “That sounds like a fine idea.” Which it does. I do want to go in and talk. That’s much better than fighting our way in and demanding, and quite possibly better than sneaking our way in and, um, sneaking.

Possibly. Depending on how the talk goes.

But the soldiers around aren’t pointing their guns at us. They create a formation around us, that resembles – an escort? They’re paying as much attention to the crowds around, and the gap-toothed buildings, as to us, though various members keep sneaking a glimpse in our direction.

Master Quill? Told to watch for us? That’s either greatly reassuring, or deeply ominous. Or, as my mind runs the possibilities, both.

I watch them closely as we walk the remaining 150m to the building with the broken dome. This isn’t SOP for them. They’re clearly soldiers, defenders, but escorting people – people who they are treating as VIPs, giving an honor guard – that’s unusual for them. But they aren’t bitching about it, or asking their captain what to do. Grim-faced, they do their jobs, only betraying any uncertainty with occasional glances at us and at each other.

Thomas is leading, but from the side. He’s not taking precedence, but providing a service. The air is warm and dry, and there’s perspiration on his forehead. His eyes flicker to me frequently – not in fear, but as if to confirm I’m still with them.

Silence never steers you wrong, Rusty says, but I need to ask some questions. “Who said to keep an eye out for me?”

“Your friend, Master Quill. And your father.” He hesitates in voice, if not in pace. “I hope I’m not being forward.”

Let him keep his doubts, keep himself off-balance. Sound confident, like you have the right to ask any question you want. Rusty’s voice plays through my head. “Recently?”

“Yes,” Capt. Thomas says. “This morning.”

So the “friend” is probably Charlotte (possibly Alycia, though that’s a lot less likely, and other actors are even less so). But – _my father?
I don’t miss a step, even as I feel an icy calm drop over me. My father is here. I’m going to be meeting him. I thought him dead, but, God damn, he’s alive.

And I thought him a loving if possibly distant father, but he’s actually a mind-controlling, memory-erasing, plot-conspiring … still-my-father.

Yes, I feel conflicted about this.

“Well, my father has his own purposes.” That’s neutral enough.

“Yes, he does!” There’s something about Thomas’ voice – emphatic, heartfelt. He believes that. He is dedicated to my father. He’s acting rationally, but there’s a whiff of fanatic to him. I recall an Arab assassin, a Hindu thugee, an Triumphalist crusader, each speaking with great sincerity and great passion, and each aiming pointy things at my skull.

I am glad of the armor I wear about myself. If this goes south, I need to draw their fire.

Their side glances continue, looking at that armor, evaluating it, and the armored Numina at my side. Pieces fall together in my skull – the way they keep their positions slowly shifting, watch both the street and buildings, keep an eye on their principals (Numina and me), step carefully around bits of rubble still in the road as though they might contain booby-traps …

_Rusty. That’s precisely what he’d do. Precisely what he taught me to do under such circumstances.
Any doubts that Dad and Rusty have been here, still are here, vanish. For better and worse.

Still, there’s more. They are business-like, professional, but there’s more to it. They are expecting to see something from me. A threat?

The light makes it difficult to focus. It’s weird and washed out, making me blink and struggle to focus, but also making the flaws in Numina’s physical appearance (that left shoulder is still a bit high, and there’s clipping on the feet) much less apparent than they might be normally.

It comes to me. They are waiting for me – for Master Quill – to do something amazing_.
There’s a sudden weight on my shoulders. These people follow my father, are deeply loyal to him. In that case, I’m his son, his heir, the next generation, bigger and better, the one that will take the throne (if I am worthy), will lead and safeguard them and their children (if ditto).

I am the son of their beloved leader. They are looking – hoping – for proof of that, and of that worthiness. And as I see the people on the street about us watching, whispering to each other, covertly pointing – yes, that’s what they are looking for, too.

I look over at Numina, and she sends me a reassuring smile. I’m abruptly seized by a desire to talk with her. I’m not ready for this. I’m not ready to face my father, let alone in the context of some post-apocalyptic fiefdom of people who are under his dominion and influence. It was one thing when I thought the Sepiaverse some sort of lifeless set of ruins, with maybe a few people (like Dad and Rusty and Chin and whatshisname) trapped there. Facing a whole society …

I should have anticipated this. I can’t speak with her openly, not with these folk around. I should have set up some sort of backchannel comms with her – earbuds and subvocal throat mics. Something. I could share this danger, this apprehension, get her feedback, have her help with the decisions …

It occurs to me I could reach out, take her hand, transfer a small bracelet of nanobots to her hard light form. They would be able to tie into her hardware, remotely bridge us with some sort of communication directly connected to my distributed processing through them, letting me –

Are you freaking kidding me? That’s a horrible idea. The idea of a nanobot-infected Numina, somehow linked to my consciousness and all the problems that come with it, causes me to shudder. Any possible advantage that communication would allow is more than outweighed by what the bots might do to her. Or, hell, to what they might tell her about me that I don’t want her to know.

Yes, of course, what they would do to her is the worse part of that scenario. But even if the comms worked fine, I really don’t want Numina in my head. Well, I do. but there are some things rattling around up there that I don’t want her to see – that I don’t want to see or acknowledge myself.

The locals. Focus there. Strategize.

They want something flashy, some assurance that I have the power of my father, his strength (however that is recognized here), that I can do for them what he can (in the visible circumstances, everything from putting more barbecued lizards on their tables to protecting them from Mad Maxian types from the Wilds of Virginia).

I consider different types of flashiness. Not just for these troops, but the civies watching, pointing, excitedly discussing us.

_Get to the top of the steps, generate more bots, stand up in armor twelve feet tall, amplify my voice via the bots, tell them that all will be well, that I go to converse with my father for their well-being and –
Jason, you’re be ridiculous. That’s Rusty-the-Volcano-God talking. Not his finest hour, especially since the red mud we found to dye his skin didn’t want to wash off afterward, and he looked like George Hamilton for a month. Something more subtle, more self-assured. If I have to prove my authority, I’ve already lost it.

Rusty is here. He’s trained these troops. Even if I’m “Master Quill,” they’ll be assessing my threat level as we approach the inner sanctum.

We turn left and ascend a broad marble staircase to the front of the capitol building. The banisters are cracked and broken, but the surface is swept neat and tidy. I can feel eyes upon us – the civilians gathered below, their numbers doubled and tripled since we arrived, as well as the troop escort. And, perhaps, snipers above or to the side, or other defenses not visible.

As we reach the top of the stairs and stand before the boarded doors (their glass long shattered, as is true for so much of the city), Capt. Thomas turns to me, his face already nervously apologetic. It’s not easy being an honor guard for me but still a security chief for this installation.

Before he can speak, I say, in a calm, assured voice. “We have no weapons to declare.”

His eyes widen, then narrow briefly with suspicion, and then – “Of course. Of course!”

We are Master Quill. We have no need of weapons such as lesser mortals know. We can strike others dead through our knowledge of Star Wars _trivia, and our divine right of Science Mastery, or whatever._That’s what Thomas is probably thinking. I’m realizing that I am seriously out of practice with this sort of stuff, because, yes, I have no weapons… Aside from the nanobots, which are not for nothing, sure. But I would feel better, out in the wild like this, to have many, many guns and lasers and grenades and vortex blasters. Really.

But by declaring I have nothing to declare … oh, yeah, I show confidence. I either have no reason to fear attack – or am so capable of dealing with it beyond puny mortal weaponry, that I can let people know I’m “unarmed.”

The guards are impressed, the onlookers who hear this even more.

_Jesus. Dad has these people cowed.
There’s one protest among the guards that Numina and I should still be searched. I start to consider how to counter that (I’m not sure how Numina’s hard light body will stand up to search, and the thought of someone patting her down fills me with some sort of uncomfortable emotion). But my contingencies go unneeded, as the protester is quickly hushed by Captain Thomas.

* * *

The interior of the US Capitol in the central area has been substantially damaged, the offices and library the entrance we’ve come in largely gutted by fire. But I can see across the rotunda, under the shattered dome, past the damaged spaces, out to the National Mall – which looks to be under intense cultivation as farmland.

And, suddenly, for the first time since I arrive, I feel something other than black depression about the state of this world. That cultivation, that farmland, feels like a something new, a possibility for improvement. My mind begins to consider what they’re doing, how to better improve how they are irrigating, considerations of crops – food and industrial – for what should be this location’s climate. And what adjoining territory to DC should be like (flashing on times I came here and its environs when Dad was testifying before Congress, or working at the Pentagon, or even just touring the sights …).

Seeing that farmland is the most hopeful thing I’ve spotted since we arrived – even if the light is still wrong, and will never seem right.

I look at Numina, gesturing with my head and smiling. She gives me a wan grin in silence.

There’s been a fair amount of damage within the building, but a lot has been reconstructed, and the further from the rotunda we go, the better in shape the structure.

We head north, skirting past the Senate chamber, dark and silent, and get to less damaged locations toward the edges of the building. We approach a large suite of corner offices, interior french doors somehow still intact, and … coming toward us down the corridor …



[To be continued …]

author: *** Dave H.

Oh yay, map! Thinking you guys were around S-220.

Also, this is great. Thank you!

We are Master Quill. We have no need of weapons such as lesser mortals know. We can strike others dead through our knowledge of Star Wars trivia, and our divine right of Science Mastery, or whatever.

Legitimate LOL, here.

author: Doyce T.

Actually, what struck me most was that in play it seemed like 200m S was straight out the non-Mall side of the building, whereas the Mall actually runs E-W, so 200m south would be somewhere off to the left of the map. I adjusted for that in the text. :slight_smile:

author: *** Dave H.

That’s cool. I didn’t check ahead of time. :slight_smile:

author: Doyce T.

Part 3

They don’t break stride when they see me, but they do slow down a bit, and their eyes weigh heavily on me.

Rusty murmurs, “Dear God, what is he wearing?” _Fuck you Rusty – this is enemy territory, assume the worst. You taught me that.
They finally stop, about ten feet away, and Numina and I do the same. Not close. Not an intimate, family distance. I think of movies where the Russia and and the Americans meet on a bridge between the Iron Curtain, on a foggy night, to exchange prisoners. This has that same feel. What are we going to exchange? Information?

Captain Thomas salutes. Dad gives a perfunctory return, Rusty a proper one, and says, “Dismissed.” Thomas’ expression flashes between vaguely upset that he’s not going to be here to see and hear, to grateful that he’s not going to be here to see and hear.

We stare at each other for a few seconds. I feel Numina beside me. Trust yourself, her voice says in my memory.

My stomach is a tight ball of ice. I might never take a full breath again.

“Hey Dad, what’s new?”

Casual, even a bit flippant. But not affectionate save in the words themselves. Clearly ironic. A bit bitter. Meant to sting. I’ve thought you were dead for two years, Dad. What’s that about?

Dad starts. “Even when she said you were coming, I didn’t believe it. You – look well.”

He doesn’t. You know how some presidents – okay, all presidents – get worn down in office? Some get flabby, lose tone; others seem to get honed away, like a sculpture. All of them get a lot grayer.

Dad has been here two years or so. It looks like several, wrinkles around the eyes, gray at the temples and beard. He should look distinguished that way; instead, he just looks old and tired.

“You look like hell, Dad.”

Again, words meant to sting. I don’t know what I feel, except there’s a big chunk of fear (what has Dad done?), an even bigger chunk of anger (why did Dad let this happen? why have I been alone for two years?). I keep my face stony, because I’m not sure what it will do if I let it go, but it won’t be good.

He sighs, gives a slight smile. “It’s been a bit of an uphill hike, but – we’re doing pretty well.” We-who? We the people here? Or we-him-and-Rusty? “We’ve got some space in here we can talk, and your friend …” He trails off, eyeing Numina.

It’s complicated. That truncates my answer some, but so does not wanting to feed him any easy answers before he gives me some. “Yes, my friend.”

Numina smiles; I can hear it in her voice, even as I keep my eye on Dad. “Yes, Dr Quill, it’s an honor to meet you after all I’ve studied and read.”

That’s an odd tone in her voice. Her words are polite, polished, friendly – but at odds with her feelings. I’m not sure what’s going on with that – and is it more weird that Numina is lying, or that I can hear it?

My Dad in turn is peering at her intently. The light in here is dim, and her hard light shell is faintly glowing. But beyond that, it’s obvious Dad recognizes she’s not altogether human, at least not meat-human. He’s probably trying to figure out whose tech it is, or even the software / AI.

I feel a sudden, hotter spurt of anger beyond that icy cold, resentment at his looking at her as a thing, a technology puzzle to be worked out. Dammit, I said she’s my friend. That should be all that’s necessary. I realize I’ve taken a half-step forward to interpose myself slightly between him and her – and she echoes the move to once again stand beside me.

If Dad notices the little dance, he says nothing, but his eyes flicker to me again. “Come in, over here – there’s a lot ot explain.”

Any room Dad wants to pull into to talk in private is not a room I want to be in. “Where’s my other friend?” I ask. “The one who told you I was coming.”

He smile again. “Your charming Miss Palmer is … right there.” And again he gestures to the room.

* * *

It’s a big, charming, 19th Century office – a large desk, an even larger conference table, a wall of books. The look is marred by the mess – stacks of papers, maps tacked to the wall, the room darker than it should be due to a half the windows being boarded up.

Charlotte is standing by the bookshelves, looking at titles. It’s easy to look at upper shelves when you can float up to them. She should have been able to hear us in the hallway, but politeness wouldn’t let her just step out and interrupt.

It doesn’t keep Numina and me from ignoring our hosts to cross over to her. “Are you okay?” we say, simultaneously.

Charlotte smiles. The colors in her are usually muted, and blend in remarkably well with the sepia tones of the light here, but it’s a genuine, happy look she gives us. “Oh, quite well. My hosts have been quite gracious. Very interesting conversationalists. And they let me know when you arrived.”

“You didn’t come back,” I tell her. “We were concerned.” If she’s just been hanging out here reading books, I’m going to be a bit miffed, given what coming here cost me. But that really doesn’t sound like something she would do, so –

“Oh, I apologize. Things here have been ever-so interesting. Your father and I have had quite an interesting set of talks since I was released from the cells down below – I don’t think they appreciated the way I kept poking my head through the door.”

My appreciation for her concise and ever-so polite way of bringing me up to speed is swamped by another spurt of anger. I begin to turn toward Dad again to protest, even as Charlotte continues on, “Of course, I haven’t seen Alycia Chin since we were both captured, so I can’t speak to her well-being.”

The bottom drops out of my stomach.

* * *

“Alycia’s here?” I demand.

“She’s under watch,” Rusty says. He’s been quiet. Dad’s been doing the talking, he’s been doing the watching. It was an old routine with them. They trade off depending on what they’re watching for, what they’re trying to say. It’s a good partnership. I want to spit in his face, too.

“What for?”

Rusty raises an incredulous eyebrow.

“Besides being Chin’s daughter?” Dad replies, with that you’re be ridiculous tone he always used to take. I haven’t missed it. At all. “So that I can find what she’s doing with my tech.”

“She has it,” I tell him, voice low and controlled so that I don’t shout at him, “because I gave it to her.”

That penetrates. He opens his mouth. Closes it. Opens his mouth again. Rusty lets out a sound like a leaking tire, and flops down on a chair, muttering, “Oh, brother.”

“You gave --?”

“Why wouldn’t I help my oldest friend?” I interrupt. His eyes widen, then focus back on me, as if he can read my mind. “Yeah,” I say, letting my voice rise to something a bit louder, “I know you fucked up my brain --”

“Language!” Dad snaps, and, dammit, I cut off my words.

“Yes,” I repeat, teeth more clenched, lower, but no less vehement. “I know you interfered with my memories.”

He has the decency, at least, to look abashed at that. “Jason --”

And you were working with Achilles Chin.”

That doesn’t earn a flinch, but a snort. “Well, that didn’t last. We’re no longer ‘working together,’ Jason. We didn’t see eye to eye. As usual.”

I shake my head, angrily. Cut to the chase. “Are you looking for a way back home? Because that’s why I’m here – and to rescue anyone who needs it, if I can.” Even with all this, I’m still willing to help them. I doubt seriously there’s a way they could do it themselves, technologically, here, but I can make it happen. Heck, with Charlotte around, it might not even kill part of me again. I’m beginning to let that problem-solving spin up when he pulls the plug on it.

“Son, we can’t go back.”

Great. They’re on a grand adventure, or ruling this little medieval fiefdom, and don’t want to come home, and that’s why they haven’t even –

Dad’s still a dozen feet away, but he makes an abortive gesture that might be like a hug, before dropping his arms. “We don’t dare. The way we were brought across – we’re charged with the energy of our home dimension. That’s not the case with you – which is extremely – never mind, the point is, if you and I touched right now, the, well, call it static shock, might vaporize this building.”

So no hugs. I shake my head again. Too much information, too quickly. “Dad, I’ve seen a video from AEGIS. I’ve talked with Amir.”

“What?” That’s Dad, but Rusty is on his feet, too.

“The video AEGIS has of your transfer over to this world. I would have --” Don’t apologize. “Hecate --” Dad blanches. “-- did some mind magic, kept all of this a secret, kept me from coming after you. Mind shenanigans. You know how that works, right?”

“What did you say about Amir?”

"I’ve talked with him. He’s been living at the Palm Key house. Hecate’s shenanigans impacted him, too, but – he told me about what you were trying to do, the Vyortovians, all that.

“Jesus,” Rusty murmurs. He puts a hand on Dad’s shoulder.

Dad gives it a tight press with the opposite hand, then takes a step closer to me. “Son, your brother died.”

Something crashes in my brain. I knew it. I had feared it, in fact. In that panoply of possibilities from visiting Amir – Hell, was it this morning? Yesterday? – I knew this was a whole branch of them.

“I’m sorry to tell you this way. He died during that whole fiasco of … he was working on this side, in this universe. But there were scavengers, or the Family, and he… he died defending the Arc Circuit.”

_Oh, Amir. You crazy brother of mine. Of course you went down with the ship. I would have, too, if I’d been here. If Dad had let me.
That Amir I talked with. The probability clouds collapse down to a much smaller set. Highest likelihood: the Sepiaverse Amir, of course. Working with Hecate, or the Vyortovians – no, more likely Hecate. A victim, scared, trapped there. It explains her using her veil to keep me from reaching out to him, learning he was a phony – well, no, real, but just not the right real. Was she using him to monitor us, the Foundation? Or the Menagierie? Was she still? _Dammit –
Dad’s been talking. "… the one from this world – when all of that happened, we, in our proximity to the effect, were the ground points for a tremendous amount of energy potential from this side, and that side that was grounded out. When you came through, though, you did minimal damage, nearly non-existent –

Li’lycia grounding out. Did I really just lose her, too?

“Yeah, I figured out how to do that, Dad,” I say. My voice sounds as old as he looks. Numina is beside me, just a presence, but a desperately needed one. I feel Charlotte a polite few feet back, also there to support. I want to reach out to one, or even both of them. I simply stand there.

If my words were meant to impress Dad (look, I can invent real good, too!) they seem to go unnoticed. “We absorbed the energy of a landmass the size of the dinosaur-killer, Jason. If we contact individuals from the other side, if that energy potential returned to the other side, it would likely resume the original damage, do just what the Vyortivians wanted, collapsing the two universes into one. I’m … sorry. We can’t come back.”

That affected them – but it would have affected Dr. Chin, too. If Alycia gets out, finds him –

I’m done with this. I just want to get out, go home. But I need to bring Alycia with me, which means I need more detail.

“Right, fine. Where’s the rest of your party? Where’s Achilles Chin right now?”

Dad sighs. “We think he’s working with Hecate.”

I can’t help it. My eyes widen. “Excuse me _whatthefuck?”

_Beside me I hear Numina whisper the same thing.

[To be continued …]

author: *** Dave H.

Part 4

Moments. Vignettes. Things get kind of confused after that.

_Lemme 'splain. No, that takes too long. Lemme sum up.

* * *

So, to make it clear, their belief is that our Achilles Chin is working with the Sepiaverse’s Hecate, not the one from our universe. That would be – like finding out Darth Vader was conspiring with Sauron, or something. Just … way too crazy.

Not that it isn’t awful and terrible and gobsmacking as it is. Especially since, Dad tells me, rumor has it that Hecate is in contact with herself across multiple dimensions, and that the Sepiaverse Hecate has shown signs of knowing things about Dad and Rusty and Chin that can only be explained that way.

Not good. Not good, indeed.

* * *

Numina is showing off her new body to Charlotte. “Look, we’re cousins,” she says, delightedly making her hand fade in and out like Charlotte’s do.

Father eyes them both while we chat – not salaciously (ew!), but as if he’s figuring out how to take them apart to make them tick.

If he tries, I’ll kill him.

* * *

Charlotte and Dad did have some interesting chats. With her prompting I hear more about how this whole thing ties in with the Vyortovians, but, almost as ghastly, how it all came about.

This is a dying world, all of its … possibility ripped way. Its hope.

“If you look at an open field in our home world, you can imagine hundreds of things – thousands – that can be done with it,” says Dad, waxing eloquent, as he does. “Build a house. Build a store. Build a soccer field. Leave it alone. Make it a refuge. Plant a forest. Whatever. Truly, whatever you can imagine, those are options on the table. In the Sepiaverse, those potentials are infinitely fewer, and the options are, at best, poor. In a probabilities sense, the world is played out.”

That sounds poetical, not scientific. Magic, not cold, hard facts. But I can feel it, and Charlotte has felt it far worse from what she says, and now I realize that Numina is looking a little wan and haunted (do androids dream of electric despair?). And it all as to do with the Keynomes, which not only bring together poetry and physics, but steal their love child and march it around town on a shiny throne.

The Keynomes here are – Gone? Broken? Just worn out from overuse, misuse, too-focused use? It’s difficult to find the right words, and a lot of it remains speculative even for the great Byron Quill. But it’s that loss that is killing this world, giving it that Sepia tone of the spirit (what atomic weight is that, Jason?), creating despair among its people, truncating its technology, its possibilities, and leading inexorably to death.

Except for right here in Washington, DC. Or “Federal City,” as the locals called it before Dad and Rusty came through.

So that’s sort of apocalyptic and Tolkienesque to begin with. But then there’s the War.

* * *

The world wasn’t a great place before that all took place, but things took a turn for the worse when the Byron Quill and Achilles Chin of this dimension went to war. Over their kids. Their … dead kids.

(You know that talk about someone walking across your grave? Yeah, that happens this afternoon a lot.)

I never get a clear story as to who struck at the other’s firstborn first. But the retribution was swift and very Old Testament. And then they went to war on each other. Nukes are for pussies, in the world of Science Hyper-Geniuses. Mass drivers turned huge portions of the US East Coast (including their analog to Halcyon) into a moonscape of water-filled craters, in the process killing all or most of the few super-powered beings on the planet (except, sadly, Hecate, and even she didn’t go unscathed). Giant war machines – and not just spiders – ravaged amongst the survivors, killing for grand strategy, then just for the killing itself, doomsday machines that had to be tackled by the populace like cavemen attacking dinosaurs.

As time went on, and the economies that allowed for producing such weapons began to break down, the war broke down as well into more and more primitive forms, until everything basically collapsed and global war, or even continental or national war, was impossible. Leaving behind starvation and death, and utter destruction of the Atlantic coast of North America, Manila, Hawaii, and most of South Asia. With plenty of collateral damage elsewhere to truly frell with everyone else.

The Quill and Chin of this world were among the early victims, but not early enough. The death toll from the direct conflict was in the hundreds of millions. The death toll from the resulting collapse of civilization, industry, mining, agriculture, plus a bit of nuclear winter and some weird diseases that never got explained – it’s impossible to for Dad to tell, but probably in the billions.

I wondered once why Chin never went directly after Amir or me. Dad would never target Alycia that way, but Chin – well, I don’t know the why, but I can only shudder at how grateful I am that the one in our world never took that step, and not just because my own hide was at stake.

Part of me wants to shout at Dad to never, ever, ever consider such an act himself, to kill the world over me (as if I ever thought he’d care that much, but some Byron Quill did). But I’m too angry at him for everything else, and the anger keeps bubbling more and more violently. That so close an analog to my Dad was willing to kill Alycia, even in revenge (and then go on to slaughter millions more) – that just makes it worse.

* * *

If the cross-dimensional Hecates talk to each other, are the actions of that local Byron Quill the basis for her hatred of Dad? It certainly seems to work the other way around, as this dimension’s Hecate seems bound and determined to kill him.

* * *

Dad seems bitterly amused by the term “Sepiaverse.”

DC is doing okay (in a Mad Max sense) only because the Keynome from our DC got shifted here, and Dad and Rusty (and, for a while, Chin) were still under the influence of our world in trying to push it forward toward survival. It’s given them potential.

Dad jokes that he hopes that the loss of the Keynome hasn’t affected our own DC the past few years. I bite my tongue. I’m not going to shift my anger to that guy in the White House, when it’s so focused on this guy in the Capitol.

* * *

Achilles Chin is a monster.

Yes, I’ve had that debate with Alycia before. As far as I’m concerned, she’s the only good thing to come from the man, and she’s still (yes, I’m not blind) damaged goods from it. But the Evil Doctor Chin has killed hundreds, possibly thousands (Bhopal comes to mind), all for an extremist political purpose that’s –

– okay, I won’t drag the politics into it. Mine have changed over time, but I know all the arguments that Dad always ranted about over the dinner table (with Rusty making barbed commentary in support), and if I still think that Chin (both of them) are living in a fairy land of ideals of puppies and unicorns, I can still appreciate the foundation of what he (and she, from our talks, Jesus, those talks) aspire to, and Dad doesn’t want to hear that.

So let’s say strategically I’m a little soft in opposition to Chin. Tactically, he’s as close to a cackling fiend as he was on the cartoon.

Which still makes it remarkable that he and Dad got together to foil the Vyortovian plot, and big huzzahs for that, but it’s not surprising that, given a fallow field to start to (re)build a civilization, they started bumping heads, and eventually breaking them.

With time and perspective and a good mad-on, I can really see Chin’s argument that Dad is putting together his own personal New World Order kingdom, with himself as King and Hierophant. Because he is.

But he’s also saving lives. He’s building something. Flawed, maybe, or not sustainable over time, and certainly no garden spot for civil liberties or the like. (It’s not Big Brother, but when lives depend on reducing societal friction, trouble-makers might not be treated with Constitutional respect.)
I appreciate the strategy, even if I deplore the tactics. And, goddammit, I’m not going to be living here, so he can do whatever he wants and we’ll be done with it.

* * *

No, I can’t be that callous. The people here are hurting. Starving. The world is starving and suffering.

What can our world do? Hell, we haven’t solve starving and suffering in our own dimension; how can we even think of tackling it here?

Still, I wonder if there’s something I can send Dad remotely to help. Or, if not through Dad, something that will benefit the people here directly.

I’ll put the Foundation on it.

* * *

Chin has tried to steal the DC Keynome. Twice.

And only a few weeks back, he and Hecate lured Dad and Rusty (and a highly armed local version of the Dragonfly) down toward Halcyon, trying to capture them. That was when Harry had inadvertently crossed over.

Dad speculated that Chin might be suffering from being away from the Keynomes, his views becoming more rigid, his sight of possibilities more limited. He may even become susceptible to the Vyortovian goals, the resulting mass deaths be damned.

There’s another Keynome here, in Iceland – the other part of the world that got sucked across by the Vyortovians, who want to collapse both dimensions into an “average” one, better than theirs, worse than ours. They’re holding out successfully against Hecate and Chin.
So maybe, literally, there’s hope.

* * *

But not for me. Or not in this situation, here.

I want to get out of here.

I want to get Charlotte and Numina out of there. I mean, I feel like I’m feeling the effect of this place already, Keynome or not. I don’t want them

Dad is doing stuff here. Important stuff. But he doesn’t need me. And if he can’t get back, then –

I don’t want to lose him. But I don’t have much choice. And that ‘I don’t want to lose him’ thing is almost a knee-jerk response. Emotional bonds from being a little kid. Dad fucked up my head. It wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t even an oversight, like, oh, sticking me with nanobots that are killing me. He did it on purpose, for his own opinion of the “greater good.” He took from me memories, precious memories, memories that were mine.

He took those things from me.

I’ve been thinking about how to get them back. Victory Zippers and Memetic Programming (which sounds like a great cover band, I know), but it’s all really damned scary. But –

He took that. It’s unforgivable. And he’s … embarrassed? Abashed? Put out by being confronted by it?

I’m taking Alycia out of here, too. I would have tried, regardless. Of course I would. But what my dad did, how he treat it – that makes this not only personal, but just.

author: *** Dave H.