Issue 25, from Jason Quill’s headspace.
I’m immersed words.
I talk. Dad talks. Rusty grunts. I talk, Dad talks, Rusty makes a sharp comment. I talk, Dad talks, Numina – Summer – steps back into the room and says something wise or perceptive, Dad glares, I glare back, Rusty says –
Words, words, words …
(Charlotte? She’s busy reading. Occasionally saying, “Oh, my,” or, at times, “oh, dear.” I should be next to her, seeing what she needs. She’s a team mate, a friend --)
Numina is probably the ingredient that keeps everything from blowing up. Keeping me from blowing up. The occasional word, one a hand on the arm, an observation that gets everyone else to stop talking – like connecting some dots that seem to prove that the two Hecates must be in communication.
As time passes – it seems short, intense, but the dim light creeps around the room long enough to make it clear it’s been hours – Dad starts to get his balance back. My showing up, my accusations, had rocked him. He’d almost seemed human. But –
It sounds like I hate my Dad. I don’t. I can’t. But I’m so angry, it’s hard to think, and right now I need to think more than ever. The nanobots ripple about me (I’m still in my armor, and I struggle to keep it in shape), and I don’t feel any less angry, but my thinking seems to clear for a space –
– which is good, because Dad is still owning stuff, sure, but he’s also working to take control of the situation, of the conversation, of –
– of me.
And I realize that I’ve grown a lot in two years. Dad’s not talking any different now than he did then (maybe – hold that thought), but I’m not the same 15-year-old kid I was then.
Hell, a few months ago –
– the Menagerie has been good to me. And helped me understand some of the bullshit I’d accepted as normal. I may still come across as Boy Basket Case, but my head’s actually better screwed on than it was that day when I put on that morning coat (for chrissake) for the Halcyon Derby.
I love Dad. He’s a great man. But like all great men, he’s got feet of clay (so I come by it honestly). Sometimes he has ethical stances of clay, too.
Like we get into this debate over the term “memetic programming,” a term that Dad insists he just invented. Which I know isn’t true, and Alycia Chin (put a pin there, too) knows a lot about it, and Summer understands all about that discussion, too. She’s able to dive down that rabbit hole, conversationally, and I start to see that expression on Dad’s face when someone is scoring points he doesn’t want to admit are being scored.
Dad is always the smartest person in the room – as long as he can define the room.
It goes on and on, around and around, chunks of information, spin and debate and charges and recriminations.
But eventually it gets to where it always had to get to.
* * *
“What has Alycia told you so far?”
They’ve got her in some sort of prison under the Capitol building (apparently for particularly violent or drunken Senators, in days gone by – or perhaps protesters; I think I’ve read that exists in our world, too). And we’ve danced around it long enough.
I look at him, waiting for more. I just get him looking back at me.
“Wait, you have the daughter of your greatest nemesis, past and present; someone who crossed he dimensions to get here, who was then easily captured, who’s now sitting in the basement underneath us – and you haven’t even questioned her?”
Dad snorts. I used to hate that snort. Now it pokes me like a sharpened knitting needle. “Why would we? What could she know?” Another snort. “She hasn’t been in touch with her father in two years.”
I stare at him.
Rusty clears his throat. He’s looking at me, too, but his expresson has changed. He glances over at Dad. “You know – kid’s got a point.”
Dad glares at him. Rusty is uncowed. He’s developed an immunity over the years, I guess.
At last Rusty shrugs slightly. “I’m going to check the guards.” He throws me another glance – one that has some unusual emotion in it. Surprise? Respect? Okay-one-point-for-you-kid?
Dad rolls his eyes, shaking his head. “I repeat – what could she know?”
Charlotte chimes in, “Well, there’s how she got here without damaging the shadow membrane.”
Dad barks out a laugh, throwing his hands in the air. “Well, clearly, she just borrowed the tech from my son.” He looks at me. I can hear him addng, _And you borrowed the tech from me, don’t forget that.
Even through my anger, I can tell there is something weird going on. Dad can be stubborn, unwilling to admit a mistake, too ready to think his way is the right way (hello, memory wipe!) – but he’s also incredibly smart, and not someone to just ignore something so obvious.
I brush it aside, drawing a deep breath. I’m done with Dad playing the intellectual alpha male. I don’t give a shit any more.
“I need to talk with Alycia.” I pause half a moment, before adding, “Before I take her out of here.”
There. It’s said. Charlotte sighs, which is an odd sound for a ghost. Summer is – standing very still, but smiling.
But my focus is on Dad. He’s staring, practically sputtering. "What? Take her – where?"
The anger is gone for the moment. There’s just a strange silence, with a single, keen, high-pitched tone, almost like hearing damage. I feel oddly calm. _There. I’ve said it. I’m taking Alycia out of here. Back home.
_Dad is still wide-eyed in disbelief. What did you think, Dad? I was just going to leave her here? In your custody? “What – what possible reason could you have to remove her from custody here, where she’s safe.” Safe as in unable to harm others, of course, not safe as in protected from –
Speaking the words has opened a dam in me, and the words flow out like water through a sandy gorge, cutting a deep channel, impossible to stop. “To maybe save my life. Or to restore my memory. Or are either of those of any value here?”
“Watch your tone of voice, young man! There’s no call to be snide.”
I smile, shaking my head. “Right. I’m dying because I had faulty nanobots embedded into me. My memory isn’t working, because you stripped it from me. It’s all due to your shenanigans, but why should I be snide about it?”
He rolls his eyes. “Well, a lot of that was last-minute coding. There was tremendous time pressure, once I realized what needed doing. There was little time for component testing, let alone thorough integration QA, so, yes,clearly it’s a significant but utterly coding error, probably in rounding …”
A rounding error. A rounding error.
_Sorry, Jason, you’ve gone from 0.95 brains down to 0.00. My bad. I’ll know to double-check next time.
Yeah, I was wrong. That wasn’t actual calm. It was a thin layer of ice over the nigh-frozen waters, and the dark and hungry creatures that lurk in it. That ice is finally cracking.
I look to my friends there. Charlotte looks far less sweet than people expect. She gives me a grim nod. Numina’s staring at Dad, face twisted in what can only be disgust. She turns to me, gaze firm.
I have their support. I’m not alone in this. And I can get it done. And that lets the final surge out of that dam. “Goddammit, Dad. I’m dying here. My memory has been raped. By you. And you, you just --” I take a deep breath. "I came here for Charlotte. For you, if you needed me. And also for Alycia." My eyes are locked with his. “And you are not standing in my way.”
Things are silent. Dad stands there, face coloring, brows thrusting together. His breath is heavy. He’s – furious. Over the “affrontery.” Over the “cheek.” I know all the words. I’ve heard them before. He’s struggling to keep it under control, because there are others in the room, and Byron Quill always has to be the cool, superior intellect – but I watch that restraint visibly crumbling, and he opens his mouth to speak –
– even as a klaxon goes off, and amber lights over the doors into the room flash a slow-motion alarm.
For all he was furious one moment, his face goes white. He grabs the phone on the desk. “Quill. What --? How? … You’re sure? … Fine, you know what to do.” He throws a glance my way. “Any way you have to.”
He slams the phone down. His face is ugly. “Your ‘damsel in in distress’ just broke out of prison.”
And all I can do is laugh.
* * *
Okay, it was kind of mean to Dad to laugh at him because he’d underestimated the daughter of Achilles Chin.
Actually, no, it wasn’t. It was exactly the right thing to do, and it felt good.
Dad’s a super-genius, or hyper-genius as some of the psych/neurology mags call it for the pop-sci crowd. He is intensely analytical, figuring out how things work, how they are put together, how they are taken apart. It’s a perspective that carries from subatomic particles to massive pieces of equipment.
The result was that he was damned hard to play a practical joke on. Not only because he was smart, but because he always noticed when things were wrong, out of place, not quite right. One of the most common things me and Amir (dammit!) heard growing up was “Very funny, boys,” in that tired, disappointed tone, as if he was fatigued with tricks that didn’t work and were So. Bloody. _Obvious.
The only time to actually get him was when he was distracted with something else, and even that was tough. But one time we did – and the last time we tried … well, his tone wasn’t the opposite of “tired and disappointed,” I can tell you that.
That time I was terrified at his reaction. This time, all I can do is laugh.
* * *
Dad’s face is red, staring at me, mouth working. “Have you lost your --?” Even he doesn’t have the nerve to finish that sentence. “Fine, I’ll have her rounded up soon enough, and then you and I are going to have a long --” His words choke off, then he storms out of the room.
I turn to Summer and Charlotte. “We should go and find her before she does something to justify Dad’s being pissed off.”
Summer slides me a flat, over-sized book she’d taken down from the book case and set on the large conference table. Construction of the Federal City Capitol Building. It’s a set of floor plans for the US Capitol building, as revised in 1904. Summer’s eyes glow, and a hologram of building, floor by floor, and down into the basement and subbasements, shows up hovering over the conference room table.
There’s more underground than above, with various tunnels leading off to other buildings, interesting dead-end chambers at the bottoms of staircases, junctions with other tunnel systems, and shaded speculations of where others are on the map, based on were passages bend or wrap around things not shown.
She smiles, pointing at (with automatic highlights) the Senatorial Cells. “Also, FYI,” she adds, her eyes literally aglow, “this is the coolest power.”
“We need to get down there,” I say, my brain trying to unthread the tangled knot of passageways, solving for fastest route, but also probable guard posts (I’m not sure how much I want to try bluffing my way through as “Master Quill,” especially if Dad thinks he’s going to ground me for a million years).
While that’s chewing up cycles, another unexpected result pops out of my brain. Byron Quill has been compromised.
All that weirdness about not questioning Alycia? About locking her up here in the seat of power? About not considering her a real threat? None of that sounds like Dad.
But it does sound like the sort of shit that Hecate would pull.
Why would she do just that, though; if she could get power of Dad, why not any number of things, up to and including surrending? Or suicide?
Limits. Dad’s not from around these parts, and he has the DC Keynome buried under the building, making use of its “Possibility” to try and save the world. Hecate couldn’t simply attack him that bluntly (though she’s doubtless tried).
But little somethings – hiding realizations, shading concepts, making certain thoughts subtly unthinkable – hell, just boosting Dad’s ego – could cause him to make mistakes. Or just one mistake: ignoring Alycia Chin.
My brain’s cranking through speculation about that (was Rusty affected, too), even as it considers the tunnel system, when Charlotte lets out a very unladylike huff of air. “If you boys hadn’t been arguing for hours --”
I blink, “It hasn’t been --” Glance at my watch. “Oh. I guess --”
“Come with me!” She grabs my arm and I have just time to take a quick breath before she pulls me down into the floor.
* * *
Glimpses of rooms and utter darknesss (enough to trigger any latent claustrophobia) – and hours (seconds) later, she pulls me into a chamber that looks even more 19th Century than the office. High wooden wainscoting – even in the cells – and some old-fashioned light fixtures that looke like they were retrofitted from gas lamps. The cells themselves are right out of a Western – individual chambers, nicely appointed if stark, with old-timey iron bar doors.
All the doors are open.
All the guards (five of them) are on the floor.
I check out the two nearest me, just by crouching. Unconscious, but alive. Thank God.
Alycia doesn’t kill. Well, she hasn’t killed recently. As far as I know. Those very public – and very expensive – attacks on Quill properties that got her that “terrorist” label didn’t actually lead to any deaths. I keep telling myself that.
Doors. Cells. Guards. Backpack sitting on table.
Backpack? He left her backpack somewhere within reach? Yeah, someone’s got to be messing with Dad’s head.
_Where is she?
“I actually,” I tell Charlotte, absently, my eyes flicking around the scene, “was trying to figure out where the Keynome was. That’s going to be where she’s headed.”
“You said we needed to get down here,” Charlotte replies, sharply.
I give her a look. She has a frown I don’t want to see get any worse. I’ve seen her Scary Face. It’s scary. “Yeah, but now --” I shake my head. “This is fine, never mind. I just need to --”
I cover the room, pacing it, looking at each cell – Yup, that’s the one, and, jeez, yeah, these things were only really designed as a drunk tank, or maybe a place to let cane-swinging Senators cool their heels while the Sergeant-at-Arms considers calling the constabulary. I mean, I’m not a master thief, but I’ve learned enough that I could pick that lock with a pocket comb, or even just a pencil – figuring out which one Alycia was in (the only one not dusty), the guards, where they’re lying, which way they’re facing, recreate the scene, over to the table, the backpack, riffling through it, sketches of the building, the tunnel, diagrams –
_-- none of it in her handwriting.
And a rubber-banded stack of letter envelopes, addressed to a finely calligraphed “A”. No addresses, no cancellations.
Time, time, time, but this is important. Inside each envelope, a letter on nice stationary, hand written, but not in Alycia’s handwriting, and almost certainly not in Chin’s. But they’re from him to her, that’s clear.
_“My dearest daughter” “Eighteen months” “My intellect dwindling (oh, the irony)” “Need every assistance” “I’ve learned something new.” “Here are clues that may pave your way.” “Hurry.”
Nothing that references two-way communication, no references to “your letter of the 4th” or “ah, yes, that should work”. Just directions, and pleas for help.
From father to daughter.
What if I’d gotten letters like that from Dad? I’d have moved heaven and earth, for all my anger at him. And I would have, if not for –
Little bells go off and flags flip up. Chin was sending letters to Alycia through the Sepia Hecate to our Hecate, dictated and handwritten and hand-delivered.
She knew. That damned witch knew!
(It’s not sexist to refer to a woman as a witch if she’s a goddamned witch.)
The maps, the diagrams, cross-referencing to memory of the map above (yes, a very cool power, Summer), and, yup, “The Keynome should be – here. Alycia can’t be taking the most direct route, with these sealed doors and probably guard posts here and here, maybe over this way – we can take a short cut here, and --”
Charlotte grabs me with an even less lady-like growl – “Not now, Jason, you’re be ridiculous …” – and I barely have time to yell into the comms, “Numina, track my loc --” and gulp a breath before Ghost Girl drags me through the most direct path, through the walls and earth and –
* * *
Unlike the trip to the basement, though, we immediately hit … resistance? It’s like a headwind, a flow of force that’s slowing us to a crawl.
“The Keynome, I believe,” Ghost Girl’s voice says in my head. "Like a bird trying to fly direct into a storm. It’s – quite powerful – and most – irksome_."_
The last word is bitten off. I can feel the anger coming from her, like a cold breeze down my arm.
_“Do you know how to sail?”
“I’ve seen ships – in the harbor.”
I call up memories of the lessons that (of course) Rusty gave. “Okay – lean with me in the direction I tell you. Let’s see – if we can tack – our way forward.”
It works, even if it slows us a lot, and takes a lot out of Charlotte, too, even as her fury grows colder. But it’s still faster than any of the routes I’d been looking at …
… even if I have to hold my breath an uncomfortably long length of time.
* * *
(Hector Callado’s name, his face, the times I’ve encountered him – fortunately few – all flash back. Which is weird, because I’ve always had trouble remembering his name before. Which suddenly makes me think of Hecate’s veils, and wonder whether Chin’s bodyguard was perhaps not just loyal to Achilles, but to Hecate, a go-between for them, or even someone who could help influence his master to sign up with his true, loony-tune mistress. I file that one to consider later.)
The chamber is huge, underground. Walls of stone and tile – and steel and more conventional materials – show its age and frequent expansion and retrofitting. In the center …
A bright glow, almost impossible to watch. The mechanism I saw Dad and Rusty and Chin building, but – expanded. More elaborate. Tubes and dishes and a wire lattice, more blinkenboxen and consoles, but patched together in a crude, mish-mosh fashion.
What’s Dad been doing here? I recognize his work, but – yeah, the tools he’s had to put this together must be a lot more limited than back home (um, yeah, Bombed-out City of Despair out there, Jason), but it’s still weird to see.
And if this is the Keynome, then what’s he doing. Tapping it? For what, happy thoughts and winning Lotto numbers? _This isn’t the sort of thing to dick around with, is it? It would be too easy to misuse, to –
_-- and there are silhouettes in the bright glare.
* * *
Li’lycia tried to get me to remember the first time I met Alycia Chin. Now I’m trying to remember the last time. It’s been – well, over two years, obviously. Two and … a half? Three? That thing in Brazil … Brasilia. No, there was something else after that. Antarctica was after that, wasn’t it? Well, not like I could forget that_, but … was there more? A letter? Notes? Something … angry …
_It slips through my mental fingers, glimpses and shards and ashes.
Dammit, Dad. If he were standing right before me I’d deck him.
* * *
I’ve been looking at and talking with a dozen different Alycias over the past few months, AIs and visions, rogue process buffers and security cam recordings.
None of them were really her. I knew it then, but not as much as I know it now.
* * *
I start to call out, but –
She’s not alone. Adjusting to the glare of the Keynome isn’t like it’s just a great big light. The thing is … an assault on the senses. It’s doing something with Reality around us. Crazy stuff.
But she’s not alone. Her hands are waving, her body language hunched, and emphatic. I know that look. I’ve been on the receiving end of that look.
A man. Equally demonstrative. Equally hard to see. Almost equally familiar.
* * *
I think about the Quill and Chin of this world. This world’s Jason Quill got killed by Achilles Chin. Ours never actually … hurt me. Scared me shitless (literally), yes. Threatened death by a dire fate, all the time. Lobbed SAMs at the Dragonfly while Rusty and Dad tried desperately to evade and Amir and I tried desperately not to throw up – all that, yeah.
But he never actually killed me. Even when he could have.
Hell, as far as that goes, his monologuing me and Amir on those occasions were were his captive were almost more – polemic than danger. Like he was trying to convince me that Dad was evil, that my life would be doomed if I stuck by my father. That I should turn to his side.
He was crap as a recruiter. But he wasn’t altogether wrong.
And given where we are, what’s happened, what I think is at stake – and with Hecate in the picture somewhere – I don’t think, if Chin gets a chance to kill me, he’s going to opt for another terrifying pep talk instead.
* * *
The chamber is impossibly loud, a battle royale between hammers, anvils, and chainsaws, the whole thing underlaid with a feel-it-in-the-spine basso beat of the heart of a mile-tall giant.
In other words, I’m not going to overhear them. I’m not going to hear GG if she lets go of me. I’m not going to hear myself if I scream.
Nevertheless, I open my mouth to shout to Alycia.
Before I can, I see her turn slightly. I see her glance at me. She sees me.
And still they argue.
_What should I do?
I could attack, but I don’t – I haven’t come this far to attack her. It’s idiotic, but that’s me. Dad had a point when he said I didn’t always make the world’s smartest decisions.
In retrospect, if I were any more than a hack at leadership, I’d be consulting right that moment with Ghost Girl, we’d be developing a cunning plan, and be leveraging both our unique talents in tandem. Instead, I’m just standing here staring, my team mate and friend utterly forgotten in the emotional cacophony.
There’s no time to analyze the mechanism, nor point in doing so without knowing what Chin has planned. Destroy the Keynome? Suborn it somehow? Absorb it? Flip it back into our own universe?
Whatever it is, it’s going to be bad.
I can kill him.
From where I stand, I can drive a nanobot spike into his skull. He’s mortal. He’s a decent fighter, but nothing special. I can tag him. I can end this. I’m sure.
I do nothing.
How can I kill him right in front of her? How can I, without knowing what he has planned? Before he’s actually tried to do something?
Rusty could; “extreme prejudice” is his middle name. Dad could, maybe, though he’d hate to get his hands dirty.
Amir probably could – at least the Amir I knew. He wouldn’t like it, but he’d do his duty.
Leo could. He’s got that in him. It’s terrible, but I admire him for that.
Which means Numina – Summer could. It would probably destroy her, but she could make that terribly rational decision.
Okay, if I don’t know what to do – maybe Alycia does. I mean, she’s arguing with her dad (for the several long seconds while my Hamlet pastiche has been going on), so that’s good. Maybe she’s waiting for me to act. Maybe she’s keeping him busy.
_For me to do what? What does she think I should do?
Alycia shouts what looks like an order at Achilles, then turns toward me.
_What should I do?
_She’s helping him, helping him do whatever terrible thing he’s planning to do. No, no, no, no …
Chin steps behind her enough that she’s blocking him. I couldn’t be sure of a kill shot from this angle now that he’s moved as he has – doubtless his intention.
Now I can see Alycia’s face, even over the backlighting. It’s hard. It’s sad. She’s shaking her head at me. I can almost hear the words she used to use. You are such an idiot, Jason Quill. One day this White Knight thing of yours is going to get you killed.
She’s not happy to see me. I’m upsetting her plan. But I’m here now, and she wants me to act. She wants me to let her go, to do something, to keep her from killing me, to simply run and she’ll allow my escape.
_How could I have been so stupid? How could I have thought --?
“This,” Ol’ycia says, leaning over toward me, “is not going the way she thinks it is going to go.”
As Achilles Chin pulls out pistols of his own, pointing one at the Keynome, the other at Alycia’s back.
author: *** Dave H.