Nat and the Housesitter
Nat Holcomb was in the hot tub when the cellphone rang. She got out, dried off her right hand and right ear, and answered it. The caller ID said "GSPA", so she answered with her real name and her assumed title.
"Reserve Officer Holcomb."
"Nat, can you come to a crime scene right away?" asked Parvati.
"Given appropriate transportation, sure."
"Where are you? Officer Johnson will be there in just a few moments."
"I'm at home. In the master bathroom; he knows where that is." If Zach rather than Fernspringer was transporting her, there was no point in drying off and getting dressed. As she spoke, Mike got out of the tub and dried himself off. On the phone, Parvati was saying: "When you get there, Flint wants you to change everyone in sight who's not a Patrol officer. Can you do that?"
"Depends on how many there are," she said, quickly wrapping the towel around herself; "I'll do what I can..." She mentally reviewed the photos of various Georgia State Patrol Auxiliary officers she'd been studying. Hopefully they would all be in uniform and she wouldn't need to recognize their faces, but she didn't know anything about the situation.
Mike had just finished drying off and wrapped a towel around his waist when a familiar voice called from the bedroom, "Are you decent?"
"Zach's here," Nat said to Parvati. "Bye." She pressed the end-call button and set the phone down.
"Does it matter?" she said to Zach as she walked out of the bathroom. "I won't be decent when we get where we're going, anyway."
"You ready?" Zach asked. "Hi, Mike," he said, aside.
"Sure," Nat lied, and held out her hand. Zach took it, and they vanished from the room.
Mike picked up Nat's towel and hung it up to dry, then got dressed.
They reappeared in chaos. Some kind of dust or smoke made it hard to see much, and there were booms and crashes every few seconds.
"Where are we?" Nat asked Zach, looking around, and when he said something that was inaudible due to the background noise, she asked the same again louder.
"Kelly sent me a photo of this place on my cell phone; that's all I know," he said loudly, right in her ear.
Some of the dust gradually cleared a bit and Nat saw, almost directly above her, a man hovering in the air. He didn't seem to have noticed them yet; he was barefoot, wearing blue jeans and a black T-shirt with a design Nat couldn't make out at this distance. He was looking off to their left, and firing some kind of energy blasts in that direction from his left hand. Nat didn't recognize him from the photos her other self had told her to study, so she changed him, hoping she was doing the right thing.
The woman let off an energy blast at the moment she changed; her hovering became erratic, she lost some altitude, and she looked around in confusion. A big rock (or chunk of concrete?) came flying at her from the direction she'd been shooting those energy blasts toward, and she dodged it, but just barely. Suddenly she seemed to notice the two naked people below her, and she pointed her left hand at them.
An instant later Zach and Nat were standing somewhere else; probably nearby, because she still heard the same noises and there was still dust in the air, though not as much. It was now possible to see broken walls and doors, some broken office furniture, and the rubble of a collapsed ceiling. Not far from them were two people fighting hand-to-hand. Both were masked, but one was in a Patrol uniform and the other was in some kind of light armor; she changed the armored one. That person faltered for a moment; the person in the Patrol uniform delivered a powerful blow to the other's forehead and knocked him, or her, down.
"Come on," Zach said, and pulled Nat away from those two, through a gap in a wall. The light was brighter here, and she saw what looked like a dozen people milling around and fighting; some hand-to-hand, some wielding guns or other weapons. Nat and Zach knelt down behind some rubble, while Nat studied the scene, trying to figure out who to change. There was still plenty of dust in the air, and her eyes still weren't fully adjusted to the light here. She picked somebody who didn't look familiar and wasn't in a Patrol uniform and changed them, then another a few moments later, and another...
"Is that all, do you think?" she said to Zach. "If so, get us out of here." He took her hand and they jumped to another nearby spot. From here they could see apparently the same group of people they'd just seen fighting, as well as the flying or hovering woman, shooting energy blasts into the melee, but nobody else. After two more jumps within the vicinity without seeing anybody else, Zach jumped them back to the master bathroom at Nat's house in Savannah. She reached for a bathrobe and draped herself.
"Thanks," she said. She was shivering; wherever they had just been, it had been too cold to run around naked, much less soaking wet.
"No problem," Zach said. He hadn't bothered to pick up a towel or bathrobe. "I'll just jump back there and see if I can sow some confusion of my own. See you later." He vanished.
Nat's still-damp body had collected a lot of dust from the ruined building; she took off the bathrobe and got back in the tub for a few minutes, until she was warm and clean again. Then she took a nap.
She was eating supper with Mike a few hours later when the phone rang. GSPA again.
"Reserve Officer Holcomb," she said apprehensively. She was starting to wonder if it had been a good idea to accept her other self's offer.
"Flint asks if you can please come by headquarters to change back the officers you changed by mistake. The suspects they arrested can wait."
"Um, sure," she said, mortified. "But can it wait half an hour? Sorry I changed the wrong people, it was hard to see clearly. Where were we, anyway?"
"Flint will explain... Yes, she says half an hour is fine."
"Are you sending Zach again?"
"Yes. Are you still at home?"
Half an hour later, when Nat and Mike were about done eating, Zach walked into the dining room wearing one of Nat's bathrobes.
"Ready to go?" he asked. "I guess with all the dust it was hard to pick the right targets, especially since they didn't tell you anything beforehand..."
"Right. Let's go. See you in a little while, Mike..."
They appeared in a storage closet somewhere in the GSPA headquarters building, and got dressed in some spare uniforms that approximately fit them before they emerged from it. There were no underwear or socks or shoes, though. Nat discreetly let Zach lead the way to a meeting room occupied by several Patrol officers, many of them still dusty from the debris at the crime scene, wherever that had been.
"Hi," Nat said. "Sorry about that, with all the dust it was hard to see who I was changing..." She looked around the room, trying to identify everyone. That was Flint, still female; there was Shaper, still male as far as she could tell under his pervasive force field; and someone whose name she was going blank on, but whom she recognized from his photo, so he was all right; and a woman she didn't recognize at all, who wasn't in uniform. Her shirt was too tight; Nat was pretty sure she was one she'd changed by mistake. Then Polyphonia, as female as she should be, and Vortex, properly male, and another man she didn't recognize, in a uniform that looked a little too tight in the crotch; probably the other accidental changee.
"No hard feelings," the woman in the tight shirt said; "just change me back, OK?" Nat did so, then turned to the man in the too-tight pants and changed him.
"What was going on there?" Nat asked Flint. "Parvati didn't tell me anything before I went in, and Zach didn't know much either."
"A gang, some of them paranormals and some well-armed normals, were trashing and looting the offices and labs of Paratech in Alpharetta. We're still not sure if what they were looking for, or if the ones who got away took whatever it was with them, or if they just wanted to destroy the place. The ones we arrested aren't talking yet; I've told them we won't have you change them back till they talk. Of course that won't stick if they're determined enough; sooner or later their lawyers will get a judge to order us to have you change them back, but they might get fidgety waiting for that."
"That could happen," Nat said, still confused. Was she supposed to know who or what Paratech was? It didn't exist in her home timeline, or at least wasn't famous, and her other self hadn't said anything about it when she was briefing her about her State Patrol duties.
"Also, we think you probably changed some or all of the ones who got away; a flier with some kind of energy blast power, and a comparatively low-powered super-speed, and one other who might have been a normal. They could be coming to you for your services, hoping you won't recognize them..."
"I don't remember changing a super-speed, but with all that dust in the air, the way I changed my fellow officers by accident, I might have. I know I changed the flier. But how would they get me to change them? The legislature put me out of business last month, remember? And with that business gone, nobody but you and my family knows how to get in touch with me."
"Oh, right. Hmm. I guess they could try to find you and force you to change them back, but your new identity is still pretty secure, isn't it?"
"As far as I know... I hope so."
"Well, we'll put the word out that if they turn themselves in and inform on their accomplices, we'll have you change them back..."
The rest of the meeting was a blow-by-blow analysis of the fight at the crime scene and the arrests made at the end of it; Nat and Zach were only called on to talk about what they'd done a couple of times. At some point Nat learned the code names of the man she recognized but couldn't place, Volte Face, and the man she hadn't recognized at all and had changed by mistake, Quantex. The woman she'd changed by mistake was called Zenobia; Nat wasn't sure if that was her real name or code name. She studied their faces, repeating the names silently to herself several times, and hoped that her other self wasn't on a first-name basis with them outside of work. Finally Flint adjourned the meeting; Nat followed Zach to a laundry room, whence they teleported to her bedroom at home.
"See you later," she said.
"That was fun," he said; "not the meeting, but the fight, I mean. You did good; don't worry about Quantex and Zenobia, that kind of thing happens when things get chaotic. Hope they call us again soon... Bye now." He vanished. Nat fervently hoped she would *not* be called again anytime soon; preferably not until after her other self returned and they got their identity issues sorted out.
She got dressed, then walked around the house looking for Mike; she found him sitting on the back porch.
"It's too cold to be out here," she said.
"You could put on a jacket," he said. "Or I could come inside and take off mine..."
"And some other things?" she asked with a smile.
"Stefan and I will be back in, I don't know, a few months," she had said to herself. "I've told Will who you really are and where I'm going, and of course you've met Zach; nobody else knows yet, not even Mom and Dad. We'll sort that all out when I get back. Try not to wreck the car or burn the house down, and don't spend more than a million dollars, okay?"
"Check," Nat had said. "Answer any emergency calls from the GSPA, call and check on Jack and Cecil Voss every couple of weeks, and otherwise keep a low profile. I can do that."
"And you probably shouldn't let Mom and Dad know you're sleeping with Mike," her proper, law-abiding self had admonished her. "It's probably best if we don't introduce him to them at all until I get back and we're ready to tell them who you are..."
"That makes sense, I guess. When are you going to tell them about you and Stefan?"
Her other self blushed. "Sometime after I get back, if there's anything to tell. There isn't, yet, really."
"I believe that."
"Believe whatever you like. OK, here are the keys and the cellphone. Don't answer with our real name unless it's Will or Mom or Dad or the GSPA, OK? There aren't many people around here who know me in my 'Karen Forbes' identity well enough to call me, but there are a few, and pretty much all the businesses I deal with know me by that name; the utilities, the Toyota dealership, the grocery delivery service... the only business contacts that know who I really am are my lawyer and my accountant. If they call, Mike can brief you enough so you can get by. The lawyer probably won't, but the accountant might, since he's going to be doing my taxes and might ask you to send him some more documents or meet with him..."
"Go on," she said. "Have fun. Don't hurry back."
She was starting to regret that last thing she'd said, after today.
It was almost a week before the GSPA called her again. Nat and Mike went down to St. Augustine for a few days; they were on the way home, Mike driving, when the phone rang.
"Reserve Officer Holcomb," Nat answered.
"When can you come to the Fulton County Jail?" Parvati asked. "One of the gang members you changed last week has talked, finally, and Flint promised her you would change her back..."
"Later tonight, if you want to send a teleporter for me. Tomorrow afternoon, if I need to drive."
"We'll send Fernspringer for you this time, since he's available... are you at home?"
"On my way home; be there in a couple of hours."
"OK. Call me back when you get home, and I'll have Fernspringer pick you up."
"Good." Well, sort of good; he wouldn't lose his clothes and need to get dressed in makeshift stuff that was too big for him. But Fernspringer didn't know who he really was; that was one more person he'd have to roleplay for.
He called and talked to Parvati again as soon as they were home and had their luggage out of the car. Fernspringer appeared a few minutes later in the foyer, the only teleport site in her home he had memorized.
"Are you ready?" he asked. His Swiss-German accent was only slightly noticeable.
"Sure," Nat said, and held out his hand. Mike had gone upstairs before Nat called the GSPA. Fernspringer jumped them to the front lobby of the Fulton County Jail.
"I'm Reserve Officer Nat Holcomb of the State Patrol Auxiliary," Nat said to the receptionist. "I need to see a prisoner, Rory Garton...?"
"I'll have someone escort you," the receptionist said.
A few minutes later Nat was shown to a room where a tall, broad-shouldered female prisoner was waiting, along with Flint.
"Miss Garton has been telling us a good deal about her accomplices and what they were doing at Paratech," Flint said; "so I told her you would change her back."
"Is now OK?" Nat asked. "You're not wearing anything, um, tight in the crotch, are you?"
"No," the woman said with a scowl. "Go on."
Flint nodded to Nat, and he changed the prisoner. "Is there anybody else you need me to change while I'm here?" he asked.
"The other prisoners aren't talking yet. I'll let you know if they do."
Fernspringer teleported Nat home a few minutes later. After the teleporter left, Nat went upstairs and found Mike reading in bed.
"Anything interesting?" she asked.
"Not very," Nat said, crawling in beside her. "Flint said the prisoner had talked about the gang and what they were up to, but she didn't tell me any of it. I changed her back, I came home. It's been a long day, and then changing someone at the end of it... I'm about to zonk out."
"Zonk away, then," she said. "I'll turn out the light here and go read in yonder, if you want..."
"Don't worry about it," he said. "I'm not really that sleepy yet, just tired."
"Oh, and the house phone rang while you were gone," she said; "you should probably check the voice mail first thing in the morning."
"I might do it now," he said. But it was a few minutes before he dredged up the energy to pick up the phone from the bedside table and call the voicemail number.
There were three messages, one from Will and two from his Mom. "I'll call them back tomorrow," he decided. "I probably ought to be female when I call Mom back, at least, and I'm too tired to change now..." He fugued out for a few minutes; then suddenly said, "I don't know how she does it."
"What?" Mike asked, looking up from her book.
"Teleporting into a fight stark naked, with bullets and energy blasts flying, and a dozen paranormals more powerful than me all trying to kill or disable each other... I'm not sure I can do that again."
"I think that fight last Sunday was unusually bad," she said; "I don't remember her getting into anything quite that bad except for the alien invasion."
"I'm glad to know it's not routine," he said. "It's bad enough once in a long while..."
"They've only called her, and now you, um: eleven times in the last five years. Odds are they won't need you again until she gets back."
"My God, I hope so. If they call me again I'll tell them I've got the flu."
Nat changed herself and called her Mom back the next morning after breakfast.
"What's going on with you?" her Mom asked; "I haven't heard from you in a while."
"Not much," she answered. "I've been enjoying my retirement, going on a few short road trips but mostly lying around the house reading and watching movies. I was working really hard those last few weeks before the legislature made my power illegal, so I figure I'll take it easy for a few months before I go back to school or something."
"I'm glad you're quit of that business," her Mom said; "I know you made a lot of money at it, but I'm sure you would have gotten in more trouble like that lawsuit last year if you'd kept doing it... Have you looked for somewhere you might do volunteer work, now that you don't have to work for a living?"
"Well, I'm still in the State Patrol reserves, and they call me occasionally. They had me change some vandals who were resisting arrest a week or so ago." She figured that if she went into too much detail about the fight last Sunday, her Mom would have a fit. "But other than that, no... I probably should start looking into doing something else too."
"There's probably a rape crisis center near you that would like to have someone like you as a counselor."
"Umm... maybe so. I'll think about it." In a sense she was better qualified for that than her Mom knew; but she still wasn't sure she would be any good talking to rape victims.
"All right, now that I've mentioned it I won't push you about it. ...Your father and I are going to Callaway Gardens next weekend. Would you like to come with us? I've asked Will and he's pretty sure he'll be able to come."
Nat hesitated. Part of her really wanted to go; she'd never seen her parents since she ran away from home almost eight years ago. She hadn't yet met this timeline's version of them, and had only spoken on the phone with them a couple of times. But two or three days in a hotel or cabin with them and Will... she might not be able to keep up the pretense of being the other Nat, the one native to this timeline, who had eight years more shared experience with them than she did. And she couldn't act with them like she would want to: *they* didn't know she hadn't seen them in eight years; for them it had only been a few months. Still, she couldn't think of a good excuse to refuse, since she'd just told her Mom how idle she was lately.
"I'll think about it, but probably so. I'll look at a map and figure out whether it makes sense to meet you at your house and drive together from there or for me to meet you at Callaway Gardens. What time are you planning on getting there?"
"Late Friday morning or early afternoon."
"OK, I'll talk to you later in the week and we'll talk about where to meet and stuff."
After she hung up, she looked for Mike and found her in the office, reading webcomics.
"I just talked to Mom," she said; "she invited me to come with her and Dad and probably Will to Callaway Gardens next weekend. I couldn't think of a plausible reason to say no."
"I guess you might want to go by yourself...?"
"Um, yeah. She asked me not to introduce you to them until she got back. Because, you know, they would think it was her who was dating you, and..."
"I'll be fine here by myself."
"You won't have a car..."
"I can hire a taxi if something comes up. But maybe I'll just hang around the house reading and walk around the neighborhood when I want to get out. Go ahead and have fun with your family. It's been way too long since you've seen them." A few times, during the two years she'd known him in their home timeline, he'd encouraged her to get in touch with her parents again; she'd almost done so once or twice, but the prospect of telling them a heap of lies about what she'd been doing since she left home didn't sit well with her, and she could hardly tell them much of the truth, so she kept putting it off, telling herself she had to think of a good story to tell them that would be as true as possible and wouldn't leave them worrying even more than before. And then, at the end, it was too late; they'd found out she was a vigilante, and even if they weren't likely to turn her in, the police might have been watching their house or tapping their phone.
Now she was going to have to tell them a different set of lies. She hoped she could keep them straight.
"Talk to me," she said; "what all do you remember about the other me and her parents in the last few years? I've gotten the impression their relationship is kind of strained, even though she goes to see them several times a year..."
"Hmm," Mike said thoughtfully. "When her power first manifested, since she didn't run away from home like you did, she wound up changing her parents back and forth a bunch of times over the course of a few days. I think that's where the strain started. And then when she was confined at the GSPA training camp until her power was fully under control, she stopped going to church for obvious reasons, pretty much like you did, and never started going again regularly once her power was under control and she was able to leave the camp. And I remember a couple of arguments she had with them not long after she started that 'Alterations' business; they didn't approve of her using her power that way, or at all, really."
"I figured they wouldn't; it was the main reason I never went home again."
Tuesday, the GSPA called her again, and sent Fernspringer to take her to the Fulton County Jail to change back several other prisoners who'd decided to talk. Wednesday, she called Jack and Cecil Voss and chatted with them, and with their mother; the girls were doing well, having gradually made some new friends at school (mostly girls) to compensate for the so-called friends who had ostracized them when the school year started and their changes became known. Thursday, the accountant called about a discrepancy in her other self's charitable donations for 2008.
"You donated $2.5 million to the Caeneus Foundation last year," he said, "five checks for half a million each. Did I overlook any?"
"That sounds right," said Nat, who had absolutely no idea. "Just a minute while I look at my records." She went to the office computer and started looking for her other self's financial documents; where had she said they were...?
"I did some research and it looks like they didn't obtain tax-exempt status until May. So you can only claim the last three donations, $1.5 million, as deductible, and then we have to adjust for the limitations on large charitable contributions -- I explained that before, didn't I?"
"Yes," she said, supposing he probably had. She'd found a document listing her other self's charitable donations for last year; it was a bit vague and cryptic in spots, with some identified only by month instead of exact date, and hardly any charity's name written out in full legal form, -- was HFH "Habitat for Humanity" or what? -- but "Caeneus" was probably unique enough. It looked like there were five entries for them, matching what the accountant had said.
"I just found my records and you're right, two of those donations were in January and April. So we can't count them, I guess."
"I just wanted to check and see if you knew anything more about them that might be relevant."
"No. Thanks, go ahead."
The name "Caeneus" sounded vaguely familiar; she remembered old Dr. Dawes, her guardian, saying something about it. She googled the term, and found a number of articles on Greek mythology, then the home page of the Caeneus Foundation.
Apparently her other self had been giving a large chunk of her income -- more or less anonymously, as far as she could tell -- to an organization that subsidized people who couldn't otherwise afford her services. Why so roundabout, instead of just giving those people a discount directly? When she and Mike had secretly run a similar business for the better part of a year, camouflaged as part of their vigilante reign of terror -- for most of the transsexuals they changed it was convenient to be thought of as innocent victims of a paranormal prankster, since few of their friends and relations knew they were transsexual -- they had just asked each client for as much as they could afford, based on Mike's analysis of their memories. Some they charged as little as fifty dollars, a few considerably more than the ten thousand dollars the other Nat had charged all her clients as long as her business lasted.
Friday morning she got up early and drove to Pine Mountain, and met her parents at the cabin they had rented near Callaway Gardens.
"Will called us last night and said he wasn't going to be able to get off work early like he thought," her Dad said as he brought her suitcase in from the car, just as casually as if she had last seen him a couple of months ago instead of eight years ago. "He'll be here about seven tonight, he said, or maybe Saturday morning."
"OK," Nat said, trying to stay calm and avoid betraying how excited and scared she was. They didn't look as much older as she'd expected, not as much older as in the recent photo she'd seen the last time she went to visit her Will in her home timeline. Her Mom's hair had been almost totally grey in that photo; here, she had only a few grey hairs among the brown.
"Have you already eaten lunch?" her Mom asked after they hugged. "We were just talking about going to get something to eat, then probably going to the butterfly greenhouse."
"That sounds wonderful," Nat said. She hadn't been to Callaway Gardens since she was thirteen, but she still remembered the butterflies. "We should buy some Gatorade or juice or something, if you didn't bring any with you. I remember how I spilled some juice on my hands and one of the butterflies landed on me to lick it off, the first time we came here..." That turned the conversation in a safe direction, to shared memories from before their timelines diverged.
Most of the weekend Nat was able to continue steering the conversation toward old, shared history whenever it threatened to veer toward something recent that she didn't know enough about to maintain her cover. After Will showed up, he helped with that.
Sunday morning, when her parents and Will were getting ready to go to Mass at Christ the King in Pine Mountain, her Dad asked Nat if she wanted to come with them.
"Have you been to Mass lately?" he asked.
"Um, once recently, yeah. At the monastery in Conyers, actually." For once she could tell them the truth; though she didn't mention that the version of the monastery she'd been to was the only still-functioning Catholic church in a hundred miles, and the cathedral of a diocese that covered four states. "Sure, I'll come, if it suits... I didn't really bring clothes suitable for church, though."
"They get a lot of tourists who dress casually here, with Callaway Gardens and Warm Springs so close by," he said. "Anything that covers your shoulders and your knees should be fine."
She was worried that her parents would suspect something from the way she was so rusty about when to stand, kneel, sit and cross herself; her other self didn't go to Mass regularly, but she thought she went with her parents often enough that she would know her way around better than this. At least the Mass was in English in this timeline. But her parents didn't say anything about it.
That afternoon, back at Callaway Gardens, they played minuature golf. Nat and Will got a few holes ahead of their parents; when they were well out of earshot, Will said:
"What do you think? Are we pretty much like your family in your own timeline?"
"How much did she tell you about me?"
"Not a lot. She said you needed to get away from your home timeline, and the Worldwalker brought you here, and then -- she was kind of vague about this part -- she decided to go visit another world with the Worldwalker and leave you here pretending to be her. Why, I didn't understand."
"She basically wanted somebody to housesit for her," Nat said, "and since I didn't want to go with her and the Worldwalker, I'd had enough travelling to last me a while and wanted to stay in one place, it seemed like it would work. We didn't think I'd really have to do a lot of pretending to be her, living there in Savannah where not many people know her and the few that do have known her for less than a year under a false name... But when the GSPA need me at a crime scene, or Mom invites me on a trip like this, it's hard to come up with a good excuse to refuse."
"That sort of makes sense, according to Nat-logic. But you didn't answer my question."
"Well... did she tell you exactly where our timelines diverged?"
After taking a few seconds to work up her nerve, Nat told him about how her power had manifested a minute too late to save her from the rape her other self had narrowly escaped, and how she'd changed her Will accidentally the next day, and run away from home.
"And I never went home to see Mom and Dad after that," she said, "though after a few years, when I had enough money, I started going to see you, I mean my Will, a couple of times a year. She moved to San Francisco after I changed him, and stayed there after I went out there for the first time and changed her back. You seem more like him than different, even though three years as a woman, and I guess living so far from family in San Francisco, made him pretty different from the Will I knew before we left home."
"Wow," Will said. "Nat changed me several times in the first few days after her power appeared. It was really weird; I can't imagine what it would have been like to stay that way for years... Then when Vincent Carnes told everybody on the Internet about Nat -- you know about that, right? -- my girlfriend at the time wanted me to ask Nat to change both of us for a few days, maybe a month. I refused, and we broke up not long after that."
"Most people have a hard time getting used to it," she said. "There've even been one or two transsexuals who --" She broke off, seeing that her parents were getting close.
Several weeks passed fairly uneventfully. Nat and Mike spent some time walking around Savannah, and on the beach at Tybee Island, as the weather got a little warmer. She looked up some local charities that might need volunteer work she would be competent at; she dialed six digits of the rape crisis center's phone number before losing her nerve and hanging up, then called the Social Apostolate and found out when to show up to help in the soup kitchen. Mike came with her and they spent several hours helping with the cooking, then busing tables and mopping the floor afterward.
Then the GSPA called again. Nat thought seriously, for several rings, about not answering; then she pressed the accept call button and said, "Reserve Officer Holcomb."
"Hi, Nat," said Parvati. "Have you been watching the news?"
"Um, no, not much. What's going on?"
"The Paalikun have sent some investigators to hold hearings about the Risiacacam invasion..."
"The Risiacacam are those are the aliens you and Zach fought three years ago. We didn't know that was what they called themselves at the time, but... When was the last time you watched the news?"
"A couple of months ago, I guess." Not long after she'd arrived in this timeline. At first, she had watched the news and read newspapers obsessively, trying to catch up on what differences there were between the timelines. But it was all so depressingly similar to the situation in her own world, in spite of myriad differences in detail, that she'd overloaded on it and quit watching or reading the news entirely after a few weeks.
"Well, the Paalikun arrived a week ago, and they want to hear from everyone who fought the Risiacacam, and that's you, par exellence."
"When and where?" she asked, trying to keep panic out of her voice. This would be the worst possible way to blow her cover, getting tangled up in contradictions in front of an alien ambassador or something... Maybe she could feign illness.
"In Geneva. Either Zach or Fernspringer could teleport you there; they're both going to testify as well, along with about a third of the law-enforcement paranormals in the countries directly affected by the invasion, and military officers from all those countries, and ordinary people who witnessed the atrocities..."
"I'll start packing," she said.
"Mike," she said after she hung up, "have you been watching the news?"
"No more than you have... What's going on?"
She told him what Parvati had said. "I need you to tell me everything you can remember about what she did during the invasion."
"I'll see what I can do to remind myself..." He went to the computer and searched for news about the Paalikun embassy, then for information on the Risiacacam. Before long he turned up a photo of an alien; a short, stubby thing with six legs or tentacles or whatever, blue-black with red, green and yellow stripes at each end, sitting in a cornfield. It was being held down under a net by several soldiers.
"Ah," he said. "Now that rings a few bells..." He started free-associating about the invasion, how Zach had teleported into an alien lander near Rutledge and jumped out again when this very alien grabbed him around the ankles, bringing it with him... Nat took notes furiously. Memory isn't particularly chronological; she would have to sort this stuff out later, to be able to give some kind of coherent testimony. Before long, Mike started remembering things that the other Nat had never spoken about, at least not in much detail; the hospitalization for heat exhaustion after she'd changed a huge number of aliens at once, inside one of their hothouse lander craft, and then again for exposure to vacuum, when Zach was getting them off the mother ship and didn't teleport quite far enough; the imprisonment and near-starvation...
"You know," she said finally, "I think she's got me beat."
"You think so?"
"I was pretty impressed when I heard her tell me about what she did during the invasion, not long after we first met her, but now I'm feeling really inferior. I didn't realize until now how much she was playing it down."
"Don't. You've got her courage and toughness, you just didn't have a chance to prove it against those aliens. And our trek through the plague-world was about as bad, and lasted a lot longer."
"Yeah, but she went into those alien ships voluntarily. We had to be marooned in that world. When we decided to fight injustice, we did it on the sly, with as near zero danger as we could manage; she laughs at danger..."
"Stop beating yourself up," he said. "You did fine against that gang a few weeks ago, and those bandits near Swainsboro who thought they could rape us, and I don't know how many packs of wild dogs... I remember perfectly well how terrified she was when they teleported into the alien ship; you weren't half as scared when you jumped to that crime scene in Alpharetta."
"Thanks for trying to make me feel better. I guess I'd better go over these notes, and then you should quiz me."
Two days later they teleported to a hotel room in Geneva with Zach. Nat had sent their measurements to a local tailor and ordered suitable dress clothes made and delivered to the room they'd reserved. Once they arrived, Zach picked up the package with his assumed name on it and slipped into the bathroom to get dressed; Nat and Mike got dressed in the bedroom. Zach's suit included a Zorro-style mask and a false moustache; Nat thought it looked silly, but didn't say anything. A few minutes later they left the hotel and took a taxi to the Paalikun embassy.
There were about a zillion reporters and a jillion cameras and microphones all over the lobby, and far more in the grand conference room where the hearings were being held. When they walked in, after identifying themselves and being given badges by some of the Paalikun's Swiss employees, a Chinese general was being interviewed at the round table at the head of the room. The Paalikun ambassador was talking with him in Chinese.
"They're televising all this, aren't they?" Nat said.
"Looks like it," Zach said.
"It should be her in front of those cameras," she said; "she didn't get credit for her work at the time, and even after her identity and power were made public she didn't claim credit for it until somebody at the GSPA leaked it to the newspapers..."
"That was me," Zach said proudly.
"Was it, now," Nat said. Mike didn't look surprised, of course.
"She would hate to be here as much as you do," he said; "when she hears about it, she'll think of it as one more bit of punishment for your nefarious vigilante activities."
The Paalikun ambassador interviewed two more generals and four heads of paranormal military and police forces from six countries in five languages. If they had been at home watching this on CSPAN, there would be simultaneous translation; sitting here in the gallery, Nat, Mike and Zach couldn't follow much of what was going on. But they could probably find transcripts online later, she figured. As the ambassador was interviewing the head of India's paranormal security force (in Tamil, someone said), one of the human employees of the embassy came to where Nat, Mike and Zach were sitting and said: "Nathaniel Holcomb?" She looked at Mike and Zach before seeing Nat's badge.
"That was the name I went by at the time of the invasion," Nat half-lied.
"And, ah, Have Birthday Suit, Will Travel?"
"That's me," Zach said, twirling his fake moustache.
"You will be next. First Officer Holcomb, then, ah, Birthday Suit?"
"He can go first," Nat said.
"No, the order is set. I cannot change it."
"That's fine," Zach said; then, in a whisper to Nat, "If you make any mistakes, don't worry; I'll back you up. Me and her were the only ones who saw most of it, so nobody can contradict us if we're consistent with each other."
"Thanks," Nat said. Minutes later she was escorted to the round table and sat down across from the Paalikun ambassador.
"Good afternoon, Officer Holcomb." He looked like a feathered arachnid, but he sounded like he was from Milledgeville.
"Um, good afternoon."
"Can you please describe your involvement with the Risiacacam invasion of Earth?"
She tried to tell the whole story, as she'd gotten it from Mike, as consecutively as possible. The Paalikun didn't interrupt her once, though she stumbled a few times. When she finished, he asked her several questions fishing for more details.
"What food did the Risiacacam give you when you told them you would change back their drones?"
She wracked her brains. Had Mike said anything about that? Yes... "I don't remember for sure. I think there was an apple and some bread, and a few other things."
"About how long were you imprisoned before they gave you food?"
"I didn't have a way to keep track of the time. I got really weak from hunger before they finally gave me something to eat, and I got sick when I first tried to eat some of what they gave me."
"Did the Risiacacam worker who operated the translator machine ever mention any proper names?"
"No, I don't think so."
"Did you notice any symbols or motifs decorating the interior of the landing craft or the mother ship while you were in them?" He touched a spot on the table near him, and the table surface lit up with dozens of squiggles, zags, and glyphs of all kinds. "Do any of these look familiar? Take your time studying them."
Now Nat wished more than ever that her other self were here. Or even that Mike could see these and tell her if he recognized any of them from her memories. "No," she said after pretending to study the symbols for a couple of minutes, "I don't remember seeing any of them on the ship. I wasn't inside the landing craft long enough for my eyes to adjust to the light, anyway."
"When you used your paranormal power on the Risiacacam, did it feel different from when you use it on humans or terrestrial animals?"
Neither Mike nor her other self had said anything about that. "No, it felt pretty much the same."
"How did you figure out that your power would change the drones into queens?"
"It was a lucky guess, once I found out that it changed workers into warriors and warriors into drones."
"What would you have done if you were wrong? If, for instance, the drones had changed into workers or warriors again?"
"I might have tried using my power on them again, to change all the aliens within range into drones," she said; "but I probably would have been too tired to do anything right away."
"What did you expect to happen when you changed the drones into queens?"
"I expected to die." Mike's memories soaked up from her other self had been very clear about that. "I hoped that the queens would fight among themselves, and at least one of them would raise a rebellion against the invasion force's main queen. It was a lucky guess based on analogies to Earth insects. But I didn't really think I would live through that rebellion."
"Thank you, Officer Holcomb. Do you have any questions for me?"
That shocked Nat. She had never heard of witnesses at hearings or trials or whatever being offered their own chance to ask questions; it must be a weird alien custom... She thought quickly.
"What are your plans for the Risiacacam?"
"We hope to learn enough from these interviews to identify the particular Risiacacam hive that attacked your planet, so we can punish them appropriately. We have already arranged a trade embargo against the Risiacacam meta-hive, until and unless they turn over to us the hives that have made war on primitive planets like yours."
"And what do you plan for Earth?"
"We will maintain an embassy here as long as we are welcome. Perhaps we will form alliances or trade agreements with one or more of the nations or supranational organizations on Earth. It is too soon to tell."
"What do you think of Earth so far?"
"We are pleased that you were able to drive off the Risiacacam invaders without outside help. Some of your music is very beautiful; we do not understand your visual art or literature well enough to comment on them yet. We are also pleased to learn that only about sixty percent of the paranormals on Earth have used their powers for crime, terrorism or vigilanteism; some races have done much worse when some of their members suddenly acquire great power."
If only he knew. "So there are paranormals elsewhere, too? Among you, and the, uh, Risiacacam?"
"Among us, yes; relatively fewer than among you, but more in absolute numbers. The Risiacacam mostly dwell further from the center of the galaxy, and have not yet been reached by the... wave of paranormalization."
Nat could hear the buzz of conversation from behind her, among the observers and reporters, getting louder.
"What wave of paranormalization?"
The Paalikun paused; he touched several spots on the table and a diagram of the galaxy appeared, with a star way out in one of the spiral arms marked in blue, just inside a green circle whose center was a bit closer to the center of the galaxy.
"The green shows where the wave has reached. Your solar system, here," tapping the blue star, "is forty-eight light-years inside it; it has been expanding at the speed of light for six hundred and forty years. We don't know what started it or how it works, but when it reaches a planet inhabited by sufficiently intelligent beings, some fraction of them start developing paranormal powers."
Forty-eight light-years...? Then it would have reached here in 1961; but nobody developed paranormal powers until 1972, at least in her timeline... Then she remembered that the oldest of the young people manifesting paranormal powers that year had been eleven years old.
Both her parents were born in 1961. And... she strugled to remember... so were both of Mike's parents, right? And she didn't know the exact age of the older generation in the GSPA, but most of them looked to be about the same age as her parents, plus or minus a few years...
"Wait, you and the Risiacacam both have faster-than-light travel, right? So shouldn't they be able to put a ship or space station or whatever right in the path of the wave, and have the crew and passengers get paranormal powers that way, instead of waiting for it to get to their home planet however many years from now?"
"Many have tried that," he said; "it seems that the effect only occurs on inhabited planets of greater than a certain mass, within a certain radius of their star. Beings on spaceships or artificial habitats of various kinds have so far not been affected. There is a race a hundred light-years further out who disassembled all their planets to build a Dyson sphere some while ago; since they learned of the wave, they have been working on rebuilding a couple of planets to house some few billion of their people temporarily when the wave reaches them."
Nat's mind was too boggled to think of another question. After fifteen or twenty seconds she said, "Um, thank you."
"Thank you." One of the human employees led her from the table to her seat in the gallery.
When the ambassador questioned Zach, he sounded like someone from south Atlanta. Zach told a story consistent with what Nat remembered her other self and Mike telling her at various times; she wasn't sure if he was altering it any to cover for mistakes on her part. The ambassador asked him fewer follow-up questions than he had Nat; he showed him the array of symbols and asked if he recognized any, and after a minute of studying them, Zach pointed out a couple of symbols he thought he remembered seeing somewhere on the mother ship.
Zach had had a little time to think about the revelations the ambassador had made in response to Nat's questions, in spite of being busy most of the intervening time being questioned himself; when the ambassador asked him if he had any questions, he had several.
"So what's at the center of that wavefront? Or what was at the center six hundred years ago?"
"We do not know," the ambassador said. "No one has been able to get a wormhole to open to within five light years of the center, and slower-than-light probes sent in that direction have reported nothing. There is a solar system that we think was at or near the center when the wave began, but it is uninhabited and studies of the ruins on its second planet have proven inconclusive."
"What kind of paranormal powers do your people have -- about the same as ours, or different? What about other intelligent species that have been affected by that wave?"
"There are similar patterns in most places. Enhanced strength and toughness are by far the most common among us, as among you; then certain powers over thought, gravity, time and space are not uncommon. There are also many rare or even unique powers; your colleague's ability to change the sex of dimorphic or polymorphic creatures is one such. There are a few anomalies, such as one planet where all the paranormals have the same power, a form of gravity control."
"Have you ever figured out how any of these powers work?"
"In a few particular cases, yes. Not in general."
"Do you know where paranormals get the energy for their powers?"
The ambassador was silent for more than forty seconds this time; when he spoke, the explanation was over Zach's head, and the heads of most of the other people on the planet, but it made about six people very happy by giving them something to work on for the next ten years, and saving them a lot of time in wasted avenues of research. After that, Zach thanked the ambassador and withdrew.
The hearings went on for two weeks after Nat and Zach's testimony, but turned up relatively little more information about the Risiacacam, except when some paranormals from Israel who had managed to break open one of the alien rover craft identified another few symbols that they'd seen on an instrument panel inside before the ruined craft self-destructed. But the Paalikun's open-handed way of trading information for information revealed more and more about them and the other intelligent species they knew of in the local area of the galaxy, as the various witnesses at the hearings asked their own questions, in many cases having been instructed by their governments what to ask. Nat found out, reading a couple of articles about the hearings, that the several generals and heads of security forces that had been interviewed before her had asked mostly about the Paalikun's intentions with respect to Earth, and their technology; the answers to the latter questions had been pretty vague, and their answers to the former were consistent with, though more detailed than, what the ambassador had told Nat.
After that, the ambassador started receiving visits from high-ranking officials of various nations, the EU, NATO, and the U.N.; but whatever negotiations they engaged in were slow to produce public results. Less than a week after the hearings were over, it became possible to watch the news or read a newspaper without hearing much if anything about the Paalikun.
Nat and Mike helped out at the soup kitchen several more times in April and again at the beginning of May. Nat called Jack and Cecil Voss several more times, and found herself accepting an invitation to come visit them when school was out. After that she had Mike tell her everything he could remember about her other self's association with the Voss family, and her several visits with them at home, mostly last summer during and right after the lawsuit; she made notes and studied them every few days, wondering if her other self would return from her sabbatical before school was out, and secretly hoping she wouldn't.
On Mother's Day weekend, she left Mike at home in Savannah and went to spend Saturday night at her parents' home in Milledgeville. Sunday morning they went to Mass at Sacred Heart, the church where she'd grown up; they met Will there, and after Mass they stood in the vestibule for a while, talking indecisively about where to go for lunch -- Nat and her Dad had been pressing her Mom to make up her mind since the previous afternoon, but she was still wavering -- and visiting with various friends, some of whom Nat didn't know at all, but who apparently knew her other self at least slightly, and many more whom she hadn't seen since she ran away from home. Finally her Mom decided on Puebla's, a nearby Mexican restaurant, and they left the church, all heading for Will's car.
Nine-tenths or more of the people at Mass had left by then, many of them in a sensible hurry to get to the restaurants before they filled up, and Will's car was about the only one at that end of the parking lot. They were nearly to the car when three people who had also been walking in that direction suddenly stepped in front of them. Nat had seen them hanging out in the vestibule after Mass, and one of them had looked vaguely familiar, but her parents hadn't known who they were when she asked.
"Excuse me," Nat's Mom said indignantly as the people, two women and a man, stepped in front of their car and faced them. "Do I know you?"
"Your daughter does, ma'am," the taller woman said. "Lickety --" The man blurred for a moment, and reappeared holding four cell phones in his hands. The shorter woman had drawn two guns and was pointing them at Nat's Dad and Mom; the taller woman was pointing her left hand at Nat.
"Just a precaution so you don't try to call anyone," the taller woman said. "We need a bit of help from you, Ms. Holcomb, and we thought this would be more convenient for everyone than asking you to meet us somewhere in Massachussets or Oregon. Sure, it's illegal to use your power in Georgia, but we won't tell if you won't, eh?"
Now Nat recognized the taller woman: she had last seen her hovering ten yards in the air, shooting energy blasts at various State Patrol officers. She still didn't recognize the other two, but she must have changed them at the same time.
"Leave my family alone," she said. "I'll change you back, no problem. Just put the guns away."
"Change us first, and then you'll see the last of us and our guns as quick as you please."
Nat thought hard for a few seconds. There were people elsewhere in the church parking lot, several hanging around right outside the door of the church, someone walking along the sidewalk in front of the church, people in cars passing on the street... But none of them were close enough, apparently, to see this woman pointing the guns. If she changed several of them, that might create enough commotion to attract attention to the epicenter of the changes... but probably not fast enough or effective enough. Doing anything other than changing these gangsters back would put her family in danger.
"Some people," she said, as calmly as she could manage, "have a startle reflex when they're changed. I seem to recall you shot off an energy blast when I changed you, didn't you? I don't want this person to reflexively pull a trigger or two when I change her. And I don't want your hand pointing at me when I change you, either."
The taller woman thought for a moment. "All right. On my count of three, I'll lower my hand and she'll lower her guns. If you don't change us the moment we've got them pointing at the ground, we'll shoot one of your parents and kidnap the other."
"I'll be quick."
The woman counted, "One, two, three --" and quickly pointed her hand at the asphalt. The other woman lowered her guns a bit less quickly. As soon as none of them was pointing at her or her family, Nat changed all of them. She suddenly felt weak in the knees; it had been a long time since she'd changed several people at once.
Nat had only a glimpse of the female super-speed before she ran off somewhere too fast to be seen. The taller man grabbed the shorter one under the armpits and lifted off, flying away quickly at low altitude over the church.
Will didn't waste time looking for their cellphones, not knowing if the super-speed had dropped them along her way as she fled or taken them with her -- he turned and ran to the nearest people in the parking lot.
"I need to borrow your cellphone," he said breathlessly, "to report a crime." The couple he'd accosted looked puzzled.
"I just saw one of those people you were talking to vanish, and the other two flew off. Who were they?" asked the man.
"Paranormal criminals," Will said impatiently, "do you have a cellphone and can I borrow it?"
"Here," the man said, and handed his over. Will ran back to his car, where Nat was leaning against the left passenger door, exhausted. "Do you want to call the GSPA or should I?"
"I can do it," Nat said. She took the phone from him and dialed.
They didn't get to Puebla's until near suppertime, after answering questions from the Milledgeville police and the nearest State Patrol officers who could get to the scene, and searching the parking lot and sidewalk for their cell phones. Nat felt not just tired, but mad at herself; she was sure her other self could have figured out a way out that didn't endanger her family but didn't give those criminals what they wanted, either. Still, she had managed to avoid getting Will or her parents killed, which was the main thing. She was tired enough that she spent another night at her parents' house before driving home Monday.
Three more weeks passed with no emergency calls, no major developments out of the Paalikun embassy, no ticklish conversations with people who knew her other self well enough to potentially figure out she wasn't her. Then one morning Nat was packing to go to Atlanta to see the Voss girls, while Mike quizzed her on the stuff he'd told her about her other self's relationship with them and their parents.
"What did they do the first time you went to see them at home after you changed them?"
"Um, they showed me their skateboards. Cecil fell down, I think, but wasn't hurt. Jack skated down the street for fifty or sixty yards, maybe, and back. Then we went in the back yard and they showed me how high they could climb in the big magnolia, right? And I climbed up after them, but I was too big for the smaller branches up high to support me."
"What did Jack say the first time you talked with her after school started back?"
"She said several of her friends from last year that she hadn't seen during the summer were 'really weird' about the change... She tried to act contemptuous, but I thought she was really hurting about it and trying not to show it."
"Pretty much the same, except she wasn't trying as hard to hide how much it hurt her."
Nat put the last of her things in the suitcase. "I guess I'm ready. You sure you don't want to come?"
"How would you introduce me? It might be awkward for her when she gets back..."
"I could change you and we could pretend you're another ex-haemophilac. You've got several haemophiliacs' memories, don't you?"
"I did at one time, but they're pretty rusty... I'd better not."
"I guess so. Love you... see you in a couple of days."
They were still kissing when a familiar voice said, "Um, sorry."
Nat let go of Mike. There was her other self standing in the open doorway.
"Here," she said, handing her the suitcase. "Jack and Cecil and their Mom are expecting you this afternoon."
"Oh," she said. "Is there anything else I need to know before I go?" Stefan walked in as she was speaking.
"Let's see," Nat said, "we found out what causes paranormal powers, and why humans have them and those aliens that invaded three years ago didn't, and I perjured myself in front of an alien ambassador and a hundred television cameras about how I started a civil war on that alien ship, and some criminals pointed guns and energy blasts at Mom and Dad and me but nobody got hurt, and three butterflies landed on my arm at once when I smeared apple juice on it. Can you top that?"
"Um," Nat said, silently taking that in for a moment. "We saw Ms. Ziglar's baby. He was really cute."
"And?" Stefan prompted.
"And we got engaged," Nat added happily. She held out her left hand, showing a silver ring.
"You win," said Nat.
This is the last in the series so far. I have a sixth story, as yet untitled, which I've started but don't have a full plot outline for yet.
(c) 2009 by Trismegistus Shandy
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. I.e., feel free to repost or mirror it unmodified on any noncommercial site or list.