|A day shy of a week ago Robotech Master was out on his e-bike when an SUV struck him and drove off. According to the most recent news available, he passed away from his injuries at around 2:00 this morning. I have kept some news up on his user page and, at this point, ask that anyone wishing to leave messages or tributes do so on either his talk page or another page that can be used for such things. His account here and all of the stories he has gifted the Shifti community with will be preserved in memoriam, as we also did for Morgan.|
Nat and the Vigilante/Part One
One Wednesday afternoon in early July, when Nat Holcomb had just changed her third client of the day and was waiting for her fourth to arrive, her secretary called. Nat answered, expecting Melanie to say that the next client was ready.
"Boss, there's someone without an appointment who wants to see you. Stefan something, I can't quite pronounce his last name. Um, he says he doesn't want a change, just wants to talk. And, he says he knows you but he isn't sure if you know him in this timeline or not?"
"I think I do know him, slightly," Nat said, heart pounding. "Ask him if his business is liable to be quick or if it's going to take a while, and if the latter, ask him to wait until after my next client comes and goes."
"Okay, will do... He says he'll wait, it may take a while to explain his business."
"All right. Send him in as soon as the last client leaves." Nat hung up, her eyes going involuntarily to the bookshelf where her tattered copies of Tom Sawyer the Pilot and Tom Sawyer in Nevada rested.
"What's that?" Zach Johnson asked. He usually hung out with Nat between teleporting clients between Nat's home in Savannah and her Atlanta clinic. On the Go board sitting on the edge of Nat's desk, he was winning, so far.
"Did you ever meet the Worldwalker?" Nat asked.
Zach's eyes got wide. "No, I sure haven't... You mean that's the guy you're making wait to see you until after your next client?"
Nat shrugged. "I think so. Stefan Swartebroekx is his name." She got up and went to the bookshelf. Her Scholastic Book Club editions of those novels from a parallel world each had a foreword by Swartebroekx, who had brought them here from a world where Mark Twain had written them in the early 1880s instead of Huckleberry Finn. He noted in his foreword that he didn't think they would go over as well here as Huckleberry Finn did in the world they came from, but he hoped readers of this world would enjoy them. When Nat had read those books in middle school she had been more fascinated by the hints at the whole alternate world than by the variations in Samuel Clemens' biography (much less disastrous than in our world, with no bankruptcy and only one of his daughters dying young).
"I met him once," Nat said, after glancing over the foreword to Tom Sawyer the Pilot. "Back when I was living at the GSPA training camp in Toccoa, still learning to control my power..."
Nat was in her room, studying her geometry lesson, when someone knocked at the door.
"Come in," Nat said. Polyphonia entered. She had been like a mother to Nat since she left home to get training in using her power; more motherly than fatherly even when Nat's still imperfectly controlled power made her temporarily male.
"There's a visitor who'd like to meet you, if you don't mind," she said.
"Who is it?" Nat asked. She had been shy around strangers, especially men, ever since the traumatic events surrounding the manifestation of her power. "Make sure they know my power is still kind of erratic, okay? I don't want them getting mad if I change them accidentally..."
"It's the Worldwalker," Polyphonia said; "have you heard of him?"
"No!" Nat said, meaning not that she hadn't heard of him, but that she was astonished he was here and wanted to meet her. "Really? I've read a bunch of his books, I mean books he brought here from worlds he's been to. And I wanted to see the passenger pigeons at the Atlanta Zoo but I guess that'll have to wait until I get my power under control... Why does he want to meet me?"
"He didn't say exactly, but I'm guessing he's interested in your power," Polyphonia said. "You probably won't have to worry about accidentally changing him; I wouldn't be surprised if he asks you to change him a couple of times."
"I hope I can," Nat said, putting away her geometry book; "I especially hope I can change her back before she's ready to leave...!"
"I'm sure you can," her teacher said. Indeed, after five months under Polyphonia's tutelage Nat could almost always make her power work on command; the reason she hadn't left the training camp since she got here, four days after her power first manifested, was that she couldn't always keep it from working spontaneously.
They went downstairs to the dining room, where a big, broad-shouldered man Nat hadn't met before was sitting across the table from Shaper and Fernspringer, talking animatedly. He interrupted himself as Nat and Polyphonia entered the room, and stood up.
"Is this she, Sally?" he asked. "I'm honored to meet you," he said to Nat.
"This is the one I told you about," Polyphonia said. "Natalie Holcomb. She's almost mastered basic control of her power; two or three more months should do it. Then she could go home, or enroll in public school here in Toccoa if she wants to stay at the camp for further training."
"Stefan Swartebroekx," he said. "Your power is perhaps the most interesting I've heard of in all the worlds I've visited, Miss Holcomb."
"Um, thank you," Nat replied, blushing. "I mean, it doesn't seem very useful most of the time, but it is plenty weird enough to be interesting. The doctors went crazy trying to figure it out. But, I mean, your power is pretty cool too... I've read a bunch of your stuff, I'd ask for an autograph but it's all in my room back home in Milledgeville."
"Ah, don't give me credit for the books others have written," he said. "Give me credit for catching those live passenger pigeons! That was a little harder than walking into bookstores and looking for titles by famous authors I'd never heard of... But I wanted to talk about your power, and perhaps see a demonstration, if you don't mind."
"Um, okay," Nat said, glancing around at the others in the room. Fernspringer was looking on with a broad grin; Shaper was politely ignoring them and finishing his lunch. "Maybe we should go somewhere else? And maybe you should change into something looser..."
"Ah, yes, perhaps I should," Swartebroekx said, nodding thoughtfully.
"The volunteers who helped Miss Holcomb test her powers usually wore bathrobes or hospital gowns," Polyphonia put in. "I think I can rustle up a robe in your size..."
A few minutes later they were in the power testing room, where Nat had used her power on several volunteers dozens of times while Nat's brain was scanned and her changees were recorded with high-speed normal and x-ray cameras. The highest-speed cameras available couldn't detect a gradual change; it always occurred instantaneously between one frame and the next. Swartebroekx was dressed in a bathrobe that came just to his knees, and barefoot.
"Okay, ready?" Nat asked. They weren't bothering with all the scans this time; they were just using this room for the privacy.
"Any time," Swartebroekx replied amiably; then, in an alto voice, "Yes, I think this is the most interesting power I've ever seen."
"It worked the first time," Nat said, pleased; sometimes she had to concentrate for a minute or two before she could get it to work. "How long do you want me to leave you like that?"
"A few hours, perhaps overnight?" Swartebroekx said, looking at herself curiously, but not, thankfully, opening up her robe. "When would be a convenient time for you to change me again?"
"Almost anytime, I guess. I sleep from midnight to eight, and I'm usually busy with schoolwork for the first few hours after breakfast. But I'm always here; Polyphonia says I can't leave the camp until I've gone two months without changing anybody accidentally."
"That's sensible," she said; "I wish she'd been able to enforce that in my case!"
"She trained you too?"
"Yes. I jumped here from my home world the first time my power manifested; some older boys were beating me up, when I was on my way home from school in a city on the Oconee that doesn't exist in this timeline. Then suddenly I was in a pasture somewhere between Winder and Athens... Eventually, I ended up here and Polyphonia trained me to get my power under control, or tried to. I kept involuntarily disappearing into other worlds, and coming back to this one or something approximately close to it; sometimes I met a Polyphonia who'd never met me, and had to jump again once or twice to home in on this world."
"Well... I will leave you alone for a time, then, and ask you to change me back this evening at suppertime or tomorrow after breakfast; is that agreeable?"
"Sure." Nat went back to her room and her lessons, and the Worldwalker went wherever she went. Nat didn't see her again until the next morning at breakfast; she was still wearing the bathrobe for want of feminine clothes in her size.
"This has been enlightening," she said to Nat. "You may change me back whenever it is convenient, I suppose, here or somewhere else..."
"I'll do it now, then." But in fact it took forty or fifty seconds of effort before she could get her power to work, this time.
"Thank you," Swartebroekx said. "Sometime later, in a year or two -- when you have attained your majority, and have full control of your power -- I will need your help with something. For now I wish you well."
Nat asked what the something was that he would need her help with, but he declined to speak about it. Nat didn't see him again for almost seven years; occasionally she heard that the Worldwalker had shown up somewhere, with an extinct animal or two in a cage or a stack of books and records from some other world, and then vanished again, but he didn't seek her out.
"So he said he was going to need your help someday, when he met you when you were seventeen?"
"Right. And then he's visited this world I don't know how many times since then, and I never heard he was here until he'd already left again. I'm not sure what he wanted me for, exactly. Maybe he needed me to change him so he could fit in to some matriarchal world and work there unhindered, or wanted me to help destabilize a tyrannous sexist government, or something...?"
"Ask him when you see him," Zach said, placing a white stone and eliminating six of Nat's blacks.
Ten minutes later Melanie called again, saying the last client was ready; Nat signaled Zach, who teleported to the office to fetch him, and Nat walked downstairs to the clinic room to greet him, bringing the Tom Sawyer books. He was a transsexual from Minneapolis who'd just flown into Atlanta that morning; her return flight didn't leave until Thursday, and after Nat changed him they talked for a few minutes about things to see in Atlanta and ways to convince airport security she was the same person pictured on her driver's license. When Zach teleported her back to the clinic in Atlanta, Nat remained in the basement clinic. Five minutes later the Worldwalker entered from the dressing room in a bathrobe almost large enough for him.
"Good afternoon, Ms. Holcomb," he said. "Have we met before?"
"Yes," Nat said, gesturing for him to take a seat. "You came to the GSPA training came when I was seventeen, and asked me to change you for a day or so. And you said you would need my help again in a year or two, but then I never heard from you again until now."
"Ah," he said. "I remember that meeting, or something like it. You changed me into a woman at about one in the afternoon, and changed me back the next morning about eight-thirty, yes? And Polyphonia, Fernspringer and Captain Rapid were at the camp at the time, too?"
"That's pretty near what I remember, except Shaper was there and Captain Rapid wasn't."
"Well... there are as many of me as there are worlds. And there are many of you too. That was the first time I met you, but for me, it wasn't the last; I came back to a world fairly similar to this one a year and a half later, and found you -- you were living in Athens then, going to UGA; after the fall semester was over, you went with me to a world where genetically engineered plagues had killed most of the population, including all of the women."
"Was that what you'd said you wanted my help with later?"
"It was. I had first encountered that sad, apparently doomed world in 1996; I didn't stay long. Then a few years later, when I was on a visit to this world -- or one very like it -- to visit my old friends in the State Patrol here, and I heard from Polyphonia about her new pupil... I remembered that world, and I hoped you could help its men."
"And I did, then? Some version of me went there with you and changed some of them...?"
"Yes. We travelled around what had been the eastern United States for several months, and you changed at least a few men in each community we came to. In some places you changed only a few volunteers; in other places the men selected half of themselves by lot, or by vote. Then I returned you here, I mean to the world that version of you came from, and you returned to school. We'd become good friends during that long trek up the east coast, and I came back to visit a number of times over the years. You graduated from college and joined an architecture firm in Atlanta..."
"Oh... I just want to remind you that you don't know me. I mean, I'm probably a lot like the me you know, but I'm not the same person. It sounds like she missed out on some fairly traumatic events that I suffered through here."
"I'll try to keep that in mind. Well, I was busy with a long research project in a certain cluster of worlds a long way from here, and didn't come back to the world where I knew you for almost a year. When I jumped back there, I found, as usual when I'm jumping a long way, that I couldn't get to the exact right world on the first try. And I explored a bit in each world, jumping a smaller distance each time, closing in on the world I was looking for... All of them were worlds very like this one, with fifty United States, and no Soviet Union since 1988, and where paranormal powers had started appearing in 1972; but in some of them you'd never met me, in some you had no paranormal power or a different one, in some I could not find you at all. I found unusual conditions in one of them, which I'll come back to in a minute... Then I found the world I was looking for, where you were a UGA graduate and a junior architect. But you were dead."
"How?" Nat asked, her heart sinking.
"An auto accident; a drunk driver in an SUV ran into the driver's side of your Mazda. It had happened four months before I arrived there. So I jumped again, many small jumps, and I kept finding worlds where you had died recently, in that accident or some other way. I couldn't take it any more; I made a larger jump, and ended up here. It took me a few days to find you, since I looked in Athens and Milledgeville first before asking someone from the GSPA, who directed me to your clinic."
"So... why? Did you just want to talk? Remember, I'm not the same Nat Holcomb you know."
"Partly. But I mentioned unusual conditions I found...? I need your help again. There is a world not far from here where people need your power."
"Why? A plague like in that world you and the other me went to?"
"No. It's a world where there's someone with a power pretty much like yours -- they don't know if it works exactly the same, because they haven't found the person, but the results are about the same. And this person has been using their power much less responsibly than you; in short, she is a vigilante. She's changed a handful of rapists, whom we need shed no tears over, but also many other people of both sexes who were guilty of nothing very serious, as far as they can tell."
"I mean, the State Patrol Auxiliary of that world. Many of the officers you know from this world, and some others who don't exist, or never joined the Patrol, or don't live in Georgia, in this timeline; and the equivalent agencies in the Carolinas and Tennessee and so forth... They've been trying to track down this vigilante, who is active all over the Southeast. Sooner or later they'll probably catch her, or him, and maybe they'll be able to get her to change her victims back in exchange for a light sentence... But that's far from certain. Her victims need your help."
"And there's no me in that world?"
"The Patrol officers I asked had never heard of you, and I looked for you but couldn't find you."
"How many victims are we talking about changing back?"
"Well... leaving out the rapists and child molesters, I think there are around eighty known victims."
"It would take me three or four weeks to change them all, unless I exhaust myself using my power to the limit day after day, and that wouldn't be healthy... There are people here who need my help too, you know. But the way things have been going for the last few weeks, I've hardly been able to help them... This crazy lawsuit has had me in court more workdays than not, and I've had to cancel dozens of clients' appointments."
"Lawsuit?" Swartebroekx asked.
Nat explained about the formerly haemophiliac Voss girls, how she had changed them thinking that their mother had full authority to authorize the procedure, and how their father, long divorced from their mother, had then filed suit against their mother seeking sole custody, and against both Nat and their mother for changing them.
"He claims they're liable to suffer all kinds of psychological harm from the change," she told Stefan; "he's suing on their behalf for damages and trying to get me to change them back. At first I wanted to settle out of court; I figured I'd tell him I'd change the girls back free of charge if he won the custody suit -- but after I talked to Ms. Voss and the girls again, I decided to fight it. The girls don't want to change back; they're keen on skateboarding and soccer and other things they couldn't do when they had haemophilia, and they seem to me to be adapting fairly well to being girls. First I had to miss a couple of days' work to testify in the custody suit, and then Mr. Voss's other suit against me and his ex-wife got rolling and I've been in court, or at my lawyer's office, more days than not in the last couple of weeks.
"So I'm missing so many appointments lately that I guess I might as well go with you and help this vigilante's victims. It sure would be nice to tell the judge and Mr. Voss and his lawyer that I've got to disappear into another world for a few weeks, urgent State Patrol business you know, and let them stew for a while. I'll need you to talk to my commanding officer so he can talk to the judge and so forth, but, sure, I'll come. Anything to get away from this mess for a while."
"Very well. I'll talk to you again after I've talked to Captain Rapid, then, shall I?"
"Sure. Um, another thing. Before you go, could you autograph these books for me?"
Swartebroekx laughed; a laugh as huge as he was and then some. "It's Mark Twain's autograph you want," he said; "but I haven't yet found a world where he lived past 1931, or anybody in any world who can jump backwards in time like I can jump sideways."
"Please?" Nat said, pushing the best pen on her desk toward him.
"Very well," he said; and, picking up Tom Sawyer the Pilot, he turned to the last page of the foreword and signed below his name, then repeated the process with the other book.
A little later Zach teleported Swartebroekx back to Atlanta; he went to the GSPA headquarters to tell them about the situation in the other world and the need for Nat's power. Nat talked to her lawyer by phone. Peter Flannery advised against her skipping out, even on the pretext of urgent police business; it could hurt her case to not show up at court dates.
"Really?" Nat said. "If I were in the Army reserves, and got sent to Afghanistan in the middle of a lawsuit, would that prejudice the judge or jury against me?"
"Maybe not so much," Flannery said. "But some ordinary people resent paranormals, even ones like you who use their powers responsibly and work in law enforcement. It's reasonably likely that the judge would declare a recess while you take care of this business, and you wouldn't miss any hearings if you weren't gone too long, but it's far from certain; and if he doesn't, well... Mr. Voss's lawyer is almost done calling his witnesses, I think, and we'll need to call you and Ms. Voss as our first witnesses right after he finishes presenting his evidence..."
"You'll have a letter from Captain Rapid saying I'm critically needed for this job," Nat said; "how can the judge not call a recess?"
"He probably will. I'm just pointing out what a disaster it could be if he didn't."
"All right. I'll talk to Captain Rapid, or somebody at the State Patrol, and they'll send a letter to you and the judge. But I won't go until I hear from you that the judge is declaring a recess, okay?"
Nat called the GSPA that evening, but Captain Rapid had already left for the day; she told his secretary her business wasn't too urgent to wait till morning. Late Friday morning, he called her back; Swartebroekx had already been to see him, and he said he was working on a letter attesting that the State Patrol needed her for urgent police reserve work.
"Thanks," she said. "Can you fax copies to me and to Peter Flannery as well as the judge?"
"Sure," he said. "The Worldwalker tells me you'll be meeting him here to travel to this other world?"
"Right," she said; "just as soon as Mr. Flannery tells me it's safe. He doesn't think I should leave until and unless the judge has seen your letter and declared a recess in the trial until I get back."
It was Tuesday afternoon before Nat heard from her lawyer that the judge had, indeed, declared a recess of five weeks; that should be plenty for her to change back all the vigilante's victims. Wednesday morning, Nat drove to Atlanta, bringing a small suitcase with toiletries, several changes of clothes, and some books. He parked at the GSPA headquarters in Buckhead, where she'd agreed to meet the Worldwalker for their jump.
He found Swartebroekx in the lobby, looking toward the door; but Swartebroekx didn't recognize him until he came right up to him towing his suitcase.
"Are we ready?" he asked.
"Oh," Swartebroekx said, in a tone that showed, Nat thought, something more than mere surprise -- disappointment? "You've changed yourself."
"Yes, I figure I might want to be male for this trip, at least most of the time. But I brought some feminine clothes too, in case I need that form. Do we need to tell anyone we're about to go?"
"Just a moment," Swartebroekx said, and turned to the receptionist, who'd been listening to their conversation. "Parvati, can you let the Captain know that Reserve Officer Holcomb and I are about to leave? We'll be back in probably about four weeks."
"I'll let him know," she said, writing a note.
Swartebroekx picked up Nat's suitcase in his right hand, slung his own smaller bag over his left shoulder, and held out his left hand for Nat. Nat took it, and a moment later they were -- in the lobby of the GSPA headquarters.
But not quite the same lobby. The walls were a paler shade of white, probably repainted more recently than those in the world they'd just left, and at the reception desk, instead of Parvati, there was a young black woman Nat didn't recognize. She startled as the two men appeared.
"Worldwalker!" she said. "Shall I page the Captain and tell her you're back?"
"Sure," he said, setting down Nat's suitcase. "Laura, this is Officer Holcomb, a Patrol officer from another world." Nat showed his badge.
The receptionist, Laura, spoke to someone on the telephone, and a moment later told them: "The Captain will see you in her office."
Swartebroekx led the way -- the Captain's office wasn't in exactly the same place as it was in Nat's world -- and knocked on a door.
"Come in," came a familiar voice, and they entered. Flint was sitting behind the desk in a captain's uniform.
"Captain Flint, this is Officer -- um -- Nathan?"
"Nathaniel Holcomb," Nat corrected. "Sometimes Natalie; I usually just go by Nat, informally, or Officer Holcomb, on the job... I take it the Worldwalker has already told you about my power?"
"Yes," Captain Flint said, studying Nat carefully. "We'll arrange lodging for you near headquarters during your stay, and assign you an office where you can meet with the local victims of this vigilante. If you don't mind, though, it would probably suit for you to do some traveling to meet the other victims outside of Atlanta. How often can you use your power?"
"Normally I avoid using it more than four times a day," Nat said, "but in a crisis I can use it ten or more times in a day. But then I can't do much of anything for a while afterward, I need to recover. The most I've ever used it, I wound up in the hospital for several days afterward."
"Well, we'll get in touch with all the known victims and work out a schedule," Captain Flint said. "Thanks for coming over to help us."
"No problem," Nat said, "I needed to get away from home for a while anyway. Um -- you've never met me before, right?"
"No. Do you know me in your home timeline?"
"Yes, I've known you since 2001. Only, um, you're not the Captain there, just a senior officer. Captain Rapid is head of the Patrol in my world."
The captain's face darkened. "He was badly injured in the line of duty two years ago, and had to retire," she said. "I was promoted then."
"Oh," Nat said. He thought about asking for details, but decided against it. "May I ask how the search for the vigilante is going?"
"We don't have anything definite yet," the captain said, "but we've made a bit of progress since Worldwalker was last here. We still don't know for sure if the vigilante is a man or a woman; we suspect they can change themselves, like you can, not just other people.
"The first known cases were almost seven years ago. A few people of both sexes suddenly changed, all of them in more or less public places -- restaurants, gas stations, busy streets -- in Georgia, South and North Carolina. Some of the cases got into the news, some were kept secret; I'm still not sure that we know about them all. I suspect some people who were reported missing at that time actually found themselves changed, and ran off somewhere to establish a new identity instead of confronting their family and friends with their new sex.
"Then there was nothing for several years. Four years ago there was an incident in San Francisco -- there was a transsexual support group that met in a restaurant there, and one evening everyone at the table changed sex at once. Of course reporting the incident to the authorities was hardly their first concern, and by the time the police learned about it and connected it with our troubles here in 2001, there was no chance of figuring out who had done it.
"Then, over the next few months, some of the people who were changed in the first wave -- almost all of the ones whose cases were well publicized -- got anonymous letters like this one." She opened a file, removed a sheet of paper enclosed in a plastic sleeve, and handed it to Nat.
- "I am sorry, I did not mean to change your sex. If you want to change back, spend some time walking around in Piedmont Park between three and five p.m. next Sunday afternoon. Wear loose clothes, all blue, and a blue hat, so I can recognize you easily."
"This letter didn't have any fingerprints or DNA on it besides those of the person who received it. Most of these people kept those appointments, and were changed back; they couldn't tell who changed them, as they were in a crowd of people at the time. Only one of them reported the letter to the police before going to the rendezvous. The local authorities in Columbia, South Carolina staked out the mall where the meeting was supposed to be, in plainclothes, and saw the change happen, but couldn't figure out who had done it.
"Then nothing more for another couple of years; and a little less than two years ago, more people started having their sex changed. All in public places, mostly crowded. Sometimes the local authorities tried to seal the place off as soon as the change was reported, and photograph and fingerprint everybody before they left; but they rarely if ever got there quickly enough to effectively catalogue all the people who were on the scene when the change happened. And a lot of the changes weren't reported quickly enough for the authorities to even bother trying to cordon off the area. So far a comparison of the lists of people found in each place hasn't shown any useful correlations. There's been a little overlap, but the one person who was found on the scene of two different changes -- both of them in Raleigh, North Carolina, a few months apart -- has strong alibis to show they weren't anywhere near several of the other changes.
"Over time this phenomenon has gotten enough publicity that I think everybody knows what to do now: if you get changed, immediately make noise about it and have the store or restaurant you're in sealed off by the management, then by the police. But the vigilante has responded by picking their locations more carefully; wide-open places that we can't seal off effectively. Assuming they just have to have a line of sight on their target, as you do --"
"I can do it with my eyes closed if I'm touching the target, actually," Nat said. "And if I exert my power full strength, changing everybody within range, I sometimes get people I can't see, behind me or in adjacent rooms or whatever. That happened a few times early on when I didn't have control of my power yet. But you haven't had any cases of all the people in a place changing at once, have you?"
"Unless maybe that transsexual support group meeting... but there were other people in the restaurant who weren't changed, staff and customers at other tables. And once there were two people changed in the same place, but half a minute apart. In all the other cases we know about, just one person has been changed. Well, if the vigilante just needs a line of sight, then they probably easily got away from the scene of their last few changes before we cordoned off the street and started fingerprinting and photographing everybody. They could change someone on the sidewalk from a moving car, for instance, and be miles away by the time the streets surrounding the place are sealed off."
"Probably so," Nat said. "Why are you calling the person a vigilante? What pattern do you see among the victims?"
"There's no general pattern we can see, except that all were changed in public places, and about three-fourths of them are male-to-female. But several were under investigation for child molestation, or suspected of battering their wives or girlfriends. Two of them were accused rapists being transported from jail to courthouse or back. One is a well-known misogynist talk show host."
"Hm," Nat said. "I suppose you aren't going to have me change them back, are you? Except maybe the talk show host."
"Well -- I repeat that they were under investigation or accused or suspected. We don't really have proof that most of them were guilty of those things, except for the rapists. Maybe the vigilante has more proof, or maybe they're just going on suspicion, but we'd like you to change back all the ones that haven't been convicted of a felony. Even the ones who are accused or suspected of something are a minority of the eighty-six known victims."
"All right," Nat said. That made sense.
"Well, I'll have Laura set you up with lodging, and we'll have a few of the local victims in to meet with you tomorrow. Four of them, you said?"
After Nat and Stefan left, Captain Flint called in another officer.
"Get Officer Holcomb's fingerprints off this plastic sleeve," she said, "and see if they match the other Miss Holcomb's prints, and Ms. Whitman's prints."
"Will do," said the young forensic officer.
Laura reserved two suites at a residence hotel for Nat and Stefan. After they checked in, they went to supper at a nearby steakhouse.
"So, tell me more about the time you and the other me went to that all-male world...?"
Stefan hesitated. "Well... We left your world, I mean her world, from Athens. The Athens of that world had one of the largest communities of survivors in Georgia, or so I'd heard from various people during my brief visit in 1996 -- I mean a stable community. There were probably more survivors total living in Atlanta and Decatur, mostly scavengers rather than the farmers we found near Athens, but they were fighting each other all the time and we avoided that area.
"It was soaked with despair when I visited there the first time. They just knew the human race was doomed, that their boys were the last generation there would ever be. The few who had survived the plagues had been healthy at first, but years of hunger and malnutrition had taken a toll, and in that atmosphere of doom there were a lot of suicides, and a lot more people who stopped just short of suicide, deliberately mutilating or even crippling themselves. Once a month or so they would get together to burn down a building, after they'd scavenged everything they wanted from it. They were using foreign-language books from the UGA library, even the Greek and Latin classics, for toilet paper and kindling, since hardly any of the survivors spoke anything but English or Spanish.
"And then I came back there with you, and everything changed. The older men saw you and gaped; some of them fell on their knees, wanting to worship you. They hadn't seen a living woman in years. The young men were a bit puzzled at first, didn't understand what the fuss was about; you looked a bit odd to them but they were too young to remember their mothers or sisters. Then the older men told them what you were and it was like they'd said, 'That's a triceratops.'
"And when we told them what your power was -- and you demonstrated, changing me twice in a few minutes -- lights went on in their heads. They threw us a party like I'd never seen in any world I'd ever been to; the accomodations were rough, but for sheer exuberance it beat the reception the Atlanta Zoo gave me for donating those passenger pigeons by a hundred miles.
"And then the debate started. They all wanted there to be women, but none of them wanted to be a woman; everybody was hoping somebody else would volunteer. They were talking about drawing lots somehow, to pick random men for you to use your power on; finally one young man volunteered, and you changed him. Soon after that we got three or four more volunteers, in their late teens and early twenties, when they saw how deferentially she was being treated. The older men, the city council I suppose, were pleased to see that, but the stream of volunteers dried up pretty fast, and while you took the new girls off somewhere to give them lessons on feminine hygiene -- I think you found some tampons and so forth in a drugstore that had been left alone by all the scavengers who'd picked it over, nobody having had any use for them in over a decade -- they finally hashed out a plan to have all the men under thirty draw lots. Half of them would have to let you use your power on them. There was a lot of fuss kicked up after that, some saying they didn't need that many women, some saying everbody should be in the drawing, not just ones under thirty, and some suspicious about whether the drawing would be fair. Finally they let the volunteer girls do the drawing. One after another a man's name would be drawn, he'd get up and drag himself over to where you were sitting, and you'd change him; then everybody would give her a cheer. I think you did five or six of them the first night after they settled on that method; then they did two more drawings the next two nights, another dozen women.
"Finally we set out toward Greenville, which we'd heard also had a good-size community of survivors, by way of Anderson. Anderson was a repeat of Athens on a smaller scale; we only got one volunteer before they started drawing names at random. The men in Anderson gave us a couple of horses; you hadn't ever ridden a horse before, so we stayed there a while to let me and some others teach you, and then we went on to Greenville. In Greenville they hit on a novel method; they voted on who would get changed, every man getting to nominate one other. Anybody who got two or more votes had to change, but that still left them with less than half the town female. I remember how one young man cried when he found out he'd gotten seven votes.
"The men in Greenville told us there were bandits between there and Charlotte, and they gave us an escort on our way there. We got more volunteers there, six or seven, but after debating awhile they weren't willing to force it on anybody else since they had that many volunteers.
"We kept going, mostly northeast, all winter and spring and half the summer. Then we went back to your world in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and you took Greyhound back to Athens."
"We didn't go back to visit any of the places where I'd changed people?" Only after he'd asked this did Nat realize he'd said "I" rather than "she".
"Not on that trip. I did go back to check on some of them a year later, but you weren't with me; I found two tiny babies and four or five pregnant women in Athens. Those mothers were being treated like royalty."
"And -- the other me was female during that whole trip?"
"Most of the time. You changed yourself into a man sometimes when we were going through territory we'd been warned about, like between Greenville and Charlotte, but you always made a grand entrance as a woman when we got to a new town."
"That doesn't sound much like me when I was eighteen or nineteen. I wonder what all happened to her that was different from my experiences in those years? If I'd gone there with you I would have been a man most of the time, except when giving lessons to the new women..."
Stefan looked uncomfortable and didn't say anything for a minute. "I couldn't say," he said. "You've been doing police work most of the time since you got out of high school, right?"
"Yeah, but just as a reservist. The first couple of jobs the State Patrol called me in on were really stressful, and after the second one I almost resigned, but I finally talked myself into sticking with it. But after that I started living as a man most of the time. Then after a few minor jobs they called me in on the alien invasion a couple of years ago..." Nat spent several minutes detailing his experiences during the invasion, giving Zach due credit but not by name.
"Amazing," Stefan said when Nat finished this account. "I've been to several worlds where those aliens invaded about that time, including one where they conquered big chunks of territory in the tropics and are still holding on to them, fighting with local guerillas and armies from temperate-zone countries. I think you scared them off faster than I've heard of the superheroes and armies doing in any other world.
"The architect-you, the one I knew best, never did join the State Patrol even as a reservist; she went back to live in Milledgeville with her family for about a year after she got her power under full control, before she moved to Athens and enrolled at UGA."
Nat sighed. "If it weren't for the getting killed by an SUV part, I would almost want to switch places with her," he said. "But not quite. I'm glad I was able to run off those aliens, with my teleporter colleague's help; I wouldn't give that up, even for the sake of avoiding... certain traumatic events I've suffered in this timeline." He fell silent for a while, and eventually Stefan, not wanting to ask what those traumatic events were, changed the subject, telling Nat about a world he'd visited where there'd been no Louisiana Purchase, so there was a big French-speaking, majority Catholic country in the Mississippi valley, and New Orleans had been New Rome ever since the Pope fled there during the revolution of 1846.
The next morning, after showering and breakfasting, Nat returned to the GSPA headquarters. Stefan said at breakfast that he had some errands to run, but promised he would stay in that world until Nat was ready to go home.
Laura told Nat that Captain Flint was waiting for him in her office. Nat followed her there.
"We've got five Atlanta-area victims of this vigilante coming in today; two of them will be here in the next couple of hours, on their lunch breaks, but the others are coming in the evening, around six o'clock. Is that OK?"
"Sure," Nat said. "I'll want to rest a little while between changes. I guess I could go back to my hotel and take a nap between the afternoon and evening changes, and I could spend some time studying the reports on this case, too, if you think I could be any help."
"Let's do that. I'll have Officer Carrington get the files together for you. We've set aside a room near the lobby for you to change people in."
Fifteen minutes later Nat was sitting in the designated room, just starting to dig into the various reports filed by Patrol officers and local police who had investigated various "change incidents", when Laura came to the door.
"One of the victims is here early," she said; "Is it all right if I send her in now?"
"Sure, go ahead."
A couple of minutes later she returned, escorting a woman about five feet ten, with short hair, dressed in loose pants and shirt and a jacket too warm for the weather.
"Have a seat," Nat said. "I'm Officer Holcomb. I can change you back into a man right away if you want, if you're dressed comfortably. You're not going to be, um, too tight in the crotch if I change you now?"
"No," the woman said. The way she had walked in, and the way she sat, Nat could have figured out she hadn't been female long if he hadn't known already. Nat exercised his power on her.
"Thanks," the man said. "Five months and I still hadn't gotten used to that; don't think I ever would have. My name's Paul Hulsey, by the way."
"Do you mind if I ask you a few questions before you leave?"
"Sure, go ahead."
"Where were you when this happened to you?"
"I was just leaving the North Avenue MARTA station; it was ten minutes till nine and I was on my way to work, running a bit late. I'd come up the escalator from the train plaform and was getting near the exit turnstiles when it happened."
"Was it sudden or gradual?"
"As far as I can tell it was instantaneous. I stumbled, I guess from my center of gravity changing, but managed to not quite fall on my face."
"Did you notice anybody looking at you just then?"
"It was rush hour and there was a big crowd of people leaving from two trains that had come in from north and south almost at the same time. Right after I changed, of course there were people looking at me, but I hadn't noticed anybody in particular looking at me before then. I panicked at first; I'd heard about it happening to other people, and I knew I was supposed to stop people from leaving the area until the police got there, but as soon as I calmed down enough to think I knew that wasn't going to happen, not with everybody and his brother in a hurry to get to work, like I was. I left the station, sat down on a bench and took a few deep breaths, then I decided I might as well just go to work, tell my boss what had happened, and talk to the police after that."
Not much help there.
"I'm sorry," Nat said. "I hope we can find the person who's been doing this. One last question -- can you think of any reason someone might have wanted to make you experience what it was like to be a woman?"
The man stared at Nat, uncomprehending. "No, it didn't make any sense. I heard about that rapist getting his sex changed right before the trial, but except for that they've all been random cruel jokes, as far as I've heard. Random people in random crowded places."
"Thank you for your time," Nat said. "I guess I've probably asked you the same questions other officers have asked you several times..."
"Mostly, yeah. But I should be thanking you; I was looking at spending the rest of my life sitting down to pee."
"That's a real time-waster," Nat agreed, "especially when there's a long line for the ladies' room."
The next victim, who arrived just before noon, was a woman only a few inches taller than Nat; she looked more comfortable as a woman than Ms. Hulsey, and it turned out she had been one of the first victims of the second wave, changed a year and eight months ago, and had had lessons in femininity from her then-girlfriend. He was glad enough to be changed back, though. Nat asked him much the same questions he'd put to Mr. Hulsey. When asked if he knew of any reason someone might want him to experience femininity, he hesitated, then said:
"Well -- I was eating supper there" (in a Mexican restaurant in Decatur) "with my girlfriend, and we'd been arguing, and got kind of loud, and I called her some things I regretted almost as soon as I said them -- but not half as much as I regretted them later, when I thought that maybe this paranormal vigilante had overheard me and changed me because of that."
"You said she helped you adjust to being female. Are you still friends with her?"
"Kind of, yeah. But she wasn't my girlfriend after that, she's not bi, and after I'd been a woman for five or six months she started dating another guy. I haven't seen her in a few weeks, but she was really helpful early on and I think we're still friends."
That whole incident sounded eerily familiar to Nat. She'd been eating at The Grill with her roommate and some other friends, one Saturday evening during her first semester at UGA; a football game had just ended with a signal victory for the Bulldogs, and rowdy fans of both sexes were celebrating raucously. A big guy with a clingy girl hanging on to him, both already half drunk, came in and were seated in the booth next to Nat and her friends, and before long they got into an argument; hearing the guy abuse his girlfriend, and her taking it meekly, Nat had wanted to use her power so badly she could hardly stand it. She'd gotten up and gone to the restroom and sat on the toilet lid until she got her temper under control. "I must not use my power in anger. I must not use my power in anger. I must not use my power in anger..." Twenty or thirty repetitions of this mantra later, she went back to her booth, to learn from her friends that the abusive drunk guy had started to get violent, and been firmly ejected by a couple of waiters even bigger than he -- followed closely by his doormat girlfriend.
"Well," Nat said, after a few moments' reverie, "I hope you can still be friends, too."
He returned to his hotel room after that, read more of the case files in bed till he fell asleep, then after a nap read more of them during a late lunch at a neighboring Burger King. He returned to GSPA headquarters in the evening and met three more victims, two women and a man, two among the early victims from the second wave a bit less than two years ago, and one who'd been changed seven years ago but hadn't gotten one of those offers to change her back that most of the other early victims had gotten a few years later. None of them could offer any guesses as to why the vigilante had picked on them.
The same pattern continued Friday and Saturday, a few changes in the morning and more in the evening. Nat ate lunch and supper sometimes alone, sometimes with Stefan, sometimes with officers and staff from the GSPA. They gave him Sunday off, and Sunday afternoon he finished reading all the available case files on the vigilante and his or her victims, including the lists of people found at some of the scenes.
He'd gotten into the habit of skimming casually over those lists, mostly just studying the officers' reports and their interviews with the victims and witnesses. But idly skimming over one of the last such lists, he suddenly stopped dead.
One of the faces staring at him from the page looked familiar. She'd seen it often enough in the mirror. Or something like it, anyway, he told himself in a panic; it was a vague enough likeness, no better quality than a driver's license photo, that it could be anybody... but he knew better.
After that he went back through all the other lists, more carefully, but didn't find his own (or her own) face again. This one, which had somehow gotten out of order, was from a list of people found at a Super Wal-Mart near Knoxville in February of last year; one of the earliest changes for which such photographic lists were available. The name attached to the photo was "Joan Whitman".
The New England heiress Tom Sawyer saved from a steamboat wreck in Tom Sawyer the Pilot.
Nat phoned the GSPA and got the weekend receptionist, Tandy.
"Get me Captain Flint, please, if she's around, or whoever is in charge of the vigilante case this weekend."
"Hold on a second..." A minute later Flint answered.
"I know who the vigilante is," Nat said.
"So do we," Flint said. "I should have told you earlier, but, well. It seemed kind of creepy and I wasn't sure how to break it to you. But we're probably going to need your help to catch you, I mean her... whatever."
"How long have you known?"
"Right after the Worldwalker told us about you, and how he hadn't been able to find you in this world, he left to go looking for you in other worlds, and we did some investigating of our own. We got your fingerprints from your birth record at Baldwin County Hospital and compared them with the prints of people found at the scenes of changes. We found a match, and compared the woman's photo with the last known photo of you, from your high school yearbook. Close enough. There was one place early on where she, the you of this world, didn't get out before the police arrived."
"The last known photo of me was from my high school yearbook...?"
"How much did the Worldwalker tell you? I asked him not to say too much. Your parents told him you'd run away when you were sixteen and they hadn't heard much from you since then, just a short letter every year or so, with postmarks all over the southeast, saying you were still alive and OK. And your brother was the first known victim -- I mean, once we found out about him a couple of weeks ago from your parents. Before that we thought Wanda Farrell, who was changed later the same day in Macon, was the first victim. At the time your brother's change was hushed up surprisingly effectively. And she was one of the people who were changed at that transsexual support group meeting in San Francisco, but we didn't make the connection until a couple of weeks ago. I told Carrington to leave his file, and the Knoxville Wal-Mart file, out of the stuff he gave you to read -- I was planning to tell you myself tomorrow morning."
Nat was silent for a minute, taking all this in. "You still there?" asked Flint.
"Yeah. Listen, I think I should go see my parents, and my brother, and talk to them. I'm not the same person as this vigilante; I guess I probably know her better than anybody else you've got access to, but our lives diverged at least seven years ago and I need to know exactly how, in order to make the best guesses I can about what kind of person she's become in this timeline."
"I can give you a car to go to Milledgeville. Right now, if you want."
"Do that. I'll be over to headquarters as soon as I get something to eat."
"I'm not there right now, I'm at home -- I asked Tandy to transfer you to my cellphone if you called over the weekend. But talk to Shaper; he's in charge in my absence, and he knows almost as much about this case as I do."
After hanging up, Nat decided he should shower before leaving, too. While showering he changed himself. After drying off she dressed in one of the two sets of casual feminine clothes he'd brought. After a hasty lunch at the neighboring Burger King, she went back to GSPA headquarters, bringing the files he'd been borrowing.
"I need to talk to Shaper," she told Tandy.
"May I tell him who's asking to see him?" she asked.
"It's Officer Holcomb," Nat said, showing her badge. "I just talked to Captain Flint forty-five minutes ago. You transferred the call yourself."
"Oh," Tandy said, disconcerted; now that Nat identified herself she could see the resemblance. "I'll let Officer Shaper know you're here."
A minute later she gave Nat directions to Shaper's office.
"The Captain told me you'd be here soon, but not that you'd changed," he said.
"I decided to do that after I talked to her. I ought to be female if I'm going h--- going to Milledgeville to interview the suspect's family. There's something else I thought of after I talked to the Captain; I should call them before I leave Atlanta, and find out if it suits to go see them tonight, or if I should wait until tomorrow. But if I call them out of the blue --"
"I see the problem. Do you want me to call them and introduce you, then put you on the line?"
Three minutes later Shaper handed his phone to Nat.
"Hi," she said.
"Nat!" her Mom said, choking off a sob. "But you're not our Nat? I don't understand."
"You've heard about the Worldwalker, right? He brought me here from another world. I'm a lot like your daughter, but I'm not exactly her. We were the same person up until, I guess, about seven years ago. I need to talk to you and -- um -- and Dad, I guess. Can I come down there tonight, or should I wait until tomorrow...?"
"Come as soon as you can."
"All right. Do you still live at 814 Hope Street?"
"I'll see you in a couple of hours, then."
It was more than the usual couple of hours, partly because there was road work being done on a long stretch of I-20 east of Conyers, but mainly because of the stack of paperwork Nat had to sign before checking out one of the Patrol's unmarked cars. But she still managed to get to her parents' house before eight o'clock. They were sitting on the porch waiting for her, and were already getting up and coming to meet her as she parked and opened her door.
"Oh, Nat!" her Mom said, embracing her, "it's been so long."
"Mom, I know you're glad to see me, I'm glad to see you too, but remember..."
"Give her some room, honey," her Dad said. "Let's go inside and talk."
Nat was struck by how old they looked, although they were exactly the same age as her parents in the timeline she'd just left. This version of her mother's hair was almost all grey, instead of just having a few grey streaks, and her father looked older too, in some indefinable way -- slightly more wrinkles, maybe?
When they were settled in the living room, Nat's Mom plying her with coffee and asking if she wanted anything to eat (yes, she said), Nat asked her Dad:
"How much do you already know about this business? I understand the Worldwalker came to see you a few weeks ago, and then you talked to someone from the State Patrol...?"
"Yes. The Worldwalker came here a couple of weeks ago looking for you. At first we didn't know who he was; we just told him you'd run away seven years ago and we'd had occasional letters from you, but didn't know how to get in touch with you. Then he apologized for bothering us and told us who he was and why he'd come -- that he knew you in another world, and in that world you had the power to change people's sex, and he was hoping you had the same power here and he could get you to change back the victims of that vigilante. Then light started to dawn on me, and I told him about Will -- just at the time when you ran away, he had changed into a girl, and we didn't know why. She left home right after that, too, moved to San Francisco and still lives there."
"And then she got changed back, along with a bunch of, um, other transsexuals? At a support group meeting?"
"Yes, he called us and told us about it right afterward. It was three years after he, she, had moved out there. When the Worldwalker told us a little about how he knew you in another world, I figured there was a connection -- probably you had the same power in this world that the Worldwalker told us you had when he met you in another world. But it didn't really help because we have no way of getting in touch with you. I mean, her."
"I think you're right. I was the same person as your daughter up until around seven years ago, and the Patrol think I might be able to help them find her, since I know her better than anybody. But it would help if I knew exactly at what point our lives diverged. I know it was at least seven years ago, because she ran away from home then and I didn't... What had been happening right before then?"
"Well..." Her Dad paused, working up the nerve to speak plainly. "The night before she disappeared, our daughter was raped."
Nat couldn't speak for a moment. "Actually raped? Not, was attacked and managed to get away just in time?"
"No. It took several hours to tell us what had happened -- she never told me directly, just your mother. She'd been on a date with Vincent Carnes, and he parked on a poorly-lit street and forced her... She did get away from him, but not until after... well."
"I'm sorry," Nat said, choking, remembering how bad it was and imagining how much worse it could have been. "That almost happened to me, but my power manifested itself just in time, and changed Vincent into a girl. It was dark and I didn't realize at the time what had happened, but I got away... Then what happened after she got away from him?"
"She ran most of the way home before she met a patrol car and waved it down, and got a ride home. She filed charges against Vincent, but the police couldn't find him, he never went home after that."
"I think I can guess why. I'm guessing her power manifested just a few seconds later than mine did, and Vincent ran away because she couldn't face her family like that, just as the Vincent of my world did. Then what?"
"Well, she had a long talk with your mother, and they both stayed home from school and work the next day. In the afternoon your mother went out to run some errands, while I was still at work; Will and you were the only ones at home. Then when your mother and I got home neither of you were there. We knew Will would be at his evening classes, but we were worried about you. Will came home a few hours later, female; she didn't know where you were, or said she didn't, and she said she'd changed suddenly while she was sitting in traffic at a stop light on the way home from school. Then a couple of days later she packed her things and left for California. There was gossip all over town about three young people disappearing at the same time, especially after people found out you'd accused Vincent of raping you right before both of you, and Will, all disappeared."
"Is that all you know?"
"Pretty much. I could show you the letters we got from you after you ran away."
Nat's Mom announced then that supper was ready. A few minutes later her Dad brought a big manila envelope to the dining room table, where Nat was eating, and dumped out its contents.
"Here's the first one we got, three days after you disappeared. It was postmarked from Macon."
"Dear Mom and Dad,
"I am sorry I had to leave. I can't explain why yet. I need to go somewhere where I can't hurt people. By the time you get this I will be a long way from Macon.
"Then nothing for several weeks -- we were worried sick -- and we got this one, postmarked from Greensboro, North Carolina:"
"Dear Mom and Dad,"
"I am well and safe but I can't tell you where. Maybe someday it will be safe for me to come home. Until then,
"After that the letters came once a year, around Mother's Day, postmarked from various cities in Virginia, North and South Carolina. After you turned eighteen the police stopped looking for you, not that they seemed to have been looking very hard to begin with. Every time we got a letter we spent some money having 'Have you seen this girl?' posters put up all around the city where it was postmarked from, but never heard anything. Will told us she had gotten email from you once in a while, through an anonymous remailer, but said it wasn't any more informative than the letters you sent us."
Nat looked over the remaining letters; indeed, there wasn't much there. Most of them were some variation on "Happy Mother's Day; sorry I can't come home yet."
She looked up from the last letter and asked, "Can you get me Will's phone number and address?"
"Sure," he said.
After supper Nat made as if to leave, but her parents wouldn't hear of it. She brought her suitcase in from the car and stayed the night. For a couple of hours before bed she told her parents about her own history since her life diverged from their daughter's.
Monday Nat returned to Atlanta a little after eleven, going straight to GSPA headquarters rather than to her hotel.
"Captain Flint said she wanted to see you as soon as you got back," Laura said.
"Tell her I'll be right in."
Nat went to the captain's office and knocked.
"Come in," she said. As Nat entered, she asked "So what did you find out?"
"Her life diverged from mine when she was actually raped and I was almost raped. I'm pretty sure Will wasn't the first victim of her power, either. I think I might find out more when I talk to him. I called him last night from my parents' house but got a voicemail message, and couldn't leave a callback number. I need to get a cellphone that works in this world."
"You think your brother might have had continuing contact with your, ah, other self? More than your parents?"
"I'm pretty sure of it. My other self must have been in San Francisco to change Will and the other people at that meeting, and to know Will would be there she must have had more two-way contact with her than she's had with our parents. It's possible Will hasn't heard from her since then, but I doubt it. We never told our parents everything."
"Well, go ahead and talk to him as soon as you can. Use one of the phones here... hm, no, it's only seven in California. Maybe too early to call yet. Go ahead and buy a prepaid cellphone, and give Laura the receipt so we can reimburse you. Be sure to give her any receipts for gasoline you bought on the way to or from Milledgeville, too. I think you'll have some victims coming to be changed back around noon."
"All right. Have you found out anything by investigating this 'Joan Whitman' alias my other self was using in Knoxville?"
"She was using a legitimate North Carolina driver's license at the time she was found in that Knoxville Wal-Mart. And at the time there was no reason to investigate her closely any more than the other three hundred-odd people who were at the Wal-Mart that day. But our North Carolinian colleagues have since found out that the birth certificate and other documents she presented when she got that driver's license were faked; she had no real history in the public records before she applied for that driver's license five years ago. Furthermore, Ms. Whitman hasn't been heard from since she quit her job as a receptionist at a dentist's office and moved out of her apartment in Raleigh a week after that incident in Knoxville. She was a student at Meredith College, but she stopped going to classes, without formally dropping out, right after she quit her job. She had a credit card in that name, but there have been no charges on it since that date, and the issuing bank never got a change of address notice after she left that apartment. She'd closed her checking and savings accounts the same day she quit her job. Apparently she decided that once her name was in the police records connected with these sex changes, she needed a new identity."
"So that's a dead end, I guess."
"Probably. We can send out photos of you, both male and female, and your fingerprints, to all the police departments in all of the states where she's been active in the last couple of years; but she's been careful enough not to get caught in the fingerprinting and photographing round-up after any of the changes since that one in Knoxville, so that might not help any. If she gets stopped for speeding or something, though, maybe the cop will recognize her from the photo."
"Yeah, I guess that might work. And you could put our faces on wanted posters, I guess, but that might inconvenience me, too..."
"We'll hold off on that, then."
Nat left, walked to a nearby convenience store, and bought a prepaid cellphone. Soon after she got back to GSPA headquarters, and settled in to the room where she would receive the victims she would be changing back, she called Will.
"Good morning," he said.
"Hi, Will," she said. She'd thought of something to try, and didn't identify herself.
"Nat! How have you been?"
"Pretty well lately," she said. "The usual."
"How long have you been female again? Or is that just for this call?"
"Just since yesterday," she said, truthfully. "Listen, I was thinking I might come see you. Are you still in the same place?"
"Sure. Give me a call when you get in town, OK? I need to get ready for work right now, I wish I could talk more."
"All right. Talk to you soon." They hung up.
So Will had been in regular contact with Nat in this world, and not just by email, as he'd told their parents. And the last time this world's Nat had called Will, he'd been male.
She called her parents again.
"Listen, Dad, could you do me a favor? I'm fixing to fly out to California to see Will. I'd appreciate it if you didn't talk to him before then. If he calls you, don't mention that I came to see you, OK?"
Nat changed five people that Monday, and made arrangements to fly to San Francisco Tuesday morning. Between changes, she borrowed a computer and looked up maps of the area around Will's apartment in Berkeley and public transportation information. After changing the last person of the day, she went back to the hotel. In the lobby she found Stefan sitting on the sofa, reading.
"Nat!" he said. "I haven't seen you in a few days. Tandy told me you had gone to Milledgeville."
"Yeah, I went to see my parents. Did you already know this vigilante was me, and just not think to tell me?" she asked.
"She is? I had a suspicion she might be, but I didn't know for sure. I'm sorry, I probably should have told you what I suspected, but..."
"Whatever. It's done now. I'm going to San Francisco to see Will tomorrow."
"Oh. Your brother?"
"Right. I'm pretty sure he's been in contact with the me of this world, and not telling anybody about it. When I called him he thought I was her, and he wasn't particularly surprised to hear from me, like it hadn't been all that long since he talked to me last. So I'm going to find out whatever I can from him."
"I hope that works. How long do you think you can fool him into thinking you're the other you?"
"Not long once I meet him, probably. And I don't really like to do it, but I figure if he's covering up for this prankster-vigilante version of me, he's not really the Will I know... it's like they're our evil twins or something."
"Sounds like it. You look nice, by the way."
"Thanks," she said, surprised. "I need to go change now, though. I didn't bring many girl clothes with me and I need to wash them all tonight before I pack for my trip."
After a five-hour flight, Nat arrived at San Francisco International a little after noon Pacific time. Just after she got off the plane, she called Will.
"Hi," she said casually, "you said to call you when I got in town."
"That was fast," he said. "Well, I'm at work. You could come by the office when I'm getting off and I could give you a ride to my apt, maybe."
"Not this time," she said, "I think I'll do some touristing and meet you at your apt later on." In fact, she didn't know where his office was, and didn't want to let on that she didn't know.
"Suit yourself. What time should I expect you?"
"Around seven, maybe?" That should give him plenty of time to get home from an office job. She didn't want to ask him exactly what his work schedule was.
"See you then. I'll have supper ready if I can get home early enough, or we could go out."
"Sounds like fun. Bye."
So now she had seven hours to kill. She'd never been to California before; there should be lots of things to do. She took a BART train from the airport to downtown and spent several hours walking around Golden Gate Park, Haight-Ashbury, and Fisherman's Wharf, then took the train under the bay to Berkeley and meandered around the city and the UC Berkeley campus for a couple more hours, circling in on Will's apartment complex a little before seven. By the time she climbed the stairs to his second-floor apartment and knocked on the door, she was pretty tired.
Will opened the door and smiled broadly. "Hey," he said, and hugged her. "Come on in. I've got a stew in the crock pot that should be about ready."
In fact, it wasn't quite ready; the beans were still a little crunchy. But Nat didn't mention that.
"What all have you been doing with yourself?" he asked as he filled a couple of bowls with stew and set them on the small kitchen table. "I've been following the news, but I haven't seen any reports about your doings in almost a month. But then, your changes don't always make the national news anymore, you've done so many of them..."
Nat thought hastily, but couldn't see any way to reliably elicit more from him without telling him who she really was. And so far she'd avoided outright lies; she'd have to tell some outrageous ones, and have a lot of good luck, to keep him thinking she was his sister of this world for much longer.
"Actually, I wanted to ask you about that myself," she said.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, a week ago the Worldwalker came to me and told me he needed my help. There's a world where somebody with a paranormal power just like yours is abusing it, he said; they're changing all kinds of people, some apparently to punish them for mistreating people of the other sex, others apparently just for the hell of it. He asked if I could go to this other world and change back that person's victims."
"I wonder how he found you, when the police haven't been able to...?"
"See, that's the thing. The me you know is the person he was talking about. I'm from another world; he brought me here to change back the people your sister, my other self, has been changing."
Will was silent for several long seconds, staring at her.
"Why the hell didn't you tell me earlier?" he finally exploded, standing up.
"I figured I should tell you in person rather than over the phone. It's complicated..."
"Not that complicated. You lied to me..."
"Think about it; I didn't."
"All right, you misled me. You let me think you were my sister, you let me talk about stuff I wouldn't have told you otherwise...!"
"I am your sister. I and the sister you know, the one who's been changing all those people without their permission, were the same person until seven years ago, and we're probably still more alike than any other two people you'll ever meet, even though she's a wanted criminal and I'm a reserve State Patrol officer. I heard one version of what happened when she ran away from Mom and Dad; do you want to tell me what really happened?"
"Why should I?" He sat down again.
"Help me understand why. Why is she doing this? And why are you covering up for her? It's not that hard for me to imagine myself going bad -- I can't count how many times I've been tempted to use my power on somebody who annoyed me -- but you? Why haven't you told anybody about her? I mean, she changed you accidentally when her power first appeared; you of all people should know how traumatic that is...!"
"You obviously don't understand what she's really doing. You said the Worldwalker told you she was changing people just for the hell of it?"
"Not in those words, but basically, yeah. The State Patrol told me the same thing when I got here; except for a few people accused of rape and child molestation and domestic violence, nobody knows why most of the others were changed, or if there was any particular reason."
"Well, I'll just tell you that Nat had good reasons for changing everybody she's changed in the last couple of years. Most of them are guilty of something she knew about but couldn't prove in court, and a few are transsexuals. Some she was planning on changing back after a year or two, when they'd had time to learn a lesson; others, like the rapists, she had no intention of ever changing back. But now you're talking about undoing all her work!"
"How did she know? How did she get to be such a good detective that she found out about seventy or eighty crimes that escaped the notice of the police?"
"I don't know if I should tell you. You're planning on helping the police find her, aren't you?"
"Convince me I shouldn't."
Will said nothing for a minute. Nat took another bite of stew.
After a while he finally said, "Give me your phone number. Next time I talk to her I'll tell her about you, and if she wants to get in touch with you and tell you why and how she's been doing this, she can."
"All right. Thanks." She wrote the number of her prepaid cell phone on a napkin; he looked at it and programmed it into his cellphone, not saying anything. They finished their stew in silence.
Finally he said, "So. Tell me about yourself. What happened to you that didn't happen to my sister?"
Nat told him in some detail about the first few days after her power manifested, then some generalities about her time at the State Patrol training camp, and her law enforcement work -- mainly about the alien invasion. That always went over well. Not so much this time, though. Will's hostility cracked a bit, and he looked momentarily impressed when she told him about how she'd started a civil war among the aliens by turning a bunch of warriors and workers into queens, but it was obvious he was still mad at her for deceiving him.
"So what happened to your Nat when her power appeared?" she asked, finally. "Dad told me... Vincent raped her. But after that?"
"We were all up late after the cops brought her home," he said. "Then I slept late the next morning; I didn't have to work that day and I was taking evening classes. Mom and you had both stayed home. Sometime in the afternoon, about an hour before I needed to leave for class, Mom left; she had some errand she needed to run. I showered and got ready to go to school; then I looked into your room to say bye, tell you I was leaving -- and you jumped, like you were startled out of your skin, but not as startled as I was when I realized what had happened to me."
"She changed you."
"Yeah. When she saw me, she broke down and cried, and said she had to leave, she was afraid she would do that to Dad too next time she saw him. I asked her how she'd done it and she said she didn't know, she didn't have any control over it. She was pretty sure she'd done it to Vincent, too, when he raped her. She was still crying, but she had enough presence of mind to jump up and start throwing clothes and things into her backpack. I was pretty frazzled, you can imagine."
"It was just like that when I changed you, except I didn't think of running away... I just cried and cried, I felt so guilty, and you were so horrified and panicky for the first couple of hours it made me feel even worse."
"Well, I finally got hold of myself enough to ask her where she was going and how. She said she wasn't sure, she just had to go somewhere where her power couldn't hurt anybody. At that point she thought her power only worked one way, male to female. She said she had enough money to call a cab and take her far enough from home to start hitchhiking. I figured, well, I can't let her change Dad too, or some random guy she hitches with. I told her I would give her a ride. I went to my room and did some quick research online, and came up with a convent in Macon, and told her about it. She thought that was a good idea; with only women around she couldn't use her power, if it worked the way she thought. So a few minutes later we were on the road. I dropped her off in front of the convent and then drove back home. She kept trying to change me back all the way there, but couldn't get her power to work."
"And then what?"
"She called me on my cellphone when I was almost home, from a pay phone in the Macon Greyhound station. Her power had gone off again, changing one of the nuns at the convent just a few minutes after she'd gotten there, and she'd run off again. From what I read about it later I don't think they connected the nun's sex change with Nat, somehow. She said she wanted to go somewhere as isolated as possible, she wasn't sure where yet. And then I didn't hear from her again for a long time.
"So I decided I would tell Mom and Dad I'd gone to school, and then somehow that change happened to me while I was on my way home. I said I didn't know where you'd gone or why.
"I left home right after that; I was creeped out by my body and I figured I should go somewhere where there were a lot of people like me, and it didn't take much research to figure out where to go. I loaded my car with the stuff I cared about most and started driving across the country just a couple of days after you left. I found a place to live and a job here, well not here in Berkeley but south of San Francisco where it was a little less expensive, and I got involved in a support group for transsexuals, although I fudged my real history a bit. I told them I had been changed, like several other people in Georgia and the Carolinas we'd heard about on the news, but I lied about exactly when it happened, and I didn't tell them about you. And I finished my bachelor's degree at San Fransisco State, and got a better job and moved up here.
"And then she found you and changed you back?"
"I got an email from her about three years after I moved out here. I'm not going to tell you everything she said about what had been happening to her during that time; she can tell you about it herself if she wants to, but she said she had control of her power now and it worked both ways, and she could change me back. We exchanged several messages, and I told her where I was and what I'd been doing, and I came up with the idea of her changing not just me but all the people in my support group. She came to visit and stayed with me for a few days, and one night she went early to the restaurant where our group met, and ate supper; she was about done by the time we all got there and got settled. Then just as she had paid for her supper, she turned around and changed everybody at our table, and then walked out before the commotion started. I think that was probably her model for most of the other changes she did later."
"She must have been wiped out after that. How many people were at the table?"
"There were eight or nine of us. I met her at my car later and found her half asleep in the passenger seat. She fell asleep on the way home and I had to wake her up and help her walk in to my apartment, and she slept until eleven o'clock the next day."
"It was kind of like that when I had to change so many aliens at once."
"Anyway," he said, as he got up and started to wash their bowls and spoons, "I think I've told you as much as I ought to. If Nat wants to tell you the rest, she can."
"Tell her if she can convince me all these changes were justified, I'll go home to my world and won't help the Patrol find her. But it's probably just a matter of time now that they know who she is and have my, our, fingerprints and photos. If she doesn't get caught changing somebody, she'll get pulled over for speeding or driving with a broken headlight sooner or later. And until I hear from her some convincing reason why I shouldn't, I'm going to keep changing back her victims."
"I'll tell her all that," Will said. "But now, I think you should leave."
"Maybe I should. Where's the nearest hotel?"
"The Hotel Durant is only a few blocks away," he said. He wrote down directions on a notepad and tore off the page.
"Thanks," Nat said.
Nat left. It was almost nine o'clock and getting dark; she was tired from walking so much, and more than a little jet-lagged, but she managed to get to the hotel without incident, and checked in.
She had just gotten into her room and undressed for bed when her cellphone rang.
"Hello?" she said. Caller ID was blocked.
"Hi," said a voice she recognized from tape recordings of herself when male. "Will told me you want to talk."
"Yes," she said. "Yes, I do. But, um, maybe not right now? I'm jet-lagged and exhausted."
"Let's meet when you get back from California," her other self said. "When is your return flight?"
"Thursday morning. Um, let's see..." She pulled some papers from her suitcase and checked. "Delta flight 952, it should arrive at Hartsfield at 5:35 pm Eastern."
"All right, I can get to Atlanta by then. Is someone picking you up at the airport or what?"
"I'm taking MARTA to the station nearest my hotel, and then a taxi from there; it's the Residence Inn in Buckhead."
"All right. Get off the train at Five Points and wander around the station for a while before you get back on the next northbound train. Do the same at the next four stations, unless I contact you first. I'll contact you at the airport or one of the MARTA stations if it looks safe, no sign of anybody staking out the station or following you."
"...Okay. I can do that."
"See you Thursday, maybe. Don't tell anybody about this."
In spite of her exhaustion, it took Nat an hour more to fall asleep. She slept until eleven the following morning, her legs aching from too much walking, ordered breakfast from room service, and stayed in her room resting for a few more hours. She called the GSPA, got Laura, and asked to talk to Captain Flint.
"Have you found out anything?" the Captain asked.
"A little. Will is in regular contact with the other Nat. He wouldn't tell me much about her, but he promised to give her my phone number when he talked to her next." She said nothing about her conversation with herself.
"All right. Do you think he knows about the changes the other you has been making?"
"Well, they've been all over the news, and he was one of the first people she changed, so yeah, he would have to be pretty dense not to make the connection. But I'm not sure how much he knows about how she selects her targets." Still true, but incomplete.
"All right. We'll ask the Berkeley PD to get a warrant and start tapping his phone. Do you know what his ISP is?"
"...No, I don't. He had a Hotmail address in college, seven years ago..." The fact that the other Nat had been able to contact him again by email after that three-year gap suggested he'd kept the address at least that long. But in her timeline he'd switched to Gmail by then, and he'd almost certainly switched to something else by now in this timeline as well. "But he changed to another address a long time ago in my timeline, and I don't remember exactly what his old address was." Not exactly true. "I'll let you know later, if I remember it. But he's probably not using it anymore in this timeline either."
"OK. Well, let us know when you get back in town. We'll see you Friday morning, right?"
She did a little desultory touristing Wednesday afternoon, but returned to the hotel before dark to get to bed early before her morning flight. The flight back had an unusual number of fussy babies on it, so it was a good thing she'd gotten plenty of sleep at the hotel. Once at Hartsfield airport, she took her time walking slowly from the gate to the MARTA station, keeping her eyes out for someone of either sex who looked like her, but didn't spot anyone. Then to Five Points, where she got out and wandered around the station as instructed. After seven or eight minutes, a black teenager came up to her and said diffidently, "Man said to give you this." He handed her a note.
"Get on the next eastbound train, get off at Decatur."
She did so. Unsure what to do next, she walked up and down the eastbound train platform for a few minutes until a man of her own height, with a full beard, approached her. She didn't recognize him until he spoke.
"Let's go," he said. "There's a pub a couple of blocks away where we can talk."
They left the station and walked west along Ponce de Leon Avenue.
"So maybe we should start at the beginning," Nat said. "I stayed at home for several days after my power manifested; I kept changing Mom and Dad and Will back and forth for a few days, and then left to go stay at the State Patrol Auxiliary training camp until I got my power under control. Will tells me you ran away, first to Macon and then to points unknown; he didn't tell me anything else except about when you visited her four years ago and changed her back, along with the other people at that meeting... Do you want to tell me what happened in between?"
"I kept moving," the man said; "I didn't stay in one place for long, and I was particularly careful to move on in a hurry when my power went off and I changed somebody. After a few weeks I ended up in a small suburb of Chapel Hill. I was a boy at the time; I'd changed myself in my sleep, a rape nightmare, a couple of days earlier. I was getting hungry, and I went from door to door asking people if I they had odd jobs for me to do for a few bucks or a meal. And at this one house a man answered the door -- I'm not sure why, I think it's because he looked a little like Vincent only a lot older, but my power went off and changed him. I was about to run, but she just said, 'Interesting...' and invited me in. Well, I didn't quite trust her, but I was hungry, and I figured there wasn't much she could do to me. She was old, and only a little taller than me; I thought I was probably stronger than her and could get away easily if she tried anything."
They approached the Angel Pub; the male Nat led the way in. They were soon seated at a table in back. It was dimly lit and noisy with other patrons' conversations.
"So," he continued, "I didn't go in right away, but I didn't run off either. I said, 'You're not mad at me?' She said, 'Does your power work both ways?' I told her, yes, but I didn't have any conscious control of it. She said, 'Well, if you stay here with me for a while, sooner or later I expect you'll change me back as unconsciously as you changed me the first time. And maybe I can help you learn how to control it.'
"So I stayed. The food was good and she never mistreated me, but she insisted I shouldn't leave the house until I got my power fully under control. I did change her back after two or three days, but I kept changing him back and forth for months after that. He was a retired psychotherapist, and had had a little experience helping local paranormals get their powers under better control."
"So why didn't you go home after he helped you control your power?"
"Well, once I had full control of my power, he had a business proposition. He would put out discreet feelers and have a few wealthy transsexuals come there for me to change them, and we'd split the take evenly. I figured out later that I wasn't really getting half of the money, but it was still a lot. And I knew Mom and Dad wouldn't approve of me using my power that way..."
"They reacted the same way to me," Nat said. "I'll tell you about it later."
"So with some of the money from our first few clients, we got fake identity papers made for me, and pretended I was his niece who'd come to live with him after my parents died. I used the name Joan Whitman --"
"So we kept that up, changing one client every few weeks, for about three years. I finished high school there and started classes at UNC Chapel Hill --"
"Why didn't you change Will back sooner? Couldn't you invite him to come see you, if you couldn't travel to California by yourself?"
"Well, I wanted to, but my guardian talked me out of it, temporarily. He said, sure you could change her for free, but can she afford to pay the necessary bribes to a suitable hospital to make it look like she had a regular surgical sex-change? And if not, it might blow our cover, people would find out about you and your power. So I asked her, and sure enough she couldn't afford what the records clerk at the hospital my guardian usually worked through was asking to fix the records."
So Will had been lying when he said he hadn't heard from Nat for three years?
"But I was still resentful, even though it made a kind of sense. Then my guardian died. I found out, looking through his financial records, how small a part of the take I'd been getting. Well, my fake identity didn't have a lot of depth to it. We'd been telling anybody who asked that I was his niece, but it wouldn't have held up if I'd tried to claim that in probate court and inherit his property; the sister I was supposed to be the daughter of never existed. After I destroyed his records about our business, I just quietly got my things and left, and found an apartment to live in. His real next of kin, a first cousin once removed, I think, who he hadn't had any contact with while I lived with him, showed up and made good his claim; when he found out about me, and how my guardian had been telling people I was his niece, he naturally assumed I was his mistress and told people that. I wanted to get a little further away from where he'd been spreading that rumor; I left UNC Chapel Hill and enrolled at Meredith College in Raleigh. I'd had a bank account in my own name since I was eighteen, and my guardian had been paying my share of the money he got from our clients into that account -- not half like he told me, but more like a tenth. Still, it was enough for me to rent an apartment in Raleigh and pay tuition and so forth for almost a year before I had to get another job. I didn't have the contacts to find transsexuals and change them without making my power public, or make the arrangements for bribing records clerks at a hospital.
"Pretty soon after my guardian died, during summer break, I got in touch with Will again, and drove out to San Francisco to see her and change her back. Then, over the next few months, I tracked down most of the people I'd changed accidentally in the first few weeks after I ran away, and sent them letters, and arranged meetings with them to change them back. There were a couple I thought I remembered changing but couldn't find, though."
"Okay. So why did you start this last round of changes?"
"About two years ago I had just gone to see Will again, and I was on my way home, and I stopped for supper at a diner in Knoxville. I'd almost finished eating when a guy not much older than me came in, and after he was seated and ordered something, he looked around the place. And I saw him looking at me, and was thinking I might want to go ahead and pay up and get back on the road, when he got up -- his food hadn't come yet -- and he came over to my table.
"And he said, 'Good evening, Ms. Holcomb, or Ms. Whitman if you prefer -- your skills are wasted in that dentist's office. Why not use them to make the world a better place?' Something like that. And I said, 'Who the hell are you and how do you know me?' And he asked, 'Mind if I sit down while I explain? I'm not a cop or anything.'
"So I figured I'd better let him explain. And he told me he was interested in paranormals who kept their power secret, because he was one too; he was a telepath --"
Nat had a bad feeling about that. "His name wasn't Timothy Baines, was it?"
"No. I'm not going to tell you his name, but it's nothing like that. Who's Timothy Baines?"
"A telepath I had a run-in with once. Not a nice guy at all. Go on."
"Anyway, he told me about his power, and gave me some more proof of how it worked..."
"Sit down," Nat had said, grimly. "I prefer 'Ms. Whitman', if you don't want to tell everybody and his brother about me. Go ahead, tell me how you found out who I am and how you found me here. Have you been following me all across the country?"
"My name is Michael Kensington," he said. "I'm a telepath of sorts, which is how I know who you are. I'd never heard of you or seen you before I walked in here."
"Why didn't you talk to me mentally from your table over there, instead of coming over here, then?"
"My power doesn't work that way. I can't tell what you're thinking now, or talk to you mentally, or affect your thoughts in any way, but I can tap into your memories easier than most telepaths."
"So you know about..."
"I know how you ran away from home when your power manifested, and the way you used your power for a few years, and that you haven't used it in a while. And I think our powers would work well together."
"With my power I'm constantly finding out about crimes people have committed, but it's only occasionally I can find corroborating evidence and tell the police anything useful. And by myself I wouldn't be much use as a vigilante." He was only a little taller than Nat, and even less athletic; slightly overweight, even. "But I think we can work together. I pick the targets, based on what my power tells me they've done that the law can't touch them for, and you change them. Does that sound good?"
"What kind of targets do you have in mind?"
"Child molesters, mostly, whose victims are dead or too scared or traumatized to testify against them. Guys who beat up their wives or girlfriends. Some rapists. Others for whom your power wouldn't be so wonderfully appropriate, but for whom a random out-of-the-blue sex change would be better than no punishment at all; thieves, con men, spammers, engineers of election fraud, people like that. What do you say?"
"How can I trust you to point me at targets who really deserve it? We're not going to go after people if you can find corroborating evidence to prove what you find out with your power; in that case you would just tell the police, right? So how, in all the other cases, do I know you're not just making stuff up?"
"Hm," Kensington said. "How can you trust me? I know you pretty well by now; just sitting here, without trying, I've been finding out more and more about you, and I trust you not to tell anybody about my power. But you don't know me yet. Maybe we should wait; I'll give you a chance to get to know me, and when and if you decide you trust me enough to tell you the truth about other people and what they've done that might deserve you using your power on them, then we can get started. How does that sound?"
"Maybe," Nat said dubiously. She more than half suspected that he wanted to get her into bed. Well, if he tried anything sudden, she was better defended than most girls, and if he was more subtle about it, she could just quit seeing him. "If you're a telepath you know where I live and the fact that I'm on the way home, just passing through here. I'm not going to drive to Knoxville to hang out with you, and I don't pass through here more than once or twice a year on my own business."
"I don't expect you to. And I don't live here either; my business takes me all over the Southeast. I live in Charlotte, so it wouldn't be too far for me to come see you in Raleigh on weekends, if you don't mind."
Was she seriously contemplating this? His idea about using their powers to right wrongs the police couldn't do anything about sounded like a good one -- if she could trust him.
"All right," she said. "I reckon you know where my favorite restaurant is and what day of the week I usually eat there. Don't come to my apartment. Meet me at my favorite restaurant sometime. It's not a date; you're going to tell me about some specific people you know that I ought to use my power on and we'll talk about strategies for changing them in some way that I won't get caught doing it."
"We can start talking about that now," he said. "Or in a few minutes," he amended as the waitress approached the table with his supper.
One Saturday evening a few weeks later when she was eating at the Thai restaurant near her apartment, Kensington walked in, looked around, and approached her table.
"Mind if I join you?"
"Sit down. Remember that this is not a date, Mr. Kensington."
"I'll keep that in mind. What do you want to talk about?"
"Tell me about one of the people you think deserves to have me use my power on them."
"There's a guy who lives in Harrisburg, near Charlotte. He's been molesting his eleven-year-old daughter. I phoned in an anonymous tip to the police a while ago, but when they investigated she wouldn't tell them anything they could use; too scared, I guess. They've been watching him, but I don't think it will do any good until and unless his daughter is willing to talk, and that might take years."
"What are his other habits like?"
"Well, we were talking about how you need to change people in public places where the change can't be pinned on you. He goes out for drinks with friends to a bar near his office, in downtown Charlotte, after work almost every Friday. I figure if we go there for a drink a little before the time we expect him, and leave just as he's getting started, you could change him on your way out the door and we'd be a block or two away before anybody but her notices she's been changed."
"Hm, maybe. Let's keep that in mind when and if I decide I trust you. You might be setting me up to change him just because he let his dog run loose and it dug up your azaleas, or something."
"He hasn't had a dog since he was ten," Kensington said. "A collie named Krypto; got rabies from a raccoon and had to be shot."
"Now you're trying to make me feel sympathy for him?"
"Not particularly, you just reminded me of it. With all these memories from all the people I've ever met, plus my own, I get lost in irrelevant associations sometimes..."
Nat thought about that. "You don't just know about people's histories, do you? You remember that stuff like it happened to you."
"Yeah," he said. "I remember my Dad shooting Krypto, and crying for days afterward, and I remember when my daughter was born, and when I started feeling those creepy desires when she was about eight or nine, and when I finally gave in to them after her mother died... and I remember Vincent Carnes raping me in the front seat of his Plymouth, and how I changed him into a girl but didn't know that's what I'd done at first."
"Wow," Nat said. "I'm sorry."
"Yeah, sucks to be me."
Nat's waiter came to the table then with a menu for Kensington and asked what he wanted to drink. He ordered black coffee and started looking over the menu.
"The pad prik is good," Nat said.
"Yeah, I remember the first time you ate here. Man, that was delicious! No telling if my taste buds will react the same way as yours, but I'll try it."
They kept meeting every second or third weekend. Sometimes they just ate and talked, sometimes they played chess or card games. Nat couldn't pin down, afterward, exactly when or why she decided to trust him and accept his proposal for a vigilante partnership, but it was several weeks after she started calling him "Mike" rather than "Mr. Kensington". One evening she walked into the restaurant and saw him waiting for her, and smiled, and knew that soon she was going to use her power on the bastards he'd been telling her about, and it would feel good.
Nat and Nat had ordered, been served, and eaten a good part of their supper by the time the male Nat had finished his story. Female Nat felt like there was a lot he wasn't telling her, besides the name of his telepath partner.
"All right," she said. "I'm convinced you thought you had good reasons for all the changes you made. That's not the same as being convinced that the reasons were good, though. For one thing, I have the same problem with this telepath that you had when you first met him; I don't know him from Adam's housecat, and I don't trust him not to have his own agenda other than abstract justice."
"You're basically me," he said; "more than half our lives are the same, and that probably the far more important half. I expect if you knew this person as well as I do, you'd trust him as much as I do."
"That's what worries me. Remember that Timothy Baines I mentioned a while ago?"
"What about him?"
Nat told him about how Baines had subverted her reason and emotions, and essentially kidnapped and raped her. "How do I know this guy didn't do the same kind of thing to you, just tampering with your mind until you trusted him?"
The other Nat was visibly angry, but managed to control himself and maintain a level tone as he said, "You don't know him like I do; I'll keep telling myself that. If you did, you wouldn't make such a vile accusation."
"He might have been telling you the truth about the limitations of his powers," she argued, "but you don't have any independent confirmation. Obviously, if he does have the power to influence your thoughts, he isn't as powerful as Baines was, or he would have had you trusting him a few minutes after you met him. But he might have altered your mind a little at a time over the course of several meetings. And even if he couldn't or didn't, you still might be mistaken about his character. I've made enough bad calls to distrust my own judgment about people even without telepathy complicating the issue."
"It doesn't make sense," he said. "There are factors you don't know about, that I'm not willing to tell even you, yet, that argue against it."
"You're talking like I was when I called Will from Montreal and he told me to go to the police; I couldn't believe Baines had been tampering with my mind, even though it was obvious to Will."
"Well, there's your evidence, then. This telepath has never met Will, but Will knows about my partnership with him, and I've been to see him several times in the last couple of years. If my mind had been tampered with don't you think Will would have noticed?"
Nat was stymied by that. "Yeah, I expect he probably would have. Okay. So your mind probably hasn't been tampered with. It still doesn't mean your judgment of his character is infallible."
"No, of course I'm not infallible, but there's nobody else I can trust more than myself in something like this either. That's enough of your skepticism; I've told you everything I can without betraying his confidence, and it doesn't seem to be enough for you. Is our truce over? Are you going to help the police catch me, or go home to your own world and leave me alone to evade them as best I can for as long as I can, or what?"
Nat thought for a minute. "I've got an idea, but I'm not sure it will work," she said. "I don't want to send myself to jail, since in your position I would have done -- in fact I did -- exactly the same things. And at this point, now that they know who you are, it's not a matter of helping them catch you or leaving you alone; it's a matter of helping you escape or leaving you to get caught sooner or later. And I'm guessing your fake ID probably isn't strong enough for international travel; you're not going to evade punishment that way. But I can't help you escape by myself. Is it all right if I tell the Worldwalker what you've told me? If he's willing to help us --"
"I see," he said. "What do you have in mind? Him taking me to a world where we were never born to start over fresh, or what?"
"I was thinking you might come back to my world," she said; "you could help out in my business. First we would need to change back all the people you intended to change just for a limited time, though."
"What's this business you think I could help with?" he asked.
"Three guesses, and the first two don't count."
An hour and a half later, back at the Residence Inn, she stashed her suitcase in her own room and knocked on Stefan's door. He opened after a minute, dressed in pajamas. "Good evening," he said, obviously pleased to see her. "Did you have a good trip?"
"Sort of," she said. "It was exhausting, and I kind of ought to go to bed, but I really need to talk to you before I go in to headquarters tomorrow morning. Is now a good time?"
"Come on in," he said. He sat down in an easy chair and let her have the sofa.
She told him briefly about the trip out, and in more detail about her conversation with Will, and how her other self had called her almost immediately after she parted from Will, and how she'd met with him on her return to Atlanta that night.
"So," she said, yawning, "I understand why he did it, and I don't really want to see him -- myself -- go to jail. Does that make sense?"
"Sure," he said, "I wouldn't want to see either of you go to jail."
"So, will you help us?"
"Of course. It sounds like she had good reasons for all those changes. And I'm not sure it's the same person, but I think I might have met this telepath he partnered with in another world, and he seemed pretty trustworthy. The way his power works is unusual enough to identify him."
That made Nat feel better.
"And yet," Stefan continued, "I don't want to see him go to jail for a decade or more, as he's likely to if he stays here, but it doesn't make sense to let him go entirely unpunished, either. I have another plan."
"So, um, details...?"
Some aspects of the plan they had to go over more than once because Nat was getting so sleepy that she had to ask Stefan to repeat himself, or had to repeat more clearly what she'd mumbled incoherently.
She woke up the next morning still on his sofa, with a bedspread covering her. Sounds of running water from the bathroom indicated Stefan was in the shower. She went hastily back to her own room to shower and change.
Nat left the Angel Pub walking in the opposite direction from his other-world self, who was returning to the MARTA station. He walked as far as St. Thomas More, checking whether anybody was following him, then returned eastward at a leisurely pace to the deck where he had parked his car. When he got back to his hotel, he called Mike.
"Everything's OK," he said. "I think I can trust this other me. Nobody was following her when I met her and nobody showed up to follow me from the pub afterward."
"Good," Mike said. "So what happened?"
Nat told him about his meeting with the other Nat. "She said she's going to sound out the Worldwalker and see if he'll help me escape to a world where I'm not wanted by the police, such as her home world. I'll need to think about it, but I'm inclined to take her up on that offer... if you want to come too?"
There was silence on Mike's end for a while. "How soon do we have to decide?"
"Well, I promised I would give her a list of the people we only intended to change temporarily, within a day. When I talk to her tomorrow night to give her the list I'll find out whether she's had a chance to talk to the Worldwalker and whether he's willing to help. We're not going anywhere until between the two of us we've changed back all the ones guilty of lesser offenses who didn't deserve to be changed for life."
"That makes sense. I'll be thinking about this idea of running off to another world."
"All right. On the way home I'm going to go through Chattanooga and see if I can find Mr. Rowland. You told me he's already paid, right?"
"Yes, a couple of days ago. You were supposed to change him in the aquarium parking lot Saturday, but if you're going to be passing through there tomorrow, you might be able to find him as he's leaving work."
"OK. If I can find him and change him tomorrow afternoon I'll head straight on home that night, otherwise I'll see you Saturday evening."
After returning to her room, Nat showered, changed herself, and got dressed, then walked over to GSPA headquarters. As he entered, Laura said "Captain Flint wants to see you in her office."
"I'll be right there."
A few minutes later Nat was seated in the captain's office.
"The Berkeley PD have been tapping your brother's phone since Thursday afternoon. He hasn't talked to the other you yet, unless maybe they talked before the warrant was issued and the wiretap started."
"I'm not sure whether he can get in touch with the other me directly or if he has to wait for her to call." Strictly true, though it was a reasonable inference that Will had called the other Nat as soon as Nat left his apartment.
"Well, I expect we'll find out something by that route eventually. Do you have any other ideas?"
"Not anything definite or helpful. You have photos and fingerprints, and we know the region she's been working in; I guess we could just send out wanted posters to all the police and sheriff's departments in those states."
"We're already working on that."
"Well, I can't suggest anything else. Have you got more of her victims coming in to see me today?"
"Yes; five more today and four tomorrow should take care of all the ones in the Atlanta area. Then, if you don't mind, we can send you on a tour of the other cities where she's been active."
Nat changed five people, four women and one man, that day, wondering as he changed each one why his other self had changed them and whether he was doing the right thing. Were they unsuspected child molesters or pension fund embezzlers, or guilty of nothing more than verbally abusing their girlfriends? And when he got the list from his other self, how was he going to apply his new knowledge? On what pretext could he refuse to change back some of the victims, the ones he knew were guilty of serious but unprovable crimes?
He had just changed back the last of them and was about to go out to supper before returning to the hotel when Laura rushed in.
"The vigilante's struck again," she said breathlessly, "in Chattanooga. Captain wants to see you."
Why another change now? He'd better have a good explanation...!
A few minutes later Nat was in a conference room with Captain Flint and Shaper.
"This change took place in downtown Chattanooga," the captain said, "a man, Walter Rowland, was leaving his office right after five along with a number of coworkers, and was changed on the sidewalk as he was walking from the office to the deck where he parked his car. She went back to her office and went to the restroom to examine herself, and it was several minutes before the Chattanooga police were properly notified. By then it was too late to try to block off the street where the change happened, but they've set up a bunch of license-check roadblocks, hoping to find and identify the vigilante. They don't have the manpower to block every possible road at the necessary radius, though, assuming the vigilante was driving away the moment the change was done. They're working on getting help from the Tennessee Highway Patrol as well, and we're setting up our own roadblocks on various roads just south of Chattanooga in Georgia."
"So what do you want me to do?" Nat asked. "Shall I go up there and change her back?"
"No hurry, I guess," Captain Flint said; "there are other victims that have been waiting a lot longer; you might as well change them first. I just wanted to see if you had any insight or hunch about what the other you might be doing that we could pass along to our Tennessee or north Georgia colleagues."
"Hm," Nat said thoughtfully. He knew his other self had been in Atlanta last night. He'd said when they first talked by the phone that he could get to Atlanta by Thursday night, but that might have been misdirection; maybe he lived here? He'd lived in Raleigh before, but probably didn't anymore. He might still live somewhere in North Carolina, though, judging by the places where the most changes had been happening. If he were heading home after making that change, he might be going east via I-40 toward Asheville or Greensboro -- or if he was going to Charlotte or Raleigh, he might be going through Atlanta again, I-75 to I-85.
"If I have to guess, I'd say she's going west, toward Nashville. Nashville is my favorite city in Tennessee, and likely she has similar tastes. If I had to guess at where her home base is, Nashville seems a little more likely than anywhere else." In fact Nashville had traumatic associations for Nat and she'd been careful never to return since the nights she spent there with Timothy Baines, but nobody here needed to know that.
"All right. We'll let them know."
Five hours later, while Nat was watching a cheesy monster movie on TV in her hotel room, her cellphone rang.
"Nat Holcomb," she said.
"The same," said the other Nat. "Are you ready to take down the list?"
"First tell me what's going on," she said. "Why did you change that guy in Chattanooga today?"
"Ms. Rowland was a transsexual," he said. "She conveniently neglected to tell anybody about the change until it was too late to set up effective roadblocks; she didn't want me to get caught."
"I see. Had you been in contact with him before, or did you just know what he wanted because your partner had read his memories?"
"Both. Are you ready for the list? It's about thirty names. I'll be changing back some of them when I have a chance, and you can change back the rest."
"All right. I've got paper and pen now. Why don't you list all eighty or so, and tell me why you changed each one, and I'll decide for myself if I want to change them back or not?"
"...All right, here goes. Paul Abrams, Alpharetta, Georgia; a crooked election official. Neil Anderson, Greensboro, North Carolina; child molester. Charles Applegate, Frankfort, Kentucky; cheated on his wife and gave her several STDs..."
When the list was finished, Nat looked over it and said, "Yeah, I reckon we want to change back about thirty or so of these people. I've already changed back three of them."
"You start with the ones in Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina, and I'll take care of the ones in Kentucky, Virginia and North Carolina. Maybe we can leave in another couple of weeks. Have you talked to the Worldwalker yet?"
"Yes, he agreed to take you with us when we're ready to go back to my world."
"All right. How many people can he take with him? Could one more person join us?"
"...I think so. Who?"
"My partner, the telepath."
"Hmm. Is there evidence connecting you with him? Is he going to be in danger if he stays here?"
"Then I'll let the Worldwalker know. I expect he'll say yes."
"Another thing -- the Berkeley police are tapping Will's phone. You shouldn't call him, and if you have an alternate, discreet way of getting in touch with him -- encrypted anonymous email, maybe -- you should warn him not to call you except from a payphone or a disposable cellphone."
"Hmm... I'll send an email to a mutual friend who lives near him, and get her to warn him in person."
"Good idea. Good night."
After Nat hung up on himself, she thought about going to talk to Stefan right away, but noticed the time: nearer midnight than eleven. She decided to wait until morning. She watched a few minutes more of the movie, but soon turned it off and went to sleep.
Saturday morning, after showering and getting dressed, she knocked on Stefan's door. He came to the door still in pajamas.
"Do you want to eat breakfast together?" she asked. "I have, um, more information." No one else was in the hall but she still didn't want to talk about this in a quasi-public place.
"Sure," he said. "Just give me a few minutes to get dressed. You can come in and wait on the sofa if you want."
She seated herself on the sofa, studying the list she'd brought with her, while he gathered up clothes and went into the bathroom.
"I talked to the other me last night," she told him as he emerged from the bathroom a few minutes later. "He gave me a list of the people he'd changed and why he changed each of them."
"What are you going to do about it?"
"I don't know. I can't tell the Captain about the list because I can't tell her how I got it. And I'm not sure how I can change some people and refuse to change others, without a good explanation for why..."
Stefan was silent for a few moments, thinking. "Perhaps," he said, "we could disappear. Stop waiting for people to come to GSPA headquarters and be changed, and go looking for the ones you want to change back."
"...That might work. But do we have the money for travelling around this world on our own? I've been pretty much relying on the GSPA to pay my expenses while I'm here; I spent all the cash I brought with me within the first couple of days, and my checkbook and credit card won't work here."
"Don't worry. While you've been changing people back and investigating your other self, I've been finding publishers for some books I picked up the last time I was in a world very divergent from these, and insisted on payment in cash, as usual. We could travel for months on what I have, but I don't think that will be necessary, will it?"
"Probably not. I got addresses from the other me; I think we can find all the people we want to change back in less than a month."
"What shall we tell the State Patrol, if anything?"
"I'll tell them I've been overextending myself, what with changing five people every day and that trip to Berkeley -- that's not much of an exaggeration -- and I need to take some time off. I'll do some travelling at a relaxed pace with you, while you scout for books and art that would fetch a good price in some other worlds you know of. Does that make sense?"
"That should work."
After they ate breakfast, Nat called the GSPA, talked to Tandy, and left a message with her for Captain Flint. Within a few hours, Nat and Stefan were on the road in a 1998 Ford Tempo that Stefan had paid cash for.
Their first stop was in Winder, northeast of Atlanta; about seven in the evening they found the address they were looking for.
"Do you want me to come with you?" Stefan asked.
"I don't think so," Nat said. "You're a little more famous than me." She got out and walked to the door of the house, a split-level with wood siding about thirty years old, its green paint beginning to peel a bit.
A woman of about thirty-five or so answered her knock.
"Hello," Nat said. "Does George Haralson still live here?"
"Who are you?"
"Someone who can help her, if she wants to change back."
The woman's eyes widened. "Just a minute," she said, and closed the door. A couple of minutes later another woman opened the door, a few inches taller and thirty or forty pounds heavier than the other, but about the same age. The first woman was standing behind her in the entryway.
"Hi," Nat said. "Are you George Haralson?"
"Yes," the woman answered.
"Do you want to be male again?"
"Are you going to be comfortable wearing that?" The sweat pants she was wearing looked loose enough, but whatever underwear she had on underneath might be too tight for a male crotch.
"Um, maybe not. Can you wait a minute while I go change?"
The taller woman walked off into the house. The first woman stared at Nat for a few moments, then asked:
"Are you the person who changed him before?"
"No, that was my evil twin. -- Um, could I ask y'all a favor? Don't tell anyone I was here. You can tell people George mysteriously changed back when she went out to check the mail, or something."
"Pretty please? I'm going out of my way to fix this. I didn't have to do it."
"...All right. I won't tell anyone."
A few moments later George returned, wearing even looser pants and an oversize T-shirt, and barefoot. "I, um, need to ask you another question," Nat said. "Is there a possibility you might be pregnant?"
She stared at Nat. "No," she said. "I haven't, you know. With anybody."
"It's just, it doesn't work reliably on pregnant women. That's all I needed to know." Nat changed her.
"Thank you," he said, looking himself over. "Who are you?"
"Nobody," she said; "I was never here." She returned quickly to the car. Stefan turned around and drove off in such a way that the couple still standing in the doorway wouldn't be able to see their license plate.
For several weeks Nat continued to apply the same simple method: go to the address of someone on her list, in the evening, and hope to find them at home. Explain briefly what she was doing, and ask if the changee wanted to be changed back. Ask them to promise not to tell anyone about her. Change them. (Only one of the people on her list wanted to remain in their altered sex, a former woman in Monroe.) Then back on the road. Backtrack sometimes if necessary to try again at houses where nobody was home the first time, or to check again on someone she'd asked to get a pregnancy test before she would change them.
The other Nat's method was perhaps more cautious, to judge by what they read in the newspapers; several earlier victims of the vigilante had been changed back with as little warning as they were changed the first time, again while out in public, shopping or at church or on their way to or from work.
Two weeks after Nat and Stefan had left Atlanta, as they were driving around Columbia, South Carolina looking for a street that wasn't on their map, Nat's cellphone rang. She answered.
"How did you guess?" he asked. "You've been doing a good job, from what I hear. How many more do you have to change in your region?"
"Six; four in South Carolina, and two in Georgia and Tennessee that I couldn't find the first couple of times I looked for them. They weren't at home, maybe on vacation or maybe they've moved since they were changed. Then there were two more that no longer live at the addresses I had for them, and haven't been able to find otherwise."
"I'm down to four, all in Virginia. What about if I call you again when I've changed all of them? And then maybe I'll head for Georgia or Tennessee and and look for the ones that weren't at home when you looked -- who?"
"Ann Grogan of Murfreesboro and Harold Ziglar of Cartersville."
"I remember them. All right. Talk to you later."
A few minutes later they pulled into the parking lot of a small apartment complex. Stefan parked near, but not directly in front of, the building he thought they wanted; Nat got out, walked to one of the buildings, and up the stairs to apartment 2950.
A woman about Nat's own age answered the door.
"Hello?" she said warily.
"Hi," Nat said. "I'm looking for Lyle Waldrop."
"Do you know what happened to Lyle?" the woman asked.
"Yes; it's why I'm here. Does she still live here?"
"No. Are you with a newspaper or what? She got tired of talking to reporters a long time ago, she told me."
"No, I want to help her. If she wants to change back, I can fix her."
"Hey! You're the one who changed her, ain't you?"
"No," Nat explained patiently. "I can't prove it, but that was my sister, not me. Do you know where Lyle lives now?"
The woman had a gleam in her eye. "Come on in," she said. Nat followed her into the apartment, which was sparsely furnished and not particularly clean. The living room contained only a sofa, a small shelf on which a small TV and DVD player rested along with a dozen or so DVDs, and a free-standing lamp.
"I want you to change me," the woman said.
"Are you sure?" Nat said, startled. "I mean, if I do that, it's going to be permanent. I won't be around here for much longer, so if you change your mind later, it will be too late."
"I'm sure," she said.
"Listen, do you know where Lyle lives now?"
"Change me," she said, picking up a cell phone from the sofa. "Or I'll call the police. I know they're interested in the person who's been snipe-sexchanging people all over the place."
"That wasn't me, I tell you!"
The woman dialed '9', then '1', then, her index finger still hovering over the '1', said: "Well?"
Nat changed her. He dropped the phone and doubled up, grabbing at his crotch.
"I didn't want to do that without asking if you were wearing something suitable," Nat said, "but you were rushing me so! I'll turn my back so you can get out of that." She suited action to words.
"Damn, that hurt," said a masculine voice from behind her.
"Not my fault," she said. "Are you decent yet?"
"Give me a minute," he said. She heard light footsteps for a moment, then the voice sounded more distantly, "I don't know exactly where Lyle is staying these days, but I'll try to find out and tell you later."
Nat turned. The living room was empty; the man's voice sounded from an adjoining room. A minute later he entered wearing a bathrobe. "How can I get in touch with you if I find Lyle and she wants to change back?"
"Where's something I can write on?"
The man went into another room and returned with a memo pad and pencil. Nat wrote down the number of her cellphone.
"All right," he said. "Thanks."
"Don't tell anybody I was here, OK?"
"I won't. What do you want me to say?"
"You were on your way home from work and you changed while sitting at a stop light somewhere near here. You drove on home and checked yourself out; you were in too much shock to tell anybody until the next day. Tomorrow. How's that?"
"I can handle that."
"Goodbye." Nat turned and left.
The next three changes -- one in Florence and two in Charleston -- were pretty straightforward. They left Charleston the morning after the last change, heading back toward Georgia. By early afternoon they had passed Augusta on I-20 and were on one of the most boring stretches of interstate in the South when Nat's cellphone rang.
"Hello?" she answered. She'd quit answering with her name after giving out the number to a couple of people who didn't really know her.
"Hi, me," said her other self. "I've just changed a guy in Rustburg, Virginia, and I'm fixing to head south. Where do you want to meet up?"
"I'm on the way to Cartersville to look for Ms. Ziglar again. I'm somewhere between Augusta and Atlanta; I reckon I'll get there long before you could. What about if I just stop at a motel somewhere near there but not too near -- a few miles up I-75 toward Chattanooga -- maybe Dalton? I'll go up there after I find Ms. Ziglar and change her, if I can, and wait for you there."
Due to bad timing, they approached Atlanta just at the start of rush hour, and decided to stop for a long, leisurely supper in Conyers before driving through Atlanta to Cartersville.
"It's going to be pretty late by the time we get there," Stefan said as they waited for their waitress to return with their supper. "Do you want to just find a motel and look for Ms. Ziglar in the morning?"
"No, let's go ahead and knock on her door tonight. We missed her twice before; no telling what hours she wakes and sleeps and works."
"Or if she still lives at that address," he said. "Very well. I've enjoyed this road trip. I suppose we will soon be returning to your world..."
"We've got some business to take care of first."
"Quite. Mr. Grogan in Murfreesboro, and then the other Mr. Holcomb..."
"And the telepath, probably. He asked me if you could take another person along."
"Hm, yes. I wonder what their relationship is."
Nat blushed. "I've wondered about that too. I don't plan to ask... When the other me told me about how she met him and decided to work with him, I could tell he was being very selective about what to include."
"I wonder if he is who I think he is. Or she, perhaps, by now... I once met a man named Michael Kensington who had a telepathic power that worked like this person's power is reported to work. He could not read people's surface thoughts, but automatically absorbed their memories as though they were his own."
"What was he like?"
Stefan looked thoughtful. "Bold," he said; "he would greet you and start talking to you as though he'd known you for years. He had a lot of interesting stories, but he was careful to strip them of identifying details, and leave you guessing about whether they'd happened to him or someone else, if at all. When I met him, in a world that diverged from this one probably ten or twelve years ago, his power was secret to most people; he'd revealed it only to a few fellow paranormals. It sounds as though in this world he's never told anyone but the other you, if this is the same person."
"Maybe. That's the impression I got, anyway."
The traffic going through Atlanta was particularly bad that day, and it was nearer nine than eight when they got off the first Cartersville exit of I-75 and approached the address they had for Harold Ziglar. It was a one-storey brick house not far from the center of town. As usual, Stefan parked a short distance down the street, where he could see the front door of Ms. Ziglar's house, and Nat walked to the house from there. She rang the doorbell and glanced at her watch: 8:48 pm.
A dog started barking somewhere in the house, but no one came to the door immediately. After a couple of minutes she rang the bell again, planning to leave if no one came to the door in another two or three minutes. Less than a minute later, though, a woman answered the door. She was eight inches taller than Nat and probably ten years older, and about four or five months pregnant. With one hand she was restraining a bulldog by its collar.
"Hi. I'm looking for a Ms. Harold Ziglar."
"That's me. What do you want?"
Uh-oh. What next?
"I'm sorry, Ms. Ziglar. I was planning to change you back into a man, if you wanted me to, but it looks like I can't."
"Because I'm pregnant?"
"Can you come back in a few months?"
"...I'm not sure. I can't promise to, anyway."
Ms. Ziglar sighed. "Why did you change me in the first place?" she asked, barely controlled anger evident in her tone.
"I didn't. It was someone else with basically the same paranormal power. I've been tracking down his, or her, victims and changing them back, but... I'm sorry."
"But why you won't you be able to change me after the baby is born?" She put the hand that wasn't restraining the dog over her belly, perhaps unconsciously.
"After the baby is weaned, you mean...? I'd like to, but I can't promise anything this far in advance. When is the baby due...?"
"Come in," said Ms. Ziglar, "let's talk sitting down. I'll put Fenris in the back yard."
Nat followed her into the house; Ms. Ziglar gestured at the sofa and easy chairs in the living room, and disappeared, still pulling the growling bulldog by the collar, into a back room. A minute later she returned and sat in a chair across from Nat.
"The baby is due November 14," she said. "Can you plan to come back right after that? Or give me some way to get in touch with you?"
"Before long I'm going to where you can't reach me by telephone or email or post," Nat said. She took out a notepad and wrote the date the little Ziglar was expected. "And I can't guarantee I'll be able to come back, then or ever; it's not entirely under my control. But I'll see what I can do. How long do you plan on nursing the baby? Six months?" She was vague about how long you were supposed to nurse babies before starting them on solid food; she had heard somewhere, but it hadn't seemed to apply to her and she'd promptly forgotten it.
"I haven't thought that far in advance. I'm still getting used to the idea of being pregnant... I wasn't planning on it."
It seemed like a bad idea to ask how it had happened. There was a long, awkward silence, which Nat finally filled:
"I'm sorry you got pregnant without meaning to, but I'm glad you're having the baby anyway... I mean, some people wouldn't, especially after what I just told you. You've got guts."
Ms. Ziglar recoiled, and put her hand over her belly again. "I couldn't possibly abort him," she said. "But I don't really know how to handle this either... My wife couldn't handle me being a woman all of a sudden; she left pretty soon after that. And when I called her to tell her I was pregnant, and could she please help me because I didn't know what to do, she hung up on me and hasn't answered my calls since. My parents are dead, and my brother wouldn't have anything to do with me either; I just came back from visiting my sister in Atlanta, she's the only one that would help. I have to go back to work Monday, but I'm not sure how long I can keep working... not much longer, with my kind of job."
That visit to her sister probably accounted for why Nat had failed to find her at home before.
"I'm sorry," Nat said. "I wish I could help, besides trying my best to come back after the baby is weaned to change you back. Do you have enough savings to get you through the time you can't work? Have you tried asking churches and crisis pregnancy centers for help?"
"Money will get a little tight for a while, but I can manage. It's the whole idea of having a baby I still can't wrap my mind around. I've been reading all the books the library has about it and watching some videos and it still just doesn't seem real. I don't know if I should raise him myself or find somebody to adopt him or what... I've about given up on getting his father to help. It wouldn't have happened if we weren't both blind drunk, me crying my eyes out over my wife leaving me, and him commiserating with me... when we woke up, all hung over, and realized what we'd done, we were too embarrassed to talk to each other for a week. Not more than 'Hand me the pliers, would you,' and 'I need a few more nails over here...' And just when we'd started to get over that, I found out I was pregnant, and told him, and he freaked out almost as bad as I'd done when I saw what color the test strip was."
"That's awful," Nat said. "He wouldn't do anything to help you?"
"He stopped just short of saying I should abort the baby. Kind of insinuated it around the edges, you know. And after that fight we haven't talked at all; if he needs something from me he tells Luis or Santiago, and if I need something from him I tell one of them."
Nat remembered, then, that her other self had originally changed Ms. Ziglar because his telepath partner thought he had been cheating his undocumented, off-the-books employees of a good part of their wages. Would this Luis and Santiago be those employees?
"So, he's your partner in your construction business?"
"Yeah. Sorry, I'm not very coherent tonight."
"It's okay. I wish I could help more."
"Listening helps some, maybe."
Nat looked at her notepad. "So. Like I said, I can't promise anything, but I'll do my best to come back next Spring, about six or seven months after your baby is born."
Nat left a few moments later and walked back to the car.
"How did it go?" Stefan asked.
Nat told him Ms. Ziglar's hard-luck story. "So, do you think you can bring me back here next Spring? April, May, thereabouts?"
"Some of me will come," he said, "and I'll bring some versions of you to some worlds like this where you'll change back some versions of Ms. Ziglar. But -- you understand how my power works, how this mess of worlds is -- there's also going to be an infinite number of you who expect me and I won't show up for some reason, and an infinite number of me who come to get you and find you dead or disabled, and an infinite number of Ms. Ziglar who wait and wait in vain for us to come back. That's just the way the worlds are."
"Just do your best, and I'll do mine." They were on the road to Dalton by now.
About an hour later they found a motel near the expressway and checked in. As Stefan was paying and filling out the registration form, Nat's cellphone rang again.
"Hey, me, it's you. We're at a gas station in Norcross, just fixing to go through north Atlanta and head up I-75 to Dalton. Are you already there?"
"We just got here; we're checking in to the Super 8 at exit 328."
"Well, I reckon y'all will be asleep by the time we get there. See you about ten in the morning, in the motel lobby, what about that?"
"Sounds good. Drive safe."
As usual, Nat changed herself before bed; he'd been male at night most of the time during this road trip, so he and Stefan could save money renting only one motel room, and then become female during the day when (more often than not) she needed to meet some woman-in-spite-of-herself and change her back. Stefan paid for a room in cash, and they went to bed within minutes of bringing in their luggage.
Saturday morning, Nat woke up a few minutes before eight. Stefan was in the shower. It was two hours before they needed to meet the other Nat and his partner, who would probably be sleeping late; Nat turned on the bedside lamp, picked up Robert Jaynes' new novel, which she'd bought a few days earlier in Columbia (Jaynes had died in a motorcycle accident in 2002 in her timeline; this book didn't exist back home) and read in bed until Stefan got out of the shower.
"Not the dirtiest bathroom I've encountered on this road trip," Stefan commented, as he put his socks and shoes on, "but that's not saying much. You may wish to shower at whatever motel we stay in tonight in Murfreesboro or wherever."
"How bad is it?"
"Some mold or mildew in the tiling. No worse than my bathroom at home, actually, but not what one expects of a public establishment."
"I'll chance it. I want to make a good impression on Mr. Grogan, not to mention my other self's partner..." He stuck a gasoline receipt into the novel as a bookmark and got out of bed.
Half an hour later they had their bags back in the car, and were in the motel's lobby checking out. The continental breakfast was edible, but not appetizing; they picked at it briefly, then decided to wait until the vigilantes showed up and go to a real restaurant with them. They chatted some about recent experiences during the road trip, but avoided talking about their plans. After twenty minutes or so, two men walked into the lobby. Nat and Stefan stood up.
"Good morning, Mr. Kensington," Stefan said, "and Mr. Holcomb, it's good to see you too."
The other man, a little taller than Nat, with short black hair, and slightly overweight, looked startled; he studied Stefan for a long moment, and replied: "Well, Mr. Swartebroekx, it seems we have the advantage of each other."
The Nats looked at each other in bemusement.
"Do y'all want to go out to get breakfast somewhere while we talk?" Nat-the-patrol-officer said. "Unless you're starving and can't wait fifteen minutes more, I wouldn't recommend what they're serving here."
"Let's go, then," said Nat-the-vigilante. "I seem to remember there's a Cracker Barrel at the next Dalton exit north of here; that would be on our way to Murfreesboro."
Some minutes later they were waiting on the porch of the Cracker Barrel for "Holcomb, party of four," to be called.
"So," Mike said to Stefan, "you're offering to take us to another world where we aren't wanted by the police."
"And you're doing that because...?"
"I don't want to see myself go to jail," Nat put in. "At least not for as long a time as a judge is likely to send him away for. I know him well enough to know I would have done about the same thing in his position."
"Well," said the other Nat, "I expect we're almost ready to go. I've got a stack of letters I want to put in a mailbox just before we leave this world, and we probably want to sell my car for whatever cash we can get, too. Is currency printed in this world going to be spendable in yours?"
"I think so," Nat said; "I'm not a currency expert, but your money looks about the same as the money back home, and I didn't have any trouble spending the little bit of cash I had with me when I came here... But maybe it would be safer to buy portable valuables here and sell them when you get to my world." Part of him wanted to give his other self some more specific advice about what valuables to buy, but he refrained. "We need to change back Mr. Grogan first, though. We'd save gas if we all go to Murfreesboro in one car. Or maybe I could go with Stefan and change him, and meet you two back here, or somewhere else, in a day or two."
"Let's travel together for now," said the bearded Nat. "Where do we need to be when we jump between worlds?"
"We should be where transportation is available in our target world," Stefan said. "Nat, you left your car in the GSPA headquarters parking lot, right?"
"Yes... but I don't think we want to go right there in this world, with our friends wanted by the police. Somewhere else in Atlanta, where we can jump and then take MARTA to Buckhead station and walk to where my car is parked, would be better."
"Good plan," said Stefan; "after we come back from Tennessee we'll sell our cars at some used car place within walking distance of a MARTA station, and then jump from some secluded area in or near the station parking lot. You can bring whatever you're wearing or carrying in one hand; you'll need the other hand to hold mine while I jump."
Their table was ready then. During breakfast Nat and Nat filled each other in further on their divergent histories, and Stefan told a few stories about interesting worlds he'd visited.
"I've thought of something else we might need to do before we go," Nat said, and he told the others about his failure to find Lyle Waldrop in Columbia, and about the strange behavior of the woman he'd found at Waldrop's address. "Maybe we should try one more time to find Ms. Waldrop before we leave?"
"Well," said the other Nat, "let's take care of our other business first. Maybe this person will get in touch with Ms. Waldrop and call you, or have her call you, before we're ready to leave. If not, we might try to find her again; but I wouldn't sweat too much over it. If she remains a woman for the rest of her life it wouldn't be much more than she deserves."
"What was it she did, again? I've forgotten..."
Kensington hadn't said much so far. "What didn't he do? Robbed his parents blind, cheated on his girlfriends, put people in danger by doing sloppy work on their brakes and transmissions... I'm surprised you wanted to change her back."
"Well. I guess we won't make a special trip to Columbia again to look for her, but if I get a call saying she wants to be changed back, I'll do it."
As were standing up to leave, Kensington said, in a low voice covered by the squeaking of their chairs: "If we weren't getting out of the vigilante business, I'd suggest that one of you change the man in the Crimson Tide T-shirt at the table by the window."
"What did he do?" asked Nat-the-vigilante.
"It doesn't matter, we're not going to change anybody but Mr. Grogan and maybe Ms. Waldrop," put in Nat-the-police-officer.
"Raped a girl several years ago, never got caught."
"It's not safe here and now," Nat-the-vigilante said, moving toward the door, "but maybe we can try for him on the way back to Atlanta. If it's all right with you," he said, looking more to Stefan than to his other self.
"Let's not," said Stefan.
After they paid for breakfast, Nat and Stefan put their luggage into the trunk of the other Nat's 2003 Saturn; they had decided that the Tempo was the less likely of the two cars to get stolen if they left it in the Cracker Barrel parking lot while they were in Tennessee. Moments later they were on the expressway again, going north.
Early on, Kensington would occasionally make comments about the people in other cars they passed or were passed by. "The couple in that PT Cruiser are on their way to a BSDM party in Chattanooga," he would say; "I remember the first time she handcuffed him, on their fourth date, how his heart raced..." Or, pointing out a woman in a Ford Taurus with three children: "She just had a bad argument with her father-in-law, about how to discipline the kids, and put them all in the car and drove off... hope she'll stop somewhere soon to calm down, she can hardly afford to ease her nerves with a long drive the way gas prices are..." Nat-the-vigilante laughed or expressed pity or outrage at these asides; Nat-the-police-officer was troubled, and kept quiet. Kensington didn't seem to have much regard for anyone's privacy. He might not be able to avoid picking up people's memories, but he should be more circumspect about keeping most or all of them to himself, Nat thought.
Their surroundings got got more interesting when they passed Chattanooga and crossed the mountains going west; Nat never got tired of this scenery, even though the first time she'd seen it had been tainted in her memory by its association with her abduction by Timothy Baines. He was glad they wouldn't have to actually go as far as Nashville this time; some of those scenes would be particularly painful reminders.
It was early afternoon when they got off the expressway in Murfreesboro and headed for the house Ann Grogan had lived in as of the time she was changed. Stefan and Nat had looked for him there twice, once on their way to Nashville and Memphis and again on the way back to Georgia.
"If we don't find him at home, I think I remember a few other places he might be," Kensington said as they pulled onto the street they had been looking for.
"Let's see," Stefan said. Nat parked near the house.
"Do you want to change him, or should I do it?" he asked his law-abiding self, turning around to face him.
"I'll do it," Nat said. "If anything goes wrong, we can leave faster if I jump in the back seat and you're already in the driver's seat."
He got out and walked to the house. There was no car in the driveway, but he couldn't tell if there was one in the garage or not. He rang the bell, waited awhile, and rang it again.
"No luck," he said when he returned to the car. "Where else do you think he might be?"
"Grocery shopping, maybe; she usually shopped at a Food Lion a few minutes from here. Or at a friend's house; I can remember several addresses we might try."
"Let's try the Food Lion first, I guess."
Nat-the-vigilante followed Kensington's directions to the grocery store; they didn't spot the car Grogan had been driving a few months ago in the parking lot, but they all got out and went in the store, checking out all the aisles and the men's room, just to be sure. Then down the road to an apartment complex.
As they pulled in to the parking lot, Kensington said, "That's his car, there. That blue Honda Civic with the 'Coexist' bumper sticker."
"So he's hanging out with this friend, then," Nat-the-police-officer said. "I expect we want to wait for him to leave, and go talk to him if he's by himself?"
"Makes sense," said Nat-the-vigilante. "But I'm getting hungry; what about y'all?" So were they all.
"Maybe one of us changers should wait here and watch, while the rest of us make a quick run to a fast food place and get eats. I'll stay, since I've seen Mr. Grogan in person and you've just seen his photo; Mike can drive. Mike, you know what kind of stuff I like; don't waste any time, just stop at the first place with a drive-through."
Nat got out and took up a position on the bench of a bus stop near the apartment complex, from which he could see Grogan's car and the door of his friend's apartment. Kensington got out and walked around to the driver's side; they drove around until they found a Taco Bell. They were back at the apartment complex in a little under ten minutes.
"We park here and wait for him," Kensington said decidedly, as they saw Nat in conversation with a blond man several inches taller than him, a few feet from the blue Civic. A couple of minutes later Grogan, still male, got in his car and Nat came back to get in the front passenger seat of his own.
"He wants to change back," he said. "We're going to meet him at the Food Lion, and change him after he gets out of his car, just before he goes into the store."
So they did. The moment Nat had changed him, they pulled out of the parking lot and were on I-75 going south before Ann Grogan's restoration to femininity became general knowledge.
"That's it, I reckon," Nat-the-vigilante said. "Is there anything else we need to do before we take leave of this world, besides sell our cars?"
"Post those letters," Kensington said.
"Right. Let's save that for the last thing, just in case something delays us, okay?"
"Yes, of course."
On the way back to Dalton, the vigilantes grilled Nat about the current state of things in his home world. They couldn't find any major difference on the world scene; all the differences Nat had seen between these worlds were on the scale of individual people's lives. But when Kensington heard that Elise Watts had died in 2005 in Nat's world, he resolved to stop at a bookstore and buy copies of her last two books that wouldn't exist in the world they were going to.
"Anyone else I might need to know about?" he asked. Nat wracked his brains, and listed all the other famous people he could think of who'd died in the last seven years, but few of them were particular favorite artists of the other Nat or Kensington, and Walter Parks, who had died in 2006 in Nat's home world after a long illness, hadn't written anything since 1994 in this timeline either.
When they stopped at the Cracker Barrel in Dalton again to get Stefan's Ford Tempo, they talked about what to do next.
"It'll be fiveish by the time we get to Atlanta," Stefan said. "We can't sell these cars this late on a Saturday, or at all on a Sunday, probably. Let's find a hotel -- better than that Super 8, let's hope -- and stay there until Monday, what about?"
They agreed to meet at the Days Inn in Marietta, later that night, and drove off separately. After they checked in, Nat went to bed early, while Stefan went for a walk in the neighborhood around the hotel. Sunday, after eating breakfast with Stefan and the vigilantes, he laid around the hotel room reading for most of the morning, then went shopping in the afternoon. He and Stefan repacked their bags as they'd planned, carefully talking about unrelated things as they did so.
Early that afternoon his cellphone rang.
"Hey, I just wanted to let you know that I talked to Lyle, and she's cool with being a girl, so you don't have to come back here." It was the woman, now man, he'd met at the apartment Lyle Waldrop used to live in in Columbia.
"Are you sure? Would it be possible for me to speak to Lyle myself?"
"She's not here right now. I'll have her call you later, whenever I see her again, okay?"
Nat had a feeling more was going on there than this person was letting on; he wouldn't be a bit surprised if he was lying about Lyle's disposition, or if he'd lied to her about his encounter with Nat. But he didn't feel like there was anything he could usefully do about it at this point. "All right. Please hurry up, though, because I won't be reachable at this number after tomorrow."
Nat put down the phone thoughtfully. After a few minutes, he decided that unless he heard from Lyle herself before tomorrow afternoon, he wouldn't hold up their departure.
Stefan and the other Nat had spent much of the day Sunday trying to figure out where to sell their cars; they'd finally settled on a used car place in Decatur with a MARTA bus stop adjacent to it. Monday after breakfast they all drove down there, and sold their cars for much less than they would have brought if they hadn't insisted on getting cash for them, right then. While Stefan and Nat were negotiating the sale of their cars, Nat talked with Mike.
"The other me told me a little about how she met you and decided to work with you," he said. "But not much. At that point he was still trying to protect your identity. Can I ask you to tell me your side of it?"
"I'd always kept my power secret," Mike said. "I'd met a few other paranormals once in a while, some whose powers were public knowledge, some who kept them secret. But I'd never felt safe telling anybody about my power; it seems like of all the kinds of paranormals, it's telepaths people are most afraid of. Nat was different; after a few seconds soaking up her memories, I knew I could trust her not to tell anybody else about me, and in another few minutes I worked up the nerve to go talk to her and propose that we use our powers together. In the first few years after my power manifested I used to phone in anonymous tips to the police all the time; but the results were so discouraging -- it was so rarely they could find corroborating evidence to prosecute -- that I'd about given up on it by the time I met her.
"She didn't trust me at first, but eventually she got to know me better -- I went to Raleigh as often as I could for a while, visiting her, mostly at a restaurant for the first couple of months, then sometimes at her apartment. And after a few months she decided she trusted me enough to work with me. She managed to leave work early one Friday, and drove to Charlotte, and met me as I got off work. There was a financial officer I knew of who was embezzling from his company's pension fund; he was a man of very regular habits, and every Friday after work, however low or full his tank was, he'd stop for gas at the same gas station a few minutes from his office. So we went there, and I filled up my tank, and then went inside to pay, dawdling a while at the magazine rack, where I could see out the window. I'd given Nat some photos I'd taken of the man and his car, so she could recognize him; as luck would have it, he pulled up at the pump next to ours. As soon as I spotted him, I grabbed a magazine at random, paid for that and the gasoline in cash, and went out to the car; as soon as I started the engine, Nat changed the embezzler, who was still pumping gas, and we drove off. From what I heard on the news afterward, she went into a panic and called 911 on her cell phone; the paramedics were dubious about the story she told, but they took her to a hospital anyway.
"I was fixing to take Nat back to my office, where she'd parked her car, as we'd planned on, but she was tired -- she said she hadn't used her power in over a year and she was out of shape, changing him had worn her out. We went back to my apartment and I let her have my bed while I slept on the sofa. Once she recovered from her exhaustion, she was enthusiastic about changing more unsuspected criminals, and we planned out our activities for the next few weekends; Sunday afternoon, I gave her a ride to pick up her car and she went home.
"So we would get together as often as we could, and go somewhere where I'd run across some unsuspected criminal in my travels, and change them. Depending on what direction we were going in, I'd drive to Raleigh and pick her up, or she'd come to Charlotte first... Then after a few months we got careless in Knoxville, and got caught in a police photo-and-fingerprint round-up.
"Soon after that, she gave up the identity she'd been living under for most of the time since she ran away from home; she changed herself, and used a heap of her savings to have a new fake identity made up. The rent on my apartment had gone up and I needed a roommate, so he moved in with me in Charlotte, and got another job there, one with a flexible schedule that would allow more time for traveling. After that we were a lot more careful about where and when he would change people, so as not to get caught again."
How much was he leaving out, Nat wondered?
Even if she hadn't said anything about it, Mike could tell Nat was exhausted from the way she climbed the stairs to his apartment, lifting both feet onto one stair before lifting one to the next, and pausing for several seconds about two-thirds of the way up. Moments after he unlocked the front door and let them in, she collapsed onto the sofa.
"I'll go ahead and put clean sheets on the guest bed," Mike said. "What do you want to eat? I've got several kinds of canned soup, or we could order out..."
"Soup is fine," Nat said. "I ate on the road; I'm more tired than hungry. If we wait for a delivery I might fall asleep before it gets here..."
"All right. Hey, do you want to turn on the news? Just possibly there might already be something about Miss Paulsen."
"Sure." Nat found the remote on a cluttered table beside the sofa and turned on the television, changing channels until she found local news.
Mike half-listened to the news as he stripped the sheets from his bed, got out clean sheets and a clean pillow and pillowcase and remade the bed. He scrounged up some pajamas (which he rarely wore in warm weather) from a drawer, stashed them in the bathroom closet for later along with his pillow, then returned to the kitchen, opened cans of vegetable soup and heated a couple of bowls. The sound from the TV droned on: a shooting over a drug deal, a house fire, a political scandal involving a suburban school board, a dog that could supposedly count to fifteen. (Nat wasn't too tired to vocally express her doubts about that.) He stepped into the living room and told her the soup was ready; she picked herself up, dragged herself into the kitchen, and sat at the tiny dining table. Just then they heard from the TV:
"This just in; a woman just admitted to Carolinas Medical Center claims she was a man until an hour ago. Details at eleven."
"Woo hoo!" Nat said. "I'll be asleep by eleven, though."
"So will I, but I'll TiVo it." As the six o'clock news ended Mike went and turned off the TV, then returned to eat supper. They talked about their plans, who they would change next and where and how. Nat yawned several times.
"I'm sorry," she said, "it's been a long day; I had to go in to work early so I could get off early, and then my boss gave me a heap of stuff to do that I had to hustle to get done so I could get out of there in time..."
"Yeah, I remember how annoyed you were when he told you that," Mike said. "There are clean sheets on the bed, if you want to go lie down. I'll wash the dishes."
"Where...?" He showed her to his bedroom, and noticed how she looked at it.
"Wait, this is your bedroom, isn't it?"
"Normally. Tonight my bedroom is in yonder," he said, waving toward the sofa in the living room, "and this is the guest bedroom."
Nat was about to protest, but she was too tired. "Thanks," she said. "Good night." She closed the door; Mike went to the bathroom and changed into his pajamas, then laid down on the sofa and read for a few hours before falling asleep.
Nat wasn't up yet when he woke, somewhere between seven and eight; it was 7:52 by the time he was alert enough to notice the clock. He mixed waffle batter and cooked himself a couple of waffles; Nat, perhaps awakened by the smell, emerged from the bedroom just as he started eating. Her clothes were rumpled; she'd originally planned on returning home Friday night, so she hadn't brought any toiletries or extra clothes.
"There's more batter, I can fix some more for you in a minute," he said.
"Thanks," she said. She seemed more nervous than she'd been last night, like she was having second thoughts about spending the night at his apartment. He remembered her being nervous like this the last time she'd been on a date, her freshman year in college -- pretty much the only date she'd been on since Vincent Carnes raped her.
"Do you want to watch the eleven o'clock news?"
Mike poured some more batter into the waffle iron, then went into the living room and fiddled with the TiVo controls until he had last night's news playing. He got out a couple of trays, and a few minutes later they took their waffles into the living room. Then he fast-forwarded the news until they saw a picture of the Citgo where they'd changed Mr. Paulsen yesterday afternoon.
"An Enderly Park resident appears to have spontaneously changed sex while pumping gas at this Citgo station, about five-fifteen today, in an incident reminiscent of at least nine similar occurrences in October-November 2001."
The scene changed to the exterior of a hospital:
- "Sources at Carolinas Medical Center say that a woman was brought here by paramedics at five thirty-five, saying she had just been changed into a woman. She was wearing a poorly-fitting masculine business suit. Aside from elevated blood presure and adrenaline levels, examination showed her to be a normal, healthy woman.
- "Hospital officials are not releasing the woman's name at this time, but say she has spoken with friends and relatives who have confirmed her identity with the man they knew. Police say the case seems similar to the nine known cases of sudden instant sex change from the fall of 2001, such as this one..."
Then a woman, apparently in the TV station studio being interviewed; a subtitle read "Kelly Porter, waitress, 2001 changee, in 2004 interview":
- "I was at work, the late shift, when it happened. I felt really weird all of a sudden and my crotch hurt something awful, and I kind of doubled up. My supervisor came running over to see what was the matter; she realized I had turned into a man before I did."
A brief discontinuity then, the woman's position and expression suddenly shifting, showing where the old interview footage had been edited, and:
- "I got this letter a week ago,"
A close-up of a letter, printed in fourteen-point Arial on white paper.
- "saying this person -- they didn't say who they were -- they were sorry about changing me into a man and if I wanted to change back, I should come to Freedom Park on the day of the festival, and spend some time walking around."
The woman again:
- "They said to wear my Waffle House nametag on a Charlotte Knights baseball cap so they could recognize me, and I shouldn't tell anyone about the letter until after I was changed back. So I did. The park was crowded, what with the festival, and there were a whole bunch of people around when I suddenly changed back into a woman, so I couldn't tell who might have done it."
Then the exterior of an office building, subtitled "North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation"; the reporter's voice again:
- "Officials with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation's Paranormal Unit suggest that a single paranormal with a unique power is responsible for this latest change as well as the changes in 2001 and 2004."
A middle-aged but good-looking man in a police uniform, being interviewed probably in his office; the subtitle read "Captain Mark Lawrence, NCSBI, Paranormal Unit":
- "When seven of the nine known changees got those letters offering to change them back, we confirmed what we had suspected when those changes first happened, that a specific paranormal was responsible, probably a teenage runaway with no control of his or her power. Most paranormals don't have control of their power when it first manifests; some learn to control it on their own in a short time, some take years to get it under fine control even with expert help. When the changes suddenly stopped after the last known change in Greensboro, we suspected that either the unknown paranormal had gotten their power under control, or that they had died. We aren't sure why so much time passed between the last known change and the first change-back; perhaps the person learned to supress their power a few weeks after it manifested but took a few years to learn to use it reliably at will.
- "We want to help this person get their power under control; we're guessing that they lost control of it again earlier this afternoon. If you're watching this and you're responsible for the changes, let us help; we have over twenty years of experience helping paranormals learn to control their powers, and we won't blame or punish you for your accidental use of your powers."
Then the three newscasters in the standard race and gender mix at their fancy nonfunctional desk in the studio; the lead newscaster (the black guy) said,
- "Well, let's hope this paranormal turns themselves in soon, or at least doesn't lose control again. ...Next, a house fire in Oakhurst leaves one dead and four others homeless..."
Mike turned off the TiVo and TV. "Well?"
"Not too shabby," Nat said. "I guess Miss Paulsen didn't want to be interviewed, or the hospital wouldn't let the reporters at her. I wonder, though..."
"Is this going to stop her from embezzling more?"
"Well, it's going to draw a lot of attention to her. Just possibly somebody will remember the tips I phoned in to her company and the police a while ago, and take a harder look for the evidence that she managed to cover up before. And I reckon she'll probably take some time off work after this, which might give some of her colleagues a chance to figure out what she's been doing. If nothing else, she's suffering for her crime."
They finished eating their waffles. Nat fidgeted nervously. "I guess you could give me a ride to pick up my car now."
"Are you sure you're ready to drive that far? You were pretty wiped out last night..."
"Well... I feel better after a good night's sleep, but maybe I should rest a little more before I get on the road. Let breakfast digest and all." While watching the news she had leaned over a little toward Mike; she scooted a couple of inches further from him toward her end of the sofa.
Mike picked up a secondary memory, an image of Vincent, suave and well-mannered when he picked her up the night of their date... "Let me go wash these things," he said, standing up and taking her tray. "I can help," Nat said hurriedly, standing up and following him into the kitchen. "You fixed supper and breakfast both and washed the supper dishes..."
"All right," he said. "Just rinse the plates and silverware and put them in the dishwasher, if you want. I don't think it's full enough to run yet."
He put away the syrup and the waffle batter fixings while she rinsed the dishes. After a minute, he said, hesitantly:
"You know I remember what Vincent did to you. That's not the only time I remember being raped, either, or molested... You know I would never do that to you. I wouldn't put even a little bit of pressure on you. And not just because of your power, either; both because I care about you, and because I remember being too many girls whose boyfriends leaned hard on them to put out to ever treat someone else like that."
"I know," she said quietly, putting the last of the silverware in the dishwasher and getting ready to clean the waffle iron. "I trust you now, or I wouldn't have agreed to change Mr. Paulsen, and I wouldn't have come home with you last night. It's just... knowing in my head I can trust you is one thing, and completely relaxing around you is another. I'll get there."
Mike was quiet for a minute, having finished everything he could usefully do in the kitchen; he watched her cleaning the waffle iron. Then: "Would you be more comfortable hanging out here until you're ready to go home if I were a woman too?"
"What?" She looked up at him. "Do you want...?"
"Not particularly, but I'm willing. I don't want to ask you to change me; I saw how much it tired you out. And I don't have curiosity to satisfy, either; I have thousands of women's memories, more than I can ever consciously remember. But for the same reason I'm pretty sure it wouldn't bother me like it does most of the other men you've changed, either. And maybe if you use your power more often, you'll get stronger and changing someone won't tire you out all at once like that did yesterday."
"It wasn't just changing him, it was doing it after being awake for twelve hours, working eight hours and driving for almost three... But. Yeah, if you don't mind my changing you, I would feel a lot more comfortable hanging out here. Are you ready?"
"I expect so." She changed him.
The moment of the change itself felt strange, then as she looked at herself, she remembered being, not exactly like this, but as near as made no difference. For a few moments she was lost in memories of being Helen Anderson of Rock Hill, South Carolina, maybe the woman whose kinaesthetic memories most closely matched her changed body; then she heard Nat talking and came back to the present:
"See, that didn't tire me nearly as much as changing Mr. Paulsen," Nat was saying. "I feel like I just walked up a couple of flights of stairs, but I think I could do it again without resting much first."
"I'm glad," Mike said. "I was right; all the women's memories I have make this feel pretty familiar."
"Good. Um, so what do you want to do next?"
"You could look over my DVDs and pick something you haven't seen yet, maybe. Later on after you've rested from changing me we could go for a walk, if you want, and do some more planning for our future targets..."
"Good plan," she said.
A couple of hours later, after they'd finished watching Forbidden Planet, Nat looked at Mike. "That was good," she said. And... Thanks again for letting me change you. I don't think I could have relaxed and enjoyed the movie, otherwise."
"You're welcome. I'm glad we could get the tension out of the way. I know how you've been nervous about all the men who've been interested in you, ever since Vincent... If I had those memories without others to balance them out, memories from hundreds of people in healthy relationships, I'd probably be the same way."
"Did I manipulate you into this somehow? I'm sorry..."
"No, remember, it was my idea? I care about you and I don't like making you feel nervous. If this lets us relax and be friends without your nervousness about men getting in the way, I don't mind."
"But your work, your other friends and relations... do you want to let them think this just happened to you like to Miss Paulsen?"
"No, better not. Two changes in a day or so in one city: we don't need to give the police that much help. Just change me back before you go home, and then feel free to change me again whenever we're going to be spending a lot of time together."
"All right." Silence for a while. Mike took the DVD out of the player and put it away in its case.
"Do you want to go for a walk?" she asked. Nat did.
As they walked out of the apartment complex onto a sidewalk along a residential street, Mike said: "I figure you could probably tell I was interested in you as more than just a partner in vigilantism. I'm glad you got over your, um, aversion enough to listen to me. If this is all you want, to be friends and partners in secret justice, that's enough. But..."
"But more would be nice?"
Nat was quiet. "I'm sorry," she said. "Maybe someday I'll be ready. But when your only experience of it is rape, it's really hard to let down your guard..."
"I know," Mike said. "It's horrible whenever something reminds me of it, the time it happened to you or any of the other women whose memories I have... But I wish I could give you some memories and not just take. It doesn't have to be like that."
"I know," Nat said. "But acting on it, that's another thing. Just be patient, please?"
About the time Mike finished his story, Stefan and the other Nat finished haggling and emerged from the office with the checks they'd received for their cars.
"Let's clear out of this world, shall we?" Stefan said.
"Let's do that," Nat replied.
"We need to find a mailbox, first, remember?" the other Nat said.
"Right," said Mike. "There'll probably be one near the bank."
They took a MARTA bus a short distance to the nearest bank, cashed the checks they'd received for their cars, and mailed Nat and Mike's letters and packages for the people they wouldn't be seeing again, at least in this timeline. Then they took the bus to the Decatur MARTA station.
Nat looked at his prepaid cellphone as he got off the bus. Still no call from Lyle Waldrop; if her sometime girlfriend had been lying about her wanting to remain female, as Nat vaguely suspected, it was just too bad.
"Here," he said to a gray-bearded man with a heavy backpack who had gotten off the bus just behind them, handing him the cellphone. "It's got about forty or fifty prepaid minutes left on it. If someone calls for me, tell them I've moved with no forwarding address." The man looked at him in puzzlement, then tossed the phone into the nearby trash bin. Nat shrugged and followed Stefan, Mike and his other self away from the bus stop.
"This is it," Stefan said, after he'd led them on a short walking tour of the station exterior, the nearby shops, and the city square, to finally find a secluded alcove from which they could jump. "Everyone lift your luggage in one hand and hold onto my hand, here..." He slung his own light bag over his left shoulder and held out his right hand; Nat, Nat and Mike all grasped it.
"Here we are," he said matter-of-factly. The weather was different, heavily overcast where it had been almost perfectly clear a moment ago, and there was something else different, too: a faint smell of burning.
"Doesn't look too promising," Mike said dubiously as they stepped out of the alcove to get a better view. Most of the windows of the nearby shops were broken; one had been boarded up, but the boards too had been broken in at some point. Most of the larger trees they had seen moments before were gone, with irregular stumps in their place suggesting that axes rather than chainsaws might have been used on them. A few scraggly pines grew amid the tall grass and weeds where a neat lawn had been.
"What's been going on in your world in the last seven years that you didn't tell me about?" Nat asked, aghast. "Or is this new since you left here a month ago?" He approached a rusty car parked by the side of the street -- there were fewer cars present than before, and none in motion -- and exclaimed: "There's a skeleton in here!" Mike drew nearer and saw there was, indeed, a skeleton slumped behind the driver's seat. Unidentifiable stains covered the seat and floorboard. Nat and Stefan hung back, though.
"Ah, the letters you posted before we left reminded me of something," said Stefan. With his left hand he pulled an envelope from his left pants pocket, still holding Nat's hand with his right, and tossed it toward Nat and Mike. "Catch!"
As the former vigilantes turned away from the skeleton in the car and saw the envelope hit the ground near them, Stefan squeezed Nat's hand; Nat let go of his suitcase, and they vanished.
"What the hell?" Mike yelled. Nat picked up the envelope, opened it, and removed a handwritten letter on Days Inn stationery.
- "Dear Mr. Holcomb and Mr. Kensington,
- "While we partially sympathized with your vigilante activities, and did not wish to see you rewarded for your thirst for justice with years or even decades of prison, we thought it unsuitable that your taking the law into your own hands should go entirely unpunished. After some discussion, we decided that six months of community service would not be inappropriate.
- "You are in a world in which the human race was almost but not quite wiped out by a series of plagues, probably enetically engineered, in the late 1980s. One or more of those plagues was 100% fatal for women; all of the few survivors are men. Nat, I need not elaborate on the need for your power in this world. Some years ago I visited a world like this with another version of you, and we restored hope to a number of communities in north Georgia and the Carolinas and along the eastern seaboard. I suggest you do something similar, travelling southward, helping out whatever communities you find along the way, and meet me at Forsyth Park in Savannah six months from today. Do not go toward downtown Atlanta; it is not safe -- that's where the burning smell is coming from. You might head southward until you reach a creek or river, and then go downstream until you find people; then they can probably tell you where to find the other survivor communities they know about.
- "Some of the communities of survivors in this world are very hostile to strangers; but, as none of them has seen a woman in about twenty years, you will probably be safe, as Nat and I usually were, if one or both of you is female. Whatever plague killed all the women by 1989 seems to have burned itself out for want of hosts long ago; Nat never suffered any serious illness during her travels here.
- "Your humble and devoted servant,
- "Stefan Swartebroekx."
Then the handwriting changed:
- "P.S. - No hard feelings, okay? When you finish changing a few guys in each community you visit here, and Stefan brings you back to my world, I hope you'll be willing to help out in my changing business, like we talked about. Even if you don't want to do that, I'll still put in a good word for you with the GSPA and help you get new identity papers and jobs. Nat, I'll talk to Mom and Dad about maybe pretending that we were twins and they had to give you up for adoption and then you found us again, or something.
- -- Nat."
Nat handed the letter to Mike, who had read much of it over his shoulder. When he finished it, he said:
"Damn, I should have remembered this before!"
"Now I remember how Stefan and the other you planned this, several weeks ago, right after you met her at the pub in Decatur... I've known since Saturday morning, but somehow nothing reminded me of it until now. Too many other memories to assimilate at the same time, not just them but the motel clerk and the people at the Cracker Barrel, and that one got mislaid... Damn it!"
"Don't beat yourself up," Nat said; "you can't help the way your power works. I'm surprised sometimes you can remember who you are, among all those people's memories, let alone remember specific experiences you need to know about when you need to know about them..."
"Yeah... well, it's done now. I guess we'd better start exploring. And maybe you'd better change us both, first thing, so in case we meet somebody hostile like it says here we can bat our pretty eyelashes at them."
"I expect so." Nat changed himself, then Mike. "And maybe we'd better do some triage on our luggage before we start. How much of this stuff do we want to haul around for six months?" She opened her suitcase and looked inside: a few changes of clothes -- only one feminine outfit, though; her toiletry bag; some favorite books and CDs published in the last seven years (older ones she'd left behind, thinking she could acquire new copies at her destination); three notebooks containing her very intermittent diary; a manila envelope containing photos of Will, her parents, and a few other friends and relations; and nine thousand dollars in cash, all her savings she'd withdrawn from the bank plus the proceeds from selling her car.
"Well," she said, "obviously the money gets tossed. And the guy clothes. I'll hang on to the books and CDs for now, but I might wind up tossing them after a few days of walking... The notebooks and photos I'll hang onto as long as I can."
"What about this suitcase the other you left?" Mike said. She walked over to where Nat and Stefan had been standing when they vanished, and opened the suitcase.
"Damn, I'm surprised he was able to lift this!" Inside were two can openers; a dozen or so cans of pineapple, peaches, beans, tomatoes, and corned beef; six half-liter water bottles; two bowls, two spoons, two forks, and two hunting knives; two parkas; insect repellent; a snakebite kit; a compass; two LED flashlights, with extra batteries; bottles of aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen, Midol, Bactine; a roll of bandages; duct tape; two butane lighters and a box of matches; two packages of tampons; two menstrual cups; and two changes of female underwear, in Nat's size. There was also another handwritten note.
"Well," she said, as Nat came over and looked at the contents of the suitcase, "I feel just the tiniest hair less resentment toward them now, what about you?"
Nat picked up the note:
- "This stuff should last you until you find a reasonably friendly community that's happy to have your services (though I reckon they'll argue for days about who should benefit from them in what way, you know) and drugstores and clothing stores that haven't been burned. The feminine products and clothes won't have been looted, of course. Lots of luck. -- Nat."
"Yeah," she sighed. "I feel slightly less abandoned now. I'd still like to wring his neck, though!"
"Plenty of time for that after the Worldwalker picks us up and takes us to that other world," Mike said, digging through the suitcase. "Memo: smile and act grateful when he shows up."