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|IDIC story universe|
|Works by Jetfire on Shifti|
|This story is a work in progress.|
August 14, 2008
I yawned and stretched, stealing a glance at my watch to check the time. "One thirty? Damn, where'd the time go?" I bleated in surprise.
After Quarks had closed, we had moved to a 24 hour restaurant to continue talking and chatting. The Heroes group had stayed mostly intact, picking up a few Rebellion folks, other Luclin players and a smattering of other EQ players in general. In the hours since then, the group had slowly shrunk down to four Changed, Zoyan, Guntur, Chanus and Melody.
"It is getting rather late. Good thing there aren't many panels going on in the morning," Zoyan commented, sipping her cola.
"That may be, but I do want to check out the Launcher talk. Got some beefs with it I want to see resolved. In any case, I think I'm gonna head out. Night guys, don't let the fleas bite" I waved to them and tossed a tip onto the table.
"Night Saroc." "See yah tomorrow," the others called out as I left the restaurant.
On the way to the elevators, I passed through the space themed casino outside Quarks. I paused just outside it as a yawn overcame me, then looked inside. I recognized a few Dev's and Community Leader's still talking at the bar.
"Hey Saroc, you made it!" Tharkis called out, snapping my picture as I approached.
"Yeah, I made it and I'm heading to bed. Been a long day, " I called back, nodding to the Dev I couldn't remember the name of. He looked vaguely familiar, but that was normal for me. Being active in the Changed community gave me a better head for names and faces, but I still wasn't that good.
He nodded and turned slightly so we could all face each other. "I'm about to head out as well. Gotta get back to the Sahara before the monorail stops running."
We chatted a bit longer, about general stuff. Neither of us brought up the Leader talk we'd had earlier that day, but that wasn't surprising; we were all well talked out about that by then. I couldn't shake the deja vu feeling with the developer I saw, but he didn't speak much to us, nor we to him. Finally, I bade them good night and headed back to my room while Tharkis headed for the station.
August 14, 2008
I pressed the 20 button and leaned against the back wall of the elevator, holding the handle of my suitcase. "You do not want to know what time it is home," I told mom, stifling a yawn. "But we're here now."
"Thank goodness. I don't think I've ever had a flight that rough," mom answered. We had gotten the red eye to Vegas from Toronto, and our flight had been delayed ninety minutes due to weather in Toronto. You know a storm is bad when it knocks out power at the airport three times in a row. After that delay, and the turbulence caused by it, neither of us were feeling all that great.
We watched the numbers click up to 20, before the doors opened. I double checked the key folder and pointed down the hallway. "Room 126, down there," I said, noticing a maid's cart set up further down the hall.
As we approached, I began to get a suspicion that was confirmed when we reached the still open door; despite it being one in the morning, the maid was still cleaning the room.
"Can I help you?" the maid called out, in the middle of changing the beds.
"I think this is our room," I said, checking the folder again, figuring I made a mistake from fatigue.
"I'll be another 30 minutes or so. Can you wait that long?" she called back, coming to meet us at the door.
Mom shrugged and pushed the handle of her suitcase down. "We don't really have much of a choice. Can we at least leave our luggage in here?"
She held out her hand. "Just let me check to make sure this is your room. Put your key in the lock to verify it please."
I handed over the key and she quickly confirmed it worked and let us in. We dropped off our bags and I dug out my name tag from my first fan faire, three years ago in this very hotel. I grabbed my camera and dropped the badge over my neck and followed mom out of the room.
"I'll just wander around the casino a bit, maybe find something to drink," mom told me while we walked to the elevator.
"Sounds good, I'll check out Quarks to see if anyone happens to still be around, maybe see if any of the computer rooms are open too. I'll see you back in the room."
To my slight surprise, Quarks was closed, but that reminded me of how early it closed last time. The casino area was mostly how I remembered it, and I recognized a few faces at the bar. I wandered closer, to the tall man seated with a Dev I couldn't quite remember.
"Tharkis! Hey there," I called out wearily, waving.
"Hey Saroc, how's it going?" he called back. Beside him, the dev startled and stared hard at me. I barely registered it.
"Dead tired. Long trip, just got in. Seen many around?" I mumbled, leaning against a railing.
He snapped a picture of me. "A few. Most headed back to their rooms after Quarks closed. I'm heading out soon myself. Gotta get the monorail to the Sahara before it stops running."
I nodded and yawned hugely. "Well, don't let me keep you. I'm just gonna wander around a bit and see who I can see. Meeting's tomorrow at ten right?"
It was Tharkis's turn to look surprised. "What meeting?"
"The Leader meeting," I yawned again and stood up straighter before I dozed off on my feet. "Never mind, I'll check when I can get into my room. Just got here and they were still cleaning it. Have fun guys. See yah tomorrow."
I left them looking confused but being too exhausted to care, and wandered out to the convention area. It was all locked up at that late time, but at least it refreshed my memory of what was where.
Elsewhere, a sensor tripped, sending a signal to a monitoring device. The device analyzed the readings and compared them with similar situations. Previous incidents had taught the monitor that this sort of event was fairly normal but warranted closer watching. It recorded a message in its log reports, sent the logs up its chain of command and retasked more sensors to keep an eye on the anomaly.
August 15, 2008
Mom barely woke up as I cleaned up and prepared for the morning. I was running off of five hours of sleep, but that was normal for me. "What time is it?" she mumbled barely awake.
"Just after 8. Registration opens soon. Are you going to be okay by yourself today?"
She yawned and sat up. "Sure, I'll be fine. Go have fun at your conferences and with your friends. I'm sure I'll find things to do here."
I grabbed my old name badge and camera, then patted my pockets down to make sure I had my room key and wallet. I shouldered my backpack and waved to her. "Okay mom. I'll see you later some time. We're all down in the Conference center if you need to look for me. It's got a few big areas that everyone tends to pass through at some point." I waved bye to her, but she was already dozing back off to sleep, then left the room.
Downstairs, I grabbed a danish and a juice from the coffee bar just off the casino and headed to the conference rooms. It was only 8:30, and there was still thirty minutes before I could get my badge for this year. There were a few people around, but no one I recognized. I sat down at a table out on the patio to eat and chatted with a few Star Wars and EQII players.
At quarter to, I tossed my garbage and headed back inside, more to get out of the increasing heat than anything. A line was beginning to form outside the Conrad room, and a few tired looking SOE folk were making their way in. I scanned the crowd again but still didn't see anyone I recognized, so I wiled away the time in game talk with strangers.
Registration went through without a hiccup and soon I was loose in the big room, the game demo's playing around me. I paused at the store tables to pick up my annual load out of server, class and race pins and checked the notice board. There was a note for me.
"Saroc: Went to Quarks but it was closed. We're gathered at the Mexican Cafe. -- Heroes"
I briefly wondered what cafe they meant, but it was irrelevant anyways. I took the note down and flipped it over, adding a big note of my own:
"HEROS: Saroc's in the Conrad room till 10. Will see you at Noon otherwise. -- Saroc" (Zoyna later made fun of me for spelling Heroes wrong, but I was still too early morning groggy to notice).
For the next half hour I wandered the hall, peeking at the DC Online game demos, checking the events schedules and looking for familiar faces. I noticed a few badges sporting paw print stickers in blue and pink, and a few badges with a winking smiley face on it, but I didn't know what they meant. I chalked it up to some event for one of the games, or maybe the "Add Beastlords to EQII" group.
To my surprise, the first person I recognized finally was someone I didn't expect to recognize. When I spied the short brown haired woman, I did a double take, and had to move closer to check her badge. Thankfully they had listened to our complaints and made the names more readable compared to the previous year.
"Bets! I didn't know you were coming!" I called out, waving to her. Her badge had the winking smiley sticker on it.
The enchanter turned and looked at me strangely for a moment, as if she couldn't recognize me. I moved close enough for her to see the badges around my neck, and she seemed to recognize the name, but stayed confused.
"Saroc? You... You look different," she said, squinting at me.
"Well it has been a year. Sorry I missed you all last night; my plane got in late and by the time I got here, everything was done. Where's everyone else?"
Her confusion deepened somehow, making her answer the last question first. "They're still eating breakfast, I just came out early since Holy said he'd be registering this morning."
Now it was my turn to be confused. "I thought Holy said he wasn't coming?"
We were both saved by a new arrival. Another woman, wearing a grey wolf cap, greeted us.
"You finally made it, Saroc," Meahlana greeted me with a warm smile.
"Yeah, I had a late flight and didn't get here till about 1AM or so. Did you know Betts was coming?" I replied, turning and pointing to Betila next to me. She seemed stunned speechless, though Meahlana didn't notice.
The shaman shook her head. "Betts?... My god it is you! What are you doing here?" the women exchanged hugs while I checked the time. It was nearly time for the CL meeting upstairs.
"Why does everyone think I wasn't coming? I said I was on the boards," Betila stammered out, becoming annoyed with us.
Meahlana shook her head. "No you didn't. We only had a small group saying they were coming this year. Good to see you made it though. Have you seen any Sony reps around? I'm supposed to meet their Euro rep for a German players meeting here."
"'Fraid not, but ask at the tables, they may know where she is. Look, I hate to greet and run, but I've got a meeting starting now. Tell everyone I'll catch up with them at noon," I told them, adjusting my backpack.
"Will do. I've got a meeting too actually. I may... I'll see you later," Betila struggled, not sure what to say.
Meah pouted a bit, "Sure, leave me here all alone." She turned it into a smile, "Go on guys, I'll spread the word. Catch you later."
Betila and I walked out of the room together, but got separated by the mob heading to the first panel talks. I thought nothing more of it, heading to the smaller conference rooms at the back of the pavilions.
I was sure the first room I walked into was the one we were scheduled for, but it was almost deserted. When someone came in asking if I was here for the Podcast, I knew I was in the wrong place. I peeked into a few more rooms and finally found a group I recognized across the hall. I waved to people I recognized and started pinning my pins to my badge.
"Hey Saroc, I'm Hulkling. Good to see you finally made it," one man said, sitting next to me and holding out his hand. Behind him, another man who walked in with him looked like he had seen a ghost. "This is Chanus."
I held my hand out to the other man, "Morning. Man there seems to be a lot of people who decided to come at the last minute or something. I never even knew you were thinking of coming."
Chanus took my hand hesitantly, then eased himself into a chair, Hulk between me and him.
"I saw him on my way up here and grabbed him. Lucky I recognized his name; he seemed to think the meeting was yesterday," Hulk said, laughing. Chanus's expression had a weird mix of fear and confusion on it.
Soon enough the last dev's reached the room and closed the door. The producer opened the meeting and we started around the table doing introductions. When Absor introduced himself, Chanus let out a gasp that almost sounded like a bleat, drawing more eyes towards him. The introductions continued around to me.
"Hi everyone, I'm Terry, also known as Saroc," I introduced myself. The words were barely out of my mouth when Chanus stood up suddenly.
"No! This isn't right! It's not right!" he called out, backing up towards the door, an almost animalistic expression of fear and confusion on his face. He seemed to recover his wits enough to get a hold of the door knob. "I... I'm sorry, I'm in the wrong room. I'm so sorry."
The room fell silent, staring at the open door. Finally Rytan stood up and pulled it shut. "Anyone know what that was about?" he asked. The room shook their heads. "Well, if anyone sees him later, try to talk to him. In the mean time, let's get down to business.
I stood at the end of the hall between the two sets of pavilions. Most of the official fan faire panels were taking place in the rooms behind me. But this panel was an invite only panel taking place away from the rest. Zoyan, Guntur, Riki and Hamy kept me company as we flagged down Changed and directed them to the right room for the second annual 'SOE Beastiary' panel.
"Betila! Over here!" Zoyan shouted, waving her arm to catch the woman's attention.
She looked our way, then squinted in the way I'd seen other Known try to see through the field. A relieved expression crossed her face and she approached us. "Thank goodness, it's really you."
"Really us? Who else would it be?" Guntur asked.
"I have no idea. But something strange happened. I met you, Saroc, in the main room. But you weren't Changed. He had your badges and everything, but he wasn't Changed."
I looked down at the pair of badges around my neck; I'd worn one of the old badges in line yesterday so people could find me, and kept it since this years badges didn't have pockets. "He must have been faking it or something. I've been with these guys since you left us at breakfast. With my badges."
"I know! But that's not even the strangest part. Meah showed up, but it wasn't the one we met last night. She acted like she hadn't seen me since last year. She acted like I'd never even said I was coming! I said I was coming right?"
"You were the third Hero registered. We knew you were coming almost from the announcement," Zoyan said, sharing the puzzled looks the rest of us had.
"Hey guys," a lioness interrupted us, calling from the door of the room. "I think we've got all we're gonna get. Why don't you come on in so we can get this started."
"Sure Melody. We're coming in now," I told her, then looked back at my guildmates. "Lets talk about this later, once we get everyone together."
I lead them into the big room and looked around. Unofficial polls before Fan Faire had guesstimated about seventy five furs and a couple dozen Known would be at the Fan Faire, but we seemed short. A few of the Changed I had given stickers to the day before weren't there, most noticeably Chanus. It would have been nice to have everyone there, but the Beastiary panel wasn't mandatory, and it overlapped with a few panels even I wished I could have gone to.
I waved to the bull at the head table and took my seat with my guildmates. Melody shut the door and gave a thumbs up to the SOE personal at the table.
Absur stood up and waited a moment for silence. "Good morning everyone. Good to see so many new faces, old faces and even a new old face here this year. Like I said last year, this is an unofficial panel, providing a chance for our Changed and Known players to meet each other and talk in peace without needing to hide. I am Aidan, Absur on the boards. Leonard, known as Lendro is on my left, and Julia, known as Ellra is on my right. Feel free to talk amongst yourselves or come up and talk with us. We'll be mingling with you too.
"Before we begin though, first, my apologies for having Fan Faire the days before Change day. It was NOT intended but this date was the only one available as a fall back. And it was completely out of our paws to control.
"Speaking of the Change though, remember it is coming this Sunday. If you don't have to travel in the morning, it's probably best to avoid travel. And if anyone you know is showing signs of sickness, keep an eye on them and be ready to help them." As if to punctuate his comments, Hamy pulled out some Kleenex and loudly blew his nose.
"And finally, a quick thanks to our usual volunteers, Melody and Saroc and Liandra, who caught most of you and told you where we were. Stand and wave guys. Now, have fun, and have a great Fan Faire."
The noise level in the room quickly rose. Aidan and the other Sony folks wandered from group to group while we talked and shared experiences. Aidan reached us while Betila was still talking about the strange 'me' she had met.
"You saw the unChanged Saroc too?" Aidan interrupted us after listening a moment. "I saw him last night, outside Quarks when I was with Tharkis. I didn't know what to make of him; he didn't react to me at all, wasn't Changed, and seemed to have just gotten in."
"That matches what the one I saw said. He was leaving a note on the notice board, and seemed to imply he had just gotten in. Definitely not changed. He didn't even have a paw on his badge, like you Sar."
I squirmed uneasily in my chair, not sure what to make of this. It definitely seemed like someone was out there impersonating me, but I had no idea why. Especially not why they would do it where I actually was. "I have no idea-" I started to say, when the door crashed open, immediately silencing the room.
All eyes turned to stare at the panting buck, his eyes scanning the room, nostrils flaring as he tried to get his breath. He locked on to Aidan and seemed to collapse a bit. "Oh thank Rob, you're you!" Chanus exclaimed. A horse morph barely caught him in time and eased him to a chair.
A crush of curious and concerned people pushed in around him. Betila wiggled her way through the mob and shouted out for them to get back and to give him air. Most moved back, leaving Aidan, me, Melody and Betila standing around Chanus. "What happened Chanus?" she asked, checking the buck over and motioning for someone to get him a glass of water.
The buck gulped down the water and began to calm down. "I... I was making my way here, when Hulkling stopped me. But I don't think it was the same Hulk I met yesterday. I mean, he looked and sounded and smelled like the one I had met. But he didn't recognize me until he saw my name badge.
"I figured he was kidding or something and played along at first. But then he said to come on; the Leader meeting was about to start. Now we did that yesterday, but he thought it was today for some reason."
"The other Saroc said the same thing last night," Aidan said.
Chanus focused on the bull. "You saw him too? I couldn't believe it. But I'm getting ahead. When Hulk said there was a meeting, I figured there was another meeting going on, one for just CL's so we could talk about SoD or something."
"Which doesn't exist," Aidan mumbled out of habit.
"I got up there and you guys were there. I mean the Dev's and the CL's. Looked just like the meetings we did yesterday, but there were a few different people. Right off the bat, Hulk takes me to one corner and introduced me to a guy sitting there, dressed in a red shirt like you Sar, and with your name badges but without the paw sticker. I was floored. I thought it really was you, and you had somehow found a way to change back or something, but you didn't even recognize me as me. It was like you weren't changed, or couldn't see through the Veil or something."
He took another gulp of water, the room listening to him in rapt attention. "Soon enough, everyone else got there and we started with the introductions. It was weird; it was like the meetings yesterday had never happened. And that was when the next shock happened." The deer stared at Aidan as he spoke. "We got to a Dev I vaguely remembered and he introduced himself as Alan, known as Absor. Another unchanged Changed? How could that be?
"I was ready to run there, but I was too shocked to do anything. The introductions went around, mostly familiar names to familiar faces, but I gradually became aware of little things off; names different from what I was told yesterday, faces not quite as I remembered. Finally, that Saroc introduced himself as Terry." The buck stared at me now. "That's not your name is it? It's something else right?"
I nodded. "Joey. Joey's my name. My middle name is Terrence, I suppose it could be shortened to Terry."
"Right, well I couldn't take any more. I had to get out of there. I'm afraid I made a rather undignified retreat and ran down here as fast as I could. What's going on here? Who are those impostors and how do they know us so well?"
"I don't know. I really don't know," Aidan mumbled and went silent, thinking things over. Around us, the noise slowly rose, tension rising in the air. Snippets of conversation hinted that others were having strange encounters with almost-right people.
Aidan made his way back to the head of the room and called for attention. "Something is up here. What exactly I have no idea. But lets go over what we do know and maybe we can make some sense of it before we go back to the main Fan Faire."
Over the next hour, more and more Changed and Known alike came forward, pointing out inconsistencies they had noticed over the past few days. When someone mentioned seeing strange headlines on a USA Today in the gift shop, a dozen cellphones came out to check news websites. This highlighted another anomaly. Some phones connected to news that seemed familiar to us, but other phones, connecting to the exact same sites, got an entirely different set of news, complete with a new president few of us recognized. (One Changed recognized him as a former Texas Governor).
By the end of the session, we were no closer to understanding what was going on. Aidan tried to summarize what we did know as best he could.
"As far as we can tell, there are... duplicates of people out there. No that's not quite right. It's almost like there are two Fan Faires out there, partly overlapping, and some of us and some of them are going between them. One Faire has Changed and one doesn't. But what's causing it? Is it going to reverse? Is it another facet of the Change somehow? We don't know."
He sighed and looked across the room. "Since that other group doesn't have the Changed there is that to our advantage. But there aren't enough Known and Changed to sort things out fully. And it doesn't really help us figure out what is going on.
"Best we can do I think, is keep an eye on the Changed. If you find out anything new or something, spread the word through the Changed. Maybe we can sort this out before the end of Fan Faire. Or maybe it'll end with the end of Fan Faire... if we're lucky." He shook his big head and shrugged. "Go out, and try to have fun guys. Nothing we can do about this. If you have any contacts in the Changed scientific community, or if you can get on the Changed boards maybe explain what's going on. Otherwise, like the Change itself there isn't anything we can do."
With more sensors monitoring the anomaly, more reactions were naturally expected. The monitor device dutifully recorded the new readings as they occurred, and compared them with the norms. At first, nothing was amiss, but the readings began to creep upwards, leaving the norms the monitor was used to dealing with. A threshold was reached, and the monitor's automated systems triggered an alarm, sending a notice through its network.
A different set of monitors caught the notice and read through it. Different subroutines pulled apart different parts of the message, creating lists of who best to handle the growing incident. One id rose to the front, and an alert was sent out.
A large figure crouched on a platform hovering in front of a safe door. It had its wings pulled in tight, while holding an arm up to the door, a device on his wrist occasionally chirping while it worked. Suddenly the device stopped and flashed yellow. The lights in the room brightened and the platform settled back on the ground.
"Who the hell reset the simulation?" the figure growled, stretching out from having help position for so long. "Mercury had almost broken the encryption on the safe." The device chirped in agreement.
"Apologies, Jetfire. However a code Yellow-Alpha job has come in for you to supervise." A disembodied voice said, while the room around the figure began to reconfigure itself.
"Code Yellow-Alpha? Send the details to Mercury and give me the summary," Jetfire ordered, grabbing a drink from a bar against the wall and sitting down. The device on his wrist began to chirp again as signals arrived. A few feet in front of him, a display appeared, hovering in midair.
"Code Yellow-Alpha incident triggered by cross contamination of two universes. Both have high technology, low mystical potential, but the locations of the contamination are still fairly low level. Initial readings were not unusual for a natural touch, but subsequent readings are showing increasing contamination with an increasing chance of permanent merge, possibly catastrophic merging. Likelihood of Ragnor involvement pegged at seventy eight percent."
The dragon rubbed the base of his horns and sighed. "Great. Figures they'd have their claws in this. Can you figure out how they are involved in this?"
"Negative. Need more data from closer to the contamination."
"Mercury, have you got a team list ready? Low mystic, high tech, guess we can deal with that."
The device chirped again and shifted, lifting a screen up and expanding to show a list. Jetfire skimmed down it and nodded, then pausing at the suggestion for team lead. "Him? But it's a low mystic world. He won't be able to survive there long enough."
Mercury gave an annoyed chirp and the list spun down to the bottom, and a new entry highlighted itself.
"Okay, okay, I see now. Sorry for doubting you, friend. Send a message to Ash and Baldie to get the Blade ready, and ask Mac to meet me in the observatory so we can go over his team."
The device gave a final chirp and went silent. The dragon looked around one last time and sighed, getting up and carrying his drink with him. The data window winked out behind him and the lights shut off.
Other than Chanus's weird reaction at the start, the meeting went well. There was a lot that was better explained in a face to face meeting than in a series of message board posts or irc chats. I stayed after to chat with some of the Dev's and CL's before excusing myself, intending to find a bathroom and then my guildmates in that order.
It turned out, I found the guildmates first. Meahlana, a trio of beastlords and Snowpurr's husband found me just as I was in the hall between the pavilions and casino.
"Didn't Pau say she couldn't make it? Taking care of her sick husband?" I whispered to Snowpurr when I had a chance.
"She said he took a turn for the better and insisted she go. I thought the same as you though," she whispered back.
"Ah I see." I spoke louder to get their attention a bit. "I've been sitting and talking for the past couple hours and I'm afraid I really have to go. Meet you all in the Conrad room," I said, excusing myself and beelining for the bathroom.
Coming back out, I spied someone who made me do a double take. If he hadn't waved to get my attention, I probably would have ignored him, but he clearly seemed to recognize me somehow, despite the impossibility. Stunned, I approached dad.
"Dad? What are you doing here?" I asked the man. He looked like my dad, but it was impossible; dad had stayed home this trip. He should still be at work, not down here.
"Hey Joey, Your mom sent me to look for you down here. We tried calling you but there wasn't an answer. She wanted to know if there was anything in particular you wanted us to keep an eye out for while we're out and about today?"
He sounded and acted so much like dad, I missed the name he called me. I shook myself out of the stupor enough to parse his question. "Uh no, I've got everything I need here. Thanks for checking though," I stammered out.
He nodded and started to turn. "Well have fun then. We'll see you later sometime then. Have fun. Your mom's gonna flip when she sees you dyed your hair though." He chuckled and headed back into the casino. I watched him leave, reaching a hand up to touch my hair, wondering what he meant by dying it, then wondering what the hell he was doing there in the first place. I checked my watch, wanting to call home and make sure he was there, but I knew it would be useless; it was just after 4, and dad would be at either of his jobs, or going between them. Where he was exactly was impossible to know.
I heard my name, my in game name, called out, and waved to a big bunch of guildmates. Some I recognized from the year before, others were new. But it was nice to have something familiar to grab onto in this increasingly weird day.
The dragon stood in the observatory, looking out the windows. They weren't real windows, just screens projecting an image of what was on the outside of the station's walls, but the effect was real enough for most people. The view showed ships following strictly assigned routes through the station's control sphere. Periodically, a flash of light would reveal a complicated ring-structure around the mouth of one of the wormholes that made up the Tangle.
Behind the pensive dragon, a door slid open and a human walked out. Even among the base's varied population, 'average' was the best way to describe him; average height, average weight, slightly tanned skin, brown hair. The only thing out of place about him was the style of his clothing, having a primitive, natural fabrics handmade appearance to his shirt and pants compared to the custom machine made styles common to the station.
"Sorry to cut your visit home short, but we have an incident developing, and Mercury thinks you're the best leader for it," Jetfire said without turning around.
"No problem. No major events were going on that needed me. So what are we dealing with?" Malcolm asked, stopping a few meters away from the dragon. As he stood there, his clothing began to shift, melting and reshaping. They became shinier, taking on the appearance of artificial fabrics, with the regular stitching from machine made clothing.
The dragon turned around and faced Malcolm. "We have an overlap occurring, possibly artificial in nature. If it isn't stopped, we could end up either with either a merger, or a big bang. Odds are leaning more towards a big bang result at the moment."
"Ouch, that's bad. Ragnor's involved I take it?"
"No evidence yet, but a high probability. The display please, Mercury." The device chirped and two of the windows flickered, resetting to a complicated display that began to cycle. "Without interference, the two 'branes should have touched briefly and separated. But some thing, or some things are attracting them, causing the touch region to persist and grow."
Malcolm studied the display intently for a moment then nodded. "So I'm leading, I take it they are magitech worlds?"
"Actually no. Both worlds have high tech potential and virtually no mystical potential."
"No mystic? Then why the hell are you picking me to lead? I can't stay active in a nonmagic world."
The dragon shrugged. "Mercury picked you for some reason only it knows. But you'll be taking the Blade with you. It should bring along a strong enough magic field for you and your team to do what is needed. As long as you return periodically to recharge you should be fine."
Malcolm shrugged and sighed, "I don't like this but it's not the first time. So who else is coming along?"
Mercury chirped and the displays reset, popping up its proposed team. First up was a cylindrical tower, floating in midair, with four side towers arrayed around it.
"As I mentioned, you'll be taking Blade back with you. Since the world is low mystic, you'll want to keep the flying to a minimum. Mercury has already found some empty lots near the main overlap site that it'll be able to land and stay cloaked on for the duration of the mission. Of course you know Baldy and Ash. They'll be going along for on board support, but they are not to leave Blade." As the dragon spoke, a bald dark bluish skinned elf, and a humanoid with fiery red hair appeared on the screen and moved to a corner next to the picture of the tower.
"Are we going to have Nar to pilot for us?"
"No. The main overlap site is in a desert city in both settings, not exactly a location she's comfortable with. You shouldn't need to travel much once on site anyways."
Malcolm nodded. "Fair enough. So if Ash and Baldy are staying on board, who's the field team?"
"Counting you, you'll have a team of three. Your other two members both come from worlds similar to the merging worlds so they should be fairly comfortable there.
"First we have Snapshot, also known as Joseph. He is from a high tech, high mystic world. He is a teleporter, phaser and linguist. Fairly new to the Tangle, we're interested in seeing how his powers react to a mid tech world." On the screen a young, well tanned man with brown hair was shown, dressed in loose pants and shirt, and wearing a wristcomp and carrying a camera.
Jetfire hesitated a moment, but Mercury continued. Snapshot's picture moved to one side, and a large man with dirty grey hair appeared, dressed in grease and dirt stained overalls, pockets and a toolbelt overfilled with tools and devices.
"No! Not him!" Mac exclaimed.
"Sorry, Mercury figures he's one of the definite fits for this mission for some reason only it can fathom."
"Last mission we went on together, he tried to disassemble me! And don't get me started on what his boxes tried to do with Ash's crabs."
"We've already talked with him. You are the leader of this mission and he recognizes it. He's leaving most of his gear here, and only taking one box that will stay on the Blade and promised to leave Ash's crab-mechs alone as well. In particular though, his world is very similar to the worlds you are going to; a few years ahead timeline wise, but with the same basic population distributions and settlement locations. He's even been to the cities involved a few times on his world."
Malcolm sighed and looked at the man on the screen. "Fine. But I'm wearing my silver nails. When do we head out?"
"Blade reports it is almost ready now. The transport should be ready within two hours to pick up the Blade and set you on the way. Everyone else is already on board and waiting. Mercury has already sent all the data we have on the worlds and situation to Blade." Jetfire held out his claw to the human. "Good luck. I'll see you when you get back."
Mac shook it briefly and turned to leave. "Thanks."
"This is freaky. I mean the Change is one thing, but to know there are others out there, not Changed but just like us?" Zoyan shuddered and hugged herself. "So do we tell the others?"
Hamy shook his head. "I don't think so. I mean, we don't know who's on which side. Or even if there are sides to be on."
I nodded and swallowed my cud. "Good point. Lets find the others, keep our eyes open for these dopplegangers and try to have a good time one way or another. They're waiting for us at the Star Trek experience right?"
We hoofed it back through the casino to the lines for the ride, trying to be relaxed, but it was tough. I found myself looking at people as we went by, not looking for Changed (though I saw a few), but looking for ourselves. Even when we joined the unKnown guildmates, none of us relaxed. We simply didn't know who really was in our guild and who wasn't.
"Hey guys, did you have a good meeting?" Pau called out once she saw us. I recognized most of the group she was with, but there were two strangers. We all tensed a bit.
"We had a good time, lots to talk about. Hope you guys were having fun," Riki said.
"We've been having a blast. This is Snowpurr and her husband, Gweezul. I don't know how we missed each other last night, but they found us today." We all shook hands and exchanged quick introductions.
"I thought Snowpurr canceled?" I heard Hamy mumble under his breath. I shrugged to him and mentally promised to keep an eye on them.
"It could be two of Them," I mumbled back as we got in line for the tickets. The husband and wife pair did seem to be looking at me strangely and mumbling to each other, but the noise was too loud to pick up what they were saying.
The rides were much as I remembered them from a few years before, but having a group to experience them with made them all that much better. The seats did crimp tails, but overall we enjoyed ourselves and almost forgot the possible strangers in our midst.
Guntur and Meah rejoined us at the exit; both had passed on the ride for their own reasons. As we walked back to the Faire, Guntur pulled me to one side.
"I think I saw Them," he whispered to me.
I nearly tripped over my hooves, looking around. "What? Where?"
"Not now. But back when you were in the ride. I was getting a drink at the store, and I saw a group go by. A group with me in it. The old me that is. I didn't get close enough to read names, but I saw Vahkan, the old Zoyan, Meah, and a few others I didn't recognize. One may have been you."
I rubbed the base of my horns and sighed, picking up my pace to catch up. "Point them out if you see any of them again. So there are two Meahlana's? That's gonna be tricky."
"I know. Just wanted to let you know."
"Thanks. Oh and Snow and Gwee there are two of Them. We weren't sure at first, but whoever briefed them didn't brief them well enough," I warned the weasel.
He looked at the couple walking with the group, subtly surrounded by Changed and Known. "How'd you find out?"
"Whoever prepared them seemed to think we just started hunting Ashengate West. But we've been farming that all summer and working on North lately. I don't think they suspect anything though." I looked ahead and pointed. "Guys, the first panel is in here. If you're going to it."
Most of us went into the room, where we grabbed a row of chairs. At the head, I saw the Dev's setting up, but they seemed off from what I expected. There was no sign of Aidan anywhere. Chanus waved me over from a row near the front.
"Thank god, you're here. I was beginning to think I was going crazy," the buck whispered to me after a quick look around. He was sitting next to Tharkis and Hulkling, but they weren't paying attention to us.
"What is it now?... Wait those aren't our Dev's are they?" I whispered back.
"Exactly. They're the ones I saw in that room this morning. Aidan's double is on the end there, his name is Alan or Absor on the boards. But these Tharkis and Hulk," he paused and glanced beside him to make sure no one was watching, "are ours I think. They doesn't remember stopping me and taking me to that meeting."
I studied the faux-Aidan a bit, then shook my head. "Just play along then. Nothing more we can do. I haven't had a chance to try and get online to poke the Changed boards about this problem but I'll try to do it by the end of the day. If you see the real Aidan, let him know. He might be able to get a message out from his computers."
The buck nodded and sat back uneasily as the talks started. It was scheduled to be a general session, so the lines to the mic grew rapidly with questions. It proved to be a strange session though; some questions asked were about things that I knew weren't broken, or had been fixed long ago, yet this team of Dev's seemed to know of most of them and made notes to fix. At the same time, some of the questions were about issues I was familiar with, but the Dev's didn't realize were a problem, or they claimed had been fixed. At the end of a strange hour, they shooed us out of the room to get ready for the next panel, even though it involved the same people.
Magic. There is no other way to explain it, but with magic. Going through the door seemed to change things around. In the few minutes we stood outside talking between panels, the chairs subtly moved, and the Dev's changed back to the ones I was expecting, including Aidan.
"There you guys are. I looked all over for your horns and antlers last session," Aidan commented, coming up to Chanus and me.
"We were here... but not here. I don't know how to explain it but we did just go through a panel, but one with your alternate. Have you managed to ask any questions on the Changed boards yet?" I asked.
He frowned in confusion and rubbed his chin. "I tried. But most of the sites were down or didn't seem to exist at all. I got through on a couple though, and I'll check again soon. You said you were here? But I've been here for the past hour. Damn, this is messed up. Were there any other Changed in your session? I saw a couple in mine."
"Just Chanus and some of my guild changed. Oh and I saw Icy too. She came in late."
He nodded again. "Well we'd better get started. Got any quest ideas? Or a group to make one up with?"
This session was a quest workshop; a chance for players to design an in game quest. We pulled together a group of Changed and Known and cooked up a quest that had too many Change related injokes to ever make it into game, but it was a good time. Mixed in the discussion, we shared what we had noticed so far about the Others, but no one had any idea what else to do.
The rest of the afternoon sessions went much the same way. We kept Aidan for some of them, but got the fake one back for the last one. Even my guild wasn't immune to the swapping; Riki and Hamy disappeared at one point, only to report they saw 'Us' in the room at the panel they were in. Hamy confirmed that one of them was very similar to the old me. We even picked up another of Them for a bit, a paladin named Tomal, and when he left we lost Snow, Gweezul and Betila. We tried to keep a brave face on it, but it was scaring us shitless. Even the unKnown (down to Meah, Holy and Vahkan now) could tell something was up, but we didn't dare explain it; not yet.
"So shall we go listen to Smed babble on? Or do we want to go do something else?" I asked as we left the last panel (a panel without Aidan). "The karaoke doesn't start till eight."
"Let's go get something to eat. What do people want?" Zoyan asked.
"There's a steakhouse. If anyone's in the mood for that," Holy mentioned.
Zoyan shook her head. "I saw their menu. Appetizers start at twenty bucks." We winced at that.
"How about the buffet? It should handle our needs. Not as good as the Rio's but..." Riki pointed out.
Guntur shook his head, "I was there. I'd rather something else."
We debated a bit more and finally decided on the Asian food place near the pavilions.
The sessions were strange. After getting a quick lunch (at which Zoyna thought he saw Guntur's twin in the gift shop/convenience store on the way), we went to the first panel together. It was a good panel, but something seemed off. The Dev's looked different from what I remembered, but I couldn't quite put my finger on the differences. Absor especially seemed off balance, not that he answered many questions. In later panels, things were more or less back to normal; we even had fun cooking up a quest with Rytan in the quest panel.
At a later session, Meahlana grabbed my arm and pointed. "Isn't that Rikki and Hamy? I thought they weren't coming this year?"
I followed her finger and saw the two figures. It did look like the pair we had met before, but they weren't moving to us. In fact when they saw us looking, they backed out of the room quickly. "It looks like them, but it was probably someone else. Been seeing a lot of people who weren't really there," I said, uneasily. It reminded me that I wanted to call dad, but he'd be calling Bingo now.
We decided to skip out on the final panel and go for an early dinner once we got a hold of everyone (and hopefully skip out on Smed's talk.). Tomal, Betila, Snow and her husband refound us while we stood outside the room, debating dinner options, finally settling on the buffet. Betila seemed uneasy about something, but went along with us.
"You know, tonight's a raid night, we should go to the public terminals they've got set up and see if we can join in," Zoyna joked once we'd gotten our first round of food.
"They limit you to thirty minutes at a time. So we'll have to tell them, they can only have some of their DPS, or some of their tanks or some of their healers at a time," Snow countered.
I glanced at my watch and mentally shifted the time. "It wouldn't matter anyways, it's almost the end of raids. But we can go give it a shot, to go taunt them at least," I grinned at the thought, relaxing among friends and momentarily forgetting the strangeness I'd been seeing.
"So what did you guys take on last time?" Meahlana asked.
"It was.... It was..." I struggled, trying to remember what it was. "You were there Bets, what did we do on Wednesday?"
The enchanter froze, fork half raised to her mouth. "I... I don't remember," she stammered out after a moment. I'm not all that good at reading people, but she seemed terrified at that moment.
"The Don dragons, that's what it was. Vishy and Yar'lir. We decided to slack off that night," Tomal tossed in, not noticing Betila's hesitation or her fear.
"Yeah that was it. Poked some old friends," I added, pushing away my concerns about Betila and refocusing on the talk. The rest of the evening continued like that, talking about guildmates and the game and other topics. Betila listened intently, but barely spoke much at all.
"Well Smedley should be done talking by now. Shall we head back, see if we can get on the computers and find out how we get to that off-site event?" I asked as we lingered over the remains of dinner.
Tomal stood up and pulled out some cash for his share. "Sounds like a plan. Maybe we can join in the rest of the raids."
When we got back to the main convention area, we were surprised to see a long line up of people in there already. I scanned the line and wowed. "What's going on here? Is this all waiting for buses or something?"
"No we're still waiting to get in for the briefing," a stranger answered helpfully.
We were boggled. "It hasn't started yet? What's the hold up?" I voiced what we were thinking. The stranger shrugged and looked back to his own friends.
Betila was looking away from us, squinting strangely. She seemed to see something but she didn't point it out. When I tried to follow her gaze, I saw a tall woman who looked vaguely familiar. "Excuse me guys, I need to use the facilities. I'll catch up with you later," she said quickly, moving away from us before anyone could stop her.
Some of us drifted away, saying they'd meet us at the karaoke; Grer and Tomal stayed in line with me.
"Saroc, is that the reporter you're supposed to meet tomorrow?" Grer pointed out, showing a short woman being followed by a camera man. Her eyes were strangely dark behind her glasses.
"I think it is. Just a sec." I excused myself from the group and trailed the reporter for a minute. I couldn't see her badge clearly, but I figured there was only one reporter around. I waited until it looked like she wasn't busy with anything and moved up.
"Evening. I'm Saroc. I believe we have an interview tomorrow morning," I introduced myself, holding out my hand.
The reporter looked at me, confused. "We do?... Wait what did you say your name was?"
"Saroc, I'm a community leader for Everquest. Sony gave you my name to meet me at the Fan Faire." I finally saw her name tag and frowned as well. "Errr wait a second, you're name is Shiloh? My mistake. I think I'm looking for someone else."
She seemed extra confused now and nodded her head. "No problem. I hope you find your friend."
"I'm sure I will. Have fun at the Karaoke tonight." I rejoined my guildmates and shook my head. "It's someone else, not my reporter." I told them, watching the cameraman and reporter disappear into the crowd.
"Just as well, they're letting us in finally. Guess we're gonna find out what Smed has to say." Grer said, the doors opening up and letting the flood of people in.
A new tower had appeared on the Strip, literally over night. A tall, almost crystalline central tower surrounded by four four similar towers stood in the sandy gravel of a lot a few blocks up from the Stratosphere hotel. Compared to the likes of the Bellagio and Ceasars, the tower was small, but it was sizable for this end of the Strip. The fact that it was levitating tens of feet above the ground would have caught attention, were it visible to the people walking and driving by the lot. But to everyone without any magic sight, the lot remained empty, its visitor hidden from their attention.
Malcolm watched some of the views Blade's cameras were feeding from spots scattered around itself and around the city. The city was vibrant and active at all times; he'd even headed out among them a few times to get a feel for it. But it was so bland to his eyes. No dwarves, no elves, mechanicals too primitive to see past their programming, just humans and a rare furre mixed in. It didn't seem natural to him.
"So what have we found out so far? Is it definitely Ragnor influence? How do we undo it?" He asked, turning his attention from the screens and looking across the broad table Narina usually used for navigation. She would have hated the desert setting of this city, but he did wish she was here.
The others looked up at him expectantly, but a voice spoke around them first. "It is subtle, but the Ragnor were here. Their methods were harder to detect than usual, but we've locked them down. It's a two stage attack."
On the table a map of the city appeared, zooming in on building located near Blade's resting site. Spots appeared in the building. "These are attractors, designed to attract each other across the Branes. Normally they would be placed in two similar physical locations across the Branes to be pulled together, but this region has effectively fused now. We are in both Branes at once now."
"But that technology is above this world's tech level. It should have failed long before it could have worked, right?" Mac asked.
"Exactly. They would have, if there wasn't a second component, a biological component. Somehow Ragnor agents have infused natives of each Brane who would be near the attractors at the right time with something that would amplify the effect and counteract the technological degredation. It's theoretically possible, but not something I ever considered before."
"So what do we do?"
The dark skinned bald elf stood up and waited for attention to turn to him. "If we got here earlier, destroying the attractors would have been enough. But not now. With the fusion, and proximity to the attractors, the biological elements have become attractors by themselves now."
Malcolm frowned and mentally began to prepare himself. "So we'll have to destroy the mechanical and biological attractors? How many are we talking about?"
"Initially, it was a dozen from each Brane. But the biological effect is somewhat contagious. We haven't finished our scanning yet, but we suspect we're dealing with a few hundred people minimum," Baldy explained.
"Ouch, that is a lot... but a few hundred lives versus the twelve billion on the two Earth's on each Brane, not to mention uncountable more from their settings in general. It's a small cost to pay."
The elf with fiery red hair stood up and glared at Mac. "Killing isn't the only option," she said angrily.
"Well what are you proposing, Ash? We can't pick them up and take them back with us. Blade may have the room, but Jetfire would roast our hides if we brought that many uninitiated back with us."
"No I don't mean that either. I've been working on something, trying to figure out how we could help those people, and I think I've got something. For now it'll only cure the contagion, keep them from spreading the effect further. But give me a bit more time to work on it and I'm sure I can reverse the attractor effect, and make that contagious, cure them and let them cure others."
Mac studied her carefully, weighing the options. "What's the catch?"
She sighed and sat back down. "It's magic powered. We would have to bring them here to cure them."
"That's a big catch. We'd have to sneak hundreds of people onto Blade to cure them. Almost as bad as taking them with us. Even if we disguised everything that was going on, I'm not sure we could pull it off...."
"Why disguise? I think I can arrange it so even if they find out, they won't remember in the end anyways," the werewolf at the far end of the table spoke up. He had pulled off a section of the display screen for himself and had covered it in notes and diagrams.
Malcolm sighed again. "What's on your mind, Lou?"
"Well, the physical attractors work on da space time fabric, pulling two Branes together. But when I go to blow them, I can fiddle with them, turn them into repellers briefly. It'd strain the Branes and if my calcs are right, wit some help from Blade's temporal engines, we could reset the 'Branes back a few days, before they fused. No one would remember a ting."
Mac nodded. "Fine, start making the plans, figuring out how much of a boom you need and everything. Work with Blade and Baldy to get your calcs right, and cook up a plan to get the blast area evacuated before they go boom, just in case there's a mistake.
"Ash, finish up your machine, I want these people cured before we leave.
"Baldy, help both of them and make sure they don't blow up the Blade or do anything else bad."
He looked to the remaining person at the table, the young man who had stayed quiet through the meeting so far. "Ready for a road trip Snapshot? You're coming with me to start rounding up the biological attractors. One way or another, I want them out of the way and no longer causing damage as soon as possible."
"It's about time. I've been going stir crazy waiting in here."
"Excuse me. I just wanted to point out that the majority of the attractors appear to be on the move." Blade interrupted them, resetting a screen to show a bus filling with people, including one person in a frog costume. "I have followed other vehicles that have left the hotel and anticipate them to be going here," The map lit up a building near the airport.
"Right, this could be our chance. Lou, I'm going to need to borrow your box to drive a bus. Snapshot, get anything you need and meet me down at the docks. Blade, prepare accommodations, we're going to get guests."
"I'll warn Cookie to prepare some snacks too, local snacks so we don't scare them too much." Ash spoke up, gathering some notes of her own from the table.
Mac waited a moment for everyone else to start moving. "Let's go save the universes."
"There they are, " Zoyan hissed quietly, causing Betila to lift her head up.
She studied the mass of humanity leaving the ball room, looking for familiar faces. She found the ones Zoyan was looking at, but was too tired to squint to be sure. "Is it our Them or Their Them?" she asked. After the dinner with Them, she had been glad to see Zoyan and get away from the fake guildmates. Together they had waited outside while the presentation went on in the ballroom. She was still trying to figure out what to make of the strange-friends.
"They're ours. I'd recognize Sar's horns anywhere now. Riki and Hamy are with him, and Guntur," Zoyan assured her, waving her hand to catch the Changed attention. They waved back and started cutting through the crowd
"Hey guys. What's up? Were you in the presentation? The expansions look great, and we're getting a bonus. Everyone here's getting the expansions free," Joey said, forgetting about the strangeness of the day.
"Saroc, be quiet a moment. Bets has something to say to us," Zoyan interrupted the goat and motioned for Hamy and Riki to get in closer. "Go ahead Bets."
"As you guys may have noticed, I wasn't with you earlier. I... I was with the Others. They had dinner at the buffet."
"Did you find out anything? Who are they? Why are they copying us so badly?" Riki asked.
Betila shrugged her shoulders. "That's just it. I don't think they ARE copying us. Not on purpose. I listened to them closely, and they never slipped up once, but their stories didn't match what we actually did. Strange as it sounds, I think they are us, but a different us. An us without the Change and all the effects it's causing."
Saroc clicked his finger tips together. "Of course. I should've seen it before." All eyes turned to him, looking for an explanation. "It's a classic Sci Fi storyline, two universes with a few differences, start interacting with each other. Like Sliders, or Crisis on Infinite Earths, or any of those Marvel DC crossovers last decade."
"So what does that mean?" Hamy asked.
"I have no idea. But it means there's probably no ill intent with those guys. They really are us, just us from another world, a world probably without the Change, and who knows what else different."
"And I repeat, what does it mean?"
The goat shrugged. "Probably nothing. All we can do is keep trying to act normal and hope that someone who can actually do something will do something to get things back to normal. For us, nothing changes, except lets try to avoid the Others, no matter how curious we may be."
"That'll be easier than you think I think. Saroc, Guntur, Zoy and Meah are the only ones overlapping it seems. Their Riki and Hamy stayed home, as did Pau, Vahkan and Holy, and we didn't get Tomal nor Grer or Purr out here," Betila explained.
"Sounds good. We'll avoid them and try to keep our guys away and see what happens. It's still freaky as hell, but hopefully someone's on it and we can get back to our normality," Saroc said. "Now lets go find the buses to the party.
"Hopefully it'll happen before Sunday. I mean, what will happen with the Change if we're still overlapping like this?" Riki asked. No one had an answer for her.
"You know, maybe this is a cost cutting thing Sony's doing," I said, looking out the window of the bus as we drove in behind the casinos of the Strip, the driver clearly trying to avoid some of the traffic to get to where ever we were going. "I mean first they say everyone's getting the expansions for free, and then they drive us out into the desert and leave us there. Voila! No need to pay out the expansions."
Tomal was sitting next to me, folding the smaller t-shirt he had caught into the bigger one he had. "I'm sure it's all on the up and up, nothing to worry about."
"Yeah I know, I know. Just messing with yah. Here, give me those, I'll carry them in my backpack and you can get them from me when we come back, or tomorrow." I held out my hand for his t-shirts, opening my backpack with the other hand.
"Thanks Sar. So where are we going?"
I stuffed the shirts into my pack and looked out again. The bus turned off the road into a parking lot next to a go-cart race track and a large building. "Where ever it is, it seems we're here." Over head, the air rumbled with a plane taking off from the airport practically next door.
We made our way off the bus and into the building, picking up yet another wrist band along the way. Inside, we followed the crowd to a small arena. Back home, it would be a hockey arena, but here it was just a concrete bowl, though signs almost hidden in the flashing lights indicating that hockey of some sort was an option in here. We picked up some drinks from the bar (water for me) and looked for the rest of the guild. On the stage, the karaoke band was warming up for the evening.
Meahlana's wolf hat made it easy to find her. She was in the small arcade, watching some people play pool and talking to Snowpurr and her husband. We gradually found the rest of our guildmates (except for Betila and Pau) and relaxed to the music as best we could. (Relaxing to karaoke music can be a hit or miss affair).
Grer tackled the climbing wall at one point, giving us ample opportunity to get many blackmail photos of him. When he reached the top, he looked down and waved to us, but seemed startled by something. It was too loud for him to shout at us, but he pointed at something we couldn't see and let go.
"What was all that about?" Zoyna asked once Grer was down and out of the harness.
"Didn't you guys see them? I tried to point to them. It was Meah... or her twin. But it looked JUST like her, hat and everything. And she was with Guntur and Saroc... But it wasn't Saroc, he had white hair," Grer said, peering over our heads trying to see through the crowd.
"I don't know what you are talking about, I was right here, watching you climb, and so were the rest of us," Meahlana pointed out. "We even have the pictures to prove it."
"I know that! I saw you guys down there. But I also saw you out on the floor too," Grer exclaimed.
Snowpurr exchanged a glance with her husband. "You said you saw a white haired Saroc? I think we did too, we went on the Star Trek rides together. I didn't think anything of it to be honest."
I rubbed my head and frowned. "I know I'm going grey fast, but I'm not going THAT fast... wait Star Trek ride? I haven't been on it in years."
"Sure you were. We went on it earlier today. You, Pau, Bets, Rikki, Hamy, Holy, Vahkan. Guntur and Meah decided to sit the rides out."
Zoyna shook his head. "Snow, half those people aren't even here. I was talking to Holy and Vah in game before dinner, and Hamy was on too."
"Something's going on here guys, and I have no idea what. We're seeing people that shouldn't be here. Who CAN'T be here. Hell, I saw and talked to my father earlier today; he should have been back home just leaving work, but I talked to him right at the hotel," I said, feeling annoyed, confused and just a little scared. "And I saw Pau this morning too. Anyone else been seeing strange people?"
It quickly became obvious that others had been discounting similarly strange experiences. From Zoyna talking to Tharkis twice, but Tharkis not remembering the first conversation, to Guntur spotting himself in the crowds, to Tomal seeing the white haired me, and what he now realized may have been a female Zoyna (which confused Zoyna even more).
"It's obvious what we need to do," Meahlana said finally as the implications began to sink in with us. "We need to find those doubles and find out what's going on. We should stay together and look for them. It's not that big of a place, it shouldn't be too hard."
"Good idea, lets start looking," I said, standing on my tiptoes to look over the crowd and try to find more semi-familiar faces.
Malcolm stood at the entrance to the Hilton, watching the waves of people leave the building and board the buses for the building near the airport. They all wore the neck badges identifying them as visitors to the fan faire going on in the building. Some of the people were not really people, but were Furres. He could see through the veil that made them appear normal, but it was obvious almost everyone else couldn't. Some of them, a mix of the humans and furres, had the glow of the attractor on them; those he watched carefully to pick them up lately. For now, he was just trying to figure out how to get the ones he was going to pick up back to the Blade. His plan was almost complete.
Beside him, dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, Snapshot waited, a bottle of water in hand, camera in the other as he snapped occasional pictures and waited. The young man was patiently waiting for Mac's signal to go.
Their third companion stood motionless against the wall, mostly hidden from sight, even without an illusion. At the moment, while it waited patiently, Lou's rotobox looked like a squat rectangular tower, maybe half the size of a human. When active, it could extend various manipulators, legs and sensors and work autonomously. Malcolm didn't really want to be using one of Lou's creations, but they needed a third for this mission. And of the three of them, the box was the only one who knew how to drive a bus in city traffic; or at least that was what Lou assured Mac it could do.
"Here's our chance," Malcolm hissed. The wave of humanity had dwindled down to a stream, most of them still inside the air conditioned hotel. There was a brief lull between buses, and one of the company volunteers was outside, taking a cigarette break. He was pleased to see that as luck had it, the volunteer had the Attractor glow on her. "Now Snapshot."
The man stood up and took a few steps out into the sidewalk. Loud enough to be heard over the traffic, he called out. "I don't feel so good Mac," he exclaimed and collapsed onto the sidewalk leading up to the hotel door, letting his bottle of water roll away.
Mac crouched down next to the man and took his hand. "Tommy? Tommy! What's wrong?" he called out. He didn't take his eyes off the man, but he heard foot steps approaching him.
"What's wrong? Should I call 911?" the volunteer asked. She didn't have time to ask any more.
From the rotobox, a manipulator extended and fired a device at her, emitting a whine that strained Malcolm's ears. She moaned and collapsed in a pile next to Snapshot. The man rolled back to his feet and started to lift her back to her feet with Malcolm's help.
"You got all you need from her?" he asked.
Malcolm studied the woman carefully, reaching out to take her name badge. "Got it, get her to the Blade, she's an Attractor."
The man nodded and adjusted his grip on the unconscious woman. With a soft woomph, the pair disappeared.
An engine roared from the street, indicating the next bus arriving. Malcolm stepped back into the shadows while he did his action; normally he could shift faster and cloak the physical changes with an illusion, but the steady magical drain the world put on him made him act slower, more efficiently. Mechanisms inside him hummed into action, spreading his hips, swelling his breasts and thinning down his arms and legs. Panels under the skin of his face adjusted, matching the volunteer's features while his hair grew longer and lightened to match her brown hair. At the last step, he mentally triggered a familiar spell and his clothes morphed around him, reshaping to match the woman's clothing. He winced at the drain in his resources it caused, but there was no other way to handle it.
"Stay here and keep hidden until I can get a bus," Malcolm ordered the box, slipping the badge over her neck. She checked to make sure there was nothing obvious and looked down the driveway. As she had heard, there was a bus approaching. She walked down the sidewalk and tried to wave it down.
The driver braked hard and pulled up next to her. He opened the door and looked down at her from his seat. "Is something wrong?"
Malcolm lowered her hand, hiding it from view as a forearm compartment slid open, dropping a device into her hand. "We need a bus to do another staff run. Could you pull over to the side there?" she asked, stepping up onto the bottom step of the bus.
"Another staff bus? I thought all of you guys were already out there," the driver said, not moving.
Malcolm sighed and mentally shifted to phase two. The device in his hand whined, the windows of the bus rattled and the driver slumped forward in his seat. She quickly jumped up the last step and shifted the bus into park to keep it from moving.
"Should probably have used my magic to knock him out," she mumbled to herself, eying the crack in the window behind the driver. She turned back and motioned for the box to come forward. With another rush of air, Snapshot reappeared, empty handed now. She motioned him forward as well.
"Put her in a seat in the back, then help me move this guy," Malcolm ordered, moving out of the way for the rotobox to spiderwalk up the stairs and down the aisle. Snapshot followed and helped get the unconscious driver to a seat further back in the bus. They were startled when a loud horn sounded behind the bus.
Malcolm looked in the rear view mirrors and saw another bus stopped behind their bus. The driver was climbing down and starting towards the first bus. She quickly hopped down to meet him part way.
"Is there a problem here? You're holding up traffic," the driver asked Malcolm.
"No, no problem now. The driver was running some of them back here, and one of them couldn't hold it in any longer. Luckily he was sitting in the front row so he could get off quick," Mac fibbed quickly. "It was a really close call. Driver's told me when I checked up on him. He's trying to clean up the mess."
The other driver chuckled. "I understand what you mean. But he's blocking the road, could you get him to move forward and then finish the cleaning?"
"Sure, I'll go ask him to move. From the smell of it, this bus won't be making another run for a bit, but we've got another load, can you handle it?" she asked the driver.
"As soon as I can get past his bus."
She nodded and backed up to the door of the bus, looking in. The rotobox had settled into the driver's seat, manipulators and sensors extending to handle the controls. She concentrated and waved her hand towards the box, casting an illusion to make him look like the driver.
"Looks like he's ready to go," she called to the other driver and looked back in their commandeered bus. "Drive forward and around the corner there," she ordered, standing on the bottom step. She glanced back and was relieved to see the other driver returning to his bus.
Her own bus refused to move, though the door closed behind her. She looked at the illusioned box. "What are you waiting for?" she asked impatiently.
He extended an arm and tapped at a sign over his head. "Driver's can't move the bus unless all the passengers are seated, or at least behind the line," Snapshot called out from his seat in the back. The illusion nodded.
Malcolm sighed and moved to the front seat. She was barely seated when the box threw the bus into gear and moved forward as Malcolm had ordered.
"We need to kill a few minutes here then we can go," Malcolm explained, looking out the tinted windows as another bus was loading. She was concentrating so much on the other bus, that she was surprised to hear someone knocking on the door. Another volunteer was waiting there.
She concentrated on the driver illusion and whispered to the box to open the door.
"Hey are you going to take another load out?" the volunteer asked, looking in.
Malcolm threw her voice and turned the illusion's head to face the worker. "No, not right now. Mechanical problems. Gotta go back to the garage once the engine cools a bit more."
The man nodded. "Gotcha. Thanks." He waved and disappeared.
Mac signaled to close the door and slumped back in her seat, feeling the drain from the magic. This world sapped his magic batteries even when she wasn't using any power; having to maintain illusions and to use other spells only made it worst. "Get us out of here, to that sports place. Soon as we get this done, the sooner I can get back to the Blade and get recharged."
At least there isn't a pool around this year. I looked around the crowded dance floor, the live band's music pounding the air while a wolf mangled 'Werewolves of London'. I'm pretty sure it is the same guy who did it last year at the Rio. Those of us in the Know had split up when needed, doing our best to keep Holy and the rest of the unknown, especially Meahlana, away from our alternates. We'd already had more than a few close calls right from the beginning, and as the night wore on and the drinks flowed, it was only becoming harder. There weren't that many places to hide a group our size in here.
"Guys, I need to go to the little wolf's room. I'll be right back," Meahlana shouted to us as the wolf on stage finished his song with a howl that I was sure would break the veil. The rest of us exchanged quick looks, and Betilla spoke up.
"I've gotta go too. We'll get in line together," she said, grabbing her guildmate's arm and lowering the rest of our blood pressure a few points.
On stage, the next singer was called up, a feline morph doing "Cat Scratch Fever". The singer was decent, better than the wolf at least. I stayed alert for our alternates, ready to try and move the group if their group got too close. Last I'd seen them, they had been at the arcade area, but they may have moved on.
"There's Meah," Riki called out, pointing to the wolf hat moving through the crowd. She waved and the hat turned in our direction.
"Where's Betila? Did they get separated?" Zoyan asked, scanning the faces around Meahlana.
Meahlana reached us a few minutes later and looked us over. She seemed surprised to see Riki and Hamy and the others, and my suspicions were raised. Zoyan's and Guntur's noses confirmed it a few moments later; it wasn't our Meahlana. We four Changed moved to surround her quickly to try and keep her from the others.
"We need to talk," the other Meahlana called out over the music, looking between Zoyan and me. I followed her gaze and realized some of the Others were dangerously close, but keeping their distance while their Meahlana talked with us.
"About what?" I shouted back, trying to pretend ignorance.
"About us. All of us. I know you aren't my guildmates, and we need to figure out who the hell you guys are. Get your 'Heroes' and meet us out by the go-carts in five minutes." She looked at the crowd of us once more, trying to look serious, but even I could smell the fear that was underlying her facade. She turned away from us and we moved to the side to let her through.
"So what do we do?" Guntur asked, watching her leave.
"They've obviously figured out something. But we don't know how much. I think it's time we met them. Bets did say they were friendly. Hell for the most part they ARE us. They're Heroes, just like us," Hamy said.
"But if we go to them, we'll have to tell them too," Zoyan pointed out, nodding her head towards Vahkan and the others.
I shook my head. "We don't have to tell them everything, but we should tell them. We should've told them as soon as we figured out something was up."
"Figured out what was up?" Meahlana asked, slipping into our circle with Betila behind her. On the stage the song wrapped up and the MC called up another singer, yet another Changed. I briefly wondered at the chances of that, until I noticed the person running the singer list was Changed herself. I chased the side thought out of my mind even as the opening bars of 'Animal I have become' started.
"Lets find some place a bit quieter. We need to talk to you guys. ALL of you guys," I called out, speaking louder to catch Vahkan's ears. Betila looked at me puzzled but we dragged her along with us, grabbing the others along the way.
Just off the floor, I felt something tug on my arm. Already uneasy from everything, I twisted around in surprise and immediately recognized the raccoon next to me. An unchanged held a camera behind her, but it was turned off.
"Shiloh! What are you doing here?"
"An old friend was supposed to be here, but she took sick and asked me to cover. I was passing through anyway. How are you doing Joey?"
I motioned for the others to go on ahead of me. "Well enough. Been having a very strange week so far. Isn't it risky to be down here so close to Change Day? I know you like to be back home for that."
"I know, I'm on the flight to Toronto tomorrow evening, so I should be able to beat the Change. But speaking of strange things, did you lend your name badge to anyone today? Before the big talk?"
"No, it's been around my neck since I got it. Why?"
She looked closer at me and my badge then shook her head. "Someone stopped me in the line before the talk. Thought I was someone else. But he had a badge identical to yours. I remember your character name so I was surprised to see it on an Unchanged."
I nodded and smiled. "I think I can explain it. It doesn't really make any sense, but it's the only explanation that works. Come on, you can listen in, and then we'll go and meet Me and my Other's friends."
Even with the sun down, it was still hot outside. A lot hotter than the miserable weather we'd been getting back home. I walked back and forth along the railing separating the Go-Cart track from the patio, having second thoughts. Once we had clued in that we had doubles out there, we had tried to track them down. But every time we got close, they moved on before we could pin them down. We could see them, but every time we started to approach, they would scatter or move somewhere else. Clearly, they knew we were out there, but they didn't want to speak with us. A few of them, my own double and Zoyna's doubles in particular, seemed to be spearheading the move routine from what we could tell.
Finally we had decided that a one to many approach would be better. Meahlana managed to get to them to pass on our message before getting away. We didn't know what to expect now, or even who they were, but we hoped that the patio we were on was quiet enough to talk on, but busy enough to keep us safe. What we didn't expect was the number of them there turned out to be.
"Here they come... shit how many of them are there?" Grer said, facing the door and leaning against the railing. We all turned and saw the large group of people coming through the door. There were a lot more of them than us, and I knew some weren't Heroes. One was the reporter I had mistakenly introduced myself to earlier, and another I recognized as the Chanus who had run out of the meeting that morning. Most of them looked as confused as we did, if not more confused. Seeing so many people I recognized from last year was almost as unnerving as seeing the white haired guy who looked like me.
"Damn, she looks like my sister," Zoyna mumbled, looking at the tall woman in the group. My own eyes locked on the man towards the back. He had white hair, and a white goatee, but he did look like me.
"Goatee means they're the evil ones right?" I mumbled, eying my double cautiously.
"Maybe, but he seemed nice enough when I met him earlier," Snowpurr mumbled back. She gripped her husband's hand tighter for reassurance.
We all took a step back and spread along the rail a little, looking at the mob we had summoned and having second thoughts. The reporter took a few steps to one side with her camera man. He lifted his camera to his shoulder and the light went on, filming our face off.
Around us, other attendees looked at us and gave us a wide berth. Some did double takes, but no one approached us. I studied my double closely and felt his eyes on me, though neither of us locked eyes. Something about him seemed off, beyond the disorientation of looking at myself, but I couldn't figure out what it was.
Tomal was the one to break the standoff. "Okay, we're all here. Now can someone explain who the hell you are, and why you are copying our guildmates?"
They exchanged glances amongst each other. It was clear some of them, my double included, were more 'in the know' than others. I crossed my arms and leaned against the railing, trying not to show the confusion and fright I was feeling.
Zoyna's sister was the one who finally stepped forward, drawing all eyes to her. Like my double, she seemed to have that something-different that I couldn't put my finger on. "This sounds really, REALLY strange, but we are not copying anyone. We really are your guildmates; we're just your guildmates from a... well as best as we can guess, a different universe."
It was our turn to exchange looks. None of us were buying it. "Nice try, but we ain't buying it. Care to try again?" our Guntur shot back.
"It's the truth!" My double stepped forward. "Look, did you guys have a show called Sliders? It seems something like that, only there aren't any wormholes involved.... Or comics," his eyes finally locked on mine, partly out of desperation. "If your me is anything like me, he's a comic fan right? Did you guys have something called the Crisis on Infinite Earths back in the 80's in DC? It seems something like that. Our... Our universes seem to have connected to each other, overlapping and merging a bit. "
There was something different about his eyes. They were mine but they were different, very different. But at the same time I had the feeling he was telling the truth, or at least the truth as far as they knew it.
"How do you know that? How COULD you know that?" I asked, back, believing him but not believing him.
He shrugged and broke eye contact. "It's a guess, but it seems to be the best guess we have. We seem to have figured out what may be happening before you did, but we had a bit of an advantage over you; there are some traits about our... our universe that helped us pick up things were different. Traits you guys didn't have." He fidgeted nervously and glanced at their Holyern and Vahkan. "We didn't tell everyone at first though. Some of us are just finding out now."
"It goes beyond us though," their Rikkii spoke up. "We seem to be one of the larger groups, but it extends way beyond us. To other players, to other Sony staff, probably into the city itself, maybe even beyond. We've noticed our networks have been bleeding in and mixing with yours; sometimes we can connect to stuff on our world, and sometimes it's your world. But for the Fan Faire itself, we're probably one of the biggest joint groups, at least the biggest group that's picked up on what's happening."
"How did you figure it out? We've been seeing some of you all day, but we didn't put two and two together till just a bit ago. You guys seem to have it all figured out," Meahlana asked. Like me, her gaze kept shifting to her double. Unlike me, her double seemed to be one of the ones kept in the dark until recently.
"As Saroc said, we had our ways, to tell some of us apart from the rest of you. That helped. But we figured you guys were copies of us... badly informed copies at that. It wasn't until Bets had dinner with you all that she realized you weren't copies, you were as real as the rest of us, just with slightly different backgrounds. Alternate universes seem to be the best guess that fits what we see."
"Ugh, two Saroc's, two Guntur's, two Zoy's, two Meah's, this is gonna get confusing quickly. Who are you all? Maybe we can split real names or something to make this easier to understand," Betila said, voicing what we were beginning to realize.
Names were quickly exchanged and more introductions made. Little differences that we had overlooked before quickly became apparent; their Riki versus our Rikkii, their Zoyan versus our Zoyna, and my own double had a close, but different name completely from mine. With the initial face off done, and no brawl started (unlike what usually happens in comics), we broke up into smaller groups to talk, compare notes and see if anyone had any ideas for what, if anything to do next. The general consensus quickly boiled down to 'do nothing' and to 'try to enjoy the opportunity'.
I discovered that it is really weird to be able to talk to yourself, and not be considered crazy. Well, their Saroc, wasn't exactly me, but he was close enough for government work. Our real names differed, but the events, and our family matched very closely up until the Change. Even after the Change we seemed to have similar tracks, though he had never met Alex, understandably, and he wasn't as close a friend to Absur as I was.
We jointly claimed a bunch of tables near the cafeteria (and in painful earshot of the stage) to continue talking. Some from both groups headed elsewhere, but we stayed a good sized group. Guntur helped spread the word among the other Changed about what we had discovered about the Others. Some people had discovered their pairs, or unexpected friends before us, but for the most part we were the largest group that was hanging together and talking about it. Otherwise the party went on mostly as expected.
"Excuse me, may I speak with you for a moment?" a strangely accented voice asked me as I left the bar with another juice. I turned and saw a woman beside me. She was strange, she didn't look out of place, but at the same time, nothing about her that was particularly notable. The only thing of note about her was a walking stick she held lightly in one hand. From her stance it didn't seem like she needed it.
"Do I know you?" I asked, recognizing the volunteer name badge around her neck.
She shook her head and motioned me to take a few steps to my left to get out of the main traffic area. She then made a quick gesture, and her eyes flashed a bright green, before the ambient noise of the arena around us died down to a mumble, even the singer all but silenced. I flicked my ears and looked around to see if anyone noticed anything strange, but everyone else continued on as if nothing happened.
"It is a simple privacy spell. It lets us talk normally without others hearing us, nor us needing to shout," the woman explained before I could voice the question forming on my lips. She shifted the cane to her other hand and held out her hand. "Despite my current appearances, my real name is Malcolm. And I need the help of you and your friends to take care of a situation you have noticed."
I took the offered hand and held it a moment. Her hand had a grip to it that appearances deceived. "The merge and our doubles?"
She nodded and released my hand. "Exactly. Myself, and my companions, some of whom you will meet later, are agents of a larger organizations, which monitors various branes for improper interference."
"What? Brains?" I wasn't sure I heard her right.
"Err no, Branes. I guess you might call them universes, but it's not really like that. As I was saying, I need your help to fix this problem you find yourselves in." She seemed to struggle a moment, trying to come up with the right way to say what she wanted to say. "You see, you, and some of your friends and counterparts have a certain 'charge' on you. It's nothing you could detect with the technology of your worlds, but it is a major factor in what is causing this merge. In order to fix the damage, that charge needs to be removed."
I stared at her and frowned. "Removed how? You aren't going to kill us are you?"
She shook his head quickly. "No, no, no. There is no need to be that extreme. My companions have made a device that will remove the charge from you without affecting anything else about you."
"NOTHING else about us?" I asked, looking down at my furry arms and thick fingers.
"Nothing. Your Veils should remain intact." I startled and looked up at her. He smiled, "I am a specialist in illusions; your Veil is good, especially for being a world wide phenomena, but it is trivial for me to see through it."
I shook my head and looked back towards our group. "I'll talk it over with them. Where and when do you want us if we decide to go along with this? And who all do you need?"
"You, your counterpart, and as many of your guild mates you can find, along with as many others who are in the know about what is going on. Especially people who have doubles whom they've met. Meet up front as soon as possible at a bus labeled VIP. Two of my companions will be waiting for you."
I twitched my tail and stared at a long moment, wondering if I could trust her. She waited patiently for my response, maintaining the cone of silence around us. Something about her seemed familiar but I knew that couldn't be possible; there was no way I could know someone who worked for those watchers, or whatever they were.
"Fine, I'll go talk to them and we'll see what we can do. No guarantees."
"Fair enough." She flicked her hand again and seemed to relax as the noise crashed over us again. I winced and looked away a moment at the sudden racket. When I looked back, Malcolm was gone.
Shaking my head, I trotted over to the group, ears still ringing. "Guys!" I shouted to get their attention. They leaned in closer to me to hear better. "I think there is something we can do about this... if we wanted to."
"I can't believe we're doing this," I mumbled as we left the building. Three buses were parked in the drop off zone, two right by the door, and one to one side. The one to the side had a VIP placard in the window, and a young man leaning against it beside the door.
"Well, if there is trouble, we outnumber him about twenty to three or so. And if he really is what he says he is, he could probably have taken us whenever he wanted to anyway," my white haired double tried to reassure me.
"Twenty unarmed and unskilled fighters to three unknowns. Not the best of odds."
My double smirked, seeming to find something about my statement amusing. It wasn't the first time he, and some of the other doubles had found amusement at some private in-joke between them, and it was becoming really annoying. "Some of us have skills that could come in handy if needed. Not that I'm expecting to fight or anything. Something about that guy; I felt I could trust him."
Most of us hadn't really believed Joey's story, but he did manage to perk our curiosities at least. Plus, it was getting late, and we figured it would be a chance to get back to the hotel.
"Welcome everyone. My name is Joseph. Malcolm said to expect you soon. As soon as he gets here, we can board and leave for the Bl-base." The man introduced himself as we approached.
"Where is this base?" someone shouted out.
"Very near the hotel your events were taking place at. Your hotel, and you guys are a bit of a fulcrum for these events, so we set up close to observe," Joseph explained.
"I don't know if that makes me relieved or more nervous," I mumbled under my breath.
"A bit of both, to be honest... I think that's her."
We turned and caught sight of a woman escorting a few more people. I recognized a couple of Devs among the group. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the reporter still with us, her cameraman not filming, but holding the camera ready. "Don't you think she should ask for permission first," I pointed out, tilting my head towards her.
Joey smirked and waved to her. "You don't know Shiloh. Her motto is shoot first, ask permission later."
"I see." I focused on the person who claimed she knew what was going on. Honestly, I didn't really believe the story she told Joey, but there didn't seem to be that much risk to it. Now that I actually saw this Malcolm, I found the story a bit more familiar. There was just something about her, something different that I couldn't finger, but it made me less anxious about following her.
The woman stepped up to the door of the bus and motioned for us to move in closer to hear her better. She made a strange gesture with his hand and the world went silent, other than the gasps of surprise from some of the group.
"Thank you all for trusting me in this. I know it is a difficult story to believe, but it is true, and your worlds are at risk if you don't cooperate with me. If everything works like we expect it to, you'll be back to normal before you know it," Malcolm said, not speaking loudly, but her voice sounding like she was right next to me.
"What if this doesn't work?" someone called from the middle of the pack.
The woman shrugged. "If it doesn't work, then we'll try something else. Worst case scenario, you all will have a heads up on what is happening to your world at least."
I frowned a little and squinted at Malcolm again. Something about her was nagging my memory but I couldn't figure out what. "You picking up on that too? There's something familiar about her but I can't place what it is," Joey mumbled, noticing my reaction.
Before I could react, Malcolm moved to one side. "Now, if you don't mind, please board the bus and we'll get going." She waved his hand again and sound returned to us with a crash that hurt our ears.
We filed onto the bus and found seats. My Heroes managed to group up on one side of the bus, while our alternates settled on the other side, my double across the aisle from me. We ended up near the front with a good view out the windshield. Tomal settled down beside me, in the window seat.
"Hey! There's someone back here already!" someone shouted out as they tried to take the back seats.
Malcolm was standing next to the driver. She looked down the aisle to the person who noticed the body. "Yes there is. He will be waking up soon. Our resources are sparse on these worlds so we had to borrow that bus driver's bus. Don't worry, we won't be knocking out anyone else."
Those reassurances fell flat. The tone of the talk on the bus immediately quieted down and there were more glances towards the front. Across the aisle, Joey and the female Zoyna mumbled quietly together before swapping seats, putting Joey against the window. Zoyan twisted in her seat to get comfortable, and flexed her fingers, studying her long nails and glancing carefully at Malcolm, Joseph and the quiet driver.
Malcolm didn't even seem to do a headcount to see if anyone was missing. As soon as the last person was on board, he motioned for the driver to close the door and stood there. Joseph sat down in an empty seat just in front of me. I heard Malcolm order the driver to 'just get going', and we pulled out of the lot.
"So why do you need to take us to your base? Why can't you bring your device to us?" someone called from the back once we pulled onto the main road. I recognized the speaker as Tharkis, but I didn't know which Tharkis he was; we had gotten both on the bus.
Malcolm started to speak, then paused. The bus driver was holding out a microphone to her while never taking his eyes off the road. "What is-" she started to say and jumped as his voice echoed in the bus. She took the mic and smiled. "Handy," she mumbled.
She held it up again and spoke again, the driver silencing a quick squeal of feedback before it could deafen us again. "Okay, for people who didn't hear the question, someone asked why you have to come to my base. Well the simplest answer is, my base is the only place on this world where the technology to remove the charge can function.
"Everywhere you go across the Multiverse, the local area has a reference frame that dictates what is allowed and not allowed. Usually it roughly follows the regions development, so that frame does change over time. People and things that enter your area from Beyond, which in your case is roughly the size of your solar system at the moment, will eventually fall under your area's rules. Basically, you impose the rules of physics and mystics on everything that comes in.
"But that imposition is not immediate. For small objects, it happens fast enough that it may as well be instant. For people, it takes longer, days, weeks even months. And for large, complex objects like bases, depending on a large number of factors, they can maintain a zone of their local rules among your rules for a long time; long enough for us to complete our missions.
"The more closely related the frames are, the more similarities they have, the longer it can take before they sync up. One of my companions for example, comes from a world that is effectively a few years ahead of you literally, but tech wise he's probably a good twenty or thirty years ahead. His devices for the most part will work here, and will work for awhile here, but eventually either you will catch up to his tech level, or they will start breaking down and even his skills won't be able to fix them. He'll need to create the tools to create the tools to create the tools to fix them basically.
"In my own case, and with regards to the Decharger, my world, and my base are from a world much more different than yours. Our devices are more mystics based than physics based; I believe you would call it 'magic'. And as such, the Decharger is also largely magic-based. If we could move it out of our tower and it's local zone of magic, the device would run out of power long before it could be effectively used."
"So you're taking us to your tower and gonna zap us with a magic wand to make us better?" someone else called out, all eyes facing the front of the bus now.
'A wand if we're lucky,' I heard Malcolm mutter before bringing the mic back to her lips. "Something like that. Any more questions?"
"What's going to happen to us after you 'fix' us?" Grer called out.
Malcolm shrugged. "Initially? Nothing. The thing that is causing this merging is two-pronged. By taking care of your charges, we nullify one prong, but that will only slow the merge down. So no one will disappear or anything right away.
"When we take care of the other prong, that will be when any action takes place. We're hoping when that happens your worlds will separate. There's a chance you may even rollback a few days, to before the merge happened. But we aren't positive of that. Whatever does happen, your worlds will be back to what they were, and you all should be in your proper worlds.
"In the mean time, our base has another device active that is a repulser. Your worlds are effectively merged together now, but the repulser is keeping you ever so slightly out of sync so your world populations don't suddenly double. Instead, and it's not a great solution but it's the only one we have, people will flip between the world mostly randomly. Doorways seem to act as natural flip points as many of you have noticed."
The bus slowed down next to an empty lot that had been cleared for a new casino. Some signs were up already, but no actual construction work had started yet. "Now, once we're in my world's field, our base will teleport the bus, and you on board. The experience can be very disorienting and even nauseating for people not used to it, so please try to brace yourself as best you can."
The bus turned onto the road onto the lot, tires crunching on the gravel and sand. My skin tingled, forcing my arm hair to stand on end, but I didn't notice. Out of nowhere, a crystal shaped tower appeared, floating in the air with nothing holding it up. The outside of the tower was shiny, covered in a golden metal that could not have been gold. Various panels and nodes dotted the sides of the tower as high up as I could see. I leaned forward to try and get a better view of the smaller towers that seemed connected to it, all similarly flying in mid air.
"Day-yam," I mumbled in shock. Behind me, I heard gasps of surprise, and figured others were reacting to the sight of the tower as well. I heard Betila in the row behind Joey and Zoyan hiss to Guntur to crouch down.
Before I could pull my eyes off the flying tower to see what they were going on about, the world sped up. Without any sensation of movement, we seemed to begin to stretch up towards the tower, and my body felt like they were being pulled through a very small very solid straw. My vision blacked out for a moment at the peak of the pulling. Just when I thought I could not stand it any more, my body snapped back to normal, my vision clearing a moment after that. I grabbed the back of the seat ahead of me and leaned forward, fighting to keep my dinner and juice down. Behind me, I could hear others had already lost that battle.
"With practice, it does become easier to handle, though the sensations never lessen," Malcolm consoled us from the front. I blearily looked up and saw her standing where she had started, unaffected by what had happened. The driver similarly seemed unfazed, but Joseph had disappeared completely. Through the window, the view of the empty lot and flying tower had been replaced by shiny brass coloured walls that stretched up above the top of the bus. A bright light was shining down on us from above. I looked back at Malcolm and was surprised to see his clothing morphing slowly with his form, taking on an indescript masculine appearance. The only thing that did not change was the name badge around his neck.
A scream pierced the air of the bus, drawing attention. I never did figure out who screamed though; as I turned my head to see, I caught sight of where Joey and Zoyan had been sitting. But instead of the people I had met earlier, a white furred goat man and a cougar woman were sitting there. Behind them, Betila was still human, but Guntur wasn't in sight. Hamy similarly seemed to be hiding something, with a mass of red-something barely visible in the seat beside him. I bumped into Tomal as I unconsciously shied away from the predator sitting across the aisle from me.
"What happened to them! What did you do to them?!" a voice accused from the back of the bus.
Malcolm, his form stabilized into something uncomfortably close to the 'generic FBI agent' meme, had a concerned look on his face as he visibly tried to figure out what was going on. Outside the light dimmed briefly as something came down, and clamped on the top of the bus, causing a few more screams. We swayed a little as the bus was lifted carefully out of the bronze-coloured bowl and set down outside. In the back of my mind, I mentally counted three of those bowls in total, two filled with water, one of those with a metal clad ship floating in it, looking like a relic from the civil war era or just beyond.
The speakers crackled to life. "Please calm down. This was not my doing. If you calm down, we can explain," the man said, trying to get people settled ineffectively. The bus began to rock as people moved around, some trying to get away from the animal people, others watching for trouble, or looking for another way out. I stood up and pressed back against Tomal, glancing further through the bus. I saw a deer-man, a minotaur, and a raccoon girl whom I realized had to be the reporter. The back of my mind continued processing what I saw, noting how all the animal-people seemed to have come from the other universe, and while some of the other-Earth people seemed as surprised as we were, others were not as surprised. The animal people seemed shocked more than surprised. They did not seem surprised at all to be the creatures, but more surprised about something else.
I refocused on the cougar woman who was looking around as well. Our eyes locked a moment and she lifted her hands, her claws pulled in enough that I could barely see the tips. "We won't hurt you. And it wasn't his fault," she said to me, revealing large fangs that sent a shiver down my spine.
Before I could respond in any way, a sense of ennui overcame me. My mind stayed alert, but I lost all desire to move at all, beyond slumping back in my chair. At the front of the bus, Malcolm's eyes were glowing, and seemed to hold a glowing shape in his hands.
"Are you all settled down again? Good. First of all, my apologies to the Changed on board here. I did not realize that entering my zone would strip your distortion field. If I had, I would have warned you, or at least prepared suitable illusions.
"Let me assure you though, that you are not at risk here in this base. The Changed know more about what was going on with your world than I do, so I will let them explain, but lets transfer to a more comfortable location. If you would get off the bus and follow me, I'll take you to our galley."
With that, the glow in his hands faded away and the ennui faded from my mind. Malcolm stayed still a moment, scanning the bus as if to see if anyone else was going to cause trouble, but most of us were too shocked to do much of anything. The driver opened the door, showing Joseph waiting outside for us. Malcolm stepped down and waited for others to get off the bus.
I looked warily at the cougar across the aisle from me, not sure what to make of her, or of the goat-man who was my double before beside her. She looked back at me, then behind me down the bus. No one seemed willing to be the first to move. "Fine, I'll go first," she said, standing up and making her way off the bus. I realized that her shoes had disappeared somehow as she left.
Joey stood up next, automatically ducking his head a bit lower so his horns didn't scrape the ceiling. He looked at me, but I motioned for him to go first. Partly curiosity, and partly a desire to get off the bus with its growing stench of drunken upchuck, I followed Joey off the bus. Tomal on the other hand, waited while most of the Other guild and the other animal men got off before joining the normals from both worlds.
We roughly broke down along human and animal-person lines. Some of the humans, Betila, Hamy, the raccoon's camera man, stayed among the animal-people. The rest of the humans grouped away from them. As for myself, I was in the human group, but I stayed on the edge of it, near the animals.
I found myself standing near Joey and the rest of the animal people. I tried to think of something to say, but kept drawing a blank. My mind just couldn't come to grips that that goat-man was the same guy I'd been talking to earlier. Instead, I looked around the chamber we were in.
The chamber was large, as my first views had indicated. Beyond the three pools, there were various crates of all sorts piled along the walls. Many of the crates seemed more primitive than the tower we were in, or even the bus itself. One wall was kept clear and had a bank of elevators there, looking surprisingly normal among the strangeness we were dropped into. The ceiling was almost lost in the lights far over our heads, but I had the impression of a massive amount of machinery up there, hiding in the shadows. At the far end, opposite from the elevators, a huge rack was built into the walls. Stacked on the rack, like canoes in a boat house, were two more ships. One was a sleek ship, blue coloured on the bottom that we could see. I was no expert on sea vessels, but it's appearance screamed 'speed' and 'stealth' to me. The second ship was more normal looking, but still out of place among the tech we were in. It was a wooden sailing ship, that looked like something out of Pirates of the Caribbean, even with its flags and sails down.
"There's something about this place," I heard Joey mumble, also taking in the chamber we were in. "I swear I've been here before. But that's impossible."
"You too? This place is giving a major sense of deja vu," I said, grabbing on to the non-animal related subject. His voice still sounded the same but the face it came from didn't compute. I chased that thought away before I got stuck in a mental loop.
He nodded, then frowned. Without a word he turned away and started towards the cougar. Vahkan and Holy had gathered up the nerve to confront her about something. I followed, curious about what was going on. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed both of our guilds seemed to be closing in on the trio.
"- Zoyan. I've spoken with him... Hell we met him last year. And you are not him. What did you do to him?" Holy was asking, staying just out of arm reach of the feline.
She held her paws up, tail swishing nervously, but she was trying not to make any threatening moves. "I was him, Holy. Please believe me. A few weeks after Fan Faire, I changed into this."
"Bullshit! I spoke with you-him just a few weeks ago. He definitely didn't sound like you," Holy shot back, leaning closer in his anger before backing up again.
Vahkan and Pau tried to tug his arm a little. "Holy please, calm down. This isn't helping," Vahkan tried to reassure him.
Hamy also moved closer, but a glare from Holy stopped him. "It is Zoy, Holy. I can vouch for her. Just like this is Riki, and Saroc, and Guntur. Bets and I can both attest to that. We've known for awhile what they were, and what's going on. It's strange, very strange but it's only changing them physically. Mentally they're the same people we know."
"And why should we believe you? You didn't tell us, you didn't do anything. You seem to be helping them. How do we know you're even who you say you are?"
"ENOUGH!" the bull bellowed and stomped in between Zoyan and Holy. He glared at the man, snorting. "We're tired, some of us are drunk, and we're majorly off balance, even more than some of us are used to. Let's go sit down and we'll tell you all that is going on, at least in our world."
Holy glared at the bull a moment longer, then let himself be lead back among the human Heroes, mostly from my world. Others backed away to give us more space in general. Soon, it was just me, Hamy, Betila, the animal-Heroes, and the bull-man. Tomal caught my eye and I gave him a quick shrug, feeling less concerned to be among the creatures than I had when I first saw them.
Malcolm waited for the noise to calm down a bit more, then spoke up. He seemed somewhat amused by what was going on, more than concerned. "This way please everyone, to the elevators. The galley is a few floors up. Cookie will have some food and drink for those who want it, and anyone who needs to can get cleaned up there too. Explanations will be up there as well for those who want to hear them."
"So a goat? How the hell did that happen? Were you always really one?" I asked, as we walked, drifting towards the back of the two groups of people.
Joey shook his head. "Nah, 'till a few years ago, I was just like you. We don't know how this happened though."
"And Zoyan? What's going on with that? Why did your Holy think she was a guy?"
"Well.... it's a little complicated..." Joey said, looking away a moment. "But up until this time last year, she was a guy, a lot like your Zoy. And those who knew her as a guy still saw her as one. But strangers saw her as a woman."
I scratched my head in confusion. "What? That's impossible...."
Joey chuckled. "Tell me about it. We know it's impossible, but it's still happening, and we have no clue why. Gonna be an interesting Sunday if Malcolm doesn't get our worlds fixed in time."
"What happens on Sunday?"
"We'll explain it when we stop. You seem less shocked than most about our appearance."
I shrugged and paused on the edge of one of the pools filled with water. The purple painted iron-clad floated there, tied up to the edge. "You're me, so you should probably know why. I've been a furry of sorts for a long time now. But I never expected to see any in the flesh. Once I got over the initial shock, it's no big deal. Got my imagination running a mile a minute trying to figure out how, but I ain't scared or anything."
"That's good at least. I should have expected that from you. At least you saw us all at once and not in glimpses like I did back then." He chuckled and focused on the ship. "A purple painted iron clad. Now I've seen everything," he said, snorting and shaking his head in amusement. "Wish I could read the name on the prow there. I'm not even sure those are letters."
I chuckled as well and walked around the edge of the pool slowly. "They probably are, at least letters in Malcolm's dialect. But a purple ship? Looks like she's got a lot of power to her though. Lots of guns on her and stuff I don't recognize.... what the hell was that?"
I pointed to a device moving on the deck of the ship. It had climbed out of a hatch and was walking along the decking on six spindly legs. Made out of a silvery metal, it had two large manipulator claws at its front and other devices sticking from the front of an armored carapace. As we watched, it reached the rear of the ship and disappeared down another hatch.
"That's a Krab. One of the maintenance devices for the tower I guess. I'm fairly new here myself, but you'll see those sorts of things all over the place here," Joseph explained, bringing up the rear of the group and waiting for Joey and I to continue. "They're perfectly harmless, unless you are doing something you shouldn't. Like holding up the group."
"Fine, fine. We're going," I said, turning to catch up. Joey didn't move though, his eyes locked on the hatch where the krab had gone down. I couldn't read his expression, but he seemed shocked by something. "You okay there?" I asked, reaching out to touch his furry arm but stopping just short. Despite my assurances to him, I wasn't that used to him yet.
He shook his head. "I don't know. It can't be... but with everything else going on?" he mumbled, as much to himself as to me.
"What can't be? Come on, we need to catch up with everyone else."
"Our histories, they're very similar. Isn't all this ringing bells for you? A flying tower, a teleporter device like we experienced there, three ships, one an armored purple iron clad, one a fast sleek cutter, one your standard pirate ship, Cookie, Malcolm, Krabs...."
I tilted my head at him, and then the pieces clicked together. "You don't mean that is?" I said, pointing at the ship.
"Ash's Revenge. The pirate ship, that must be the Hoodwink...." Joey pointed.
"And the last one is Narina's ship, the Tsunami. But that's impossible isn't it? It's just a game."
"Different universes. It's the multiverse. And whoever's in charge up there seems to have a sense of humor," the goat grinned at me. "Though there is one way to be sure."
"He's got a sense of something at least. What way do you have in mind... oh. I think I know what you mean. You can do the honors."
Joseph was looking impatiently at us, waiting for us to go on. At the elevators, Malcolm had loaded everyone on board, and was beginning to come back to us. Joey took a deep breath and looked around again briefly. "Hope he learned English," he mumbled before shouting out. "Blade! Where is Admiral Cog?"
Even if Blade didn't know English, seeing Malcolm stumble in mid step, a shocked expression on his face was all the confirmation I needed. But we got more than that. A pleasant male voice with an unidentifiable accent similar to Malcolms, spoke from unseen speakers, not echoing in the chamber, but loud enough to be heard. "Admiral Cog is not on board. He was not included as a member of this mission. Is there someone else I could get for you?"
Malcolm shouted something in a lyrical language and ran up to us. I was feeling a strange mix at elation about guessing right, surrealism at being where I was, and a bit of fear about the man running up to us, whom I now knew a lot more about. Malcolm switched back to English once he got close to us, addressing Joseph first. "Get the rest of them up to the galley. I need to talk to these two," he snapped out.
Joseph nodded and disappeared right in front of us. At the elevators, he reappeared, causing a stir he had to calm down before he could get in. Malcolm turned to face us, his expression unreadable, completely emotionless in a way that humans couldn't do. "Who are you two and how do you know about Blade and the Admiral? Are you Agents of Ragnor?" he demanded, addressing Joey.
The goat-man gulped and shrugged. "I'm not sure how exactly but... I... we?" he cast a glance at me and I nodded. "We've been here before. Not in person, but in our imaginations, in weekly games we've been playing for years now with some friends. We've been playing out your adventures. I don't know how closely they were to what you really encountered, but we know about you, how you're a construct from the future, how the Blade's been traveling from your time to Cog and the crew's era and beyond, and all that stuff. You and Nar in particular, are... well are our characters. The ones we played."
Malcolm considered Joey's story carefully, before his blank expression relaxed back to a neutral but more human looking appearance, seeming a little amused and amazed at the same time. "We've been briefed that that could happen. There have been many worlds where our agents were works of fiction in them. This is the first time that's happened to me though. I now see how it can be disconcerting.
"I can also see why now that dragon said to try and minimize contact with you natives."
"The dragon? You mean Kaze?" I asked, naming a dragon from the setting.
Malcolm shook his head. "How do you?... never mind. No, this dragon's not a native of my world. I'm not even sure where old one eye is from, but he's basically my higher up. He gets the missions and sends us out on them when needed.
"Now, strange though this is, could we please move on to the galley so we can finish this up let you guys get back to your normal lives?"
"Sure, I guess. Who is Ragnor and why did you think we were his agents?" I asked, starting back towards the elevators. Malcolm stayed a step or two back from us, his eyes not leaving either of us.
"Ragnor is... chaos. We don't even know who or what it is. But its agents travel across what you would call the multiverse, causing chaos. They're the ones who started the merging of your worlds, but as far as we can tell they're long gone now. And we still don't know who they were, nor why they do it."
Malcolm sighed and escorted us into the elevator. We turned to face him as the doors closed behind him. "In any case, it's my concern, not yours. We'll get this mess with your worlds sorted out and get you guys back to your normal lives."
Seeing something you've always imagined in the flesh, is a weird experience. Especially when you know it is a functional thing that theoretically couldn't work in your world. And yet, here I was, stepping out of one of Blade's 'can rooms' (as Cog's crew called them), into a small atrium with an open pair of big doors leading into a big room filled with tables and chairs, and a window at the far end. Hallways lead away from the atrium on either side to other places in the tower. Behind the window in the big room, I knew would be the constructed semi-intelligent tentacled monstrosity called 'Cookie' that handled all the food for the crew. Food and drink, all recognizable at least, was already on the tables as we walked in, and judging by the fact that no one was quivering in terror any more than they had been before, Cookie was laying low for now.
Malcolm held up a hand to stop us before we got off. "Since you two know who I am, is there anyone else here I should be aware of?"
I shook my head. "No, of the High Seas crew in my world, I'm the only one who went to Vegas," I explained.
Terry shook his head as well. "Ditto. Unless you're doing a layover in Indy, or Atlanta, you should be safe."
"Good good. Find a seat and I'll be back shortly. I need to see if the device is ready for you guys yet." With that, Malcolm disappeared down a hall, leaving us alone.
In the meal room, the Changed versus unChanged division was still there, but there wasn't quite enough room to keep them fully separated. The Changed were sitting at tables on one side of the room, the unChanged Heroes from both worlds in the middle, and the rest of the people on the opposite side. What was unnerving was that no one was talking to the group as a whole. Aidan and Shiloh were talking to each other, but clearly no one had started explaining the Change yet. Eyes turned towards us as we walked in.
"Malcolm said he'd be back in a few minutes; he just had to see if the device was ready yet," I called out, trotting into the room and heading for my guild mates. Holy was still glaring at me, and the rest didn't seem to know what to make of us. Even Terry seemed to be getting some of the spillover from what was going on, unintended though it may have been. He was taking it in stride at least. "Take a seat with your friends, Terry. It's time we told my folk what they haven't been seeing in their world," I told my double, nodding towards his group.
I weaved among the tables, feeling the eyes on me and stood across from Aidan and Shiloh. I looked around the room once more then focused on my friends. "So I take it no one has started telling yet?"
The bull shook his head. "We were waiting for you to get back, so we can get all the newbies at once."
"Fair enough, so now what?"
"Rock paper scissor to figure out who tells?" Shiloh suggested.
I chuckled. "Two of us are hoofers. We can't do paper easily any more."
The raccoon smiled and pulled out a note pad and began to rip a few pages out. "Good point. You there," she called out, pointing to Betilla. I whispered her name to Shiloh. "Turn around and write a number between one and a hundred and keep it hidden. Anyone who wants to take the lead on explaining the Change, get a piece of paper and write your best guess. Closest to her number gets the honor."
A few others offered to lead, but in the end, Aidan ended up giving the briefing, with the rest of us fielding questions and comments from the others. I wasn't sure if the fact that some of them were drunk helped or hindered the explanation, but it had to be done.
As we wrapped up, the other Tharkis asked something that stopped us cold. "What about us? Our world doesn't have that Change. Will we have it now?"
Aidan shrugged his shoulders after a moment. "Frankly, we don't know. We don't know how it is happening on our world, let alone what will happen with yours now. Or even if our worlds are even separate any more. We might know by Sunday I guess, but... I just don't know."
"And to save you from asking, I don't know either. But hopefully it will be a moot point. If all this works, your worlds will be separate again, and this will probably just be a ghost of a memory." Chairs scrapped as everyone turned around to the door. Malcolm was back, with a tall, bald navy blue skin humanoid.
"Ash is taking care of a few final details, but it should be ready by the time we herd you guys to the device. And this is the final member of my team, Baldy. I'm afraid he can't speak in a way you would understand easily, so don't mind if he's extra quiet." Over the blue man's head, a hand appeared and waved to us. It faded away after a moment.
"So that's how that works," I heard Terry mumble, echoing the same thoughts I was having.
"Do we have to go back to our home world? I don't want to become one of Them," someone called out. I didn't recognize who he was, but he was from our world it seemed.
Over Baldy's head, a nodding head appeared, followed by a quick series of images that I couldn't make sense of. Malcolm reached over and put a hand on Baldy's arm. "Let me," he said. The images disappeared and Baldy sighed silently.
"What he was saying is that yes, you have to go back. It's the way it works, assuming our theories and models are right. When we blow the Attractors up, your worlds should separate in space time, and everything that belongs to each of your respective worlds will be pulled with your world. We figure space-time will probably snap backwards a day or two at that to the point your frames touched. You'll probably have a feeling of deja vu for a few days, but you likely will not remember this."
"That's a lot of 'probablys and 'likelys. Are you sure this will work?" one of the Sony folk asked. I didn't recognize them, but that didn't mean that much.
Malcolm shrugged. "To be honest, I've never done this before, and while Blade did get a dumbed down info dump before we left the Tangle, it's too thick for even him to make sense of. From what he has been able to figure out, there have been similar incidents in the past, but the results have gone through multiple translation routines to the point where even it can't figure out what really happened.
"Now if you would all, please follow me to Ash's lab, and please do NOT touch anything in there. Our frame is significantly different from what you are used to, and even the most innocent looking devices could be dangerous and even deadly." He scanned the crowd and noticed some expressions. "Do not be too concerned, I did tell them to put the most dangerous things away before bringing you here, and the actual device we will be using should be harmless to you. You should not notice its effects any more than you noticed when you were initially affected."
I did a quick look around the room as well, and didn't see anyone moving yet. I was about to stand, when my double beat me to the punch. "I trust these guys. They've treated us well so far, so I see no reason to distrust them now. Lets get this over with so we can get back to the hotels before it gets too late." He started walking towards the door, and others grudgingly began to follow him. Over Baldy's head, a hand appeared making the universal 'come with me' gesture before he turned and walked out the door. A few others beat Terry to the door and the room slowly began to empty, filing past Malcolm and out the door. Terry himself stopped and spoke quietly to Malcolm while the room emptied. Both of them moved into the middle of the crowd, with Joseph bringing up the rear.
Despite, or maybe because of, the explanation, the Changed were still being avoided. By silent agreement, we waited for almost everyone else to leave, most of them giving us as wide a berth as they could, before we followed. I was surprised that the other Zoyan hung back as well, approaching the cougar cautiously. I waited for some of the Changed to pass me before I joined the crowd just in front of the rogues, close enough to listen in. The other Changed and Known Heroes stayed close to the pair as well.
"So.... erm... I never expected to see myself as a girl," the human said, "let alone seeing myself as a cat girl."
Zoyan smiled, "It was unexpected for me too. This time last year, I looked like you."
"A female-me you mean?"
The cougress shook her head. "No, exactly like you. We glossed over that aspect of the Change since it is fairly rare, but it does happen. None of the rest of us got a sex change with the fur change... well no one else but Saroc, but he switched back last year. That is even more rare than changing once."
Ahead I saw Terry turn his head, hearing his handle but being out of ear shot to follow the conversation. I picked up my pace a bit, stepping around the pair of Gunturs who were talking between themselves, comparing life stories and made my way towards the front where he was walking. Some people shied away from me as I moved past, while others gave me dirty or scared looks. Mac nodded to me in passing as he drifted back through the crowd to speak to his companion.
"I wonder how many will remember this in the morning? I talked with Mac and he said they won't do anything to our memories, but I'm sure enough of them have drunk enough that they'll discount it in the morning," Terry said as I came up beside him.
"Probably depends on if the Field reasserts itself when we leave. God I hope it does; it'll make things extremely awkward for us if it doesn't. Still, all the doubles we've got here is going to be a strong reminder."
He nodded and looked ahead. "Mac says that they expect to have the second part of this fix done by tomorrow evening. They'll trigger an evacuation alarm at the Hilton and the Sahara and a few other areas where those 'attractor' things are when they're ready, and we'll have fifteen minutes to get away before they go up."
I shuddered at the thought. "I hope they're right. That's gonna be a lot of damage if they're wrong."
"Even more than you thought. He let slip who's setting the explosives. I guess he didn't expect us to recognize him."
"Oh? You did?"
Terry nodded and grinned. "It's Lou. Whoever made this team pulled its members from two of Adam's games. Wish he was hear to see this."
"Lou? Oh crap. We're doomed," I groaned then smiled. The werewolf tinkerer slash explosives expert was another character we seemed to have in common.
"Yeah but at least we can be assured the boom's gonna put on quite the show when it goes off."
I chuckled and looked around to try and see where we were now. Our route had gone down a few levels of a spiral ramp and now Baldy was leading us down a side corridor. A window showed that we were really in one of the bridges leading to a smaller side tower. Inside the actual tower, it was clear rooms and doors had been expanded, along with a few floors removed here and there. In the open space, devices complete and in progress were scattered on tables, laying on floors or hanging from the ceiling. Scorch marks and marked off test areas showed some experiment results. A hastily cleared path lead from the bridge entrance, around a few larger immobile devices, to a cleared out space with a dish pointing downwards. A red haired woman was still tinkering with the rest of the device while a woman looking like Malcolm had when we first met him, watched and waited in a chair nearby.
The woman looked up as we marched in, then stood up. "You could have just asked for our help; you didn't need to knock me out," she glared at Malcolm, not giving the rest of us a second glance.
Malcolm didn't seem too concerned. "I apologize; there were probably better ways to do it, but time is of the essence. Is everything all right?"
She harumphed and crossed her arms. "As all right as someone waking up in a dining room with a mechanical tentacle monster setting out snack trays and a mute bald dark elf standing over me. Damn near gave me a heart attack."
"You left her alone in the galley?" Malcolm accused Joseph, turning to face the teleporter.
He shrugged. "It was the only place I could think of that would be safe. No way am I gonna try to port anywhere near this side tower, and the docks aren't much better. Would've been better if Ash had met her."
"Don't you pin this on me! I've been busy trying to get this thing to work since you left," the red haired woman shouted, pulling a tool from the guts of the machine and slamming the cover down. The tool itself shrunk down and reshaped itself into a small hammer. "I think we're finally all set. Thanks for your help Jennifer."
"Glad to help, once you explained what was going on. I've seen enough strange things around here that you weren't that much weirder, right Aidan?" she called out, waving to the minotaur. "Good to see the real you at last, I guess, but shouldn't you still be Fielded?"
"Side effect of getting into Blade's reference frame. Blade's world doesn't have a universal field for strange things like your world has, so it was stripped away. It should reassert itself when you leave," Malcolm explained. "And Snapshot, Lou needs your phasing abilities down at the Hilton. He's waiting for you at the drop off spot."
Joseph nodded and disappeared with a womph of air, startling the others. I scratched my horn base, puzzled at the name, but let it drop.
"Now, if Ash is all finished the calibration, lets get you set up and back to your hotels," Malcolm said, clapping his hands together and turning to face the group.
Jennifer had made her way over to Aidan and shaken his hoof. She looked at us as well, "It's perfectly safe guys. Ash zapped me more times than I can count while she was calibrating it, and I feel fine."
Despite the assurances, no one made a move to stand under the dish. Some coughed, others looked away, but no one wanted to be first. Knowing what I knew about the people who made the device, I wasn't all that eager to volunteer either, and Terry clearly shared the same doubts as me. It wasn't that the device was likely to be dangerous, but the unknowns made us uneasy.
Aidan broke the deadlock. He stepped past Jennifer and made his way towards the device, the crowd parting quickly for the minotaur. "Is this where you want me?" he asked once he was under the dish.
Ash looked at him, then at some controls. She flipped a few switches and nodded. "Perfect. Now hold still." She threw a larger switch and a green beam shot down, surrounding the minotaur. He jumped a bit in surprise, but stayed within the beam. After a few seconds, the beam turned to a light blue and clicked off. "All done. Next?" Ash called out.
No one moved. All eyes were on the minotaur who was looking down at himself, rubbing his furry arms. "Are you all right, Absur?" someone called out.
He touched his horns and tugged on them then twisted to look behind him, then finally stamped his hoof down on the grating below his feet. "Yeah, I feel fine. Didn't feel a thing actually, just a bit of static."
No one exactly jumped to be next, but a few more brave souls volunteered and got the ball rolling, and once it was clear no one was immediately keeling over, we all cycled through.
I watched the last few people go under the dish and looked around. Between fatigue, finding out about the Changed and the Blade and its crew, my mind was feeling numb, and I wasn't the only one. Malcolm seemed to pick this up as well. He started to herd us back towards the main tower once the machine was finished.
"This way please, we'll go back down to the Docks, back onto your bus and you'll be back to your hotel rooms in no time," he called out.
I stepped to one side and let others file past me. Out of habit, I touched my pocket, feeling the bulge of my camera there and realized this might be my only chance.
"Mal," I called out, pulling out my camera. "I know... I know if this works as you guys plan this won't matter. But I can't pass up this chance. Even with pics I doubt Adam and them would believe me... but could I get a few pics of you and Ash and Baldy? I know they won't exist if it works, but if it doesn't work, well a few pics won't make a difference right?"
The infiltrator stopped and looked at me. Joey also stopped and looked on, his hand going to his own pocket. "It's not normal... but we are in highly abnormal circumstances. If Ash and Baldy don't mind, I'm willing."
The other two crew members glanced at eachother, and a hand making a come-hear motion appeared over Baldy's head. "Looks like it's a go, Baldy's waving us over." Malcolm said, moving back to his crewmates.
I waited for them to line up and powered up my camera. I was about to lift it to take the picture when I felt a thick fingered hand on my arm. "Here, we'll swap cameras. I'll take your pic with them with your camera, then you do the same with mine." Joey said, holding his hand out for my camera.
"Good idea." I handed the camera over and joined the line up.
Joey grinned and held both cameras up at once. "Say cheese!" he called out. I had the glimpse of a wedge of cheese and a question mark appearing over Baldy's head before I was blinded by two flashes in quick succession.
"Damn that was bright," Ash called out, blinking hard and shaking her head.
"Pics are good. Ready for a couple more with me?" Joey asked, moving up to hand over the cameras. One of the pictures showed the four of us standing side by side, with the cheese wedge-question mark over Baldy's head. "I didn't expect that to show up on the camera," Joey added, his thoughts mirroring mine.
It only took a minute to get the second set of pictures done and to explain why we asked them to say 'cheese' as best as we could guess, before we left Ash's subtower and rejoined everyone else. They were milling about the elevator room, no one daring to touch a button or anything else. Mac got us loaded into the elevators and back down to the Docks to the waiting bus.
"What was all that about?" Tomal asked me while we took the car down to the docks.
"Long story, ask me again tomorrow, if you think of it. Short version though is I know those people up there, and this tower. I just never expected to see them. They're from a different universe, from one similar to a game I played with friends."
"Oh, I see," Tomal said uncertainly, looking at me with a strange look.
Down at the docks, feeling a bit more relaxed, or maybe just not wanting to miss one final chance of a life time, Joey and I snapped more pictures of the ships and the docks. We weren't alone in the camera flashes, including some of the more daring people getting near one of Ash's maintenance krabs for a close up. Finally, Mac managed to get us all herded onto the bus.
"What's going to happen with the Field? Will it reassert itself when we leave here?" Zoyan asked as the lifters lifted us back into the teleport pool.
Mac shrugged. "We'll find out soon. There are various possibilities, and we just can't guess what will happen. Worst case scenario, the field was stripped off of you guys and won't reassert itself. Then you Changed will have to stay hiding until the Change is publicized... assuming our work here doesn't work. Slightly less worse, the Unchanged will remain able to see you, but others won't. Best case, the Field reasserts itself once we're clear of the Blade's field, and you'll be like before." The bus rocked gently as the clamps released it. "Now brace yourselves please, we are porting no-"
The golden pool we were in stretched out and the pressure began to squeeze our bodies, stretching out what we saw and squeezing us through a straw too tiny to drink from, let alone squeeze people through. A second or an eternity later, the squeezing relaxed, and we were on sandy gravel, in the shadow of the tower floating over the bus, the lights of the Strip around us.
"-ow," Malcolm finished, seeming unphased by the teleport. Retching behind me indicated he was probably the only unphased one. Malcolm nodded to the rotobox, who started the bus and pulled to the edge of the lot and waited for a break in traffic to pull out into.
Malcolm scanned the bus, and waited for most people to recover. "A few more things while we drive back to your hotel. Please remember, our plans will be very destructive locally. We will be triggering evacuation alarms around the sites before we trigger the explosives that will hopefully bounce you back to your normal lives. For your safety though, when you hear those alarms, or before if possible, please make sure you leave the buildings and get far away, just in case. We don't want to hurt anyone. Expect this to happen around midnight.
"Also, the Blade has some devices on it that are partially repelling your universes as well at the moment, keeping them from fully synching up. It's not enough to separate them, at least not without more help, but they will basically give your worlds enough room to coexist. Doorways, as some of you may have noticed, tend to be natural portals between your worlds. So if you find yourself in the wrong place, walk through a couple doors and you will hopefully get back to where you wanted to be. I'm afraid that's the best we can do for the short term."
I looked out the window as we pulled off the lot, shaking my head in amazement as the Blade disappeared between blinks. One moment it was floating there, and the next there were just clear skies. I yawned hugely and glanced across Tomal and the aisle to Zoyan and Joey. Neither had changed back.
"You guys, you didn't change back," I hissed to them, not wanting to cause a stir, but the rumbling in the bus indicated others had noticed.
The goat-man looked down at himself then back at us. "Maybe there's some lingering effects of the Blade's field?" he said hopefully.
"Hopefully," I answered and snapped my fingers. I shrugged out of my backpack and rummaged around in it. "I almost forgot, Tomal. Here are your shirts," I said, handing them over.
"My shirts? OH!" He took them and shook his head. "Seems so long ago now...."
"Tell me about it," Zoyan mumbled covering her muzzle and yawning hugely.
The bus pulled up at the Hilton and the box opened the door. Malcolm stepped down first, followed by most of the rest of us. Only the Changed hesitated on the bus, none of them wanting to be the first ones off.
Zoyan finally became the first off. She hesitated at the door of the bus and looked around before stepping down, the crowd moving away a little. She didn't have to ask to tell we could still see the feline she really was. The rest climbed down as well, but no one moved from the bus.
"What are we going to do now? We can't go in there if they can see us!" Riki called out, leaning against her husband.
"We'll figure out something... somehow. Maybe Malcolm can run us out to a smaller hotel where we could get rooms without people seeing us or something," Absur said uncertainly, the bull trying to come up with something.
"ALAN! Where the hell have you been? We've been looking all over for you and this bus!" a stout woman shouted from the door of the hotel, storming out to the crowd. "The bus company's called the police and everything, not that anyone can figure out what's going on. Half the time we called for an update they said they didn't even have a bus missing." I recognized her as one of the community reps, though I wasn't sure which world she was from.
"Hi Christine we... err... we had some to take some detours and then had some engine problems and stuff...." the bull stammered out, struggling to come up with a story. "It's been a long... long night. Can you call in and cancel any searches and I'll explain later."
I caught movement near the bus door, and turned just in time to see Malcolm's form flicker into a strange man I hadn't seen before. "Yes, my apologies for not calling in. We were detoured off the normal route, and I'm afraid I got a bit lost. And then our engine mal- overheated and I discovered the radio was busted. That combined with the signal problems with the cellphones kept us out of communications I'm afraid. I will settle things with the bus company."
Christine looked at Malcolm, then at Alan before her expression softened. "Fine, fine. It's too damn late to worry about this any more. Is everyone here and accounted for?" she asked, looking around the group, her gaze going over the Changed without a hitch.
"I believe so. Do you see anything strange or anything that shouldn't be here?" Alan asked back, trying to make the awkward question sound natural and not really succeeding.
She frowned at him, then shook her head. "You seem a bit taller than I remember but no." She looked back at the rest of the crowd. "I hope you all had a fun evening tonight, there's no need for the rest of you to stay around here though. Alan and I will sort everything out with your bus driver and the company. See you tomorrow."
There was no hesitation from the rest of us. We broke up into our smaller groups and scattered, most into the hotel, but some hoofing it (sometimes literally) to the road and the other hotels. The relief from the Changed was palpable. The Heroes from both worlds paused outside the cafe and stood in silence for a long moment.
"Well, we've got another day of bumping into each other I guess, coming up tomorrow. Or do we want to make more of an effort to hang out together?" Zoyna said at last, looking at his double, then at the rest of the crew.
"Depends on what we all want to do. We could make one hell of a live quest team if we teamed up," Meahlana said, though I wasn't sure which one she was.
"Why don't we decide in the morning, when we've had some time to sleep on this. Live quest is at noon right? How about we gather here for brunch around 10?" Joey said before yawning.
I nodded in agreement, as did most of the rest of us.
"Hopefully we can... what do we call it? Synch up I guess? Hope we can synch up enough to get most of us." Grer said.
I yawned again, triggering another wave of yawns. "We'll figure it out. Just go through doors until you see us in there I guess. I'm beat. I'll see you all tomorrow." I waved and started down the hall, to the elevators up to my floor. Joey fell in step beside me. "Something you wanted to talk about?" I asked him, waving bye to the others who split off to other elevators.
The goat nodded. "Yeah, I'm just wondering what we want to say. To Adam and them. If you're anything like me, as soon as you get back up to your room you're going online and seeing if anyone's awake."
I grinned tiredly, "We are duplicates aren't we? And yeah I probably would do that. Mom's probably asleep though so I couldn't be on long. Honestly, I'm not sure what I would say. I'd probably put out feelers to see if they've noticed anything."
"Ditto, ditto. Just so you know, my Adam is Changed, and Candace knows. If you get my pair instead of yours. It may come in handy."
"He's Changed? Into a Panda?"
"Nope, he wasn't that lucky. Most of the time the Change is pretty regional, you become something roughly from where you're from. So he got a grizzly bear instead."
"Wow.... just... wow..."
We stepped into the empty elevator and pushed the buttons for our rooms. "I'll play it by ear I guess. I think I need a good sleep to get this settled before I do anything," I finally said as the elevator climbed up the floors.
He nodded "Same, though I guess it wasn't as many shocks for me as it was for you. Glad you guys aren't our evil doubles though."
I laughed, "You should talk. You're the one with the goattee." The door dinged and he stepped out. "See you in the morning," I called to him, then remembered something. I reached between the doors and felt the bumpers close then open the door again. "OH! Before I forget. Your dad saw me this morning and thought I was you. So you may have some other explaining to do when you see him again. I don't think I said anything bad but it could be awkward."
"Thanks for the heads up, Terry."
I let the doors close again and leaned against the elevator wall, shaking my head. None of this seemed possible at all, and yet here we were. When the doors opened again on my floor, I stepped out and started towards mom and my room. The corridor looked slightly different but I couldn't put my finger on what. A suspicion formed in the back of my mind, confirmed when I tried my key in the door and it refused to open.
"Damn, wrong universe," I muttered to myself, then laughed at the thought. I looked around and sighed, heading for the stairwell at the end of the corridor, hoping it would count as a door enough for me to get to the right room. I had to go in and out of the stair well a few times before the corridor finally changed over, a few used room service trays changing positions being the main indicator I had changed. When I tried my keycard, the door beeped quietly and let me into the room. I looked around quickly and was relieved to see mom sleeping in one bed, and my laptop on the desk. I really wanted to go to bed, but there were a few things I wanted to do first.
With 'The End of the World as we know it' running through my head, I powered up the computer and hooked up the camera. I skipped through to the most recent pictures and flicked through them, shaking my head. Even though I had just left them and I knew they were real, my mind still wanted to pretend they weren't real; that they were people in costumes on some set somewhere. But it was just too Real; the wear and tear on the Blade too natural to have been faked by a Set artist, Baldy's proportions just off enough to be a human in costume. I uploaded them to my flickr pages, dropped a message to Adam to check it out if he had a moment, and shut down for bed. I hoped I would have a chance to talk to him before the time slip happened.
There was a soft woomph sound, and Joseph appeared, mostly hidden by a planter. He walked around it and approached the man pushing a cart who seemed to be waiting for him.
"Mac said you needed my help?" he asked.
The werewolf nodded and motioned to a bathroom with an out of order sign. The pair walked into it and set up a barricade at the entrance. "Aye. I've placed everything I can in the public and semipublic places. But even psychic paper ain't gonna get me into some areas. I've got a list of locations we need to place them in that you'll have to phase into," Louis explained, holding out a PADD with the list. Given the theme of areas of the hotel, Louis and Joseph had convinced Malcolm that it was a very low risk device.
Joseph paged through the list and frowned. "Not all of these need to be phased to."
"Right, some need to be set up outside, on the roof, on the signs, or on the shell of the buildings. We need a few rockets too that will launch into the air before boom time, just so the forces match up. Red means you need to set it up in Frame-1, Green means it goes in Frame-2. With the Frame's so mixed up, make sure you double check where you are before you leave it."
Joseph nodded impatiantly. "Yeah, yeah I was at the briefing. Doesn't look too difficult. Neither frame has natural powers, so they don't shield against teleporters and phasers. Let's see, Vault-1, Vault-2, Security-2 that could be tricky, holding cell, access conduits... Any catches?"
Louis sighed. "Not many, but it could be tricky." He reached into the cart and pulled out a bundle covered in spray foam. "It would've been easier if Malcolm had let me bring my usual supplies, but as is, I had to make due with what I had on the Box and myself and some local stuff. It should mostly be stick and run, but make sure these wires don't move, and it's facing the right direction. With my right gear, I could've jarred these Branes apart and only blown out a few windows, maybe a floor or two...."
The teleporter shook his head and chuckled nervously. "You just happen to usually carry enough explosives to level two Vegas hotels on you? No wonder Malcolm's so nervous around you."
"Not only do I carry them, I have levelled two hotels. One per visit to the city." Louis chuckled and double checked the bundles he was setting up on the counter. "I think it's becoming a tradition for me, to knock down a building each time I come here. This is definitely gonna be my biggest bang though."
"Fun. Well, lets get this over with. Time's a wasting, along with my powers." Joseph picked up the first explosive and carefully put it into a bag. He took a deep breath and crouched down to the bathroom floor, and stuck his head through it, peeking down to the lower level before dropping down and making his way to the first drop off.
The dinner and prizes and other festivities officially wrapped up by 10. We were a little disappointed that we still didn't win the Live Quest, but we got over it. We gathered outside the dinning room, out of the main traffic area, and tried to decide what to do for the last hours together.
"So do you think it will work?" Snowpurr asked at last.
I looked around and noticed other mixed Universe groups were gathered as well. We had tried to keep quiet about what was going to happen, but there was a strong sense of anticipation in the air.
"I don't know. If it does or doesn't though, I'd make sure I got anything you don't want to loose out of the rooms. I know Lou, and if he's got a hand in what's coming, it will be quite the show," Joey said. I nodded silently in agreement.
"TR is having a gathering for anyone who wants to come. Tharkis told me about it," Zoyna spoke up. "They're gonna hold it up in one of their rooms, and at 11:30 we'll all head out. For the show."
"Which room?" Meahlana asked.
"Same room in both universes, it's a joint room on top of that. So we'll basically have four rooms to hang out in as best we can."
"You guys can go if you want. I'm exhausted and Hamy isn't feeling too well. We're gonna go get our stuff and just relax until the signal. Hopefully we'll see you then," Riki said, then looked over at Zoyna. "And if we don't, it was a pleasure to meet the other You's."
We said our fairwells and started to break up, making plans to gather at the spot if we could. A few of us were going to the party room, but not without stops at our own rooms to gather stuff we didn't want to leave. Mom was still out somewhere, hopefully still wandering the strip, so I took the time to load up my laptop backpack with the computer, her medicine and a few other things I couldn't bear to lose. I left a note saying where I was, then made my way down a couple floors to the party room.
The post-fan faire party room wasn't rocking all that much. People slowly trickled in, mostly people who knew something was coming up soon. There was a lot of talking, and a lot of drinking, but not much jovality. The weight of the unknown was pressing down on us. The closer to midnight we got, the more we quieted down, some people leaving early to finish things off.
At 11:30, Tharkis and the other hosts shut things down and we took the elevators down. Just as we reached the lobby, alarms started blaring and strobes began flashing over the door; the alarms had been triggered.
"I hope thirty minutes is long enough," I said softly, seeing hotel workers expressions change from confusion to terror as their radios and coworkers caught up to them. I had no idea what the cryptic code number I overheard on their radios until I caught one worker telling the other there was a bomb threat. We joined the mob being herded out of the Casino and began to work towards the meeting spot. I tried to spot my mom, or Joey's parents, but the crowds were too thick to find them. I crossed my fingers and hoped they got away in time.
At ten to, the group had reformed. Most of us who knew, or who had been told today, were there, in the vacant lot a few blocks down from the Hilton Convention centre. It didn't look like anyone was missing, which made me wonder if this lot was in both universes at once or something. I moved through the lot until I found the familiar set of horns.
"Hey there. It was good to meet you," I said, holding my hand out to Joey.
He took it and we shook quickly. "Yeah you too. Freaky but good. I'd say see you around, but I don't think that'll happen."
I laughed and nodded. "If it works it won't yeah." The alarm on my watch began to beep and we both turned to look towards the Hilton. the crowd went quiet, though sirens still pierced the air as emergency services converged on the hotels.
One minute passed.
"They're running late," I started to say, but no one heard me. Over the main hotel part of the Hilton, the Blade had appeared. Seeing the tower from below, floating in the air had been one thing. Seeing it floating above a hotel tower, equally as tall as the hotel and then some, was another matter entirely. It's appearance wasn't just for us either; around the hotel a roar rose up, with police trying to push the crowds back further, and everyone looking up.
In my game, Blade's weapons had been disabled for various reasons. But whereever this Blade had come from, it was fully armed. As we watched, panels slid open on the side and especially on the bottom. Devices extended and began to glow, panicing the crowd even more.
"Damn, did they have to drop the cloak? Surely Lou and Joseph could have warned Malcolm about ID4," Joey mumbled, not taking his eyes off the tower.
I didn't respond, watching the tower. The sub towers disengaged from the main one and floated out over the city, settling over the Sahara and other points I couldn't identify. The devices sparked and a dome appeared around the hotels, each dome just touching the base of a tower. "Damn, I never knew the Blade could do that. Gotta remember to ask Adam about that sometime," I said.
Nothing seemed to happen for a few minutes, though it was obvious no one could get into the domes. I worried about mom, but there was no way to find her or do anything else right now. Through the domes the hotel seemed like it had been before, though the haze of power made it look like two buildings slightly overlaped. And then with a single pop and a flash of light at the peak of the Hilton sign, just at the edge of the central dome, it started.
More pops and flashes followed the first, faster than the eye could follow. The dome flared where explosions touched it, but didn't stop the sound of the roar of explosions. Windows shattered, concrete buckled, and then the hotel went dark as the power was cut, leaving only the glow of the dome and the explosions within it still going off.
The dome's began to contract, bringing everything within them with them. Before the bulk of the hotel could collapse, it was already scooped up inside the spherical field of force under each part of the Blade. I winced in pain suddenly, feeling like my entire body was being shaken by something. Blade's towers began to return to the central tower, bringing their compressing spheres with them, but it was becoming harder to focus on what was happening, or to focus on anything; something felt like it was tugging at me, trying to pull me in a direction that doesn't exist. Around me, people, buildings and the ground itself randomly began to flicker and fade in and out of existance. The only solidity was the five towers of the Blade, and their force spheres.
The subtowers rejoined the central tower, their captured spheres hovering next to the largest sphere, slowly rotating around it. There was a brief moment of respite when even the vibration seemed to settle and everyone reappeared, but the moment was gone before you could realize it. The smaller spheres bounced away from the big one, then slammed into it all at once. There was a flash of light, a roar, and the pulling sensation returned, stronger than before, unresistable, pulling at something that just didn't want to give. The ultimate immovable object versus unstoppable force battle, with me stuck between them. I screamed out in pain and something finally gave ....
"-th to Saroc... Earth to Saroc. You there man?"
"Huh? What?" I snorted and flicked my ears, blinking rapidly to clear my vision from the strobe light on the slot machine that had hit me at just the wrong moment.
Zoyan chuckled and shook her head. "You zoned out there for a minute bud. Everything OK?"
I looked around at my guild mates, those who had arrived early, and yawned, covering my muzzle after a second. My mind reeled, half memories of Louis and the Blade and Malcolm and other High Seas and Veil characters spinning away like a dream after awakening. "Yeah, I'm fine. Just dozed off there for a sec. Jet lag and stuff." I explained, grinning.
"If you want to go to bed, feel free. We've got all weekend together after all," Meahlana said from across the table, nursing her drink.
I sipped my milkshake and shook my head. "Nah I'm fine. Just zoned out is all. "
The plane rattled and the screen in front of me flickered before recovering and continuing Kung Fu Panda. I blinked and looked at the screen, realizing I had to have dozed off a second. I recognized the scene, but couldn't remember watching the start of it.
"Ugh, never again," mom grumbled beside me, her screen showing the movie a few minutes behind my scene. She wasn't looking very good though. "Never again am I taking the evening flight. Early flight or no flight from now on," she added.
I shook my head and nodded, strange thoughts of Malcolm and Louis and my other game characters nagging the back of my mind, along with the image of a goat man. I looked back at the movie playing on the screen and shook my head. "Man, furries on the brain," I mumbled.
"What was that?"
"Nothing mom, nothing. I'm gonna try to get some rest before we land," I replied, adjusting my headphones and leaning my chair back a bit further. The plane shook again before I finished. "If I can with this damn turbulance."
The glare faded slowly, but the ground continued to shake softly beneath our feet. A pair of circular pits was all that remained of the Hilton and ints Convention centre. A similar pit showed where the Sahara had been. Over the central Hilton crater, the Blade floated, glowing brighter than it had before. And between me and my view of the crater, a female humanoid cougar lay, still dazed like the rest of us.
"What's wrong? Shouldn't we be gone now? Gone back in time or something?" a voice called out.
I didn't answer. I couldn't answer, still trying to take everything in. From what Malcolm had said, it should have worked, we should have gone back to our universes, and not even remember this. But there were still Changed around us, I still remembered the past few days, and the Blade still hovered over where the hotel had been. I shook my head, my gaze going higher to the sky. Vegas's lights washed out all the stars, but the moon was still there, glowing down through the summer night haze. Until abruptly, the moon went out.
"The moon!?" I called out, unable to figure out what else to say. The moon just does not blink out like that, but it had somehow. I shook my head and blinked, but the moon stubbornly stayed dark. Around me, others were recovering, but few seemed to have been looking up to see the moon go out. I didn't know what to say.
"Something must have gone wrong," Joey groaned, picking himself up off the ground. The shaking had knocked him down against a fence post, but he didn't seem any worst for the wear. He bleated softly and looked up towards the Blade. "We need to get their attention, find out what's going on." He pulled out his cellphone and looked at it.
"I don't think Lou or Mac or even Joseph are in the phone book. Did you see that though? The moon went out. It was just above the Blade, and not it's gone."
He flashed his phone to me and repocketed it. "No signal anyway. I think the system's overloaded. At least the rest of the power's still up, but the monorail's shot. What was that about the Moon?"
I pointed up into the sky. "It's GONE. Gee Oh En Eee. Gone. Just flickered out, not there any more. What the hell happened?"
"Whoa you're right.... I need to find mom and dad. Maybe a text can get through," in a daze, the goat man pulled his phone back out and began fiddling with it.
I shook my head and looked around. Bettila was on her feet and going around checking for injuries. There were many scratches and bruises from people who had fallen, but nothing serious I could see.
Someone began to scream. I turned and followed their pointing arm to see Blade had left it's hover point and was gliding through the air towards us. Before the thought of running could complete, I was gripped in the increasingly familiar stretching field and pulled back up into the landing dish in the docks, along with everyone else who had been in the lot with us.
The air stank of ozone, and other scents I couldn't identify but which I suspected came from the power Blade had just been channelling. The lights in the docks were dimmer than the first time we were here, but they were steadily increasing in brightness. I was among the first to recover. Still groggy from the past few minutes, I started to the ladder out of the golden dish. "Blade!" I shouted. "What the hell is going on? Why didn't it work?"
Over the dish, a greenish disembodied head appeared. "Greetings, I have been informed to let you know that Malcolm and the team are trying to determine what happened. They will explain it to you as soon as they have more to say. In the mean time, he wanted me to get as many people that had visited me before as I could find. If anyone is injured, the krabs will help you to sickbay. Otherwise, everyone else is invited to the galley to wait in comfort."
The dazed group of us were guided to the elevators and back to the galley. Most of the tables had been removed, and replaced with cots. A table with coffee and snacks was under Cookie's closed window. Blade's head reappeared in front of the window. "Please rest. Malcolm will be down as soon as he has something to tell you. If there is anyone in the city below whom you want me to try and track down, let me know. I can use cellphones and other means to try and find them and bring them here if they are in the open."
Most of us were still too out of it to do much of anything. A few approached the head with contact information, or to get drinks to calm jangled nerves. I passed along mom's phone number and sat down on a cot near Joey. He looked even more confused than the others.
"Something wrong?" I asked, "Something besides everything?" I added quickly.
He sighed and swallowed though I hadn't seen him eat anything. "Yeah, everything about sums it up. I'm worried about my parents. But I can't bring them here, they'll see Me. This me. And then there's the date."
"It's the 17th. Change day. What has all this done to the Change? I..." he sighed. "I just don't know what to do. So much going on, and I can't decide on what to focus on first."
"Maybe just get some rest. We can't do much here until Mac briefs us, if then. Ask Blade to track your parents down but not bring them up yet. Maybe you can call them and reassure them."
He nodded and stood up. "Good idea, worth a shot at least."
I watched him go to the line to the head and stood up as well. I walked back to the elevator and sat down, with my back to the wall. "Blade, are you too busy to talk to me a sec?"
It didn't create a head, but its voice did speak to me from the elevator. "I am near my limits, but I can spare a little to speak to you. What can I do for you?"
I drummed my fingers on the floor a bit, trying to decide. "I don't want much but could you give me some city views? What's going on below us?... And... And what happened to the Moon? Why did it disappear?"
Around me, a few windows popped up, framing views of the city. EMS workers were gathered around the craters remaining from the hotels. From the angle, I could tell we still hovered over the lot we had been teleported from. A cordon of police now prevented people from going into the lot.
"Is that sufficient? You can move the windows with your hands if they are in the way."
"Yes, thanks Blade."
"You are welcome. As for what happened to the Moon, it went out because of lack of illumination from the primary source."
"Primary sou-... You mean the Sun is gone?!" I started to shout but quieted myself quickly.
"Correct. As far as my sensors can detect, and from what I am detecting from your own media, the only thing on this Brane is the Earth, 90% of Luna, and all of Earth's artificial satilites out to the orbit of Luna. Nothing exists beyond that limit."
I was struck silent by the news. It just didn't seem possible, or even conceivable what Blade had told me. I was still trying to wrap my mind around it, when the elevator door opened and Malcolm stepped out. Joseph popped into view beside him a few minutes later. Malcolm looked over at me, then shifted his gaze to the room.
"Attention please. I have news for you about what happened. I do not wish to wake up anyone who is asleep, so if you want to hear this first hand, please come out here," he announced, speaking quietly to not wake up the dozen people asleep on the cots, but loudly enough for all to hear.
He waited patiantly while people filed out of the galley, some of the sleepers waking up and coming out as well. Once everyone who was awake was out of the room, the doors closed.
"I have a lot of information to tell you, so please hold your questions until the end. I believe the appropriate term for what I have to say, is that I have good news and bad news.
"The good news is, our intervention worked. Your respective Branes were separated, the time line rolled back and your lives are continuing as they would have."
The room erupted in shouts of disbelief. Malcolm held up a hand for silence, and his eyes glowed briefly, sending out a pulse of power that silenced the room again, even though people's mouths still moved.
"I said please hold questions until the end. This brings us to the bad news. The intervention had unintended side effects. To simplify things greatly, when your Branes separated, the extra time you had lived, those few days when you were merged had to go somewhere. Most of your universes were not merged long enough to leave anything behind, but here, at the touch point it was too sticky. When we blew the Branes apart, this section could not be cleanly separated, so it was left behind. That includes you, your planet, most of your satilites, and most of your moon... but that is it."
The silent noise in the room seemed to rise even more, though the spell held it at bay. I shook my head, not sure what to make of this. Malcolm continued speaking to the crowd.
"Do not worry though. Your world... this remnant world, will not be abandoned. It doesn't happen often, but there are contingency plans for this sort of situation, and they were apparently started before my team even left the Tangle. Blade, graphic A-1 please."
Between Malcolm and Joseph, a model appeared, of the Earth-Moon system with a cloud of tiny dots for everything from space trash to the ISS. It was the entire universe now from what they said, but that was still inconceivable. A chunk was missing from the far side of the moon, like someone had taken a bite out of it.
"One advantage we have, is that your reference frame was blown away, or rather taken with your original Branes. At the moment, until things stabilize to reestablish a new frame, anything goes, technological and mystical. We're going to use that to make sure you guys survive this transition period. Louis, Baldy, Ash and Blade are hard at work coming up with bandage solutions to cope with the loss of your star, especially the gravitational effects of the star. Your world is more than capable of handling the lack of solar light and solar heat for a day or two, but your seismic technology is still extremely primitive. They're cooking up some ways to make sure your planet's tectonic plates don't kill you all while help is arriving.
"In a day or two, the first reinforcements from the Tangle will arrive here, and our options increase drastically. We'll set up a stellar engine to restore light and heat for the midterm, and start spreading the word of what happened. That is why I had Blade draw you up as soon as we could. We need ambassadors, people who know us, and know what happened to act as bridges between our people and your people. You won't have to if you don't want to, but all the help we can get will be appreciated." As he spoke, the graphic continued, showing a portal appearing in space near the moon, and large ships began to appear. It was hard to tell if the scale was right, but some seemed near the size of the moon. Some moved into orbit, while others moved away and seemed to do something that caused beams of light to shine down on that side of the Earth.
"From there, we'll just have to play it by ear so to speak. This Brane is still too unstable from the split to tell if it is long term stable, or if we'll have to move your system elsewhere eventually," Malcolm finished. He waved his hand and my skin tingled again, as a green circle appeared in front of him. The people closest to it backed away a few steps. "Now, I will take questions, one at a time please. Move into the glowing circle to speak for now and once things calm down more, I'll drop the silence field completely."
You can only be numb with shock for so long before finally your mind kicks back into gear and you get back to normal. Of course, normal as we found out, is now a very subjective term. A few hours after Malcolm filled us in on what was going on, those that were willing to be the ambassadors (about a dozen of us, including to my surprise, Joey), were on an hours long conference call with National and Megacorp leaders from both worlds explaining what happened and what was going to happen. By the next day, a global release had finally been hammered out to explain it to the increasingly panicing public (and to explain the nature of the Change, since the Split had stripped the Veil and continued the Change). To Joey and my relief, we found both my mom and his parents in the crowd and got them up on the Blade to fill them in.
The first team of reinforcements arrived the day after the sun went out. They arrived in a Star Trek Federation shuttle of all things, from an honest to god UFP Starship in orbit. (The transporters were busy cycling down equipment to upgrade and stabilize various world systems, especially the power grids and telecom grids). The people on the shuttle were far from Federation standard though; along with the rest of the Blade's crew, was a mixture of people and things only some of which recognizable from our world's literature. Most continued on down to the surface to do tasks I barely understood (though I heard something about them sending teams of Earth Benders, Earth Wardens and Earth Furies to calm down the Ring of Fire and Yellowstone, whoever they were).
Blade stayed over Vegas, serving as a local Headquarters for most of the activities going on around us. Mom and I stayed on it, talking to dad occasionally (who now had his hands full with eight cats and two huskies) when the phones cleared enough to reach him. That was the worst of it I think, being so connected and yet so out of touch. Phones rarely worked and the Internet was slower than molasses, and even TV and Radio got flooded out semiregularly. (Blade explained it was due to all the advanced tech in the area; interference from the portal to the Tangle, hyper-engines flooding the EM spectrum, advanced computer agents set loose on our primitive networks and so on and so forth).
On day three, communications were blanked out completely for most of the morning. Blade showed us scenes from space as the Tangle portal stayed open longer and larger than I thought possible. Four large ships came through, towing a bright sphere that dwarfed even them. Outside the Blade, the skies lit up for the first time in days, with almost natural light. Blade explained the stellar fragment being towed by the GSV's would last for three thousand years with minimal maintenance, and the GCU You Did What? would be hanging around for a few years to handle any fine tuning.
Day seven was the day we finally had enough. Joey, his parents, mom and I caught a ride on a shuttle (of a type I didn't recognize, though it may have come from the Culture ship) carrying some transition specialists heading in our general direction. (They were on their way to Europe, but were willing to drop us off in the Maritimes on the way out). Even though Joey was one of Blade's ambassadors, it was decided he could do better work 'on the ground' so to speak. We had devices that we were assured could reach Blade, or anyone else on the new network being knitted around the planet.
Day eight, I actually tried to go back to work (after figuring out how to get into the right office, the out of phase doors were still active around the world to help make sure there was enough room for the extra 7 billion people), but it was hard to focus. Why should I be coding at this level, when I knew first hand a half dozen systems that could do all we were looking to do faster and more efficiently than anything we could imagine. I wasn't the only one who was realizing that; the ennui was spreading, not just in my office, but around the globe as the shock wore off and implications began to sink in.
Today, it's hard to know what to do. The world is still spinning around the star fragment, the earth quakes have mostly stopped, the power is running (Though most of the coal plants are shut down now, replaced with power beamed in from space.). Planes are flying again, but its AI's running the ATC's now and handling both the normal traffic we do, and the orbit to ground traffic that was coming in from above. The 'net still hiccups occasionaly, but mostly its running faster than before (and spam has almost been eliminated). I should be happy for all this. But I think I'm getting too old. The changes are coming on too fast, partly due to the people at the Tangle trying to get us settled on a higher tech and mystic level before our frame stabilizes; it's just too much for me to take in at once. Our world has been saved, but at the cost of everything we had known and taken for granted. I still didn't know if it was worth the cost. Part of me was anxious to see and learn all that was out there now. A bigger part of me just wants to have what the other me has, the one who had slipped back in time, who never met Joey, or Malcolm or anything else that has happened. Maybe someday I'll get used to all this new stuff. But not today.