Otherscape

What is Real?
The "real world" isn't all it's cracked up to be.

The “real world.” It was the biggest joke of all, that phrase. Kris curled up against the headboard of the bed she’d been sharing with Jeff, a mug of hot herbal tea in her hands, and thought about all that had happened over the past… however the hell long it had been. She was having a lot of trouble keeping track of time right now, traveling in both worlds the way they were. She rested her head back, tipping her chin to the ceiling.

If you’d told her just a couple of weeks ago that magic was real, she would have said “of course it is.” But in the way that prayer is real. The way that visualizing a positive outcome will point your hopes, your dreams, and your willpower that direction and allow you to focus on the faith that you CAN get there, the certainty that by focusing and releasing fear and doubt and distraction you can find your way to the outcome you desire in the world.

But never in a million years would she have believed the kinds of things she’d pulled off in the past few days. Shields made of her will? Seeing ghosts as clearly as she could see real people? Yes, she saw her grandfather the night he’d died—he’d smiled very briefly at her while she lay next to her sleeping grandmother that night, his love for the older woman clear as he’d looked at her and said his silent farewells, and then he was gone. Now she was seeing ghosts hovering a LOT of places. And it was damned unnerving.

Kris pulled in a deep breath, letting it out slowly as she sought to center herself. She had a Mission now. It was multi-layered and complex, but the healer in her reveled at the possibilities that were suddenly open to her. Could this little group of diverse personalities really make such a huge difference? Could they save all those people who’d gone missing? Could they, in the process, heal themselves? Help Olivia heal the part of her soul that was so damaged? Help Eybi get better from whatever it was that afflicted him? Help Leo find some kind of peace with the child who followed him wherever he went? Help Jeff repair the damage he’d done to his own soul?

She believed that no matter where you wind up in the world, you are where you’re supposed to be at any given moment. There had to be a reason that this particular group of people of people had been put together—Not just the agenda of the crazy bastard who’d put us here but a larger reason.

She wished she knew what she was even DOING. Blundering along blindly was not exactly comforting. Nor was the fact that time was passing differently for those people who’d already been taken over there. If 6 months translated to literally a century or so, a lifetime, what consequences would all of these people be facing? Based on what Jeff was going through, even with Leo apparently siphoning off some of the more aggressive side effects, it was not going to be pretty.

With her mind in turmoil, Kris pushed herself up out of the bed. The best way to make things in her head settle was to get her hands busy in the kitchen. So… dinner it is


Cooking is how she handles stress — Jeff knows that better than anyone. The place they’ve been crashing is not fantastic, but it has a kitchen. And stocking up on supplies in various forms is what they’ve all been doing. So on first glance when he walks into the kitchen, it looks as if Kris is simply making dinner. Which…. well, a closer look at the back burners of the stove would prove that correct. But it’s the large pot simmering on the front burner that probably garners the most attention after that initial look. Candles burn at what to most would look like random placements in the kitchen. To a practicing witch it’s obvious that a circle has been cast — and there’s actually a subtle feeling of power in the room. The herbal smell wafting through the kitchen would tell him that whatever she’s currently adding that handful of dried herbs to, it’s not a foodstuff. Kristin is murmuring under her breath as she consults tablet propped against the backsplash. She doesn’t initially notice his entry.

Jeff still feels strange in the real world, not yet comfortable being himself. “Real” world, he thinks to himself. So hard determining what is real, not just in the world, but in his own self. And so, it takes him a little longer than it really ought to determining what Kristin is doing. But thankfully, he caught it before blundering in and breaking up her spell. That was the other problem with him now – he felt so impatient, so tightly wound. That was something new for him. So he stood by the cabinet at the edge of the kitchen, waiting for Kristin to either finish or notice his presence.

Once the last herbs are into the ‘stew’ in the pot, Kris’s shoulders seem to relax. Clearly she knows someone came in but is now unsure of what they’ll make of her activities. She pulls in a slow breath and then murmurs, “So mote it be.” before blowing out the candle nearest her, breaking the circle. A subtle shimmer of …. SOMETHING… releases, almost like a soap bubble popping. The “real” world is such a misnomer these days. She turns to look at him, wariness in her expression. “Hey,” she greets quietly.

“Hi,” he says. “I didn’t want to interrupt. It was nice to see something familiar. I wasn’t sure whether you were still doing the traditional rituals. You seem to have grown past them.” He was thinking of that shield she had thrown up when they had come back from Sigil.

That brings a smile to quirk her lips. “No… no one grows past the rituals. They just have … more weight to them now,” Kris tells him, leaning a hip on the counter. She studies him thoughtfully and then says, “I’m worried. And I’m a healer at heart… it hurts me not to be able to help you, or Olivia, or Eybi. There are ghosts around all the time now, it seems like.” She nibbles on a corner of her lip. “I’m scared. And doing the best I can to hide it… but I think I can do a lot more than any of us really imagines. I think we ALL can.”

“I thought, when I came back, that there would be a clean divide. That I would be able to forget that place. But I think you’re right. I think there is less difference between those spaces than anyone ever thought.”

He pauses for a moment. “I’m scared too, if that helps. But I think you underestimate yourself as a healer, Kristin. You might be able to help your friends, but it will take time.” The absence of his own name there hung in the air.

Stepping forward into the circle of his personal space, Kris looks up at him. “Don’t assume that I can’t help you. Maybe not with a poultice or a potion, but I’m not going to stop. Personally, I think we need to have an actual conversation with the Dustmen — I have a notion they may have a lot more information on this kind of thing than they’re saying.” A faint grin quirks her lips again. “They’ll just need a little… persuading, perhaps.”

Tilting her head to study him for a long moment, she puts it out there quietly, “We used to be able to accomplish so much together. I’d really like to try something, if you’re willing. But it means letting me in… and I don’t know if it’s going to bind us in ways it wouldn’t have before reality warped.”

“Are you sure you want to bind to what I am now?” He looks down at her, sadness in his eyes that hadn’t been there before he went missing. She was right, he thought, they had accomplished so much together. He was just so afraid of bleeding what he had done…of what he had become into her.

Kristin was not exactly surprised by his concern… but she was surprised by his uncertainty of her. “Jeff… Whatever you’ve done — and yeah, maybe you’ve done all the wrong things — you did what you did for the right reasons. It’s all ANY of us can hope to do.” She shrugs a little. “You are my friend before all else. You are a man I’ve chosen to share not just a physical connection but a spiritual one. Do you think I did that lightly even before all this happened?”

Her lips pursed slightly. “You’ve got a pissed-off spirit hovering around and a piece of your soul missing that you gave away trying to save a bunch of children. You’re dealing with the consequences both of what happened to you and the person who owned the body before you as well as the choices you’ve made while there. How is that any different than what any of us deals with when confronted with evil? You did the best you could with what you had — it doesn’t make you evil. Misguided, maybe. But could I have done better? Goddess, Jeff — how could I judge you for doing what I probably would have done myself? Do you think I wouldn’t have given up a piece of myself to save those children? Even knowing the consequences, do you think I still WON’T if it comes to that?”

“I’m not evil. That much I know. But I’m broken in ways that I haven’t figured out yet. And I just don’t want you to commit to something potentially dangerous for your spiritual health without knowing what you’re committing to. That comes from being your friend and from once being your mentor.” Jeff smiled softly and cupped her cheek in his hand. “You have a chance to become something even more amazing than you already are. I want to be helped. I want to let you in. I just want to be careful.”

Tipping her cheek into that cradling hand, Kris nods slightly. “Then… I’ll hold off for a bit with what I’d like to do. Give us both a little space to work with. Unless something happens that requires me to try it before you’re ready, okay?” She looks up at him. "I think all of us have the potential to do amazing things. It’s all in how we use what we’ve been given. So… " She smiles at him. “Come be my sous chef for this concoction. I think it could use the balancing touch of a guy, hmm?” Magic is, after all, all about balance in the universe.

He nods with a smile. She was right about balance, of course. That was his problem. Jeff could remember, like a faint memory, that time in his life when he was truly balanced in his life. Six months in this world, a lifetime in the other. But the only way to get back was one small step at a time.

“Let’s make something good together,” he says, smiling at Kristin before letting her lead him toward the stove.

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A Bridge Between

Sunday, 25 Nov 2035
Safe House
Night

Leo sighed quietly to himself as he leaned against the door frame. He had come down the hallway as loudly as he could, with heavy steps and the occasional cough, but here was Olivia, hunched over her laptop and dead to the world. He didn’t want to startle her, but after his conversation with Eybi…well he needed her help. Pitching his voice into a softer timbre, he knocked twice and called, “Hello Olivia. Do you have a moment?”

She heard him coming down the hall. It didn’t matter if he stomped harder or walked softer, there was a cadence to his step that she could mark as his. Survival trait, knowing who was who before you saw them … or they saw you.

Friendly: Leo, her head whispered and possible threat eliminated, she kept on typing. She’d neglected her journal dreadfully, even from before her trip into Sigil. So much had happened of late that she’d barely had the time to jot a note on paper, much less type it out on a keyboard.

As for her blogs…

… Thursday, 08 Nov 2035, Day 383, 1192 days After …

She despaired of ever getting them caught up. So much of her life lay in bits and bytes and pixels on a screen, out there in the world for anyone to see, that she wondered how Kristin could even dare call her a shut-in in need of exposure to the outside world. Didn’t the woman know just how routinely Olivia bared herself to the harshest judges of all? The court of public opinion hadn’t been gentle prior to the internet and over the decades since, it had become even more unforgiving.

Shut in, my ass… She’s never had a readership breathing down her neck for their daily dose of schadenfreude, of ripping open your wounds so they can heal in the sunlight and air of honest public acknowledgment.

A bit of a hate on tonight, don’t you think?

More than a bit. A lot, actually. Behind some of it was a reluctance to examine the possible truth behind Kristin’s pointed comments, much less Eybi’s idea that her internal perception of herself had a direct bearing of her transformation in the other plane, to say nothing about the form her magic took: Unintelligble words producing unpredictabale results.

It was galling, really, when so much of her sanity for the past several years relied on words, until she was everything through words, was anything because of words. Words she’d chosen with painstaking care paving the road to her recovery, forging her armor against misfortune and doubt.

… There in the midst of it so alive and alone/Words support like bone….

The lyrics of the song sang through her head, the soft chimes and percussive line tugging at her inner ear only to be scattered by a knock on the door. Olivia wilted, knowing it was futile to hold onto either the song in her head or the words in her fingertips. Leo wasn’t going away, no matter how hard she tried to ignore him. His query only confirmed it.

She closed her eyes and ruthlessly reset the gears in her head. They took a few seconds to realign.

Done.

“Hi, Leo.” Olivia opened her eyes and looked past the edge of her laptop screen. She had an unobstructed view of him in the doorway. Safe house this may be, but she didn’t forget the important things like never putting her back to a door unless she could still see it. She dredged up a smile for him. “Sorry. What can I do for you?”

“There’s no need to apologize,” Leo replied. “I know you value your privacy and your time to recharge. Normally I wouldn’t dream of intruding on you, but I need your help.” He smiled softly.

He had trouble gauging Olivia. She was a raw nerve wrapped around an iron core. To survive what she had survived, there must be great strength in her, but her reactions to aid or criticism seemed random at times. Harley and Kristen wore their emotions on their sleeves and he could usually read their minds in the creases of their smiles and the furrows of their brows. And Eybi….

It didn’t matter. He had decided somewhere along the way that this group was not a bunch of assets to be managed, but something altogether different.

“I need to chat with you for a moment about Eybi. I’m afraid that I’ve upset him. It was careless of me really. I suspect that someone in his family may be tied to the Dire Wolves. I assume you recall them—their men shot Kristen. Unfortunately this appears to be somewhat of a … touchy subject.”

Leo sighed again. “So I’m afraid that he now hates me in the way that teenagers do. That is not really a problem, I can bear that burden. What I cannot bear is him doing something foolish to get himself—or one of you—hurt. I am not asking you to spy on him for me, or report his movements, or anything invasive. Just…watch out for him, please? I fear that he believes himself invincible, and we both know that he is not.” Leo smiled another sad smile, “Everyone can be hurt.”

Olivia leaned back in her chair as far as she could go, her toes digging into the rug and pushing her further away, a subconscious reflex against something distasteful. She caught herself, froze, and did a quick mental check.

Wall at her back? Yes. Room to dive left or right? Yes. Getting past Leo? Not happening.

She wondered if he even realized that by lounging in the door, he’d cut off her only means of escape. He was not a small person. At over six feet and strikingly angular, with an aquiline expression and eyes that missed nothing, he cut an imposing figure. Legs trembling in protest, she nevertheless rolled her chair forward again, hoping she’d made it look as if she was merely adjusting her seat … but in her heart of hearts, she knew it must have looked childishly obvious he’d startled her.

Startled? Be honest, Liv. He scares you sometimes.

Unlike Eybi. Which she didn’t want to think too deeply as to why. But the “why” she wouldn’t examine was nudging her to alarm on his behalf and it made her speak without thinking first.

“Do you really think he’ll hurt himself?” Olivia quivered in her chair as her body couldn’t decide between rising to go look for the teen and staying put. Where is Eybi? Is he okay? Something must be wrong if Leo’s coming to me over this. She took a deep breath and held up a hand to stay Leo … and herself. “Hold on. Give me a minute.”

She closed her eyes and reset her gears again. Dire Wolves. Possible connection. Family, maybe. Dislikes the association. Has implants—freaky shit there but—Focus, dammit! Teen. Doesn’t diss me like an adult. Was actually nice to m—Leo’s asking me to …. Oh. Shit. Of course Leo would come to me and ask. Classic asset manipulation. Why wouldn’t he? I’m the one who has an in with the subject. Emotional ties. Even if they’re only one way. Are they one way? She paused, frowning with her eyes tight shut. Not entirely. I like all of them, even Leo, but … Face it, Liv. Eybi’s like the cool brother you’ve never had and you like him. All right. I need more data.

Onward.

“Invincible?” Olivia opened her eyes and looked at him. “Or desperate? Sometimes they look the same on the outside.” She shook her head and flicked her hand in a dismissive gesture. “But getting back to the important part: yes, I’ll keep an eye on him because I actually consider him a friend. And what do you want me to keep a special eye out for? Cuz I know you’ve got something in mind. Because: Dire Wolves. Implants. Teen hormones and teen decision-making capacity. Not a particularly stable combination.” She huffed a breath, cast her eyes down, and said softly, “I know all about the not-stable.”

Leo watched Olivia squirm, stutter and race back and forth in place, like a highly talkative caged animal. He’d meant not to intrude and had trapped her instead. Another internal sigh. A subconscious slump of the shoulders, tilting of the head, the ghost of a smile. Hundreds of micro-adjustments meant to telegraph, I’m not a threat. Everything will be OK.

He eased out of the doorway as she spoke, going into the room just far enough to step aside and slide down the wall. Sitting on his hands he let her find her center, waiting patiently and quietly for her to find her train of thought and ride all the stations to the end. He let her last words hang in the air for just a few heartbeats before replying.

“Perhaps you are correct. He may be just that: desperate and alone. I think, in our own way, we are all desperate and alone. Maybe that’s why we found each other and formed this ragtag band. Although I cannot know his mind, I do know his actions. He has at times taken great risks. When we formed this group I promised to try and keep you all safe. Each of you has something precious to lose, including Eybi whether he realizes it or not.” Pain and great loss rippled across Leo’s carefully crafted facade as he continued, “I have nothing to lose. So please, all I ask is this: watch him for me because he will not let me protect him. He can be angry at me all he wants, but I cannot—will not—allow him to be harmed. Is that something you can do? I realize that it is a lot to ask.”

Olivia listened intently and watched Leo watching her. In so doing, she finally saw something she’d missed.

Liv, you oblivious idiot!

All the little things she’d noticed and shoved aside as paranoid misdirection, all the tiny winces and pauses that punctuated his actions, the words he’d left unsaid, made him real to her in a way he hadn’t been before. The topography of his internal landscape was hauntingly familiar. She bit her lip again, felt the sharp sweet pain and tasted copper, and moving very carefully as if not to frighten him into bolting, Olivia dared to join him on the floor. She sat next to him without touching yet close enough to feel the heat off him, and spoke softly to their feet.

“I’m sorry. Loss isn’t easy.” Her throat tightened and she paused to recover. “When loss is big enough, it takes too much of you with it and you can’t afford to lose any more. Because there’d be nothing of you left. So you hang on to what you’ve got. Tooth and toenail. Trenches and barbed wire. And you dynamite any bridge trying to cross. Because being afraid is easier than being open or being brave. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned,” Olivia added, shaking now but still choking the words out. “You replace what you’ve lost by what you give, not by what you hoard. So I’ll help you, Leo. And if you ever want to talk about … well, anything, really … build that bridge. I’ll meet it halfway with mine. Okay?”

He turned to look at her and flashed an easy grin. A false grin? He was never really sure anymore. “My dear Olivia, it is sweet of you to offer. I know that even making such an offer costs you. Do not worry about me. I have plenty of bridges left, it’s just the destination that leaves much to be desired. Helping all of you is enough for now.” Leo felt very tired suddenly, as weeks of running settled into his back and shoulders all at once. “Thank you too, for watching Eybi. It puts my mind at ease.” He closed his eyes and pushed his frame back against the wall.

“If you don’t mind,” he said after a moment, “I’m just going to sit here for a minute? I think you’ve managed to find the most comfortable bit of floor in this dump.”

Olivia listened to Leo, his voice warm and soft from fatigue and care. It reminded her of a drink she’d had once, rich with coffee and chocolate, hot, sweet, and bitter combined. His tone was a balm to her distress that she’d gone too far, even as his words spiked through the comfort to make her realize her friend wasn’t quite at ease as he claimed.

Friend? When did that happen? she asked herself, even though she already knew the answer: When he knocked on your door. But that only begged the question: How long had he been knocking before you finally heard him and let him in? Him, Eybi, Kristin, the others? And now that they’re inside, what are you going to do?

Sitting there and turning it over in her head, Olivia explored the shape of that dilemma, a prickly bundle of conflicting emotions that defied explanation and refused to be ignored. She thought about bridges and loss, of gaining through giving. But what would she gain by receiving? She could feel something vital hovering just out of reach like a palpable thing but what was it? Friendship? Acceptance? Sanity? All three?

Perhaps, but however much she wanted it, she suspected it would it hurt her in the end.

She could go back to her computers, her blog, her words, just slide back into the safety of absolute control. Or she could take a chance and trust something she couldn’t hold tight in her fist or make disappear by pressing a key. She’d opened a door and the world had walked in … but did she dare walk out?

Half in the light from the hallway, half in the shadow of a weary and hurting friend, something heavy and smothering inside her broke and fell away … and Olivia knew what she had to do. She leaned into Leo and gently threaded her arm through his.

“Sleep,” she said, finding his hand and lifting it free. Lacing her fingers in his, she built her bridge, listened to his breaths descending into the deep draws of sleep, and waited for him to cross.

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Day Eight

Excerpt from the Recovery Blog of Olivia Celine Crane

Monday, 2034-10-29, Day Eight
817 days After

I managed to make it over the state line and halfway to the next before I had to stop for gas. Filling my tank made me wince for my wallet’s sake but fill it I did. I leaned against my car and kept an eye out for movement. Cars, patrons, a feral cat passing through just as I was, all came and went under the harsh canopy lights. The pump handle clacked as the tank reached full. I replaced the handle and got my receipt and drove off. And stopped a split-second later when I realized I’d used my debit card instead of cash.

Paper trail. Dumb move. Dumb, dumb, dumb

A horn blared at my rear bumper and I jumped, goosing the gas pedal and jerking forward before I regained control and eased away from the pumps. I heard a crabby shout behind me but thankfully couldn’t make out the words. Once moving, I found it easier to keep going and cautiously merged back onto the interstate. As the miles passed under my wheels, the wheels in my head spun round and round.

Calm down. No one’s tracking your expenditures … Yeah, right. If that’s true, how did they find me Before? No one was supposed to know it was me and yet somehow they did.

I turned on the radio, found an electronic channel unlikely to have lyrics, and jacked the volume up loud. It made the perfect distraction from my thoughts and I occupied myself with humming along. I kept heading south then turned west at the next interstate and drove until I was too weary to drive. I spied a blue hospitality sign and pulled off at the exit and pulled into the advertised motel.

It was three stories of sad concrete and struggling shrubbery arranged around a parking lot. It had an after-hours window where I paid for the night. The entire place was badly lit and looked sketchy as fuck but the night clerk accepted cash and didn’t ask any questions. I grabbed my things and locked my car, took two steps, then went back to lock my car again. And again. And again.

I froze on my fifth try and stood clutching my keys and staring at the car as if the answers of the Universe would suddenly appear on the paint job. I forced myself to think it through.

Engine off? Yes. Doors locked? Trunk locked? Yes and yes. Duffel and roller outside the car. Keys outside the car. Me, outside the car. Nothing locked in. Nothing left unlocked. Everything’s fine. I can go now.

I was practically the only guest there and I had my pick of the rooms. I paid for one three flights up and four doors down. Not the ground floor where anyone could walk in from the street while I slept. Not the second floor where the parking lot wall offered a way up. The third floor, where it still wasn’t too far off the ground in case of a fire. Luckily there wasn’t a fourth floor, else I would have debated for an hour between it and the third. Four doors down meant I was in the middle of the row but not predictably dead center. I was far enough from the stairs at either end to make it inconvenient for anyone searching for me. They’d have to go room by room and I’d hear them coming. I got inside with my duffel and roller box, threw the locks, pulled the curtains shut against the anemic orange streetlights, and turned on all the lamps.

I was pleased to find the room was clean and Spartan. That made it easier to check. No one was under the bed. The closet was empty of everything including hangers. The tiny bathroom had the standard fixtures with rust stains. It had a window and that made me pause. Taking a deep breath, I walked over and inspected it.

Single pane. Double hung. Pivot latch. I put my hands on the lower sash and gave it a shake. Loose. Sketchy as fuck, remember?

I took the lid off the toilet tank and balanced it on the narrow sill. If anyone outside raised the sash, it would send the lid crashing to the floor. The noise would wake me in time to run out the front.

Maybe.

There wasn’t anything I could do about it now. I was paid up ’til morning. I left the bathroom light on and returned to the main room. The hotel had a small desk in lieu of a television, providing a place to plug in my laptop. Thanks to legislation a decade ago, internet access was a free public utility and I booted up after plugging in my anonymizer. No one would be able to trace me while I checked my emails and made my daily post.

I might be dysfunctional, crazy even, but one thing I’d steadfastly maintained through everything that happened to me After were my blogs. I had readers and advertisers depending on me for their daily fix and I’d be damned if I didn’t deliver. Structure was helpful, I’d been told over and over again.

Structure. Routine. Something I could control.

I kept things simple. I pulled only one of my laptops from its foam cradle in my roller box. There was no need to set up all three. I would post, sleep, check out when I woke and move on.

But it was hard going. I kept stopping to run a circuit around the room to check the windows and the locks. I could feel them like a twitch between my shoulder blades, on my back where I couldn’t see them, nagging me to inspect them. What would have normally taken 350 words and ten minutes to type took me over an hour. All that getting up and moving around and sitting back down and getting up and moving around made me sweaty … and not just from the physical exercise. I washed up at the sink during one of my circuits and sat down again.

I kept plugging away at my entry, posted it, and moved on to my next blog. Needless to say it was a short post. I was nodding off in my chair by the time I was done but little sounds from outside would jerk me awake with my fingers still on the keys, adrenaline making my pulse pound. I managed to compose my third entry in fits and starts and post.

Fatigue had me struggling through molasses by the time I was through but I made myself follow the routine: quick scan of my system for spyware, turn off the internet connection when done, shut down completely, and pack everything back in the box.

Structure. Routine. It helped having something I could control.

The desk chair got shoved under the front door knob. I turned off all the lights save the one in the bathroom. I wanted the dark to hide me from anyone breaking in from that quarter, while putting them in bright light so I could identify them later to the cops. I pulled the bathroom door halfway shut, wedged it in place with a matchbook underneath, and leaned one of the bedside lamps against it where it couldn’t be seen. I left it plugged in. With luck, forcing the door all the way open would make it fall and break the bulb—a makeshift flash bang. It would take their eyes a few precious seconds to adjust to the dark afterward, which I would use to throw the chair at them on the way out the front door.

I put my duffel and box next to the door to make them easy to grab when I left. I set my phone to wake me an hour before check out and lay down on the bed. And got back up again. I pulled my trench coat from my duffel and lay it on top of the covers and slept on that. Or tried to. Sleep came hard. Light was seeping under the curtains when I finally dropped off.

And that was the start of Day Eight.

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Day Seven

Excerpt from the Recovery Blog of Olivia Celine Crane

Sunday, 2034-10-28, Day Seven
816 Days After

Three second-hand stores, two pawn shops, and one (pitifully small) truckload to the Salvation Army later, I was done. Everything tying me down was gone. I had nothing but a duffle and my roller box and a 12 year old car I’d purchased with cash from my bank account. All bills paid. No more debt. No more rent. No more ties to bind … and strangle.

I’m free.

I packed my car, got behind the wheel and I swear, I sat frozen by the possibilities and the fear. Where would I go? What if I broke down before I got there? What if the Good Samaritan who stopped to help me was an axe murderer in disguise? Or worse, someone who wouldn’t kill me quick but take his or her time?

What if I got arrested for being double parked in front of the building I could no longer call home?

Oddly enough, the threat of a mere traffic ticket was sufficient to get me moving. One mile and I was shaking. Two and I nearly turned back to beg the landlord to renew my cancelled lease. Three miles and my hands ached from clutching the steering wheel. By mile five I was sweating. By eight I had to pull into a parking deck because I was hyperventilating. I drove to the very top where I could see the sky and not feel closed in … and broke down and cried.

I’d lit the match on my last bridge and panicked as it burned down around me.

Why the hell did I think I could do this? What could I possibly achieve from a life on the road if I couldn’t even leave my driveway? I was now homeless, damned near broke, and one tank of gas away from being well and truly stranded.

God! I hated being afraid. I hated being sick. Fucking. Hating. Sick. Of it.

Something hot rose inside me. Hard. Loud. Primal. I screamed. Screamed until I had nothing left. No voice, no air, no throat. Just fire where they’d once been.

I blinked, dripping sweat, snot, and tears. My head was killing me. My hands hurt. I choked and coughed, peeled my fingers off the steering wheel and mopped up. The windows were fogged. I lowered them and the cold autumn air soothed my raw hot self back down.

The fog retreated and the world, like my wits, crept in.

How long had I been there? The dashboard clock said twenty minutes. It felt like a century. The cold air hit my sweaty skin and made me shiver but I felt mired in wet concrete, too exhausted to raise the windows again. I closed my eyes and recalled the weather report. It would dip below freezing tonight and I wondered what hypothermia would feel like. A whine met my ears and listening hard, I realized it didn’t come from me. Surprise made me open my eyes.

Movement ahead. I spied a construction crane past the parapet of the parking deck, swinging in a lazy arc half a block away. Gold afternoon light slanted into the control cab and for a second the crane operator looked right at me. He tapped the brim of his non-existent hat and went right on working: Hello. Goodbye. I must be going.

So should I.

South, my gut whispered. If I left now, I could to beat the rush hour traffic on the Turnpike and be halfway across the next state before midnight. I rolled up the windows, rolled up my sleeves, and put my car in gear.

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Day One

Excerpt from the Recovery Blog of Olivia Celine Crane

Sunday, 2034-10-21, Day One
809 Days After

Happy Birthday to me. I’ve managed to last another year After. 365 days of not giving in to my nightmares. 365 days of fighting for some semblance of normal. 365 days of baring my soul and mapping it.

Today I said goodbye to my therapist, Dr. Macklin. I won’t be going back. I’m not getting better going over the same ground again and again. Picking at my wounds will never let them heal and I’m just raw and open. If I’m asked one more time “How does that make you feel?”, “What do you think that means?”, or “Why are you afraid of x?” I really will go mad.

And a part of me won’t care if I did.

I can’t let that happen. Even though I feel hideous and I don’t know what anything means anymore and why I’m afraid of everything all the time, I just can’t let that happen.

I have to find my own way back, by my own methods, in my own time. Otherwise, I’m just using someone else’s framework as a crutch. It can’t last.

Nothing lasts forever but I don’t need forever. I just need a lifetime. And right now, I’m not living. I’m just going through the motions. That stops today.

So, birth day?

Yes.

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Session 6: Welcome to the City of Doors

Our group starts the session wanting more answers from Fairgar. Through some conversation and some raiding of his library, they discover:

  • The city, while ruled by the Lady of Pain, seems to be managed by a set of groups called factions that each have their own philosophical bent. One faction runs the police, one runs the courts, one runs the jail, and so on. Fairgar suggests that if they are staying in the city for a while, they might want to join one because it opens up doors. However, when Leo suggests that also adds responsibility, Fairgar doesn’t disagree.
  • Aoskar’s body lies in the Astral Plane. Fairgar’s faction might be interested in returning him to life to prove the truth of their philosophy…but he’s somewhat cagey, as he’s not sure what the group’s interest is or where their alignment lies.
  • Fairgar has a large steel door, behind which he keeps an alchemist laboratory.
  • The city is constantly changing, thanks to the efforts of the Lady’s servants, the dabus. Maps are only somewhat useful because of that. The group had seen dabus floating around the city, making small repairs.
  • Gods are no longer allowed in Sigil after Aoskar’s death, but proxies for the powers are. Fairgar theorizes that the group may be proxies for Aoskar, given the tattoos of his holy symbol on them. If that’s the case, they may want to see Fell, a dabus who was theorized to be a proxy for Aoskar. He no longer floats and sells tattoos that can become real things. Most people of Sigil give him a wide berth.

Meanwhile, Eybi figures out that he can bring up his “character sheet” which allows him a good deal of flexibility, both in determining what items are and in allowing him some control over the equipment he was wearing.

Eybi and Olivia then sneak off to explore the Great Bazaar, with Olivia trying to map behavior patterns and Eybi using some of the gold which he found in a pouch to buy a old fashioned musket, which he intends to use to figure out the code behind this VR space.

Kristen (going by Aria here) raids Fairgar’s kitchen and discovers that even with odd ingredients, she’s still a great cook as she fixes dinner for everyone as a thank you to Fairgar for letting them stay for a while.

After dinner, more crystal magic is performed with the help of a map of Sigil (“not guaranteed to be accurate”). Harley’s boyfriend is nowhere to be found but Aria’s boyfriend…well, the crystal hovers over the Mortuary, the home to the Dustmen faction, as well as the location where all dead bodies are taken for disposal.

This unsettles Aria and the rest of the evening is spent in quiet consideration and reading the “Clueless Guide to Sigil” found by Olivia in Fairgar’s library.

When the next morning arrives, Solitude shows up to guide them on their tour of Sigil. The group requests the tour take them to the Mortuary, which is at the border between the Lower Ward and the Hive. Solitude reluctantly agrees, as the Hive is a place where his tour doesn’t go, thanks to the scum and villainy located within.

They get the full tour, as they have to go the long around the torus that is Sigil, getting to see the highups in the Lady’s Ward before it gives way to the industrial, working creature’s home in the Lower Ward. But eventually the Lower Ward gives way to the beginning of the hive, and there is located the Mortuary.

There are guards at the front, although they look in manner more like doormen than armed guards. The group asks the doorman about Aria’s boyfriend, using a sketch provided by Olivia. That prompts the doorperson to ask them to come with her (him?). They are led through the public facing portion of the Mortuary, past many skeletons and zombies serving as base labor. Eventually they are taken to what is clearly offices for the higher ups in the faction. She/he/it leads them to an office where they walk in to discover a man with slightly graying hair and black robes sitting behind a large, ornate desk. The doorman whispers in his ear and shows him the sketch.

“What do you know of this man? He is very important to this faction and I will have whatever information you have about him.”

This doesn’t sound like a man to be messed with….

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Session 5: Crossing Over
What the hell have we gotten into?

The group, after the chaos and information gathering of hacking the Looking Glass Emporium, decide to follow through and meet Dylan at the Crossover, a hipster bar in downtown Chicago. They arrive, get a table in the back. The appointed meeting time arrives…and passes. Everyone is about ready to leave when Dylan Vessy rushes in the front door and sits down at the table, leaning in close.

He tells them that the Men in Black are close behind and that he doesn’t have a lot of time. He was expecting to have fifteen minutes. Instead he has 3. And he has to give them the key. He reaches into his pocket and blows a handful of dust into the group’s faces. And within seconds, they are all the proud possessors of a new tattoo shaped like a key.

He then spews out a bunch of random information:

  • Avoid the Lady, at all costs.
  • The tattoos are the key, but don’t let anyone see them.
  • They have to return his access
  • The Hitachi Building has a door they can use.
  • Oh, and by the way, they should probably run out the back.

And with that, Dylan pulls a revolver out of an inner coat pocket, which he then starts firing at the men dressed in black coming in the front door. The group runs for the back door. And [[Session 1: Falling Down the Rabbit Hole | before you know it]], the group is running through the front doors of the Hitachi Building.

Only to find a pretty bare room. There’s a bed without any bedding, a bookshelf without any books, and a desk in the corner with a computer from the early 1980s. Oh, and the big glass door is gone and replaced with a wooden one,

The group quickly comes to the conclusion that is some sort of VR space, as nothing quite has the full feel or visual look of actual reality. Someone posits it might be some sort of inbetween space, a conclusion everyone generally agrees upon. Harley and Leo go to investigate the new (old?) door, while Kristin starts playing with the computer, which has a single map/camera icon on the screen. She presses it, and it produces a large holographic globe, which can be used to see any place on the Earth in real time. Although, when they look at the Hitachi Building, their bodies aren’t there, which suggests either:

  1. The Men in Black were quick to clean up
  2. This holographic map is not completely accurate
  3. The group’s understanding how things are working is not right

There is some discussion about the possibilities, including getting neurally hooked in somehow, either remotely, or perhaps through the wacky tattoo causing dust.

Meanwhile, Eybi attempts and succeeds at pulling up his VR console, although he is a bit surprised to see that everyone else can see his console. He then investigates the computer, opening it up to find (surprise, surprise) that the innards are not that of an Amiga, but rather a sophisticated modern day computer. Eybi, thinking ahead, grabs the code that powers the globe (since there’s not really a computer in this VR inbetween). Never know when that might come in handy.

Harley and Leo open the door to discover a grayish, semi-opaque wall between them and an outside world of sorts. They can see a wooden deck and set of stairs down. In addition, there is a building wall across the way, suggesting they were in an alleyway. Noise suggests an open-air bazaar or marketplace of some sorts, although like the view, the noise is muted.

There is some brief argument about going out, but eventually they come to the conclusion that there is no other option. They all file out the door. Once they get to the other side, the sounds become louder and much to Leo’s consternation, there are languages that he can’t place. The smell is a heavy industrial feel and there is a smog, not as thick as a London pea soup, but definitely a pre modern era pollution cloud.

But the thing that catches every one’s attention is that their physical form has changed:

  • Harley is a monk of the Samaritan Order.
  • Leo is a rogue of the Council of Thieves.
  • Olivia is a gnome Harpist Chronicler.
  • Eybi is a samurabi.
  • Kristin is a cleric of Chauntea.
  • Fredrich is a grey robed wizard of some sort.

Only Olivia seems to have changed racial forms, with everyone else remaining human, but physical bodies seem enhanced. In fact, this whole place seems almost more real than reality. Fredrich is head over heels, feeling like he is in the game of all games. He even, realizing he is a wizard in this realm, casts a levitation spell, freaking several of the group out.

Kristin checks to see if she still has her crystal and has Harley try to use it to find her missing boyfriend. They get the sense he is somewhere in the city before the crystal’s imagery fades out.

They make their way out into the city, discovering that there are “people” of all shapes, forms, and sizes out here. Some are recognizable, others not so much. They finally reach the end of a street that opens out into a tremendously huge open air market like nothing they have ever seen. And when they look up and see the smog has cleared some, they also see city stretching above them, confirming that they are in the tire shaped city they had seen images of previously.

Leo, not on full alert for the first time perhaps ever, gets bumped into by a seven foot tall…well…demon, who then picks a fight with the smaller man. Leo, not wiling to back down, gives in words as good as he gets until he is undermined by Olivia just wanting to drag him out of the way and stop the fight.

The demon is willing to concede that Leo is whipped by his gnome woman until Leo throws a deadly insult his way. A fight almost breaks out when a large creature with the lower body of a ram and upper body of a human steps between Leo and the demon. He then proceeds to talk the demon out of the fight and asks the group to come with him to meet his master, who would like to talk to them.

When the group eventually agrees, the creature introduces himself as a bariaur and gives them his name as Solitude. He guides them through the Great Bazaar to the edge of the open area where more permanent shops have set up space. He then, via ramp, leads them to the second floor of a building, where they enter a room full of books and bookshelves.

At the center of the room is a dwarf with butterfly wings who introduces himself as Fairgar. Fairgar explains a few things to them:

  • He is a Signer, a member of a group who believes that each member is the center of the universe.
  • The key tattoos on each of them are symbols of the dead god Aoskar, whose body lies on the Astral Plane. Oh, and possession of them gets two years hard labor.
  • Aoskar, god of doors and portals was killed by the Lady of Pain, the ruler of Sigil, City of Doors and the city they are currently in, for overstepping his bounds and gathering too much power.
  • Solitude is a tout, which is a word for a guide to the city.

He agrees to let them stay the night, as he wishes to talk to them about their tattoos, as his group has some interest in bringing Aoskar back to life. That’s why he had Solitude grab them once he realized they were in the city.

The session ends with a lot of questions and the group thinking about searching for the missing people before even thinking about doing anything that Dylan wants.

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Session 4: Enter Eybi

When Fredrich goes ill due to a missing prescription, Olivia volunteers to take him to the hospital, leaving the rest of the group potentially short the skill set necessary to investigate the Through the Looking Glass Emporium.

Thankfully, Kristin knows a group of travelling neo-hippies who stop by her restaurant when they are in San Francisco. “Misty” had mentioned her nephew, who helped her with hooking up to wireless whereever they might be. Better than nothing, they contact “Nephew” via beeper – perhaps the last beeper in existence.

A meeting is arranged in a local park and the group soon meets up with a young Japanese man on a slick looking motorcycle. There is some back and forth where the group feels out the young man and his skill set, planning to hire him on for this one job. Until Dylan chimes in from Harley’s phone, asking her to hold the phone up so he can scan the young man. After the scan, he proclaims that the man is another Potential, muttering about entropic coincidences and tells them they should bring him on board. A good chunk of discussion is had – they eventually give him the whole story, explaining the risk factor. He introduces himself as Eybi (A.B.) and asks when they are going to get started.

A plan is formulated where Eybi will go into the “Rabbit Hole”, the child care/VR playground. The idea is that he’s been in one previously, and there will be less physical security, with the likelihood of older machines that will be easier to crack.

Eybi enters the Rabbit Hole and sees the familiar set of Cheshire Cat VR helmets used to entertain the younger set. Past the helmet section is the entrance to Maze of Hearts, a holographic/VR maze designed to entertain older kids. And also in that area are Eybi’s real target, the older VR terminals. While it takes some work to get past the security on them, with Eybi’s skill set it’s not too difficult. He sets it to grab ALL the data streamed to him. But in the meantime, he gets a desire to take one of the Cheshire Cat helmets for use as a cool bike helmet once the electronics have been removed.

When he strolls out the front door with it, he also goes to the front desk and demands some portion of his entrance fee back. The man at the front desk refuses and tells Eybi to put the helmet back. When Eybi refuses, the front desk clerk calls for security and the chase is on.

As he runs down the alleyway between the Rabbit Hole and the main TLG Emporium building, he runs into a guard and a teenager coming out of a concealed exit from the Rabbit Hole, headed towards a concealed entrance to the Emporium. Eybi breaks it up and attempts to rescue the boy. With the help of the rest of the group, they manage to evade or distract the various security guards, getting away with the boy AND the helmet.

Back in a semi-secure location, Leo takes out the electronics in the helmet and scans them for anything unusual. He finds some communication setup that doesn’t look like it belongs in a VR helmet that is designed to be self contained with no direct hookup to the larger VR network.

In addition, Leo has a vague memory of having seen this helmet before. He wouldn’t have purchased one for his daughter. Maybe a friend of hers? Or maybe his wife couldhave done that? He wasn’t around very much to know…

Meanwhile, Eybi analyzes his data and discovers two things:

1) First, the children in comas in the Chicago area were either hooked up to the Cheshire Cat or to Emporium VR machines. But their last entry is always very short, like 3 to 4 seconds.

2) There is completely nonsensical code throughout the Emporium’s VR setup. The code shouldn’t work at all – it’s not just bad code, but complete nonsense. Scanning it for readability, Eybi determines that it is likely some sort of communication code, perhaps similar to the hardwired equipment in the helmets.

Given this information, the group decides to meet with Dylan at the Crossover that night, hoping to get some more answers but deciding that they have to shut down Zack Jennings, who is clearly targeting these children. And maybe getting into Otherscape is the way to do it…

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Session 3: Off to Chicago

In the morning, with Fredrich now awake, they start to make some decisions about what their next steps are. Fredrich chimes in with what he knows:

  • He saw a rift to the city that the group has seen through magic (?) in one of the VR games he played regularly. Ever since he saw it, he’s been looking for it because it was the greatest piece of VR coding he had ever seen. And he wants in.
  • He found other people had seen it in different games and VR spaces. Although oddly, even within the same VR space, one person might see it while 10 others would not.
  • Fredrich had just started following the money trail when he was kidnapped. He had found massive data centers being built across the world. The city locations in the U.S. matched the locations that Kristin’s crystal scrying had revealed.

The group agrees to drive to Chicago in the self driving van, which should get them there with 3/4 of a day to spare before their meeting with Dylan in the downtown club known as The Crossover. But Olivia refuses to leave without getting her stuff from her apartment, despite Leo’s insistence that it was a bad idea. Harley says she’ll take Olivia and everyone else can stay with the car, despite Leo’s insistence that was also a bad idea.

When they get to the apartment, the door is ajar. Olivia sneaks around the back to look through the bay window, but Harley just walks right in, allowing a man in a black suit armed with a pistol to get the drop on her. He orders her to the ground, but seeing his gun has no silencer and expecting him not to want to make noise, Harley attacks him and takes him out, allowing Olivia to collect her stuff.

They then return back to the car, where Leo, upon seeing the gun that Harley grabbed, comments “that’s the reason I should go with you.” Harley shrugs, and the trip to Chicago begins.

It goes smoothly and they arrive a little before noon on Saturday. Dylan wants them, if they have time, to check out Chicago’s instance of the Through the Looking Glass Emporium, an adult play center themed around the Seven Deadly Sins. Dylan suspects that since all TLG emporiums keep their VR local, rather than in the cloud, that there may be some information there that they can use to verify Zack Jennings is directly involved, find out if anyone else is involved, and how/why they are putting the kids through it. They are going to need some help and Kristin thinks she knows someone – she knows some people in a neo-hippie traveling caravan who occasionally stop by her place when in San Francisco. They mentioned a member of their family living in Chicago that might be able to hack them in…

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Session 2: Some Answers...
...Along With More Questions

Our heroes set off in a Googlesoft rented self-driving van with a wheelchair in the back, looking to rescue Fredrich Wagner, the person mentioned alongside everyone in Dylan’s Alice note.

The spot given by Dylan is a extremely large mansion set back into woods behind a fence. The group drives by to get a feel and quickly discovers there is also a guard patrol. They sneak their way over the fence, only to accidentally attract the attention of a nearby guard. But with some quick thinking, they manage to knock him out with only a single shot fired.

Leo, smartly grabs the guard’s uniform, radio, and assault rifle (!!), and then using some very non-lawyerly abilities to imitate voices, sends out a message on the radio about an assault on the fence. That both buys them a distraction to sneak their way into the house and a rough idea where Fredrich is being kept.

While sneaking their way in, they overhear some guards talking in Romanian accents about a “Turing Agency” that seems to have been hired by their boss. One of them is also strongly discouraged from hitting on their direct boss, Antonia Lupei, one of the infamous Dire Wolves. The implication is made that she will welcome the guard, but that he might not like the aftermath.

They eventually find Fredrich and Leo uses OIivia as a “capture” to strength his acting as a guard, enabling him to get close and disable the man watching Fredrich, who identifies himself only as “Alan”, a clear reference to the Turing agency.

After some questioning, they find that Alan seems to know Dylan; he’s surprised that the group of them are together; and they are all “Potentials”, whatever that means. He implied that the Turing Agency has been keeping an eye on all of them for some time because of their Potential status.

Fearing a return of the guards, the group gets out of the mansion while carrying Fredrich. They are guided by Dylan to an abandoned computer store that seems to be a safehouse of sorts.

There, pushed by the group’s need for answers, Dylan reveals some things to them:

  • He along with some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world, were involved in building Otherscape – the VR that they’ve seen glimpses of.
  • Every member of the cabal has their own reasoning for building it.
  • His reasoning (along with the Turing Agency) was to create a space where everyone could be their own god, to awake the sleeping population to the possibilities.
  • Both the coma children and the missing people are related to Otherscape, but Dylan quickly disavows being involved with the coma children, pointing the finger at Zack Jennings, a cabal member and owner of the Through the Looking Glass Emporium business. He also claims that Zack is a “sick son of a bitch.”
  • Dylan has lost his access to Otherscape, where “he was a god”. The group can find the answers about their missing people and children in comas on the real side, he says, but finding solutions would be a lot easier from the Otherscape, especially if his access is restored. He is very straightforward in admitting that he is using them with the expectation that they will use him in return.

After the discussion, the group cuts off communication to discuss among themselves and come to an agreement.

  1. Dylan’s speech and answers to the questions give off the smell of a religious fanaticism.
  2. There is a good chance that Dylan was somehow involved with the missing people (if not the coma children) and that they shouldn’t trust him.
  3. If given the chance, they are going to look for a way to bring the whole thing down.
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