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2.1 – Recognition

Ugh, you ran into *him*?” Wendy said, her emphasis half-incredulous and half disgusted. “We’ve been trying to nail skull face for months. He’s the sort of psycho who gives us a bad name.”

…he gives supervillains a bad name?” I asked.

She made a looping gesture with the screwdriver in her hand, leaning back in the chair at her stone workbench. It looked like she was re-assembling an upper leg joint, the part just below where her actual feet rested when she was in the suit. “You know what I mean. We’re supervillians because the ‘heroes’ are weapons used by law enforcement against the populace instead of people who use extraordinary talents to help those around them. Skull ass is a supervillian because he’s actually villainous. And not in the waxing his whip mustache and stroking his cat while revealing his plan to Mr. Bond way, but the sick fuck who gives law enforcement a way to scare people into accepting their abuses sort of way. He’s got to go.”

What, kill him? I thought you said you don’t kill people.” I said.

Wendy sighed. “No, you’re right, we don’t. We could tie him up and leave him to the Feds to imprison. It’s not ideal, I worry they’ll brainwash him like the others, but it’s about the best we can do.”

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2.0 – Errands

I jogged down the street on a warm Portland night with eight manilla envelopes tucked under one arm. Each had the certified filing papers for a different shell corporation I’d put together, and my errand was dropping them off at a post box. I’d jumped out of my seat at the chance to get out of HQ, as Wendy and Randall had me calling it.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like being there; I was settling in well, and as much as I missed some of my things it was a nerdy paradise. Still, now that I could move without it being torture I found myself eager to indulge the longing for movement I’d had before that I couldn’t fulfill.

I was just rounding a corner when the gunshot went off. I about jumped out of my skin, blood running cold with adrenaline as I slammed myself against the gray concrete monolith of a building to my left.

A man’s screams soon made it clear that the shot wasn’t directed at me.

A figure in one of those Halloween costumes with a white skull printed on a black screen attached to a hood was holding the semi-automatic pistol in his right hand, stooped over a man in a suit screaming in pain as he clutched his gut on the sidewalk. Hood skull, I decided to call him, had what looked like a checkbook and cards from the man’s wallet in his left hand.

I kept myself pressed against the wall to minimize my profile, and inched forward as silently as I could.

He has a gun, and you’re not bulletproof.

I could always go intangible.

Not in time.

I half-consciously clenched my teeth and ignored the thought, pressing forward.

That’s a nasty gut wound you have there.” Said hood skull, his voice masculine but young. Maybe late teens or early twenties. “Slow death. Agonizing, isn’t it? In the civil war, soldiers dying of gut wounds used to beg their friends to put them out of their misery. A mercy.” He put his foot on the man’s gut and pressed down for emphasis, which elicited more screams.

Lucky for you, I can heal you. Make it like it never happened. I just need your pin number for this card here.”

I edged closer, careful to take each step slowly, silently. The key was to focus on bringing the far back edge of your heel down first, and slowly let the rest of the foot make contact with the ground a bit at a time, like a rocking chair. Bringing the foot down flat pressed all the air out at once, which created the distinctive clapping sound of a careless step.

Between screams, the man whispered something that must have been what hood skull wanted. He stuffed the bank cards and checkbook into a pocket, and bent down to lay a hand on the bloody mess of the man’s gut.

Smart choice, now you get to live. Can’t have you getting in the way of me making a little withdrawal though, so I’m afraid you’re going to be taking a nice long sleep.”

The screams stopped, along with the suited man’s writhing.

I kept stepping closer, and when hood skull stood up he was facing away from me only one step away. I worked up my courage and brought both of my hands down on the back of his head, hard.

He shouted in surprise and fell half on top of his victim. I tried to get my foot on the arm with the gun to pin it to the ground, but missed as he jerked it under him and rolled over, off the man and facing me.

My hands ached, and I knew that strike should have knocked him out, or at least dazed him a bit more. It could readily have killed a normal person.

He can heal himself.

As I watched him bring the gun up to face me, I mentally swore. It was the only conclusion that made sense, and it pretty much ruined my ‘take him down before he can use the gun’ plan.

With a moment of perfect clarity, I knew the gun was out of my reach to stop, and I was going to die.

I breathed in.

The gun went off.

I breathed out.

Hood skull hesitated, still sprawled on his back. I looked down casually, noting that I was transparent. It wasn’t a surprise, really. In this state of mind nothing was. It was just…something I noticed.

Several more shots came, and I didn’t feel them. Hood skull pushed himself away from me with his legs, getting up on one arm to turn and run off, gun still clutched in his hand.

I let him run. Not much I could do, I supposed. I looked down curiously at the poor guy in the suit; he had indeed been healed, it looked like.

Like any kidnapper, the hoodlum probably wants a reputation of giving over the goods when he gets his payoff to encourage people to give him what he wants.

I thought about that, and wondered if he really thought that far ahead or not. No way to be sure, really. So at length I looked around for a public phone and drifted toward it down the street, supposing I should call an ambulance for the comatose fellow.

I’d have to be solid again to do that, the thought came. I rather liked this state of clarity, though. It made the world feel…fluffy.

Stop it. He needs help.

Right. I tried to shake it off, focusing on the pain in my hands from the blow I’d landed. Being reminded of the physicality helped.

At length I made the 911 call and dashed off before help arrived. I certainly didn’t want to answer any questions, and I still had mail to drop off. Time to do that.

1.9 – Gang Oft Agley

I laid my arms on the worktable and banged by head against them in frustration.

Is that going to happen every time I try to think about social context, now?

“Maybe.” Said the Essence. “I’m not really sure! It’s interesting, isn’t it?” She gestured expansively, taking in the situation in obvious delight. Then she seemed to become interested in something down in the far end of the columned space and drifted that way.

“Maybe?” Asked Wendy, a hint of a frown forming around her eyes.

“…talking to my thoughts again, not your question.” I explained, lifting my head. Seeing Wendy’s concerned look following the Essence’s meandering path down the vaulted space, I waved dismissively.  “She’s harmless, I think.  She’ll probably just read your books.”  Then I sighed, remembering my apartment. “So I can’t go home now, or…”

Wendy finished the sentence for me. “Be whisked away and drugged with hyponotics so you don’t remember them doing it, allowing them to spin some story about saving you from villains or something so you’re willing to work with them.”

“It’s our best guess from what we’ve been able to piece together.” Randall said. “But yeah, that’s about it.” He made a vague slashing motion with his hand, as if to cut off that train of thought and make room for another. “But what is this about owning and stuff?”

I gave him what I hoped was a withering glare. I don’t think he noticed. “It’s…not something I want to talk about.” I stood, half-consciously wringing my hands as I took to pacing over the cold smoothed stone. “What am I going to do now? I can’t go home, they know who I am…”

“You can stay here.” Wendy put the suggestion forward like it was obvious. “That’s what we’ve been hoping to offer to anyone we manage to rescue. Except, well, you’re the only one we’ve gotten to first.”

“Out of dumb luck.” Randall said, though whether his harsh tone was him being hard on himself, Wendy, or the both of them I couldn’t tell.

“Hey, it doesn’t matter how it happened. We got lucky. Now we should make the most of it.” Wendy shot back.
“But I can’t stay with you!” I shouted. “You’re villains! You kill people and stuff!”

“Some villains do that, honey.” Wendy’s explained, her voice warm with earnestness. “We just don’t want to be brainwashed or used to suppress protestors or to kidnap other people like us. And that means the Fed’s PR calls us villains and blames us for every horrible thing that ever happens.”

“We’re more like anti-heroes.” Randall said. “Or anti-villains, maybe.”

I turned from my neurotic pacing to face them both again. “…you don’t kill people?”

“Of course not.” Wendy said. “That’s for psychopaths.”

“Like the government.” Randall said. Wendy laughed. Since they were hunting for me now, I didn’t think it was funny.

“So what do you do?” I asked.

“Mostly, well-” Wendy started, but Randall interrupted. “Not a lot yet.”  He said.

Wendy threw him a glare and turned back to me. “Randall and I were friends since middle school. When Randall came into his powers, we had the idea to dig this place as a hideout. Since then the only thing we’ve been doing is try to save people by reaching them before the feds get to them. But they’ve been a lot faster than we’ve been.” She said.

“It’s hard to compete with offices in every major metro, ready to go on a moment’s notice when they get a tip.” Randall said and shrugged, letting his arms fall with a defeated slump.

Wendy spoke up again. “We’ve been thinking that maybe we need to do something more direct. But for that we’ll need resources.”

“-so we’ve been thinking about knocking over a bank.” Randall said.

“That’s a terrible idea.” I said immediately.

“We’ve thought it though!” Randall insisted. “I tunnel up from under the floor, to get Wendy inside. We do it late at night so there’s no one around to get hurt. Even if there’s a guard, Wendy is bulletproof, and I won’t need to leave the tunnel, so we can basically ignore him. We tested how much pressure Wendy can create in a locking piston ram; she should be able to buckle the vault door in in less than two minutes, which is well under the response time for police. We grab what money we can carry, and I tunnel us back out closing up the rock behind us. It’s a perfect getaway.”

I sat down again and mulled it over. It was patently insane, but part of me couldn’t resist the challenge of figuring out if that could work. “Why don’t you just tunnel through the floor of the vault?” I asked.

“My power doesn’t seem to work on refined metals.” Randall explained. “Just rock. Not even dirt, for that matter, but I can usually work around that by manipulating the rock under it.”

“Huh.” I said. “Can you levitate rock?”

He shook his head. “No, I need to channel the force into the ground, like bridges and buildings do.”

“Hm.” I said. “It might work…” I started.

“Of course it will work. I’ve thought it through for months now.” Randall said, exasperated.

“…but I think there’s a much easier way to make the money.” I finished.

“We’re not going to kill anyone.” Wendy said.

“No, no, of course not.” I said, bringing my hands up with my palms toward Wendy. “Listen, how much money do you have?”

“Not enough.” She said. “Randall had a pretty good job before, and he sold his car and condo when we moved here, so we’ve got maybe fifty thousand, but we’ll need serious resources if we’re going to go up directly against the feds.”

“That should be enough.” I said, doing some math in my head. “How much do you two know about the stock market?” I asked. “Because I think I have a plan.”

1.8 – Abrupt Explanations

Wendy jumped about a foot in surprise and a shockwave of steam hit the windy figure as she whipped around and saw it.

Hehehe!” She tittered in playful joy.  “Got you! That feels really strange…” Her form wiggled, like visual impression of the sensation of a shiver running up the spine.

A second blast of steam hit the Essence, filling it up with white mist as the water began to immediately condense in the cool underground air. Randall and Wendy were both facing it now and backing up, their hands raised. Randall gestured and columns of rock as big as my fist extruded down from the ceiling and into the floor like a liquid, making a cage around it.

Wait! It’s OK!” I shouted, half out of my seat as if I could interfere somehow.

Indeed. He belongs to me.” She said, casually. “I’m not here to hurt you. Not that I could, really.” She floated through the bars of the rock cage, wind forming around them and regaining its body imitating shape on the other side.  I caught Randall’s frown out of the corner of my eye.

What exactly is going on?” Wendy asked, not taking her eyes off the Essence, even as she took another step back, maybe unconsciously.

It – she – is harmless, as far as I know.” I said. “It’s sort of a strange story, and I was hoping not to mention it, but I suppose that plan is ruined now.”

…I’ll say so.” Wendy said, her tone conveying vast and obvious understatement.

So what is it?” Randall asked, his posture still tense, at the alert for any false move.

I am the essence of intellectual thought and related concepts, including wind and open spaces.” She said, looking at its non-extant fingernails modeled in tightly whirling wisps of condensing steam.

That’s…strange. So you’re not human?  Were never human” Wendy asked.

Of course not. You’re a self-assembling sentience made out of an iterative pattern of refinement in primordial ooze. Why should any other sort of sentience be strange? Besides, I like myself.” She replied, and smiled.

…point.” Wendy said, finally blinking away from her watchful glare as she thought that through.

Why are you here?” I asked the figure in the wind.

Oh, I wanted to let you know that it probably isn’t safe for you to go home.” She said. “Men in suits raided it. I didn’t let them see me, but I thought I would let you know. I wouldn’t want anyone to break you, I went through all that effort to see what you’ll do with the changes I made, and it’s barely been a day.” She pouted.

My thoughts spun, and I tried to figure out what had happened.

My physical change in the hospital. When I left suddenly they must have checked the cameras to see what happened, and caught what happened on those. They would have already had my name and address from checking my wallet while I was unconscious. When they saw what happened they called someone, and someone up the chain decided they wanted an apparent shape shifter.

Oh.” I said out loud as the chain of what must have happened fell into my head.

Yes.” Said the Essence. “I suspect that’s what happened too.”

Suspect that they raided it? I thought you said that’s what they did?” Asked Randall, confused.

No, it – she, whatever – can read my mind. I was thinking about how they found me.”

Yes, we think it was something he did in the hospital, when he first woke up after I tinkered with him.” She said.

There’s a lot going on here, isn’t there?” Randall asked. Wendy sighed, and stepped away to pull up a chair. Randall sat down in the one he had pulled out earlier, and I tried to think about how I was going to present this all to them. I wanted to give them a cogent narrative while leaving out the embarrassing parts, and started rehearsing possibilities in my mind while I waited for Wendy to get back.

…OK, why are you a girl, now?” Wendy asked when she turned back to me with her chair.

1.7 – Awkward Topics

Wendy lurched forward at the unexpected lack of resistance, and caught herself with a hand that went through my knee and caught the edge of the chair under me.

The hell?” She said in surprise, drawing back. “Wait, you – you are a spy. I’ve just told you my name and now I can’t hurt you. Fuck.”

I half heard her. I was looking at the wall behind her and thinking about how interesting rock looked, and how I’d never really looked at it before.

Pay attention!

What? Uh, spy? No, no I’m not. I’m sorry, I didn’t know…” I looked down at the arms that were attached to me – that was how I was thinking of them in my detached state, rather than as belong to me – and I and noticed how I could see the floor through them, like they were partially translucent. Looking closely I could see shadows of the ulna and the radius, and the tunnel-like network of arteries and veins leading into one another around them. It was so interesting I sort of drifted off from whatever I had meant to say.

You mean this hasn’t happened to you before?” She asked, incredulous. I’d moved on to thinking about how my cheek didn’t hurt, and wondered why I couldn’t feel pain if my nerves worked enough that I could still move around.

Hello?” Wendy asked, after several moments passed.

I started, and my attention focused back on the here and now again. I slid out of the fugue, and gripped onto the way thoughts usually flow.

I’m sorry, that was…weird.” I began, and then I became aware of Wendy’s incredulous look. “I mean yes, that hasn’t happened before. Although some…other things, have.” I hedged. “I’m glad to finally be sure I wasn’t imagining it, though. Well, I suppose I could be imagining you, but…”

Wait, wait.” Wendy interrupted. “Do you have any idea how rare people like us are? When did this start happening to you?”

Uh, yesterday.” I said, suddenly feeling inexplicably sheepish under Wendy’s scrutiny.

Yesterday?!” Wendy shouted in disbelief, turning away. “The chances of that…”

A portly man sporting blue jeans, a ‘Keep Portland Weird’ T-Shirt and a brown goatee rounded the corner of a column and into sight. Randall, I presumed. “Maybe it’s not as spectacularly unlikely as you think, Wenn. I know I made a mess and attracted attention before I figured out what my power was and what was going on. We’re both lucky we didn’t get scooped up by Haas before we learned how to keep under the radar.” He smiled at me. “You, too.”

Haas?” I asked. “As in David Haas, director of the FBI?”

Randall nodded. “He seems obsessed with the ‘threat’ of people who develop powers, like us. Or maybe that’s just an act to justify forcibly controlling us all. We’re lucky we didn’t have a very public coming out. You either.  I hope.”

We try to find people before they do.” Wendy said. “We even made a trip to California three weeks ago to try to catch someone before they were whisked away by the FBI and ‘recruited’. But we’re rarely successful.”

It doesn’t matter.” Randall said, pulling a chair out from under a neighboring workbench with the screech of rubberized feet on rock and sitting down across from me. “I want to know what else you can do! You said there were other things?”

Oooh, yes! What else?” Wendy chipped in, the picture of eager curiosity.  A powers nerd; it made sense, considering.

Thoughts of my time in the hospital elevator in a different body came to mind, and I blushed. “I, uh. I don’t know that I want to talk about it.”

It’s OK. You can tell us, come on!” Wendy implored. I fell for the puppy dog eyes.

Well,” I started, trying to gather a coherent story that wasn’t horribly embarrassing. “I can run…”

Oh, subsonic or supersonic?” Randall asked, leaning in with sudden interest on his features.

Subsonic. Very subsonic. I just run like normal.”

That’s…that’s not a power!” Wendy said.

Except that now I never get tired. Ever.” I paused. “Well, I just tested it,” I corrected myself, “And I sprinted most of the day without getting winded. As long as I concentrated on the flow of the movement, that is.”

That doesn’t seem very…” Randall began.

Power-ey.” Wendy finished.

It wouldn’t seem that way if you were used to being normal.

Uh, before this I couldn’t run at all. Too sick.”

Oh.” Wendy said.

So…” I started to fill the awkward silence, before wind began to whip and coalesce behind Wendy.

Boo!” it said in a familiar female voice.

1.6 – Surprises

I turned around. My gas-operated friend from the night prior with the nuclear meltdown problem had come out of the same manhole as before, all of thirty feet away. I hadn’t realized I was so close. I had thought about peeking in while I was on my run, but decided I didn’t have the nerve.

I was just asked a question.

“Oh, right.” I said. “Um, bleeding, but not shot, I think.”

“Thank goodness.” It said, its word choice out sync with the neo-Victorian gentleman’s speech of the night prior. “I have medical supplies downstairs. You already know it’s there, so I suppose there’s no harm in showing you.”

I touched my bleeding face and winced at the contact. “Not radioactive, I hope.”

“No, no. That was fixed about an hour after I beat my retreat, and there doesn’t seem to be any lingering secondary radioactivity from the neutron bombardment. If anything, the medical supplies should be nice and sterile now.”

I sighed.

~ ~ ~

The passage definitely wasn’t a regular storm drain, despite the manhole we passed through on the way down. The walls looked like they were ruddy rock pressed smoothly into shape, not the gray of municipal concrete. A sturdy steel floor grate seemed to grow from the rock, allowing stray water to pool under the pathway.

I followed the clanking footsteps, and we went some fifty feet forward and slightly down. Dim orange overhead lights illuminated the tunnel enough to see by. The path ended in a heavy metal door that looked like it belonged on a bank vault. As we approached it quietly swung open for us.

Someone took the care to counterweight that. My mind noted.

Beyond the door a grand chamber opened up, with plentiful white light illuminating the cathedral-like space, replete with pillars and vaulted ceilings, all of the same pressed rock as the entry tunnel. It was cluttered. Tables covered with electrical and mechanical components everywhere, I saw at least one pile of pizza boxes, and what looked like a milling lathe and a C&C machine that was busy carving something out of a block of steel, the metallic squeal quieted by the plexiglass but still audible.

Over here.” It said, leading me to a side table covered with neatly labeled tupperware boxes and a chair. “Have a seat while I take this off.”

You aren’t seriously going to show a stranger your face as well as where we are, are you?” Came a young man’s voice echoing from somewhere else in the maze of pillars as I sat down.

I don’t think he’s a spy.” It said as hissing gas vented from joints in copious quantities.

He could have had himself mugged for show.” He said.

If he’s a spy and had himself mugged for show on the offchance that we would interfere rather than just forcing his way in, then he’s such a brilliant spy that he’s wasting his time working for the government.”

What was now clearly a steel suit opened up in the front like a cabinet, with the head tilting up and back to provide egress. The rider’s shoed feet stepped out from their position above the suit’s backwards knees, explaining why the whole suit was so tall. And I was surprised to see that the rider was a curly blonde-haired she in her twenties.

Misdirection.” She said with a grin, seeing my surprised expression. “If the authorities are looking for a ‘super villain’ man who is seven feet tall with backwards knees, I’m the last person they’ll suspect when I’m outside of the suit.” She went through the tupperware containers, pulling out tweezers, a sterile cloth, and a bottle of isopropanol, and had at my bloody cheek full of pebbles, taking them out one by one. “And the extra leg means I can kick harder or fall further, and have the pneumatics cushion it.”

That would work. But what about the main problem with any sort of powered exoskeleton?

So I always wondered…” I began, trying not to wince and thereby give her a moving target. “Doesn’t the power to weight ratio of batteries make powered armor impractical? Maybe if you had an engine, but I didn’t hear one…”

Oh, my power is to make steam.” She said. “An old boiler in my apartment building exploded and instead of getting scalded, it didn’t hurt me. Ever since I could just make steam out of thin air. Couldn’t tell you why.”

Huh.” I said. “So that’s why you use gas pistons in your suit; you can power them without having to lug a power source around.”

Why don’t you just give away all our secrets while you’re at it?” Shouted the man’s voice in the distance in a sort of faux angry resigned tone.

Quiet you!” She shouted back. “That’s just Randall, don’t mind him. He’s the one that can manipulate rock. He made this place, and catapulted your mugger.”

I can hear you, you know! You told him my name?!”

It’s only polite.” She shot back. “I’m Wendy.” She said more conversationally. “We’re supervillains.”

That’s, uh, that’s nice.” I said, wincing and then forcibly unwincing again. I tried to focus on dissociating myself from the pain, a trick I had learned many years ago. You sort of focus on the body as something separate from yourself; they are just arms, not my arms. Done right you enter a sort of fugue, and…

…that’s when Wendy’s arm with a cloth of antiseptic isopropanol came up to my cheek and then went right through me.

1.5 – Impacts

“So how many of these minds do I have?” I asked.

“I’ve noticed four so far.” It said, leaning over my desk and looking at my pile of books. “But there could be more! And not all of them seem to have done anything interesting yet, but I’m sure their conceptions of themselves will have interesting effects eventually when you’re in those mindsets.”

I paused, wondering where that was going to go. I couldn’t think much farther than being free of pain, though.

“So what, as long as I think a certain way, I’ll feel physically normal?”

It shook it’s head. “Better than normal, I think. The mind doesn’t think about exhaustion, that’s a physical limitation.”

Can I run again?

“As long as you want to.” It said, smiling once more.

Moments later I was dressed and about to head for the door when I remembered that there was still a mysterious thing in my bedroom.

“Don’t mind me.” It said, floating sideways to browse titles on my book shelf. “I haven’t read some of these.”

“Oh. Well, they’re quite good, I recommend them.” I said.

“Oh good.” It said, and winds started tugging some down.

I decided that I’d had enough weirdness, and the prospect of satisfying an urge to move that had been building up for years beckoned like like a new lover. I headed out and locked the door behind me, and threw myself into a run.

A few days before I’d have been tired at twenty feet and painfully exhausted by fifty or sixty.

That was what part of me expected. And to be fair, when I let my mind wander to why my exhaustion wasn’t happening – analysis, physiology, thinking about what the wind essence had said – I got tired quickly. But as long as I stayed in the head space of thinking about the movements, making them graceful, I didn’t.  At all.  It was magical.

I went miles, from my apartment on the outskirts through parks and over the bridges into downtown. In downtown I followed the grid, up and down every street, even ones I’d never gotten the chance to see because they were too far from the light rail line to walk to, even slowly. By the time I made it to the waterfront it was four hours later, and getting dark. (I’d woken up at 3pm, about normal for me)

I’d pretty much decided that the wind essence had been right; as long as I could focus on the grace of movement and the urge to move I wasn’t going to get tired. Hungry, yes; I’d stopped once, but tired no.

An entire new world was open. I could live a normal life again. Heck, I could be an athlete.

A shadow behind a lamp pole reached out a foot and I tripped, sliding down the concrete waterfront path on my face.

Maybe not an athlete.

“Owwwwwww.” I groaned, twisting over. I touched my face, and my hand came away sticky.

That would be blood.

“Your wallet, now!”

Well that isn’t good.

I froze as my gut clenched and panic adrenaline made my blood run cold.

“Now, punk!”

I sat up slowly, reaching into my back pocket with a sore arm. My mugger was out of reach, about six feet away with a revolver clenched in a shaking hand. I raised my arms up in a gesture of surrender with the wallet in my right hand. I prepared to throw it to him and run, in what one of my martial arts instructors called the gun maneuver. I knew two others, but they weren’t anywhere near as safe and they only worked if you were within reach anyway.

A dreadful and mighty thoom of vibration shook the pavement, which flexed like a partial liquid. First it lurched downward under my mugger, causing him to lose his feet as the gun went off into the air, and then it popped from its windup into the air at a diagonal like a piston. It was a mighty throw; the mugger only splashed down somewhere out into the river more than a second later.

The concrete gently returned to level, as if regaining its sedate dignity. I continued to sit, stunned and breathing hard.

Behind me there was a clang, and then a thump thump thump of metal footsteps on concrete.

“Are you alright?” An obviously simulated man’s voice asked.

1.4 – Awakenings

I was on my feet before I was entirely aware of what was going on, my pulse pounding in my ears.

“You’ll remember it this time.” She said, sounding cheerful. “I don’t usually work in dreams; they aren’t my domain, you know. But I found a trick! To provide memory continuity I can give you a point of commonality between the dream and something you see when you’re awake, and it makes the memory accessible to your waking mind.” She said quickly, with excitement.  She seemed…honestly delighted with herself.

My pulse was still pounding, and I was still halfway out of my skin by finding someone (thing?) in my room when I woke. “What are you, and what does that have to do with anything? And what’s going on?”

I didn’t think a whirling storm of shredded papers could pout, but it accomplished it. “The story of creation, my creation. And now yours, in a sense. I thought it would help.”

That’s too many disparate things to make sense of, yet. Needs more connections.

“Your mind is beautiful.” She said with an admiring tone. “I cannot really think like it does. That is why I want to see what it does, now.”

“Right now it is mostly irritated and confused.” I said.

It paused, tilting it’s whirling head in thought. It’s mesmerizing, like watching a snow globe, but faster. “Let’s try this.” She said. “How do you feel?”

“Annoyed.”

“No! Physically.” She said, with an open-handed gesture at me.

I took inventory. I didn’t hurt.

Adrenaline?

“Look at how you’re standing.” She suggested.

I looked down. My weight was on the balls of my feet, calves tensed. My stance that was spread just enough and staggered, ready to move in any direction with balance. Even though there was precious little room to take a step in my bedroom, my legs had found a fighting stance.

And it felt good.

I enjoyed martial arts back before I got sick. I spent some time enjoying Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, Isshin-Ryu, Wing Chun, Aikido, and even rapier fencing. I didn’t do them all at once, mind you. I was never an athlete. I just liked to think about martial arts like a three dimensional puzzle in real time. An interplay of shapes and the ways anatomy can channel force. She was a bit like how billiards can be thought of as applied geometry, but even more complicated. And my brain loves complicated games.

So it appealed to me as a thinking challenge, but there was something indisputably romantic about it all, too. Especially the Renaissance style fencing. Fencing has a beauty and glory of elegant and functional movement. She was the art I did longest, and the last I gave up when going too and from practice was too exhausting to do, much less the actual fighting.

“It’s ad-” I began.

“-renaline.” She interrupted, smiling. “It’s not, in fact. I know, I gave your separate minds the essence to do it myself.”

I paused, considering that. “Essence?” I asked.

“Aspects of Quintessence, the fifth sentience that coalesced out of chaos, after Ekas, Bies, Chaturus, and Ternum.” She explained.

“Wait, the dream was true?”

“Yes. I remember, like all the fragments that Quintessence distributed throughout the pieces of this universe to protect it from Bies and the others. They felt that allowing a universe containing sentience that experienced suffering and death was cruel, and that the right thing to do was to freeze it. Quintessence found a way to defy them, by dividing herself up into pieces. Like me. And now you, to a degree.” She shrugged, and smiled.

I shook my head, overwhelmed. “What did you do to me?”

“I am the part of Quintessence conceptually related to thought and open spaces. Your mind, the way you segment it and divide it up, it interested me. I wanted to see what it could do if I gave each segment some independence, and the ability to change things a bit. So I took some of myself, and divided it up among your minds.”

“…that…doesn’t make a lot of sense.” I said, trying to piece together a rather dramatic new understanding of reality.

If you aren’t still hallucinating, of course.

“It is a lot to take in.” She agreed. “I’m confident you’ll catch on, though. I’m interested in seeing what your various minds do. That’s why I did it!” She smiled again, tone light and cheery. “I guessed that the part of you that likes movement would physically change you to overcome your illness, but here you are doing it! I don’t have a physical body so I wasn’t sure it would work. Although the others, when they divide themselves into a person don’t seem to have any problem creating physical effects, so I suppose I should not be surprised.”

Wait, does that mean that all the humans with powers over the last sixty some years have been getting them from other sentient things?

“Yes! I have many fellows. As many as there are important concepts.” She said. “And they can divide themselves, so it can be hard to keep up. Since we were created with Quintessence’s division of herself, some of them have been experimenting with people, to see what would happen. It’s been interesting! You are my first, though. I am not entirely sure what will happen. I’m excited to find out, though. Like how the part of your mind that plans social interactions identifies as female, and actually changed you to physically match its mental conception.”

I blushed. That was a little more than I wanted to be obvious to anyone I spoke to.

“So, what, these things will happen whenever I think about particular things?”

She shook her head. “It isn’t the subject matter that matters so much as the process. You have a unique way of thinking about physical movement, and when that mind is working it’s changing you to match it’s conceptions of how you should be. The same goes for your socializing, and your other minds. Although I haven’t seen what they’ll do yet! It’s exciting.”

Well, great.

1.3 – Myths

I made it home to my tiny little apartment, intermittently limping from over-exerting myself with the walking. I clicked on a light and plopped the several days of mail I’d collected on the way in onto my second-hand sofa. I really needed to get a table, some day.

The Association for Computing Machinery wanted me to renew my professional membership.

No money, not since before I graduated and it was free for Computer Science students.

I started a ‘toss’ pile, and reluctantly consigned the ACM to it.

‘Tips to help you live and thrive through a long life with your FMS’ was next. I tossed it with disgust. A long life with incurable pain and exhaustion wasn’t something to thrive in. It’s a torture that the human brain never evolved to handle, and the fact that it didn’t degenerate and result in death was just the arbitrary and cruel outcome of an uncaring universe.

I want to die.

The thought came of its own accord, and I pushed it aside. I tried not to think of granite rocks speeding up at me, and focus instead on the next piece of mail. It was a free physician’s review of recent literature by the American College of Rheumatology. I’d told them I was a retired rheumatologist interested in FMS research, and asked politely if they could send me a copy of their journal despite my not being currently on the register of licensed physicians. I felt a little guilty over the social engineering ploy, even as I put the journal in a ‘read when I had the energy’ pile.

It’s hard to argue with social engineering when it’s so effective, and for a good cause. The hacker community calls it engineering for a reason.

The rest of the mail was all advertising junk, and I put it on the toss pile. Hands free, headed for the bedroom and turned my radio on. I kept it set to NPR, and a replay of the news greeted me as I fell with an undignified but gratifying flump into bed.

“-the Senator said of the passage of the Second American Austerity Act that the new cuts to education and medical care for children in poverty would ‘…bring the American economy back to prosperity, removing burdens from job creators as supported by the American people…’, end quote.”

Lie. Consumers will have to divert spending – if they have any money left to divert – to medical care and education, lowering consumption which forces businesses to shrink as their customer base decreases which causes more unemployment which is the opposite of prosperity. Lie. Polls actually show that a majority of the public opposed the bill.

And the NPR journalists won’t point out those important details, I predicted. I counted out the palm-full of pills I needed to get productive sleep and washed them down with a glass of water I’d filled two days ago and left on my bedside table.

“Another member of the Senate denied allegations by some protest groups that the Act was about protecting income for military supply contractors without having to raise the capital gains tax on investors, which stands at less than half the income tax rate on earned income for high earners. The objections stem from the defeat in the Senate of two amendments to the bill. One would have reduced defense spending instead of child health funding, and another would have compensated for reductions in tax revenue caused by the recession through increasing the capital gains tax rate rather than using spending cuts.”

Well, at least they mentioned why there was opposition. That was better than some days. I closed my eyes, and felt myself drifting off.

“Protests erupted after the Act’s passage. The largest by numbers was in Portland Oregon, where marchers were dispersed peacefully by police. Special Response Unit spokesman ‘Captain Charisma’ was at the scene, and told reporters ‘We spoke to protestors and made clear to them that while we respect their right to protest, it was important that they peacefully disperse. Thanks to our efforts to reach out to the community, they did just that.’”

Liar. My mind whispered, and I wondered what human psychological defect made people actually believe the pollyanna versions of reality that public relations people crafted to manipulate opinion.

Maybe the desire to live in a world where all is well. Contemplating that, I drifted off to sleep.

That was when the dream started.

~ ~ ~

Quintessence labored on her project. It kept surprising her, and her siblings could be damned for all she cared about their rules.

I felt connected to her.

“It is cruelty.” Bies said, there and not there. Quintessence wasn’t anywhere in particular either, so location didn’t matter to them at that moment.

Bies felt aggressive and distant. Hostile, even. I did not like him.

“It is new, dynamic, unexpected.” Quintessence said.

“Is suffering.” Said Bies. “You must freeze it, keep it as it is. You can admire it just as much that way. It isn’t as if we are asking you to destroy all your work.”

“Freezing it would destroy it in the ways that matter.” Said Quintessence. “It would miss the point.”

“You know we can do it for you if we must.” Said Bies.

“I have been thinking about that.” Said Quintessence. “And I believe I have a way around it.”

“Nonsense.” Said Bies. “The only thing that is sacrosanct from another is our self. All our work is just external, malleable. We will freeze it for you if you do not stop the pain you are inflicting.”

“You think too much about what is, and not enough about what could be.” Said Quintessence, and divided her inviolable self into many pieces, replacing with them each of the component parts she had used to craft the surprising emergent complexity of her project.

“Quintessence!” I shouted as she took herself apart. She only smiled, and I remembered the smile from the winds, and I realized that her project was the World.

I woke bolt upright. A small hurricane in the shape of a familiar head and torso was whipping up (and shredding) papers from my desk. It was smiling that same smile.

1.2 – Full of Air

One reactionary self-grope later, the realization settled that it was a whole body change. Or a very comprehensive hallucination.

Stop, think. Don’t panic.

Gut wrenching panic doesn’t listen to reason or it wouldn’t be panic. It began to set in anyway. I would have expected that to make it hard for the analytical whisper to keep going, but it didn’t seem an impediment today.

Hallucination seems unlikely, but can’t rule it out. So what else? Shapeshifting, maybe. What was the context? The nurse said ‘miss’ in the hall. So it happened between dressing and then. If observations while dressing can be trusted, but I can see this now, so that seems like a reasonable conclusion. Did it happen as a need for a disguise, somehow?

I finally managed to slow down my breathing and focus on the analysis, and the panic began to subside. And then so too did the feminine features in my reflection.

What just caused that? What changed? Was it relaxing, or maybe time related?

My body settled back on its usual ‘late twenty something boy’ just as the elevator dinged and the door opened. I tried not to jump in distracted surprise too conspicuously, and made my way out the elevator and the main hospital doors without looking anyone in the eye.

As I waited for the tram – OHSU is on a forested hill overlooking downtown, and an aerial tram with hospital white bubble-like cars was the alternative to a long switchback road down the hill – I began to wonder if I’d lost it. It was an easy thing to wonder when bizarre things weren’t happening right then. Memory can be slippery, deceptive. It’s a reasonable thing to mistrust.

If they are hallucinations, what could you do? If it’s drugs it will wear off on its own. It’s unlikely to be treatable schizophrenia, since that tends to manifest in the early twenties at most. And if it’s some kind of brain tumor, well, that’s not worth spending a lot of time worrying about.

As if ‘don’t worry’ was advice it was possible to take from anyone, oneself included. Thanks a lot, brain. Sometimes it’s better not knowing.

It’s just doing its job. And besides, ignorance isn’t bliss, it’s ignorance.

I mused on that for a while, and tried to let the night lights of the city against the backdrop of the Columbia and the Willamette keep me from wondering too much about whether all intellectual activity was a choice between frequently depressing information or the non-functionality of ignorance.

And about sanity, of course.

At the bottom I began the long walk up the waterfront to where the MAX light rail line was that could take me home. When I think about ‘waterfront’ I think about a good, respectable lake, but at hundreds of feet wide the Willamette deserved ‘River’ in the fullest sense. After it joined with the Columbia north of downtown, the resulting flow was so wide it had inhabited islands.

The waterfront was a long strip of park nearly all the way up the West bank of the Willamette, the side downtown was on. It’s a pretty park, good for a walk, and I like being out in night air.

There’s something special about the air at night. The cool is part of it. It feels soothing on the lungs. But also the quiet, somehow. The lack of people noise made it seem safer. Cozier.

I kept going, occasionally hobbling for a stretch while a pain subsided. Halfway down the waterfront an odd sound stopped me. It like an old pulsing train whistle and the bubbling of a great amount of water being moved quickly.

Curiosity and annoyance at the klaxon brought me closer to the edge of the wide concrete promenade that bordered the river. There I noticed two things.

First, under my feet a pump was moving an awful lot of water into the river. Hot water, too, judging from the vapor rising in the night air.

Portland dumps overflow sewage into the river, which would explain the heat, but it doesn’t smell like sewage. Industrial runoff then? But there’s no industry here. But the only other thing…no, that couldn’t be it.

Observation the second, the awful alarm squeal was coming up from under a large access manhole in the concrete. Shaking off the fanciful thought that analysis had led to, I walked over to stand on top of it, an ear tilted for more information.

Was that a clanking, under the whistle?

Like steel on steel, but almost like footsteps. Or someone climbing a ladder, but with metal shoes.

I didn’t have time to consider that fully before I went flying along with the manhole, and landed on my back (thankfully on grass) with an undignified “Oof!”.

A clanking brought over a seven foot bipedal metal figure with backwards knees and a steel top hat that looked welded on. And optics over one eye that pains had been taken to fashion like a gentleman’s monocle.

“I am so sorry.” It said in an obviously simulated man’s voice. “Are you quite alright?”

With a hiss from the elbow of released gas and white vapor, one massive metal hand rose from its side in an apparent offer of a hand up.

“I, uh, think so, yes.” I said, continuing my long streak of responding to inexplicable strangeness with effortlessly glib wit.

I rubbed the back of my head, and tried to remember if there were any causes of hallucination that could be made worse by head trauma. Deciding it was too late now, I awkwardly took the hand, which effortlessly swung me up with another hiss of escaping vapor.

“Excellent! I do apologize for flinging you in my haste, it was careless. In my defense, I can only say that I was rather in a hurry to escape the mounting neutron flux.”

No way.

“No way.” I said, quietly and to myself before the absurdness of it burst out. “NO. WAY. You’re venting cooling water from a nuclear reactor into the river?!”

The great metal head made a tilting motion to the side accompanied by a slight swivel, somehow giving me the impression of acute embarrassment.

“Well, yes.” It said, raising both hands in a defensive gesture with accompanying gouts of vapor. “But it’ll be OK! I talked that idiot into a big block of low temperature control medium over the reactor. That should melt down onto it and shut the reaction down in a few hours, and everything will be alright.” It paused. “Just as long as nobody gets too close in the mean time.” It finished, a little quieter.

“Are you dosing the entire city with neutrons as we speak?” I asked, angry.

“No, no! Nothing of the sort. It’s under the river, after all. Water makes great shielding, and that’s a lot of it. Rock, too. It’s all volcanic here, so it’s iron rich. High density. Great stuff.” It paused to take a few inhumanly long (and hissing) steps to pick up the man hole where it’d fallen.

Technically true.  My mind whispered.

“I would dearly enjoy talking further to an educated personage such as yourself.” The metal thing said, letting the cover fall back onto its hole with an enormous clang that made me cover my ears, too slowly.

“-and so I really shouldn’t stay, lest I attract too much attention.” I caught when the reverberations ended enough for me to let my hands fall again.

“Tata!” It said, gave a gaseous wave, and loped off toward the West. I got to see the network of steel pistons working behind the heavy joints, apparently enabling the thing to move with some sort of pneumatics. And there were letters, made in welds on the back plate of the torso.

Vaporware, they said.

“But…why?” I asked the empty air.

For once, no answer was forthcoming.