Commission by Anonymous
Chapter 5 — Sirkka Tonttu
Mere seconds after That Man agreed to Rivers’ terms, gas started flooding Tonia’s cell. But after less than a minute of solid, uninterrupted panic, the Swedish-born researcher drifted off into a languid calm, and heaved a sigh.
“...Alright, Tonia, settle down and think.”
Like a marionette without strings, she collapsed on the bunk, unaware of her dizziness.
Next thing she knew, she was lying, supine, a soft yet overwhelming buzz coursing through her mind. Hersluggishattempts to rise failed. She sensed she was naked, too; so clearly she needed to get a damn grip and do something. But will was lacking; she could only listen to the voice in the room.
“Unbelievable. This was more than just an electrical surge...That gauntlet corrupted the Fikile transition process. Pyromancy took a hit, too...And it seems evident the surge damaged Aurore herself as well. Curse That Man, I should be tending to you, my sweet little baby. But there is no time. Giulietta, versgliare.”
And then another voice.
Or was it two? So hard to focus...
“Si, I’m...aargh...I’m here, I’m here. Maledizione, big sister was in worse shape than I thought.”
“Yes she is. I’m going to take care of the culprit. Can you stabilize Aurore and let her know she has a lovely little sister?”
“Si Mamma, leave it to me!”
Behind the confusing voices that did her head no favors, Tonia recognized electronic beeps and mechanical whirring. Even in her altered state, she found those comforting, enough to distract her from the voice that was growing closer.
“Now then...Doctor Tonia Sandström, was it? I recognize the name...Why did I put her on Giu’s list again? Ah yes! MMI research and based in Manhattan. What do you know...”
Tonia slowly turned her head to the right. Was this voice speaking to her? Could she help? Was it even a man or a woman? Hopeless. Her normally sharp mind just couldn’t process anything relevant.
“MIT graduate, eventually left for the private sector...Ooh, what’s this? Was employed by the New York branch of Stillwater Dynamics as an independent researcher. Stillwater...This is Saul Dawson’s company! Well, well, this certainly explains that. The fat reprobate tried to play the hero. I knew that gauntlet rang a bell.”
Familiar sounds again. Tonia’s prototype! Its many components rattled and clicked as it was picked up, sounds as familiar to its creator as her own footsteps.
“Tonia Sandström, then. Yes, I had my sights on her well before making Giulietta’s swapping list. I even tried to hire her. Yes...Some loyalty programming, some slight priority reassignment, and she would have made a splendid apprentice.”
The undecipherable figure reached the bedside, blocking up the diffuse light from the ceiling. Without any further movement on the stranger’s part, the buzz receded, bringing some form of coherent thought back into the blonde’s head. Now she could think clearly...about being bound, naked, and stared at by a beautiful predator.
“Oooh my h...What...W-who are you?!”
“I’m sorry...” Sighed Grace with an apologetic tone that could only fool a dazed Tonia. “I don’t know what you did, but you have incurred That Man’s wrath.”
“He’s powerful beyond words. I can’t disobey him, and soon, neither will you.”
“What do you...”
The light was obscured by a pair of binoculars attached to a rectangular box. Before she knew it, Tonia’s entire field of vision was filled with wild iridescent colors shifting aggressively.
“You are going to become a brain-dead sex slave.”
AA stake of pure, unadulterated fear pierced Tonia’s heart. She attempted to wrench her head to the side in an instinctive attempt to escape, but her head was restrained, and the binoculars were a tight fit to her eye sockets. The blonde tried to close her eyes, but found herself unable to do so, her eyelids spreading wide open in reaction to her attempts. Her worst nightmare, realized.
“WAIT NO NO PLEA—”
An authoritarian male voice blared into her ears. Dumbass slut. The sting of humiliation sharpened Tonia’s fear. You’re just a girl. She tried to think about how impossible brainwashing was from a scientific standpoint. You can’t escape. L-like you can bend a mind under duress, sure, b-but there was no way to- YOU’RE HERE FOR GOOD, YOU FUCKING BIMBO. No! Goddamit, ignore this! I’M GOING TO FRY YOUR BRAIN UNTIL YOU THINK WITH YOUR CUNT.
Tonia screamed in utter panic, tugging on her restraints as hard as she possibly could. Unfortunately, the brainwashing machine was graded for adrenaline strength. In fact, it was even injecting her with the hormone, further sending her into overdrive. Comforting thoughts about the impossibility of this asshole succeeding broke down, her mind going blank with pure fear.
“NO PLEASE I’LL DO ANYTHING NOT THIS NOT MY MIND PLEAAAA—”
Then, everything stopped.
It was too jarring to come as any comfort. It was the sudden end of terminal velocity. Tonia’s mind choked completely, scrambling helplessly to find the relief that was rightfully hers.
Relief came. Tonia breathed out, releasing all accumulated tension. Gudskelov! She thought in her mother’s tongue for the first time in years. The silence felt so viscerally good, she didn’t even sense the light pressure around her head, nor the pleasant buzzing.
Tonia tried to think again, but that was pretty hard. Like, she wanted to and was free to do so, but couldn’t find the way to do it. She could only reach a very base level of thought, something like a mind-stammer. I...I...I wanna...I wanna...Huh...
“Don’t be afraid, sweetie. The mental regression is temporary.”
She didn’t quite catch that. What she did catch was the sudden sensation of being wrapped in gentle arms. Something was buzzing really strong. Something like a hairband...No, it was horizontal. It was, like...
That’s my good little princess.
...A tiara! Yes! Tonia remembered a big word! She felt good. She was a princess, after all.
You’re almost as smart as your big sister.
Toni was already pretty smart, though...Wait, wasn’t she an only ch-
Big Sister Aurore is so amazing. She can do magic things.
What? Magic? For real? But magic was imp-
Big Sister is always right. You love your Big Sister.
A while later, Grace Rivers let go of the tiara, confident she had programmed it right. Doctor Sandström was smiling now, oblivious to her mind being hijacked. Sure, she was indulging in her spoiled little sister side, but she deserved to let go after that, right? It was simply too comfy to question.
The twisted psychiatrist refrained herself from caressing Tonia’s shiny blonde hair. She was only a temporary daughter after all. No need to set herself for grief.
“...Haah...Well, time to go. I’m counting on you, my darlings.”
Aurore was floating.
As always, the swimming pool on top of the world was calm and silent. The concrete anthill beneath the dollhouse had closed for the night. But the city was very much alive, and Aurore could hear its voice. She had listened in on the news reports at first, but gradually expanded her senses to their audience. Thoughts were a bit trickier to tune to than digital signals, but they were much comfier to listen to. Plus, they drowned her own thoughts pretty nicely. She didn’t have to deal with her own contradictions that way.
Thousands of minds were fighting against sleepiness. There was no way they could miss the advent of magic. Most tried to come up with rational explanations, and some did their level best to assure their loved ones that they couldn’t be fooled by such an obvious trick. Yet in the end, they all knew the airport massacre had ended the world they grew up in.
Aurore willed her body to become more dense, and she sank into the calm, warm water. She wondered what it would feel like to breathe water rather than just holding her breath indefinitely. Her neck growing gills came as a surprise. This power came as so natural it was almost an unconscious process.
It was all her fault. She had turned her into a freak. Some mother she was. But could she really blame Mama? Maybe a good fuck would make that mopey feeling all better. Wait, did she really have to rely on Nami’s good feelings to love Mamma? She could just be a good daughter...
“Raaargh, la ferme, vous deux!”
Useless. She was Nami, and she was Giulietta. She couldn’t silence them any more than she could tell herself to not think about a blue crocodile. Her fucked up mind might have been the greatest weapon on Earth, but it had no power over itself. And between the multiples personalities, Grace’s odious betrayal and the nigh unfathomable ramifications of Fikile’s attacks, Aurore was too overwhelmed to decide what to do. Her only comfort was that Fikile had disappeared. That gave her the freedom to realize how fucked this all was, at least.
Enough about myself, thought Aurore. That was getting nowhere. She passed fresh water through her gills to emulate sighing, then tuned in to unsuspecting minds again. To her surprise, there was one just meters away.
“—roooore! Wake uuup! It’s me, Tonia!”
What? Who w-
Aurore’s cute little sister was here. Her confusion cleared up, replaced by the simple joy of reuniting with a loved one that wasn’t fucking Grace. The Frenchwoman returned to the surface, reconnected her lungs to her mouth, then turned to Tonia.
“Sorry, munchkin, didn’t hear you.”
It was weird to call the tall Swedish blonde munchkin, but that was her right as big sister, dammit. Besides, little Toni looking older than herself was several orders of magnitude weirder. Something wasn’t right here...And why ask herself why, when she had the power to simply fix it? Aurore patted Tonia’s head and took control of her physiology.
“S-sis? What are you...”
The enthralled researcher’s attractive body seized up and simmered with an alien sensation. She was paralyzed, yet it did not feel like losing control. Rather, it was her life rewinding in front of her, which she experienced with her body rather than her eyes. All the weariness and irritation endured in her work was coursing through her, dissipating as soon as it came. Nothing drastic, and certainly nothing unpleasant...Just years of routine compounded in a small minute. When it stopped, Tonia shook her head and looked at herself. She was fully grown, yet a sight more youthful. She was a teen again! And what’s more...
Big Sis had shrunken her so Sis could be taller than Tonia!
“Here, you’re 19 again.”
“That’s, huh...I don’t think that was necessary.”
“Aw, come on, you were obviously magically changed just now. Maybe you got hit by a stray magic surge or something. I mean, you can’t possibly be nearing 30.”
“I...Suppose you’re right. Still feels weird...Can you do something about that?”
Aurore lay her hands on Tonia’s forehead, and the newly minted 19-year old welcomed the energy silencing her true but confusing thoughts. From her body sprang a new youth, which Grace’s tiara wrangled into carefree, cheerful feelings newto Tonia in their intensity. The former researcher now readily accepted them as her new personality. Toni smiled widely, then sprang to her beloved big sister, hugging her tight.
“That’s more like the Toni I know.”
“By the way, I just traveled all the way from New York, I’m starving!”
“Oh, I’m sure Mom left us dinner.”
Aurore tried to smile for her little sister’s sake. Toni was great. Beautiful, athletic, smart...Maybe a bit asocial, but little siswas a regular Daisy Buchanan compared to her. And yet, Sisstill managed to find reasons to revere her. Pity she couldn’t share Toni’s naïve joy. She led Tonito the living room, then to the kitchen.
“This place is a-ma-zing!” Marveled the Disney Channel version of Tonia Sandström.
“I wouldn’t call it that but...Sure.”
The all-powerful Frenchwoman just couldn’t bring herself to cheer up. The JFK airport horrors had carved their way into her subconscious and couldn’t be suppressed. Not that such a carnage should be written off, but Toni deserved a better host.
Thankfully, Grace had at least been considerate of her younger daughter. On the kitchen’s table were two steaming hot meal courses. This time, it was truite meunière with aromatic herbs and a lemon emulsion, with a Caesar salad on the side. Simple by dollhouse standards, but appetizing nonetheless.
“Awesome! Let’s eat!”
“Man, I lived on my own for too long!” Beamed Toni. “I thought I was alright with take-out, but cooking like this is why I love this family! Well, part of it.”
“I know, right? I can almost forgive Mom when I’m sitting at this table. Anyway...How’s science treating you, munchkin?”
Toni gulped, as the tiara commanded her to.
“Its all fine thanks. And man! I’m feeling nostalgic for high school now! MIT ended up being much more of a drag than I thought...”
“You’re too great a scientist for them, munchkin!”
Triggered by the word “scientist,” Tonia’s self-doubt flooded back, too much to bear.
“S-sis, can...Can you stop bringing up my research? Please?”
“Huh? What? What’s wrong?”
“What’s not wrong?! I’ve created a weapon! I slaved away in that lab room for years, learning how to shut down a human mind just so I could tell myself I was helping make a mind-machine interface! And when Mom told me you had discovered magic somehow, I...I...”
She looked into her big sister’s eyes, and tears welled up in her own.
“I got so jealous I used my worthless tech to knock you out! I-I-I’m...”
Aurore teleported behind her little crybaby, and gently wrapped her arms around her.
“And thanks for that. Nami and Giulietta are bad enough...Fikile had to go.”
“B-but...Even if she was destructive, she was you...She was your greatest strength. And at that moment, I genuinely believed I was bringing down an enemy, not my sister...I could have destroyed you with a bunch of wires and transistors!”
“A genius bunch. Look, I’m not so high on socialization that I’m going to believe science is made of genius and awesome. It’s as dirty a business as any other, and there are plenty of scientists who use ideals as a reverse-scarecrow over a field of maggots.. And I’m no genius. I can wield magic because I lost my grasp on reality. There is no fucking skill involved in this, not even a phony one.”
Toni let go of the silverware, stood up, and paced nervously around the kitchen.
“Skill? Skill should be rewarding. It should be the objective proof that life is worth living beyond the fleeting moments of happiness. Results and accomplishments can be left behind when our own brains force us forward. But even when you have nothing to fall back to, skill remains.”
“Yes, exactly!” Acquiesced Aurore, hoping to cheer her sister.
“But if that’s the case, why hate your magic? Deserved or not, this is a skill. You are nothing, but can do everything. I don’t think of you as a freeloader, big Sis...Magic is a skill too, just in another domain entirely. One I’m not insane enough to get.”
“...Are you saying losing your screws is a good thing?”
“I am saying you must experiment before drawing conclusions!”
A playful smile graced Toni’s delicate features, and a measure of relief came to Aurore. She hoped bringing back her sister’s smile would see them return to dinner and idle chatting, but sisters watch out for each other.
“Look, big sis, I know this magic is terrifying. I tried to stop it too. And if society freaks you out, I can’t expect you to just like becoming this powerful. But do you really have to be?”
“What are you getting at? This power is overwhelming, and I can’t just shut it down, what with the two idiots inside me...”
“Then only use it to do what you really want!”
“...Get back at Mom? Leave this planet? I don’t get what you’re trying to...”
Toni shook her head softly, smiling.
“...Come on, Sis. Where do you think you are?”
“A dollhouse? A bad joke made by Mom to isolate me from the real world more than I already am?”
“Yes. Do you hate it?”
“Of course I hate it! It’s artificial and cuts me off from the outs...huh...”
“Toni? Are you being a cheeky little munchkin?”
“And are you seriously saying that you respect society juuuust enough not to say fuck it and turn reality into your ideal wonderland?”
“I know I’d rather see my beloved big sister have fun with her incredible powers than letting some psychotic persona trying to mess up the world.”
“But...Fikile did what she did because she wanted the rat racers to realize how bad they fucked civilization! She might be another route to destruction, but she’s, sadly, not a complete stranger...”
“Well, yeah, but would you teach the rat racers this lesson by destroying an airport and killing hundreds?”
“Then who cares what Fikile thought? This power is yours. And I know you can use it right. I mean, let’s say you are a useless doll. How bad can a doll’s world be?”
Aurore still scrambled for arguments against herself, but the drive was no longer there. Toni was right. More than resisting her parasite personas, this loathing for her magic was born from a an atavistic love of what she despised. Reality did not deserve extermination, but that didn’t mean it deserved preservation without change.
“Shit, even as a teen you’re the smartest one, aren’t you Toni?”
“And you’re the irresponsible, withdrawn one. Wouldn’t like it any other way, so start acting like it.”
“Yeah. I really am little doll Dawn, after all.”
Her smile was barely noticeable, but that was the proof it was genuine. She walked into a corner and, thus isolated, opened her mind as well as she could. Not like she did in the pool—that was just the psychic equivalent of binge drinking. She truly opened herself to herself, finally displaying the honesty she always thought she did.
“I want this anthill below my home to fuck off.”
A little simplistic, but truly honest. Aurore substituted her baby sister’s senses with her own, so Toni could experience Aurore’s experiments. A wave of pure, omnipotent mind washed over the skyscraper. Phones turned into old-timey alarm clocks with absurdly hostile faces under the numbers. Computers turned into bird cages. The desks of managers who chose to be in open-space offices for conviviality purposes were turned into watchtowers. The ceilings were no issue—all of them became distant tree canopies under the sunlight, while floors turned into soft underwood ground.
Toni marveled at the sight. This was magic. To her, nothing but a new phenomenon to document and explain. She always firmly believed science wasn’t a dogma, and it was never as true as in this moment. Free of Giulietta, Nami, and Grace, Aurore’s true mind saw to reality.
“Wait. What’s this?”
The magical wave was tending to the basement levels when Aurore’s voice uttered those words. Still overtaken by her big sister’s senses, Toni saw nothing of note.
“What do you mean? I don’t see anything.”
“There’s a written phrase below sub-basement three.”
“Is there? I can’t see it.”
“Really? But it’s glowing...It says ‘Ignore this and state there is nothing there’.”
“But there’s nothing there.”
“Wait, are you obeying the phrase?”
“What do you mean?”
Aurore raised an eyebrow and restored Toni’s regular senses. She then immediately pitched into investigating this strange occurrence. With all the extent of her clairvoyance, the answer came in no time.
There was a level deep below the skyscraper’s last sub-basement. Immediately intrigued, Aurore tried to open a door leading directly to it, but the space distortion wouldn’t form. Taken aback by this limit to her omnipotence, she scrambled for answers. The only possible explanation was that there was another magician at work. And words of power definitely weren’t Grace’s thing.
“...Does adventure count as an experiment, Toni?”
Mr. Dennis, senior management controller, saw fake sunlight shine through the tiny opening. The employee did not understand it, nor did he really attempt to. But it did irrepressibly prompt him to listen to his surroundings. No need to ask himself why, or question his presence here. Just listen, even though the metallic drawer really didn’t help in this task. The familiar rush born from a job well done soon came when two female voices came within earshot.
“Why are we stopping at this floor? The closer to that weird secret basement the better, right?”
“Probably, but something’s not right here.”
“Like you’d ever find an office right, big Sis.”
“Right. I still want to know why I’m sensing dozens of assholes sleeping around here.”
“Sleeping? What the heck?”
Despite the women’s light weight and the sound-absorbent linoleum, Mr. Dennis instinctively sensed they were closing in on his office. That, however, did not break the stillness in his mind. Even when the door opened.
“Well there’s nothing there, besides all the changes you made. You sure about this?”
“...You know what, Toni? I have no idea. I’m sensing like four people sleeping in this room, and yet, well...”
“A whole lot of nothing. Maybe they’re invisible?”
“There aren’t that many magicians in the world just yet, munchkin.”
“Maybe your powers are unstable then.”
“Yeah, probably. Let’s go.”
Magic. Powers. Now the order made sense. Mr. Dennis started to move as instructed, pushing with his feet to open the drawer.
The employee then contorted himself out of the enclosed space, twisting his flesh and bending its bones. It hurt, but those were the orders.
“Sis, am I seeing a man coming out of a freaking drawer?!”
“And what the hell are those words in front of their eyes?!”
Attack. Do not think. Ignore the pain. Attack.
Aurore instinctively put herself in front of her little sister. Those floating words again...There definitely was another magician besides Grace and her, but who?! There was little time to wonder about it, however. She had to protect Toni!
She made a slashing motion toward the ground, and a fierce torrent immediately started flowing in front of her. It was just a meter wide, but so strong it tipped an entire desk to its side. It did not, however, impress the possessed employees. The closest of them leapt over it without a moment of hesitation, and landed on the soft ground just an arm’s reach away from the women. His face seemed both dazed and lifeless, yet was contorted in a grin of intense pain.
Panic surged through Aurore. Her body ducked and protected her face. Her mind denied reality as hard as it could, foregoing party tricks and trying to assume complete control.
When adrenaline slowed down enough for her to realize what she had done, the magician lowered her arms and looked around. Everything was still and silent.
“Holy fuck”, she thought. “Did I just stop time?”
Even after everything that had already happened, this came as a complete shock. Bending the process of physics to create water and intense heat was certainly no small amount of bullshit, but stopping something as hard to define as time? This was in a ballpark so distant, she had no idea how she actually made her way there.
Aurore herself was unable to move too, but her powers still worked. She looked at the glowing text that seemed to be the primary power of the unknown magician. It was inverted so the employee could read it. She simply inverted her own perception so she could read...
“After work, stop thinking until dawn. Do not think of anything other than this writ. Remain in your office and crawl inside your drawers. Your flesh and bones will become as pliable as necessary. Ignore the pain.Listen to everything that happens and, if words related to powers or magic are uttered, attack the speaker.”
“So, words of absolute power? Well that makes for a scary enemy. Glad I seem to be imm...”
Toni’s voice?! Aurore shifted her senses to her little sister. She was...suffocating?
“Can’t breathe! Can’t move!” Tonia was thinking. “What did you do, Sis?!”
The realization hit quickly. Aurore hadn’t stopped time. She had completely frozen the air itself! Thinking quickly, the Frenchwoman let air flow again to save her sister, then forced it into a powerful gale to blow the assailants away. She then quickly attempted to wipe away the words of power, but to no avail.
“Merde!” She swore, before turning to her sister who was catching her breath. “We gotta run! To the stairs!”
Both women ran out of the office and into the hallway. Unfortunately, the ruthless wizard behind the ambush had not committed the mistake of zombifying just one office. Dozens of unconscious puppets were running to them on both sides of the hallway, ghastly looks on their faces and limbs twisting at angles that made the sisters’ skin crawl. Aurore ground to a halt, shivering.
“No no no NO! Fuck off!” She screamed. “LEAVE US ALONE!”
“Sis?! Calm down, we can d...”
Toni was interrupted when she saw a barracuda quickly swim past her. She looked around, and saw the mesh of modern office and bucolic forest quickly changing. All concrete or metal that remained turned into stone, the sunlit canopy turned into a distant, wavering surface, and droplets of rain formed all around, stationary. And growing.
“Big Sis? What are you doing?!”
The possessed were closing in, but their blind, feral rush was getting progressively impeded by floating balls of seawater. Aurore was on the floor, curling into a ball and shivering. Toni realized what was happening, and knelt to her sister’s side.
“Hey...Hey, Aurore! Don’t do this! You’re going to...”
A shadow loomed over the two women. Toni looked up, and saw a form with a round shape and serrated edges coming down on her. Startled, she hunkered down next to Aurore. Darkness came, but not the pain her body had expected. On the contrary, whatever came down on her had a warm interior and cushioned the sounds of danger outside. Toni wished it had brought complete silence when she heard the footsteps die down, quickly followed by muffled screams. No, not muffled...Drowned.
Even through the hard bubble Aurore had wrapped them into, Toni heard the characteristic waver of sound carried through bubbles. Her suspicions were correct. Panicked by the sheer number of strangers attacking her, Aurore had fallen back on her previous trick, but three times as worse. She turned the entire area—perhaps the whole building—into a seabed. Horrified, she started shaking her big sister.
“Aurore! Stop this! You’re drowning them! Goddammit, get a grip!”
But Aurore didn’t show any sign of reaction, while the trembling screams were growing weaker by the second. Strangely, the ghastly sound wasn’t the only thing that drove Toni to save them. She was sensing something else, too. In the heat of the moment, she barely knew what to make of it, but it was as if she had an intimate understanding of how the events unfurled. As if she were watching her prototype gauntlet crashing from a catastrophic malfunction, doomed to know exactly what was killing it without even touching it.
Toni, growing desperate, raised her voice, shaking her sister with more and more urgency. But Aurore remained locked in catatonia, the voices full of mindless, disbelieving terror died one by one, and this trance-like awareness only made things worse.
“Siis! Call back the forest! Save them! They’re innocent! Don’t kill theem!”
Aurore came to. She was in the skyscraper’s lobby, lying on her side inside what appeared to be a giant clam.
“Hey, Toni!” She turned to her sister, who was resting her forehead against a pillar. “What happ...”
Her words died down as her limitless mind discovered the dead bodies just a story above them.
“...Oh mon Dieu. I...Killed them.”
“That you did, Sis...”
Trembling, Aurore immediately started draining the water, and scrambled to find a way to bring the poor employees back to life. She focused on the first one to attack her, forcing herself to remember his face. She converted the water in his lungs into breathable air, healed the lesions caused by the seawater in his airwaves, attempted to kickstart his heart.
“Come on, live...”
But it did nothing. The man just started floating to the water’s surface, located just below the ceiling yet more than thirty meters above the fake seabed. His brain had suffered damage far too complex for her to fix with just a wish. She might have been a miracle worker, but she couldn’t re-create what she couldn’t understand.
“Putain de bordel de m...”
“Don’t sweat it, Sis. I thought about it while you were out...The man behind this forced your hand.
“Huh? What do you mean? A man? I mean yes, there’s a m-m-magician behind this but knowing Mom...”
“No, it’s a man. He was there, he wrote all those words in front of the employees’ eyes. Also the whole first floor has been made waterproof somehow.”
“Huh? How do you know?” Asked Aurore as she looked around and found that none of the water was leaking through the lobby’s ceiling.
“Can’t say, but...I know certain things.”
Aurore opened her arms wide, and almost smiled.
“A form of divination?”
“Yes, but it’s more complex than just a magic 8-ball. It’s like...I’m looking at the whole situation, and some underlying factors come to me. Just a few clear elements in a huge info dump. Took me like fifteen minutes just to piece together the waterproof thing while I was trying to get you to cancel it.”
“My baby sister’s growing powers! I’d hug you, but...”
“We’ve got to find this asshole. He has to be in that basement you mentioned.”
“Yes. let’s go.”
The basement floors were, thankfully, as safe as the lobby was. Not to say the sisters’ faceless adversary hadn’t laid obstacles in their paths—Aurore’s supernatural perception didn’t seem to work in any way down there.
“Fuck, I bet the walls are plastered with words of power telling me to keep my normal senses and forget reading them.”
“Safe hypothesis there, sis...I don’t know if it’s because I’m affected, but I can’t pick up anything relevant yet.”
“Don’t worry. I still got my ’tism powers.”
With a smirk, Aurore tried her best to evacuate all the weird shit she had come to rely on in a worryingly short period of time, getting into her old mindset again. No power, no knowledge, no Grace. Just her and a world she despised, working a stupid job and cynically enjoying it. She felt her inner parasites stir, aided by a nascent addiction to the feeling of reigning over reality, but routine and familiarity eventually did wash over her. Her expression grew dull and apathetic. When she opened her eyes, the world was cluttered again.
“Wow, I was fucking blind for an omniscient being.”
“A-are you alright, Sis?”
“Yes. Now hush, I’m gonna go Sherlock on this thing.”
Strangely invigorated, Aurore started wandering around the subterranean storerooms. Her world was generally covered in a sheen of filth made mainly of old, blackened chewing gums or hand grease on doors and interrupters mapping the most visited areas. None of what she saw was surprising, or even unfamiliar. Knowing the skyscraper down to its last brick was, after all, her job. So then, how could she find a secret passage that had eluded her for so long? She actually already had a pretty good idea.
“You know, maybe I’m jinxing it,” Toni thought aloud, “But if our enemy blocked your powers with his suggestions, why not go all the way and make it so that his secret place can only be entered via magic?”
“Nah. Grace has to have access to it too.”
“But Mom has powers, doesn’t...”
“Confined to the house upstairs.” Aurore drably interrupted her.
“Oh. So...What’s your plan?”
“Clearly I’m not going to find traces of ‘psychology’ on the walls so I’ll have to settle on the second best thing she’s at.”
Confused by Aurore’s behavior, Toni cocked her head to the side and watched her kneel behind a crate. When Aurore stood back up, she was smiling victoriously, holding something between her pinched fingers.
“What have you got, Sis?”
Aurore teleported it right in front of Toni, who scrambled to catch it.
“Heeey! Give a heads up at least!”
“Sorry. Take a look.”
“It’s...A white hair! Mom’s?!”
“Yeah, too long to be one of the ancient employees. It still got its bulb. She pulled it out.”
The teen gasped. Her beloved mother had left them a clue! As Aurore began inspecting the nearby walls in detail, Toni gazed at the long silver strand. Mother had predicted they would come. Mother...she could almost hear her voice. Feel her touch, her breath in her ears as she whispered...
“You are a good girl, Toni. You are cute and cheerful, always optimistic. You love me and Aurore. You are confident in yourself but you trust us completely. We are the world to you. You will blindingly ignore everything you know about science to help us. Open your mind. Join your family in magic.”
“Mommy...” Sighed the blonde in a trembling voice.
“You said something, Toni?”
“I love you, Sis...I’ll do everything I can to help you...”
Aurore shrugged and left her sister to her weird little trance so she could search in silence. Little did she now this only served to deepen the blonde’s stupor. After a short while, Toni, awash with adoration, mindlessly started to follow her sister.
“Hey, Toni! Get a grip, we got a situation here!”
Aurore’s panicky voice finally lifted the veil off teenage Tonia’s mind. She opened her eyes...And gasped. Instead of the storage basement she last remembered, she now stood in a large, well lit room with no walls in sight. Medical beds littered the open space, surrounded by machinery and floating words. They were occupied with a wide range of people, from teenage to elderly and from all ethnicities and genders. All of them, however, were lying supine, straight and immobile, staring at the ceiling through words of power.
Moans of distress resonated throughout the place. It was bad enough to make any well-adjusted cute teenager girl freak out, but Toni got a healthy side dose of creepshow when her emergent sense acted up. The “knowledge”, while still undecipherable, was filled with huge numbers, which seemed to only start at the million range and roll wild from there. Confused, Toni looked for her sister. Thankfully, she was standing just a few meters ahead of her...Facing an unknown figure. A tall man in a crisp beige suit, whose face seemed to be...glitched? Somehow?
“Wh-what’s happening, big Sis?”
“That’s what I want to know too, but that fucker’s too arrogant to breathe! He’s got Grace, too!”
Indeed, Toni noticed next that Mom was at the end of the room, behind the glitchy man. She was physically restrained to a chair watched over by an elderly man in a patient gown.
“What the hell are you doing to Mom?!”
“Punishing her for being uncooperative and inefficient.” Responded the suited man with a voice as deformed as his face. “And judging from you, I was too kind. Without your gauntlet, you are of no use to anyone here. Stay out of this.”
Before she could protest, two words flashed into existence right in front of Toni’s eyes. “Be still and silent.” Predictably, her body froze in an instant.
“Silence, Aurore.” Ordered That Man. “You have no right to claim you care about her when you brought her along on your foolish quest.”
“She was confused about magic, asswipe. I’m not going to send her to her room, this concerns everyone!”
“Hmm...Quite true, yet you are acting as if you wanted it to disappear.”
“...What do you even mean?!”
“Look around you. Or perhaps better, think. You live in a secret area of this building. Whatever could a second one be for?”
Aurore frowned hard. This asshole was just about everything she hated about humans. Obsessed with seemings, allergic to simplicity, and generally acts like he never has to shit. Yet she could do little more than play along, given the sheer number of hostages he could boast. So she looked around, and observed the hospital beds more closely. Her heart skipped a beat when she noticed a thin wire going right through the anguished victims’ temples.
She ran to the closest one, a black teenager with bloodshot eyes and fractured teeth. This was no illusion. A wire was going through his skull. Aurore already felt her heartbeat quicken at the disturbing sight, but she knew she couldn’t turn back. She closed her eyes, poured her mind through That Man’s barriers, and reached the wire. Everything exploded in a onslaught of senseless and chaotic information. Numbers, words, formulas, entire speeches condensed in a few breakneck seconds.
Aurore screamed and fell on her back. Her hands were shaking, her ears ringing.
“What the FUCK was that?!!” She bellowed, panicked.
In lieu of an answer, That Man signaled for the old man watching over Grace to ungag her. The silver-haired woman coughed for a few moments, then looked at Aurore with a regretful look.
“That’s... Cough How we discovered magic.“
Aurore’s eyes went wide. She already had a low opinion of this woman, and yet...
“You invented it by torturing people?”
“It’s a bit more complicated, but regrettably, not so much you’d be wrong saying so.”
“Hey, Mister I’m-better-than-anyone-else,” Asked Aurore to the obfuscated man, “Can I at least assume you didn’t let Grace speak just for a lame ambush?”
“I am short on time, but not this short.” Came the answer, as calm and self-assured as ever. “The world’s greatest mage surely does deserve to know how she came to be.”
“Very well.” Acknowledged Grace. “My...Our research in magic was not a carefully planned move. How could it possibly be? No. It was, evidently, an accident. It all started with the project That Man was working on as a lead engineer for DARPA. A new information transmission method, the supposed successor of the optical fiber.”
Grace marked a pause to let That Man continue. He did not take the bait.
“Please continue, Miss Rivers. I shan’t waste my focus on a history lesson.”
“Hmpf. In any case, this technology was entirely too hard to manufacture to be seriously considered or even teased to the population. Furthermore, it suffered from a tremendous signal loss.” Grace continued to explain. “However, its bandwidth was unparalleled. It could carry the calculations of an entire data center with no noticeable delay. That did not save it from being unexploitable in communication, but DARPA saw its true potential—overwhelming systems. Initially, I thought I had been hired simply because I owned heavy and hungry programs. Interfacing with the human brain to influence it is no light task, and has to be spread out over weeks. But by running them instantly, I fried some high-end computers through the new cable.”
“A cyberterrorist’s wet dream, huh.”
“Yes. However, those were only proof of concept tests. Behind the scenes, DARPA was wondering about its potential applications on the human brain. After two days, they had me run tests on prisoners.”
“What? How did they even find those? America’s bad, but not ‘frying brains’ bad. I mean, even Gitmo is scrutinized!”
“They learned from Guantanamo’s mistakes. After the first tests on machines within the Pentagon, I was swiftly ‘invited’ to an island I do not even know the name of.”
“Wait, wait, if the US is this involved, why is Fikile’s attack such a surprise kick in the nads? I scanned government officials, they had no idea what was happening.”
Grace heaved a pained sigh.
“Because the camp where the second tests took place is beyond top secret, known only to a few offices obsessed by results above all else. It was a place where even the worst atrocities can never come to light. Truly outside of the law. A black site.”
“What the hell...It reads like a conspiracy theory.”
“Such theories are only ludicrous when they start involving global control or outer space. Government misconduct is not and should not be unthinkable. The black site was essentially a dump for criminals who flew under the media’s radar despite heinous crimes, and more alarmingly, whistleblowers. They had failed where Snowden succeeded, and were doomed by the public’s apathy to their revelations.”
“Putain...So, what did you do?”
“I was not outright coerced into participating, but they still effectively pressured me to use my memory scramblers. At the time, they took upwards to a month to completely recycle the hippocampus, which requires slow imprinting of a new persona. With this technology...They managed to do a complete mind wipe in minutes.”
“I’m going to guess this doesn’t lead to the happy new persona you love so fucking much.”
“Indeed not. They became mindless husks, who could not latch onto other mind restructuring programs if I tried. This did not sit right with me at all, but I stood to lose too much by refusing to participate. For a while. After seven mind wipes, I was just about to leave and request the US government to never contact me again...When IT happened.”
Silence fell upon the room. Grace looked to the side. Obviously not a pleasant memory.
“Let me guess. One of your mindwipe programs accidentally knocked a guy’s mind so out of place, he denied reality as hard as you made me do.”
“Yes. The prisoner developed psychic abilities and transmitted the info stream to everyone nearby. This caused a chain reaction, and the entire camp was soon turned into mages run wild. Eventually, one of them covered most of the island in ice, ending the reaction. That Man and I only survived because we were out of range—I was trying to leave the island and he wanted to stop me. Even back then he was obsessed with control.”
“I am thorough.” Corrected the mastermind. “And I changed the world.”
“After we resolved to put aside our differences and investigate what had happened, yes.”
“And...When was this?”
“Six years ago. It took us a long time to pinpoint that total denial of reality was what caused abilities to manifest. Of course, I immediately devised a method to impose it carefully and progressively, resulting in our powers, then, after significant progress, in you. He, however...”
Aurore looked around. The story certainly gave a sick kind of sense to people with cables jammed into their brains.
“You’re damn proud of your super-USB, aren’t you, motherfucker?”
“Hmpf. There is merit in Miss Rivers’ method. You can control what kind of powers manifest, whereas our initial method was entirely arbitrary. However, as she was unable to understand, we are through with preparations. The new world is here, and it needs a fast method of ability unlocking. We need to rattle the cage now, get rid of preconceptions. Wiping the slate of predictable results clean. This...”
He spread his arms, proudly presenting the weeping guinea pigs with his gloved hands.
“Is the seed of the new age. Their once useless brains are ripening for true purpose. What was an accident six years ago is now a weapon against the law of normality. They will spill into the streets, opening minds, creating an army of mages the old armies will never be able to contain.”
Aurore’s breath quickened as she slowly came to realize just what he implied. Her dollhouse on top of the skyscraper had been a sweet hell, but the factory lurking in its depths had nothing sweet about it. This was genuine, uncontrolled mad science. That Man was engineering a catastrophe, aware of and eager for the apocalyptic consequences.
“The airport was just setting the stage, wasn’t it.”
“Indeed. The world has to be prepared for its downfall to be absolute. But enough talk!”
He closed his hands into fists, and the words of power covering the test subjects’ eyes changed. Maddened wails erupted throughout the room as they all, one by one, tore the cables out. Even without her special senses, Aurore felt their incomprehensible pain seep into her body. Nonetheless, they got off the gurneys and stood up. Young, old, male, female, they all fought through the anguish and obeyed That Man’s words with helpless zeal. They stood upright, at attention, while their faces painted a picture of Hell. The bastard wanted to throw the world into chaos, but it was apparent he had no intention of ever relinquishing control.
“Okay, I know there’s no way you’re going to care, but you are fucking insane.”
“Am I now? I was offered to join a black branch of the government ready to do whatever it takes and chose to take the opportunity. Then a freak accident showed me a glimpse of a new world, and I chose to pursue it. Why let morals get the better of me in the face of a choice more important than the Manhattan Project? Might makes right. I do not believe in fate, but I do believe in causality. This ambition of mine may be mad, but it did give birth to this power. It led me to the edge of the new world, and it will lead me to be crowned its King.”
“Christ, I fucking knew go-getters were the scourge of the Earth.” Aurore commented, creeped out. “No but, for real, douchebag, dial the Saturday morning crap the fuck down.”
“Oh but by all means,” Replied That Man as he assumed a defying posture. “Please do try to correct me for not favorably complying to standards established by pop culture.”
Aurore clenched her fists. That fuck really was something, wasn’t he? There was one thing she couldn’t possibly disagree on, though. There definitely had been enough talk. She gave her alter-egos a wider berth. The slutty Japanese had a much greater appreciation of company, and effortlessly summoned her watery friends. That Man looked at the looming shadow of a giant squid coming from a floating water globe, but did not seem that concerned. Hard to tell with his encrypted face. No matter, though, as the doting Italian jumped on the opportunity to swap out Grace while he was distracted. Her warden immediately started screeching. This time, the villain was a bit startled.
“Hmm. Clever girl.” He admitted. “I suppose I did not anticipate everything.”
“You don’t strike me as the type who would give my power the time of day, cazzo.” Spoke Giulietta through Aurore’s mouth. “Control over variables might not be flashy, but it can’t be beaten in terms of versatility.”
“Is that so. Swap me out of life then.”
“For touching Mamma...This will be my pleasure.”
Aurore physically turned into the Italian, and raised her delicate hand dramatically. She willed That Man’s heart to switch from healthy to utterly clogged. She had killed most of Paris’ power grid and teleported a woman across several states by changing a registry. Certainly this would be no daunting task.
But nothing happened. Giulietta frowned, and retried. But though she could perceive his variables clearly, they would not budge. That Man was an island of certainty in a universe of possibles.
“...Che Diavolo? Nami-chan!”
This time, Aurore assumed her scantily clad self’s form.
“Hai, leave this to me!” She struck a pose, pointing at her enemy. “Shark-san, go!”
A great white flew out of the water globe, maw open. That Man was standing dead in the maneater’s path, but did not flinch. Even at the last moment, he did not show the most minute trace of fear. The shark bit around his neck...And faded into thin air.
Gone. Nami’s terrifying power had not even scratched him. She trembled and faded away, giving Aurore her body back.
“Qu’est-ce que c’est que ce bordel?!” Seethed the ultimate mage. “How are you resisting?!”
“Heh heh heh...” Softly chuckled the man. “Grace might act independent, but the truth is, she is a very loyal employee of mine. Unconsciously, perhaps, but she did leave some constraints inside your mind. For you, I am an absolute, undeniable reality. Why would you think I would leave the universal mage out of my control? I enjoy letting you act up, but you are very much my servant.”
“Fuck! But...Why the ambush on the first floor then?!”
“Ah, so you triggered it. Good girl. Why indeed? Let’s just say that I fully expect the old world to give a few nasty kicks in its death throes. Men are resilient, and they will remain so even in the face of our power. This building will no doubt be found and investigated. I was thinking, might as well direct them to you when they do.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I knew a stampede would make you panic. You killed them all, didn’t you?”
Aurore was taken aback. Shit...Looking back on it, it was obvious they were expendable.
“I’m sure the sensors and the black box will have lots to tell our inferiors while I am safe in Europe. By the way, I wager you won’t mind staying here a while?”
Words started to crystallize right in front of her eyes. Realizing the threat, Aurore tried to close them, but it was too late. “Be still and do not use your powers.” Her body froze instantly.
“Merde! Connard, je vais te...”
“Do I have to order you to hush as well?”
“Good. Watch now, you and your friend. I’m going to tell my little bombs here to go to the building’s parking lot, and to ride to different locations throughout the united states. By Miss Rivers’ calculations, they’ll all die or go fully catatonic within the week, but I am confident enough of their madness will have leaked for this world to hit the point of no return.”
Tears of impotent rage welled up in Aurore’s eyes. This was it. The moment when a disproportionately powerful douchebag fucks the world up, and she couldn’t do anything.
“Rejoice, Aurore. Your destruction of the airport will not be in vain.”
Nobody was paying any attention to Toni. Why would they? She was a powerless outsider to a confrontation between gods. She wanted to help, of course. She couldn’t possibly let her beloved family struggle alone. But what could she do? The diffuse mass of information she perceived was definitely her own power, and in better circumstances she would have treasured this chance to be closer to her Big Sister. But in this moment, it was infuriatingly weak and pointless.
Or was it?
From the moment Aurore had broken her out of her trance onwards, Toni had seen...things. She had dismissed them as floaters at first, but their shape was a bit off. Rather than worms, they looked kind of like symbols and numbers. It did not take long for her to realize it had probably something to do with the intermittent data her mind sometimes managed to decipher. And so, as Mom began to explain the origins of magic, Toni started studying her cryptic power.
Numbers. Words. Data that was, in this particular room, pouring into her view like a raging torrent. Not a surprising correlation, seeing that this place was approximately all possible kinds of wrong. But what exactly was this ability scanning? Could it be exploited? Toni’s mind started seeking links and patterns, drowning out Grace’s words in her concentration. Dancing from one figure to the next, dismissing hypothesizes as quickly as she came up with them. The flow of reflexion felt comforting to her, a bit like pulling an all-nighter at the lab again.
One thing was evident—the more she focused on the floating symbols, the clearer they became. What were intermittent flashes of insight had now become clearly readable code. Toni was also pretty sure they were directly related to whatever real object she was thinking about. That certainly explained how she could pick up on the waterproof reinforcement while preoccupied with the earlier tragedy in the offices. One question remained, however, and it was almost certainly the most important one. What did the code outside of the numbers and words mean? It was most straightforwardly described as a bunch of gibberish made out of punctuation symbols, like swear words censored in old comic books. However...
“No, that’s not gibberish.” She thought to herself. “There’s a pattern. If the numbers and words really are variables, then could it be...An esolang?”
Toni’s preferred fields of research were biophysics and electrical engineering, but she was no stranger to computer science either. Her favorite programming language was assembly, as it was the simplest, rawest, closest to the machine. Still, she did play around with other higher-level languages, particularly esoteric languages, or esolangs. Programming languages not intended for practical use, but rather experimental fuckery or humor. It ranged from Shakespeare, a language that looked like one of the Bard’s plays, to brainfuck, a language comprised of exactly eight symbols.
The mess of ASCII symbols was definitely reminiscent of that last one, although with a far greater range. Just series of symbols framing readable data...It made sense if they were one-symbol computational instructions. Furthermore, one type of symbol was more prevalent that the others—arrows. Since the code was floating in a three-dimensional space, instead of a bunch of lines, it was natural for it to have pointers indicating in which order it worked. Besides, if magical powers really were born from the mind, it only made sense for hers to still be closely related to science...
All of a sudden, a bunch of code disappeared. It did not move away—amid the chaotic mass of cryptic information, Toni doubted she would have even noticed. No, it had straight up blinked out of existence. Toni stopped focusing on the magical code to see what was happening in the room.
“Hmm. Clever girl.” Said the horrible man. “I suppose I did not anticipate everything.”
Grace was gone! Big Sis looked proud. So that meant Mom was safe. Toni was relieved. Now it was just a matter of sending the villain to Hell. Trusting her Sis completely, she watched her turning into her Giulietta persona and preparing to do just that. Get him, Sis!
But nothing happened.
“...Che Diavolo? Nami-chan! Hai, leave this to me! Shark-san, go!”
Even Nami’s superpredator summon faded away at That Man’s contact. Toni saw the shark’s processes be turned into a shower of identical code snippets.
It WAS code. This thing screamed output of a null value in form alone, and it matched the actual events pretty clearly. She was seeing the source code of reality. She was watching That Man inflicting her sister an humiliating defeat on two levels. But that also meant she could do something about it. It was a power, wasn’t it? What good was it if it couldn’t save her family?! It was heard to pull her gaze away from Aurore’s despairing expression, but she had to. That Man wasn’t even suspecting Toni had a power. That was the one chink in the armor his maniacal caution had crafted.
The Swedish blonde threw herself into the code again. She had two critically important things to do, and couldn’t have much time to do them. First was interaction. If this power was only one of knowledge, then That Man might as well have already won. Toni thought about the null input he had, inadvertently, showed her. A greater sign, a disc, a colon and simple quotation marks. She focused on the air in front of her, just past the paralyzing writ, and started thinking of the symbol sequence. She thought it over and over, more intently each time.
“I’m sure the sensors and the black box will have lots to tell our inferiors while I am safe in Europe. By the way, I wager you won’t mind staying here a while?”
That Man’s words didn’t even registered with her. She had to save her sister, and nothing would break her concentration in doing so. She wasn’t going to let him win! It had to work!
Then suddenly, a dioxygen molecule plopped out of existence. Yes, she did have the power! Taking care to remember the feeling of her successful attempt as best she could, she immediately moved on and looked towards That Man. She could change a value. Maybe two, but each subsequent change would run the risk of him noticing. She had to choose her target wisely. Now to make it count.
It did not appear as an easy task in the slightest, however. The air was like a vacuum compared to the cornucopia of code an individual had within him. Toni knew what an output looked like, but could she expect real equivalence between computational standards and this power? Was there functions? Would organs work like object oriented programming? Or did everything work in an incredibly bloated sequential algorithm with no regards for ergonomy? Realistically, every one of those questions would take days to answer, but she was in a hurry. She had to make assumptions, trust that her power wouldn’t stray too far from her experience.
Besides, she already knew what she had to target to shut down the villain. So she focused her senses into his middle temporal gyrus...
Aurore seethed, impotent, as That Man started giving instructions to his puppets. Aurore saw names that made her skin crawl. The UN headquarters in New York. Low-income colonias in Texas. Several army camps in the Midwest. One man was even ordered to go all the way to Mexico city. He wanted to hit and divide everyone from the destitute to the affluent. She wasn’t sure this would be enough to ruin order forever, but it would definitely throw North America into disarray.
She had to stop, him, and yet, it was no use! None of her powers worked. His words really were absolute. She wished she could at least look at Toni’s face, find some relief in her cheerful smile. Huh, who was she kidding. That Fucker was the only one smiling here. He raised his hands, and declared...
“The game is set. Now...Hello World!”
“Hello World! Hello World!”
The words in front of her eyes turned to “Hello World!” as well. As did the ones in front of all the puppets. Free of their strings, they all collapsed. Aurore was free to move again. She was stunned. This was magic, no doubt about it, but what? Who? How?!
“HAHA, YES! Take that, asshole!”
Toni? She spun around, and indeed saw her baby sister exulting, arms thrown in the air in celebration. Gears had only started turning in her head when she was blindsided by a punch to the face.
Aurore fell to the floor, and she vaguely saw the man in the beige Tuxedo disappearing inside the staircase before pain made her close her eyes.
Toni rushed to her side. The words of power, however ineffectual, were fading.
“Munchkin? He...He’s fleeing...”
“Don’t worry, he’s harmless now. For a while at least.”
“The hell did you do? Was it your power?”
“Yes! I’ll have to run a real analysis, but turns out I can access a 3D-based fungeoid esolang that interfaces reality itself.”
“I can program reality. I don’t know to what extent yet. It was obvious that dude’s entire power was rooted in language, so I found his output function somewhere in the part of the brain that manages the lexicon, and turned it into a Hello World! line.”
“...Why Hello World?”
“Wha? Oh, I forgot you were crap at computers. It’s the standard baby’s first program.”
Aurore couldn’t say she really understood, but she definitely liked the idea of having him humiliated with such a simple thing. She heaved a deep sigh of relief, sat up, and hugged her dear, cute, and so, so smart little sister.
“Sis...” Blushed Toni.
“You’re really something, aren’t you? Controlling your power in such a short time...”
“No...It’s because I believed in you, Sis. I might live with science, but I knew magic had to be the truth if it had you in it.”
“So trusting you’ll go against your every instinct, huh...That still makes you amazing!”
As Toni made an embarrassed smile, Aurore decided, on a whim, to stroke her cute tiara. She expected nothing, especially not getting a prime view on how exactly Toni managed to be such a loving little sister. The crown was not jewelry, but advanced electronics. One that gently smothered Toni’s mind under the fabricated knowledge of a family. Theirs.
The Frenchwoman froze. Toni appearing older than her when she came in was no fluke, wasn’t it? She wasn’t her sister at all! She was...Yes, Aurore remembered now! Toni had knocked Fikile out at the airport not because she was jealous, but because she was actually just a stranger! But why would Grace twist her mind in such a way? Had she loved Fikile that much? No...The program run by the Tiara was especially insistent on trusting her and her magic. Hmm...Aurore supposed someone did have to plan ahead of That Man...
“What about Mom?” Candidly asked Toni.
“...Nothing. I was just thinking...” It took her a while to come up with something, but eventually she gave Toni a fake smile and chipperly declared “We should meet up! Decide what to do now. We stopped That Man, but the world is still going to be out to get us. You included.”
“Yeah, great idea! You’re so smart!”
Brr. Her “sisters” enthusiasm was well into creepy territory now.
“I teleported Mom safely in the street outside the building. She’s still there, go check on her. I’ve...Still got something to do.”
“Hmm...The poor guys he turned into psychic bombs, right?”
“See you soon, Sis.”
Toni turned around and went up the staircase, ready to deal with That Man if he had the stupid idea of not bailing as far away as he could. Wary as she was, however, she did not notice Aurore casting two spells on her.
“Voilà.” Muttered the Frenchwoman. “She’ll be back to normal in a few minutes. Thank God Grace used a temporary program. I think I’m gonna miss her...”
“Still, you could have told me, Giu. Scusi! Mamma said it had to be genuine, or her power wouldn’t emerge. Literal power of love, huh? How fucking trite.”
She shifted her attention to a decidedly less sugary topic. The men and women That Man had killed for his mad dream. With a snap, she shut off all electrical impulses in their brains.
“I’ll probably have to flush out all the water in the offices, too. Maybe fill this horrorshow with cement. But what about magic, Aurore nee-chan? What if some people heard Fikile-nee and find magic of their own? Will they be persecuted? I don’t know, Nami. Wait and see I guess. Si, si. We have to take it slowly. Keep magic a beautiful thing.”
Toni was outside. The streets were calm, but not empty. A tipsy couple was taking selfies in front of a subway station, a vagrant was cuddling with his dog, and a trio of hoodied men were shooting the shit under a storefront’s awning. Evidently, the oddest event that had transpired here that night was the attractive young woman that sported a tiara and seemed to be growing bigger.
“Hmm, where has Mom gone off to...”
She tried to consult her literal esoteric language again, but without the urgency of saving Aurore, she just couldn’t focus on the symbols that clearly. Plus she felt sort of strange...
“Why would Mom be here anyway? She never left Borlänge...”
Something was itching on Tonia’s head. She checked with her hand, and found...A tiara?
“The hell is this? Where am I? This isn’t NYC...”
After throwing the tacky diadem into a nearby bin, she took the smartphone that was thankfully still in her pocket, and checked the GPS. After a loading time, the program showed her, with little ambiguity, that she was in downtown Cincinnati. Tonia opened her eyes wide. What in the actual fuck? Freaked out, she dialed up the only person who would even remotely understand the situation.
“Sandström?!” Practically shouted Saul Dawson on the other end of the line. “Where the fuck did you vanish off to?”
“I know! I...I remember the airport, suddenly appearing in some sort of jail cell, and then...Well it’s not completely blank but I’ve had fever dreams clearer than this.”
“Holy shit, those magical assholes. Don’t hang up, I’m calling the cops!”
“Ambulance might be best...Whatever they did to me left me with one mother of a headache...”
“Roger that! Hang in there!”
Confused to hell and back, Tonia started walking aimlessly. Might as well not hang around and risk being spotted by the unreal menaces. At least help was on its way now.
Grace was nervously walking circles in her womb’s living room. She might have been teleported to safety, but what then? She couldn’t help but doubt That Man would let her daughters’ powers work against him. This was the whole point of converting Miss Sandström of course. A shot in the dark, but little else would work against him. Had it succeeded? The uncertainty was unbearable. If only she had divination powers...
She’d have noticed Aurore sneaking inside the room, for one thing.
“Wahahaha! I knew you’d look funny if I startled you.”
“I...Did not raise you to be a brat.”
“You didn’t raise me at all. Oh and good thinking with Toni. She grew a power and hello worlded that fucker’s speech centers or whatever.”
“...A programming power? Impressive. Aaah...I’m glad.”
The psychiatrist let herself crumple to the floor. Aurore watched her do so with contempt, not ready to forgive her by a damn sight.
“She didn’t come with you?” Asked the silver-haired mad scientist.
“No, I let her go. She should be back to her old self by now. I trust you made it so she won’t remember anything?”
“Naturally. Why would be the point of a temporary personality change otherwise? The tiara stores all the memory. There is no chance of her ever remembering anything.”
“What about her power? Think she’ll keep it?”
“I don’t think so. The denial stimulus will be gone. However, I am far from a comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon, so it might still remain, in some shape or form.”
“I hope she does. Having a sister was...Fun.”
The temptation of posing as Aurore’s mother went through Grace’s mind, but she resisted it.
“Who knows what is going to happen from this point on?” She wondered instead. “The airport was enough to change the world forever. That Man only sought to control that change. It is now left to the unpredictable dynamics of civilization. I am all but certain we both need to hide, but that is the extent of it.”
“Yeah. We’ll probably have to stick together too. I can’t see Toni’s block lasting forever. He’ll probably return, and he’ll definitely be pissed.”
“That is true.”
“One thing, though. Tell me you’ll drop that obsession with turning me into your daughter.”
“That is one thing I cannot promise.”
“Humph. Whatever. We’re going to leave this dollhouse and you’ll be powerless.”
“Will I now? You will need another cocoon removed from the world at large. My power will simply be transferred.”
“Suit yourself. Anyway, Toni’s ambulance has arrived. This is as good a time as any to bail, doesn’t it? I’ll make us a lodge in Alaska or something.”
“That does sound like a good place to wait out the inevitable witch hunt.”
Aurore opened a portal to the Alaskan wilderness right in front of Grace, and started building the wooden house out of thin air as the cold wind messed her silver hair up. She could help but feel melancholy at the idea of leaving, but even with the office floor completely cleaned of evidence, the disappearances alone would turn this place into an anthill of investigators. The future held few things for certain, but forgetting this comfy yet hollow life was one of them.
Saul Dawson came into the hospital room. It was a common room, without much medical equipment save from a few IV drips. Tonia Sandström was at the end of the room, sitting idly on the side of the bed.
“Hey there, Sandström. Came as soon as they told me you woke up.”
“Thanks boss...I slept eleven straight hours, apparently.”
“They found anything wrong?”
Tonia shook her head.
“Check up turned up nothing. I’m free to leave, but I suppose I’m not feeling like going back to work. Not after losing my prototype.”
“Yeah, it wasn’t anywhere to be found at the airport. Sucks, the project passed with flying colors. I’ll do what I can to help you get back on track.”
“Thanks though I’ll probably try studying this...Magic. If we manage to get our hands on a subject.”
“Yeah, you can say that again.”
The researcher and her CEO sighed. They knew from experience this would be easier said than done.
“Anyway.” Said Saul to cut the silence. “Remembered anything?”
“Not a thing, and believe me, I tried. Well, no...I’ve still got some sensations. Positive ones, strangely. Happiness, achievement. Love, too, as if my mother had been there. It makes no sense, and it isn’t connected to any tangible events. Like a memory version of phantom pain...”
“Heh. Those cooky fuckers probably had sex with ya.”
“I’m not in the mood for pervy jokes, Mr. Dawson.”
“Sorry, I guess. But we’ll really need to find what happened back there. Unless some nerd listens to the firestarter’s broadcast and develops a shitty enough power so he can be contained, you’re really the only test subject we have.”
“Hmm hmm.” Vaguely acquiesced Tonia. " I guess we definitely have to do a more thorough brain scan.”
“You call me the day you’re ready”
The hefty bastard fiddled with his smartphone for a few seconds, then extended his hand for a parting handshake. The Swedish blonde started to take it, but her hand stopped halfway. She shook her head.
“Something wrong, Sandström?”
“Nah, just floaters in my eyes. Nevermind.”