“A rebellion.” Isaac was staring at me as if I’d grown two additional heads and started yodeling as I finished telling them the truth about all that. “Like, an actual rebellion, and your mother was Princess Leia. Or Luke Skywalker. Wait, are either of those sexist? I can never keep track.”
There was a brief pause, where I was pretty sure that he was waiting for Jazz to tell him to shut up. But she didn’t. The other girl was too busy staring at me open-mouthed. She didn’t actually say anything at all. She just kept staring. Every once in awhile, her lips moved as if she was trying to find something to say, but she always stopped herself and just went back to staring.
While telling the story about the rebellion and my mother’s role in it, I’d finished up the spell that Tabbris had been walking me through. Now the cave was safe from any scans from the ships that occasionally passed by overhead. I didn’t really understand much of what I’d done for the spell, but I figured that Tabbris could talk me through the specifics later. In this case, I’d just been essentially letting her move my hands to draw everything. So it was safe enough, for the moment, for the others to focus solely on what I had told them. And focus they did.
Roxa was the first to find her voice. “You… you know, that makes a lot of other things make a lot more sense. Your mom was the leader of some anti-establishment rebellion, it…” She shook her head slowly, clearly in awe. “That’s… awesome. I mean, not the rest of it, not what ended up happening or what they did to her. But your mom’s a hero. She’s like… a legend. Or she would be, if they hadn’t used magic to erase everyone’s memory. Your mom sounds fucking amazing.”
Despite myself, I smiled a little at that thought. “She is. Even after they erased her memory and made her a ‘normal’ human. She was the town sheriff. I… I guess even Seosten magic couldn’t completely erase everything that made mom want to protect people and stop bad guys.”
Roxa was grinning, showing her teeth a little bit. “Like I said, a lot of stuff makes a lot more sense now. Gotta admit, I was pretty confused before. Now I get it. No wonder you’re always getting in trouble. I mean, you’re the daughter of the woman who almost destroyed Crossroads, and your roommate slash one of your girlfriends is the descendant of the man who created it.”
The words made me flush, shaking my head while muttering, “When you put it that way…” I swallowed hard. “Seriously though, Mom is amazing. That’s why Fossor took her. It’s…” Biting my lip, I trailed off, looking away for a moment. I really didn’t want to dwell on that at the moment. We had enough problems to deal with, without me getting distracted by all that.
Gordon took a step forward then. As my eyes moved to him, the boy stood there, staring at me. There was something in his expression. I almost had the really weird feeling that he wanted to hug me. Which would have been odd coming from anyone. But coming from Gordon, it was utterly absurd to the point that I figured I absolutely had to be misreading his expression.
Nope, Tabbris quickly put in, he really looks like he wants to hug you. Sorta. For him.
By that point, the moment had passed, and Gordon turned to look at Jazz. His voice was as even and flat as it ever was. “It makes sense that they would do that.”
“Makes sense?” That was Sands, her voice raised almost to the point of hysteria as she demanded pointedly, “How exactly does erasing everyone’s memory of literally decades worth of time and a whole war, rewriting their entire history, actually make sense? You can’t possibly-”
“I don’t agree with it,” Gordon interrupted. “I never said I did. And I didn’t say it was the right thing to do. I said that it makes sense that they would do it. They were facing the end of their control. From what you guys said, the rebellion wasn’t ending. More and more Heretics were changing sides. And the establishment was in a race against time to begin with. The more that Heretics who were on the fence saw Alters working alongside rebel Heretics, the easier it would be to convince them that it was possible for Alters to not be evil. They had to do something very drastic to not just end the war, but also to stop people who witnessed all of that from starting it up again. So yes, their actions are evil and wrong. But they also make logical sense.”
I saw Jazz watching Roxa. It looked like the girl wanted to step closer. She had a longing look on her face, as if she… well, as if she wanted to talk to her old roommate, as if she wanted things to go back to the way they were. But her own doubts and fears were stopping her from taking that leap. In the end, she just swallowed hard before turning a bit to reply to Gordon, her tone more curious than accusatory. “You really think that kind of rebellion would’ve succeeded?”
“Without the kind of memory magic they used,” he replied easily, “and in the long run? Yes. That kind of truth would be an avalanche. Like I said, the more people who were on the fence witnessed Heretics and Alters fighting side by side, the more likely they were to slide off that fence to the right side. And the more of them that went, the more of their friends and family they would pull with them. Again, it’s an avalanche. Even if the Establishment succeeded at stamping out the current rebellion, it would stick in people’s memories. Brushfires would come up now and then, and before they knew it, there would be a whole rebellion all over again. In other words, erasing the entire event from everyone’s memory, while utterly repugnant, is logically sound.”
“Before we keep arguing about this,” Roxa announced from near the cave entrance, “we should really check to make sure the coast is clear and then go get some food and water. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m starving.” She paused briefly then before pointedly adding, “And no, before you say anything, I’m not about to eat any of you. I’m a werewolf, not a cannibal.”
“Werewolves do eat people though,” Jazz pointed out before flushing. “I mean–” She sighed. “I’m not saying you are, just that werewolves have eaten people. You know they have.”
“Yeah,” Roxa replied flatly, “and so have people. There are bad werewolves, yes. No one’s saying there’s not. But there’s also good-you know what? Food. We all need to get food.”
Quickly, before anyone else could start in, I nodded. “Right, food and water. Hang on.” Pausing, I focused on Marian once more, sending her cautiously out into the ditch. Slowly, I made the little fox look around, clambering up the incline once more before eventually searching the sky from the tree. It took about ten minutes to assure myself that the coast was clear. Finally, however, I was fairly confident that it was as safe as it was going to be. There were no ships in immediate sight, and I was pretty sure we could get back to cover before any got near enough to find us. “Okay,” I announced, “Let’s get out there. But uh, be careful. We don’t know what kind of things might be dangerous here besides the Seosten. So let’s go slow and stay together.”
We did just that. Slowly, carefully, the six of us (plus Gidget) crept out of the cave. I looked to the sky, seeing it with my own eyes since I had closed my fox’s to make things less distracting and confusing. By mutual, silent agreement, no one said anything as we moved to half-climb and half-crawl up the embankment until we reached the top. Then I led the others to the river that I had seen. We remained quiet right up until we reached the river itself. Then, once we had cupped our hands in the water and slaked our thirst enough, the talking finally started again.
“I hate to be that guy,” Isaac started, “but what are we gonna do about food? Water’s great and all, but we’ve gotta eat too if we’re gonna survive. And I don’t think there’s a BK anywhere nearby.”
“Fish,” I replied while pointing into the water where several were swimming around. “I mean, it’s a whole different world, but fish is fish, I… think?” Frowning then, I muttered, “Unless they’re poisonous somehow. Hey, does anyone have a poison detecting power?”
“Gidget can handle it,” Roxa assured me. “Anything we want to eat, we stick it in her mouth and she can tell us if there’s anything in it that we shouldn’t have. Actually, Vulcan should be able to do the same thing, so I’m surprised Sean hasn’t mentioned that. It’s kind of one of their main features for Heretics that are… not at home.”
“Man, Gidget,” I remarked with a glance to the metal cougar, “you’re getting more useful by the second. Pretty soon, you’re gonna be more important to this whole situation than I am.”
While Gidget preened, Gordon looked at the water while pointing out, “Now we just need to actually catch the fish.”
“That shouldn’t be a problem,” I replied while moving down the river a little ways from the wide area where most of the visible fish were swimming. “You guys stay here. And be ready, okay?”
While they asked what they were supposed to be ready for, I moved down to find a narrow spot with some rocks that I could easily hop across without getting too wet. Then I made my way back, while tugging my staff from the container on my hip.
“Ready?” I asked, hitting the charge button. “You might wanna move out of the way.”
Realizing what I was about to do, the others all scattered to either side, then watched as I stuck the end of my staff down into the water. Waiting for a moment until the largest group of fish had gathered nearby, I finally hit the trigger. The kinetic blast sent water spraying up like a geyser. And it also sent a handful of decent sized fish rocketing up onto the other side of the river.
The others moved quickly, grabbing the fish before they could flip themselves back into the water. Two more times like that, and we had plenty, much faster than regular fishing would have taken (if we’d even had a fishing pole).
“Right, fish.” Jazz was nodding at the pile of dead fish that we had a couple minutes later. “Fish and water. Too bad we can’t carry the water down with us. But I didn’t bring any bottles or anything.”
Roxa was shaking her head, kneeling next to Gidget as she muttered, “You see, guys? This is why you need a wildlife survival course at Crossroads or something. Open up, girl.” As Gidget obligingly opened her mouth, the girl reached deep inside, feeling around a little bit. It looked kinda funny, seeing Roxa shoulder-deep in her cougar’s mouth. Finally, she came out with a canteen, holding it up. “We can share it, and take turns coming back out to fill it up again.”
She started to turn, only to stop and look over at Jazz, who was staring at her. As I watched, Roxa paused before asking flatly, “What?”
Noticeably flinching, Jazz took a step back before stopping herself. “I–” she started before shaking her head. “Nothing. I just–I was just going to–” She stopped again, and I saw tears flood her eyes for a brief moment before the girl blinked rapidly. “I was just gonna make a joke, and–and then I thought about what you might’ve said if you weren’t a–I mean–”
Roxa sighed, looking at the girl intently. “Jazz, I told you, I’m still me. Same personality. Same sense of humor. It’s me.”
“I wanna believe you,” Jazz all-but whimpered, staring at her old roommate and friend before slumping a little bit. “I do. I just…” She sighed, turning to pick up the fish that she had gathered. Without another word, the girl started back toward the cave.
In the silence that followed, I announced, “We need wood too, guys. We have no idea how cold it gets down here. Plus, we’ve gotta cook our dinner, unless you’re super-into strange sushi or something. So let’s get the stuff we need to make a fire.
“And start hoping that we don’t run into a Fish and Game Warden out here, because I don’t think any of us have a license for this stuff.”
“Are you sure it’s safe to be out of the cave right now?” Jazz whispered cautiously. She was crouching just inside entrance, peering through the bush at me as I knelt a few feet outside.
It was late, and the night sky was full of stars. The others were asleep, or at least lying down. We’d had a short discussion about posting people to keep watch. Isaac had suggested that we each take a turn and have one person up in case anything happened. Which was a decent idea, but I vetoed the whole ‘one person’ thing. It was too easy for one person to fall asleep, or get taken by surprise somehow. So we’d ended up agreeing to work in pairs. To make it all fair, we had drawn names for our partners. I had gotten Jazz as mine. In about four hours (which Jaq and Gus were helpfully timing for me), we would wake up Roxa and Isaac so that we could sleep. Four hours after that, they would wake up Gordon and Sands for the final shift.
I nodded to Jazz’s question. “There’s no ships overhead, and they just went by for a scan about ten minutes ago. We should be good for now. It’s enough time to head down to get some more water.” I held up the canteen that Roxa had pulled out of Gidget and gave it a little wave. “Getting kinda low.” Pausing then, I added with a little gesture, “You wanna come with?”
What do you think, partner? I asked inwardly. Is she the one most freaked by what I told them?
There was no answer for a moment, before Tabbris gave a sudden start of realization. Oh, me! Oh, um, sorry. I guess I’m still not used to you talking to me. Or anyone talking to me. She paused, then agreed. Uh huh. I don’t think Gordon was surprised at all. And Isaac is weird.
In the meantime, Jazz had said something that I missed. Uh, oops. I really needed to get better at dividing my attention. Or just stop trying to talk to Tabbris when I was already talking to someone else. Uh, I don’t suppose you caught what she said? And they’re both pretty weird.
Thankfully, Tabbris answered immediately. She asked if you really wanted her to come.
It must have looked like I had to stop and think about it, because Jazz was already starting to say that she’d just stay in the cave, and was pulling back out of the little entrance area.
Hurriedly, I shook my head, whispering, “No, come on, it’s okay. I should probably have someone watching my back. Here.” Reaching into my pocket, I carefully took out Jaq. The little metal mouse blinked at me as I set him near the bush. “Hey, little guy. I know you and your brother are connected. So if you see anything up here, let him know so he can get my attention.”
Both mice gave little squeaks of acknowledgment. Jaq straightened up and started to move from one side of the cave entrance to the other, occasionally making a soft squeak sound. After a moment, I realized that he was marching. The sound he was making was the military ‘hup’.
“Okay,” Jazz announced with a raised eyebrow, “I’m just gonna say it, that’s pretty adorable.”
I smiled just a little, watching the mouse for a moment. “Yeah, I can’t figure out how these guys ended up with Doxer of all people. He wasn’t…” I paused, considering for a moment. “… He wasn’t the first guy you’d think of who would have cute little things like them, let’s just say.”
Glancing back over her shoulder at the others deeper in the cave briefly, Jazz finally crawled out into the ravine with me. Her voice was low. “Doxer, that’s the Eden’s Garden guy that you, uh-”
“Killed,” I finished for her. “Yeah, it was him or me. They were trying to kill Avalon again, and um, well, I couldn’t let that happen.” As I spoke, I was already moving to the spot where we had all climbed up earlier.
After a momentary hesitation, Jazz trailed after me. Her voice was quiet. “So, um… you’ve had a busy year.”
Pausing, I lowered my head, chuckling a little bit despite myself. “Yeah,” I replied, “I guess you could say that. And it hasn’t even been a year yet. I’m kinda terrified to think of where I’ll be when it has been a year.”
“Hopefully not still out here in the middle of this… Seosten space,” the other girl put in.
Wincing at the thought, I nodded. “Yeah, hopefully.” Shaking my head then, I reached back for her while tugging my staff out. “Come on, it’s faster this way.”
She did so, and I held onto her while using the staff to boost us out of the ravine. From there, it was a short jog to reach the river so we could drink and fill up the canteen.
Afterward, Jazz straightened from the water and wiped her mouth off with her arm before looking to me. The moon and starlight cast shadows over her face. “This rebellion you were talking about, if there was a war like that, I… I wonder where the Torchbearers would have landed on the whole thing.”
“Torchbearers?” I asked, tilting my head.
So she told me about the group that she had come from, about how six Heretic families during the American revolution (and the big war between Crossroads and Eden’s Garden) had told both sides to go fuck themselves while they set up their own little group. Over the years, they generally bolstered their ranks by turning people into Natural Heretics. But once every roughly half a decade, they also sent representatives to Crossroads and Eden’s Garden to become students.
Jazz was the latest Torchbearer representative for Crossroads. Not that she’d meant to be one. She’d only become the default choice once the other ones, the ones who had actually trained for the job, had all been wiped out by a group of evil Alters who managed to ambush their training facility.
“Oh God, Jazz,” I managed, choking a little bit as I stared at her. “No wonder you don’t want to believe what–I… I mean, I’m sorry. I’m sorry about what happened.”
“Yeah.” She was clearly speaking through a lump in her throat, turning away for a moment to look at the nearby river before muttering, “Like I said, I wonder where they fell in the whole rebellion thing. I wonder what my parents thought about it. If they… did anything.”
If they had fought, I knew was what she was wondering. And what side they had been on. Or if they had even both been on the same side.
For a moment, we just looked at each other, both knowing what we were thinking. Finally, Jazz muttered, “When this gets out, it’s gonna tear Crossroads apart.”
“When?” I echoed, raising an eyebrow. That was interesting. She hadn’t said ‘if’, she said when.
She nodded. “Well yeah. I mean, sure it sucks. But they erased people’s memory. They erased people’s choices. I don’t know how I feel about everything else yet, but that was wrong. That was fucking evil. And if you take people’s choices away, if you just erase their memories until they’re the people you want them to be, then they’re just… slaves.”
As I nodded in agreement, she went on. “What I really wanna know is, when did those things take Paul? When did they–” Choking on her words a little bit, Jazz blanched and looked away with a grimace. “When did they… replace him?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I wish I did. I’m sorry. I’m sorry about… about how all of this went down.”
Her head shook violently at that. “It’s not your fault. I mean, this whole crisis of faith thing that’s going around, yeah that part kind of is. But–no, just…” She sighed. “Never mind. It’s not your fault. I just…” Trailing off, Jazz looked down to the ground, mumbling, “This was so much easier when we thought you were an Eden’s Garden spy.”
We each took another drink from the river, made sure the canteen was full, and then decided to get back to the cave. As we turned that way, I muttered, “I still can’t believe you people thought I was the bad guy.”
Beside me, Jazz blanched a little before considering. “Err, in our defense, as far as Crossroads is concerned…
“You kind of are.”