It had been disconcerting for Claire to wake up back in the bed in the apartment in Horton City, Pennsylvania, that she had occupied for several months before traveling to Vancouver with Ally and Evelynne. At that time she had been sharing the room with Corey, but now upon her return she had had the room to herself. In fact, for the first few days she had been left almost completely alone, as her friend had been busy for over sixteen hours a day in his new role as Assistant Manager of the grocery store where he worked. It might have been an unimpressive achievement to many, but considering that Corey had been born with the name Gloria Amelia Martin, this was a huge step for a town he had once referred to as "painfully whitebread."
In fact, the changes Corey had undergone just in the few months Claire had been away had been disconcerting in themselves. Before Ally and Evelynne had left, they had sublet their apartment to Corey indefinitely for the grand sum of a dollar a year, and the young man had obviously taken advantage of the lack of need for rent money to accelerate his personal transformation. He was putting on muscle mass, and while he would never be anything even resembling buff, his shoulders were subtly broader, and he was painstakingly tending to a bare hint of hair on his upper lip. He was still as flamboyantly gay as he had ever been, still as drawn to Hawaiian shirts and pants in garish colours.
Claire had spent the first few days sleeping and resetting her internal clock to Eastern Standard Time. The last few weeks had seen two drastic time zone changes, and her body was finally getting the rest it needed.
Now, on the first evening that Corey had free, she was recounting the events that had followed her departure from Horton City. She had just got to the morning after Ally's psychological wounds had been healed in a Native sweat lodge ceremony when Corey focussed with unerring accuracy on what he considered the most important event.
"What a minute. You're saying she kissed you?"
Claire sighed. She should have known better that to bring up that subject to as natural a scandal-hound as her friend. "It wasn't a big deal," she said, trying to play down the incident. "It was sort of a 'thank you' for helping."
"But she did kiss you. On the lips?" Claire nodded reluctantly; Corey could always instantly tell if she was lying. "Details, girlfriend! Pressure, duration… Was there tongue?"
Another sigh. "No, there was no tongue. Come on, she's just a friend."
"So what did Sophia say? Or I should say Evelynne. They are engaged, in case you've forgotten."
Claire squirmed. "I haven't forgotten, and Evy was fine." Her next words devolved into an almost incomprehensible mumble.
"Excuse me? She kissed you, too?" The young man hooted, pumping his fist in the air. "You go, Claire! You got kissed by Princess Evelynne of Atlantis and her lover. Wait 'til CNN finds out!"
"Corey, come on," Claire said pleadingly. "They're just my friends. It was a really emotional time."
Seeing how serious his friend was, Corey relented. "Okay, okay." He peered at her. "They still don't know you're in love with both of them, do they?"
"Good God, no!" Claire exclaimed, panicked. She calmed a little. "I'm pretty sure Ally knows I find Evy attractive, and that Evy knows I find Ally attractive, but that's as far as it goes. I think they both think of me as something like a sister. Actually, that's kind of how Evy introduced me to her father."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa! You met her father? King Jad of Atlantis? That father?"
"As far as I know, she only has one," Claire commented dryly. "I also met her aunt, and Ally's father. They were all really nice people. I didn't see Ally's mom much, though. She was still pretty out of it."
That sobered Corey quickly. For all his irreverence, he was still a very compassionate human being. "Damn, I heard about that. How's she doing?"
"She lost her leg," Claire said quietly. "She might lose her eye. Ally was pretty devastated, but from what I heard, the docs said she'd pull through."
"That's good," Corey said. There was silence for a few moments. "So what are you doing back? Not that I'm not glad to see you, but I didn't think you'd want to leave your girlfriends."
"They are not my…" Claire began with exasperation. "Oh, to hell with it. I'll actually be going back in a month or so, probably. There was concern that someone might see me and link me, and therefore Ally and Evy, back here. Somehow I don't think the President would be too happy to learn that one of his greatest rivals was living and working, illegally no less, right in the heart of the
"That's good," Corey admitted. "And you know I'll back you up if anyone asks about when you 'applied.' So, you're serious about going to live in Atlantis permanently? Don't kid yourself, that's what it's going to be."
"I am," Claire said simply. "Apart from you, what do I have to keep me in this place?"
"I know. I just want to make sure you're not going just because of how you feel for Ally and Evelynne."
"They're my friends," Claire said, "but no, they're not the only reason. Apparently when I finish this Page assignment, I'll be awarded Permanent Inhabitant status, and I'll be on track for Atlantlan citizenship. Trust me, there are worse places to be a citizen. Free medical care, free University education, guaranteed housing, and only a one per cent unemployment rate." She shrugged. "In return, I have to obey the Constitution and the Ithikan Compact."
"I still don't get how the Ithikan Compact works."
Claire was hardly an expert, but she had read up on the subject. "Well, their Constitution is basically like ours, in that it gives the framework within which laws can be passed. The Compact essentially spells out the rights and responsibilities of both the Nobility and Commoners. Like, the Nobles have to ensure enough food and shelter for everyone who can't otherwise afford it, or they can be deposed, and citizens must vote in Advisory elections or lose their citizenship. That's just a couple of parts, so there are a lot more."
Corey frowned. "So you mean you have to vote there? That's a little weird, don't you think?"
"I thought so at first, too, but then I thought about it and it actually makes sense. When they were hammering out the agreement, the commoners demanded the right to elect Advisory Councils to balance the Nobility. The Nobles said, 'Fine, but if you want the right you also have to take the responsibility. We don't want a bunch of idiots who didn't bother voting complaining about what their Advisory Councils are doing.' So voting is mandatory. I think there are exceptions if voting is against your moral or religious values, like for Jehovah's Witnesses, but even then you have to register your exemption with the government. And if you're sick or wounded or something you can get a deferral, but you need a doctor's note or something."
"You know, I think I read something about
"Not in Atlantl. You don't vote and don't have good reason, and you lose your citizenship. And with it go the free hospitals, school and whatnot."
"Now there's incentive for you."
"… sudden turn of events, Princess Evelynne deMolay and Lady Alleandre Tretiak flew into Jamaz Intercontinental Airport this morning with very little warning. It has been widely speculated for the last few days that Lady Tretiak, the British Columbia native who shocked the world earlier this year by becoming engaged to the Crown Princess of the Realm of Atlantis, would return in response to the deadly attack on her mother's research vessel last week. While the couple arrived in Jamaz today, the Atlantean government refused to confirm the actual time and method of arrival in the Realm itself, citing security concerns. Lady Tretiak had little to say, but…"
"They're getting the titles wrong."
Detective Oliver Marchant absently looked up at his wife's comment from where he was poring over a stack of spreadsheets at the dining room table. "What was that, dear?"
"They're getting the titles wrong," Valerie Marchant repeated, waving at the television screen from her comfortable seat. "By Atlantlan custom, one's title should be followed by one's first name, not the last. They should be calling her 'Lady Alleandre,' or 'Dame Alleandre.' Or, to be fully accurate, 'Lady Dame Alleandre.' Not 'Lady Tretiak.'"
"So has Channel Eight News just sparked a war?" Oliver asked amusedly. His wife was a Professor of History and Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, and her students quickly learned, sometimes painfully, that she was obsessed with accurate detail.
Valerie scowled at him with mock severity, an expression that could terrify anyone who couldn't recognise the good nature behind it. "I don't think so. Atlantis, at least, is a civilised nation. I suspect that they'll be quite easily appeased with the head of whatever idiot wrote that reporter's copy."
"Well, I certainly hope so, dear," Oliver said, leaning back in his chair to see the footage that LANTA had generously released to other news outlets around the world. "Just as long as they don't—" The camera, which had been focussed on Princess Evelynne and Lady Alleandre, focussed in for a close-up of the Princess' Consort, whose eyes flashed at it with a piercing gaze before shifting away.
"Her who?" Valerie asked, looking at her transfixed husband quizzically.
He shook himself, but his stare remained locked on the screen. "Pardon?"
"You said, 'It's her.' Her who? Lady Alleandre?"
"Yes. She's the Lady in the Shadows."
About two months previously, Detective Marchant had happened to come across a cloaked figure during a raid on a ship suspected of carrying illegal drugs into Vancouver. The person had easily subdued an armed suspect who had been trying to escape, and revealed a strength and agility that could only be described as unnatural. After leaping thirty feet into the air and disappearing, the Lady in the Shadows—an epithet bestowed by a few Vancouver cops upon a mysterious informant a few years before—had summoned Marchant to a rooftop high above the city for a more face-to-face meeting… so to speak. The Detective had never actually seen her face, covered as it was by a deep hood, and the Lady's voice had been disguised with a distorter, but the meeting had still been enlightening, if that wasn't too ironic a word. It had been a scene right out of a comic book, right up to the point where the Lady in the Shadows had literally flown off into the night.
"What, Lady Alleandre is the Lady in the Shadows? Are you sure?" Oliver's wife's voice shook him out of his stupor.
She hadn't asked him if he was crazy, he noted, which was telling. She had certainly been concerned for his mental state when he had described that night-time rendezvous with the Lady, but eventually he had convinced her that something real had happened. So far, she was the only one he had told.
"Well…" He hesitated. "I'm not positive, but…" The clip of the Princess' and Consort's arrival wasn't very long, but in good journalistic tradition Channel Eight News was recycling it for all it was worth. Once again the camera went in for a close-up, and once again piercing grey eyes drove right through and into Oliver's brain. "Yeah, I'm pretty sure."
"Well… How old is she now? Twenty? Twenty-one? And she graduated, what, a couple of years ago? You figured the Lady in the Shadows—and I still think that's far too dramatic a name, by the way—you figured she went to university for four years. That would make her fifteen or sixteen when she began."
Oliver nodded. "And the Lady showed up about five or six years ago, as far as I can tell," he mused. "And she left about two years ago."
Valerie had snatched up her laptop, which was never far from her hands, and was typing search terms into an engine. A plethora of websites had sprung up surrounding the latest most famous Canadian, something which, on consideration must be more than a little worrying to someone with as much to hide as Lady Alleandre Tretiak. Hmm. Pamela Anderson is from Parksville, too, Oliver mused distractedly. Maybe it's something in the water.
A few clicks later, his wife murmured, "Graduated two years ago, Physics Honours… Managed to cut a semester off by stacking courses. Smart one. And… yes, enrolled at sixteen." She read some more "The timing works out about right," she said finally. "I don't know for sure, but it doesn't look like she had any student loans."
"CrimeStoppers paid for a lot of it," Oliver said wryly. "Something I consider a very worthwhile investment, by the way."
"So that's Vancouver's very own superhero," Valerie said speculatively, watching the screen, where past footage of Alleandre Tretiak and Evelynne deMolay was still showing. "I suppose I can see it," she said reluctantly. "Sort of a dark, brooding, Batman type."
"You have no idea." There was silence for a few moments, as Oliver watched Lady Alleandre's speech and movement, mentally matching it to the dark, almost sensuous movements of the Lady in the Shadows. "You know, if I'm right, she's been doing this kind of thing since at least sixteen." The Detective glanced at his wife. "At sixteen, the most important thing I ever did was buy an all-terrain vehicle. I thought that was pretty impressive at the time."
"Since before then. In grade ten she pulled four students and a teacher out of a burning high school science lab."
"You think that's when she got her… powers?"
Valerie glared at him witheringly. "Now I know you're not that stupid. The only thing bizarre chemicals and radiation gets you in the real world is death. A radioactive spider bites you and you pray the worst thing that happens is a rash."
There was quiet for a few more minutes, until the news program had finally met the limits of the public's three-minute attention span and started in on the latest doom and gloom from around the world.
"So what are you going to do?" Valerie asked.
"I have absolutely no idea."
The Royal Country House to which Ally and Evelynne had travelled, along with their retinue, was so named with typical aristocratic understatement. It was actually a set of buildings which even collectively were smaller than the Summer Palace, to be sure, and much smaller than the Royal Palace in Jamaz, but just meant the smallest was more a mansion than a castle. Unusually for Atlantl, it displayed a very British style, without the Arabic and Mayan influences that were found in most of the Realm's architecture. It had been built only two centuries before by the reigning King of the time as a gift for his new Queen, who had been minor nobility in
None of the discontinuity had bothered Ally in the slightest, as she had focussed almost exclusively on the huge, hedonistically comfortable bed in the room she and Evelynne were occupying. A night spent beside her fiancée in utter exhausted sleep had been followed by a morning of much more energetic pursuits, and then another afternoon of sleep and relaxation, as months of tension and isolation slowly began to erode.
On the second morning after their arrival, Evelynne had disappeared into the part of the complex set aside for administration—no ruler was ever really on "vacation"—to take care of the massive bureaucracy involved with returning from the Geranin Protocol, leaving Ally at loose ends. Despite the furor of the past few days, it would take some time to make the preparations and set up the materiel that would allow her to take a more active role in the investigations. A preliminary meeting had been scheduled for two days hence, which would lay the groundwork for a team that would be able, hopefully, to make the best use of the unique talents Ally and her familiars could summon.
Currently, Ally was going over a report on what the Atlantlan government had been able to piece together of the movements of those who would become the Invaders, prior to the Invasion. It was quite remarkably detailed, but with the kind of clarity that only 20/20 hindsight could produce. At the time, the movements of thousands of itinerant labourers, tourists, and survivalist campers had seemed routine, unworthy of attention. Some intelligence had been gathered on them at the time as a matter of course, but the information had been of low priority. One of the intriguing aspects that the author of the report had picked up on was the suggestion that the more threatening data had been rerouted and suppressed in some way, pointing to someone with influence within Guard Intelligence itself. Ally could almost see the pattern the author was describing, but there was far too much information that required a deep familiarity with the intelligence community, something that the author obviously believed every reader would have.
It was with some relief, therefore, that she answered the knock on the door of the library where she had ensconced herself. The Master of her personal Guard detail, Colonel Nixon, entered when Ally called, looking as sharp and deadly as usual in her purple and green uniform, the rich gold triple triangle of her new rank glistening on her arm. In a matching uniform, but bearing the single silver triangle of a Sergeant, another one of her Guards accompanied the Colonel.
"Dicky, hi," Ally greeted, smiling. "Is everything okay?"
The Colonel visibly suppressed a long-suffering sigh at the familiar nickname. As the child of American refugees fleeing the McCarthy Persecutions and bearing such a notorious surname, it had been inevitable that she would be instantly assigned the moniker of Theodora "Dicky" Nixon the first day of her Guard training. "Everything is quite well, My Lady," she replied. "There are no emergencies. There is simply an issue that I felt should be brought to your attention, if you have the time."
Ally winced wryly. "I don't suppose you could just call me 'Ally' and leave the 'My Ladies' outside, huh?" she asked, knowing the answer even without touching Nixon's mind.
"No, My Lady," the Colonel said firmly, but with a twinkle in her eye, confirming Ally's guess.
"Well fine, then, Colonel," Ally said, repressively. "Just so long as you don't start calling me 'Ma'am.' You know I'll have to hurt you then." She didn't know what it was, but she and Nixon seemed to have developed a perfectly natural easy rapport with each other. It almost felt like gaining an older and insanely protective big sister. Ally's theory was that the psyche of each person had a "frequency" to it which interacted with the psyches of those around them on a totally unconscious level. Sometimes there was a dissonance between the two signals, leading to totally irrational discomfort and dislike, but equally there could be a resonance between the two auras, creating an instant appeal. Of course, further interaction could render the unconscious tendency irrelevant, turning an immediate antipathy into a friendship, or an attraction into repulsion. "And… Sergeant Gyrus, right?"
"Yes, My Lady," Gyrus replied, obviously just stopping himself from saluting. Tension and anxiety—oddly combined with exhilaration and awe—poured off the young man in waves that Ally didn't even need her empathic talents to read.
"Actually, it's Sergeant Gyrus whom I wish to discuss with you, My Lady," the Colonel explained.
"Oh. Okay. Please, sit down. There was actually something I was wanting to get your opinion on, but you go ahead."
"Thank you, My Lady," Nixon replied, and Gyrus murmured the same as they took their seats. On the surface their postures looked almost identical, but where Colonel Nixon was upright and alert, but otherwise relaxed, Sergeant Gyrus was ramrod straight, and Ally wondered whether it was because of her own supposedly lofty rank, or her status as an Adept.
"So what's going on?"
Nixon opened her mouth to speak and hesitated. "Perhaps Sergeant Gyrus can explain it to you better, My Lady."
Even though he remained admirably under control, it was clear that the Sergeant was squirming inside. "Er, yes, Ma'am. My Lady, after you left, I was… When you had left… After seeing what you…" Gyrus stumbled and stammered, until he finally gave up. "Ah, perhaps if I show you, My Lady?"
"Sure," Ally said, baffled.
Her confusion remained when the Sergeant placed a brand new one-talen coin on the coffee table in front of him. He focussed his attention on the coin, face furrowing in concentration, and understanding and growing excitement began to dawn in Ally's thoughts. She kept a very careful rein on her own abilities, not wanting to influence this experiment in any way, assuming what she guessed was true, but watched intently. There was dead silence for perhaps fifteen seconds, and then Gyrus' face abruptly relaxed, sweat beading on his forehead. At the same time, without any perceptible outside force, the coin moved a few centimetres to the side.
"Wow," Ally breathed, and Gyrus jerked slightly, as though he had almost forgotten that she was there. "That's impressive."
"Uh, thank you, My Lady," Gyrus said, blushing. "I'm afraid that's as far as I can move it, though."
"It's still more than most people can do," Ally murmured distractedly, picking up the coin and examining it intently.
"That's what I told the Sergeant when he first came to me with this, My Lady," Nixon agreed. "Since then I've had him practicing regularly."
"Oh?" Ally looked up. "Have you improved?"
"In a way, My Lady." Gyrus seemed to be more relaxed now that his secret was revealed. "I still can't move anything very far, and it still takes a long time, but I can do it almost every time I try now. In the beginning it was maybe one in five." He hesitated. "I'm not sure how much use only a few centimetres can be, My Lady."
"No? Believe me, things don't need to be big to be effective. Suppose you lose your keys? The tumblers in a lock only have to move a few millimetres. Or… I don't know, typing on a keyboard without touching it. I'm sure you devious security types can think up a few more things."
Nixon looked speculative, and Gyrus was clearly contemplating new possibilities. "You're right, My Lady," he said finally. "I, ah, I suppose we're just not used to considering things like this."
"Something we will have to rectify immediately," Nixon said. "Alright, Sergeant, you have another new duty. I want a report on all possible uses and adaptations for your ability."
"Yes, Ma'am!" Gyrus said with enthusiasm, and Ally laughed.
"Sergeant, I saw that you were concentrating, and concentrating, and then you suddenly… let go, and then the coin moved. Is that how is always works?"
"So far, My Lady. I seem to… build up the energy, and then let it all go all at once," Gyrus explained.
"Interesting. It seems to take a lot of effort," Ally mused.
"I suppose so, My Lady. Uh… is it difficult for you?" the Sergeant asked hesitantly.
"For me? No, not really," Ally replied, thinking back. "It used to be. I had to overcome my ingrained societal belief that what I was doing was 'impossible.' Now I suppose I know on a much more fundamental level that it is actually possible, so it's easier. Now I just wrap my mind around whatever I'm moving and… do it." She held up the coin between two fingers and then let go. The coin remained floating in the air, moving slightly as though bobbing on the air currents. "It's like moving an arm or a leg. We don't really have to think about that." The coin began making lazy figure eights in the air, while Nixon and Gyrus looked on, fascinated. Ally slowly lowered the coin to the table, balancing it perfectly on edge, and then took away her mind. It fell to the table, spinning. "Maybe it's like that for you," she continued, drawing the Sergeant's attention once more. "You have to concentrate really hard, convincing yourself that you really can do it. Then when you subconsciously believe, you relax and the rest of it becomes effortless. The difficult part is overcoming a few decades of ingrained disbelief."
"That makes sense, My Lady," Gyrus said, nodding slowly.
"It does," Ally agreed. She shrugged. "Then again, it could be how you described it the first time: building up the energy slowly and then releasing it all at once. Like blowing up a balloon and then popping it. Believe me, I've got lots of theories, but I know about as much as you do about the actual physics involved." She cocked her head at Gyrus, considering. "We could try an experiment. I could scan your mind while you try it again and see what I can sense. It's up to you, though. I won't go into your mind without your permission."
Once again, the half-excited, half-terrified expression was back. "Uh… if you think that will help, My Lady."
"Really, Sergeant, it's up to you. You have a few days to think about it, anyway." Ally scowled. "Evy's forbidden me from scanning anyone until next Monday, on pain of… Actually, never mind what it's on pain of. I had some… problems recently due to telepathic contact."
Gyrus showed admirable Guard disinterest in what might be going on in his charge's personal life. "I knew you were… ill, My Lady. I didn't know it was because of… that."
"I'm afraid so. It should actually be a warning to you, Sergeant. If you do decide to investigate this further, you should realise that there are precious few facts or signposts about abilities like these. Even I don't know what all the dangers might be, either in the short term or long term," Ally said seriously.
"I'm beginning to see that, My Lady." The Sergeant glanced at Colonel Nixon, who was letting him make up his own mind. "I think this is something I need to do, though."
"Believe me, I understand that need. Well, come back on Tuesday and we'll see what we can do. But feel free to ask me questions at any time."
"Thank you, My Lady. I'll do that."
"Good," Nixon approved. "Now, My Lady, you said you had something you wanted to discuss?"
"Oh yes. It's this idea I had, and I wanted to get your opinion…"