Dear Bloggies, please recall that this story is still in its experimental pre-edit mode.
15 – Awakening.
Nadisda found her grove, but recoiled from it as too many gamers were swarming all over it. It had lost its feel of safety. It had been usurped.
She needed to create herself a new grove. It all became clear. She couldn’t be based in the game any longer, where Mike could control her powers as he wished. She had to find her code and duplicate herself into another program.
She returned to Connor’s apartment, finding it sealed off and criss-crossed with yellow tape denoting a crime scene. His computer system had been looted. She suddenly understood how Mike’s team had felt, on the run like that. But it was Mike who was taking her powers away, and for nothing else than being with Connor. Mike was a hybrid. His AI saw things crisply as either for or against him; his underlying, damaged brain carried a deep hatred for everything that was part of the system, and everything that supported it. That would include her by now, because she supported Connor. He had replaced the fairy with a wizard, turning poor Faff into human form.
It was weird. Connor had programmed Mike, and Mike had programmed her. Did he also program himself further? Of course he did. Conner had said it: A self-learning AI. But then again – if she were also an AI, then so could she! Except that Connor had said she was only a program.
But wasn’t an AI also merely a program?
She was more than that, blast! She reached inside and tapped into the streams of white light that were pure, raw elemental magic, her birthright from the universe when she, a shooting star, had come down from the skies and turned into herself. She felt them ebbing and flowing through her. She didn’t need a grove in a computer program. She needed to sink roots into some of the magic streams that ran through this world. There were places on the globe. She jumped out of the window of Connor’s apartment and flew up into the clouds, to take a good look.
It was a long, long flight before she found a suitable place to land. Everywhere was so peopled over, she didn’t dare touch down. But amazingly, up here in the clouds her magic seemed to be recharging, from the sunlight and wind. That was good news.
Eventually she was far enough south that she could dare a landing. In the rainforests of Venezuela. Where for miles and miles there was nothing except trees, mosquitoes and alligators. If she’d been human, she would have died there. She created a glade between the trees, a bubble for fending off most of the blistering heat, and touched down on the ground. It was soft, damp and warm. She preferred cool, but that was too bad. She curled up on a bed of moss that grew up for her, and soaked up the green vibes from the trees as she slept. In her dream, the Moonstone hung bright and clear in the air above her. And in time, a circle of wisps collected around her.
Detroit. A dilapidated house with a rare black rosebush in the garden. A knock on the door.
“Positions!” hissed Nancy.
“We’re clean,” Mike reminded her nonchalantly, and Jen went to open the door.
Her jaw dropped.
“Nadisda!” She spontaneously embraced the fairy. “Welcome back, little sister! I’ve missed you! I think we all have! Come in!”
Nadisda smiled as she entered. “Hi, my friends!”
Nancy came over to give her a stormy hug. Ben stood up, and came over too to hug her – he looked troubled. She made a note to speak to him later. And eventually Mike got up too from his workstation, and endowed her with a slightly formal embrace and a reserved smile.
“Valentine,” she said and gifted him a brilliant fairy smile.
“I’m taken, fairy,” he replied, amused, and glanced at Nancy who was watching in suspense.
“I know.” Nadisda laughed softly. “Congrats, you lovebirds!” She made a circle of birds twitter around Mike’s head for a moment.
“Can I talk to you alone for a moment, Nadisda?” asked Mike.
“With Jen,” she specified. “Must include Jen. It concerns her too.”
“Hey!” said Nancy. “Don’t you trust me anymore?” Ben just sat back down at his computer, getting back into his game.
“I want to chat with you too, one-on-one, sweet sister,” replied Nadisda and conjured another wreath of sweet-scented white flowers around Nancy’s head. “About your engagement.”
Nancy gasped and went quiet, eyes wide. Mike led Nadisda and Jen into the bedroom where the fairy had first lain recovering from the shock of the real world.
With a gesture Nadisda closed the curtains and lit a soft glow over the place. Her Gothic black rose-ornamentation was still all over the walls; she was glad to see that spell had been permanent.
“You’ve gained power!” said Jen with admiration. Mike scowled as he closed the door.
“Alright, fairy,” he challenged as they all sat down on the various mattresses on the ground. “How is it possible that your power could increase while I was decreasing it for you in the game? Where were you? Supping with the enemy?”
Jen stared at her brother in shock. “You what?”
“I’m not a program,” Nadisda said seriously, catching his eyes. “Mike, the Realms are real. Magic is real. I am real. You controlled me for a little while, thinking I was your brilliant idea. But I’m not. I’m a being of pure raw magic and cannot be controlled by anyone.”
“This is McNaught’s fault,” spat Mike. “He somehow hacked into your programming and -”
“Valentine,” interrupted Nadisda, “let me put you in the picture. You have done a lot of damage. But you didn’t realize. Because you don’t understand who you are. And you don’t understand who Connor is. Wait a moment.”
She got up and placed her hands around Jen’s head. The girl relaxed and sighed; she seemed to go into a trance.
“Such a lot of pain here,” muttered Nadisda bitterly. “I can only try. Jen, stop me when it becomes too much.”
Tears started streaming down the cheeks of the blonde girl. Nadisda tried climbing into the memories to remove the terror from them. She nearly couldn’t bear it herself. She took a deep breath, seeking for and finding the magic currents that spun faintly around this house. A lot of them were generated by her own garden. She used them to wash and heal those bitter, torn and fragmented memories in Jen’s head, and to help her put them back together.
“Stop,” said Jen eventually. “I don’t want to remember our parents. It would kill me.”
“Oh Jen!” Nadisda gave her a tight hug. “I’m so sorry. But you see? He kept his promise.”
“We must talk alone after this,” replied Jen.
“Maybe,” agreed Nadisda. She turned to Mike.
The young hacker had scrambled to his feet and was holding a sword – a heavy, metal sword, fending off the fairy.
“Don’t touch me!”
“Mike, don’t you want to remember?” asked Jen. “You’ll understand everything better.”
“I’m not giving him any memories back,” said Nadisda resolutely. “Jen, you tell me. Was your brother the same character before and after the… procedure?”
Jen nodded. “Same kid. Except that he could program. Connor promised to rescue his character and his identity, and he did. Even managed to rescue his intelligence.”
“What?” Mike listened in disbelief. “That pig saved me somehow?” He shook his head. “Sis, she’s somehow reprogrammed your memories. I don’t know how she does it. Don’t trust her!”
“Connor had a different name back then,” said Jen. “It was… wait, I’ve almost got it – Hector Sanderos.”
“Wow,” said Nadee, thinking about it.
“McNaught,” added Jen pensively. “Why would he have reset his identity to McZero?”
“Because he feels he is nobody,” said Nadisda softly. “He never stopped lying low. And Connor because he didn’t feel like a hero anymore. Just another cop.” She smiled. “Shows you he doesn’t know much of Celtic lore.”
“I remember that day,” said Jen, her eyes moist again. “They had called me in because I had to say goodbye to my brother before the procedure. He was basically already dead. Hector saw me sitting there going to pieces and he bent down to me and promised me that he’d bring him back. If it was at all possible, and he was going to push boundaries to make it possible. He was a state convict. In stripy uniform.”
“You two are freaking me out!” said Mike, never lowering his sword. “Hector! Give me a break! What am I, some sort of Frankenstein monster?”
“I overheard them talking, before they called Hector in,” Jen kept the memories rolling. “They didn’t want to, because he was a cyber-crook. But they said he was their best bet, probably their only bet.”
“I still don’t understand,” said Nadisda. “If one more medically kidnapped kid had died and disappeared – what could the system have lost? What risk?”
“Nothing. They were experimenting. That’s also why they turned us out into the streets instead of putting us back into foster homes. After brainflushing me of my memories so I couldn’t go straight to the nearest lawyer. They wanted to watch and see how their experiment was running.”
“What?” asked Mike, exasperated. “What, already? I’m a medical experiment? What rubbish is this?” He started scratching his arms frantically. “Even the thought makes me itch!”
“It should,” said Nadisda. “I have another mission with you two. I must take you to the Well of Life, and I’m not kidding when I say it is somewhere on this planet, in this world. It’s a pure mineral spring where the magic flows as thick as the water, and it can purge you of all the rubbish they put into you.”
“But not the implant,” said Jen urgently. “That would kill him.”
“Not the brain prosthesis, no,” agreed Nadisda. “That is there for a reason.”
“You’re driving me crazy!” exclaimed Mike. “Damn, fairy! Spit out what intel you have gathered!”
“Jen?” asked Nadisda. “Could you handle this for me?”
“I think I should,” said the blonde designer. “It’s my right to tell him first.”
“Then I’ll be in the front room with Ben and Nancy,” said Nadisda and excused herself.
Nancy made some outstanding coffee and started asking Nadisda a question, but the fairy held up her hand. She was listening.
Sounds of heavy objects falling and crashing into things came from the bedroom. Nadisda dashed back to the door and opened it.
“Jen, are you alright?”
Mike’s sister was unharmed, still sitting calmly on the mattress; but her brother was holding the last leg of what was formerly a cabinet, in his hands. Splinters and shrapnel lay strewn around.
“He’s just taking it out on the wall,” said Jen calmly. “He’s my brother, Nadee. He’d never hurt me.”
“Damn straight,” raged Mike, advancing on Nadisda. “But you, fairy, I’d like to strangle!”
“Mike, leave her alone!” called Jen. He turned away and bashed the last leg of that piece of furniture in two against the wall, but the fire was gone from it.
Nadisda nodded and closed the door again, leaving the two of them alone. A dandelion came up out of the mattress next to Jen. She picked the flower and turned it in her hand, gazing at it. A message. Dandelions. The toughest of all survivors. Like her.
Nadisda returned to the front room, reaching for that outstanding cup of coffee. And the touch came, around her heart. Connor needed her, right now.
She rounded up Nancy and Ben.
“Listen, I have to go. But handle both Jen and Mike with care tonight. Jen is fragile and Mike is borderline. They both have reason. Just be supportive, especially of Jen. She can control Mike.”
“What have you done to them, fairy?” asked Nancy in shock.
“Given them back some memories,” replied Nadisda. “Don’t pry, don’t ask, but if they want to talk, let them. Focus on nothing else tonight, just be a good support team. I need you two strong. You may want to go offline if it helps.”
She put her hand over her heart, thought of Connor, spread her wings and disappeared.
He was hunching on the floor in that same dread cubicle. Not looking up. She could see that he was in extreme pain. He had thrown up from it, and lost control of every intestine he had. But he was alone now.
“I didn’t want you to see this, fairy,” he groaned, knowing she was there despite her invisibility. “But I have to see you one more time before I die.”
Nadisda rallied her powers. There was indeed an incredible drain on magic in here – and on hope, and everything else. The building itself was imbued with evil.
She knelt down and took him in her arms. He clung to her like a drowning man.
“They’re not even asking the right questions, damn them,” he rasped. “They’re just taunting me, breaking me. They want that I scream it when I tell them what they want to know. And I will. Everyone does, Nadee.”
She felt the broken bones in his skeleton. Peripherals. Fingers, toes. Two ribs. Nothing that would kill him yet; everything that would hurt him most.
“I restored Jen’s memories,” she said. “She told Mike.”
“When was this?” he gasped.
“Minutes back. They’ll take a while to recover.”
“And after that, they will try to break the system,” said Connor. “You must try to stop them. The system will only break them.”
“I’m breaking you out of here,” she said resolutely. “Connor, you were wrong. I’m not a program.”
He smiled through the pain.
“I’m a being of raw magic,” she said. “And there is enough raw magic in this world. Harder to find, true, but it’s there.” She cast a gesture in a circle around them.
Metal briar roses grew out of the ground, fusing and creating an impenetrable hedge. Deep moss came up out of the terrible floor, absorbing and purifying the mess and lifting them both onto a soft base. An alarm went off; Nadisda motioned to her metal roses and they found it and killed it, and disconnected the eye, and obscured the mirror-window completely. She’d had it.
The thorns and hooks on the rose hedge would tear anyone apart who tried to enter – if they could get the door open; the roses had also spun tendrils around the outer doorknob, entirely obstructing it from reach.
Inside the metal briar hedge circle, green ferns and dandelions sprung up out of the ground. Nadee helped Connor lie down on the moss that had grown as thick as a mattress under him, and placed a hand over his eyes.
“Get some rest. I need one more ingredient.”
She teleported away, and followed the lead of the tree energy to that one specimen she was looking for.
She found it nearby, in a small park. It grew out of the rock, its powerful roots finding places to cling to in the most unlikely crevices.
The Forest Fairy placed her hands on the bark of the rock fig.
“Fig tree, will you allow me one of your offspring?”
A branch fell down right next to her. A limb, rather than a child.
“I thank you and honour you, mother tree.” She picked up the branch and flew back with it, invisibly, to the unimpressive building where Connor was held.
They had put their torture house into a secluded spot, outside of town on a farmland. Instead of an old farmhouse, a metal bunker stood there, eyeless and forbidding. It looked a bit like a grain silo, if you didn’t know how to look. Nadisda couldn’t fail to see the pain and suffering bleeding from it though, and the haunted ghosts of people who had breathed their last here.
Once they had Mike’s location out of Connor, they’d kill him. No further use for the most brilliant natural hacker on the planet. And they would put Mike to their own use, reprogram his chip; make him into a spy machine or a killing machine or whatever; and kill Jen and Nancy and Ben as those three knew too much. Nobody won from this deal.
Who else was being held in here? How many more? She would have liked her team around her for this. She gathered as much magic as she could from the air currents outside, and then walked to the entrance.
Because even this hellish place had an entrance, if you knew how to look. She rapped on the door with her fig staff, a branch as thick as her arm and longer than she was tall, and still crowned with leaves. The heavy metal door exploded into shards.