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Mtubi didn't seem to care whether I was dreaming or not, however. He showed up in my room sometime in the middle of the night, causing me to bury my face in the pillow to stifle a reflexive shriek. He started, then looked around and (although I couldn't be sure, given his complexion) seemed to blush. When he was sure I was sitting up and not screaming, he turned to me. "I'm very sorry. I don't have much experience in turning up in young ladies' bedrooms in the dead of night."

I stared back. If he wasn't, well, maybe two or three times my age, he might have been flirting with me. Oh, and if he hadn't stepped out of a silver circle in the air. "It's okay, I guess."

His eyes were covered, now, with what looked to be silver sunglasses. He kept looking around the room, although the darkness and mess didn't change between looks. I had the sudden inexplicable feeling that he wasn't looking at the room at all. "Carrie, can you come with me now, or should I come back later?"

"Are we going to speak with...with your people?"

He grinned again. "They're not...hmm. Very well, I suppose they are my people. Yes, we're going to speak with them."

I swallowed. "Um, do I need to, you know..." He didn't, apparently; he cocked his sunglasses at me somewhat quizzically. My half-formed fears of faerie curses, spells and ritual fled, leaving tatters of sheepish haste. "...never mind." I stood up. He quickly turned away, and I laughed. "I'm dressed, officer."

"Did you know I'd come back tonight?"

"No. Did you?"

"No," he admitted. "I found them sooner than I thought." He extended a hand. When I waited for the magic, he shook his head. "Take my hand."

I looked at him for a second. He offered the hand again. Wishing I knew if this was a good or bad idea, I took it; he looked away and slightly down, his head moving slightly as when watching something pass. Then he turned to me quickly, and those white teeth flashed as he said "Hold on."

That was all he had time for-

walls falling backwards in impossible cardhouse panes of even more impossible dance steps, barely time to notice them for the shining of the Light and the Thunder that lay behind it in the dancing turning whirling brightwhite glare of the rush. His arm went around my waist, I felt, I felt I felt I felt the heat and cold of the microwave chatter in the air around me, conversations of man and machine spiking my body with fastmoving quanta and polychromatic rills of song and silence. There was an unfathomable jerk to the side, my ribs felt crushed, if I still had ribs and not the bands of light and color than were even now cooking beneath my skin in the whistling whitenoise blare that was, I realized, the sound of air rushing past my head and ears at some insane velocity, and I turned my head to face the direction of my(our?) travel only to see a glaring whiteness ring of familiarity that just had time to register on my mind before-

-it all stopped-

-and the face was there in the silence. It looked different; more like a person, but with angles and planes that no person's face had ever had. It had eyes but no pupils, which had the strange effect of making the feeling that they were following you even more pronounced, even though I had to squint through the glare to see the featureless convex stone of the imaginary corneas.

carrie

The voice was as powerful and silent as I'd remembered.

Yes!

carrie hello affirm

It hadn't gotten more understandable, though. Hello. Um...

carrie listen hear affirm

Uh, yes, I can hear you...?

negative hear hear hear affirm

Oh. Yes, yes I will.

companion is guardian companion is guardian hear query

I'm with guardian?

affirm

I could swear it sounded relieved. Okay.

relay relay relay guardian carrie

I lost the thread. He should tell me?

negative repeat relay carrie guardian

I tell him, okay.

affirm message guardian follows (pause) carrie speaker carrie speaker

I'm the...the speaker? Speaker for... -but too late, the wall was dimming in spreading patches and the face was receding, its angles and planes no more than bumps and ridges in the light, tricks of shadow, fading, pooling, gone.

SLAM

I heard Mtubi grunt, somewhere near my shoulder, and then there was an amazing scraping noise and the feel of small impacts (through his body, I realized, for he was holding me) and then we suddenly began to roll, slowing, before we stopped. As soon as we had, he released me and must have jumped up, for he was pulling me to my feet a half-second later. I shook hair from my eyes and blinked, trying to see where we were, although from the smell and the colors I knew we were back in the Tunnels, back somewhere in the immensity of Transit. There was silence around us, except for the small patting noises that were probably Mtubi trying to straighten his poor abused trench coat; that's probably why the voice caught me by surprise, and I fell.

"Guardian, well met." It was a woman's voice, with humor in it, and Mtubi snapped his head around - hah, got you too, 'Guardian' - before the familiar grin flashed out.

"Well met, Marren. Shan." I blinked, because yup, there were two figures out there. Both were dressed in leathers, and the taller one (Shan?) had a much sleeker set of shades than Mtubi - especially because, now that I looked, the latter appeared to have lost his. His eyes crinkled with the grin. "This is Carrie."

Both of the others stepped forward out of the shadows of the tunnel's edge, into the slight light of the Ring which towered over us. The taller one was a guy; his features knife-sharp but kind, even with the silver arc covering his eyes. The shorter, Marren, was a slim woman with a piercing gaze. There was a flash of silver about her head as well; it took a moment to realize that there was a bar of silver that ran from one earlobe behind her head to the other. It looked nice, actually. They were looking at me.

That's always been a bad moment in any of my relationships. I felt the blush coming but couldn't stop it; knew the words but couldn't say them. I mumbled something and dragged a toe. A hand grasped my chin, to my surprise, and gently pulled my face back up. The rising apprehension this caused faded when I looked into the pool of silver surrounding Shan's face. He was grinning, and when I looked up, he removed his hand. I had time to see a pattern of monochrome tattoos on the back of it before he tucked it back behind his back and nodded to me, once.

I nodded back. What else could I do?

Shan looked at Mtubi, who looked at Marren, who then looked at me. This was getting on my already-frayed nerves. "Um, is someone going to tell me what's going on?"

Mtubi laughed, clapped me on the shoulder (more shock; men didn't do that to girls) and shook his head as he removed his trench coat and began looking for somewhere to hang it. Shan watched him with what looked like affectionate amusement for a moment, then raised his hand to a silver glare on the wall. That faded, leaving- a hook. Which Mtubi hung his coat on, flashing another grin at Shan.

A hand settled on my arm. It was Marren. She was looking at me fairly carefully, and led me over to the side of the space we were in. I had thought it was a tunnel, but I was wrong; there was only the one Ring in the chamber. The chamber was oblong, apparently a blocked-off section of Web; the notion that it was abandoned was dispelled by the bright glow of status lights coming from the Ring as it sat placidly in the center. I peered at it, curious; there seemed to be many more lights than were usual on it, of all colors. I could see the same status panel that had winked from the one Lain had climbed, but it was nearly drowned out by the dense pattern of lights that speckled the lower support structure of the Ring.

Marren, still watching my face, changed course to lead me to the Ring. I realized as we drew nearer that the lights were not, in fact, built into the Ring; rather, they were amorphous spots of luminescence which pulsed softly, some slow, some fast, in various colors. Some were larger; some were cycling colors, and some were winking in changing shapes. I reached out to one particularly bright one, fascinated, and Marren drew in a small breath. I turned to her, curious.

"Carrie, what are you looking at?"

"Why, the lights, they're...they're really beautiful."

"What do the lights look like?"

I stared at her for a moment, confused. "Can't you see them?"

She smiled slightly. "Yes, hon, I can, but I wanted to know how you saw them."

"Oh. Um, there's lots of them...they're all sorts of colors..."

"Were you reaching for a particular one?"

"Yes, that one, there, the bright one." I moved my hand back to the Ring. Something made me stop my fingertip just above the surface of the flickering light. I turned to Marren again, and saw that she was grinning. The change in her face was astonishing.

"Excellent. Cool." The two words sounded entirely mismatched, coming from her, and she laughed out loud, apparently delighted. Shan and Mtubi, who had been quietly chatting near the wall amidst muffled flickers of light and color, moved to join us. Shan was smiling; Mtubi looked frankly fascinated. Marren beckoned them, and turned back to me. "Carrie - may I call you Carrie? Thank you - could you point out all the lights you see in this area?" She moved her hand across a circle perhaps a meter in diameter, centered on my first bright light.

I looked at the Ring's surface. "Well, there's probably, um, like a couple of hundred..." I broke off, because I could feel the other two perk up. Mtubi's interest was matter-of-fact, curious; Shan's was intense. He swung his unreadable glasses from Marren back to me, then back to Marren, who appeared to be listening to him in a silent sideband far off.

"That's okay. Just show us a few."

I shrugged. Moving my fingers from one to another, I softly spoke their colors out loud. "Magenta. Pink. Green. Dark blue. Silver. Silver. White? Maybe pale, pale yellow..." I stopped as Marren laughed, hugging Shan. Shan hugged her back, and reached out a hand to me, waiting. I tentatively put my hand in his, and he felt carefully all around my fingers. It was unnerving, in a way; although tender, and definitely affectionate, it almost certainly wasn't sexual - although, I thought, it's hard to know if I could even tell that - but felt more like he was carefully examining my hand for defects. After a few moments, he moved my fingertip closer to the Ring. I understood he wanted me to touch it, but I suddenly didn't want to. I wasn't sure if it was because I would disturb the lighted areas already nestled among each other on its surface, or if I was just apprehensive about touching such a strange phenomenon. Either way, though, he let go, to show me that I wouldn't be forced. I looked at them looking at me, then shrugged inside.

I placed my right forefinger gently but firmly on the surface of the Ring, as if - I looked quickly at Detective Sergeant Mtubi - I was giving my fingerprint.

There was a soundless, enormous flash of light which nearly stopped my heart from shock before I realized it was coming from my fingertip. That realization almost did me in again, this time from wonder, but the glare was fading even as I watched. I tried pulling my finger away, but it was held fast, as if locked in stone. Finally, when the eldritch light had almost died away, my hand pulled smoothly away from the Ring as if it had been that easy all along. I looked at my fingers, but they seemed quite normal. At Shan's laugh, I looked up, at the spot I'd touched, and was overcome with an unavoidable fit of laughter myself as Mtubi and Marren joined in.

The figure in silver robes with the torch and book, small as she was, was quite recognizable as the City's Francophone gift. The upraised middle finger, however, must have been me; there really wasn't another explanation for it. Even as we laughed, the small figure pulled its hand in and resumed what I thought was a more classic pose, the book held against her side and the torch held overhead. She kept looking out at us, though, and when Mtubi leaned in to examine her more closely, she flipped him the bird again.

I could've died of embarrassment, but I was laughing too hard.

Belatedly, I thought of Lain, and pulled out my phone, but (of course) it simply chirped plaintively, complaining about its horrendous, depressing isolation from the warm hills of the Net. I tossed it back into my pocket, and before the other three could induce my new small sister to express herself again, I cleared my throat. "Excuse me."

They all turned, Mtubi wiping his eyes for the tears of laughter.

"That's better. Could someone please explain to me what just happened?"

Marren took my arm again and led me to a bench near the wall. We sat. She appeared to be trying to start some sort of explanation, but kept failing, and just looking frustratedly around. On the fourth or fifth attempt she managed to start. "Carrie, do you know who you are?"

I managed to look at her without decking her for the rhetoric.

"I'm sorry. No, of course not." Before I could object that that wasn't what I thought, she'd gone on. "There are several of us down here, Carrie. I expect you came looking for us, with your friend. We've tried to be fairly quiet, but - well. Stories get out, and the stories are always bigger than the life. Usually, at any rate." She stopped for a moment, and looked across at Shan, who looked up at her and cocked his head. "Hon, could you get Theole? I think he might be able to help."

Shan nodded to her, clapped shoulders with Mtubi, and walked around to the face of the lone Ring. I watched him buckle his jacket, curious; when he was done, he looked nearly straight up, at the center of the Ring's enormous circumference, and raised his arms out to his sides, slightly higher than his shoulders. Nothing happened for a moment, and then there was a flicker of white and steel in the air at the center of the Ring. I just had time to notice that the little lights had all begun to gleam with unnerving brightness before there was an audible snap and a small area at the Ring's center flooded with silver, moving from the centerpoint. Shan jumped, straight up, impossibly high, one leg tucked like a dancer, and just as he reached level with the silver he twisted himself onto his back, head towards the Ring. There was an enormous SLAM that I felt more than heard, and small objects around the chamber shuddered as he vanished into the silver with the afterimage of incredible velocity.

"Wow." I looked over. Mtubi was staring raptly at the center of the Ring. "Son of a bitch. Just won't tell me how he does that."

"What did he just do?" I heard myself ask.

Mtubi came over to join us. "He just grabbed an Angel in mid-flight. He's the only one that can do that without being there with it at the start. He's gone."

"An Angel?"

Marren nodded. "An Angel. We call the Capsules Angels."

"Why?"

She smiled slightly. "It can't be explained. I expect you'll learn soon enough."

"You people aren't religious crazies, are you? I mean, I don't want to offend you, but that would be really, really disappointing after all this."

Both of them laughed again, and Marren hugged me. I liked that. She was good at it. "No, hon, we're not. Well, perhaps we are, but don't worry; if we are, we don't know it." That was, apparently, all the answer I was going to get. She continued.

"Now, you came down here with your friend? Fine. She's at home, correct? Great. Don't worry, she'll come into this eventually. Let me start with the Angel, and how I got involved."

So she did.

This is Marren's Story.
This is the tale she told.

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