When Marren had finished, I realized that my left calf was completely asleep, and struggled to move it, still staring at her. She just smiled. I couldn't really come up with anything to say, but my mouth tried anyway. "My story's going to just suck in comparison to all of you, I can feel it now."
Marren laughed again, the spell broken, and Mtubi laughed with her. "Don't worry, Carrie," she said. "I don't think yours is written yet."
"How can you tell?"
"Because-" She stopped, and looked past me. I turned. Shan was standing there with a huge grin on his face. Next to him was a small nondescript man in what looked to be robes, lit from within with a soft blue glow, and Shan was spinning something around his hand that looked like a Frisbee-sized hula hoop. "Ah. Perfect. I think Theole first, though, dear."
Shan nodded, stopping to allow his companion to approach. As he came nearer, I saw a beard beneath the heavy hood. Glow of blue fire ran around what would be the edges of his face, concealing it in the contrast. He came to join Marren and myself, and was seated on the floor near to us. We made a small secret triangle, the three of us. I spared a glance to see Mtubi and Shan examining the hoop Shan had brought, passing it back and forth while pointing out things to each other.
We really looked like a bunch of children. I mean, other than me, because I was one.
Marren touched my knee. "Carrie, this is Theole of the Blue." I nodded at the hooded figure, who nodded back quietly. I still couldn't see his face. Marren glanced at me, apparently catching me furtively trying to see underneath the hood, for she spoke again. "Theole, please join us."
The blue light dimmed and the hood was pushed back, revealing a (still) nondescript-looking man with a sheepish grin on his face. "I'm sorry, Mistress, the Water has just shown me how to do that."
Marren smiled back. "And I want to know how too! We'll trade later, never fear. First, though, Theole, this is Carrie." She rested her hand on my knee for a moment. I felt a rush, although I couldn't be sure if it was from her hand resting there or from the suddenly powerful appraising glance Theole turned my way. He raised an eyebrow at Marren, who nodded. "We think Speaker."
Theole inhaled softly, almost imperceptibly. He reached into his robes and withdrew a handful of faerie fire; the pale ice blue of lightning in his hand giving way to a halo of deep, almost painful azure and lapis. Marren patted my knee. "Don't worry, Carrie," she said seriously. "The last thing anyone here wants to do is hurt you."
I nodded, hoping I looked calmer than I felt; it was too late to check, though, for Theole's hand was pulsing in shades of white and cyan. I could feel the pulses somehow; each time one swept over me a feeling came with it, almost the sensation of the cold tightness in the chest when apprehensive. Theole was looked at me without really focusing; I could see that his eyes had drifted slightly from my face. I simply waited, body flexing to the light, for the minute (perhaps) that it took for the light to fade and Theole to sigh, relaxing.
He put his hand back into his robe and the light faded almost entirely. He looked suddenly quite tired. Marren waited until he shook his head at her. "I cannot tell."
She looked...put out was the only way to describe it really, but she shook herself and her face cleared. "I had thought you might, Theole; just might. 'Twas never certe nor sure."
Theole looked back up with a small gleam in his eyes that I recognized quite well from Lain; stubbornness. He gazed at me again, with franker appraisal than the last time, and muttered "Right, then." Hand in robes, he came out with the source of the blue fire, which I could now see was a small phial containing a quantity of what must have been a liquid, but which was glowing so violently blue that as he absently twirled the phial I became aware of shadows on the walls shifting from the changing light playing over us.
Stopping the twirl, Theole suddenly held out the phial to me. I looked at it, and at him; he smiled slightly and offered it.
I took it.
into flares and skeins and warp'd woolen wefts of glare and light and sound and noise as the colors all ran together into themselves. I watched blue swallow green, red absorb orange, yellow overtake lilac, and so on, until soon there was nothing left but a field of primaries, which shifted slowly to blue in various shades.
watching pearls of light and dark spin lazy circles behind my eyes, I waited for the point, for the jolt, for anything that would tell me what (perchance) was going on, but no luck. Just light and glare and hellish dark, spread all around us in intricate patterns, traceries and fruits of inky blackness, I couldn't touch them.
A familiar presence, though...I sat there for a moment and just watched, just listened. Listened? Yes, far away, through decades and more of molded ancient radio, I could hear the messages flowing in. I saw them surface in the blue-washed silver, their little noses breaking the surface tensions just for a moment, before they sank back out of sight for a time. I moved closer to them somehow, was on a shore of sorts, watched the little noses grouping in the silvery waterlogue near me, so I reached out (natural instinct) and touched one on the nose. To my shock it changed shape immediately, flowing up my hand in a cool blue foamy covering, an ersatz woolen glove. As I jerked back, it sank into my wrist and arm, leaving me with a blue glow around my hand but otherwise unchanged, and there it was, I could hear it hear it hear it, it spoke/didn't speak/needed to speak, so I opened my mouth (I could feel it far away) and said in a clear voice
"Yes. Speaker. Theole, for you: seek the rose. Marren, speaker's needs. Shan to ride, and Guardian to patrol." I said the words without feeling them, stopped at the end with a surprised feeling. While I had retained rightness through saying them, they now felt alien and jagged in memory. I slumped, suddenly exhausted; Theole caught the phial expertly as I tried to push it in his direction before nosing over forward. He caught me, too, before I hit the ground; I don't remember much else but voices raised in excitement.
Then it was black.
* * *
Waking was a shock, because I was looking at my own ceiling, listening to my alarm buzz from my own nightstand. I jumped out of bed and looked around, but found no sights out of what would have been ordinary two days earlier. I was dressed in pajamas, not the clothes I'd been wearing in the tunnels - which either meant I'd been dreaming, or someone had changed me. I blushed again, hoping it'd been Marren, realizing at the same time that I didn't think I'd been dreaming.
Mom was calling from downstairs that breakfast was ready. I shouted that I'd be down in a minute, and hurriedly pulled some clothes out of the closet and onto myself. I grabbed my bookbag and swung downstairs, stopping for a muffin and orange juice and ducking parental smooches and small talk before running out the door.
Standing on the Transit platform, I was so lost in thought about the experiences of the previous night that I didn't notice the Capsule arrive. I wedged my way onto it with most everyone else on the platform. The ride to school was only two stops, but it felt like ten. I didn't find Lain until I got to homeroom, third period. She tackled me, practically, when I wasn't watching, and asked me what had happened. I hesitated.
"Did Mtubi come back?" She was hopping in excitement.
I don't know why I lied to her, but I did. "No, Lain, he didn't. Not yet."
She groaned, sinking into a chair. "Arrrrgh."
I was trying to figure out why I hadn't told her, but couldn't come up with an answer. "I expect he'll be back soon though."
"Why?" She looked up.
"Well, because if he doesn't explain everything, then we're likely to start telling people, aren't we?"
"Yeah, but like he said, who'll believe us?"
"People like us. Our friends maybe? Anyway, people that'll go look for themselves. I don't think they want that."
"Who's 'they,' I wonder." Lain looked like she was trying to imagine a whole troop of people while I kicked myself.
"I dunno, but he said 'we,' didn't he?"
That was all we had time for before classes. I agreed to meet her on the Transit platform on the way home.
The best laid plans. I was leaving school when a car stopped in front of me and the door opened. Surprised, I backed away reflexively, but stopped when I looked in and saw Mtubi sitting at the controls of the police car. He was grinning as usual. "Hi, Carrie."
"Hi, um, Guardian."
He laughed. "And you, Speaker. May I give you a lift?"
"I guess. My parents didn't say anything about getting into strange police cars, I don't think." He laughed again. I got in and swung the door closed. We were away from the curb before I remembered.
"Oh! Mtubi, I told Lain I'd meet her on the Transit to go home..."
He frowned slightly, considering. "Hm. Okay. Can you call her and tell her you'll see her at home then?"
"I guess." I got out my phone and told it to call Lain. It whispered that it couldn't find her, and asked if I wanted to leave a message. "Lain? This is Carrie...Um...I'm going to have to meet you at home, that guy from yesterday showed up, and he wants to talk. I'll call you when I get home, OK? Sorry."
Mtubi was taking us east, away from home. I didn't say anything about that or the sudden chill which showed up in my stomach, just scrunched down into the seat a little. He looked over, apparently noticing. "Are you all right?"
"I think. Where are we going?"
His gaze returned to the road. "Into the tunnels. Have you looked in your book bag?"
"The outer pocket?"
I hadn't. "Uh, no." I pulled it up onto my lap and unzipped the pocket, reached in. There was a slight jingling which couldn't have come from the pens and rubber bands I had stuffed in there. After rooting around for a moment, I gave up and dumped the entire contents out onto my lap, eliciting a laugh from Mtubi. I gave him the finger without looking away from the pile in my lap. There were four shining circles peering up at me. I picked one up between thumb and forefinger, and brought it close to my eye. No matter how close I got, it remained a perfect mirror, without a flaw to interrupt its surface. Mtubi laughed again, at which I dropped it back into my lap and looked at him. He looked over at me, saw that I wasn't laughing, and stopped, somewhat contritely.
"What are they?" I asked. He turned his head back to the road.
"I know they're circles. What-"
"No. They're Circles. Capital 'c'."
I picked up one again. "That doesn't tell me much."
"Put two of them on your wrists."
"Why?" I looked at them. They didn't look like restraints of any sort.
"It's okay, Carrie." Mtubi pulled his right sleeve up from his wrist without looking aside from his driving. On his wrist, a perfect mirror flashed a wink of the sun from outside the car, and something else that I could only describe as 'purple.' He dropped his sleeve.
Then I got it, and slid one over my left hand. Although it didn't change shape, I could swear, it nevertheless fit my wrist snugly after passing over my hand with very little pressure. I looked at it closely for a few moments, then shrugged and pulled another over my right hand.
"Are the other two anklets?"
So I removed my shoes and slid the identically-sized rings up over my feet with impossible ease, and shivered as the cold metal rings clung to my ankle while warming to my body temperature. I put my shoes back on.
Mtubi had crossed a bridge, leaving us in a more industrial area. Fewer people were walking about, but the businesses we passed hummed with activity. Workers, forklifts, tractors, trucks and cars maneuvered into and out of the warehouses and factory buildings. We pulled into a large traffic circle, stopped and got out. Mtubi placed his hand on the comealong on the car roof; as we walked towards the center of the intersection, where a Transit station's sign gleamed, I heard the faint sound of the car starting itself and pulling away from the curb. I turned back to see it following Mtubi - us - down the street, holding station several steps back, a wary metal hound.
Orange Industrial Six, said the station sign. We went through the stiles, Mtubi flashing his badge at the ticketex, which obligingly opened the gates for us. There were five or ten people on the platform. No-one paid us much attention, which was good, since Mtubi led us briskly to the end of the platform and down the maintenance steps. I looked back, but nobody had turned around. At Mtubi's beckoning, I followed him into the dark.
Somehow, even though I knew he didn't mean me any harm, this still felt ominous. I was sweating slightly despite the chill, as my eyes adjusted, causing me to shiver as I hurried after Mtubi's long, even strides. "Where are we going?"
"Oh, you know where we're going." The smile was there, I just couldn't see it in the dark.
"We're going into a tunnel," I said somewhat accusingly.
"That's right. You did that last time."
"Last time, I was- I didn't..."
"Last time, you were with Lain."
He stopped, turned to me. "I know, Carrie. Speaker. It'll all be fine. Everyone has a first time."
Right around then, I figured out what he was talking about. "Oh, my God. We're going to...to..."
"To ride the Angel."
"But I don't know how!"
This time, he did laugh. "That's why we're here." He slapped the induction ring that he had stopped near. Then he reached under his coat and pulled out what appeared to be another Circle, but larger and thinner. "This is for your waist."
I didn't bother asking how, just stepped into it, pulled up my shirt, and pulled the Circle up to my hips before pulling my pants out of it and back up around it. Like the others, it was momentarily chilly, and fit without my noticing it was there.
Mtubi glanced at the Ring, then at me. "Carrie, you obviously trust me to a great degree or you wouldn't have come down here. Will you do what I tell you?"
I nodded. There was a lump beneath my tonsils that I couldn't swallow past. I was afraid, eager, excited and five or six other cliches, but didn't say anything.
"Fine. First things first. Here's what will happen. We're going to climb to the top of this Ring, just like your friend Lain did. The Angel will come by - will Pass - and when it does, you and I will drop from the top of the Ring into its wake."
"What happens then?"
He laughed, louder. "I wish I knew. I can only tell you it will."
I looked up at the Ring, small status indiks winking on its side, and up at Mtubi, his brown face serious again overtop the laughter. Then I set my teeth into my lower lip, and nodded. He placed his hand on my shoulder, once, and then turned.
The climb up the access rungs - really ridges - wasn't bad at all. In no time, we were crouched at the top of the Ring. I had been surprised, when Lain did it, to realize that there was space above the Ring top inside the tunnel, but here we were. Mtubi cocked his head, listening to something, before looking back at me and nodding. "Here she comes."
I couldn't hear a thing, but after a few moments I felt the vibrations, along with something else that felt slightly crawly. I brushed at my hips. Mtubi noticed, and said "That's your Circles. They can hear it too. Don't worry."
"Easy for you to say," I growled. "This is my first time."
"God, don't keep saying that, I feel like a- " he cut himself off, laughing. I looked at him and finished:
The laughter redoubled. "I'm sorry, I know, it's not funny."
I giggled, which I hate. "Yeah, it sort of is. Just don't try anything."
"Don't worry, I don't have to, it's going to happen all on its own-" He was cut off by the rising sound of the approaching Capsule. Far off down the tunnel, I heard the whine as it left Orange Industrial Six and came towards us. Mtubi offered his hand; I took it and waited, trying not to scream. There was a thundering behind me, beneath me, and then I felt him squeeze, and we stepped forward into air-
blasting roar of air and fire, white with rings and blue with power, pulling, pushing, reaching until my hands slewed around in front of me. I kept waiting for the ground but it never came, after a few seconds I opened my eyes which instantly watered into blurs and pain, but the colors were behind the lids now and I waited for them to clear but they kept getting stronger in the blaring music of the stream that pulled us with it through the Earth-
A brief sensation of heat as Mtubi's hand pressed over my face, followed by a lack of sensation on my eyelids. I opened them to a shining wall of
places things and other when, the vortex sliding, vectors rising in the aether pulling voices from the starfield into my head. A small white box, a large white box, a white-walled room and there I was again waiting, the Capsule sliding through the wall to stop and stare at me in perfect mechanical equanimity while I suddenly had a vision of Mtubi's car peeling tires away from the curb, Cyclones flaring as it maneuvered through traffic in an attempt to stay above us atop the World, which made me laugh-
...and with a shrieking wail of farewell, I could see the white ring receding down the tunnel away from me, and Mtubi's hands pulling me to him, making me wonder why until there was a shock and an oof and a rushing noise, and we slid to a stop on the floor of the tunnel. Mtubi let me go, and I tried to stand up, but fell over, and cried.
"Carrie? Carrie, what's wrong?"
"I can't see! I can't see, I'm blind, what-"
"You're not blind."
"I am! I can only see colors, I can't even see you!"
"Close your eyes."
"Close your eyes." Mtubi ran his palm down my face, and my eyes closed. I felt them. My sight did not return, nor did the colors go away; they continued sliding across my vision in pools of chromatic insanity. I shook my head.
"They're still there!"
Mtubi's voice was calm, steadying. "It's okay, Carrie. Open them now."
I did. Light washed over me, and suddenly I could see him, the colors overlaid across my vision. As I blinked, they - didn't fade, really, but somehow moved to the background. "What is that?"
"That's the world, Carrie. That's your world, now. Look at it."
I looked at Mtubi, saw the blood moving beneath his skin, and saw the flaring arc of power that his Circles held within him. "Wow."
He grinned, finally. "Yeah."
I moved to the tunnel wall. It looked just the same, but it also looked like a slowly moving map, colored streams moving across it. "What are those?"
He looked. "The power lines in the wall."
"Where are we?"
"Orange Commercial Five. Near your home."
"I have to warn you, I can't ever remember the Transit map."
"You won't have to. It will tell you where you need to go."
"And I have to tell you what it says?"
"Only if you think you're supposed to."
"It...didn't talk to me, during."
"We call it the Ride." Mtubi brushed himself off, and took my hand. We began to walk down the tunnel, without a real destination. "We - Marren - thinks it will probably only talk to you when it needs to. It's never talked to me." He looked slightly sad, but brightened quickly. "It sings, though."
"What can I do, now?"
"With your Circles, you mean?"
"With the colors."
"We don't know. You'll have to find out. That's what this is all about."
"Will you help me?"
"Of course we will. But we're not you."
A sudden thought struck me. "Can I tell Lain?"
Mtubi laughed. "Of course. You didn't think we'd expect you to keep all this from her, did you?"
"She'll be so jealous."
"Ah, well, that's next lesson."
He turned his bright grin to me again. "Making Circles."
* * *
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