Chapter 5: Disconnects.
Giles stared at his telephone.
The phone looked back at him. What will you do? it might have asked.
Giles didn't know.
"I thought, If only he could see this, share this moment with me, he'd understand. What did I do wrong?"
"It's not your fault, Ms. Calendar," said Willow.
"Jenny. You've shown me the Earth from space; you can call me Jenny." She laughed. "Who's the teacher now?"
"Everyone's a teacher, Jenny. It's just that only some people are students."
"And Rupert wasn't one tonight," said Jenny.
"And Rupert wasn't one tonight," agreed Willow. "But give him a chance. I think he may just need time."
A floating tray appeared with some alien drink. Jenny gulped it down without paying much attention. It was delicious, of course.
"Who needs him anyway?" said Jenny.
The observation deck was clean, almost sterile. The clothes were gone. We do, Willow wanted to say. We've always counted on him. But she didn't answer. The tray glided off with its empty glass, slicing through the air.
"It's called 'the overview effect,'" said Willow eventually.
"When you see, say, Earth from space, appreciate the smallness of life against the cosmic void, behold not a map but a territory without tangible borders, your mind begins to work differently, begins to work better. It's what Earth's psychologists call 'the overview effect.' We have a different name for it: wholesight. On an Orbital, you can get this effect from the ground."
"Wholesight — that's beautiful. Was that a translation of the Marain?"
"Yeah. You'll learn the language over time. That is, if you want to."
"I do. Can I have another of those drinks?"
"Yes. Just be aware that it will make you very sleepy in a bit. Sip slowly, okay?"
The tray returned. Jenny took a few deep sips, gazing out over Earth. She sighed. "How much trouble will Rupert's Watcher's Council be?"
"I don't know," replied Willow. "I may have to destroy them. They have magic."
"So do I. Well, some. And we have technology. Speaking of which, can you upgrade me? I mean, is that a thing?"
"It is! We can do most of it overnight if you're okay with sleeping up here."
"Of course I'll sleep up here."
"Alright: drug glands, longevity, neural lace, language acquisition reconfiguration, baseline intelligence upgrade, enhanced senses, improved sexual response, sexual compatibility, clot filtering, immune system, biological redundancies, regrowth infrastructure, automatic and manual body mutability, and, well, thousands of others, but those are the most salient. Confirm? This is your final chance to back out." Willow looked at Jenny sharply.
"I've Displaced the relevant molecules and nanomachines. I'll monitor them while you sleep. When you wake up, pretty much everything except the neural lace will be done. Want to be bisexual?"
"Bisexuality. It's twice the fun. Connect deeply with more people."
"Uh, I can't believe I'm talking about this with you."
"Why? Because I'm dowdy Willow Rosenberg, the forever-virgin?"
"Because you're my student!"
Willow gave Jenny a look for that remark, then said, "I'll have you know I've had plenty of intimate relationships in my day!"
"As a Mind, perhaps. But as a high school student?" countered Jenny.
"I fail to see the relevance," said Willow indignantly.
"Of course you do," said Jenny.
"Fine then. What is the relevance?" demanded Willow
Willow sniffed and raised her chin. "So there!"
Jenny downed the rest of her second drink, slammed it on the floating tray (which responded by oscillating convincingly), then whined, "Why isn't Rupert here?"
"I'm not quite sure what made him change his mind," said Willow. (But she could make a pretty good guess.)
"Did you know that Rupert an' me haven't had sex yet?" asked Jenny, her voice now somewhat sluggish.
"Okay," said Willow. "Now you're creeping me out. I think it may be time for bed. But yes, I did know that. I deduced it from evidence."
Jenny wobbled. "You're too smar' for your own good, you know? Heh."
"That's a misnomer," explained Willow. "When you say that someone is too smart for their own good, it means they're smart enough to figure something out, but not smart enough to know what to do about it. So it's actually describing an awkward middle ground of intelligence, which you can fix by adding lots more intelligence."
"Wha'ever," slurred Jenny.
Jenny's eyelids were drooping. The delay on the cutoff in her drink had begun to run out. Right now, Jenny was in the brief transition stage between competent lucidity and snoring. Or at least, she had been. Willow caught her before she hit the ground.
"So how did you know of the Culture?"
"Before I… came to Sunnydale, I was at… a rough time in my life," began Angel.
"And science fiction saved you?" guessed Buffy.
"No. That wasn't what saved me." Angel looked at Buffy intently. "But it did keep me going."
Buffy nodded slowly. When Angel didn't volunteer any more information, she asked, "How did you get into the genre?"
"I had a habit of visiting libraries," Angel responded. "I was homeless most of the time." He sighed. "One of the nicer things about being a vampire is that you never smell bad."
"So you read science fiction in libraries while smelling great? Okay…" prodded Buffy. She was lounging on a couch in her study.
"Well, there was more to it than that, but yeah," said Angel, who perched on the edge of the same sofa, hands held in his lap, hunched over more than usual.
"Of course," agreed Buffy. "I'm sure there were lots of evil demons in the libraries, with evil demonic plots to sabotage the library system, and you had to defeat them without your lightsaber. That's how it usually is."
Angel regarded Buffy for a long moment. The corners of his mouth twitched up, but that was about it.
Now it was Buffy's turn to look intently. "Angel, are you okay?"
"Yeah. Don't worry about it. I'm fine. Thanks though." He smiled reassuringly, his demeanor shifting in a subtle, natural way.
Buffy swallowed and didn't respond.
"Libraries," said Angel. "I'd say I was trying to improve myself. At first, I was. Medical texts, that sort of thing. I wanted to become a doctor. Eventually, I moved onto psychology, then economics. After a decade or two, I gave up. That was when I started reading fiction. Tolkien. Saw a kid reading one of those early science fiction magazines, Asimov and Heinlein, and branched out into that. Haven't really stopped since, though I didn't like cyberpunk."
"Me neither," said Buffy automatically. "Read it on the way to Earth. Bleh."
Angel continued, "One day, I found Consider Phlebas in my library. After that, it was a project to track down copies of the rest of the books. Even went to Britain."
"And now I've joined the Culture. I'm on a spaceship. Willow is a spaceship. She's a Mind. …Buffy?"
"I have memories of her that way, from the Culture, actually, more than I have of her as a timid schoolgirl. She was my teacher. You're in good hands here." Buffy took Angel's hand and squeezed it.
"Yeah," Angel replied. His smile was weaker, but it now had a faint touch of something more. Earth shone through the study's panoramic window display. They both spent some time admiring it.
Buffy turned to Angel. "Want to see the rest of my quarters? Earth will still be here tomorrow."
"Are you sure?"
"That I want to show you my quarters? Of course. That the Earth will be here tomorrow? Earthers call it… 'Laplace's rule of succession,' apparently. My bedroom is through there — I like to keep it close to where I do my thinking." They walked through. "And now I must admit that I may have had some ulterior motives in bringing you here." She sat down on her 'traditional' cushion-bed and winked at Angel.
Angel sat down next to her. "Buffy —"
"No need to say anything. I know exactly what you need." Buffy's face was very close to Angel's. He could feel the warmth and began to close his eyes. Motion caught his attention. Buffy smirked and demurely handed him a rounded-rectangular slab. "You need a Culture terminal. I designed this one myself — a bit old-fashioned, but some of my better personal technology work. Just take hold of it; I've instructed it to reset and recognize you as its new user. It'll be in English for now, while you're still learning the language."
Angel took it. It really was a beautiful piece of engineering. He put it in his pocket.
"I want, I want to do…" Angel gestured vaguely at the bed around him, "…this, but — are you sure you want to?"
"Yeah," breathed Buffy. "I am. Please…"
"Really? But I'm —"
Buffy cut him off with a passionate look. She mentally instructed Willow to stop monitoring the room.
"Buffy," said Angel tenderly. "I —"
Buffy tackled him to the bed.
Later that evening, Xander's apartments let him know that Willow's avatar was waiting outside. He walked through the garden to the front entrance, where Willow was leaning against the arch.
"Hey Wils," said Xander.
"May I come in?"
The two strolled into the garden. Xander sat on the grass next to a brook, and Willow joined him. The water in the brook rustled soothingly while they enjoyed the silence of each other's company.
"How are you feeling?" asked Xander eventually.
"Happy; thrilled to be who I am; excited and only somewhat daunted about my responsibilities going forward. Disappointed about Giles; worried about Jenny, that's Ms. Calendar. Eager to learn. Lonely. Lost."
Xander nodded. He held Willow's eyes.
Willow accepted the silent invitation. Diaglyphs appeared. Xander studied the dense fractal lines and swirls painted into the air and tried to interpret them.
"Okay. Emotion-state-report: The-So-Called Willow-tree Who-Intrinsically-Is That-Well-Known Secretly-Awesome-One. That part's clear — interesting self-identification. Now the content: Uh, compassion-empathy. Deep doubts. No, particular, um, 'piercing' doubts about certain narrow things. Turbulent waves of the Grid: not-adrift. Okay, I think that's a good thing. This part — something about intense need: the Yawning Chasm; need for the Unknown — no, need for something, but you don't know what it is, but you think you might, but it isn't something you've experienced quite like this 'Mindishly-before.' Huh. And you've annotated that branch with 'regret-for-thought with-person-harmed Xander,' and your description of what it is takes up that whole glyph over there, which I can't really understand."
Willow watched Xander with a sad, patient understanding. Xander had always made a noble effort at understanding her soul-poetry. It made her feel special. Willow had seen this sharing as a way to reciprocate intimacy. A gesture, perhaps, but an honest and deep one. One they kept secret.
Xander thought for a moment, then spoke. "Are you worried, now that you have human experiences to draw on, that what you felt for me as a Mind was somehow fake or incorrect? Because if you're worried about that, let me tell you right now that I don't care at all. I know what we've had these past few years."
Willow said nothing, but her gratitude was palpable.
"And I know what we felt on Earth, when you were human," continued Xander, "and I'm sorry I chose to ignore it. I was too far up my ass pining after Buffy."
"Yeah," said Willow.
"You know, your human side is a great excuse for our relationship. You could imply —"
"I'm not going to do that," said Willow.
"I'm sorry," said Xander.
"I'm sure other Minds knew about it," said Willow. "The stigma against close emotional connections between Minds and humans is more on the human side, or at least it was in my circles."
"Yeah. I mean, it's not something we advertise, but lots of Minds, especially smaller-ship Minds, have 'favorites.' Not that we'd ever let our affections reduce the level of service we provide to everyone, of course. I'm sure at least Grelal knew of my relationship with you. It certainly knew of my relationship with Buffy."
"You've had sex with Buffy?"
"Xander," scolded Willow. "Okay, fine, I'll answer. We tried once or twice; it wasn't our thing. That's not my point. I've probably interacted that way with almost all of my crew. I mean, you knew this, right? No, what I was referring to was our very close teacher-student bond."
"And what do we have?" asked Xander.
"What do you think we have?"
"Okay, cut the evasive bullshit."
"I don't know what we have. That's why I asked you."
"I don't know either."
"That's what I thought," said Willow.
"Ugh! I don't know! Everything's all messed up right now. I don't know what I want. I thought I had gotten over Buffy. Then Mr. Sunnydale-Xander comes and merges in and bam! I'm all jealous of Angel. They're probably having sex right now. Are they having sex?"
Willow sighed. "It's probable."
"Not really, since Buffy asked me to stop monitoring her bedroom."
"I didn't have to know that! Why did you tell me that?"
"I'm trying to help you readjust with some exposure therapy."
"You know what?" challenged Xander.
"Probably," responded Willow.
"See, that's just it!"
"I'm 'too smart for my own good.'"
"Who said that?"
"Okay, that's just stupid."
"That's not fair to her. She's not educated in cognitive theory."
"No, I mean, that you'd ascribe such a thought to me."
"Is it stupid, though? I'm looking out for you, Xander. I'm worried. You know I have your best interests at heart. Actually, let me say it: I have your best interests at heart. There. Now there can be no doubt. Can I have a hug?"
Xander sighed. "…okay."
"Feel better?" asked Willow.
"Need any company tonight?" suggested Willow hopefully. "Even to cuddle?"
Xander shook his head. "I think I'd like to be alone."
Willow pouted briefly. "Of course. If you need anything, please —"
"I'm okay, Wils. I'm okay. Hey. We're going to save the galaxy. Probably. Or at least the world. That's pretty cool."
"Yeah," said Willow.
Xander picked at the grass while Willow watched him. They sat in silence for a time.
Hesitantly, Willow stood. "I'll drop by tomorrow morning to make sure your modifications have taken. We'll also need to talk strategy."
Xander looked up from the ground. "Are we going to drop out of school? We are going to drop out, right? What can their curriculum teach us?"
"At best, almost nothing. But that's one of the things to discuss. Keep an open mind." When Xander sighed, Willow began to walk out.
"You always say that," Xander called after her.
Willow grinned over her shoulder. "You know me too well. Sleep peacefully."
Willow began to pace with her avatar, then stopped and put it in temporary storage. She checked her engines, her effectors, her field emitters, her manufactories, her displacers: all in perfect order. She ran a through self-diagnostic: all clean. She trawled through some data she had written some automation to collect, attempting to map out the locations and dispositions of the magic-users on the planet by residual hyperspace signature and record-generating behavior (like shopping at magic-related stores). The software was rough (by her standards, at least), and probably had a few false positives and negatives, but for the purpose at hand, its results were sufficient.
Willow spent a very leisurely ten minutes traveling to an anonymous point just short of two lightyears away, nowhere near the path of travel from any star. Once there, she planted some Construction Seeds for a large-scale manufacturing plant. Over the next few hours, hundreds of different inconspicuous locations were Seeded, with no discernible pattern except proximity to Sol. Willow traveled to a few of these places for the heck of it, but handled almost all by Displacement. Selecting the positions and velocities of the developing structures was a reasonably amusing challenge. Willow managed a score of 16.2 million years — she was able to guarantee that everything would remain stable, nearby to Earth, and out of sight for this amount of time, assuming nobody messed with the stars. This was a rather silly assumption, of course, but it was the spirit of the problem that mattered.
By the time that Willow had finished stretching her engines (as it were) and returned to her geostationary orbit over Sunnydale's meridian, the cleanup at Ethan's was almost finished, and Giles still had not attempted a phone call.
NORAD Space Command was having a slow night. To the best of its knowledge, cislunar space was quiet, and nothing of note had happened within the Sun's sphere of influence.
As he floated in the fields of his bed, Xander tossed and turned, reaching for something that wasn't there.
Buffy and Angel dozed, cuddling closely. Angel twitched slightly from time to time, the big smile on his face faltering. The terminal was still in his pants, long forgotten.
Jenny was fast asleep.
Giles picked up his phone and slowly dialed the number. He was exhausted.
Giles lost his nerve and decided to hang up.