Reality: Analogue

Warnings: A little character harm, one lonely swearword?
Beta: Read by the ever-lovely Scarabbug, to whom I owe the Joan of Arc comparison and the line about anvils.
Summary: Kat does some thinking. Written 2007 for the Femgenficathon, run by Gehayi on Livejournal.
A/N: The process of receiving a Pennsylvania driver's license is here represented with more attention paid to canon than present legalities. Also, the briefly-mentioned character Troy was invented by Allison Lightning.

This was originally intended to be longer, but after ten thousand words and passing the deadline of the ficathon I cut it off.

And after Mark and not-Ace and Lord Fear had all joined together to defeat Kilobyte, and after she'd been freed from the prison to stumble out and join the guy she had a few things to say to, and after they'd hugged in the moonlight and gone home to a warm dinner, Kat Adams started her research, like any good student reporter with a cranky co-editor who wanted to do it for real someday.

She spent a good portion of her bank account buying a copy of the game, got killed in four seconds flat by a rogue canary, and started to print out all the cheat guides she could find on the Internet.

Problem was, it was a pretty…big game, she found after the first hundred four-pages-a-sheet. Only six levels, but they weren't levels like she'd expected from what little she knew about computer games, kill three robots each time and get to the next level and finally kill the boss; more like six worlds, each with a whole lot of separate areas like Canary Warp and Climbcrag Castle and Doom Town and Magery City, and you didn't go through them in simple arithmetic order either. The canary was from level two.

Some people had actually finished, she knew, after playing for some insane amount of hours at a sitting (saving the world didn't have to involve that much time, did it? She couldn't let her schoolwork suffer or Heather keep on her tail!). And she looked in the cheat guides for some clue as to how she could finish in less than that thankyouverymuch—and found, to her horror, that the game was never the same for any player, randomly generating outcomes and environments each time you started anew. Some things were always faced, like Googler and Pigface and Lord Fear, but where and when was another matter entirely, and even though she looked up each monster for herself she got killed about twelve more times before she gave up again.

(It was actually something a lot of people seemed to find very interesting, about the game. That even with the interesting new type of randomising engine they were using to keep the game different, there were more different environments and storyline-parts stored on the disc than you'd expect. Too bad it was under trade secret. Maybe Rick-the-Programmer's work again, she considered.)

So she kept messing around with the game, when she had time, and tried her best to understand Chuck's and Mark's talk while they were working on upgrades.

Ace was in love with the villainess who'd faded into thin air that night, she'd been told, and…well, that was interesting. Kat had landed in the House of Illusion in one of her abortive gamestarts, and been killed by spiders before she'd gotten to see anything about its fabled mistress beyond a cutscene sliding past a portrait of her. Or possibly an ancestress; it had been dusty enough that it looked much older than the woman drawn in it.

Accessing datafile: House of Illusion. The name is suitable: the visitor is urged to beware all you may see and touch here, for nothing is as it appears. Some say that it is the oldest of all the Carnival's domains, a most strange and ancient House…

The villainess and the hero, she'd seen it before in a whole lot of stories, though it wasn't mentioned in any of the online cheat guides or reviews or detailed character backgrounds, Lady Illusion, known for her loyalty to Lord Fear, Ace Lightning, ever-dedicated servant of a good cause. Of course, in most of those where it actually worked out, the hero didn't have a cool female sidekick with a great personality already (okay, not that Sparx liked Ace that way, she'd as good as said she didn't, but they were good friends and Ace was pretty much the only non-raving-mad humanoid bloke with skin available for the only superhero she could share girl talk with).

So she played the game when she felt in the mood for getting crushed by canaries or zapped by zombies, and read things on the Internet, and finally got around to writing a completely fictitious gossip item for Heather in fifteen minutes flat about rumours floating around about the principal and Coach Blakeny making out in the third-floor bathroom, and avoided getting in trouble for it when it turned out they really were having an affair, if not anywhere the students could see.

Intuition, huh. It'd been a random comment from Mark that had given her the idea, and she smirked at Heather and didn't tell her how she'd found it out and wrote an even better article about the class president elections, for which the English teacher praised her while ignoring Heather's research on the contents on the school lunches (couldn't blame him for that really—Heather had to be as much into food as the CGIs were, not including Sparx and jelly beans, and of course she'd just had to go and make everyone else feel like starvation was a better option).

And Ace Lightning had been planning to go into the Sixth Dimension as soon as Chuck would do the coding, and there was a bit of a delay as the boys researched upgrades and locations and useful hints, and Sparx went out hunting for Fear.

But then a new amulet piece got found by Fear, and she watched Mark and Chuck frantically going over the power scores, and learned that the game had changed, a little.

"So who's the new freak in town?" Sparx asked cheerfully, staring over Chuck's shoulder at the power graphs flashing by at dizzying speed.

Chuck shook his head. "There isn't. It's Fear himself, he's running at one-twenty power. That's too much for any of you on your own."

"So what if boneman's a little more of a challenge?" Sparx grinned, curling both her hands into fists and pummelling the air. "We can totally take him."

"And you won't be…able to take him on your own, either," Chuck continued, staring at the screen with widening eyes. "Fear's gone and…done something else. A bit strange, I didn't know you could do that with the amulet, hold on while I figure the outcomes—he's trapped Kilobyte in the Sixth Dimension, I'm guessing. The barrier's set. Ace can't go through."

She looked up at the superhero, and saw him outlined in the light from the window, his face suddenly tightening. "He hasn't just trapped Kilobyte in there. She's trapped with him," he said, and you could hear the italics. "If you'd just let me go before this—"

He turned around and punched the wall, leaving a dent. She'd heard about his emotions from Mark, but the violence was still a shock.

"Math," Chuck said quietly. "Fear on one-twenty, you on eighty-something, Sparx seventy-six. Mark somewhere in the low forties, and that's not including his low defence score. Sorry, dude," he added to him. "The wrist cannon's nice, but you're still human."

"So we couldn't do it anyway. Because the world's more important," Ace said quietly. "Again. It's always this world, never mind—anything else—"

He looked at Sparx. "Forget it," he said. "I'm just going out to find Fear and kill him, all right?"

"Look, wait up—" Sparx yelled, and joined him as he flew away, not that they'd probably find Lord Fear.

She didn't know, of course, Kat thought, and then felt guilty about that. And maybe a little guilty about being secretly glad that Ace was going to stay, because there was going to be big trouble, and she'd been worried about needing him.

"It's this world all right," she heard Chuck saying. "I guess it always was…"

And Kat had to agree to that.

It was two weeks later that Heather joined the fencing club Kat hadn't even known existed.

Walking around with the big long sword held oh-so-casually next to her hip. At least she'd wrapped it for safety, Kat supposed. She was the centre of attention for a little while, people drawn to the sight.

"Joan-of-Arc-with-her-big-sword…" Kat groused to Mark, who sniggered a little bit at the last words. "Whatever. If she wants to get martyred it's on her."

Mark looked blank. "People think the fencing club is cool."

"Oh, forget it," Kat told him. The description had been the first phrase to come to her mind when she'd seen Heather surrounded by sunlight, the picture of the red-haired woman in shining armour bearing a sword; no way the girl she called the red-headed devil would ever give enough of a damn about anyone else or a cause to die for, and as far as Kat knew she wasn't even religious.

"Yeah, Coach told me she'd had it going for like years. I wish I'd found out about it sooner. You could join too, you know. Wednesday and Friday afternoons, and you can train at lunchtimes as well. I'm doing that and coming in weekends, and she says I could even compete in the next tournament if I keep it up," Heather said as they were going over a couple of articles about the student council, like there was a doubt she was anything other than completely obsessive. "It's hard to fit in with karate, swimming, basketball, flute, the paper, and a healthy social life that doesn't involve total losers, but I don't mind."

Kat smiled. "Oh, I've got a few things going on myself," she said. Like saving the world. "Like driving lessons," she added, remembering that Heather hadn't been allowed to take the class because of being a year young.

Heather frowned slightly. "Well, I just hope you'll do better than Hollander," she said. "That guy could have killed himself, Mr DeCutt, and Wayne. Not, of course, that any of those count as a real loss. In fact he may have even deserved a posthumous award for it."

"Wayne's not that bad," Kat muttered, remembering the article Mark had written. Finally giving in to Heather's needling, she thought dourly.

"You're new here. I understand," Heather said sweetly, satisfied. "Now. I think this first article can use some tweaking in paragraph two to cover the main points of the second, and I'll reorder the third for our page three feature."

Kat had to admit she couldn't see a flaw in Heather's judgment there, and groaned to herself as she went through the article.

She was taking notes about the cut scenes and saving the game every three seconds, compiling world-information from fansites and the cheatguides. All five slots on the save-game file were filled, with Canary Warp, Magery, Elektri City Training Ground, Ghost Canyon, and Lost Library.

World: The Sixth Dimension. White Hot Oblivion is Dimension Two. Level Two doesn't seem to be the same thing.
People In It: Ace Lightning, Sparx, Random Virus, Lord Fear, Lord Fear's minions.
Reason For Conflict: The Amulet of Zoar.
The Amulet Does: …Call up other minions and Knights, means you've won?
The Amulet Is: …Mark doesn't know? Used to be split…

She'd found that particular narration segment in the Elektri Training Grounds, an endless labyrinth of shining corridors where you shot random projectiles while not getting killed yourself, but not getting anywhere much either. And as she was playing Sparx, the sprite kept on and on complaining about that little fact until Kat wanted to smack game-her silly.

The broken adamant-glass case was in front of Sparx in a little hollow of an area with a jagged doorframe guarding it, and she paused momentarily in front of it.

"Huh, this must've been where they used to keep the amulet, before the evils took it," she said. "Way I heard it, half was Fear's, but I dunno, why'd he get half of it when old Zoar was on our side? The thing that happened was the centre piece was missing, and when it turned up again it upset the prison where we'd put the evils only a couple of cycles before, and they put it with Fear's and then there was the explosion as they tried to steal ours."

The screen flashed blue, green; Kat could make out Lord Fear and his staff, and Ace flying, dashing through the air. There were the different minions—Pigface, Anvil, a woman's evil laugh that probably belonged to Lady Illusion. Random Virus, half of him alight with green as his claw flew through the air.

Two halves of the amulet, slammed together by hands Kat couldn't recognize in the bright light, then Ace flying towards it, lightning searing out from his gloves, and a surge so bright she blinked, erupting so suddenly and transforming everything to searing white.

"Katherine, what is that noise!"

Smoke showed up on the screen, Sparx and a couple of other Lightning Knights coughing.

"And Ace got sent to the Carnival, along with all seven pieces of the amulet, may Lord Fear rot for that," Sparx' narration concluded. "I'm gonna find him as soon as I can. Now, are you getting me out of this joint or what?"

"Nothing, Mom!" Kat called down, and returned to the impossible task of finding a way out of the maze before giving up and doing the homework due in tomorrow.

"According to the chess club, this article was urgent." An annoyed Heather flung a folder down on the table, interrupting her lunch with Mark. "We can't quite fit it in, so we'll have to cut some other articles. Shall I handle it myself, so I don't interrupt anything?"

"Actually, you are—" Mark began.

"Oh, I'll help you decide what to cut," Kat said sweetly. Not my articles out of spite, for a start. "Maybe we can put it on page three, snipping some parts from the student council and football season articles?"

"I was thinking page four; that column about recycling could maybe use a little tweaking…"

"It's an important social issue." She really did believe that, and she'd cut it enough already to Heather's exact specifications. "I'd rather cut the article about Jessi's party…it's a shame after you put so much effort into it, but if something's got to go…"

She heard Mark sigh. "So I guess I should just leave you guys to it, right?" he said.

"No, you can stay," Kat said.

"Gosh, I hope I'm not causing any romantic problems," Heather said. "So why don't we look at your student council article first, even though it's already down to two-twenty? Let's see—first sentence, necessary, second—"

"We only need to mention the President," Kat said. "We're not Jessi's free publicity machine."

"It's more usual to name the Vice as well, though."

"Yeah, well…all right. Look, we can cut the bit about how it's the fourth time the council did the donut sale and…"

A phone rang; she looked to Mark automatically, but Heather had already pulled hers out.

"Hello? I'm—oh, Sam." It was really funny, Kat thought, that occasionally Heather could manage to sound like a real person. "What's up? You—oh, that sounds nice. You're going to visit back here, right? Cool—yeah, totally. Ice-skating at the rink afterwards like every year…No, I didn't hear that about your brother…oh, never mind, Troy's a good guy…so back to Jeremy. You said his family were in Missouri? That's way far away, are you sure they didn't want to get rid of him for a reason—oh, I'm just kidding, that's all. Your mom said yes? Great. Look, I'll talk to you later, I've got some errands to finish at lunch and class is right after. See you!"

"She's going to stay at her boyfriend's house over the Christmas break," she told Mark, back to poison again.

"I hope she has a great time. Tell her I said hi," Mark answered.

"Though she's coming back here for a little while, of course," Heather continued. "It must feel so different going from a place like Westleafe to our quaint little town."

"Westleafe?" Kat asked.

"Sam's boarding school," Mark explained.

"Very prestigious," Heather confirmed. "All right, back to business, I have an interview scheduled for the second half of lunch with the new cheer squad captain. I was a cheerleader at my last school, but I've learned to prefer my sports more competitive and less chauvinistic." She punctuated the last word with another glare at Mark. "We cut the donut history, we cut the adjectives, and we can also cut down on the border space for the principal's notice, and…"

"I'm just going to sit with Chuck, Kat. See you later."

Kat glared at Mark's retreating back. Sure, she was the one who'd told him to be more assertive, especially against Certain People, but—drat it—

"And I'm also trimming the request for fiction," Heather finished. "Of course, if we actually get anyone sending us things, we have to make sure it's not completely horrible, not that I ever thought we needed fiction in our reporting anyway…"

Drat Heather.

The game kept her returning and returning to it, even when her English grade slipped to a B and her other grades mostly Cs, when Sparx and Ace were both acting like game-Sparx thanks to their frustration over not finding the villains, and Mark was too on edge as well to be of much use to her. And Heather was as irritating as ever.

Magic existed, apparently. She'd happened on a cut scene—somewhere in level two on an area she stumbled on, she couldn't remember where—explaining a bit of it, a rather-too-young Lady Illusion fetching and carrying for Lord Fear to cast something, not that she was probably called lady back then.

"Elder fern, rosethorn and oldberry. Yes." The girl watched him absently arrange them around the empty stone pedestal, long fingers setting out a pattern with ease, almost grace. "And now…"

"The pigmybeast, my lord?" She held out a small, squeaking thing trapped in her hand; with a twist, she snapped its neck, and let it fall on the centre of the stone.

"Remove it to the peak." He seemed to conjure a silvery bowl out of nowhere, filled to the brim with liquid; she gathered the dead animal out of the way, nesting it in one of the small piles of herbs, where below was carved a deep line in the stone.

"Another transformation, my lord?" she asked.

"Not at all. A farseeing."

Kat saw her give a small shrug; she remembered Chem class briefly, frogs cut up with the same indifference as the creature lying on the stone.

"You have at least heard of such things, I presume—and realise why I ordered you here," he said.

"I thought those to be less than…reliable. My lord, nobody can deny your power," she said, suddenly seeming to want to make a point of her own. "And yet, these stage surroundings, so to speak, and everything I've read says they're the unpredictable Foreseeing Arts…"

"You take the pallid and cowardly view of the humans you lived among. Do you imagine I am incapable of anything within my own domain, this mage-saturated Carnival?" He didn't sound angry at her, but amused; show-off, Kat managed to think. It was a good way to take him less seriously.

She shook her head quickly. "Human…methods suggest that the power is—"

"The old theory. You're wrong, of course; settings amplify the powers native to us. And furthermore wrong that I have such an ability."

"But…"

"It's in your bloodline; don't be a fool, girl." Green fire scattered from his hand, setting the beast's corpse alight; thin tendrils of smoke rose up from the plant matter as well, a pale purple nothing like any normal colour Kat had seen burn. It was oddly creepy. "What do you see when you look?"

"Just flashes, limited by wards, limited by distance and awareness, limited by how much trust I put in it. I…like explosions."

"Allow me." He held out a boned hand; she let a crystal ball appear in hers, and Kat watched him touch it, frowning as smoke flowed inside to finally show two Lightning Knights within, their lips moving silently. Kat recognized them both as high-ranking Knights from a background cut-scene or two, a grey-haired woman and a tall, muscular man who looked a little like Random Virus.

"You lip-read?" Lord Fear demanded.

"Yes, my lord. They…"

Kat watched the cut-scene swelling, growing to the whole of her screen as their voices started to come across. The Knights were muttering at first, and then she heard something that sounded like "amulet", and then—

—the power went off.

"Aidan it was just a lightbulb, don't switch the house off—"

"Sorry, hon, I'll just fix it—"

She listened to her parents stumbling around in the dark for a bit before her computer switched on again, but she didn't manage to get anywhere else and as it was getting to be far too long past midnight for her tastes, she fell asleep.

"So…what's with the magic in your dimension?" she prompted Sparx.

"Stuff the evils do." She waved a hand in the air. "It's like, I dunno, like our powers only not as cool or non-evil. Doesn't work so much in our cities, only the borders and the Carnivals are where it shows up in people."

"Do they use magic to spy on you? I heard that Lady Illusion could…"

"That's why we got these." She reached deep inside her jacket and pulled out a bright, small feather tied to the head of a pin with scarlet thread. "From fynixes. Apparently it's a bit of a shield against some things…not that I believe in it much, but this one was a present from an old friend…"

"Random?" Kat asked her. "The blonde girl in…in the Academy next to you? The…"

"Nah, his name was Avraam. Tall dark guy, he used to be a cadet with me," she said, and Kat vaguely remembered seeing a Knight who could have been him. "Fought the evils, didn't make it."

"Oh. That sucks," Kat said, unsure of how to console her, if that was what she wanted.

"Yeah, whatever," Sparx said, leaning back on the sofa as she grabbed the remote and idly flipped through the channels. "I am so bored. Out of my mind. You got anything interesting I can do?"

"I…don't think so," Kat said.

"Yes…this." Ace brought out his own fynix feather from a pack on his utility belt; it was more faded than Sparx', the red the darker colour of rust. "I'd forgotten all about it. That's all I need to do with it now..."

He flung it across the room; it skidded across the pale floor like a small insect.

"What? Shouldn't you be keeping it in case they spy on you? Lord Fear?"

"No. If she can see me, that's enough for me," Ace said; Kat didn't bother to ask who he was talking about, and watched him fly moodily away.

Lady Illusion, the ghost who faded away who wasn't showing up, Sparx' anger and frustration, and the rest of them watching it happen. The opposite numbers on the good and bad teams, some kind of sacrifice set against anger and frustration that was totally going to have Lord Fear roasting on a spit when they finally found him. It was easy to think of it with Sparx at the centre, not necessarily Ace; who said the hero had to be the hero instead of the heroine? And Mark, who had his many good qualities but certainly hadn't made an effort to seek the superheroes out in the first place, wasn't…quite doing the same thing she was doing about it.

"So, magic…" she prompted him over school lunch.

"Yeah, superheroes, game, like comic books," Mark said, lifting a spoonful of mashed potato to his mouth. "What's the big deal, Kat?"

"It's no big deal, I just want to find out who they are. What they can do."

"Sure. Have my user manual." He rummaged in his bag for it. "That gives you the main details and combat stats, ask Chuck any time if you want to know the power ratios or the energy relativity…"

"Thanks," she said, not really understanding him. I actually wanted to find out about the world "I'll have a look at it."

"Great. So are you going to the big game next week?"

"Sure. Are you?"

"Yes. Um, did you want to sit together?"

"Well, I wasn't planning on sitting with the flaming Jonah Jameson over there."

"The Amulet of Zoar," Ace said reverently, perched on the Sphere Tower, tracing the etched markings on the glassy ball at the top of the confection, translucent bubbles pulled together by their own electromagnetism to form the tall monolith, each portion of it slowly rotating. It was pretty; Kat thought she rather liked the design. It looked human-made (for a given value of human), built on the edge of Elektri City; but it was only visible when under five ice-cold stars. "The colossi helped him, they say."

For it was ancient and unseen colossi of the Fifth Dimension who had created the tower, a boundary-marker between the Fifth and the Sixth.

"Gave him advice, along with other Sapient Races, for invulnerability, summoning and ultimate protection. The amulet was his key to the…world. It got split later on, half to the Carnival and half to us, with the centre missing…and yet it's returned now. I don't know what they would think about it all.

"But they're gone, along with the heroes who were Knights before me," he said, standing up and gazing into space. "They gave up a lot to keep this dimension safe. I've got to do the same."

The expression on his face looked vaguely familiar to her, though Kat couldn't quite place it; standard heroic thing, she supposed.

So that was what the amulet actually did, she thought, and wrote it down after the tower faded away from under her and she got killed by a squadron of Harpix.

Heather kept tilting her head to catch the light on that stupid gold hairclip she was wearing, and it glinted too brightly. Kat blinked at it; as Heather's head tilted again, she saw a faint hint of bright red on it. It looked…a little too familiar, perhaps, but she couldn't have been snooping around the Thunder Tower where Ace had ditched his, and she wasn't a fan.

Kat managed to pass by her on her way up to grab one of the handouts, looking across at it; a leaf, not a feather, though still with scarlet bound to it.

"Nice clip. Really makes a good weapon to blind people with. Where'd you get it?" she asked anyway.

"Silvia Ramirez makes them," Heather said smugly. "I met her back before I dumped her brother, and she gave me a discount."

Kat noticed the retcon, but decided against using that. "It looks a lot like merchandise from that game Mark plays. You know, the really dorky one? It's like a mystic leaf object that shields against magic. Are you trying to protect yourself from bad vibes, Heather?"

Heather scowled. "Don't be stupid," she said, and then the teacher heard her raised voice and silenced them both.

Kat saw her, later, holding the clip up next to her head looking at the mirror in the girls' bathroom, and smirked to herself as she quietly let the door fall back into place.

"Okay, all right Chuck, you're the ping-pong champion." Kat dropped the bat, exhausted; she was good at basketball, but she'd never played ping-pong before, and her hands felt like they had two thumbs apiece when it came to holding the rackets.

"Of Earth and the Sixth Dimension, don't forget it!" He raised his arms in mock-champion parody.

"Yeah, I know." She flung herself back onto the sofa; it was a really warm day. "Hey, did Lady Illusion ever spy on you in a magic crystal ball?"

"Sure. It's in the Hall of Mirrors sector, you get a small cut scene where she and Lord Fear are spying on you but it sort of fades from the crystal ball after a while—oh, in the real world. Dunno. HQ is safe, and we mostly hang out in the Thunder Tower."

"So…magic works, but not very much?" Kat asked. She'd kept stalling on the game, and the magic thing was really all she could think to ask about.

"Sure, dude. Unless it's energy blasts or something."

A sudden noise as Sparx swept through the door; they both ducked.

"This totally flatlines!" she complained.

"Sparx…" Mark began worriedly, coming in the door next to Ace. "…Don't do anything too quickly."

"What up, guys?" Chuck asked. "Did anything happen without me?"

"No," said Ace. "Nothing at all. I'm going to head down to the junkyard to talk to Random."

"Yeah, see if lugnut c'n cheer you up," Sparx muttered, and sighed. "No, never mind. Tell him hi from me, Lightning." She grabbed the remote and started earnestly watching an advertisement for cheap curtains.

"Right. Ping-pong, dude?" Chuck asked Mark.

"Sure." He stuffed his wrist cannon back in his pack. "You're on."

"This is so totally boring," Sparx muttered. "I just wish boneman'd show up, I almost blasted one of the really annoying mortals just in case he knew about it, Cheesycake or whatever his stupid name is, Mark said he knew about the aliens…"

"You nearly blasted Chesebrough? Sparx, don't do that!" Kat said, appalled. He'd only just returned to school after being caught up in all that at the Carnival. If he'd been hurt, as much as she disliked him as a teacher…

"I know. It's just Ace is moody because of stupid Lady Illusion and the kid's supporting him and Random's still…you know, and nothing's happening and I hate the weather too, did I tell you? Way too hot for anything!"

Sparx against the world, Kat thought. She'd liked the superheroine for being so spirited, but she was starting to get impatient with everything going on around her, and Kat didn't blame her. One of her best friends was moping, the other one was still insane, she and Mark had the whole issue with not telling her about the g-a-m-e, and…she just didn't have anything to do.

Yeah, she supposed she could understand a little bad temper, a lot better than in certain others. Sitting next to Sparx, she swung her feet a little, fidgeting; there was something on the ground next to her feet, and she picked it up from where it had fallen.

"Ace's fynix-thing," she said. "I saw him take it off."

"Moron!" Sparx said. "Give it to me, I'll give it to him."

She handed it over; Sparx spat on it and rubbed it with her turtleneck to clean it up, and kept on mindlessly watching Sesame Street as the ping-pong ball bounced in the background.

"I could do your hair," Kat offered, bored (and prepared to take whatever the boys would think about girl stuff). "Like, your fringe. Does it ever get in your way?"

"Don't think so," Sparx said, but she let Kat lead her into the bathroom, where they could look in the mirror. Kat reached up to work her hairtie loose; her hair felt weird, not hundreds of thin strands but more like clay moulded to her head. She made it flop loose from the shape, settling around Sparx' head like red straw. Like Joan of Arc like she got drawn just before they'd burned her, short hair like a boy's.

Ace's feather fell to the ground with a clink; Kat picked it up again. "Someone I know wore a thing like this in her hair," she said, not that you actually wanted fashion tips from Heather, but... "Yeah, it could be a clip as well, it'd look nice on you and hold back the fringe…goes with your earrings, too."

"So what's with your hair?" Sparx asked good-naturedly. She held the feather up next to her head, checking it out in the mirror. "Looks like worms."

"Does not, you're just jealous," Kat said, and Sparx probably was just being honest because she didn't get human things, but the way she was holding it and the burning hair and the insult made her look…

…yeah. It was just a bit obvious. Fiery-tempered redheads. Kat supposed there really was something to the stereotype.

"What's up, kid? You look like you just saw an Ink Ghost." Sparx laughed. "Maybe I should go for the hairclip. Gimme back my tie?"

"Okay. Let me?"

"Ow, don't pull so hard—"

"All done. So where'd you pick up your earrings?" Kat asked, just for the sake of saying something. "They look good on you."

"I—"

A sudden noise came from the doorway, and they heard the ping-pong game stop; voices speaking.

"Hey, kid. And I guess you're Chuckdude."

"Uh, yo, Virus man."

"Where's Sparx?"

"Long time no see, lugnut." She affectionately pounced on him, giving him a pat on the back. "This is Kat, she's Mark's latest girlfriend."

"Er," Mark said. "Yeah."

"Ace says you're good with machines," Random said, wheeling himself over to Chuck. "How good?"

"Um, I'm more on the…programming side of things than…you know, complete mental control over them…but I did once build this robot…"

Random nodded. "I remember that."

"But—oh. Mark, you didn't tell me…"

And then they were off, a conversation about circuits and rust that Kat couldn't follow. She looked to Sparx and saw her rolling her eyes as well.

"So I guess Random's the tech guy for your team," she said. Always one geeky type hanging around, even if the Virus had probably been a lot more attractive than the usual type, once.

"Before his accident, yeah. Rebuilt the Flash's engine totally from scratch once, when we were trapped in the Midnight Plains between two swarms of Dust Demons…Ace managed to set them against each other so we didn't really need it, as such, but it was totally handy to get away nice and fast." Sparx sighed. "Why don't you guys have demons?"

"We got dust devils," Kat said. "Out in Kansas."

"Like in the holo with the little dog and the ugly Lady Illusion witch?"

It took Kat a few seconds to work out what she was talking about. She nodded.

"Not as good as ours, but if I can find one riding it would be totally fun—"

"Sparx, you could get seen!" Kat told her, and she slumped irritably back on the sofa.

"Yeah, yeah."

"I'm gonna get to the Carnival and you're not stopping me!" She flung down the pack of money Kat had spent hours helping her "borrow" from the Merchant Rats (they were practically evil, Sparx' sprite assured her, and anyway she'd left a Lightning Knight card behind her and they could totally get compensation for it). "There's the entrance fee. Let's do it."

The dark-skinned man sitting at the table groaned; his bright tunic rippled across his body, and the turquoise horn coming out of his forehead twisted itself into a tighter corkscrew. "Times have changed, m'dear. There's not even a guarantee you'll receive that as your prize…even if you manage to win."

A sweep of his hand indicated the gathered fighters: a one-eyed woman who looked about ten feet tall, a man glowing fluorescent green with tattoos covering his skin and daggers in his hands and mouth, an ox-horned woman with an anvil tied around her waist, a man with scarlet teeth and metal skin….

"You know I can take them," Sparx said. "And you'll get me to the Carnival in the Nowhere Caravan, I know you've got contacts there. We got a deal, or you want me to break this place up?" Her right hand started glowing pink. "One thing you gotta know, Big Harri. One of my friends is trapped in the Carnival. And I really don't like anyone keeping me from my friends."

She leaned toward him, the glow getting brighter, like she was just about to strike out and cut him through the neck like a ninja on film—and then he backed his seat away from her, and laughed.

"I suppose we can bend the rules," he said. "Hand over your earrings for the pile as well."

"But that's not f—"

"Oh yes. It is. Especially if you don't want me telling those Knights of yours."

And that was the Gladitatorium, which she'd read on the cheat guides was the only other alternative to struggling through the Cold Swamps and risking the asteroid-Gate so you could get to the Carnival and start helping Ace.

Of course, though she did manage to struggle through the first battle with a guy shorter than Sparx and with a really small health bar, the second one wiped the floor with her. Not that the floor had ever been wiped, Kat thought dourly as game-Sparx got thrown across it, quite repeatedly.

It had been a hard day with Heather her normal self again (sans hairclip, which was a bit good); and now she was relaxing at Mark's place, up in his room with him. They'd managed a few minutes making out before he'd heard his father coming home, and then he'd quickly pulled the door a little bit open. Boys.

"So, uh, how about we work on the computer?" he said. "We could get some of that history research done."

"Sure."

She went to look at his bookshelves while he booted up the machine. He still had action figures, dinosaurs and football players, a couple of old sport trophies, even a couple of the plaster figures you were meant to paint yourself. Photo of him in the middle of a group with his arm around a black boy with dreadlocks, photo of him and Chuck in football uniforms, interesting-looking demon mask—and photo of the girl in the white jacket smiling as brightly as day, the dark line of her bag bisecting her chest.

"Nice mask, Hollander."

"Thanks," he said.

"So you've still got your picture of Sam." Looking down on them with that seraphic expression all the time.

"Yeah, of course. Because we're friends," Mark said.

"I know." She wasn't jealous of Sam, not really. She'd said she was interested in a guy at her school and thought Mark and Kat would be a great couple—and she was probably telling the truth, because after all Samantha Thompson had been the nicest and most popular girl in town and nobody like that would ever lie…or throw temper tantrums over a little move from the city or boyfriend frustration or be anything less than perfect… Kat stopped herself. It was stupid to feel that way. "So how about that geography assignment?"

"I'll bring those maps I bought to school tomorrow," Kat said. The environment map would be useful for this, finally.

"Thanks."

"I'll be getting my license soon," she went on.

"That's cool, congratulations," he said. "But I don't think we could, you know, do that road trip now. Not with Ace like he is."

"I didn't say I wanted to take you on a road trip, Hollander." Lightning was miserable, she got it; he spent most of his time away from the Thunder Tower and when he was there barely talked to anyone, apparently because (Mark said) he'd had anger problems before as a result of the emotions. Depression wasn't much more impressive, in Kat's opinion. At least Sparx talked about her boredom.

"All right. When this is all over?"

"Sure."

"As the Garden of Broken Statues beckons, the strands of memory entwine about your heels. Do you choose to learn three secrets of the Sixth Dimension, traveller, or do you choose to fight this way through?"

According to one guide, there were a couple of clues buried in this cutscene—a sneak peek at the House of Illusion if you hadn't seen it yet, a good look at the Garden, how the Mole People might help you in there, a hint that you had to go through Outside Town before trying to break down Inner Wall.

She'd go for it, Kat thought.

"The first secret is that the House of Illusion is the only place in the Sixth Dimension Zoar never ruled over."

A brief image of a Lady Illusion-lookalike, an even briefer one of a man from the head down, none of his features visible.

"They say she agreed to meet him in the Darkwood, and escorted him back to the House—and whatever happened between them, he was returned to the forest afterwards, and the House warded against him forever."

She saw glimpses of the House of Illusion's rising walls, a few dark spaces that might be worth hiding in.

"The second secret is that the Garden itself was created by a sorcerer, who made the most beautiful women of the Dimensions into living statues for his whim."

The Garden, then, as it must have been for the story: whole and beautiful, pale-white women poised gracefully between time.

"An archer-Knight came to rescue a princess from his will."

She looked a little like Sparx, Kat considered, a long plait of chestnut-brown hair and a lean, strong face.

"She came to the Garden, and because she was inside his power so close to her goal, she could not defeat him."

A shot of her firing lightning-tipped arrows to a distant shadow.

"But she was clever: she took her shadow from herself and bound it to one of her arrows, and fired it far out of the Garden, to where the sorcerer's soul was hidden. And while her shadow destroyed the soul she was able to destroy the body. Though of course the battle…ruined the place."

Kat saw the arrows and mage-bolts shattering into stone, so the statues lay broken as corpses; and then the Knight reached for a lightning-arrow from her pack and stabbed the sorcerer directly with it while he screamed.

"Her shadow was permanently sundered from her as price for that victory, and one day she and the shadow destroyed each other. But the lesson of the tale is: that sometimes an outsider must complete a task before the inner part can be solved." The emphasis on the words made Kat roll her eyes.

"And some others say that the real outsider was the princess, who was never truly one of the statues at all, and who arranged events so that the Knight's victory would mean the sorcerer's lands belonged to her. For sometimes it is the outsider's power to arrange."

A shot of what was probably the one intact statue left in the Garden, then a live woman of the same features, with living dark hair and gleaming green eyes, laughing to herself…

Almost made it to sinister, Kat thought, and then rolled her eyes over taking it almost seriously.

"The third secret is that when Lord Fear's champion fought an inferior sorcerer for possession, many long years later...not all that inhabited the Garden were pleased."

And it was Lady Illusion, to Kat's surprise, or the girl who would become her because she still looked not-that-old, taking a sword offered her.

"Not my weapon of choice—but it will suffice," she said, standing ready against a purple-cloaked man, his blade drawn. And they battled, and Kat tried to take notice of the statues that wobbled when you leaped on them and propelled you up in the air, and it looked like he was really good and she wasn't half bad, and then she put up a hand to block him and suddenly there was a crystal ball in her hand, glowing gold and turning the strike away. And as she shielded and attacked, it began to look worse and worse for her opponent, and he fell to the ground, and last there was a shot of her standing triumphant with a streak of blood across her face and dust spattered on her grey shirt. A poison-green sash bisected her body, running between her breasts, and as she smiled the image tugged at Kat's memories.

The camera switched to small black things she'd seen only as dots in the battle, gnome-like mole-creatures with humanlike faces looking annoyed and scuttling away.

"Well done, my dear," Lord Fear was saying to her as they walked away; she gazed up at him appreciatively.

"Thank you. Do you have any plans for the Molen, my lord? I have heard they are inclined to rebellion."

"What matters is we have the Garden; it would hardly be worth the resources. Now we return to the Haunted House…"

Kat sighed as it finished and her sprite was left to aimlessly wander the Garden. She couldn't actually find either enemies or Molen, and decided to do a little study. Or even better, a lot.

"You're an incredible driver," he said. "A plus, Adams, one hundred percent. You pass—and don't forget to use the indicator." He laughed a little at his own joke.

"Right, thanks."

This was handy; she made sure to be talking about it very loudly with a group of other girls as Heather walked past.

"Hi, Heather. New article for the paper, maybe? Hundred-percent drivers'-ed score setting-record for last five years?"

Laine shot her a surprised look, and Kat realised she was boasting about it; Mark, too, across the hall with Chuck, had turned to look at her.

"But I guess when you take it next year with the new freshmen you'll do just fine."

She glared at Kat. "You write the article," she said. "I'll be covering the fencing tournament." She turned on her heel and strode away.

"Harsh," Stacey commented.

Kat shrugged. "Yeah, well. When did she ever have a good word to say about anyone?"

"She did in middle school," Laine said. "Well, mostly Sam did. But she was nicer with her around. I guess she misses her a lot. I do too."

"Yeah. I can't see how someone as nice as Sam ever hung out with—"

Stacey rolled her eyes. "Heather's really not that bad, Kat, let it go. Better-tempered than you used to be."

Kat scowled.

"I wouldn't say that," Laine said hurriedly. "But Sam was the kind of person who makes everyone better. She and Heather were great best friends, Sam did the being nice to people and Heather knew something about everyone and was smart enough to skip Grade Five so they balanced each other out. They were the most popular girls in school, I suppose that makes Heather miss her more."

"I've got a friend like Heather, temper and all," Kat said. "She's going through some tough times at the moment, she's really bored and her best friend's moping 'cause he's in love with someone who really hates her. Except she's not like Heather, not at all." The last line found its way out of her mouth louder than she'd intended.

"You should make up your mind." Aimee giggled. "So who's seen Midnight Running? Tom Shipper was so cool in it…"

Bored, Kat looked around at Mark and Chuck, still chatting. She saw Mark raise his phone to his ear, exchange a few words; and then the expression on his face made her rush over to him, suddenly afraid of what was to come.

Oh god. Ace.

The boys had both ditched school, leaving Kat to pass off vague excuses. Well, Mark said it was a family emergency, and…well, of course he needed, uh, moral support…

Selfish of her to have waited. Probably. She had school, they weren't quite…real, they were both alive and she couldn't have helped anyway…

…but looking down at Ace, flashing in and out of existence in agony, she couldn't help but wish she'd done something better.

"He's a total freaking idiot." Sparx sat with her hand in the transformer and a blanket wrapped around her, slowly recovering from the battle. "Ace, you hear me? Total. Freaking. Idiot. I toldja not to chuck it out so you could be tracked. You don't get to do this to us, damnit!"

He didn't seem to be listening to her; his eyes were half-closed from what she could see between flashes, flailing and moaning faintly. It was like when she'd seen her great-grandmother just before she died, the nursing home smelling like ammonia and rotten plants and the old, faded figure on the bed, grey and looking like she was melting into the bedclothes.

It was as bad as a human on their deathbed, she thought. It was.

Chuck looked up from the computer. "Stabilized him in this format. Hooked him up to a wire with all the electricity he can stand right now. Can't do anything more."

"You can't do anything?" Kat said, and hated that she sounded like a hysterical girl.

"Dude. I wish I could." Chuck took a furtive glance around at Mark, sitting beside Ace with a look on his face like the world had been ripped out from under him. Almost the same pain she saw in Ace. "I should've told you."

Sparx had been…chasing dust devils, regardless of what she'd been told. At least she hadn't been seen. Ace hadn't been able to reach her on the comm until she tapped the dirt out of it and slowed down long enough to listen, and by then it'd been almost too late to save him from where Lord Fear had found him in flight.

He'd wanted it to be slow, of course, he was saying—well, you know villains, but it was like worse this time. Like he was shooting him in the back again. That when we stop now we stop for good—and I don't wanna think about that, like you know no more me forever and ever and never, just nothing like never waking up again—and he said it was going to be slow and painful and the same thing would happen to his friends, and he'd never be able to be rescued and would just keep on and on losing energy and—and dying out there all alone because he couldn't be bothered to gloat any more—

She'd still rescued him, Kat told herself.

"The thing I didn't tell you is...we've gotta save the world now. And I...I found..."

Chuck waved his arm limply. He looked like he was wearing a small version of a boxing glove, a thick metallic covering over his hand. More practical than a claw, Kat thought; some parts of your brain always noted irrelevant stuff like that.

"Dudes, I'm sorry, okay? I just wanted to figure out how to use it on my own so I could impress you later, I didn't think that if I'd actually been around I might've fought and…changed something…"

Mark turned a glare on him like he'd just murdered several entire species of kittens, and then sank back again, the thin lines on his face running back into something more resigned. "I don't think you could've done anything," he said. "Me neither."

"What's it do?" Sparx looked anxious, like she just wanted to talk about anything other than what had happened.

"Superstrength and circuit tapping." He held it out to Kat so she could see the intricate patterns engraved on the fingertips. "I can get into machinery and stuff, do more hacking. That's how I thought it was for me like your wrist cannon, sent out of the game because it's reading me as a Knight, not…well, sorry, Kat. And it fitted."

"That's okay. I can't fight anyway." They could talk about this, the…practicalities; much better than poor Ace.

"Could come in handy, Chuckdude," Sparx said miserably.

"And we have to talk to Random," Mark said. He'd been hard hit by this, Kat could tell; but he still seemed…ready for whatever else would happen. "We need his help."

"Sure, we'll talk to him," Sparx said. "Except I do want to say, you know. That I'm going to handle this." She glanced around at the three of them, and Kat managed a smile for her.

Sparx was a Knight. She was going to do a damn good job of it.

"What happened to you?" Brett asked sympathetically.

"Yeah, what's with the face, Hollander? Looks like you got run over by an anvil or something." Heather was staring at him almost suspiciously.

"Fell down the stairs," Mark muttered.

Kat glared at him; it was unfair, she knew, but it was still annoying that he hadn't told her more about yesterday's battle than a few muttered words. Sparx still alive, Chuck still alive, villains still alive. Same old story. Since that dust demon Lord Fear had created—created, he even had the power to do that, apparently—had run amok on the school oval while damn Pigface had kept her wrapped up in snot and the Rat had nearly killed her as a hostage, she hadn't…been around for the battles, and, maybe worse, she wasn't sure she felt like complaining. Weren't reporters supposed to be ready to go on battlefields, risking everything to bring the news?

But it wasn't like the evils respected the press, she told herself grumpily.

She looked over to Chuck, talking about a cooking accident he claimed had left him with the burn on his hand. This really wasn't right; for all Sparx was trying her hardest and fighting her best and even thinking about things, talking about strategy and tactics and being so serious Kat almost couldn't recognize the person she'd known as a friend in the months of inactivity, it seemed almost worthless to try.

"So why you, anyway?" she almost yelled at Mark, when they went home after school and to the relative safety of her place (the villains didn't know where she lived, she hoped anyway). "Out of everyone who could've picked up that stupid game, it had to be…"

"It had to be someone." He sighed wearily, collapsing on her chair. "My grandad used to say that everything happens for some reason."

"One out of whoever-knows how many gazillion copies they sold."

"Something like eleven point eight million, actually. I looked it up," he said.

"Oh, right. You never thought of sending it back to the store?"

"I thought worse, once," he said. "I was going to delete it and all of them with it."

Killing them all. No, that wouldn't be right. No matter how much danger the world was in. She wasn't sure if she was trying to convince herself.

"But now I know that's wrong," he said. "Ace gave up a lot to save this world—" he mentioned the name none of them wanted to talk about—"and now it's our turn."

The line sounded like something out of a movie, she thought, but mocking it would have almost felt like smashing in a church window. She watched him, instead, standing there, a lot more unreachable than the hesitating, excuse-making Mark she'd known at school. Resolved.

Like he was a hero, of course. The words rushed in on her. "You're like Ace," she said. "Not…American, but you're acting like him and…" And we…know how that ended? No…

"I'm trying," he said simply. He looked at his watch. "Sorry, Kat. I've got to go to the Thunder Tower. And do math homework."

"Yeah, I guess I'll just sit here, right?" she couldn't stop herself saying as he headed out the door.

His hurt glance made her regret it so much. "You should be safe," he said. "I mean, the number of times I thought they were going after Sam…But if you want to come, of course..."

"I've got homework too," she said.

He seemed to relax, a little guiltily. "See you tomorrow."

I'd better.

It was a pretty nice day for a fencing tournament. Sunny and everything.

Kat knew this, because she was running away across the oval from Pigface at the time.

She really hadn't planned to go. At all. The call from Chesebrough had…changed things.

Adams, Hollander's aliens are here, they said they wouldn't hurt me but I can't live with them any more, they said something about going after you, they're at the school

She'd called Sparx and Mark. No answer. Apparently Lord Fear had figured out distractions, too. Easiest way to play it: go to the school herself. The ice cream truck chased her from her house, and she was glad her parents were going to be out of it.

Wouldn't dare to upset the fencing tournament and have all those people see them. Wouldn't dare, right.

Oh god oh god oh god…

And there was Sparx at last, scorching the ground with red flames.

"Get inside!" she called, leaping down. The sun behind her almost gave her a red-gold halo, her sword raised as she braced herself for the fight. Kat stared at her in relief—superheroine in battle, her strength protecting the weak—and then ran to secure the doors behind her.

"So what are you doing here, Adams?"

Heather coming down the hallway, dressed in white. Of all the people she really, really could have done without meeting…

A giggle, and a flash of movement. Kat saw the Rat flying behind them with a crystal ball in his hand. They'd planned this, she thought again, and gasped as she took a step back to the sealed door; but Heather had her arm raised, and he flew into her fist and ricocheted off the walls—

"There are some really weird birds here. I think this is the second time I've seen something like it," Heather said.

Had she seen had she seen?

"Um, yeah." Kat tried to let herself relax. Heather didn't look like she'd just discovered the secret aliens in Conestoga Hills, and now the Rat had flown off Sparx could take care of everything. Typical. Heroines needed.

"You look like you've seen a ghost," Heather told her. "Scared of the birds, Adams?"

"No—" Kat said, before she realised they'd only end up in a childish yes-you-were-no-I-wasn't exchange, and glared at Heather. She'd be scared too if birds like that were after her—or maybe she wouldn't be. She'd never seen Heather scared at all.

"You're lucky I was here to protect you," Heather said maddeningly. "I'd better get back to the competition." She half-turned, and light from the window caught her face in profile and her sword raised; and Kat couldn't stop it.

"You're…really good with that thing, right?" she said. "You didn't start 'till hardly any time ago, and I heard this was a regional tournament, and…"

"It's not a thing, it's an épeé," she said. "Usually people start on the foil, but I apparently have talent. And I work on it. The normal way I get good at everything."

"Right. Right." Kat bit her lip. It was still too close. Too unlikely, that they'd come to a world where it just so happened that the people they met were similar—only a little similar, of course, she reminded herself of the many differences, but even so and even here… She remembered the look on Mark's face the other day at her place, and shivered despite the day's warmth.

"Do you want something?" Heather demanded, her hand on her hip. Looking more like Sparx than ever, suddenly.

Kat tried to think about the stuff she'd heard about Heather. Dated Mark for a while. Friends with Sam, who'd done the same thing.

Now that was a really stupid idea. Kind, nice Sam, at all in the same context as the villainess of the piece. That was more of a Heather thing. She managed a small smile to herself. About the only thing the two of them had in common was that they were both away. She was the one here, and maybe she'd be like Mark and Chuck once she'd stayed a little longer...

Or maybe she was the one on the outside, after all. The girl watching the heroines do their thing. She swallowed.

"I guess Mark was acting really strange around you and Sam, before," she said.

"And you're just now discovering Mark's a jerk? Talk about slow."

"Sam still likes him."

"He always said he'd tell her everything, someday," Heather said. "She kinda liked the weird, until she wised up. He never did. Asshole."

"All right!" Kat said a little too brightly. "I was thinking of going on a road trip now I've got my license," she told her.

"I'm sure you'll have a great time with Hollander. Send a postcard from Loserville, I've got a first place to win." Heather abruptly turned away; Kat ran after her.

"No. I was wondering if you'd like to come. I was thinking of going up to Massachusetts, taking a study break for the teachers' strike next week, four hundred and something miles from here…"

She's four hundred and thirty-two miles away, Kat, she knew. God, she shouldn't be doing this, but if anyone she had the right to know, like Kat herself had demanded…

"…stay in a cheap motel for one night, maybe two, drive back home, four days' trip if everything goes well…"

"Hello, Adams? You hate me, remember?"

"I like Sam." Which was pretty much true. "It'd be fun to meet her at her school. And I haven't got that many other acquaintances here and…" True too, she thought. Unfortunately.

"And you need me to chaperone loverboy. I can't think of anything I'd hate more than playing your third wheel…"

"Second wheel," Kat said desperately as they reached the gym doors. A group of other fencers were chatting near them. "Mark's not going. Doesn't a trip sound like…you know, fun?"

"All right. Just for Sam." Heather smiled. The sharp expression might have lasted for a second. "And I'm not paying for gas."

"Done."

Kat watched part of the bout, before she got the call saying everyone was all right, for today at least. She had the feeling she'd seen it all before anyway, in the mornings with Sparx drilling.

It was down to the heroines now, she supposed. Fiery redheads and…whatever.

Right or wrong, she'd give them the truth.