Polyphonic Quartet

Summary: Four stories of intersecting lives of female characters. There is something amazing out there, and there is something amazing inside people, and perhaps in the end they'll find their way. One shot.

A/N: Sam's fanon brother Troy is Allison Lightning's creation.

Polyphony goes back to the Carolingian period in the ninth century in which religious chanters were taught to improvise octave, fifth, and fourth-note harmonies against each other for special occasions, and the meaning of counterpoint is perhaps a back-formation from the adjectival form of this word. It is the style in music of combining many voices simultaneously, where the individual melody of each voice is heard to harmonise with each other in a complex texture that to the listener may prove greater than the sum of the single parts.

Nothing is poetical if plain daylight is not poetical; and no monster should amaze us if the normal man does not amaze. - GK Chesterton

The human animal is a beautiful and terrible creature, capable of limitless compassion and unfathomable cruelty. If you wish to find that which becomes the dividing line between mankind and other biological classifications, it rests not in brain size, dominance, or even emotional capability, but lies in the unique capacity for human beings to reflect on their actions and show regret, what is most certainly the ability to empathise, that gives them their position. All mammals understand love and affection, but only man shows the propensity to place himself into the shoes of another life-form. Losing this capability, among individuals of this species, reduces them below their much heralded position, and readies the climate for the likely fall of man, the fall from grace. - The Cruxshadows (Sophia)

I always thought I'd feel better knowing that there's something else out there...Have you ever imagined how many amazing things haven't been discovered yet? You know, things that people say are impossible, or could never happen. Well, I want to see those things one day. - Sam ('Unidentified Flying Superhero')

I. Amazing Potential

Write an essay. Freeform.

Sam nibbled briefly on the end of the pen. It was a warm summer day; she'd have liked to be going to the pool with Heather, splashing each other and laughing about boys. A fly buzzed above her head in the examination room. The six others in here seemed to be busily writing, though she'd seen the tall boy on her left doodling on his paper during the maths tests, an odd spiderlike splotch of black ink that had somehow drawn her eye for its strangely unclear shape. She thought about Heather and Mark and Laine and Brett and Stacey and her life here, and that if she made it in she would miss so many things. Mark was a good friend, to her and to Chuck, and perhaps they would start to date again. Heather and Brett were going steady, to martial arts movies and sports games with each other, and it would be so easy to double-date. Mark, weird though he could be, she liked a lot, and though they were only fourteen... The weirdness was the interesting kind of weird. Someday he'd tell her everything, she was sure.

The familiar words If a thing's not worth doing your best, Sammy, it's not worth doing, came to her mind. She could see her father's face, remember sitting on his knee when she was little, his broad, gentle face and wide, soft hands that would open storybooks to read to her every night. And her work-busy mother would always agree: Do your homework first, Sam. We want the best for you out of life. They did their best for her and her brother. Sam looked down at the paper, frowning. Sometimes she did a little better than Heather on English assignments, almost the only times where she wasn't always several percentage points behind her friend and her perfectionist ways, but she wasn't the best in the class. Mark had written an essay once that Mrs Kitzelmann had read to the class. That when Huckleberry Finn had stood up and announced he would go to Hell, then, if that was what cost him for stealing Jim the slave out of bondage, that was a moment of heroism. You don't know how courageous you can be until you try, Mark's words had said, and especially if the enemy is what people can do to other people, instead of the sort of evil that openly says it's evil... Well, Sam had never been entirely comfortable with that book. Her parents never talked in dialect and thought that she had a responsibility to herself to do well.

Her mind had drifted again to Mark, and she thought of all the times he'd come close to telling her. That time at the Carnival when everyone was trapped, that time at school just before Cheseborough had called him into detention, that time out in the woods when Chuck had called him over, that time on a walk together at night. After Chuck had taken that weird video that people thought was an alien, she remembered. Mark had asked her what she'd do if she really saw an alien.

Run, scream, freak. Most people would. But...I wouldn't, she'd said to him. I always thought I'd feel better knowing that there's something else out there.

It sounded silly. But it was a start. She scribbled:

Have you ever imagined how many amazing things haven't been discovered yet? She thought more about it, and continued to write. People couldn't fly before the Wright brothers invented the airplane, though as far back as Leonardo da Vinci people wondered if people could fly, and even further back in prehistorical times it must have sounded like magic to primitive people. People didn't know magnetism existed until... She rested the back of the pen against her lip, and it came to her. Until it was a surgeon from historical India who found that iron calling to iron could be used to help people, to draw shards of metal out from their bodies. And then it was the Chinese who first discovered lodestones pointing north, and they used them on ships to explore the world. Her father, being a surgeon, had told her of the Indian-Indian doctor; her Gramma Wells who had sailed her own boats down on the coast told her and Troy stories about the first navigators. And I think it was amazing that the first thing, so many of the first things, that people chose to do with new discoveries was to try and help people. My father, who is a doctor and a lecturer in medical history, wants to use new discoveries to cure people. My grandmother, who loved boats and told me about navigation, volunteered for the Women's Volunteer Emergency Service in the Navy in 1944 because she loved this country. And back then was segregation, so it must have been harder for her than Gramma had ever told Sam; she'd died when she was only six.

I want to live in a world where we can see the impossible happen, or even create it ourselves, she wrote. There's paranormal stuff on TV that just shows what we can imagine if we want. Some people think they would run, or scream, or completely freak out if they ever saw something they didn't believe in.

She thought of Mark and his strangeness again. But I wouldn't, she wrote. I wouldn't run away, or scream and close my eyes shut, or completely freak out and pretend I never saw it. I want to see those things someday. I want to be amazed in the world. Courage is something you don't know you have until you try, but I know I would want to find that something existed out there. Her pen was suddenly moving more quickly, filling the page with blue ink, and she didn't even spare the time to look up at the clock.

People can imagine things they never thought could exist, she wrote, and that's one of the reasons why humans are human. We can feel what others feel, and we are able to to grow and change and do better than our past. It's because we have the empathy to understand and the imagination to create new worlds that we can be unafraid to find out the amazing, incredible, wonderful, breathtaking, radiant, fantastic and marvellous things just behind the corner. I believe that if there is something amazing out there waiting to be discovered, then it must be something great and splendid and upraising and good, and I want to be a part of that story.

Six weeks later, the letter of acceptance came to her from Westleafe Academy. She'd won no scholarships, but her family had never had the sort of problems Heather sometimes whispered about her own parents' straggling business, and her parents were proud of her simply for getting past the school's difficult entrance. The tall boy's name was Jeremy, and he came from two townships over and he wanted to be an artist.

II. On The Edge Of A Card

Could you summon a world into a crystal ball, a world or a face that had come to mean far too much to you, a futuretelling or a mystery or self-contradictory memory fragments made into a whole of a past that meant too much less to her than it had?

She suspected that the answer was nil, nihil, nihilo, null, nulle, nullus. Fragments of words came into her head. She had liked to read a long time ago and had a library within the house with books of the runes of the ancient tongue of her people, and here she had still read what there was about Duff Kent's pitiful lodging, foolish fictions and meaningless magazines of human women. The library of the House of Illusion was... Strangely unclear to her mind, as if a river had washed past a bank and driven fields of memory underwater, crumbling mud into its endless torrents.

Something tells me we'll meet again, she had said, her form held together by sheer force of will for those last moments, fully expecting to be torn back to the Sixth Dimension alongside the others, and to meet punishment of betrayal. Instead neither of those had come true.

She had slept and dreamed and believed herself lost for weeks; months. The mortal school had closed itself, which she realised long after she had gone undiscovered. It was in a small room that had the smell of mortal sweat and contained piled-up sticks and balls and cloth from old uniforms; she was curled up and resting on the floor. Slightly an improvement upon Duff Kent's rooms. She was weak and drained; she waited.

He did not care to come to her.

She morphed into the sunlight outside, using her powers once more.

It was the truth that she could blend in to mortal society, and there was nothing else to do. Humans gathered in their mall, buying meaningless supplies. Felicity Fury, she might have said, was born at the glance of a crystal ball painted upon a dirty, dingy and ill-kept sign.

Madame Rengorie's Occult Books.

It reminded her of the trappings of sorcery within the Sixth Dimension. She entered, brushing aside a false spiderweb of soft grey fabric and shining plastic. A heavy incense hung in the air, again not so far different from places of home. The advertised volumes lined groaning, dusty shelves: palmistry and something called Wicca, witchcraft and card reading, herbals and remedies. On the counter glittered small trinkets, beads and small amulets of odd designs, a fountain gushing endless and slightly greenish water, and a crystal ball almost covered by threadbare blue velvet. The owner was a grey-haired mortal woman, who seemed to believe in everything she sold.

Then she struck up a conversation, and Felicity Fury accepted a job there.

Mortals concerned themselves with auras and major and minor arcana; goddess magic and phases of the moon; cups and swords and wands and coins; image symbolisms of mortal dreams; old gods and false circles; crystals and magnetism. The crystals reminded her of her own powers. In the crystal ball she saw reflections, until she covered it. Some mortal devices showed figures in a crystal ball, often dancing with fragments of snow falling about them, or springtime, green leaves falling around the ornaments trapped in glass. She stacked boxes with easy strength, reordered books, and counted money.

The truth was that the proprietor was an old fraud and thief with no powers. She was a mortal, and the way she gave Felicity Fury currency in only cash was to cheat the governing authorities. It was useful. After all, Felicity had no true documents.

The wooden cornices were clean now; the top of the shelves free from dust; the items arranged in a semblance of order. She preferred organisation to chaos. Crystal balls were spheres, arrangements of perfect chemical concoctions; a war needed logistics to be fought well. She thought she vaguely remembered the old days, guiding it with Lord Fear, his chaos and magical, weird genius fighting against what the Knights would force on others— (and it was true, the Carnival was wild and free and that had been important even though certain Knights were more honourable than others...) Felicity Fury remained on this world, ashes, remnants. The more effort it took in muscle to lift heavy boxes or distract with a task, the simpler the focus. Yes, Sylvia, I'll do that now...

The red-haired mortal girl was fiddling inside a glass bowl full of handmade dolls of patchworked scraps; the shape of her expression was that she paid no attention to the objects at all. Then she looked scornfully up at the artificial vegetation hanging in pots from the ceiling, between artificial spiderweb and ribbonlike decoration; and equally sceptically at the bookshelves.

"Can I help you?" Felicity Fury said, minding the counter, meaning, of course, none of it.

The girl sniffed. "Yeah, right. Read my palm and say I'm about to go on a long journey across the sea, or that my stars predict some really crappy week, or in your crystal ball there's going to be a car crash tomorrow. Why hasn't this stupid place been shut down as a total scam already?"

"You're not going anywhere," Felicity said, infusing menace from her other self simply for the sake of it. The girl looked mutinous.

"Well, I'm not, and I don't care. She's the one going."

Neither did she. Felicity yawned. The girl slammed down a plastic ring-ornament in the shape of a black cat on the counter. "I'm leaving," she informed her. "She'd never think I'd go in here, because I don't feel like talking to my friend the traitor yet."

The mortal held her head high to stalk out through the hanging curtain. Lady Illusion was reminded of that other redhead, and scowled. Then she replaced the few things the mortal had disarranged.

Two customers on was a mortal she recognised; her face drooping in misery, hesitant in her movements. Curly-haired and dark.

Look at them, she had thought once, watching her from a rooftop, playing mortal games of emotion. Must be nice to be mortal.

"...Excuse me," the other girl said. "It might be unlikely. But have you seen my friend? She's..."

Felicity Fury pulled the cover from the crystal ball, and gestured into its swirling, grey, thoroughly blank, depths, in theatre that might have amused some mortal.

"I'll...take that as a no. Right. You're not the one who does card readings on people, are you?" the girl said. "Like you know the...future. Choices people make and things like that."

There were cards, and Lady Illusion could make a pack appear in her hands as if out of thin air. She shuffled them with a Carnival-dweller's expertise, juggling them smoothly in the air and shifting them in patterns of fans that showed painted surfaces in a seamless blur.

The girl laughed. "That's really good," she said. "I don't...believe, quite? But that's a great trick. Even Heather would like to see that. And try to figure out how it's done."

"Childish sleight of hand," Lady Illusion said; and, facedown, laid five cards out. Futuretelling was unreliable, fluctuating, usually incomprehensible. She disliked using her crystals to do so. "You have made a choice. You are...sad." Sarcastic venom at mortal dramas dripped into her voice. "And you wish to be told that your choice was right."

It was not, she thought, one of her own weaknesses. She cared not whether she was spoken of as plaything, temptress, betrayer; only for a few people. Only for none.

The girl, gentle and essentially sheeplike though her expression typically was, bristled and raised her chin. "It was important for my life. I have to leave my best friend behind, and my boyfriend... He's not my boyfriend, just a good friend who could be my boyfriend if I stayed longer. I don't want to waste that potential, but my mom and dad say I'd waste the potential of my life by not going. I'm sorry. I shouldn't...talk like this to you."

"Waste your ambition upon some mortal boy?" Felicity said. She should not have said, mortal; the sheep-girl looked surprised. "No. Take your life first. He will not follow you."

"—That's kind of weird," the mortal said. "We'll still be friends and everything. It's just that it always gets more distant once you've got that space. I'll always be friends with him and with Heather. But I'm choosing. I'll miss the chance to go out with him. I'll miss finding out more about him. But I'll be going to a new place..."

"Choose your ambition," Felicity said. "It seems a certainty above some boy." Choose the Lord of the Carnival and his power; choose away from the one who abandons you and makes you weak; choose away from where, after all, I have collaborated in endangering your life already.

The mortal laughed nervously. "What do the cards say?" she said.

Felicity turned the first card; death in a dark green robe as a skeleton bearing a staff, skull-faced and vicious. For the second: the same. Third; fourth; fifth. Identical. The skeletal fear who came for all. She hadn't meant that to happen.

"—It can mean change," Lady Illusion said forcefully. Mortals knew nothing anyway.

The mortal girl backed away, worried. And yet then she regained some strength, much more than Felicity would have expected of her. "My mom likes to say that choices change people," she challenged. "Neither of us are going to die any time soon. Before I die, there are so many things I want to see and change." Then she smiled. "You shuffled them, didn't you, to show that the future's not the cards anyone draws. It's in the decisions you make." She looked across at a bracelet ornamented by wood-shaped dice and green-dyed feathers and took it down to study. "I'll buy that, thanks."

III. Other Side Of Bitterness

"No, Hollander, it's because you're a liar and a jerk and totally breaking ground of new levels of lame beyond lame every time you breathe. Better call some environmental protection squad against Hollander's toxic lameness. In other words," Heather continued, "if your lameness was carbon dioxide, we'd all be wearing breath masks. If I was on a diet of un-lame, you'd be a supersized Big Mac with extra processed cheese snot gunk and bacon made from pig intestines and eyeballs. Which it is in fast food, by the way. If lameness was a colour, you'd be a black hole. If lameness was a crime, you'd have shared a death row cell with John Wayne Gacy. If lameness could be mined, you'd be Fort Knox."

He opened his mouth and closed it again. Good. He'd let her and Sammy down too many times and cheated on Sam, and she was in just the right kind of mood to vent.

"Heather..." Brett said. "Maybe we should just go sit somewhere else."

Hollander was a jerk and her boyfriend had no right to side with him.

"Did I ask you to talk, Brett? Did I say I was going to let the Prince Jerk of all jerkdom move us out of the mall?" she demanded. "We were here first."

"...Actually, we were," Chuck said. "And, dude, supersizes aren't like that. You're sick."

"No, I just eat healthy, and I wasn't talking to you either, Mugel." She'd never noticed him much; this year he'd started to lose the baby-fat. Still, as one of Hollander's loser friends, she couldn't credit him for taste. He helped Mark cover with excuses too. "Go eat another half-ton of dead cow."

"—I have to go to the bathroom," Brett the lily-livered traitor said. Heather frowned.

"Fine, then. At least the ladies' room has no male losers allowed," she said. "Then again, didn't you wear lipstick that one time, Hollander?"

Mark glanced down at the ground, scraping his left foot across the tiles of the food court. "Come on, Chuck," he said. "Let's hit the burger bar."

In a war of words Hollander was, of course, unarmed, reflected the rightful chief editor of Conestoga Hills' freshman student paper. She wasn't satisfied; she never was when she had to look at his lame, stupid face. She'd rather kick him in the jaw like a martial arts movie, Jackie Chan, or try her moves on him and mean it that time. Too bad she'd get expelled from school for violence. And Heather Hoffs, champion multi-tasker and winner in school and social life alike, would never get expelled.

She brushed back her hair in the mirror, having not really needed this anyway. Mall toilets were disgusting. She'd come here with Sam for years; their parents had used to bring them for supervised malt milkshakes on Saturdays for a treat when they'd been six, and then they'd grown old enough to go on their own. And for dates. Like mutual disasters with Hollander.

She'd had a letter this morning; they'd made up their fight long before Sam left. It was good for Sam that she was away from that complete loser Holllander. And Sam wasn't a snob about her parents being able to afford...everything, when Heather's dad had been laid off at the cannery and her mom worked overtime to get by. Not that they were poor, permanently-underachieving rednecks like Wayne and his dad.

Heather sauntered out of the restroom, holding her head high, and almost ran into a woman she knew.

"Heather! How have you been? Simon and I haven't seen you lately," Mrs Hollander said to her, carrying a plastic bag with the logo of the main women's clothing store.

Heather Hoffs usually got along well with adults. Mrs Hollander wasn't so bad; she'd used to encourage Heather to encourage Mark to do better.

"Fine, thanks. School paper, basketball team, keeping up martial arts and swimming and all the homework they give us. Is Mark keeping up with his?" she said sweetly.

"Well—" Mrs Hollander said. "Have you seen his limp lately?"

Heather frowned, bit her lip, and thought back. "He's right here in the mall, you know," she said, with more aggression than she'd wanted. "Yeah, I guess he was leaning right."

"I worry about what sort of sports he's playing. When we knew he was with you at your classes, of course that was fine, but to come home with a bruise the size of a saucepan on his calf and say he can't remember how he got it..." Mrs Hollander pursed her lips, looking at Heather as if she expected information.

Well, Heather couldn't have cared less for a long time how clumsy Hollander fell down the steps, or if he wanted to act like he belonged with that gang of stupid headbanger seniors who did totally moronic tricks on motorcycles and scooters. She'd seen him pull a couple of stupid stunts herself in their very brief dating time, and sometimes he'd been bruised even when he hadn't been practising martial arts with her.

"I don't know, Mrs Hollander," she said. "He and Chuck look like they're having a great time here. Maybe they'll even run into that new girl, Kat. Has he heard from Sam lately?"

"Oh, those multitude of phone messages," Mrs Hollander said. "We filled an old fishbowl with them, I don't know why Simon brought that from England. After all, we've never even owned goldfish. Yes, it's quite the regular correspondence. She's doing very well indeed, Mark says."

Heather couldn't help but scowl. "I got a letter from her this morning," she said. "It's always nice when someone's reliable enough to keep in touch and keep their promises. Especially to girls they're dating." And that they didn't start dating other girls. She'd keep an eye on Mark for Sam, jerk that he was.

"And...you're dating...Rhett, that nice young man with the curly hair," Mrs Hollander said, with some kind of strange pride in it. "Sometimes Mark tells us things on what's going on in his life, of course."

"Brett," Heather corrected. There indeed was her boyfriend, come to distract her from her ex's mom. "Have to go, Mrs Hollander. Nice to run into you."

"Don't be a stranger, dear," Mrs Hollander abstractly advised her, and stepped off and away.

At school, there was Kat yet again. Basketball practice; Heather's turn at last to shoot hoops while the forest of waving arms tried to stop her.

Take it, dribble it, run, stop them—

The coach's whistle blew—well, Nadine's mom who thought she was a coach, blue-tee-shirted, usually acting like they were all kindergarten children. "Heather! Your elbows are not an offensive weapon!" Jackie was nursing her cheek. Heather vaguely remembered trying to get her out of the way. "Contact foul. Go—"

Heather sniffed angrily, and stepped back to try it again before Coach could tell her to hand over the ball to someone else. Dribble, move, run to the hoop, you get out of my way right now!

Adams blocked her hand-and-foot. Go left and she was there; go right; pushing-against-rules-of-game; needed to beat her. Always in her way; an obnoxious jerk just like Mark. Heather hated her, not as much but enough that she managed to stick out her leg and in a tangle too fast for Nadine's mom to see, accidentally tripped Adams. She raced toward the hoop; jumped up with the red square filling her mind; the ball flying toward that single target that was all her world at the moment, and in that instant she didn't hate anything else—

It hesitated at the edge of the hoop, and fell on the wrong side to the polished floor. Adams picked it up, glaring.

"I'll show you how to do it."

"Well done, Kat," Coach Lewis praised. How she hated those small, sneaky smiles of Adams', Heather thought; she put up a front of wasn't-this-small-town-simply-too-pathetic-for-my-majesty, and then she flirted with Sam's boyfriend and shoved her way into the basketball team. It was so stupidly fake. Heather felt her cheeks growing red with rage.

"I was off by like ten degrees," Kat said. "My coach at my old school would have caught..."

"Well, pass the ball on to Stacey now and let her have her turn," Nadine's mom said, blowing her whistle. Heather helped block Stacey and kept her off-balance; the throw missed by a mile, and so did Nadine's. She'd been the only sports talent worth keeping on this team until Queen of Bitter over there. How many times had she heard Adams boasting about how her old school was coached by this totally awesome ex-NBA star who knew everything?

It was time to play properly. The whistle sounded. Heather ran forward: wanting; angry; searching for the target.

IV. Brilliant Future

"Ready to roll, Ana?" The camerawoman's silver earrings danced below her pink buzz cut, and she gave Kat and her boss a bright nod. Kat turned the wedding ring she wore on her right hand in automatic, fiddling motion. Connie looked across at the delegates. In so many ways Connie Woodward had been Kat's mentor: knew the camera side of things back and front, on the scene when it all went down, and a fantastic woman to work for. Her white hair dandelion-like around her head, she signalled Ana to begin filming her introduction segment.

"In a way, this very special occasion needs no words of introduction," Connie said. "The delegates lined up; the guests filing in; officials at their posts; cameras rolling already. Let's announce the beginning of the First Treaty Anniversary of the United Dimensions and Earth, where the renewal will be signed by representatives of both the United Nations and the comgens' own leading figures. Connie Woodward for MetroScape International.

"Let's have the camera roll to introduce our attendees," she said. Ana shifted the filming accordingly. These were old friends as well as news subjects, Kat thought, though of course she'd learned to keep things professional. The comgens, the superheroes, were almost all here now; Ace couldn't be anything but punctual if you bribed him with a billion powerups and chained him up under a half-tonne of Buzzbeasts, and then there was Lady Illusion, who among other complicated personality traits was absolutely finicky on small detail and neat precision. She was beside Ace, and Kat would have bet money their hands were linked below the table's wide spread; the woman who'd managed to become elected comgen leader and principal treaty-drafter. Her waves of dark red hair fought to shapeshift loose from her bun, and the omnipresent black patch over her left eye made her look like a pirate who ironed her own collars and sleeves. Perhaps her visible injury of the war had made her easier to forgive for those on the Knights' side.

Sparx couldn't restrain herself from yelling an informal greeting to the official press, of course, and Kat had to smile back even as Connie impatiently signalled her to begin the narration. "Elected consul of the United Comgen Dimension, Lady Illusion," she began, "and by her the hero, Ace Lightning." Comgens, computer-generated people, superheroes; to Kat they were always the latter. "Captain Lightning initiated the Second Film Contact, and fought by humankind in Canary, Carnival, Haunted..." Kat gave it succinctly from the flashcards Ana held up; having been there for much of it herself helped.

"Captain Hollander, likewise of the United Comgen Forces," she narrated; Mark was there in the uniform he'd earned and its three shoulder stripes, though he'd laid aside the glove for the sake of a peaceful occasion. "Soldier; activist; citizen of two worlds." She bet Icicatrix and the kids would be watching this one from their home. Her friend smiled at her. She and Mark had the usual story of boy meets girl, boy saves the world, boy and girl date—and then boy and girl grow up, girl saves the world by bringing the truth to multimedia, boy saves the world by adopting orphans of a war that never was and turning his family into the poster group of why comgens counted as people. When he'd married an ex-minion of the Carnival at sixteen, she'd been there as groomsman right alongside Chuck, no matter the uncertainties she'd felt to witness that rushed ceremony in a digital world, and when he'd done it a second time at twenty-two when it was finally legal and all doubts were erased she'd stood a second time for him; he'd done the same for her own wedding to Rani.

"Doctor Mugel, civilian of the United Comgen Dimension, represented by avatar; Lieutenant Hoffs." Ana gave a nod that the settings of the camera were picking up Chuck's projected image; he'd chosen to go abstract this time, an endlessly turning mandala coloured brown and dark orange, presented in front of a roughly rectangular shape that to some might seem to hide some profound programmer's secret, but also suggested...pocky packet? Kat thought, and hid her own smile. The second cyborg of the Sixth Dimension hadn't lost his sense of humour. To his friends he would say that he'd transcended humanity rather than lost it.

Heather was slim, muscled, augmented by lightning-bolt earrings and techno-bracers one step short of holding a wrist cannon today; she wore her uniform as proudly as Mark, poised almost as if she hoped for some excuse to launch into a martial arts demonstration. For a human, she'd adapted remarkably quickly to the seeming black-and-white world of the carnival and the knight towers; it gave her focus and structure. More focus and structure than Kat, in the end, who'd found her own ways of saving the world from behind notebook and camera. She pretended impassivity as the camera's eye fell on her, though she turned her unscarred right cheek toward it.

"Sparx," Kat narrated simply, for the superheroine who insisted that she needed no title. "Fought for the Ginnungagap riots." She'd managed to grow her hair since the coming of Coalescence; it hung in a ponytail just past the shoulderblades of the black leather jacket she wore. Kat's closest female friend in Conestoga Hills.

"Whispering Wail; Capstone Jester; Vissi Surge; Longtrunk Greyfoot," Kat continued; there were war heroes as part of the comgens' delegation, but Lady Illusion had made sure to include a majority who had been born in the dimension, her administrators and district representatives. Longtrunk was elephantfolk, large and floating on a lightning disc above the gathering. Ana would carefully adjust the angle to show her; some Carnivalfolk simply weren't built to human norms, and that diversity had to be celebrated. In nonprofessional times, Kat and Connie both had played checkers with the elephant-woman.

Then it was to the human side of the table: the representatives of the United Nations' commission upon aliens or inhumans, renamed for the treaty and peace with the comgens. "Doctor Xiu Shao, Chief of the Commission," Kat said, a doctor of computer science, one of the humans who had made this possible: reaching out in empathy rather than shock and an urge to use the comgens for experiments. Like Heather, she was augmented by the technology that had passed into their world: her eyes were made a pure black by lenses that gave her a view of electrical currents, and she wore a computer chip on her wrist. That same could heal human blindness.

"Ms Nandita Gupte-Johns, likewise for the United Nations," Kat announced. An American by birth; a graduate of—oddly—a school called Westleafe...and by her, a protege. "Samantha Thompson, Secretary." Sam was neatly dressed in a navy suit, an old-fashioned notebook and pen by her; and she was here far less for the privilege of that boarding school than for innate gifts. Sam's wonderment, her gift of empathy, her heart and soul for the new creations: her face seemed to glow with its own warmth, and as if her time with Mark had turned her into a superhero herself she could spread her feelings across a room. Or still more amazingly: Sam was no superheroine any more than Kat was, and yet they both changed the world. Kat had seen Sam's diplomacy in action before.

Kat finished her task of introducing the guests; she stood back, and the meeting began. The art of good reporting was when to let subjects speak for themselves, and Kat let the cameras roll for Doctor Shao's welcome and Lady Illusion's courteous reply. Then the speeches flowed: Ace's meaningful narration on what his Code had meant to him and how all life was valuable; irrepressible Sparx briefly talking of how great it was to have 'peace...and stuff'; Mark's long, personal speech on his mixed family of five and what peace meant to them; Heather's brisk, practical take on the benefits of what they were about to do; Nandita's explanation of how they had come to see that the comgens were independent life forms; Chuck's hope for new scientific discoveries; Sam leaning forward to watch them with wide bright eyes, speaking herself as formal witness of the treaty. Mark had a holo of Icicatrix and their children as material for his speech, and Kat thought briefly of Rani and Jessie at home waiting and watching for Mummy as much as for the history of this moment. So many times she'd worried for her partner's life against the Human Defence League or the Carniebyte Rebellion or the Knights of Purity; and now Jessie was three, and their daughter was going to grow up safe.

War; disaster; all that a reporter could have wished to view if she'd cared nothing for the lives tangled up in it; the upturning of the human race as they knew it. Humans had created monsters, some said in the darkest days, and in those days Kat had imagined her camera's eye as malevolently red or black-splashed with the blood of friends. There were many she missed even now. But the truth was that humans had created people, and she'd shown them the way through the truth. There were two worlds in the universe, now, two rules: aliens, people, the magic of the Carnival and the science of computer programming. The two worlds shook hands and met as friends, while Samantha Thompson noted minutes and witnesses and shone. Kat watched the eye of Ana's camera play over all of them once more. For a moment Heather and Lady Illusion and Sam Thompson stood together in a glance that Kat directed, warrior and leader and diplomat, the reporter knowing all of them inside and out. Kat thought once more of her daughter's expectant face at home.

There was hope for the future.