DISPLACED SHADOWS 001
All Rights Reserved
Third’s clutch escaped their home universe years ago, before any of them were old enough to legally take a name and to stop having to risk themselves to keep others alive. She’s still too young for that, and the alternate version of herself that she lives with calls her “Kitten”.
First and Second, the other survivors in her clutch, live elsewhere. They’ve been waiting longer than necessary to join the Named, so they won’t leave her behind again…and they’ve been breaching the laws that govern the Nameless.
Now their home universe is catching up to them, and they’ll have to pay the price.
(A novella that’ll take about 1.5 hours to read, for the average reader.)
This is a work of fiction. All people, places, and events are made up or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is coincidental. Any referenced trademarks and copyrights are the property of their respective owners, and their use speaks only to the characters’ opinions, not to the product.
Jenga® is a registered trademark of Pokonobe Associates and was invented by Leslie Scott. Author enjoys the game, but she has no association or affiliation with the company.
If the e-book you’re reading wasn’t bought for your use specifically, please respect the author and either delete or pay for the e-book. Thanks!
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Background Image © Flavio Takemoto () –
This e-book contains two versions of the story, for the sake of anyone who wants “clean” rather than “bad” verbiage.
Third, called ‘Kitten’ by the women she shared an apartment with, kept her attention on the wooden blocks stacked on the dining room table. She wasn’t sure whence the game had come, but Janni had left it, not Raleigh—Third could read that much in the wood.
Third and Janni were technically the same person, just from different universes. Different lives. Janni had made Naming, for example, without ever being Nameless.
But they had their similarities, too. Logic and coordination puzzles helped them both. Settled them. Helped them focus on whichever somewhen they were in at a particular moment.
Janni lived more linearly than Third was used to, jumping universes when she needed a break from whenever she was living. Third could jump universes—that was how she had escaped her own, after all—but she preferred living sequentially, skipping around linear time. That was dangerous, though, because time jumping was more likely to get her noticed by Shadow Corps. Shadow Corps feared escapees from her kind of universe, because they were usually Nameless, like her.
Nameless weren’t much liked by anyone.
And sometimes time jumping let her learn things she didn’t want to know—like how Second was dead and First didn’t know yet and Third would have to tell him.
She froze, remembering the cage she would be in—how Second’s body would self-immolate, as Nameless were designed to do at death, to dispose of their bodies.
Thanks to a slip ahead, Third had seen it once already, from across the room, but she hadn’t been the girl in the cage yet—who had been Third herself, not some alternate universe version of her—digging the governor chip out of her flesh with her wristwire. That was something she’d only dare do if absolutely necessary. She was so close to surviving long enough to warrant a name, and she had the governor chip for good reason.
She would have to experience it all again, up close, as the girl inside that cage. In a day, no more than three, she would witness what her sister actually did to kill their sister-in-law. Poison, maybe. Nev was good with those, and she wouldn’t want to risk combat with a Nameless. Later-Third had looked unwell, probably from gamma exposure. Jumpers—especially mergers, like her—were more sensitive to gamma radiation than most primes, enough that Second would be slowed by them, too, though she was navigator class and therefore not as sensitive as Third was.
Of the two of them, Third was more dangerous, anyway.
Nameless were created to be cannon fodder. A Nameless who survived long enough ended up Named, but that was more manipulation than kindness, because it gave Nameless something to work towards, so they wouldn’t give up and let themselves die. As the youngest of her particular clutch of Nameless—and as one who was usually sent without any backup, because her clutch had an odd number—Third was very good at killing. Better than other versions of herself, and Janni knew it.
Third didn’t let herself sigh—she’d been Fourth, once, but the previous Third of her clutch had died due to an ill-timed grunt—and pulled another block from the tower game without toppling it. The game wasn’t hard—basic logic, physics, coordination—but it was solid, and that helped her focus.
Getting too deep in the memories could make her Jump, and she knew better than to let her instincts take over like that. She’d likely hop over to the tenement building across the street and slaughtering the thugs before any of the gang’s hostages realized they were being freed. She did things like that, sometimes—forgetting that she wasn’t in her own universe and a threat would only hurt the locals, not her or any Named from her universe. That confusion was how Janni had convinced her to stick around.
After all, who better to keep her steady than an alternate version of herself?
Surrounded by the tenement buildings that towered over the street, Raleigh glanced at the wannabe mugger’s dagger, then met his gaze. “You’re kidding, right?”
The man snorted, baring his teeth in a way that he doubtless intended as threatening but that reminded her of a death grimace. “No joke, little lady. Just hand over the cred, and nobody need get hurt.”
He had the ‘nobody’ right.
“I don’t carry a credit chip,” Raleigh said mildly, activating the internal macro that would check if the guy had backup. Not that it would make much difference if he did. She wasn’t as lethal as Kitten, but she wasn’t hapless. She wasn’t even all that little, but the guy was big enough that his genetic code would’ve been stripped of growth commands, back home. Too much risk of sizing mix-ups with nutritional allotments and vac suits.
The guy scowled and drew himself erect so he loomed over her as well as outweighed her. “Everyone carry cred.”
Her enhancements detected another male behind her, but that one was leaning casually against a wall. He also carried a boot knife and a pocket pistol, but both were holstered and were almost mandatory for civvies in their part of town. Just a loiterer, not backup.
“Perhaps I’m broke,” she pointed out. Or perhaps she was delaying him, hoping StretSec might appear—but the public security force tended to avoid these streets. Too little respect for the law, too much violence, too many freaks like her.
The guy pointedly ogled her shattersilk trench coat. “You dress too fine to be broke.”
Raleigh sighed and opened her coat so he could see the darkened veins previously hidden by her collar—veins that undulated with something beyond her pulse.
He recoiled with a curse. “Cyban!”
She pulled her coat closed before he noticed anything else, like the gills, which weren’t (yet?) insertable in this universe. “Yeah,” she said, as if her being a cyborg were the only reason her roommates had somehow gotten her the shattersilk.
Raleigh was unusual, living in a universe and time zone that didn’t like oddities. Janni seemed normal, which was what counted, and Kitten… Kitten just acted odd, though Raleigh was pretty sure that girl had some sleeper tech that stayed too far under the skin to be visible.
Raleigh tapped the closure to seal up her coat, watching the mugger in case fear made him lash out. The loiterer behind her wasn’t even curious about the situation—judging from his poise, pulse, and respiration rate—so she ignored him. “How about you hand over the knife, and I’ll forget we met?”
“Cybans can’t forget.”
Her attacker wasn’t stupid, then; just foolish.
“Pretend to forget. And not give your bio-ID to StretSec.” Raleigh wasn’t Janni, to be able to identify someone’s bio-identity without a genetic sample, but people assumed all sorts of things about cyborgs. Raleigh’s chipset was good, marine-grade in her home universe, but Janni’s mods were invisible to her senses and enhancements alike, which was theoretically impossible.
The guy swallowed, his gaze skittering away from hers. “What a cyban need my knife for?”
The male behind them asked, “What, and leave you to mug the next neighbor that passes through?”
Raleigh didn’t recognize the voice and automatically started running it through her vocal recognition software. She turned enough to glimpse him—he looked handsome, if one liked the scruffy brunet type, but his clothes were good, so he was either one of the decent locals or a pimp. Maybe an illegal drug dealer, but dealers tended to wear precious metals, the better to fence if addicts mugged them for a fix. His suit and shoes were quality, but he didn’t even have a timepiece or console.
The would-have-been mugger gulped, flung his knife at her, and ran. Raleigh’s combat chipset activated to twist her out of the blade’s way, landing her in a crouch. The auto-released adrenaline triggered a headache.
She winced and force-quitted the hormone-activation macro, then picked up the blade. The scanners in Raleigh’s hands called it well-made, though she’d blocked most of her own memories involving combat knives. Kitten would probably like it.
But the situation wasn’t over yet. Raleigh turned towards the man behind her and ran his image through her facial recognition software.
He was leaning against a nearby wall, evidently waiting for someone. His forehead looked to be taut from fighting a headache, not from any concern about her oddness, but his wry question to the would-have-been mugger had sounded unstrained, even lax.
Her software wasn’t getting any more hits for his face than it had for his voice. From some other universe, maybe? Raleigh didn’t understand how universe jumping worked, but she’d noticed that her sort of refugee tended to congregate near each other.
“New to the area?” She wasn’t about to ask if he were new to that universe. That would’ve been rude.
He glanced at the door to the place she shared with Janni and Kitten. “Not really.”
“You know Janni?” she asked. He looked capable of handling himself, but not nearly to the degree to which Raleigh would’ve expected him to know Kitten.
He shrugged. “I’ll catch her later.”
As he walked away, Raleigh glanced around the street—the few people still out were studiously not looking her way—then let herself into the rental that was paid for by whichever of the three of them was able to keep a job any particular month. Most folks didn’t dare live on street level, but she and her roommates could handle it.
Any way they spliced it, they were all freaks.
Raleigh entered the apartment she shared with Janni and Kitten. The latter girl was sitting at the dining room table, staring at a tower made of wooden rectangular prisms that Raleigh’s recognition software told her was Jenga—a game that she couldn’t ever remember seeing in that universe. She opted not to ask about it. Janni, at least, would say if she couldn’t answer a question. Kitten…
The auburn-haired girl—who was the youngest of the three of them, and her too-big secondhand sweater made her look younger than she already was—turned her ice blue stare on Raleigh.
Raleigh keyed her software to hide her shiver and gave a little shake of her head. No problems. Not today.
Kitten relaxed enough for Raleigh’s enhancements to notice—and just enough for that. She wondered if Kitten did that on purpose, somehow.
Raleigh took off her trench coat and folded it over a chair, then put the knife on the table—hilt facing Kitten, because she wasn’t stupid—and slid it over.
The girl plucked the knife off the table, eyed it, then stuck it under her sweater to join the other weapons hidden in the bulky clothing. Kitten even kept a garrote somewhere. Maybe that was the wire bracelet on the girl’s left wrist.
Raleigh went to the kitchen. “Can I make you anything?”
Kitten looked back at the Jenga game and precisely removed one wooden block.
She was pretty sure Kitten understood the lingua franca, but she wasn’t sure that the girl was completely fluent, which helped the frustration. “I’ll make enough coffee for you to have some, if you want.”
She froze, despite the quietness of Kitten’s voice. The girl spoke so rarely that getting her to say anything was a challenge. Janni had commented that Kitten was actually doing very well, considering the hellverse she was from, and Janni knew far more about the various universes and time zones than Raleigh ever would.
“Allergic?” she asked. “You’ve been living with us for months, and you just say this now?”
Now that she thought of it, Raleigh was sure the girl even drank coffee. Was that a code word she’d forgotten?
“We like the taste.”
A full sentence. Raleigh felt like clapping, except… “We?”
Raleigh detected air moving behind her, and she whirled to see a person—a man—that her enhancements insisted wasn’t actually there and that she hadn’t heard come in. “What, do some universes have holograms?”
The man’s blue eyes—a little darker than Kitten’s—glanced between them, his stance and manner reminding her of Kitten rather too much.
And suddenly, Kitten didn’t show up to her enhancements, either.
Raleigh didn’t know the details of Kitten’s home universe. That didn’t mean she couldn’t recognize an assassin-from-birth when she met one. “What do you want?”
His stance kept him ready to face her, but he turned his stare to Kitten. “Second?”
Silence answered him for a long moment, then Raleigh heard the Jenga game collapse. She turned so she could keep an eye on both assassins.
Kitten neatly placed a block on the table, beside where she’d been playing the game with herself.
Raleigh sensed more than heard the man’s breath catch, his throat close. He stepped back, against the wall, as if to stay out of the way to take a moment to…mourn, it seemed.
“What’s second?” she asked.
Kitten swiped the Jenga pieces off the table, the movement so fast and vehement that she didn’t like the question, but her stare at Raleigh was as staid as usual.
The girl then got up from the table and approached the two of them. She paused in the doorway, then strode past Raleigh to the man.
He tensed. “Third—”
“She’s a null,” Kitten said flatly.
Raleigh had been called many things, but never that.
The man let out a slow breath, and Raleigh’s enhancements caught relief in the sound. “The…other one is a prime?” he asked.
Kitten shrugged—an ever-so-slight nudge of the shoulders, but shrugged. The sight would’ve made Raleigh choke, had she been mid-swallow.
“She…” Kitten paused, as if rethinking her words. “Her bondmate is a natural.”
Raleigh was reminded of Janni, when that woman went on one of her absentminded rambles that often featured jargon from other universes.
The man gave Kitten a hard look, started to say something, then stopped. He swallowed. “Her name?”
The girl gave him a self-conscious smile. “Jannis Lysacarly. She calls me ‘Kitten’.”
“I thought your name was Kitten,” Raleigh cut in.
She froze, angled as if she expected the strange man to strike her.
The man glanced at the ceiling, then to her neck, making her want to put her trench coat back on to hide the tech, the gills. “Hard mods?” He sounded startled.
“Apex universe,” the girl commented, as if in answer to a question.
Janni had called Raleigh’s home universe that, but Raleigh hadn’t known she’d done so in Kitten’s hearing.
The man relaxed, ever so slightly, and Raleigh felt comfortable assuming that he was from the same universe as the girl. He even seemed to be Kitten’s friend, insofar as an assassin could have friends.
He turned to Kitten. “Lunch?”
The girl nodded once and led the way out.
At the door, the man paused. “If you would, please: Never say my sister has a name.”
Sister? Raleigh blinked. The specific shades of their hair and eyes were too distinct for them to look related. “Why not?”
His wry smile made him look like a civvie—and a rather handsome one, if Raleigh were honest with herself, which she tried to be. He glanced toward the door, and Kitten pointedly stepped out and shut it behind her.
“Because she hasn’t earned a name yet,” he said frankly. “She’s nearing the age for it, and I’d like to see her live that long.”
Raleigh blinked again. “Me saying she has a name could get her killed?”
She suddenly felt very glad that her home universe wasn’t anything like that. Her home universe was messed up—all were, to some degree—but hers wasn’t nearly that bad. She couldn’t imagine still qualifying as a child at twenty-five.
He turned to leave.
“Who was second?” she blurted, realizing as she asked it that their reactions had suggested his mentioned ‘second’ had been a person, much as he called Kitten ‘third’.
The man froze, then turned with a careful precision that again reminded Raleigh of Kitten, who was ever-ready to launch into something terrifyingly lethal. (She’d seen Kitten do it.)
He met her gaze and paused, as if considering how to phrase what he wanted to say for the universe they were both in.
He quietly answered, “My wife,” and left.
And Raleigh realized she had no idea if he planned to bring his sister back or not, or if he even had a name. After what he’d said about Kitten and Second, she doubted she wanted to know the answer to either question.
Third led her brother to across the street from a restaurant that was that somewhen’s equivalent to Greek food. First studied the building a moment, then strode into the street toward the entrance, accepting her choice. Third continued down the sidewalk and crossed the street a block down before circling her way back up. Second—if she hadn’t been dead—would’ve cut across the street a block up, and reached the restaurant before Third did.
Old habits died hard.
Third stepped around a waitress and headed for the back right corner—that would be his first choice, with the two of them, with the back left being first choice when all three of them together, and the front corners only chosen if the back options were taken—and slipped into the seat across from her brother as the waitress took his drink order—waters, for both of them, no ice, with lemon in his and lime in hers. First was thoughtful like that, much like TamLin, who had been their clutch’s keeper, before…
She blinked twice, quickly, to interfere with the tear ducts. Tears were dangerous, whether because they interfered with the identification of a threat or because they displayed that she wasn’t an automaton. She focused on the table as a distraction. It was plastic, engineered to look like wood, but plastics’ bio-identities were easy to recognize.
Third turned in her seat to keep as much of an eye on their surroundings as she could, though First had taken the true corner and thereby set himself as the on-duty sentinel. Firsts didn’t always see themselves as responsible for their clutches—some only delegated, as if they were keepers, themselves—so Third appreciated his willingness to give her a break, when he could.
His own limitations—and choices—meant that the worst, longest, and most dangerous jobs had always fallen to Third, often by herself… She didn’t need to be psy-positive to know her brother felt guilty about it. He’d been born first, before their mother had realized her children were usually unstable. He could’ve been Named all along, had their mother wanted that.
Third had never had that option.
First opened his menu. “Where’s the chicken?”
She crisply opened her menu to the appropriate page, paused long enough for him to spot it, then checked the veal, herself.
“You have local currency?” First asked blandly. He knew she did—she wouldn’t have recommended the restaurant if she couldn’t pay for it—and his tone made the question rhetorical.
Janni knew how Third got her money, too, though Third was pretty sure Raleigh didn’t. Their spot of town made it easy. She could rob a burglar or mug a pimp or flip a bundle of unlicensed drugs. (The last one could be the most amusing, considering dealers sometimes noticed that she was selling them their own jolt.) She had to vary her targets and processes, too, because people swapped notes, and predictability would get her killed.
But keeping the criminal element mad at her kept her from getting complacent, and it paid well, without her having to take a name. She’d fled her universe because she wasn’t suicidal, so she wasn’t about to do something that would get her hunted as a Breach.
Living with a Named version of herself did kinda stretch the laws thin, but Janni was Named, so Third wasn’t neglecting her duty. If you assumed that Janni let Third protect her from Infested—which didn’t exist in their current universe, so the law only applied if you squinted.
Third liked squinting.
But perhaps that was because of TamLin. Even though he’d been their clutch’s keeper and responsible for keeping them in line, he had been a sensate, naturally aware of the traces left by displaced time or universes. Gave him cluster headaches, even.
She blinked twice, quickly, to stop the tear ducts, ducking her chin to hide any glint from watery eyes. She put her menu down so First could see it, tapped her choice, then folded her menu and put it aside.
The waitress returned with their waters, and First ordered for both of them.
The woman frowned. “I think the young lady should order her own meal.”
“She told me what she wanted before you came over here,” First said calmly. “And don’t forget the extra olives.”
The waitress’s frown deepened as she studied Third, who observed that the woman had acne scars—some fresh enough that she suffered adult outbreaks—and had removed a wedding tattoo from her right wrist, judging from the size and shape of that particular scar. Not enough credits to remove the blemish, probably.
“Madam?” First cut in, though Third was sure he’d noticed the removed tattoo, too. “Please take our orders to the kitchen. My sister is hungry.”
“Is she mute?”
“Sometimes.” His mild, dry tone mimicked TamLin, and Third had to look away again, to maintain her composure. The waitress left, and First sighed softly. “I’m sorry. I should’ve thought before—”
“He’s dead,” she interrupted, though he would’ve had to strike her for such disrespect, back home. “She’s dead. We’ve both lost the reasons we ran to begin with, so it’s either find something else to live for or go back home and let the zombies eat our brains.”
Third didn’t talk that much. She was getting…confused. She sipped her water as she adjusted her mental state to reduce the resonance—psychic influence from a nearby alternate version of herself—then let out a long sigh. “Janni.”
“She’s more verbose, then?”
Third shrugged. “Named.” A person, allowed—required—to speak, plus from a universe that featured no Infested and more culture.
Out of habit, she scanned the restaurant for threats.
She frowned and turned to get a better look, though that would be overtly obvious. The object of her attention noticed her, and he gave her a wry, rueful smirk from across the restaurant.
“Third?” First asked, the polite request a demand for an explanation.
She glanced at her brother, and when she looked back, she was unsurprised to find the man she’d been staring at was gone. “Father,” she whispered, though he wasn’t their father.
She turned back to the table as the waitress set their ordered meals down. First’s expression asked the question he wouldn’t dare say aloud. Nameless weren’t allowed to care.
“Janni’s father.” Though Third knew he was gone, she searched the crowd of restaurant employees and patrons, hoping for a glimpse, something that would help her figure out why he was there. “I take after him.”
Which made her all the more worried about why Nev would kill Second and why Third would remove her governor chip. Jumpers who knew how to use their abilities were difficult to capture. Second, as a navigator, was even harder to catch than Third was. Why was Second the one who was about to end up dead?
Third had met Janni’s father once before, when he slipped into her universe, and though he hadn’t said as much—and though his universe preferred euthanasia over namelessness—she suspected he’d originally been Nameless, himself.
Just one more thought of the many that Third was careful to keep Janni from picking up. Janni didn’t need that knowledge worrying her conscience.
Raleigh recovered her equilibrium by making coffee and preparing sandwiches to stick in the fridge, for everyone to eat whenever they got around to it. Janni came in when Raleigh was halfway through putting jalapeño kale chips on the sandwich she’d made for herself. “You okay?”
“This body is undamaged,” Janni said, one of the few overtly odd things she’d say, sometimes. Brushing her brown-dyed bangs out of her eyes, she wrinkled her nose and peered at the sandwich. “I hope you have something prepped that you didn’t ruin with condiments.”
Raleigh pointed a thumb at the fridge. Janni promptly opened it and grabbed a plastic-wrapped sandwich and a single-serve bottle of milk.
Before Janni could ask where their third roommate was, Raleigh said, “Kitten’s brother picked her up for lunch.”
The milk bottle and sandwich hit the floor, and Janni was facing Raleigh before her combat chip recognized a possible threat.
Raleigh swallowed hard, pulse pounding from the adrenaline. “You look a lot like Kitten when you do that.”
Janni watched her for a long moment—looking ever so creepily like Kitten—then blinked once, still as expressive as an iceberg. “Unsurprising.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
The other woman—Raleigh thought Janni was younger than she was, but it was hard to tell, and it was always possible that something in Janni’s universe made aging go funky—looked irritated. “You’ve lived with us for months, Raleigh. Months. You have military-grade enhancements. Granted, your universe is apex class, not all that advanced, but… How have you not noticed?”
Only Janni could pull off indignant and insulting at the same time.
“Noticed what?” Raleigh snapped, perhaps more irritated than she should’ve been.
Janni indicated her face—no, her eyes, which were pale blue, much like—
No. Exactly like Kitten’s.
“Finally.” Janni huffed, as if it were perfectly natural to assume that someone from another universe would hang out with an alternate version of herself. “That wasn’t all that hard, was it?”
That explained why the roots of Janni’s brown hair came in the precise shade of auburn of Kitten’s, and Raleigh could only assume that Janni had her hair professionally styled to further promote the dissimilarity. And… “You have a brother?”
Janni’s gaze chilled, and Raleigh wondered why she’d never noticed how comparable she and Kitten were. Now that she thought of it, they were most similar when one or the other was agitated. Some low-level empathic or telepathic ability, maybe?
Then Janni’s eyes thawed to their usual pale blue, more water than ice. “I had a brother,” she said, tone the clinical one she used when discussing potentially disturbing topics. “He didn’t survive to Naming, in my universe.”
Raleigh stared. “Naming?” she whispered. Maybe Janni was old enough to have relearned civilian reflexes after she’d once been an assassin.
Janni crouched and waved a dismissive hand as she picked up the dropped milk and sandwich. “I wasn’t handicapped. I was Named on my first birthday, which is the normal date for mods. Um, primes. Alphas?” She squinted at Raleigh. “Your universe didn’t have us, but you get my gist, I think.”
Raleigh blinked. “But you aren’t a cyborg.”
That question had come up in conversation before, though Janni never had explained how she could read people’s bio-identities. Raleigh had assumed it was some freak mutation, but Kitten couldn’t do that…so far as Raleigh knew.
“Not as such, no.” Janni sighed. “Apex class modifications are all tech, hardware—so ‘hard’ mods. They end with you. No inheritance involved.”
That wasn’t strictly true. “I inherited a tolerance for them.”
She shook her head and set her sandwich and bottle of milk on the counter. “Not the same.” She quickly unwrapped the food. “Some universes, the mods are biological, inherited. That’s ‘soft’ mods. Usually, scientists who played God that much ended up producing monsters, too, so the originally optional mods ended up necessary.”
Janni took a bite, chewed, swallowed—and didn’t comment on the mustard, which meant she wasn’t paying attention to what she was eating. “But soft mods get…messy. They don’t always take, or they cause problems. So, to make sure kids aren’t handicapped, they aren’t…named, aren’t legally people, until they survive x months. And then if something shows up before that ceremony, and you’re a cripple…” She grimaced.
With how clearly Janni was explaining things now, Raleigh was starting to believe the woman was usually hard to follow on purpose. “Then you don’t get Named?”
Janni eyed her sharply, belying her usual happy-go-lucky behavior. “No. You’re either euthanized, or you’re one of the Nameless.” She was quiet for a long moment. “Neither option is kind. In some universes, one option is more common than the other.”
“Kitten is Nameless?”
“Third,” Janni said softly. “She is Third of her… I’m not sure what they call a group of Nameless. Her brother…” Her gaze went distant. “Her brother was First, for the same reason he was euthanized in my universe.”
Raleigh had always assumed Janni’s home universe was better than Kitten’s. Now she wasn’t so sure. “Your parents killed him?”
“I’m not sure what his disability is… It was before I was born, and nobody thought about it, and Kitten’s good at avoiding thoughts she doesn’t want me to pick up.”
Raleigh stared. “You’re telepathic?”
Janni shook her head. “More…empathic,” she said blandly. “I’m…a weaker psy than my alternates. I’m actually better off than the strongest me—”
“There’s another version of you? In this universe?” Three versions of the same person seemed overmuch.
“Sometimes. Lysacarly jumps universes a lot for her job, but she’s not infrequently in this one—likely due to Kitten and me, though I don’t think she’s noticed us yet. When you fold time and space enough to produce paradoxes like ours, well… Like attracts like.”
Raleigh wondered how many versions of her there were. “And when…Lysacarly…notices you?”
“She might have to arrest us—me, Kitten. Lysacarly’s Shadow Corps.” Janni paused, but she evidently wasn’t waiting for Raleigh’s reaction to discovering that a telepathic version of Janni was an active member of the stay-in-your-own-universe police, because she continued before Raleigh could think of one. “What happens is my memory and thoughts can get…confused, with those of any other version of me that’s in range. It’s a known issue for psy-positives, and it’s usually called ‘resonance’. Kitten and I are fairly used to it, though she started out enough better than me that I suspect she’s met herself more often than I have. Lysacarly might be used to it, but she’s fully telepathic, so it’ll affect her worse than it does us.”
The woman’s casual chatting about alternate versions of herself reminded Raleigh of how, when they’d met, Janni had glanced at her gills and said, “Apex. Need a place to stay?” Only later had Raleigh realized that Janni’s ‘apex’ was a comment on the type of universe she was from.
“What does this have to do with…First”—Kitten’s brother—“taking her to lunch?”
Janni frowned, pausing. “Did they say anything about Second?”
“She was First’s wife.”
Janni nodded, as if she’d known that.
“And she’s dead.”
Janni stared at Raleigh, again resembling Kitten. Then she cursed, quietly but vehemently, for several seconds. “Dead?” she muttered. “How can Dasher be…”
Raleigh assumed Second’s name had been Dasher, in Janni’s universe.
Janni stood, polished off her sandwich, and gulped down her milk. “Did they say where they were going?”
She shook her head.
“Did they say when they’d be back?”
Raleigh just gave Janni a What do you think? frown.
Janni went on another cursing spree, running her hands through her hair. “Okay. You see them—either of them—call me, okay? This…this is not good.” She pulled her console from her pocket, started scrolling through her contacts, grimaced, then pocketed it again.
And promptly left the apartment without bothering to fill Raleigh in or try to recruit her for help.
Raleigh couldn’t help but wonder if that oversight was a commentary on how much Janni valued her friendship.
After eating her lunch and ordering baklava for dessert, Third slipped out, ostensibly to go to the ladies’ washroom, but she continued out the door to the greenhouse out back. One of the reasons she liked this restaurant was it grew much of its own seasonings.
That and the Greek-ish menu. She was fond of Greek food.
She caught a whiff of hash and followed the scent to Janni’s father, who slouched against a table—on the end with the unused clay pots that the restaurant sold with cuttings, rather than by the basil that was on most of the table—wearing blue-collar local.
Drugs tended to be legally obtainable, in this somewhen, but that didn’t make them have any fewer risks or side effects. Her TamLin had used them when he could, to dull his sensitivity to Jumps, but Third had never dared try them, herself. Nameless couldn’t afford to handicap themselves.
She stared at the cigar in Janni’s father’s hand for a long moment, intending it to be as a question—but she glimpsed what was under his skin, climbing up his hand. She froze.
He let out a long puff of smoke and flexed the hand belonging to the Infested arm. “Figured you’d notice.”
She met his gaze—the blue of her eyes came from him, obviously, as did the darkness of her hair. “Janni thinks you’re dead.”
His slight smile was at odds with the regret in his eyes. “I am.”
Those eyes would give her nightmares, later, but Third found them comforting anyway. Mergers weren’t easy to kill, and if he’d been Nameless… He’d be even more difficult, than most.
And the first thing the infestation did, when creating an Infested, was remove the host’s ability to kill themselves. Third had seen people try, desperate to die at their own hands so their loved ones wouldn’t have to kill them. Those were the ones younger Nameless tended to train on, because the host was still lucid enough to at least fight the infestation’s urge to protect itself.
It wouldn’t be the first time Third had to eliminate someone she knew—and to be honest, Janni’s father was a stranger she’d met, briefly, years before. But…his universe didn’t have Infested.
They’d met when he slipped into her universe, though.
He gave her a slight smile and nod, saying yes, she’d guessed right—that his infestation was from her universe.
“Now, don’t you go thinking that,” he said gently. “I was dumb. Assumed that our universes were sufficiently similar for the doctors back home to be able to handle it. Delayed the spread, but…”
Third knew. She’d seen the progression, often enough.
She checked their surroundings. People were busy taking advantage of their lunch breaks, not watching the man and girl of questionable income chatting by the basil. The two of them were weren’t invisible, but they were far from the center of attention.
She sidestepped to near his side. “Message?” Still-lucid Infested persons often wanted their loved ones told some last thing. Usually sharing it got the Nameless deliverer spat upon or struck, but Third would do her job.
He shook his head. “My wife and I… We staged my death years ago, once we realized…” He looked away. “We agreed it would be easier for the kids, so… There’s nobody to take a message to. Thanks for asking.”
Easier for their children to think some accident had killed him, rather than his forays into another universe? Hard to think that true, for a jumper like Janni. But… “For Nev,” his firstborn daughter, Third agreed.
She had been young when she’d met him, but she was sure he hadn’t gotten Infested then. She could only guess why he’d intentionally Jump back into a hellverse.
Only guess, and remember his expression when he realized they’d have to leave her behind when they escaped her universe for theirs, and wish she didn’t take after him quite so much.
“Third…” He sighed, and she waited for him to finish. “You know I wouldn’t ask this of you, if I had anyone else who I could trust to do this.”
She took a small step back, tucking one hand inside her sweater. “Lie.” Cruel of her, to call him on that, but he reminded her too much of herself. She prompted, “Janni?”
His daughter was Named, yes, but she was every bit as capable of killing him as Third was—maybe more, because she had more control over her mods, more stability. Janni didn’t have a governor chip, blocking most of her abilities because they were likely to kill her, if left unchecked.
Tears welled in the man’s eyes—the eyes of Janni’s father, not hers; she’d never had a father. Before Third did something crueler, something that drove him to give up entirely and let the infestation take over, she plucked a knife from the belt hidden by her oversized sweater and stepped around him, stumbling into the table.
Her blade found its mark and returned to its sheath—she’d clean it later, replace the sheath—and the pots fell, some crashing to the ground, some breaking.
As he collapsed to the ground—still alive and in a lot of pain (but not for long, and the infestation would die with him because nobody from this universe would have any mods for it to latch onto)—she backed away, into a passerby, with enough force to continue the chain reaction of stumbling and jostling and confusion about who had started what.
Third scurried away from the mess, as if overwhelmed by the noise, and let herself back into the restaurant hallway, breathing harder than she should’ve been.
First stood across the hall and a little way up from the ladies’ washroom, waiting for her. He spotted her and tilted his chin in inquiry. She answered with slight shrug as she approached.
As she reached him, he turned towards the restaurant proper, and they both headed back to their table, where her lunch and two servings of coffee and baklava waited.
“I was beginning to think Nev had picked you up,” he said.
“Nev?” Third asked promptly, because she wasn’t supposed to, so the question would get First focused on making sure none of the witnesses would necessitate her being punished for it, distract him from noticing any little tells that slipped from how unsteady she felt. She already knew their Nev would be joining them in that universe soon, if she wasn’t already there.
Nev would kill Second. Nev would stick Third in a cage and poison her and leave her to watch as she killed Second.
Why would Nev kill Second?
First’s expression tightened as they slipped into their seats. He knew why Third acted out—understood it, even—but that didn’t mean he liked it. “I think she might be around.”
And Nev would be all too happy to assume Third was a Breach. With their universe’s TamLin dead, the clutch had no keeper, so Nev would be free to assume the worst and kill Third.
That still didn’t explain why Second would die.
“What took you so long?” her brother asked. “Smelling the basil?”
She did like the scent. Janni’s father had chosen to die near the basil, so maybe that was something else the two of them had in common.
Third took a bite of the baklava, ignoring the coffee. If she were to be fighting for her life, she would need to be operating at full capacity, not woozy from her coffee allergy.
As she started on her lunch, she glanced at her left wrist. Digging out the governor chip would hurt.
Third abruptly remembered that First had asked why she’d been delayed. “Work.”
He raised his eyebrows. “This universe keeps you busy, then. That’s good.”
Never mind that the job she’d had to do had been a holdover from their home ’verse. Considering First was about to lose his wife and Third suspected she’d be the reason for it, she was willing to let him believe what he would. Janni’s father had come to her, not him, when he needed death. She wondered if First remembered their father.
She took another bite of baklava, wondering whom she’d trust to off her, if she ever needed killing. The only person she’d ever trusted that much was their keeper, TamLin, and she’d driven him into killing himself.
Her brother frowned, but he followed her lead and ate dessert.
Raleigh would have been the first to admit that she wasn’t all that good a friend to her housemates. Good friends knew about allergies and families and origin stories. Good friends didn’t steal contact lists when the opportunity arose.
But in Raleigh’s universe, taking precautions even with those she trusted was standard procedure—though her continuance of that procedure into this universe was, perhaps, influenced by the knowledge Janni and Kitten would be forgiving of such stemming-from-native-universe habits.
Sitting at the dining room table, she paged through her console’s copy of Janni’s contact list, trying to figure out whom the woman had considered calling. It was probably one that had been on there awhile, for Janni had grimaced like that before.
Someone was breathing behind her.
Raleigh’s enhancements analyzed the height, temperature, and other details about the body suddenly behind her before she turned. “How do you do that?”
Kitten stood…stoically, Raleigh thought, now that she knew of the girl’s namelessness. The ice blue eyes observed without revealing what thoughts or emotions went on behind them. The circles under her eyes were too dark to be explained by the few hours she’d been away, and she was even more unkempt than usual. Dirt smudged her right cheek, and her sweater was gone, leaving a sleeveless summer shirt that matched her eyes, and the wire bracelet was missing from her left wrist.
“How’s your brother?” Raleigh didn’t expect any more answer to that question, but she figured it was polite to ask. “I’m sorry about his wife.”
Kitten blinked twice, quickly—as if hiding emotion, rather than as if startled.
“Janni told me about…” She wasn’t sure how to broach the topic of the two of them being alternate versions of the same person. “About Lysacarly.”
After a long moment, Kitten pivoted toward the Jenga game, which Raleigh had picked up and re-stacked in its tower. The girl paused, then plucked out a wooden block two levels from the bottom. Raleigh suspected it wasn’t a coincidence that the action conveniently put Kitten’s back to her.
“So ‘prime’ is what you call someone with biological modifications?” she asked—again, not expecting an answer, but she wanted to let the girl know that she’d followed some of her conversation with her brother. “And ‘null’ is someone without?”
Kitten turned her head enough to look over her shoulder at Raleigh, which was enough of an affirmative for her.
“You said Janni had a ‘bondmate’. I didn’t know she was married.” Raleigh was fishing, and she knew Kitten would recognize that.
But Kitten let Raleigh notice when she relaxed—insomuch as she ever relaxed—so might just be willing to let enough slip for her to put things together. After all, Kitten was an alternate version of Janni, and if Raleigh knew anything about the woman, it was that she loved dropping cryptic hints.
The girl picked another brick from the tower, then put it down on the table beside Raleigh’s console. She turned her hand palm up, as if asking for the device.
“Do you know how to use it?” Raleigh asked.
Kitten didn’t flinch, didn’t move, didn’t so much as glance Raleigh’s way. Just kept her palm up for the console.
Raleigh gave it.
The girl looked the device over for a moment, then started tapping buttons as if she owned one. She didn’t. Raleigh had tried giving her one, a few times, but it always ended up returned, with the money back in her account. She now wondered if that was another facet of Kitten’s namelessness. No name, so no property, maybe? That would explain why Kitten only ever wore hand-me-downs and castoffs—except for her weapons and the first aid kit. Those, Kitten would buy new, if necessary, and she kept them in excellent condition.
Raleigh remembered Janni’s ‘I suspect she’s met herself more often than I have.’ “See a console in one universe, you’ve seen them all?”
Her tapping continued without pause. “Tablet,” she said, voice soft and flat. “Usually.”
“It’s usually called a tablet?”
Kitten nodded once and offered the console back.
Raleigh took it and saw a specific address book entry open on the screen. No name was listed, but the entry had a photo, so Janni had chatted with him before—and the photo was the man she’d seen that morning, who’d spoken up when she encountered the would-have-been mugger.
She was sure Kitten had noticed her startlement already, so she asked the first thing that she could think of: “Is that a beard?”
The girl gave a little huff that was her equivalent of a snort. “Four o’clock shadow. It’s…” Kitten glanced away, as if evaluating if she should continue, then gave her infinitesimal shrug. “Some people naturally mix well with others, genetically.”
She’d called the man a ‘natural’ when speaking to her brother, Raleigh remembered.
“That…isn’t common. So they usually have…abilities, to help them adjust or freeze their appearance more easily than most, to help them hide. He likes looking a little scruffy, in clean-cut universes. Makes people underestimate him.”
Kitten spoke as if she knew Janni’s husband, and the paragraph was more words than Raleigh could ever remember hearing the girl string together at once, even when speaking to her brother.
“He exists in your universe?”
She looked away. “Dead.”
Raleigh realized that if Janni loved one version of him enough to marry him—well, Kitten had probably cared for her universe’s version of him, too. “I’m sorry.”
Kitten met her gaze for a long moment, faintly puzzled, before she focused back on the Jenga game. “We escaped our universe. He was…unable to acclimate.”
Raleigh winced. Acclimation to another universe—where people didn’t sound, look, or maybe even move like they did in your own universe—had been tough for her, and her universe had been a lot less apocalyptic than Kitten’s seemed to have been.
Her forefinger hovered over the Call button. If she dialed, she’d be announcing that she’d taken Janni’s contact list—and she’d also be officially ignoring Janni’s request to be called once Kitten turned up.
But First was still out there, somewhere. If Kitten’s appearance was anything to go by, her Nameless brother could use some help.
Raleigh hit the button. The call was answered a few seconds later. “Yes?” the man asked, his face filling the screen.
“I’m Raleigh,” she said, feeling awkward. The man was Janni’s husband. So why did he live elsewhere? And why did Janni grimace whenever she considered calling him?
The man didn’t even know who she was. She lived with his wife, and he didn’t know.
He’d left before she’d walked in, that morning. Maybe he didn’t recognize her.
Raleigh itched to hang up and call Janni, as she should have done from the get-go.
Kitten drew a sharp breath and stepped toward the console, reaching out as if to enter the call, then quickly caught herself and stepped even further back out of range, taking up her usual stance, though it seemed…tense…and she stared at the far wall rather than at her surroundings in general.
That was enough acceptance for Raleigh to say, “I live with Janni.”
The man blinked, frowning. “What’s the matter?”
So the man, whoever he was, didn’t expect her to know about him unless there was a problem.
That was probably a valid assumption. “First is missing,” Raleigh guessed, suspecting she was right when Kitten locked her ice-blue stare on her. “Second is dead. Third is…”—she glanced at Kitten—“damaged.” This body is undamaged—an odd turn of phrase she heard Janni use—and knowing what she did now, she suspected ‘this body’ was how Janni distinguished herself from Kitten.
The man still looked puzzled.
Raleigh let out a long breath. “Look, I don’t know how much I can say. I don’t want to get these Nameless people killed.”
His expression blanked into the stoicism she usually associated with Kitten. It looked far less creepy on him. “Where are you?”
“At the apartment.” She paused. “Your wife went out looking for them, I think.”
From the way the visuals blurred, the man had picked up his console and started running. “Bondmate, not wife,” he corrected casually. “We’re bonded, not consummated.”
If he was able and willing to converse while running, Raleigh would accept all the knowledge she could get. “I thought bonded meant married.”
He shrugged and ducked around something. “In some universes. In ours…it’s more ‘betrothed’.”
“Then why don’t you marry?”
“Resonance,” Kitten said, even more softly than she was wont, as if making certain she wouldn’t be heard by the man on the other end of the call.
Raleigh looked at the girl, her face warming. Janni had called Kitten better at keeping her thoughts to herself. Being unable to keep another, younger version of herself from hopping into her mind while she was…occupied…would be rather problematic.
“Nothing,” Raleigh said quickly, not wanting to get Kitten—or Third, or whatever she was supposed to be called, since she didn’t have an actual name—in trouble.
From his expression, he wasn’t fooled, but he also was willing to let it slide.
“I’m sorry, but what’s your name?” Raleigh asked. “I mean, if you have one.”
He gave a wry half-smile, and she found herself liking him. “Call me Lin.”
Kitten swiftly left the table, heading down the hall, and Raleigh couldn’t help thinking the man’s feminine-sounding name was particularly ill-fitting.
After Third and First finished eating, she led the way up on the roof of a building owned by one of the more notorious gangs in town—they were actually honorable and took care of their own, but their retaliation against threats was unusually thorough. Third tended to think of them like a huge clutch of Nameless. She treated them accordingly, and they returned the favor.
The wind tried to pull Third’s hair out of its ponytail and First’s out of its carefully arranged mess. Third kept her arms at her sides, tucked in the folds of her sweater, since she didn’t have a coat. She had long been used to cold, due to the decrepit space habitations she’d grown up in, but appearances mattered.
And her weapons were under the sweater.
“No…beetles?” her brother asked.
“Bugs,” she corrected, even as she sensed that something far worse than an eavesdropper had joined them on that roof, on the other side of the lookout post. “No.”
The gang’s leader wasn’t from another universe himself, but his parents had been—from two different universes, if she read his bio-identity right, though Janni was better at that than she was—and he didn’t give her any trouble. But by that same token, he accepted any other shadows—escapees from other universes—as well.
First let himself smile a little. It even reached his eyes. “You make friends fast, don’t you, Third?”
“Allies.” Nameless didn’t have friends.
His expression darkened, but he nodded once.
“Nice of you to worry about the laws now, Breach.”
First started. He’d gotten far too complacent for his own good…and Third had the sick feeling that complacency was what would be the death of Second.
“Nev?!” First sounded startled, as if still shocked, but he was scanning their surroundings for escape.
Third already knew where they were, what was around. She sidled toward one edge of the roof. “Not Breach,” she said quietly, as their Named sister came into view.
Nev’s mods were fully active, her biotech phased and plugged into a netsuit that resembled a black spiderweb worn between skin and clothes—and there was shattersilk over it, so Nev had been in this universe for at least a day, maybe two, to find that and poison the owner for it. Slow, but she wasn’t stupid.
Or, at least, Nev hadn’t been stupid when they were in their own universe, but now Third recognized the hardness to Nev’s gaze. Nothing Third could say or do would shake her sister’s conviction that a breach had occurred.
First was beyond Nev’s authority to hunt—she could arrest a first, but firsts could only be hunted by keepers—so Nev wouldn’t try to hurt him unless he tried to interfere.
Third took another step, ostensibly away from Nev, but it put her on the roof’s edge.
First didn’t look at her directly, but he did tense, so he’d noticed. “Third isn’t a Breach, Nev.”
Nev glowered at him, her expression admitting who had given her the hunt order: their mother. “You consummated?”
The question was directed at First, and he blanched, following Nev’s meaning before Third—
“Oh,” she whispered, suddenly understanding why Second was about to die, and Third herself had nothing to do with it.
Second was pregnant.
Nameless weren’t permitted children. Childbearing defeated the purpose of being Nameless.
Third leaped off the roof to drop and roll atop the neighboring building below and started running, illogically hoping she could find Second in time to save her.
Maybe the Second she’d seen die had been another universe’s, or a paradox, and she could stop it if she only fought it, tooth and nail, making use of everything her original hellverse had taught her.
Or so Third tried to convince herself.
As Raleigh waited for Lin, she finished her lunch and drank some water, then kept poking through Janni’s contact list, wondering who most of the people were.
The door opened, and Lin edged in, glancing around and quickly shutting the door behind him. “You shouldn’t leave that open.”
She frowned at the door. “I didn’t.” But Raleigh couldn’t imagine Kitten leaving the door unlocked, either.
Lin frowned back, glanced around the room, and focused on the Jenga game. He went to it, reaching for the block the ‘damaged’ Kitten had put down, but he didn’t touch it.
“Someone’s been Jumping,” he muttered, forehead scrunched as if he had a headache.
“Time jumping,” he absentmindedly clarified, still frowning, and gave his temple a brisk rub.
Kitten had looked more tired than Raleigh had thought could be accounted for by a few hours. She looked down the hall, where the girl had gone—and where Raleigh now suspected she wouldn’t be able to find her. “What?”
“Janni was playing the game?”
“Kit—” Raleigh remembered the girl was Nameless. “Third.”
His frown deepened. “Another jumper?”
She froze. “I thought jumpers Jumped universes.”
He shrugged. “Universes…time… Pretty similar, though jumpers tend to specialize in one or the other.” He paused and glanced at Raleigh, but his tone was conversational, not critical. “I thought First was missing.”
She shrugged. “Third showed up by herself, looking like something a medic had dragged in. That was a guess. Why?”
The door opened, and Kitten’s brother entered, his attention focused on Lin—warily, Raleigh thought, realizing First was a bit more expressive than his sister.
“Sir,” First said.
Ah. So First was not missing. She wondered what Third’s stare had been for.
Lin waved dismissively, scrutinizing the tower. “This me is not your keeper.”
First’s gaze narrowed, making Raleigh wonder if Lin’s casual words were somehow insulting. “No, my keeper slit his own throat once we reached a universe without Nameless.”
Lin turned sharply towards him, and the two men exchanged a long look.
“Well, then,” Lin said quietly, breaking the silence. “It’s a good thing I’m not from your universe, isn’t it?”
Raleigh was beginning to feel as if she should make a flow chart to keep track of who all was from which universe and what their relationships were.
Lin went to the kitchen found the glasses on the first try. “You registered?”
“Nev is,” First answered immediately.
Lin filled two glasses with water. “Ah, you have a Nev.” He handed one glass to First, who accepted.
They each took a sip, looking eerily similar, despite being two distinctly different people.
Lin swigged the rest of his water, then fiddled with his glass. “You take a name yet?”
First glanced away. “We were waiting for Third.”
Lin nodded, as if that made sense. “I’m sorry about Dasher—ah, Second. She wasn’t anyone I wanted to know, in my universe, but she turns out well in the universes where she gets you.”
From the startled glance First tossed at Lin, he didn’t find the other man’s words as insensitive as Raleigh did.
“Thank you,” First said quietly, sounding…grateful.
Lin shrugged. “My universe favored death over namelessness. I look at you, I see a person.”
“A sentimental TamLin.” First shook his head, as if he found the concept hard to believe. “Do I make Naming, in any universe?”
Lin—which was evidently short for TamLin—gave First a steady scrutiny, then went to the sink for more water. “Damarc-Luc Waver, diminutive Marc. He’s an admin in Shadow Corps.” He filled his glass, then returned, giving First a quick grin as he sat back down. “We meet for drinks, sometimes.”
First blinked once. “You aren’t registered.”
“He’s administration, not field or tactical. Not required to report non-registrants.” Lin shrugged. “Besides, he has to keep his doors open, if he wants to have a shot at saving his Nev once—well. Let’s just say Nev’s particularly ill-suited to Jumping, no matter which universe she’s from.”
First snorted, as if amused, but he seemed…pensive.
“This male bonding is all very nice,” Raleigh cut in, “but where’s Third?”
The two men exchanged an Isn’t it obvious? glance.
“Fleeing Nev,” Lin said mildly. “Speaking of which…” He turned to the Jenga game, picked up the block Kitten had moved, and ran it through his hands, then slid it back into place in the tower. “That’s better.”
Raleigh looked at him, then at the specific block that he’d been careful to touch—a block that Kitten had handled on purpose. The man also accepted First’s glass and ran it through his hands on the way to set it in the sink.
She frowned. “Nev is psychoscopic?” If Janni could be a crippled telepath, why couldn’t her sister be able to read objects by touching them?
The men turned towards her, Lin’s dark and First’s blue, and pleasure softened both stares.
Neither spoke, though.
Raleigh rallied her nerves, ones that had carried her through military campaigns that she intentionally abused her software to keep herself from remembering clearly. “So now what do we do? Janni wanted me to call her.”
“No,” Lin said first, glancing at First before continuing, “Janni meets that Nev, one of them will have to kill the other. I don’t want… I don’t want her dead.”
Raleigh wondered what he’d edited out, but the answer of what to do was blatantly obvious. “So we find Nev and kill her first?”
Lin grimaced. The little emotion in First’s expression vanished, and he again reminded her of Kitten.
A logistics possibility occurred to Raleigh. “With Kitten’s…time jumping. Couldn’t we rescue Second?”
Lin looked away, whereas First studied Raleigh, as if seeing her for the first time.
After a long moment of silence, First turned his staid scrutiny on Lin and paused. Without looking away from the other man, he said, “Time jumping has limits. We could save a Second, but she wouldn’t be my Second. Third would’ve already fetched her, otherwise.”
Raleigh glanced at the Jenga game, which a future Kitten had evidently Jumped back in time to tweak, which had gotten Lin aware of the time jumping issues to begin with.
At least limitations meant that there were set cause and effect, even when the cause and effect were circular. “I’m sorry.”
First studied her again, and Raleigh got the impression that Nameless weren’t usually treated as people. She remembered his earlier statement that he and Second had been waiting to take names until Third was old enough to take one, too, and if she were reading the situation right, that waiting had cost Second her life.
She felt sorry for all three of them.
“Thank you,” he said quietly.
Raleigh grabbed her shattersilk trench coat and pulled it on, making sure it hid her tech, including the gills.
Even before she tapped the seal closed, First gave a slight shake of his head. “Miss—”
“Raleigh,” she offered, realizing she’d never told either man her name, but feeling a little guilty for using it when First didn’t have a name of his own.
“My universe’s Nev would wipe the floor with you,” First finished.
“With me too, probably,” Lin commented, “but Nev will expect you and me to be involved. Her? Who is she?” He glanced at her. “I mean, she won’t know you. Even if she’s bothered to observe and discover that you live with Janni, you’re…” He evidently decided against insulting her body’s tech upgrades. “No offense intended.”
“None taken,” Raleigh said coolly, meeting First’s gaze.
He still watched her sedately, but the very fact that he was scrutinizing her and not acting suggested he didn’t like the idea.
“I was military, in my ’verse,” she told him, tapping her collar where it hid gills. “The memories are blocked, not deleted. I can restore them, if necessary.” She hoped it wouldn’t be necessary.
“This me probably won’t be much use in a fight.” Lin paused, then amended, “Compared to your universe, I mean. But somebody has to find Janni, and I don’t think you want to end up registered with Shadow Corps,”—First’s grimace said Lin’s assumption was correct—“so I’ll busy myself with that.”
Lin quickly washed the cups, set them to dry, and headed out—making Raleigh wonder why he and Janni were so estranged. He seemed nice, thoughtful.
She also found herself wishing she’d kept the mugger’s knife that morning, instead of giving it to Kitten, but it was no use changing her mind now. She’d find a weapon somewhere. She headed for the door.
“Forgetting something?” First asked.
She turned. He pulled the chair by the Jenga game out from the table and picked something off the seat.
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All kindness is not wise. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Third’s clutch escaped their home universe years ago, before any of them were old enough to legally take a name and to stop having to risk themselves to keep others alive. She’s still too young for that, and the alternate version of herself that she lives with calls her “Kitten”. First and Second, the other survivors in her clutch, live elsewhere. They’ve been waiting longer than necessary to join the Named, so they won’t leave her behind again…and they’ve been breaching the laws that govern the Nameless. Now their home universe is catching up to them, and they’ll have to pay the price. · • · • · • · E-book has 2 versions of the story: one with mature language and one without. · • · • · • · a novella that'll take the average reader about 1.5 hours to read Note: earlier editions of this story were originally released on Wattpad and Inkitt, under the title “Third”