Blog | Author's Blog | Published 22 April 2021
Worlds of Possibilities
Alice didn’t hear from Danny again for three days. She took the journal everywhere she went, even slept with it tucked under her pillow, her hand resting on its cover.
She knew it was a good thing the leather-bound book escaped all attention from her family or they would have been worried. Or more worried, as it were. Alice was convinced her mother, Jean, lived in a constant state of apprehension rooted in Alice’s state of being. That her daughter was obsessing over a ratty old journal would have had Jean cramming Alice into the car for an emergency session with Dr. Richards in nothing flat.
The few times the twins or her parents noticed the journal, they assumed she was toting Fluffy around with her and thought nothing of it, which made it easier for Alice to have the book out where she could watch it. If Danny wrote to her again she didn’t want to miss it.
Alice had the journal open in front of her on the kitchen island where she sat on a stool the third morning after Danny had first written. She stared at its blank pages, hoping desperately that she hadn’t imagined the entire encounter. As the days slid by, the hope was starting to wear thin and desperation was growing into a low grinding ache in the pit of her stomach.
If the journal was just a journal, that meant she was slipping deeper into her delusions just like Dr. Richards had warned her might happen if she went off her meds. If that was true, what kind of life could she have?
Alice was on the verge of graduating high school. Her eighteenth birthday was hurtling toward her like a runaway train and she had no idea what she was going to do with her life. Other girls her age were busy dreaming what kind of career they wanted to build, spazzing out over whether or not they could get into the college of their choice, taking the classes they needed to complete whatever degree they wanted. Alice had a long history of mental illness that would haunt her every college application. That she’d been institutionalized three times in seven years would plague every background check and job interview for the rest of her life. She was doomed before she could even drink, vote, or sign her life away for God and country.
Her mother was making French toast for the family and the rich aroma of vanilla and cinnamon made Alice’s mouth water. Jean was humming Hakuna Matata from The Lion King to herself. The twins weren’t the only ones obsessed with Disney. Alice and her entire family were unabashed addicts, and her mother humming that trademark ditty made her smile.
As did watching her mother do her own silly little dance as she made breakfast. Alice didn’t dance. Not. At. All. Couldn’t stand knowing she looked that ridiculous in front of people. Her mom had no such qualms. Alice adored that about her, but it was only one of several differences between them. Most people recognized the biggest difference the moment they saw mother and daughter side by side.
The most remarkable thing about Alice’s resemblance to her mom was that they did not resemble each other at all. Jean was a small curvaceous woman in her middle years, her red hair cut in a saucy bob. At nearly eighteen, Alice was head and shoulders taller than her mother and her straight brown hair fell past her hips. Alice’s eyes were almond shaped and blue-gray. Jean’s were chocolate brown with long thick lashes. Her mother had a round face with deep laugh lines around her mouth and eyes. Alice’s face was longer and her jaw was squarer. Jean was Irish-Mexican. Alice didn’t know what she was, mainly because she was simply listed as Non-Hispanic Caucasian on her adoption papers, though she liked to think her generous helping of freckles meant she was part Irish too, that she had even that much in common with her mom.
Jean and her husband, Jeromy, were high school sweethearts who married as soon as it was legal for them to tie the knot in California. They had both wanted the all-American package: lots of kids, a menagerie of pets, the white picket fence. The whole shebang.
So both were devastated when the doctors told Jean she couldn’t conceive. After trying everything they could to have their own baby, from herbal remedies to fertility clinics, they decided to adopt. Alice had been found on the doorstep of a hospital when she was a little over a year old. No note of explanation, no information on the sticky note stuck to her chest other than her name. But she tried to look at the bright side—at least she hadn’t been tossed in a dumpster.
And, after all, she had gotten to come home with Jean and Jeromy, who were the world’s primo example of how everybody’s mom and dad should be. They loved her and supported her even after the fire and all the injuries Alice could never explain. Which was why, when they got the stunning news nine years later that not only was Jean pregnant but with twins, Alice was just as thrilled as everyone else. No one deserved children more and never once did Alice feel her parents loved her any less than Theo and Tessa.
Sometimes Alice thought Jean cared too much, in fact. Her mom was her fiercest defender when kids at school gave her a hard time, and she was her most enthusiastic cheerleader when she despaired of ever having a normal life. It didn’t matter what weird shit happened around Alice, Jean was determined her daughter would have her fullest support and encouragement.
But all Alice ever wanted was for her mother to believe her about what really happened to cause that fire or how her neck got slashed or how that kid got knocked out. Instead, she got extra sessions with head shrinkers and a change of antipsychotics. Then, when the dust seemed to settle, Jean and the rest of the family would try to pretend everything was normal—like Alice should be worried about her career path, boys, and dresses for prom. Not the Shadows, or the Laughing Man, or the Stench. Never the actual threats Alice perceived around her every day. It was enough to drive a girl crazy. If she wasn’t already, that is.
And as if on cue, Jean asked, “Have you figured out what classes you want to sign up for yet?”
Alice shrugged, staring at the blank pages of the journal to avoid her mother’s eye.
“Allie.” Jean sighed, turning to her daughter with a fist on her hip and the spatula wielded with exasperation. “Registration is less than two weeks away. You don’t need to decide your major this semester, hon. Just sign up for some basic prerequisite courses if you don’t know what you want to do for now. I’m sure you’re going to need English and some sort of math no matter what degree you end up going for.”
“I guess,” Alice muttered, picking up her pen to doodle in the margins of a page to make her look busy.
“Well, that’s settled then,” Jean said, turning back to the French toast. “We’ll get online to the local community college this afternoon and sign you up for some basic, transferable classes. That way you can keep your options open for whichever four-year you want to apply to.”
“Yeah, okay. Sounds good,” Alice said, adding big buck teeth and small whiskers to the face she’d drawn. It consisted of a wide jester’s grin and round dark eyes. Sometimes Alice saw that face leering out at her from shadowed niches or reflected behind her in dark glass. Aside from laughing at her quietly and making her feel watched and paranoid, the Laughing Man hadn’t done anything to her. Not yet.
The journal abruptly flared with heat under her hand.
Alice froze, staring at the bold black calligraphic handwriting. She shot a glance at her mom, but she had her back to Alice as she tossed toast from the frying pan to a waiting plate.
Taking a fresh grip on her pen, Alice wrote, “My name is Allie, remember?”
Look, I wanted to apologize for how I spoke to you yesterday.
I was under a lot of stress, and when I found out I was talking to a Ten B native instead of my contact I got a little carried away. It doesn’t excuse my bad manners, I know, which is why I wanted to say I am sorry.
The black writing was as real looking as the metallic green sheen of her own ink, and the handwriting wasn’t nearly as rushed or frantic as previously. Danny sounded calmer. Maybe she (and Alice was only guessing that this person named Danny was a girl because therewas a feminine look about that black script) would be willing to give Alice answers this time—answers she was desperate for.
“Hold that thought! BRB!” Alice scrawled hastily then slapped the journal shut and jumped to her feet.
“Uh, Mom, I think I’m gonna eat my breakfast in my room and, uh, go over Sierra College’s class catalogue. You know, consider my options.”
Jean looked surprised, and then relief waltzed with hope across her face as she flipped a few slices of toast onto a plate for her. “Sure, honey. Here you go!” Her mom drowned the plate with syrup, just the way Alice liked her French toast, and passed it to her.
Alice grabbed it and a fork and hurried back to her room where she threw herself into the chair at her desk. Syrup slopped over the edge of her plate in a slow-motion avalanche in her hurry to open up the journal again. She saw that Danny had written back already.
What does ‘BRB’ mean?
“It means ‘Be Right Back.’”
“Am I crazy? Is this really happening???”
“Who ARE you?? And what were you talking about yesterday? Passengers? Contacts??”
“And why did you call me Ten B? What’s that mean?”
As an afterthought, Alice added, “And how did you know I was here?” She thought she had an idea about how, but she wanted to hear, or rather read, Danny’s explanation.
That is a lot of questions, but then I imagine you would want to know what was going on. Lucky for you I have some time to kill and no one else I can talk to. I’ll start at the top of your list.
First, no, you’re not crazy. Second, my name is Danny North Star, like I told you yesterday. And third, I knew you were there because my book got warm. The enchantment on these books responds only to those who can work magic, and they get warm to the touch when they’re in the hands of someone like you or me.
Alice felt a thrill go through her like being shocked by an electric fence. Her pen raced across the page, her handwriting as rushed as Danny’s had been.
“Like you??? Like I can do magic? Real MAGIC??? Magic is REAL???”
Of course magic is real, and yes, if you can work the traveler’s log book that means you are Gifted, or maybe a Conduit like myself, though I’m told Conduits are even rarer where you are than here.
As to what I meant when I called you a native to Ten B… Well that’s a big question. I guess the best place to start is with an explanation of the different worlds. Your people like to call them alternate realities or universes, which is as accurate a way to describe them as ours, I suppose. The basic theory behind these alternate worlds is that, as history unfolds, different possibilities come up, such as who wins a battle or what the effects of natural events like earthquakes are.
Different possible outcomes exist, but they can’t both exist in the same world and so what happens is the world splits into two or more new worlds. Now you have a world where one side won and another world where they lost, or a world where the earthquake demolished a major city and a world where the city survived.
This is, of course, an over-simplification but I think you have the gist of it.
Alright, now the next thing you should understand is that we organize these worlds into series. Each series is a grouping of worlds that share certain key elements. For instance, we’re both in series Ten because we share a large number of commonalities, a major one being that the English language developed as it did and came to be one of the most commonly spoken languages in our worlds. Makes things convenient, right? I mean, I don’t speak Latin so it would be difficult to hold this conversation with someone from Twelve G.
“What about the magic though? There doesn’t seem to be much of it in my world, and I would think that would be one of those similarities.”
Actually, magic is another key commonality between us; otherwise, we wouldn’t be talking right now. The difference is that in your world the Nulls out-bred the Gifted and so the tables were turned. The Gifted were not only the minority, which of course meant that the Nulls shaped your cultures and governments, but persecuted. Gradually, the majority of your more powerful civilizations came to view magic as nothing more than fantasy, but it still does exist.
If a world doesn’t have magic, it’s almost impossible to send travelers over there. We don’t really bother to include worlds without magic in our filing system at all really.
People who explore other worlds and report back to our side.
We like to see how other people do things, to learn from their triumphs and mistakes.
I’m sure you’ve seen one before, that odd person who’s dressed a bit off and has a funny accent you can’t quite place, the person asking you simple things like how to use a smart phone or who act all amazed at how advanced technology over there is. Mostly you Ten B people treat them like…like “back wood bumpkins” or people from the “sticks,” wherever that is, but really they’re from here, Ten A.
Anyway, they write down their findings in their logbooks, which feed into a network that our books on this side can access. Sometimes they bring back some of your more clever inventions as souvenirs when they rotate home.
I’m more interested in your stories, personally. You know, the ones where people solve all their problems without magic. I also love your fantasy stories. Some of your writers’ ideas about the fey are very funny. Where did you ever get the idea the Tuatha de Danaan couldn’t lie? They certainly have you fooled.
But back on point. You probably want to know about the Gifted, Nulls, and Conduits. That is a simple enough answer but will spawn a great number of complicated questions.
The short of it is this: the Nulls are people unable to access and manipulate magic, which is why they are at such a disadvantage in our world. The Gifted are those who can use magic, the magic within themselves and the magic within others or within their environment. Really, the only limitations to what a Gifted can do with magic are her capacity to channel magic, her imagination, the extent of her knowledge, and the strength of her will.
We Conduits have a far greater capacity for magic than the Gifted, but we’re very limited in our ability to work spells as the Gifted do. Our attempts at traditional spellcrafting usually fail or go awry—sometimes spectacularly so. This has led to the misconception that we cannot work magic at all, which is of course untrue but still results in the fact that we, like the Nulls, are at a loss in most societies. Only for Conduits it is worse.
Because the Gifted can use us to enhance and augment their own magic. They use us like witches use familiars.
“What’s a familiar?” Alice asked. And what an inane question! But it was the only question that occurred to her because she was feeling overwhelmed, and never in her life did that feel so good. Magic was real, and she had someone who could tell her all about it. Alice was literally on the edge of her seat, eagerly waiting for the next revelation and wishing Danny could write faster.
I guess you wouldn’t know what a familiar is.
Well, let me break it down for you another way.
Say a Gifted is a stream, larger than a creek but smaller than a river. It can swell with rainfall just as the Gifted can draw magic from their immediate surroundings, but mostly it is only ever just a stream.
Now imagine that this stream is fed by a dam holding back a reservoir, its waters vast and deep. Imagine massive floodgates opening into that stream and suddenly it is not a modest ribbon of water but a raging torrent capable of washing boulders and trees from its path, of carving out a new course for itself. To the Gifted we are that reservoir, their access to magic powerful enough to move the skies and mountains.
I’m sure you can see now why our position might be worse than that of the Nulls. They are bondservants, as we are, to the Gifted (or if they are free, they are lowly peasants), but they at least have some hope of gaining their freedom in most cultures. In societies that are more progressive Nulls can actually make comfortable lives for themselves even if they are not exactly equally represented.
We Conduits are too highly prized, our services too greatly coveted, for there to be much hope of freedom. In the miraculous event that we do achieve that elusive dream, our safety and liberty are never certain. But the idea of freedom hardly ever occurs to most of us. The best we can hope for is that our Gifted masters might treat us with some human kindness and that they don’t plunder our reserves too greedily.
“So is that what you’re doing right now? Working to help free Conduits and Nulls?”
There was a long pause after Alice asked that and she began to think she may have scared Danny off. She wanted to kick herself. If Danny were part of a top-secret movement to free slaves, talking about it at all would probably expose her to all kinds of danger, which Danny confirmed when she finally replied.
I’m not sure I should answer that question.
My logbook is defective and can’t connect to the network anymore, only to channels linked to your world since it’s so close, and then only to a few other books published by the same house in the same year as mine. I wonder how your logbook even survived. I thought there were only three others currently in your world.
Anyway, I still shouldn’t take any chances that what I write to you might be intercepted.
Of course, at that point Alice would die of unsatisfied curiosity if Danny left her story there. And besides, their first harried conversation already blew Danny’s secret out of the water, a point she was quick to write down.
There was another long pause, then: True. I guess at this point the changeling’s a log in the cradle.
Yes, when I thought you were Don and spoke of conductors and passengers I was speaking of some fugitive Nulls and of a system put in place to help them escape their bondage.
“We used the same names for people who were in the Underground Railroad here about a hundred years ago!”
We stole the terms from your history. We developed the ley roads about the same time as your railroads became popular, and in one of those quirky coincidences, the people who navigate our lines have also come to be called conductors.
When we set up our network to ferry fugitives out of slavery, we thought it was only fitting to use the terms that served you so well in yours, though we call ours the Phantom Lines.
“And you’re a conductor?”
No, I’m a rarer breed of operator. We’re called thieves here, but in your world you called them abductors. We specialize in infiltrating the Gifteds’ strongholds to steal away the Conduits held in bondage there. Though betimes I volunteer to assist in guiding Null fugitives through enemy territory, as I am currently attempting to do.
“Is that how you got free?” Alice asked, excited. “I mean, you must be free already if you’re part of the underground too.”
Yes, I am a free Conduit. But there was no organization like this back then. Our system came along later.
Danu, it was terrifying!
I ran away from my family when I was twenty-four and if it weren’t for Bran, I would have thought turning runner would end in nothing but blood and tears, and yet despite all odds I succeeded.
But my continued freedom is far from assured. I have been in hiding ever since, afraid to so much as whisper my given name on the vast empty plains for fear that it might be heard and I would be found.
“But then how did you do it?”
That is a long story, and just as I was reluctant to tell you about passengers and conductors, I’m thrice again as hesitant to tell you my story.
If you knew who my family was, you would understand. I’m afraid that, if I wrote down my name, or theirs, even in this decommissioned and faulty logbook, they might find out and trace it back to me. Only a handful of people know who I am and how I escaped my fate. I’ve not told anyone else who wasn’t there to help me do it. To speak of it in the open air is too much of a risk…
The pause was very long this time.
If Alice had been on tenterhooks before she was frothing at the mouth now. Her pen tapped out a syncopated rhythm on her desk, spattering green ink over the lacquered wood. She didn’t notice.
Should she write to Danny? Nudge her to keep going with the story? Or would that only shut her up for sure?
It was hard but Alice went with silence. She remembered some kind of investigator on a crime fighting show saying that most people feel compelled to fill a silence and will volunteer information if one waited long enough.
So Alice waited. More metallic green stained the desktop, going unheeded until, finally, the black cursive began to slowly unfurl across the page.
Still, it is hard and lonely to keep such secrets, and I have been holding this one for a very long time. It would be a relief to finally confide in someone. You aren’t even part of our world. Your logbook isn’t registered and I would be writing, not speaking aloud…
Besides, it might take my mind off what’s going on now. I haven’t been this worried in years. Not since my own escape. Don got in touch with me this morning. Somehow, the channel I was supposed to use got messed up
Alice let out an incredulous laugh, her excitement and nerves coming out as giddiness as she interrupted Danny’s justifications. “Wow that must have been a little embarrassing!”
The “silence” after that felt somehow irritated.
Funny how you leap to the assumption it was a mistake on my part. Do you think I would still be free and at liberty to continue as a successful conductor for decades if I made such thoughtless blunders?
“No, no! I’m sorry! Please go on!”
Anyway, once I tuned to the correct channel, he said we had to change locations for the exchange because the patrol was watching the switch-off point.
This isn’t the first time our plans have been compromised. No one else is saying it, but I’m afraid we might have a spy in our midst and the constant worry is driving me half out of my mind as I sit here, holed up in this rat’s nest of a roadside inn.
Don told me the fugitives are being guided overland and it will take them a week to get here, and the whole time I’m supposed to sit and hope the mercenary innkeeper and his stingy wife don’t get too curious. If they so much as suspect who or what I am, they will report me to the Harpies in a blink for the bounty on my head.
Not that this is anything new, but when I dwell on the idea that we may have a traitor amongst us… There’s so much at stake now. Events have been escalating in recent years. War is coming. I can feel it.
Gah!!! I don’t want to think about it anymore right now.
All right, I’ll tell you my story, but give me a moment to think. I need to figure out where to start.
“Why don’t you start at the beginning,” Alice suggested as she pulled her breakfast plate closer. The toast had long gone cold and the butter and syrup were starting to congeal, but she was too caught up in Danny’s story to care.
Well, of course I should start at the beginning, but which beginning should I use?
Should I start with the night I took my first step toward freedom and how I was so terrified I could barely breathe?
Or maybe my story begins with the moment I made up my mind to escape my family and started to make my plans?
I don’t think either of these beginnings will do.
You’re a native of Ten B. You can’t know what my life was like, how our world works. You can’t know or understand why my heart was made heavy by the choice to leave my family or the guilt and conflict I still feel over abandoning my duties and obligations.
No, for you to understand the whole of it, my story must start at the very beginning. I should start by telling you about my family.