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Disclaimer and credits will be found after the end of the chapter.
Drunkard's Walk V / Oh! My Brother! Book II:
Another Divine Mess You've Gotten Me Into
by Robert M. Schroeck and Christopher Angel
3. In Which The Neighbors Prove To Be More Annoying Than I Care For
God does not play dice with the universe. He plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players (i.e., everybody), to being involved in an obscure and complex version of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won't tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time. — From Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Every study of the gods, of everyone's gods, is a revelation of vengeance toward the innocent. — From A Prayer For Owen Meany, by John Irving
Tarikihonganji Temple, Sunday, May 11, 1997, 7:31 AM
I hate waking up with a freakin' headache, Chris grumbled silently, since he was not yet up to the task of speaking aloud. And this is the first one I've had since I got myself into this gig, so it feels just that much worse. On top of that, he couldn't tell if it were fading or intensifying — or just throbbing slowly — as he staggered slowly down the hallway.
With one large hand rubbing his bleary eyes, Chris stumbled blindly into the kitchen, following the sounds and scents of meal preparation. Eyes still closed, he took a long, deep breath and frowned. The smell of breakfast, while not unpleasant, was unfamiliar. With an effort, he ignored the pain in his head, levered open his eyelids and slurred, "Good morning, Bell."
"Good morning, Christopher," Belldandy called out cheerily, all but singing the words, without turning around from the range top where she efficiently managed several bubbling pots and one sizzling pan.
Uh-oh. The bright tone of her greeting coupled with the use of his full first name jolted Chris into complete and wary (if painful) wakefulness. The combination did not bode well. Nor did the brilliant but ever-so-slightly mischievous smile she then favored him with. A palpable sense of impending doom crept over him at the thought of a cheery Belldandy who was still annoyed at him. This is not good. This is so very not good. Partly in the hope of distracting her, and partly because he was genuinely curious, he asked, "Have you seen Doug this morning? He's not in his room and his futon is folded up."
"I believe he is on the roof," his sister replied, ladling a tiny bit of a dark sauce into a small, shallow bowl. Then she sipped from the bowl and smiled to herself.
"The roof?" he repeated after what she'd said sunk in for a moment.
"Yes, the roof." With smooth, efficient movements she scooped several small, golden-brown somethings from the pan and laid them on a paper towel to drain. "Would you be so kind as to ask him to come in for breakfast?" She glanced over her shoulder and graced him with another brilliant but worrisome smile.
"Sure," he muttered and turned around to leave the kitchen the same way as he'd entered. "What the he... heck's he doing on the roof?"
Fresh air seemed to help his head somewhat. At least the pounding was down to a manageable level that let him open his eyes and keep them open despite the obscene brightness of the morning.
Kata. Chris blinked and confirmed what he was seeing. He's doing kata on the roof. On the ridge. Along the ridge. With... music? Chris blinked again. Doug seemed ... shiny, limned with a faint silver light against the bright morning sky. Is he... glowing?
"...Nooby ooby walla,
Dooby abba nabba,
Early morning singing song!
Good morning, Starshine,
There's love in your skies,
Reflecting the sunlight
In my lover's eyes.
Good morning, Starshine,
So happy to be
My love and me as we sing
Our early morning singing song..."
The music of course came from his helmet, which he wore — an incongruous contrast to the jeans and T-shirt in which he was dressed. Watching as Doug danced and spun along the narrow line of rounded ceramic shingles that capped the peak of the highest part of the roof, Chris shook his head. Well, now I know what it was that confused Skuld so badly yesterday... Guy moves like nothing I've ever seen, god or mortal. He smiled to himself. Up there he's visible to most of the houses in the area. Looks like the neighbors are going to have something new to talk about. One corner of his mouth twitched even higher. About freakin' time.
Chris stood silently in the yard as he watched Doug continue his kata, frowning in confusion. What is he practicing, anyway? That looked like a kung fu stance, but then he slid into a move I know is from Tai Chi. That thought brought to mind the way Doug had handed off Skuld during the confrontation after his arrival, a hand-off that had involved moves from three different martial arts blended into a seamless sequence. Chris frowned in concentration.
When the song ended, Doug bowed to the sun, which was not so far above the horizon that it wasn't obviously in the East, and reached under his helmet to undo the chin strap. As he did so, Chris shook himself from his musings, waved and called out, "Yo! Doug! Belldandy says breakfast is ready."
"Great!" Doug's voice started off muffled by the helmet, but became crisp and clear when he finished pulling it off. Then, without warning, he hurled himself off the roof.
Chris opened his mouth to yell, only leave it hanging open soundlessly as Doug somersaulted, slammed feet-first into a nearby tree trunk, ricocheted from there to touch momentarily against the compound wall, then twisted and landed lightly on his feet. He held his helmet's chin strap in one hand still, the helmet itself swinging wildly from it. "What's she making this morning?"
Chris took several moments to gather his wits sufficiently to process the question, then slumped. "Probably something I'm going to loathe," he muttered desultorily. "She's a bit miffed at me over something I said."
Doug raised an eyebrow. "And what, pray tell, did you say that could upset a woman that calm and centered?"
Chris gave him a sidelong look with just a hint of glare. "I laughed at what you called her when you first woke up."
"What I called...?" The older man frowned for several seconds in obvious concentration, then his eyes shot open. "Oh! Oh, yeah... that."
Snorting, Chris nodded. "Yeah, that."
Doug grimaced. "Would it help to say I was more than a little stressed out?"
"Not particularly, but thanks for trying."
"Vengeance is mine," sayeth the cook, Chris thought glumly, and poked at the items on his plate. The headache had faded away completely, but his torment was not yet over. No doubt about it. This is my punishment for laughing last night.
Belldandy had prepared a sumptuous breakfast, as usual, and his sisters, Keiichi and their house guest were all tucking in with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Not so himself. Chris studied the plate in front of him, hoping that the intensity of his dislike would somehow trigger a heretofore-latent talent of his godhood that would transmute the ... substance on it into something he could eat.
No luck yet.
His sister's revenge was both subtle and cruel. Breakfast was — as it frequently became in Belldandy's hands — a foray into the foods of another culture, prepared with exquisite care and attention. However, this was a culture he'd never expected her to explore. He was certain the Deep South of the United States had a great deal to offer the sophisticated palate — but what she'd set before him couldn't possibly be it.
The grits he could probably have handled — as far as he was concerned they were just another hot cereal. But the viscous dark brown liquid ladled into the bowl over them — he wasn't sure if it was a sauce or a gravy — smelled strongly of coffee and weakly of salt pork, and the thought of the combination made his stomach lurch. There were fried slices of something vaguely meatlike (though not entirely so), somewhere between a dark tan and a light grey in color. It reminded Chris a little of meatloaf, but only in the most general way, and the one piece he'd surreptitiously lifted to his nose when Bell hadn't been looking had again smelled more like pork than anything else he could identify.
He was on safer ground with the golden, bready tidbits that glistened slightly still with a bit of the oil in which they had been cooked — he'd at least heard of hushpuppies before, and actually looked forward to trying the deep-fried blobs of cornbread batter. A flick of the wrist and he was able to confirm that yes, they were as good as he'd imagined: hot, sweet, and almost as puffy as a doughnut.
But the thing that worried him most, though, was the pile of other deep-fried tidbits that dominated his plate. A quick glance around the table confirmed that, yes, he easily had twice as many of the small golden-brown disks as anyone else. Given his current tenancy in Belldandy's doghouse, this could not possibly be a good sign.
Chris picked one fried disk up with his chopsticks. It seemed to be coated in the same batter that made up the hushpuppies, which boded well. Cautiously, he raised it to his lips and took a tiny bite and chewed.
And stopped as the flavor hit him. He closed his eyes and forced himself to swallow the tiny bit of fried vegetable matter because — fit of pique or not — he was not going to insult Belldandy by spitting it out. Damn. I hate it when I'm right.
He hated okra. And Belldandy knew it.
It was going to be a long breakfast.
I'd never had a genuine Southern-style breakfast before, and was giving it my all despite the unhealthy look of the scrapple and the weird scent of the sauce on the farina. But hell, I like good food, and I'll try anything once — twice if it doesn't kill me. And I've already given my opinion on Belldandy's cooking, so regardless of what it looked or smelled like, I was more than willing to go at it with enthusiasm.
Chris looked considerably less enthusiastic. He took one bite of the batter-dipped okra and his face went steel-shutter blank — he obviously didn't like it but didn't want Belldandy to know. Which failed of course, because if I caught on immediately, Belldandy probably figured it out the day before. Besides, it was punishment after all. Take it like a man, buddy.
So I dug in while he picked at his plate. I was about halfway through the bowl of coffee-bacon-flavored farina when Skuld finally walked in. I didn't look up at her, but I did half-consciously track the progress of the red and white skirt that was at my current eye level as it made its way around the table. As I swabbed up a dollop of porkish-flavored grease with a hushpuppy, I realized the skirt had stopped more or less next to me and wasn't moving. I popped the 'puppy into my mouth and leaned back.
"G'morning, Skuld." I said as my eyes came to rest on Garban, which was nestled in the little goddess' arms.
Keiichi stopped eating and stared at Skuld with faint dread in his eyes. Chris stopped playing with his food to watch us as well.
"Good morning," she replied. She didn't say anything else for a couple of seconds, just stood there studying me. Then she held up the toy robot and looked it over. "I don't usually like machines that don't do anything useful," she said without preamble. "But you didn't know that. And I think I know what you wanted to say by giving this to me. So..." She took a breath. "Thank you."
On the other side of the table, Belldandy beamed as Urd grinned, dare I say devilishly. Chris raised an eyebrow and looked impressed. Keiichi let out a held breath.
I nodded and smiled. "You're welcome. Peace?"
She nodded once in return, vigorously enough to send shimmering ripples down her long, black hair. "Peace."
I slid over a bit and patted the empty pillow next to me — I was still next to what was apparently her usual place. "Then sit down and have breakfast with the rest of us." As she did so, I added, "Your sister has gone for the exotic this morning."
Chris started coughing.
"Truly classical cooking," I declared, and held up a piece of scrapple speared on my fork. "Bring back the glory that was grease!"
Skuld snorted, and Urd chuckled, but Belldandy actually giggled. I caught her eye and got an impish smile in return. Chris, on the other hand, scowled at me. Apparently now that Skuld didn't need it, it was his turn to use the family scowl.
I wondered for a moment if Belldandy ever used it, then remembered what Chris had said about the previous night. Note to self: do not make Belldandy scowl. That resolved, I tipped an imaginary hat to him, and went back to cleaning my plate.
Fifteen minutes later, Chris was still working his way through his fried okra, but everyone else had finished. As the rest of the household dispersed to the four winds, I helped Belldandy gather up the dirty dishes and insisted on carrying them into the kitchen for her. She protested about letting a guest perform manual labor but I ignored her objections and reminded her that a) I was more like a boarder than a guest, b) it was part of our agreement, and c) dirty dishes didn't even rank anywhere near the most unpleasant thing I could do around the house.
This little exchange lasted until we were in the kitchen proper. After I stacked everything carefully by the sink, I turned to her and said, "Double portions of okra? Chris must have really been a bad boy."
Belldandy giggled again, an extraordinarily pleasant sound that I decided I wanted to hear more often. "Oh, not really, but I do have a bit of a temper, and it flared up last night. This was a safe way to express it." An apprehensive look took over her expressive blue eyes. "You don't think ill of me for it, do you?"
I laughed, then reached out and squeezed her hand reassuringly. "My dear Belldandy, you're a Norse goddess. I'd've been worried if you didn't have a temper. And I'm honored that my opinion means anything to you." Apprehension was replaced by gratitude, but before she could say anything I went on, "And you're right, fried okra is definitely safer than, say, power blasts at 20 paces."
She giggled musically once more. "I suppose I should go tell him he's forgiven and he doesn't have to finish it all."
"Probably a good idea," I replied, nodding.
Before Belldandy could do more than turn toward the door, though, an unfamiliar male voice calling out a traditional greeting echoed through the house. "Oh," she said brightly, "that sounds like Louis."
"Louis?" I asked.
Belldandy nodded. "One of Chris' friends from school."
Much to Louis' obvious amusement, Chris raised his eyes to the ceiling and mouthed "thank you!" as soon as Belldandy pulled the plate with the remaining okra from the table.
With unusual care, the young god slid back away from the table so he could stand without causing another disaster. He rose to his feet, his knees and back popping as he did so, then rolled his shoulders, and rotated his waist, each one eliciting more cracks and pops. Finally, he put his hands to his head and twisted it in a truly alarming fashion.
As each noise echoed in the room, Belldandy winced and grimaced, her expression becoming more and more tortured until Chris finished. With a shudder, she fled into the kitchen, and Chris grinned evilly after her. Then he turned to Louis with a suspicious look. "You're here awfully bright and early in the morning," he commented. "What's up?"
Louis looked away, his good humor draining from his face. "I wanted to apologize..."
Chris's face flushed as he exploded with, "Tian-mu's tits! You freaking told him!"
With a reluctant nod, Louis said, "Sorry. I'm sworn to the service of an Archangel, I really didn't have any choice in the matter. I had to inform Jean." A sheepish half-smile flitted across his lips. "At least I had the decency to let you know."
"Great," Chris rasped. "Just freaking great. Now Jean's going to tell that prick Dom, and I'll have got a bloody Inquisitorial Triad on their way, and there's nothing we can do about it. Neither Urd, Skuld nor I can get rid of them, and Bell won't — she'll just keep serving them tea, no matter how annoying they get." Absently, he began to systematically pop his knuckles. "And I can't rope Thor or Indra into it either because I still owe them from last time! GAH! And he's probably going to send his most annoying trio just to piss me off!" He clenched his fists until the knuckle joints popped. "I really hate angels of Judgment."
"It's not all bad. I mean, since you're not part of the Choir they have no real authority over you, right?"
"Yeah, and I have no authority over them!"
"As long as you don't punch one. You remember what happened last time."
Chris glared at his mortal friend. "As I recall, you were responsible for those nimrods showing up, too. Remind me why I keep you as a friend?"
Louis crossed his arms and smiled smugly. "Because I buy the beer."
Despite my pretty words after breakfast, I still did not fully trust Belldandy. It was inconceivable in my experience for a god — even an incarnated aspect so clearly acculturated to life as a human as Belldandy seemed to be — to honestly give a tinker's damn about the opinion a mere mortal like myself might hold about her behavior. (Yeah, yeah, yeah, Hexe. But Hexe's different. In all the right ways. And even then she doesn't give a shit what anyone thinks of her anyway, so it's a null issue.)
So even as I stood next to Belldandy and helped with the dishes, I was busy turning her words and actions over and over in my mind, trying to figure out what her angle actually was. I didn't come up with any useable answer by the time all the dishware had been put away, so I kept on musing on it as I turned to my primary task of the day — further work on my bike.
Try as I might, I couldn't figure out what she wanted. The fact is, the Three simply aren't nice. Depending on how you looked at them, they either couldn't afford to be, or didn't want to be. Remember, these are the same Entities who are also the Furies at least part of the time, not to mention several other more-than-slightly bloodthirsty trinities. (And having had come to mind the image of a blood-splattered and wild-eyed Belldandy, gore-dipped sword in hand, sweetly saying, "I'm terribly sorry but I have to kill you quite horribly now" certainly didn't help me come to any conclusions, although it did give me a fit of the giggles for a few minutes.) And in the aspects which inhabited the avatars with whom I now lived (i.e., the Norse version of the Greek Fates) they all should have been at the best cold and unfeeling about mortal men and at the worst gleefully sadistic.
So Belldandy not only being as nice as she was but also being concerned about my opinion of her made absolutely no sense to me, except in terms of some kind of manipulation. But try as I might, wrack my brain as I did, I could not for the life of me come up with anything immediate and obvious, which left me no choice but to assume that her goal, whatever it was, was fiendishly and possibly ineffably subtle. And I resigned myself to being bit on the ass by it at the most inopportune time, which is usually the case.
(Mind you, this doesn't mean I didn't like Belldandy — or her siblings, for that matter. Against my better judgment and against my will, I found that I did like them all, however tentative it was at that early date.
I just didn't entirely trust them.
Oddly enough, coming to this conclusion set my mind at a kind of fatalistic ease. The Three were, among their many other roles, the primary enforcers of Finagle's Law, and the perversity of the universe was something with which I'd long ago come to terms. Living with and inside my field had inured me to it even before I was out of high school — the only other alternative was to go loudly and spectacularly crazy. (No comments from the peanut gallery, please!) So anyway, chalking Belldandy's odd behavior up to business as usual with the universe at large actually allowed me to relax and devote my entire mind to the real business at hand — my bike.
It being a Sunday, no one had classes or much in the way of other obligations, so I had plenty of hands to help me with the work on my motorcycle. But other than Skuld, who had settled in for the long haul, and Megumi, who was devouring everything we could give her on gravitics, people tended to drift in, lend a hand for an hour or so, and drift out again.
Even Belldandy joined the team for a while (in the company of Keiichi, of course, and don't think I hadn't included that relationship and its oddities in my ruminations about her motives). I was surprised to discover that she was no stranger to this kind of work. The clean but comfortably-broken-in coverall with her name neatly stitched in katakana on the left breast, not to mention her skill with a wrench, made it clear that she'd worked on engines and vehicles before.
I'd give a blow-by-blow description of the work we did on the motorcycle, but to be honest it was mostly boring grunt work — pick a subsection, find the necessary parts among Skuld's rather idiosyncratic organizational system, carry them to a clear bit of floor, sit and assemble. Retrieve tools as necessary, put them back when done. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Among those tools was the same cleverly-designed plasma welder/cutter combination Skuld had been using the day before, which from its red-and-white coloring and the prominent "S" on its case I figured was something that she had cooked up herself. (Also by the way the other members of the household shied away from it when I powered it up.) I eagerly looked forward to using it while reassembling the cycle's frame.
Theoretically, that task shouldn't have been a big deal. Skuld's exploratory surgery hadn't gotten so far as to render it into component atoms, at least — compared to other parts of the bike, it was mostly intact. And Skuld had already reassembled part of it while the rest of us were dealing with those grad-school gits Ootaki and Tamiya. On top of that, Megumi had actually found the remaining parts while getting a running feed on the basics of gravitics from Skuld and myself. With Belldandy's help she had begun laying the pieces out in place. It should have been a matter of a couple of hours at the most, even if we needed to weld something that I hadn't noticed. It should have been.
That was before I spotted Megumi studying a piece of the frame tubing with a funny look on her face. I didn't give it much thought, since we didn't need that particular piece yet, and my attention was primarily focussed on Skuld, who was doing the actual welding. But every once in a while Megumi would pass across my field of vision, a pair of calipers or a micrometer or whatnot in one hand, and (after the first couple times), Skuld's computerized Etch-A-Sketch in the other.
The next time I really paid attention to what she was up to, she'd plopped herself down on one of the stools and had begun typing away furiously on the flat screen of the device, which she'd perched precariously on her knees. Every once in a while she'd pause and check a piece of paper on the workbench next to her, then start typing again; her fingertips striking the screen made a dull, flat noise unlike the clicking keyboards I was used to.
About that time I'd taken over Skuld's mini-welder and had gone to work on the turbine mount, and didn't pay any further attention to what Megumi was up to. I'd had some ideas for improving the mount for a few months but hadn't gotten around to implementing them, and regardless of how I felt about what she'd done, Skuld's vandalism of my bike gave me the perfect opportunity to do so. So it happened that I was busy sculpting a new mount bracket with quick, deft movements of the welder/cutter head when I felt a tap on my shoulder.
I shut down the device and took off my goggles. Megumi and Skuld were standing together next to me. "We need you to see something," Megumi said solemnly.
Next thing I know, Skuld and Megumi are bookending me and waving the plans for the grav drive under my nose, both trying to explain something to me simultaneously and rendering each other unintelligible in the process.
I held up my hands. "Hold on!" I didn't quite bellow, but it was loud enough to make Keiichi and Belldandy both look up from where they were piecing together the front fork and its mount. "One at a time."
"We have a problem," Megumi said. "All I know about grav tech I learned yesterday afternoon and today, so I really don't know much at all, but I do know something about vehicle frames."
"Look here." Skuld twiddled something on the edge of the sketchpad and a false-perspective field strength diagram sprang up over a wire-frame image of the bike. Then the whole thing animated. The simulation's drive spooled up to full power and as the time progression started going logarithmic I watched in dismay as the frame slowly warped and buckled. When all that was left was a twisted ruin of glowing lines, I hit the big "pause" button on the screen and checked the projected time. Five years, two months, eight days, and a handful of hours.
I suppressed a wince. "Five years isn't too bad."
"That's a best-case projection," Megumi said. ""Best case" meaning that the bike never actually moves in that five years. You put any kind of stress on the frame, the whole process accelerates."
"Stress like, say, riding around on it?" I asked.
"Bingo," Skuld replied with a smirk.
"We can't use the bike's original frame," Megumi declared. "Not with Skuld's improvements to the grav drive."
I opened my mouth but Skuld didn't let me get a word out. "And before you say anything," the girl growled, "we're not going back to your old junkpile. We'll just have to make a new frame from scratch, something without microfractures or other flaws that can stand up to the field stresses."
"How?" I finally got a word in edgewise.
"Leave that to me," Skuld declared airily. I raised an eyebrow and she smiled. "Seriously. I'll come up with an alloy that will do the job, trust me."
"And when she knows the properties of that alloy, I'll design the frame," Megumi added confidently.
"We'll design the frame," Skuld interjected, and Megumi nodded vigorously.
"Okay, right, we will design it. But that's my specialty — mechanical engineering." She grinned suddenly. "Besides, just imagine the challenge: design a frame for a flying motorcycle built from an alloy concocted by a goddess? That's something no one's ever done before. I can't wait to get started!"
Well, someone suddenly had a burst of enthusiasm. Not that I objected at all. Especially since it seemed infectious — Skuld almost visibly brightened under the onslaught of Megumi's eagerness and energy. (Not to mention the compliment implied by her obvious desire to work with the girl goddess and whatever she cooked up in her lab.)
For a moment, Skuld stood blinking with a growing smile spreading across her face. Then she grabbed Megumi by the elbow and turned to drag her back towards the workbench at the rear of the shop. "Well, let's go, then! You need to be in on the start of this then," she declared.
"Hold on!" I all but shouted — again. They stopped and turned back to me and the others looked up from what they were doing.
"Whatever you two come up with," I continued, a little more softly, "I want to know about it. All the details. After all," I added Skuld opened her mouth to protest, "I'm going to have to maintain it all by myself when I leave this timeline, so I damn well better know everything I can about it."
Skuld's mouth closed with a snap, and she traded glances with Megumi.
The mortal girl spoke first. "Fair enough. I'm going to have a whole sheaf of plans when I'm done. It won't be a problem to make sure you have a copy of everything."
Skuld nodded. "And I'll document my alloy for you."
"Good, that's a start," I replied, "but I want to be in on every part of this process."
Skuld gave me a "you must be kidding" frown that was equal parts precious and intimidating, but before I could react in any way, it vanished from her face and she nodded shortly, once. "All right."
Then she turned to Belldandy and Keiichi and said, "Okay, that's it for now. We'll have to come back to all that later."
"Really?" Keiichi asked as he helped Belldandy up. Once she was standing he shot me an enquiring look. "Are you sure?"
I shrugged and said, "You heard the lady. Thanks for the help, but it looks like the plans have changed." I grimaced. "Literally." As they left, I glanced at Chris. "What about you?"
He shook his head with a small smile. "Skuld knows better than to tell me to leave. I'm here because she gets all pouty if I don't stay for the show."
Skuld made a rude noise and stuck her tongue out at him, and I chuckled softly.
"Show?" Megumi asked him with a frown. "What's coming next?"
"This," Skuld replied, stepping to one end of her workbench and opening a long, narrow panel to reveal a bright red lever. With a smirk at us, she reached in and pulled it.
A low rumble shook the shack as the entire back wall of the structure — bench, cabinets, and all — suddenly split apart along seams that had been up to that moment invisible. The rear of the shed became a blur of motion as its component pieces rotated, slid, flipped and folded themselves like some monster Rubik's cube. Sections melted back into the wall, new pieces extruded forward, and even the floor under our feet rippled, changing from plain wood to a mix of hard tile and steel that extended halfway toward the door.
Gone were the wooden workbench and the equipment on and around it. In their place a wall of gleaming ceramic plates appeared, studded by small doors of dark metal with heavy hinges and latches. One of these hung open, revealing darkness within. Along the base of the wall were bins of metal ingots of all colors and sizes, and over these hung all the tools of a master metalcrafter. To the sides, a lathe, drill press and other power tools of a decidedly futuristic design seemed to melt out of the walls, those on the right taking their places around the little fridge which was the only holdover from the previous configuration. In the center, an ancient-looking anvil of battered and scarred black iron rose out of the floor, mounted on a high-tech hydraulic base. It thudded to a stop just at waist-height to Skuld.
Just as the last bits snapped into position and restored a sense of immutable solidity to the place, the rumble faded away and there came a clicking sound followed by the almost tactile whomp! of igniting gas. The dark space behind the one open hatch in the wall suddenly blossomed with brilliant flame. A pulse of heat warmed our faces a moment later.
"Whoa," Megumi whispered.
I nodded in agreement. "That has to be one of the coolest things I have ever seen."
Skuld visibly preened.
Chris was shaking his head, a reluctant grin crossing his face. "My little sister is such a show-off."
The preening vanished as Skuld scowled at Chris. Then she stepped forward, closed the open hatch, and turned back to us. "Now," she said, "we go to work."
"Go!" Skuld spat. "Now."
Megumi kept her head down and stifled a smile. She'd seen this coming, right from the beginning when she'd learned from a sheepish Doug that he knew nothing about metallurgy except a little about something called "essential metal" — which was apparently a completely magical substance and shouldn't count at all, in her humble opinion.
"But..." Doug began.
"You're in my way!"
Doug, however, had appeared to be determined to learn all there was to know about metallurgy in one afternoon by watching Skuld intently and asking the odd — sometimes very odd — question. Megumi had tripped over him herself a couple of times, but Skuld had it far worse — and she had finally gotten fed up.
The young goddess carefully laid several ingots on the anvil, pushed a damp lock of hair out of her eyes, and took a long breath. Then she turned to Doug. "I need 250 cc of dreki blood for this mixture," she said with an exaggerated calmness that almost set Megumi to giggling. "I know Urd has some in her lab. Could you find her and ask for some?"
Doug studied her for a moment, then nodded. "Sure. Dreki blood, you said?"
"Yes. 250 cc."
"Right. I'll be back."
When he was gone, Megumi finally let herself look up. "Do you really need that, the whaddayacallit blood?"
Skuld shared a conspiratorial smile with her. "Not for this test, no. But if I didn't get him out from under my feet soon, I was going to take my hammer to him!"
Megumi snickered. "Well, you can't fault him for enthusiasm."
I found Urd lounging on the engawa. That wasn't a surprise; it seemed to be her favorite place to be. "Ah, there you are."
"Of course. I'm always here," she said without opening her eyes. "It's all you other people who go away."
"Cute." I sat down next to her. "Solipsism as punch line."
She opened her eyes then swung her legs around and off the edge of the wooden walkway, levering herself upright as smoothly as though she'd been sitting in a La-Z-Boy recliner instead of lying flat on her back. "I only steal from the best." She gave me a long, amused up-and-down look. "Hm. No external wounds, but you're here even though by the sound of it Little Sister is still hard at work." Urd raised an eyebrow. "She got annoyed with you and threw you out?"
I didn't dignify that with a response. "She asked me to get 250 cc of dreki blood from you."
Urd closed one eye and laid a finger along her nose. "She got annoyed with you and threw you out."
"No matter." She hopped to her feet and made a languid "follow me" gesture. "Right this way."
After dropping yet another small ingot into the incandescent liquid, Skuld slid the crucible back into the furnace. "I think I have the mix just about right," she said over her shoulder. "Let it melt and blend for a little while more, and we should be able to make a test piece." With a musical clang, she shut the hatch, and the heat level in the room dropped noticeably.
"Great!" Megumi spun and studied the wall full of bins. "Extruder, right?"
Skuld wiped her forehead with the back of one hand as she stepped back away from the furnace. "Whew. Yeah, exactly. We'll want our test pieces to have the same crystallization pattern as the final product."
Megumi rolled her eyes. "I knew that. I am an engineer, after all." She stepped closer and began peering at the tiny lettering on the labels of the bins. "So, where is it?"
"Oh!" Skuld glanced at the wall. "Third row from the top, fifth bin from the left."
"Right." Megumi opened the bin and wrestled the extruder and its dies from inside. A moment later they all landed atop the anvil with a thudding clang. Megumi studied the base of the device and the top of the anvil. With a nod she twisted the extruder slightly so that it clicked into place on the anvil. Then she pulled out the die that was in it and replaced it with one that would form tubing of the right thickness when the molten metal was forced through it. "'Kay, it's ready."
"Great!" Skuld replied. "Now we wait." She waved at the bench across from her. "Pull out a stool and sit down."
"Good idea." When they were both seated, on opposite sides of the small forge area, Megumi leaned back, closed her eyes and sighed. "You know, I like being able to talk to you like this instead of thinking you were just some punk kid who knew a lot about machines. This is so much better."
"Thanks, I guess." Skuld spun in her seat to open the refrigerator behind her. Pulling out two bottles of water, she tossed one to Megumi. "Here."
Megumi snatched it out of the air and held its chilled surface to her forehead. "Thanks, it's sweltering in here."
"Well, duh, furnace."
The older girl grimaced. "C'mon, give me a break."
Skuld had the grace to look sheepish. "Sorry."
"It's okay, I guess." Megumi opened the bottle and took a long swig. "So, since we're here and waiting, I've got a few more questions for you about... well, what you and your sisters and your jerk of a brother all are."
A single raven eyebrow lifted. "What we are?"
"Well, you're all kami... but kami of what?"
"Ooooh, I see." Skuld took a quick sip from her bottle. "Well, that's kind of a complicated question."
Megumi scowled. "You say that to everything I ask."
"Well, it's true!" Skuld protested. "I mean, it's complicated to begin with, but then I have to figure out how to tell a mortal in terms that a mortal can understand that don't just completely confuse things." She pouted. "It's not easy!"
The older girl rolled her eyes. "Okay, just do your best, then."
"Okay." Skuld settled in a bit on her stool and took another sip. "The first thing that makes it complicated is that, well, like I said yesterday, I'm like a finger puppet. There's something — someone — more real than I am, who I'm part of. My Overself. I'm not all of Her, but She's all of me — I'm kind of like a subset of Her. And She's a lot of different but related things, all at once."
"Well..." Skuld scrunched up her face in thought. "Let's start with me. You wanted to know what I'm a kami of? I'm the Future — youth, energy and hope, fear and dread, the possibilities of what may come. I'm technology and innovation, stagnation and ruin, birth and death — all that the future can bring. In a way, I'm newness, creation and change. But then, my Overself is all about that. She and I are the Maiden — youth, potential, and purity. In fact, one of the other faces my Overself takes is Uriel, the Christian Archangel of Purity."
Megumi sat up straight. "What, you're running around in more than one body?"
"Not really. I'm not Uriel, and Uriel's not me — we don't share one mind. We're different people. Really! But we're both expressions of the Maiden."
Megumi frowned and bit her lip. "That's so weird."
Skuld shrugged. "Not really. It also helps that I'm not nearly so much about Purity as Uriel is — I'm more about change and development and where things are going. But there's enough of it in me that I really don't like perverts," she added with a growl, and Megumi giggled.
"Okay, that's you. What about your sisters?"
Hooking her feet around the legs of her stool, Skuld leaned back and drained her water bottle before answering. "Urd's a face of the Crone — that's why she's got the white hair. She had to have some mark of it on her. Her domain is the Past — all that came before, all that made each person what he or she is today, and what can lead them to the future. She's memory, history, and in her own way, mystery, since the past is always viewed though the filter of the present."
"Is she anyone else, too?"
"Oh, sure! We all have archangel counterparts in Christianity, and our Overselves have avatars in most other religions, too. Urd's is Yves, the Archangel of Destiny."
Megumi nodded. "And Bell?"
"Well, her Overself is known as the Mother. Big surprise, huh?" Skuld shared a quick grin with Megumi. "Belldandy is the Present — the culmination of all that came before, and the groundwork for all that comes in the future. She's the now, the necessity, the vitality and energy of the present, and in her own way, what's warm and comfortable, while being awesome and overwhelming. She's also fidelity and faith, but that resonates a lot more strongly for her archangel counterpart, Khalid, who has almost nothing else of the Mother."
Skuld suddenly fell silent, and her eyes became distant. Megumi waited for a few moments, and was about to interject something — anything! — to restart the conversation, when Skuld said, softly, "There was Another, once, the Warrior, Eternity... but she's been lost to us for so long."
"Lost?" Megumi whispered.
Skuld looked up, and the mortal girl was stunned by the mix of despair and anger in her eyes. "Don't ask. Please."
Megumi averted her eyes. "All right." Then, desperate for anything to get rid of that look, she asked, "What about your jerk of a brother? Where does he fit into the scheme of things, godwise?"
"Well," Skuld shot her a thankful smile, then leaned back and half-closed her eyes. "You know that my sisters and I are a matched set. A team, of sorts. We're always together, whatever pantheon our Overselves express themselves through. The maiden, the... the mother, and the crone."
"So what does this have to do with Chris?" Megumi pressed.
Skuld waved one hand. "I'm getting there! It's all symmetry, you see. You know enough about science to know that there's a kind of balance in most everything. The same thing here. Urd, Bell and I have male counterparts. Our equals, complements, and brothers, roughly speaking."
Megumi nodded. "I see. Chris is one of them."
A sly grin broke out over the girl's face. "Well, 'Niichan is a special case... a very special case, but yeah. On one front, he's the Moment — the pivot point where things can change, for the better or worse. He's outside Time, since his domain has power no matter if it has passed, is happening now, or going to happen. He's the fluke, the accident that allows a person to overcome their past, surpass the present, and shape their future."
"And his Overself is?" Megumi prompted.
Skuld's smile faded away to a contemplative look. "Well, that's part of what makes him a special case. I can't really talk about that yet."
"Yet?" Megumi's eyebrows shot up. "Bull. From what Keiichi told me, he's just some ordinary bozo who got a power-up. So what's the big secret? That he's not really a god, because he doesn't have an overself like you and your sisters?"
Skuld was off her stool and standing nose to nose with Megumi so quickly the older girl wondered if she'd teleported.
"Never say anything like that around any of us again," Skuld whispered with a quiet yet harsh tone that took Megumi entirely by surprise. "Kami-sama says 'Niichan is a god, so 'Niichan is a god. Do you understand me?"
Eyes wide, Megumi nodded slowly, twice.
"And you will not say a word about overselves to him," Skuld continued, the menace in her voice growing more and more pronounced. "I should never have mentioned them to you at all. So you will just forget I did. Or else."
"Or else what?" Megumi retorted with a bravado she didn't actually feel.
"Or else," Skuld whispered harshly, "I will make you forget. And I'm terribly sloppy with memory magic," she added with a malicious grin. "I might... accidentally remove other memories at the same time by mistake — like all your schooling. Or your knowledge of Japanese." The grin vanished, and her eyes flashed. "Do you understand me?"
Wordlessly, Megumi nodded again.
"Good." Skuld stepped away, and Megumi suddenly released a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding.
"C'mon," Skuld went on, her voice, posture and entire attitude reverting to that of an energetic early-teen. "The test alloy ought to be ready to work with now."
"So," I said, glancing around the place. "What's a dreki?"
Urd's lab was almost as old-school as Skuld's workshop was new — at least at first glance. All it needed was a stuffed alligator hanging from the ceiling and shutters over the windows to dim the light down to a suitably spooky level, and it would look like every mad alchemist/wizard's lab you ever saw in the movies. The second glance would put the lie to the first. Much of the equipment was gleaming and new despite its old-fashioned styling, the shelving was recent vintage with artificial "distressing" to make it seem old, and the various implements on the professional-grade work table were right out of a lab supply catalog. There was a classic iron cauldron, but it hung over a gas ring. And had that been a locker of protective gear over in the corner? I never got a really good look.
Urd glanced over her shoulder at me before turning back to search a particular shelf. "'Dreki' is Old Norse for 'dragon'. We use it these days for creatures like Fafnir and Nidhoggr that hail more or less from Northern Europe, to distinguish them from, say, their Asian and South American cousins. Or even Mediterranean dragons."
I hopped up onto a stool at the end of the table. A wooden box full of what looked like random bits of broken junk sat on the tabletop right next to me, and idly I began to poke through it. "Interesting. So this is blood from a Scandinavian dragon that Skuld wants?"
Urd nodded without taking her eyes off the shelf. "Exactly. To be precise, from one of Nidhoggr's spawn. If I have any left," she added in a peeved tone. "Every time Belldandy wants to clean the oven, she dips into my supply."
I chuckled at the idea of cleaning an oven with dragon's blood (it was a use for the stuff I'd never heard of, though I knew of almost a dozen others) and kept digging through the box. Interesting collection of doodads in there — a solitary cogwheel with a few missing teeth, a cracked and chipped gem of a transparent golden hue, a hunk of broomstick, among a lot of other odds and ends. I held the gem up to my eye and peered through it while twiddling the broomstick through my fingers. "What's all this?" I asked.
"Huh?" Urd glanced back at me again. "Oh, that's just a bunch of junk Skuld brought back from Asgard a few days ago."
"Junk?" I studied her through the gem, which made her appeared jaundiced as well as tan.
"Junk," she repeated as she went back to searching. "Worthless trash. You're welcome to anything in there you think looks interesting."
"Hm." I dropped the gem back into the box and picked up a short strip of pink leather with alternating green dots and holes. Holding one end between my thumb and forefinger, I studied it with magesight. Nothing. "I don't think so... I don't really need anything like this. Then again," I added, looking at the hunk of broomstick still in my other hand, "This is just the right size to use as a whaddayacallit — one of those sticks you use to hit shiatsu points in combat. I could use one of those to practice with."
"Good, good, sure," she said absently, not quite listening to me. "Ah!" Her hand darted into the dark depths of the shelf. "There you are!" When she withdrew it, she held a clear glass jar about the size of can of Campbell's soup, mostly filled with a sluggish purplish-red liquid. She held it up to her eyes and shook the jar back and forth slightly, making its viscous contents slosh in slow motion, like tranquilized forty-weight. "Hm. 250 cc will just about wipe out my supply." She turned and grinned brilliantly at me. "No problem, I'll take it out in trade next time I need a favor."
Urd set the jar on the table and retrieved a large graduated cylinder and an empty bottle from a cabinet. "Just let me measure this out for you," she added as she pulled on a pair of protective gloves.
"Sure." I dropped the broomstick chunk back into the box. "So, this blood, was it donated?"
"Huh?" Urd looked up from where she was slowly pouring the thick liquid into the cylinder. "Oh, no. Spawn are nasty evil things, but little more than beasts as far as intelligence is concerned. Every once in a while one sneaks across Asgard's borders, and everyone turns out to hunt it down. You have to kill them because they won't back down or retreat, and if you leave them they'll just destroy everything they run into." She shuddered. "Nasty things," she repeated. "Take a whole lot to kill, too, though there was this one time a little mortal girl with a wooden sword defeated one all by herself."
I raised an eyebrow. "Really?"
Urd set down the jar and crouched down to check the level in the cylinder. "Oh, yeah. You wouldn't believe the party we threw her when we found out."
"Why am I not surprised?" I chuckled.
She stood and started pouring the contents of the cylinder into the empty bottle. "Okay, there you go. 250 cc. Let Skuld know that that's pretty much it for my supply — if she needs more for her metalwork, or Belldandy needs to clean the oven any time soon, we'll have to go home and restock." She capped the bottle (with surprising dexterity given the heavy gloves) and handed it to me.
"Thanks, I'll do that."
Chris tossed two ibuprofen tablets into his mouth and then washed them down a big swig of water from the cup in his hand. Lack of interest hadn't been the only reason he'd cut out of Skuld's workshop as quickly as he could after the focus had changed to forge work. His headache, his first in the more than a year since he'd become a god, had roared back across his skull with a vengeance.
He walked slowly from the bathroom back to his own room, taking small, soft steps that jarred his body as little as possible. Even so, it didn't help as much as he'd hoped — each pace sent a little shock up his leg and spine and right into the six-foot-long, serrated, electrified steak knife that someone had so thoughtfully inserted sideways through his skull.
So, he thought dimly as he grasped at the frame of the door to his room, this is what a migraine feels like. I'll pass, next time. As he collapsed into his bed, his last semi-coherent thought was of his profound disappointment that the Boss hadn't bothered to yank this particular little bit of the mortal experience out of him when he'd lost all the other parts of being human that he actually missed.
No sooner had the thought formed, though, than the real pain struck. His body lurched up, arching and leaving only his head and feet still touching the mattress, his mouth open and eyes squeezed shut in a silent scream, as waves of exquisite agony shrieked through his body. At the same time, his mind was flooded with images, hundreds of moments he would have recognized from half-remembered dreams had the pain not stolen all ability to think from him.
Then it was over.
Chris had no idea how long it lasted; the only memory left from the experience was of the pain itself, which had seemed eternal and unending. But his clothes were soaked in sweat, and it felt like he'd pulled the bed sheets completely loose and swirled them into a ball. He felt entirely wrung out, as though he had just gone through a month's bout with the flu. And underlying it all, the sense of having been... diminished, disconnected. Empty. But even as he had the thought, the very idea vanished like smoke, leaving nothing behind but the exhaustion.
A soft touch lit upon his face, and he almost flinched, half-expecting more pain. Slowly he pried his eyes open to see Belldandy leaning over him, her own eyes overflowing with concern and caring. She was cupping his cheek with her hand, he realized.
"Bell...?" he croaked.
"How do you feel, Chris?" she asked so softly that it was almost a whisper.
He tried to smile, and didn't quite make it. "Like Thor... dropped Mjollnir... on me. Ten or... twenty times," he managed to get out, and his sister smiled indulgently. Still groggy, Chris realized as he looked into her eyes that there was something different about her, something missing. He searched her face, trying through the fog to figure out what it was. Then it hit him.
"Bell... where's your... limiter?"
Belldandy smiled — sadly, he thought with the last moments of consciousness — and simply said, "Sleep, Chris. Sleep... and forget."
Then all was blackness.
Belldandy waited until Chris' breathing slowed and deepened before taking her hand away from his face. Then she stood, stepped back from the bed, and looked into her other hand at her limiter earring. Without a sound, she affixed it back on her ear, then went about straightening Chris' bedclothes as best she could around the sleeping god. She finished by tucking the top sheet around her brother's shoulders, then stood watching him for a moment, before gently brushing the sweat-dampened hair off his forehead with her fingertips.
As she did so, the godmark there flickered briefly with a fitful golden light, and she sighed softly. "I know it's necessary, Father," Belldandy whispered, "But it is not fair that he must suffer without knowing why. And after he's gone through so much already..." She lifted her eyes toward the ceiling for a moment, then looked down again. "I understand your purpose, Father, but it still is not fair — to him, or to the others."
Tarikihonganji Temple, Monday, May 12, 1997, 7:43 AM
The next morning I intended to start my job hunt. I dressed in the best approximation of semiformal clothing I could cobble together from my gear — khaki slacks, dress shirt, my one-and-only tie, loafers. It wasn't perfect, but it would have to do.
It should come as no surprise to anyone that I did not have a business suit or other more formal garb packed in among my supplies. Keiichi, upon hearing my plans, had offered to loan me a suit, but it was a mere token gesture, since there was over fifteen centimeters' difference in our heights, with proportional differences in the lengths of our arms and legs. And I politely refused to let Belldandy magick one up for me. (I less-than-politely refused the same offer from Urd, who seemed a bit too... eager for my comfort.) I was determined to make do with what I had until I could afford to buy better.
I guess I looked pretty good, though, because I got an appreciative wolf whistle from Urd when I sat down at the breakfast table, dropping a copy of the morning paper next to my place setting. Belldandy shushed her right away, but Urd still gave me a wink and a smile. I wagged my finger disapprovingly at her, but did it with a smile of my own to cover the vague discomfort I felt at that kind of attention from her.
After a round of "good mornings", I looked down at my place setting to discover a manila folder. I raised an eyebrow, picked it up and opened it.
Inside was an American passport, Japanese identification and immigration papers, work permit, and a whole host of other bureaucrat droppings that combined swore up and down that I was a long-term resident, in the country legally and entitled to work at any job that I qualified for, and quite possibly several I didn't.
Beneath those was a small stack of resumes on cream-colored high-quality bond — several different versions that varied by the type of work they said that I was suitable for. All held accurate experience information — no doubt certain Fate-shaped entities of my acquaintance had been examining my life with a metaphoric magnifying glass — framed by a completely fictional educational and employment history.
(Well, fictional to me. But not long after that I dialed up one of my alleged ex-employers just out of curiosity; I ended up talking with a fellow who recognized my voice immediately and was absolutely certain that I'd worked for him for five years. I had to navigate the treacherous shoals of nostalgia with him for a good fifteen minutes before I could hang up. Afterwards, I hoped fervently that I never would run into "little Yuriko from Marketing", not after finding out what my alleged boss had claimed he had walked in on us doing during one Christmas party.
I asked Belldandy about it afterwards, and — before she stormed off to tear Urd a new one for spicing up my mythical local life with the odd amorous encounter — she said that it was no effort at all for any one of them to simply lay a new thread temporarily on top of the Tapestry of Fate. By which I gathered that even though I hadn't been here for any of it, I actually had a real history in the world — but only for as long as was necessary.
That certainly made things a lot easier than usual, for which I was very thankful. It reduced my stress level remarkably. It was weird to think about, though. And I still planned to get Urd back for "little Yuriko from Marketing".)
"I figured you'd need those," Skuld, seated as before next to me, said softly. I glanced over at her. She sat perfectly still, her hands in her lap, her eyes lowered and fixed on her place setting. I wasn't certain because of the angle from which I was looking, but I thought I could see the faintest traces of a blush on her cheeks. I shot at glance at Chris, who bore an expression halfway between amusement and suspicion.
"You don't owe me anything for those," she went on. "It's part of our... agreement. You promised to help with the house budget, right?" She looked up at me, almost shyly of all things, then dropped her eyes again.
Oh my. Oh dear. I'd seen that look before, on other girls. When the hell did this happen? I glanced over at Chris again, with what I was sure was a helpless expression on my face — his own was now shuttered (again) save for a faint narrowing of the eyes.
I looked back down at Skuld. "Right, I did." I paused for a moment as my incipient panic spiked and then faded away. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," she said softly.
"That was very considerate of you." Belldandy leaped into the growing silence around the table.
"Well, Urd helped. A little," Skuld admitted.
"Both of you, then," Belldandy amended, nodding at both elder and younger sister.
"It was no big deal," Urd replied with a saucy grin. "I just held everything still while she laid the thread, and then I tweaked some of the details so they came out just right."
(Believe me, I remembered that comment several days later when I learned about "little Yuriko". But that's neither here nor there. At the time she said it, I didn't give it a second thought, even though Chris gave her a pointedly suspicious look.)
Keiichi cleared his throat. "So, do you have any particular jobs in mind, Doug-san?"
I shrugged. "A few. I've been looking through the want ads" — I tapped the paper — "and while there's not a lot for someone with my skills, there are still a few openings."
"Well," he said between bites of breakfast (traditional Japanese that morning — rice, fish, miso soup, tea). "NIT doesn't always put ads in the newspaper for every job they have available; you might want to check at the admin building to see if there are more openings than the paper listed."
"Thanks! I'll do that!" I jotted a note down in the margin of the newspaper to remind me to do that very thing.
Belldandy clapped her hands with obvious delight. "Then we can meet for lunch on the campus. I'll make us a little picnic!"
I glanced at Keiichi, who was smiling dreamily, and grinned. I turned back to Belldandy. "I like the sound of that. Let's do it."
Nekomi Institute of Technology campus, Monday, May 12, 1997, 12:13 PM
I met up with the happy couple a little past noon on the lawn in front of the main entrance to NIT's engineering quad. They weren't hard to find — Belldandy had already spread out a brilliantly-colored blanket whose contrast with the lush green beneath it announced its presence from a great distance away. By the time I was close enough to greet them, she'd finished emptying a classic Little Red Riding Hood basket, laying out enough food that there was hardly any room for the three of us.
"Hey, people," I said, stopping just short of the blanket to slip off my loafers before sitting myself down.
"Hey, Doug," Keiichi nodded at me.
Belldandy smiled broadly and handed me a freshly-laden plate. "Good afternoon, Doug-san!"
"Is it?" I looked at my watch. "Wow, I guess it is." I sighed. "Long morning, sorry."
Keiichi gave me a sympathetic once-over. "Any luck so far?"
I shook my head. "Nope, not in the least. Then again, it's only the first day. I wasn't really expecting anything so quickly."
"Not even in the listings at the admin building?" he pressed.
"Sorry, no. You were right," I continued, "lots of stuff there that's not in the papers, but nothing right for me."
His face fell, and on my other side, Belldandy's smile seemed to dim just a hair. "Oh," he said. "I was sure that there'd be something."
I shrugged. "There may well be, just not right now." I played with the food on my plate, pushing it around with my chopsticks. "I'll check back every few days, see what new positions they might have posted." Before I could turn what looked like a really pleasant lunch into a big downer, I forced myself to brighten and grin. "I'm sure they'll have an opening sooner or later."
Belldandy nodded quickly, once. "As am I. Don't let your lack of success get you down in the mean time, Doug-san." She offered me the plate of rice balls, to which I smiled my thanks as I took one.
After that, we were silent — comfortably so — for a while as we started in on the meal, but the conversation restarted soon enough.
"So," Keiichi began around bites of a rice ball. I caught a glimpse of pale, rippled pink within and guessed there was a piece of grilled salmon inside it. "What's it like being a superhero?"
I pulled a mushroom off a shish kabob-like skewer of grilled goodies, chewed and swallowed before answering. "Well," I said, "we don't actually have that word where I come from."
"What word do you have, Doug-san?" Belldandy asked, filling cups of tea from the same Thermos pump carafe that had appeared at every meal so far. I took the one she handed me, turned it around in my hands as if it were the tea-bowl in a cha-no-yu, bowed slightly, and inhaled deeply of the aromatic steam it gave off.
"<Metahuman> is the one most commonly used," I replied, then sipped the tea, savoring the flavor. Genmai-cha, filtered by the carafe so there weren't any grains of roasted rice floating in it. Pity that, actually — I liked nibbling on those grains.
"Mei-ta-hy-u-ma-nu?" Keiichi sounded out the English, and I quickly gave the equivalent word used by the Japanese back home.
"It means, 'beyond human'. Which we really aren't," I added quickly. "We generally breed just fine with ordinary humans, so it's not like we're a separate species or anything. We just have... something extra that the normals don't."
"What about you, Doug-san? What is your 'something extra'?" Belldandy asked disingenuously, and for a moment I wondered exactly how much she knew, and if she were trying to lead the conversation. I guess my expression was a little... intense, because she blushed and looked away. "I'm sorry," she said softly, "I'm prying."
Well, I felt instantly lousy. "No, no, not at all!" I protested with genuine contrition. "I was just reminded of something and was following the thought."
"If you're sure..."
I nodded. "I am."
A slow, tentative smile worked its way back onto Belldandy's face as she served herself a small plate of seaweed salad. "In that case, what abilities do you have? You've done so many different and strange things around us, but surely you don't have that many powers?"
I leaned back on my elbows and closed my eyes as I breathed in the scent of the grass. It must have been mowed some time in the previous day or two because I could still pick out that fresh-cut smell. "I've got a few, yeah — most metahumans get clusters of gifts that all tend to work together."
"Clusters?" Keiichi asked over his tea cup.
"Oh yeah," I said, and noshed on a piece of negimaki. The scallions inside the beef roll were still crisp despite the broiling and crunched as I bit through them. I savored the blend of teriyaki sauce, beef and delicate onion for a moment before continuing. "The human body is a wondrously complex thing, full of all manner of interlocking systems. Change one thing and it cascades through everything else nearby. So if you have a mutation for, say, improved nerve signal speed, well, it causes visible changes in several 'systems' that look like very different things on the macro level, like intelligence, reaction time and body sense. And sometimes two different mutations overlap and there's a synergy."
Belldandy smiled and doled out several more pieces of negimaki to my plate. "You sound quite the expert, Doug-san." Keiichi made agreeing noises around a mouth full of rice ball.
I shook my head. "Oh, no, I'm no expert. No more than any other meta needs to be. I know just enough to understand my own abilities. If I need anything really detailed or obscure, I have to go the UN metabiologists."
Keiichi swallowed, finally, and Belldandy handed him a napkin. When he finished wiping his mouth, he said, "So, what are your abilities?"
Not being able to dodge the question, I lay back in the warm Spring sun, folded my arms under my head, closed my eyes, and gave them the whole spiel — from the physical changes to the broken magegift that gives me my song-talent and forces me to spend my life trapped inside one of the more intense fields of chaos and wild magic ever measured back home. By the time I was finished talking up all the delightful side-effects that they inflicted on me, Keiichi was staring at me with wide eyes and open mouth, and Belldandy was radiating intensely maternal levels of concern.
Seeing this, I waved nonchalantly. "It's not all that bad. I can sort of ... nudge my field to leave food and clothes and other stuff alone, but it's like there's a certain level of activity it has to have, so it makes other things happen instead." I shot a wicked grin at Belldandy first, then at Keiichi. "You want to see?"
Without waiting for an answer, I picked up a half-eaten rice ball from my plate and held it in my hand, which I stretched out past the edge of the blanket so it was over the grass and well away from my lunch companions. "Okay, right now I'm kind of semi-consciously telling my field 'food, don't touch'. But look what happens if I stop 'protecting' it."
What happened was nothing at first — randomness being, well, random, not everything the field could do was obvious or even effective. But after a few seconds, the rice and its seaweed wrapper both started turning brown. The ball started to collapse in on itself as it liquefied and dripped out between my fingers; the seaweed just flaked away around it. In less than a minute, my hand was empty. It was also clean, my field having broken down the remains of the former rice ball into carbon dioxide, water and other simple compounds, but I gladly accepted a damp napkin from Belldandy and wiped off my fingers.
"Wow," Keiichi breathed.
"And that was rather tame," I said as I finished by drying my hands on a small towel Belldandy had fished out of the basket. "It could have spontaneously ignited, or exploded, or grown legs and walked off..."
His eyes widened. "You're kidding."
I gave him a rueful smile. "I wish. I've seen all those things and a few more happen." I handed the towel back to Belldandy. "The more complicated an object is, either in terms of molecular structure or number of parts, the easier it is for my field to affect it," I continued. "Organics and other complex molecules are particularly vulnerable and are affected quickest." I paused for a moment as I recalled an office in Megatokyo and a certain set of shackles. "Simple structures, or simple materials — like a pure metal, for instance, or a device with only a couple of moving parts — can resist its effects a whole lot longer."
I grinned. "But that's enough lecturing from me. What about you two? What's the secret story behind your forbidden love?"
Keiichi snarfed on a dumpling when I said that, and I almost had to perform a Heimlich on him before he stopped coughing. "Forbidden?" he finally gasped when his voice cleared, and shot a panicked, inquisitive glance at Belldandy, who was her usual serene self.
"Sure," I said. "After all, God reportedly expelled the Grigori from Heaven for doing what you two are doing — 'the sons of God looked upon the daughters of Man and saw them fair and took them to wife' or some such — only in your case it's the daughter of god and the son of man. Or maybe not," I added as I realized what I said, "since 'son of man' has kind of a special meaning..."
Belldandy giggled again in that way I had grown to like. "You're too silly, Doug-san. That was a different face of Kami-sama entirely, who sets different rules for his servants. There is absolutely nothing forbidden about our relationship." She turned to Keiichi. "After all, Kei-kun, if Father had any objections, he would have told you when you two met face-to-face."
"You met the Big Kahuna?" I asked. "Cool."
Keiichi nodded. "We all got called up to Heaven not long after Chris moved in."
That rang a bell. "Right, right," I nodded. "I think you mentioned that to Megumi my first night here." I raised an eyebrow. "What's he like?"
"Scary." He shuddered slightly. "And I think he likes chewing gum."
"Oh, he does," Belldandy agreed.
I suppressed what would have been an outburst of rather raucous laughter as the image of a full high Communion celebrated with wine and Chiclets drifted unbidden across one of the less reverent portions of my mind ("Take, chew; this is my body, which is made moist and stretchy for you..."). "Well, that's... intriguing," I managed to say. "Anyway... your story. How'd you two get together?"
The two exchanged glances, communicating in that wordless way that truly-connected couples have, then Belldandy smiled mischievously and said, "It's really quite simple. As I'm sure you recall from the discussion over dinner the night you arrived, I was sent from Heaven to grant Kei-kun a wish. He wished to have a girlfriend just like me, and since I was the closest person just like me..." Her eyes twinkled, belying the absolute seriousness of her tone, and I chuckled.
"Bell!" Keiichi objected with a good-natured tolerance, and she giggled again. Smiling, he turned to me. "It really goes back quite a bit farther than that. We met when we were children."
"Children?" I raised an eyebrow at Belldandy. "That vessel of yours actually grows and ages?"
"Oh, yes!" she replied. "It helps us keep a proper perspective on the mortal world." She gave me a puzzled look. "Surely you didn't think Skuld was going to be thirteen forever?"
"Um, I actually hadn't thought about it." I didn't show it, but that impressed me. That was almost — not quite, but almost — what Hexe had done. Maybe this batch of deities really weren't as divorced from humanity as gods usually were. "And don't call me 'Shirley'," I added with a goofy grin that garnered me more giggles.
"We met as children," Keiichi repeated, chuckling, "grew very fond of each other, and made some promises to each other. Then Belldandy had to go back to Heaven, and I forgot all about her as I grew up." He shot an apologetic look at her, and wordlessly she gave his hand a reassuring pat. "Then, in my freshman year here, I somehow qualified for a wish. And by the sheerest coincidence," and here he shot a sly glance over at Belldandy, who somehow contrived to look even more innocent than usual, "Belldandy was the one who came to grant it. I'd just been shot down by a girl who I'd wanted to date not long before, and thinking the whole wish thing was a nasty joke arranged by my dorm mates, I wished that a girl just like Belldandy would stay with me forever." He reached over and took Belldandy's hand, looking deeply into her eyes. "And then I became the luckiest man in the world."
Belldandy's eyes shimmered, and her smile grew soft and smoky, and for a moment I was sure I was suddenly intruding and would need to beat a hasty retreat. But the lovebirds realized they were in public with an audience almost before I'd completed the thought, and the intimate moment remained just that — a moment.
"And your sisters?" I prompted when they disengaged gazes.
"Oh," Belldandy sat up straighter and bustled a bit with the remains of lunch. "After I didn't come back right away, they came looking for me. Urd first, and then Skuld."
"And Chris?" I asked.
Belldandy paused, and looked pensive for a moment. "Chris... Chris' story is his to tell. You really ought to ask him about it."
I resolved to do that very thing the first chance I got.
Tarikihonganji Temple, Monday, May 12, 1997, 4:54 PM
Chris had awakened on Monday morning completely refreshed, feeling just as good, if not better, than he had the day before. Not that it was too much of a surprise — ever since he'd accidentally wished himself into the god business, he hadn't had so much as a stuffy nose or a headache. Perfect health went hand-in-hand with divinity, a fact for which he would be eternally grateful — literally — despite the sometimes almost-unrecognizable changes it had wrought in his body. Chris raised his water cup to his mirror image and toasted his luck on that front while he brushed his teeth. If he had to lose part of being mortal, why shouldn't it include the stuff that sucked?
As the day wore on, he was gratified to find that it did not seem to be inclined to spoil his good mood for once: the weather was sunny and pleasant, breakfast was mercifully free of okra, and his classes had all been interesting and engaging for the first time in weeks. To top it off, he'd gotten through the entire day without a single dour-faced, humorless geek of a Judgment angel showing up to give him a hard time. The only down point was that if the breakfast conversation had been any indication, Skuld did indeed seem to be developing a small crush on their house guest; Doug's obvious discomfort when he apparently came to the same realization was somewhat reassuring, though.
Having made it through his Monday classes and all the way back to the temple without being ambushed by nosy Angelic MIBs, Chris was definitely maintaining his good mood. That mood was doubled when he entered the temple kitchen to discover Belldandy hard at work, softly singing one of her improvised little songs as she lovingly stirred a bowl of cake batter. On the counter to her side sat a set of cake pans, already buttered and floured.
"Good afternoon, Bell," he said as he briefly hugged his sister from behind and placed a kiss on the top of her head.
She turned around as he stepped back, leaving the bowl on the countertop. "Welcome home, Chris! How was your day?"
"Pretty good, for once." He sidestepped her and closed in on the bowl. The batter was a deep, rich brown. "Oh, man — chocolate, my favorite!" He made to scoop up a dollop on his finger tip, only to receive a playful whack across the knuckles with a wooden spoon.
"No! It's almost time for dinner," his sister declared with a primness that was belied by the mischievous smile on her face. "You'll spoil your appetite."
"Yes, ma'am!" he declared, snapping to mock-attention and setting her all a-giggle for a moment.
"Oh, you!" Belldandy declared with fond exasperation. "It'll be ready in an hour." Stepping to the range nearby, she filled a small tasting saucer with liquid from a large, bubbling pot, sipped from it, and then nodded to herself. "Oh, this might interest you. Doug-san is out behind the house, practicing with his sword."
"Oh, really?" Chris raised an eyebrow. "This I gotta see."
He started by simply watching through a window — to respect the man's privacy, he told himself unconvincingly. Gradually, though, Chris found himself migrating to the door, and then to the engawa, as he studied what Doug was doing. For his part, the older man appeared not to notice him, but Chris knew from his own rather brutal training in situational awareness that this was a carefully crafted illusion; Sangnoir not only knew he was there, but was aware of every movement and change in position. Neither said anything, though, until Chris could stand it no further and finally declared, "You're using that blade all wrong, you know."
Sangnoir, who had been gamely swinging the katana with no small amount of control and misplaced skill, stopped with surprising abruptness, the blade pointed down and away in the safest unsheathed position possible. He raised an eyebrow at Chris. "I know. I'm a lot more used to Western sword styles and some analogues. I've been trying to extrapolate from that, but..." He shrugged. "It's pretty clear to me that I don't know how to properly handle a katana. You?"
Chris settled himself down on the edge of the engawa. "To a degree. While I've pretty much specialized in my battleform weapon, I've trained enough that I can use most any other weapon in a fight and not kill myself with it." He leaned back and rolled his shoulders, generating more popping noises of the sort which had so disturbed Belldandy after breakfast. "I've done a fair bit more with a katana than most other weapons in my repertoire because my... 'trainers'... thought it was appropriate given where we lived."
With a distracted nod, Doug fumbled the sword back into its saya, which he had thrust through the belt of his jeans. "Yeah, that does sort of make sense." He looked up at Chris. "D'you think you might be able to teach me the basics? I mean, beyond being respectful of the blade and all that other stuff that does carry over across the styles?"
Chris frowned. "I don't know..."
"Oh, why not?" a familiar, feminine voice unexpectedly offered from above and behind him. Both men started in surprise, then Chris craned his neck around to discover Belldandy, towel in hand and carefully drying the bowl which had not long ago held cake batter, standing in the doorway.
"Bell," Chris murmured, "please make a little noise when you move?"
Belldandy ignored him and smiled beatifically. "Didn't Balder say you were good enough now that you could carry on your training by yourself? Surely you can give Doug-san some pointers!" Chris turned back to look at Sangnoir, who quirked an eyebrow but said nothing.
And once it had come down to Belldandy saying, "Oh, why not?", well, Chris mused, his fate was sealed. The next thing he knew, there were two cups of tea and a plate of cookies on the engawa ("What was it you said about spoiling my dinner earlier?" he'd pointedly asked a giggling Belldandy as she'd retreated back indoors), and he and Doug were sitting on either side of them.
Along with the tea and cookies, his old practice katana had materialized from where he'd kept it stored it in his room. Chris supposed he shouldn't be surprised that Belldandy had known where it was — she seemed to know everything about everything in the house, or so it appeared at times — but still, it made him uneasy when he thought about it. He shoved that thought aside, though, as he picked up the sheathed sword and laid it across his knees. Chris thought for a moment, then began.
"The main difference between Western and Eastern sword styles," he said, "is that, fencing aside, Western styles are generally about your big metal stick bludgeoning the other guy to death. It's about wearing him down and getting through his armor — which can take extreme force, great accuracy, or both, especially if you're using a weapon made of iron or crude steel."
"Right," Doug said, nodding as he picked up a cookie. "That much I know." He took a bite and made an appreciative "mmm" noise.
"Okay then," Chris continued. "Japanese swordplay, on the other hand, is more like a Dime Western gunfight. There's usually just one exchange of blows, and first one to draw is often the winner." He waved a hand. "Oh, there are variations, and a fight between two closely-matched opponents may well take a while, but usually it's one-shot-and-done. There's even an entire martial arts family for the fastdraw — iaijutsu, iaido and battojutsu — whose whole point is getting the sword out, through your opponent, cleaned and back into the scabbard before he even has a chance to react."
Doug whistled. "Yow. I thought that was all martial arts movie exaggeration."
"Nope, it's real." Chris grinned. "The difference in approaches is basically because of the difference in resources. Europe had iron to spare, so it could afford to use it for armor. As a result, European swords of the Middle Ages were — had to be — little more than barely edged clubs. Putting a point on one was a relatively recent innovation, and in either case the whole goal of sword fighting was to batter your way through your opponent's armor and chop him to pieces, or failing that, to bludgeon him to death." He took a sip of his tea. "In Japan, on the other hand, iron was too rare and expensive to use as armor, so alternatives were developed, mostly lacquered wood. It's a softer target than iron armor, and the sword design reflects that. Katana are finely crafted but brittle razors — designed to go through flesh and bone like they were water, and lacquered armor, too, sometimes. But if you put one up against iron armor, though, it'd probably shatter."
"Yeah," Doug had said, nodding. "That'd make a hell of a difference when it came to designing a style."
Chris nodded. "It also makes a difference in training." He held up his katana. "We put these away until we're ready for them, and use wooden blades — bokuto. When you're learning a weapon that's supposed to be a one-hit killer, you do not practice with live steel until you know what you're doing." He carefully laid the sheathed blade down on the engawa next to him, and waited until Doug did the same with his own sword.
Half an hour later, they were both stripped to the waist and wielding bokuto. Privately, Chris noted just how unfair it was that a mortal could pick up in fifteen minutes' verbal instruction what it had taken him a week of painful thwacks to learn. He'd been half-hoping it would have been necessary to hand Doug over to the same warrior-gods who'd put him through hell during his training, but no, Doug was a freakin' natural. Show him a stance, a swing, a tactic, and he got it right the first time. Every time, or so close to every time as to make no difference.
Of course, Doug had a lot of experience already with other types of swords, but still, it just wasn't freakin' fair that he learned, really learned, the basics of the katana so quickly. Add in that just plain impossible speed and grace of his, and he was already infuriatingly good.
The only thing that kept Chris from throwing his bokuto on the ground in disgust and walking off was that while Doug picked up each individual move with appalling ease, he didn't demonstrate the same ease in putting them all together. In that regard, he wasn't much better than Chris himself had been at the start of his own training. Based on what Chris could see, Doug clearly had to devote considerable serious effort to assembling all the different moves into a single seamless whole. He could fake it somewhat, with that selfsame speed and grace, but in the long run it wasn't the same as actually having learned the skills the hard way. And Doug clearly knew it.
And that thought triggered another, as Chris recalled the weird patchwork nature of the man's unarmed combat skills. Sonuva... so that's why he works so hard on kata in the mornings. It was a surprising and unexpected insight into the man's combat style, and suddenly Chris didn't feel quite so intimidated by him any more.
It still galled that no matter how hard Chris worked him, Doug didn't break a sweat, though.
Despite this, Chris remembered his obligation as a teacher. He did a fine job of holding his temper until Doug started asking personal questions while they sparred.
"So. Christ-bearing messenger of God. How the hell can you be related to the Norns with that name? What happened, did you make a wrong turn at New Jerusalem or something? Yow!" Doug dodged a vicious swing at his head, and Chris chuckled. He ducked a return blow that would have taken off his head had it connected and then lashed out at his opponent's ankles with his bokuto.
Said opponent grinned as he hopped higher in the air than anyone mortal had a right to, well before the wooden blade came close, and didn't come down until well after it had passed. "For that matter," Doug added, "How the hell can you be related to the Norns, period?"
Isn't it bad enough that Bell shanghaied me into sparring with this guy despite me saying specifically that I didn't want to? Do I really have to deal with nosy questions, too?
He grit his teeth and decided that answering would end the questioning a lot better than stonewalling would. I don't have to be particularly informative, though, he mused with a certain satisfaction. "I got drafted," he grated as he forced the bokuto to change direction and swing back toward Doug's midsection.
Doug hopped back a step and bent over the wooden blade as it swished past his belt buckle, grunting more in surprise, Chris thought, than from effort. The moment the blade passed, Doug let himself overbalance into a forward roll, and swung up his own bokuto into something like a stop-thrust at Chris's gut.
When he got his breath back, Chris called a halt. At the same moment, a slow, appreciative clapping carried across the yard. Chris glanced to one side to see his eldest sister had perched herself on the engawa to watch their sparring.
"Oh, don't stop now, boys," Urd said in a sultry tone as she suggestively rearranged her robes and crossed one long, shapely brown leg over the knee of the other. "There's nothing I like more than watching half-naked men sweat."
"Urd!" Chris barked, mostly out of embarrassment. Urd rolled her eyes.
"I mean him, 'Niichan." Urd gestured with the point of her chin at Doug, who had finally started to perspire a little. "We're not Greek gods, after all."
Chris declined to reply to that. He glanced over at Doug, and was disturbed to see a smoulder of irritation — or was it outright anger? — in the man's eyes. Then he closed them, took a deep breath, and muttered something under his breath. Chris could make out none of it, except for something about "two", but he could guess what it might be. If he were right, his opinion of Doug was definitely improved — most men would be stumbling over their own tongues by now, but Doug simply looked annoyed.
Making an obvious effort to change both his mood and the topic, Doug swung his irritated gaze from Urd back to Chris, and let his expression moderate somewhat. "You were drafted?"
The younger man sighed. "I was a fairly normal human being who somehow qualified for a wish..."
"Like Keiichi did."
The tone was less a question than a statement, and held what sounded to Chris like a large quantity of suspicion. He nodded. "Exactly. Skuld came to give it to me, on her first assignment. We got to talking once I woke up — did I mention she screamed something and malleted me the moment she appeared?"
"Knocked him right out," Urd added from where she sat. "She called us in a panic absolutely convinced she'd killed him."
Doug bent his head and covered the lower half of his face with one hand while making a stifled huffing sound that Chris was absolutely sure was suppressed laughter. "Given the temper I've seen her display, I can't say I'm too surprised."
"Yes, well," Chris paused as he tried to remember where he'd left off. "Right. After I woke up — and I still don't know how she dragged all six-feet-four and 250 pounds of me out of the kitchen and onto the living room couch," he added, pointedly glancing at Urd, "we got to talking about the whole wish process, and then her family and then..." He sighed again.
"And then..." Urd grinned evilly. Chris shot her a nasty look.
"And then...?" Doug prompted, a grin of his own dawning.
Chris closed his eyes and then opened them again. "Then without thinking I said something like, 'You know, I wish I had a little sister just like you.'"
Doug stared for a moment, then burst into gales of laughter. It seemed to well up out of him and take control, slowly driving him to his knees as he leaned on the bokuto like a staff to keep from falling over entirely. "And... and then..." he wheezed between guffaws, "... because she was ... the closest little sister ... just like her ... you suddenly did." The tip of the bokuto finally slid out from under him, and he dropped it to fall to his hands and knees, still laughing.
On the engawa, Urd finally gave into her own amusement, rolling over onto her back and wrapping her arms across her stomach as she added her laughter to his.
Chris growled half-heartedly at the two of them and resisted the urge to laugh as well at the absurdity of it all. Instead he waited until the pair calmed down.
"I... I'm sorry," Doug finally forced out as he straightened up. "I'm not laughing at you, really... It's just that I think I'm starting to see a pattern in the way the wish-granting mechanism operates." He caught his breath and snorted, still not quite over his laughter, then turned to Urd and waved an admonishing finger at her. "No wishes for me, you understand? I don't care if I qualify for a full series of three complete with a money-back guarantee!"
Urd, who had managed to contain her amusement enough to lever herself vertical again, promptly burst out into more giggles and fell back over.
"Geeze, guys," Chris grumbled. "Get a freaking grip. It's my freakin' life — it's not that funny."
Tuesday, May 13, 1997, 7:15 PM
"So," Megumi finally said, pushing down a corner that a stray breeze through the shop had lifted. "What do you think?"
I glanced between her and Skuld. They were both giving me expectant looks. Then I turned my attention back to the sheaf of plans laid out on the anvil. I traced the lines of the drawing on the top page with the tip of my finger, trying to imagine the changes and the differences there would be in a vehicle that had become almost an extension of my body over the past six or so years.
I flipped the sheet aside and ran my eyes across the next page, studying the less-visible changes Skuld and Megumi had in mind. "You're sure about this alloy of yours?" I asked as I worked my way through the clutchless variable-ratio direct-drive system that would replace the awkward but functional gearbox-to-chain drive that I'd originally used on the bike. The alloy was the most important thing. If it wouldn't hold up, everything else was for naught. Last thing I needed was to be stuck in, say, a 15th-century mage-punk Vienna and have the bike implode from the gravitational stresses, taking all my belongings with it.
"Here," Skuld said simply, tossing a section of tubing onto the plans. It made an audible, almost musical "ting!" even though the anvil was protected by several layers of paper, but the sound was at least an octave lower than I would have expected.
I raised an eyebrow and picked it up. It had an odd hue — a muted brown with a hint of green that looked almost like aged bronze. But it was a lot lighter than bronze would have been, and it was noticeably lighter than the original titanium tubing. I held it up to my eye and sighted down along its length, checking out the thickness of the metal. About the same as the original tubing, too.
I swept the plans off the anvil and into Megumi's arms, then changed my grip on the tube so that I held it like a club. I raised it overhead, and then smashed it down with all the force I could muster, right onto the edge where the anvil's top and side met, sending a jolt of impact up my arm. The musical ring it produced was muted and short because my hand was wrapped around the sample, but it was still audible nonetheless. And when I brought the tube back up to my eyes, there wasn't a scratch on it, let alone a dent.
I nodded and laid it back down on the flat top of the anvil. "Nice," I allowed. "How's it do on tensile and compressive strength?"
Skuld frowned. "I'm not sure. My current test rigs don't seem to stress it any, so I'll have to build new ones."
"Don't listen to her," Megumi rolled her eyes. "Her machines are ridiculously powerful — more than enough to simulate anything the grav drive will put the bike through." She plopped the papers back onto the anvil, snatching the sample up first and putting it back down on top of the papers after. "It'd be nice to know its exact tolerances, but right now, for our purposes, 'more than strong enough' is all we need to know."
"Oh yeah," I grinned. "You're definitely an engineer."
She gave me a smug little smile. "You better believe it, Mister."
I picked it up and studied it again. "So, what's it made from?"
It was Skuld's turn to be smug. "Oh, a little of this and a little of that."
I nodded knowingly. "You have to be very careful when you work with those ingredients, you know. The proportion of this to that is absolutely critical. One mistake and boom!"
"Bakaaaa..." Skuld said with a mock frown and poked me in the side.
I just grinned and rubbed where she'd poked me.
I have to admit, the plans were very impressive. While the overall lines of the bike were virtually unchanged, there was a lot that was new — for one thing, the wheels were no longer going to be on forks, but on pivoting cantilevers with integral shock-absorbers.
Kind of ironic, that. Cantilever mounts were state-of-the-art for motorcycles in Megatokyo when I bought the junker frame around which I'd originally built the bike. But now Skuld was going to replace its then-obsolete forks — which were actually a rather advanced design for the local here-and-now — with mounts that were, as far as I could see, even more advanced than its Megatokyo descendants sported.
I approved. Most heartily.
A flip through the sheets revealed something else about the cantilevers that I'd missed the first time through. They were part of the gravity drive system. The drive was going to have two levels of power. The lower of the two was good for getting off the ground and into flight at about the airspeed of a Piper Cub — say around 170, 180 km/h. But if I wanted some serious velocity — and Skuld and Megumi's back-of-envelope calculations were not quite certain yet just how serious — the cantilevers would fold up until the wheels were horizontal — one to the left and the other to the right — and their downward-facing hubs then doubled as radiators/projectors that increased lift and thrust bigtime.
It not only looked unspeakably cool, but it was spookily familiar. I had come up with a very similar solution to the same problem when I first mounted an Anson Gravmaster on my old Harley, back home. Only I chose to turn each wheel into two half-width wheels that then opened up butterfly-style when I needed the extra power, making the bike look a little like a cross between a motorcycle and a home-built hovercraft.
Of course, a 1936 Harley has a structure that's a lot more amenable to that kind of transformation. The cowl and fairings on the Mitsubishi — which the girls' design kept more or less unchanged — would have gotten in the way of a split-wheel design. The pivoting cantilevers, on the other hand, could be handled rather elegantly, and with a lot fewer parts, too.
I approved this, too. Very much. I also approved the inertial compensation they were promising was possible with the new grav unit, as well as the stealth suite Skuld assured me she could whip up, which among other functions would (oddly enough) replicate the old bike's electrochromic color-change system.
And then there was something Megumi was calling a "virtual cockpit" — a low-powered force field bubble around the seat, yet another application of Skuld's miraculous grav unit. According to her it wouldn't be enough to defend against any serious weaponry, but it would shield anyone riding the bike from the force of the air rushing by at high speeds, and even give a little environmental control. And in emergencies it could also act like a roll cage, at least for a few seconds. The Megster seemed very proud of the idea, which she had apparently come up with and designed entirely on her own. How could I not give it my okay?
What worried me was the conspiratorial grins the two of them shared when Skuld mentioned that they still had a few more ideas that they wanted to work on.
I shouldn't have been worried.
I should have been panicked.
Wednesday, May 14, 1997, 4:21 PM
Once is a favor, Chris thought darkly as he brought his bokuto up into ready position. Twice is approaching a habit.
"One of these days I need to find out why a smile and 'please' from Belldandy completely deprives me of my will to resist," he muttered under his breath.
"Huh?" Doug asked from where he stood, a few meters away, his posture relaxed and his bokuto still thrust through his belt. "What was that you said?" Overhead, an enormous flock of large black birds wheeled and whirled before coming to rest in one of the trees just outside the outer fence.
"Nothing," Chris grunted. "Okay, take your starting position." He narrowed his eyes as he felt a prickling between his shoulder blades, like someone was watching him.
Doug slid into stance, drew his bokuto and held it at the ready. "Right. Now what?"
"Okay, today we're going to take..." Chris stopped cold as a sudden, belated realization struck. Black birds?
Doug blinked in surprise as Chris halted mid-sentence and gazed around the yard of the temple until his eyes rested on the birds perched in their tree. Then with a muttered curse, he stalked towards the flock and scowled up at them.
"What?" Chris demanded.
Doug lowered his bokuto and raised an eyebrow. To his surprise, the flock did not launch back into the air in panic at the young god's approach, as he had expected they would. Instead, the birds gazed calmly back for a moment, and then suddenly exploded into a cacophony of caws and calls. At first, it seemed like completely random noise to Doug, but soon he realized it had a structure, a pattern to it — still unintelligible to him, but clearly meaningful to his companion, who seemed to have become embroiled in an argument with the birds.
"Don't you think you guys are taking this a little far? Not everything weird that happens in the world is some plot by the bad guys."
A single caw, from a hundred throats.
"Get serious. Can you really expect anyone to seriously believe that Mara could be behind this? I'm pretty sure inter-universal portals are a bit out of her league."
A harsh, almost petulant response.
"He's still locked up, you paranoid git!"
The reply from the birds took nearly a minute, and as every second passed Doug could see the god's countenance grow darker and darker.
In a quiet voice he ground out, "In what part of your myriad little peabrains did you get the idea that it's smart to insult the sister of a guy who can stop time?" Chris pointed towards the sky. "Get the flock out of here, and tell your busybody boss that we're claiming him as our affair, so he can bugger off!"
Several birds flew up to the top of the tree, and others looked prepared to fly away, but quieted down and responded with a low series of noises.
Chris sighed, and threw up his arms in resignation. "Yeah, fine, I'll deal with it."
With that, the birds all leapt into the air at once, and flew off, disappearing into the distance with surprising speed.
After watching them disappear, a glowering Chris spun on his heel and marched towards the house. Doug ran to catch up with him.
"What was that?" Doug demanded.
"Dom, being a prick," was the short answer.
"Dominic. Archangel of Judgment, and head of the Divine Inquisition."
Doug stopped short, and grabbed Chris' arm, bringing him to a halt as well. "You mean that murder of crows was a Celestial?"
"Actually, they were ravens. An unkindness."
"That was a downright maliciousness!" Doug quipped, and Chris smiled thinly. "Don't like them much, do you?"
"Kyriotates make my teeth hurt, and Dom's especially."
The older man tilted his head quisitively. "Trouble?"
"One hopes not," Chris said curtly, and then sighed again. "Look, I've got to go lecture Skuld for a minute. Later?"
"Hold." Doug's voice was soft but firm — a combination that Chris hadn't heard from him before. It carried a surprising ring of command with a complete lack of arrogance. "You're claiming who as your affair? Me?"
Chris nodded sharply, once. "Yeah. And consider yourself lucky. Dom's a prick, but he's better than Laurence. Even though that's not saying much. Be very glad that you won't be getting worked over by their goons."
"If you say so." Doug frowned. "Don't know what would give them the right, anyway. I'm no more Christian than I am anything else — which is to say, not at all."
"You were raised Christian, weren't you?" Chris asked, studying him.
Doug nodded. "Oh yeah. Roman Catholic, in fact, although strictly speaking you could make a good case that I'm actually Jewish." Chris raised an eyebrow. "But I'm no more a follower of the Church than the Dalai Lama is... less, even."
His tone was deceptively light, but Chris could practically feel a welter of emotion surging below it — anger, disappointment, disapproval and more. "Quite frankly, even if you guys hadn't claimed me, I'd refuse to acknowledge they have any authority over me at all. 'I say to the gods and the sons of gods the things that whet my thoughts; by the wells of the world there is none with the might to make me do his will.'" Although Chris didn't recognize the passage, Doug's tone made it clear he was quoting something. His gaze had grown cold and flinty during the recitation. Then it changed suddenly, replaced by a mischievous grin. "Loki. From the 'Lay of Loki'. Figured I'd honor my hosts by quoting a bit of their literature."
Chris surprised himself by chuckling. "I'd pay good money to see a Triad's reaction to that." He started walking back to the house as a thoughtful look came across his face. He turned back to Doug and took a long look at his blond, blue-eyed, tanned features. "You're Jewish?"
The older man shrugged. "My maternal grandmother was a German Jew. The rest of the family in that generation were French Catholics. She got outvoted, so officially I'm Catholic. The Torah will tell you differently, though." He grinned. "Now you tell me, what's a Kyriotate, and why do they give you headaches?"
Wednesday, May 14, 1997, 4:25 PM
"Okay." Megumi pulled a bright red cloth from where it hung half-out of her back pocket, wiped her hands on it, and replaced it. "Now what?"
"Now," Skuld said from her seat at the bench in the back of the workshop, "we work on some practical applications of theory. Come sit down here."
A glint of excitement appeared in Megumi's eye as she hopped onto the stool next to the little goddess. On the bench before them were a number of components, most of which were still unfamiliar to the mortal girl. "Okay, I'm here."
Skuld nodded absently. "Now, you've been going over the basics of gravitics with Doug this last week or so."
"Yeah." Guessing where this was going to go, Megumi tried to classify the components that she couldn't identify, based on the material she'd learned from him. "He's not so much with the math side, but when he talks practical..."
"Right," Skuld grinned. "Well, we're going to put that practical knowledge to work." She gestured at the pile on the bench top. "You're going to assemble your very first gravitic generator."
Megumi sat upright and shot the younger girl a surprised look. "I am?"
"Uh-huh." Skuld began sorting through the pile, pulling various odds and ends out of it and placing them directly in front of Megumi. "These are the parts for a small, low-powered grav drive, like you'd use in a toy. Well, more or less." Skuld looked up and grinned at her. "Actually, to make it interesting, I've thrown in some duplicate components and some parts that don't belong. You should have enough knowledge now to figure out what you need and assemble them into a complete unit."
Megumi fixed Skuld with a dubious look. "You sure about that?"
Skuld shoved the rest of the pile over to the older girl. "Yes. It's more or less modular, so you won't have too hard a time putting them together, and all the tools you'll need are here on or around this bench. So get to work, student!" The smile she wore belied the sharp tone she used.
Shaking her head, Megumi began picking up and studying the pieces she had to work with.
Fifteen minutes later, she shook her head again. "You rigged this, Skuld," she said as she carefully attached the last emitter to the drive. "This was way too easy."
"You think so?" Skuld replied with a laugh from the other side of the shop, where she was taking measurements from the original frame of Doug's motorcycle, still only partially assembled. "Just imagine if I'd dropped those parts in your lap three weeks ago. Would you have had clue one what to do with them?"
Megumi paused, then lifted the all-but-complete drive that nestled in her hand and studied it. Then she closed her eyes and imagined herself as she had been a month earlier, when Belldandy and her sisters were just some foreign girls living in Japan, when magic had been a fairy tale, and anti-gravity science fiction. She imagined herself looking at the bits and pieces of the grav unit then, trying to understand just what they were, and what they did. She imagined herself... absolutely confounded by most of them.
"No," she finally said. "I wouldn't've. You're right."
"Of course I'm right," Skuld said. Her tone was arrogant and haughty, but the smile she shared with Megumi at the same moment put the lie to it. The little goddess then dug in a pocket and held up yet another module — one whose place on the assemblage Megumi instantly figured out. "Now for the last piece — the power supply."
Moments later, the two had their heads bent over the tiny device, assorted fine tools in their hands. "This is the tricky part," Skuld said quietly. "If you don't do this just right..."
They started as Chris burst into the workshop, a grim expression on his face and Doug on his heels. "Guys, we need to talk."
Neither girl looked up. "One sec, 'Niichan, this is delicate."
"Now, Skuld, this is Celestial business," he barked at her. "Unless you want a whole flock of the Host in here, we have to get this resolved now."
With an exasperated sigh, Skuld removed the power supply from the grav unit and placed it on the bench, then laid her tools down next to it. As Megumi straightened up and removed the magnifier assembly that she wore, Skuld gave him an almost comically expectant look. "Fine."
Chris began to pace furiously, his hands clenching into and out of fists spastically. "I just had a rather nerve-wracking talk with a Choir member about Megumi here."
"Me?!" she yelped. "What did I do?"
Stopping cold, he held a finger up as if to suggest something, but then dropped his hand. "Okay, not going there," Chris muttered, and briskly continued. "Megumi, you're not in trouble, to be honest. Skuld is, but you might pay for it."
"'Niichan, spit it out already!"
Chris sighed breathily, and began to pace again. "Okay. Some background for the mortals here. The guys upstairs who are involved in technology advancement — people like Jean, Indra, Mawu-Lisa, and to some extent Skuld — have these rules they're supposed to follow. Specifically, those rules are about what we're allowed to give them and how. If humanity discovers something on their own, that's one thing, and we don't worry about it, but if we give it to mankind, there's limits."
"Whuh oh," Skuld breathed, her eyes wide.
"Yes, 'whuh oh'," Chris mimicked as he strode back and forth. "All these gravitics, and super alloys aren't supposed to be out yet! Humanity doesn't even have the start of the physics and math needed, Skuld, and you're sitting here teaching it to her!"
"What about me?" Doug asked.
"Meh," the god said dismissively. "You can take whatever you like with you. We have no problems unless you start handing things out."
"Unless I start..." Doug's normally-cheerful expression suddenly morphed into something dark and angry. "That's bullshit. And just when I was starting to like you guys."
Chris stopped short and turned to him. "What?"
Doug's lip twitched into something just short of a snarl. "In case you haven't noticed, Bozo, I'm a mortal, just not from around here. I came about my knowledge honestly and no one — especially not some fucking Celestial with a stick up its immortal ass — has the right to tell me who I can and can't teach it to. And if they have a problem with that, well, I just don't fucking care."
A deathly quiet settled over the temple yard.
Megumi glanced back and forth between the two men, and took a step back before glancing at Skuld. The little goddess's attention was riveted on the pair, worry plainly written on her face.
Chris clenched his right fist and counted to ten in Old Norse. "You'll have to care if you get the attention of a Judgment triad, or worse."
Doug hawked and spat on the floor. Skuld let out an outraged squawk, but neither man paid attention to her. "That's what I think of that threat. No angel — lower-case 'A' or capital — is going to intimidate me. They try... well, I've killed one god already in my life. An angel won't be nearly as much of a challenge."
"You what?" Chris began as a simultaneous intake of breath from Skuld and Megumi indicated their reaction to this revelation, then he threw up his arms in anger. "For Fnord's sake, can't you just not be an ornery ass for once in your life and do what you're told? Did it ever occur to you there may be a reason behind..." He trailed off and shook his head. "Never mind. I gave you fair warning," he said, pointing a finger at Doug's chest. "That's all I need to do. Everything after that is your choice. However..." He turned to face his sister and Keiichi's. "Megumi is another question entirely."
Megumi's face was pale. "What are you going to do to me?"
"Me? Nothing. Skuld here, has to take responsibility for you."
Chris stopped again, folded his arms, and glared at her. "It's not a good week for you, is it? That's their condition if you want to keep yourself out of censure — you have to claim her. You don't need to make her a Soldier, but she has to be one of yours, bound and sealed, Skuld."
Skuld's face went red and she began to mutter, the words unfamiliar to everyone but, apparently, Chris. "Skuld!" he snapped. "Language!"
"What's that mean, she has to become one of Skuld's?" Doug's voice was low and smooth, dangerous-sounding, Megumi thought, that of a man who was about to snap under pressure.
"I'd like an answer to that myself," she said, her own voice somehow coming out far steadier than she felt.
Skuld glanced between them, then settled her gaze on Megumi. "It means you have to swear to my service, like a samurai to his daimyo. It's not like an earthly promise, though. You'll be giving me some measure of real control over you." She dropped her eyes to the floor.
"What kind of control?" Megumi half-whispered.
Chris frowned. When Skuld seemed reluctant to answer, he said, "I only know about this stuff second-hand, but from what I've been told, you'll still have free will, if that's what you're worried about. But you'd be bound by your oath to obey Skuld's orders, if she gives you any."
"Nice," Doug all but sneered. "And what scrap gets thrown to her in return?"
Chris shrugged. "To be honest, not much other than Skuld's implied protection and patronage, if it's just an oath of service."
"It's not like she's being bound as a Soldier," Skuld said, looking back up. "It's just a formality to keep the Choir off our backs."
"A Soldier? What's that?" Megumi asked.
"Just what it sounds like," Skuld replied softly. "A warrior in the service of a Celestial. In exchange for their oaths and service, a Soldier gets... upgraded. Improved."
"This is ridiculous," Doug snorted, then turned on his heel and stalked out of the shop. For a moment, Chris looked after him, an almost sympathetic expression flickering across his face.
Meanwhile, Megumi turned to face Skuld. "Improved how?"
Skuld stared at the tip of her shoe as she drew circles on the floor with her toe. "A power-up. A Soldier gets an infusion of Celestial energies. It gives them some Celestial abilities, makes them sensitive to Celestial events and creatures, and lets them fight effectively on a Celestial level."
Megumi's mind suddenly flashed back to the two times that the creature called Mara had violated her. "Fight what? Demons?"
"Yeah," Chris said. "Sometimes." He studied her closely for a moment. "Thing is, from what I hear Soldiers are more under their patron's thumb than a simple servitor. Just how bad that can be depends on the Celestial."
"That doesn't matter," Skuld interrupted. "We're not talking about making you a Soldier."
Maybe, Megumi thought to herself. The idea of no longer being vulnerable to Mara and other monsters like her — she wanted that. She wanted it very badly.
"How long did they say I have to decide?" she asked Chris.
END OF CHAPTER THREE
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This work of fiction is copyright © 2007, by Robert M. Schroeck and Christopher Angel.
"Oh! My Goddess", and the settings and the characters thereof, are copyright by and trademarks of Kosuke Fujishima, KISS and Kodansha Ltd., and are used without permission.
"Douglas Q. Sangnoir," "Looney Toons", "The Loon" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Robert M. Schroeck.
"Christopher 'Paradox' Angel" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Christopher Angel.
"Maggie 'Shadowwalker' Viel" and any representations thereof are copyright by and a trademark of Peggy Schroeck.
"The Warriors", "Warriors' World", "Warriors International" and "Warriors Alpha" are all jointly-held trademarks of The Warriors Group.
Lyrics from "Good Morning Sunshine" as recorded by Donovan, words and music by James Rado, Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermott, copyright © 1966 by Rado, Ragni and MacDermott.
The quote starting "I say to the gods..." is a version of verse 64 of "The Lokasenna" (also called "The Lay of Loki" and "Loki's Wrangling", among other titles), part of the Poetic Edda. There are some... peculiarities... in this particular translation; see the note in the concordance for more information.
These and all other quotes are included in this fiction without permission under the "fair use" provisions of international copyright law.
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Many thanks to our prereaders on this chapter: Kathleen Avins, Nathan Baxter, Ed Becerra, Andrew Carr, Kevin Cody, Logan Darklighter, Helen Imre, Josh Megerman, Berg Oswell, and Peggy Schroeck.
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