chapter 1 | chapter 2 | chapter 3 | chapter 4 | chapter 5 | chapter 6 | chapter 7 | chapter 8 | chapter 9
chapter 10 | chapter 11 | chapter 12 | chapter 13 | chapter 14 | chapter 15 | chapter 16 | chapter 17 | chapter 18
chapter 19 | chapter 20 | chapter 21 | chapter 22 | chapter 23 | chapter 24 | chapter 25 | chapter 26

12. Free Bandwidth

"I've noticed..."

The green hills scrolled into the distance as we rode along, rain clouds encircling the horizon like a shower curtain. Gradually the landscape flattened and our rugged country road merged with a paved highway. We were surrounded by lanes of passing cars and trucks of all sorts and sizes, each as wondrous as the last. Unlike Jerad's truck, most didn't have rubber tires or any wheels at all, hovering just off the road via some hidden type of propulsion that was all the more fascinating. I considered it the same mechanism that drove the racecar that old man from the ruined future loaned us.

Sometimes we could spy passengers peering out the windows of the other cars, staring and wondering at us just as much as we wondered at them. Marle, Crono and Ayla would grin and wave back, while our less amiable compatriots would glare or ignore them. Frog bore the onslaught of curiosity just as well as he did the rain, with an unflinching countenance. It was incredible how he endured everything with steadfast patience, like a perfect soldier. There was a time when we knew him to be much less sure of himself, wallowing his life away in a hole...

That was before the Masamune changed him--made his passion true and his convictions stronger. Or was it his passion and convictions that changed the Masamune? Did the sword choose him, or he the sword? Either way, I had to admit, I admired his drive. Once he made up his mind, he didn't back down for hell or high water. And now here he was with us again, fighting for... the truth? Or what? He could have told Magus to bugger off, but if Frog was anything like me, the call of another adventure was simply too great to resist. Maybe that's what I really liked about the guy--amphibian... whatever.

As it was, he was so much of a statue that I almost didn't notice when he leaned close and started speaking to me. "Since we embarked on this journey, the people we've encountered hath employed an, ah... more colorful vocabulary."

"You mean all the swearing."

"Aye, that."

I gave a short, dry laugh, recalling Frog's confusion on the pier in Truce. "Yeah, that's just the way Crono's friends talk. They're idiots. Everybody else just uses it to sound grown-up and important."

I caught Mishu's eye, and she raised a testy eyebrow. "I wouldn't let it bother you," I finished.

"Aye, of course not. 'Tis mere wordplay." Frog settled on his haunches again, donning a coy grin--just a quirk at the corner of his mouth. "To be frank, it rekindles a few bawdier memories."

The thought of Frog doing anything 'bawdy' amused the hell out of me, and I cracked a grin of my own. "Heh... You, Frog? I don't believe it."

That arch smile didn't escape his voice as he confided, "Thou wouldst be surprised. A fine tavern can transform a man."

"No doubt." Note to self: buy Frog some drinks sometime.

"Ne'er the less, I wast only pondering whether t'was worth my study. Perhaps I should, as one might say, 'learn the lingo'?"

I mentally pictured Frog bopping and cursing like Liquel and snorted so hard I almost gave myself a hernia. Once I reeled in the hysterical imagery, I sputtered, "N-no! No, uh... heh, you're fine, Frog. Just be yourself."

Finally, at the far end of the road, we spotted it: a massive crystal bubble girded in steel. Its height and breadth were mountainous, and we could discern some buildings enclosed within. We didn't have to ask; we knew it was the city. It was a pristine sample of the domes we once explored in the apocalyptic future. At that time, those cities were shoddy, shattered and filled with dust, but now we had an eyeful of the genuine article, unmarred by destruction and decay.

Even from a distance, it was awe-inspiring. "Wow..." Marle spoke for everyone.

"There's Traven," Jerad informed us. "I take it you've never been here before, huh?"

"Something like that," I answered vaguely, transfixed by the view.

There were fields cut squarely around the settlement, each filled to the brim with rainwater. Even the tallest blades of grass barely pierced the surface, like little green hairs scattered over a mirror. Ryan commented, "Geez, look how flooded it is outside. They're gonna have to either plug up the culverts or teach everybody how to breathe underwater if it keeps raining like this."

"Oh yeah, there's supposed to be record levels of rainfall all over the world right now," Jerad noted. "It's crazy."

"It's the end of the world, man."

"Oh com'on..." Jerad groaned incredulously.

"I'm serious, man!" Ryan asserted, demonstratively counting off on his fingers. "Floods, volcanoes, earthquakes... You remember that earthquake out in Las Pacas three years ago? People are still sayin' they saw a UFO crash out there. There was this big streak of light and everything."
"Ryan..."
"Some people even say they heard something screaming, like somethin' not of this world. Nobody knows what the hell that shit was, but the government's got it all locked up. They're hiding something, man."
"Please. The reports said it was just a fault line."
"There ain't no fault lines in the middle of damn Zenan! I'm tellin' you, the high hats have the word up on this shit. There's probably space aliens locked up in bunkers out there or something, and it's all about to come back on us. You don't fuck with those aliens; they got those badass ships with death-rays and shit. We're going down, man."
"The only thing going down is your IQ, if you keep watching that bull on the tin foil channel."
"Hey hey, no dissin' the AIQ! Besides, I saw this stuff on our AI newsgroup."
"What? No, don't listen to anything Tempochaos posts, okay? He's full of crap."

At that point, Frog politely tapped my shoulder. "What do they mean, 'bad ass'?"

"Huh? Oh..." It was funny; he actually seemed interested in learning modern slang. I decided to educate him, in that case. "Well, you know how 'ass' is an insult, right?" He nodded, and I expounded, "But in some contexts, 'bad' is a compliment. Sorta. So, if something's 'badass,' it's really cool or hardcore."

He only furrowed his brow, as perplexed as ever. "Hard core?"

"Yeah, like..." I drummed the side of the truck as I tried to gather the best synonyms. "Tough, strong, something manly. It's a macho thing mostly, I guess."

Frog frowned at his boots, mulling over it. "So... 'bad' is bad and 'ass' is bad, yet 'bad ass' ist good?"

"Essentially."

"I see..."

As the city's fortified outskirts loomed closer, the highway branched up to a wall of stiles with striped barricades that allowed vehicles to pass one at a time. Our truck puttered through one of these stalls after Jerad threw a handful of coins into the toll bin, although the guard in the booth was giving us a look fit for a circus caravan. I had a hunch we weren't going to fit in very well--not that we weren't used to being the traveling freak show.

When we entered the tunnel it immediately stopped raining on us, and it was that tiny much easier to hear myself think--but then, once we reached the other side, all the thoughts flew right out of my head.

Traven was an amazing city. It wasn't large compared to the broken domes we once knew, and it didn't have the gilded splendor of Zeal, the rustic beauty of ye olde Truce or the majestic facade of Guardia Castle, but it was breathtaking in its own way, with a little bit of everything. Cement roads arched gracefully over our heads and threaded around buildings that scraped a smooth, transparent ceiling half a mile high. Boxes of brick and mortar squatted between obelisks of steel and glass. There were cars swimming around towers with a thousand facets, and people walking their dogs along strips of classically wooden townhouses. There were quaint, familiar little things that hadn't evolved one bit in a millennia: fire hydrants, newspaper stands and stores with cheery, open fronts--and then things so grand or outlandish they were beyond belief: giant billboards with moving pictures, neon lights, blinking road signs, robots trimming hedges and buses with double decks.

And everything was constantly moving. It was a breathing metropolis at its heart, thrumming with people and vehicles that might not have been too out-of-place in our own times--they were just playing on a more flashy stage. The entire town was a patchwork of old and new, so dazzling and absurd it was almost nauseating.

The truck kept rolling, sweeping us along, and Marle and Ayla were vying to see who could point out the most interesting landmarks before they vanished around the next bend. The amazing part was that we had seen all these things before, just never the way they were meant to be seen--never with any life. The living city was definitely more incredible (and a lot less depressing) than the ruins we were acquainted with under Lavos's reign. Despite everything that was going wrong lately, I had to smile at that. This was a better future. We did a good thing.

"Is there anywhere I can drop you guys off?" Jerad asked at length. "Do you know where you're staying?"

I admitted that we didn't have a clue.

"Didn't think so," Jerad conceded. "Well hey, my place isn't very big, but you all can stay the night there, if you need to."

Marle graciously lit up. "Really? That would be really nice of you!"

"Such courtesy would be appreciated," Frog agreed.

Jerad nodded. "No problem."

"So who are you guys, anyway?" I had been meaning to ask. "How did you get into this stuff? With the gates, I mean."

"It's a long story..." Jerad hedged.

"We're called Free Bandwidth!" Ryan volunteered with a flush of pride. "There's me, and Jerad, and Gnat and Josh. And Kitty too, I guess."

"We all met at the university," Jerad divulged. "Our mission is to create an open-source database that anybody can browse on the Network for free."

"The Network?"

"Yeah, it's... It's hard to explain. The Network connects computers all over the world, but to access it you have to pay fees to these 'access providers' and to government organizations that control what goes on the net."

"Our goal is to get around all that bullcrap and let people get to the information without any restrictions," Ryan explained.

"Some people call us hackers, but we're not the bad guys, really." Jerad gave a meliorative shrug. "We just believe that all knowledge should be free to everyone, you know?"

"Huh, spreading knowledge. How noble," I remarked, impressed. "But what does that have to do with the gates?"

"Well you see, that's how we first came across Dr. LEA's original research: while hacking the net."

"Jerad's been obsessed with it ever since," Ryan said wryly.

Jerad squawked. "I'm not obsessed! It's scientific curiosity," he delicately amended.

Okay, I officially liked this guy. "And you decided to use that knowledge to build a time machine?"

When I put it that drolly, he seemed embarrassed, ducking his head to adjust his glasses as he drove. "Well, it's--yeah, kinda?"

"Why?" I pressed.

"I just... Well?" he floundered until Ryan spoke up.

"Because it's cool?"

"Because it would be an amazing breakthrough," Jerad put it more eloquently. "It would prove Dr. LEA's space-time theories correct once and for all, and get Free Bandwidth the recognition it needs to make it big. Then we'd be that much closer to accomplishing our real mission."

"Not to mention make us filthy fuckin' rich and famous," Ryan added.

"Er, yes, that would be nice, too."

"Then you could finally buy a new truck."

"This truck is fine."

"No Jerad," Ryan insisted. "Your truck is an antique. It's so old and ugly the museum won't even take it. It's so slow it breaks the suck barrier."

"It's pretty bad," I had to agree, after my first-hand experience with the thing's rust-clogged components.

"Anyway," Jerad sharply diverted the topic, glancing back to me. "Thing is, it was really hard to come up with all the materials we needed to get started. That's when Ramezia came in. She contacted me on one of our underground message boards, and we kinda hit it off, you know? Before I knew it, she was willing to give us everything, as long as we worked under her parameters."

I didn't need to look over my shoulder to see that the others thought that story stunk like a fish. "But you've never actually met her?"

"In real life? No. Like I said, we've been meeting this guy who works for her, instead."

"She must be like, some kind of eccentric billionaire living in secret in the mountains. Or she's a government tap," Ryan postulated.

Jerad shook his head gravely. "Don't even joke about that--"

"She could be, man! I hope you haven't been giving her access to any of our op channels."

"Why, is what you guys do illegal?" I asked.

"Uh..."
"Er... It's a grey area," Jerad basically said yes. "What's important is that we finally got a chance to put that research to the test--and from the looks of you guys, it worked." He shook his head in amazement, and then narrowed a sidelong look at us. "Are you sure you don't know Dr. LEA?"

For the record, lying is wrong. "No... Never heard of him." And I'm not good at it. I don't know what exactly gives me away--some self-conscious quirk, I'm sure--but Crono always catches me when I'm lying with a very particular look. When I glanced his way, that's exactly the look I was getting--not condemning or condoning, just shrewdly acknowledging the crime. I shrugged and he shrugged back, indulgent as ever.

We drove off the highways and busy avenues and out towards the rim of the city, where the buildings grew shorter and less gaudy with every passing block. Eventually we arrived in a district where dwellings outnumbered shops, with unassuming apartments stacked upon a slanted sidewalk, creating steep, litter-filled, forbidding alleys. The air took on a hollow tone, devoid of the noisy commerce we witnessed downtown. We could only hear the occasional, distant crack, bark or stray voice, like ghosts catcalling across the tenements. There was a run-down, somewhat desolate quality to the neighborhood that not even the flickering orange streetlights could brighten.

We pulled up in front of a homely three-story brick building with the slogan, "OZZIE GET BENT" painted in fuzzy script on the side. As Ryan climbed out of the cab, Jerad tossed him a ring of keys. "Hey, show them up, would you? I'm going to go park the truck and unload."

"Gotchya." Ryan led the way up, through a dimly lit stairwell of raw, echoing concrete and to the top floor. He unlocked a door marked '3C' in brass letters (with the 3 missing a screw and hanging upside-down) and let the seven of us into Jerad's flat. "Welcome to the poorhouse," he introduced.

It wasn't anything to write home about, but I wasn't about to turn up my nose, either. Not three feet from the door was the butt of a dingy brown sofa, facing out into the living room. Off to the left was an oval coffee table with a big chip off the wooden finish, a plush green armchair, a bookshelf and a black screen hanging on the wall that I almost mistook for a window. Behind the sofa and before a hall leading into the back rooms was a desk with a boxy console on top that I assumed was a computer, from my limited experience with such technology--it had a keyboard and some other palm-sized apparatus that might have been an input device. Off to the right was a tiny kitchen, its modest table overlooked by the only true window.

Crono snapped his fingers to get my attention and grinned teasingly. Look familiar?

There were oddities scattered over every surface--hex keys, machinist tools, dirty dishes, open books, microchips wrapped in anti-static foil, playing cards, and even a half-eaten sandwich on the kitchen table. The place had the magazine-strewn, crumb-covered, and generally disheveled look, feel, and smell of a bachelor pad. It was just messy enough to make me feel at home.

"Ayla smell cheese?" she observed.
"Cripes, it smells like a scratch-n-sniff porno mag in here," Mishu said.

Okay, so I'd never let my room get so bad that it smelled like stale cheddar and... uh, that. I was going to slug Crono in the arm but then thought better of it, punting his heel instead. He snickered.

Ryan flicked on a lamp and immediately headed for the kitchen. "Aw dude, there's nothing but dust balls in here," he lamented into the refrigerator. "That's it, I'm ordering some pizza. You guys make yourselves at home."

None of us got another step in before a blustery, dark-hued woman barged out of the hall, loose papers rustling in the wake of her warpath. "Jerad...!!"

"Hey Kitty," Ryan blandly greeted as he started thumbing through a book of coupons on the table, a small device with a number pad held in his other hand.

She stopped short at the sight of us. "You--what the hell? Who are all you people? Where's Jerad?"

"Parking the truck," Ryan informed. "Chill out, Kitty. These are guests."

"Nice to meet you," she said curtly in our direction, and then proceeded to ignore us. "Ryan, I hope to hell you two brought back the rent, because I'm tired of Mr. Varg hammering the damn door down for it."

"Yeah, yeah, I know..." Ryan grumbled as he tuned her out. He pressed a few buttons on his device, which emitted some electronic beeps. Then, to some of our surprises, a crackling voice issued from it. 'Hello, this is Pizza Shack. May I take your order?'

"Whoa, is that a telephone?" Marle wondered aloud. The telephones we were used to were big, bulky and found only in booths on street corners. The notion of carrying one small enough to put in your pocket was novel, to say the least.

"Yeah. You people like pepperoni?"

Crono nodded eagerly, and Marle all but jumped for joy. "Pizza sounds great!"

Kitty at last decided to recognize us, her demeanor suddenly welcoming. "So, you guys are Jerad's friends?"

Marle extended a hand. "Yep! I'm Marle, and..." We did the hello-rounds again.

Kitty clucked at our lot. "You people look soaked to the bone! You weren't out in all that rain, were you?"

"Oh yeah, we were..." Marle said sheepishly.

"Well hell, honey, let me get you something to dry off with." She whirled about and disappeared into a back closet, reappearing with a bundle of towels. We each took one and tried to settle in while waiting for pizza and Jerad. Magus assumed his usual post by the door, Frog looked for a place to stand out of the way, Ayla hopped straight onto the couch, Mishu perched on the edge of the coffee table and Marle and Crono idled behind the sofa while I started snooping around.

I was drawn to the bookshelf, which was filled with volumes I didn't recognize. When I picked out one of the books for inspection, I realized that it wasn't one at all; it was a plastic case with a printed cover. I cracked it open and found--a disc? Was this some kind of medium for data storage?

"What's this thing?"

"Huh?" Ryan responded. "Oh, it's a v-disc. Man, you guys really are from the gate, huh? You'd have to be living in a cave, not to know what v-discs are."

"Yeah..." I drawled, humoring him, that. "What does it do?"

"It, uh, holds stuff--like data?" Ryan confirmed. "Those are all movies."

Marle bent over the back of the sofa, suddenly interested. "Movies? You mean a motion picture? On that little thing? That's cool! How do we watch it?"

He wouldn't speak as much to admit it, but Frog's round eyes practically glowed with curiosity, while Ayla crawled closer, her neck outstretched inquisitively. "Watch? Picture that moves? Ayla want see this magic!"

Ryan shrank a little, unnerved by the onslaught of attention (or perhaps Ayla's ass hanging out of her loincloth--she often had that effect on strangers.) He then shuffled up to me with the bow-legged grace of someone who had mastered navigating this junkyard. "Just use the v-player. Here, I'll show you how it works." He took the disc I'd unwittingly selected and inserted it into a slot atop of the black box hanging on the wall, which whirred into action automatically.

I don't want to make it sound like we were a bunch of easily-impressed hicks bowled over by a mere movie, but as cinematically deprived as all of our societies were, we were absolutely hooked by the show that unfolded on screen, with its kaleidoscope of images, music and sound. Ryan even demonstrated how to pause the picture with a remote control the moment the pizza delivery guy knocked on the door.

So there we all were (even Magus, who shunned company like the plague) sitting around a v-player in that cramped apartment, wrapped in towels and watching a movie while we ate pizza and drank the last of the sodas in Jerad's fridge. It was a surreal moment, almost too casual to believe. What made it truly amazing, as Marle mentioned at one point, was that we were watching a motion picture in a locale as mundane as someone's living room. The film reels being developed in our home time were virtually nothing in comparison, and it was fascinating to see how far the technology would go.

We were so distracted by the movie (it was a "romantic comedy" whose title I wish I could remember--I was a little more focused on the quality of the picture than the content, to be honest) that we almost didn't notice Jerad's arrival. Kitty, who had been sitting peacefully with us that whole time, suddenly leapt up and rushed Jerad into the kitchen like a cougar after a fawn.

"Jerad! I've got a bone to pick with you!"

He warily turned to face her. "Kitty...? How's it going?"

Kitty unloaded on him like a vengeful angel with a shotgun. "I'll tell you how it's going! For starters, I can't get your damn landlord off my back--and I don't even live here! You didn't mention when you asked me to watch this place that I'd to have to listen to that old dinosaur stomping around every morning!"

"I'm sorry! I know, Mr. Varg's been bothering me for weeks. I told him I'd have his money at the end of the month. I don't know what his deal is."

"Huh," I chirped, and wondered in a low key, "His landlord's name is Mr. Varg? You think that's any relation to the Mr. Varg from our time?"

A.K.A. the man my father owed a new attic. ...Which meant I now owed him that attic, I supposed. Fair enough, since the damage was my doing.

Anyway, I didn't expect Jerad's landlord to actually be related. Even on the remote chance that it was true, the two men were approximately fifty generations apart, so there wasn't bound to be a resemblance on any level, genetic or otherwise. I was only asking for the sake of pointing out a coincidence, but that's when Crono leaned across the sofa and signed right over Marle's head, Only if he's still an asshole.

I nearly spit my drink back into its can. Marle had enough sense to feel excluded, even as she laughed along, and she swore--not for the first time, "I'm going to make you guys teach me your weird sign language one day!"

Crono needled her side with a conciliatory look and whispered something that made the princess double over with glee, so then I was the one left out of the joke and that made everything even. ...I guess.

Meanwhile, Kitty's tirade continued. "And the next time you go out on one of your crazy dork field trips, you need to pick up your damn phone and call your girlfriend, instead of letting her break into your apartment to screen your answering machine to see where your fool ass disappeared to."

Jerad balked. "She what?"

"I'm serious! You better tell that crazy bitch that she needs to take a big fuckin' chill pill, because if I have to see her up here all in my grill askin' where you are one more time, I'm going to knock her pretty little bleached teeth out, I swear to God, Jerad."

"Ack, okay, I'm really sorry. Allie's just anxious! My phone doesn't get any signal up on Death Peak, okay? I'll call her right now..."

And Jerad left the room to that very end. So, I noted glumly, he had a girlfriend. She seemed kind of crazy and bitchy, too, from the impression Kitty was lending. I almost felt bad for the guy.

As soon as we were finished marveling at the movie, Ryan unveiled his next grand diversion: a "video game." It was a computerized graphical interface manipulated via analog control pads--or, in layman's terms, it was a game you could play on the v-screen.

I can't even begin to describe the bedlam that evoked. Once Ryan got everything set up and disinvested Ayla of the idea of eating the shiny buttons ("What? Not candy? Should no make look like candy, then.") the apartment was filled with excited whoops of victory, defeat, awe and confusion. Crono and Marle ate it up, the former's competitive nature at odds with Ryan's experience. Even Ayla thought it was a riot, and after toying with the controls for several rounds, she badgered Frog into playing.

I sat back from the revelry, a little too worn and dreary to do more than watch (and heckle Crono when he lost. I'll never be able to erase the mental picture of Frog gloating across the room, a control pad in his lap and his cheeks swollen with a smug croak.) Magus deemed the fun and games beneath him, since he made a point to scoff and walk out the front door. Mishu more-or-less followed, vowing to, "See you asshats later." They weren't especially missed. Kitty took her leave without any fuss, and Jerad took up residence on the computer behind the sofa, turning down Ryan's offer to get in on the game.

During all the commotion, I took a few minutes to open my notebook to a fresh page and jot down the events of the past few days, just to keep what was going on in perspective as well as leave notes for my journal back home. I got to the point where Marle joined us, stopped, stared at the open page for a while, and then shut the book. Not now.

'Can't put it off forever...'

Perhaps not, but I had enough willpower to wait for a more opportune moment--or at least a private one. I wasn't weak. I wouldn't be weak...

'You're the weakest of all. They'll see through you, no matter how long you wait.'

What the hell is that even supposed to mean? Shut up, stupid voices.

I must have been tempting fate or karma or whatever unscientific mojo people buy into, because right then Marle sat next to me on the couch, and at a glance I could tell that something was troubling her (and that it wasn't her turn at the game, since she passed her control pad off to Ayla.) "Hey," she said with a soft, confiding ring that only heightened my suspicions.

"Hey?" I returned, leery of her watery look.

("The ball! Get the ball! It's right--augh--there!")
("See ball, no going where Ayla say! Hate fake people game!")

"You've been really quiet. I was just wondering if you were all right. You know, after everything that happened yesterday..."

("Ugh, block it! Just go--hey!")
("Oh oh oh! Got ball! Make move!")

Oh. Hell. I opened my notebook again and let my gaze slip between the pages, swallowing back any gut reactions. "Um. Just fine, thanks."

("You want a piece of this, huh??")
("Ball! Go!")

She leaned close, prying gently yet critically at the same time, "Just fine? Are you sure? I mean it was just yesterday, Lucca. Don't you feel--oh, anything? You've been acting like nothing happened. It's okay if you want to lash out, or get mad, or cry or--something! Even Crono's been better about expressing his emotions, and I can hardly get him to say three words in a row. Nobody's going to hold it against you if you want to talk about how you feel."

No, no, and no thanks. I couldn't... and wouldn't. I didn't want to talk about my feelings because I didn't want to feel anything. I shook my head. "No, I..." I noticed, detachedly, that my hand was shaking. I made sure Marle didn't see that. "That's okay, really." Then, figuring I would need a better response than that to put her mind at ease, I said, "I think I just need more time to figure out... something." That was kind of honest. I was making progress.

"Oh." She sighed, resigning the effort. "Well don't bottle it all up, okay? We're your friends, you know. We'll listen if you want to talk about it."

("Ah--ah shit, no no, you've got it!")
("Thou dost not want a piece of this, I assure thee.")

"I know, thanks..." I started sketching some nonsense, looking busy.

I wasn't bottling anything up--it was pushing it aside, which was just as dangerously insane, but what could I do? Have a breakdown in front of everyone? We were on a mission--not as grand as our last one, but nonetheless important. I didn't know which was worse: being a sociopath or being a useless sop.

("Holy crap, it's--")
("Yes! Goal! Ayla win?")

"Okay then, it's just..." Marle never finished that thought. Instead she turned away, shielding a pitiful, glassy look. I couldn't believe it. Was she about to cry?? Geez, she was being so sincere, I must have looked like a cold-hearted bitch in contrast. I wondered how normal people would handle something like this. What would my dad say...?

No, no no no no. I desperately needed a distraction.

I looked at a blank page in my notebook, got an idea, nudged Marle with my foot and forced a playful expression. "Hey now, don't get all wishy-washy on me. Cheer up. Check it out." I drew a wavy line across the page and dotted one half with dinky little boats. "I challenge you to battleship."

She sniffed and wiped her face clean before examining the paper with refreshed curiosity. "What's that?"

"Whaaat?" I acted aghast. "Crono never taught you how to play battleship? Somebody is a worthless dolt of a boyfriend," I projected loudly enough for the injured party to hear. Crono only spared a second to roll his eyes before going back to getting pummeled in virtual football.

I handed her my pencil and we played battleship. It was a simple, childish invention, not half as spectacular as a video game, but Marle still seemed to enjoy it. Amazingly enough, after a couple of rounds our game lured Crono in, and he traded Marle his control pad for the pencil. He must have gotten tired of getting button-mashed into shame and was looking for a confidence boost, because the contending look on his face plainly said, I totally own this.

I had no sympathy--I kicked his butt at that game. "Hah!" I crowed after striking out his last ship. "You'll never beat Lucca the Great at battleship! The pen truly is mightier than the sword."

I should learn better than to say things like that in front of Crono, really I should. I am going to say that's the first and only time I've seen someone turn the tables on a game of paper battleship by using a katana.

Eventually the late hour wore on us, and everyone decided to retire at once. Ryan departed the same way as Kitty. ("See you tomorrow, man?" "Nah, I'm going to try to get some things straightened out here. I'll let you know when something comes up." "Alright. See you on the boards, then.")

Jerad then shut down his computer, stood up with a stretching yawn and addressed those of us left. "Man, it's been a crazy day... I think I'm going to hit the sack. I'll let you guys know if I get any messages from Ramezia. You still want to meet her, right?"

Marle nodded affirmatively, and Frog backed her up. "Of course!"
"Aye, most definitely."

"I'll see what I can do. Probably won't hear back from her until at least tomorrow. In the meantime, you're all are free to crash here. Um, there's the couch, and some spare pillows in the closet, and..." Jerad trailed off with an ineffectual shrug. "Whatever works for you guys."

What happened to work for us was Crono and Marle taking every pillow they could find, building a mountain of fluff on the floor and then wallowing in it. I stole a musty throw pillow and clung to my own end of the sofa. Ayla bounced restlessly over the cushions before collapsing at the other end, her long legs hanging at odd angles off the side. Frog, in a rare state of ease, squirmed out of his armor and nestled his squat form perfectly into the armchair. Magus and Mishu never came back, and none of us sat up waiting for them. As soon as the lamp was flipped, we almost simultaneously passed out.

I squeezed in maybe one or two hours of nice, sound sleep, but then around midnight I awoke with a harsh start, sweating and shaking for two reasons.

The first was that I had just experienced a nightmare so vivid, violent and utterly screwed-up that I can't even write about it--but I won't deny that the subject was something heavily repressed and close to home. It would've been enough to push me over the edge, if not for the second reason:

I just... felt something... really weird.

I had to sit up and catch my breath before I could grasp what that sensation might have been, as well as why it felt so foreign and familiar at once. Then I felt it again, as sudden and striking as a kick to the gut, and distracting enough to bury my dream in the deepest grave my subconscious had to offer. It left a tingling, burning froth in the pit of my stomach, nothing astringent like that accursed snakebite--or painful at all, really--but really discomfiting, considering I didn't know its source. I flopped over and smothered a moan in my pillow, where I could hear my heart drumming a panicked beat between my ears. What the hell was wrong with me?? Was I sick? Was I crazy?

I strangled a yelp as it coursed through me again--a hot flash so poignant it was like getting flayed by a whip from the inside-out. Then it struck me: it was exactly like that strange feeling Crono and I discovered the night before--that weird, warm, touchy... feely thing. But this was a little worse, and not just for the lack of external stimuli. It was a euphoric rash that made me itch in places I wouldn't dare scratch, as pyrogenic as it was inebriating. The heat started to build in soft, persistent strokes, and I grew mortified as I realized that I wasn't just sick or crazy; I was... uh, excited. For no discernable reason at all.

No, I assured myself, there had to be some cause. Something--or somebody--somehow was screwing with me, because I sure as hell couldn't do that to myself. ...Not without some effort, anyway.

I drew several long, tempering breaths and threw a questing look around the dark living room. Soft, trilling snores were coming from the chair Frog was sleeping in, and Ayla was sprawled haphazardly over her half of the couch, her mop of blonde hair falling between my feet. I couldn't see anything to tip me off, except--wait. The mountain of pillows was vacant. Crono and Marle were gone? The bolt on the apartment's door was unlatched, too. And then--

"Ah!" Something brushed my leg and I jolted backwards, my head hitting the armrest as my elbows sank into the crack between the sofa's cushions. I didn't even catch her waking up. She just snuck up on me like some prowling beast, one arm staked across my shoulder and caging me to the spot. "Ayla!"

She hovered overhead, dirty blonde curls falling over her brow and framing her face and shoulders like a lion's halo. Her expression bore a heavy-lidded, eager grin that made her look dangerously drunk. True to form, Ayla had no explanation or excuse for spooking me; she merely asked in a husky whisper, "Want play?"

"W-What?" I was stuck, breathless, disoriented and not too keen on the way she was licking her lips and sizing me up with those trenchant eyes.

"Want play? Ayla know, can feel heat, no lie."

I had almost forgotten about that--that Ayla had this sort of extra-sensory perception of other people's conditions. She could sniff out fear, anger, happiness and a range of other emotions as acutely as a pit viper sensing the body heat of its prey. I had no doubt what I must have smelled like to her, and suddenly my cheeks were flushed with as much embarrassment as excitement.

Her grin turned sultry as her hand curled around my thigh, squeezing insistently. I hissed as the fire in my belly leapt and twitched, singeing the tips of all my nerves. "Make heat feel good, have fun..."

Oh my loving God. I knew Ayla had an innocent--if hedonistic--penchant for doing whatever she liked, but I'll be damned if I was going to let her do me. I didn't care if it was some cultural discrepancy or another of her well-meaning foibles or she simply didn't know any better; I wasn't about to entertain her deviant notion for another second. I shook my head furiously and brought up my legs to kick her away. "N, No!"

She reared back, a muddled look clashing with the flirtatious, predatory one. For a second I thought my point got across, but then she bent closer, that roguish hand kneading the soft spot just above my hipbone, teasing yet persuasive. "Sure? Lucca smell like want. Ayla like, man or woman, no care."

"Y-Yeah, I'm sure, okay?!" I stressed, my voice taking a whining, desperate edge that left no room for misinterpretation.

Ayla pouted, but then released me and sulked back into her corner, not forcing the matter. Thank goodness. She was frightening in that state, and I wouldn't know how to hold off that much carnal brawn. I loved Ayla, really, but not like that. No offense to her, but first of all, she smelled like a wet dog on a good day--and the dog probably carried a lot less lice. Secondly, I wasn't into girls, seriously, and it would be pretty freaking sad to make out with a woman before I even got my first real kiss from a boy. Shocking fact about me, I know.

...Actually, there was this one time, but it didn't count because it was a practical joke, and... Well, that's a story for another day. It was definitely the last thing I wanted to think about while trying to cool off and get back to sleep.

I wiggled as far into my corner of the sofa as I could manage and hugged my knees, reeling from what just sorta-happened and striving not to touch Ayla in even the most incidental way, lest she get another big idea. Thankfully, that unwelcome stirring in my gut had simmered down to something sated and quiet, and I felt strangely relaxed--gratified, almost--although with what? What the hell just happened?

I had no idea, but I was suddenly too tired to dwell on it. Sleep came almost despite myself, and I was on the brink of another dream when I overheard something. Whispering--disjointed, distant, right next to me and yet distorted as if through a wall of water.

'...hilarious, really...'

It was the black voice...

'...don't approve of what that neiphiti woman did.'

Wait, no, that wasn't the voice I knew. The usual black voice hissed, barked and spit gleeful invective. This one was different, undeniably distinct--just as dark, but smoother--calm, cultured, and almost hypnotic. Trying to picture a face to match its dulcet tones only brought to mind an old saying about the Devil having a silver tongue.

'You think that link will be a problem?'

Now that was the voice I recognized. So, there were two of them, and they were... talking to each other? Behind my back? The way they were conferring, it sounded as if they didn't want any eavesdroppers. I laid completely still and closed my eyes, feigning slumber--for whatever good it did.

'I don't know. It's dangerous. If the bond grows too strong, it could trigger a summoning.'
'And we wouldn't want that.'
'No, that would be disastrous, to say the least. And yet, if it lasts... the seed could contaminate him, too.'
'The Traukee? Gwaha! That would be even better.'
'Yes, but then it could backfire; the neiphiti's plan could work. Then it would all be for nothing, unless by some miracle we found another seed.'
'Well then what should we do? This sounds too risky for my tastes.'
'I agree, I'd rather not leave it to chance. The safest thing would be to neutralize that link, before it gets out of hand.'

What in the world were they talking about? They kept saying neiphiti; wasn't that what Masa and Mune called Mishu? This was insane. Was I the only one hearing this? Was it all my imagination? Wouldn't it make more sense to me if it was? Maybe I really had slipped into a dream and didn't realize it.

'Shh. You hear that?'

And then silence.

There was a rustle at the door, which quietly creaked open. I heard muffled footsteps and giggling, peeped over the side of the couch and found Crono and Marle sneaking back in. Now where had those two clods gone off to so late? As I watched them stalk around in the dark with the furtive giddiness of a couple of kids getting away with mischief, something wretched occurred to me.

The question wasn't where; it was what. And what else might a pair of normal, warm-blooded, besotted teenagers run off alone to do in the middle of the night without notice? And if this what took place in the immediate past--say, ten or fifteen minutes ago--by a freakish stretch of logic, it might account for a certain disturbance that woke me up in the first place.

I had one good chance to confirm my suspicions, and I seized it, reaching out and snagging Crono by the sleeve as he passed by. He gave a jolt of surprise, stopped and blinked at me with recognition that segued into a jest. Caught me, huh?

Oh, he had no idea. Even with my knuckles barely grazing his arm I could feel a faint, electric tingle spreading through my hand, although it wasn't enough to make me let go. If anything, I tightened my grip and wrenched him close enough to mutter matter-of-factly, my tone subdued for the others' sakes but still in high dudgeon, "I felt that, you know."

Crono stared back, feckless and confused--for about three seconds. Then his jaw dropped and his eyes widened with horrified disbelief. No, you didn't.

Behind him, Marle was watching all of this with a clueless expression that only fueled my perverse amusement. Yes I did, I affirmed silently, and then watched Crono make a flustered circle of gestures that could only be construed as guilty stammering.

I held up a hand, sparing him the effort. "Look, just tone that stuff down until we get this weird... thing sorted out, okay?" At that I rose from the couch and headed for the door, not waiting for any pathetic (and invariably pointless) argument from either of them. All I wanted to do was make Crono think twice before fooling around like that again, and besides, my mother once taught me that it's best to leave on a high note.

As I slipped outside, however, I couldn't resist a wicked little parting shot--something to really leave them guessing, although I sorely hoped Crono didn't miss the irony in my smirk and realized I was kidding. "...Or you could at least invite me, next time."

I forgot to put on my shoes before I made my dramatic exit, but the scandalized look on both their faces was totally worth it.

---

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