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
13. Bats on the Roof
Since I wasn't about to get any sleep, I fancied some fresh air, instead. Whenever my train of thought got stuck or I couldn't figure out where my wires got crossed on a machine, I always liked to go outside and pace around until either the great outdoors cleared my head or I got sick of getting eaten alive by the bugs (it would've served me better not to go out like that in the middle of the night, but I can't help that those are my peak hours. I'm a night owl.)
I didn't plan to wander far. I could tell we weren't in the best neighborhood, and even if I was more than capable of roasting, toasting, and burning to a crisp anyone who looked at me the wrong way in a dark alley, I'd rather not have to go to the trouble without even the luxury of shoes. It was bad enough that I had left my helmet at home--twice--since I was feeling naked adventuring without it. At least with the bare feet and motor oil smeared on my shirt I was well on my way to looking like an unwashed hobo, so maybe I would fit in more than anything.
When I reached the stairwell, a set of steps going up to the roof presented me with a less hazardous alternative, so up I went. The door at the top opened onto a flat, vacant lot with a brick border, punctuated by crates and pipes. I sat on the edge of the roof and looked out towards the center of the city, mesmerized by the moving lights and colors against the opulent backdrop of skyscrapers and a glass ceiling that gleamed every time lightning flashed.
It never quit raining, wherever and whenever we went. It was too persistent to be a meteorological coincidence. The storms felt like a herald of something important--something we were too shortsighted to see. Could it be connected to the gates, or the Mystics, or the building Magus found under the sea? There just wasn't enough evidence. With any luck, that would change once we finally met Ramezia, but it was hard to imagine that encounter going well. Jerad seemed harmless, if trustworthy, but I hoped we weren't walking into a trap...
"Fuckin' bats in hell."
I jumped and spun around, catching sight of the woman tramping across the roof. She had this wide-set, bullish gait that reminded me just a little of Ayla's right-hand-man, Kino. "Mishu!"
She stopped next to me, standing over the ledge and sharing the view. "First those two lovebirds, and now another a'you. Don't any of you d'shis ever sleep? Can't even get a roof to myself."
"Oh, sorry," I blandly apologized. "Didn't know you were up here. I'll go."
She mellowed. "Nah, fuck it. You can stay. Not like I'm getting any sleep, myself."
I reluctantly sat back down, not wanting to look like she scared me off. "Huh. Misery must love company. At least you're still hanging around," I said, as if that was such a good thing. I couldn't believe we were letting her tag along, after she basically admitted to stalking and exploiting us. Then again, it's not like we hadn't taken on team members on even shakier grounds. Speaking of the devil, "You don't know which way Magus disappeared, do you?"
"Tch, that pasty fuck is flying around here somewhere, like a gods damn dracula. I think he gets off on standing in dark corners and pissing on passers by."
If nothing else, I think her sense of humor was growing on me. "Heh, that wouldn't surprise me."
Mishu was an enigma, one I still wasn't sure I could trust. Since I had her to myself, I figured now was the best time to do something about that--to get to know her a little, maybe. At any rate, I was starting to make up my mind; I didn't believe her story. She was a foreigner, sure, but not enough to pass for a space alien. Her grasp of our language was uncanny, if riddled with expletives. She spoke too well, and knew too much. Maybe, if I asked the right questions, I could catch her...
"So... You're from another planet, right? What's it like?"
She snorted. "Humph. C'tarot is... I don't know. It's not too different from here." She twirled a hand over her head like an apathetic magician. Each fingernail was thick, dark and sharpened to a point, I noticed. "We have bigger cities, and rings in the sky, and a lot more demis, but I guess that's it."
"Yeah, demi-humans--neiphiti, like me. There's lots of regular humans too, and other freaks from other worlds--we get a lot of traffic, y'know, with the gates--but in my experience, things don't change no matter where you go. Same karatosh, different planet."
"Oh. Not much of a change, then, huh? What did you used to do back home? Did you have a profession?"
She gave a shifty grin that dissolved into something sour. "I used to... be a soldier. I was in the army."
"Yeah. But then my master died, and I left."
"Oh. Sorry to hear that."
"Hrmph, it doesn't matter." Her head ticked sideways, struck with a thought. "Oh yeah, your folks just got whacked, didn't they? Tough break."
I blanched, looking away. "Don't wanna talk about it."
She gave a dismissive cluck. "Tch, whatever you say. Develop a damn neurosis for all I care."
I swallowed the rebuttal squirming up my throat, my palms biting into the edge of the cement. This woman had less tact than Magus. At least he would call me a simpleton and be done with it.
"Anyway," Mishu moved on. "I worked the streets after that, before I came here."
I breathed. Forget it. Focus. "Worked the streets? Like, what, peddling?"
"Heh heh heh... sort of." A grin snaked across her features. "I was more in the exotic entertainment business."
Just because I live on an island doesn't mean I'm a sheltered dullard--I've been stuck in the company of Crono's crass friends, after all. I knew what that euphemism stood for. I just wasn't sure I wanted to hear it correctly. "You mean you--and--for...?"
"Fuck for a buck?" she put it bluntly. "More or less, yeah."
"You're a... prostitute... That's... nice..." I stammered graciously. I went up to the roof to get away from sex, and I run into a whore. Fantastic.
"We're actually called exotic mages, since we work with magic."
Curiosity gets the better of me, sometimes. "Huh? How..." Do not ask how that works. Just, stop. I buried another blush in my hands. "You know what? Don't tell me. Please."
Mishu chortled devilishly. "Heheheh, as you wish."
Something she said earlier suddenly came back to me. "Wait a second, you saw Crono and Marle up here?" Thankfully I caught myself before I asked whether she had been watching something she shouldn't have. That would have been a dumb question I really didn't want the answer to.
"Yeah, they just went downstairs. Why, you lookin' for 'em?"
"Er, no. Not really." It was definitely time to change the subject. Speaking of euphemisms... "You haven't been on this planet very long, have you? How is it you speak our language so well?"
She laughed outright. "Hah. That's the funny part. I don't."
That was the last answer I was expecting. "What?"
She let me stew in that paradox before elaborating. "It's called TLS, and hell if I remember what it stands for." She then paused to consider it. "T-L-Something... Telepathic Language Synchronization, yeah. It's a psychic thing. Most dragons can use it, and since I'm half dragon I made the cut. It was part of my training. Peacekeepers are trained to do operations on all kinds of alien worlds, so it's a skill that comes in handy."
"Really? So how does it work, exactly?"
"Fuck if I can explain it," she said gruffly. "It's a mind trick. See, the way it works, I don't actually know any of the words coming out of your mouth right now. I'm just reading the part of your brain that turns your thoughts into words, and linking it to the same part of my brain. So what happens is we're both talking in our own languages, but we understand each other because the idea behind the words gets to our brains before the actual words do."
I wasn't sure whether to be astonished, incredulous or just appalled. "Whoa, whoa, wait. Let me see if I get this: you're using telepathy on me right now, as we speak."
"No," I said flatly. "I don't believe it."
"Why, is it any more karatosh than a scribe spell or shooting fire out of your hands? Magic makes even less damn sense than psychic powers."
I gave her that one. "Touch\'e9. So, you can read all my thoughts?" I asked, discomfited by the prospect.
"No, just the ones you're about to say out loud. It's too much fuckin' work to read anybody's mind past that, and I suck at it, anyway."
"So... it's like standing on the bridge between conceptual and verbal thought. You can only hear what's crossing over." That was a relief, I... guess? Unless she was lying? Or imposing her version of the truth directly over my thoughts? I wasn't comfortable with the idea at all, and not just because it was metaphysical as hell. "What about when you're with a group of people? Wouldn't that make it more difficult?"
"Not really. I just leave my mind open while I'm listening, and make sure everyone I'm talking to is in my line of sight."
I shook my head, amazement winning over disbelief. "That's incredible. But wait, if you have so much control over cognitive interpretation, wouldn't you be able to implant a thought that doesn't, ah, sync-up with what someone's saying?"
She gave me a screwy look. "Maybe? I guess, but why the fuck would I want somebody to mishear what I'm saying? That would be the most useless superpower ever."
"Huh, I suppose..." I relented.
"Eh, I don't know..." she drawled, reconsidering it. "I'm sure there are people like that, who can royally fuck with people's heads or put words in other people's mouths, but that's the really hardcore stuff. I can't do anything that advanced. TLS is basic-level telepathy. It just scratches the surface--you don't have to think too hard to use it."
"It's still amazing... and a little creepy," I admitted.
Mishu shrugged, unfazed. "Whatever, it works. The great thing about TLS is, if you hang around a group of people long enough, you pick up their language naturally. I've been on this planet a few weeks and I think I've got a lot of it down."
"Including the bad words, huh?" I quipped.
She grinned like a fox. "My favorites."
I recalled the choice words Frog's sword had for Mishu when she first appeared. "Say, why did Masa and Mune get so upset when they saw you? You've never met them before, have you?"
She scowled. "Who? You mean that fuckin' loudmouthed sword? I don't know what those little shits were going on about." Her mien suddenly sobered. "...It is funny, though."
"They mentioned Genova, the neiphiti home world."
"You're neiphiti, aren't you? Is that the world you came from?"
She shook her head. "I was born on C'tarot. Genova is..." Her expression fixed somewhere distant. "Not a single one of my kind has set foot on Genova since the last Dragon War, and that was thousands of years ago. Nobody knows where it is, much less if it actually exists. Some people don't believe in it."
"Oh..." It was ancient history, then, and a conflict carried over a dozen millennia. "Maybe Masa and Mune were talking about your ancestors, then. Those two have been around a really long time."
"Who knows. If they really are from back then, they were probably on the wrong side of the war." Mishu shrugged glumly. "Not that there was a right side. According to the old books, everyone lost."
"You said you were in the army. Is C'tarot a peaceful world now?"
I didn't see what was funny about my question, but she snorted hard. "Heh! So they say." She then said with an acerbic edge that suggested another change of topic, "The archmage is in charge of the place, now. It's peaceful if he says it is. I don't give a fuck."
There was so much more I wanted to ask about her home planet, but just my luck, I never got the chance. "My turn for questions," a heavy voice interrupted, accompanied by the tell-tale swish of a cloak. We whipped around just as Magus approached us.
Mishu frowned and rustled her wings while I got a grip on the roof. "Geez, don't sneak up on us! What are you doing up here?" I accosted him.
He didn't waste any breath to answer me, instead holding out a thick, dust-colored book in one hand. "Where did you get this?"
"The fuck should I know--" Mishu started, but then Magus snapped, "Shut up, Bat."
Magus rarely called any of us by name, as a point of insult--just to show that we weren't important enough to remember. When he wasn't referring to us collectively ("damn kids," "cretins," etc.) he used a very crude set of nicknames that made "Robo" sound positively ingenious in comparison. For the record, they were: Princess (said only in the most scathing tone possible), Stupid, Useless, the frog (the key was his refusal to personalize the noun), Woman, and Robot (see Frog.) Often these monikers were preceded by a colorful metaphor ("Get out of my way, damn fat robot" etc.)
He waved the book at me, letting a glint of orange streetlight catch on the gold foil of the cover. "You, Useless. Where did you get this?"
Guess which one of us was Useless. I bristled. "Wha'do you mean, 'where did I get that'? What is that? Where did you find it?"
"It was in your attic."
"My attic? Hey, wait a second..." I remembered. It was that book he picked up while I was retrieving the Gate Key. "You pocketed it? You thief!"
"It's not stealing if it's already mine," he deadpanned, and I had to gape and wonder furiously at the wizard.
"What the heck does that mean??"
"Whoa, hang on, here," Mishu intervened, plucking the book out of Magus's loose grasp. A long look of shock dawned on her as she fluttered through the pages. "Fuck me in hell, is this the T'torlan?" Her gaze fell back to me as she chorused, "Where did you get this?"
I directed a withering look to Magus, all the while racking my brain for a relevant memory. "Well apparently it's not mine, so maybe you should ask him."
If it came out of my attic, there was no telling where it originally came from or when it got tossed up there. The attic was typically the resting place of junk my dad bought from the market or in a yard sale, tinkered with for a couple of days, and then left on a countertop until my mom got sick of looking at the thing and demanded my dad dispose of it. Since my dad was as much of a packrat as he was a capricious shopper ("I got a great deal on it! It could come in handy!") he tended to let things pile up over our heads.
Magus took the tome back and indulged us, to our surprise. "It used to belong to my castle's library. It's a catalogue of magic, among other things. I referenced it heavily when mixing spells and invoking spirits."
"Yeah, I fuckin' know what the T'torlan is," Mishu asserted, her tone almost accusing. "What I don't know is what you two bumblefucks are doing with a copy like that."
"I have no idea," I openly admitted. "How do you know about it, Mishu? Have you read it before on your world?"
She leveled a cautious look at me, as if I had just made a blasphemous suggestion. "Fuck no! It's impossible. It's written in Tri-Xi, the old dragon language. It's supposed to be a holy book, written by the espers themselves."
"Espers?" I echoed, still lost.
"Yeah, fuckin' espers! The summoned. Bahamut and all them lot. You people know the T'torlan but never heard of espers??"
I shook my head warily, at a loss. Bahamut... Did I know that name? It seemed familiar. I heard the black voice babble thickly, '...curse'i'd bas...!'
"Someone's tampered with this copy, though," Magus noted, holding the book open and pinching one of the pages. "It looks like it was translated."
"Seriously?" I stood up and peered at the book, interested. He showed me where, between every single page, a leaf of fresh paper had been inserted. The contrast between the delicate, yellowed text of the original and the scrawling penmanship of the "translation" was painfully obvious. "And it wasn't like that when you had it? I wonder who could have done that."
Magus regarded me narrowly. "You know nothing, then?" Four hundred years and too many possible suspects. Did he consider me one of them?
I shrugged. I was getting a weird hunch--more of that scientific curiosity, if you will. "Honestly? I don't remember ever seeing it before. But if you let me look at it for a while, it might jog my memory."
He held back for a moment, suspiciously reluctant, but then shut the book with a whump and passed it to me. "Have at it."
"Will do." I tucked it under my arm and rocked on my toes, growing restless in the lull that had fallen over the three of us. Mishu made some noncommittal grunt and turned away, and Magus did the same, each going back to their own corners. Didn't they ever sleep? I was one to talk, I supposed. "I, uh, guess I'll head back downstairs... Good night Mishu, Magus."
"Later," and "Useless," came back to me, respectively, and I rolled my eyes and left. I didn't even want to know what those two did with themselves the rest of the night.
I slipped back through the (thankfully unlocked) door to Jerad's apartment and found everyone else snoring. As much of a good idea as it was, sleep just wasn't happening for me, so I paced aimlessly around the flat, looking for inspiration. The book Magus gave me was a tempting read, but I wasn't really in the mood for delving into ancient alien scripture, especially with Jerad's computer sitting dormant on an invitingly vacant desk. I really wanted to, oh, test it out (a proper scientist doesn't "play" with such things, no sir), but an inkling of ettiquete held me at bay. It wasn't like the huge, abandoned terminals we found in those run-down domes and factories; this was more like personal property. I wasn't going to trespass on Jerad's hospitality, so I left the computer alone. Maybe if I asked nicely, he would show me what it does and how it works.
My definition of "trespassing" didn't include the kitchen cupboards, evidently, and before long I was sticking my nose in the cabinet beneath the sink, looking for all the fun stuff your parents tell you not to play with. ("It's not playing! It's chemistry," used to be my excuse. It rarely worked.) House cleaners, bleach, peroxides...
A bottle of "Berto's Tree Stump Remover." I held it up to the tiny kitchen light, bemused. What in the world would a guy living in a place like this have any use for a chemical stump remover? I unscrewed the lid and examined the dull granules inside; it looked like a jar of badly ground coffee. "Hello, potassium nitrate..." I murmured suggestively at the ingredients label, an idea stirring in the back of my head.
If I wasn't going to get any sleep, I might as well get something done.
I found the rest of the ingredients as they occurred to me: aluminum foil, sandpaper, a box of matches, crazy glue, craft paper, and a cracked egg in the refrigerator. I wasn't sure what I was doing, really--I was having a bout of what I liked to call "spontaneous inventing," where I build first and ask questions later. It's a lot like free form art or writing, only the results are prone to shoot sparks or explode. The entire point of the exercise is not to think about what I'm building until it's finished. It's not my fault my stream of consciousness likes high voltage and volatile chemicals.
Jerad had enough loose tools and scrap metal scattered over his kitchen to decorate a minefield (which made me wonder if and how he ever prepared food in the place), and I adopted the workspace as if it were my own desk at home. I tiptoed everywhere, working quietly if diligently until a moment's diversion became several hours'. It was numbingly nostalgic, reminding me of all the nights I spent under a lukewarm lamp in my living room, trying to build not-junk out of junk while my parents slept upstairs, oblivious. I didn't always have something worth showing off in the morning, but usually the act of creation was more rewarding than the result.
...I wonder if it's a little sad that some of my fondest childhood memories are of working alone in the dark.
"Pst, Crono. Crono, wake up!" I was twelve years old and banging on his window at eight in the morning all over again. (He used to have a ladder in his back yard, almost expressly for coming and going from that window, but the oaf broke it--I can't remember how long ago.) "You have to see what I made."
I was whispering, trying to tone down my eagerness. It wasn't even eight, this time--it was barely seven o'clock, and though a hint of sunrise was seeping through the kitchen, the rest of the apartment was still asleep. Crono groggily rolled aside, squinted at me, slapped his hands together and then made a gun sign. Does it shoot toast?
He was referring to Toastbot, which I once made out of some broken appliances in his house and an alarm clock. Want hot, fresh toast delivered automatically every morning? Coming right up! ...At no less than twenty-five meters per second. I assure you, for toast, that is almost lethally fast. In Crono's esteemed opinion, it's the greatest thing I ever made, probably since he used it to paint the walls of his kitchen with crumbs and jelly. His mother was absolutely livid. Toastbot died a year later in a tragic instance of spontaneous combustion. May it rest in pieces.
"No, it's not Toastbot! It's even better, I swear." I could have been exaggerating. A little.
He rolled back into his mound of pillows. Do not want. Come back with toast.
"Oh, you lazy pig!" I hissed, buffeting his shoulder until that folly hit me in recoil. I cradled the scorched nerves in my arm and sat back, cowed. "Sorry, sorry... I forgot."
Crono sat up and rubbed his own arm, glaring at me.
"Oh com'on, I said sorry. Now com'ere, I wanna show you this!"
He gave a smoldering sigh and crawled to his feet, mindful of Marle, who was still dozing a pillow away. I dragged him into the kitchen and told him to close his eyes and hold out his hand--hey, a dramatic presentation is half the fun. He grudgingly complied and I gingerly placed my handiwork in the middle of his palm. Crono looked at it blankly for several seconds, turning over the plain, smooth white capsule. It's an egg.
I beamed with mischief. "It's a flash bomb."
He immediately handed it back to me, alarmed.
"Ahahah, oh com'on, it won't go off unless you drop it! Perfectly safe. Makes you wonder which came first: the chicken or the bomb."
He groaned at my joke and scrubbed his face, wiping off enough sleep to look ruffled. You woke me up for that? Didn't you sleep last night?
Like hell. "A little."
I got that damn You're lying look again, though since he was half awake it only made him look hung over.
I crossed my arms and said pettishly, "Don't look at me like that! I made myself useful, I'll have you know. I spent all night refitting the ammo for my gun with flash charges." I indicated the space I had cleared on the kitchen table, where tiny shells were scattered around piles of flash powder.
Crono's gaze rather dwelled on the book resting on the corner, the arcane one with the gold-stamped cover. It must have stood out amidst the sprawl of tools, metal bits and moldy sandwich crusts. "Oh, that. Magus said he found it in my attic," I answered his question.
He stared a while longer in a drowsy stupor, and then drifted back towards the living room, waving it all off. Great. Back to sleep now.
I stuck my tongue out after him. "Oh fine, you wet blanket."
I saved the egg for later and got back to work, making more flash pellets. It was another hour before Jerad woke up, and if the rest of the apartment wasn't awake by then, they certainly were once he plodded out of his room, passed by my table, stopped, doubled back, digested the evidence and threw a fit.
"You're making bombs in my kitchen!!"
Back to Esper Junction