Rosetta: A MORFS Universe Story

By Joreymay


Part 3


"Well, it certainly sounds more exciting than my brush with MORFS."

"You're a morf? One of us?"

"Of course. Nothing useful, like yours. But it did get exciting in a sad sort of way."

Rose consciously switched back to English. "Exciting and sad? What happened?"

"I grew up in a small village near the coast of Eire - Ireland, you call it. We used to joke
that it was a toss up whether the town prospered more from shearing our sheep or from
shearing the tourists."

"What village?"

"I don't want to say. I haven't been back, and I have no intention of doing so.  My parents are
long gone, and I've no family left there. And if you or any of the rest of the family go there, I
want you to make up your own mind about the place."

"It was an exciting time, the turn of the century. As a young girl, I barely understood all
the fuss about the new millennium. But I understood that some people were afraid that 
New Years Day would see the end of the world as we knew it. All I really got was that the
telly might stop working, and I might not be able to play my games on the computer."

"The new year came and went, and life went on. The worst part was getting used to
starting years with 20 instead of 19." She shook her head at the triviality of it.

"Even then, I had become a little vain. I had beautiful, fiery red hair and sparkling green
eyes. I won some pageants, and generally got a lot of attention. And I took it for my due.
I wasn't completely stuck up, but some saw me that way."

"Then it all changed. The year I turned 14, I won another title for the regional festival. The
next morning, I thought I had celebrated too much. But it wasn't that. The doctor just
said it was a bad flu, and prescribed the usual drugs and bed rest."

"We had heard the rumors of some people getting sick and undergoing weird changes,
but they were just that - rumors. We never thought it could come to our village."

"I was sick for four miserable days. When I got better, I got a shock. My beautiful red
hair had turned a dull brown - all of it." Rose understood that last to mean the change
was not limited to her head. "And my eyes - the sparkling emeralds had turned brown
as well. I was devastated."

"Some of the more jealous girls started saying it was a Judgment from God, a
punishment for my vanity. Their boyfriends took up the theme as well. But things didn't
really get bad until the local Father took up the theme. He was a grumpy old Scot to
begin with, always complaining of frivolity and excess, but he got worse."

"Then some of the others started getting sick. And started blaming me for it. There
was even talk of me being a witch. Here it was the twenty first century, and you'd think it
was the dark ages. Some even said I'd traded my red hair and green eyes to the devil
or the Sidh - the fairies - for unholy powers."

"Few people, if any, really believed it. And over time, we started learning more about
MORFS. But the mood had been set. I was blamed for the other cases in the village,
even though I had nothing to do with them. People got uncomfortable around me, even
those who claimed they didn't believe the stories. Friends, people I had known my whole
life, started to shun me."

"As the months dragged on, things got worse. Da's shop got vandalized, and the police
wouldn't do anything about it. In fact, we later found out that one of 'em was involved. We
got shop doors closed in our faces. Families who'd known ours for generations refused to
have anything to do with us."

"It came to a sort of a head when one of the leaders of the attacks got sick, and then died
from complications of MORFS. The family tried to blame me, but most people saw that it
was their own damn fault; the doctor told them it was MORFS, but they refused to get him
the necessary help."

"His mother confronted me in the street, calling me a murderer. She had come prepared,
carrying a big rock. I'm lucky it wasn't a gun, but the crazy old bat was too wrapped up in
some religious lunacy of the scot's for that. She threw the rock at me, as hard as she
could. I dodged it, and it passed me. Unfortunately, it hit a bystander."

"The crowd that had gathered did not take well to the sight of a five year old girl sprawled on
the walk, unconscious and bleeding from her head. With everything that was going on, it took
me a minute to recognize her. She was the mayor's youngest, the fair haired girl of the village."

"At first, the madwoman didn't know what had happened. She only knew she had missed me.
But after she took out another stone and raised her arm to throw it at me, she saw. And then
she saw the crowd. She changed her shouts, trying to blame me for the injury, stupid old bag.
She tried to rally the crowd against me, forgetting that her earlier shrieking had drawn their
attention - that they had seen the whole thing."

"One of the larger lads stepped up behind her and relieved her of her stone, none too gently.
She ended up with a sprained wrist, in fact. She was lucky at that - the crowd was about
ready to do to her what she had tried to get them to do to me. The only thing that stopped
them was the arrival of a panda and an ambulance, called by some of the witnesses."

"There was no question about what had happened. Some tourist thought the whole thing
was staged at first, some kind of historical recreation or something, and recorded the
whole thing. His video made it clear that the girl was visibly in the line of fire - and visible to
my attacker -  when she hurled the rock. And the recordings of her rants made it clear that
she intended nothing less than murder."

"After that, the public attacks stopped. Anyone trying to speak out against me or the other
morfs was none too politely reminded of the attack, and its results. On the other hand, I
was still an uncomfortable reminder of what happened - worse than an outsider. I was socially
isolated, treated with an impersonal formality like some disagreeable (and cheap) tourist. It
was better than the outright hostility and threatened violence, but not by much."

"I finished school - it worked a little differently there than it does here - and went off to college.
My Da' had a brother in England, so I arranged to stay with him for a couple of years."

"But my troubles weren't quite over. People started noticing I looked young for my age.
For a while, it looked like I wasn't aging at all. These days, you probably know someone
who got something like that from MORFS. But it was pretty much unheard of back then.
People just didn't believe my story - or my age. My ID was always checked and double

"And people got jealous of that. I considered it a curse, but they were jealous of it." She
shook her head.

"Eventually, I worked it out that I seemed to age about three years for every ten that I lived.
Ironically, that helped me meet and eventually marry your great grandfather (God rest his
soul). He was younger than me, but was attracted to the way that I seemed so much
younger than him. He was an American, and we ended up moving here to raise our family.
It took a lot to convince Immigration that I was who I claimed to be." She sighed.

"And here I am."

By this time, they were home and the girls were settling her in the guest room.



The queen had her own ideas. Lena didn't like them, but in the end she gave in.

The trip to the spa went as planned. Robin took the queen back in time, transported her
to the spa, then brought her forward to the present. At the same time, another of Mrs. Tabor's
most trusted teleporters took a direct line to the spa and appeared in an adjacent transport
room. This gave the tracer something to trace, and set up the rest of the plan.

Despite the best efforts of Mrs. Tabor's staff, the queen was anything but relaxed by the time
she was done there. So were the friends.

Lena did her best to warn Rose that she was about to be dropped into something nasty, and
made her excuses to her parents. Rose went to her room, where she could disappear and
return without disturbing the rest of the family. Robin briefly flicked in and out, to make sure she
had a lock on where Rose was.

Combining their resources, Lena, Cassandra, and Robin got ready to track the bounce. With the
slight time shifts, they would seem to appear at the same time as the queen. The queen insisted
that the other teleporter take her, and immediately leave. She also made sure she had mental
images of the plotters and understood who had what abilities.

As expected, the queen did not appear in her apartment. Instead, she was in what appeared
to be a basement of some sort. The man who had intercepted her teleport barely had a chance to
part his sneering lips to make some comment before his head exploded. Before the body had a
chance to fall, Robin, Lena, and an avatar of David appeared and subdued the other plotters.

The avatar flickered briefly, when the room shielding activated. The original plan was that it would
happen as soon as the queen appeared, trapping her and her teleporter. They hadn't counted on
a group of defenders appearing with them, or with someone on the outside who could quickly
disable the shield generator by remote control.

Unfortunately, that was not the end of it. Robin flitted in a folding screen, and then brought Rose.
Rose took the stern instructions to stay behind the screen seriously. The rest were not so lucky.

The queen had survived a number of attempts, and loyal friends and relatives had died - some
horribly - at the hands of these people or their co-conspirators. She wanted names and answers,
and was not in a merciful mood. Her anger was almost as hot as the effects of her powers as a
heat elemental, and she wielded both expertly.

Even hidden behind the screen, Rose was not completely protected. Between translating thoughts
and questions for Lena and reading the truth (or lack thereof) of the statements of the kidnappers,
she got a large and horrific part of the proceedings. She nearly lost it entirely when one of the
translations described the nature of a sort of explosive sound she heard as having been the
destruction of one man's scrotum - and its contents. Lena helped her keep it together,
suggesting that it seemed unreal, like an unpleasant vid playing in another room. That, and the
emotional boosts, helped.


In the end, the queen had her answers. Angel was brought in to heal the survivors enough to
make sure they would live through their arrests. Robin and the other teleporter flitted them to
the consulate, where they were put in the hands of the queen's people. Then they did the same
for the bodies. They would be someone else's problem now.

Rose was the next to go. Lena briefly warned her mother that she was returning, and would need
comforting. The moment she was back in her room, she broke down and cried. Her mother came
in and, between Rose's racking sobs, wrapped her in a hug. Rose returned the hug so powerfully
that her mother was afraid of cracking a rib. But she hung in there. Lena had warned her not to ask
for details, and she accepted the advice.

After a while, Lena appeared in the room. Rose was not sure whether she had teleported or walked
in, but she didn't really care. With another hug, and a look to Rose to make sure it would be ok, her
mother left the two of them alone.

Lena talked, and thought, and used emotions, and eventually got Rose to a place she could live with.
A part of her childhood had been burned away, and was lost forever. But she still had her life, and
ways to enjoy it. When she was sure Rose was well on the way to recovery, she reminded her that
what happened was confidential. She should not discuss it with her parents, her other friends, or
anyone else not specifically cleared by Lena.

Before leaving, Lena handed a note to Rose's mother. It explained that Mrs. Tabor considered the
events to morally - but not legally - involve the spa, and invited her to bring Rose to the spa for
counseling sessions with the staff therapists. While she waited for her daughter, she could enjoy
some complimentary spa services as well.

Tara was not told much. She only knew that Rose had gone through something horrible,
something that she could not talk about. And that she may well have saved several innocent
lives. She didn't like the mystery, but made sure her sister knew she was there for her.

Physically and emotionally exhausted, Rose went to bed. She was asleep almost immediately.

Her great grandmother was not content to leave it at that. *Telepath! I don't know your name, but
I want to talk with you.*

*My name is Lena. Or Radar. What do you need?* There was a bit of an edge, and an overtone
of her own exhaustion, in Lena's reply.

*I need to know that Rose will be all right. And what she really went through.*

There was a pause, as Lena took a deeper look into the woman's mind. What she saw surprised
and impressed her. The old lady could take it.

*She will recover, but she will never be quite the same. She did some growing up all at once, and
handled some things nobody should ever have to see.*

*What did she see?*

*Very little, directly. We kept her hidden during the action. She came in on an attempted
assassination by a terrorist group, and then was there while the intended victim tortured members
of the group - some to death - for information needed to stop other imminent murders. She didn't
see any of it, and I'm sorry that I saw what I saw of it. Unfortunately, she heard, and translated,
enough to have altogether too good of an idea what went on.*

*What part did you play?*

*I read their minds, with Rose's help, and helped them feel more like thinking and talking about
what we needed to know. Otherwise, I just coordinated the group.*

*How dare you! How could you do that to her?*

*We protected her as much as we could. Lives were at stake, a lot of them. And there was no
time. If there had been any other way, if we could have left her out of it, we would have. We didn't
have that luxury. She means a lot to us, and we owe her a lot for this.*

Gram took another tack. Something she knew from experience. *Her dreams will be the enemy,
now. What can you do about that?*

There seemed to be a brief, somewhat strange shift in Lena's mental voice. *I'll watch them
through the night. And change what I need to.*

*After you did all that, you expect to stay that awake and alert all night?* She put a lot of doubt
into that thought.

Lena replied truthfully, if a little misleadingly. *I am refreshed now. I will be in good shape to do

*How? Are you that powerful?*

*An aspect of our powers helped. But I will have to pay a price.* She did not want to let her know
about Robin's abilities with time, or that she had stopped in mid conversation, slept deeply for
more than her usual, and then returned to the time of the conversation and finished it. She would
lose a day of her life that way, but Rose was worth it.

Mollified, but not entirely satisfied, the older woman let the matter drop.

The next morning, Rose slept in. The school district had long since given up on having school
the day before Thanksgiving - too many families were traveling that day. And too many teachers
and staff members wanted to travel.

She was surprisingly refreshed, and didn't remember so much as a single unpleasant dream.

When she got ready for her shower, she had another shock. A few drops of blood stained her
underwear. She fought back panic as she started to flash back on the events of the previous
night, but just as quickly found herself calming down.

Too quickly.


*I'm here. It's ok. It's not what you were thinking. Just something else - something you knew
would happen sooner or later.*

Rose took a second to understand what that indicated. Then she understood. *Oh! But... why
now, all of a sudden?*

*Sometimes stress can bring it on. Welcome to womanhood.* Rose could "hear" the ironic grin
in that last comment.

Her Gram insisted on making her a good breakfast, and keeping her company while she ate.
Both of her parents were already at work, and Tara was out with some friends. The two of them
talked as she ate, shifting easily back and forth between English and Gaelic. It was the nicest,
most relaxed mornings she had in a long time.

She should have known it couldn't last.

*Heads up!* Lena's thoughts broke into her own, breaking the mood. *A couple of official types
are coming to talk to you. It's all right - they aren't there to make trouble. They just need to
interview us all about last night. I'll be here if you need me, just a thought away.*

With that, the doorbell rang. "That's for me, Gram." she shrugged, as she went to get the door.


"No, just a little help from my friends."

She opened the door a little and looked at the neatly dressed man and woman standing there.
As she heard her Gram arrive behind her, she deadpanned "My parents aren't home, and I'm too
young and naive to buy anything from you." She twisted her mouth into a half smile. "Or are
you here to save my soul?"

They did not look amused. The woman sounded like a government type from the tube when she
replied "Miss Reid, I believe your friend told you we were coming. May we come in?"

"Who are you, and what do you want with my grand daughter?" It was a minor conceit, but
dropping a generation brought her seeming age more in line with expectations.

"Your great grand daughter," the woman replied, emphasizing the dropped descriptor, "witnessed
something important last night. We are here to investigate the event."

"It's all right, Gram." Rose assured her, in Gaelic. "They are not here for trouble. I have heavenly
help if I need it."

Somewhat mollified, her Gram invited them in and offered food and drink. They accepted the
invitation to enter, and politely declined the refreshments.

"We will need to speak with her alone." The woman informed her, pointedly.

"I can't allow that. Her parents are trusting me to keep an eye on her."

After a bit of discussion, they compromised. She would go to the kitchen, where she could
see them but not hear them very well. They would activate a device that would block her
even more from eavesdropping, while allowing their unimpeded conversation.

*Don't worry. I'll be "listening" too, and help her if she needs it. And if you need to know
or say something, I'll pass it along.* Lena's thought was not as reassuring as it might be.
She was someone she hardly knew, and she had already put Rose in a terrible position.

Lena wisely refrained from commenting on that thought, but did "help" her to feel better
about the situation.

The two agents (as Rose thought of them) acted in what she would call an "Official" manner.
They were neither nice nor mean, neither overly polite nor rude. Businesslike. The woman
took the lead in the questioning, with the man asking for additional details and clarifications.

For the record, they asked her name and date of birth. After she gave those, they asked about
the events of the previous evening.

Even with the moral and covert emotional support of Lena, it was hard. They were not satisfied
that she didn't know the identity of the victim/torturer. "I only heard her called 'the queen' and
'that royal' bad word of one kind or another."

Then they got upset with her when they asked about what the kidnappers said and thought -
she answered in their original language. They thought she was making fun of them, not taking
things seriously. It took intervention from Lena to convince them she was being sincere.

After a brief mental consultation with Lena, Rose decided to hold back the bit about knowing
truth and lies. She didn't volunteer anything about it, and they didn't ask. She got the
impression that they attributed the evaluation of that issue to Lena, and she did and said
nothing to change their minds about it.

They took her through every moment of the experience, over and over again. By the time
the questioning was done, she was an exhausted, distraught mess. Her Gram stepped in to
put an end to things when Rose dropped her tear covered face to her hands and slumped in
her chair. The two agents accepted her intervention, and formally thanked Rose for her
cooperation. The woman gave her a card, asking her to call if she remembered anything else.

After they left, Rose sank into her great grandmother's arms and cried her eyes out. After a
while, she wound down and accepted the suggestion of a nap. Especially after Lena gave
them both assurances that it would be a healing sleep.

After Rose had recovered somewhat, her Gram distracted her with some books in Gaelic.
With her help, Rose picked up the basic rules of spelling and grammar with surprising speed.
Of course, it helped that she already had the spoken aspect of the language well in hand.

Even Rose was surprised at the speed with which she learned to read a language with a
partly different alphabet and very different rules. The better part of a single afternoon, and
she could read fluently and write passably. With some more practice, she would be able
to write the new letters as well as she did the more familiar ones. She was not up to the
standards of a calligrapher, but it would be clearly readable.

Tara had come home during the lesson, and quickly lost interest. She went around finishing
the cleaning, and otherwise getting the place ready for the next day's gathering. Privately,
she admitted to herself that she was trying to avoid thinking about what her sister had
gone through. Even without any details of the event itself, it was more than she wanted to

Their parents were impressed with the language lessons, and sympathetic about the
questioning (which they had been told about). They also made sure to thank Tara for her
work on the house. Their own days had been pretty much as expected, trying to cram
three already overfilled days' worth of work into one day.

After a little decompression, the evening was filled with cooking and baking those things
that could be made ahead of time. Family members would be bringing food as well, and
the idea was to have as little to be done as possible when they were there. The brought in
dishes would need to be heated up or finished after the bird came out.

While they were working, they indulged in a widespread Day Before Thanksgiving tradition:
take out pizza. Rose's father was banished from the kitchen and sent for a resupply run when
a glob of half melted cheese and sauce fell into the uncooked meringue. Suspiciously, such
accidents were not uncommon for him on massive cooking occasions.

After a little more reading and talking with her Gram, Rose went to bed with her head
swimming with Gaelic poetry and stories. For all that, she had no trouble falling asleep.

The next morning, after a somewhat hurried breakfast, the ravening crowds started to arrive.

Rose had never realized what she had been missing all those years, at all those family
gatherings. There was a whole world of secrets, politics, and game playing going on, and
she had only scratched the surface until then.

The differences between what people said with their mouths and what they said with their
faces and bodies would have been fascinating, if it weren't so appalling. There were some
arguments that had clearly been years in the making. There were attempts to jockey for
position in the family pecking order, or to suck up to the few family members with a
measure of wealth or power.

And the undertones and meanings of what they said to and about her were the worst. She
would be turning into a teenager in a few days, and it seemed like it was all about sex. The
women were bad enough. When they talked about dating, Rose could see they were really
talking about sex. Even when they were talking about clothes, and how she would likely
start dressing, and doing her hair and makeup.

They seemed to fall into some basic camps. Some seemed genuinely happy for her, that
she would learn to enjoy things in life that were denied to children. Most were unhappy in some
way. They seemed to regard her as a potential embarrassment to the family (and themselves),
or as a potential rival (as if she'd even want their husbands, boyfriends, or sons), or a lost
opportunity (to share and enjoy her childhood). Some were excited, living their fantasies of
what their own young teen years could have been like, using her as a fantasy stand in. A
couple were even sizing her up as a potential playmate (as if).

Some, maybe most, of the men seemed oblivious. The rest seemed to be sizing her up as
a potential bedmate for themselves or their sons or other relatives. Or both, to judge by a
few overheard comments about sharing, between father and son or uncle and nephew. Or one
between man and wife. She certainly did not consider her enhanced hearing an unmixed
blessing that day.

Like the men, many of the younger children seemed oblivious. To those who were even
aware of it, a birthday is a birthday. A few seemed to have some ideas about the sexual
aspect but they were somewhat vague and, to them, funny.

The boys were the worst. Every one of them was sizing her up and evaluating their
chances of getting her in bed with them. And not just a passive evaluation. Their comments
were veiled and indirect, to the best of their abilities, but they came through clearly to Rose.
Double entendre, hints, comments ostensibly to other people about other things - all added

Rose would have thought she was being paranoid or overly sensitive, except for two things:
her power and her friend. Much of the interpretation clearly came from her power - she
could recognize that. And Lena mentally "dropped in" from time to time to keep an eye on
her. And when she did, she verified the interpretations and helped put them in perspective.

That she was growing increasingly on edge did not go unnoticed. And it was not unexpected
that some of the people there - primarily her peers - would try to take advantage of that. What
was unexpected was the form it ended up taking in one case.

The Donaldson boys were a handful at any family gathering. They always had been, but as
teenagers, they had only gotten worse. They were not vicious, or seriously malicious - they
just had their own ideas of fun. They knew better than to target most of the adults, and the
very young children were largely safe from them a well. So they mostly targeted the older
children, teens, and a few of the younger adults.

Already that day, Tara and one of the other cousins had slapped their faces, to the
approval of most witnesses. But all they had done in response was exchange grins and
move on. When they had been given a talking to about one of their pranks, they managed
to look hangdog throughout, but that lasted only until they were out of sight of the speaker.

So nobody should have been surprised when they spotted a particularly tense victim, or that
they decided to make her jump. Nor was anybody particularly surprised by their ages old
approach. But when they slid up behind Rose and popped a bag, people were surprised by
her scream.

For a second, the boys congratulated themselves on getting such a reaction, but even they
took notice when her screams continued, and carried the unmistakable sound of terror. She
screamed, orally and mentally, and continued to scream until she disappeared.

The family descended on the boys with unprecedented unanimity. Most had no idea what they
had done, but all of them were certain that the two were the cause of Rose's reaction. Rose's
mother and father hung back a moment, as though they were listening to something, then
moved in to join the lynch mob.


Rose found herself in familiar, comforting arms. "It's all right. You're safe. Everyone is ok.
It was just a noise, a meaningless noise." Lena said and thought to her, while projecting
calming, reassuring feelings.

The sound had brought it all back, all at once. Rose, already tense and feeling out of her
element, had flashed back to that room and the interrogation. But this time, the little part of
her mind that knew she wasn't there - knew she wasn't in immediate danger - worked against
her. It left her free to react, as she had not dared to when she had really been there. It all
came out - the terror, the anger, the helplessness... it all raged through her and left her in
that anguished, primal scream.

By the time she was calm enough to be really conscious of her surroundings, she had moved
again. She was in a comfortable office, with Lena and another woman. "Wh... where am I?"

"You're at Mrs. Tabor's spa." Lena reassured her. This is Ms. Hoffer, a staff therapist."

"You can call me Kiki, if you like." the woman smiled gently.

"Uh... ok." Rose replied, still somewhat disoriented. "How... long have I been here?"

"A little over an hour." Lena shrugged. "You had a lot to let out."

"Oh, God! What about everyone back at the party?"

"Your folks know where you are and what's going on. They told your sister enough to let
her cope. For the rest, I've been too busy with you to pay attention."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be. You haven't done anything wrong."


"But nothing." Lena insisted. "We got you involved in some things that would have bad
effects like that on an adult, and then you were stuck learning more than you ever wanted
to know about your relatives, in what should have been a relaxed and festive setting. Finally,
you were suddenly and unexpectedly reminded of the scene in the basement. Your reaction
was nothing to be ashamed of. And now you can get some of the help you need."

Lena took a breath to let that sink in a little before continuing. "Mrs. Hoffer knows all about
what happened, and how you translated for us." *But not about the truth thing.* she added
silently.  *That is for you to choose to reveal or not.* Then, aloud again, "You can speak
freely in front of her. She has my full confidence."

"But your dinner. Both of you."

"We have time." Lena assured her. "Our families don't eat as early as yours."

"My family," Ms. Hoffer confided, "is gathered in another time zone. One of the staff
teleporters can get me there in no time when we are done here."

"What about my family?"

"I told your folks," Lena reminded her, "and they would much rather have you here getting
help. They will save your food for you." She grinned. "The boys have been pointedly seated
facing your empty chair. It was their mother's idea."

"That sounds like Aunt Cathy." Rose admitted.

After another hour of hard work and a lot of talking - and a lot of leaking body fluids from the
faces of Rose and Lena - they were ready to go. Rose would be coming back to see Ms.
Hoffer for some follow up, but she was ready to face the world again.

Rose had changed, growing up faster than most people had to. Her old black and white world
of comfortable moral certainties was gone. The world was not fair, except when people chose
to make it seem so. She had faced the fact that the "good guys" can do horrible things for
good reasons, and the "bad guys" can be good people who think they are doing the right thing.
Or they can know they are doing bad things, and even enjoy it. She also knew how important it
was to keep to her own values in the chaos of the real world.

She could live with that.

And with that, she would be more likely to live.

When she got home most of the family had left, with the significant exception of Cathy and
the boys. When the boys told her they were sorry for the prank, they were telling the truth. And
they did not just mean they were sorry for the trouble they got in - they were genuinely sorry
to have caused her that much distress.

Sometimes, her new abilities were helpful. Without them she would have written off their apology
as the usual pro forma, "Mom's making us do this" sort of thing.

Before leaving, they handed her a nicely wrapped present and wished her a happy birthday. It
was another family tradition, because her birthday was so close to Thanksgiving. As she sat in
the living room and ate her servings from the feast, she watched recorded birthday greetings
from other family members. She noticed that the recordings seemed somehow muted... flat.

Then she realized what it was. Her sense of what they really intended, and whether they were
telling the truth (as they knew it) was not as strong. It still seemed to be there, but only just.

Or was it? these were people she knew well, people she had... what was the word Lena used?
Calibrated. People she had calibrated. But how could she test it? With recordings of strangers,
or broadcasts on the tube, she had no way of knowing whether her "readings" were correct.

Or did she? *Uh...Lena? You busy?*

*Just arguing about the game. Usual family stuff. How are you doing?*

That confirmed one thing, anyhow. She could read the intentions (and probably the truth) of
projected thoughts, as well. *Well...* How could she explain it? If she was sure what she
wanted to "say", she abilities would kick in. Frustrating.

Lena was way ahead of her. *I'm not sure it would be ethical, or all that useful, for me to read
those people. But I could do something better. I'll record some people you don't know, and
keep track of their intentions and truthfulness. Then you can watch the recordings and compare
your impressions with my notes. How would that be?*

*Great! Thank you!*

*You're welcome. Now relax, and enjoy your family.*

Lena was as good as her word, delivering a small stack of recordings to Rose early the next
afternoon. She explained that she would have brought them earlier, but she had spent the
morning with her parents and a few friends engaged in the yearly ritual of shopping the morning
after Thanksgiving.

Rose would have done the same, but she wasn't sure she was up to facing the crowds and noise
that early. Instead, she would wait for her parents and sister to get back from the first frantic
round and join them when they went out for the second, somewhat less frenetic, round of the

Her great grandmother, a little smug about having finished her holiday shopping days earlier, was
keeping her company. Rose explained about the test, and she agreed to help.

They didn't have a chance to start before they got a call from the road. The weary shoppers were
on their way home. Rose and her Gram went quickly to work, preparing the traditional "Leftover
Lunch" for everyone. They were almost done when the door opened and her family staggered in,
looking like refugees from a mall disaster.

Typical Black Friday, in other words.

After food, showers, a change of clothes, and a brief rest, they were ready to go out again. Rose
shrugged and agreed to join them. Before they left, Lena arrived with the recordings.

The mall was a surprise and a revelation. Rose halfway expected to have problems with the
crowds, but it turned out to be no more than the usual discomfort with the jostling, and the
fleeting images of falling and being trampled flat.

The usual.

What wasn't the usual was what she heard and how. She was surrounded by a sea of voices,
constantly ebbing and flowing and washing over her. And she could understand what every one
of them was saying, what they intended to say, and how truthful they were being. If she focused
on any voice or small group of voices, she could push the rest a little bit toward the background
and largely ignore the meanings and overtones.

Was this what it was like for Lena?

*Pretty close. How you holding up?*

Rose knew the question was largely pro forma, since Lena could tell how she was doing. Still,
she appreciated her asking. *Better. Are you watching me all the time?*

*Not closely. If you get upset, or call me, I'll notice. Otherwise, you are largely in the near
background. I have my own shopping to do.*

*How do you stand it? The voices...?*

*Practice. But now your sister is asking you a question.*

Rose shifted her attention to Tara, picking up the missed parts of the question from the context.

A little later, they passed a small knot of older teens who somehow made Rose uncomfortable.
She didn't understand why until she (along with Tara and her mother) came out of their next shop
and saw them again. They were using a sort of personal code, combining seemingly meaningless
words and gestures to converse.

And they were getting ready to rob someone.

Rose barely had time to think what she should do about it, when she was interrupted.

*Don't do it!* Lena commanded.


*I know. They are planning a crime. Someone might get hurt. Someone will lose their stuff. Believe
me, I know.*

*Then why...?*

*First, because it could get you killed. Second, because even if they get caught, it could get them
off the hook.*

*That's nuts!*

*It's true, anyhow. We talked about this. Under the law, you are not all that different than me.*

*But I can't just...*

*I'll do something.* Lena almost sighed. *An undercover mall cop is aware of them now, but he
doesn't know why. If they try something, he will step in. And we don't have anything to do with any
of it.*

Rose wasn't very satisfied with that, but knew it was the best she would get.

The rest of their time at the malls was a real education for Rose. Overheard scraps of conversation,
complete with her special understanding of their meanings and truthfulness, exposed her to the good,
the bad, and the downright weird. As some of her peers were fond of saying, waaay too much
information. She was so distracted by it all that she almost missed her mother's evasion.


The girls had separated from their parents for a little gift shopping, and to give their parents a chance
to shop for presents for them, and were rejoining them for a trip to the car. In the time honored
tradition of parents and their offspring, Rose asked her mother what was in one of the larger bags.

"Party supplies." came the unsurprising answer. Rose expected the answer, and even expected the
usual double meaning and evasion. The intention was to convey that it was party supplies and
presents for her upcoming birthday party. And that she was not going to be told the specifics. But
there was the tone of significant equivocation in the answer.

Her suspicion grew even deeper when she caught her father blushing. Clearly, they were up to
something. Before she could think of a way to ask some pointed questions, they were swept up
in the crowds as they made their way to the doors and then their car.

If she was confused by that, she was really thrown by the too casual question her mother asked in
the car.

"Will you be inviting your new friends to your birthday party?"

"Um... I don't know. Would they even be interested in a middle school party?" After spending a little
time with the older teens, she wasn't even sure how she felt about partying with people her own age.
What's more, she could tell there was something else behind the question. Something that was
being deliberately hidden from her.

"Well, you'll never know unless you ask." There it was again... something unsaid - deliberately

But she was right. Rose liked the idea of having them at the party. *Uh... Lena?*

*I wouldn't miss it for the world!* came the amused reply. Rose picked up the same overtones
of something being deliberately unsaid. But somehow, she felt ok with it.

*Would the others want to come?*

*If they don't have a conflict, I'm sure they would.*

*If you think so...* Rose couldn't shake the feeling she was being set up for something. Nothing
dangerous or the like, but something. But at the same time, she trusted them. Her mother would
not be party to something really bad, and her new friends were, if anything, even more protective.

After they got home and put away their purchases, Rose called the others and invited them. Angel
and Robin had to work after school, so they would be a little late to the party. But they made it
clear that they wanted to come. The others accepted without reservation.

Rose noticed something different about the call to David. With all the others, she had the sense of
some hidden meaning. With him, it just seemed like a routine invitation and acceptance. Maybe it
had something to do with the fact that he was a man - the "simpler sex" as her mother and Gram
called them.

Her mother's reaction when she told her about the acceptances only reinforced her suspicions. She
was being set up.


End part 3


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