The Society of the Eternally-Flaming Panties (conclusion)
Before Abby could even think about tracking down a rolling pin, Korri told her, "It's something I have to do, no matter the consequences for me."
Katsumi barked, "You would kill all of us in cold blood? Then you're no better than those monsters over there!" She tossed a hand in the direction of the dark figures, who looked excited by the current situation. The girls on either side of Katsumi tensed up. The pseudo-Aiborae looked rattled, as did the Rift group.
Korri yelled back, "Maybe I am! But I won't let there be another time when any of you do find some great power. Upon my oath to protect countless worlds…an oath I have failed in…I refuse to let another one fall while the TPD steps back further and further. This is the only way to send a lasting message to the darkness, the exploiters, and the zealots who would let their vision of reality alone reign."
With her eyes fixed on the raised weapon, Abby slipped away her scanner and touched Korri softly on the shoulder. "You won't do this. I know you won't."
Korri turned around to glare at Abby. "How do you know? We met just once and you barely remembered it. You don't know me…"
In response, Abby's look softened. "I've met other versions of you too…"
Korri shook her head. "They aren't me."
"But you and all the other versions of you are connected…" Abby paused. She knew her father would admonish her for not being scientific about it but she continued, "Think of it like identical twins who exist in entirely-different situations…yet follow a common thread throughout their lives. I've seen it…"
Korri clenched her hand around the weapon. "I'm not governed by genetic memory or anything like that. I make my own choices."
Katsumi's legs tensed like she wanted to make a leap for Korri but didn't know when to take her chance.
"There is still a connection, no matter how subtle. I've tried studying it but I don't know how it works. You may not even be aware of it. But I know you've been drawn to versions of Deen more than once."
Korri slowly shook her head. "And if I buy this…what then? What does it matter?"
"It matters because you are a good person no matter what universe you're in."
Tensing her lips, Korri aimed at the dark ones. "Good people can be pushed. Good people can have enough. Good people can reach this point. And what does it matter if two nameless monsters die?"
Abby's sympathy for the dark creatures was limited but she pressed Korri, "You kill them and you feed them. You feed their energy. And even more will just take their place. That's not how you fight them."
Korri held her breath, set her eyes, and prepared to go further. But slowly, she relaxed and looked to Abby. "So how do you fight them?"
For the first time in what felt like a long time for her, Abby smiled. She turned and aimed that boundless smile on the two dark creatures. She pressed all her energy out at them and twirled towards them. The two dark creatures weren't the only ones who looked on in shock as Abby gave them big hugs. She resisted the impression of hugging leech-like sludge in human skin.
The two creatures gurgled, then sunk down, glared, and looked thoroughly-miserable.
Abby walked back and smiled. "By not giving them darkness to feed on."
Korri rested her weapon. "So you're telling me to fight darkness with happiness and hugs?"
Abby shrugged. "It doesn't work all the time. But it's gotten me out of a few situations."
Aside from Korri, the Nuhaizi group looked incredulous. Katsumi shot into the conversation, "How about you try it when countless numbers of them descend on your world like an unending night, your soul screaming as you and everyone you know feels everything inside eaten up. Even if you survive, something will always be gone." Kimi took a deep breath and covered her mouth. The feeling rejuvenated the stunned creatures a little.
The weapon in Korri's hand tilted up. "That's what's at stake. If we use your idea then they'll only bide their time till they can overwhelm us all. They need to know we're willing to take the fight to them."
Abby shook her head. "No. Fight is what they want. Anger and pain only gives in to them. To truly fight is to keep hold of the best of ourselves in the face of that darkness."
She could tell Korri still wanted to fire a blast of energy through the bodies of those creatures but her motivation was waning. She turned to the others but Abby knew what to say.
"No matter who you try to destroy here, they are just part of a larger group. They're misguided or hurting as well."
Korri shook. "I can't back down. I've committed myself to all those people who have suffered. To all those who I've been too late to help. To all the screams of those lost. I have to do it…" Thick tears curled at her eyes.
Abby stepped in front of Korri's weapon. "Help them by continuing to do your job as best you can. Make sure you're there to help the next ones."
Korri bent, on the verge of crumpling. "I don't want there to be any more. No more Nuhaizi experiments while the company runs ragged over the law. No more Aiborae swarms consuming entire worlds. No more blackness. No more dammed Rift to erase people."
Abby held Korri's hand. "I know. But I also know you want to stop them in a way which is a tribute to all those you're fighting for."
Korri swallowed. She seemed to be standing upon an edge. She bent her weapon around Abby and stepped forward. Abby didn't move to block her again.
The barrel of the gun charged. Korri looked ahead and fired…
The burst crumpled the jewelry table containing the fake panties. A lick of flame passed around the wood and was put out as the material turned to a fine ash.
Korri fell with the weapon at her feet. She seemed ready to cry, to release, but she took a breath and reached for her communications device.
Chris Travers suddenly spoke. "What if I told you, Abby Longbloom, that I know where your father is? How much would that be worth to you? Would you be willing to help us escape for that?"
Abby stood tall and answered, "I know an offer from a hypothetical." Then she stuck her tongue out at him.
Travers flinched but said, "Alright, I don't know much but it might be worth your while…" The question returned to Abby, stronger than ever.
If the offer had come from any other group, Abby would've felt relieved. She couldn't help but feel slices of memory press at her arm and her thoughts.
Her father, Dr. Demetrius Longbloom, was the greatest daddy Abby could possibly imagine. His eyes, soft brown, were nothing like hers. And she could only find a trace of his deep, ebony skin in her own self-evaluations in the mirror. He was so tall and she was small for her age. His voice was deep and hers was barely a squeak. And for all that, and especially his mind, he was amazing to Abby.
He seemed to know just the days she was feeling down to give her something to pick her right back up. The books he read to her made her heart glow. His ability to make her giggle was even more magical than all the things he created.
With him holding her close and the black goggles he made her resting on her head, she felt like nothing could ever hurt her.
She was nine, still wide-eyed with everything her father talked about over dinner and fascinated by how he'd push his huge glasses up at just the right moment in a discussion of a new idea or invention.
She'd gone to school that day with an odd feeling in her stomach. Her father didn't seem to have his usual energy and she felt it. She tried to make him laugh but he just gave her a slight smile and held her left hand.
It was before the special lecture for the day but she ran away from school. The feeling got worse as she made her way home. She feared her father's disappointment for skipping school but she feared for him even more.
She didn't notice the unopened package on the front porch. She didn't stop until she made it up to the door of the attic where her father worked. As she touched the doorknob, she could hear his screams.
The screams were like something out of the kind of movies he'd only begun to let her watch. They sliced right through her. The sound was impossible. Her father didn't scream. She pressed through the door to see her father with his hands clutching tightly around his eyes. His glasses lay destroyed on the floor.
He screamed again and again. She ran towards him. She yelled for him but he didn't hear her.
She could see through him. To her leg-quivering horror, she could see the wall through his body, as though her father had turned into a ghost. She screamed too.
He faded more and more as she reached for him. Her left hand passed through him. What she felt was an unending coldness like pure ice. Her entire arm felt a chill of absence instead of the burn of actual cold. It was as though whatever was taking her father was sucking all the life from her arm.
Quickly, she pulled her arm back. And her father was gone.
The memory forced Abby to take a long breath. It was several moments before the renewed chill finally left her.
She asked the question. "What do you know about my father?"
Travers shook his head. "Favor first…"
Korri looked to Abby, who simply smiled and said, "Not worth it then. I'd rather find my father on my own terms. But I will give you a bit of information. Something everyone here should know. The panties in the figurine aren't real either. Isn't that right?" She looked to the pseudo-Aiborae group with a smile.
With a little nod of respect and a smile in return, Karuna answered back, "That's right. But, sadness of the Sacred Ones, they're the ones we found when we got here. We watched and waited to see if we could find out who might've taken them before us. Then the head of the fraternity complicated things. We used one of the members to advance the myth of the panties with a single-use transformation. One change to make everyone think they were still real. We hid the others just in case and waited…"
Abby nodded. "What I expected. How can the changes to Greg be undone?"
Karuna shrugged. "They cannot. I only wish that it had been the essence of the Sacred Ones. True believers accept only that."
Korri looked to Abby. "You knew the panties were fakes?"
Abby shrugged again. "Only suspected. I happened to scan the figurine and it gave the same reaction from my scanner as the fakes up here. Based on what I've heard, I believe that the real panties have been gone for a long time. Possibly years."
Katsumi finally stopped eyeing the weapon and shook her head in disgust. "So all this was for nothing? What a useless search…"
Abby eyed Katsumi and said, "Not all searches are useless, especially if you're persistent. I'd say don't let it get you down but I don't really want anyone to get their hands on such a thing … if it really is as powerful as assumed. But considering it only transformed one person for a short time, it may have just been all looks and no substance."
Korri cleared her throat and stood, her weapon close but not aimed. "And all of you have a lot to answer for…"
Katsumi quickly shot back, "So do you, Agent. No matter what you have on us and the company, our lawyers will make sure you pay for the threats you've made against us."
Korri bowed her head in mock respect. "Bring it on…"
After the door was unsealed, all nine were taken into custody by the other agents. Agent Morrey admitted to what she'd planned even before Katsumi had time to rail against it. She was led off by herself for questioning.
Abby was questioned as well. She told the truth but reiterated, "Agent Morrey is a good person who means well. She's just seen so many bad things that she believed this was her only way to help."
The agent who took her questions was stern but he nodded a little.
After she was done, she asked around. The Nuhaizi group had been taken to another world. But Katsumi left a note in the care of one of the agents for Abby. It read, "Next time, I'll owe you one."
None of the groups struggled after their transportation devices were confiscated but the darkness beings were put into special confinement.
Abby found Greg with an agent assigned to counseling. She had on some better-fitting clothes and the beginnings of a smile, especially when she saw Abby.
"They tell me I'll be able to be a boy again, that I can control it. I'll still need to be a girl from time to time and it'll take a lot of training but I'm so relieved."
Abby told her, "It'll be hard but stick with it and it won't be a big problem in your life. You may even come to see it as an advantage." Abby winked.
Greg took a suspicious glance down at herself then looked back at Abby. "We'll see about that but thanks."
From there, it wasn't hard to find a lost-looking Chet sitting on a short, brick wall and chewing gum vigorously. Abby sat down beside him.
There was silence till Chet finally asked, "Want some gum?"
Abby chewed softly and asked, with the sticky lump tucked in her cheek, "You alright?"
Chet paused in his chewing and said, "The moment I saw you as a boy, I figured something weird was up. I just never figured it would be the end of the fraternity. They told me about everything."
Abby shrugged and noted, "Even without a pair of magical flaming panties, you guys can still be a cool fraternity."
Chet let out a smirk. "I mean more that like a fourth of our members were fakes rather than just the panties. Kinda makes me wonder if there really are any goddesses at all."
A soft breeze circled around them as Abby kicked her legs and responded, "I've accumulated so many theories in all the places I've been. There's one I've always wondered on. It says that all the gender-changing phenomena I've encountered are due to a world where the people are normal but have amazing imaginations. With their ideas, they have the ability to rewrite the fabric of reality. The theory says they're responsible for the anomalies and all the other things I study. In their thoughts and in their dreams, they make all the weird stuff possible."
Chet mulled on that a moment before asking, "Do you believe it?"
Abby resisted shrugging again. She rocked her head. "I dunno. Haven't found a universe like that yet. I just think it's a cool idea….that any one person never knows how much influence they have on others."
Chet chuckled. "I guess so."
Abby leaned close. "I know it'll be hard for a while with all this. But you and your brothers at Epsilon Phi Sigma House will be fine. I know that. Keep believing in Goddesses. You never know what your thoughts could bring. Might even bring one to your doorstep. I just wouldn't ask for her clothes first thing though…" Abby cracked a toothy grin.
Chet couldn't resist a chuckle. "I'll keep that in mind….Thank you, Abby." After a handshake, Abby went in search of one last person.
Korri was over by the blue van. She smiled at Abby and said, "Part of me hopes I won’t just get a slap on the wrist. Equal justice."
Abby crouched beside her. "It would be a shame. You're a great agent. The Transdimension Protection Division would be a lot less without you."
Korri rubbed her neck. "It's Deen I'm really worried about. I'm afraid there's no way I could make amends to him for this."
Abby leaned close. "Deen loves you. I've seen it through other versions of you. Lovers of each of other's heart working at a store behind a desk."
Korri snickered. "A store? How dull. But I figure, at best, I'll be behind a desk from now on anyway. Might as well get used to it…" She looked Abby in the eye and told her, "I'm glad you were in there with me. Thanks."
As she walked away from the agents, Abby made her way back to the park where she'd arrived. She made sure to save this universe to the goggles so she could check in on Greg and Chet again from time to time.
Before doing anything else, Abby sniffed at her clothes. They still seemed clean enough. And it was early, so she dipped her goggles over her eyes to check the display.
The items about the library and the computer screens were still there, as well as the Nuhaizi ones. Abby knew she'd have to deal with them again eventually. But at least one of their members owed her a favor now.
A malfunctioning computer system in an office building. Abby had to wonder at that one.
A rising, global dictatorship with enforced identity changes. A bit much for the moment…
And then there was a certain Saharan farm family that Abby figured she could check in on and maybe stay around for supper.
She mulled her options and slowly smiled.
She knew just where she was headed next.
*A teaser for the next Abby Longbloom story follows. Read only if you want to be teased.*
A teaser for The Ragged Pages of the First Book (An Abby Longbloom tale)
Abby sat up from her bed and smiled at her dad.
He told her, "I'm making something very special for you, sweetie."
Of course, Abby begged him to tell her what it was. But he gave her a look which soon made her blush and hold her tongue. Naturally, he couldn't hold the look for long before bursting into roaring laughter.
"Don't worry. You'll find out soon. But first, there's something I need to show you
The library was massive, like nothing Abby expected. The same was true of the man who greeted her.
"You do realize this place was strange even before that book showed up."
Abby skimmed the papers but glanced up to ask, "How so?"
The man had a wry smirk, so Abby knew this was gonna be good.
"I used to be panties."
After thinking, Why panties again?, Abby's next thought became the words, "So you were turned into a pair of them?"
The man kept the smirk. "No. I started out life as a pair of panties."
The shelf was completely dirty but somehow free of dust. Abby didn't dwell on that oddity. Her eyes were fixed on the book nestled between a narrow copy of a Brookville street map and a leather-bound book entitled Hall of Muses.
She didn't even dare consider her thought until she had carefully turned to the cover page.