Penny stands in front of the bathroom mirror in her house, naked from the waist up, with her coin in her right hand. Her parents aren’t back yet, so she’s taking the opportunity to experiment, forcing herself to look at her chest as she carefully rotates the penny in her hand through extra-dimensional space. The coin moves in and out of phase with herself in a delirium-inducing pattern that rapidly tires the muscles in her fingers. Focusing intently on her own body, she traces the road map of her own biochemistry, finding the key junctions of her endocrine system like some sort of corporeal satellite photo.
She feels the air moving harshly past her lips, trying to remain detached even as she mentally dissects her own hated form. It’s taken her a few days of work, but she’s just about worked out that if she pulls a thread here, makes a loop there, she can shut off most of her body’s testosterone production. But now, coin ready to make the required movements, she hesitates. Maybe she’s too scared to do it, or maybe she’s punishing herself for lying to Michelle. She tells herself it’s because she’s not sure what the side effects will be. In any case, it’s a step she’s not ready to take just yet.
Penny’s been dealing with guilt the only way she can: through distraction. She’s spent the week or so since the incident at the park keeping her head down in classes and taking every opportunity to work on her skills in the Art. She’s been taking Yarn’s example by taking all sorts of over-the-counter drugs — only one each day, she’s not stupid — and learning how to replicate the effects they have on her internal patterns. It’s mostly variations on a theme of analgesia, of course: you only get the good stuff on prescription.
Penny’s sure that Michelle would not approve of her guinea-pigging herself like this. Michelle’s a sore spot in general right now, of course: just thinking about her makes Penny’s stomach lurch, but she doesn’t know how to avoid it. She’s managed to avoid having to interact with her for any pair-work in school by buddying up with possibly the only kid less popular than she is, a boy by the name of Darren Jones. Darren’s a geek, but he’s protected from most physical harassment by looking significantly more muscly than he actually is. He’s certainly no replacement for Michelle, but he’s a serviceable substitute in a pinch. Penny’s actually got a fair amount in common with him, what with her esoteric taste in computing equipment, but there’s something about his manner — or maybe his sense of humour — that prevents her from being able to relax around him.
At least Steven Blake’s been avoiding her.
Eventually, mercifully, Saturday comes. Tomorrow’s the next Factio Umbrata meeting, so Penny pays extra attention to the stone around her neck as she gets dressed, weaving it into herself as much as she can manage. She spends about forty-five minutes staring at the skirt and blouse in her wardrobe, heart unpleasantly close to her throat — she reckons she could stop her parents from noticing with the right glamour — before chickening out of actually wearing them, dressing instead in a plain, dark red t-shirt and charcoal tracksuit trousers.
Once her morning routine’s finished, she heads out to the dance studio for a session with Yarn. Like her other recent sessions, it’s likely going to be part lesson and part spy briefing. Penny’s not overjoyed at this aspect of her education, if she’s honest with herself — she’d much rather focus on the Art than on politics — but she made a deal, and she intends to stick to her side of the bargain. Besides which, Yarn’s finally teaching her what she’s been waiting for, so she’s actually kind of excited.
After about twenty minutes’ walk, Penny gets to the run-down building that houses the dance studio. She pulls the heavy door open and climbs the steep spiral staircase, ending up slightly out of breath by the time she reaches the top. She supposes it’s good exercise, at least.
When she enters the studio itself, Yarn’s waiting for her. He’s sitting on one of the plastic chairs, wearing black jeans that fit loosely without being baggy, along with a dark blue hoodie bearing some kind of small crest on the left side of the chest. He’s got his usual string out, snaking around the fingers of his right hand, but he’s got something else, too: a small black box resting in the palm of his left. It’s got three buttons on the side and some kind of thin display on the front, about the size and shape of a calculator display. From the look of the weave, it’s carrying some kind of enchantment.
He regards Penny carefully when she enters, placing the box in his pocket and holding the string out in front of his chest.
“Ready?” he asks.
Ah. So that’s how they’re starting this.
Penny nods, and Yarn reacts instantly, jumping to his feet and making loops with his string that send waves through the pattern toward her. She jumps to the side, avoiding the bulk of the attack but receiving a grazing shot that makes her a little dizzy. Allowing herself less than a second to recover, she pulls the coin from her pocket and flips it upwards towards the ceiling; it curves through the air before landing on the tip of her little finger.
She runs forward, rolling the penny along her finger into her palm and spinning on her heel. The coin’s inertia takes it out of her grasp: it stays almost motionless in the air until it makes contact with the fingers of her left hand. She turns it in her palm and knots shoot out at Yarn’s feet: he hops over them, but he’s not able to dodge the back of Penny’s right hand as the momentum carries it crashing into his face.
Yarn chuckles. “Clever,” he growls, grabbing her arm with his left hand before she can pull it away. He yanks it hard, over to her left side, twisting his string into a knot. Penny’s wrists stick together like magnets — the weave between them’s all muddled — and Yarn plucks the coin from her helpless fingers like a tiny trophy, ending the duel.
After taking a few seconds to confirm his victory, Yarn fixes whatever he’s done to Penny’s arms and tosses the coin toward her. She catches it a little awkwardly.
“Now,” he says, adopting his teacher-voice. “What did you do wrong?”
Penny thinks. “Um,” she says, trying to think through the combat high that’s left her brain rather addled. “I overextended?”
Yarn nods. “Elaborate?” he prompts.
“I went for a physical strike without an adequate defence,” she says. “I should’ve made sure your arms were busy with another attack.” She’s still a little breathless from the exertion, but she thinks what she’s said makes sense.
Yarn smiles; it’s broad, but cold. “Exactly,” he says. “The attack at my feet threw me off balance enough to get a hit in, but not enough to keep me from retaliating.” He straightens himself up, and pulls the strange box from his pocket. He taps it gently. “Now, here’s your next lesson: can you tell me what this is?”
Penny takes a deep breath to calm herself further, trying to focus on the patterns made by the box. It seems to catch stray bits of weave here and there, copy them, and release them unchanged: she watches as the sounds of the room, the light, the ambient odours are all captured by the curious device.
“It’s some kind of bug,” she says. “Like, a listening device, but more…” She struggles to think of the right word to finish her sentence, deciding eventually on: “…comprehensive.”
“Very good,” Yarn replies. He smiles once more. “Now, I want you” (he emphasises this word and taps on the box once more) “to take this to the meeting tomorrow. This key” — he clicks the bottom of the three buttons — “turns the recording function on and off. I just turned it off.”
He passes it over, and Penny takes it, curiously peering at the plain matte black plastic of the surface. At least, she assumes it’s plastic: she’s learned to be careful with these kinds of assumptions lately. The surface is smooth: it bears no markings.
“What do the other controls do?” she asks, without taking her eyes off the device.
Yarn clears his throat. “They’re for tuning it to the receiver back at the local Departmental office. I’ve already set it up; you shouldn’t need to use them.”
Penny nods, carefully putting the device into her right trouser pocket.
“Right,” says Yarn. “Shall we do some more work on transformation?”
The next two hours (give or take a lunch break) are spent making tweaks to the bone structure of Penny’s left hand. It’s a slow process, and a painful one, though the pain’s more bearable than the last time: she manages to stay conscious even as she feels the bones bruising under her skin. Can bones bruise?
There are two purposes to this exercise. Firstly, Penny’s strengthening the bone structure: it’s a practical modification that should improve her combat ability in the long run. Secondly, she’s practising moving the bones forward and backward along various developmental pathways, fusing and unfusing the caps at the end and growing and ungrowing almost to the extremes of what can be safely done. She ends with her hand externally identical to how it was before, but with a fair knowledge of how to mess with bone structure in the future.
However, to reiterate: it hurts like a motherfucker.
Before Penny leaves, Yarn fixes a serious gaze at her. “Be careful,” he says. “We don’t have a backup plan if you’re discovered, and we need to find out what they’re planning.”
She nods. No pressure, then.
The next day, Penny spends about thirty-five minutes before she heads out to the Umbratist meeting carefully weaving her pattern together with her cover glamour, taking great pains to make sure the connection’s seamless. She’s not taking any chances. She makes the journey with purpose, striding confidently toward the seaside, and her walk’s about five minutes shorter than last time as a result. She’s just about to round the final corner to the pub when she spots a familiar-looking boy across the street through a gap in a couple of parked cars, playing with a yo-yo.
“You again?” she protests. “Don’t you even have the— the decency… to hide this time?”
Rakesh crosses the street, making no effort to watch for traffic, instead gliding effortlessly between the cars as though the road were completely empty.
“I wanted—” he begins, but Penny’s too quick: she grabs him by the collar of his shirt and pulls her coin out, holding it as menacingly as she can manage.
“Leave me alone.”
She lets go, somewhat abruptly, and the boy runs away as fast as his legs will manage. Hopefully that’ll be the end of that particular problem, though she’s shaking with a mixture of fear and fury, brain swimming in an unpleasant soup of chemicals and emotion. She stands there for a moment, breathing deeply to calm her nerves, before starting to walk toward the pub once more. The adrenaline’s mostly subsided by the time she gets there.
Penny heads briskly into the back room. It’s already starting to fill up: it’s only ten to and there’s significantly more people here than last time. Most of the new faces are in the young punk vein: piercings, tattoos and colourful hair proudly displayed to mark their chosen subculture. The aggressive guy with the nose ring (“Ed”, Penny recalls) is there too, but the girl he argued with — the one in the green jumper — is absent. There’s no room to sit this time, so Penny takes up some standing room in a corner.
Grateful Dead — though he’s wearing a Pink Floyd shirt this time, as it happens — starts the meeting off by pointedly clearing his throat.
“Hello,” he says, a friendly smile on his lips. “First of all, I’d like to say how glad I am to see so many new faces in the room, and so many young people among them. I’m delighted that so many young people are interesting in fighting to preserve our way of life, and it gives me great hope for the future. Now, does everybody here consent to a scan?”
Murmurs of semi-reluctant assent spread around the room, and the man from last time — the one with the Rubik’s Cube — starts pacing up and down like he did before, occasionally making adjustments to the position of the toy in his hand. He sniffs, as though catching a whiff of something, and turns in Penny’s direction.
Penny swears internally, but tries not to let her nervousness show, despite her heart making an earnest attempt to leap out of her chest. She finds herself unable to look away as Rubik’s Cube makes his way slowly toward her side of the room. For one blissful moment, it looks like he’s going for one of the punks, but he cocks his head curiously, making a few twists of the cube before starting to edge closer and closer toward her. It takes her a moment to realise she’s not actually breathing, and by then he’s inches away and she doesn’t dare start for fear of attracting any more of his attention. She notices that the puzzle in Rubik’s Cube’s hand has nearly reached a solution, and she hopes that this doesn’t mean what she thinks it might.
Rubik’s Cube reaches out with his left hand towards Penny’s neck, his right hand twitching movement into the cube as the fingers of his left come into contact with the stone around her neck. Slowly, deliberately, he wraps his fingers around the stone, before roughly jerking his hand away, pulling the string violently apart and the stone away from her neck and leaving what Penny’s sure are going to be mild friction burns. He looks at the stone with a meaningful expression.
“We have an interloper,” he says, flatly.