lb_lee: M.D. making a shocked, confused face (serious thought)
[personal profile] lb_lee
A Frayed Wasting Death
Universe: Infinity Smashed
Word Count: 3500
Summary: While M.D.’s in therapy, her older sister drops in to try and get her medical care, but things go horribly wrong. Also M.D. finds out exactly how she ended up on earth… sort of.
Notes: This story takes place during M.D.'s care in Raige at ROAR!, and you’d be best served reading that first. This story was sponsored by the Patreon crew! Story notes at bottom.


“You do realize, of course, that she’ll be back?” Flame signed.

It was one of those things they’d all been avoiding. But Flame and Scorch had had to patch their junior healer up after the last run-in with that “sister” woman, and if they couldn’t avoid another incident outright, they could at least plan for it.

M.D. sighed. “Yeah. I’m in bad shape. She’ll take advantage of that.”

Scorch got down on his belly beside her. “You know more about her than we do. What do you think she’ll do?”

“She likes plans and puppeting people. She’ll probably try to trick her way through first, and only get violent if that doesn’t work. And she likes chain whips.”


This time, Number One had ample time to prepare.

No need to buy a portable model this time; the Jaunter’s League had set up a semi-permanent door to the middle of Treehouse until things were sorted out. Number One had promptly gotten access to the preliminary reports and devoured them. Unlike her little sister’s first refuge, this society was not dominated by creatures analogous to those of Number One’s prior experience, so her broadcast couldn’t be relied on. Instead, she’d require more traditional methods. That was fine.

After she’d learned everything available, Number One waited. Having read about Treehouse’s barbarous medical system, or what passed for it, she was confident that there would be no forthcoming cure for her sister’s fraying. Let the child decline into madness for a time and experience life without proper training and braiding. Give her time to truly think about her situation. A little suffering never hurt anyone.

When she was ready, One went through the portal.

Immediately, she was halted by what appeared to be a floating gelatinous mass with tentacles. Its mental voice seemed oddly chorus-like—perhaps it was one of the hive-mind organisms she’d read about. “?”

Number One had already reflexively configured her mind to League Standard, realized that meant nothing to the blob, and instead suffered the indignity of calibrating with it (them?) to find a viable communication channel and shared mental vocabulary. It took some effort; the creature’s mind was so alien she found it hard to read.

It asked, “What your purpose/being here?”

“I am League personnel,” Number One replied. “I’m here to discuss your junior healer’s immigration status.” She supplied a visual image and thoughtsketch of her sibling for clarity.

“Wait please.” It communicated with another being in a sign language, mind closed, then turned to her. “Healer unavailable. Healer dead.”

For a moment, One was alarmed. Then she remembered her research. “Dead? Socially or physically?”

“Social. No guest.”

Number One relaxed. Yes, she remembered this. Death here could be a social thing, a sort of invalid’s holiday. Good, that meant her sister’s health was as she’d predicted. “I offer her native medical treatment.”

She felt the blob’s searching for veracity, but she wasn’t worried. After all, she wasn’t lying.

More sign language to the other being, which darted off. Then, “Accepted. Welcome.”

Number One was stuck with the blob as a floating escort, but she didn’t mind, since she’d learned enough of Treehouse’s byzantine social rules to know what’d happen next. It didn’t even search her for weapons or try to bind her; it merely guided her to her sister, giving her time to note the town’s activity, its people, its weaknesses. Damp, damp, damp. Wood and timber everywhere. A variegation of entities, only some of which she could guess the categorization of. She filed it all away and subconsciously ran through her memory to check it against her reading. If things got truly dire, she could at least attempt to burn the town down, but she preferred not to.

Then they were at a doorway leading underground. Ashen paint was slathered on the door. Here, the blob stopped, restrained by propriety; it could not intrude upon the dead. But Number One was foreign and offering care; she wasn’t circumscribed by the same arcane social rules.

“Thank you,” she said, and went in.

The place was a miserable little hovel of what appeared to be earth and papier-mâché, and it smelled of unwashed misery. Her younger sister barely looked up when she entered, and Number One didn’t need to read the child’s mind. She was slumped, rumpled, unwashed and slow-moving, mind soft and gray with static. Frayed like an old blanket.

“It’s you again,” she said, and there was no emotion in it.

“I thought you might be more amenable to my offer of medical care after you’d gone without for a while,” Number One said. (No more stilting error-speech! Once again, she relished the proper download she’d gotten.) She squatted down by her sister, keeping her heels on the ground.

Silence.

“I’m sorry to see you like this. I would’ve preferred we avoid this whole mess.”

“By taking me home.”

“Yes.” Pause. “It’s probably not clear to you yet, but you need us. These people, they don’t know what you need. You might as well be an exotic sand-snake to them. We are special, you and I, and without regular care, your electroplaques will atrophy. You’ll become weak, epileptic, and die.”

“Tragic.”

One didn’t frown—she was above that—but wove her mind to let her honest concern come through more convincingly. “Come home, sister. Let us care for you properly.”

“You know, for someone who beat the tar out of me multiple times, you sure are worried.”

Number One waved a hand. “Physical pain is temporary. But I don’t want you frayed or dead.”

“Wow.” Her expression almost showed sarcasm. “I’m touched.”

It was hard to engage with someone who was giving her so little to work with and who she couldn’t unravel without risk. One rewove her mind before the thread of annoyance inconvenienced her. “I can heal your mind, you know. The things that are ailing you here, they’ve long since been solved among our people. I can rebraid your memories, smooth and soft. I can free you of despair.” She folded up her sleeves, held out her arms. There were scars, but none like her sister’s. “You see? I’m happy. Nothing troubles me. I’ve never felt despair, because my mind is well-braided.”

For a moment, the child’s face showed a spark of animation. “You remember everything?”

“Well, not everything,” Number One said with a self-deprecating laugh. “I’m well-braided, not eidetic! But if you mean have I ever torn out memories like you have, then no. I’ve never needed to.” She paused, but she needed to build rapport like they used to have. “I was unaware that you couldn’t, when we met again. I thought you were being recalcitrant for no reason. I shouldn’t have torn you like that. I’m sorry.”

But her little sister seemed to have other things on her mind. “Then you know what happened to me? How I ended up on Earth.”

Number One hesitated. “We were often kept separately...”

“Don’t play dumb. You were there. I remember that much.”

No point in dissimulating then. She was trying to earn trust. “Yes.”

“Tell me what happened.”

“You must understand, I was young and foolish then.”

“Sure.”

“A child. Stupid. During the last change in regime, I got it into my head that we would be better off alone in anarchy...”

It wasn’t hard to recall the memory, though it wasn’t one she was proud of. Children at that age made all sorts of infantile decisions; it was why adults were in charge of them. And anyway, at that time, One’s physical training had been far ahead of her mental.

Everyone underestimated children, and her people were no exception. In the chaos of the coup, with armies storming through and the facility in turmoil, it had been easy to overcome her handlers. A stray nerve-wrangler had made its way to her possession, which had helped immensely.

Her sister had been so small, then! So frail. She hadn’t even come up to One’s shoulder. But her face had been full of trust and she’d taken One’s hand instantly. She had followed in silence as One flayed and tore her way through to the door room.

Things had been different then. Spacetime doors had been large and cumbersome, with strict mass limits. The facility elite were already long gone, and the remaining staff were still squabbling when the children arrived.

They were adults, and they were strong. But One was their pride and joy, and she’d learned most of everything they could teach her. It took some time, but they fell before her.

When she got to look at the door, however, she discovered that the door had been mostly used up. It would only move the mass of one small child, once.

One was big enough that she didn’t trust that she would fit. She remembered thinking that it was just as well, that now she was spared the choice. If she were a featherweight too heavy, she would be torn apart, but her tiny sister would fit easily.

The Hub terminal had been smashed in the earlier rioting, but the old vellum dimensional directory was still intact, lying forgotten in its drawer. It was even a fairly recent edition. One kept an eye on the remaining conscious adults, powered the nerve-wrangler in her hand, and gestured to her sister.

“Choose one. Any one,” she said. “And you mustn’t show me! It’s a surprise.”

The little girl moved quickly and One turned her back. She heard the ruffle of pages opening, then the quiet thump of her sister stabbing a finger down at random on a page.

“Good,” One said. “Put the coordinates in the door. And don’t tell! Remember, it’s a surprise.”

A guard surged forward. The wrangler in One’s hand crackled; she lashed, caught him around the neck, and pulled him down while her sister poked the coordinates into the round doorframe. One took care not to look, busy incapacitating the man, but she felt its energy shift in acceptance.

“Have you closed the keypad?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Perfect.” One looked up. The portal was a chaotic swirl of color behind her tiny sister, who clutched the closed book in her arms. “Now, go through, and don’t forget to take the book with you.”

“Why?” Two asked.

“So we’ll know where to go next, silly.”

One hadn’t learned to rebraid her mind yet to lie better, but she didn’t need to. Her little sister trusted her, and so she walked through the melange of colors and disappeared.

The moment she was gone, One lashed the door controls with the wrangler. As the portal died, One hoped her little sister’s random choice was somewhere remote and unimportant, somewhere she’d never be found. There were thousands, maybe even millions of coordinates in the book, and many drifted over time; if Two wasn’t safe, One hoped that she’d gone to hard vacuum and died quickly.

Since One hadn’t seen her choice, the information could not be extracted from her. However, the same couldn’t be said for the other people in the room. Any one of them might have seen. They might tell. That would not do.

One looked at them, and they quailed from her.

“We haven’t seen anything,” they said. “We haven’t--”

But they had spent too many years teaching her to hide her psychological intentions to believe them. She took a deep breath, calmed her mind, and went to work to insure that her sister would never be found, except by random chance.

By the end of it, the wrangler had broken, so she put it away, cleaned herself up, and then sat to meditate until her new owners arrived. She was too valuable to kill, so there was nothing to fear.

And as she would do many times in the ensuing years, she waited.


“It was a regrettable decision,” One said when she finished her story, “but I was a child. I’m sorry; you deserved better.”

Her little sister replied, “No, I didn’t. Thank you.”

She obviously didn’t understand, but One didn’t argue. She held out a hand. “Let me make this right. Come home with me.”

“No.”

“Come home, please.”

“No.”

One sighed. “I’m sorry we couldn’t come to an understanding,” she said, and with a touch electrically sedated her sister.

After some work to get the dead weight on her shoulders, One headed for the door to leave the hovel, only to find a red-winged vulture outside, and what seemed like half the town.

“And where do you think you’re going?” The broadcast seemed to come from multiple beings; she couldn’t tell if they spoke for themselves or someone else. The words were crystal clear this time.

“This child is frayed,” One broadcast with all honesty. “I am taking her home for medical care.”

“She is home. Put her down and leave immediately.”

But One was not intimidated. “I’ve read your laws; violence is forbidden within town walls, and furthermore, this child can’t be a citizen; she hasn’t been here a year of springs yet. You have no claim--”

She felt the being come up behind her and hastily dropped her sister and put up her hands.

It was blue, huge, like the river monsters of myth. Its mind was too alien to read immediately, and its jaws were huge and filled with sharp teeth. As she dodged, she felt something else, and narrowly avoided the black-and-blue tentacles of another alien monstrosity.

“You have made an error in judgment,” the broadcast announced, and One knew now that it spoke for the town, that the whole place had planned for this. “She is our junior healer. Violence against her is violence against the community. You are no longer a guest. You are prey.”

One blasted confusion and pain outward, but she was fighting myriad alien minds and it didn’t register on most of them. She let her whip come to her hand, wove current through it, and took down the black-and-blue tentacle thing with it. Her previous gelatinous escort was trying to broadcast her intentions, so she tore through it—and the blue river beast’s jaws clamped shut on her whip arm.

One felt its teeth cut and crunch through muscle and bone and hastily turned off her sense of pain. Automatically, she electrified the beast, but that only made it bite down harder. It hauled, wrenched with all of its body, and One had no choice but to let it pull her down before it tore off her arm. She landed as best she could--

Then they buried her, teeth and muscle and alien minds she couldn’t read, and the floating gelatinous entity was back, injured and leaking distress. With the river beast and myriad other monstrosities holding her down for a moment, it floated over, and its tentacles brushed over her face. One felt jabs, then numbness spreading through her body.

Then they got off her. One tried to leap to her feet, only to find she couldn’t. It took effort to get up, panting, arm tattered and hanging useless at her side, and she found that her little sister was awake, standing, looking at her calmly… almost with pity. She’d taken One’s whip, and the red vulture-bat was at her side.

“We’ve tested Jelly-Legs’s venom on me; it should take you down in an hour tops,” the girl said. “Haven’t tested if it’s lethal, obviously, but it causes respiratory arrest in their prey, so I figure you don’t want to risk it. The antivenom takes a week to make, and we trashed it all when you came, so don’t waste your time looking for any. The Jaunter’s League has some though.”

For once, One’s sister’s mental incompetence served her well. She was broadcasting complete truth.

“You… you planned this. All of this,” One said.

“Yup.”

And despite everything, One beamed. It’d been so long since she’d done that, but her sister had learned to use others to her benefit. That was good, that was wonderful…

A sketch of Number One with a terrifying grin on her face, which looks totally false, saying, I'm so proud of you.

“I’m so proud of you,” she said.

“Yeah, well, that makes one of us.”

One was losing her. She could feel her vision blurring, her stomach churning, her braid was starting to slip from her grasp… she tried to bring it back under control, and went too far in the other direction. She found herself laughing.

“This… this isn’t what was supposed to happen,” she said. “I’m trying to save you.”

M.D. was ignoring her, signing to the other monsters.

“We were going to be great! But here—stay here—and you will die a frayed, wasting death, and it—and it—” she couldn’t stop laughing, “for nothing! You’ll be nothing.”

“Could be worse,” M.D. said. “I could be you.”

Black and red was starting to encroach on One’s vision. Nothing made sense. She couldn’t weave—she—

“I don’t understand,” she giggled.

M.D. turned to the monsters around her, signed, and One couldn’t read, couldn’t broadcast. It was like being blind and deaf.

“They’re going to escort you back now,” M.D. said. “Next time, they’ll eat you on first sight, and I won’t stop them.”

“I don’t understand,” One repeated, but the beasts were surrounding her, forcing her forward.

Number One had to leave then, before she collapsed. They took her back to the door, frog-marched her through, and then everything was chaos and emergency medical personnel as the Dellans rushed to protect their investment. One was silent and let them give her the antivenom, let her mind clear and rebraid. The childish hysteria passed leaving only embarrassment and frustration.

But she remembered the look M.D.’s face, the pity there, and felt uneasy.


It had been some time since Treehouse had needed to deal with an intruder in such a way, and it took a while for everyone to calm down and sort out the wounded—the Jelly-Legs Hive in particular would need some time to recover.

“It is fine,” they signed. “We are a gatekeeper. It is our duty to protect us from those who would abuse our hospitality.” With a pained wiggle intended to communicate amusement, it added, “After all, think if our junior healer was the one in this bed! That would be truly lamentable!”

Thankfully, nobody else was seriously hurt, only quite upset. Between the healers, everyone was managed and reassured, and the rest of the town (who’d hidden so as to give the combatants room) came out. Everyone had practiced for this many times, but that still didn’t hold up to the excitement of the real thing, and now everyone was signing vociferously at each other. Some worried about whether the junior healer’s dreadful sister would come with an army. Would there be a war? Should they prepare? Everyone disagreed on the proper course of action, but most of them agreed that it was in very bad taste for her to come in preaching about the laws as though she’d made them!

Flame found M.D. sitting on a branch of their tree, watching the arguments. She wasn’t taking part.

Flame perched next to her. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah,” M.D. said, stretching. “I guess they made me more durable than her; I held up under the venom better too.”

“That wasn’t what I meant.”

M.D.’s hands were still for a moment. “She was probably lying about all of it, you know. With her skills, who would know?”

“Who would?” Flame agreed.

M.D. was silent for a while. “She sounded so convinced, though. And so… ashamed of it. Is it crazy that I kind of believed her?”

Flame thought about it, then replied, “I think, in your situation, it would be very tempting to believe anything that might shed light on those years.”
M.D. sighed. “Yeah. You’re right. Is it crazy to hope that maybe, one day… I don’t know, she’ll maybe go back to being the person I remember sometimes?”

“To hope? No. As long as you accept that she may never do so.”

M.D. nodded, and they sat and watched the conversations going on below them.

Story notes: Number One has a lot of other things going on with her, and I admit, I’m not thrilled that this story is her first serious appearance, when chronologically it’s one of the last. I can only hope that this story gives a bit of a window into her mind.  She prefers chain whips because she can channel electricity through them. A nerve-wrangler is a variation, resembling a cross between a whip and a cattle prod, and can generate its own current. Nasty.  She also has serious issues about mind-reading the mentally ill, the reasons of which will get addressed at other times.

And if you’re curious, the Jelly-Legs Hive looks like a Portuguese Man O’War the body of which is the size of a large watermelon. They’ve adapted for the air, instead of the water, and so float about six feet up, with super-long tentacles. Despite their appearance, they’re actually a bunch of different lifeforms working together.
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