Explosion

Rhin was showing Jacine how to stretch out her fingers on the harp when a shock coursed though their hands.

"Ouch!" Rhin jumped back and shook her hand. "What the bloody-blue-blazes was that?!" Azami and Tamlynn looked up to see what was happening.

Jacine was unhooking her personal compuset, from which the shock had originated, and was detaching a earphone/mic cord from it. She explained briefly as she worked, "An emergency signal. A shock gets my attention better then a beep." The code read that the call was from Wren. She attached the earphone and didn't have time to ask anything before Wren was speaking.

"There's been an explosion at the ECC where 23 was helping."

Jacine went pale.

"A lot of circuits have been shattered and rerouted, so I'm having a horrendous time getting info. But there are definitely people still trying to get the emergency programs to work. I'm helping best I can, but it's hard."

A faint glimmer of hope... But Jacine pushed for more reassurance, "So he's still alive?"

The Trio listening exchanged worried glances, wondering who'd been hurt.

"It feels like 23's technique, but I can't say for sure. We've got a problem -- for some reason I can't pin down, the general alert isn't going off. The RCF needs to be informed pronto."

"Right." Jacine whirled over to Tam's comset and activated it. The screen cleared and showed Colonel Valdoon. For a split second, Jacine wondered to herself doesn't the man ever go home?

"Miss Mendi. What--"

Jacine cut him off, "There's been an explosion at the Energy Conversion Center."

Tom Valdoon paled almost as much as Jacine had, "23 was over there..." He sharpened his gaze. "The alarms haven't gone off, how--"

"Check your tracers." Jacine spoke in such a tone that Valdoon was reaching out to the control panel before he noticed. His face registered a moment of hesitation, but he decided that her 'suggestion' was the best and quickest solution and proceeded with the tracers.

He swore shortly and loudly, then looked beyond Jacine to Azami and Shea, "Captains, I want you to head directly down to the site and give me a report on what you find. -- Get some headsets."

Azami and Shea jumped up, "We're there, Colonel!" They headed for the door.

"Dr. McLendon--"

Tam was over at her computer and spoke shortly. "I'm informing the local hospitals. Programming for burn medicine. Activating the recall procedure for off-duty doctors..." She was doing each of those as she spoke and Valdoon waved his hand.

"Continue." He started issuing orders on his end.

Jacine tilted her head as she listened to Wren. When there was a pause on Valdoon's end, she relayed the info to him, "My programming friends are diverting all Gating traffic from the area except for the RCF and Medical. There are a lot of civs trying to get in to check on friends or just to gawk."

Valdoon gratefully acknowledged this and turned to another console.

"GOT IT!!" Wren projected in high decibels through the earphones. Jacine winced and almost pulled them off. Speaking more quietly, Wren added, "Can you get off the line with Valdoon -- I need you on this."

Jacine got permission from Valdoon, who had all the info he needed for now, and she signed off. Tamlynn was continuing with her work.

"Where do you need me?"

"Get into the VRInternet -- I have a connection into the building with a working scanner."

Instantly Jacine was at Tam's VR unit and put it on. She ran through the program codes for Hackers and worked into the Net. Wren met her there. "This way."

They worked their way though circuits, the damaged programs showing up as holes and fuzzy parts. It was a maze and a human would never have figured it out. Jacine was glad to have Wren's help. They got to a reasonably intact portion of circuits surrounded by broken ones. Wren pointed to one. "That's the scanner. Switch views to it."

Jacine did so and flames appeared all around her. "Frack!" She narrowed the focus of the scanner, working hard to control it. She found a portion of the room that wasn't in flames. A temporary emergency shield had been erected around a terminal and there were three humans working frantically on it. Expanding the details, Jacine could see that one of them was 23. Jacine sighed in relief and then spoke to Wren, "What do you need me to do?"

"I need a mouthpiece. One of those programmers works for the ICS. I don't dare get near or she'll instantly know I'm not human -- or authorized. But they desperately need help from the outside." Wren took command of the scanner and focused it on the ICS agent.

Jacine studied the woman for a moment, then shook her head. That's not important right now. "Show me what you have worked out." The conversation wasn't taking place in speech, but in a special computer language that Wren had taught Jacine years ago, so it was taking much less time to convey the information than human/human interaction would have.

"There's an O-Storm outside. One of the Converters blew out. The Emergency Program won't work -- I don't know why. But a domino effect has resulted and the backlash has spread to three other converters. They shut two of them off. The third one is blowing now." Jacine could see the building shaking in the scanner. "That's setting up more dominos. They can't shut any more off or the main screens will fail, unleashing the storm on an unprepared city. They need containment. I worked out a cat to go from the back forward setting the converters on a separate level. They are trying to disconnect the ones in front -- the affected ones." Wren flashed bit diagrams showing the program that 23 and the others were working on.

Jacine muttered to herself, working out the problems. She looked over, "I nned to talk with them directly, can I get in closer?"

She hadn't finished speaking before Wren had shown her a connection to the terminal that the people were using. Jacine took a brief survey of it. The comset was damaged, unusable. So was the VR Connection. Either would have made things simpler. Feldercarb. It's back to basics. The majority of connections had been damaged in the first blast, but the people had Mickey Moused wires all around to get it working. Jacine saw an open connection and used it.

She projected written words on the screen below the diagrams they were working on, "23, this is Jacine -- I hacked in from outside with help -- these are some connections severed:" Wren tossed in the needed info. "Your program needs these alterations to work:" Wren flashed that in as well.

The people were staring at the screen in shock. 23 recovered first and started implementing the changes while the male ECC personnel typed a question back to her, "How are the other CVs?"

This is cumbersome. Jacine flashed the answer up the instant the question had finished. "The Converters are being isolated from the back, in. Others are doing that. So far it's taking."

"People?" The ECC guy had figured out that this method was slow and was shortening his questions.

Neither Jacine nor Wren could tell how many people were hurt, dead, or alive. She flashed a large "?" on the screen followed by a more specific, "I don't know."

She looked over to see how the changes were going. 23 was just about done. Then the changes stopped being made. Huh? Jacine switched vision to the scanner and focused past the flames. Frack! 23 had collapsed next to the terminal. The woman ECC/ICS person had taken over the program while the male ECC person knelt by 23. Jacine felt helpless watching but not being able to do anything. "Wren?"

"I can't see much better then you."

Jacine ground her teeth in frustration and switched back to the computer views. She flashed a message, "How is 23?" on the screen but didn't expect an answer for awhile and looked electronically around the ECC. The dominos were slowing down as more converters were taken out of the line. She nervously noticed that the power flux of the converter that was physically closest to the programmers was raising into dangerous levels. Even as she watched, one of her connections overheated and Wren spent a minute rerouting her back in. When she got back, there was an answer to her question about 23 and another query.

"I can hold as long as I need to." Even in straight type, the words sounded ominous. "How are you seeing us?"

Jacine switched for a quick look though the scanner. 23 was up, doing the typing. The ECC/ICS person had finished the changes and was implementing them. The ECC person was over by the temporary shield controls. Jacine replied to 23's question. "I'm using the corner scanner by CV 9A."

"Any others intact?"

Jacine figured he meant the scanners. Wren answered that one, "Not many. What do you need?"

"Conduits in B-35-A9F. Intact?"

Wren muttered to Jacine, "I'll check on it." There was a pause as Wren diverted part of her self to the problem, then Wren suddenly yelled, "Don't let her do it!" Jacine looked over and saw with horror that the ICS woman was starting a back-track on Jacine's entry. Jacine blocked the partial program the best she could and flashed the screen in bright letters "DON'T USE A TRACKING PROGRAM!!! You'll kick me off-line!"

The woman typed in, "How can a track kick you off?"

Wren did the equivalent of raising an eyebrow and asked Jacine, "Good question -- how are you going to answer that?"

Jacine thought furiously and then put on the screen, "The connections in are really convoluted. There are a few points with only enough bit room for one program. Your tracker will kick me off."

"Good thought." Wren spoke, "I'll make sure that it'll be true when they check."

Another typed message: "I need to get a connection out."

You do, huh? I bet. "I'm the only one to make it in electronically. It'd be harder to punch a line out. The RCF is coming in physically. Should be close by now."

The ICS woman took the tracking program off after a moment more. Jacine growled to Wren, "Suspicious, aren't they?"

Wren flashed the info 23 had requested onto the screen and replied to Jacine, "You don't even know. I'm the one who has to avoid them on a regular basis. You should see the fancy foot-work when the ICS does a routine sweep of our house."

"Speaking of which, how are you handling security right now?"

"I'm not. Oracle is. That's why you haven't seen him."

Jacine got tired of switching views and did what she should have in the first place -- divided them for a half-screen of each. She did that just in time to see the shields flicker and then fall. No! "Wren!"

"Nothing I can do at this end. They should be okay for awhile though."

23 joined the man at the shield controls and the woman scrounged for more salvaged circuits that could also be Micky Moused in. Jacine and Wren watched them work frenziedly.

"Oh damn!" Wren directed Jacine's attention to the near converter. The program had taken effect, but a little too late for this one -- it was about to blow! Jacine flashed the message as quickly and brightly as she could but the people were busy with the shield and didn't see it. She and Wren watched in horror as the converter exploded -- and then the circuits they were using were destroyed as well and Wren had to take them out at speeds no human could match. If they'd been on the lines at the moment of destruction, Jacine would have been flipped back into Tam's house with a headache and a busted VR unit. But Wren would have had a great deal of her 'self' destroyed.

They barely made it out and stood at the point of safety surveying the destruction of programs and circuits. The whole of the structure would need to be rebuilt.

"Well. That's that. Even I can't get back in now."

"Umm." Jacine shoved thoughts of 23 out of her mind. There was not a single thing she could do now, and there were other things that needed doing. "Wren, you better get back home and start packing your bags. I would suggest an extended stay with Oracle."

Wren glanced to one side and Oracle materialized next to them.

"She has a point. Whether or not those humans survived, the ICS is going to be all over this."

"But what about her?" asked Wren.

Jacine spoke on her own, "I knew what I was getting into when I started. We've been training for this since Mom moved you out to the house. I can handle it."

Oracle reached out to hold Wren, "And we really have to get out of here now. The sweeps are getting harder to evade."

Wren gave in. "Alright. I'll set up a standard non-sentient at home to explain the program perimeters. Be careful, Jacine."

"I will. You be safe at the Caves. Don't come out until I tell you to."

The three people parted. The human heading back to the Real World at Tam's house, and the sentient programs moving to safe circuits.

Jacine lifted the VR set off her head and sat in the dark house for a long while. And all I can do is sit and wait. 23, please don't die. Please have gotten the shields back up in time. She realized that he'd become as close a friend to her as her brother in a little less than two years. And she tried hard not to think of it.

Jacine ran though the mental disciplines that she'd need when the ICS questioned her, but she couldn't concentrate well enough. This does not bode well. Finally, one of Tam's cats jumped up into her lap. The rhythmic purring distracted Jacine enough for her to slip into the discipline trance. The walls grew light and then bright. Tam's cats took turns on Jacine's lap and she didn't move. When the walls started to darken again, Tamlynn finally came home.

She stumbled in and headed straight for the kitchen for a glass of water. Jacine stirred for the first time in hours. "Tamlynn?" The voice almost didn't sound like hers, remote and thin -- almost brittle.

Tamlynn turned in surprise, "Jacine, you're still here?"

Jacine stirred again, this time impatiently, "How's 23?"

"Oh." Tam reorganized tired thoughts. "He's doing all right. It was touch and go for a long time. But we think he's stabilized now. Dr. Keller is watching him now. I'm going to get some sleep and relieve him in six hours."

A great sense of weight that Jacine hadn't even noticed on her heart lifted and she breathed in. Then she blinked, "Six hours? That's not much sleep." She started to get out of the chair and then stopped as her left leg didn't support her. She put the current cat on the ground and leaned over to make some adjustments to the boot -- immobilizing her leg. Tamlynn, as tired as she was, noticed the problem and fetched a cane from the other room.

"Thanks. I'll let you get your sleep. I'm going home and then I'll be... unavailable for a long time."

With what little curiosity she could summon up Tamlynn queried her, "How long? And does Michael know?"

Jacine shrugged, "A week? A month? A month probably. And Michael doesn't know. Tell him... ... Tell him I'm at Mom's. And tell 23..." She stopped. Tamlynn waited. Jacine finally continued, "Never mind. Just take good care of him. I'll see you when I see you." She turned and limped out the door. Tamlynn stood by the sink watching after her, then she shrugged and stumbled to her bedroom.

. . . . .

"Michael. Will you please stop pacing. You're giving me a headache." 23 sat tiredly on the couch in Michael's room. He'd been out of the hospital for a week now -- half the time he'd been in -- but little things were still giving him headaches and he had a hard time keeping any energy in. Energy. 23 hated that word right now, but he couldn't get away from it.

"I'm sorry." Michael tiptoed to his desk and sat down. 23 summoned up a weak grin at his friend's antics. "Why are you so worried? Tam said that she wouldn't be around for awhile."

"Yes, but Tam doesn't remember much about that night."

23 looked at him in exasperation. Michael shrugged.

"Alright. I'm worried because Wren has been giving me the run-around. Everytime I call over, she acts like a normal house-keeping program. But I check the codes Mom and Jacine gave me and it's a perfectly secure line: No reason what-so-ever for Wren to act dumb."

"Maybe Wren was hurt in that final explosion. I'm sure that's who was helping Jacine. The info looked set up in her manner. At least, that's what I remember thinking at the time." He paused a moment and then added, "I plead memory loss whenever those investigators ask me. They don't push it."

Michael chuckled briefly, "They wouldn't dare. Not only would Tam give them a royal reaming, but you're also the hero of the city. If you and the ECC people hadn't contained those Convertors, not only would ten square blocks have been destroyed, but our shields would be down and we would be totally undefended."

"And I'd be dead. Don't forget that part. Sometimes, that has a much more motivating factor then all the philanthropic BS put together."

They shared an understanding grin.

There was a chime at the door and some heads popped in. "Hi guys!" "23 -- good to see you up!"

Azami and Rhin bounced over to hug 23 and Tamlynn followed a bit more slowly, giving her patient the professional once over.

23 muttered under his breath, "And I thought I came over here to get away from all that."

Michael heard him and smothered a laugh. The girls turned to him and then glanced at 23, who gave them an innocent expression. They bought it.

"So what are you two up to?" Azami asked.

Michael promptly took advantage of the opening. "Tam, are you sure you don't remember what Jacine said that night?"

Rhin and Azami looked at Michael sympathetically, and Tam sighed. "Michael. I'd been performing surgery and everything else for over 24 hours. And I was going back to it in 6. I was bloody tired! She asked about 23 and said she wouldn't be around for awhile. I don't remember anything else!"

Azami spoke before Michael could, "Michael, have you considered that she might be laying low? The investigation into the explosion is still going on and she may not want to be involved."

"I thought of it. But I've checked all the obvious places and..." He paused, thinking. No, they don't know about Wren yet. "Her friends haven't heard from her either."

23 glanced at him but didn't say anything. He knew the problems and risks involving Wren.

Rhin frowned thoughtfully, "She's not at you mom's?"

Michael's mouth dropped open.

All three of the girls and 23 looked at him in surprise. Azami voiced their puzzlement, "You haven't checked with your mother?"

An abashed expression grew on Michael's face. "It never crossed my mind. For some reason, I don't think of it as a hiding place anymore. Jacine and I have other places we go to get away."

"Well, why don't you try now?"

Michael activated the comset and punched in a code. The screen flashed back a line of numbers. "Frack. There's no clear line in right now. I'll have to try again later. But now that I think of it, she probably is at Mom's."

They sat around talking for a long time. 23 was on the verge of collapsing when Tam finally forced him to go back to his room. She went along to make sure he got some rest. Azami and Rhin didn't stay much longer -- HazLib was still in a bit of disorder and they needed as much sleep as they could get.

On the way out the door, they paused, "If Jacine isn't at your mother's, let us know." Michael nodded.

After they left, Michael fixed himself a snack. He looked over at the chron and decided to try calling Mom again. This time the connection went through. The screen cleared and he was looking at his mother.

 

Explosion Continued Again

Jacine slept the day around and then some. She woke up as evening was falling. She felt much better, but she didn't want to remember any of her dreams. Swinging her feet over the bed, she announced, "I think I could use a shower." She waited for a sarcastic comment, but none came. Her face fell. Oh yeah. Wren's not here. Sighing, she limped off to the shower anyways and put it on hot water. The water poured over her, easing the internal tensions and reassuring her that something was normal in the world. As she stood in the shower, a thought came to her, Hey -- I'm not streaming as much! The flow of connected thought that came with using an eidetic memory had slowed considerably with the long sleep. A lot of people thought that Jacine was absent-minded, and she was, but it came from a conscious effort to not use her eidetic memory. She disliked the effects it produced. But she could put it to deliberate use, and her discipline program incorporated it. One thought would lead to another and another, and speech became tangled and unclear. Answers were bits and pieces of several things all jumbled together. Jacine wished the ICS nothing but fun in trying to sort out all the info they'd attempted to gather from her over the last month.

Jacine wandered into the kitchen and made some pancakes. The stars were coming out outside, but her philosophy was that breakfast was when you got up. When she finished, Jacine went into the front room. She noticed that Scarface was in the feeding pen with a bulging tummy. Grinning, she made a note to herself to thank Dan at the pet store.

Jacine decided that it was time to return some of calls that came in. The cron readout was just after nine. Oh yes, I definately think Jonathan is home from work now. She punched in his number.

"Hi Jonathan, it's--"

"Jacine! Thank Goodness! Where have you been?!"

She coughed, now let's see if excuses work, "I've been helping out with the aftermath of the explosion at Island City. I forgot to check in."

"Bull!"

What? I thought it was reasonable.

Jonathan glared through the vidscreen at her. "Jacine, I called Michael."

Oh.

"He hadn't seen you and was also worried."

Oh okay. How was I suppose to know you two would actually talk to each other? Jacine tried using a variation of the truth, "Fine. I was actually with the top secret investigators who were working on the causes of the blast." All true -- as far as it went.

Jonathan paused and looked at her, evaluating the answer. Jacine did her best to look, well, truthful. She tried indignant truthful and that seemed to go over a bit better.

"So what were the results of the investigation?"

"Sabotage..." Frack! Interrogation questions -- I better get off this line of thought, I'm sure the ICS is monitoring.

Jonathan was stunned by the little she had said. "Sabotage?!!? But who would..."

"I'm sorry. That's actually top secret info. I shouldn't have said that much" But you pick up things from what they ask you. "But I do ask that you don't spread it around."

"Of course. I'm sorry, Jacine. I won't ask any more."

Thank you. I really appreciate it more than you think. Jacine changed the conversation to innocuous things and let Jonathan do most of the talking. At the end of the conversation, she asked him to pass the message on to Dad that she was okay. She really didn't feel like trying to talk with him, and Jonathan didn't press the issue.

The cron readout now read past 12. I wonder if it's too late to call Michael. I'm not sure if I can handle more questions, but he deserves to know... Frowning, she recollected that the last of Michael's messages had merely been, "Call me when you get in." Shrugging, she dialed in his number.

"Hi Mi--"

"Jacine! You're back! You're at home, aren't you?"

Somewhat surprised by his reaction, Jacine nodded.

"Great. I'll be over within a half-an-hour. Bye."

Jacine sat staring at the empty screen. Now what was that all about? I guess I'll find out.

The vid screen had an expanded image of Alpha Centauri, and mugs of hot chocolate (with marshmallows) were waiting on a table by the time Michael got there. Jacine was reviewing an update bulletin of Advances in Servo Joint Manipulation when the lights blinked and she heard the sound of a train rushing by. She snagged her cane and got up, saying, "Authorization. Door Open." The house-keeping program opened the door as she hobbled over to meet her brother.

He greeted her with a huge bear hug. Jacine snuggled into it -- here was safety and protection. After a few minutes, Michael held her a little way from him and looked her over. Jacine tolerated it with a grin.

The lines of exhaustion and tension worried Michael, but he didn't say so; instead he remarked, "It is sure good to see you, Jacine." He winked, "But I don't think I'm ever going to get use to your doorbell. I still jump and look around for a train when I hear it."

Jacine shrugged, "It gets my attention. Have some hot chocolate."

They settled down on the couch and drank the coco. Michael was very careful to not ask any questions -- of any type -- and instead he told her tale upon tale of humorous happenings in the RCF and with the Gang. Jacine relaxed by fractions and appreciated her brother more than ever.

The sky outside started getting light and Jacine looked at a chron readout. "Michael, don't you have to be at work?"

He also looked at the readout, "Actually, I talked with Colonel Valdoon last night and he agreed to give me some time off."

Jacine sat up straighter in mild amazement, "You woke him up at midnight to ask him for time off?"

Michael laughed. "Well, I really just called Duty Control, but it was Tom who answered the com. I don't think he ever goes home."

That innocent statement bounced around and around in Jacine's head. 'Doesn't the man ever go home?' 'There's been an explosion...' Explosion. Flames. Explosion. 'WHO TOLD YOU ABOUT THE EXPLOSION?' No. Wren... I can't... Wren... 'A little bird told me...' Big bird actually... Albatross. Fly high and far. Antarctica. Ice. Ice as far as can be seen. Cold. Very, very cold. 'It's so cold.' "Cold..."

When Jacine finally came back to herself, she was shivering, curled on the couch with Michael holding her and making reassuring noises. She shook her head to try and clear it. "I'm sorry," she whispered in a small voice.

A slight choking sound came from Michael's throat, and it took a couple of clearings before he could speak, "Jacine. Don't be sorry for anything. You're the bravest person I know."

Another voice ran through Jacine's head with the superimposed vision of a typed message, "I can hold as long as I need to." Jacine started crying and couldn't stop. Michael held her and continued to hold her, tears slipping down the sides of his face as well.

. . . . .

Michael stayed at Jacine's house for two days before bringing her and Scarface back to Island City with him. He didn't tell any of his friends he was back (he hadn't initially told anybody but Valdoon that he was going) and he and Jacine had been settled in his quarters for a half-day before they had their first interruption.

Jacine held the corner of the card. "Ready?" Michael nodded. Jacine called, "Pattern!" and whipped the card off, revealing the one under it. Both immediately started scanning the other cards laid out on the table.

"Chirp - Clerp."

Michael looked around at the sound of his door chime and started to get up.

"Got it! Another card for me!" Jacine announced triumphantly.

Looking back, Michael scowled, "That's no fair! I was distracted!" He sat back down and called out, "Come In!" This was his voice activation for the door to open automatically.

"That's your fault, dear brother. Not mine."

23 stood in the doorway, silently stunned. He had started to walk in with a "Michael, you're back," but intentions and attention were redirected at the sound of Jacine's voice.

About this time, the siblings looked over at the door to see who was there. Michael grinned, "Hi 23!"

Jacine saw 23 standing there and her mind pulled up the last time she'd seen him. He's alive! She scrambled out of her chair and ran to hug him, "Craig!"

'Craig'? Michael pursed his lips thoughtfully. Maybe she won't need prodding after all.

23 was completely astonished by Jacine's actions, but did the natural thing and hugged her back.

Jacine wasn't really thinking of much, but she was noticing that 23's hug contained the same sympathy and caring that her brother's had -- not at all like the possessive and 'intention-filled' hugs of her occasional boyfriends. She drew back slightly to look at 23. Slightly surprised to see his face so close to hers, she saw that his brown eyes reflected the same caring that she'd felt in the hug. Reassured, she dropped her head down and in to rest on his shoulder.

Michael ran into his bedroom and grabbed a pillow to muffle his laughter. He had been watching, and when Jacine pulled back slightly he thought sure she was going to kiss 23. 23 had apparently thought so too, for when she merely hugged him again... Michael had never seen such an expression of complete frustration in his life!

In the main room, Jacine finally stepped back. "I'm glad you are okay -- I was worried."

23 contemplated saying the same thing back to her, but something warned him against referencing to where she'd been. Instead, he gave her a grin and responded, "I was too. But I didn't think it was a good day to die."

Jacine's face froze momentarily. 23 froze as well and wished he thought more before he spoke, Damn -- I forgot that Wes killed himself!

Unknown to him, the reference was actually one of the better things he could have brought up. Wes' death was a relatively common thing that Jacine flashed on, though usually not in quite such intensity, and it was a practiced thought that shoved the memory away.

Jacine smiled, "Michael and I were just playing a game..." She turned to the table and frowned in puzzlement when she didn't see him. "Michael?"

In the bedroom, Michael was wiping his face and trying to get a serious demeanor together when she called. He glanced in the mirror. Nope. Not yet. He called back, "Be out in a minute."

The note of amusement still audible in Michael's voice caused Jacine to raise an eyebrow in curiosity. 23, however, thought he knew pretty well what was causing the humor, and he felt a flush of embarrassment rising up his neck.

"Oh well." Jacine turned back to the table, missing 23's blush. "The cards that are spread out on the table stay there. You'll note that each card is divided into four parts: Pattern, Color, Position, and Shape. There is another pile of cards here that we turn over. One of the parts on the cards we turn over match one of the parts on the cards on the table. i.e. The 'Shape' on this card, is the same shape as..." She looked over the cards. 23 happened to glance at just the right one, and he indicated it. Jacine looked at him in pleased surprise, "Exactly! Whoever finds the proper card first, wins the card on the pile and turns the next card over, calling out which of the four is to be looked for next."

"Huh." 23 scanned the cards and noted the variations. "It sounds like fun. How many can play?"

Michael finally came out. "As many as can fit around the table. It gets pretty frantic with lots of players. Eight is the most we've ever worked in. Usually it's just Jacine and I. I do best at Shapes and Colors, she does best in Position and Pattern. Have a seat."

. . . . .

Rhin and Azami were practicing a duet when Tamlynn showed up at their door. "Have you guys seen 23?"

"Nope."

Tam sat down and frowned. "I've been searching everywhere. We were supposed to go out to dinner tonight. He's not on duty. He's not in his room. He's not at Connie & Andy's. He's not here..." She spread her hands out in a baffled gesture.

Azami glanced at Rhin, "Well, normally I'd suggest Michael's. But we haven't seen him for days."

Rhin spoke, "And Valdoon won't tell us where he is..." Her thought trailed off and all three girls suddenly looked around at each other.

"You don't suppose..."

"Let's go!"

They headed down to Michael's quarters. Tam reached out for the door chime, then pulled her hand back, "Well, he's obviously not with one of us..."

Azami punched in the door code as the other two grinned impishly. Their smiles widened as the door opened and they heard 23 saying, "--That card!" and Michael replying, "No, it's-- Was that the door?"

They walked in, calling, "Michael's back!"

Michael got up to greet them, but the Trio halted in surprise as they saw Jacine. Then Azami and Rhin bounced forward with enthusiasm, "Jacine!" Tam followed more slowly, noticing the long-term tension in, and the gauntness of, her face. Huh. Another patient. And 23 was bad enough.

Jacine returned their greetings, if a little less exuiberently. Michael kept a careful eye on her, but she seemed to be handling herself alright. Tam and 23 noticed his wariness and filed it away as something to keep in mind. After the group had sorted itself out (and Michael had been scolded for not letting them know that he was going to get his sister), the siblings explained the game again, and a new one was started.

. . . . .