Summary: And now for something completely different! Join one Science Heroine in her Perilous Quest to find her way to Solid Ground through the power of Science, Steam, and Epona's Own Grace.
Another London, in another 1884.
Victoria Cogsworth walked down the stairs into her father's underground laboratory, stepping carefully to avoid any untoward puddles of unidentified slime that might be waiting to adhere themselves to her boots. Biology was quite the least appealing of the sciences. Its tendency to create undifferentiated mess and muck and then leave it strewn about to trip up a poor girl trying to deliver the tea was entirely inappropriate.
"Papa?" she called. "I've brought the tea. Papa, are you down here?" Where else would he be? He went down the stairs; the stairs connect to the kitchen; I was in the kitchen; he did not come back up the stairs. As the teleporter was, at present, quite broken, all logic dictated that he was still in the laboratory. "Papa?"
An oddly-shaped pile of dusty rags near the large contraption her father insisted on calling the Eventually Effective Time Machine—on the theory that eventually, his tinkering would lead him to discover the solution, at which point he would promptly travel back in time and tell himself how to make it work more promptly, paradox and potentially unmaking reality be damaged—caught her eye. The first chill of uncertainty slithered over her skin. "Papa?" she asked, stepping closer.
It was the tea service, or more specifically, the blackcurrant trifle, which saved her. Held in front of her as it was, it was the first thing to hit the time bubble that her father's careless tinkering had created. As it pierced the soap bubble film of causality that was keeping all reality from being swallowed by the void, it was sucked into a whirling paradox of infinite dessert possibilities. Trifles past, present, and future suddenly filled the lab, consuming and being consumed at an improbable pace. Victoria found herself awash in a sea of deadly deliciousness.
She had been raised a scientist, by a scientist, and for all that she was distraught—her father was almost certainly dead, and the tea was most definitely ruined—Victoria kept her head about her. Her father had always taught her to remain cool in a crisis, and he would have been proud of her that day, had he not already been lost to her. Moving quickly, she flung the tea service at the Eventually Effective Time Machine (now perhaps better referred to as the Unfortunately Effective Time Machine) and drew the light pistol from her belt in almost the same motion. It worked on the same principle of fusion which powered the sun, and fired, not bullets, but blasts of super-heated plasma too bright to look directly upon.
"I'm sorry, Papa," she whispered, and fired, her plasma bolt tearing through tea service, blackcurrant paradox, and time machine all in the same second. Light exploded into the room, coming out of everything, like a supernova objecting to the petty laws of physics.
And as simply as that, the world ended.
Another San Diego, not very long ago at all.
The temptation to "accidentally" pull the wrong gun from her belt and blast the bunny-eared bitch into a thin scrim of undifferentiated molecules was higher than Victory Anna wanted to admit, especially where Polychrome might hear her. She struggled to live up to Poly's ideals, and one of those ideals was not shooting people simply because she felt like it. It was funny, really. They were the supervillains in this little pantomime, but it was the heroes of the piece who seemed far less concerned with the fact that innocent people might get hurt.
And Velveteen was the worst of a bad lot. Still. If this woman truly was the Velveteen from another timeline—one where she wasn't such a raging bitch—then she didn't deserve to be reduced to her component atoms, no matter how satisfying the idea might be. And if she wasn't the Velveteen from another timeline, at least Victory Anna would have the rare pleasure of shooting her in the chest with a ray gun.
Velveteen closed her eyes, clearly bracing herself against the blast to come. The sheer determination on her face was enough to finally convince Victory Anna that maybe Poly's instincts were right about this one; maybe this was the good version of the woman she'd come to see as just shy of an arch-nemesis.
Good luck, and may Epona's white horses carry you safe, thought Victory Anna. Aloud, and with her usual manic good cheer, she said, "Say 'trans-dimensional transit'!"
She pulled the trigger. And as simply as that, for the second time in her life, the world ended.
Worlds, it must be said, are in some respects like soap bubbles: a thousand of them pop every second, winking out of existence so abruptly that they might as well never have existed in the first place. And once they're gone, they're gone. Something close might exist—probably exists, in the vastness of the multiverse—but the original world is lost forever. Those few exiles who have somehow survived the destruction of their home realities have been known to say, with a deep and abiding sorrow, that a thousand country songs were right. You can never go home again.
It was bad luck, really, and nothing more than that, which caused the destruction of Victoria "Victory Anna" Cogsworth's world to coincide with the creation of the Wonderful Life scenario intended for the Earth A version of Velma "Velveteen" Martinez. It was more bad luck that any parallel world, naturally occurring or artificially made, will need a past to justify its present. The fake world had stretched itself backward, uncurling like a flower, and the inadvertant time traveller had been brought to a sudden, unplanned stop inside a new reality.
If not for that accident of timing, Victoria's trajectory would have hurled her into Earth A, where things would have gone very differently indeed. But while reality may be malleable, the past is harder to change, and for four long, wonderful years, Victoria believed that she had found herself a replacement home. It was hard, at times. This wasn't her world. Their Victorian Era corresponded roughly with her own, but they followed some silly monotheistic church, not the good old C of E (although they had a C of E; it was just the Church of England instead of the Church of Epona). Their wars were different, their scientific accomplishments were different...and at the same time, so much was the same. Like love. Like people looking down on lovers, for loving.
Like lovers not caring if they're looked down on, not once they have each other, not once they understand that love can live through hardship. Like friendship, and people caring for one another.
Having access to the internet, mail-order scientific supply catalogs, and ice cream year-round was really just the icing on the cake that was Yelena. For Lena, Victoria would have endured anything, any indignity, any insanity that the world wanted to throw at her. And then, in an instant, Yelena was gone, and the battlefield was gone, and everything was gone but Victory Anna herself, and she was falling down, down, down, into a blackness that never seemed to end, but that still somehow tasted like blackcurrant trifle. It was over.
...it was over, that was, right until she landed on her ass on the very rooftop she'd just been so rudely yanked away from. It was day. That was wrong. It had been night, deepest night, and there had been a battle raging all around her...
But it was daylight now, and there were no signs that there had ever been a battle here. There were no signs that there had ever been a person here, at least not since the building was constructed. Pigeons perched on the roof's edge, watching her with brainless yellow eyes. Gravel and pigeon feces covered everything—including, she was sure, her own behind. Victory Anna clambered to her feet, keeping a firm grip on the ray gun she'd stolen from Dr. Darwin, and attempted to brush the mess off the back of her skirt. It wasn't going easily. Pigeon shit was annoying like that.
"Poly?" she said, more out of reflex than because she actually expected to receive a reply. Dr. Darwin's stupid gun had clearly come with some sort of unexpected recoil, one that knocked her forward a few hours or even days through time. Always a risk, when you were dealing with bloody morons who thought that neutrinos were Nature's way of providing better evil Legos.
As expected, Polychrome didn't answer her. Also as expected, Victory Anna's flying machine was gone, cleared away with the rest of the detritus from the fight. The image of Poly trying to fly the contraption home was almost as amusing as the situation was irritating. Victory Anna sighed, slung the ray gun (she was already beginning to regard it as "hers") over her shoulder, and started for the door that would let her access the stairs. Time to get home, before Poly started to worry about her.
She needn't have been concerned.
"Pol? I'm home." Victory Anna stopped at the doorway to the converted section of steam tunnel that housed their lair, squinting into the gloom. It was like all the lights had been turned off, even the digital read-out on the DVR. That wasn't right. Victory Anna swallowed the first scrambling signs of panic and called, more loudly, "Pol? Stop playing silly buggers. Turn on the lights."
Polychrome—Yelena—didn't answer her.
"Pol, this isn't funny."
There was still no answer.
Keeping the panic at bay was no longer an option. Victory Anna inched slowly forward into the dark, waiting for the ground to change texture as she stepped onto the carpet, or for a couch to block her progress. Neither of these things happened. All she felt underfoot was stone, and the air smelled like heat, stale urine, and the clamminess of the underground. It was like no one had lived here in years, if ever. "Lena?" she whispered.
Her questing hands finally met resistance: a pipe, covered with rust and traceries of moisture. She remembered that pipe. It had been situated right in the middle of their lair, up until the day when she removed it, first working for hours to re-route the water it had been carrying back into the municipal supply. There was no way that pipe could be there. Not unless—unless—
Victory Anna left their lair at a dead run, making her way rapidly back to street level. She didn't even look around for hero patrols when she emerged from the tunnels. She just sprinted down the street toward the nearest coffee shop with a "Free WiFi" sign.
If she'd been paying attention, she might have seen all the other subtle changes in the neighborhood she thought of as her own; all the other things that were warped or out of place. She wasn't paying attention. All her attention was on running.
The barrista looked up when Victory Anna came bursting into the room, and blinked. "Whoa," he said. "Is there some sort of comic book convention in town?"
She stared at him. It took several seconds before she finally found her voice and asked, as sweetly as she could muster, "Is there a public-access terminal I can use?"
"Sure," he said. "In the corner. You're in luck, it just freed up."
"Yes," said Victory Anna weakly. "In luck." She walked over to the machine, signed in, and began to type.
Finding what she needed was surprisingly easy; all she had to do was run a search for "San Diego Superheroes." What came up was an endless list of articles about comic books, about everyday people who had managed to rise to meet supposedly impossible odds, about firefighters and policemen and politicians. Not a single superhuman. She tried the websites of the superhumans she knew were online. They all came up missing. There was only one answer that made sense:
Somehow, the recoil from Dr. Darwin's ray gun had been enough to blast her right out of her own reality and into this one. Well. That was a thing she knew how to handle easily enough. "May I use your restroom?" she asked, standing.
"It's in the back," said the barrista.
"Thank you for your hospitality," said Victory Anna solemnly, and walked into the back of the coffee shop, where she joined the line of people waiting for the bathroom. As it inched slowly toward her goal, she struggled to slow her heartbeat and calm her breathing. It would reduce the trauma of what she had to do.
When it was finally her turn, she stepped into the small, bleach-scented room and closed the door firmly behind herself. Then she turned to face her reflection, using it as a guide while she carefully lined the ray gun up on her own chest. Epona guide me, she thought, and closed her eyes, and pulled the trigger.
Three hours later, when the barrista finally got approval from his manager to take the locked door off its hinges, there was no sign that she had ever been there at all.
Victory Anna woke up to the sound of someone knocking vigorously on the bathroom door. She pushed herself, groaning, to her feet. "Just a moment!" she shouted.
"Hurry up!" shouted the knocker, giving the doorknob a good rattle to illustrate his point.
"Oh, my aching head..." Victory Anna looked around the bathroom. It looked exactly the same. That didn't tell her anything. One off-market coffee shop restroom was very much like another. She holstered her ray gun, turned, and opened the door.
The man who'd been knocking glared as he pushed past her, and all but shoved her out of the bathroom in the process of slamming and locking the door. Victory Anna sighed and walked out into the coffee shop, which, like the bathroom, looked exactly the same. Well, almost the same. The barrista was gone, replaced by a woman who could have been his sister. She looked at Victory Anna, and blinked.
"Please don't blow up my shop," she said.
Victory Anna grinned. "Oh, good," she said. "You recognize me." Then she turned, humming to herself, and walked out onto the street.
She was halfway back to the hidden entrance to her lair when a voice declared behind her, "Stop, unlicensed gadgeteer, and identify yourself!"
"That's a bit rude, don't you think? I have a name, you know." Victory Anna turned to see which of the various possible superheroes was accosting her...and froze, unsure of what other reaction could possibly be appropriate.
The Super Patriots, West Coast Division, lowered themselves dramatically to the sidewalk in front of the frozen Victory Anna. The blond man at the front of their small formation was wearing a black suit with starburst white designs on the shoulders and boots. He was accompanied by a woman in a red suit that seemed to have been molded to resemble a lobster's carapace, a woman with rabbit ears, antlers, and a sheriff's silver star, and a man in a silver jumpsuit, with a tool belt around his waist.
"Identify yourself," repeated the blond man.
"You're the Super Patriots, aren't you?" asked Victory Anna.
The members of America's premiere super team exchanged a look, clearly baffled. Finally, the woman in the lobster corset said, "Yes. Who are you?"
"You're the bloody Super Patriots," said Victory Anna. She stabbed a finger toward the blond man. "You control light, don't you? What do they call you?"
"Prism," said the man, sounding as confused as the lobster girl. "Who are you?"
"In a dimension where you had the good sense to be born with breasts, I'm your girlfriend," said Victory Anna. She pulled the ray gun from her belt. The Super Patriots shouted, beginning to move—but not quickly enough. By the time they started to attack, she had pulled the trigger, and was gone.
This time, the blast deposited her on a sidewalk. It was dark. Victory Anna staggered back to her feet, head spinning, and squinted at the sky. There were no stars. There wasn't even a moon. "What the hell?" she asked, of no one in particular. "Is this the dimension of bloody eternal night or something?" The empty sky gave no answer.
When all else failed, the local coffee shop seemed to be a decent barometer of the changes. Victory Anna started walking back toward it, keeping the ray gun out this time, in case she needed to leave quickly. As she approached, she saw that the lights were on. That was a good sign. If there was any light at all, it was unlikely that the Dark Gods from beyond the Walls of What-Is had managed to break through and eat everyone.
Although she might have preferred that, considering what she saw when she looked through the coffee shop window. The menu was as elaborate as it had ever been, but instead of coffee, tea, and assorted types of cocoa, the beverages on offer consisted of blood, blood, and assorted types of blood. It was remarkable how many sorts of blood there were, once you decided to go exotic. Not that the naked mole rats likely appreciated the steep cost of their plasma. They'd be rather too busy being dead.
When vampires have consumed the world, there's really only one thing to do. Victory Anna backed slowly away from the window, watching to be sure she hadn't been spotted. Then she turned and ran off down the street.
Time to find a payphone.
It turned out to be surprisingly easy to locate a public phone in a world dominated by vampires, possibly because they were harder to lose in a world cast into eternal darkness than your average portable. Victory Anna dialed quickly before wedging herself into the corner behind the phone bank, blocking herself as much as possible from view. The phone rang once, twice...
"Hello?" asked the familiar honey-sweet voice of the Princess.
Victory Anna wanted to relax. She didn't allow herself that luxury. "Princess, hello. I have two questions for you."
"Do you now?" asked the Princess, tone going suddenly suspicious. "Why am I answering them?"
"Because I had the number for your castle, which means I must have good reason for calling you," said Victory Anna. "First question: do you recognize my voice?"
"Can't say as I do, sugar. Am I supposed to?"
"Apparently not. My name is Victory Anna. I'm a science heroine from a parallel dimension. Your cognate is an ally of mine." Dimensional travel just made things so complicated. "Which brings me to my second question: are you a vampire?"
There was a long pause. "You really aren't from around here, are you?" asked the Princess, finally. "Honey, we're all vampires. Have been since Lord Byron woke up from his undying sleep and decided to remake the world in his glorious image."
"How could he even get to you?" asked Victory Anna. "You live in a castle made of rainbows and unicorn laughter, for Epona's sake! He'd have to—" She paused. "He turned all the little girls in the world, and you simply became a vampire, didn't you?"
"I'm their living nightmare," the Princess confirmed. "Look, whoever you are, whatever world you came from, you need to get out of here, and you need to get out now. I may be a vampire who doesn't bite people for fun, but I'm in the minority. Get in your little science machine, and go home."
The line went dead. Victory Anna looked miserably at the receiver. "But that's what I'm trying to do..." she said, to no one in particular. Then she removed the ray gun from her belt. By the time the local equivalent of the Super Patriots showed up, following the scent of fresh blood, she was long gone.
The next world seemed to be entirely populated by mer-people. "Seemed" was the relevant term; Victory Anna only had time to see a few of them swimming toward her before the need for oxygen caused her to blast herself again, sending herself hurtling out of that underwater reality. At least the ray gun was no longer knocking her out. Drowning would have made things awkward.
The world after that? Robots. After that, post-alien invasion, like something out of H.G. Wells. The worst was the world that appeared to have been completely bent to the whims of the Marketing Division of The Super Patriots, Inc. Every hero was iconic, every color was bright, and every eye Victory Anna met was full of screams.
When she finally found herself in a bucolic countryside straight out of a Ray Bradbury story (and no one she encountered was willing to tell her what had happened to San Diego, something she was not willing to spend too much time considering), Victory Anna had had quite enough. She found the local train station and begged her way onto the next train up the coast. Portland still appeared on the map, as did San Francisco, even if Seattle had followed San Diego into unexplained oblivion. "Never liked rain, anyway," she said to the confused ticket agent.
"You have a nice trip, miss," he said. If her outlandish attire struck him as odd, well, he didn't say anything; it wouldn't have been polite. Victory Anna took her ticket and walked down the wooden platform to wait for the train. When it arrived&a long, battered thing with an engine that chugged mournfully along like it had been wounded and was wondering when it would be allowed to lay down and die—she climbed aboard, found her seat, and collapsed. She was asleep before they pulled out of the station, and she remained asleep most of the way up the length of California, as all the exhaustion caught up with her at once. Jumping between worlds is hard on a body, and she'd done it a dozen times in less than eight hours. She was done.
Portland, Oregon: Earth A.
Velma Martinez—occasionally known as "Velveteen," official superheroine of the city of Portland, but only when she was wearing the headband with the rabbit ears on it—walked up the path toward her front door, most of her attention focused on digging her keys out of her pocket without dropping the two bags of groceries in her arms. Under the circumstances, she could probably be forgiven for not realizing that there was someone hiding in her geraniums until that someone stepped out of the bushes and shoved the muzzle of a ray gun against the back of her neck. Velma froze.
"I have been through eighty-seven parallel realities to get here, and most of them were balls," said Victory Anna wearily. Exhaustion made her accent stronger. "Now I don't know what you did, and I don't know how you did it, but you're going to undo it now. If you do, maybe I won't shoot you."
Velma closed her eyes. "Hi, Torrey," she said, quietly. "I'm sorry you're here."
"I bet you are, me having the drop on you and all. Now send me home."
No, thought Velma, that's not why I'm sorry. "I can't," she said aloud. "I'm not the reason that you're here. Put down the gun. We need to go inside so I can make a phone call."
"What, calling your allies to come and apprehend me?"
"No. Calling the man who can make you understand what's really going on."
And Victoria Cogsworth—who was really a quite reasonable person once you got to know her, and when you weren't casually erasing her world and all the people she cared about from existence—paused for a moment before finally lowering her ray gun. "Do you have running water?" she asked, in a small voice. "I'd commit acts of blasphemy and possibly homicide for a hot shower."
"I have plumbing," Velma confirmed.
"Oh, thank Epona," said Victory Anna, and followed her inside.
Victory Anna stayed in the bathroom for the better part of an hour, showering, crying, showering again, and finally blow drying and braiding her hair. When she finally emerged, dressed in a borrowed bathrobe that Velveteen had stolen from the Crystal Glitter Unicorn Cloud Castle the last time the Princess had a sleepover, she found Velveteen sitting on the couch, waiting for her. Her erstwhile nemesis was properly dressed in velvet unitard and bunny ears, making it clear that the time for civilian identities was over.
The woman sitting next to Velveteen on the couch was familiar the way that everything in this universe was familiar: so close to normal, and yet so far away at the same time. Her skin was the proper shade of Rankin/Bass holiday special blue, and her hair was appropriately white, with highlights that mimicked the Northern Lights. But it was also cut too short, in an asymmetric bob, and her eye makeup was a blend of silvers and pinks that the Jacqueline Frost Victoria knew had stopped using years ago. Victory Anna stopped at the end of the hall, staring.
Jackie spoke first. That was right, but the words she said were wrong, loaded with a degree of compassion that Victory Anna simply couldn't believe from the daughter of the Snow Queen: "Victoria, I'm so sorry."
Victory Anna's mouth went dry. "What are you talking about? What are you doing here?" She looked to Velveteen. "Why in the world would you call Frostbite to explain the situation to me? She's not going to help us."
Jackie groaned. "Oh, sweet Christmas. Vel, she's been living in a reality where you and I didn't stay friends. Most of those are Frostbite worlds. It turns out that without people to tell me when I'm pushing it, I can get a little, well, bitchy."
"There's a shocker," deadpanned Velveteen. She focused on Victory Anna. "Jackie's here because she's one of my best friends, and she's going to take us to the man I mentioned before."
"Don't worry about getting dressed," said Jackie. "The mirror takes care of everything.""What are you talking about?" asked Victory Anna. Jackie just smiled and pursed her lips like she was going to whistle. There was no sound; instead, a stream of cartoon snowflakes flowed into the room and covered everything briefly in a veil of white. And when the whiteness lifted...
...they were someplace else, standing in a snowbank that smelled like peppermint, and was as warm as fresh cotton candy. The sky overhead was an oddly cheery shade of navy blue, spangled with silver stars that looked like they'd been cut from tin foil. Victory Anna yelped, hand going automatically to her belt as she reached for a ray gun that wasn't there. Then she yelped again, staring down at the holiday-themed version of her usual uniform which had replaced her borrowed bathrobe. All the gears were the golden shade of Epona's sacred bridle, and her normally brown leather corset was done in white. "What in the bloody...?"
"Dammit, Jackie, I liked that bathrobe," said Velveteen, sounding annoyed. Victory Anna looked away from her own attire. Velveteen's clothes had undergone the same sea-change as her own; she was now wearing a brown velvet mini-dress over burgundy tights, and had a sprig of holly in her hair.
"Sorry. Magic mirror travel isn't an exact science," said Jackie. She reached into the nearest snowdrift, pulling out a large, flat box wrapped in brightly-colored paper. "Do not open until Christmas."
"Which means 'open before going home,' since it's always Christmas here." Velveteen tucked the box under her arm and turned to Victory Anna. "Come on. There's someone you need to talk to."
Jackie and Velveteen started walking down the drift toward a distant glow. Victory Anna followed, and realized that the illumination—which she had initially assumed was the Northern Lights—was coming from a small village nestled just beyond the curvature of the hill. A large man in a blue robe trimmed with gold rope was waiting for them, a wreath of holly crowning his head. Victory Anna stumbled to a stop.
"Snowfather?" she whispered.
"Ho, ho, ho," said the man Velveteen and Jackie knew as Santa Claus. There was no jolly twinkle in his eye. "Hello, Victoria. I'm sorry we had to meet like this."
Victoria Anna took a shaky breath. Then, as so many do when faced with their personal incarnation of Father Christmas, she burst into tears, ran the rest of the way down the hill, and threw herself into his arms. "Snowfather, I'm so glad you're here!" she wailed. "I've been jumping through all these worlds, and it's been a bloody nightmare, and I just want to go home!"
"Oh, Torrey." Santa put his arm around her and turned her around, so that they were both facing the open door to his cottage. "My poor, poor dear. We have so much to talk about, you and I..." He led her inside and shut the door, leaving Velveteen and Jackie standing in the snow.
Minutes slipped by. Finally, Jackie asked, "Cocoa?"
"Is it spiked?"
"Uh, have you met me?"
"Then yes, cocoa. Please." Velveteen followed Jackie down the village road to another small house. The pair went inside, and all was, if not merry, at least so very, very bright.
"The spare room is yours for as long as you want it," said Velma, opening the door to the second bedroom. She'd been using it for storage since she moved in. A call to the Princess had triggered some emergency home decorating, and her boxes were now stacked neatly in the garage, while the room was clean and equipped with all the standard furnishings: a bed, a dresser, a standing wardrobe. Well, maybe the wardrobe wasn't exactly "standard," but there was only so much normal you could expect from a bunch of woodland creatures with contractor's licenses. "I'll call the governor in the morning, and we can get started on getting you a hero license, just so The Super Patriots don't come sniffing around."
"Lovely," said Victoria dully, and walked into the room. She sat down on the edge of the four-poster bed, a puppet with cut strings, and closed her eyes. "I'd like to be alone now, if you don't mind."
"...okay," said Velma. She closed the door gently as she left the room, and walked down the hall to where Jackie was waiting.
"Well?" asked Jackie.
"I don't think this is going to work," Velma said. "She hates it here. She hates me. Why can't she stay in Winter?"
"Because in her original world, there was no Christmas, and having her in Winter for too long would warp things," said Jackie calmly. "Besides, if she doesn't connect with people, she's probably going to turn into a supervillain."
"Oh, yay," said Velma. "You make her a more appealing roommate all the time."
Jackie sighed. "She has nowhere else to go, Vel. You know what that's like."
"I know. That's why she can stay." Velma glanced back toward the hallway. "I just hope this doesn't go badly."
"Me, too, Vel. Me, too."
The two of them sat in silence after that, and tried to pretend they couldn't hear the distant sound of Victoria Cogsworth, alone in her room, sobbing.