Me, Myself And I
rating: +20+x



Factor: Allison Chao (Resh)
Universe: N/A
Location: The Wanderer’s Library

Allison Chao hated herself.

She hated the way she lounged on the reading room’s couch as though she owned the place, she hated the way she waved her hands around like she was an actor on a stage, and she hated the high-pitched giggle she let out at her own jokes. Jokes that weren’t even that funny.

More than anything else, though, Allison Chao hated the way Allison Chao looked at her.

Her double had invited her out to this secluded corner of the Library with a half-legible letter shoved into a shoe locker in Neon London — a rambling, self-important missive signed with the name Allison Chao (Quetzal). Normally, Allison would have just ignored a message from one of her irritating counterparts, but in this case the information Quetzal had been offering in exchange for her indulgence was too valuable.

Still, this was only just barely worth it.

As Quetzal lounged on the couch, rambling on and on, the ball-jointed doll arm she had bound to her left shoulder delicately fed her grapes in the space between her words. Her newsboy cap lay on the coffee-rotted coffee table in front of her, just outside of Allison’s reach — she had no doubt that Quetzal had countermeasures set up to prevent theft, however. No matter how annoying her other versions were, Allison knew they were universally capable.

“So,” Quetzal concluded, with a dramatic swish of her blazer. “What do you think?”

She finally returned her gaze to Allison — sat on the other side of the room in a leather armchair. The two of them were separated by a fireplace that cast an eerie red light on the room, on the walls that doubled as bookshelves. This was the Library, after all — even in an infinite space like this, not an inch of real estate was to be wasted.

“Give me a second,” Allison sighed, crossing her arms. The emotional indicators were clumsy, forced, but Quetzal either didn’t mind or didn’t care. She was likely doing the exact same thing anyway. “I need to… to digest what you just said.”

In terms of appearance, she was a stark contrast to Quetzal — gloomy, listless and bedraggled would be the most common words to use, her long hair hanging over most of her face like some horror movie ghost. Her journeys throughout the multiverse thus far had not been kind to her: she hadn’t permitted them to be.

“But of course!” Quetzal sat up, spreading her arms wide theatrically. “It’s only best if we sisters are on the same page!

Allison clicked her tongue. “I’m not your sister.”

Quetzal winked at her, tapping her nose conspiratorially. “I think you’ll find yourself in the minority on that one, my dear.”

“I’m not your dear, either.”

Her double sighed, cupping her cheek with a hand as she adjusted her lounging position. Her doll-arm brought a glass of red wine to her lips, and she sipped it elegantly, waggling her eyebrows. Allison wasn’t sure whether that display was meant to be some kind of flex, or if her counterpart was just genuinely that decadent.

“So,” Allison said, resetting her face back to a neutral, blank expression. Her voice came out as a comfortable monotone. “Let me make sure I understand you correctly.”

“Go ahead!”

“Your big plan, the plan you made me come all the way here for, is to find ourselves a poorly developed Earth, trick the locals into thinking we’re gods, and have them build a giant golden statue of you?”

“Of us!” Quetzal wagged an admonishing finger. “We have the same face, after all — we can just double up!”

“And then, once we have the statue, we somehow steal it and then sell it to another Earth?”

“I have buyers all lined up,” Quetzal grinned cheekily. “If I play my cards right — and let’s be honest, I always do — I’m sure I can have a few of them pay up before they realize I don’t plan on parting with my statue.”

“I thought it was our statue.”

Quetzal waved a vague hand. “Sure, sure, whatever.”

Allison allowed herself an exhausted sigh, steepling her fingers in front of her as she leaned forward in the armchair. “Listen,” she said slowly. “Now that I understand the idea, would you like some constructive criticism?”

Her counterpart’s smug smile was infuriatingly wide. “But of course.”

“It’s the worst fucking idea I’ve ever heard.”

The smile vanished. “That’s not constructive criticism.”

Allison stood up from the chair, scratching at her ragged hoodie in a vain attempt to get the creases out of it. She knew she shouldn’t have come here. Nothing good ever came from meeting these idiots on their own terms.

“First of all,” she said, looking dismissively down at her twin on the couch. “I’m not interested in money — and even if I was, your plan has no guarantee of getting money. Pissing off half-a-dozen alternate Earths for a laugh and a gaudy statue sounds more like an elaborate suicide than anything else. To be frank, it depresses me that you and I have the same brain. Please don’t contact me again.”

And with that, she began marching to the door, her fingers curling around the handle. Just before she turned it, however, Quetzal’s voice rang out from the couch.

“If you’re not interested in money,” she asked, genuinely curious. “What are you interested in? What is it you want, little sister?”

That disgusting nickname again. “None of your business.”

Quetzal laughed from behind her. “No, seriously, I want to know! It’s more my business than most things I do, after all. Really, what is it you want? Knowledge? Prestige? Exploration? Excitement? Girls? Boys? Friendship? Everyone wants something. That’s what lets them keep living.”

With each suggestion — and with the one that was so clearly missed, again and again — Allison’s anger grew. Finally, she threw her hand down from the door handle and whirled around, jabbing a finger towards Quetzal.

“What do I want?” she said, each word punctuated with an additional jab. “I want what we should all want — what we should all be working towards, or have you forgotten? Dad — what they did to him, what they’re doing to him — or have you forgotten about that?”

Quetzal winced, something like genuine sympathy entering her eyes. “Oh,” she cringed. “You’re one of those, huh?”

Allison faltered just for a moment, her finger hovering in the air impotently. “What do you mean, one of those?” she muttered.

With a grunt, Quetzal sat up from her lounging position, her legs dangling over the side of the couch and her hands resting in her lap. She patted the space next to her. “Sit down a sec, little sister.” Her voice was unusually gentle.

“Hell no.”

“Okay,” Quetzal replied without a beat, smiling in what was clearly an attempt to be reassuring. “Everyone’s… all of us are like you at the start, Allison. Angry, bitter, wanting to… to get back at everyone or stop the bad things from happening at all. I know I was — the things I did, hoo boy.” Her gaze turned far away, as if her eyes were staring at another scene entirely. When she spoke, her voice was barely audible. “But they’ve already happened. They can’t unhappen. You understand that, right? At some point, you have to give up, move on. For your own sake, if nothing else.”

“Move on.” The words were like sewage in Allison’s mouth. A bitter nausea rose up in her stomach at what she was hearing. “Like you have?”

Quetzal’s eyes flicked up to stare into Allison’s — and for the first time, she saw her own self in her own gaze.

“Yeah,” she said, voice surprisingly firm. “Like I have.”

Allison was out of the room in a second flat.

Usually, even after having been here so many times, Allison would have to take a second to appreciate the glory of the Library — to experience a sense of awe at the skyscraper-bookshelves, the distant stars up in the rafters, the mingling crowds of the human and the inhuman — but her disgust at the cowardice she’d just witnessed thoroughly swept such emotions away. She stormed down the walkway, passing by dozens of doors to reading rooms just like the one she’d just been in.

No trace of emotion could be seen in her demeanour or her gait — but if one looked closely, very closely, they might just have seen a film of tears clinging to her eyes for just a second. She blinked, and then they were gone.

Move on? Move on? The idea that such a thought could infiltrate any version of her made her want to lean over the railing and vomit into the void below. Her father had suffered and died, she’d suffered and as good as died — and she was just meant to forget about it? Pretend like it had never happened? Hell no.

Moving on was the same as dying — and Allison Chao didn’t ever intend to let that happen.

“Guess things didn’t go so well then, boss?” JACK said, appearing at her side. Despite the respectable powerwalk Allison was executing, the red-headed storysprite’s leisurely stroll was easily able to keep pace with her. Narrative convenience didn’t much care about the laws of physics, after all.

“No,” Allison said, a little too quickly. “Things didn’t go well, just as I said they would — wouldn’t. I shouldn’t have let you convince me to meet with her.”

“My bad,” the self-assured young man raised an apologetic hand. “But my reasoning was still sound, I think. No woman is an island and all that — this world abhors people without friends. If you ever want to achieve anything, you need someone to achieve it with you — and I’m not talking about your usual pastime, in case you think that counts.”

“Isn’t that what I pay you for?”

JACK’s laughter was genuinely mirthful, echoing through the Library’s halls. He wiped a grammatical tear from his eye. “I appreciate your contributions, boss,” he chuckled. “But I’d advise you not to consider me a friend. You’ll end up happier that way.”

“Fantastic. Thank you for the pick-me-up. Good to know I have you.”

“Is that sarcasm I detect?” JACK beamed, spinning as he pranced down the walkway. “You’ve come so far, boss!”

Allison stared straight forward. “Believe me, it’s a source of continual shame.”

“Well,” JACK grinned, swinging over the railing to sit precariously on it, legs swinging over the void. “Maybe you’ll have better luck with the next one!”


Factor: Allison Chao (Resh)
Universe: 5299-2192-8883 (“Clear Skies”)
Location: Eastminister, London, England, Earth

The air tasted different here — cleaner than Allison was used to.

She got more than a few funny looks as she marched through Eastminister: doubtless she looked like anything more than just another homeless girl, and the lords of ladies of London’s richest district were used to a more discreet form of poverty. More than once she caught pedestrians wrinkling their noses at her as though she was exuding some kind of foul stench. Maybe she was — her memory of when she’d last properly washed was a little vague, after all.

The painfully loud hustle and bustle of the city didn’t do much to help her mood, either — she was forced to plant her hands over her ears as a particularly loud megabus rumbled past, and that only increased the funny glances she was getting.

Ignoring the looks and the whispers, she came to a small, nondescript tea shop nestled between two celebrity chef restaurants, like the demilitarized zone between warring countries. Making sure she had still had the invitation stuffed into her pocket — she was likely to get a bullet in the head otherwise — she opened the door and stepped inside.

Darkness.

The place was pitch-black… no, more than pitch-black — she was standing in an utter void, her legs dangling over nothingness. She got the feeling that, if she said the wrong thing here, she’d be stuck for a long, long time. Maybe forever. So, very calmly, she spoke:

“I’m here to see Penelope Carter.”

With her hands, she blindly fumbled in her pocket for the invitation — fingers tightening around the expensive envelope, palm slipping over the wax seal. For a single, horrifying moment, Allison thought that she’d dropped it into the darkness — but then a light chuckle rang out, it’s cadence immediately familiar.

“You seem concerned, little sister.”

The void vanished, and Allison’s feet again landed on wooden floorboards. She was now in a small room, mostly bare, save for an exquisitely crafted table and two chairs. A small window was present on each of the room’s four walls — but beyond the glass, all that was visible was complete, inky darkness. It was like this room was at the bottom of the ocean, just barely avoiding being crushed by the pressure. A bright chandelier dangled from the ceiling.

Just like her voice, the woman sitting at the table, drinking a cup of tea, was immediately recognizable. Even with the eyepatch on her left eye and her motley collection of scars — faded gashes like the gills of a shark, the abandoned attempt at a Glasgow smile, the ruined and dangling left ear — Allison knew her own face. Just as she’d expected, Penelope Carter was just another Black Queen.

Well, she thought, a moment of arrogance slithering in her mind. Maybe not the Black Queen.

“You don’t seem especially surprised to see me,” Penelope Carter said, delicately putting the teacup back down onto its plate. “Or rather, to see me with this face.”

The woman was wearing a brown pinstripe suit and a long coat, her dark hair flowing over the chair behind her. Black leather gloves covered her hands, steepled in front of her on the table. A golden image of a dragon decorated the surface of her eyepatch, roaring at some invisible threat. It was as if she’d tried to dress for a business meeting and a fashion show at the same time.

Allison walked around the table and sat in the other chair, watching her other self for any signs of duplicity. “There’s only one person who’d bother getting in contact with me,” she said. “I don’t like to waste time unnecessarily. What is it you want?”

As she’d said, she’d pretty much known that Penelope Carter was an Allison Chao from the very beginning. It was easy to stop your own behaviour patterns, and it wasn’t the first time she’d encountered a Black Queen going by another name. After what had happened with that Henrietta III von Apollyon maniac, nothing could surprise her anymore.

An insincere, lopsided smile spread across Carter’s face. “Well, you seem to be a young lady who wants to get right down to it. Are you in some kind of hurry?”

Allison shrugged uncertainly. “Like I said, I don’t want to waste time.”

Carter glanced up towards the chandelier. Her good eye narrowed slightly — Allison wasn’t sure what that movement indicated, if anything, but this version of her seemed to have a way of putting her on edge. “This room is very interesting. Were you aware of that?”

“No,” Allison shook her head. “What’s so interesting about it?”

“Around ten years ago,” Carter explained. “A group of miscreants attempted to steal from the Wanderer’s Library. A foolish mission, as I’m sure you understand, but these fools had somehow gotten their hands on equipment that allowed them much more success than you’d normally expect. They’re all still suffering a fate worse than death, of course, but before they were caught they managed to scoop this room out from the Library and send it adrift, until it landed here. Still, it’s connected to the Library by something like an umbilical cord. I just thought that was interesting.”

“So what you’re really saying is that the Library’s rules apply in this space?”

Carter’s smile widened fractionally. “I’m glad you’re such an intelligent girl. Just a little incentive for us not to kill each other.”

“Does that usually happen?”

Penelope sipped her tea. “It wouldn’t be the first time. On this occasion, however, I’m pleased to tell you I actually want to offer you a job.” Her nose wrinkled. “Some actual purpose might be just the thing you need.”

And there it was.

Allison smiled sweetly back at Carter, but even she knew the expression was sickeningly fake. “Purpose?” she asked, her voice several pitches higher than usual. “Whatever kind of purpose could you be offering, hm?”

If Carter realized she’d already lost her quarry, she didn’t show it. “I’ve already gotten several of us on board. The Marshall, Carter and Dark of this universe is making a killing in extradimensional artifacts — if you’d simply agree to assist us in fetching some simple items from realities a little closer to your own, I’d be only too happy to allow you to share in our success. There’s a mansion on the coast of New Spain where I’m told the waves are just to die for. I’m sure they’d have no problem making room for another Allison to share in the luxury.”

Calmly, very calmly, Allison reached over the table, gently picked up Carter’s teacup — and hurled it against the wall, where it shattered into hundreds of pieces. Carter sighed.

“Should I consider that a no?”

Allison turned to her double, the slightest desperation infiltrating her tone. “Is this it? Really? This is all there is, all you can think of? Look at you — you’re one of the richest women on this planet! You could take them on, you could beat them easy, you could take him back! And you’re just sitting here, sipping tea and — and doing fuck-all!”

“Ah,” Carter said delicately. “You’re one of those.”

Sudden anger spiked into Allison’s heart — shattering restraint that had been worn down over many months — and she lunged over the table to slam her fist into the business woman's face. If nothing else, if nothing else, she could wipe that pitying look off her face, make her realize that Allison wasn’t a child to be looked down upon!

Ding.

Allison stopped her passage over the table, her fist hovering limp in the air. A razor blade was tickling against her jugular, held by a stern-looking woman in an old-fashioned maid uniform. Slowly, slowly, Allison gulped — she knew by instinct that this woman was a predator, someone who could end her life with the slightest muscle movement.

At first, it looked as if Carter hadn’t moved — but when Allison looked closer, she saw that a small golden bell was now dangling between two of her fingers. The inside pocket of her long coat was now slightly visible, and there Allison could see countless more bells, some heavily damaged and some as pristine as the golden one.

“I’d thank you not to lay your hands on my employer,” the stern woman whispered, staring unblinking at Allison. “Shall I execute her, ma’am?”

As quietly as she could to avoid nicking her throat, Allison whispered: “I don’t think the Library would appreciate you killing me on the premises.”

“Oh, I’d be very discreet,” the woman smirked, brushing a lock of unruly hair out of Allison’s face. “Believe me — you’d barely feel a thing, and there’d be hardly a drop of blood at all. I doubt the Library would even notice.”

Carter raised her free hand, shaking her head. “That’s enough, Miss Deeds,” she said. “I’m not fond of suicide — even if it’s in self-defense.”

Instantly, Miss Deeds relented, returning her razor blade to her pocket and curtsying respectfully to her employer. A moment later, she vanished, with no sign that she’d ever been there at all — save for the momentary tightness in Allison’s throat as it sank in just how close she’d come to death. The panic cleared as long seconds ticked on and the maid showed no signs of reappearing —

— only for the panic to return with a vengeance as Carter turned back to her, eye locked into a murderous glare.

“Listen, little girl,” Carter hissed, returning the golden bell to her pocket. “I see that you think you’re very important and so very unique, that your pain and your hate are singular. Well, they aren’t. I was you, once. They took Charles from me, just as they took him from you, and I made them pay.”

The word came out of Allison’s mouth as a murmur. “How…?”

Carter closed her eye, a smirk crossing her lips as the scene played out once again before her. “I killed them,” she whispered, pleasure evident in her voice. “Everyone involved. I killed them. I killed their families. I killed everyone they’d ever cared about. I killed everyone they ever worked with. And then I went to another Earth and did it again, and again, and again. It was a long damn time before I was satisfied.”

When she opened her eye again, she suddenly looked very tired, and her voice cracked as she finished: “But I am satisfied — and now I can live my life. Do you understand? It won’t make me happy. It didn’t make me happy.”

Allison looked down at one of the most powerful women on this Earth, her hands hanging by her sides as she digested what she’d just been told. Coming from a version of herself who’d accomplished everything she wanted, what could this be considered but prophecy? If what she said was true, the best thing to do would be to take her advice. To give up. To move on.

But that was something she would never do. Instead, she opened her mouth and spoke, deathly quiet: “Does the Black Moon howl?”

“What?” For the first time since Allison had met her, Carter sounded confused.

Allison shook her head. “Nevermind.” And with that, she turned and left. She had that. At the very least, she still had that.


Factor: Allison Chao (Resh)
Universe: N/A
Location: The Wanderer’s Library

Allison sidled out of the way of a heavily bandaged Cowboy as she made her way towards the nearest library desk, planting her hands over her ears and gritting her teeth to drown out the omni-lingual babble of the countless sapients that populated the Library.

Just like with every other Black Queen Allison had encountered, Penelope Carter hadn’t known about the Black Moon. It was true, then: Allison was the only Black Queen that had that entity’s favour. There was the less charitable interpretation, of course — that Allison was the only version that had needed outside assistance to reach this point — but she cast that aside. What it meant, what it really meant, was that she was the only Allison Chao with any chance of actually achieving her goals.

Her benefactor was nothing if not capable, after all.

After minutes of maneuvering through the crowd, Allison finally reached the desk, staring down the diminutive Archivist behind it. That was a little pointless, to be fair, since the Archivist had no eyes, but Allison still liked to feel she was in control here.

Following a few moments of silence, Allison cleared her throat to get the Archivist’s attention.

How can I help you?” it gurgled, twitching in its seat.

“I’m looking for the Seal of Solomon, ninth edition,” Allison said, injecting the necessary amount of confidence into her voice. “Paper format, please.”

The Archivist vibrated in its seat, the required information flooding into its mind. Thin, bony hands grasped at empty air for a few seconds. “Shelf Apple-92-Lemur,” it clicked. “Do you intent to lend it out?

Allison nodded — and then, again realizing her mistake, replied: “Yes.”

I will have it retrieved for you. Please present your Library card.

She hesitated for a moment before pulling the card out of her pocket.

Unlike the standard-issue Library card, the piece of paper Allison slid across the desk held no picture of her, no identification at all in fact — just a jet-black square. No light reflected against the card, instead simply disappearing into its depths. In terms of appearance, it was more like a card-shaped hole in space than anything else.

Blind as it was, the Archivist recoiled once the card came near it, hurriedly pushing the item back in Allison’s direction.

I will have it retrieved for you,” it repeated — though it’s voice was now more a snarl than anything. “May you die screaming.

Allison wasn’t especially surprised at the reception; she was used to it by now. Long ago, her employer had apparently managed to extract some concessions from the Library — even though this place obeyed those ancient agreements, that didn’t mean it had to like them. So long as things still went the way Allison needed, though, she didn’t much care.

Within a few minutes, she was marching away from the desk, the heavy tome clutched to her chest.

“That’s heavy-duty stuff,” JACK commented. “You got a plan in mind?”

The storysprite appeared sitting cross-legged on a nearby reading table, earning himself a glare from a passing Docent. He seemed more like a JACK FROST than his usual heroic fare today, tiny icicles hanging from his eyelashes and a noticeable frostbite covering his skin. He tossed an empty paint-bucket from hand to hand.

While Allison doubted that JACK wanted an actual explanation, or would listen to one, she found herself speaking anyway: “The entities described in this tome are powerful,” she said. “If I can successfully summon and bind them, they’ll make useful allies against Foundations. We’ll test them against the Nautical Earth we were investigating last week.”

“Roger dodger,” JACK offered a lazy salute. “When are we doing this, then?”

“Tomorrow.”

JACK cocked his head. “Not today? That’s not like you. What happened to not wasting time?”

Allison cursed inwardly: this damn thing could be too sharp sometimes. “I’m busy today.”

“With what? The only thing you ever do is… oh, I see. Your usual pastime.”

Allison ignored JACK, marching towards the nearest Way as the storysprite’s voice faded away behind her:

“That isn’t healthy, you know!”


Factor: Allison Chao (Resh)
Universe: 2190-7625-9811 (“The Road Most Travelled”)
Location: Los Angeles, California, United States of America, Earth

The girl seemed to be doing well at her new job.

It was something to do with computers, from what Allison had observed. Not a perfect job, but far above the norm in terms of what was available on this Earth. Good pay, good benefits, a sense of stability. Allison vaguely wondered what it would be like to have a sense of stability.

Allison watched the girl from a distance, her hood pulled over her head to hide her face. It wouldn’t do for the girl to recognize herself, after all.

The happy girl was sitting outside her office, eating a sandwich on her bench as she watched the world go by. There was something different about her. The first few times Allison had come here to watch her, she hadn’t been able to spot exactly what that was — but now that she’d finally figured it out, it seemed obvious. She was so much lighter than everyone else, like they had a weight on their shoulders that she’d thrown off with ease.

Give up, Allison had been told. If she did give up, was this the kind of life she could have? This sort of simple, easy happiness? It would be nice. It would certainly be nice.

A decision came dangerously close to forming in Allison’s mind — but then the happy girl’s phone rang, and she put it to her ear. Any treasonous notions still remaining were firmly eradicated with the disgusting words the happy girl spoke:

"̵̟̎H̶̘̿ì̴̥,̷̱̓ ̵̮̎D̶̯̐a̵͖̒ď̵̯!̴̲͌"̴̞̋

Allison’s hands tightened into hateful fists in her pockets, squeezing with such force that her fingernails drew blood. Her breath felt like acid in her lungs, and she had to cling to the nearest lamppost to stay standing up.

That’s not your father, she wanted to scream. Have you forgotten? Have you forgotten?! They killed him! They killed him and you’re sitting there calling some trash your father like it’s nothing, like he’s nothing! How dare you?! How dare you be happy?!

Give up, they’d said, as if it was inevitable. Give up. Give up. Give up.

She wasn’t like them. She was no coward. She wouldn’t kill her own will — and she’d never give up.

The happy girl laughed at something her fake father said, and that was the last thing Allison could stand. She whirled around, turning her back on the happy girl, and marched through the shadowed Way back to the Library. Before coming here, she’d entertained notions of speaking with her ‘happiest self’, but now Allison realized there was no point even talking to that blissful idiot.

She was one of those, after all.


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