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Generated: Jun 22, 2022 10:47 PM
Post last updated: Jun 22, 2022 10:47 PM
a death row pardon two minutes too late
Rachel in Astrocracy
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Rachel wakes up. Her head is pounding, and her memory is fuzzy—Tom's Yeerk, the polar bear, Tobias, the Ellimist, and then—

She is supposed to be dead, she knows. The Ellimist said he wouldn't save her—well, maybe there was a loophole. Or maybe it's Crayak.

Or this is the afterlife. She stifles a laugh. With her luck, it's more likely to be the past, or the future, or another planet. Rachel cracks open her eyes, flinching at the light, and examines her surroundings. It appears to be an ordinary Earth library. She staggers over to a computer and boots it up, in search of some answers.

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The computer thinks the date is Druoary 34, 785.

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Well. Rachel is a long way from home. She navigates to the web browser and searches for "world map".

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A map of Earth's continents arranged on a flat surface, with the North Pole at the center and Antarctica circling the edge.

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Yep, that sure is Earth! Maybe...some time traveler stepped on a butterfly and now people think there's such a month as "Druoary" and the Ellimist sent her here to fix it? Or maybe this is a better world and Crayak sent her hoping she'd screw things up.

With a jolt of fear, Rachel realizes there's something way more important to look up than the layout of the continents. She searches for "Yeerks".

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There's a vanishingly small number of results.  Four obvious misspellings of other words, a handful of instances of the same acronym-based indie band name.  The band in question seems neither Sharing-style family friendly nor particularly sinister.

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Relief washes over Rachel. Even early in the invasion, you could find rumors online. Here, there's nothing. No invasion! So it's probably safe to try the direct approach. There's...a test she needs to do first. She looks around the library for a bathroom.

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There's one!  Single room, handicap accessible, not gender segregated.

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She enters, locks the door, and starts morphing into a bear, ignoring imaginary Marco's crack in her head about hairy palms. As soon as it's clear that she retains the power, she aborts the morph, reverting to human form.

So I have my old morphs, at least...

She can't justify to herself putting it off any longer. She looks around the library for someone who can explain to her what the hell is going on.

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She has her pick of the librarians, a few older people, a mother with one smol and one mediom child, and a girl who looks close to her own age.

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While Rachel expects an uphill battle getting anyone to believe her, the one her own age seems like the best bet. She approaches her.

"Hi! I'm Rachel."

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"Hey.  Jackie."

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"Nice to meet you!

...So, there's no way to say this that doesn't make me sound crazy, but I promise I can prove it. I think I come from some sort of bizarro alternate timeline. Our calendar is different, and we use different map projections, and, um, we're fighting off an alien invasion."

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"Cool."

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Well, that wasn't an "I believe you", but it also wasn't an "I'm gonna call the cops on you", so Rachel is gonna keep trying.

"So, um, do you want to see my demonstration, or could you walk me through what country we're in and so on, or...?"

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" - Sorry, I need to think.

 

This is the town of Chelford, on the island cluster of Britannia, in the Roman Empire, on Earth."

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The Roman Empire? Fuck. Well, they have Internet and modern English, maybe they've also invented "not crucifiying people" and "being nicer to the Jews"?

"Um, take all the time to think you need."

There! That sounded sincere, right? And totally not at all like Rachel is bursting with impatience?

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Jackie closes her eyes and takes a deep breath.

"What sort of help do you need.  Food, a place to stay, access to a phone . . ."

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"A place to stay would be great! Just for a few nights, while I figure out my strategy. Food...I will need that at some point, won't I? I don't have any need for a phone right now; if it's possible at all to contact the people I know I suspect it will take a lot more than that."

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"Right, sure.  I can get you those."  She sighs.  "I think you can probably crash on my couch and if not - something else will be figured out."

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"Thank you! So, should I—go back to looking things up on the computer until you're ready to go, or what?"

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"I was about ready to head home.  You can look stuff up if you want to though."

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"No, I'll come with you. I could tell you about the world as I know it.

Oh! And demonstrate my ability. It's, um, turning into animals. Elite military tech, in my world."

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"Ahuh.  Do you have boots and a coat."

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"Nope. I woke up here; all I have are the clothes I'm wearing right now."

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"Cool.  You can borrow my coat."  Jackie starts extracting things from the pockets of the coat currently draped across the back of her chair and transferring them to her jeans and sweatshirt pockets.  "And the snow's not that bad as long as you're careful not to slip, and we can put you in fuzzy socks or whatever at my house."

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"Thank you!"

It briefly occurs to Rachel that she should go clothes shopping. Then she remembers that she has no money, no job, no ID, her only skill is "being a shapeshifting child soldier", and oh yeah, she's stuck in the Roman Empire.

Well, it was a nice idea.

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"Yeah."  Jackie hands over her coat and walks to the foyer, where there is a bin full of donated winter clothes which she pauses and stares at for a full ten seconds before heading for the door.

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"Um, are these clothes free for anyone?"

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"I don't.  Know."

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"Sorry, but—do you mind if I run and ask the librarian real quick? I'm not gonna have money for a while, I expect, and it would be nice to, you know, have more than one outfit."

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"Yes that's fine."

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Rachel scurries off and returns soon after, and descends on the bins to snatch up clothes like an eagle snatching up its prey. She is sorting them and grabbing the ones she likes best at impressive speed.

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"Did.  Did they say all of those?"

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"She said to take what I need!"

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Jackie looks like she wants to say something but ultimately just holds out a hand for her coat.

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Rachel hands back the coat. She thinks I have no money and I'm stuck here under your government which is probably evil, please just let me have this one victory really hard. Unfortunately, she has not developed the ability to thought-speak outside of morph with her resurrection, so this has no noticeable effect.

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When Rachel looks done scavenging Jackie wordlessly leads her on the walk to her house.

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"So, um, does your world have the concept of aliens? ...Extraterrestrials, that is, not immigrants."

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"Extraterrestrials."  It's clearly meant as a question, though delivered very flatly.

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"Yeah, you know, like people from other planets?"

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"Th.  Do - Aa.  No I don't know that."

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"Well, they exist! At least they did in my timeline so presumably they do in this one too unless someone stepped on rather a lot of butterflies."

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"What do butterflies have to do with that."

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"Oh, it's, um, a reference to a story I read in school. A guy goes back in time and steps on a butterfly and when he gets back to his time a much worse guy is the leader of his country. It's supposed to show how small changes can have big ripple effects, like—" like the Roman Empire not falling and inventing Internet, but it's probably not a good idea to talk like that out in the street where anyone can hear you "—like you guys having a month called 'Druoary'."

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"It's pronounced 'Duoary'."

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It is at least theoretically possible to get information out of Jackie! Score one for Rachel. Well, score two, score one was Jackie not calling the cops on her and getting her sent to the looney bin.

"Thanks. English spelling rules are stupid in every possible timeline, I suppose."

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It appears that getting more information out of Jackie will require additional prompting.  The snow crunches under their feet.

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Rachel figures she's bugged her enough for now. Further questions can wait until after they get back to the house and she can demonstrate morphing. She walks in silence.

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Jackie removes her boots and coat at the door.  "You can just set your clothes there."  She gestures to a table.  "And go, uh.  Wait in the living room.  Make yourself comfortable or whatever."

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Rachel sets her clothes on the table—folding them as she does so, not perfectly but well enough to reduce the amount of space they take up—and then proceeds to the living room.

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A cat comes to investigate her while Jackie makes moving-around and microwaving noises in other parts of the house.

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Rachel pets the cat, taking the opportunity to test if acquiring still works properly.

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Well, she now has a sleepy kitty laying next to her on the couch.

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Rachel gives the cat scritches for a few minutes before calling in Jackie to come check this shit out.

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"What," Jackie says a bit shortly, entering the living room with fuzzy socks, sweatpants, and mug of hot chocolate in hand.

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"Um, you might want to put that hot chocolate down. I'm about to demonstrate my animal morphing power."

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"Listen, on the off chance you're actually someone who needs help rather than a prankster or - some sort of test set up by my geminis.  I am already helping you.  I have taken you into my house, and am giving you clothes and hot chocolate, and I'm not going to let - I.  Am not categorically committing to anything in the event of extreme circumstances.  But if basically normal things happen I'm not going to let you sleep in the snow, and if there are extreme circumstances if it is at all feasible I will pass on that responsibility to somebody trustworthy.  And whatever trick you're about to pull is not going to change my willingness to do all that, so, thank you, I appreciate your commitment to the bit, cool story you're a great actor; I do not want to engage with it."  She's just this side of crying.  "Here's your hot chocolate."

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Fuck. Well, she can apologize after she's demonstrated.

Rachel turns into a cat! It is very gross.

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"What the fuck," says Jackie, accusatorily.

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"What the fuck," says the other cat on the couch, dazedly.

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"What the fuck," says Rachel. "You can talk?"

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"Yes!  You smell very strange."

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"Um. I expect I would, seeing as I'm human."

Ever since she'd heard "Roman Empire", Rachel had been suspecting Crayak had been the one who put her here. Now her money is on the Ellimist again. Damn you, Toomin...

"Can all cats talk? Can all animals?"

To Jackie, telepathically: <I'm sorry to make you wait so long. I just didn't want to do it right out there in the street. Can you...give me a few minutes to get used to this form? It's, um, taking me longer than usual to get control of the instincts.>

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"Sure.  I'll just.  I."  She sets the hot cocoa on the couch's end table and flees the room.  A door slams.

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"What is human."

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"It's, um, what Jackie is? Upright walking, no fur so we wear clothes, we can do lots of things with our hands...?"

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"You're not a Twoleg; you're a cat.  And that cat is . . . me?  Why are you me."

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"I am too a...Twoleg? That's the word for us? And I acquired you! It's, um, elite military technology."

How the hell do you explain morphing to a cat? Why the hell does Rachel have to explain morphing to a cat. She almost misses the Yeerk war.

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"None of the things you just said are words."

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"Um, so, like, I can touch other animals, and then turn into them? I work for—well, I worked for...the group of Twolegs that protect other Twolegs from bad things that want to hurt them, and I use—used—my power for that job."

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"Okay . . ."

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"Look, I'm sorry, I know it's a lot to dump on you, and hard to believe. But I really need your help. Can you tell me if other cats can talk, or other kinds of animals?"

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"It would be very lonely to be the only talking cat!  I have never heard any birds or bugs talk."

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Well, that's reassuring, although Rachel still has some other tests she wants to do before she believes it with certainty.

"Thank you. I'm...going to have to go talk to Jackie soon. Is there anything you want me to pass on to her?"

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"Why is she so upset?  . . . Was it you."

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"...Um, yeah, it was me. Sorry. In my defense, I think even my more tactful friends couldn't have delivered the news that they're from another world and can turn into animals in a completely non-upsetting manner."

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". . . I am going to fix this."  The other cat hops off the couch and goes to meow in front of the door Jackie disappeared behind.  The meows mean, "Jackie?  Jackie, let me in.  Open the door.  Let me iiiiiiiiiiiiin.  Jackiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiie."

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Well, Princess is the expert! Rachel sits back to see if this has any effect.

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It at least takes a while to.

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<Um, Jackie? You mentioned earlier that you might try to find 'someone trustworthy' to help us with all this. What are your criteria for that? And, um, who best fits those that you already know?>

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Rachel has to wait a while with no response, but eventually Jackie slips through the door and returns to the living room, sitting down on the rug.  She places the socks and sweats, now slightly rumpled, on the couch, and takes a deep breath with her eyes closed.  Princess tries to step into her lap but Jackie blocks her.

"Sorry.  The adult who lives here will be home in a while.  I can probably deal with you until then."

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Rachel can wait on the adult's arrival to share the news about cats! She tries to turn the conversation to a lighter topic until then.

<So, uh, you said something earlier about Geminis. You're into astrology?>

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"Not . . . really?  I got okay grades in most of the units on it in school.  - Which cat are you, because if you're trying to get on my lap please stop and if it's Princess I want to let her."

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<Oh, I'm Rachel! Princess is the one trying to get on your lap. I have better control of the cat instincts than that. I can go demorph now if you want. Anyway, you guys teach astrology in schools here? In my timeline, its status is, um, controversial.>

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Princess is allowed in Jackie's lap; Jackie draws up her knees and wraps her arms around them diagonally so Princess has room to poke her head out.  "I exercise no authority over your actions," she says like it's a spell to ward off evil.  "How is it controversial."

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<Like, only some people think it's real?>

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"Sounds nice."

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<Why's that?>

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" - I don't think I actually endorse it with the amount of context I have.  But if astrology had subtle enough effects that you hadn't confirmed it yet, that at first sounds better than what we're stuck with.  At least for me.  Lots of other people would say otherwise."

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<What, ah, effects do the stars have, here?>

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". . . All of them.  That's an exaggeration but only somewhat."

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<They affect everything! Even, say, political or military events? I think there were people who believed that, back in the time of our Roman Empire, but these days our astrologers constrain themselves to more personal predictions.>

Oops. Well., she couldn't keep dancing around it forever. If it turns out to be a seditious thing to say...better to have said it over thought-speak than out loud.

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"I don't think I'm very qualified to talk philosophy under these circumstances.  It's mostly less direct than military stuff.  When are you from?

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<The year 2000, from...from the traditionally attributed date of death of Jesus Christ. Ah, a figure in our most common religion. Our technology level seems similar to yours; the Internet was our last big advance. The aliens are further ahead; my morphing power is alien tech.>

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<Oh, that name wouldn't mean anything to you, would it? I think he was born early in the Empire. I don't know much about his story, I'm—>

Don't say "Jewish".

<—an atheist.>

Well, it wasn't a lie.

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"I've heard of him."

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<You have?>

A memory rushes back into Rachel's mind. Visser Four had changed the past, so the Nazis won, the ultimate butterfly-stomping if there ever was one...but the Animorphs still existed. Through some mysterious force, the same people could exist in different timelines. Evidently the same was true of different...universes, or whatever this was.

<What was his story like, in this universe?>

Or at least, what official version am I allowed to hear?

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"He publishes spiritual guidance.  Not - two thousand years ago; now.  The most recent one was last month."

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You could save him, said a part of her. If you ever return to your home universe, you could tell everyone that you saved Jesus.

Rachel is not listening to that part of her. That is the part of her that—quite literally—got her killed. The part Crayak is counting on, if he was the one who sent her here. She asks herself, instead, what Tobias and Jake and her mom and her sisters would want her to do. What would make them proud of her, if they meet again. When they meet again. They have to.

The answer is the same as it has been. The animals. Empires rise and fall, but this is first contact, as surely as if an Andalite or Yeerk ship had landed on this planet, and she alone can manage it. Why, Ellimist, if this is you, why couldn't you have sent Jake?

<I...think I might like to read those, some time. When are your guardians getting back? I'll need to take a break from being in morph, at some point; I can only stay in one for two hours at a time.>

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"There's only one, and not for several hours; he has an actual vocation that isn't self-study.  I continue to exercise no authority over your actions and to express no opinion about whether you should look like a human girl or like my cat."

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Rachel demorphs! It continues to be very gross. She continues to not acknowledge this in any way. She really does not want to wait hours to break the most important news in the world but her impatience does not change the fact that dropping it on Jackie alone would not actually be helpful. At least it gives her time to Frolis maneuver herself together a new cat form so she doesn't have to keep stealing Princess's face, and maybe try some other morphing experiments.

"You mean, like, a job? I would think so! What's he do?"

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Jackie passes Rachel the sweats and socks.  "He does gardeny maintenancey things at the park.  And designs like, fancy perfume bottle stoppers and stuff."

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"Cool! Hey, speaking of jobs, what might I be able to do, here?"

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"How old are you?"

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"Sixteen!"

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"Then school."

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"Well yeah, but like for part-time jobs? Summer jobs?"

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"I haven't been watching out for who's hiring around here.  . . . We are, like - I'm still not committing to anything, let alone on anyone else's behalf, but - Ian's hospitable; he took me in when I needed a place to stay, and he's not like, stretched tight financially.  Y - I would be pretty surprised if you ended up having to work in order to live and stuff for a while."

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"Well, thank you! I do sincerely appreciate the effort you're going to for me. Ian took you in? That...says good things about him."

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"I haven't really gone to any effort for you and probably I won't.  But yeah, he's good, for the most part."

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"For the most part? And you took me back to your house even when you probably thought I was crazy or lying; that's effort."

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"I think almost no one exists who's good for the whole part.  And that's just basic hospitality; what else was I going to do, leave you there."

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"...Yeah. Yeah, that's right.

And...I think in my city, someone from another world wouldn't get a ride from the first person they ask. If they're really unlucky they might even get the cops called on them under the theory that they're probably crazy and if they're crazy they must be dangerous.

...I suppose that kind of thinking did help us fight most of our war with the aliens in secret, which saved lives on both sides."

It's so weird to be able to just talk about it.

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"Calling the cops on you seems kind of like a primo example of the exact thing I'm trying to avoid."

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"That is very good!"

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(It isn't.)

"Sure."

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"So, anyway, could you tell me more about astrology? Just, like, stuff everyone knows, stuff you get taught as a kid. It seems like the biggest difference between our worlds."

(The second or third biggest, probably, from a moral perspective. But the biggest from a physical perspective; a longer lasting Roman Empire seems pretty plausible, and talking animals could just imply an earlier evolution of intelligence, but astrology would imply...Rachel doesn't even know how that would work. Andalite physicists could explain it, maybe.)

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Jackie shoves her face in Princess's shoulders for a count of ten.

"Sorry," she sighs after emerging.  "I - wasn't thinking about how you wouldn't know?  Uh, the first thing I should say is that everyone born on my birthday is fated to be at really high risk to do really evil, regrettable things.  And I'm used to people already knowing that as the first fact about me so I wasn't thinking about - that you wouldn't."

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A lot of things click into place.

"I see. That explains...why you might prefer our world to yours, even with its extraterrestrial invaders. It must have been really hard, to grow up with that kind of knowledge."

She debates whether or not to say the next part out loud.

"If whoever put me here meant me to meet you, specifically, I think they must have a really fucked up sense of humor."

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"I mean, it's better than growing up without the knowledge, because then I'd just fall into doing evil without knowing, and this way I can avoid it.  The story's been repeated enough times throughout history that we pretty much know what the patterns are now.  It's just - a narrow path to walk.  You think someone sent you?"

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Oh, God, she has to tell the whole story, doesn't she?

"I am almost certain of it. You remember that I said morphing is alien military tech? I was among the first Earth people to discover it. There was...a secret alien invasion of Earth going on. My friends and I were given the morphing tech by an Andalite, a blue-skinned horse-person, to fight off the Andalites' rivals, the Yeerk Empire, which is ruled by mind-controlling brain-slugs. The war eventually became public knowledge, and we finally got help from, you know, the real military with adults, but...a lot of weird shit happened when we were guerilla fighters. Most of it involved...two alien gods, Crayak and the Ellimist. Crayak is evil, the Ellimist is...something like good, and they play chess with the universe. They took an interest in me and my friends specifically; we've been sent through time before, and to other galaxies. We've almost certainly won the war, but...there's no good way to say this. I died. I died, and talked to the Ellimist one last time...and then I woke up here."

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"Okay, uh.  Uh.  D'you want?  A hug?"

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I want to go home and send Jake or Marco to deal with this shit in my place.

"...A hug would be nice, honestly."

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Jackie hugs Rachel, a little stiffly.  Pat pats her on the shoulder.

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oh no that just made it harder to not cry like a little baby

"Thanks."

Rachel will accept being hugged for as long as Jackie is willing to.

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. . . pat patpat??  Okay that's probably enough hug.

"So your universe is wide enough to fit other planets?"

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"It sure is!

...Wait, yours isn't? But, you have...stars..."

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". . . yes, we have stars.  What does that have to do with other planets?"

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"Planets...revolve around them?" Rachel.asks hopefully.

"...planets don't revolve around stars here, do they."

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"No??  How would that even . . . work . . ."

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"So, like, our stars are...really big balls of plasma? And then our planets are big balls of gas, liquid, and rock, in various ratios, that are attracted to the stars by the force of gravity and settle into orbits around them."

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"And you're how sure of that?"

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"I've...met extraterrestrials that regularly travel between planets and they all agree with our models of this?"