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Tangled Strands

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Perhaps the intensity of intent was missing. When Thea keyed her planned destination in on her wrist, scanned her words to make sure they made sense, and pressed enter, she was diligent, as always - a typo could threaten the life even of someone with mastery over all the four traditional Elements, not merely one who held five - but her thoughts had already leapt ahead to her meeting with United Nations bureaucrats, concerning the practical and political requirements of a world port system.

But she didn't land in the spacious, sumptuous United Arab Emirates conference suite she expected, with Humphrey May at her side. She was standing in a cold, dingy room, foyer-like, with late sunlight struggling weakly in through tinted windows - it had been morning when she left. She had found herself in another world - with three people staring at her as if they had found her first.

The dark-haired woman stood behind the other two, but she had a hand outstretched, so she was the first person to catch Thea's attention: she was dressed in a dark, silky, shapeless dress, with a jacket, and was frowning. The other two were a young woman, perhaps not yet twenty, white: her blond hair was dyed in rainbow hues at the ends and wound with beads and strings, and it made Thea think briefly of Magpie-who-once-was. The last person was a man of similar colouring and maybe thirty years, except that his wide-eyed look and stubble tempted Thea to guess he was younger.

They were new to her - all of this was new - so new that Thea lifted her right hand again protectively, to cover her device-equipped left wrist. She was a poly-Elemental mage, but she needed a way out of here.

"Who are you?" she asked, calmly, to see if they spoke English and to see how they reacted.

The woman with hair ornaments turned to the woman behind her. "So you summoned a random Porter. That would be great - if we needed a Porter," she said, her tone terse and tired.

The dark-haired woman began to speak, but not in a language Thea knew. None of them had moved to threaten or restrain her, so she tapped into her wrist device again, and upon the next press of the enter key, slid into the version of this world where she understood the woman's speech.

"...passing, so I caught at her," the dark-haired woman said. "Don't ask me, ask her how she can help you."

The bright-haired woman reacted with an exaggerated sigh. Thea studied the dark-haired woman: this person had, so far, demonstrated the most comprehension of what was going on.

"Catching people - is that a thing you often do?" she asked. Ironically, it was the carefully neutral sound of her own voice that sparked a thought that almost made her smile. She wondered if her mentor Cheveyo had combined an inner alarm with just so calm a tone, some of the times she had turned up in his world with a new problem, stranger than the last one. The student becomes the teacher. Except she still had no idea what was going on.

Never had she travelled between worlds on a path someone else had woven. She was on the defensive, but she was also fascinated. She was accustomed to weaving for herself worlds that weren't her own: she'd never considered that they might be already occupied.

The woman met her eyes. "No," she said. "No, I don't. I have gifts -" her fists clenched with some frustration Thea had no context for - "but they are not reliable. I think I should find something and then I don't."

Thea had been brought to this place, wherever it was, against her will. But these people were seeming less and less like a threat the longer Thea spent here. And she had all the time in the world - precisely because it was a different world. It did not matter how long she spent here; when she left, she could arrive at her meeting.

"What do you want?" Thea asked the three of them.

The woman with rainbow-fringed hair narrowed her eyes at her, and her glance caught Thea's hands. Thea opened her hands, palms up, the better to present a target.

"You can get us what we want," the bright-haired woman said, sounding as if she surprised herself.

"Possibly," Thea said mildly. "Tell me who you are."

They were Nick and Cassie and Minako, and they were looking for an old printout of an ancient set of computer files, in German.

"The first experiments," Nick said, his eyes widening a little as he said the words, catching her eyes as if she was supposed to know what that meant. "The birth of our ... sub-species."

"Just say people," Cassie said, and Thea suppressed a grin at Cassie's weighted words.

"I can find it for you," she said assuredly. "If it exists to be found... and if you tell me more about it. More about what it means to you."

This was half a truth - she needed words and ideas to weave around the edge of the gap she would create, a void that summoned the thing to her and her to the thing as if she had created a very localized vacuum. But it was half a way of finding out who they were, and whether she should help them.

For almost an hour, Thea listened with only the offer of carefully neutral sounds. This was a world with no magic - or so the response to her hints implied. And yet it did not feel dead, as her own had felt when the magic had begun to fade.

When Cassie was shaken by an image Thea's words called up, or when Thea asked Nick to demonstrate his gifts, she could sense nothing that she recognised - the shifts in the world around her were as unfamiliar as they were subtle.

These people were special, just as she was, and planned, just as she had been, and powerful and unpredictable, just as she was, again. Their cause seemed just. "Tell me about the document," she said, and listened even more intently, and wove their words together with little movements, almost twitches, of her fingers.

"Tell me what guards it," she added.

When they explained about Pushers, it gave her pause. Thea could defend against physical effects, but in her world, the same threat to thoughts did not exist. Spells against a mind existed, but were punitively prohibited - any market that traded in them shaded far darker than black. Spells against mind-manipulation, on the other hand, were coveted and funded. Thea possessed several of the basic suite. She wondered how much good they would do.

"One of you needs to go with me," she said. "Against Pushers I will be weak. One of you may distract them."

Nick stepped forward.

"Do you know where we're going?" she asked him.

Cassie's glance flashed between them. "I do now," she said. "I'll draw you a map."

Retrieving the documents was easier than she had expected. Nick had not expected her actions: they had appeared outside a vault, she had woven herself a world in which she knew the combination, she had taken the documents... Nick had shouted, and she had looked up to see other people pouring in. She had raised fire and air against them, and then when catching her breath she had grabbed Nick and transported them away.

"Here," she said, handing the document case to the girl with a rainbow fringe, whose eyes were just as old as Thea's had been at the same physical age.

"Now you," she said, turning to Minako. "You caught me in transit like a bird in flight, and no one has ever done that before."

Minako looked half anguished and half proud. "Sometimes I sense, that's all," she said, cagily.

Thea nodded. "I think, if you came with me when I returned, your talents would be much easier labelled," she said. "Maybe you aren't even a Sniffer - not as your peers see it."

"To your world?" Minako asked. She sounded hopeful.

"Yes," Thea said. "And it is truly a different world, populated by strangers. But my way of working, works here. Perhaps your gifts work in my world - and if not, I can return you."

She didn't give Nick and Cassie time to thank her. She didn't expect their thanks. She caught Minako's eye again, and pressed enter.

She was standing in a United Arab Emirates conference room, with Humphrey May at her side, about to discuss with the leaders of the free world how she could build a port network for them that incorporated all of their nations, and all of their nations' security concerns. She remembered the mental notes to self she'd made.

"Thea," Humphrey said, "who is this?"

"Minako," she answered brightly, as it was too long a story to give him now, though certainly she would explain in full later. "We should request an escort for her. And a translator. Do you think our colleagues can host an additional guest?"

The look on his face was a familiar one: the capriciousness of an Elemental mage had struck again. Thea wondered if she'd ever convince him that this time, it wasn't her fault.

"Shall we go?" she asked, and strode ahead of them both to the next adventure.