“Two new players,” Melinda noted, “and one who got here on his own.”
“They’re not new,” Gary corrected, “I’ve been watching. They were here the whole time.”
Caroline made an effort to remember the two new competitors from her mortal life, but could not. Odd.
“How long has it been since Liz left?” she asked restlessly.
“Patience.” Gary grinned.
Melinda checked the watch that had just popped into existence. “About 6 minutes.”
Caroline shook her head. It had been much longer than that. Hadn’t it?
Gary’s grin grew. “When you’re a nearly-immortal Avatar, your sense of time shifts a little.”
The silence grew.
During this now almost-poignant pause, Liz slowly appeared off to one side, like a really quiet AP student. Melinda and Gary had already turned to her by the time she had actually finished appearing. How did they know?
“Ican’tfindSridhar,” she reported, dejected. “Hemayhavegoneto Interfere.” Caroline was startled that Liz had actually paused. That space was probably the equivalent of someone else’s em-dash.
“So what are we going to do?” said Gary. His grin had lost a bit of its luster.
“Go on,” said Melinda, taking a strand of supernatural hair in her ethereal hand and twisting it next to her illusory mouth.
Gary let out his breath in a slow rush on an F-sound. (Try it, you’ll see what I mean.) Caroline felt…confused. Who was this old enemy?
“Who is this old enemy?” she asked, hesitant of incurring Liz’s wrath.
But it was Melinda who answered. “The Hahr Kerr.” The name sent a chill up Caroline’s spine, and down her right ankle. Melinda continued, speaking gravely. “He’s the leader of a shadow organization that controls much of the tournament. Hahr Kerr agents win at least one award in nearly every event.”
“Wait, wait, wait.” Caroline held up a hand and leaned against the nonexistant wall of the chamber. Bad idea…it took her a second to realize how a Platform speech could support her instead. She clambored up and continued speaking. “I thought the Avatars controlled the tournaments and most of the world.”
“This world…” Melinda murmured.
“Yeah, um, you’d think so,” said Gary, “But ever since…well, a really long time ago…we were forced to share most practical powers with a democratic lowerarchy. It was sort of a free Speech movement.” Caroline groaned. “Anyway, while we still have the power to run the tournaments, anything more overt than a grape will get us fairly well disbanded.”
“Actuallythey’dhavetomovenotus. Buttheeffectisthesame.” Liz scowled.
“So, let me get this straight. We’re nearly immortal, have the power to decree just about anything within our respective fields, judge the final rounds of the tournament—fairly, of course—and we’re basically powerless to prevent the spread of a large criminal association, because we play fair? You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Watchwhatyousay,” warned Liz, now annoyed, “You’reoneofustooandasmuchinthemessasweare.”
Gary took a few seconds to interpret what Liz had said. “Yeah. Caroline, you’re good at Speech, but if you’re going to stay you need to help keep the tournament together.”
Melinda sighed. “That’s why your friends are here.” Friends? “You might not remember them from your past life, but they’ll remember you. We hope that’ll be an incentive to help. But with the Hahr Kerr back, what should we do.”
“We…” Liz paused again. A miracle. “WehavetocalltheNeHa.”
Until Gary nodded. “Yes. She’ll be able to do something about this…”
“Mess.” Liz was candid.
Melinda sighed. “All right, you two deal with that.”
“Wait,” Gary said, confused, “What’ll you be doing?”
“I’ll be testing our newest Avatar,” Melinda answered. Caroline swallowed. “So, Caroline of Platform. Your first assignment…”