Even by herself. After years of denial, the fact that she will always be a cuckoo has become impossible to deny.
Now stranded in another dimension with a handful of allies who seem to have no idea who she is - including her cousin Annie and her maybe-boyfriend Artie, both of whom have forgotten their relationship - and a bunch of cuckoos with good reason to want her dead, Sarah must figure out not only how to contend with her situation, but with the new realities of her future. What is she now? Who is she now? Is that person someone she can live with?
And when all is said and done, will she be able to get the people she loves, whether or not they've forgotten her, safely home?
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"I never felt like my biological parents didn't want me just because they made sure I'd have a family who could take the best care of me. I always felt like that proved they loved me." —Evelyn Baker
Somewhere else, outside the realm of known experience, facing a new equation
Five minutes ago
We're encouraged to chronicle our experiences, both by family tradition, carried over from our time as members of the Covenant of St. George, and by the mice, who would rather witness events with their own eyes, but are willing to concede that sometimes they'll have to be content with written accounts. So:
My name is Sarah Zellaby. I'm an adopted member of the Price family, a mathematician, a cryptozoologist, and a Priestess of the Aeslin mice.
I am not human.
My biological parents were members of a species known as the Johrlac, colloquially referred to as "cuckoos" by people unlucky enough to be aware of their existence. So far as anyone has been able to determine, cuckoos are invaders from another dimension, one where bipedal humanoid life evolved from parasitic wasps instead of from monkeys. Yeah. You know that thing where people make fun of furry artists for slapping tits on a lizard? Well, I'm basically a giant bug with what the people around me frequently think of as "nice boobs." So that's fun. I'm also telepathic, as are all members of my species, which makes it difficult to tune out all those random contemplations of my breasts and what they might look like without my clothes getting in the way.
Being a telepath in a non-telepathic society is a great way to learn how much you don't like people or ever want to be around them if you have any choice in the matter, FYI. I don't recommend it. Zero stars, would not buy again. Because people who live in a non-telepathic society don't have any qualms about thinking any dirty, nasty little thing that pops into their heads, and asking them not to is like asking them to stop touching their faces. The very idea that the thing is forbidden makes it impossible to resist. So no, I don't get out much, and when I do go out, I try to stay around people with experience dealing with telepaths.
Since the majority of cuckoos are evil assholes, this mostly means my family.
The Prices are ex-Covenant, meaning they're former monster hunters who learned how to take that skill set and apply it to the goal of being monster saviors. They believe the world belongs to all the sentient species that live in it, not only to the apex predators, and they do their best to preserve life where they find it, or at least long enough to understand it.
(No, they are not a family of vegans. No, I have never asked them how they reconcile a collective goal of preserving life and a willingness to eat its byproducts. But they do buy local and organic whenever possible, and I once saw Verity break a man's nose for kicking a dog.)
Remember that thing about cuckoos coming from another dimension? We're an invasive species that doesn't belong in Earth's biosphere, and that combined with being really shitty neighbors has made us one of the only things the Prices are willing to write off as monsters without trying to understand us first, which I guess made it inevitable that they'd wind up with two cuckoos actually in the family. My mother, Angela Baker, is a non-receptive telepath, and since it turns out cuckoos are evil fuckers mostly because we're born with a huge telepathic time bomb already implanted in our brains, she's also the first good cuckoo to be born in generations. No telepathy, no bomb.
Fortunately for me, she is a projective telepath, meaning she was able to hold me down and dig the telepathic nightmare out of my head before I was old enough for it to detonate-something which it apparently does right around the onset of puberty. It's like becoming an X-Man, only in a really universally lousy way. No chance you're going to get cool powers. Nope. Just telepathy in a world of non-telepaths, and the understandable but unforgivable urge to commit mass murder.
So I dodged that bullet, which spared me from any future bullets my family might have flung my way, and went about the business of being a pseudo-shut-in who just wanted to do math, read comic books, and flirt abstractly with my cousin Artie, who—as you may remember from the convoluted family history I've already provided—isn't actually my cousin, because none of the members of my family are biologically related to me. Not even Mom, although at least we're the same species.
My Aunt Mary always says the family you build matters more than the one you're born to, and since she's been with us for three generations and counting, I guess she'd know. My family is my family, biology be damned. I just refuse to consider my cross-species attraction to Artie inappropriate because my mother adopted the woman who married the brother of his mother. That's taking avoiding even the appearance of impropriety to an extreme that I simply don't have the time for.
Lots of things happened after Mom defused me. I grew up; we all did, really. We found and followed our personal passions, whatever those happened to be, and for my cousin Verity, that meant ballroom dance, taken to the point of going on a competitive dance reality show. Yeah, I don't see the appeal either. But she wore sequins and lipstick and a red wig that helped to distract people from the actual color of her eyes, and when she didn't win, she moved to New York City to do a journeyman year working with the urban cryptids while she made one last stab at having a dance career. And like the fool I am, I followed her.
I wanted to put some distance between myself and the rest of the family. I wanted to figure out whether I was doing what I wanted to do with my life, or whether I was living up (down?) to their unspoken expectations of me, the ones that said a natural ambush predator would want nothing more than to blend into the background and be forgotten. Most of all, though, I wanted the time to think about my situation with Artie, and decide whether I was really enough in love with him to make it worth risking the relationship we already had by pursuing something more.
It was a reasonable set of desires. Nothing too big, nothing that could hurt anyone else, except I guess maybe Artie. And somehow it still backfired on me, when Verity's cousin Margaret showed up as part of a Covenant strike team, putting the entire family at risk. Most of how the Prices can operate in relative safety in North America is by keeping the Covenant convinced that they're all dead, killed off over a generation ago in a frontal assault on the home of Alice and Thomas Price-Healy. Once Margaret knew Verity was not only alive, but was a living descendant of the Covenant's greatest modern traitor, we were all, in the vernacular, fucked.
Unless we stopped her, she would have gone back to England, and told the Covenant we existed, before returning with a force large enough to shut us all down. Verity was injured and incapacitated. I wasn't.
So I stopped her.
Killing her would have just created more problems. It was a human solution, and I wasn't human. Instead, I reached into her head, and into the heads of the men who were working with her, and I rewrote everything they remembered about their time in New York. I changed their minds against their will, permanently. It was a massive violation of their consent. It was the moment I proved I was a cuckoo, no matter how hard I tried not to be. Nature would always win out over nurture, and it had always been inevitable that I was going to hurt people. It didn't matter why I did it. It was done.
In a very real way, the people I hurt started with myself. The act of telepathically manipulating the minds of three unwilling strangers triggered a biological process called an "instar," a form of metamorphosis inherited from my insect ancestors. It scrambled my mind and left me incapacitated for years. I could perform simple tasks and feed myself, but that was where my competency stopped. I had to relearn everything else, including my own name, as control and memory slowly returned. But they did return, and eventually I felt well enough to make the trip from Ohio, where I'd been convalescing, to Oregon, to see the rest of my family again. To see Artie again. To find out whether he had been willing to wait for me.
Good news: he was. Better news: he loved me as much as I loved him. Best news: he was finally ready to accept that I felt the same way, something which should have been impossible to hide from an empath. After years of dancing around each other, divided by the dual barriers of biology and fear, we were finally figuring things out.
Which, naturally, is when my birth family decided it was time to snatch me and trigger my final instar, something they said would elevate me to the position of cuckoo queen. Remember that whole "actually a giant wasp" thing I mentioned? Turns out we're hive insects, and our origins have more bearing on our modern biology than I had ever guessed. Certain things need a queen, and thanks to events beyond my control, I was primed to take the crown.
They wired me up like an explosive charge made of telepathic power and psychic potential, then pointed me at the foundations of the world and set the timer. And that would have been the end of it-where, by "it," I mean "reality as humanity fundamentally understands it"—if not for my cousins. Artie and Antimony managed to follow me to the place where the cuckoos planned to blast their way out of our universe and into the next one, bringing a half-trained sorcerer and a surprisingly helpful cuckoo in their wake. Working with James and Mark—one of the cuckoos who'd originally abducted me, who had changed sides for reasons no one had bothered explaining—they were able to disrupt the cuckoos long enough for me to seize control of the monster equation that was trying to use me to come into the world.
It was math. I can do math. Math and I are good buddies. It was evil math, which was a bit more of a concern, and it was math that needed a lot of processing space to complete safely. More importantly in the moment, it was math that wanted to devour my mind and would have happily done so if I hadn't found a way to offload some of it to the brains around me, using their physical structures like data storage banks to give me the extra space I needed.
It was a pragmatic decision, made in the heat of the moment, and without it, I wouldn't have survived. There's a solid chance the world wouldn't have survived either. But nothing comes without cost. I learned that a long time ago. And right now, the cost was waking up tied to a chair while my allies surrounded me and radiated distrust.
Annie, my cousin, who had been the youngest when I joined the family and had thus accepted me with the least amount of fuss, never batting an eye at my biological differences or deviations from anything resembling "the norm," glared at me. Her expression was a mystery. Her emotions were not. She was hating me so hard that it was like a floodlight, painting the room in shades of hostility.
"What did you do, cuckoo?" she demanded. "Where are we?"
And that, in a very concrete way, is where our story begins.