Fifth Mind

One more previously unpublished short story, this time in SF. Enjoy.

Fifth Mind

an SF short story by Harvey Stanbrough


I couldn’t quite believe I was in Clear Lake, Iowa. Actually, I wasn’t even aware of it for the first twenty minutes or so. When you’re on the road as much as I’ve been the last three days, one whistle stop looks pretty much like all the rest. So I don’t always notice the city limit sign on the way into each small town, but unless it’s the destination, who cares? A gas stop is a gas stop. A place to pause, then back on the road. And I didn’t recall noticing the one I passed on the way into this town. It’s an easy mistake to make.

After awhile, signs are about as significant as the white lines in the middle of the road. Or the individual clumps of dried yellow grass waving in a slight breeze on either side of the pickup. Or the weathered wooden fence posts. Those are all unique at least at the molecular level, but they all look the same anyway.

Or like the good citizens of any such town. Or from the other perspective, the strangers passing through, for that matter. At this very moment, I and a cadre of six significant others were at or headed to this same destination, but nobody would notice or care. We’re only strangers, passing through. The citizens notice, maybe, but a moment later we’re gone and forgotten. Like city limits signs or white lines or blades of grass.

And there are at least seven more on every continent, plus a few higher ups. Council members, types like that, here to keep an eye on their personal favorites or those they think might screw up the mission. And all of them go unnoticed too. The higher-ups go unnoticed even by us. They’re very good at what we all do, and everything is a matter of perception. I might not know everything, but I know that.

Gas stop or not, I was feeling pretty good about myself. Confident. The agreed-upon time was drawing near, but I was almost to my destination. I was certain of that, so I deserved a short break. Then I’d get back on the road, but not for long. Surely it wasn’t much farther.

But something rang a bell when I walked into the little café in that out of the way midwestern town late morning on June 30. Maybe it was the huge poster on the back wall featuring the ghostly, superimposed likenesses of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and “The Big Bopper” J. P. Richardson. Never mind the stench of onions fried in day-old grease and the faint spattering sounds that tell you there are uncleaned grills in the back. And never mind the harsh lighting and the ripped red plastic overstuffed seats on the booths and the fraying grey tape not quite holding the rips together. I was almost transported back to the 1950s.

Almost, but not quite. Not enough.

But when I dropped my tired self into a booth next to a west-facing window and saw the little music selection box riddled with 1950s tunes, that did it. Maybe I’d reached my destination after all.

When the waitress swiveled up next to my table in her pink dress and white half-apron, her pen poised in one hand above the ticket book in the other, I said, “Miss, what’s the name of this town again?”

The small black name tag on her dress read Fran in white block letters. The blue eyes, made larger by too much blue eye shadow and nestled below a haystack of luxurious black hair, smiled before her lips did. And then those lips, which looked like she’d peeled the skin off a red delicious apple and applied it with super glue, stretched side to side until I thought they might reach her ears. That expansive smile revealed two rows of perfect teeth as she said, “Why Sugah, this here’s Clear Lake I-o-way.”

She was obviously a transplant from somewhere in the south, which for me was a pleasant bonus. I always loved the music of the southern dialects. I was still trying to wrap my mind around that voice when she added, “You know, where they say the music came to dah.” She tapped her lips with her pen. “I don’t thank so though. I thank it’s where the music came to live.”

Okay, she had the quote a little wrong, but I’m not here to correct anyone. I’m here for other reasons. So I just grinned and said, “Thanks. So, y’all have any pee-can pie?” For some reason, I wanted her to know I understand South-Speak.

The broad smile still in place, she said, “Oh, to dah for! One slice or the whole thang?”

I grinned. “A slice, please. And coffee?”

She giggled as she scribbled in her ticket book and swiveled off.

All of which tickled me. In a way, I had come home. What’s more important, I’d reached my destination with time to spare. And without even realizing it, which was weird because I’d chosen the destination myself.

Rock and Roll was my musical course of study on my way to this assignment. And really, that was a no-brainer. I had a choice between that or European Classical or American Country Western or American Jazz.

Okay, there are seven continents, but really only six. No real reason to split America into north and south just because of a trim waistline. Antarctica, Australia and Africa were all nonstarters for me from the beginning. So that left Eurasia or America.

And I knew going in I didn’t want to end up in Asia, or in Europe. I mean, Asia isn’t even really a continent until it joins with Europe. It’s too sparsely populated and too backward in too many ways. And likewise for Europe but going the other way. Europe’s big claim to fame is age and structures. But age is nothing to brag about, really. Age is more a matter of luck than anything. And structures? Seriously? Things that can be reduced to a pile of ashes or rubble by something as insignificant as a match or a thousand-pound bomb? Or an asteroid that strays off course? Or me if I’m annoyed?

So all of that left European Classical out.

I wanted a shot at being in charge of something substantial when all the preliminaries are over and the Ruckus starts.

Ruckus—my primary instructor fell in love with that silly term when he first encountered it, and since he was also the chief instructor, that was the name submitted to the high council by the instructor corps. And wouldn’t you know? It won.

The American continent, that’s where I wanted to be. And specifically North America. So that trimmed down my choices for my musical course of study to American Jazz, Country Western and Rock and Roll.

Well, American Jazz was out right away. It sounds like a bunch of guys never quite stop tuning their instruments. And the older Country Western and the real Rock and Roll were pretty much the same thing, really. You know, before Punk and Rap and all that crap steered Rock in a weird direction. Really, I have no idea how to classify that stuff. Screaming and poetry, maybe, respectively. Definitely not music.

And poetry? Really? Pretty words in a passable sequence, but hardly a game-changer in anyone’s life, especially once the romance is gone. Unless you’re some kind of intellectual who makes his living defrauding people into thinking his opinions matter. And to my knowledge, I’ve never heard an intellectual rapper.

So in the end I all but flipped a coin. There were more students in the Country Western sessions than in the Rock and Roll sessions, so Rock and Roll it was.

But it wasn’t all about music. There were other specialties too. They don’t send you out on an assignment like this as a knee-jerk response to a pouty-lipped request. You have to know what you’re doing.

So you study your chosen type of music for psychological background of subsets of humans.

Anyway, there were maybe a dozen more specialties. For example, Periods of Human History, though periods before World War I were not allowed because they held no significant advancements.

My period of study was the Vietnam Conflict, mostly because of the psychology involved. I mean, all the lies on both sides of the equation were unequaled in human history. That was the real break between what humans call “innocence,” which actually means not lying to each other, and how things are now. And how things are now is the root of why humans are where they are. And why we’re here. How things are now in human development enabled the confusion that opened the metaphorical door to us.

There were some advances around that time too, though they were matched and thereby negated by a significant decline in society, especially in the United States. People generally became less self-dependent, more likely to blame others for their problems, and far more critical of the hand that feeds them. It was started by the children of “the greatest generation” performing an amateur production of a rebellion. Well, a significant number of them.

All but the Normals and the Warrior Class, the first of which made no difference at all (they never do), and the latter of which couldn’t make enough of a difference to stem the decline. That was understandable. After all, the warrior class was hopelessly outnumbered. Thanks be to one god or another, because if any human beings really know about perceptions, it’s the warrior class. If they could take over and run things, I wouldn’t be here. Well, we wouldn’t be here.

But I’m getting off the topic. Suffice it to say I studied probably a dozen or so large specialties plus several dozen smaller interests within those specialties over a thirty-year period to qualify for this assignment.

So that’s why I say I had come home. Clear Lake was ground zero for people like me. And the café couldn’t have been a more perfect setting with the smells, sounds, lighting and ancient, ripped-seat booths. Not to mention that cute transplanted waitress with the stacked-up hair.

Plus it was nice just to get out of the oppressive heat for a few minutes. And I’d only experienced it from the time I parked my pickup and got out until I walked through the door. But that was long enough.

Even so, with my extensive background in Rock and Roll, my grounding in the psychology of the 1950s and my affinity for the south, when I approached the door of the café, I knew enough to hold the door open for the elderly lady and her gentleman who were leaving at the same time I was coming in.

And my gesture was rewarded. The old gentleman, the one following the lady out of the café, nodded and even took a moment to touch the front of his small hat—I think that kind is called a “fedora”—as a way of acknowledging my effort. It didn’t faze me that he would have forgotten all about me by the time they reached their car.

Fran came back with my pie and coffee. The pie was piled high with whipped cream. Perfect. But as she pulled her hand back, she looked at her thumb and muttered, “Aw, dang it.”

A dollop of whipped cream covered her left thumbnail.

I smiled up at her and slipped unnoticed into my second mind. I think humans call it the subconscious. It’s where daydreaming and night dreaming take place. In reality, it’s a whole other dimension. In that mind, I said—

“Here, let me see.”

She reached her left hand toward me, the thumb extended.

And in a silly mood, I leaned forward and licked the whipped cream from her thumb.

She jerked her hand back, her eyebrows raised, and grinned broadly as a small laugh escaped. “Now how in the world do you know where my thumb’s been?”

I grinned back at her. “How do you know where my tongue’s been?”

But silly mood or not, I wouldn’t do that in her reality. I can’t call that much attention to myself. I’m here not to be remembered, so

In my first mind, the one with which others interact, I only smiled, nodded, and offered her my napkin. No time for silliness. I was here for other reasons.

And a stark reminder of those reasons opened the front door at that moment.


As I’ve alluded to, I’m not here alone.

Jeff, another major player on the American continent and therefore authorized to revert even to the primitive first mind and a physical human form, like me, contacted me in third mind, a kind of sub-subconscious that everyone has but humans aren’t aware of. At least yet.

The first and second minds are functions of the brain cycling faster or slower. Humans call those the conscious mind and the subconscious mind. The third mind is a link from second to fourth. You aren’t in the spirit but you can see and interact with other spirits. The fourth mind, which everyone also has but which humans only pay lip service to, is the spirit form. They actually believe they can’t access the fourth mind until they physically die! Seriously?

As I said, before he’d quite entered the café for the rendezvous, Jeff contacted me in third mind: We’ve arrived. But I sense a oneness. Are you not paired up?

The sense of irony was all but palpable. Had I allowed it to, it might have taken form as a green blob on the table. Green is the color most often associated with envy, right?

But I didn’t allow it. I blew it off as the childish emotional jab it was.

What with Fran having left me feeling more playful than usual, and recognizing Jeff’s jibe for what it was, I grinned and replied, Alas, it is lonely at the top. That would suffice as a response and double as a parry of Jeff’s barb. Despite aspirations we’d both held during the trials, I, not he, was awarded primary responsibility for this continent. I was the controller. At least during the preliminaries and the beginning of the Ruckus. Jeff was my second.

A long moment later, he opened the door like any other human would and came through with those of us who are designated Alicia, with whom Jeff was ostensibly paired, Trent and Carmen, then Susan and George. Witty of them to pair off like that, male and female. Of course, that was part of the directive, too, when possible, to avoid suspicion. When in Rome, you know.

Jeff spotted me right away, made eye contact and raised his hand in a nonverbal greeting.

Jeff was a very dark-skinned black man, about 5’10”, maybe 170 pounds with a great build. I’ll give him one thing: the guy knows how to assume a form.

Alicia was strikingly beautiful, with cream-mocha hued skin and raven-black hair that hung in a fan to the middle of her back. She was 5’6” or so, and neither trim nor plump. If they gave awards for assuming the most beautiful physical appearance, she would win hands down.

Trent and Carmen were both Caucasians, he about Jeff’s size and build but with blond hair and a small gut. Carmen was short at around 5’4”, also in good physical condition with crystal-blue eyes and thick, dark-brown hair that was up in a ponytail.

Susan had skin a shade darker than Alicia’s and with freckles scattered over her arms and face. She was also in impeccably good shape, and had reddish brown hair.

And George—well, I wasn’t entirely sure George was up to even being in the cadre. I suspected George was assigned as the result of a higher-up somewhere calling in a favor. Compared to the others, George slouched in. He stood maybe 5’6”, and the shirt tucked into his jeans bulged in all the wrong places. His medium-brown hair was scraggly and almost reached the collar of his shirt.

But his faulty appearance wasn’t the problem. Ever since we’d been on the planet, I or Jeff or one of the others had to correct George on various aspects of what we were doing and how and even why. George didn’t quite belong.

The six of them squeezed into my booth, with George forcing Susan to nudge me nearer the window, which really, I didn’t mind at all. Carmen sat on the outside. Jeff and then Alicia slipped into the seat on the other side of the table, with Trent following.

While that was going on, the others, millions of them, poured in through various portals in the walls, windows, doors and ducts. They arrived in the fourth mind, having remained in their spirit form as they’d been directed.

On every continent there was a controller, six lieutenants designated 2 through 7, and many millions of minions. Overseeing us all was the council.

I greeted my fellow apparent humans in typical fashion with handshakes, smiles and muttered greetings all around, then slipped into third mind momentarily to eyeball the troops. In my third mind, they all but obliterated the poster on the back wall, the ductwork, and the walls themselves as well as the doors and windows and booths and counter and stools and the people seated in or at them.

All of them watched my booth, and none of them spoke to me or to each other, as we’d drilled into them. Even in third mind, there was no reason to risk a human overhearing what any of them might say. Loose lips, and all that.

So all was well and slightly ahead of schedule. I sensed no defections, no absences or even tardies among the minions. Another metaphorical feather in my cap that spoke to my leadership and organization. It was a boost to the proposition of me remaining in charge for the duration of the Ruckus and afterward. Not to sound overconfident, but I truly had nothing left to learn.

I grinned and looked at Jeff. “Good to see you guys. So how’ve you been?”

In third mind, I said, Is everything as ready as it appears?

“Good, good. Alicia and I’ve been trying to get pregnant. We aren’t there yet, but I enjoy the trying part, if you know what I mean.” He laughed. In third mind, he said, Everything is ready. Are you?

Alicia jabbed him lightly with her elbow. Probably as part of the show about getting pregnant, but maybe as a comment on his third-mind response. She’d always supported me as Primary for this continent.

Down the bench, George leaned forward and grinned. “It’s about the same with me and Susan,” and he glanced at her. “Isn’t it, honey?” Then he looked at me again. Pointedly. In third mind he said, I concur. All is ready. So when do we launch?

Jeff rapped the table lightly with his knuckles and grinned at George. Barely perceptibly, he shook his head. Then he looked at me. “So, this would be a great place to open a café, eh? Have they hired any waitresses yet?” He craned his neck around.

In third mind, he said to George, You know better than to ask things like that! We launch when we launch! Remain third-mind silent for the rest of our time in the café. I’ll revisit your assignment to this cadre.

As it was, and as with any professional unit, we had an established hierarchy. Jeff was my second, followed by Alicia and then Susan at 3 and 4, then Trent and Carmen at 5 and 6, and George at 7—at least for now. I wouldn’t get involved in the dispute. I had too many other things on my minds, and Jeff was highly capable.

Whether a 3 or below kept such an assignment once it was made was up to the sole discretion of the second. The second had the most strenuous job. His duties included knowing everything I knew so he could take over as controller in an instant if need be, coordinating 3 through 7, and the training, assessment and subsequent assignments of those behind which the humans’ fantasy world was hidden.

It’s real enough, the humans’ world. But they have yet to understand that they created it all. Not with their hands, but with their minds. The concept is beyond them, which of course is a boon to us.

The physical world as they perceive it exists because they perceive it. Hence, one human sees a seemingly endless row of telephone poles along the highway and another doesn’t. Or one smells chocolate-chip cookies baking in a house in which the oven is empty, and another smells only the pine scent emanating from the hardwood floor in the living room.

They aren’t even aware they created the house by expecting it to be there, nor that they created the door through which they entered the house in the first place. Or the porch, or the sidewalk to the porch, or the curb they parked alongside, or the street they drove up on, or the car they climbed out of.

Naturally, neither do they realize that when the first person walks into the kitchen, mentally constructing with his expectations the oven and the cookies within as he goes, the second person has the first and himself to thank when the first pulls a baking sheet full of hot cookies out of the oven.

Humans even have a saying: You create your own reality. More’s the pity that they neither understand nor believe their own flashes of insight.

Well, more’s the pity for them, not for us. Their frailty and disbelief gave us this opportunity. Soon they will have an entirely new reality, one based on truths they never knew existed. Their new reality will be one they create, but it will be instigated by us. Thanks to their disbelief and their timid nature, there’s both room for us to step in and the necessity for us to do so.

George’s impertinent question was nonetheless a valid one. He just wasn’t the right guy to ask it. Only I knew the launch time that I and the other controllers had agreed on.

I noticed Fran talking with a customer at the counter. While motioning for her to visit our table, I dropped into focused third mind and directed my comment only to Jeff. I’d rather not risk screwing this up, so between us for now, we’ll go at 1 p.m. local time. It’s 11:48 now.

Fran noticed me waving and waved back, then held her thumb and forefinger a short distance apart to indicate she’d be with us soon.

Jeff was busy perusing a menu from a rack on the table. Sounds good. So we have time to eat?

I grinned. So you have time to eat.

Eating is not a requirement for us in our natural state, but it’s one of the benefits of assuming a physical form. The sensations are incredible.

But the launch. On my command, the millions of spirits currently inhabiting the café would disperse evenly across the American continent in what humans would call an instant. The friends with me in the booth would drop into fourth mind and disperse as well, but to six pre-determined locations. Each would be on the verge of overseeing the creation of the construct, the new reality, in that location. As controller, I would ascend to a vantage point where I could oversee and evaluate all six operations. And when I gave the final word, it would begin.

Fran came over a minute or so later, her ticket pad and pen in hand, her smile in place. “You didn’t say you’d have friends joinin’ you. How neat! Ya’ll want to move to a table? You’d have more room.”

“No, we’re fine, thanks. Just more coffee for me and whatever they’re having.”

“Right you are, Hon.” She turned to Alicia and smiled. “Ladies first, of course.”

Alicia and the others ordered, and Fran refilled my coffee cup.

I smiled up at her. “Thanks, Fran.”

“Oh, you’re welcome. An’ what’s your name anyway?”

Not being paired, I hadn’t thought of having a name. There was a small gouge in the edge of the table, a nick, really. So I said the first thing that sprang to mind. “Nick.”

“Well, Nick, it’s good to meet’cha.” She laughed lightly, picked up my empty pie plate and moved away.

In third mind, Jeff said, Nick?

I only shrugged.


The others ate, and Fran kept my coffee and the others’ drinks filled. I liked her, and I felt bad in a way. That’s one more benefit of pairing: it gave you someone to talk to and commiserate with. What was about to happen to her world really was too bad. Well, for a short while.

Sorry, Frannie.

Frannie? Where’d that come from?

All around us over the next hour and eleven minutes, the café remained busy. Some customers who were there when I came in finished their meals and left. Others came and went with to-go orders or after only having a cup of coffee or a soda. The place was bustling.

The minions were patient. None of them moved even to my perception, not that they had a reason to. But their anxiety was so palpable it was almost physical. In less than a minute, I’d give the order.

Even my cadre was fidgeting. Alicia was lightly drumming out a beat on the edge of the table with her fingers. With Susan, it was her fingernails. Trent, Carmen and George were all doing something similar, with George adding a deep sigh every minute or so.

Only Jeff remained mostly still, seemingly deep in thought, but I didn’t pick up anything.

In the final 30 seconds before 1 p.m. my friends all looked at each other. This was the moment. Decades of training followed by close to a month of intense reconnaissance, mostly to assess the suitability of our base targets and observation posts, would come to fruition. That our assignment would culminate in success was beyond doubt. Only the level of success was in question. And that’s what would determine who would take command of each continent when the Ruckus was finished.

At ten seconds before 1 p.m. according to the clock in my mind, I dropped into third mind and started a countdown. Jeff and Alicia joined me at 6. The others sat stock still and remained silent.

And at 1 p.m., I gave the order. Go.

Jeff and Alicia disappeared first, followed by Trent, Carmen and Susan a split-second later.

The minions, if they’d been physical and had tires, would have left black tread marks all over the place.

The first second ticked away. I looked over at George and hissed, “Go!”

He went. The last I saw of his physical form was arched eyebrows and a mouth formed like an O.

And somehow, Fran was just outside the booth to my right rear. “Well, I swear,” she said. “Where’d all your friends go?” She laughed. “Surely they didn’t all go to the bathroom at one time.” She leaned slightly forward and whispered, “I hope you don’t disappear on me too, Nick. I kind’a like you.”

I kind’a liked her too. Oh Frannie.

My stomach and legs were tingling, my stomach with anticipation and my legs with wanting to move, though they’d have nothing to do with the moving. But I couldn’t go like that, with Fran looking at me. I looked up at her. “I like you too.” I paused awkwardly, then said, “Thank you.” I looked at those blue eyes, those red lips, that incredible hair and sensed she had a very strong spirit. Of course anyone she’s ever poured a cup of coffee for could have told you that.

Still, she didn’t move. She only stood there, her eyes a little sad. She touched my shoulder. “Nick?”

But I couldn’t wait any longer. I smiled, maybe a bit sadly, and said, “Sorry, Frannie.” And I joined my friends.


Well, I didn’t exactly join them. They had a lot of work to do. And even spirit beings are susceptible to nerves when someone’s looking over their shoulder.

I went to my predesignated place—a place I’d winnowed from three possibilities only a few days earlier—and settled in to supervise the events unfolding below.

Jeff was in the northeast, centered above Washington, DC and New York City. He figured, and I agreed, that was the area that would require the most supervision. In a last-second decision, he took George with him and directed him to keep an eye on Montreal and eastern Canada. I couldn’t argue with that.

Alicia centered herself over south-central California, a close second for the worst mess in the country, to supervise it and Las Vegas.

Trent hovered high over northwestern Montana to cover western Canada and the Pacific Northwest.

Susan, above the Chicago area, monitored the central US and central Canada.

And Carmen flew south to oversee South America from a vantage point high above west-central Brazil.

I didn’t send a supervisor to Mexico or Central America at all. We’ve had agents working there for a few hundred years. As a result, the humans there are more in touch with and accepting of the oddities that occur where fantasy folds into what they perceive as their everyday reality.

As I looked over the whole thing in fourth mind, I realized the dispersion was perfect, or as close to perfect as we could get, with the possible exception of George. But what else could we do with George? I reminded myself that all things happen for a reason, and I simultaneously admired Jeff for taking it on himself to keep George close at hand and keep an eye on him. When we found a replacement, more than likely I’d send that spirit to share South America with Carmen. Or maybe George himself if he came along well during the instigation of the Ruckus.

I paused for the briefest moment and let emotion flood through me. Here we were, finally, on the verge of both a new history and a new future. On the verge of greatness for these formerly simple humans. Their lives would simultaneously be less complicated and more exciting than ever.

With a thought, I gave the word.

And everything changed.

In the east and west and north and south (and all around the world), weapons and weapons systems were disabled, all by thought, all by a new reality. World leaders and their significant seconds and thirds were locked in place, unable to communicate in any way, unable even to think of ways to thwart the plan. In the same instant they were given third mind silent. They could only observe and know and wonder.

And what they observed!

Buildings and coliseums, roads and bridges and other infrastructure morphed from one form into the next and the next.

Modes of transportation, surface vehicles and aircraft, ships and submarines, took on one form after another, some obviously ridiculous interspersed with those that made sense in a practical way. We wanted the humans to see the possibilities.

Through it all there were no explosions and no crumbling, no rubble at all except in human minds. Those were touched only lightly by one spirit and then another and another. Those minds were simultaneously and continually altered, re-trained and monitored for levels of disbelief, reluctance to believe, and finally acceptance.

As acceptance became more widespread locally, the spirits left off to work their magic in surrounding areas and leave the newly informed  humans behind to convince their fellows, for which humans have a remarkable penchant.

To say I felt a little god-like would be an understatement. Frankly, I looked upon it, and it was good.

And the pairings had lasted too, according to the constant back and forth between Jeff and Alicia, Trent and Carmen, and even Susan and George as they updated each other through thoughts framed with gleeful laughter. This was an unforeseen but welcome development. Maybe the humans have something to teach us as well. And how wonderful it must be to share, one with the other. I sensed that was a lesson I might have needed for awhile. What an odd thought that was. Still, maybe after all this was over and the world settled into its new reality… especially if I was retained as the controller….

Below, everything continued, wave after wave of changes expanding in every directions. With the Ruckus going so well, I allowed myself a fleeting thought of the waitress.

Fran. Fran was her name. A smile, saturated with a warming comfort I’d never known, flooded through my being. Her smile?

No, it was my own. I laughed. The smile that filled me was my own.

And a hand gently touched my shoulder.

I frowned. But wait—how did I frown? I can’t frown! I’m in fourth mind! I have no frown!

Wait—I have no shoulder either!

I turned around. But without a physical body, that was another impossibility. In spirit, we face everywhere at once. There is no turning around.

Then I looked. With my eyes. Another impossibility!

And I listened. With my ears. Yet another!

And I smelled a scent! How? But it was wonderful. Like acacias after a rain.

But why not?

I accepted what was there and breathed deeply. I smelled clean air, tasted ice-cold breath in the back of my throat. But it was tempered with a growing warmth and—All of this is impossible!

And another spirit was there. With a physicality. Another impossibility! A spirit with a physical being. And I realized my eyes were closed.

I opened them. Fran! But how—

Number 3 on the council. Her eyes shone, her physical lips moved, and a gentle murmur filtered through my consciousness. Fifth mind. My gift to you.

And I understood how very little I actually knew.