Athena looked into the scrying bowl. Since it was clear that Sarah McMillan and her mother knew nothing about the wishing stones, and very little about the Reality Branches prototype, it was clear Athena would have to look elsewhere for answers.
She had no leads on the identities of the others who had made wishes with the Original Stone or the many variant stones. But Scarlett had suggested that the Reality Branches machine might be something they might want to know about, so this is where Athena decided to investigate next.
She knew Richard McMillan would be a dead end. Sure, he was the CEO of McMillan Tech Industries and his money had financed the creation of the Reality Branches prototype, but he was more of a business person than a tech person. It was the expertise of the people in Research and Development that made it possible.
Athena didn't really know many people in MTI's Research and Development department. Aside from those who were related to her classmates. The one that came to mind first was Jay Duncan's mother, Samantha Duncan. Currently, Samantha Duncan was one of the leaders of a project to design cyborg parts for all the Lake Point students who had been maimed in the explosion of the Reality Branches prototype. As well intentioned as Samantha was, she and her colleagues now lacked the financial support of McMillan Tech Industries, so barring magical intervention there would likely be very little progress in this project in the near future.
She decided to look in anyway. "Samantha Duncan," Athena said.
A vision appeared in the water of the bowl, a vision of a technological laboratory with several computer screens and whiteboards. In the center of the room was Samantha Duncan, taking notes on a laptop. Nearby was Kyla Leeson's cousin Ryan Leeson and a few people Athena didn't know the names of, but who had been present on the day of the ill-fated presentation of the Reality Branches prototype.
Samantha had a weary look to her, of someone who had not had much sleep lately, and who had experienced much stress. But she seemed driven to continue what she was doing.
"Need a break?" Ryan asked Samantha.
"I'm fine." Samantha said. "This is only the fifth time I've been asked that this hour. First Mycroft, then Rachel, then Larry, then Carrie, and now you. I'm okay."
"Look, we're your friends. We're worried about you. When was the last time you slept?" Ryan asked.
"Okay, maybe in another hour. But I need to finish these latest design notes." Samantha said.
"Look, I know you want to help Jay. I want to help Kyla." Ryan said. "But we won't do them any good if we overwork ourselves."
Samantha sighed. "Maybe you're right. I just ... can't stand going home and seeing Jay look so ... helpless. Did I get his hopes up by suggesting this project in the first place?"
"To be honest, I wonder the same thing." Ryan said. "But I don't want to give up, either. We just need to pace ourselves, that's all."
"The thing is, we started it." Samantha said. "It was the device we all imagined and created that caused this. That means we need to take responsibility for it."
"I know. We ALL feel guilty around here." Ryan said. "It's just that not sleeping isn't going to make this move along any faster."
Samantha placed a hand on her forehead, and sighed. "It's just that ... I need to do something."
At this point, a mousy young woman (probably in her mid-thirties at the most) approached. "You know what?" she said. "I think we need to take our mind off the cybernetics project for just a bit. Teresa Talton just called. She says her neighbor has discovered something very strange, and wants to talk to us about it."
"Rachel, wait a minute. Isn't Teresa's neighbor the gym coach from the high school?" Ryan asked.
"Felicia Barry? Yes." Rachel replied. "Anyway, Teresa's bringing her here now. She's asking questions about the Reality Branches prototype."
"It's been months." Samantha said. "Why is she asking about it now?"
"I don't know. She'll be here in a few minutes, and then you can ask her." Rachel replied.
Athena then realized she recognized Rachel. This was Dr. Rachel McLewis, who'd earned a doctorate not just in technology but in human behavior/anthropology fields. It was her passion for technology that kept her working in technological fields. Athena had read a magazine interview with her in the waiting area of a doctor's office, and her name had come up in local news stories.
Athena watched as Samantha, Ryan, and Rachel paused for food and drinks for a few minutes, and soon another woman (who Athena presumed was Teresa Talton, another former member of the MTI Research and Development department) arrived, accompanied by Coach Felicia Barry from Lake Point High School. The two of them brought with them a cardboard box, which they placed on an unoccupied table.
"Long time no see." Samantha said, greeting Coach Barry. "How are you doing?"
"Still finding work when I can." Felicia Barry said. "I substituted for Mrs. Albright at Forestville High School last week. It was a bit strange, as Forestville used to be Lake Point's rival, but it looks like everyone's put those old sports rivalries in the past now."
Athena knew that in this reality, Lake Point High School had not reopened since the tragedy. Its teachers and other staff had all gone to look for work elsewhere. Some had already found new jobs, while others were still substituting for others at other schools.
"Anyway, Felicia discovered something strange and she thinks it might be connected to ... what happened." Teresa Talton said.
"After Lake Point High School closed down, all our personal belongings were packed up and sent home with us." Felicia Barry said. "I couldn't really bring myself to open the box for months. But just a few days ago, I decided to unpack, and take a look at the team photos."
She went on. "I wasn't sure I wanted to at first. It still hurts even thinking about it. All those bright futures taken away just like that..."
"But I decided to take a look anyway. And that's when I found there were more pictures in there than I thought." Felicia Barry then pulled a framed photograph from the cardboard box.
"This is the team photo of the cheerleading squad from just before the accident." She showed the group the photo. It depicted a smiling, happy Sarah McMillan, alongside Karyn Black, Lauren O'Brien, Melissa Smith, Tiffany Sanders, Amber Levine, Erika Weber, Allison Wright, and Nicole Tiller.
"So far, so good. But then I found this other photo." She then pulled another framed photograph from the box. In that photo, Karyn Black was missing, and her place in the squad was filled by Jessica Davis. "Strange. Karyn was always Sarah's right-hand woman. Why isn't she here? Jessica auditioned for the squad, but didn't make the final cut."
"That IS strange." Ryan said. "Are you sure someone didn't make a fake photo? Maybe Jessica herself?"
"I thought about it, but the photo looks too real. And then there are the other photos. Such as this one." Coach Barry pulled another framed photo from the box. This one depicted Sarah McMillan and Karyn Black alongside Nicole Tiller, Melissa Smith, Amber Levine, Allison Wright, Erika Weber, Jessica Davis, and Chrissy Morgan. At least according to the caption of the photograph.
"Erika looks like she's been working out a lot. But I don't know who this Chrissy Morgan is." Felicia Barry said. "I know a Chris Morgan. He's one of the nicer jocks. This girl here looks like she could be his sister, but I don't know if he even has a sister, and I'm sure if he does, she doesn't go to Lake Point High School. Or didn't before it closed."
"And then there's this photo." The next framed photo she pulled out depicted Sarah McMillan, alongside Erika Weber, Melissa Richards, Meagan Graison, Ashley Thompson, Allison Wright, Madison Reed, Laura Mathis, and Brooke Stevenson. "Many of these girls don't even go to Lake Point High. I just saw Meagan, Ashley, Laura, and Brooke on the Forestville High cheerleading squad last week."
Samantha paused for a moment before commenting. "I have to agree this is strange. Are you sure these photos aren't faked? That it isn't some sort of prank?"
"These photos look real enough." Coach Barry said. "And even if they weren't, I don't know how someone would sneak them into my belongings. There's more I could show you, but this one is ... I don't even know what to make of it."
She pulled out another framed photo from the cardboard box. This one depicted Sarah McMillan and Karyn Black alongside a more athletic looking version of religious girl Nadine Ferguson, and (according to the accompanying caption) Delia Lettman, Randi Goodman, Trinity Blake, Jen Madison, and Jade Duncan. The caption credited the photo to Anna Holloway, teacher and coach.
"First off, Nadine Ferguson was always badmouthing the cheerleaders. I can't see her joining the cheerleading squad." Coach Barry said. "But who are these other people? I know a Randy Goodman from the football team, but he never mentioned having a sister with a similar name. And I don't know who this Anna Holloway is."
Samantha took a close look at the photo, taking notice of the girl the caption identified as Jade Duncan. "That looks a bit like Jay, if he'd been born a girl or had a sister. But Jay's an only child. In our reality, anyway."
"And that's why I'm here." Felicia Barry said. "I talked about this with Teresa, and asked her about that Reality Branches machine. It's supposed to be this 'gateway to a tree of diverging timelines', but then it exploded. She told me to ask you what you think."
"Wait a minute." Ryan said. "Are you saying the explosion created some sort of rift or distortion?"
"The Reality Branches prototype was intended to show us a whole bunch of alternate realities." Samantha said. "None of us thought it was a good idea to activate the prototype at Lake Point. We tried to tell Mr. McMillan it was too unstable, and that we should test it at some empty field instead, but he wouldn't hear of it."
Rachel nodded. "He wanted the publicity. He wanted people to go 'Hey, here's the guy whose company found the gateway to other realities'. The PR department came up with some slogans, such as 'It's not just for superhero movies anymore', but once they found out Mr. McMillan was going to have the prototype activated at the high school, they joined us and the legal department in saying it was a bad idea."
"So, do you think there's some sort of ... distortion?" Felicia Barry asked.
"I wouldn't rule it out." Samantha said. "This was a prototype, and an unstable one. In fact, I'd be surprised if it didn't leave behind some sort of distortion. If we're lucky, dumping photos and a few other harmless items from other realities into ours is all it'll do."
"If we're lucky?" Coach Barry asked.
"I'd like to investigate, but I'm not sure if we'd be allowed on the site." Samantha said. "It's been closed to the public ever since the explosion."
Rachel chimed in. "We could try to get permits, but the paperwork will take days, weeks. Maybe months."
"So what do we do?" Coach Felicia Barry asked.
"Talk to the principal and the other teachers and staff." Rachel said. "Tell them about the photos. Ask them if they've seen anything strange or out of place. Maybe if we have enough people reporting strange things, we can make a good case."
Teresa Talton spoke up next. "I think she's right. In the meantime, just try to go about things as if they were normal. Help your friends out. But let us know if something else happens."
Samantha nodded. "We're currently working on another project. But we'll see what we can do."
Athena, at this point, decided she'd seen enough, and turned away from the bowl. The image faded, and Athena turned to Scarlett.
"This reality distortion they're talking about. How worried should we be?" Athena asked.
"It could certainly complicate things if anyone was to keep making wishes." Scarlett said. "At last count, there were seven wishing artifacts in the Lake Point area, counting the Original Stone. We need to find out who currently has each of these wishing stones, hopefully before they wish for any changes too drastic. We don't know how the reality distortion will affect the changes in reality that usually come with the wishes."
"So what are we going to do?" Athena asked. "We've got one more 'spying' charge left over, but that's not going to be enough. I'd like to go out in the field but..." she looked down at herself, confined to a wheelchair.
"This is going to be risky, but there might be something I can do about this." Scarlett said. She looked over at the shelves in the back room of the Occult Store.