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    fs02 decisions  

de-ci-sion [di-sizh-uhn]
1. the process of deciding, or making a judgment.
2. the act of or need for making up one's mind: This is a difficult decision.
3. something that is decided; resolution: He made a poor decision.

The slightly warped vinyl platter rotated at a steady rate, as polished brass fingers lowered the stylus.

After a momentary piffle of noise, speakers around the ship began to produce a clear melody -- the finest in classical music, a cherished composition hallowed for two centuries and known simply as the Abbey Road. After all, his gentleman did enjoy a little musical accompaniment with morning tea. It was said (and thus impressed into his physical memory pins) that there was nothing finer than a relaxing morning, basking in the sun with a cup of flawlessly brewed tea in one hand, and the pleasant sounds of Sirs John, Paul, George, and Ringo in your ears.

As the morning music greeted the coming of the sun, Jeeves got to work. Select a platter -- Nel had already taken his gentleman's preferred platter, as she busily set about fetching breakfast for her lady, but that was fine. His gentleman was a reasonable sort who would accept practical substitutes without question, unlike others in the Gearhaus family-conglomerate.

The two of them went about their business, in the tight little galley tucked away at the back of the Clockwork Mermaid. Nel clearly had kitchen experience, and knew how to maneuver in and around other servants without interrupting anyone's tasks. Jeeves went high for the box of tea leaves, Nel went low to fetch some muffins. Jeeves slid around her to obtain the kettle, Nel reversed and stood back to back as she applied single pats of butter. Despite having two different goals and two different processes, they moved as a synchronized unit.

Soon, as the dulcet tones declared the joys of being under the sea in an octopus's garden, they emerged to the great hall.

The bulk of the Clockwork Mermaid was taken up by the hall. Spiral staircases connected the two main floors, at either end of the room -- the rest of the room was open air, save for the well secured chandelier above a long dining table. Various bookcases and family portraits lined the walls, along with the automated dumbwaiter system, normally used to safely ferry food down from the overlooking balcony outside the galley... but Jeeves preferred to carry his trays himself, as he was incapable of losing his balance and dropping the food. It seemed Nel was equally skilled, as she shuffled around and in front of him, the two of them descending.

The noise of combat echoed throughout the hall. It seemed that Jesse had found his gentleman's sparring partner, a rather vicious looking array of arms and blades and prongs, carefully designed not to cause any serious wounding while it trained the subject in the art of fencing. Not normally a subject for a fine lady to take up, but Jeeves held no opinions one way or another. His fashion sense programming did, however, note that she should be wearing proper workout attire, instead of fencing in her dressing gown. The lady had not proven to be a "morning person," it seemed, and would dress when she was good and ready.

Nel crossed the hall on the opposite side from Jesse's mechanical frenzy of warfare. Jeeves briefly saw her enter the crew cabins, where no doubt the despondent Una awaited. His memory pins had not recorded the young lady leaving her cabin very often in the three days since setting out from New Orleans. According to his gentleman, she was suffering from the aftermath of a broken heart. Jeeves was fortunately programmed not suggest that she should consider replacement of her heart with an artificial substitute. It would be uncouth to express such an obvious cliche of machine intelligence.

The autobutler took the opposite path, choosing to wander into the fray rather than go around it. It was of no concern to him; despite being a seven foot tall mechanical man of considerable bulk, he had excellent agility, and could sidle around Jesse's morning workout. He avoided the blades, as even if they stood little chance of damaging his metal shell, his interposition could damage his gentleman's combat trainer. That would be improper. Jesse, for her part, fought her way around the automaton, using the distraction to make a striking blow to the machine's shutdown button. A fine victory, and well played.

Another staircase was ascended, as Jeeves approached the bridge, above the personal cabins. In here, vast arrays of dials, brass levers, knobs, and glass-bound colored lights indicated that the Clockwork Mermaid was sailing along nicely, a considerable distance above the American midwest. However, to his puzzlement, his gentleman was not manning the ship. The Automated Navigator system had been activated.

Steam briefly pulsed from the dual vents along his spine, as he processed this information. With care, he turned around, descended again, crossed the middle of Jesse's second melee wave, and then descended once more to the cargo bay.

The underbelly of the Clockwork Mermaid was hardly as posh as the great hall. Here, the brass ribcage of the ship showed its bones, with only a paltry grating of a floor beneath Jeeve's polished metal feet. Crates, boxes, barrels, and other containers were strewn about... items left from the Mermaid's last journey, items smuggled aboard by his gentleman prior to takeoff, and so on.

Most critical of this cargo was the steam tanks. Two great cylinders, containing high pressure aetheric steam... the mixture which enabled all British engineering to get up and go. Portable cylinders were stacked neatly next to the dispenser nozzles to the left, and Jeeves himself had a docking station on the right. Each night, after his gentleman had retired, he would settle in for a good system flushing and steam refill. He was programmed to make a refreshing "Ahhhh" noise upon undocking. The niceties were important, after all.

From here, he could access the engine room via a simple metal hatch, vaguely shaped like a door. And sure enough, there was his gentleman.

The young man was busy tinkering with the mechanisms that turned the great propellers. Conveyor belts, gearworks, steam powered hydraulics... all of it translated the power of the aetheric steam into physical work, which pushed the Mermaid along through the air. Of course, this resulted in a greasy, smelly, hazy environment... totally unsuitable for morning tea. Nevertheless, morning tea was called for, and would be provided.

Gilbert made final adjustments, tossing his spanner aside before shutting the hatch. It buttoned up with self-sealing bolts.

"Purring like a kitten!" he declared -- although in a tone that Jeeves's emotional sensory algorithms identified as irritated. "Honestly, Jeeves, I should've stolen some other ship... more of a D-I-Y. This one's far too posh and well tuned. Nothing breaks down! It's just not as much fun."

The autobutler set the tea-tray down on the nearest surface not cluttered with nuts, bolts, and miscellaneous hand-tools. "Clearance," he reminded his gentleman, in the musical synthesized voice his line was known for.

(One word would always suffice; being an early model, the Gearhaus Patented Gentleman's J-33 Valet and Equerry System was not known for being overly talkative. They were, however, equipped with an expansive thesaurus.)

"I know, I know," Gilbert spoke, settling in on a work stool, so he could relax and enjoy his tea. "We couldn't exactly do a border run in some shady airship compared to the family's weekender. I suppose it's for the best... crossing the Atlantic in a rust bucket would have been too risky, even for me. ...mmm. Good brew today, Jeeves. So! How are the crew settling in?"

Gears clicked into place, as he took a moment to analyze his morning observations. The lens behind his single glass monocle (the only eye he owned or had need of) focused and refocused. The sculpted brass of his moustache even gave a little twitch. Designers of the J-33 knew that people liked visual expressive cues to indicate a state of thought process, after all.

"Routinely," he decided.

"Hmm, I noticed. Keep to themselves, largely, what with Una's romantic troubles and Jesse's, well, discontent with everything and anything about her. It's not a proper atmosphere for adventure. --you know what we need, Jeeves?"


"Exactly!" Gilbert agreed, waving a bit of toast at his mechanical companion. "We're all off doing our own little things. We need at least one proper supper together, to get to know each other. Three courses and a brandy will iron out any woes!"

Jeeves cleared some memory pins, ready to take down the evening's dinner orders. "Pheasant?" he suggested.

"No, no... let's go with something a bit more American. Hmmm. Hamburger. Let's go with hamburger."

Several culinary sub-applications immediately whirred in protest within Jeeve's left shoulder. "Bovine?" he spoke, using emotional inflection to indicate his programmed distaste.

"When in Rome, my friend. When in Rome," Gilbert pointed out, with a bright smile -- which immediately fell. "Oh, wait! What am I thinking? We'll be docked in Las Vegas by afternoon, in... 5.57 hours. No sense keeping the girls all cooped up here to eat when they can go and have some fun, eh?"


"Well, alright, we. We can go and have some fun. I suppose my ideas for modifying the engines can wait another day..."

After finishing his morning tea, Gilbert leaned over on his stool, grasping a metal talk-tube. He popped the cap with a thumb, to address the crew.

One way or another, he thought, I will be a proper captain and bring this impromptu crew together. There's not much time to do it, admittedly, but I owe it to them. In a lot of ways, they have worse problems than I...

the forsaken shores
by stefan gagne

chapter 02

The voice was funneled through a series of specially designed metal tubes and echo chambers, like pipes in an organ. When it came out the other side, it was as clear as if the speaker was right next to you. Which ended up giving both Una and Nel a bit of a fright; Una dropping her half-nibbled muffin, Nel fumbling her book.

"Attention, this is Captain Gilbert speaking!" the disembodied announcer spoke. "We arrive in Las Vegas in approximately 5.56 hours. Please be prepared to disembark for evening leisure and dining. We will make landfall in Los Angeles the following morning, so I suggest moderation in your sherry intake. That is all."

Nel adjusted her grip on her copy of Mark Twain, and flipped back to the page she was on. "I fear I won't get used to all this ancient-yet-oddly-effective technology," she commented, as she searched for the paragraph she was previously reading. "It took me a year to come to terms with hypertechnology. This sort of... backwards-yet-forwards Victorian design is all so odd..."

"I rather like it," Una spoke, although without much mirth, as the poked the remains of a muffin around on her plate. "It reminds me of Jules Verne. Are all the populations shifted onto Earth echoes of literature, I wonder...? Even the Faeries aren't sure why there are similar legends and 'fairy tales' here..."

"Divine providence? Cosmic coincidence?" Nel suggested. "Creative minds, open to dreams of other worlds? We may never know, I suspect. ...ah, is the breakfast not to your taste? The galley has so many different foods, I could get you something else, if you like."

"Hm? Oh... no, it's fine. I'm just not very hungry, is all," Una decided to believe. "Soo... Las Vegas. I suppose... well. We'll have to have a stopover. It would be diplomatic, wouldn't it? And we are diplomats, of a sort..."

Nel decided to set the book aside, for now. "Gilbert's right, you know," she said. "We should have some recreational time, and Las Vegas is apparently well known for recreation. It'd be a fine opportunity... despite the mastermind behind that particular recreation."

The apathetic girl decided to stop poking at her unfinished meal, and simply set it aside. It was more honest, that way. "I don't think I'm up for leisure right now, Nel," she said, after at least finishing off her orange juice. "I'm not really up for anything. I don't know, I just... I'd rather stay in. That's all."

"Una... this may be your last chance."

"What do you mean?"

"Think about where we're going," Nel reminded her. "We're investigating the sealed cities. The forsaken shores. I can't imagine it's going to be a pleasant vacation. We may not get the kind of downtime you had in Florida. remember Florida? We had a lot of fun there, even if there were troubles before and after. You and I, I mean. Shopping for swimsuits... going out dancing..."

"I'm not sure I'm up for dancing tonight, Nel..."

"So, don't dance. But you need to be up, in general. One way or another you'll be up tomorrow when we reach Los Angeles, so why not first be up in a... relatively pleasant place, before you need to approach that situation?"

Her chair slid out a bit, as she got to her feet. Nel crossed over the small doubles guest cabin, to raid Una's luggage -- the storage compartment in her jetpack, propped up casually next to the wall. With practiced ease (as Nel had been the one to pack it in the first place while Una took a very, very long rest post-breakup) she withdrew...

"Is that one of my dresses?" Una asked, prodding at her memory much as she was prodding at a muffin previously.

"It is now!" Nel declared, showing off the glittering minidress -- a modern Orbital cut, good for a night on the town. "I got it from Requisitions back at the Arcology, just before we left. I have one of my own, too! I mean... I knew we'd end up in Vegas. And I knew you'd need SOME sort of fun, before we got to business. ...Una, please. I know you're hurting. I know it's rough. But it's just going to be rougher if you don't do this for yourself. Please...?"

The easiest thing to do would be to stay in bed. Stay in bed and feel miserable, that is. The hardest thing to do would be to get up, put on that beautiful dress, and have some fun with her best friend in the world. Not just pretend to smile and enjoy herself, but to genuinely smile and enjoy herself. That would take backbreaking levels of effort, right now...

"...what is it Jesse keeps saying?" Una asked... her own smile starting to match Nel's. "Let it never be said I am not up for a challenge? Very well! Tonight, in deference to the troubles ahead, I will have a trouble-free evening. We will enjoy the atmosphere, we will dine, and... well. Maybe we'll dance. No promises."

"Great! So, all we have to do now is avoid Lady Morgana, and we'll have a perfect evening!" Nel promised.


Morgana, queen of the desert. Lady Morgana, owner of the Mirage. So called because it was, in fact, a giant illusion.

The Vegas strip looked exactly as it did over two centuries ago -- all the pavement, all the neon lights, all the noise and sound and excitement. And none of it technically existed. Glamour spells had been cast permanently over the rotting husks of ancient casinos, restoring their former glory if none of their former functionality. The entire point was to present Las Vegas as a living, breathing land of wonder and magic... even if it was all just for show.

Of course, the plan was to go back and fill in the gaps. Restoration had already begun on two of the casinos, and they'd be ready for business within the next year. Meanwhile, there was the Mirage Hotel and Casino itself... fully restored to its decadent human glory, and open for business. Lady Morgana's consolation prize, in exchange for vacating the former House of the Rising Sun. It was the opinion of many, including Morgana herself, that she had in fact traded up when the new Faerie Queen evicted her from her own home.

For this reason alone, the heavy handed and callous and cruel and egotistical and shallow Lady Morgana had a high opinion of Queen Emily and made sure all her gossip insiders were aware of that fact. Morgana wasn't disgraced and shoved out the door -- she was given a mission from the Queen herself to restore Las Vegas! She wasn't given walking papers and escorted roughly to a rotting human city on the very edge of Faerie Court territory, she was an enterprising developer with an eye towards the games of tomorrow. And to a degree, it was true; Morgana was pleased with her standing in the Court and with her Queen's lovely gift of Las Vegas. Pleased, to a degree.

That's why, when the Clockwork Mermaid docked on a hastily arranged pylon atop the Mirage, Lady Morgana was there to greet her honored guests. Specifically, her former house elf slave, the alien who disgraced her in public, a reject from her dear sister Archmagus-in-Exile Lilith's witching academy, and some filthy foreigner who undoubtedly had no manners to speak of. To the enemies and the unknowns, she wore her best smile. After all, these horrible people were high in the court of Queen Emily. Her benefactor.

With a sweeping bow, flanked by her finest servants (not slaves, not indentured, paid well, Emily was very clear on that), Morgana greeted her guests as they descended a folding staircase from the fancy airship.

"Honored guests, you are welcome to the Mirage Hotel and Casino," she began. "You are to be given free run of the facilities, chips on the house so that you may enjoy our games without having to cash in your own monies or favors, and so much more. Lady Morgana knows how to treat her envoys well, you will find!"

Of course, the elf and her little shining knight in their absurd matched minidresses barely returned the welcome. Morgana expected no more than a cursory nod, but they simply stood around looking uncomfortable. Still, at least one of their companions had manners... the strangely dapper young lad did step forward, to offer a bow. The boy even reached out to take her hand, and kiss the back of it. (Such wonderful manners! Perhaps she had judged this foreign human prematurely.)

"Madam, I have seen many a recording smuggled from your country which depicted the mystique of Las Vegas," the boy spoke. "As a tourist in your lands, I greatly look forward to sampling the modern Las Vegas experience. Thank you for inviting us into your home."

"Seen Lilith lately?" Jesse spoke in a manner akin to a stick in the eye.

"...of course, my sister is in exile, as enforced by Queen Emily," Morgana said after more pause than she wanted to offer. She glanced down, to the girl's hip. Establish who's in charge around here, she instinctively told herself. "I see you come bearing arms. There's no need of that here, child. You'll find my security forces are up to the task of guarding VIP guests--"

"You are welcome to try and remove my blade from my person," Jesse suggested.

"--but I suppose we can make an exception, in the case of a close, personal friend of Queen Emily," the mistress of the house decided, through a smile of gritted teeth. "After all, I can expect an emissary of our beloved monarch to be on her best behavior, true? Then there is nothing to be concerned with. Welcome, all. Welcome to the Mirage. ...if you'll excuse me, I simply must return to my duties. My servants--"

"Salaried employees," Nel interjected.

"My employees will allocate your chips and direct you to any entertainment you may desire. Any entertainment. Now, then, if you'll excuse me..."

And once again, the lady of the manor had been upstaged. It took five minutes and three floors of distance away from them before Morgana could finally growl properly. In her personal office, where her new personal servant snapped to attention when the lady entered. There, she could be herself, because the silly little elf in her employ knew to keep her mouth shut.

In another day, another place, such an encounter could be interpreted as an insult. She could have had a measure of favor, a measure of revenge. Sadly, they had the leverage of the crowns behind them. They were by standard given enough leeway to take a few pokes without retribution.

It would take something far more blunt, far more horrid to count as an actionable offense...

Morgana's eyes turned to her trying-not-to-tremble personal attendant.

"Ylsa, dear, be a good girl and fetch the head chef for me," Morgana sweetly requested. "Then contact the concierge, and tell him to bring me a listing of all persons of repute currently staying at the hotel. Oh, and I'll require your services tonight for my glamour. I MUST look my best for my honored guests. ...I suggest you get it right this time."


It was unlike anything Gilbert had seen before.

Oh, he'd seen penny ante fruit machines, and he'd watched the docksmen play cards. He knew the basics of gambling, even if he'd never actually taken part. But little glimpses here and there were nothing compared to the smorgasbord of chance on display at the Mirage.

Even if you took a bunch of people playing cards or pulling the handles on a mechanical slot machine and put them in one room, you wouldn't get the same effect. If you somehow designed a religion around the very concept of gambling and then used the house winnings to craft an exquisite temple to the Casino Gods... then it would be a more accurate depiction of the Mirage. This was a testament to everything humans remembered about Las Vegas, from the shiny decor balancing on a tightrope between wonder and decadence, to the buzz and chaos of the main floor where all manners of Fae (and a few risk taking humans from the Fringe territories) were busy losing and gaining plastic chips.

The chips were a new concept to the Fae. Traditionally, Lady Morgana banked on favor... debt, promise, fealty, and outright enslavement if need be. The Fae were used to the complicated networks of favor that one owed another. Chips changed everything; they were favor in tokenized form. Cashing them in and out could be a bit tricky, but thanks to Morgana's extensive study of gambling... odds were you wouldn't be cashing out so much as in, anyway.

Piled neatly against the green felt of the blackjack table were physical representations of Lady Morgana's favor to Queen Emily's diplomats / emissaries / explorers / personal friends. They were gestures of welcome to people who by and large did not feel welcome here, but accepted them anyway out of politeness, not expecting to do much with them. Una and Nel's stacks were simply stuffed into the storage compartment of Una's jetpack, unlikely to be spent this evening... while Jesse and Gilbert had other plans.

They were locked in a state of war.

It began informally, as these things often did. When the matched girls wandered off to get some drinks and relax (as they were utterly inseparable, as always) Jesse and Gilbert were left holding the bag. They had little in common and Jesse at least had no interest in the pointless chatter of idle conversation. So, the chips led the way -- they would spend some time playing the games, for lack of anything better to do.

Blackjack was the most common table game at the casino, so, that's where they started. Neither did very well, despite having a loose grasp of the rules; more often than not, Jesse would see opportunity and move in for the kill, only to pass twenty one and bust. Gilbert was clumsy, not quite grasping when was the best time to hit, when was the best time to stay...

At first, at least.

The dealer, an elf wearing a flawlessly formed bow tie, manipulated the deck using a simple spell. The deck fluttered in midair, and began to shuffle itself... cards transpositioning themselves, teleporting in and out and around within the stack, splitting and dividing over and over. The process took less than seven seconds total, a blur of waxed paper cards randomizing themselves flawlessly through the skill of Faerie magic.

After the tenth losing hand, when Gilbert was down to nearly half his original stash, he raised his eyes to watch the shuffle. Intently. Seven seconds later, he blinked, and nodded to himself...

"Okay," he declared -- and promptly won five hands in a row. Splits fell and formed, the limit was scraped without being pushed... and finally, he nailed his first full blackjack.

Meanwhile, Jesse's chips dwindled away. Every time she had a good feeling about what was going to come up, she was wrong. When she moved in for the kill, the enemy slipped away, or countered her with a high card to put an end to her rampage. It was... vexing. All the while, this boy, this ordinary fellow had managed to best the dealer time and time again...

"Seems luck's with me tonight!" Gilbert declared, raking in his latest stack of plastic favors. "Well, luck and a little math. How's your stack doing-- oh dear, that bad? You know, I can give you some of mine. It's not like I really need them, anyway--"

Jesse shoved aside her losing cards, with a frown. "I'm not interested in your charity," she noted. "And I will best you yet. I'm just getting my footing. I will find a hole in the dealer's defenses, and I will strike when the time is right. Not before."

"Why is everything a battle with you, anyway?"

She looked away from the next hand, puzzled. "What do you mean?"

"The war metaphors. Pardon my directness, but you lay them on a bit thick, don't you?" Gilbert spoke. He ignored his cards, as well -- turning slightly on the nicely padded table stool, to face her. "We're here to have a spot of fun, Jesse. No more, no less. There's no foe to defeat, no victory to find. Turning it into a serious confrontation, well... drains all the mirth from it, yes?"

"At Archmagus Lilith's witching academy, we were taught that life is war. The humans who want to destroy us--"

"Err, aren't you human?"

"--and foes of Summer, lying in wait to the north, for the truce to fall--"

"But Queen Emily explained to me that the whole seasonal war thing was over."

"--and other enemies personal or impersonal surround us. A witch must be prepared," Jesse continued, despite the interruptions. "A witch must be up to the tasks before her. A witch must be triumphant. We trained to gather our power and sharpen our finest weapon, our minds. True, I took up the blade as well, but mostly as a complementary meditation on magic. You see a fun game; I see another training opportunity to prove my worth."

Curious, Gilbert glanced around. "Prove to whom, exactly?" he asked. "The dealer? The cigarette girl? That fellow in the horrible flowered tunic and the unfortunate hat?"

"If you insist on analyzing the psyche of strangers to your person, then I will eliminate much of this dance by saying I must prove it to myself," Jesse acknowledged, nice and simple. She turned back to her cards, studying them. "That is life. Constant challenge. ...there. I trust you are satisfied?"

"Not much of a life, I'd say..."

"I will ignore your poor manners and counter that you are far from home, little boy. You wouldn't be here if you weren't challenging yourself."

To this, Gilbert smiled. "A valid point, m'lady. --oh, sorry, forgot the game! Ah, good sir, hit me twice, twenty one, I win."

"You have seventeen showing! You can't possibly... know..."

The waxed cards slid to a halt in a neat little stack. Jack, seven, three, ace. Twenty one.

"Luck and a little math. ...okay, a LOT of math," Gilbert admitted. "It feels like a little to me, but I suppose to others it would be a lot. I mean, sure, I could make a probability table and just bet based on that, but... well. Hmm. This is a bit awkward, isn't it..."

With a sigh... he pushed all the chips he had won back across the table.

"Sir, I regret to inform you I have been cheating," he spoke, directly to the shocked dealer. "It's your shuffle, see. It's weak. I mean, don't get me wrong, it's quite a good shuffle for most, but... I have an acuity for pattern recognition far beyond my peers. I don't honestly mean to boast, but it's important to note for purposes of explaining myself. I can track the cards as they shuffle in mid-air. Your next five cards will be a queen, a two, another two, an ace, and a seven."

Slowly, the perplexed elf dealt out five cards... which, as foretold in prophecy, came up an elegant beauty, a matched pair, a virtuoso, and the number of the heavens.

"As you can see, I've no right to these amusing little 'chips'. Probably for the best, I'd likely find the urge to deep fry them and have them with fish irresistible! Hah!"

...nobody laughed.

However, the dealer did slowly push the pile back across the table.

"Your winnings are yours, sir," he explained. "It is house policy that anyone who successfully cheats has won a round of the greater game of the Mirage. However, as you have shown your technique, we will now be defending against it by hiding the shuffle. You would have been better off remaining silent, if you don't mind my suggestion, sir."

"Erm... I'm sorry? 'Greater game'? But I cheated..."

And Jesse smiled, slowly. "Ah. I understand. Pardon, Mr. Dealer. My friend is new to the ways of the Fae. ...let me explain, boy. Morgana is a lady of the gamble, to the core. That means two games (at least!) are being played here simultaneously. The game before you... and the game of the games. The game that consists of how you play the other games. The house plays against you in both cases. If you win, your winnings are yours. If the house wins, and no doubt typically the house indeed wins, you owe them favor."

" you're saying that since I successfully cheated against the casino's best defenses... it's not really cheating?"

"Correct. Of course, you exposed a vulnerability to your enemy, by showing how it's done. I think you find you'll lose everything you have and then some if you continue... the house will show no mercy, now that you've shown weakness. In the end, it will win, should you continue the fight. If you will, of course, excuse the endless series of combat metaphors. They are to my liking."

"It's for the best that I stop now, I suspect," Gilbert said, with a sigh. "Legal or not, I've no mind to continue being a sneaky bastard. Let's depart. Perhaps we should join the others for drinks...?"

Jesse held up a hand, to give him pause, before he could depart. "You have an unusual mind, it seems," she said. "I will admit... curiosity. I'd like one more game, if you don't mind. To test a theory of mine."

"But my system won't work anymore in blackjack."

"That is why we will be playing a different game. Come on, boy--"

"Gilbert. Call me Gilbert."

"As you like."


This was probably the best time to visit the bar, all things considered. After dinner, it would be packed with gamblers, vacationers, and even locals looking for a different kind of big score. At this late afternoon hour, the only people here were the barkeeps, the serving staff, and a few businessmen who were trying to steadfastly avoid the game tables after poor showings earlier in the day.

Unfortunately, the pair definitely looked out of place. Una's fashion sense was far flashier than most, simply because what was casual wear to an Orbital was as flawlessly tailored and designed as a high fashion frock from the runways of New York City. Two young ladies in silvery dresses would've got more than their fair share of looks even at this underpopulated time of day... if not for one of them crying quietly into her drink. Fortunately, the fruity concoction was defended by a tiny umbrella from just such an incident.

It was the same thing Una had been repeating in various forms, ever since the evening they left New Orleans, and the verse, chorus, and bridge all went as such:

"I was foolish for falling so easily. Some part of me knew he wasn't genuine. How stupid do I have to be to hang onto Brell for two years without becoming aware?"

This being Una, she was able to form coherent and well structured sentences even while sobbing. This being Nel, she was at her side, one arm around her friend, doing her best to offer comfort.

"You're not foolish at all!" Nel insisted. "You're the smartest, kindest, most beautiful person I've ever met--"

"I am a silly little girl who chases after love anywhere she may see it. No wonder that horrible man was able to take advantage of me," Una decided, brushing tears away, left cheek, right cheek. "I'm only a ninety one, you know. Not as brilliant as my peers, not by nine percentile points..."

"But you're smarter than anyone else I know! Smarter than me, even."

"Then how was it I never called it off with Brell? How could I be so wrong?"


But you're not wrong. You're right. You're so, so right. So right for me. Too right for this world...

Too. Two. Two years, she'd gotten to know Una. For two years she'd been Una's closest friend... and nothing more. But that was an advantage, wasn't it? She knew Una now, more than she knew Una two days after being rescued from Lady Morgana. Years beat days by a wide margin. That meant Nel knew what she should be saying... not just what she wanted to say. Something beyond the same mindless praise Brell would've heaped on Una when she was feeling down.

Against every fluttering little wish in her heart, Nel said, "You were wrong about Brell, yes. And it was a silly mistake to make."

At this, Una looked up from watering her drink. If there was hurt in her eyes, Nel would have shattered inside immediately. Fortunately, there was only... confusion.

"A mistake...?"

"It's true. You made a mistake," Nel found herself agreeing... but not without adding a twist. "But don't you see, Una? People make mistakes. Even Orbitals! And you don't need to be a ninety one to do it; even, well, I don't know if there are any of them, but a one hundred could make a mistake too. It's just... people. Humans, Fae, Orbitals. It happens. just happens. I've made plenty of mistakes."

"Nel... if by mistakes, you mean the times you 'failed' Lady Morgana and she--"

"I mean in my life. My life, since you rescued me," Nel spoke... without going into further detail. "My point is... we all make mistakes. Like running after Brell to confront him, instead of seeking out 'Mr. Orange' like Emily wanted us to do! ... ..erm..."

Una sagged slightly. Considering she was already slumped, that took some effort. "I really did make a mistake there, didn't I..."

"Well... we both did," Nel said. "I went with you, didn't I? I didn't protest it at all, because... I wanted to support you. I should've been a true friend, and, well... tried to talk some sense into you instead of helping. ...I don't think my Queen was pleased with us, but being a friend, she decided not to belabor the point. --the point! Yes. The point is, why do we make mistakes? To learn from them! Please... don't despair from this. Rejoice! You know the truth of Brell, now, and can move on from this a better person!"

Slowly, Una began to sit more upright, as she digested the words. For the last few days, the few times she felt like talking about it, Nel had mostly been insisting everything was fine, everything would be fine, Una was a terrific person, and so on and so forth... which didn't help. This? This was helping, even if Una couldn't quite figure out why...

"So... I need to take back a lesson from this?" she suggested. "To grow, and feel more confident in myself."

"Yes, exactly!" Nel spoke, brightened by her friend's upswing. "So! What have you learned?"

"That I have no business getting involved in any sort of romance for a good, long while," Una spoke -- with a smile.

"--wuh? What?"

"It makes sound logical sense," Una explained, with little hand gestures. "It's the lesson of my mother, see. I thought I had learned it long ago, with my last failed attempt at romance, but Brell came at me from another direction and I discarded my learning. No more! To ensure safety, I will hereby abstain from romance until such a time as I feel I have matured enough to understand the true nature of love! It's for my own good. Even if it takes years, I will grow out of childhood foolishness and become a sensible woman!"

"L-Let's not be too hasty, now," Nel suggested... shrinking a bit, away from the triumphant-sounding Una. "I mean... love is still a wonderful thing..."

"Oh, I agree! But mother said that I would know my true love not just by my hopes, but by my heart and my head. That's the spirit of true Pragmatism, to temper Optimism -- without dousing it. I will one day find love, and then, I WILL be ready for it! Yes, this is all so clear to me, Nel. Thank you so much! You are truly a fine friend!"

It's a Florida delay all over again, isn't it? a little horrified voice spoke inside Nel's head. She's slipping away again! I just got another chance with her, and I'm going to lose it all over again...

It's the same thing with me, isn't it? a little sensible voice spoke inside Nel's head. You've managed to grow in the scant two years since being freed by her. Would you be the person you are now if you'd succeeded in romancing her fresh out of New Orleans, and remained a sycophant? You could benefit from this, as well. Not just at romance, but benefit for yourself.

Hearing voices in your head is probably not healthy, a little concerned voice spoke inside Nel's head. In a world of strange magic and technology and other weirdness, hearing voices could mean anything from demonic possession to mind control. (Fortunately, she was simply being intensely introspective, not suffering from alien brain parasites or anything of the sort.)

In the end... she returned Una's smile.

"You know what? I think I'll join your vow of chastity," she found herself deciding. "A show of solidarity, and to improve our own lives!"

"Really? Oh, you don't have to do that, honestly!" Una insisted.

"No, my mind's made up. It's for the best."

"Well... alright, if you insist. Hee hee... of course, this is really only a token gesture. It's not like we'd meet any charming boys while investigating dangerous pockets of the world, I suppose!"

Nel's expression faltered. "...charming boys. Right."

"Although... I feel in interests of disclosure that I should point something out," Una spoke... looking aside. She tried to discreetly point, one finger poking to her left. "There's a fine looking elven fellow at the bar who's been smiling at you for the last few minutes, if you haven't noticed..."

"I'm not really interested," Nel spoke with absolute certainty, without so much as a glance.

"Nel, as your friend, I hardly think my troubles should preclude your own happiness--"

"I'm not interested, Una. Not my type, even if I wasn't protesting with you. ...I'm going to get a refill. Excuse me."

The Orbital watched, curious, as her friend slid out of the bar booth and made her way to fetch a new drink. She didn't spare the young man a single look... and eventually, he gave up, turning instead to a woman off to his right.

Come to think of it, Una pondered, I've never seen her show any interest in anyone, and I happen to know a few Orbitals back home who had an interest in the reverse. Why is that? Perhaps I should ask her, at some point...

Sadly, a servant bearing a gold-foil pressed envelope interrupted her train of thought, derailing it into oblivion.


The tables were now turned.

Not literally, of course. The Mirage frowned on patrons rearranging the furniture. But where once Gilbert had a sizeable stack of plastic tokens and Jesse had few... now Jesse had reaped the rewards of victory, while Gilbert barely had three chips to rub together.

He studied his cards intently, trying to work out the numbers. Of course, word had been passed around the casino... the dealers were no longer shuffling without the benefit of a Concealment spell. (The flashy magical shuffle was a trademark of the Mirage, a thing to impress the guests. But now, they knew not to play around with the tourist with the funny accent.) Without being able to analyze the shuffle... he had only a vague idea of what cards were in Jesse's hand.

And Jesse... Jesse was utterly unreadable. In blackjack, her despair and glee at each loss and win were evident. Now, nothing was evident. It was like sitting across from a statue carved by a very boring artist. One who enjoyed mayonnaise on white bread and a side of unseasoned rice.

He rearranged his two cards, as if the order would make a difference. He studied the cards on the table. Furrowed his brow. And shoved his three measly tokens to the center.

"I call. Err. All-in, I mean," he clarified. "I believe what you hold in your hand is statistically unlikely to beat my two pair--"

"Flush," Jesse announced. "At the risk of becoming a cliche, victory is mine."

"...I should have known that. I mean, I know the statistics. You had a very good chance of having nothing..."

The witch collected her winnings, smiling in satisfaction at her hoard of wealth. "This is not blackjack, boy--"


"Gilbert, yes, right. This is poker. This is not a game of the cards, or of probability and chance. Oh, they play a factor... but so do the people. And I'm afraid I can read you like a book. I knew what you were holding, every single round, and that's without your strange chalkboard mind. You told me."

"I don't recall saying anything unusual..."

And Jesse furrowed her brow. And scratched her chin. And rolled her shoulders. "Three fine tells, and those were the least obvious ones you had," she explained. "One of these days, I'd like to fence you again. I think I could readily destroy you armed with the knowledge I've gathered today, no matter how quick on your feet you are..."

And with that... she pushed her half of the chips back to him.

"I've no need of favors," she said. "The victory was enough for me. Keep them. You may find something nice you want to buy in the gift shop. However, as the champion, I will take different favor of the one I have defeated."

"I'm starting to understand it's unwise to enter a contest with you, darling. So. What is you want of me? Use of my autobutler? A foot massage? For me to sing I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major-General? I could stand on my head, if you prefer--"

"Tell me about your mind."

Gilbert nudged his stack of chips back and forth, considering.

"Are you interrogating me for your queen?" he asked. "I know she still wants access to my invention..."

"Nothing of the sort. You've intrigued me, is all. And I will not be denied my prize," Jesse warned. "Now. You have spoken of your mental acumen. You can't claim that to be ordinary schooling. What magic do you wield? What power gives you this preternatural analytical mindset?"

It took some time, for Gilbert to decide what to say. So far, he was just some fellow, an out-of-towner here to see the sights and maybe swing on a chandelier hacking away at some foe with a blade, like an adventurer from a pulp novel. He liked being ordinary. If he told the truth...

...then again, very little in this land counted as 'ordinary' by British standards. He would be no stranger than a sword-witch, a far future girl, or her graceful elven companion.

"Aetheric steam," he spoke.

"The energy that powers your ship? I've seen the containers. And your robot tends to vent it at the worst possible moment. It's smell is faint, but unpleasant..."

"Believe me, I know," Gilbert grumbled. "For the first five years of my life, I was hooked up to a respirator and pumped a steady amount of the stuff."

" is non-toxic, I trust?"

"Let's just say that it wasn't intended for human consumption. An adult exposed to that much raw steam would likely die of a brain hemorrhage. A child, in the formative stages, is merely... changed. Given an innate complexity of the mind. With the right schooling, it can be developed into... how did you phrase it, now? A preternatural analytical mindset. In ancient days, my ancestors used electronic things called computers... now, for any critical research task, they use people like me. I am an Honored Calculator, for the Gearhaus family, the Gearhaus Industrial Concern conglomerate."

"So... you are their tool."

"It shouldn't take you long to come to some conclusions as to why I would want to leave," Gilbert suggested. "And I've no mind to discuss the specifics right now. Your question answered, my lady, and thus the favor paid. ...I've lost the mood for games, I'm afraid. I suppose I'll return to the Clockwork Mermaid, and--"

A throat was cleared.

The servant removed a gold-foil pressed envelope from his tray, and delicately placed it on the felt of the poker table. Jesse offered him a nod of approval, before carefully taking the offered item, and breaking the seal... unfolding the paper, to read.

Her smile skipped back and forth between smug and thrilled.

"It's an invitation," she described. "Lady Morgana has invited all of us to be her honored dinner guests. It says other Fae nobles will be in attendance, as well! Well, well. It seems being in Queen Emily's pocket has afforded me a certain status... one I was never able to find under Archmagus Lilith's hand. What an opportunity...!"

However, Gilbert remained dour. "Eh," he grunted. "Not interested in the slightest. Perhaps I'll head back to the Mermaid, as planned. When you've been to one noble gala ball, love, you've been to them all."

"...what do you mean by that?" Jesse asked, peering over the edge of the paper at him.

"Well, it's just a bunch of self important busybodies patting each other on the--"

"I mean by referring to me as your love," she indicated, pointing the envelope at him accusingly. "And as your darling, and as your lady. You are far too informal, sir -- and utterly incorrect. We are not lovers and I have no interest in you whatsoever beyond being my conscripted colleague."

Gilbert groaned. "Really, now? It's just an expression, darl-- it's just an expression. ...very well. I meant no disrespect. And I apologize, if it offended you."

"Right. See that you retain gentlemanly manners. This invitation? It proves that I am a person of worth within the Faerie Court, as I was always meant to be. You will accompany me to this dinner, Gilbert Gearhaus, and tonight we will be on our best behaviors. I have every confidence this event will go quite well!"



"Run for it!" Jesse screamed, as she whirled to face the pursuing guards.

One flick of the wrist, and the stairwell door slammed shut -- one Locking spell later and the door lock tumblers hopelessly twisted themselves around, jamming the door. The spell's runes that flashed up on her monocle's surface quickly burned away, as the spell was cast.

Eight feet beat against the stairs, as the group made a mad break for the roof. No time to talk, as they fled for their lives... the Clockwork Mermaid tantalizingly out of reach, just up there and out again...

On the roof, however, more guards were waiting. Sent by the mistress of the house, no doubt. They would move to restrain rather than kill, fortunately -- but that could potentially be just as horrid an outcome. They fell in short order, to the howling agony of a Fireblade spell, the neuroelectric shock of an Orbital stun blast, a horrifying illusory visage out of a childhood nightmare, and a collapsible fencing blade neatly slicing through a belt buckle leaving the last guard to collapse with his pants hopelessly tangled around his ankles.

Two minutes later and the Clockwork Mermaid was departing Las Vegas, in all haste. Breaths were drawn, at least. And out came the belated accusations.

Jesse, of course, was first to fire off the blame.

"Why? WHY did you do such a stupid thing?!" she shouted to Nel.

Nel, for her part, didn't shirk away as she might have years ago. She was on fire, tonight... burning with anger. The woman rarely got truly angry, but when she did, it was a thing to behold...

"You saw the way she treated her servant!" Nel shouted back, at equal volume. "The abuse, the insults. And just because the poor girl spilled some soup!? I wasn't going to stand around and--"

"It wasn't any of your business!"

"It WAS my business two years ago when I was under that horrible old woman's thumb!"

From the peanut gallery, Una made an observation. "She was rather old, wasn't she? All wrinkly, like a raisin. That was quite a surprise. Lady Morgana seemed so young and vital when we met her previously..."

"She was, until your girlfriend de-glamourized her!" Jesse yelled. "Elf, do you have any idea the amount of insult you've dealt Morgana, and the favor you now owe?"

Nel stepped forward, to, as the youth say, be all up in Jesse's grill. "I owe that slavedriver nothing! Not. One. Thing. I will never be her property again!"

"You may not have a choice, after what you did. And to make matters worse, we fled from the scene, with debt remaining to be settled...! This is disastrous. I should have turned you over to the guards the instant the fighting broke out!"

--at that, Una shoved the two apart, roughly. An interjection, of both words and person.

"No," she stated, firm in her footing. "No. I'm not going to hand Nel over to Morgana again, nor would I have allowed you to do so, Jesse. Not now, not ever, not for any reason. "

For her part, Jesse stepped back. Una was ostensibly the team leader, after all. It was her call... even if it wouldn't go without comment. "You're making a mistake," she said. "Just another incident for your Queen to clean up for you. Just like your failure in Florida. Are you certain you're up to the job of leading us into the unknown, Una zero point one...?"

"...if saving Nel from being hurt anymore by that sadist is a mistake, then it is one I will gladly make," Una spoke. " My headache requires treatment from my medical kit, and I desire rest. I'm retiring to my quarters. We land in Los Angeles by morning. Be ready to disembark at dawn. Assuming you will follow the orders of your leader, Jesse?"

"As you like it," Jesse spoke, arms crossed.

The matter settled, Una and Nel left, heading up the spiral stairs to the crew cabins. It was done.

"...and do you have anything to add to this?" Jesse asked, to the ship's captain.

Gilbert smirked away, hands in his pockets.

"I thought it was a bloody laugh riot, myself," he added.


The slightly warped vinyl platter rotated at a steady rate, as polished brass fingers lowered the stylus.

After a momentary piffle of noise, speakers around the ship began to produce a clear melody -- for this morning, Jeeves had selected a recording that hailed from the dark side of the moon. It was gentle and strange, a pleasant sound that spoke of the breath of life, and the nature of time itself. This appealed to his internal statistical model for aesthetics.

He assembled the morning tea tray unimpeded, this day. The great hall was empty, as he crossed over to the bridge. For a change, the crew wasn't off doing their own individual activities... they had gathered in the bridge, watching the approach to the City of Angels. For this reason, Jeeves had prepared a special morning tea, with four cups and the larger kettle.

Despite his best efforts at producing a relaxing environment, the atmosphere on the bridge remained unrelaxed. It wasn't the array of blinking lights and little dials flicking back and forth that was concerning... it was a combination of the previous night's rather spirited disagreements, with the vast thing on the horizon. The forsaken city of Los Angeles.

The group had woken early, and dressed for action. Una wore her jetpack, now with a leg holster for the energy pistol rather than relying on finding it in the cumbersome if roomy compressed volumetric space of her storage compartments. Nel had changed from her preferred business casual to leather travel vest, tunic, and leggings... traditional elven garb for forest exploration. Jesse wore a witch's combat dress, a functional garment of enchanted chainmail, although she declined the pointy hat that normally went with it. Even his gentleman had prepared, with a belt loaded with various tools and steam-powered handheld devices of unknown purpose... and his best work goggles nudged up to his forehead.

Each had prepared in their own way for the challenge that lie ahead... even if it wasn't clear what that challenge would be. The vast urban landscape of Los Angeles had been encased in a bubble of absolute matte black. It was an impossible thing, a magical construct that ate the daylight and gave nothing back in return. The enclosure only covered most of the city; what lie outside on the fringes had fallen to ruin long ago. What lurked inside was unknown.

Una squinted, adjusting the gnomish contact lenses. "It's... red. That's Fae magic, from the shift spectrum. Anything originating from or empowered by extradimensional energies would have taken on the shift color. But I can't make out anything inside it. ...ah, Nel, you should turn on your recording device and leave it on for the day. We'll want a full log of the expedition."

Her assistant nodded, flicking one of her two earrings. (It was a strange feeling, that now her five senses were now acting like cameras... strange, in that it didn't feel like anything at all. She'd have to remember to turn the earring off before turning in for the night, clearly.)

"There is time to turn back," Jesse reminded them. "Whatever is inside that bubble was sealed in there by the Faerie Queens for good reason. I suggest it not out of fear but out of sheer common sense... but, as we are under geas, I suppose there's no choice in the matter despite it being a complete mistake. So. How do we pass through the bubble?"

From her storage, Una withdrew the Key of Iron... the deceptively simple looking metal object of unfathomable power. It glowed a burning red through her contact lenses, but without them, it would look more like someone had lost the key to the wardrobe where Grandma kept her old sweaters.

"There's an incantation, according to the information Scout obtained about the key. Ah. Let's see, it's... 'That which bears this key seeks to cross the uncrossable border. In the name of Winter, in the name of Summer, grant me freedom of passage!'"

Nothing happened.

Nothing continued to happen.

"...did I get that right?" Una wondered. "Emily made me memorize it. I'm quite certain I used the proper wording..."

"Excuse me, but... was that keyhole there before?"

Nel pointed to the brass pilot's console. Nestled there, between a bank of switches and three pump-handle levers... was an upraised brass box, with a keyhole carved into the surface. Around it, embossed into the metal, were simple glyphs for a leaf and a snowflake... simple designs, evoking summer and winter.

"Well, now. That's quite clever," Gilbert spoke, studying it. "Tip of the hat to Faerie magic. Turning 'that which bears this key' into the entire ship, no doubt. Here I was wondering if we'd be stuck with only sending one person in at a time, and it seems we can fly on through as a whole. Of course, I'll miss the cup holder that used to be there..."

He shuffled out of the way, as Una approached with the key. She twisted her grip on it, to line up with the keyhole, and after one deep breath... slid the key into the lock, and twisted.

Nothing happened.

"...ah. So. Well, now we fly through, yes?" Gilbert said. "Huh. I was hoping for more sparklies and runes and voices muttering in arcane Fae tongues, but I suppose it wasn't in the budget..."

"We fly through, or your ship crashes into the surface and is destroyed on impact, yes," Jesse suggested.

The captain of the vessel slid into his seat, before flicking a few switches to disengage the automatic navigator, and pulling the yoke into position. "Right," he said, settling in and tugging down his goggles. (Not that they were needed, but a pilot had to wear goggles. It was traditional.) "All together, now..."

The Clockwork Mermaid sank into the black shell, and vanished from sight.


Despite the black "sky" around them, the morning sunlight was shining down on the city. Just another quirk of Fae magic.

The steam-powered airship circled around the city, high above. It was not immediately shot down by dinosaurs wielding plasma rifles, or psychokinetic mutant hordes armed with mind bullets. Instead it lazily cruised around, getting an overview of the dead landscape below.

The ruins of the city exterior beyond the bubble had rotted away, reclaimed by weather and earth, leaving behind little but metal skeletons where buildings used to be. The city interior was another matter. It hadn't rotted at all... vast patches of it looked just as shiny or grimy as the day this city was forsaken. Cars still littered the L.A. freeways, and buildings still had their glass windows to reflect the somehow-still-around sunlight...

And that was the extent of normalcy. Beyond that, things got strange.

For starters, there were the bodies. Bodies in the streets, bodies in cars, bodies likely in buildings. All dead. Not rotting, just dead. Even from this high up, they dotted the city, as if they fell where they stood... most for no explainable reason whatsoever. Others, well, the reason was obvious.

Powerful forces had changed this city.

A full quarter of it was overgrown with forest, giant redwoods that weren't even native to this part of the country, thrusting out from the pavement like spears. They punctured buildings, they toppled structures, with vines and overgrowth taking care of anything not destroyed by the sudden and violent explosion of nature's fury.

The first assumption would be that this was Lady Summer's doing, but that wouldn't explain how the area on Una's ancient map marked as "Beverly Hills" had been transmuted entirely into gold. It gleamed in the sun, an impossible city where every street, every building, even each individual blade of grass seemed to have been transformed into pure gold. Disturbingly enough... the fallen bodies in that portion of the city were also gold. Statues, some having fallen over from a standing position, others having alchemy forced onto them postmortem.

The last visibly different section of the city, at least visible from high above, was the section marked as Compton and most of the surrounding area. Here, at least the damage looked conventional, if incredibly intense. Buildings were burned out husks. Rubble lined the streets from explosions, as if the entire section had been carpet bombed. Barricades surrounding the area showed that the authorities had tried to contain whatever happened there... but the violence had spilled past them, destroying city blocks for miles around. Bodies upon bodies, discarded weapons at their sides... and the blood still fresh.

Los Angeles, the forsaken city of the west, had eaten itself alive.

After taking in the sights for a good half hour, nobody was interested in the now ice cold tea and biscuits Jeeves had brought them.

"It's... it's all yellow," Una spoke. "The shift spectrum native to this world. I can tell through my lenses. That means this was all done by humans... even the forests to the west! There are darker yellow patches, which is odd, but... the people of this city somehow did all this to themselves. They killed each other..."

"This goes well beyond human capacity," Jesse said, turning a cold eye to the wanton destruction and chaos below. "Control over nature. Alchemy. And apparently enough heavy weaponry to level a third world country... most old media depicts this city as lawless and greedy, but I doubt even their most brutal citizens had that much firepower handy prior to the forsaking..."

"And I can't help but notice time's sort of... stopped," Gilbert commented, tapping a glass chronometer (see: fancy word for a miniature grandfather clock) embedded in his dashboard. "I tried opening it and nudging the pendulum. It'll swing, but the gears won't go. That says to me Fae magic. Seems to have a knack for making the impossible possible..."

"I know of no spells that can stop time."

"Doesn't mean the spells don't exist. Science certainly didn't cause this mess. ...unless it was some super-science, like Una's people have, I suppose..."

"I'm telling you, this was all done by Earthlings," Una repeated, squinting to focus on the mess below. "It's yellow. I'm iffy on the darker patches, but... it's all yellow. ...we need to go down there, and investigate. Maybe we'll find someone who's still alive, if time is in flux. Someone who can tell us what happened here."

"Someone who can try to kill us," Jesse corrected.

Una scanned the city, looking for a particular landmark -- and locked onto it. She pointed out the window, waving for Gilbert's attention. "We can dock there -- that building, on the slope of Mount Hollywood. Emily and I talked about this, it should provide a good vantage point over the city. It's as good a starting place as any, and if we're to find a friendly face, I suspect it would be there. Perhaps we can find some men of logic and reason..."


Compared to the apocalypse below, the Griffith Observatory was an oasis of relief.

Its lawns remained well tended to, if a bit devoid of tourists living or dead. Whatever horror had gripped the city in its last days apparently kept them from visiting the astronomy labs and planetariums on offer here; the parking lot beyond the greenery of the quad had only a few vehicles, probably belonging to employees.

The only unusual factor to the observatory was the telescope. It didn't feature in any of the old photos Emily had shown Una... in fact, it didn't seem to be a natural feature at all. It looked almost like a prop from a cartoon, a freakishly large cone of metal segments, ending in one giant lens. The animator that dreamed it up didn't particularly care for subtlety, having it burst outward from inside the main dome, with discarded chunks of the roof lying around the building. Just another nonsensical element in the pile of nonsensical elements that had flooded into the city... albeit the least threatening one they'd seen so far.

Despite 90% normalcy, this was clearly a dead place. If anybody was left inside the building, surely they would have rushed out to see what was going on when the noisy propellers of the Clockwork Mermaid announced their presence... the steam-filled airship balloon would've been hard to miss, as well.

Before departing, Una withdrew the Key of Iron from its lock, storing it away in her jetpack. Gilbert did similar with the main activation key for the Mermaid itself. The last thing they needed was for someone to hijack their ride, stranding them here... particularly if something horrible had been sealed in with them.

Nothing horrible assaulted the four-plus-one-robot as they descended the cargo ramp, onto the soft grass of the quad. The sunlight was a bit strong without the Mermaid's tinted glass windows, but other than that, they suffered no ill effects from being the first living things to set foot upon the grounds of a forsaken city in two hundred years.

Gilbert stepped out first, caring little for the danger. The central sculpture had grabbed his attention... stately looking men, standing back to back against a pillar, each with name placards. "Let's see... Copernicus, Galileo, Newton... huh. Men of science, indeed, and not unique to my ancestor's home dimension. Good to know the standard bearers held some sway on your Earth, too..."

"We shouldn't stay any longer than we have to," Una said, as she stepped into the shoes of her leadership role. Directing them around would be her task... even if technically, the plan was cooked up by Emily, days ago. "Nel and I will investigate the observatory. We might find someone who's still alive and friendly, or at least find some notes on what's happened here. Jesse and Gilbert will go into the city and try to find newspapers, or a library, or something that--"

"Excuse me," Jesse interrupted -- although she was polite enough to raise a hand, to caught attention as she did so. "Gilbert and I? Am I to be eternally lashed together with him during these excursions, because you two seem to be bonded at the hip?"

A pebble had somehow found its way into Una's leadership shoes. Very uncomfortable.

She glanced to Nel, who clearly didn't like the idea of splitting up... but a good leader keeps the team happy, and is willing to compromise. It said as much in the book she'd read on the subject prior to departing. So... Nel and Jesse? --no. Especially not after their argument the previous night. That meant...

"Jesse, you're with me," Una decided. "Gilbert, take good care of Nel. You should take Jeeves with you, as well; it could be dangerous in the city. If you see anything alive and unfriendly, return with all haste. We aren't here to solve this city's problems... just to investigate them, and if possible, contact friendly survivors. Nothing more. ...ah, okay? Does that all sound good to everybody? Right. Let's go, Team Anachronauts!"


The only way the scenario on the ground could be worse would be if anybody was alive.

It was a blessing that they were dead, considering that a good portion of the population was busy rioting and fighting in the streets as the story of Los Angeles drew to a close. Anybody surviving this mess would not likely be anyone Nel wanted to meet.

They'd hot wired a pickup truck from the parking lot of the Observatory; a simple enough matter, once Gilbert had a minute to study the wiring. He picked up driving quite well, albeit without much smoothness in his technique. Even if he wasn't hitting the brakes too sharply or gassing too hard, there was the matter of swerving around the rubble, debris, and corpses...

It should smell worse, Nel thought absently. But it doesn't. It just looks awful. Bodies everywhere. I can't even think of them as people who were once alive. There's just so many of them...

"Can't imagine this paints my species in a good light, eh?"

The distraction was welcome. She tore her eyes away on the tableau of self destruction, looking instead at her chauffeur.

"I've seen the Fae do horrible things. ...often at the House of the Rising Sun, where I used to... work," Nel spoke. "But this is easily worse. The Queens were right to forsake this city. ...why are we even here? What good does it to do to know why this happened?"

"To avoid it happening again, of course," Gilbert answered smoothly. "To learn from one's mistakes. Doesn't do any good just to shove it all under the rug like it never happened, does it? History needs to remember this sort of thing."

Memory flashed briefly to the bar, the previous afternoon. Why do we make mistakes, Una? To learn from them! Please... don't despair from this. Rejoice! ...not that Nel felt anything akin to joy, not today.

Gilbert, apparently less affected by the sights despite needing to actively scan them to avoid driving over anything, continued chatting. "Fae, human, whatever. People can be brutal. Not to say they're all bastards, of course! But even when one's intentions are good, the lengths people can go often push too far. ...sadly, that's been the theme of just about every spot of speculative fiction since the dawn of the steam age. It's a real shame, because folks like Jules Verne tended to write about a brighter tomorrow through science without all the finger-waggling negativity. Could do with more of that, I say. More role models. Less warning examples."

"A brighter tomorrow through science... that sounds like Una's people, the Orbitals. ...except, well... it turned out they were destroying worlds to power their brighter tomorrow."

"Tch. Just once, I'd like a fine example of someone getting it right," Gilbert said. "Problem is, everything's got a price, I suppose. Energy and mass, mass and energy, can't get something from nothing. The key is to go bargain hunting and buy in when the price is right. No sooner, no later. No compromises. ...think the truck's running out of fuel. What do these things run on again? Gasses? Argon, neon, xenon...?"

"Ah... I think it's just another word for a kind of alcohol," Nel said, trying to remember from the movies Una had watched with her. She looked forward, ignoring the forms lying on the roads... and spotted a familiarly designed building. "There. That's a gas station. We can draw energy from it."

"Ah, right. Internal combustion. Such a strange thing," Gilbert commented, as they pulled up to a pump at an abandoned station. "Similar principles to a steam engine, but much nastier end products. The original England, before it became the British Empire, they used plenty of engines like that. Horrible old things. There's that unfortunate price, again. And there's me, waggling the finger. I ought not judge... pardon. that a little shop, there?"

Nel waited for the vehicle to come to a full and complete stop, before disembarking. She had to shield her eyes, to avoid the glare of the sun off the pavement -- strange, considering the sky was jet black -- as she studied it. "I think so. Did you want me to get us some food and water?"

"I was thinking papers, actually," Gilbert suggested. "Assuming there are any here. Some headlines might help us suss out what went wrong in Los Angeles. Jeeves, be a good fellow and watch the truck while we investigate, yes?"

The brass automaton sitting (and nearly filling) the bed of the truck offered a curt nod of his artificially mustached head. "Safeguard," he confirmed.

The two pried open the locked door to the shop with a nearby bit of scrap metal, brazenly ignoring the SORRY, WE'RE CLOSED sign. The miniature convenience store was unoccupied, with the windows boarded up -- a loaded shotgun rested on the counter, and despite having little experience with chemically projected kinetic weaponry, both of them got an innate idea that they should steer clear of touching it.

Next to the spinner rack of sunglasses and GREETINGS FROM L.A.! postcards was a newspaper rack. Gilbert withdrew a few likely candidates, spreading them out on the nearby counter.

"Hmmm. 'Luiz Declares Himself Duke of Compton, Declares War on LAPD.' What's a lapped? --oh, the constabulary," he recognized, seeing the grainy photo of men in uniform clashing with unusually heavily armed gangsters. "Curious. It says in here that this Luiz fellow was reportedly bulletproof and had guns grafted onto his arms. I'm fairly certain no amount of genetic experimentation could lead to such a body..."

Nel spread out a Lifestyle section from half a remaining newspaper. "Fiona Lamark's Midas Touch Kills Hundreds. What's a 'Midas Touch'?"

"Old legend, love. One of those cautionary tales against greed... more finger waggling. King Midas wanted anything he touched to turn to gold. Problem was, he didn't think ahead, and turned his whole family to shiny valuable metal, I think..."

"Then this must be about the part of the city that was changed to gold. ...and normal humans did all this?"

Gilbert tried to recall his ancient history lessons. They hadn't exactly been prominent in his education, not with all the math and science pounded into his steamed brain on a daily basis. "Well, in the stories... Midas got his gift from the gods, in an exchange. Some sort of bargain for services rendered. So, the question is, if someone turned this Lady Lamark into a walking alchemy machine... what was the price she paid? Other than lack of forethought."

More headlines crossed in front of Nel's eyes, as she scanned the racks. "Black Shell Descends Upon City. That's early on, from the dates. Panic in the Streets As Scores Die in Simultaneous Waves..."

"That one's promising," Gilbert recognized, pulling the paper down, and opening it up. "Hmmm. Apparently in the chaos, scores of people were dropping dead on the spot, in waves. Could've been a virus, although that's an awfully well timed virus, isn't it--"

"Who Is The Mister?"

"The who, now?"

"That's the headline, there," Nel said, pointing to a tabloid, which also had an article on UFOs spotted over Los Angeles and Bigfoot's baby daughter's sweet sixteen. "Who is 'The Mister'."

"Maybe he waters plants?" Gilbert suggested, as he pulled down the pulp newspaper, to read...


On any given day, the building would be packed with school field trips and smiling scientists, waiting to fill young heads with knowledge. This was a place of learning about what could be possible, what would one day be within reach if only mankind kept on reaching for the stars...

Despite the lights still being on, through some fluke of temporal mechanics, the Observatory felt as dark as a tomb. The only thing moving about here was the dust, floating randomly through the air, highlighted by beams of sunlight pouring in through the windows.

Una climbed over the ticket desk, to check a floor plan. "We should start with that telescope," she suggested, trying to link up where it might be to a room on the map. "That doesn't look like it belongs here. If we're lucky, we'll find some hint as to how it was created..."

"By magic, I would suspect," Jesse suggested... keeping one hand on her sword hilt, as she slowly checked left and right for movement. "I don't see how the widespread alteration of this city could be possible without magic, or at least without the interference of someone on par with the Faerie Queens..."

"I don't think they'd need something that strong. All it would take is... I don't know... the right leverage. The right science. Genetic engineering, perhaps? Or terraforming?"

"Just another form of magic, in the end," Jesse said rather than admit she had no idea what 'terraforming' was. "In fact, the overgrown part of the city reminded me of a tale I once heard... about how Lady Summer herself rode into battle, early in the war. She'd sprout entire forests underneath the cities of her enemies. I always wondered why she didn't simply do that to all of Eastusa and be done with it..."

"Perhaps there were limits to her ability?" Una suggested. "Emily certainly doesn't have any notable godlike powers..."

"Lady Summer and Lady Winter were the personification of nature itself. That is the nature of the Crowns of Flame and Ice. I've no doubt that Emily could be a powerful goddess of nature, if she tried."

"If I may theorize, perhaps the more of that power is embraced... the more abstract you become. Otherwise, Emily would've started out that way. The original Queens of Faerie may have once been as ordinary as Emily, maybe even mortals. Elves, perhaps?"

"...that borders on the blasphemous."

"Er. Sorry... I meant no offense... --ah. The main dome is a 'planetarium,' whatever that is. We go down this hallway..."

The two walked along, quietly, finding their way through the empty museum. ...far too quietly for comfort, for either of them.

Jesse broke the silence first.

"It's just as well I'm partnered with you. I wanted to apologize."

"--ah? Apologize for what?"

"For my demeanor. I understand that I may not be... liked, by this group," Jesse spoke. "I'm used to speaking my mind. Ever since leaving my village and finding that I didn't have to be the shy girl in the back if I didn't want to, I fell into the habit of saying what I feel directly. It got me in trouble at the old witching academy. ...I've called your leadership into question, yes?"

"Well... yes, you have, but... I don't mind, really. I have made some mistakes, I'll admit."

"Good that you recognize that," Jesse said, with a nod, as they crossed past a display of the solar system. "My point is, while I may be curt with you, even forceful... I do not hate you or anyone else on this team. I simply want what will ensure our success. If you feel I am out of line, in the future... please tell me. Directly. I may disagree, of course, but I will follow your orders."

"Err... thank you," Una said. "That, ah... it does mean a lot to me. ...I'd like this adventure to succeed, as well."


"But I'd also like us to be able to enjoy the experience together. And that means getting along, as I did with Scout and Emily. We were a bit awkward, at first... but time, and facing adversaries together, helped us get through that initial awkwardness. I've no doubt we will experience the same!"

"...assuming we all survive these encounters, yes. I see no reason to enjoy touring the Forsaken Shores, Una. If we don't take this seriously, we may perish."

"And if we don't even try to balance the seriousness with levity, well, we'll go a bit crazy," Una suggested. "I mean, this city is terrifying! All the bodies everywhere, the surreal changed portions of the landscape... sure, we need to be cautious, but if we don't help each other through with a little positivism, we'll--"

The horrified look on Una's face as she nearly tripped over the body explained well enough what could happen without a little positivism.

They'd reached the planetarium, but all thoughts about the strange telescope were flushed away by the sight of a man who had "recently" dined on a pistol. Thanks to the strange frozen time, he looked as fresh as the moment he painted the wall with what was inside his head...

Jesse, perhaps recognizing Una's stare of terror, stepped in front of her to break the lock.

"We're here to investigate," she reminded the young Orbital. "It's just a body. Put it out of your mind... except to try and understand why it happened. Then, his death will not have been in vain. We'll search the room for clues. Correct?"

It took a moment for Una to get her mouth closed again... and to nod, shakily. "R-Right. Clues. ...although I can't imagine why anybody would want to do that to themselves..."

"All the more reason for us to find out. What of this telescope?" Jesse suggested, eyes trailing up towards the hulking apparatus (and helping lead Una's away from the corpse.) "This is not normal technology, correct? I lived on the Fringe and then deep within the Faerie Court, so I'm afraid I'm not up on modern sciences..."

The telescope was certainly a good distraction. It was impossible, for starters. From outside it merely looked cartoonish, like some collapsible spyglass that was blown up to ridiculous proportions. Inside, it wasn't much better, being largely an arrangement of slightly askew steel segments, all trailing down to a single eyepiece to stare into. Unlabelled knobs and dials littered a control panel at its base... stray papers held detailed notes, as someone had tried to figure out what each little control did. Apparently the telescope was just as much of a mystery to its owners as is was to Una...

...a mystery they took notes on. She stepped carefully around the fallen scientist, homing in on an open notebook.

"It seems he kept a journal," Una said. "Here, I'll read it aloud. ...ahem..."

April 17th. Despite the panic from losing global communications, and the supposed incursion by ELVES, of all things... the focus here in the Observatory is on our new telescope. True, it appeared out of nowhere and smashed through the roof of the planetarium, but... it's unlike any I've ever seen before! Johnson pulled me out of bed just to come down and take a look at it. He said he'd pulled some strings to get it, although he refused to go into any further detail. It's the most powerful observation tool I've ever seen, with capabilities ranging from a simple optical scope to the most powerful radio telescope in the world! I must admit an urge to take it apart and see what strange technology Johnson apparently bargained for, but what if we couldn't put it together again? We must make the most of this!

Jesse frowned, as the miniature story concluded. "Someone 'bargained' for this metal monstrosity...? If it didn't come with a user's manual, then they may have gotten the short end of the stick. Clearly, they lacked the Fae's innate gift for negotiation of favor..."

"It continues. I think there's an entry every day or so," Una said, turning the page...

April 18th. Johnson went pale at the headlines this morning, about the latest wave of mysterious deaths. At 12:13am last night, apparently the residents of an entire city block died simultaneously. He's been very noncommunicative this morning, focusing on using the telescope to scan the heavens. Honestly, I had nearly forgotten his odd behavior after we discovered the alien vessel! It was hanging directly over Los Angeles! Why couldn't we see it before? What is it about this new telescope that allows us to see a flying city in high Earth orbit? Is it even there, or is this all some elaborate joke? We will hold off on reporting our findings until we can determine whether this is reliable data.

...and quickly, Una's eyes scanned over the strewn papers. Something, some shape that had caught the corner of her eye and was overlooked before--


She pulled out a rough pencil diagram, and held it up.

" Orbital scouting ship," she recognized. "I've never actually seen one, but I've seen images... part of the fleet that finds new worlds for observation. ...and part of the conspiracy responsible for the Pandora Event. But how could human science see an Orbital ship? They're not impervious to magic observation, but..."

"I told you there was magic at the core of this," Jesse said, with some small measure of vindication.

April 19th. The entire city has become encased in a black shell. The few units of the national guard already in the city to suppress the strange incidents that are on the rise have been dispatched to try and break through. We can't reach NASA to tell them about the alien ship... we can't reach anyone. I will admit I am scared to my core. How did the world turn upside down so fast? Could this be related to the sightings of elf-like creatures to the east, or to the strange illness causing the population to drop each day? I am a religious man as well as a man of science. We may very well be facing the end times. God forgive us all.

"And that would be the Pandora Event itself, with Lady Winter and Lady Summer forsaking this city," Jesse recognized. "Los Angeles already was being changed before then. Mysterious deaths...? Not all the bodies outside fell to violence. Some simply fell. Likely it's related..."

"There's only one entry left, and it's a bit hard to read," Una said. "The handwriting is erratic..."

April 25th. I am one of the last ones alive in the city. I have faced the Mister, and accepted his bargain. For my sins, let my last act on this world be to freeze entropy over the city, so that any who breach the black shell can know of the hell on Earth that has erupted here. The fallen dead will tell our story. Leave this city immediately, and do not look back. Do not accept the gifts. Nothing is worth the suffering that Earth will endure.

The silence echoed the silence that likely filled the room, after the journal's author fired his fatal, suicidal shot.

Again, Jesse was the first to break the silence.

"We should leave immediately," she insisted.

"--what?" Una replied, closing the journal. "But we're not done searching for clues. We've only barely begun to understand what's transpired here! We need to fully document this, so that Emily can--"

"Una. You are a student of Earth's old media, yes? You've seen horror movies? I saw many of them, back in the village where I grew up, thanks to the boys who couldn't get enough of them. You are familiar with the patterns?"

"Well... yes. I attended a midnight marathon once, in fact."

"And every time the plucky young protagonists hear a prophecy of doom and laugh it off, decide to go investigate the strange noises instead of immediately turning around and leaving, tell me: what is the outcome?"

"... ...I suppose we could finish our observations from the air," Una decided. She was the one with the leadership stick, after all.


The harsh heat of Los Angeles rose, as the they converged on the grassy lawn of the Griffith Observatory. As the sun set, the wind began to rise... harsh and burning, as if the heat of the city was starting to take notice of these trespassers.

Nel gripped the tabloid tightly, as Gilbert worked to ease Jeeves out of the back of the truck. Across the parking lot, she could see Una and Jesse exiting the observatory.

"Una!" Nel called out, waving as she stepped onto the grass. "Listen, we found some newspapers back in the city, and--"

The wind caught the paper, blowing it away. Nel quickly reached to grasp it, twisting, but it was long gone before she could react in time... aloft on the winds, and blowing far into the sky.

Mildly annoyed at this turn of luck, she turned back to the group. At least she could tell them what she remembered from the article...

...except they weren't there anymore.

"Una? ...UNA!" Nel called out, running towards the statue of philosophers. It wasn't a very big statue; they couldn't be hiding behind it somehow, could they...?

They weren't. But someone else was.

Nel took three steps backwards, before catching herself. It wasn't fear, exactly... more a reaction of surprise.

The figure standing there, leaning casually against the sculpture, was much like her. Specially, he had the pointed ears of an elf. His tunic also was of elven cut, traditional, but using modern materials. Even his eyes matched her own...

"Good day to you, Nelliwyn Myfanwy," he spoke, simple and calm words from a simple and calm voice. No malice. His smile wasn't particularly wide, just a friendly little curl. "I'm pleased to meet you, young child of the elves. My name is Mister Lornaan. It's been so long since I saw a friendly face... thank you. Your being here helps stave off the loneliness."


An Orbital. An Orbital, standing here, of all places...

He was clearly an elder, a Councilman, from the style of his clothing. About as old as her own father, even. He offered her a deep bow, normally a sign of respect between peers on the Council.

"My designation is Luc. Mister Luc, if you will," he spoke. "It's good to see you, Una zero point one. Please, don't be afraid... I mean you no harm."

Una scrabbled around for a mental grip -- and found it, grasping hard. "You can't be an Orbital," she decided. (Despite reading not long ago about an Orbital ship being spotted over the city...) "Who are you? What have you done with my friends? Where's Nel?!"

"Please, there's no need for alarm," Mister Luc insisted, lifting both hands, palms outward; a calming gesture. "They're still here, all around you, and are well. I've just pulled you aside, for a moment. You are the leader of this group, and I wanted to approach you first. It's been so long, Una... so long since someone visited this city. I want to welcome you to Los Angeles."


Jesse wasn't buying it for a moment. She hadn't drawn her sword yet... but was less than a second away from doing so, if need be.

"You're no Lion of Summer," she spoke. "That you would adopt their uniform, in the traditional cut, is quite frankly very insulting. I suggest you drop this guise immediately, whoever you may be."

The man was well armored, in the splendid regalia of a Lion of Summer... the true ones, the ones that guarded Lady Summer, not the strange former Winterhound that guarded Queen Emily. There were seven points on that armor that her sword could penetrate, but it would take precise timing and the right opening to strike them. If he kept talking, perhaps opportunity would present itself...

For his part, the 'Lion' made no hostile moves. "What you see before you is what is familiar to you," he explained. "I didn't select this shape. You selected it. But I assure you, what I am, who I am, is a friend. I'm here to help you, Jesse. My name is Mister Leonidus, and I wish to talk to you about your role in things... and what you want from your future."


In hindsight, Gilbert wished he'd brought something a bit more threatening than a spanner with him. It was a heavy spanner, one he normally used only on the toughest bolts in the ship, but it still wasn't much of a weapon. His portable epee was still on the ship... naturally, forgotten, in the rush to go out and explore this world. And where the bloody hell was Jeeves? Where was everybody, for that matter...?

It wasn't as if the slightly roly-poly posh business tycoon before him was a real threat, of course. He was every inch the English gentleman, from his bowler hat to his waistcoats with the pocketwatch chain. He walked with a cane, a nicely sculptured number with a goat's head handle. And he looked like he could get winded if he chased you more than twenty feet. Still... he was an Englishman, in a country where Gilbert was reasonably sure he was the only True Brit in residence.

"I hope you'll understand if I find a strange fellow who isolates me from my companions to discuss my hopes and dreams a bit suspect," Gilbert Gearhaus responded, to the man's earlier implication. "Particularly considering what we've come to learn about you... Mister Lentlesmith. Your reputation precedes you, sir. "

The dapper gentleman tipped his bowler, at the sound of his name. "At your service, in every sense, my good fellow. You speak no doubt of the tragedy that befell this city, yes? I assure you, my intentions were never to cause such unfortunate consequences. All I wanted to do was share my talents and help people reach their life goals. I am quite the civil servant, sirrah."

"So, you're the one who empowered those people, gave them the tools to run wild over the city. We read about you in the paper. About the bargains you made with them..."

"But I am neutral, sirrah. All I deal in is the bargain, and the gift. What people do with it is their own look out. It is unfortunate; you of all people should know that power, in the wrong hands, can be a terrible thing. So few have the wisdom and responsibility to take what I give them and make this world a better place... and in you, I see that potential."


Nel didn't like this. Didn't like being separated from Una... separated from everyone, for that matter. She'd even welcome the company of Jesse, at this point...

"What do you mean, potential?" she asked. "What potential could I have? I'm not that important. You should be talking to Una. You really should be talking to Una and not me..."

"But your heart, Nelliwyn. Your heart is pure, unlike those who lived here," the high elf spoke, gesturing to the city below. "The people of Los Angeles chose... poorly. They sought too much, and used what they were given selfishly. In you, I see such a simple, personal desire... something which can't possibly cause the level of harm you've seen in the city below. Hear me out, Nelliwyn of the Elves. Hear what I can do for you, and know the benefit I can bring you. If you are uninterested, then that will be the end of the matter, and you may rejoin your friends in peace."

"I... I may not look like much, but I have magic of my own, 'Mister'," Nel warned. "So... you'd better keep to that promise. ...fine. What did you want to offer me? The answer's-- probably no, I'll warn!"

With the same calm smile, Mister Lornaan extended one hand... speaking Faerie spell-words, drawing a gathering ball of light into his palm. It was quite beautiful, in a strange way... swirling and pulsing like a heartbeat...

"Since my creation, I have been powerful, but my power is truly in the hands of others," he explained. "With my magic, I can change your life in any way you like. It has limits... I can change your body in ways beyond imagining, save making you immortal, of course. I can give you items of power beyond power. The one limitation -- other than being a servant of people rather than of myself, of course -- is that this relates to you and you alone. I cannot change the entire world, only you. ...but what you want, that I know I can give you. I know your heart, Nel. I know what you want more than anything else."


The Councilman offered her a knowing look.

"I could tell you the name of your true love, Una. That is within my power. There is one person on this planet who would love you for who you are, not just because they love the idea of love. And you would love that person back with all your heart, and it would be glorious... ah, but you're abstaining, yes?"

Una frowned. "Well... yes, I happen to be. But if you are honest, and I am unsure of that point... I wouldn't waste such a power as yours on my own personal love life. That would be irresponsible. Just as you said the people of Los Angeles were irresponsible."

"So be it. Let me make another offer. Survival," he suggested. "Your people are starved for energy. I can give you the knowledge you need: a simple formula, for cheap, renewable, safe, energy. No planets need be melted down to slag. You can save the Orbitals."

"But... we have a task force in place already--"

"What, Concern #80D0? Una... please. You know the Council has been spinning its wheels for two years," he said. "The answer to your people's problems will not be found on Earth. I've foreseen this. And if you go more than a few more years without a solution... there will be trouble. Rioting. Perhaps even civil war. You remember #BE12, yes? A city divided and driven to war? You know it can happen, even to men of logic and reason. But you can prevent this doom. Accept my bargain, and save your people."

...for two years, put to silly little task forces, foolish Concerns. Cold Fun. Going nowhere. All the dreams they had to save this world and redeem themselves, even those dreams were originally inspired by a madman, still seemed so far away...


"What's the price?" Una asked. "I know this story. There is always a price. What price did you charge the people of Los Angeles?"

"It's a simple price, honestly. I know that the traditional deal is for one's immortal soul, but I have no need of your soul, Una zero point one," Mister Luc insisted. "Nor your life, nor anything of your person. You need give up nothing. ...all I want is a life. One life, and not even your own. All you need to save your people... is to be complicit in the death of Nel."

Her answer was immediate.


"Hear me out, hear me out," Luc continued. "I understand your reluctance. She's supported you, stood at your side, done everything for you. ...but don't you see how empty that all is? The mindless adoration of a little slave girl who's grown attached to her rescuer. I think you know a thing about mindless adoration by now... having experienced it first hand through Brell--"

"Nel is nothing like that!" Una shouted. "You are wrong! She is my friend--"

"Really, now? Do you think she wants to be your friend? I know for a fact she has an ulterior motive," Luc warned. "My theory, if you will, is that this is how the Faeries work... they slip into your life, crawling like a worm, until you depend on them. Until you are indebted to them. Remember the Council meeting? She had your notes. You rely on her so much and she knows it."

"She relies on me, as well! That's what friends are. They support each other!"

"And what have you done for her, exactly? You saved her, yes. Have you done anything else, or has she dedicated her entire life to you, selflessly? Keeping your notes. Drying your tears. Bringing you breakfast in bed. Taking a silly vow of celibacy just because you have! And in return? You've done nothing for her... and yet, she doesn't seem to mind, does she? This one way street seems to suit her fine. But why would she be so selfless if she didn't have a hidden agenda? ...let me show you something."

Luc gestured to the air... and an Orbital holographic projection appeared. Lines and dots resolved themselves into a shape of a simple sphere. Details drew into place... and colored themselves.

A planet. Half on fire, half frozen in ice. Through the inferno and the wintry hell, the dim outlines of Earth's continents could be seen.

"Emily is being corrupted by Fae influence, and she's acutely aware of it," Luc explained. "You know she's seen the end of this world. She opened the lidless eye and the vision came to her in a terrible waking nightmare. This world will end in fire and ice, the crowns disjointed. It ends with her and Scout, alone and all-powerful on a lifeless and barren Earth, because they both reached for power they couldn't handle. You could save this world from the Fae. Strike the first blow. Save your own people, and show the insidious ones like Nel that you will not tolerate their madness!"


Within the ball of light... was Nel.

A Perfect Nel. The Ideal Nel. The small figure of magical light stood, beautiful and flawless. Instantly, she felt herself drawn to it, wanting to see it in more detail, to know what the finest she could ever be might look like--

And Mister Lornaan flicked his wrist, dispelling the image.

"A taste only," he explained. "A taste of what you could be. You could have the woman you love. You could have Una. It's within my power to change you into everything she's ever wanted and dreamed of... things she hasn't realized yet, subconscious desires. You would be her perfect soulmate. No more worrying that she couldn't love you, that you aren't what she wants."

The entrancing image now gone, Nel tried to get a grip on her thoughts. "She... she could love me. I know she could, if only the timing was right--"

"The timing could be made irrelevant, with my power," Mister Lornaan promised. "No more hanging on and waiting in silence. No months of watching that fool or any fool like him pouring nonsense into her ears. ...and no more sneaking into her room to watch her make love, while you remain invisible and despairing..."

Nel covered her mouth, eyes wide with horror... and embarrassment. "I've... I've never--"

"You have. Oh, yes. I know. And I know the shame you feel for that night when you couldn't resist watching. Believe me, Nel, I sympathize! Romance, true romance, is a wonderful thing... and the lengths people will go to have it can be terrible. But don't you see? This will make amends for that mistake, and will prevent any future missteps. All of that heartache goes way. Just like that... if you agree to my terms."

Her eagerness was surprising, even to her.

"Tell me what you want," Nel asked. "Please..."

"Let me kill Gilbert Gearhaus."

--but that froze Nel's thoughts in place.

"It's a simple request, and it takes nothing away from you, yes?" the elf spoke, quite neutral in tone on the subject of murder. "What is he to you? He's nothing. A stranger. ...for that matter, he may very well be a danger, this man from across the waves. Just another handsome boy who could catch Una's eye, while you sit around waiting for opportunity to present itself."

"...but... but Gilbert wouldn't do that," Nel reasoned. "He's a gentleman. He's not a scoundrel, like Brell..."

"He sees himself as a gentleman, true -- but certainly a gentleman who appreciates fine ladies. Ask yourself, are there any finer ladies than Una? Oh yes. He will flirt with her. And even with her so-called abstinence, she could fall, as easily as she fell for Brell despite thinking she'd finally understood her mother's lesson. Would you lose her again to this boy, when she could have a real woman?"


The cheerful fellow snapped open his pocket watch, letting it dangle at the end of its waistcoat chain. The time ticked away, second after second... approaching the midnight hour.

"Time. You require more time, Gilbert Gearhaus," he recognized. "Your life is ending. You haven't told the others, yes? You don't want them to treat you like an invalid. That's not why you came to America... you came seeking your death."

Gilbert folded his arms, steadfastly avoiding looking at the watch. Or listening to the tick, tick, tick of its inevitably turning gears.

"And what of it?" he asked. "This was decided for me before I could even walk. A little over twenty years of life, and then gone. The price for being an Honored Calculator. ...I've had a good life, really. True, most of it was spent with my nose shoved in a schoolbook or forced to churn out designs for Gearhaus Industry Concern, but the work itself was satisfying. The math. The math, my good fellow! Such beautiful formulae... I've known science, I've courted her and danced with her. And science has said my time has come. There are no options."

"No options known to your science, true. I hold to a higher science," Mister Lentlesmith stated, with a sly wink. "I can offer you life, lad. You came here expecting to die, hoping for one last hurrah before your inevitable burnout. I say it doesn't have to be this way. I can purge the stain of the steam from your biology, without removing your intellect. It's easy for someone like me. And then... you're free."

"Really, now. Free to do what, exactly? I'm on the run from my own country, remember..."

"And you're in a new world now, yes? A new world of opportunity! Explore it as much as you want, for the rest of your life. Or settle down, work for yourself for a change. Find a fine lass. That Una girl, she's quite lovely, yes? It's Jesse, isn't it. She's a surly one, but you enjoy the confrontation... such a shame, really."

Gilbert eyed the man, not liking this train of thought. "And what is the shame, precisely?"

"That all of this is going to end with her stabbing you in the back."

And just behind the sculpture, in the distance... there was Gilbert. On his knees, ragged of breath, clothing torn and bloodied as if he'd just survived some rough and tumble brawl... and behind him stood Jesse. Sword raised high, a look of determination on her face... as she rammed it directly into his heart.

The vision faded as quickly as it had appeared.

"That can be avoided as well," Mister Lentlesmith suggested. "And that, funnily enough, is my price. Jesse's death. Oh, you don't need to sully your hands, sirrah. Let me do that for you. It's not murder, not really; you're just... complicit. This is your benefit. She's brash and dangerous, and will turn on you, when you are so close to the end. Do something for yourself for a change, Gilbert, and not just for the benefit of others. Let me be rid of her for you. Let me extend your life. And then, you will have your day in the sun!"


"My offer to you is simple," the false Lion of Summer spoke. "I can give you power. Ever since you left that little dirt farm of a village, you've realized something important -- that you can have as much power as you're willing to take for yourself. You don't have to be a nobody anymore, consigned to a life of tending to the crops and being less important than the 'alpha girl.' Let me give you power beyond your comprehension. Power enough to challenge the Faerie Queen."

"...not possible," Jesse spoke, after quickly halting her own line of thought. "The Faerie Queen is a nature goddess. You cannot fight her any more than you can fight the heat of summer and the cold of winter."

"And yet, Emily is still holding onto her humanity with both hands, isn't she?" Mister Leonidus noted. "Fiercely protective of it. That is her weakness. With the right power, you could overcome her. Even when the day comes that she has to embrace the crowns instead of her roots, you could still defeat her with my help! It's a thing Emily hasn't realized. All the foreign worlds meshed into this one are essentially equals, forming a balance. That means even a goddess may fall, if struck down by the right weapon. I can put that weapon in your hand. And then, you will be safe, secure, and known to all."

The Lion was patient, as Jesse thought quietly to herself. He could see the internal debate raging on, behind those piercing eyes. The proud warrior witch, considering his words carefully... and her next words, for that matter.

"Speak your price," Jesse said. Not showing any interest or disinterest. Simply requesting information.

"Nothing of yourself, or your person. I want the life of another. In exchange for power to rival the gods... I will claim the life of Una of the Orbitals," Mister Leonidus spoke. "This is for the best, Jesse. The Orbitals are dangerous to the Faerie Court. They've parked their city outside your Queen's palace, and will worm their way into the affairs of Faerie. What's worse... they are going to rain doom upon this world. This is knowledge only you have; even Emily hasn't seen it, so blind as she is to her supposed friends."

"The Orbitals attacking this world? Preposterous. They are grounded."

"I speak honestly. You doubt me? Doubt at your own peril. If you want to prove yourself to your Queen, you should be the one to warn her of their pending atrocities... not that they see it that way. They'll see it as extending the iron hand of friendship to this backward planet. Now is the time to act, Lady Runeblade. Embrace power. Eliminate their ambassador to the Faerie Court... then take your place on the throne, and prepare. You will defeat them. You are up to the challenge."


Four figures stood, in still silence. Their forms cast long shadows, darkening as the sun set on Los Angeles.

The fifth flexed its metallic fingers, studying the thing in front of it. The Mister studied it, in turn.

", I'm not sure what to offer," the Mister said, stroking his chin. "What would a mindless automaton want out of life? An oil can? Perhaps a diamond moustache...?"



Una's voice was firm, on this. She stepped forward, toward the false Councilman... to glare him in the eye.

"You underestimate my Optimism," she stated. "I will find love, one day. My people will find a way to survive. And Emily will never let such a vision come to pass as long as she draws breath. If you are a liar or an honest man, it doesn't matter. We won't need you."

Mister Luc looked skeptical. "That's it? You're just going to hope that things will be fine? Putting blind faith in the best possible outcome is folly..."

"That's why I'm not simply going to sit back and hope. I will fight to obtain the best possible outcome. Your route would be a cheap and dirty solution... like melting planets down to power a Cold Fun machine. ...but above all?"

One step closer. And now... Mister Luc actually took a step backward.

"I will not allow Nel to die," Una declared. "I don't believe a word you say about the Faeries, or about her. Nel is... she is precious to me, and I will not sacrifice her even if it would save the world. I'd never do that. I'd find another way. As for you... you made a mistake, threatening her."

An energy pistol was pressed underneath Mister Luc's chin.


"...n... no."

Nel didn't step forward. But she did solidify her footing, trying to find the strength to reject the offer... and succeeding.

"I don't need to become anyone else. I'm me," Nel said. "And if Una can't love me for who I am, flaws and all... or if she finds someone else who's a better soul mate, then... well, it wasn't meant to be. I would be happy for her even as I despair. And then, one day... I would move on."

"That's it?" Mister Lornaan asked, unbelieving. "You'd 'move on', knowing you lost the only person who could ever love you?"

At that, Nel did cast a sharp glare. "I'm not the same wide-eyed ex-slave who followed her like a puppy. I know who she is and I'm starting to know who I am. If she ends up in the arms of another, I will not let that break me in half. Not if I want to be a better person than Brell..."

And a nightmare erupted behind Nel. Pure, undiluted horror straight from the darkest pits of living imagination...

" you're going to let me see Una, or I'm going to pour such visions into your eyes that you won't want them anymore."



Gilbert took the threats and foretellings in stride. No anger, no fear. Just letting it flow over and around him, water off a duck's back.

"Oh, don't get me wrong, you're probably right about her," Gilbert agreed. "Jesse's a spitfire, isn't she? I so love someone who doesn't just roll over for a 'nobleman' like me. I suppose it'd be a fine end, to be killed by a wild spirit such as her!"

" would give up, sirrah?" Mister Lentlesmith asked, puzzled. "Just as easy as that?"

"Well, consider the alternative you've presented me! A gentleman, allowing some scoundrel to lay out a fine lady? No. It wouldn't do. Did you honestly expect me to fall for that, you old devil, you?"

"Don't talk nonsense, boy. She's going to ram her sword straight through your heart and you're not willing to defend yourself?"

"Do not mistake my passivity for cowardice, good sir. I've laughed in the face of danger so often lately that my lungs are near the point of bursting. What makes you think I would shirk away from my death now? What makes you think I would be party to Old Jack just to steal away a few more days like a thief in the night? I say no, sir, and good day. Now, return me to my crew, or so help me, I'll bop you one with my wrench."


...and Mister Leonidus hung onto the silence. Waiting. Anticipating...

This is it, the endless screaming of his internal mind thought. If the other three won't turn on each other, this one will. She wants it. I KNOW she wants it. And in the resulting chaos, she will likely slay them, and then at last I will find my freedom--

"How dare you."

"--what?" he spoke, thrown off track by the biting remark.

The lady's sword was drawn in one smooth motion... raised high, ready to run him through at a second's notice. The fire in her eyes spoke of the deepest, most vicious offense imaginable... and a desire to see the insult dealt with. Pointedly.

"How dare you suggest I am so incapable?" Jesse accused. "Emily put a challenge before me and I will see it through. And when my debt to her is clear, IF I wanted her crown, I would take it for myself with my own skills and my own talents. I don't need your smooth talking words. All I've ever needed is myself -- and how dare you claim otherwise!?"

"You would reject outside help simply because it's... outside help? Giving up ultimate power in some stubborn--"

"I know who you are," Jesse declared. "I've known the shape of this story ever since we found the journal. He warned us of you, and gave his life to do so. I name you Father of Lies, I name you Satan, and I say get thee behind me before I drive you beneath me!"

Rather than wait for his response, she leapt forward, with murderous intent...



And with that, the automaton struck him like the fist of God.

The J-33 Valet and Equerry System was not well known for its combat capability. Being an extremely old model, near antique, it wasn't in the same class as a military automaton. Capable of hard manual labor, true, and it had enough might in it to wrangle a particularly troublesome thoroughbred. But if a J-33 simply made a fist and punched a solid brick wall as hard as it could, likely that fist would be mangled in the process.

Jeeve's fist wasn't mangled. And the force packed into that hit was enough to send the Mister flying fifty feet backwards, slamming into the stone steps leading into the building, slamming THROUGH the stone steps leading into the building, and crashing through the structure with enough force to actually collapse the Observatory completely.

The autobutler shook his fingers out, steam hissing from his joints as the Mister picked himself out of the wreckage with a distinct groan of pain.

"...that hurt me," he spoke, three words he'd never actually spoken before in the entirety of his existence. "That actually hurt me..."

In the distance... he could see Jeeves, ready to have another go at it, steam venting outward from the valves placed to either side of his spine. Glowing, brilliant white aetheric steam... forming twin clouds from the robot's back, in peculiar yet familiar shapes...

...the Mister understood.

And fled.

Instantly, the four fell away from their trances.

"Whoa, whoa!" Gilbert shouted, diving out of the way before Jesse could run him through with a sword. The witch skidded to a halt on the fresh cut lawn, and holstered immediately... glancing around as Una similarly put away her sword, and some horrid shape that was forming behind Nel faded away...

"--he's the one," Nel explained, quickly. "He bargained with Los Angeles. Offered people power, in exchange for... for killing people. A LOT of people..."

"It's all in the papers, if you know the right ones to read," Gilbert continued. "Mysterious waves of deaths, each likely linked to someone making a deal. You were right. This city killed itself. ...hang on, what happened to the Observatory? Wasn't it, err, un-destroyed a moment ago...? Jeeves, my good man, did something happen?"

Jeeves rotated his wrist-joint a few times, testing its flexibility. All systems go.

"Abscond," he suggested, gesturing to the ship.

Nobody wanted to argue with the idea.


It seemed as if they were holding their breath all the way, from the short trip away from the Observatory ruins, to the point where they passed through the black shell. Only when the darkness above gave way to a starry night was anyone able to breathe easier.

Una withdrew the Key of Iron from its dashboard lock, and stored it away.

"...if he had succeeded, all of us would be dead, and the key would've been his," she realized. "He'd get us to kill each other, then would move to spread his influence beyond Los Angeles... he... um. He promised me a solution to my people's energy problems. What did he offer you--"

"I think it would be best if we not spoke of his temptations, or of the prices he requested," Jesse suggested. "For many of us, no doubt it would be far too personal. ...I realize you want this team to bond, and to share, but... let's not start with this. Please."

"Agreed on that one. I left England to get away from my messes, not bring them with me. We need to focus on the fact that we faced up to temptation and shut it down, I'd say! We were made of sterner stuff than most," Gilbert said, with some cheer. "You know, for all the bickering and disagreement, I'd say you ladies are quite unified. If what he offered you was anything like what he offered me, your resistance shows well for your character. ...heh. And here I bet you were all assuming Jesse would backstab you. I knew you were an upstanding sort, darling."

Jesse sighed, rolling her eyes away from the boy. "We have discussed your informality, Gilbert..."

"Ah. A thousand pardons, my lady. "

"And... I had little doubt in the integrity of my peers," Jesse noted. "While your methods are occasionally strange to me... I know Emily to be a good judge of character. She knew we were capable of the task before us, and of working together to see it through. I will not betray this team. You have my word."

"Very well! I propose we dine together, tonight," Gilbert suggested. "Consider it a show of resolve, and a chance to better understand each other. Jeeves!"


"Prepare... the hamburger."

...and the automaton's moustache gave a little annoyed twitch.

"Bovine," he confirmed, with a sigh like escaping steam.


While the anachronauts celebrated a narrow miss in the struggle against evil, the unresolved baggage left in their wake reared its ugly head hundreds of miles away.

Two old enemies faced off, not across a field of battle, but at either side of a very nice desk in a posh Las Vegas office.

Queen Emily drummed her fingers on the desk, considering the problem before her.

"Sooo. What can we do to resolve this?" she asked, knowing full well what the answer would be.

A properly re-glamoured Lady Morgana smiled away, like a cat that had caught a particularly lovely canary.

"I want that girl as my slave again," she stated. "Nel will be punished severely for the trouble she's caused me over the years. The level of her insult to my person, in front of all my guests, calls for nothing less. As you are the Faerie Queen, and holder of our traditions... you owe it to me. You can order her to do it."

"Uh-huh," Emily said, nonplussed. She leaned back in her chair, deciding this would be a good a time as any... "Well, I didn't want to bring this up, buuut... you're harboring persona non grata numero uno, former Archmagus Lilith."

Morgana's eyebrow twitched. "I haven't an idea of what you're--"

"You know better than to lie to me, I'd hope," Emily said. "What with knowing the traditions of the Faerie Queen so well, and all. Even if she is 'only human'. And hiding a fugitive that your Queen has declared is not to be given safe harbor within her Court...? Well. The level of your insult to my person would be steep. The debt would be considerable."

"I see., in theory... one debt would cancel another?" Morgana suggested. "The situation resolves itself."

"That's why I like you, Morgana. You know how your Queen thinks. It makes our little encounters so much easier."

"...and what would become of Lilith after this resolution? ...again, in theory."

"Well, logically, if your debt to me is resolved by resolving Nel's debt to you, then nothing else has to happen," Emily said, with a loose shrug. "I mean, I COULD ask you to cut her loose and be hunted down like a dog, but me asking you to turn your back on your family? How improper! That would be additional debt. We want to be nice and balanced, right?"

"I am in favor of balance," Morgana agreed.

"Then by all means, stay by your sister's side. Keep an eye on her. For her own safety. I'd hate for anything to happen to her."

And the evening had started out so well... get revenge on an old enemy, make the Queen dance to your number, have something to show for it at the end of the day. Morgana was certainly not expecting Emily to turn the opportunity into one of her own...

"So... you want me to spy on my vagabond sister for you," Morgana realized.

"I wasn't the one to say that," Emily pointed out. "I'd sleep better at night knowing my old teacher was taken care of, though. That someone with a kind soul was ensuring she stayed out of trouble. They say kindness is its own reward, and since you know how your Queen thinks... you know she's one to reward kindness."

"I... think we have an understanding."

"I'm so glad," Emily said, with a smile. "Hey, while I'm here, can you comp me some tickets to the show? Scout would never admit it, but he likes those crazy circus acts and stage magicians you've got working here. We may as well make this a working vacation..."


With that unresolved issue nicely resolved, only one more remained lurking in the dark, far behind the rapidly departing shape of the Clockwork Mermaid.

The Mister sat atop the Hollywood sign, considering his options. His one chance at freedom had waltzed in and out, easy as can be... all because of a few surprisingly resilient foes. The witch, he was so certain she would crack... or the elf, so desperate and lonely. Or the boy, for that matter. Honestly, all of them should have cracked, except perhaps the ignorant little space girl, too blind to realize a good thing when you put it in front of her...

Of course, that wasn't the only chance at freedom he had. There was the alternative. Not that the alternative had done him much good in two centuries of imprisonment at the hands of those blasted pagan goddesses...

When they first came to this world, The Mister had the foresight to send his companion out into the wild. Like all knowledge that flowed into his mind unbidden in the dealmaking process, he knew this was a thing which must be done, even if it made no sense at the time. Having another demon at his side in Los Angeles, even one as simple and business-focused as this one, would've made the process of murdering the city go smoother -- but... no. The underling had to be pushed out.

It was the right decision, in the end. Shortly after The Mister started making waves in the City of Angels, those accursed Faeries slammed the door closed on his dreams.... trapping him inside, and his minion outside. Fortunately... their magic wasn't strong enough to close ALL lines of communications...

With a flick of the finger, the H in HOLLYWOOD burst into flame. The Mister cleared his throat, coughing up a bit of soot, and then projected his presence through the inferno...

[Ben'ai, subcreature of the City of Dis. Your master calls you,] he intoned.

A tinny representation of spoken voice floated out of the flames.

"I'm sorry, Benny isn't in right now," it said. "But if you'd like to leave a message..."

The Mister remained nonplussed. He stood upright on his O, balanced perfectly on the flimsy, rotting structure.

"You realize if I hadn't sent you beyond the Faerie's enclosure spell, I would be throttling you right now, imp," he noted.

The voice got considerably less tinny.

"Uh, right. So. Master. What can I do for you?" Benny the Smuggler (preferably Benny the Broker) asked, voice delayed slightly as it reached across the vast distances. "Been awhile since we talked. Not much new, though... making deals all over the world, carrying on the company cause, stuff like that. In fact, I'm a bit busy negotiating an arms trade in Ghana right now..."

"The Key of Iron. I've found it."

"--what? Seriously? Uh. Was it in the belly of a Kraken? I mean, I've spent two hundred years looking for it, just like you ordered me to. After the first century I figured it was gone for good--"

"I've no idea where it was, except that as of a few hours ago, it WAS in Los Angeles. And I'm suspecting that your continual failure was more malice than incompetence," the Mister spoke, glaring at his infernal slave through the distance. "Now you have a chance to redeem yourself for your failure. The key is traveling north from the City of Angels, in the care of several young upstarts in a flying ship. They proved... too stupid to be bargained with. So, you will retrieve the key from them, and use it to free me."

"Right. Drop what I'm doing, track them down, negotiate to get the key. Easily done."

"Steal it outright, you fool. Don't bother dealing with them. Kill them all and take my prize. ...but be wary. They have a... guardian."

"Boss, I know where to get anything from a switchblade to a nuke. I'm not exactly a fighting man, but--"

"Any weapon in your hands will be useless against their protectorate," the Mister realized, pondering solutions. "Hmmm. No, you will need an ally from beyond the circles, someone who is not at such a disadvantage. Someone local to this world, someone of power. I think I know who we can parlay with. Head to Las Vegas. Call me when you arrive."

"Vegas? But wh--"

With a thought, he extinguished the H in Hollywood, no worse for wear thanks to that damnable scientist's entropy bargain.

Not that this extinguished his rage... or his concern.

So close to my goals, so close to the ultimate expression of my purpose... and NOW I learn that we were followed, he thought with a mental grumble. It's not fair. All I want is for this world to murder itself. I ask so little for myself, and I give everything in return. --this mudball isn't even OUR battleground! Why would they follow me here?!

...not that it mattered to the Mister. He floated down from his perch, to walk his city, to enjoy the comfort of his life's work. Just a setback. Just like being locked away, just a setback. In the end, this would not stop him. Nothing could stop him.

One day, he would barter away this entire world, and leave nothing behind but smoking ruin. No matter the cost.


to be continued

copyright 2009 stefan gagne
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