by Lawrence Chu

From the files of Unreal Estate: Open House
Some portions copyright other authors; see website for details


Fontana D'Olean's workstation chirped merrily and without end. Its owner, however, was very much not merry and pretty damn close to reaching his. Taking up precious recovery time to manuver himself out from under his covers, he tapped the key that would answer the call awaiting him.

"What?" he demanded, in an angry tone that was cut off by the sudden pain he felt searing in his head.

[And a good morning to you too, sunshine. Your next assignment came in.]

"S'six thirty inna mornin', Rand," Fontana mumbled as he rubbed his forehead with BuzzOff, which had the double effect of soothing his throbbing temples and making him feel more refreshed. "Wh'd you call now?"

Through the dim haze that was his current eyesight, he saw his boss push up his glasses. [Because that's when I always call when I have something for you?]

"Riiiiiight. Even the night after the big company party, huh?"

[Even the night after the big company party. Last night was actually Nell's assignment. We just reaped the benefits.]

"Dammit, how come Nell got Nocturn?"

[Not to mention that Tribal Alpha chick.] 

"...the redhead? Really? Damn. Multiverse's unfair, I swear." Fontana took a sip from a mug of coffee, made a face, and shoved it in the microwave.

[Guess he'll be writing a big happy review,] his boss said, completely straightfacedly. [Well, if you're up to it, your assignment'll be loads of fun, too.]

He stopped a moment and eyed the vidscreen. His clearing vision noticed traces of neither humor nor sarcasm on his boss's face--and his voice kept things concealed, too. This particular game was one his boss loved playing--and he despised. "Fine, fine. What is it?" he moaned, as he took a swig of his coffee.


The subsequent choking noise was because the damn coffee was too hot, Fontana told himself, not because of the idea that his boss would think of even sending him NEAR that hellhole. "What?"

[You heard me.]

His eyes narrowed. "You're kidding."

His boss's eyes did not. [S'truth.]

"I don't get it. We've had a huge 'wretched hive of scum and villany' stamped all over the Antiparadisia section of Twoday's since Decker first punched in the coordinates. Why is it we've got people even BOTHERING to go there and check it out?"

[Two reasons. One, maybe some day it won't be a 'wretched hive of scum and villany--']

"--and maybe some day Aquarians will be parched--"

[--and two, the Chamber of Commerce pays well to have us send people over. I think they LIKE being not-recommended by us year after year.]

He finished off the last of his coffee. "Well, they've got an odd way of showing us."

His boss shrugged. [Well, their 'odd way' means another three thousand points to you. Take it or leave it.]

Fontana closed his eyes and continued rubbing BuzzOff into his forehead. If he was getting three-kay off of this assignment, he hesitated to consider how much Twoday's was being paid. "I'll take it," he muttered.

[Good. You're going to be there until Friday, starting at about 13:30 today. Get packed, and don't forget the portable.]

"The portable's all I HAVE."

[I know.] And with that, the window shut down.

Fontana finally dragged himself out of his bed, and into the kitchen--which was a distance of roughly three steps. Housing in Urbana cost a fortune for what amounted to closet space. Thus, wherever he wanted to go in his apartment--his bed (which doubled as his couch), his kitchen, his bathroom--it was never more than maybe ten steps away. If he shuffled.

At least it was close to the office, and relatively noise-free at night (though that simply meant closing the window made the noise bearable). Prime realty in the heart of Urbana--he may not have been living the life of luxury, but it said lots about his income. Namely, that he wasn't rich enough to live the life of luxury.

Sighing and rubbing the remainder of what sleep (and hangover) out of his head, Fontana D'Olean grudgingly made breakfast and prepared for his trip to the multiverse's most infamous "vacation" spot.

"'The sunsets of I's Land, the bustling crowds of Urbana, the neon paradise of Nippon...all I have to do is think on these memories, every moment so vivid, and I smile.' So said Brian K. Decker, the original founder of Twoday's, over five hundred years ago!"

Whenever a customer turned on a Twoday's Guidebook after registering it with RealWare, they were greeted with this, as chirped by a somewhat goofy cartoon character with big blue eyes, a safari hat, khaki fatigues, and a giant kit-sack slung over his shoulder.

For obvious reasons, Brian K. Decker did not include Antiparadisia in his quote. For all we know, his memories, every moment so vivid, of this particular reality involved some of the very same words Fontana D'Olean exclaimed within twenty seconds of getting off the taxi at the South Street Docks.

That is to say:

"@%^&(&^*&@$$ $^@#!@$% %^*(*)#$@#@#!"

However, the world will never know.

Fontana picked himself off the ground and dusted various pieces of debris off his clothing, as what was apparently a misguided rocket careened within two inches of his face and hit a nearby building. Muttering a few more choice obscenities, he walked in the opposite direction of the angry mob, knowing that getting in the way of the bloodthirsty righteous (you'd be one of them, too, if someone nearly took out YOUR only escape from the ninth circle of Hell) was hazardous to one's health. Granted, it wasn't the easiest way of getting to his destination (the Chamber of Commerce) but it WAS probably the best way to avoid raging crowds...

...which meant, of course, he'd end up having to deal with most of the thugs two or three at a time.

But decribing encounters which pretty much amount to "GIMME YOUR SCORECARD!" and a zap or three of an authorized/registered RealWare Shock-A-'Ssaulter(tm) brand long-distance taser tends to get monotonous after a while. So let's just get onto the one of the more interesting encounters.

About two blocks from the CoC, Fontana paused a moment to catch his breath (mistake one) when he was bowled over by an unidentified person. As soon as he rose to his feet (which was nigh-instantly--mistake two), said unidentified person jerked him into a nearby building.

"WHATHE--?!" he exclaimed before his mouth was firmly clamped over by a hand. A rough, dirty, greasy hand.

"Not a word," the voice in his ear whispered back to him. "They'll pass by in a minute, and then I'll be gurk."

The would-be-mugger got a Shock-A-'Ssaulter(tm) in the gut before the zapping. Turning around to face his assailant (mistake three), Fontana--

--stopped and stared as the dim light played on her features.

Granted, in his travels (and extensive partying) he had seen (and flirted, and hooked up with) more attractive girls, but maybe the surreality of seeing a fairly cute twentysomething whose tattered-but-still-there clothing indicated the unlikeliness of her being in the sex trade in a place like Antiparadisia held him in the moment. A loud cacophony of voices stormed past, and he didn't move.

After the noises died down, he took out a hip flask and splashed some liquid on his would-be-mugger's face.

"AUGH! My EYES! You--" she sputtered, before nearly hacking up a lung. "What's IN that bottle?"

"Strongest brew Nocturn would sell," Fontana replied, taser still trained. "Tell me it didn't go to waste."

She wiped her face with the sleeve of her shirt, taking off a good amount of dirt with it. "I can't."

Turning up the charm a bit, he managed a one-over, a playful smirk, and an "I can."

She remained unfazed, which was either an insult to his charisma, an indication of the length of her stay here (as marked by her cynicism), or possibly both. Her eyes (dark hazel) weren't wild, so she probably wasn't a local, but it was obvious she'd been around a while.

After his momentary assessment, Fontana continued the interrogation. "We'll start with why I'm here. You know, the only thing I had planned on doing was getting over to the Chamber of Commerce so that I could have a nice, long talk with whoever's in charge this month, and get me to a safe hidey-hole for the next week or so, when suddenly, COMPLETELY out of nowhere, you fly into me and drag me into some random, unoccupied building--" --and with that, he glanced around a bit-- "--probably set to be razed, officially or otherwise, in the next twenty-four hours. So the first question I would have is: why?"

The girl paused a bit. "You know, normally people start with introductions. I'm Michelle--"

"'Hi, Michelle!'" he mock-greeted (complete with little hearts floating about the words) in response, before returning to: "Why?"

"It's probably better if you didn't know. We'll just say that there are bad people after me." Her eyes, despite being trained on him, subtly darted around the room, obviously looking for another way out.

"We're in Antiparadisia," Fontana reminded her. "THAT'S nothing unusual."

"Well, then," Michelle said as she stood up (and winced slightly), "now you know. Bad people are after me, you could've told them where I was. If you'll excuse me--"

The end of the Shock-A-'Ssaulter(tm) poking into her right rib told her she was not excused. "Not the answer I was looking for, Shelly. You're obviously not a regular here, so I don't buy the whole East-West-rivalry thing from you--"

"Who are you, Muscles Manslaughter?!" she spat back, knocking the taser away from her body (and, incidentally, his hand, as it skidded away a couple of meters) before he had a chance to pull the trigger. "What is UP with this entire macho interrogation thing? Are you getting off on this or something, or did you just get up on the wrong side of the floor today, huh?"

She took a breath, and continued. "Look. I apologize for bumping into you and nabbing you, but I really WAS afraid you'd tip'em off, okay? I'm sorry, I really am! But what I was doing running from those people is MY business, and beyond the fact that YOU happened to be in my way--a fact which resulted in that whole bump-n-grab thing which I just apologized for, and I apologize AGAIN for it--YOU have no reason to be involved!

"Now, if you don't mind, I really DO need to get out of here, because odds are they're going to be backtracking and searching through individual buildings, including this one. I would suggest you leave, too. Preferably out the front door, since I'll be taking the back."

There was stunned silence as she walked to the back area of the building, kicked down a pile of loose bricks in the wall in one swift motion, and left.

An indeterminate-but-short amount of time later, Fontana picked up his taser and continued on his way to the Chamber of Commerce.

Unlike the rest of Antiparadisia, the Chamber of Commerce is NOT a crumbling warehouse on the verge of being razed, officially or otherwise, in the next twenty-four hours. It's a fairly respectable building with plush furniture and painted walls, and in Don Macchiato's waiting room, a distinct lack of secretary.

The next ten minutes would more than likely be the most downtime he'd have here for at least the day, maybe even the whole trip. The CoC was another "untouchable"--like the Docks, a place one didn't dare mess with--though unlike the others, this was mostly out of fear of the people inside; since the heads of all the major organized-crime kingpins worked inside this building (and the head of the CoC was ALWAYS the one running most of Antiparadisia), it was in one's best interest not to go diving naked into this particular piranha pit.

However, while a break may be a break, ten minutes of sitting around in comfy, plush furniture was making him restless. (Not Restless--'cuz nothing can make realities out of people.) Making a move that could only have been generated by the impatience and anxiety of one who had been attacked repeatedly on the trip over on top of a really bad hangover, he strode to Don Macchiato's door and knocked.

To his surprise, the door opened automatically, leading into a tastefully-decorated, if somewhat sparse, office. The only furniture besides the large desk Don Macchiato sat behind (and the chair he sat on, naturally) were the two armchairs before it. The faint-gold wallpapering added an extra sheen of light to the room, making it brighter than the lobby he had been in earlier.

"My apologies for the delay, Mr. D'Olean," said Don Macchiato, a warm smile on his face (no gold teeth, Fontana noted, but they did shine quite brightly). "My secretary is a bit busy right now, but we can talk if you want. Have a seat."

"Good evening, Don Macchiato, and thank you for taking the time to see me." Fontana walked over to the desk and gave Don Macchiato a firm handshake before sitting down in one of the armchairs.

"How can I help you?"

Fontana took out his portable workstation and pulled a microphone attachment from it. "This is mostly for personal reference, sir. I enjoy asking a key figure or two from whichever reality I visit to recommend sites they believe are indicative of the local culture."

The Don let out a hearty-but-gentle laugh that still managed to send shivers down the travel journalist's hardened spine. "Searching for culture in Antiparadisia is as simple as looking outside, Mr. D'Olean. REFINED culture, on the other hand, is rare. We have no 'proud' history; we are not a united people. A refined culture requires either peace to develop or war to reinforce; we have neither. Anarchy is the word of the day, and that day will not see an end any time in the near future."

"...I hadn't expected such a frank answer," Fontana admitted. "That being said, should someone decide to visit Antiparadisia, what would you expect them to visit?"

The Don closed his eyes as if in meditation for a moment. "There are few places where one could truly recommend--as you can see from the outside, permanent buildings are far and few. Most of them don't last a year before being destroyed again." As if to illustrate, the rumble of a nearby building collapsing to the ground made itself known through the floor. "However, the Chamber of Commerce has a fairly extensive 'history' one could explore; on the walls are plaques discussing the past heads of the CoC, and the tragic events which caused the end of their tenures."

"Any photographs?"

"None we keep public, no. They're usually rather drab deaths compared to some of the things which occur in public, anyway. Faces in food, shot in chairs, prone in bed, that sort of thing." The Don exhaled slightly, which evolved into a smile. "There is a private archive, if you're interested, but it's kept in the basement."

"Mm-hm. Are there other places one could use as landmarks?"

"There are perhaps two other buildings which have survived the test of time, and both are located fairly centrally. The first building would be Joe's, somewhat to the East."

To this news, Fontana blinked, and rubbed his ears to make sure he was hearing right. "Come again?"

"The first building would be Joe's, somewhat to the East," Don Macchiato repeated. "Unusual as it may seem, all of the gangs on both sides would like an element of the familiar, so this particular eatery was the perfect choice. As the clerks on duty are always well-armed, and the Joe's management has made it perfectly clear that if any violent acts are committed either inside or around the establishment, they would leave and never return, people are willing to put aside their differences for a quick mid-day meal. One of the more interesting stories to make it to DNN involved a man who knew he was suffering a fatal heart attack but held it off until he walked three blocks from the restaurant to expire."

"...Interesting. And the other landmark?"

"Fairly close to the South Street Docks is Auntie Mae's Flower Shop."

"I'm sorry, I believe reality just distorted around my ears. What did you say?"

"I said, 'Fairly close to the South Street Docks is Auntie Mae's Flower Shop.'" The Don straightened up in his chair. "Surprising as it may be that she is here, Auntie Mae is the ray of light in an otherwise dark reality. Nobody here could possibly imagine harming her, lest they lose all faith in their existence."

Fontana was still somewhat skeptical. "People can grow flowers here?"

"Auntie Mae can," the Don replied. "It's a gift she has. She doesn't grow too many, but it's a miracle that such beautiful things can grow in a dark place such as this."

Definitely worth noting, Fontana thought to himself. Not really enough to prevent a zero-rating, but definitely something the tourists could look forward actual safe haven.

He jerked on the microphone cord and let it zip back into the portable, and stood up. "Thank you for taking your time to see me, Don Macchiato."

"The pleasure was all mine, I assure you," Don Macchiato said, remaining in his seat but reciprocating the earlier handshake. "Was there anything else you wanted to know?"

"Nothing beyond finding a good hotel for the night, and I think I'll attempt to find one on my own tonight."

"Well, then. Don't hesitate to come by again should you decide you require help. If I'm not available, I'm certain some of the other members of the Chamber of Commerce will be willing to assist you."

"Good-bye, and thank you again, sir."

"If you'd like to stay in the waiting area a while, my secretary will be more than happy to serve you coffee."

"I appreciate that, sir."

And with that, Fontana walked out of the room and eased himself into another plush chair, as he opened up his portable and watched the speech-to-text converter process the conversation. Minutes later, the secretary walked out of Don Macchiato's office and, certainly enough, offered him coffee, which he accepted.

Night fell on Antiparadisia.

...which is kind of redundant, because it's always night in Antiparadisia. But it was 2100 UST, so for all intents and purposes, night fell on Antiparadisia--at least for those people whose biological clocks didn't read 88:88 yet.

After observing the local culture at work around numerous spots in the "downtown" area, Fontana settled on a hotel which wasn't likely to be trashed any further over the course of an evening, seeing as the local raiding party had passed it by. Walking into the lobby and paying for a room, he went up and opened the door--

--and jumped out of his skin when he saw the woman in his room.

"Before my inner animal surfaces and I let out a yell of surprise, could you tell me who you are?"

The woman, dressed in a threadbare excuse for a frilly maid's outfit, leaned back on the chair and crossed her legs. "Room soivice. Free of chahge. On the house." With a mischevious grin, she uncrossed her legs, stood up, and started slinking towards him. "So, how d'ya wannit? How d'ya like it? Fast, slow, anywheah, everywheah? Whuzzat'che said about ya... 'inna animal?'" Smile on her lips, her fingers played down the length of his shirt until he leapt back.

Some of this spiel might've actually been sexy if she weren't for all intents and purposes a walking skeleton with a mop for hair.

"Listen, lady, I appreciate the offer, but I'll pass," said Fontana, arms held passively-defensively. "I've got things I still have to do tonight."

"Suit'che self," the soivicemaid said as she shrugged. "If y'evah change y'mind, ya know wheah ta call..." The door closed behind her.

He was prepared when the clerk asked him whether he was paying by the hour or by the night--but he didn't think "single" meant a partner would be provided in the package. If this was representative of the other hotels in Antiparadisia, there was no way they'd pass the zero-star mark anytime soon.

Settling down into the chair (after draping a towel over it), he opened his portable, doublechecked the transcript with Don Macchiato, and looked over his notes, adding detail whenever he felt the need. Published or not, his check depended on the entry he submitted, so as much as he may have wanted to do otherwise, there was no room for a half-assed job.

Not that he COULD do much. The day's findings were pitiful--most of the shops were either shut down or under repair, conditions Twoday's was loathe to consider "family-friendly" or "tourist-trendy". Tomorrow, he planned on visiting Joe's; the day after, Auntie Mae. After that, who knew; maybe there was some life in this town yet.

He hoped.

[End Sunday]

Story in progress. As such, no new material introduced here can be used without Lawrence Chu's  permission.  Exceptions are as follows:

Don Macchiato has no protections outside of this story (he will be used later on, most likely).

Please note added lore on Twoday's and the Antiparadisia Chamber of Commerce..