It was 13 o'clock on a typical day when the sky turned blue.

Mallory didn't even have to open his eyes to know something was wrong. When the sky turns blue, you can feel it down to your core... the air feels thick around you, harder to breathe than usual. Sounds are muffled and dull, and your stereo hearing gets slapped back down to mono. In short, it feels unreal.

For some reason, it had been happening around 13 o'clock more often than not. He wasn't sure why; maybe it was because he was on break during those hours. A full morning in classes, a full afternoon of plowing fields... he needed this little lunchtime break. It was his time to flop down on the nearest grassy hill, put on his headphones, and listen to the streams over the integrated (but quite low bandwidth and tinny sounding) RealNet audio receiver. He could tune out his world, and tune into others...

He turned down the volume, because he knew what was coming next.

"MALLORY HEISENBERG!" a loud voice almost echoed through the acoustic cotton wads in the air.

"Over here, Dad!" Mallory called back, sitting up. He quickly packed away his headphones into his school sack, before his father could spot them. "We're running in safety mode again, huh?"

The man in peasant farmer's clothes (you can tell from the amount of dirt and color tones ranging the spectrum from brown and green) jogged to a halt, glancing up at the sky with a frown of displeasure. "Blue Sky of Death. Third time this week," he reminded him. "Third time, Mallory. We really should call in a technician tonight to fix the blasted thing once and for all. Something can't be right if it's crashing this often..."

"C'mon, Dad! They charge an arm and a leg, why should we pay 'em through the nose? I can handle it just fine," Mallory said, smiling to try to cheer his father up. "Although, if you'd like to cut down on my chores a bit in payment...?"

The elder farmer crossed his arms, giving his boy a flat look. No words.

"Yeah, yeah, but it was worth a try," Mallory said, hiking his sack up over one shoulder.

The windmill was quite a ways away, but there wasn't a rush. Safety mode would last at least a day before anything else went wrong; the glossy brochures had said so, complete with language like 'Money Back Guarantee!'. Mallory knew the way, and walked on past the planting fields, past the farmers and his classmates at work in the fields. Past the classroom building, past the church, even past his own house... to the tallest structure in the land.

Not that he needed to climb to the top of the windmill. The engine was, in fact, kept in the basement.

Mallory studied the instrument panel. All the blinking red warning lights, the pop-up images projected on the cheap liquid display pane above the machine. He read the complicated error code. He scratched his chin.

"This may take a while," he said.

"A while?" his father asked. "You're usually done with it pretty quickly..."

Mallory shrugged, trying to look noncommittal. "It varies, Dad. Six of one, half a dozen of another. You should probably go tell the Council this can be fixed... they're likely running around like chickens with their heads cut off as usual. I'll join you when I finish, I promise!"

With a nod, the elder Heisenberg walked up the stairs, closing the basement door behind him.

The boy looked up, and listened for the departing footsteps. Thud, thud, thud... thud.... quiet.

He sat down and waited a few minutes. Picked at some wax that had been building in his ear lately.

Once enough time had passed, he walked up to the complicated piece of reality technology, and repaired it via a good swift kick to the metal casing.

The lights on the machine went out.

The lights on the machine clicked back on.

Reality asserted itself. Faint, stereoscopic sounds could be heard. Colors felt less muted. The air was musty and old, but he was technically in the basement of a windmill.

Better this cheap trick than to worry him with how I REALLY fix the engine each time it crashes, Mallory thought to himself for the dozenth time. He shut down the engine's display panel to reduce load on the windmill's power generators, walked back up the stairs, and headed back to his favorite grassy hillside. Back to the old grind.

Things were shaping up to be another typical day in Mallory's life... classes, relaxation, reality crashes, reality reboots, chores, watching the network, bed. Nineteen years to date in this loop. Day in, day out, same old same old, the usual, the tried and true, staying the course...

He'd read once on the network about how people sailed across worlds with oceans, in vehicles built to harness the power of the wind. There would be spots in the middle of an ocean where no wind blew and the waves were calm... doldrums, they were called. Places where everything just sort of sits there until you die of boredom and/or hunger, with no wind to aid your escape.

To carry the metaphor too far (which he had an uncanny habit of doing even in his own mind) he was hungry for something other than the boredom of this world, and even the perpetual wind which drove the windmill wasn't enough to blow him to new ports of call. He'd need tornado-like winds, winds that tore up trees by the root and dumped them in parts unknown. Unfortunately, tornadoes never popped up on Grünwald, metaphorical or literal—it had been specifically designed to avoid dangerous weather, cultured to avoid dangerous situations. Even the rain was scheduled. This reality, this world, his home had been specifically designed to tick along at a nice and predictable pace. Nothing out of the ordinary could happen here.

As he pondered such tornados, walking along to rejoin his life already in progress, a house fell on him.

unreal estate / episode 01 / boy meets worlds

For most people, that would be the end of their life story. Humorous obituaries on tabloid video streams would follow: "Boy With Hideous Luck Hit By Falling House!", right next to "Bizarre Creatures From Nullspace Impregnated Me!".

Fortunately for Mallory's continued existence, three factors other than his bad luck came into play:

  1. Survival Instincts, the sort that are coded in the genes and kick in despite having a soft life where the nastiest surprise you have to worry about is whether or not you passed your exam in Baking and Bread Goods 101. These allowed Mallory to hit the ground nice and fast when he noticed a very rectangular, non-cloud shaped shadow surrounding him.
  2. Geographical Layout, specifically the two lumpy hills to his left and right which formed a nice valley just deep enough for a human to flop face-first into, and were firm enough to support the house's weight without crushing him.

In short: Mallory hit the deck and miraculously survived.

It did take a few moments for his non-death to register in his brain, of course. Once he had the nerve to open his eyes, he saw brown. Once he had the nerve to wipe the dust kicked up from the impact off his glasses, he saw light in the narrow crack between the lumpy underside of the house and the ground.

Some part of him which was too stunned to be stunned pondered how new and interesting this situation was.

Because you can never have too much bewildering confusion, next Mallory observed a pair of legs stepping down to the ground from what was presumably the front door of the house. One foot after the other; sandal-like shoes of some sort, although not the dirt- and animal-dung-covered sort he was used to. They looked like something that might very well be "fashion," to his untrained farmer's boy eye. The stunned/nonstunned part of him also recognized the faint brown tinge of pantyhose, which he had never seen in person, but plenty of times on video streams...

As if the legs weren't enough new stimulus to make his brain go pop, the woman who leaned down to peer into the narrow space at him had enough details to make his brain go WHUMPH and trickle out his ears in twin gray streams of liquid. Metaphorically, of course. Long brown hair, and—

"Hello?" she called to him, staring at him funny.

"Hello?" Mallory replied, since it was polite to greet strangers.

"Hello," she said back, waving her hand, a bit puzzled at this.

"Hello!" Mallory spat back cheerfully, since it was nice to be cheerful and have a good outlook on life.

"Haven't I seen you somewhere?" she asked, because... well, she thought she had seen him somewhere before.

"Uh..." Mallory said, his mind racing to cope with all this. "I don't think so, I've never left this reality. Sorry."

"Ah. You're not dead, right? Or paralyzed from the waist down or something like that?"

Mallory wiggled his toes in his hand-me-down shoes.

"I don't think so," he said.

"So what are you still doing down there? You pinned?"

The dirt really did a number on his favorite battered gray hooded sweatshirt, but he wriggled his way out and was standing on his own two feet next to her in a matter of moments. (Which made him feel a bit silly for lying there under the house the whole time.)

Now that the two of them were upright, Mallory managed more than a narrowly defined view of her. She was about his age, but dressed in more business-y attire than he'd ever seen someone wearing... at least, someone who wasn't on a video stream. It'd make sense, considering the mobile home implied she was from outside Grünwald, and was...

..and was glaring at him slightly, arms crossed. "You sure you didn't get a concussion? You've got this blank, glassy stare thing going on..."

"Uh.. sorry, sorry," Mallory apologized, meeting her eyes. "It's just... there aren't a lot of pretty girls in Grünwald."

"Ah," she said, emphasizing the 'Ah'. "That statement would make you either charmingly innocent or a skirt chaser, then..."

"Huh? I'm not... uh, what's a 'skirt chaser'?"

"Charmingly innocent it is," she said, without technically being charmed by it. "You got a name, impressionable youth? Does this reality have a name? Can I please get a little information now that we've established you're of sound mind and body and capable of answering questions?"

"Oh, sorry! You're in Grünwald. So, uh... is this your house?" Mallory asked, looking at the brick-and-aluminum-siding structure with well painted window shutters and a brass knocker on the door. "Why'd you park it here? The Dock is a few kilos that way."


"No, Grünwald."

"What's the difference?"

"Two dots, I think," Mallory replied.

"Right. Grünwald. Grünwald, Grünwald..." she thought aloud, trying to recall a few details. "Ah. That would explain the pastoral acres of green and corn as high as an elephant's eye. Returning to your questions: yes, this is my house, and if I had stolen it I probably wouldn't fess up to you. And finally, I didn't PARK here, I quite obviously crashed here—who're those people?"

Now would be a good time to pause and reflect in further detail upon Mallory's frame of mind.

Many things of a dangerously interesting nature had happened to Mallory in the last two minutes. Ordinary people would be very unsettled by this; for someone who lived a sheltered life for nearly two decades, it was enough to throw his crossbeam askew on the treadle and then some.

He had heard of Transients, of course. That's how he knew what the house truly was: a mobile home that doesn't take root anywhere, but moves from reality to reality like a tractor. (The only vehicles he had handy to make the analogy were tractors. If his brain were operating at full speed he'd recall ground cars and other sorts of ships from his daily video stream viewing of other realities.) Transients were uncommon in Grünwald, which rarely interacted with other realities beyond basic trade of goods, but he had seen trade buildings come and go from the Docks before.

This is also why he knew to ask "Why didn't you park at the Dock," since typically houses, cargo huts, small businesses and other mobile buildings would 'land' at the specially zoned Dock area on the other side of the village. This house had not parked at the Dock; it had parked on top of him. He was able to register this fact quickly. So, you have to give him some credit; despite all that had gone completely wrong in this situation, his brain zeroed in on relevant details. Unfortunately for him, the information would prove to be completely useless at that time—and also unfortunately, his distraction caused him to lose track of who was approaching.

"Huh?" he said, his mind moving in six directions at once (two of which were only theoretical under conventional reality) as the group approached. "Uh, dunno—"

"You are trespassing!!" the leader of the small group accused, pointing the Finger of Accusation firmly at the woman, despite trembling with rage. "You did not contact us ahead of time to consult on your arrival in Grünwald and your presence is illegal! You could be bringing in foreign diseases and contaminating our crops, or worse! We demand you leave immediately, woman!"

"Oh, uh, this is the Council," Mallory introduced well after the fact. "Um. Some of them, at any rate. Uh, hi, Dad."

The woman stepped forward, blocking Mallory (who would likely only befuddle matters more than they were befuddled) and attempted to be cool and charming. "I'd love to leave, but I have a problem," she said, in more even and measured tones than she had used with him. "I didn't land here on purpose. My Reality Engine for Mobiles crashed while I was trying to get to another reality. We're all very lucky Safety Mode kicked in and I didn't phase into existence through something else or suffer structural damage on landing. A close call, but everything's fine, yes?"

"Uh, but it nearly crushed me—"

"So if you could just let me borrow your resident Reality Engineer or can give me the address to one that's local to Grünwald, I'll get repaired and be on my way," she concluded.

The Council member frowned at her. Not that he had stopped frowning since his arrival, but he made a point to frown just a little more. "We haven't got a Reality Engineer. What do you think this is, Urbana? Where you can snap your fingers and get anything you want? We're a farming and cooking community. And your presence is disrupting the harmony of the—"

"Then it's going to have to keep disrupting until I can call in an Engineer from RealWare," she interrupted, losing a bit of her cool and dropping into 'curt' levels of attitude. "That's the way it is. I'll warn, they've been known to take days to service Class C contracts like mine—but I assure you I have proper passport data and I'm not carrying anything that'll cause trouble here—"

"We can have you Deported!" the Councilmember threatened, shaking a fist with rage! or at least trying to be threatening and fist-shaking but ending up somewhere between 'unimpressive' and 'a complete joke.' "We may be backwoods to you 'city folk' but we've got a Deporter and can kick your ugly house out of here in an instan... in a few minutes or so!"

"...ugly house?" she asked, her eyebrows tightening. "Now, listen up, Farmer John—"

"I can fix it!"

This time, she didn't interrupt him. In fact, all attention turned to him directly.

"Uh... I mean, I think I can," Mallory clarified. "Reality Engines for Realities and Reality Engines for Mobiles are based on the same... err... stuff. Technology! The same technology. And Dad, you know I can fix Reality Engines! I could get her up and running and nobody would have to do anything, okay? It'll be fine!"

Because he was being a complete pain in the ass, the Council leader looked aghast at this proposal. "What, allow you to enter that... that monstrosity?" he asked, nodding towards the house. "I won't allow it! Outsiders are not to be trusted. She could kidnap you, or worse things I can't even think of at the moment! If—"

Since Mallory had played the peacekeeper role once already, his father stepped up to the plate. "He can fix it," he said, calm and reasonable about it. "Then the problem will be solved. I'm in favor of it."

"Your voice isn't as great on our Council as you think, Josef!" one of the generic old guys who hadn't spoken up spoke up with. "If you seriously think—"

"I have no problems with my boy entering the house," Josef Heisenberg said. "Let's clear this up and get back to work. You're not in favor of a delay of work, yes?"

"Terrific!" Mallory cheered, resisting the urge to jump for joy. "Okay! I'll be done in a minute! Let's go, miss!"

"Wha?" she asked, before being dragged into her own front door by the excited youth.

With that, Mallory stepped into another world. Or at least a piece of a world he had never seen in person before which had been dumped on his front lawn, which was just as exciting to him...

- - - -

It's not like homes in Grünwald were crude mud huts or anything of the sort.

They were well constructed, with good firm wood harvested from the local forests and nails custom made by the town blacksmith. The fireplaces were built of stout brick, the furniture crafted of quality joinery, and generally speaking the standard of housing was nice and high. Plumbing and electricity, absolute musts for modern cooking, were also available.

But aluminum siding? Weather stripping around windows? Drywall, plaster, wallpaper, carpeting, central air conditioning... these were all things Mallory had only seen on a tiny Video Network Player over a low-bandwidth video stream. To have this house—this icon of all things non-Grünwaldian—drop in his lap (and on his back) was an opportunity he couldn't pass up!

So naturally, upon entering the house, he started gawking like a tourist, soaking up the sights like a sponge, and rubbernecking like only a redneck can rubberneck.

The walls weren't made of wood! They were solid, flat shapes. Was that plaster? Or maybe concrete? And there were things plastered all over them, little funny shapes and things in eye-pleasing symmetric patterns! That table there, in the kitchen to his left (because even in an alien environment like this, Mallory damn well knew a kitchen when he saw one)... was it metal? A whole table made of metal! True, there were metal cook surfaces in the Grünwald schools, but those were a luxury! And—


—in the room to his right, that was a sofa, yes, although unlike any one he'd ever seen... it was huge! Sort of L-shaped and pressed up against the wall surrounding a low table, who could sit at a table that low and why were there huge books on it with names like 'Cheeses of Pia Pia' and 'Urbana Tower: Modern Wonder Of The Multiverse'—

"Yoo hoo, farm boy?"

—but the one thing, the one thing that drew him like a fly to a bug zapper, was the Video Network Set.

If there were a God (and like all good multiversal folk, Mallory was an Agnostic Atheist) this would be His Video Network Set.

"It's almost as big as I am but not quite but BOY is that a big screen!!" he exclaimed, nearly floating over to the hulking monolith of electronic might and majesty. "This is a RealWare Video Network Set 3.11, isn't it, I've seen ads for it how many subscriber streams do you get boy oh boy I can't get anything but the free streams on my cheesy little Video Network Player and man how much did this cost how could you afford all this where'd you get it and what's that place like 'cause I've never left Grünwald and—"


"Yes?" Mallory asked, turning to face the irate woman.

"Reality Engine?" she prompted, while tapping her foot and folding her arms and giving off universal vibes of impatience. "Fix it? Like you said you would? I'm not paying you to watch video streams, farm boy."

"You're paying me?"

"It's a figure of speech. There. Right there," she said, pointing... sort of next to and around the corner from the video set. "In that niche there, that's where we keep the engine."

"Oh, right, right," Mallory said, and made a very big mistake as he walked right over to the machine and gave it a sharp blow with his fist. The metal of the box echoed nicely...

...and the wobbly liquid readout, which was showing a blue Safety Mode screen, wobbled itself back to the familiar purple RealWare logo as it rebooted. The subsequent quiet hum was proof positive of normal operations.

"There, fixed," he said, dusting off his hands even though they weren't dirty. "Hey, do you live in this house alone? It's HUGE! You're a Transient, right? Why do you bring such a huge house around with you? It's two stories, right? What's on... the.... second floor...?"

Even someone as dense as Mallory was could pick up on that kind of evil energy radiating off the woman.

"You... PUNCHED... my Reality Engine!!?" she shouted with sound and fury. "YOU HIT MY REALITY ENGINE??"

"Uh... well..." Mallory backpedaled in more ways than one, as she stomped up to confront him (and pin him against one of those nicely wallpapered surfaces). "It's funny, but I've found generally all these things need is a good whack to get 'em going again—"

"Are you insane?!" she shouted, grabbing him by his comfy sweatshirt and throttling him ever so gently. "You MORON, you could've crashed the thing completely and sent my house careening into Nullspace!!"

"I-I could have?" Mallory asked, curiosity perking up at exactly the wrong time, as usual. "Really? I didn't know that. It's funny what you learn when—"

She let go of him, began a silent count from five to one backwards to control her murderous rage, then pointed firmly to the open door.

"OUT," was her edict.


- - - -

Dirt doesn't taste very good, Mallory decided, after landing face first in it.

He staggered back to his feet, spitting out clods of grass and topsoil that were jammed in his mouth from the impact. Before he could say a word, the door of the Transient house slammed shut, the whole building started to glow purple... and in a soundless flash, it was gone.

The Head Councilman helped Mallory dust off his clothes, while scowling with an 'I told you so' look. "Foreigners! Rude bastards, all of 'em," he reaffirmed. "We're better off without them. You all right, Mallory? She didn't give you drugs or show you improper things?"

"Uh, I don't think so," Mallory said, bending his neck left and right to work out the kinks.

"Right. Well then, situation averted. Good work, boy. You may resume your duties now," the Councilman spoke, as the group started to disband and return to normality. "Lads, let's get back to work. Josef, I'll see you at the meeting hall."

The elder Heisenberg nodded, and turned to follow—before being tugged back by his sleeve.

"She had a video set, Dad! A 3.11 model!" Mallory hiss-whispered, at least until the others had distanced themselves enough. "It was HUGE! I've never seen one that expensive before!"

"Yes, son. Offworlders can be very rich," his father confirmed.

"But, I mean, it took a year's savings just to buy my used Video Network Player 1.0!"

Josef looked around, uncertain. "Son... keep your voice down. You know we're not supposed to have ANY video sets. It's not the law, but if the Council knew... "

"Why is that, Dad? Why is it bad to have one?"

"It's our way, son. You know that. We try to lead a simple life... away from the politics and the chaos of other realities, away from RealWare's interests," Josef emphasized. "Life can be hard enough without taking on the problems of the multiverse at the same time."

"But.. but Dad, there's so much STUFF out there!" Mallory insisted, waving his arms around wildly to mime the nature of 'Much Stuff'. "Things I can barely believe! Houses that move from reality to reality, just like that one... it was a big house, too. Bigger than any one in the village! I can't even imagine living in a place like that!"

"I can, and you wouldn't like it. A wandering rogue's lifestyle? Transients can't really say they're home, no matter where they happen to be. Mallory... you've got a good life here, son. An honest one and a stable one. I don't mind you watching network shows... but you know what I say, right?"

"That the grass is always greener on the other side?" Mallory quoted.


"That a fool can have infinite riches, but only a wise man knows what truly holds value?"

"Not that, I meant—"

"Is it the one about the dog and the bone and the bridge and his reflection?"

"I meant to say it's time for your chores. Get back to work."


- - - -

The sun passed along its arc in the sky and the moon rose, because that's how Grünwald wanted things to be, and that's how the Reality Engine told things to be.

Mallory fell in his arc and landed flat on his back, back in his bed. His 1.0 player was pulled out from under his pillow and turned on in one smooth motion.

The end of another typical day. Classes, relaxation, reality crashes, reality reboots, mysterious house falls on him, chores, watching the network, bed. Nineteen years to date in this loop. Day in, day out, same old same old, the usual, the tried and true, staying the course...

Mysterious houses.

It all reminded him of the tornado. A tornado carrying a house away... something about that had a curious echo deep in his brain. The dream of being swept away, carried away to a distant land where everything was colorful and new and wonderful and...

And it felt distinctly like he had missed the tornado. Weather report said chances of it returning were slim, because every day in Grünwald was nice and sunny.

He thumbed the rocker dial on the side of the small handheld device, scrolling up the list of free video streams. One caught his eye; RealWare Travel & Weather. He clicked the rocker dial once to load it, waited the requisite one minute for the buffer to fill, then let the grainy images of dream worlds filter through his head...

"The streets of Urbana! The waterslides of Aquarius!" an announcer with a precisely spoken voice declared, while the photos blurred and faded into each other. "The harsh jungles of Tribal Alpha! The neon paradise of Nippon! Even the private corporate retreats of Reality Prime! When you're a certified RealWare Reality Engineer, the multiverse is at your disposal to dispose of as you please!"

Reality Engineer. She'd mentioned something about that, about how she needed one. But he helped her out instead. And he never even learned her name...

"Enjoy a wide variety of experiences as you support our vast customer base with the kind of quality service and customer care they've come to expect from RealWare," he continued, the spinning RealWare logo filling his small screen. The RealWare Sound, the official audio intellectual property of RealWare, played gently across his ears as their familiar slogan followed the notes. "For quality reality products and technical support, there's only one true choice: RealWare!"

And then it was on to a weather report about the oceanic temperatures of Aquarius, and what sorts of swimwear were trendy there this time of year.

Mallory had never learned how to swim. The only bodies of water on Grünwald were in artificial reservoirs. He'd never own a swimsuit in his lifetime...

Unless he left, of course. Went somewhere with pools, or even real oceans.

It wasn't swimming that drew him... that was simply one of his many desires. Something much stronger, and less definable, tugged at him. He felt a need to go elsewhere—to be somewhere else.

This was something he never mentioned to anyone, not even his father, but he never felt like he truly fit in Grünwald. He could farm, he could cook, he was a good Grünwaldian in every aspect a Grünwaldian must be good... but he didn't have many friends. Something about him seemed to put them off, like he was an outsider in any circle, even the one he was born into. There wasn't any proof of it; nobody was rude to him. Things just never seemed to click properly.

Mallory sat up in his bed, watching the cute weather girl point out where rain would be falling in Nippon today. She had on a skirt a lot like the girl who he met today...

He didn't have to leave forever. That would be silly. But maybe, just maybe, he could leave for a little while. 'Vacation' was an alien concept to the locals, but on the video streams Mallory had learned it inside and out.

But the crops were coming in. He had chores to do, classes to attend. It was silly to think he could leave, even for a short time—and how would he leave, anyway? He hadn't a clue how one actually left their home reality, not unless they had a mobile building of some sort...

It was futile. He clicked off his video player, not wanting to watch the sights anymore tonight. Sleep, however, was not going to smack him upside the head anytime soon... and a glass of milk sounded good to wash his worries away about now.

- - - -

The wooden steps creaked as he made his way down them; familiar creaks, ones he had memorized. The third step from the bottom would always be loudest... and tonight was no different.

What was different was his father enjoying the glass of milk he had descended that staircase to find. Not the same exact glass, of course, but A glass, and likely the same fluid ounces he would have ingested had his father not gotten there first. Which was not actually on his mind, but it's (probably not) worth pointing out anyway.

"Dad?" Mallory asked, surprised at this new development. "S'matter, can't sleep? You've got the seasonal rotation tomorrow, you know... you should get some rest."

"I'll be fine," Josef Heisenberg dismissed, as he set down his glass. "Mallory... come on, have a seat. You and your old man need to have a little talk. Not a bad one, though. You want some milk too?"

"Uh, yeah, thanks," Mallory thanked, pulling out a wooden chair and sitting at the wooden table while his dad poured the not-so-hard stuff. "What sort of a talk?"

"Mmm... how best to approach this..." Josef pondered aloud. "Been thinking about what you were saying before. About other realities, and such. You've got a bit of wanderlust, don't you, boy?"

"C'mon, Dad, you know I couldn't leave. Not with my classes and my chores, and the new crops being planted tomorrow. You'd need my—"

"But you do wish you weren't here, yes?"

"Dad... this is my home," Mallory reminded him. "Maybe.. I have daydreams about other places, yes. But I'm not gonna leave because of a daydream."

"Why not? I did once."

The second surprise of the evening.

"You what?" Mallory asked.

"I left Grünwald, many years ago," Josef explained, leaning on the table and looking off through the kitchen window as he called up the memories. "I was actually a year younger than you are now. And I was really not interested in farming and cooking and all that, not when there were so many fascinating things just out of reach... in other realities. So, against my father's wishes, I left."

"You... against you... you.. YOU left? You?"

"What, is there an echo in here?" Josef mocked, in a non-mean sort of way. "Yeah. Your old man wasn't always this calm and patient with things, I was a bit of a hotheaded fool then... but in the end, it was the right decision. I wouldn't have met your mother, rest her soul, if not for my travel. She was from Nippon. It's not widely talked about, but it's the honest truth."

"That's... I mean, that's... wow! It's... wow!" Mallory said, almost but not quite able to finish his own sentences. "I'm half Nipponese? It's funny, I don't look it..."

"Anyway... it's a hard life out there. I was being honest with you earlier about it. Here, we don't have many economic worries, no real politics to speak of... well, no, we have both, but they're on a much smaller scale. Out there it can be harsh. I learned the hard way; I went out with no plan, nowhere to live, and no job to make a living from. Shortly after we were married we came back to Grünwald. It was simply the best place we knew of to raise a family... and shortly after that, you arrived, and the rest is history."

"How come you didn't mention any of this before?" Mallory asked, curious. "I mean, the adventures... or at least, um, the experiences you must have had!"

"I guess... I didn't want you following in your foolhardy father's footsteps," Josef said, with a sigh. "I didn't want you making the same mistakes, so I didn't fill your head with nonsense about the glories of the outside world. Heh. And I still let you own a video player... go figure, eh?"

"Dad, Dad, it's okay. I'm not leaving. I—"

"I said I didn't want you to make the same mistakes, Mallory."

"I know, and—"

"That's why I want you to prepare ahead of time for your trip. I'll help you find a job and a place to live, give you some points to spend, and THEN you can go," Josef announced calmly. "That way you'll be prepared for what lies ahead. Is it a deal?"

"..................wha?" Mallory asked, jaw having trouble returning to its full upright position.

"I said I made mistakes, but I didn't say I regretted it," Josef said, with a wry little grin. "Be honest, Mallory... you don't really want to live here all your life. You don't want to be a farmer, or a chef. You don't have to be; I just want you to approach reality in a realistic way."

"B-But... my chores, and the Council, and—"

"Eh, they'll grow to accept it in time," his father predicted. "Just as they accepted my leave, and my return. I'm on the Council now. That should say something about their standards and how much they REALLY adhere to them."

There wasn't a draft in the room, but Mallory could almost feel that tornado looming over the horizon again...

"You're serious about this, aren't you?" he asked. "You'd really help me and let me leave?"

"Would I lie to you? You're my only son. I want to help you get it right. Mallory... this is your future. You have to set out to find your own future; maybe my future isn't for you. Only way you can tell is if you go out there and look for it."

Despite sitting still in his chair, Mallory took the metaphoric first step forward without hesitation.

"Where do we start?" he asked.

- - - -

The whirlwind day that kicked this wacky madcap adventure off with both feet running when they hit the ground... piffled out very quickly.

The process of preparing for his stage left exit took time. They had to work quietly; while the Council wouldn't stop them, exactly, they could get very cross if they knew. Josef smuggled in a very rudimentary RealNet Workstation—an economy model four hundred years obsolete, but it accessed the network all the same.

"Technically, your video player is the same sort of thing," his father had explained as he set up the battered workstation, a strange thing that looked like a video set attached to a rack of buttons with letters on them. "It's all RealNet in the end, the only communication medium people have that spans realities. RealNet carries streams; good for your video-only units, or sound-only units like your headphones... but it also has fully interactive things like this."

"Uh-huh," Mallory had said without totally understanding. "How do you know all this, Dad?"

"Your mother was a Reality Engineer. Worked for RealWare itself, before she quit to come to Grünwald with me. Now, this RealNet Node is a 'search node', which can find you job placement nodes, and this applet here can edit your résumé and this one here can blah blah blah blah blah blah..."

Two days of extreme hunt and peck typing later, some fibbing about his job experiences, some blatant lying about his job skills and he had a résumé ready.

The problem then became finding a job his dad would approve of.

Mallory could certainly cook, and there were plenty of jobs for chefs in Urbana. "Forget it," Josef said, vetoing it instantly. "Urbana is not fit for anybody but businessmen. Cooks, janitors, lower jobs like that... they have to LIVE there, and it's not a good place to live."

Mallory also was able to do some farming, and Aquarius was looking for people to take part in an experimental sea kelp farming operation. "Can you swim?" Josef asked, and that was the end of that.

There was an opening for a trainee chef in SubUrbana, but the rent cost for below-average housing there had an above-average price tag. "Have pity on your poor old man's pocketbook, he doesn't have many points left," Josef begged.

"Points?" Mallory had asked.

"Money, son. Not everybody in the multiverse barters like we do. You'll learn in time."

And of course, there was the esteemed role of the Reality Engineer.

"Mom was one, right?" Mallory argued. "And you know I've got the knack. Maybe I got it from her!"

"You'd have to take the Reality Engineer Certification Test, the REC," Josef explained. "According to your mother may she rest in peace, it's the most hideous educational experience ever devised by man and only 25% of the students who apply actually pass it. You'd have nowhere to live while you were studying and you can't study from here—"

"All right, all right, I get the point."

The point was that nothing was popping up that met every need he had. The whirlwind adventure was stalled out.

Five nights after they had made the secret pact to get Mallory off this plane of existence, he was no farther along than when he started.

Staring at the ceiling of his bedroom, with the glow of the cheap workstation monitor the only light that touched the walls, Mallory pondered his future. And his present.

At present, he was nothing to the multiverse at large. A half-trained chef, a newbie farmer. Nobody really needed farmers; chefs got paid peanuts. (Sometimes literally, on some of the more obscure realities.) He didn't have the cred to be a Reality Engineer. He had no skills anybody wanted. He wasn't wanted...

All he wanted was to get his foot in the door. Why was that so hard? He could adapt, he could learn; he was good at adapting to new situations! (Well, not really, but he thought he was. Very tragic.) Why not bite off just a LITTLE more than he could chew? Surely he could get to the chewing in quick time, be ready to go even if it was a rocky start, as the mixed metaphors almost but not entirely spoke to his internal grammar.

Of course, Pop wouldn't be happy about it. But what he didn't know...

Mallory swung his legs over and got back to his feet, walking across his room to the RealNet Workstation. He poked a random key to disable the colorful RealWare logo 'screen saver' (a term that even his dad didn't quite understand), accessed the job search node, and started bending reality to his liking.

First, he stated he had ten year's experience as a chef. This was true, even if the first year was spent learning how to boil water and how to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Next he specified that he had overseen the tilling and crop rotation on 6000 acres of farmland—which made sense if you had handled the same two hundred acres or so over and over during your life. And finally, while crossing his fingers (which made it very hard to type) he stated he was a certified Reality Engineer.

Praying that he wasn't breaking some sort of obscure multiversal law, he keyed SEARCH and waited for the node to respond to his request.

Moments passed. Grünwald wasn't real high on the RealNet totem pole, and streams took a while to get there...

78 results found. Master chefs, agricultural experts, resident engineers... jobs spanning an insane amount of salaries and locales. He only recognized maybe 4.33333% of the realities represented...

He couldn't exactly go running to Daddy to help him sort through the list. He would have asked God to lend him a hand, but he wasn't quite sure if there were a God, which was the proper way to view things as he was raised. There was always blind luck, but with his sort of luck...

A story bubbled to the forefront of his brain.

"Ancestors," the trader had explained, when he traded some turnips for his precious (and now battered and hole-riddled) hooded sweatshirt. "In Nippon, they worship their ancestors or something. I don't see how it works, since once you're dead you're out of hearing range, and too buried in the ground to do anything worth note. But you see that symbol on the front of your finely crafted 100% cotton exquisite exotic sweatshirt thingy?"

"What, this?" Mallory had asked, poking at the embroidered symbol. Sort of a squiggly white thing meshed up against a squiggly black thing...

"That's a Yang Ying. Or a Ying Yang. Or somethin'. Anyway, it's spiritual," the trader explained. "It represents harmony. Everything in the multiverse in tune with everything else. Which I don't see, given how crazy the multiverse can be, but supposedly there's harmony out there somewhere. 'That which is separate becoming whole once more' and all that."

"So... what does that have to do with ancestors?"

"Dunno, you got me. So do you want it or not? One bag of turnips."

I'm half Nipponese, Mallory reasoned. That means I should be worshipping my ancestors.

Not quite sure if he was going about it the right way, he clasped his hands together in prayer like he saw in really old movies on the video network.

"Ohm... um... ooooohm," he tried chanting. "Ohm. ...Mom, if you're listening, help me find a job. Please? ...right, okay. Here I go."

Covering his eyes with one hand, making a pointy-finger with the other, he waved his finger around randomly, reaching forward... and eventually poking the glass of the workstation screen.

Peeking between two fingers, he read the entry he had hopefully selected via mystical spiritual powers beyond his comprehension.

Live-in REALITY ENGINEER wanted to maintain and repair Reality Engine for Mobiles. 10k points annually, room and board provided. See the multiverse, meet interesting people, be a team player in the hottest troubleshooting firm on the market. No fixed address, please send resumes to nodebox 'JOBS@MIRAI'.

Granted, the amount of knowledge Mallory had of the multiversal job market could make an optimist declare the glass to be half empty. A shotglass. But even he knew that ten thousand points, compared to some of the other jobs he had looked at, was small potatoes. (It's easy to think in food metaphors when you tend to the soil for a living.) What's more, it was for his least strong suit: reality engineering. He barely understood the concept beyond giving funny machines a serious beating until they hummed 'ahh' instead of 'aagh'.

With a classic sigh of disappointment, he reached for the power switch on the workstation...

But this was the job his mother had selected, wasn't it?

See the multiverse. Meet interesting people... exactly what he was hoping for.

And so, on a whim, Mallory keyed in the commands to send his résumé along. They probably wouldn't reply tonight, so once again, his hand reached for the power swi—

A little blinking picture distracted him. Sort of a funny flower thing with a mail envelope superimposed on it. It was flashing and beeping and spinning and animating and generally doing everything except whipping out a megaphone and yelling "CLICK ON ME, STUPID!"

It took Mallory a minute to figure out what to do with it, since his dad hadn't shown him what the 'mouse' did. ("Your mother said real engineers only use keyboards," was his justification.)

The envelope flew away from the flower, opened, and a new box appeared.


: Hello, received resume. Reading now.

Mallory froze, as if he were caught with his hand in the cookie jar. It was his first time communicating with anybody outside of shouting distance, and his first time communicating only by text...

: Looks good. We're in a tight fix here, the stupid thing keeps crashing and we need to be on the move a lot. You're certified, and that's all that matters, Mallory-san.

Nervously, his hands reached for the keys. He was supposed to reply, that much he could figure out...

> my family name is heisenberg, not san

: Sorry, old Nipponese habit. When can you start?

> tomorrow i think

: Good. I'm glad you understand we can't pay very much, we haven't had any takers yet. We're currently at Urbana, Victor Suezo's Economy Dock, Row 12, Column 3. Show at thirteen o'clock, UST. Listen, I'd like to meet f2f before I officially hire you, okay?

> whatsf2f

: Face to face? Is something wrong with your Workstation? All I'm getting is lowercase letters.

> No, Everything is fine

: See you tomorrow.

The on-screen box closed itself.

With that, Mallory was unofficially gainfully employed.

- - - -

Almost there. Just a few more steps.

Step one, doctor the job offer to read 'Entry Level Chef' and present it as the truth while feeling mild guilt.

"It doesn't pay much, but I get room and board," Mallory explained, pointing to the piece of paper like a showroom piece. "I'll be the personal gourmet chef of a Transient home! I can't think of a better way to see the multiverse! Look, it even says 'See the multiverse!' So, um, that means I'm going to see the multiverse, and that's what I want. So. Uh. It's okay, right?"

Josef sat back in his kitchen chair, frowning very mildly. "I don't know, Mallory... the pay is a bit low..."

"Daaaad!" Mallory 3/4ths-whined. "C'mon, we haven't had anything pop up. This is a great offer! And.. if it doesn't work out, I can always come back. Pleaaase?"

1/4th of a whine later and the job was a lock.

Step two, pack.

This step proved to be the hardest of the three.

Mallory had always been a bit of a packrat; buying whatever trinkets and baubles and consumer cultural collectables the traders brought with them. There was his sweatshirt, his video player, his headphones... and of course, his nearly-complete run of Angst Boy holographic comics, his six of seven limited edition Love & Hate Glasses (available at a Joe's near you, at least, fifty years ago)... and his prized 8-Bit Commandos card collection.

Collecting things felt good to him in a way he couldn't quite put his finger on; the act of bringing together a complete set, scrounging, bartering, trading, searching as far and wide as he could from the comfort of his own home... it was as close as he could get to an adventure. All of his collections were incomplete, unfortunately. There's only so much hunting you can do while rooted to the fields.

Stuffing all of that valuable junk into a suitcase was not an option, so Josef quietly purchased a travel trunk from an old friend in the village. That could store all his goodies, all his clothes, and still have a little room left over. It was also over one hundred pounds and could only be rolled along on dinky little wooden wheels, but beggars couldn't be choosers and Mallory saw it as making a silk purse out of a square pig in a round hole.

Step three, hop a taxi and start his new life!

At least, try to hop a taxi before the Council got wind of what was going on and met them at the Grünwald Dock with intent of halting the entire adventure. Which, of course, is what happened.

The act of blocking them wasn't as dramatic as the Council Leader wanted. Instead of stepping boldly forward in great surprise just as they reached the gate leading to the docking slots, they had to stand at the gate and wait for the Heisenbergs to approach. Mallory took a long time getting to the dock despite being in plain sight, since he was lugging around three figures' worth of weight in luggage.

"We are not in favor of this!" the Councilman warned, shaking a mighty fist while the two were a hundred feet away.

"There's no law against it," Josef defended. "This is a private family matter, not a matter of Council."

"He is a valuable member of our community, and his presence in the fields will be missed! It will mean more work for the community at large to cover the gap he leaves behind! We won't allow it! Unmutual! UNMUTUAL!"

Josef groaned in mild irritation, and put a hand up to stop his boy's slow lugging progress. "I'll handle this," he said. "Wait here."

The elder Heisenberg approached the Council, as Mallory watched in befuddlement.

Arms were waved around, hand gestures were made. Voices were raised and lowered. Minutes went by. Arguments were repeated ad nauseam, and they went like this:

Council: "A!"
Josef: "B."
Council: "A!"
Josef: "C?"
Council: "A!"
Josef: "D...?"
Council: "A!!"
Josef: "E."
Council: "A. A, A, A! A—"
Josef: "$."
Council: "...OK."

"What was that all about?" Mallory asked, as the group and Josef went their separate ways.

"I paid them to ignore this," Josef admitted. "That's how I got out of this reality in the first place, ironically. I should have realized they'd accept nothing other than a bribe... I'm sorry, son. You'll have to start out with considerably fewer points than I wanted you to have... take this."

Mallory accepted the odd plastic card, studying the glowing number '0025' on it, as he stepped over the transition from the grassy fields of Grünwald and onto the concrete base of the Dock. "What's this thing?" he asked, turning the card over and over.

"It's a scorecard. Standard money transfer device; I put my savings on there for you, but they just drained nearly all of the funds. See, you remember what I said about points, right? Points get stored on that card., not ON it, Mallory, in it. No, don't try to open it. It's digital."

"Oh. What's 'digital' mean?"

"Unless inflation's been on the rise since I last took a taxi, I don't think you have enough money for a Transreality Taxi Company cab," Josef said, stopping in front of the only docking slot this dock had. He opened the door to the public RealNet terminal's booth, and keyed up a transportation search node.

"Darn. What if inflation is on the rise, though?"

"Then you absolutely can't afford a taxi."

"Oh. I was hoping that'd mean something good," Mallory said, looking around. "What're you doing now?"

"You've seen the Council using this workstation when the traders arrive, right? It's a special purpose workstation just for calling out to transportation companies. I'm trying to find you one with a low fare, so I have a search running at a transport node with a crosscheck on your asking price..."

Mallory smiled and nodded his head.

"You have no idea what I'm doing, do you?" Josef asked, looking up.

"No, not really," he replied, peering over Josef's shoulder at the search list. "But I'm expecting I'll pick this stuff up real quick. Eventually. ...hey, what about that one? There's a big zero in the fare column! I can sure afford a free cab! Or am I not supposed to kick a gift horse in the mouth or something?"

Scratching his chin, Josef furrowed his brow and twisted his lips into a frown. "I don't know, Mallory..."

"It's the only one under twenty-five on the list, Dad. We don't have a choice," the boy said, reaching around his father to select the company and click 'Hail Taxi'. "There. How long will it take for—"

The same flash, Mallory recalled. The same purple flash that that woman's house made when it vanished... although in reverse, with a building appearing flush against the edge of the dock slot before him...

...although 'building' was used in the loosest sense of the word possible.

To call it a ramshackle shantytown hut would be an affront to proud ramshackle shantytown huts everywhere.

Whoever built the thing seemed to have thrown it together from whatever materials were handy. One wall was a dented metal sheet; another was half-constructed of amateurishly laid bricks, half-constructed of a large, hardened wad of glue. The door was stolen from an abandoned refrigerator, and the window was only a window in the sense that it was a square-ish gap in the front of the hut. A smokestack made of cheap oven pipes jaunted merrily from the roof... right next to a big, blinking neon green sign.

In friendly letters, next to a grinning cartoon face of a guy with sunglasses, it read MELLOW FELLOW'S SMILING TAXI SERVICE!! with two exclamation marks. Some sort of strange music floated out of the window and the various cracks in the building... something mild but with a steady beat.

"...................what's that thing?" Mallory asked, after the utterly alien sight had set into his retinas.

"I'm not sure, but I suspect it's a taxi," his father replied, unable to take his eyes off the eyesore. "Transients can move around any kind of building, after all..."

The fridge door slammed open hard enough to nearly knock the building into component parts. Mallory jumped three feet backwards and thankfully landed on his feet.

"YO!" a scruffy looking guy who almost but not entirely didn't resemble the neon sign's cartoon said, leaning out of the doorway. "One of you two call for a cab? I's here! Let's get movin', time is money, and money is nothin'."

Josef took a few steps back as well, to join his son and whisper to him. "Maybe we should wait until another day, after I've earned some more points?" he suggested. "I don't like the looks of this..."

Shaking his head, Mallory grasped the handle of his rolling luggage once more. "No choice, Dad. My job interview is today. I gotta go today. Don't worry! Sure, this is... bizarre... but I have to learn how to deal with the bizarre, right? I'm officially a multiversal person! We fear nothing but fear itself and some other things!"

"Send me RealNet messages once you're settled in," Josef suggested, adjusting Mallory's jacket and other last minute nervous parent type actions. "And if you need to come home, I can try to arrange something. I'll send you some more points as soon as I can—"

"YO YO, c'mon!" the cabbie called out to them. "We on this trip or not?"

"Coming!" Mallory called back, stepping up to the edge of the dock, suitcase squeakily tugged along behind him. "'bye, Dad! I'll contact you soon, I promise! I love you!"

If only his mother could see him now, Josef thought. How proud she'd be...

After some tricky maneuvering to get the luggage over the door jam, the cabbie shut the entrance closed, and the adventure was finally underway!

- - - -


Mallory adjusted his eyes to the darkness inside the taxi hut. The inside was just as ratty as the outside... a few candles here and there, melted down to nearly nothing, were the only light source beyond the window. A portable iron oven kept the hut warm, and somehow generated steam to power the Reality Engine...

It didn't look a thing like the one in the woman's house. Hers was clean, metal, professional-grade. A true RealNet product. This one... it was lumpy, with bits taped in place or sottered cheaply. The liquid display was nowhere to be found, with a simple video screen much like his portable Video Network Player only less impressive.

"Can that thing really move this thing around?" Mallory had to ask, as Reality Engines were always a bit of a fascination to him.

"What, my Open Engine? This tub gets here and there on mighty wings of freedom, mon!" the guy who presumably was named Mellow Fellow exclaimed, giving the Reality Engine a few love taps not unlike Mallory's fix-it taps. "She'll get us where you wanna go. And speaking of which, let's be talkin' about where you wanna go. You saw my price, yah?"

"Zero, yah."

"Not quite zero," Mellow Fellow explained, having a seat on a beanbag chair and turning down the volume on his RealNet Audio Player, positioned helpfully at his side. "Have a seat on I's passenger beanbag. See, I's a businessman. I's barter. I's apprecatin' points, yah, but I's also accept other things. So, what you got?"

Mallory eased himself carefully into what he presumed was a seat (having never seen a beanbag chair before in his life). "Errr... I've got this scorecard thing, but it only has twenty-five points..."

"Your last pennies 'n coppers, eh?" the sunglasses-sportin' guy replied. "I's don't wanna be busting your piggy bank, Mon. You dig?"

"Yes, actually, I dig quite often to plant seeds and pull up crops when they're ripe! Why do you ask?"

"...uh-huh," he replied, looking a bit flatly at Mallory. "I's be thinkin' this is your first time away from this reality. I's right?"

"Gosh, how could you tell?"

"Magic. Okay, so that be your only nest egg. Like I's said, I's not gonna be deprivin' you of all you got in the way of the monies of the Babylonians. So, we barter. What you got to barter with? You DO know how to barter, yah?"

"Definitely! We barter all the time," Mallory said, finally feeling like he had a toehold on this conversation. He cracked open his luggage in a way that thankfully did not spill his life's possessions on the floor. "Umm, I have a lot of collectibles... although I'd hate to part with any, they were so hard to get... beyond that it's just clothes—"

The cabbie lunged forward, making Mallory fear for his life... although all he really was going for was Mallory's commemorative whistle-tube celebrating the 200th year of Aquarius's Aquazone Theme Park.

"All right!" Mellow proclaimed, studying it from all angles. "Now, THIS'll make a damn good bong!"

"A what?"

"I's taking this, and that be all I's taking," the cabbie replied, setting it aside for now. "So, payment's settled. Now, I's repeat from before: where you wanna go today?"

Mallory pulled the crumpled piece of paper from his pocket. "I wrote the address on this. It's in some place called Urbana. Can you get me there?"

The cabbie studied Mallory's crappy handwriting a moment. "Mmmm... I's can get you there. Real close to that address in Urbana, too. Gimmie a minute to 'figure the Engine and handle the Dockin' procs."

"You're doing what to the what?"

Rolling his eyes behind the sunglasses, the cabbie switched to a voice he'd use explaining things to a small child. "I's... makin' sure... we have a place to dock. Can't travel less we got a place to land, yeah?"

Mallory had a brief horrific flashback to a house landing on his head.

"Yes yes," he replied quickly, eyes wide. "Let's make sure we have somewhere to land this time. I think that's a very good idea. How long will this take?"

"Time be time, Mon."

"Okay. Uh. So how long is time?"

The hut shook slightly, and purple light flashed across Mallory's eyes.

"Time be nothin'," Mellow Fellow said, with a sly grin. "You're off world for the first time, Mon. Say hello to Urbana."

- - - -

Mallory stepped onto the sidewalk, eyes bright and open to the new world!


"Eh? What?" Mellow Fellow asked, peering around the flash-frozen-in-fear boy. "Somethin' wrong, man?"


Everything was so TALL!...

Of course, Mallory had seen pictures of Urbana. It was featured quite often in the video stream news; most of the business deals in the multiverse went down here. He'd seen Urbana Tower. He'd seen the Square. None of this was new to him.

What was new to him was seeing those two-hundred-story skyscrapers on a screen more than two and a half inches tall.

For a brief moment, his inner caveman felt the urge to run and hide from the gods who were towering over him lest they crush him in a unit of time so small that it wasn't measurable with little rocks and pebbles and shadows. Then the modern guy in him forced his eyes to the pavement. Nice, sweet pavement. Concrete. Stable. Solid...

"I'm... I'm okay," Mallory spoke, breathing in the polluted air with lungs that were used to pristine, freshly flora-recycled oxygen. "Just a bit of a shock..."

"You sure you gonna be okay, mon?" Mellow asked, with genuine concern in his voice. "Look, you wanna get home, I-and-I's okay with that. Give you back your bong too. I's seen the effect Urbana has on folks who just steppin' out into the lands of Babylonia—"

"I'll be okay, honest," he insisted, stepping out of the taxi hut completely and onto the rock-hard ground of the dock sidewalk. "I can't go back now. I've got my whole future ahead of me!"

"Time be time, Mon."

"And time be nothin'," Mallory finished, adding the saying to his internal database of metaphors and wisdoms, to be scrambled until rendered meaningless for future use. "Yeah, I know. But I don't think my future employer sees things that way. We have a saying in Grünwald: the early bird gets wormed!"

"...I's agreein' on that," Mellow said, leaning back into his hut. "Okay. That address, that be in a dock three blocks from here. Right now, we be at Abel's Fifteen Minute Stopover Dock... you be seein' the gate there with the dock management office next to it?"

Mallory tried to look in that direction without letting his brain acknowledge the frighteningly tiny amount of sky he could see between the skyscrapers. Indeed, a squat brick building sat next to the main gate of the docking area. "I see it, yeah..."

"Okay, I-and-I's gonna clue your ass in. Docks, they usually be in a grid pattern," he explained. "Empty slots for buildings to land in, yah? Sidewalks to run between 'em. Okay, so walk down this here sidewalk, straight through that gate. You make a right. The STABLE buildings be in the same kinda grid, Urbana's real into grids, very Babylonian... so turn right and you walk down three blocks. You know what a block be?"

"Umm... it's like... wait, don't tell me, I know," Mallory insisted, trying to recall his video stream knowledge. "It's...a square clump of buildings separated by a paved street for ground traffic?"

"Hey, you got it! Okay. So you cross three streets. You see a sign, Victor Suezo's Economy Dock. That be what you want. You go through the gate, you go twelve rows deep and three rows to your right and that's where you be goin'. You got it all?"

"Hey, I'm an educated, modern lifestyle kinda guy," Mallory noted, with a bit of pride in his voice as he lugged his ridiculously large trunk on the ridiculously small wheels onto the sidewalk. "I can handle it, no problem! Thanks for the ride, Mister Fellow."

"Yo, that's Mellow," Mellow reminded him. "And I's likin' you, Mon. You need a ride anytime you message me on the RealNet, dig? Can't promise I-and-I come runnin' right away, but I's come eventually."

"Uh, thanks! Okay. Anything else I should know?"

"Yeah, try to avoid gettin' in trouble. You be new at this, and—"

"Ahh, don't worry! I'm not looking for trouble," Mallory spoke, grinning goofily. "I'm sure everything will be just fine! What could possibly go wrong?"

- - - -

"Give me your scorecard!"



"Well, okay," Mallory replied, puzzled as he pulled the small plastic card from his pocket and handed it to the strange young man. "But why do you want my— HEY! Where are you going?"

And off the stranger went, running along the sidewalk, shoving people aside as he went.

Mallory stood in place, waiting for him to come back, still not quite sure why the fellow was so insistent on having his scorecard.

It was good to take a break from walking. Now that he was getting used to the height of the buildings (or at least shoving them into a tar pit of denial deep within his brain) he was rather enjoying the sights of Urbana. The buildings had such colorful decorations on them; "Advertisements," just like the ones he saw in his video streams. Some of them were actually animated, showing people enjoying prepackaged food or helpfully informing him about why the Cougar traffic vehicle was the finest traffic vehicle in all of Urbana because of its 'Smart-Stick Tires'. If Mallory was ever in the market for a traffic vehicle, he would be certain to make the right choice and insist on Smart-Stick Tires! If...


Something wrong. Something tugging at the back of his mind, something from one of the many news video streams he had absorbed over the years. Something about... coffee?

Which was odd, because he wasn't very thirsty. And besides, he forgot bring his favorite mug with him from—



"I've been mugged!" Mallory realized, the realization coming as a very, very delayed shock to him.

Only twenty-five points, all the money he had in this life, and it was gone. Only a few minutes into his first trip outside Grünwald, and he'd completely screwed things up! The only way things could be worse was if the mugger took his luggage as w...

Where was his luggage?

The tar pit of denial threatened to upheave all his panic and paranoia. Alone in an alien place with no money to his name and no worldly possessions other than the shirt on his back and the pants on his legs and his underwear with his name sewn into them... a horrifying thought indeed. In a single moment of absolute rage at the multiverse and the horrors it had inflicted on his person, Mallory whimpered pathetically...

And found his scorecard pressed into his limp hand.

"Take it," she said. "It's yours, right? And this is your ratty old luggage, right?"

The '0025' on his scorecard flickered back at him, as if it was happy to see him. His other hand, guided by some dazed, wobbly muscular control grasped for the familiar feel of the wooden trunk handle...

"Y'know, when they do that, you've got three options," she instructed him. "You either kick their ass in righteous fury, or you run away screaming like a little girl."

"...and the third?" Mallory found himself asking.

"You fork over your stuff like you did just there and run home crying to mommy. Certainly not what I'd pick, but then again, not everybody can be as madskilled as I am... you okay? You have this sort of glassy look in your eyes."

It wasn't her, of course. The chances of running into HER in this wide multiverse were slim to none... but she was just as wild and strange in Mallory's eyes. Curly orange hair, heavy eye makeup, figure-hugging clothing that would get her in serious trouble with the Council if she were to wear it in public or private or locked inside her own closet...


"Th-thank you for getting my stuff back!!" Mallory praised. "I'm—"

"Yeah, yeah, whatever," she dismissed, fading back into the crowd before any further words could be exchanged.

"...I'm Mallory," he finished lamely as the pedestrians sucked her up and yanked her from sight. One would think that a girl that outstandingly strange would be easy to find in a crowd of folks in business suits, and one would be wrong for reasons one was not aware of. And Mallory was one.

With his belongings belonging to him once more, he decided to quit stalling and finish walking the three blocks already. He paused at the crosswalk, having thankfully observed how people react to the colored lights at each intersection and thus avoiding a fatal roadkill incident. When the light went green, he joined the mob and crossed...

He was relatively prepared for Urbana. He knew about the size of the buildings, and knew that a lot of them were shops not unlike the Store in his village. As he passed by windows holding wonders he could only wonder about, he started to hear the siren song of the impulse buyer... and in a rare display of competence, opted not to buy anything. He only had a lousy twenty-five points, and some of these price tags were pretty extreme...

Although... there WAS the 'Snack Vendor' he saw at the corner of the next intersection. The inner gourmet of his soul demanded that he at least drop a few points and sample the fine cuisine of these strange new lands. Figuring it couldn't hurt, he strolled up to the umbrella-covered cart, and read the menu...

His jaw dropped.

"You guys cook dogs?!" he exclaimed. "That's disgusting!"

"They're just CALLED Hot Dogs," spoke the bored-looking vendor in the paper hat who was obviously used to tourists from across the multiverse freaking out over such things. "They're 15% compressed pig meat filler 50% various animal byproducts 25% soy and other synthetic additives with 10% Krap Foods Multiversal Yum-Yum Juices™. And they cost four points. You buying or not?"

"What are 'synthetic additives'?"

"Yummy. You buying or not?"

"You know, I do some cooking myself," he said with a small hint of pride. "How do you prepare these Dogs of Heat?"

"Ah. A fellow chef," the bored man said boredly. "Okay. You see the metal box there with the glass door?"


"I put these frozen packages in there and I push the button and wait for the light to turn green then I sell them for four points. You buying or not?"

"I wanna FreezieFreak!"

Funny, Mallory thought, I don't recall saying that. And I could swear my voice was lower than that while coming from higher up in the air...

He glanced to his side, where an adorable young girl in pigtails and overalls was trying to peer over the top of the cart. "You have FreezieFreaks, right? I want one, I want one! I haven't had one in days!"

"Five points," the vendor indicated, pointing to the menu with his tongs after dumping another load of frozen compressed animal parts into the big metal box.

The little girl pouted, clearly unhappy with this price. "Fiiiive? But I could get a doll for five! I'll pay three," she responded, holding up three fingers.

"What does this look like, a peddler's cart? Push off, kid."

The kid's pout turned to a full-blown frown, as she got off her tippy-toes to give this serious thought... before settling eyes on Mallory. "Hey, mister!" she addressed. "Loan me two points!"

Now's my chance, the boy thought. I can make a good impression on these strangers AND do it without breaking the bank!

"Awww, no need for that!" he said in his kindest and sweetest voice possible as he flashed his scorecard in Financial Triumph of Generosity. "I'll pay for the whole price! Five points for one FreakyFreeze, my good man, here is my card—"

"Hoooold it!" the girl warned, holding up one hand to stop him... and holding out a contract paper that had been folded six times to fit in the pocket of her overalls (with tiny pencil). "Sign this loan form, please, under standardized terms of multiversal personal loan and barter as accepted by the Financial Authority of Urbana for the amount of five points (adapted under clause 2.3 of the Common Exchange Act) so that this is above board and registered with the tax authority."

Gooberdom settled onto Mallory like fresh snowfall. "...whaaa?"

"Sign on the bottom line," she insisted, waggling the paper.

Dumbfounded (ie, 'Founded on Dumbness'), Mallory took the tiny stub of a pencil and signed his name.

"One FreezieFreak," the vendor replied 0.01 seconds after the little girl jumped in the air, grabbed the frosty beveragy snacky thing and pocketed the signed contract in one smooth and practiced motion.

"Thanks, mister!" she thanked. "I'll be in touch about repaying the 0.5 credits plus interest we have mutually agreed to later! BYEEE!"

"Byeee!" Mallory said while waving and smiling stupidly, being unaware of the finer points of economics which just stiffed him out of 4.5 credits.

Of course, he'd have to pass on the 'Hot Dog'. He wanted to save his money, after all. He strolled into the intersection, stepped back quickly before he could be hit by a truck, waited for the light to turn green and crossed onto block number three of his Long March Towards Destiny.

Because good things come in threes (other than world wars), Mallory was fortunate enough to have another unusual encounter while traversing the third city block.

He was just getting used to the idea of people walking back and forth along a narrow strip of pavement after years of randomly organized dirt paths; the idea of people walking out of nearby buildings on a perpendicular path to his was new. Which is why he walked directly into someone leaving a nearby military surplus outlet.

A brown paper bag of lumpy objects went spilling onto the sidewalk, as did Mallory, landing firmly on his ass. (The relative hardness of sidewalk compared to dirt roads was also a new concept.) His victim didn't fall over or even get knocked off balance; she immediately crouched down (voluntarily) to start gathering her items.

And Mallory, being polite, helped her. "I'm so sorry!" he apologized, stuffing a few boxes marked EXPLOSIVE roughly into the bag. "I'm not from around here, and I forgot about people walking out of stores and here let me help you with that.... is this a pineapple? It looks kinda rotten and green, and it's really hard, why's it got this pin in it—"

Before Mallory could lose an appendage, a gloved hand yanked the grenade back, WITH its pin.

Looking up, he realized he'd bumped into another girl. Easily taller than him, with long black hair and some sort of fancy green military uniform and cape like he'd see in really old war movie video streams— and glaring at him with a look that lowered his body temperature at least five degrees Celsius.

Unlike the last two chance encounters, this one had nothing to say beyond a 'Hmph' and a curt turn on one boot heel to march away.

O-kay, he thought. And decided not to let anything else distract him; the three block progression was complete! There was no fanfare except inside his mind, however.

- - - -

Twelve rows deep, three rows to the right.

Wait. First things first.

One, two, three, four... row after row of houses, huts, office buildings, warehouses, oddly shaped structures he couldn't identify. He'd always heard of Transients as shady characters, always on the move, never to be trusted even if they had a romantic and adventurous lifestyle packed with excitement and intrigue—most of these buildings he passed looked dreadfully ordinary. Much like the cottages the traders would move into Grünwald; functional, rather than thrilling.

Seven rows, eight, nine, then... empty slots, this deep into the docking lot. Indentations in the ground with unused water and gas hookups. Grünwald didn't have a fancy dock with these features, but he knew the basics of how they worked from countless advertisements in the video streams; houses land in a slot, and their internal toilets and sinks and things hook up to the water supply. It was all part of the docking service. It was also hideously expensive, even in thrifty places like this...

Twelve! He turned sharply and marched three rows to the right. Getting closer. Closer... so close to his bright and promising future!

Head in the clouds and feet on the ground and ear to the grindstone, he paid little attention to his surroundings as he boldly stepped forward to knock on the door of House 12/3 loudly, ignoring the doorbell because he didn't know what it was!

Four moments later, she opened the door, and Mallory's jaw didn't literally hit the sidewalk. But if you dropped another house on him much like this one had dropped on him, he might not have noticed...

"Y-You?!" he exclaimed.

"You again?" the woman in the stylish business clothes who had talked to him many days ago asked. "What're you doing out of the sticks? If you're looking for a job, Mr. Faker Reality Engineer, I already have an applicant to interview today. Push off."

"Crash!" shouted the fragile dream of Mallory's exciting and adventurous future.

His voice was nice and small after that. " already hired someone?" he asked. "But.. But I came all this way and—"

"Right, right. How sad for you," she said with el zippo compassion. "Now quit cluttering my doorstep, I'm waiting for Ms. Heisenberg to show up."

"But I don't have a sister," Mallory found himself saying.

To say that there was an awkward pause would give deadly silence a bad name.

She stood rock still in the doorway, after her brain put the two pieces of the two-piece puzzle together and found it not liking the photograph of the lion. "...what?" she replied, for lack of anything better to say.

"Uh... I.. don't know a Ms. Heisenberg?" Mallory supplied. "Unless you mean my mother, but she's been gone for a long time. Or my dad, but he's back at home and he's not a Ms. Or you mean me, because... I, uh... applied for the job and you told me to come to this address. My name's Mallory Heisenberg, it sounds like a girl's name but I'm actually a guy, I know I didn't get a chance to tell you before but you were in a rush to leave, and—"

The door was closing on his future! LITERALLY, this time!

Mallory jammed himself into the doorway, despite the rib-crunching pain it caused as the woman tried to close the doorway. There was a brief struggle, while he frantically tried to justify his presence to her. Something like: "No no wait please hear me out please okay?!" while she was going: "OUT! Out of my house! Beat it! I didn't hire you! There was a mistake!" and so on. It would be comical if not for the bandages he'd have to wear around his midsection for the next four days...

Fortunately for him, he was saved by three beautiful visions of loveliness. One had curly orange hair. Another had a shopping bag. The youngest had a 66% empty cup of FreezieFreak.

"What's that guy doing here?" the one with the largest breasts and no bag full of munitions asked. "And haven't I seen him before?"

"He's trespassing, that's what!" the woman Mallory was struggling with yelled. "Out! Out of my—"

One sharp blow to the back of the neck by the orange haired woman and Mallory crumpled to the ground like the sacks of potatoes he was hauling around not two days ago. Which means he fell in a lumpy and awkward sort of way. Everything got really distant and quiet really fast to him...

" didn't have to knock him out," the woman spoke, stepping away from the pile of country boy. "Terrific. Well, we can't just dump him on the sidewalk. Kisei, you grab his feet; Lorelei, you get his head..."

Less than blissful unconsciousness overtook him like a blanket of lumpy hard objects.

- - - -

No fear. Green grass beneath his feet. Blue sky above...

"I can't believe you hired this guy sight unseen. We're not THAT desperate for an Engineer..."

Water trickling down a creek. Birds chirping from the trees...

"Actually, oneechan was right to hire him! No real Engineer would accept that pay scale even with room and board due to the projected cost of living release issued by RealWare a month ago during the Q1 financial report. Umm, but I didn't think we'd get a fake boy-engineer. Oneechan, why'd you hire a boy?"

Her smile...

"The name on the resume was MALLORY, okay? If that's not a girl's name, I don't know what is—"

"Y'know, 'Mirai Meiko', for someone many years removed from Nippon, you still haven't gotten the hang of gaijin names..."

"Stuff it, okay? Is he alive? Can he walk? Can he walk out of here, specifically?"

Was she smiling?

No, actually, she was frowning.

"Hello?" Mallory asked, sitting up despite the million throbbing hammers of unrelenting pain attacking his frontal lobes. "Where... oh, wait, I know where I am..."

It was the same living room. The same funny L-shaped couch area, the same huge Video Network Set 3.11... the wallpaper with patterns all over it. Although the girls were new additions... new additions he had the luck to meet prior to his arrival as he traversed Urbana.

The one who he'd met first, however... the one who dropped the house on him to begin with... she was leaning against the end of the couch, arms crossed, expressing extreme annoyance and disappointment. "You're not hired, obviously," she spoke. "Which means you can go now. I'd say sorry to trouble you, but you've been more trouble for me than—"

"He fixed the engine, didn't he?" the orange-haired girl pointed out. "Albeit in a pretty funky way, but it counts."

Feeling the need to speak up in his defense before he was booted forcibly from the house for a second time, Mallory nodded along and then stopped nodding when the pain was too intense. "R-Right! I mean... I can fix engines! I swear I can, I fixed the one in my home reality like that for years. I don't know why it works, it just does, and... and I can cook and I can farm! Does that count?"

"You see any fertile topsoil around here, except maybe in Meiko's underwear drawer?" Orange Hair joked.

'Meiko,' who was clearly the girl Mallory had gotten to know in the first place given her fuming reaction, fumed quite a bit. "Lorelei, c'mon! We don't need a farmer, we need an engineer! And—"

The younger girl popped up in front of Mallory. "You can cook? Really?" she asked. "Oneechan's cooking is awful! She can burn water! And my toast is always black and my hamburgers leak this red stuff and it's all icky!"

Mallory latched onto this like a starving man latches onto whatever it is starving men crave. "Hamburgers? I can cook those!" he exclaimed, starting to go into Self Justification Overdrive. "As well as french fries and steak and pork chops and soups and salads and fish filet and pasta and meatballs and riceballs and various types of sauces and sushi that's from Nippon isn't it and I can do cakes and if I have the right ingredients I can even make ice cream although it usually ends up all runny but I can improve I SWEAR!"

"Deal!" the little girl agreed, grabbing Mallory's hand and shaking it. "I'll draw up the contract and—"

"Mirai Eikooo! Don't YOU start on this—no deal! Deal, no! No!" Meiko objected, waving her arms frantically. "We don't NEED a chef!"

"I dunno about that," Lorelei aka The One With Orange Hair replied smoothly. "If I have to deal with another Meiko Mystery Meat Surprise for dinner, I might encourage House mutiny... unless Kisei wants to share her hidden supply of hard rations? It could be preferable. How about it, Kiss?"

True to form, the quiet one in the green military uniform who had been staying out of this completely despite watching over the situation like a hawk silently ignored the taunt.

"Let's run down the basics of our needs, shall we?" Lorelei suggested, getting up from her seat on the couch to assume an authoritative speaking position. "The money is running low, and we can only live on instant ramen so long before we start using each other as alternative food sources. If we could get someone to cook for us from ingredients we'd be saving money. And saving money is good, isn't it, Eiko-chan?"

"Haaaaai!" the little girl agreed, giving a big 'ol thumbs up.

"So, he can cook for us. And being a farmer, you're no doubt used to hard work, yes?" Lorelei continued. "How does housecleaning and laundry and running errands sound to you? Assuming you won't hand over our money to a mugger like a dumbass, of course."

Mallory nearly wept with joy at the newfound acceptance. "Yes yes, I can clean!" he insisted. "I tidied up around my dad's house all the time. I'm a hard worker and I can do anything you need me to!"

"Mmmm... anything?" Lorelei asked, with a suggestive wink and a bump of the hips and a pursing of the lips.

"Well... I can't do complex math," Mallory noted, completely missing the point. "But... Eiko here can, right?"

Beaming with joy, Eiko jumped up to give Mallory a big hug, which stunned him for 1d6 rounds. "I like him!" Eiko announced. "Can we keep him, oneechan? He can be my oniichan!"

"Ah, Eiko agrees with me. I'd call it an open and shut case," Lorelei recommended. "Okay, so he's male. I have no problems with that. Can he sleep in my room? We were going to have the new recruit bunk with me back when we assumed we were hiring a girl—"

Meiko stamped her foot, which didn't make as much noise as she wished it would have. "He can sleep on the sidewalk for all I care!" she declared. "We are NOT hiring him, and—"

"Democracy," Lorelei reminded her. "We vote on decisions regarding the House and our direction. You said so yourself."

"Who's signing your paychecks, 'Bodyguard'?" Meiko asked her, narrowing her eyes to Evil Slits. "Fine. Let's be democratic. I vote NO."

"I wanna keep him!" Eiko replied, thankfully letting go of him as well. "I vote HAI!"

Mallory waved politely to the little girl. "Err, hello? Hi?"

"She means 'Yes'. It's Nihongo," Lorelei informed Mallory... while evaluating him with hungry eyes. "As for me, having my own personal man-servant tickles my fancy. I vote YES. You got a vote, Kiss? Or do you abstain in morbid silence?"

Kisei, AKA The One In The Military Uniform Who Hadn't Taken Her Eyes Off Mallory In The Last Ten Minutes, paused almost dramatically. "I vote no," she spoke softly.

"...ummm..." Mallory almost spoke up with in an assertive way. "That's two to two, isn't it? Uh. What do you guys do in the case of a tie?"

...for a change, Meiko was wearing a smile. It wasn't a very nice one.

- - - -

The field of combat was simple.

One surface. Rectangular. Bisected.

A netting of string stretched across the center. A few inches tall. Imposing in its simplicity.

Two weapons of war... circular wooden boards with rubberized surfaces. Wooden handles. Paddles designed only for the violent striking of the ball in such a way as to punish one's enemies...

"We settle ties," Meiko spoke as she spun the tiny plastic ball on the tip of one finger, "With Ping Pong."

Mallory held his game paddle like it was a three week dead fish, standing at his end of the kitchen table. "Uh... Ping Pong? What's Ping Pong?"

From the spectator pit (AKA, 'standing in front of the fridge and the oven') Lorelei smacked her forehead, mumbled something, and explained. "Don't you watch sports video streams? It's only the most popular sport in the multiverse for the last, oh, SEVEN HUNDRED YEARS! Honestly, are you that much of a rube?"

"I'm afraid so," Mallory apologized lamely.

"Fine. Okay. You knock the little ball back and forth with the paddles," Lorelei explained. "First person to miss the ball and have it get knocked past them loses. That's the basics."

Meiko chuckled, the first laugh Mallory had heard out of her... ever. "And I just happen to be the undefeated Ping Pong Champion of Seven Lucky Gods Street Orphanage in Edo, Nippon," she warned him. "Which means I generally get my way whenever we have a vote split. And it means you have no chance. You want to back out, hick boy?"

Mallory trembled with something that was three parts fear and two parts mild mannered rage. "I... I won't back down!" he declared. "And my name is Mallory Heisenberg; don't call me hick boy! If you don't mind 'cause it's kind of mean and I don't mean to be such a bother because I don't know anything, umm, okay?"

"So you do have at least a few vertebrae, if not a whole spine," Meiko commented, absently bouncing the ball up and down on her paddle with practiced ease. "Okay, MALLORY... taste my RISING SUN DEATH SWAN POWER SERVE!!"

In a blurring motion of the arm, Meiko snapped the ball into the air, twisted her arm back, and pounded a power serve over the net. It bounced off the kitchen table so hard the noise echoed throughout the House...

Panicking, Mallory raised his paddle to protect his delicate face, and ended up deflecting the ball in an accidentally perfect defensive maneuver that squeaked it over the net, off the table and right past Meiko.

The ball landed in the kitchen sink next to the dirty dishes, making a 'plop' in the soapy water.

Meiko's paddle had a satisfying rubbery wooden clatter when it hit the floor, her fingers limp with shock.

"VICTOLY!!" Eiko cheered, tossing a handful of pink confetti in the air.

"...I won?" Mallory asked, just as shocked. "I won...? I won! Hey, I won! Wow! I mean... wow! I got the job, right? This means I'm employed?"

Meiko took a moment to reply, her neurons firing a little too fast to stay in the present frame of mind. " second," she spoke quietly... turning her back to the others, and fishing something from her pocket.

It looked like some sort of pocket video set or something, from Mallory's poor point of view. A little red plastic thing with an antenna and a keyboard, just like his dad's RealNet Workstation...

"Feh. Checking with F.P. again?" Lorelei asked. "Honestly, Mei, can't you make a decision without—"

Meiko snapped the folding device closed again quickly, as if shocked by something she saw there. She took a good moment to turn around again... and tried not to blush any.

"Okay, fine, you're hired," she spoke quickly. "But as owner of the House I'm putting some conditions on you you'd DAMN well better follow if you know what's good for you, and one of those is that you don't look at this as some way to 'pick up chicks,' got that?"

"Oh, that's okay, I didn't handle the poultry back on the farm," Mallory said, trying to give her a reassuring smile.

"Right And you're gonna start studying immediately for your REC Test," she continued. "We need an Engineer more than a cook and I'm not gonna let an untrained maniac fix our engine. If you pass the test, you can stay. If not—"

"I can do it!" Mallory insisted. "My mother was a Reality Engineer. Dad said the test is hard, but... if I have to pass it to stay here, I'll do it, I swear!"

"Fine. It's settled, he's hired. Eiko, draw up a contract. Lorelei, he's sleeping on the couch, deal with it."

"Damn," Lorelei cursed, snapping her fingers.

"I'm going to my room," Meiko announced, pocketing her F.P., whatever that was. "I'm closing my door, too. Do not enter under penalty of severe personal discomfort. Especially you... Houseboy."

Speaking up for the second time in as many hours, Kisei stepped away from the kitchen counter. "I'll be upstairs as well," she commented, stepping around the group and heading quickly (but quietly) to the stairs. Meiko wasn't real far behind her.

"Wonder what got up her ass, anyway?" Lorelei wondered, watching said ass retreat upstairs. "Looks like you're hired, kid. Congrads. You sure you want to sleep on the couch?"

Mallory waved his hands and shook his head and tried to look unassuming. "No no, it's okay. A couch is just fine. Um... what's an F.P.? Meiko looked kind of surprised by something it said..."

"It's her personal organizer. Little pocket workstation thing. And it can sorta predict the future so it can fill in your daily timetable for you. Neat gizmo, huh?"

A tugging on his arm drew his attention to the younger Mirai sister. "C'mon, Mallory-oniichan! Let's go draw up your contract! And I promise to be nice and fair to you this time, okay?"

"Uh... okay! Um. One more question?"


"What does 'oniichan' mean?"

- - - -

Dear dad

I got the job!! I am writing to you from the House Workstation, which Meiko told me if I break I have to pay for but I remember how to use the one you bought for me, so I do not think I will break it.

It was a close call but I got the job!! I have been here a few hours now. There are some very interesting people here in the 'House'. Eiko says I am her Oniichan, which I'm told means 'big brother' in Nihongo. I'm going to learn more Nihongo since it's the language mom spoke and I want to learn more about Nippon and stuff. Lorelei keeps asking if I want to move into her room but I don't think that is a good idea because Meiko keeps looking at me in a very nasty way when it's suggested and I do not want to rock the boat when leading a yak to water. Kisei does not say a whole lot and I don't think she likes me but I have time to make friends with her and Meiko (who does not like me either) and I know I will get along with all them.

Enclosed is no money but once I get my first paycheck I will send some home I promise. I have to go make dinner for the others now I promised them something really good but all they have are bags of candy and snacks marked 'Krap' which I am told is a very popular brand of food but it does not look very good. I will do what I can with what I have and do some shopping tomorrow unless we have to leave Urbana, Meiko said we move around a lot doing 'jobs'. I wonder what those jobs are? I will find out!

I am very excited to be here. Everything is new to me. Everything feels so strange, but it's weird. I feel like I fit here. More than I ever felt I fit back home, it's like being a Transient makes sense. I'm still very confused and things are a little scary but I feel oddly good about it all.

remind me to tell you about the tornado. I think it took me somwhere very special.

your son Mallory. will write soon.


:episode complete

(unreal estate copyright 2002 stefan gagne)
[unauthorized use is strictly prohibited]

Note: there is an actual company called RealityPrime, providing consulting in VR and game technology. It is not associated with Stefan Gagne and Unreal Estate.