It was 7 o'clock on an atypical day when his alarm clock went off. It went off because he programmed it to go off at 7 o'clock, and thus was typical in its own right on this atypical day. Time to wake up.

Most farmers could pop right to their feet and hit the fields within minutes of waking, but Mallory was the sort to take a minimum of ten minutes to groan, roll around a bit, and ponder the idea of going back to sleep. This would have worked fine except that he was used to his bed, which was considerably wider than the couch, and on his first roll he rolled right off the cushions. Thankfully he missed the coffee table, but the floor was more than happy to rush up to greet him in a painful manner.

Dragging himself back onto the couch (which he sat on for a change, as opposed to the less traditional use of overnight sleep) he rubbed his head a few times, which only made the pain worse. It was probably for the best that he had a rude awakening, though; it meant no chance of dropping back to sleep. He had to make a good impression on his first day, after all, and Meiko wouldn't appreciate it if he slept in!

Mallory Heisenberg had a saying: "The early bird never gets a second chance to have first dibs on the worm." This saying mutated every time he thought of it, of course, but the basic idea remained the same.

Shaking his head a bit to clear out the sleepy cobwebs and multiply his mounting headache by 1.3, he walked over to the back closet. Not the large one where they stored winter coats and unused furniture, but the tiny closet that Meiko had emptied out so Mallory would have some privacy for changing clothes and somewhere to store his material possessions. It was a bit cramped and he kept bumping his head on the light bulb as he hopped up and down to get his pants on, but he didn't mind. After all, they only had enough bedrooms for the girls, and he didn't want to raise a fuss about his Living Room Couch + Broom Closet combined living space. It wouldn't make the right impression if he complained.

Properly dressed, the next step was to take care of personal hygiene. Mallory came out of the closet (in a literal sense) and turned the corner into the downstairs hallway, making a left into the only bathroom in the house. He brought a small cup with him that had a tiny bottle of mouthwash, a single serving tube of toothpaste, and his special RealWare Dental Products issue toothbrush that had the extra bristles for cleaning those hard-to-reach places. Five minutes later he was fresh and ready to face the day!

Next step was to begin his official House duties. This was the part he was actually quite looking forward to. Although the House didn't have a whole lot to work with ingredient-wise, he had thought up an excellent variation on pancake batter that would truly impress his new employers.

And so, with batter in his heart (but not his arteries) and good intentions in mind, he stepped into his new domain—The Kitchen. Feeling the innate country home need to enjoy the fresh air and sunlight of a new day, he unlocked the kitchen window, swung it open, and was knocked unconscious by the coconut that slammed into his forehead.

The sound the coconut made when it bounced once or twice on the floor was not entirely unlike the sound his head made when he hit the linoleum floor.

While unconscious, Mallory had a highly prophetic dream of foreshadowing images and metaphors which, once properly decoded, would have revealed the mystery of the multiverse if not for the fact that Lorelei was shaking him awake.

"Oi, oi!" she shouted in his ear at a volume suitable for stunning an elephant. (Fortunately her bathrobe was tightly closed, or Mallory might have been stunned for other reasons.) "Mal! You alive in there? If you're dead, who am I gonna get to clean my room?!"

"I think I'm alive," Mallory replied with much uncertainty as one eye slid open. "Where am I— ah! Window! Big tree! Urbana's overgrown with big, funny-looking trees—"

"Relax, kiddo, we're not in Urbana anymore," Lorelei said, stepping back to let Mallory pick his own self off the floor without any help whatsoever from her. "We're in I's Land now. Meiko moved us last night while you were asleep; we've got a job to do here. Good thing too, the house fund was running low..."

Mallory pulled himself up by the window sill... careful not to bump his head against the huge green palm leaf that had swung into the open window when he had opened it earlier. His eyes adjusted to the light—it was brighter than the dull sunlight that trickled down through the towers of Urbana. The sky was actually a bright cyan (a generic relative to blue in the 'groovy' phylum) with a golden yellow sun that didn't hurt to look at, despite being so bright. There wasn't a cloud in sight... and rather than pavement and buildings, all Mallory saw as far as his eyes could reach through his glasses was sand, surf, and wooden buildings.

"A.. a beach!" he recognized from the grainy streaming videos he'd see on RealNet's Travel Video Network. "We're parked on a beach!"

"Yeah, I's Land doesn't have much in the way of docks," Lorelei complained, as she took a seat at the kitchen table (which had been converted back to an eating surface after yesterday's fateful Ping Pong match). "You just pick a spot of sand, negotiate with 'em to clear away from it, and WHAM. No power or water hookups. I hate it, the toilets revert to using the internal tanks and end up smelling awful... Mal?"

"What? Yes?" Mallory asked, wrenching his eyes away from the sights of paradise.

"Food?" Lorelei suggested. "C'mon, houseboy. I know it's early but let's get up to speed, mmm?"

"Foo—aah! Breakfast! I forgot!"

"No, you were unconscious. There's a difference."

"Pancakes, pancakes..." Mallory chanted to himself, scrounging through the meager food stocks of the House. "I think I have enough here to make pancakes for five—"



"Meiko already left, and Kisei doesn't eat with the rest of us except at dinner time," Lorelei explained, drumming her fingers on the table. "So that means you're feeding yourself, myself, and—"

"Eiiiko-chaaan!" a musical voice piped in with, as the young girl popped in from the hallway filled with pep. She skipped over to a seat and hopped up, while simultaneously pulling a pink plastic pocket wireless workstation from her overalls, keying up the morning stock quotes, and ordering her meal. "I want Chocolate Frosted Chocolate Choco-Chunks Cereal! And a bagel and orange juice."

"And I'll just take toast, I'm in a hurry," Lorelei spoke, her fingers drumming a bit faster. "Light, not dark, with just a bit of butter."

Mallory reoriented his Gears of Customer Service, sliding the drawer with the batter spoon shut. Bread was plucked from another cabinet and plopped into the toaster with precision and skill while his other hand hunted through the cabinets for a bowl. "Chocolate.. err... one bowl of cereal comin' up! And a bagel and orange juice and toast. Have it for you in a minute!" he announced... before pausing. "Err... Meiko and Kisei are gone, then?"

"Kisei doesn't eat with us except at dinner, like I said. She's not really the type for light social banter over eggs and bacon. She's not really the type for any banter whatsoever with any of us. Or any contact of any kind whatsoever unless it's needed for a job..."

Eiko shrugged, while performing six stock transactions at the tap of a fingernail. "Kisei doesn't mind me," she commented. "She just doesn't like you because you're mean to her. And she respects oneesama even if they aren't bestest friends..."

Mallory sighed, as he set the completed Cereal + Bowl + Milk + Spoon in front of Eiko. "I don't think she likes me very much, though," he noted. "She really gave me the cold shoulder nose in the air with the silent treatment yesterday..."

"The wha?" Lorelei spoke, raising an eyebrow 'o confusion. "Anyway... I'm not surprised. You're goofy. She hates goofy. I don't mind goofy guys as long as they've got a good... ...err..."

"Hey! Are you making another sex joke like Meiko-oneesama told you not to make in front of me?" Eiko asked, perking up adorably at the possibility of getting Lorelei in trouble.

"I like guys with good... hair," Lorelei lamely finished. "Hey, hair boy, toast?"

"Toast!" Mallory announced, placing a plate of fine china topped by four precisely sliced triangular pieces of golden brown toast with rich, creamy butter which had been spread evenly with a skilled sweeping wrist motion.

Lorelei sat in speechless silence as what could be described as the Purest Ideal of Toast glistened in the sunlight of I's Land before her. She prodded it lightly with one finger... a perfect number of crumbs falling off, just enough to give it a tasty texture, without being messy. " cook other stuff as good as you make toast?" she asked, curiously.

"No, I'm actually ahead of my class a little in soups and stews and behind the others in breakfasts," Mallory admitted. "I got a C-minus when I made Triple-Layer Syrup-in-the-Middle Waffle Surprise for my final exam last year. It was stickier than it was supposed to be—"

"WHOA!" Lorelei exclaimed after swallowing the last bite of her toast. "I say DAMN that was good!! Thanks for the grub, Mal, gotta go now."

"—smoother than that," Mallory finished, staring in horror at the living food vacuum. "Err. Teacher also said we should enjoy our food with even, slow bites—"

"Teacher didn't have surfing and sunbathing to do, did he?" Lorelei asked, pushing in her chair. "I do. By the way, I was supposed to look after Eiko today but I'm going to be far too busy so I leave her in your capable hands. If she's missing an eye or caught on fire when Meiko gets back she'll be pretty angry."

"Really?" Eiko asked, looking up. "I'm going to play with Mallory-oniichan today? Great! We can go to the beach and make sand castles and stuff!"

"—huh?" Mallory intelligently inquired. "But... but I have to clean the house today! And couldn't she go to the beach with you if she wants to make sand castles?"

"I'm going to a nude beach on the other side of this island," Lorelei explained. "I actually haven't a thing on under this bathrobe, and— Mallory? You okay? You look a little pale."

"Let's go make sand castles, Eiko!!" Mallory happily and enthusiastically demanded. "I've never been to a beach before, it'll be fun! Ha ha!"

"Wai! I'll go get my bathing suit on, and I'll meet you in four minutes!" Eiko chirped.

"Right! You do that! And I'll go.... um... bathing suit..?"

Lorelei grinned at the hapless boy. "You don't have one, do you? Not a lot of beachfront property in Grünwald? You could always come with me to my beach, then, nobody would mind there..."

"I... errr... um... I have to look after Eiko!" he reminded her in a not-so-clever twist of logic. "Sorry, can't go. Um. But... can you tell me where can I buy a bathing suit in I's Land?"

"Mmmm... you could borrow mine, houseboy. I'm not needing it today. You might look cute in it..."

"Oh, okay! That would be very helpful!" Mallory said, with genuine relief. "I don't think we're exactly the same size, but... err... what? Is there something on my nose?"

"You really know NOTHING about the worlds beyond your crops, do you?" Lorelei asked, while giving him That Look.

", I don't," Mallory admitted, hanging his head. "I'm trying, really... I'm sorry to disappoint—"

And to his surprise, she laughed out loud.

"Skip it, skip it," Lorelei suggested, turning off the vamp act. "And you can buy a pair of MEN'S trunks at the tailor's shop around the corner. Take heart, okay? You'll pick up on this stuff eventually. Doe-eyed innocent determination like this doesn't grow on trees... take it from an expert."

- - - -

After stumbling wildly through Urbana in a stupor of confusion, Mallory had decided he required a new approach to new realities. Instead of simply reacting to things around him as he bumped into them, he would study his surroundings intensely, trying to figure out the Hows and Whys of the worlds he walked in a logical manner of observation and analysis.

This is to say that instead of staring straight ahead, he rubbernecked and gawked at everything with a 'Gee whiz' expression. Not too far separated from his previous methodology.

There certainly was a lot to gawk at in I's Land. The climate and the sky, those he had already gawked at; the layout of the place he had not. It reminded him a lot of Grünwald, with a variety of buildings of a variety of styles scattered here and there, loosely connected by sidewalks and roads and paths. There wasn't much rhyme or reason to the town map... as if structures were placed by randomly lobbing a rock into the sand and saying "Okay, there." Sidewalks connected to dirt paths connected to sandy dunes connected to asphalt roads like in Urbana... and none of them had helpful green signs with street names, unlike Urbana.

This became a problem when Lorelei's "Around The Corner" actually turned out to be "Down That Path On Your Left And Around A Corner And In The Alley Between Two Buildings You'll Find A Small Unmarked Door." He had to inquire about the tailor shop's location from the occasional street musician... or rather, the FREQUENT street musician, as it wasn't uncommon to spot someone sitting/standing next to a building drumming on some bongos or playing a guitar. Music floated from every corner of the town, and despite each musician playing a different song... it all flowed together in a steady, harmonic way.

"That's Lander Dub," Eiko had explained (in between complaining about the delay in getting to the beach). "It's a really cool kind of music that they make here! And it all kinda sounds the same but you never really get tired of it..."

With all these distractions, it would have been easy to forget the original quest: Obtain swimwear. Mallory eventually got back on track, found the shop, and walked right in expecting to see the polished department store feel he'd seen in Urbana and on various video streams...

The tiny building had clothes in it, yes. On some scattered racks, draped over tables and chairs, hanging on the walls, hanging from the ceiling fan which rotated slowly to circulate warm air around the room. But beyond that, Mallory would have never guessed it for a commercial enterprise.

He had to call out "Erm, hello?" two or three times before the shopkeeper appeared.

"Ey mon?" a woman in her thirties replied, leaning in from a door to the back room. "Finishin' my brunch, be with you, yeah? Time be time."

"I wanna go to the beeeaach," Eiko whined, stomping one sandal'd foot, which caused the plastic shovel in her sand bucket to rattle around. "Mallory-oniichan, this isn't any fun!"

"Ah, I'm sure we'll be ready to go any minute now," Mallory replied, putting aside the fact that he wasn't sure how to get back to the beach after wandering this far.

Twelve minutes later the shopkeep emerged, finishing up a sandwich. After taking the last bite, she did not stroll to the counter as there was none, but walked right up to Mallory with a big smile. "Okay, mon, what you be wantin'? I-and-I's got a little of everything, and I's can be makin' it for you custom if you need something I's not havin'."

"Err... men's bathing suit?" Mallory asked. "I was told you'd have one..."

The shopkeep snatched up a pair of shorts Mallory had been looking at for the last ten minutes without realizing they were intended for swimming.

"Trunks, here you go," she said. "So, what're you offering?"


"In trade. For the trunks. Don' need much, so don' worry if you don' got much... you know, that's a nice sweatshirt."

"Eh? What, this?" Mallory asked, tugging on it by one of the many holes in the fabric. "It's kind of old..."

"The yin-yang," she said, invading Mallory's personal space and tapping it with a finger. "Righteous symbol. Far enough to the left of Babylonia, good Shinto, that. We've got it in Iism too, upside down, but we got it... all things have a balance, find it to find what you need in life, yeah? You want to trade the shirt? Don't need a shirt to go swimming, right?"

"This is... er, kinda personal to me," Mallory replied. "I'd rather not trade it, it's got sentimental value. Besides, it's probably not worth much money, since it's so old and has so many holes—"

"How about if I sew 'em up for you?" she suggested, studying the frayed thread up close in a way that made Mallory uneasy. "Patch it up nice, make it look like new. Don't have to give it to me, but I's enjoyin' a good challenge, so that'd be a good trade in itself. Deal?"

In a blatantly obvious way, it reminded Mallory of his experience with Mellow Fellow the taxi cab pilot... a casual sort of capitalism, a trade, and an effort to keep everybody happy. Something about this clicked with the simple farm boy side of him, as he tugged off the sweatshirt (which was too hot to wear in this climate anyway) and handed it over.

"This isn't a very stable negotiation," Eiko warned, putting in her two credits. "Transactions for goods are best handled via legal tender and contract agreement such as receipts, in order to be smoothly handled in a court of law at a later time in the event of negotiation breakdown—"

"It's a deal," he agreed. "Don't worry, Eiko! I'm sure it'll be fine. I'll be back in... uh... a few hours for the shirt, ma'am. I'm not sure exactly how long, though—"

"Don't worry, mon," she said, folding the shirt over one arm.

"Time be time?" Mallory guessed.

"That it be," she said with a cheerful smile.

- - - -

Much to Eiko's disappointment, the shaky deal was quite solid. Mallory used a changing room in the back to put on his snazzy new purple swim trunks, and one stroll with a few mistakenly taken forks in the road later, they had reached The Beach.

Even the half-concept of a beach that Mallory held from seeing them on the tiny view window of his Video Network Player didn't match the real thing. There weren't any garishly colored sun umbrellas or bouncy women in small bathing suits that made him feel nervous. There weren't any beach chairs or towels or boxes streaming pop music or food vendors or boardwalks or shops selling local curios and huge, tacky plastic sunglasses... instead there was:

  1. Sand.
  2. Surf.
  3. People.

Which was in his original idea of a beach, but not quite like this. The sand wasn't immaculately groomed into dunes and such; it was natural beach, patchy in spots, quite nice in others. The surf he was expecting even if he didn't understand what force kept pushing the water onto the shore, nor why it kept receding. But the people...

These weren't tourists; he had enough analytical prowess to figure that out. These were simply local folks who lived here and happened to be out enjoying the beach that day. Occupying a spot of sand a ways away was a Lander Dub band; a guitar, three or four types of drums and a guy strumming something that made low, bassy tones. They didn't seem to be playing songs that start and end like Mallory would hear on the music-oriented streams—it was one continuous jam that somehow pulled itself along in a group harmony, like flocking birds with unspoken mutual understanding...

In a way, this new arrangement of elements made for a better beach than Mallory was expecting. He had nowhere to sit except on his butt in his new trunks on the sand, but that didn't matter. Everything felt quite relaxed without being forcibly fun. He could "dig" it, as his ten-minute-friend Mellow Fellow would say.

Eiko certainly could dig it in the literal sense, as she skillfully mixed parts of sand with parts of water to make a rudimentary form of building cement suitable for temporary beach-bound structures.

"Oneechan doesn't take me to the beach very often," Eiko was explaining, as she used her shovel to carve a nice 45° slope off the top of her sand-house. "We don't have enough time or money, because every time we move the house, it costs us. We usually only move around when we have a job somewhere... Mallory-oniisan, are you listening to me?"

"What? Err, what?" Mallory replied, taking his eyes off the oddly hypnotic way the water kept rolling in and out near their spot on the wet sand. "Ah, yes... my dad mentioned Transients have to spend a lot of money to move around."

"Oneechan doesn't like that word," Eiko warned, waving her plastic shovel at him. "She says 'transients' usually is a bad word and people say it when they want to make fun of us. Just because our house moves around doesn't mean we're bad people!"

"Oh, no, of course not!" Mallory protested, waving his arms in panic. "I didn't mean it that way, honest! Cross my heart and hope to stick a needle in my eye—"


"Er, yes?"

Eiko cocked her head cutely as she studied him. "You're really hyperactive. Meiko-oneechan says I can't have a lot of sugar in one day or I get hyper. Do you eat a lot of sugar?"

"Err... no, not usually," Mallory said, settling down a bit. "Sorry, I'm just trying to adjust to all this..."

"You also apologize a whole bunch. I don't think oneechan likes that. She likes people who stand up for themselves."

"I... guess I'm not making a great impression on her, am I?" Mallory asked, shoulder sagging in defeat.

Eiko shrugged a bit, trying to smile more to perk him up as she refilled her sand bucket. "Don't worry! Lorelei-san was right, you'll get used to it in time. Ne! Do you like my sand-House?"

"Ah... it's very lovely, Eiko-kun!"


"Eiko-chan," Mallory corrected, recalling Eiko's quickie lesson in Adorable Adapted Nihongo she gave him on the way over here. "I thought people built sand castles, though? Like you see in storybooks with round towers and princesses sleeping on mattresses with pee on them and stuff?"

"I like building sand-Houses," Eiko replied, packing the next 'brick' for the house with her hands. "Like ours, but bigger and it stays in one place. Meiko-oneechan says one day we'll live in a house like that... we'll just stay in one place and not have to move around all the time. Then when we go all over the multiverse it'll be for fun, not because we have to..."

Forgetting the brick in her hands for the moment, she turned her eyes up to study Mallory intently.

"Er, yes? Do I have something on my nose?" he asked, brushing his nose as a preemptive measure. He glanced to the side, wondering why the Lander Dub band had picked up all their instruments and moved about twenty feet towards land...

"Are you going to marry oneechan?" Eiko asked simply, interrupting every single train of thought he had.

If it were possible for the human jaw to distend so far as to hit the ground, Mallory's would have. As it is simply hung open in a less impressive manner.

"Wh.. what?!" he exclaimed, barely heard as the waves rolled in closer, tide coming in. "No, no, I'm... what? I'm just your houseboy and Reality Engineer, not her boyfriend, I mean, I don't quite see how those things would relate or how you could get that idea and anyway I don't think she likes me very much although I'm doing my best and I hope I get in her good graces sometime but you can't rush things and the early bird gets the silk purse out of the—waagh!"

"I was just wondering because of what I saw in her Future Perfect," Eiko replied, placing the brick onto the sand-House roof. "I snuck a peek at it this morning before she left for work, and... ano? Oniichan? Oniichan, doko wa?"

Look left, look right... and Eiko didn't spot him. Look behind herself and she saw Mallory washing out to sea.

It's stated in Twoday's Guidebook (a fine travel compendium for the discerning tourist who wants to only visit realities approved by RealWare) that the seas of I's Land are remarkable in two aspects. One, they're always a comfortable warm temperature that's not too hot and not too cold, but always refreshing after a hot day on the beach. Two, to make surfing easier, the midday tide rolls in quite swiftly rather than tapering in and out. Say, ten seconds swiftly.

While this is very handy for folks doing wakeboarding, surfing and jetski riding, it's not very good for farmboys who have never been fully immersed in water outside of slipping in the bathtub.

Fortunately for Mallory, while Eiko didn't have the manpower needed to drag his sorry ass out of the deadly, vicious one-foot-deep surf, someone else did.

Coughing up salt water and sputtering and remembering to thank the spirits he was supposed to be believing in, Mallory clung to that arm like a drowning man clings to the arm of a rescuer. He shook water and sand out of his hair, fumbled down in the muck for his glasses, rinsed them off a bit, put them on, and...

"YO!" Mellow Fellow greeted, grabbing Mallory and crushing him in a friendly hug. "Didn'expect to see you here, mon! How it is, yo? I's wonderin' if I's ever seein' you again! S'matter, you look pale and stuff..."

"Gah," Mallory greeted in return.

"ONIICHAN!" Eiko wailed, running up to join them—and beat cutely on Mellow Fellow's back with her fists.. "Wah! Let go of my oniichan, strange man!"

The taxi cab pilot set Mallory down, backing off. "Easy, easy!" he said. "I-and-I's cool, don' worry! Mallory's a righteous friend of Mellow Fellow's so you don' be worryin' none, okay? You Eiko Mirai, yeah?"

"What's it to you?" Eiko asked, still suspicious as she gave Mellow the Evaluating Eye she'd learned from her sister.

"Your sis sent me, dig? Needs you at the negotiatin' table. Go get changed, right, I'll take you there."

"Only if Mallory-oniichan is coming!" Eiko warned.

Mallory fumbled with his grasp on things as one would fumble with the soap in the bath after being laminated with a thin layer of oiled plastic. "Er, I'll come along," he agreed. "No problem. Don't worry, Eiko, ah... I-and-I's cool too?"

"Righteous!" Mellow exclaimed, slapping Mallory's hand in some bizarre bonding gesture he knew nothing of.

"Well... okay," Eiko agreed, tentatively."Keep an eye on my bucket and don't let anybody knock over my house! I'm going back to the house to change, I'll wave when I'm ready."

"Right, right. Have fun! Err, not that you're specifically off to do anything fun, I mean, uh... so!" Mallory said, switching chat-subjects back to Mellow Fellow. "Mellow! Ah... it's good to see you again! You're from around here, right?"

"I's from I's Land, yeah. Actually... I's hirin' your boss for this job. I's and the Elders," Mellow explained, walking back to their sand-House encampment area. "We got some truly unrighteous trouble here in I's Land right now, Mon. The vibes of Babylonia comin' down to hamper us..."

"Really? Trouble?" Mallory asked, looking around. "I haven't seen any trouble today. I mean, nobody seems worried about anything, either... everybody I've talked to has been really friendly. This is a great place to live, Mellow-chan!"


"Err... anyway, I'll have to tell you about my home sometime. It's a lot like this; small community, people who know each other, err, not quite as friendly to outsiders, but—"

"This... this place is righteous, I's agreein'," Mellow said, losing some of the jovial tone in his voice. "I's travellin' far and wide, reality to reality, and I's never findin' a place that fits in my heart like I's Land. It's home. But we's got troubles, definitely... I's doin' my best to help, but the cab, it only brings in a small amount of the monies of Babylonia. We don't get some more of the monies soon, man, we're... hrm. How to explain..."

"I think it's gonna have to wait," Mallory spoke, shielding his eyes from the sun with one hand as he peered House-wards. "Eiko's ready to go. Err I have to change out of my trunks and dry off too, don't I?"

"Meiko didn't say to bring you, mon, jus' Eiko. But if you wanna come..."

"I think I do. I mean... maybe I can help?" Mallory offered. "I'll only take a minute, I swear!"

"Eh... time be time," his friend said without the usual vigor. "And I guess it be nothin'. 'cept to some people..."

- - - -

"You're late," Meiko admonished without looking up from her reading. "I'll be with you guys in a minute."

Mallory had no idea if he was in fact late or not; he wasn't wearing a watch, and he hadn't seen any clocks on any walls anywhere in the tiny sample of I's Land he'd been exposed to. And this new chunk of I's Land that Mellow Fellow had led their fellowship of three to didn't look any different.

Like most buildings, it was unmarked, and had some sort of domestic feel to it. There were open windows to allow fresh air and sunlight to pour in, a large table that made the House kitchen table look like a lunch counter, and a variety of comfortable-looking padded wicker chairs of varying designs.

At one end of the table sat Meiko, perusing some sort of complicated-looking document displayed on a nearly paper-thin electronic widget. Now and then she'd tap a button on the side of the thing and a fresh load of text would scroll into view. She hadn't even noticed Mallory's likely-to-be-a-surprise presence, that's how engrossed she was in her work.

At the opposite end of the table... sat a man Mallory didn't recognize, beyond recognizing the archetype. He wore a serious dark gray business suit much like you'd see in a video stream news profile, and was 80% bald on top. He adjusted his tie slightly as Mallory entered the room, to maintain a perfect presence in front of strangers.

Finally, sitting sort of off to the side but close to Meiko was someone who could possibly have been Mellow Fellow's grandfather. He wore the same style of loud and colorful I's Lander wear, but had a knotted, gnarly beard of silver along with wild dreadlocks flowing out from beneath a strange yellow hat. Combined with the yellow sash he wore over his shoulders, Mallory (correctly) guessed this would be one of the "Elders" that Mellow had mentioned...

Meiko set the info-pad down, shaking her head. "No. Tanner-san, it doesn't matter where you put it in the document or what number of 'resources' are involved... I's Land can't accept membership in the PPP. I thought I made that clear to you when we started negotiation..."

"Yes, but there are a number of other concessions in there which I hoped would balance out your dislike of the Preferred Partners Program," the balding man spoke, quite calm and friendly about it. "This package should represent a good compromise that will allow I's Land to continue their lease even with their limited means—"

The Elder cleared his throat. Mellow Fellow turned his head sharply, ready to listen intently to his words...

"I-and-I's not meaning to be rude, Mister Tanner," the man spoke in a softer voice than Mallory would have figured him for. "But this plan... I-and-I's not seeing how it's preferable to be a partner in this plan. The Elders, we've been looking over your proposal some time now. This is not an uninformed decision; it's simply not the direction we want to go with our community. RealWare may be a fine and profitable company, and no doubt you see yourself as having good intentions... but in the eyes of Iism, RealWare is the true heart of Babylonia. To do this, to send our most loved into that heart... no. We cannot. I-and-I's apologizing for any undue troubles this is causing, but we cannot go along with this. That's why we hired Mirai Consulting to negotiate on our behalf, so we could be finding a deal to make all happy."

"And that's what's on the table now," Tanner insisted. "I understand not wanting to part with a large amount of your human resources, but the RealWare Preferred Partners Program pays you in the end. The training programs teach valuable skills and trades which can then be directed back to your own economy, which frankly could use a boost given how much barter and charity you seem to utilize, which is what led you to this crisis in the first place—"

"You're saying you want their children," Meiko clarified... with a small amount of ice in her voice.

"In many realities, persons over the age of thirteen are legal adults," Tanner noted.

"And if they let you take a dozen of their children—or let's say legal adults for the sake of argument, as you're asking for those in the range of thirteen to eighteen years of age—"

"Which we've scientifically determined to be the optimal age to begin the learning process for skilled work," Tanner noted. "This program has been available for nearly four hundred years now with many satisfied participants—"

"—and then in return for keeping them for five years at Reality Prime to clean your wastebaskets and cook your food, you'll lower the lease fee on the I's Land Reality Engine to something I's Land can actually afford. Barely. Then five years later you'll give them their 'adults' back."

"After we help them learn valuable job skills which will be beneficial to I's Land," Tanner reminded. "This isn't slave labor, Miss Mirai. We train for worthwhile careers. Training for the janitorial and hospitality industries could later be plied to development of reality tourism for I's Land. There's even potential for training as construction workers or even reality engineers if they prove to be bright enough, although with the education standard here so much lower than the RealWare norm—"

Meiko slid the pad back across the table, with practiced skill—it scraped to a halt on the wooden table right in front of Tanner, perfectly aligned with his seat.

"No deal," Meiko also reminded. "My apologies, Tanner-san, but I's Land does not want to be a member of your Preferred Partners Program. That's not something you're going to change my mind on—I've been hired to find an alternative. I've never failed in my contracts before and I don't plan to begin today."

"Oh?" Tanner asked, tapping a finger on the data pad. "What about—"

"Eiko, I think I need your skills now," Meiko smoothly spoke, cutting him off and turning to face her sister. "We're starting to get down to the financial brass tacks. To keep this thing under budget, we... ...what're you doing here, Mallory?"

Mallory's intense focus on the conversation shattered like a collectable limited edition Love & Hate Glass (available at a Joe's near you fifty years ago). "Err, yes? Meiko-san?"

She started to speak, but paused to raise an eyebrow at the '-san'... before continuing. "I don't know what you're doing here, but go home," she commanded. "The house is a mess. Tidy up downstairs and upstairs. Eiko and I will be back shortly before dinnertime."


"Don't worry, Mallory-oniichan!" Eiko declared, rolling up her sleeves cutely after hopping into an offered chair. "With me at the negotiations, we'll have this deal signed, sealed and delivered in time to have a yummy dinner! Okay, Tanner-san, let's get down to business!"

- - - -

Because this was I's Land, where even the rains were polite and pleasant, the weather was quite invigorating. There was nothing Mallory liked better than good weather when cleaning the house; even when you're indoors, knowing it's sunny and warm outside keeps you in good spirits!

He ran the self-propelled FloorCleen™ combination soap / scrub / dry / vacuum cleaner across the living room carpet as he hummed a happy tune... while trying to keep the thing from running away without him, as he wasn't strong enough to truly wrest the self-propelled demonic thing under his control. But he had just enough control not to make more of a mess than he was cleaning up, so it was all good...

"It be a very unrighteous mess," Mellow explained, as he and Mallory walked back to the beach. "I-and-I's lovin' this land with all my heart, but I's been around the multiverse... I's knowin' the score, and the score be money, and money be time and time not be nothin' to anyone outside I's Land. And that means we don't got a lot of the monies of Babylonia. And that means we's in unrighteous trouble."

Getting the machine to scrub under the coffee table in the conversation pit was some trouble, but Mallory was quickly learning how to tame the beast. A few passes that put a few hopefully unnoticeable dents in the wood finish later, and he could power the machine down and store it away. Next up was picking up Eiko's stray toys from the family room floor, and putting them back in her room.

"Eiko's on the job, so I'm sure you'll be okay," Mallory tried to assure him. "I mean, she's a whiz with numbers!"

"This be more than numbers, though. The Elders, they don't be seein' that. They think, we give RealWare the monies they wantin', we can go back to our peaceful life here. And it is peaceful here, but that means they don't see that it ain't peaceful anywhere else like I's seen... out there, on the shores of Babylonia, they be steppin' with a mean razor, Mal. They want blood. And I-and-I's thinkin' RealWare won't stop until they got our blood and bone. 'til they get into us and turn us into them."

Carrying an armload of toys up the stairs without tripping and falling and breaking his neck was Mallory's primary goal at that point, as he tried to ignore the various voice box speeches and squeaky sounds from Eiko's dolls, concentrating on one foot in front of the other. He'd have to get better at this if he was going to carry laundry up and down the narrow, spiraling stairwell.

Opening a door with an armload of toys was the next task. The problem was, he wasn't sure which room was Eiko's... truth be told, he hadn't even seen the second floor of the house before. Figuring nobody was home, a little trial and error couldn't hurt...

The first door was an error. The room just felt too grown up to be Eiko's... it was sparsely furnished, done in tasteful grays and browns. A gray futon in one corner, a brown low table in the center with some sort of blanket around the edges... it seemed a bit odd to put the mattress on the floor to someone who was used to beds with four legs keeping them up. And the table was so low the only way you could use it was to kneel down or lie down or something... but there was also a desk with a RealNet Workstation (expensive-looking) and a framed picture of Eiko and Meiko, much younger than they were now.

Probably Meiko's room, Mallory decided, closing the door behind himself and looking around the upstairs hallway for the next option.

"But... it's not like you guys have any options, right?" Mallory had asked. "RealWare makes Reality Engines. So you have to come to some kind of terms with them..."

"Well... yes and no," Mellow explained. "See, you know the engine in I's taxi, right? It be powered by wings of freedom, like I's tellin' you before. 'Open Engine.' Righteously smart guys, they copy the Reality Engine, make their own. Give it away for free, try to spread the cause... I's Land, we could be goin' that way instead of the way of Babylonia, but... Babylonia, she be a jealous mother, you know? Be a harsh way. Maybe too harsh..."

The next room was also not likely Eiko's, unless she had skipped a few years straight into puberty and really liked posters of half-naked men all over her walls.

Even more sparsely be-furnitur'd than Meiko's room, this room was obviously Lorelei's. The posters were Mallory's first clue, and discarded underwear lying around formed clue number two. Just to increase his level of nervousness, a weapons rack with various curvy, dangerous-looking bladed things greeted him to his right just as he entered the door. (Lorelei said she was Meiko's bodyguard. Maybe she was some sort of martial artist ninja thing like he'd see on video streams?) There was a bed (covered in discarded clothing) and a table (covered in discarded clothing) and a large exercise mat that had been thickly padded in some parts and stamped flat in others.

Praying that Lorelei would pick up her own laundry and hand it to him in a nice safe hamper when the time came to clean clothes, Mallory closed the door and went for the next one. It didn't open at first, but as he was a man on a mission, a bit of a bump with the shoulder and it magically gave way...

"So... you can get a real, honest-to-goodness Reality Engine for free?" Mallory asked, confused. "No kidding? I didn't think something like that was possible! But... why would anybody pay RealWare for one when they could just get it for free? You should do that—then you wouldn't have to give them anything! I mean, it's just business—it's not like they can kill you, right?"

"Not directly," Mellow Fellow conceded, as they reached the door to the House. "But... aah. I's hatin' to be worried, Mallory. Not my groove. You know my cab? Mellow Fellow's Smiling Taxi Service? Named that 'cause I's be smilin', it be my way. My way in life, I-and-righteous-I's smilin'. But this, this is takin' away my smile. Curse of Babylonia like a creepin' shadow... and until I's seein' the knife pulled away from the throat of I's Land, I's not thinkin' I's gonna be doin' much smilin'..."

Peering into the dark depths of the third bedroom, Mallory felt around the wall for the light switch. Until he felt a knife blade pressed to his neck.

Perhaps the girly little whimper he squeaked out was enough to let the knife bearer know he wasn't much of a threat.

"...I was under the impression they had told you my rule," a voice whispered in his ear. "No one enters my room. Ever. What are you doing here, Mallory Heisenberg?"

"Ki.. Kisei?" Mallory whispered, careful not to let his body twitch in the slightest. "Just... room... Eiko... looking for... toys?" he added, holding up the armload of plush animals carefully.

With an audible whoosh and a flash of her cloak, Kisei stepped around from behind the houseboy. Whatever blade she wielded was no longer in her hands. Where it had gone to would be a matter of conjecture.

"Eiko Mirai's quarters are at the other end of the hall," Kisei informed him. "Now that you know this, you may exit my quarters immediately and not return. I will handle my own laundry and room cleaning; those services are not required. When is dinner time?"

Backing out of the room slowly to avoid any bodily harm, Mallory made a guesstimate. "Err... about one hour—"

After nodding once in acknowledgment, Kisei shut the door. Firmly. And then, from the sounds of it, activated about five or six complicated-sounding locking mechanisms. (What, was it unlocked before? he thought briefly.)

Now pointed the right way, he opened the door to Eiko's room. Exactly what he was expecting, this time; bright and colorful wallpaper, lots of stuffed dolls all over the place on her bed and on shelves and on the floor. A video set, a workstation, lots of expensive toys... even more than her sister had.

He dumped his armload (lovingly and carefully) on her bed for now. Mission completed, Mallory strolled down the stairs with a lighter burden to bear...

Meiko, on the other hand, looked like she had just held up all of I's Land for at least three days. She slumped in through the floor door with Eiko just as Mallory was coming around the bend... Eiko, who also looked a bit upset as she slumped past Mallory without a word, heading upstairs.

"Errrr..." Mallory opened with, not sure what to say. "I take it negotiations didn't go real well?"

"What negotiations?" Meiko asked... getting a bit more snarl in her voice, a bit more energy to her exhaustion. "'Negotiation' implies variance on an issue with an overall goal of a common ground. There isn't one here. Tanner didn't budge an inch. RealWare isn't leaving until they've made this place pay their tithe. He wants money or fresh bodies, and since they don't have the money and won't give the fresh bodies... we got nowhere. Even Eiko couldn't wring enough money out of I's Land's economy to meet RealWare's demands... dammit. When's dinner, houseboy?"

"Why don't they just use an Engine Opened?" Mallory asked, determined to show he had some smarts on the subject. "Mellow-san mentioned them, although he said that even though they were free, they might cause problems..."

"Huh? Engine Op—Open Engine, you mean?" Meiko asked, raising an eyebrow. "Are you studying for your REC Test already, Mr. Reality Engineer?"

"My wha—oh, uh, no. I just heard it in conversation..."

"Sure, they could go open source. Get in league with the grassroots upstarts trying to overthrow RealWare, save a lot of money in the process, and I's Land would never be bothered by RealWare again," Meiko explained, leaning heavily on a wall. "But RealWare wouldn't like it. I brought it up as a solution today... and Tanner explained as polite as can be exactly what would happen. They'd de-list I's Land from Twoday's Guidebook, cut off of all RealNet communication feeds, and blacklist I's Land from doing business with their allied partners across the multiverse. I's Land would have to go rogue and probably sell their native Weeds through the illegal drug market to stay alive, which would just make their black mark on the multiverse bigger..."

"And... all of that sounds bad," Mallory concluded. "So, uh... what are we gonna do?"

"'We' aren't going to do anything. 'I' am going back to war tomorrow with that bastard Tanner," Meiko spoke, tugging herself upright again, trying to maintain some dignity. "Meanwhile, 'You' are going to cook dinner. I'm tired, I'm hungry and I'm expecting nothing less than that five-star cuisine you supposedly can produc... what's that smell? Are you cooking already?"

"Smell?" Mallory asked, sniffing the air... and catching it for the first time. Something vaguely rotten... "Uh, no... I'm not sure what that is. I—"

"Tell me you're not using the local coconuts in your cooking. PLEASE tell me that. I don't think I could take this on top of everything else..."

Mallory smacked his forehead. "OH! I know, I know what it is! When I opened the window this morning, a coconut hit me in the head. It must still be on the kitchen floor..."

"Well, throw it out," Meiko said, as she walked past him. "They're technically called 'Rectalnuts' and they taste as good as that sounds. They grow wild in I's Land, but nobody cooks with them. It's gonna stink worse after ripening on the kitchen floor all day, so toss it outside, not in the garbage. Got it?"

"Ah, got it, boss!" Mallory chirped off, trying to give her a comforting smile and a thumbs up. "You can count on me!"

"Eeh," she offered in response as she slogged past him, taking the spiral stairwell one foot at a time.

- - - -

Five star. Five-star cuisine...

He'd heard of the star rating system, of course. Half of the video feeds he got on his cheap video network player were oriented around tourism, business travel, things like that... the restaurant business, that much he knew about. Five-star was the best of the best...

Of course, he had jumped ship from Grünwald without completing his training. His marks in school were decent, especially in stews and soups, but otherwise he wouldn't consider himself a five-star chef. Still, he was a firm believer that making a good effort and believing in yourself would achieve anything! Even if "Humiliating Failure" was technically part of the "Anything" set of outcomes...

In all the activity today, he hadn't actually gotten around to shopping. This meant he had the limited, fairly junk-food-oriented stocks of the House to work with. This meant that he had to use his three-star skills plus two-star ingredients to make five stars, and since two and three made five, he hadn't a worry in the world.

Until he actually tried to put some things together in a nice stew and ended up with one star at best. He rinsed his mouth out with water to cleanse the palette and prevent from choking to death on the broccoli-and-melted-cheese-and-ground-spice-he-could-not-identify soup experiment. A quick glance at the clock showed he had wasted thirty minutes on what amounted to food that would be superior coming up than it would be going down...

But it was workable. He could work this. The core ingredients were okay, but they didn't mix well. He needed something strong to mask the mixture in a different flavor entirely...

Four samples of spices and additives went into the pot next, with mild effect. Not strong enough.

This was his chance to make a first impression with his cooking. He couldn't afford to screw it up; Meiko might even kick him out, jobless and alone, if he didn't live up to the tasks they hired him for...

But more importantly, Meiko was in a depressed mood, and Mallory wanted to try to turn that frown upside down with a good meal. He couldn't help them negotiate a deal. He didn't know enough about anything at all to be useful to them, but the one thing he COULD do was cook... and after seeing Mellow Fellow so unhappy, "Losing his smile," he had frankly had enough of people being depressed today. Meiko didn't deserve to be depressed after working so hard to help out these people. If he could do something about it with his cooking, he would. And maybe he could, if he took a risk...

His eyes glanced at the floor under the kitchen table.

Then they glanced at the clock.

An unworkable ingredient...

"We'll see about that," Mallory spoke to himself, grabbing the Rectalnut from the floor with one hand. And holding his nose shut with the other.

- - - -

"Dinnertime!" Mallory called out, banging a pot lid with a wooden spoon. "Ah, come on! It's hot and ready and waiting! And, um, tasty! Dinnertime! Din—"

"I heard you just fine," Kisei spoke, already seated at the table after somehow sneaking downstairs and evading Mallory's sight in a stealthy manner which sent cold chills up and down his central nervous system.

"Ah... right," he said, setting the lid down and fetching a stack of bowls. "Are the others—"

Eiko bounced into her chair, showing none of her ill mood from before. "Dinner! Wai!" she cheered, eagerly anticipating the edible delights to come. "Nothing's better after my favorite cartoons than a good dinner! Oniichan, do we have dessert? Can I have cake?"

"No cake, Eiko, you get hyperactive," Meiko warned, entering the kitchen and taking her seat in a more dignified way. "Just serve for four, Mallory. Lorelei called to say she met someone at the beach today and won't be back until tomorrow."

"Oh," Mallory said, disappointment clear in his voice. "Well... uh... we'll have plenty of leftovers, so... I can put some in the fridge for her! Ah, this is a new recipe of mine, currently untitled but I'm leaning towards 'I'Stew'. It's a dish which utilizes only vegetables, since Mellow-an told me today about how Iism follows vegan diets—"

"Skip the speech and serve the chow," Meiko suggested/commanded.

And thus, four bowls worth of the thick and mysterious stew were spooned out with four dinner rolls. (Technically 'Hot Dog Buns', from what Mallory recalled, but they would work in a pinch.) Mallory took his place at the table, but didn't start into his food right away... eagerly watching for the reactions of his servees.

Eiko took a spoonful first... and the reaction Mallory sought, he received. She smiled brightly, nodding to him vigorously. "It's really good, oniichan!" she spoke up. "It's kind of sweet and sour and stuff and... it's just really different! Ooh, kinda strong, though... can I have some milk?"

Kisei was next... and took much longer to evaluate her tasting. She concentrated as if studying some complex thing which required great focus to comprehend, before finally swallowing... and nodding slowly. "It has an adequate taste," was the sum total of her critique as she went for a second spoonful.

Finally, there was Meiko. Who didn't really WANT to like it, especially not with Mallory looking at her with puppy dog eyes that beg for praise, but she couldn't get around the simple facts. "It's good," she decided. "I guess you live up to the hype, houseboy. It's really good. I mean... really, REALLY good, and I've eaten at a few four- and five-star restaurants when I could afford to... so, it's original? Or some Grünwald recipe?"

"WOOHOO! Ah, heh, not really," Mallory laughed off, glowing from the praise. "I started out with a little of everything I could find in here, plus some seasoning mixes I learned in second year Condiments but that wasn't enough and it didn't feel right so I added some Rectalnut chunks—"

The temperature in the room dropped six degrees. Meiko's spoon clattered against her bowl after it fell from her limp fingers.

"WAAAAH?!" Eiko gagged (literally), clutching at her throat. "Oneesama, I ate a Rectalnut? I'm gonna die! I'm too young to die!! It's not fair!"

"I... TOLD... you to get rid of that thing!" Meiko barked out, standing up in a way that knocked her chair aside for maximum dramatic effect. "I told you to throw it out, and instead, you put it in my food?! What are you THINKING?! You could have—"

"Could have what?" Kisei asked calmly, after her fifth spoonful. "From my limited knowledge of local foods, Rectalnut is not fatal if ingested. You are not dying, Eiko. You will know death when you see it."

"Well... of course not," Meiko admitted, "But for Kami's sake, Kisei—!"

"I do not believe I should have to remind you that you were enjoying your dinner a moment ago," Kisei spoke... locking her eyes on Meiko's unbelieving gaze. "I appreciate consistency of behavior, which you are certainly not exhibiting at the moment, Meiko-san. I mean no disrespect by this, mind you. I point out that simply because others have failed to implement an ingredient in the past does not mean Mallory has failed in his task now. As I said before... it has an adequate taste. I would like seconds to take to my room tonight, Mallory, if you believe this stew will suffice when cold as well."

All eyes then turned to Mallory. Even Eiko had stopped gagging, watching curiously as the boy's silent look of Absolute Bliss radiated outward like the sun over I's Land.

"S.. sure!" he finally said. "I think it'll be okay cold. See, the taste of the Rectalnut by itself isn't very good, but the stew wasn't very good either, and three lefts make a right and birds of a feather stew together so I figured it'd work out! And, uh... yes, you can have... seconds. Meiko? Err, what's wrong? Ah, if you really don't like it, I can make you something else..."

"You said... that this is made from common stuff we had lying around, and Rectalnut?" she asked... a spark of an idea gathering behind her eyes.

Mallory scratched his head. "Well... yeah—"

"And there's no meat in it, so it works fine with Iism?"

"Oh, definitely, see, I believe that when working with local cuisine you have to adopt an understanding of—"

"How hard was it to cook? Some crazy technique which can only be learned by Grünwaldians?"

"Err, no, I just sort of tossed it all together, um, I think I could recall the exact amounts if I sit down and think about—"

"You can sit down later," she decided, glancing around the kitchen quickly... spotting a rubber ReSeel container. "Fill that with as much as you can and bring a spoon. We could still catch him before he calls it a night."

"Err, what?" Mallory said with his usual flair for the oblivious. "Huh? Him? Who? Wha—"

"Come ON!" Meiko urged, grabbing the container and scooping a liberal amount of stew into it herself, as Mallory remained jammed in a state of confusion. She tucked it carefully under one arm as not to mess up her blouse, and grabbed his wrist with the spare hand. In moments, the front door had shut behind them.

Kisei resumed patiently enjoying her meal. Not that she showed facial expressions of enjoyment.

- - - -

As I's Land lacked a formal dock, they had to jog across the island to another beach.

Parked there on a tall dune was a portable RealWare office. Mallory saw the glow of the tasteful neon sign before he even saw the whole building; it was like a miniature complex, with windows of offices up top, a hotel-room like door at the base, and even a garage to park a land vehicle in.

It made perfect sense to drag as much of the home office with you as possible on business trips, but Mallory didn't have time to ponder the many technical wonders of the multiverse; Meiko was on a mission and dragged him along at a high rate of speed. She marched right up to the hotel room door, knocking on it sharply after stopping to catch her breath...

After a few moments, Mr. Tanner opened the door. Mallory peeked over his shoulder at the five-star hotel suite behind him, superior to any residential room he'd ever seen, even those in the House.

"Miss Mirai," he acknowledged. "It's very late, so I trust you have a good reason for this interruption? I'd really prefer to conduct our negotiations during business hours, and I do have dinner being prepared by our chef—"

Seconds later, the reality executive found himself holding an open ReSeel container in one hand and a spoon in the other

"Try some of that," Meiko ordered him... with a bit of a smile on her lips. "Trust me on this. You might not want your dinner after you taste it."

With a Suspicious Look, he carefully spooned a bit of the stew, and tipped it in his mouth. A familiar look to Mallory swept across his face; eating satisfaction.

"Best local cuisine I've had since I got here," he noted. "Whenever I could find a restaurant with actual marked opening and closing times... so, what is it?"

"Rectalnut Stew," Meiko said with pride. "We're calling it I'Stew."

"...I'm going to assume poisoning me isn't your new negotiating tactic. Besides, this can't actually be—"

"It is."

"If it is, then you're apparently as skilled in the kitchen as you are at the negotiation table. And I don't mean that sarcastically, Miss Mirai. If you don't mind, I suppose I will have this for dinner. Thank you for—"

"I didn't come just to feed you. I have a proposal. And it can't wait until business hours. How would you like to have the rights to produce that stew?" Meiko asked. "I's Land can give you all the Rectalnuts you want—they grow like ragweed here, and aren't suitable for anything else. In return, you lower the lease on the Reality Engine to the level we discussed earlier today, without the Preferred Partners Plan. Deal?"

"You're joking, right?" Tanner asked, setting the ReSeel down on a nearby table inside the suite. "I work for RealWare, Miss Mirai, not an eatery—"

"But RealWare owns the multiversal chain of Joe's Fast Food restaurants," Meiko interrupted. "It's common knowledge in the business world, Tanner-san, even if most of the folks who eat there aren't aware. Joe's would be a perfect outlet for this recipe; it can be made fast, and is good served cold or reheated."

Tanner frowned, caught in a spot. "Perhaps... this would make a good token to add to our negotiations, yes. We're always looking for new consumer food products to introduce through... certain channels such as Joe's. But this alone is not enough to—"

"If you don't accept this proposal, I's Land is going Open Engine," Meiko continued. "They'll produce I'Stew in mass quantities and using Open Engine-driven cabs like Mellow Fellow's, become the premiere hot food delivery service. Executives working long hours won't even have to go down to Joe's, they can simply order it from here—and I know how to get them cloned, open source RealNet workstations even if you decide to revoke their rights to the official ones. They'll compete against you and even if they can't possibly topple you... they could probably eat a nice amount out of your share of the food industry. All the while, they'll build a reputation as an Open Reality Movement-aligned world with a successful enterprise that's standing up to RealWare. Classic little guy versus the unstoppable giant... the media loves that sort of thing, at least the parts of the media that you don't directly own. And I somehow doubt that your CEO, Gillian Bates, would be happy to hear that you personally allowed this mess to get to that point...... correct?"

Mallory's head span from the effort of following the rapid fire series of financial threats... but somehow, he comprehended it all. Which is why he wasn't surprised to see Tanner's cheeks go a bit pale.

"They'd never succeed against us," he defended weakly. "Joe's controls the majority of the multiversal restaurant industry and we control Joe's. All I's Land could ever be is a tick on our backside—"

"That's all they'd have to be to show that RealWare has another chink in the armor," Meiko retorted. "Another chink for the Open Reality Movement to exploit as they love to do... But you're not going to anyone see the flaw, are you? You're going to buy rights to the recipe, allow I's Land to grow Rectalnuts at whatever pace they're comfortable with, then you're going to leave them alone. You won't jack their rates up or try to turn them into a satellite tourist reality again. There's a lot of realities out there, Tanner-san; you don't want this one as an enemy, or as a close friend. All they want is to live in peace. Surely there are more lucrative places to find your close friends, yes...?"

An uneasy silence hung in the air as thick as a bowl of I'Stew.

"I think your proposal is bordering on lunacy," Tanner spoke quietly.

Meiko egged him on, nodding. "And...?"

"I'll contact my superiors in the morning for guidance," he added. "Good night, Miss Mirai."

The suite door closed, with Tanner and his stew on one side, Meiko and Mallory on the other.

For the first time since his arrival at the House, Meiko gave Mallory a nice, happy smile.

"We got 'em," she declared. "We got 'em. Eiko can take it from there and haggle them down even further. This time tomorrow, I's Land won't have a thing to worry about. ...thanks, Mallory."

Happiness grabbed Mallory by the neck and throttled him so hard he couldn't even say "You're welcome."

"Gaarghble," he replied instead.

But it's the sentimental thought that counts the eggs before they hatch, he thought silently, smiling to himself.

- - - -

The stroll back across the island played out nice and slow. Meiko took her time, in no great rush; her smile had faded a little until it was a more reasonable level, but never quite vanished. It simply went from ecstatic to quietly smug.

Mallory strolled along behind her, wishing he had stopped off to pick up his sweatshirt from the tailor; it wasn't cold, exactly, but it wasn't warm out tonight by any thermometer either. He walked in silence as well... Meiko seemed happy and he didn't want to shatter that by babbling out the wrong thing at the wrong time. Compared to her earlier mood of hopelessness, seeing her content and pleased was like a refreshing drink given to a man who really wanted a refreshing drink as opposed to a punch in the face or something to that extent.

Plus, the starry night sky simply made for a quiet, peaceful evening. It would be a shame to shatter that. Other than some light folk-guitar variant Lander Dub floating in from some zone of the city, which fit the mood perfectly, there was no need for sound...

Mallory accidentally broke that peace when he glanced up and to the left.

"...whoa," he said quietly.

"'Whoa'?" Meiko asked, pausing in her walk to turn and look at him curiously. "What whoa?"

"Uh... nothing, really," Mallory said, keeping his eyes on the sight high above the waves of the I's Land oceans. A brilliant white circle, notches and patterns on it that almost made it seem to smile down upon them... he smiled back. "Up there. Look at that... it's a beautiful moon out tonight."

"It's artificial," Meiko replied, unimpressed as she didn't bother to look out across the waters. "Just a funny circular thing that's fashionable to put in the sky. Reality decoration. I don't see what the big deal is."

"But the way it's over the water like that, and... and the reflection, and..."


"So.. we never had oceans on Grünwald," he explained. "And the moon was just... a thing, like you say. It really wasn't a big deal. But this, it feels... uh... it's sort of... ...ehh. Hard to say, sorry. I'm really new at all this, I haven't seen all the things you've probably seen... I guess it feels special to me."

Looking a bit annoyed at him for a fraction of a second, Meiko turned to look... and her expression softened a bit as she looked at the I's Land moon for the first time. "...well... I guess it can be special. Especially if it's the first new one you've seen. I've seen plenty of moons myself: sometimes in pairs, sometimes they're company logos... it's different in every reality."

"Right! I mean, you've seen things I've only dreamed about! This is half of the reward, you know, of me working with you guys. I can see the multiverse, just like... like my mom used to. She was a Reality Engineer. I bet she saw this moon once..."

"Oh, that reminds me..." Meiko said, reaching inside her vest pocket... and pulling out a small data pad, similar to the one she used at the negotiation table. "Take it."

"Huh?" Mallory standardly stated, accepting the object and poking at it a bit. Text started to pour down the screen in a syntax so complex it felt alien without actually being outside the realm of his language base...

"That's your preparation material for the REC Test," Meiko explained. "Remember, I'm giving you a month to pass the Reality Engineering Certification Test. That's the condition I've hired you under. You should start studying toni... tomorrow. Whenever you get free time around your other duties."

"Ah.. right, right! I'll study very hard!" he promised, pocketing the data pad.

"Good. It's important. ...the future is very important, Mallory," Meiko spoke, her voice quiet, her voice serious. "Too important to laugh off like these people..."


"I's Land," she said, looking back across the water. "They don't worry about the future. 'Time be time, and—'"

"'Time be nothin'."

"Right. And that's why they're in this situation. They didn't think about their future, they didn't plan for it. They lived happy and innocent for years, coasting along on just enough to survive without making any coordinated effort to prosper..."

"I don't know... I kind of like it here. It's beautiful, and the people are so nice... and I'd say they do prosper. It's just not money kinda prospering..."

"That's true. And I.. kind of like it here too. It's a good place to live... safe, and quiet. This is the kind of place I'd want to settle down in one day... but we need to plan our future if we want to live like this realistically, Mallory," she said, sharpening her tone a bit to bring the point home. "I's Land didn't plan ahead, didn't accept some of the unpleasant facts about reality, and RealWare almost caught them. You can't just hope for the best, you have to make it happen. You have to be vigilant. Like me. I want to provide a good home for my sister, to make sure we're secure in the days to come..."

Turning away from the view, she faced Mallory... and looked him squarely in the eyes.

"Mallory, don't just pass that test because I said so," she said. "Pass it for yourself. Reality Engineering is a good, solid thing to build a lifetime on. Sure, you're a thick-headed farmboy who's hopeless at comprehending anything outside his sealed bubble of a life, but... everybody deserves a good future. Understand?"

"I.. I guess so," Mallory replied, hearing the echo of his father's words. Plan ahead, seek your future, make it happen...

The smile Meiko offered him felt brighter than the one before, outside Tanner's door.

"Good," she said simply. "Now, let's go home."

: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.