So, you have decided to enter the rewarding career of Reality Engineering!

Reality Engineers are in demand in today's reality-based economy. While various realities have various industries, specializations, and cultural standards, they have one common need: trained, professional reality engineers working to find efficient reality solutions to their reality issues. A Reality Engineer's intense Reality Engineering Certification training guarantees realistically real results for reality issues pertaining to reality...

If it were possible for mild-mannered Mallory Heisenberg to become intensely annoyed, he would have become intensely annoyed at the unnecessary, overdone redundant repetition of the word reality in such a way as to go overboard without a paddle.

And that was just the first paragraph.

It went on and on like this for a few screens of the Introduction to the Reality Engineering Certification Preparatory Material, Copyright RealWare, Incorporated. Sitting on the living room couch, Mallory flicked the jog dial on the side of the data pad a few times trying to find a page without the word 'reality', and failed miserably.

Still, the advertising had soaked into his brain; even if he knew it was overcooked material it made him feel excited—anxious—on edge—and READY to face the challenges of a brave new tomorrow with nothing but his... his.. whatever it was Reality Engineers used as their primary, culturally-identifying tool! Which was probably not a steel-toed boot used for kicking engines until they worked properly. True, he did thumb his way past most of the fluff material in the introduction, but it was only to get at the meat of the lessons much faster in a bold demonstration of his enthusiasm!

Lesson 1: Reality Engine Basics

Basics. You can't go wrong with the basics, his farming tutors had tutored into him from an early age of tutoring...

The phase shift harmonics generated by the distilled water core of the engine, when tuned using an advanced reality sequencing system operating on RealWare proprietary code, induce a field of reality definition upon launch of a fresh engine. This field is supported in longevity using power feed and dispersal units which assure the flux metric stays within six standard deviations from acceptable norms as established in Core Directive 34.0134. But odds are you knew that already... read, while the glaze settled over Mallory's eyes like so many freshly baked, honey-dipped doughnuts.

A few flicks of the thumb verified his second worst fears, as it continued on and on like this, complete with incomprehensible diagrams and flow charts using words that had more syllables than nature should allow.


Mallory's eyes gratefully peeled away from the textual nightmare, sliding instead on the welcome vision of Meiko Mirai.

"House meeting," Meiko explained, nodding towards the kitchen table in the other room. "C'mon. You'll have plenty of time to study for the REC later this week..."

- - - -

"Six days?!" Lorelei groaned, slumping back in her chair.

"Six days," Meiko confirmed, snapping her Future Perfect shut. "The next job offer is going to be farther away than we'd hoped, and we knew going into it that the I's Land job wouldn't pay a whole lot. That means we have to stretch the budget a little until the next client calls... we'll have to make sacrifices. Lorelei, no more beer. Eiko, you're going to have to wait before buying that new doll house..."

Eiko crossed her arms and pouted. "We wouldn't have this problem if you'd let me invest my allowance in the Urbana day trading markets," she noted. "There's a 37.8% chance of a high-yield return, you know!"

"And you, fearless leader?" Lorelei asked, raising an eyebrow. "Planning any sacrifices of your own while I'm on the wagon? What about your... 'quarterly'?"

"...that's a business expense," the businesswoman vaguely explained, before quickly moving on to the newcomer. "Mallory... for you, that means no running out and buying lots of expensive ingredients. And no bartering anything we own for them from the locals, either! We're going to be stuck at I's Land for the duration since they're giving us docking space for free."

"Ahh, that's okay," Mallory added, trying to play cheerleader for the dour girls. "I'm sure I can make do with what we've got and, er, any Rectalnuts I can find for my stew—"

"RealWare owns the intellectual property to your stew, Mallory. You're not legally allowed to make it anymore, or we'll be in breach of contract and subject to suit under the EMCA (Edible Millennium Copyright Act) Section 8a."

Lorelei snickered. "All the better. I doubt lightning strikes twice, and I'd hate to be at ground zero when Mallory launches into a second round of Rectalnut experiments—"

A loud scrape of chair on cheap linoleum floor cut Lorelei off in mid quip.

Kisei placed both hands on the table as she stood. "...I will be going now," she announced. "Miss Mirai, I hereby request two days of unpaid leave for purposes of training. I will handle said expenses from of my own pocket out of respect to the house fund situation."

"Bowing and scraping like a salaryman, are we?" Lorelei mocked, leaning forward and looking up at Kisei with a grin. "Or are you issuing a formal request to your commanding officer? What, are we no fun to hang around with on the off days, Kiss?"

Quasi-glaring down at the other woman, Kisei's tongue added the tiniest taste of acid to her words. "Unlike Some," she noted, "I do not allow my combat skills to go rusty from prolonged periods of disuse, nor do I water them down with bottled toxins on a regular basis."

"You could do with a few bottled toxins, Kiss. They might help you relax enough that we can finally pull the stick out of your—"

Meiko cleared her throat while glancing at the young, innocent picturesque icon of little sisterly childhood purity to her left.

"—ear," Lorelei finished lamely.

"Hey... hey, I think it's a good idea," Mallory interjected, trying to cool things down. "I mean, we have a lot of days off, so we should all do our best to use them wisely! I'm going to study for the REC Test, and if Kisei's training, and Meiko's doing her... quarterlies, those sounded important, and Eiko can, er, do whatever it is she does which I don't know because I've only known you a few days but I think ninety percent of a week will be perfect for me to get to know you all better and the money won't be a problem it seems so let's all make the best of things and have fun! Right?"

Waving her arms in the air, Eiko bounced in her seat with delight. "Wai!" was her statement of confidence in Mallory's plan of attack. "Let's all do our best, minna-san!"

", Mal's right," Lorelei agreed, cooling down a bit. "Hell, I could probably train a bit this week. And get some nude bodyboarding in at that beach! Downtime sounds fine here, Mei... Kiss, you go and shoot stuff and blow shi—"

The clearing of the throat repeated itself.

"—blow stuff up and have fun," Lorelei corrected. "Save me some shrapnel as a souvenir and say hi to Duke for me."

"Then it's settled!" Mallory spoke up, rising to his seat and pumping a fist in the air with dramatic intensity! "Let's all do our best! House team, GAHM BATTLE KNEE! YOOOOSH!"

It took him half a minute to realize they were staring at him.

"...err, that means 'good luck,' right?" Mallory whispered to Eiko, confused. "Did I pronounce it wrong, or something..?"

"Oniichan no baka," Eiko giggled.

Good, Mallory thought, quite proud of himself. After all, 'baka' means idiot, so that must mean 'Big brother is NO idiot.'

unreal estate, episode 03: daze of the weak


Cooking, cleaning, laundry, cooking, cleaning, laundry...

With Kisei out of the house / Lorelei at the beach / Meiko out shopping, things were nice and quiet around the House. Mallory had hoped he could get some REC studying in during this quiet time, but with each attempt he made at the material, he invariably went cross-eyed trying to parse the thick, creamy nuggets of technobabble. Compared to that, the daily chores related to upkeep of the House were preferable.

He cooked with intensity, cleaned with fury, and did laundry like a man possessed by an ancient dead laundry master. Breakfast quality had risen so dramatically that Lorelei had started dragging herself out of bed before 10:00 AM to grab some leftovers, no matter what the state of her hangover was. The house was as spotless as he could manage without invading the privacy of his housemates—after the incident with Kisei the prior week, he tried to only enter their rooms when he absolutely had to.

'Absolutely had to' including putting away laundry, unfortunately. He walked up the stairs carrying two baskets of freshly washed/cleaned/pressed/dried clothing, with the datapad of REC study information balanced on top. He could read it after he put away the clothes. And after he straightened out the stock room. And after he vacuumed the upstairs hallway. And after...

For now, after he put away Eiko's clothes. She certainly did have a lot of them, as she liked to wear a new outfit every day, much like her sister. He fumbled for the doorknob to her room, hand brushing by a cardboard door hanger sign before opening up and walking in...


For a little girl, she managed to sack Mallory like an expert linebacker. Clothes went flying hither, tither, yon, and on the floor as well.

"Wagh!" Mallory protested, shaking his head to clear it. "Eiko...! Agh, now I gotta pick all this up... you should be careful when you run up to hug people! I mean, it's not polite to do otherwise, and... err, why are you looking at me like I'm your favorite flavor of ice cream and you're starving? It's making me very nervous..."

"It's time to play with Eiko-chan now!" Eiko spoke, with a decidedly predatory grin. "You can pick up the clothes after you finish your contractually accepted period of playtime!"

"My what of what of what?" Mallory asked, sitting up on the floor to be eye level with her.

With pride, Eiko pointed to the tiny sign hanging on her door knob. "Didn't you read the End User Licensing Agreement I posted? All those who enter agree to the following terms: Will play with Eiko for a minimum of one (1) hour!"

"Ah... er, that's very clever!" Mallory said, laughing nervously. "Ha ha... um, but I really don't have time to play, I want to get the laundry done so I can study for my test—what's this?"

"A subpoena for failure to meet contractual terms, of course," Eiko said, holding out the prepared document in question. "You'll hear from my lawyers for failure to play with me if you walk out that door!"

"'re just kidding, right?"

Eiko pointed to her adorable face with both hands. "Do these eyes lie?" she asked, staring with big, wide, only slightly frightening optic orbs.

"I.. guess I can play an hour," Mallory decided, determined to turn this into a positive. "It'll be a lot of fun, and I can still study for my test after dinner, I guess... okay! Um, what are we playing? Do you have a video game or something? I've never played one before, so—"

"Bah! Video games are for little kids," Eiko spoke, nose in the air. "They're just pattern memorization and button mashing. There's no talent to them at all!"

"Really? They looked kind of fun to me... so, uh, what are we playing with, then?"

"DOLLS!" she announced, holding up a Kensuke™ doll and a Biiko™ doll. "We're gonna play House!"

"...House? Err... how do you play?"

"Just make believe, silly," she instructed, shoving her Kensuke™ doll into his hands as she dragged over her old, beat up doll house. "C'mon, it's not that hard! Okay, you start by coming home after work..."

- - - -

The front door latch clicked open, as Kensuke™ strolled in after a long day of work. He hung his coat on the pink plastic coat rack next to the door, and called out to his loving wife.

"Biiko™ honey, I'm home!" he spoke loudly, with a proud smile. "It was a long day at the restaurant where I am a top chef, respected by all my fellow workers and customers alike!"

"No you're not, you work as a golf course caretaker!" Biiko™ corrected, leaning out of the kitchen and waving a plastic spoon at him... before handing it to him. "Now make me dinner! I had a long day at the office buying, selling, trading, and crushing smaller corporations with hostile takeovers so I could put bread on our table, you good-for-nothing ingrate!"

"Eh?" Kensuke™ asked, studying the spoon, confused. "Wait, you mean I'm not a good husband, Eiko?"

"It's Biiko™, and no! You never attend to my needs. With you, it's always me, me, me!" Biiko™ scolded. "That's why I'm cheating on you with the mailman."

Kensuke™'s plastic jaw sagged. "Err... cheating on me? You know about that stuff?"

"Well, of course! In soap operas, whenever the wife wants revenge on her deadbeat husband, she cheats," Biiko™ explained, smoothing out her felt apron. "I don't know what game she cheats at, but they always say she cheats. And I'm cheating! I sold all of your stuff for a modest sum and you're sleeping on the couch tonight."

"Well, of course I am. I don't have a room. But the couch is very comfortable," Kensuke™ commented, smiling. "I don't mind at all!"

Biiko™ groaned. "No, no! Not you, Mallory-oniichan, Kensuke™, Kensuke™! He's on the couch!"

"Oh. Well, I don't think Kensuke™ would mind either. After all, clearly Biiko™ is angry at him and it's best to back off a bit and talk to her later to try and smooth things out, right?"

Pouting, Biiko™ sagged a bit in disappointment. "Mallory, that's no fun! Couples on the soap operas are always fighting and plotting and stuff. C'mon, play along!"

"Right, right," Kensuke™ agreed, shaking his arms loose and trying to get back into character. "Well, okay... hey! I work hard for this family too, honey! And I'm doing the best I can! And... and I'm a better husband than any mailman could be!"

The door flew off its hinges, as a burly, muscle-bound guy in camouflage and bandoliers loaded with ammo suitable for his heavy machine gun burst onto the scene.

"GRRRR!! I'm the MAILMAN!" Muscles Manslaughter™ shouted. "And I'm gonna kick your butt!"

A Kensuke™ shaped hole in the air formed as he zipped behind his wife to hide, pointing at the massive action figure in shock. "THAT'S the mailman!?"

"I don't have a mailman action figure, they don't make them," Biiko™ noted while her husband was promptly manhandled by the man who cuckolded him. "Anyway, we're leaving you! And here are legal papers entitling me to 50% of everything that you make in future years to support me, along with appropriate tax forms to include the nondeductible amounts on your annual return. Okay, honey?"

Kensuke™'s eyes rolled around funny after Muscles Manslaughter™ bounced his head off the floor for the sixth time. "Okay, honey, whatever you say," he groggily replied.

The earth began to shake, as plastic furniture toppled over. Muscles Manslaughter™ fell on his side in mid-heroic lantern-jawed action pose.

"Wh-what's that?!" Kensuke™ asked, scrabbling against a wall in fear.

Biiko™ stared in horror at the giant yellow eye staring in at her through the window. "Oh no! Very bad! Most terrible Mecha-Lizard King™ is attacking the city! We're done for! I'll use my emergency ejector seat. Goodbye forever, husband!"

"ROAR! ROAR!" Mecha-Lizard King™ roared in a very young girlish voice.

"W-wait! Take me with you! I don't want to die!" Kensuke™ shouted, waving his arms in protest.

Biiko™ buckled her pretty pink seat belt, pulling a lever to open the house's skylight. "You should have thought of that before you kept leaving the toilet seat up. Bye!"

With a sound of roaring rockets, she was gone. The walls crumbled and shook, and Kensuke™ screamed in absolute terror as the giant green scaled foot came crushing down on him...

- - - -

"But since Biiko™ got Kensuke™ to take out monster accident insurance the prior fiscal year, the premiums paid out with double indemnity and she lived happily ever after!" Eiko declared, hugging her Biiko™ dolly while Kensuke™'s legs stuck out under the ruined doll house. "The end. Wai! I love a happy ending."

"......." Mallory spoke, staring at the gruesome fate his poor avatar met.

"Don't worry, oniichan! I'm gonna be getting a new dollhouse next week anyway. That was a lot of fun! Don't you think so?"

".............." Mallory continued.

Eiko cocked her head, peering at him curiously. "Oniichan?"

"Huh—? Oh, ah, yes?"

"I want you to make Eiko-chan a promise," she said, suddenly serious. "You'll do that, right?"

"Err... I think it depends on what the promise is," he replied, recalling the EULA and even the hot dog incident. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me, fool me three times—

"You'll be a better husband than that to Meiko-oneechan, right?"

—he fell over.

"Ha ha ha! Oh, Eiko, you're so cute when you're joking around!!!" he exclaimed after popping to his feet and gathering up the strewn laundry at subsonic speeds. "Well, it was very fun but I have to go study for the REC test now! So much to do, so much to do!"

"Hey, our hour isn't done yet!" Eiko complained.

"I had a lot of fun! Put it on my tab, I'll play with you another time!" Mallory replied 0.3 seconds before he was out the door.

The young Mirai sister pouted. He hadn't said if he promised or not...


Cooking, cleaning, laundry, cooking, cleaning, laundry... studying? Cooking.

Cooking was simpler with only the Mirai sisters in the house; Lorelei was missing again, presumably off somewhere having more fun than Mallory was. Not that he didn't enjoy cooking, but the tedium of daily chores was really bringing him down. Mind you, the tedium meant he wasn't able to study for the REC, which was a bad thing considering he was only on page six. The tedium also meant he wasn't able to study for the REC, which was a relief because every time he looked at the datapad, he felt too woefully inadequate to use big words like 'woefully inadequate'...

Perhaps it was the sigh of boredom that sent him off on his journey that evening.

"S'matter, having breathing problems?" Meiko asked, between spoonfuls of the new soup concoction Mallory had whipped up.

"Ah, no, I'm quite well," Mallory replied, halting his sigh so fast it came out as 'sig'. "In fact, the air around here is much nicer than it was at Urbana. It's more like home, really!"

"Eiko-chan thinks oniichan's bored," Eiko said, kicking her feet a bit under the table for fun, while she listlessly played with her soup spoon. "I'm bored too. I's Land is nice but I want a cheeseburger and they're all vegetarians here! I wish this stupid week was over so we could go..."

"For starters, his name is not 'oniichan,'" Meiko corrected, trying to sound firm rather than angry at this... while giving Mallory the Evil Eye. "He's named Heisenberg, not Mirai. So he's not your big brother. Second... if you're good and eat... drink? Mallory, do you drink soup or eat it? You're the food expert."

"What? Uh, Dad usually said 'finish your soup'. So, um, I don't know."

"Finish your soup, Eiko... and I'll take you out for ice cream," Meiko completed, adding a smile that melted her earlier flare of anger. "It's not a cheeseburger, but it'll be fun, right?"

"Ice cream! Ice cream!" Eiko cheered. "I'd eat five bowls of soup for some ice cream! I want a cone of rocky road and a sundae with hot sauce and some popsicles to put in the freezer for later. We can afford it, right?"

"I'll find some room in the budget, imouto. Now finish up your soup, then we—"

Empty spoon clattered into empty bowl, and feet hit the floor running while "I'll go get my shoes on!" echoed in the space that Eiko Mirai previously occupied. Due to lack of high speed time lapse photography equipment, the exact process which led to this end result would be lost to the sands of time.

"Wow, I guess she really liked my soup," Mallory incorrectly guessed, with a bright smile. "She's really great, isn't she? I... err... Meiko?"

"You're NOT her big brother," Meiko warned, standing upright in order to tower over the boy as best as her height would allow. "So don't go getting chummy. You're our houseboy, and in a month, you'd better be our Reality Engineer or you're out on your ear. You've been studying your datapad, right?"

"Yes ma'am," Mallory lied, tapping the flat techie widget lying on the table by his spoon.

Meiko pulled her F.P. pocket organizer from her, well, pocket. "Good. I'm beaming an address into your datapad... while I'm getting ice cream with MY sister, I want you to take Mellow Fellow's taxi to this reality and fetch Kisei. She's due back tonight, and it'd save us some money if Mellow handles the transport."

"Mellow's...? You mean you want me to leave I's Land?"

"You're bored, aren't you?" Meiko asked, pocketing her, well, pocket organizer. "Get some fresh air and enjoy the trip. But don't get sidetracked, I want you back here before we return. Got it?"

"Got it!" Mallory declared, rising to his feet. "You can count on me, Miss Mirai! As your, err, houseboy, it's my duty to complete this task with efficiency and valor and determination and... and stuff! I—"

"Yes, whatever."

Mallory studied the digital (watermarked, copy protected, digital rights managed) business card that had been transferred to his datapad. One word stuck out like a green thumb. "It's a reality called Arboria?" he asked, after looking up. "That word means nature and plants and trees and stuff, right?"

"...more or less," Meiko decided after a moment's hesitation. "But bring a scarf to keep wrapped around your mouth, too. Makes it easier to breathe there..."

- - - -

If any gods watched over this land, they either abandoned it in disgust or died in shame hundreds of years ago.

Blasted pockmarks were the only decoration on the rocky landscape... craters and holes torn from the bleeding landscape, red clay kicked up in explosions, pulverized dust settling like a layer of choking filth on top of every surface. No mountains. No trees. No rivers. Only holes, and the ground which wore the holes like still-open wounds.

The sky itself was as red as blood, poisoned clouds from an ecosystem gone horribly awry hovering dangerously overhead with threats of acidic rains made every minute. This was a world which had been kicked, beaten, torn limb from limb and left for dead... only not to be allowed to die, only to suffer through eternity. And it loathed all who walked on its mangled form, those who kept it from the still silence of a peaceful final rest...

"Daaaaaaaamn," was Mellow Fellow's professional assessment, as he peered out the window of his taxi. "Yo, man, you SURE this be the right place? Looks like the armpit 'o Bablyonia..."

Mallory tugged the thick scarf down a bit, so he could at least see over the top of it. "I... THINF thif iff tha plaffe," he spoke without absolute determination. "If Aforia, riff?"

"Arboria, yeah... uh, Mallory, don't be thinkin' I'm any less of a buddy, but I think I be takin' off, yah?" Mellow Fellow said, shivering slightly as a cold wind blew into his hut. "This place eats at me. You ready to go, you call me back, kay?"

Shrugging into the coat he had pulled on before leaving the House, Mallory stepped out of the hut. "If okay," he called over his shoulder. "Fo, fo. I'll call."

Without a thank you, Mellow Fellow's Smiling Taxi Service departed in a brief purple flash, leaving Mallory standing in front of the only structure in this world... a large building, with a flickering green neon sign reading DUKE'S MUNITIONS. The name matched the address Meiko gave him... even if he couldn't say he cared for the sights.

He quickly jogged over to the building, and pushed open the rusted double doors...

Into a fairly nice lobby, all things considered. The floor was a dusty and battered iron grating, but there was a couch, a coffee table loaded with magazines that appealed to warlords and assassins and mercenaries alike, and even a RealNet audio receiver tuned into some easy listening music.

More importantly, there was someone Mallory presumed to be Duke, sitting behind the counter leafing through a copy of Modern Massacre Monthly, in camo fatigues that were far too large for his wiry thin frame.

"Hey, welcome to Duke's Munitions," he greeted with a friendly little nod. "Usually we ask that folks call ahead and schedule a meeting... but hey, beggars can't be choosers. How can I help you? Looking for a weapon? Ammunition? Access to our training grounds? We have excellent corporate rates for weekend survival seminars. ...hey, haven't I seen you somewhere before?"

"I don't think so... ah, I'm looking for someone named Kisei," Mallory spoke, after tugging down the scarf enough to talk without inserting the letter F into every word he spoke. "She's here training, and her boss sent me to pick her up... although, um, I'm going to need to use your RealNet terminal to call for my ride, he didn't want to hang around... what's WITH this place? I wouldn't expect anybody to run a business here..."

"The real estate is cheap and needs no upkeep," Duke said with a grin, sliding his magazine aside on the counter. It was a topic he liked to talk about, since it made him look particularly clever. "I bought the license off some settlers who were leaving in a hurry after a wartime biological disaster. They were just gonna shut the engine down, but engines aren't cheap, and it'd cost a bundle to have a whole new world coded into it or get the existing one repaired... and for what I do, it's actually better to leave it as is."

"Ah, I see! That's very clever of you!" Mallory agreed, as he was easily impressed. "Uh... so what DO you do, exactly? Sell guns and stuff?"

"Yep! Buy, sell, trade... and provide training grounds, like I said. They're... well, here, take a look..."

Duke turned a nearby RealNet Workstation monitor around so Mallory could see. A few keyboard clicks later, and a window appeared with a streaming video feed of Kisei at work.

She was lying flat on the rocky ground, a breathing mask pulled up over her face... leaving only her eyes exposed. One was squeezed shut tightly, the other staring through the scope of an ordinary-looking sniper rifle with a wooden stock and a steel scope. It took Mallory a moment to notice the video artifacts that proved this was a moving image... Kisei made no noticeable motion whatsoever, not even visibly breathing.

"Kisei knows how to shoot a gun?" Mallory asked, puzzled.

"How long have you been living with her not to know that?" Duke asked, peering at the boy incredulously. "Of course she does. She's a professional sniper and military tactician. Here, lemme... there. See that other video window? The four targets lined up? She's practicing on them. Check this—been lying there about twenty minutes now, just like that. Best pro I've ever seen walk through my doors. Cold. Intense. Precise. Patient. DAMN, she's impressive—"

A tiny hole appeared dead in the center of the first target. Mallory hadn't noticed a single flicker of movement in the window that showed Kisei.

"Gosh," he said. "She hit that thing right in the center! That's good, right?"

"...yes, that's good. She—"

The next target sprouted a tiny dart, pegged exactly in the center of the interlocking red and white circles.

"Tranquilizer shot," Duke explained. "She told me your boss doesn't take missions that involve killing people, so she buys a lot of different types of ammo like that—"

The third target glowed brightly, before melting to red hot slag. The camera image washed out temporarily, the light overpowering it momentarily.

"Compressed heat pulse," the man answered before Mallory could ask.

The fourth target vanished, along with the first two and the remains of the third. As did the camera that was tracking them, the video image going to static.

Of course, far more noticeable than that was the muffled explosion sound and the way the entire building shook. Dust eddies whirled up from the floor briefly, before settling back down.

"Err" Mallory said, glancing around nervously. "And that last one...?"

"Miniaturized tactical nuclear explosive," Duke answered calmly.

"Wha...?! But those are really really really big explosions!" Mallory exclaimed, his limited knowledge of the world proving to be just enough to make do. "She'd be killed!"

"Of course not. The targets were five miles away from her," Duke responded. "My standard issue 86a miniature tactical nuclear explosive sniper shells have a blast radius of one mile only with a clean, accelerated radioactive half life. Only the finest from Duke's Munitions!"

"...five.... miles," Mallory repeated, realizing for the first time that the targets and Kisei were (in reality) not two inches of workstation video screen apart. "That far away, and she still managed to... ... uh. Wow. I mean... wow!"

"Like I said... damn, she's impressive," Duke said, with no small amount of reverence in his tone. "It's a shame she's working for a podunk troubleshooting consultant outfit like yours—no offense, 'course. But man, she used to take higher profile jobs where she could really FLEX that skill! She'd be in and out of here every week picking up supplies for all sorts of missions, from assassinations to covert ops to amphibious squad-based night raids! Hardcore paramilitary work for hire at its finest, man! When he was still alive, I'm tellin' you, she was like death incarnate, pale horse riding—"

By this point, Kisei was no longer visible on the camera feed. She was instead visible directly in front of Duke, glaring down at the smaller man with a look blazingly fierce enough to put the 34c Compressed Heat Pulse Round's melting point to shame.

For a change, Mallory realized it was in his best interests to stay quiet and did so.

"... uh... you want those four ammo types, right?" Duke asked, squirming under that gaze and trying to deflect it into safer territory. "I can get you bulk boxes at discount—"

"We have discussed improper disclosure of information, yes?" Kisei asked, adding a subtle touch of acid to her calm words. "I was understanding that your establishment took pride in its customer privacy..."

"I got carried away. Mistakes were made," Duke readily admitted, stepping back once to retain some personal space as Kisei leaned closer. "But... I mean, uh, really..."

"Yes?" Kisei asked, trying to sound politely inquisitive. "You mean, really?"

"Look, you're wasted on that woman, okay?" Duke finally spoke, deciding to let it out. "I KNOW you. You KNOW me. We could get something going without her! Or hell, do some work on the side, I know you're usually sitting around doing nothing around that house. If you'd let me arrange you some work, act as a middleman, I could get you MUCH higher profile stuff, just like the good old—"

The sound of Kisei's scorecard smacking down on the counter was like a crack shot from a gun.

"I am Meiko Mirai's retainer," Kisei explained, smooth and calm once more. "The way says that fealty to one's master is all. Her requests are my duty to obey. She does not wish me to freelance, therefore I do not seek any freelance work. She does not wish me to kill, therefore I do not kill. Yes, I will take ten boxes of each ammo type I have tested today, along with ten extra of the tranq rounds. And to assure that our working relationship stays fruitful, please do not dishonor me ever again by suggesting I break my oaths. Of course, I mean no disrespect by this. Do you understand, Lawrence?"

"Yes'm," 'Duke' spoke quickly, running the scorecard through a reader next to his workstation. "I'll go in the back and fetch your ammo right away. Mallory, you can call for your ride from this workstation. Be back right away. Right away."

He disappeared like a shot. (Lots of things in this place worked best with military metaphors.)

Not able to deal well with awkward silence, Mallory cleared his throat of some of Arboria's dust, and spoke up. "Err... for the record, I wasn't really asking him about you," he said. "I wouldn't want to invade your privacy, Miss Kisei..."

"I know," Kisei spoke, turning to face him... without the evil glare. "You have many faults, Mallory Heisenberg, but impolite behavior is not one of them. Aside from entering my room without permission the other day, of course."

"Eh, ah, right. Sorry about—"

"You have apologized once already. There is no need for a second apology. You go farther out of your way to be polite than is required for one in your position."

"Err... but we're both sort of in the same position," Mallory reasoned. "We're both hired by Meiko to do a job. Right? So I should do my best to be polite and impress her, and—"

Kisei almost rolled her eyes. Almost.

"Believe me... our positions are not the same. But as you please, Mallory Heisenberg. Don't you have a call to be making?"

"Call? Call! Right, right..."

The call was placed, ammo was packaged up, the pair returned to I's Land, Kisei went to her room, Mallory went to his couch, and that was the end of that. No important words were exchanged.


The HARMONIC SYNC parameter, which must be present, contains a textual definition of the textual convention, which provides all semantic definitions necessary for cross-induction generator implementation, and should embody any information which would otherwise be communicated in any RNS.1 commentary annotations associated with the object.

Note that, in order to conform to the RNS.1 syntax, the entire flow sequence of this reality generation wave must be prefixed / suffixed by double ACK pulses, and therefore cannot itself contain double ACK pulses, although the value may be multi-wave.

The ASYNCRONOUS SYNC parameter, which must be present in cases when HARMONIC SYNC is DISHARMONIC across the third pylon, defines abstract data structures corresponding to the textual convention. The data structure must be one of the alternatives defined in the ObjectSyntax PHYSICS or the METAPHYSICS construct (see section 7.1 in [2]).

The remainder of the tertiary reality wave harmonic pylon interface codec is trivial and left as an exercise to the reader.

"Progress, Professor Bates?"

Mallory's brain was too soaked in novocaine-esque reality engineering trivia to panic at the surprise voice. Instead he slowly looked up, eyes slightly glazed over.

"Hellllo?" Mallory greeted slowly. "Oh, Meiko. Professor who?"

"You're making progress, yes?" she asked, looking down at the boy who was lying on the couch. "I haven't seen you reading from that thing too often, you know... I had assumed after our little chat that night—"

"No no, I'm reading," he replied quickly, skipping past four screens of data with a jitter of the thumb. "It's really amazing stuff! I mean... harmonic... wave pool... pylon... things. Really amazing stuff!"

"Oh? So you know the basics of reality generation, then?" Meiko asked, sitting on the coffee table for lack of a better place to sit. "Prove it."

"Prove...? Well. The... okay. The engines act like this thing that generates reality," Mallory tried to explain, disconnected bits of technobabble floating around his brainpan as he wildly grasped at straws with the clock ticking and the fat lady singing. "They do it by creating pulses through absolutely pure water using these complex math thingys, which somehow set up, err, these waves that radiate outward and, um... reality! There."

" aren't studying at all, are you."

"Wha—? No no, I am! See? Here's me pushing this little button and making text go by! Pushpushpushpush..."

"Get real. Water waves that make reality? What, so Reality Engines are just kiddie swimming pools?" Meiko mocked, looking more than slightly annoyed. "You aren't studying at all! If you think you're gonna get by in MY house just cooking and clean—"

Meiko found her world view occupied by a large diagram of a water molecule.

"WATER!" Mallory exclaimed at last, out of breath from the frantic button pushing. "See? I knew I remembered that! Professor Archimedes Bates the First discovered that absolutely pure water, when set up with resonating waves in a special machine he invented loaded with a really complex computer program he also invented... it makes a reality bubble. If you control the program that defines the contents and behaviors of the bubble, you get... you get a Reality! And even if it was such a simple idea, because nobody had ever thought to apply it in this way nor had they figured out the math behind it, Reality Engineering went undiscovered until that day. Ha! See? I studied!"

"No, you're reading off the screen," Meiko noted, glancing over her shoulder to where Mallory had snuck around behind her to better see the screen.

"Err, well, I still got the water part right," Mallory said, trying to find some scrap of victory. "So you can't say I haven't been studying! Maybe not as much as I SHOULD, but I have been studying, and I WILL be a Reality Engineer like my mother before me and be of invaluable help to your home and family! RIGHT!"

"...your excitement over this is scaring me. I'm leaving now," Meiko noted, getting up. "Just as soon as I find Lorelei. Which is why I bugged you in the first place, actually. Where is she? I checked her room and the onsen, no go..."

"On-scene?" Mallory asked, confused.

"Onsen. Sort of an indoor hot spring and bath, Nipponese concept, very popular among corporate success types. We've got one. You didn't know? It's the green door next to the stairs."

"Uh... I thought it was just for decoration, since it's just sort of propped up against the wall..."

"No, it's... wait, I'm getting sidetracked," Meiko realized. "I'll explain about the Onsen-of-the-Month later. Lorelei. Where? Do you know? Are you of any use at all, Houseboy?"

"Lore—oh! Yeah, she told me she was going deep sea diving with some guy named... suhven? Seven? Sven? Someone visiting I's Land from a place that she tells me has a great deal of cakes made of beef! Although I've never heard of a recipe for 'beefcake'. Hmm. Maybe I should try to make some for dinner tonight..."

Meiko grumbled under her breath, but not at Mallory's ignorance. "Dammit. I TOLD her that my appointment was for today... count me out of dinner, houseboy. I'll be eating out. I've got to take care of my quarterly... Lorelei usually comes with me, but I'm not putting on a scuba tank just to fetch her. And for a change, I won't make you do it, either."

"'Quarterly'?" he asked, memory pulling a tidbit from multiple days previous. "Uh, is it anything I can help with, then? Since she's not here, I mean..."

"No. No, no. No. No no NO," Meiko affirmed, stepping back and away from him. "You have to study, and this is NOT the sort of thing that you should be—"

"I can study later!" he promised, getting to his feet and pressing the issue (by advancing on her with hands reaching for her in a scary way.) "Take me with you! I'm dying of boredom! I'll do whatever it takes! I learn fast! I can help you with the 'quarterly'—"

The young woman put up a hand in Mallory's face, to block him from getting any closer. This worked as the two were about equal height, but her arms were a wee bit longer.

"If you promise to obey every word I say and not freak out and make a scene and embarrass me with your hick boy roots," she said quickly without pausing for breath or dramatic purpose in order to speak quickly without pause, "Then..... okay. I need someone to carry the stuff, anyway."

"Okay! I'd be happy to help, Miss Mirai! What stuff will I be carrying?"

- - - -

"Women's underwear?!"

It's a certain law in the universe that two statements which connect at an abstract level will not connect at a concrete level.

This means that between the question and the answer, there was a period of time in which the following events transpired:

  1. Calling Mellow Fellow for a taxi ride,
  2. Trying to find Meiko's purse, which had been misplaced,
  3. Taking the taxi to Urbana,
  4. Navigating the sidewalk crowds,
  5. Entering the ConsuTopia MegaShopping PlazaComplex,
  6. Navigating the shopping crowds,
  7. Arriving at Sylvie's Silks,
  8. Meiko mentioning that she had to buy some underwear.

"Of course," Meiko replied, digging her scorecard out of her purse as they stood in front of the shop. "The new spring season just launched today, and if I want to get in on this quarter's fashion trends, I have to buy before anyone else. We're going to be getting underwear, skirts, blouses, jackets, shoes, and other items today so I can update my wardrobe. It's a cost of doing business in the modern age, everybody knows that—if you're not wearing the latest power ensemble for women in business, others will notice and you lose leverage at the negotiating table. Therefore, it's always smart to look your best. ...Mallory, you're staring at that plastic mannequin's breasts."

"No I'm not," Mallory lied, glancing aside. "Uhm. So. We'll be going in, then?"

He found a purse roughly shoved into his limp hands.

"No, I am going in," Meiko corrected. "You are waiting out here. I have this feeling that the polite farmboy in you who's never touched a girl before would freak out and cause a huge scene if you stepped into that place. For your sake and my sanity, you will stay out here while I will shop."

"H-Hey, I would not cause a scene," Mallory defended. "I mean, I handle your underwear all the time when I do laundry! ...of course that's strictly business and I don't think of it as clothes that have touched any particular places on your body that I wouldn't mention in specific—"

Meiko pressed a finger to his lips.

"Stop. Just... stop right there. Before you dig yourself any deeper," she warned, not QUITE angry, but clearly indicating that she could get very angry if need be.

Mallory stepped back a bit to avoid the finger. "Uh, right. —and I have too touched a girl before. So you're wrong there."

"Really? When?"

"Uh... just now, when you did that thing with your finger. And you did pick me up and throw me out of your house way back when! Plus I think there was this girl in my Bakery II class who gave me a pencil once and I touched her finger. And Lorelei was, er, touching me at one point too, so actually it's a lot of girls, and... I think I'll be quiet now."

"Good," Meiko spoke with a capital G and a look that could K. She pointed to a nearby wall. "Go stand there. I won't be too long, I have a tailor's appointment to make in twenty minutes."

"Gotcha! I'll be right over here!" he replied, holding her purse and waving as she entered the store of feminine unmentionables.

Then he glanced at the wall, where four other guys holding purses were also waiting.

"You too, huh?" one asked him, with a knowing look.

- - - -

In the 15.7 minutes that followed, Mallory steeled himself to the concept of carrying around Meiko's new underwear. Of course, the steel willpower proved useless when Meiko emerged carrying a perfectly harmless shopping bag loaded with tissue paper wrapped bundles that did nothing to set off Mallory's Nervousness Nerve.

He also spent a lot of time being heckled by the other men waiting in line, who knew an easy target when they saw one, and felt the need to assert their manliness to balance out standing around holding a purse.

"Man, what are you, her boyfriend or her slave?"

"Ah, I'm not her boyfriend—"

"Slave, then."

"I'm not that either! I'm... I'm her HOUSEBOY!"

Needless to say, he didn't come off looking like Muscles Manslaughter™ after that.

Fortunately, Meiko's tailor proved not to be an assault on his manhood, as he was a she. A she who was so horrified at Mallory's ripped-up jeans and his battered gray sweatshirt that she decided to pretend he didn't exist from that point onward. (Except when she had to rub anything with a cloth that Mallory touched in case it became contaminated.) In return, Mallory got to experience the joy of sitting around holding the purse again, but at least this time he could enter the store and watch as Meiko modeled various snappy-looking business ensembles in front of various shiny-looking mirrors.

And model she did, taking her time to turn this way and that, study each article of clothing from various acute angles, all while the tailor sat back quietly and watched.

"I don't know..." Meiko spoke, uncertain as she tugged on a black vest that was nearly identical to her last-seasonly one. "What do you think, Mallory? Should I go with the vest in the jet, the onyx, or black?"

"Uh... I like the dark one," he wisely answered.

"And the skirt, does this work? I mean, I know that white is very in this season, but I feel like I should be adding a little bit of color. Red, maybe? Or is that too strong? What says 'I'm a modern girl with an eye on the future and I'm going to crush your soul at the negotiating table and take you for everything you have while you kiss my feet and beg me for more?'"

"Clothing can SAY that?"

"Well, of course!" Meiko exclaimed, turning to face him. "Appearances are the first criteria others judge you by! That's when you have to establish your position. So, what color?"

His glance flickered to Meiko's dark blue skirt she walked in there with.

"Blue," he decided. "Blue works. I mean, it's... an intimidating, color, right? I don't know why, but it intimidates me quite a bit..."

- - - -

Equally intimidating: the common hot dog.

When he bumped into the cart-pushing chef at Urbana on his first day away from home, he wanted to sample these 'hot dogs' the man had mentioned. Of course, Eiko distracted him and grifted him for five credits instead, causing him to miss his shot at some genuine non-Grünwaldian cuisine.

Now that he'd had a bite of it, he wasn't sure he ever wanted to stray from his home menu again.

"I mean, it's... it's just STUFF! I can't even tell what stuff it is, and I usually get good marks in Taste Appreciation!" he exclaimed, still perplexed by the 'delicacy', while Meiko sipped a lemonade and gave him a 'duh' sort of look.

"Of course it's stuff," she said, setting down her lemonade. "It's not exactly a five-star dinner, it's one of those greasy, fatty, tasty things you grab when you're in a hurry or don't have a knife and fork or chopsticks..."

"But... but how could anyone stand to eat this, even in a casual sense?" he insisted. "It might not actually be meat! I can't tell! That's very frightening, you know! If I didn't know any better, I'd guess this was, like... compressed pig snouts and tails and things..."

"This is reality, houseboy," Meiko reminded him, vaguely annoyed. "Here, people don't cook that often. They get takeout, they buy prepackaged stuff, they stick to things you can warm up and eat fast. We don't set up feasts three times a day to savor the delicate tastes and fortify our bodies with vitamins and minerals. Before you came along we were living off cup ramen, instant beefbowl, microwaved french fries, hamburgers, and sandwiches..."

Mallory nudged his remaining uneaten hot dog away, in favor of his side salad. "It's a good thing I came along, then," he said, spearing a forkful of salad. "You guys would waste away without proper nutrition! Um, does that mean you like my cooking? I'm doing a good job?"

"Uh... well... yeah, of course," Meiko spoke, shifting from uneasiness to false gruffness. "Sheesh, isn't it obvious? But I forget, it's Houseboy I'm talking to here... do you constantly need positive reinforcement? Are you that desperate to make us all happy?"

"I.. wouldn't say I'm desperate," he replied, in his own meek defense, salad thusly forgotten. "I'm just trying to make sure you guys are happy with my work..."

"The house is clean and we're well fed. In a month we'll have an engine repairman on board. Beyond that, I shouldn't care... I'm your boss, after all. And you're doing a job. And that's all there is! Honestly, it's so annoying... quit bugging me about it!"

"Okay, okay," Mallory agreed, despite not being exactly sure what he was agreeing to. "I'm only trying to help..."

"'I'm only trying to help,'" she replied in a whiny mocking voice. "Honestly! If I didn't know any better, I'd assume Mallory WAS a girl's name! You act just like girls do back in Nippon. Always so meek and apologetic and desperate to please... and I can't stand that!"

"I'm trying to stop apologizing so much, I swear! I know it's sort of annoying you guys—"

"Oh, of COURSE Lorelei doesn't mind, since she likes having a slave around the house," Meiko continued to rant. "And Kisei doesn't care one way or another about anybody beyond her duty. And Eiko... Eiko...! Argh! ...forget it. Just forget it. I have one more errand to run and then we're leaving. Wait here with the bags."

Mallory fought a panic attack, under that sort of assault. "Wait? Uh, here? Why? I can—"

"Because I want some time alone, that's why! I hate it when I get this angry about something!" Meiko replied, rising to her feet fast enough to knock her chair 2.6 feet away. "I'm supposed to be businesslike and always in control of a situation while OTHERS are getting emotional, and... forget it! Forget it! Sit. Stay. Good boy."

Before he could manage a 'but' or an 'erm' or an 'uh', she was gone, marching off and into a store three mall slots down the hallway.

He slumped in his chair, grabbed his hot dog, and took a bite in some sort penance ritual.

Why? Why was it going so wrong? He didn't WANT to make any of them angry. He always prided himself on being friendly to everybody... to the people in his village, to the elders, even to the offworlders who traded with them. Even when few of his peers wanted anything to do with offworlders... Mallory treated everybody the same way. With respect, and with a desire to make them happy...

And he wasn't making Meiko happy.

She doesn't like people without a spine, Lorelei had told him. Kisei had told him he apologized too much for someone of his station... and that his relation to Meiko was not appropriate for that.

Ever since he left home, he was so desperate to please... always with the fear of rejection, especially since Meiko tried once to physically boot him from the premises, leave him stranded and alone in this crazy outside world... was he really going overboard from that fear? Was it possible to be TOO nice to people? A good houseboy would...

She kept calling him 'Houseboy'. Because someone in that station WOULD be a slavish, devoted lackey, maid, butler, servant. Kisei said as much that he wasn't a servant... or maybe Meiko didn't want Mallory to be a servant...

Needless to say, conflicting ideas jousted with big double-ended padded sticks like cheaply televised gladiator combat inside Mallory's brain. Tugging at his hair, he stewed in the frustration, trying to figure out what he should be, what they wanted him to be.

What did HE want to be? What did HE want to do? Not just in relation to what others wanted...

He really wanted to follow her.

If he didn't, she'd finish her shopping, and it'd be a quiet, awkward ride home and then she probably wouldn't speak to him again for a long time. Unless she had a houseboy sort of order, since that's all she thought he could be. She told him not to follow, but rather than struggle to please her...

Mallory scooped up the various bags, several per arm, and hurried off after her. Something rare clicked in his head, burning with the desire to make things right with Meiko, and he knew exactly what he wanted to do... and what he had to do.

- - - -

"Hey!" Skreee.

The first a rather forceful greeting, the second the sound of Mallory's sneakers squeaking to a halt against the tiny toy store's tile floor.

Meiko's head turned quickly towards the sound, her hands almost dropping the boxed doll that she was examining. Her frown deepened like a strip mine on seeing who had 'Hey'd her.

"I thought I told you to stay put, Houseboy," she barked off. "I said I'd be back in a minute, so—"

In terms of expected / projected behavior, Meiko was figuring on one of two reactions from her Houseboy.

  1. Begging apology for interrupting and backing slowly out of the store while mumbling.
  2. A slim chance of an angry reaction for how she yelled at him, which would lead to more yelling, which she really wanted to do despite not wanting to lose control.

Instead, she got

  1. A friendly smile, and a slow approach as Mallory studied the toy she held in her hands.

"You're buying a toy for Eiko, right?" he asked, tone upbeat but not overly so. In control of himself, unlike others present. "Isn't that an Aquarius Waterslide Biiko™?"

It took Meiko multiple moments to come to grips with option 3, but her business sense took control: when your opponent in negotiation was calm and you were emotional, he had leverage. And she wouldn't allow that. She had to try...

"...yes, it's a Biiko™ doll," she replied, holding the box up to study the swimsuit-wearing 1/6th size woman inside. "How do you know that?"

"Because she already has one," Mallory replied smoothly. "So you should probably pick something else... ah, no no, not that one, she already has that Kensuke™... err, Meiko? What's wrong?"

The second box she had picked up crumpled slightly in her grip. And she gave up on keeping her control.

"...I should have known that," she replied, quietly. Half angry, half.. other. "I should know what dolls she has. I give her the allowance to buy them. I've played dollhouse with her before... I'm her sister and I should know these things. I have to spend a lot of money to keep up my business wardrobe, so much I can't even get her a new dollhouse, but the least I can do is buy her a doll... and even if I haven't played with her lately, I should certainly know things that even my Houseboy knows..."

"Well, uh, she DOES have a lot of dolls," he replied, taking the box from her hands to put back on the shelf. "I doubt even she could list them all from memory. So we just pick one that we don't THINK she has, and cross our fingers and throw salt over our shoulder while looking for a tea stem turned upright. Right?"

"You're not her big brother, you know. I don't like her calling you that."


"I'm the only family she has," Meiko spoke, turning to face Mallory... a serious expression, but no longer with anger. "I've done my best to raise her, to nurture her interests and encourage her towards her future... because nobody else would. You remember what I told you the day we had the Ping Pong match, right?"

"The match...? I... uh, I think I... ah! Right! You're a Ping Pong champion! Of... of an... oh. Oh, right..."

"Seven Lucky Gods Street Orphanage, in Nippon," she recited. "I'm the only family she has, because Mother and Father are gone... a traffic accident, when I was little and she was barely a toddler. We don't really have any distant family, aunts and uncles... I guess the only thing lucky about the Mirai family is the name of the street we ended up on... look. Look, my point is, you're not a Mirai. And I don't want you... I don't know if I'm happy with how close you are to Eiko. And I didn't even know she had that doll already..."

"Uh... it's okay, it's okay. I understand! Really. I don't understand much, but people? I understand people," Mallory spoke, trying to be reassuring. "I really like Eiko. She's a bright girl, and very friendly! But I know I'm not her real brother. I'm not trying to be one—I'm just friendly to everybody. It's guess it's my nature. I can even be friendly to people nobody else wants to be friendly to. Sometimes it looks kind of silly, since I like people to be happy... so I apologize too much, I try too hard to please them... but in the end I'm just trying to be a good person, like my father raised me to be. And like my mother would want me to be, I think."

"Your mother's dead, isn't she?" Meiko guessed.

"Yeah, she died a little after I was born," Mallory replied, not losing his light tone. "I never got to know her. But it's okay... because I know I'm doing my best to make her happy. I know she's gone and she can't see what I'm doing since she's buried on Sleep Hill, but she was Shinto, so... if she was right about that religious stuff, maybe she can see me!"

"Golly. That's so annoyingly upbeat of you," Meiko said, without any real annoyance in her voice... and a little bit of a smile. "You're really like this, aren't you? It's not just some big act to impress people and make them like you..."

"Umm, not that I know of. I'm not much of an actor; you should have seen me in my school play years ago. I was playing the carrot in our Salad Comedy and I knocked the bowl over... the guy playing thousand island dressing got mad and gave me a black eye!"

"Salad... Com.... noo, on second thought, I don't think I want to solidify my mental image of that. It's already going to be nightmare-inducing."

"Uh, sorry..."

Meiko did the eye-rolling thing. "Jeez, forget it. All right... we gotta get home soon. Time to pick a doll. Which do you think Eiko would like?"

"Me? I don't know anything about dolls. I just collect trading cards, comics, magazines, action figures, model kits, novelty goods and stuff like that from all around the multiverse..! But no dolls. Or do action figures count..? "

"Collect...? Is that what all the junk is that's in your closet? I was wondering... all right, all right..."

With a swift arm motion, she grabbed the nearest long cardboard box off the shelf, and showed it to Mallory.

"These, then," she replied. "Current season Love & Hate dolls of Alex Gunthar and Tia Liason. She likes that soap opera, but I know for a FACT she has no toys from it. And they're on sale, so we can easily buy the two-in-one box set, and... what now? She doesn't have these, Mallory, you can quit staring at them..."

"No no, it's that, that," he replied, poking at the clear plastic between the manly Alex and the feminine Tia. "It comes with a cardboard moonlit beach backdrop!"

"Pretty cheap of them. The higher grade toys have plastic playsets—"

"It looks a lot like the sky over I's Land," Mallory continued. "Remember, when you gave me the datapad and we talked while looking at the waves and the moon? That's really neat! It's a place with a great memory, so that makes this the perfect toy buy for Eiko! Right? I mean, I could be wrong... maybe you should consult your F-P thing—?"

Meiko tucked the box under one arm quickly, to obscure the plastic viewing window.

"It's fine," she said sharply. "Let's pay up and get moving."

She stepped ahead of the confused Mallory, striding right up to the sales counter. And stayed ahead of him the whole way back to the house, because she was in control, she had control, and she absolutely would not let him see her blush.


By aligning the constant echo feedback loop, we...

Not happening. Not even attempting to be happening. Barely possibly getting out of the gate in such a way as to suggest the starting of the thing which was happening which was not, in fact, happening.

Some distractions are simply too great to allow one to focus their thoughts, and Lorelei sitting around on Mallory's beloved couch in a nearly nonexistent pair of panties and a tight tank top ranks up there with big lizards stepping on your hometown.

In righteous fury and indignation, Mallory summoned up all his RAGE and exclaimed, "errr..."

"Can't talk. Watching TV," Lorelei indicated, while picking at her left ear, eyes half drooped in boredom as she watched a cheesy martial arts flick.

"But can't you watch somewhere else?" Mallory asked, trying to look at the screen instead. "I sort of have to study for this, and this is my couch, and stuff..."

"First, I can't watch somewhere else; the only other video set in the house is in Eiko's room and she's watching cartoons. Second, this is Meiko's couch, if you wanna get technical. Finally, I could say the same of you: can't you study elsewhere? Oooh!—how about the onsen? Perfect for weary students! Go right on in and soak your cares away!"

"I can't, Meiko's in there," Mallory said.

"Darn. I almost had you..."


"This movie's boring," Lorelei stated, changing tracks in a way that would derail most trains. She flicked the air in front of her, triggering the RealNet Video Set's sensors to toggle the default clock-and-light-show mode back on. Hopping to her feet with parts of her body bouncing more than others, she stretched her arms over her head while arching her back, unkinking muscles in a highly kinky way.

"errrr," Mallory repeated, turning as red as the tomatoes he harvested a little over a week ago. "Does... that mean you're leaving?"

"This house is too boring. I'm outta here," she confirmed... before grabbing the hand not holding the REC test datapad. "And you're coming with me, Houseboy. Flying solo bores me as well. I seek anti-boredom tonight!"

Mallory never before felt the urge to study quite as intensely as he did at that moment, clinging to the datapad despite Lorelei's attempts to drag him to the door. And given that the pad wasn't nailed down to a load-bearing structure, this meant being quite easily dragged around. "H-Hey! I can't leave! I have to study—and you're not even dressed!!"

"...yeah, I guess you got a good point there," Lorelei said, releasing his wrist with a sigh. "Bummer."

"I have a good point?—I mean, of course! Now if you'll excuse me..."

And thus, Lorelei left him alone.

- - - -

That is, for three minutes while she changed into something that only marginally differed from her underwear. It was red and it was tight and it was only a one-piece dress if the straps and buckles that held it together counted.

Minutes later after that, and Mallory was no longer in I's Land, and instead in a world of light and sound and color and bodies pressed together and an intense clawing fear that chilled his flesh to the bones.

All it took was a command of 'The usual, please' to Mellow Fellow, and they were off to a reality called Nocturn. According to Lorelei's explanations, which Mallory could only half-hear over the slamming beat of a musical style that seemed optimized for maximum ear damage, Nocturn was a night club. An entire reality devoted to one night club, albeit a night club with approximately 34,000 specialized miniclubs. She had dragged his body, operating on a sort of shock-induced autopilot, up to an information kiosk.

"Two nights ago I tried 'Ultimate Party'," Lorelei explained, somehow able to pitch her voice to be audible despite the clashing music echoing around the kiosk chamber. She poked various lights on the monolithic information system, trying to call up a map. "Ultimate Party proved to be anything but. All the guys wanted to do was impress me with the pickup lines that they couldn't even deliver properly. So I tried the 'Manhole' next, since I heard it was filled with really hunky guys, and it was. Problem was, they weren't interested in girls. I'm figuring that tonight, since I'm coming WITH a date, I'd head to the 'Swing Thing'... Mallory, are you paying attention?"

"errr," Mallory repeated from earlier, clinging Lorelei's hand for fear of being sucked into the crowd of sweaty hot twentysomethings. "Aaah. Errr. I... oooaoaah. Uhhh..."

"I see you are practicing your vowels! Very good," Lorelei said, with a wry little grin. "Wow, this is really blowing your mind, ain't it? I can't believe you've never been to a party before. What did you farmboys do for kicks on your Saturday nights, country line dancing after raising a barn?"

"Party? Saturday? There were parties and festivals and things," Mallory spoke, trying to wrangle a grip on things and not look too panicky. "I didn't go to many of them. Uh. I didn't have many friends back home, really. It never really felt like I fit in..."

"I hear you, I hear you. Same way back at my home, after a while," she replied, half paying attention as she poked at the map image. "So no girlfriends, either? Not one beyond five-fingered Mary?"

"I never met anybody named Mary. And, uh, no girlfriends. Although I've read about them! I mean, I know what you mean. I just never had one. Uh. Is it normal to be really freaked out by this place?"

"Actually... yes. I can see it being hella intense for someone like you. But deep breaths, Mal. Relax! Everybody's here to have fun, that's all it is. Roll with it, okay?—THERE it is! Damn, 'Swing Thing' is a mile away. Not worth it. How does the 'Technobabble' work for you? It's a pretty low-impact place, good to ease you into things. They only play remixed video game music or somethin'. Kinda appeals to techie nerds, but hey, I can adjust..."

"I think I'd really appreciate low-impact," Mallory admitted. "I should learn how offworlders party, so that I will be able to party too! But, err, one step at a time. Right?"

"Now THAT'S more like it!" she spoke through a big grin, slapping him on the back several times. "Let's go! ...give me your arm."

"But I like it still attached to my body," Mallory spoke, feeling vaguely threatened.

Showing infinite patience, Lorelei hooked her arm around Mallory's. "Like THIS. Proper way to show your date around, right?"

"Wha—date? Date? I'm on a DATE?!"

"That is generally what this is called, yes. Never had one, I take it? No, of course not... hey! Breathe slower! Deep and even. Sheesh, Mal... why in the blue hell did you take a job in a house with four other women if you can barely handle this?"

"I didn't know there were four other women when I took the job! I didn't know! I don't know anything! I have no idea what I'm doing right now, even! I don't know! I DON'T—"

He found his lips pinched shut.

"I think," Lorelei decided, "That we need to get a very stiff drink into you before you suffer from a fatal bowel obstruction due to your tight ass."

- - - -

It didn't make sense calling it a stiff drink.

If he were naming it, he'd call it a loose drink. That would make more sense, seeing how he felt so incredibly loose that he was in immediate danger of falling off his barstool. Nor did it make any sense to call it a 'Screwdriver', since screwdrivers... well, why not share?

"A screwdriver," he announced, "Tightens something. But I don't feel so tight now. Although... hey, if you twist it counterclockwise... clockwise? Righty tighty, lefty loosey... one of those two. If you do that, it loosens. So I guess that works! Wow, I wonder what chef came up with this recipe? Do you think I could ask him for a copy? I might want to experiment on the process a bit and see if I can make it better... isn't it cool the way it swirls around in the glass, though? I mean, it's like a spiral, which makes sense, since it's called a screwdriver. It works on so many levels! And—"



"Correct me if I'm wrong, but you've only had half of the first glass I gave you. Right?"


"I think that you just hit your legal limit," Lorelei announced, grabbing the drink away and swallowing the remainder. "I need a designated taxi caller tonight, and if you actually finished that, you might be too blind to push the buttons on the callbox. Bartender! Two more of the same. For me. Not him."

Mallory rotated his stool (also a rotational motion, like a screwdriver, which pleased him even more) to face the crowd. The Technobabble was a fairly low-impact club—most of the people on the dance floor had apparently been taught to dance by one-legged, one-eyed, three-armed men with epilepsy. While they thankfully didn't actually cause injury to each other, they never quite managed to agree on a tempo to bop around to. Plus, for every person on the dance floor, two more were plastered up against the walls bobbing their heads and trying to look like they were participating.

"I hope you appreciate the sacrifices I'm making for you, farmboy," Lorelei noted, before downing an entire glass of orange concoction. "Mmm. This is SO not my scene. But if I'm gonna condition you to the point where we can have some REAL fun, I guess I gotta take baby steps..."

"You know what's interesting? The audio streams coming out of the speakers there have a regular pattern to them," Mallory babbled. "It seems to have four thumps per part, and four parts per larger part. So it's all like mathematics in the end. I'm not very good at math but I think that's important for some reason. Am I right?"

"Make that three screwdrivers for me," Lorelei corrected to the bartender, wincing inside.

"It's funny, but I can almost FEEL the music," Mallory continued. "Maybe just because it's really loud and I'm getting this funny feeling in my rear each time it goes 'thump' but I think I mean beyond that. Like the way it moves through the room. And like the ripples in your glass! Like water moving, you know? If you vibrate water in a particular way it makes reality. I know that much even if I don't understand anything else about that stupid test. Do you think Meiko will kick me out if I don't pass it? I have a bad feeling I'm not going to pass it."

Lorelei paid more attention to the liquid ripples going down her throat than to their theoretical significance. "What? Uh... I dunno. I don't think she likesh you that much, man. That's half why I dragged you out here, you deserve SOME fun. Can't shtudy all the time, it's boring. Gotta LIVE! Not enough people live, I say. Too busy dyin' or avoidin' it..."

"Oh, I think she's starting to like me more. I helped her buy Eiko some dolls yesterday and we talked a bit and I think I helped her understand that I really do want to be friends with her."

"Uh-huh. Shyeah. I know how it ish... friends or FRIENDS?"

"Err... friends?" Mallory guessed. "Aren't they the same?"

"Baby steps, baby steps..." she reminded herself. "Jusht friends, huh? I thought as much wash goin' on... well, if SHE don't appreciate you, I do. Finally gettin' some proper food and someone to clean my room. Good to have a man around the houshe. Little variety to life, you know? And for a clueless wonder boy, you're irritatingly cute. Like a lost puppy."

The flush on his cheeks was probably just from the 50% of a stiff drink pumping through his veins. "Err... thanks. I think. I've never been called cute before. No, wait, I think Eiko said that once. But kids are kids. And you're... errrrr... err.."

"Like that! Just like that!" Lorelei said, pointing to Mallory, misjudging distance and ending up poking him on the nose. He wobbled slightly, as did she. "That's what I'm talking about! God, the guysh you meet in clubs, they're all hey baby hey baby hey, I've got a great big tonker, I ain't never seen a guy actually BLUSH when I flirt unless they were so pathetically nice I wouldn't give them time of day, like all 'I could get dates but I'm too nice' and smug about it, and I guess you're not that way, and that's cool with me. Right."

"Right?" Mallory repeated, not following what she was yammering on about.




"I'm sorry, I thought we were playing a game. Is there something strange in this screwdriver? I feel really bizarre. Although Dad said that liquor would do that to you. That's why he said I shouldn't have any. ....uhoh. I think I just did something he wouldn't approve of..."

"Oh, live a little! It's a party!" Lorelei exclaimed, spinning in place and waving her arms. "WHO WANTS TO PARTY?! I feel damned alive right now! I... oh, hey."

The last two words decidedly deflated, as two fairly preppy guys approached, with monogrammed sweater vests tied around their necks and artificially induced skin tans and million-dollar orthodontically corrected smiles. (Mallory felt an instant disliking of them, as they radiated the same smug bastard vibe that boys from prominent Grünwaldian farms did.)

"Hey, baby, hey!" the larger of the two greeted Lorelei. "What's a nice girl like you doing in a square place like this?"

"What're rich kids like you two doing in a square place like this?" Lorelei asked, leaning on the bar and assuming an aura of cool annoyance. "And what kind of l4m3r uses the word 'square'?"

"What's an elfourmthreer?" Mallory asked, trying to parse the unusual spurt of alien dialect.

Since Lorelei hadn't followed the script and the guy didn't know how to reply wittily, he moved on to his second prescripted line. "Why don't you ditch the loser there and hang with us a bit?" he suggested. "Name's Mitch, baby. Chad and I are buying a round of drinks for that table over there, and it's got an empty seat that I just KNOW would fit that nice bod of yours..."

Chad and Mitch's script derailed completely when Lorelei laughed out loud, hanging onto the bar for support so she didn't immediately proceed to roll on the floor laughing her ass off.

"ROTFLMAO!!" she exclaimed, sending all three boys scrambling for their internal dictionaries. "You have GOTTA be kidding me! Push off, guysh. Mal's with me and he's all the man I need. You two wouldn't last a minute with me, anyway..."

Their sacred manhood threatened, both boys turned fiery looks to the scruffy farmboy. Looks that would kill if not for the overly high-priced lawyers they'd need to beat the rap.

"Erm," Mallory replied, feeling very sober for some strange reason.

"You know, why don't we just work over the geek here a bit and show you he's not gonna be enough for you, baby?" Mitch suggested, cracking his knuckles as a musical prelude to cracking Mallory's femurs. "From the looks of him, it won't take a minute..."

"Oooh, a fight?" Lorelei asked, perking up even more than her perky state. She unstrapped her purse from her shoulder (which had blended into her nearly bondage-fetish costume so well Mallory was unaware she HAD a purse) and shoved it into Mallory's hands. "Hold my purse, pleashe," she requested politely, while sneaking something tubelike out of it...

Mallory would have replied in the affirmative, if not for being lifted off his stool by a meaty fist clenched around the neck of his favorite sweatshirt.

"You look poor," Mitch noted. "I kinda like mauling lesser... wait, haven't I seen you b—"


That would be the sound of a curved, wicked-looking blade appearing between the faces of Mitch and Mallory. A metal blade would be scary enough... a blade made of glowing blue plasma that crackled with raw power was enough to make anybody wet their pants. Fortunately for Mallory, he was feeling dehydrated.

To make matters worse, there wasn't just one blade to deal with—there were twin plasma blades at opposite ends of the handle, one at Mitch's throat, the other neatly pointing at Chad's nose. It was the kind of weapon that does half its job via sheer intimidation, and the other half in what would most likely be an expertly choreographed Nipponese film action sequence. The kind of weapon that you can make extremely long lists about that start with 'the kind of weapon'.

"A fight," Lorelei repeated, with a tight two-handed grip on the central handle of the double saber, an instinctive control over the horrific thing that trumped any level of drunken stupor. "I haven't had a good fight shince two missions ago. And I LIKE a good fight. HYAH!!"

A brief flick of the wrist, and Mitch was transformed into a living example of Newtonian physics. The parabolic arc of objects in motion within a gravitational field was adequately demonstrated as he screamed like a little girl, soaring neatly over the heads of the dancing crowd, and crashing into a small horde of wallflowers on the opposite end of the room. One spin on her barstool later, another twist of the wrist, and the other end of the blade had sent Chad flying to land on top of Mitch in a vaguely suggestive position.

The audience, of course, applauded in appreciation.

"Inertial acceleration fields," Lorelei explained to the farmboy whose jaw was scraping the bar. "Non-lethal. Meiko doeshn't let me use the cooler modes against folks. HA! That was great! Bartender, gimmie a Suburbanan Iced Tea!"

The crowd of dancers parted like hair, as five more preppies advanced on the pair. They were cracking their knuckles and squaring their jaws and one was phoning a family attorney. They meant business, or at least semi-official activity.

"Err... I think Chad and Mitch's friends aren't happy," Mallory said, because he felt that in Lorelei's state, pointing out the obvious would be advisable. "I think we should be going now. I REALLY think we should be going now. We're going now, right?"

"'course not!" Lorelei replied, hopping off her barstool swiftly, despite the risk of her 'dress' snagging and being yanked off in the process. (Which did not happen, much to the disappointment of the males in the room.) She whirled her double saber in a circle before her, before positioning it behind her back, preparing an attack stance. "I haven't had a good fight since... fifteen sheconds ago! Let's danshe, farmboy! Mallory, you cover my back!"

"I don't have a blanket!" Mallory exclaimed, getting his wires crossed. "And I don't know how to fight! We should really, really be leaving—"

"You two are SO gonna get it now!" Mitch shouted, dashing up to join his group and make the posse of five into five plus one. He shook with mighty rage, pointing the finger of accusation at Lorelei. "You're DEAD, BITCH!"

"Oh, really?" she replied, as the group surrounded her, not a one of them willing to jump in saber range just yet. She sized them up, glancing from fratboy to fratboy. "You think that scares me? Nothing scares me. You know how many times I've died, boys? Do you? Ninety-nine. Ninety-nine times. And you n00bs are NOT gonna be the magic one hundred—"

"QUICK!" a voice called from across the room. "Someone's condo is on fire at the docking yard!"

All six sweatervesters turned their heads towards the voice.

When they turned back, their targets had fled, leaving only a swinging double door to mark their passing.

- - - -

Mallory shoved through the second set of kitchen doors, running on adrenaline as he dragged Lorelei along by the wrist. His arm was sending signals of Intense Agony as she tried to pull away, and he did his best to ignore them in favor of the I Want To Live, Don't Stop Running signals from the rest of his body.

"L3ggo!" Lorelei demanded, skidding along the tile floor as Mallory darted down an aisle of ovens and storage cabinets. "Those guys have a righteoush asskicking comin' to them—"

"Meiko would kill me if anything happened to you! And I would kill me if anything happened to me! Or something!" he replied, focusing more on escape than coherency.

Grumbling, Lorelei fell into step/sprint beside him, her short attention span having lost interest in the boys. "Fine, fine! Take all the fun outta my evening. How'd you throw your voice like that, anyway?"

"How'd I what?"

"You know, the 'Fire!' thing. Neat trick, I—"


"DON'TKILLME!" Mallory begged, dropping to his knees and skidding to a stop in front of the imposing figure before him, assuming the jig was up and the fat lady had sung. "Don't...! errr..."

The head chef waved a meat cleaver at the pair, but not in a threatening way; plus, he seemed too busy regulating the burner temperature on his stove to start actively cleaving them. "You're not supposed to be back here. Kitchen staff only!" he protested. "Get out of here! The staff of Nocturn will not be liable for accidents due to being out of bounds—"

Mallory sprung back to his feet like the season between Winter and Summer back at Grünwald. "You need to add a bit more paprika to that while it's simmering. That's why it's not thick enough," he noted quickly, instincts kicking in. "Keep it at that temperature, add it, then stir for two minutes."

"...I was wondering about that," the chef spoke, staring at Mallory in surprise. "Mrs. Henderson's Soups, midterm exam? Aren't you Josef's boy?"

"Yeah! I got an A on that exam, too!" Mallory replied, recognizing a fellow Grünwaldian. "Man, that was a rough one!"

"How about I go back there and trash those guysh while you talk shop?" Lorelei suggested, getting impatient.

"Uh, look, we really gotta get out of here," Mallory replied, keeping his grip tight, and hoping that Lorelei didn't start dragging his own weak ass off. "Someone's sort of hot on our heels—can you direct us to the taxi stop? That way I can hail a friend of mine and get out of here..."

The chef pointed with the cleaver to a door behind him. "Down that hall. Third door on the left, cut through the Rat Trap, around the Blue Oyster Bar, and the taxi stop's right there. Someone's following you? I'll call security. Get moving."

"You've a lifesaver!" Mallory replied over his shoulder while running for it.

- - - -

He didn't stop to take a breath until the door to the House was safely locked behind him.

"Honestly, Mal, it wash going just fine," Lorelei replied, leaning heavily on the coat rack for support. "I had it in hand, you didn't have to bail out like that..."

"Better safe than sorry," Mallory replied, using a wizened saying properly and without gross additions for a change. "Hope I didn't wreck your evening, I just figured, you know... I'd hate for you to get hurt..."

"Awwww, it's sweet you were thinking about me," Lorelei spoke, grinning at the boy. "Even if you jumped the gun a bit. Eh, room for improvement, but we gotsh time, yeah? Thanks for the lovely evening..."

Then, she


him on the cheek.

Mallory's internal thermometer multiplied by a factor of four.

"Shame we're gettin' a job shoon," Lorelei spoke, adjusting her purse strap and starting to walk away. "I'd love to try again tomorr... oh, hey, Meiko. Whassup?"

Mallory's internal thermometer divided by a factor of six. Mostly due to the icy glare of Meiko Mirai, who stood arms crossed and foot tapping...

"Hello," she spoke, making sure to keep it as unfriendly of a greeting as possible.

"Oooooh, bus-ted!" Lorelei giggled. "Hey, Meiko, if this is about his test, shorry I dragged him away from his shtudies, I figured he could use a—"

"Why should I care?" Meiko asked, shrugging her shoulders in a very precise manner. "It's none of my business what he does with his time... or who he does it with. I'm expecting breakfast hot and ready when I get up tomorrow, Houseboy. Good evening."

With a 180° turn on one heel, she marched her way through the family room, intent on getting upstairs and to her room and locking the door behind her for a minimum of eight hours. Which she did.

"Sheesh, what a stick in the mud," Lorelei grumbled. "Feh. I'm goin' to bed, Mal. Seeya at breakfast. Go figure, I'm acshually gonna be here for breakfast! Huh? Seeyah."

Quiet, once more.

With Mallory standing perfectly still in front of the door for a good six minutes while his brain tried to figure out exactly what the hell just happened.


And on the sixth day, he rested.

If he knew anything about the various branches of the Christian religion, he'd know you're supposed to rest on the seventh day. Not that he would have cared, since the REC material was fitting into his brain like a dodecahedral peg in a round hole. And the house was so tense that only a back rub to the roof would ease things.

Which is why he decided to spend some time in the one room of the house he had yet to visit: the Onsen-of-the-Month Club.

The way Lorelei had explained it to him almost made some semblance of a notion of something coherent, especially after random bits of reality trivia had been floating in his head all week. In order to move from Reality to Reality, you needed an engine that bridged the gap for an instant and moved a predetermined amount of space from one location to another. A Reality Engine for Mobiles, typically attached to a hut, house, condo, split-level home, office building, and so on.

The Onsen-of-the-Month Club didn't work exactly like that. It was an experimental new technology that allowed you to step through a transitional space which was continually generated, and literally 'link' a door to another reality. Thus, the green door with the funny squiggly-lined symbol which propped up at the base of the stairwell actually would go somewhere if you opened it... it'd go to an onsen, which was a sort of natural hot spring with rocks and warm water and steam and acted like a nonmedical muscle/brain relaxant.

Since the technology was very new, very experimental, and very much sought after by RealWare from the privately owned Nipponese company that developed it, it was also hideously expensive. Lorelei explained that simply as Meiko knowing the inventor and left it there.

However it worked technically, Mallory couldn't deny that it worked figuratively. He'd taken baths before, in ordinary bathtubs... not like this, though. Here, you scrubbed up first so the water would stay clean, then you just... soaked. It didn't seem to serve any functional purpose, but the way his woes melted away the moment he stepped in the water said he liked its nonfunctional uses very much big time.

There was one very visible reminder of his troubles, though... a makeshift screened-away section of the hot spring, off in the upper right corner, with a sign on it reading "MALLORY ONLY!". Meiko had apparently put it there the day he arrived, just in case he felt like taking a dip. She didn't want him peeping on the girls if they wanted to soak at the same time, after all.

And after the previous night... she'd probably give him the boot if he did peep. (Not that he wanted to.)

He still wasn't sure what happened. Not because he was too drunk, but because it didn't make sense. He was getting along much better with Meiko after their shopping trip... they'd shared a bit, talked, and things went okay. Except that she was very quiet on the ride home, but... she was talkative enough the rest of the day, so that couldn't be it.

After he came home with Lorelei, though, she got as cold as the three-week Winter season on Grünwald. He got the feeling she didn't want him dating Lorelei, after the strange exchanges the two had the day he was hired... but it wasn't HIS idea to have a date! (And having no prior examples to compare it against, he had to take Lorelei's word that the previous night was in fact a 'date'.) Maybe if he explained to Meiko...

That is, if Meiko would talk to him. Other than 'Pass the salt, Houseboy' and 'The living room needs to be vacuumed, Houseboy' she hadn't said a thing to him today.

Times like these made Mallory wish he'd focused a little less on his chores and a little more on other girls back home. Or even other guys. He didn't have many friends back at Grünwald—this week had been a crash course in girls and friends and all sorts of things. A crash course he was failing miserably. All he needed was to fail the REC Test miserably and he'd be limping home with his tail between his legs and salt over his shoulder while hanging his head low and kissing his head goodbye with his butt between his—

The scrape of wood on stone was heard, as the door to Onsen-of-the-Month opened. Mallory started to lean around to peek around his "MALLORY ONLY!" screen, before he heard the Voices.

"...don't see what the big deal is, anyway," Lorelei's voice echoed off the rocks and the water. "All you care about is his job performance, right, boss lady? So he missed a few hours last night. He works his ass off trying to impress you, I'm sure he can make up for a few hours..."

Mallory sank down into the water, trying to make himself small. Some part of him had to laugh at the predicament, the guy secretly overhearing while two naked girls chat in the bath... but the voting majority of him (97%) was just panicking at being caught and trying not to utter a peep...

"I told you when he got here to keep your hands off him," Meiko 'Boss Lady' Mirai spoke. (The distinct splash of someone climbing into the water... a towel hitting the ground, fluffy-like...) "This House has enough personality conflicts without a workplace romance added on top of it. I won't have it, Lorelei. And it doesn't establish a good atmosphere for Eiko to be raised in! I—"

"She seems to get along fine with him. And didn't you tell me you two talked about that? He's just a nice guy, Mei. Absurdly nice. We meet a lot of scumbuckets in this biz, it's no doubt you've forgotten what a nice guy is like..."

"That's besides the point! I'm saying... it's just not good. And I won't stand for it!"

"Oh? You're going to fire me, then? I doubt it; I've pulled you out of the fire more times than I can count when a job gets dangerous. Fire him, then? We need someone to keep the engine fixed. Sure, it hasn't broken down since he got here, but how long do you expect THAT to last? Plus he cooks and cleans, two things we were in desperate need of—"

"This isn't about his skill set, or yours!"

"Then what could it be about, huh? I thought you were the boss lady. What else would you care about, hmmmm?"

An awkward pause. Mallory actually found himself straining to hear, in case they were whispering, and while the voting majority demanded he mind his business the curious minority dark horse candidate won the election.

"...I don't have to explain myself," Meiko decided.

"Oh, get off it," Lorelei spoke... but with a friendly laugh, not a mean tone. "Everybody KNOWS what's going on. It's no big secret, that look on your face when you checked Future Perfect to see if you should hire him..."

"What—how would you know? Have you been going through my organizer—?!"

"Naw, Eiko did. She was worried, okay? She's used to her big sister 'staying in control', right? And she told me it said you'd 'hire your true love' at 3pm on that day."


The "    " that followed was the sound Mallory's heart made when it stopped.

"...said nothing of the sort," Meiko lied blatantly. "And... F.P.'s been wrong before..."

"Oh, very convenient. Whenever we're doubting what it says, like a job not rolling in for a week, it's 'never wrong'. When it says something that spooks you, it's 'been wrong before'. You want me to drag Kisei in here to rag on you for being inconsistent?"

Mallory pressed his ear to the screen, resisting the urge to peer around it a little to see her reaction...

"It's been wrong before," Meiko repeated, trying to stay calm. "And... and I don't believe in fate. Even if I believe F.P. is reliabl... I mean... ...what do you WANT me to say, Lorelei?! Yes, it said that! I couldn't believe my eyes, but what was I supposed to do, kick him out after I saw that? I had to hire him, if just to make sure—"

"Make sure it was right, or make sure it was wrong?"

"You're putting your boss in a very uncomfortable position," Meiko complained, voice a bit shaky. "You know I hate losing my composure. But... I've been having the hardest time keeping it lately! I don't know how to deal with that guy. Sometimes he pisses me off, sometimes he's annoying, sometimes he's... so naively nice... do you know what he said to me the first time he saw me and I caught him staring at my legs? 'Sorry, there aren't a lot of pretty girls in Grünwald.' And he was being HONEST, wasn't an attempt at a witty pick-up line..."

"Yeah, isn't it wild? Kinda cute, too—WHOA, Meiko, I think that's the first time I've ever seen you blush!"

"You think I WANT to be blushing?" Meiko bit off, harshly. "I hate this! It's stupid, it's like a soap opera, you just don't end up fated to fall in love with some guy you barely met and barely know! That's not... reality doesn't work like that. F.P. has to be wrong here. I wish I could just fire him and not have to deal with this, but... we do need an Engineer, and... and I'll admit, I'm glad the food's improved, and... and..."

"Say no more. But... you really wanna avoid the issue? Would that make life easier on you?"

"I don't know. For the first time in my life, I'm totally stumped. I've always had this plan, you know that... pull myself and my sister out of the gutter, out of the orphanage, run a business, get rich, settle down and live a comfortable future... I never really planned on having a boyfriend in the mix. It seemed like it'd just be a distraction to my life plan..."

"Right, right. Well! I have the answer to your woes, Mei!"

"Namely?" Meiko asked, suspicious.

"I'll take him off your hands."

(Mallory turned pale and red at the same time for two different reasons, leaning on the screen more to listen as Lorelei made her offer...)

"He's kinda cute and he's easy to mold, two great tastes that go great together," Lorelei continued. "So, consider him taken care of! That way you don't have to have a forced storybook romance with him and you can go about your busin... what? Not to your liking?"

Meiko's tone got angry all over again. "Now we're back where we started! I SAID I didn't want you dating him for a reason!"

"A reason you never stated. At least, not truthfully. Do you have a good reason? If not, that means he's a free man and I can stake my claim, yes? He's a hell of a lot more interesting than the one-night stands I've had lately—"

"NO. No, no—"

"Why no? C'mon, Mei, one good reason. And not 'it promotes a bad atmosphere for Eiko' or nonsense like that. Give me the truth. You're the cool customer, right? How hard is—"


"One good reason! ALL I ask! C'mon! Lay it on me! Do it! L—what was that?"

'That' was the sound of the "MALLORY ONLY!" screen tipping over and splashing into the water of the onsen. With Mallory floating on top of it, looking surprised. Then looking at the two naked girls.

Oh well, it's been a good life, he decided, squeezing his eyes shut and awaiting death...

Since death was taking its sweet time, he decided to crack one eye open and see what was going on.

Meiko stood in the bath, holding her towel up defensively... with an all-over body blush. Trembling with rage and something else. And glaring at Mallory hard enough to burrow twin holes in his back and carve his liver up for dinner...

"You... you were LISTENING IN...?!" she asked, giving up all semblance of control as the last two words came out through grinding teeth.

"Only for a little while!" Mallory exclaimed, waving his arms and splashing in a panic. "It was an accident! I didn't mean it! I'd never do it if I could avoid it! I didn't want to embarrass you! I wasn't sure what to do! I'll do my best to forget what I heard! Even the bit about true love—"

The Onsen-of-the-Month Club door slammed shut behind Meiko before the 'o' in that word could be intoned.

"Oooh, that's not good," Lorelei decided, relaxing away in the water without bothering with her towel. "But hey, it means you're free! Let's hit the town tonight, Mal! I feel like partying!... Mal? Hey, mmmgblblblrlrlrll..."

Which was the sound Mallory heard as he blacked out and sank to the bottom of the two-foot-deep onsen.

- - - -

dear dad.

This week has been bad and good. I am having troubles with girls and I have no idea what to do, so I may be asking for your advice in the days to come assuming I am not kicked out because I think I am in trouble for something. Currently I am writing this late at night as I had to fake having a cold in order to avoid going on a date, how is that for a strange thing!! I felt bad about lying because you always say lying is bad and gets you in the end when the piper is paid and the check bounces under the ladder across the black cat, but I have this bad feeling that things will get worse with Meiko if I did not lie and went out for the evening.

I do not think you have had these kinds of troubles since you just met mom and that was that but I will explain more in my next letter assuming I am not homeless soon. oddly I do not think I am as worried about that as I am about making Meiko upset, because she seems to not like being upset, she likes to be very calm and feeling like things are going her way and lately I do not think they have been. I have been trying to avoid upsetting her because I don't like her to be upset, especially not when it is my fault and I could have done something but I don't always know what that thing is.

Tomorrow we will have a job to do, and hopefully that will distract! will write again asap. Wish me luck please, lots and lots of it.


:episode complete

(unreal estate copyright 2002 stefan gagne)
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