The night sky. The only sky Antiparadisia had ever known.
"It's funny, you'd think they would change that," he said, gazing out the window in wonder, teacup in his hands long since forgotten. "A featureless black sky... that's just apathy. They could make this world anything they want to. They own this patch of reality, but what do they do with it? They turn it into a breeding hive for the baser instincts. Antiparadisia, née Paradisia, anarchic core of black market trade and questionable deals... although why not form a breeding hive? It's their reality. It's their kingdom. That's not my problem. My problem is that it could be so much more than that..."
He turned away from the window, away from the ants running ant errands, away from everything that was trivial and unimportant. He turned to something equally trivial and unimportant, but at least it held more interest for him. With his spare hand, he pushed up his purple sunglasses, and gave the nice lady a smile.
"It makes you think, doesn't it? In man's wildest dreams, is this really all they can imagine?" he asked. "This is the peak they choose to soar to? There's so much more they could be doing... but I don't think they can handle the power. They have the power, certainly, but they choose not to use it because it scares them. I don't look afraid, do I? That's because my eyes stay open to the wonder of the multiverse. Nothing jades me. Nothing jades any of us, that's our calling card—no matter where we end up, we never belong there, so our eyes never truly close... I hope I'm not boring you, ma'am."
The old lady rocked in her chair, knitting needles clacking away. "Oh, quite all right, young man," she said, with a smile. "My ear's always open to someone who wants to talk. Is the tea good? Would you like a biscuit?"
"Yes, it's very good, thank you," he said, with a soft smile. "I like tea. It's very real. But at the same time... well, look at this."
The boy let go of his teacup, folding his hands in his lap. The saucer and cup did not break, nor spill. Nor drop.
"Isn't that a wonder?" he asked her. "And it's something in your hands. All of you. It's not exclusive to me. Reality belongs to everybody... but they let it go to waste, they never use it to the full potential—"
Gravity resumed normal operational status. The sound of the shattering teacup against the floor didn't even cause him to flinch.
"That's what happens when you're given that power over your own reality. You let things break. You waste it," he said in the kindest, gentlest tones possible. "It's a shame, I know. But you don't have to feel sad. Those whose hands are too weak will simply be guided by one who has a firmer hand. That's how it always works; that's how RealWare got to where it was, for instance. That's where it's going now. Eventually everybody will be able to see the wonder and glory of reality... after all, the mundane will simply be abolished. Um. I guess I'm getting ahead of myself... we do tend to ramble a bit. I've done my best to curtail my tendencies, but... uh, frankly, it helps to let loose and just get that weight off my chest. Like I'm doing now. With your open ear. Do you understand me, ma'am?"
The elderly woman paused in her knitting. "Mmmm... not all of it, I suppose..." she said, trying to recall what he had been talking about. "But I've still got my open ear, yes I do. Plenty of folks around these parts have troubles they like to tell an open ear, and I don't minds listenin' to them, even if I don't understand. It does folks a world of good to sit down a bit, have some tea, and speak their mind. Sometimes that's all they need to go out there and face the day again, and I don't mind one bit to help 'em out like that. Would you like another cup of tea, mister...?"
The young man smiled gratefully, rising to his feet. "Then you do understand, in some simple way. Thank you. You're not who I was hoping to find here, but perhaps it's for the best that I met you. I've only found one other person who understands... which makes it a shame that I have to do this..."
With great kindness, he made it as painless as possible for her.
The cute couple cuddled on the couch while kung fu killers cracked spines.
Of course, 'couple' was a nebulous term; despite the arm around the shoulder and the closeness, it was more like two separate people in two separate worlds. One sat back with her feet on the coffee table, grinning and enjoying the sights of martial arts masters kicking butt, living vicariously through the images on the video network set. The other fidgeted nervously against the plush couch cushions, looking at anything other than his alleged lover. There was very little actual cuddling going on, as well... but despite these flaws, seeing the couple in this position had become a common sight over the last few days.
Then Meiko entered the room.
Her gaze locked on Lorelei's. Waves of rage crashed behind both, electricity arcing between the two lightning rods of feminine aggression. The flames of their opposing wills roared like geothermal furnaces hooked into the cores of negative religious afterlives... white-hot light that burned the eyes merely to look at it, and melted flesh within five thousand feet. If given a weight of its own, such willpowers would cause great dips in the fabric of space and time, collapsing into a pair of singularities spiraling about each other in a dance of oblivion, and so on, and so on...
All Mallory saw was the girls glare at each other a moment before Meiko smoothly walked between his eyes and the video network set, taking her usual seat at the house's RealNet Workstation.
"Yo, Mei-chan," Lorelei greeted, grinning the grin of one who made it clear by the grin that it was a grin which had a meaning which was not usually attached to grins in a conventional or at least positive emotional connotation. "Whazzup?"
"If you must know, we have new potential clients," the homeowner replied, pulling up various Passport Processing Programs. "A high-paying consortium for a basic bounty job. I'm moving the House so I can meet with them. Don't let me interrupt your lovely loving fun, of course."
"Seen this movie five thousand times," Lorelei spoke, with a shrug of the shoulder of the arm that was not ensnaring Mallory in her black widow's web. "Heck, it was on just last night when Mal-chan and I were making out on the couch. Isn't that right, Mal?"
"I do not recall making anything!!" he blurted, tense enough to snap when addressed like that.
Meiko's fingers banged on the keyboard a little harder. "...doesn't matter to me. I won't be needing your bodyguarding services today; I'm taking Kisei with me to the meeting. You two can do whatever you feel like..."
Purple light flared in the windows for a flash-moment, as the house settled into its new dock. The familiar mechanical clunks and whirs of feed lines connecting beneath the floors echoed, as Lorelei turned the movie off for now with a flick of the wrist.
"Where are we, anyw....... Antiparadisia?!" she exclaimed, glancing at the ramshackle buildings that had appeared outside the window. "We're taking a bounty job in Antiparadisia?"
"It shouldn't matter to you two where we are," Meiko spoke, rising from her chair. "You can watch movies and cuddle up all the same—"
Mallory breathed a sigh of relief as Lorelei apparently forgot about him, rising to her feet as well... and taking a more serious tone. "I'm coming with you to the meeting," Lorelei announced. "You've never been here before. You don't know what it's like—"
"Antiparadisia, formerly known as Paradisia before the locals got tired of the irony," Meiko recited from memory. "No governmental body, operating under pure anarchy as a center for lawless black market trade. Only three businesses have stood for more than a year before being burned down or blown up or taken over by rival gangs. Not recommended by Twoday's Guidebook for Discerning Reality Tourists despite the zero percent crime rate... because by having no laws to speak of, there can be no crime rate. Muggings, murders and kidnappings occur on a minute-by-minute basis regardless. Yes, Lorelei, I know what Antiparadisia is like."
"Which is why you need me with you, as your bodyguard. I'm not joking around, Mei, put the cold war aside for a moment and—"
"Kisei will do just fine."
"She's a long-range weapons and strategy expert. She doesn't improvise and she doesn't do hand-to-hand—"
This is where Lorelei would've noticed Kisei standing next to her, if the sniper weren't so (un)noticeable in her entrances and exits from rooms.
"I fulfill my duty, instead of intentionally aggravating my employer," Kisei spoke calmly. "Meiko, I will wait for you outside."
This is where Lorelei would've noticed Kisei leaving the house, if the sniper weren't so (un)noticeable in her entrances and exits from rooms.
Meiko adjusted her business jacket, before walking towards the door. "You and the Houseboy stay here and have fun. Stay. Here," she reiterated, pointing to the floor for emphasis. "And don't let Eiko out, either. Lock the door and initiate level one security."
The door slammed shut, since simply closing it wouldn't be loud enough.
It got quiet after that.
"...is Antiparadisia anything like antipasta?" Mallory asked, trying to say something to break the silence even if it was a stupid thing to say. His eyes stayed on the door Meiko had just exited... while his worry spiked.
Nobody wants to live in Antiparadisia.
For some, there's no option. Maybe their line of work involves activities that other realities don't enjoy being a party to. Perhaps they don't have enough money for a business in a respectable reality. Or likely they came here on business, found themselves lying penniless and battered in an alley somewhere, and were trying to work up the money to get the hell out.
For others, maybe they liked it here on some masochistic level. Day-to-day life became an ongoing fight for survival and prosperity; take your eye off the ball for a minute and you get clocked in the jaw with the Ping Pong paddle of real life. That kind of lifestyle can get your adrenaline pumping, keep your feet moving, keep your life going forward for fear of looking back at what's chasing you...
You can feel it in the streets. Quiet, high-speed desperation. Despite her outward shell of ice, something inside Meiko was feeling it. The part that kept her eyes darting nervously from bystander to bystander as she walked the streets, despite not wanting to make eye contact with anyone.
"You have nothing to worry about," Kisei spoke, as she had true and sincere calm. "I am familiar with Antiparadisia. I would not let any harm come to you."
"If we didn't need the money, I wouldn't take this job," Meiko admitted through gritted teeth. "Give me a familiar board room or negotiation table any day..."
"It is your goal, yes? To prosper and never have to touch upon a street life again. Which likely includes not living in a place like this. I believe you are working towards your goal admirably, even if the results have not been delivered at a rate you seek... although..."
"It is of no importance," Kisei replied smoothly, hand resting on the stock of her rifle as she glared at someone who was about to mug them (resulting in the would-be thief having second thoughts).
"Spit it out, Kisei. I know you don't like criticizing me, but I can tell when you're holding back."
"...I mean no disrespect, of course," she disclaimed
as usual. "But I believe at the least Lorelei should have come with us.
My skills will suffice in your protection, yes... but perhaps you could have
used the time away from Mallory Heisenberg—"
"—to soothe over various issues you and she have developed. House morale has been low and tension has been high. While I have no problem with this atmosphere, since they do not matter to me... it would make your work easier if Lorelei's relations with you normalized."
"They'll NORMALIZE when she quits being a teasing, mean-spirited...! Can you believe she's flaunting her 'relationship' with Mallory around just to force me to say that... that I...! Oooh!"
Kisei shook her head (without taking her eyes off the street predators). "As you wish, Meiko."
"I don't care about him," she quickly added. "Not one bit. I'm not going to fall madly in love with someone just because my pocket organizer told me to. I won't do it. Besides, Ryo said it had bugs. It's just a bug. There's absolutely no reason for me to feel one way or another about him whatsoever."
"As you wish."
"So don't you be thinking that I love him, because that's just stupid. I'm a sensible, modern woman and I don't believe in fairy tales. Besides, he's... he's too nice and I don't like that. Nice guys like him aren't anything special, they're just... really nice. Kind of in a sweet way instead of an irritatingly empty way once you actually get to know them. I don't care if he is a genuinely compassionate person rather than the typical fakers, or that he really cares about me and Eiko and wants us to be happy, or that he helped me buy her a toy when he could've just sat outside the store like I ordered him to—that stuff doesn't change anything between us! And furthermor—"
The sniper rifle made a light 'Pff' sound, and the heavily armed man in front of her crumpled to the ground, twitching with little sparks of electricity playing over his body.
Kisei ejected the used cartridge, and loaded a new stun round. "Do go on," she prompted.
"....I think we should move a little faster," Meiko decided, once her heart resumed standard operations.
"As you wish."
The coffee wasn't as good as the tea.
He wasn't expecting it to be any better, really. Not even AS good. Tea like that was real like a rock was real. It had a heavy sense about it, a tangible sort of feel...
There was no regret, of course. He'd filled her open ear with things she wasn't supposed to know, things nobody knew. He had to close the ear in order to keep such words from leaking out to other ears. Not that it would have mattered, but his employer always stressed that he should be neat in his work. Elegance was the key.
He barely glanced up when a man was shot point blank range by a sniper rifle. He didn't know who did the shooting, but more importantly he knew that the one being guarded was the prospective hunter. The torn wanted poster on the cafe table before him was retrieved before the Antiparadisia Chamber of Commerce decided to seek professional help rather than open the case to any simpleton who might see his face. Their face. Our face...
Probably for the best, he reasoned as he drained his coffee. Despite his cause, he was never really much of a bounty hunter. A casual investigator from time to time, when he had the time to spend for the time-to-time hobby. But never a hardcore bounty hunter... he let others do the hunting for him, when he could. Such as today.
The one in the fashionable attire would do the hunting, and he would take the trophy from her. Ears would have to be closed afterward, of course. That went without saying.
Common sense would have Mallory tucked safely away inside the House, behind locked doors and electrified windows. That was the reasonable thing to do when squatting in the middle of a world defined by its anarchic chaos. That was the course of action as suggested by Meiko Mirai, his boss, his supposed true love...
And because Meiko told them to stay put, they were on the streets twelve minutes later for their Third Date.
"Would you relax already? They smell fear around here," Lorelei spoke, completely failing to soothe Mallory's nerves. "You don't wanna look like the naive farmboy waiting to be skeletonized by vicious flesh-eating piranhas. You should walk like me."
"You mean swaying my hips and strutting and stuff?" Mallory asked, too scared to avoid being honest.
"Okay, maybe not exactly like me. But don't worry! I won't let anyone hurt you too much. I'm a professional bodyguard, remember? And if Meiko doesn't want me guarding her, I can earn my keep guarding your ass. Admittedly I painted this place as a netherworld of greed and pain from which no one emerges unscathed, but that was just me tryin' to spook Meiko into seeing reason. It's not so bad, really—"
She paused to cut down a nearby lamp post with her double saber, sending a pack of street punks scattering.
"If you know how to handle it, eking out a living here's not so bad," she continued, without missing a beat. "I had to work here for a few months doing odd jobs before Meiko hired me on full-time, for instance. All you really need to know is how to keep your eyes on everybody that needs watching, and of course where the three sanctuaries are."
"Sanctuary is sounding very very good right now," Mallory spoke, glancing at the ramshackle buildings with unease, as if they would collapse on him at a moment's notice. "Hopefully sanctuary that's up to fire codes..."
"There aren't any fire codes here, except the code that says anyone can light your shop on fire if they feel like it. The landscape changes all the time; this street wasn't even here months ago. No, there are only three places that have gone undemolished for years... one's the South Side Docks, where we're parked. The other docks are always being fought over by rival gangs and are typically out of order, but South Side is always spared."
"Err, why? Does the owner have a bigger stick to hit people with than anyone else?"
"No, it's just that if it blew up, there would be no way to LEAVE Antiparadisia," Lorelei explained. "And nobody here wants that. So it's an unspoken rule not to hassle the place. Second sanctuary is the Joe's on the east side of town... it's the only place you can get a hamburger that's guaranteed not to be laced with nanite weaponry or chemical exfoliants. Since even crooks need to eat, there's another unspoken law not to mess with Joe's. And finally, the third sanctuary is—"
"A church?" Mallory guessed, trying to look smart.
"You think anybody here fears a big man with a white beard who tells them that naughty people are destined to spend eternity in a lake of fire?" Lorelei asked, looking flatly at him.
"Err... no. No, I guess not... so what's the third sanctuary, then?"
"Auntie Mae's Flower Shop, of course."
Even in the depths of his limited brain, that did not compute.
"Wait... wait, wait. Being able to leave and being able to eat, okay, I can see that. But what's so important about buying flowers—"
He was stopped by bumping into Lorelei's cleavage since the cleavage had stopped when Lorelei stopped in front of a recently built shop. She failed to notice Mallory's mumbling apology, eyes too busy reading and rereading the sign over her head...
"You've gotta be kidding me," she spoke quietly. "QwikSlvr's Exotic Blades..?"
Mallory ceased his apology immediately, lest Lorelei notice he had gotten an eyeful of her body, which would likely lead her to tease him which would lead him to blush and stammer and lots of other things he didn't want to do. Instead he partook of her shock.
"Boy, whoever that is can't even spell his own name," he stated.
"That is his name, farmboy," Lorelei spoke, with an unusual bit of Meiko-like chill factor. "Our handles are eight letters or less, that's how it works... ..eh, you couldn't have known that. Okay! This is what our Third Date shall be: SHOPPING! Keep your mouth shut and don't embarrass me too much, okay?"
Mallory nodded along, at least familiar with this. "Can I hold your purse?"
"No. Now shush."
Pushing through the door, Lorelei ignored the various laser tracking systems that pointed armed plasma cannons at her head. They were standard security issue for any serious business in this reality. Mallory tried to ignore them and achieved partial success.
Besides, the consumer goods inside the store were far scarier than any simple gun.
Blades. Knives. Swords. Fancy curved sharp things that seemed to serve no practical purpose except to look fancy and curved and sharp. Some hung on hooks on the walls, some dangled from the ceiling (along with helpful yellow sticky notes reading DUCK PLEASE). A few were still stained with blood (with helpful yellow sticky notes reading USED, CHEAP!). All of them looked very, very deadly, providing that you had enough skill to swing them around without lopping off parts of your own anatomy.
The man behind the counter wore skimpy leather goods, much like Lorelei did, although without the same emphasis on various body parts. He was busy reading a datapad loaded with this month's issue of Modern Psycho Depressive Bastard Magazine—at least, until he got an eyeful of who was walking into his shop.
"...LORELEI?" the one who presumably was named QwikSlvr exclaimed. "Lorelei of the Steel Blades Tribe! That CAN'T be you!"
"It's not," Lorelei replied simply, but with a smug smile. "It's just Lorelei now. I left years ago! Man, you never kept up with the forums, did you, Qwik? What're you doing here, anyway? Last I heard you were working with Duke..."
"Ehh... we had a mutual disagreement," Qwik said, setting his datapad down. "Figured it was in our best interests to split the stock and work in separate branches, exotic melee and conventional armaments. Business hasn't been real good here, though... not much call for the REAL l33t weaponry, everybody just wants bigger and bigger guns... hey, you need anything? I know you stick by the double, but a backup weapon maybe? I got some really sw33t snake swords yesterday—uh, who's the n00b?"
"Mallory, don't touch that, I like you having ten fingers," Lorelei tossed off over her shoulder, figuring she had an 80% chance of being correct. (Or a 100% chance, judging by the quiet 'yipe' he emitted after.) "Qwik, this is Mallory Heisenberg. I'm dating him. He cooks things. Mallory, this is an bud of mine from back home, QwikSlvr. We used to frag each other a lot."
"Ah... nice to meet you, sir," Mallory greeted, offering the suspicious shopkeep a smile. "There's a lot of really cool stuff in here, I have to admit! Just like the martial arts shows that Lorelei watches, and... err... is there something on my face?"
"Haven't I seen you somewhere before?" Qwik asked, peering at him in a way that demanded he acknowledge the peering. "I could swear I...... It's YOU?!"
"Uh, it's me!" Mallory exclaimed, in response. "Yes? Me? Err..."
Rather than speak, QwikSlvr immediately thumbed a big red glowing security button, causing a bulletproof plexiglass shield to slam down around the counter area. From behind his protective barrier, he pointed helpfully to the door.
"OUT! Out of my shop, both of you!" he demanded, screaming near the top of his lungs in order to be heard through the inch thick material. "I just rebuilt a month ago, I don't need it burned down by an angry mob! Begone! Vamoose!"
Lorelei frowned a bit. "What, doesn't an old friend at least get an explanat... what is it, Mallory?"
"There's an angry mob outside," Mallory said, barely able to believe his own words as he ducked down and hid behind Lorelei. "I just spotted them outside the window. That street gang you scared off is with them..."
"Really?" she spoke, having the exact opposite reaction any sane person should have (boundless enthusiasm and excitement). "An angry mob? And here I thought this date would be boring! Hmm. We should bail and find a better place to fight, though. Qwik, you got a back door?"
The twin blades of blue-hot plasma snapped into being from either end of her double saber, and two flashes of painfully bright light later, there was a hole carved in the back wall of the shop.
"You do now," she added, because you just have to say something like that after doing something like that. "Mal, come on—"
He was through the door first, fear giving him wings.
'Antiparadisia Chamber of Commerce' was another word for 'Whoever controlled the strongest organized crime racket at the time.'
They didn't try to be seedy about it, however. The Chamber itself consisted of a relatively respectable building near the center of town, and even had plush office furniture. It had receptionists who only worked the red light district part-time, rather than full-time. They also had decent coffee, which was worth its weight in human organs in this town.
"So you understand, Miss Mirai, we cannot let this go unpunished," Don Amerello explained, flexing fingers coated with golden rings. "One of the three pillars of our community has been torn out from under us. Very few things will cause the anarchy of this reality to stand united against a threat... this is one of them. We were going to open it to the community at large to hunt the bastard down, but I felt it would be best to be professional about the matter... you agree, yes?"
"Most certainly," Meiko replied, sipping her coffee. "Mmm. Opening it up to the public would result in a chaotic witch hunt... perhaps you'd catch your man, at what cost? Hiring Mirai Consulting to take care of the problem was the best choice. Of course, we won't be a party to whatever punishment you have in mind for him... all we do is catch the suspect."
"That works well for us. For our planned penalty is likely going to take seven months of attention by... other sorts of professionals."
"...right. I will admit however, Don Amerello... I'm a little confused about the victim. What was an old lady doing running a flower shop in this reality, anyway? If you don't mind me asking..."
"Quite all right. Most outsiders wouldn't understand..." the Don spoke, a heavy heart weighing his words. "Miss Mirai... to us, Auntie Mae was not simply a nice old lady totally out of her element. Nobody knows why she chose to establish her business here, but she did, and she treated everyone who she met with the same kindness... an invaluable service in a community such as this. Not even the most hardened killer had the heart to raise a hand to a gentle soul such as her—and the Chamber of Commerce did everything possible to dissuade others from even having the idea of maybe thinking of something unpleasant towards Auntie Mae. I myself visited her every day to purchase a flower, enjoy her tea, and tell her of my problems. She always had an open ear, and aside from suggesting I should be nicer to people and not break their kneecaps as often, accepted me for what I am... and now she's gone. And the punk who did this is going to face the combined wrath of all of Antiparadisia..."
"Yes, I understand," Meiko replied, wanting to get on with things. "Now, what can you tell me about the suspect? Were there any witnesses? Even a rudimentary description would help in our search..."
The Don's three gold teeth sparkled in the overhead fluorescent lighting, his smile quite cold indeed.
"Oh, we know exactly who did it," he said. "All we need you to do is find him. We got lots of guys at the South Side Docks to keep him from escaping, so he is still in Antiparadisia... his name is Mike, and he was Auntie Mae's assistant. A nebbishly little boy who we'd assumed couldn't hurt a fly... but witnesses identified him leaving the scene of the crime wearing a cloak. Not his usual attire, but the face was a dead lock for Mike, and three witnesses gave the same description to our sketch artist. I have a photo here of the punk taken a short time ago... and an artist's rendition of what we're planning to do to him, but I suspect you're not interested in that..."
She reached out for both photos, carefully concealing the second one behind the first.
After exactly one glance, she handed the pictures back.
"I'm sorry, Don Amerello, but we cannot take your case," she spoke with great speed. "I need to be returning to my home now. I apologize for wasting your time but it is of great importance that we be going now."
"You... won't take the case?" he asked, confused. "You came highly recommended—"
"You can have a 20% discount on any future case fees should you choose to use Mirai Consulting at a future date," she spoke without thinking of the financial implications. "Again, you have my apologies. Kisei, we're leaving."
The pair snaked their way around office cubicles and were out the door immediately after.
Kisei's eyes flicked back and forth, making sure they weren't followed, hurrying at whatever pace Meiko choose to set. "This is very dangerous, Meiko. They will no doubt be suspicious and place agents on our tail. Was there no option to gracefully bow out of the case?"
"The entire city knows what the suspect looks like," Meiko replied, picking her way through the crowd. "It's not safe here for him. We have to leave Antiparadisia as soon as possible before anyone knows he's here. He better have stayed at the house like I ordered him to..."
"You don't mean...?"
"Mike looks exactly like Mallory. They could've been separated at birth. I can't explain it and I don't have time to look for an explanation—if we don't get Mallory out of here before the locals confuse him for the killer, he could be... he..."
"I suggest we walk faster," Kisei suggested.
Wooden crates chafe. They also provide poor cover from people shooting at you with lead slug-throwing guns and various energy cannons and things like that. Nevertheless, Mallory rubbed against the heavy abandoned shipping crate, praying it would hold out long enough...
Lorelei didn't bother hiding; she was having too much fun deflecting incoming fire with her double saber and laughing maniacally."This is GREAT!" she exclaimed, after parrying the seventh nearly fatal head shot of the day. "Call of the l33t, baby! C'mon, farmboy, admit it—this is the most exciting thing you've ever lived through!"
"I don't look for excitement! I'm perfectly happy being bored!!" Mallory shouted back over the din. "And I'd very much like to live through it so maybe you shouldn't be encouraging them! Why is it that dates with you keep ending in us running for our lives!?"
"This? This is nothing!" Lorelei replied, flicking an incoming tazer wire back at its origin, promptly electrocuting 11% of the mob. "You should've seen some of the brawls I got into last time I lived here. Whoo!"
"I really think we should stop seeing each other like this, Lorelei! I mean, on the brink of certain death and stuff! And in general! Like I was trying to tell you back in Drome... why am I talking about this now?! We should be running away! I think I have a splinter under my eyelid! I'm going to pass out from fright!"
"Oh, fine, we'll run a bit more," she decided, ducking down behind the crate next to him. "And what's this about breaking up with me? Haven't I done my best to show you a good time? I happen to think we're very compatible, and—"
A torn chunk of wood flew over her shoulder, before being vaporized in midair from a stray energy bolt.
"Running, right," she decided. "I know just the place, assuming it's still standing; there's a warehouse just around the corner! They're great for fights; you can knock over heavy boxes onto people, score sweet railing deaths, and sometimes there's even a machine to make roaring flames for no purpose whatsoever or a conveyer belt leading into a grinding machine! A GRINDING MACHINE and PURPOSELESS FLAMES, Mal! Doesn't that excite you?!"
"Brain... locking... up...!" Mallory warbled.
"On your feet, farmboy, we've got some real chase scene action to get through," she spoke, pulling the limp boy up to his legs and then making a run for it. "And we're not breaking up until the time is right! You'll know why when it happens!"
Kisei's ear twitched.
"Unless rampaging mobs are now a routine occurrence in Antiparadisia, and I am not discounting this possibility," she spoke, "I believe that Mike and/or Mallory have been located. We should make haste—"
"I should have looked up a map on RealNet," Meiko said, eyes quickly looking from unmarked street to unmarked street. "It changes every day but I could've found a recent one. I have no concept of where we are, much less where the house is..."
Kisei pointed down a particular street with her rifle, which caused would-be stray rampaging mob members to scatter.
"That way," she spoke. "There will be a warehouse dead ahead. A shortcut through it will result in a straight shot to the South Side Docks."
"You're familiar with Antiparadisia?" Meiko asked, breaking into the fastest jog her business formals would allow her to achieve.
"I am innately familiar with it," Kisei spoke, running alongside her employer. "Faster, if you can manage. The crowd is growing louder."
Doors on opposite sides of the warehouse swung open and shut simultaneously.
Much to Lorelei's disappointment, the warehouse had no flame-factory standards, or even crates. It was abandoned, with a hastily spray-painted red X over the doors, marking it for demolition within the week to make room for the ever-expanding population of Antiparadisia.
Much to Meiko's relief, there were no rampaging mob-folk inside the warehouse.
Much to everyone's surprise, it now contained Meiko, Kisei, Lorelei, and Mallory.
"The HELL are you doing here?!" Meiko exclaimed, while Kisei smelted the door shut behind her, using a compressed heat beam from her rifle. "I told you to stay at the house!"
"I wanted to go shopping," Lorelei casually noted, while carving a section of the wall up to fall in front of her door and block it. "How was I to know that it was Pitchforks and Torches Day? Hey, Kiss. How'd the meeting go? Did we get the job? Mallory, I think you should resume breathing. The crowd's not getting in here, we're safe."
"We're not safe," he spoke with alarming clarity as he stepped away from the door.. "...I don't know why, but—"
The boy stumbled exactly four and a half steps, tripping over someone.
Tripping over himself.
The other boy was a picture perfect copy of Mallory, with a ragged sweater a crazed look of fear in his eyes (half of which mirrored Mallory's own attributes). Another him. A him who was previously trying to hide behind the door, and now found himself scrabbling to his feet and slowly backing away...
"D-Don't kill me!" he protested, waving his arms defensively. "I didn't do anything! I didn't kill Auntie Mae! You have to believe me, it wasn't me, please!!"
Lorelei, for a change, was flat out stunned. "Uh.... Mal? Why are there two of you here?"
"That would be Mike, I believe," Meiko spoke, stepping up to take control of the situation before it got even more out of hand than it was to begin with. "The Chamber of Commerce wanted us to hunt him down. And I don't know why he looks like Mallory, either. Do you have a twin brother or something, Houseboy?"
(It should be noted that Mallory says nothing for the next few hours, which is a distinct change from his usual strategy of babbling and panicking and running around.)
"Why do you look like... you can't be him...! Stay away from me, stay away!!" Mike howled, backing up against a wall. "He's the one who killed Auntie Mae! I saw him leave the shop myself, he wore a cloak, and he had my face, he had my eyes! Get away from me, you freak—"
"Whoa, whoa, WHOA! Hold on a minute, Mike!" Meiko demanded. "Nobody here killed anyone! Nobody. This is Mallory Heisenberg and I can vouch that he wasn't the one who killed her. ...which means that instead of two of you, there must have been three... Mallory, what are you staring at?"
Wordlessly... Mallory pointed to the ceiling.
Where a man in a cloak stood.
The cloak did not fall downward. It fell upward, which meant that standing on the ceiling looked absolutely natural, if you accepted that gravity was in error. He was smiling upward at them, or rather downward at them on the floor of the warehouse... and as promised, he wore Mallory's face.
Haven't I seen you somewhere before? a silent memory echoed in Mallory's head.
"I'm just as surprised as you are," the cloaked one spoke, in a familiar voice, only... not exactly the same. Softer, yet with confidence you could bend an iron bar around. "It's unprecedented. Two of us? Two of us in the same reality. Well well. Hello, everyone..."
Both bodyguards jumped in front of the pack in a flash, rifle raised, saber at the ready. The smart thing to do was to shoot first and listen to speeches from people defying the laws of physics later.
No sooner than Kisei's boots and Lorelei's soft-soled shoes touched the ground in front of the group, than they found themselves falling. Falling sideways, towards opposite walls of the warehouse, thanks to the same twist of gravity which kept their target rooted upright.
Kisei twisted in the air, lining up a shot and cracking it off in 0.2 seconds. The bright red heat beam fired straight and true towards the cloaked man's left eye... then it bent ninety degrees to the left, ninety to the right, pause, ninety to the right, ninety to the left. An effective bracket around his head, harmlessly melting a spot on the ceiling behind him at the same moment Kisei's body impacted painfully against the wall, head first.
Meanwhile, Lorelei curled up, and bounced off her wall with leg muscles that never went out of shape despite weeks on the couch. She soared upwards in an eye-twisting effect of gravity, intent on taking off his head with her blade...
The blue plasma of her saber flared, warped, wobbled, and twisted around her own body instead. Her scream was one of agonized pain, silenced only when she fell back to her side of the warehouse, and slid down to the floor.
Next, Meiko, Mike and Mallory had a moment to breathe. None of them could. Then Mike took off running.
He didn't have any particular place to run to; both doors had been blocked, and the mob was surrounding the building. But fight or flight was the order of the day, and as the cloaked figure knew, they always chose flight...
He lifted one arm, locking eyes on the escaping boy.
Instantly, Mike crumpled to the ground, as if his body became six times heavier... which it did. Then ten times heavier. Then he screamed. Then there were multiple cracks of bone breaking, and he made no more sound, ever again.
With a smile, the man was in two places at once, then one place at once. Standing in front of Meiko and Mallory.
"You're better defended than we usually are," he commented, not feeling particularly threatened. "I'm surprised. We usually don't make many friends. They must care deeply to sacrifice themselves for you... still, one down. One to go. Two for one... ...or three for one, I guess, miss whoever-you-are..."
Mallory's eyes tore away from the cloaked-him for the first time. Just in time to see the look of fear in Meiko's eyes—the same 'I don't want to die' look that Mallory himself had mastered in recent days...
Weight. He started to feel heavy. His knees buckled. Meiko went down first, hard, her voice starting to scream much like Mike did...
The killer smiled at him, a gentle smile, one that said this was all good and this must be.
"Reality shall be determined by the last one standing," he spoke.
One single thought flashed across Mallory's mind: Meiko.
He let go.
Thankfully the Cloaked Mallory had on his sunglasses, because otherwise the flash of purple light would have blinded him. Even with protection, spots flooded his eyes for a few moments... long enough to warrant a surprised look around, perplexed at how everybody still alive had somehow left the building without a trace. Only Mike's body remained.
That's odd, the cloaked one thought.
When the rampaging mob finally managed to blast their way into the building, they found only Mike, and rejoiced, for justice had somehow been done when they were not looking.
Dice clattered against the board. The little doggie trotted five spaces ahead.
"Urbana... oooh, finally!" Eiko cheered. "Okay, so that's eight hundred points for the deed, and two hundred to build a hotel... minus the tax deduction for investment in civic projects, taking percentage off the top for license renewal, carry the four, and... um..."
She tapped a finger on the board game, kicking her legs a bit as she paused play.
"It's just no fun without other players," she decided.
With a standard youthful sigh of boredom, she got up from the floor, and headed to the kitchen to pilfer some Krap Snacks from Meiko's secret stash. When she returned, there were more players! Although... she could tell immediately that things were Bad and things were Serious. For starters, they were all lying on the floor, and some of them were bleeding.
"O... oneesan?" Eiko asked. "What happened..?"
Meiko groaned, sitting up and shaking her head to try and get the jackhammers in her brain to stop. "Is everybody okay?" she asked, since that's what you ask, ahead of "What the hell just happened?" and "How did we get back home?".
Lorelei was next up, trying to hold back a blue streak of cursing... wincing as the minor burns on her body sent random jabs of pain to her brainstem. "Nothing seriously wounded but my pride," she replied. "What the h... what just happened...?"
"And how did we get back home?" was Kisei's reply, while she wiped a trickle of blood away from her eye from a forehead cut. "What is going on?"
"I don't know and right now I don't care," Meiko said, trying to get back to her feet despite the extra weight of a houseboy clinging to her. "I'm going to get us back to I's Land pronto, and... Mallory, it's okay... I'm fine. You can let go now."
With a weak smile of relief, Mallory nodded, and he let go. Of consciousness.
No fear. Green grass beneath his feet. Blue sky above...
Water trickling down a creek. Birds chirping from the trees...
Was she smiling?
No, she was asleep. And now, Mallory was not.
She was sitting at one end of the couch, near where Mallory had been laid out... he swung his legs over, the now-familiar motions of a morning wakeup, going from lying to sitting on his 'bed'. As he sat up, his head rocked with something he didn't even have a mixed metaphor to describe, beyond pure agony.
It was nighttime, judging from the lack of sunlight through the windows. It was I's Land, judging from the pale moonlight that filtered into the room. Not the plain black sky of Antiparadisia, but a real, honest-to-goodness moon...
Milk. Right now, he needed milk. He needed milk and he wished his father was here to talk to him, like he had on a restless night many moons ago...
Meiko groaned, the stirring of the couch cushions rousing her. She rubbed her eyes, turning to look at him as he turned to look at her.
One perfect moment of peace and quiet. Just a moment, but when complete, it wasn't shattered; it simply started and then it simply ended.
"You okay?" Meiko asked of him.
"I don't know," he honestly replied.
"...I should have called a doctor, or something," Meiko replied, eyes drifting away guilt creeping into her voice. "But I's Land isn't exactly swarming with them, and I thought it was best if we... lie low a bit. Just sit things out, if that guy..."
Her eyes snapped back to him.
"Do you know who that was?" she asked. "And do you know how we got back here?"
"I don't know," he repeated. "I don't... I have no idea. I don't remember a whole lot, just... eyes, and..."
Meiko shook her head... and stood, dusting off her blazer. "Well, then... there's no sense worrying, is there?" she said, regaining cool without going all the way to ice. "If it can't be explained, it can't be explained. Wondering endlessly before we learn anything new won't change that. So we lay low, and most importantly... we get on with our lives. Right? That's the sensible thing to do..."
"I remember his eyes," Mallory said, having not listened to a thing she said. "And... and it hurt. And he was hurting you, and I had to do something to stop it, and... I couldn't let him hurt you. So I just... I don't know, but I couldn't let him, I had to do something and I don't know what I did and I had to stop him I—"
"Read my lips: There Is No Sense Worrying," she spoke, careful to get every word across. "We'll figure it out when we figure it out. I'm okay now... and you're okay. Everything's going to be fine now. ...I tried to stay awake so I could, er, be awake when you finally woke up, but... I guess I slipped. I was worried about you, you know. But now I don't have to worry. So. ...I'm not making sense, am I?"
"Oh, that's okay," Mallory said, smiling a little. "I'm used to not making sense myself, so I understand when someone's not making any sense and it's okay. ...if that made any sense either..."
"I think," Meiko said, rubbing her eyes, "That right now I absolutely need something... real. Maybe a—"
"Glass of milk?"
"...yes," she affirmed, a little surprised. "How'd you...?"
"Uh, lucky guess. I'll go get two glasses; you have a seat and rest a bit," he said, getting up. "I'll take care of it! Err... unless you'd prefer to get yours yourself rather than have your Houseboy get it, or something..."
Meiko groaned, shaking her head. "Whatever. Forget the Houseboy stuff, okay? I've been... I'll admit it, I've been acting pretty stupid lately. Something like that really puts perspective on life, doesn't it? Just forget it—"
A vision of beauty in a nightgown leaned against a nearby wall, coughing politely to get the couple's collective attention.
"People are trying to sleep upstairs, kinda hard to do through your groans of pain," Lorelei replied... the bandages on her arms a signal that she was in equal pain. "Keep it down to a whisper, okay? Oh, and Mal...?"
"I don't think it's going to work out. I hate to do this, but I don't see us being a very compatible couple; it's not you, it's me, believe me, so if it's all right with you... can we just be friends?"
Contrary to the universal laws of relationships, Mallory's reaction was one of pure relief, like a man suffering horrible chemical burns on his skin being washed with a neutralizing base component.
"Yes... yes, we can just be friends!" he agreed. "Right. I think that's for the best. Thank you. ...want a glass of milk?"
"Sure. Make mine a double."
"Right!" he replied, without realizing he had no idea what a double milk would look like. He ducked into the kitchen, rooting around for glasses... leaving the girls alone.
Meiko stared at a nearby wall.
"I think you're ready," Lorelei told her, since she knew Meiko was listening. "I think he's ready, too."
Gritting her teeth, Meiko responded without returning the gaze. "No. No. I'm not going to adore the guy just because—"
"Then screw F.P."
"Forget about destiny. I don't believe in it, either. Who's telling you to marry him tomorrow? Or at all?" Lorelei asked. "All I really wanted you to do was give it a shot. Keep the option open, instead of hiding from it in fear. Because I know you—especially the bits you don't like to admit you have. When you saw that message in F.P., you saw a chance at something you hadn't planned for but deep down needed badly... go for it, Meiko. He's free now; a little jealousy was the ticket to make you see the truth. Now let whatever's gonna happen happen, whatever the whatever may be."
"...I still don't appreciate being jerked around like that," she said honestly.
"I never claimed to be a master psychologist. Sometimes being a bitch is the only weapon I got, yeah? But you'll give him a chance now, right...? I hardly believe someone willing to stay by his bedside would—"
"Yes, yes, I will," she replied. "Okay. You win. ...and you're right."
"Good. Because after tonight... I think he's gonna need all the support he can get. I'm from the school of hard knocks; you're way better at the gentle stuff than I am."
"Better at what stuff?" Mallory asked, carefully carrying three glasses of milk in two hands. "Sorry, I had to get some clean glasses from the store room, I—"
"Well, I'm off to bed!" Lorelei announced. "Gotta rest up big if we're gonna be stuck here a week. Too many pretty boys to date here on I's Land and not enough time! Later, Mal. Later, Mei."
"ER, your milk—"
And thus, his ex-lover returned to bed. Alone.
Just a plain apartment. Nothing unusual about it, at least not to the naked eye; even to the unnaked eye, it was merely loaded down with the finest microsecurity devices that RealWare's R&D labs ever produced.
The owner of the apartment entered without using the door. His cloak was promptly stored in the closet; he'd retrieve it next time he needed to do a little investigating. Which he'd need to do eventually, especially in light of the unusual events of the day... once things settled down. Once he had time.
Because the blinking red light on his RealNet Workstation suggested he would not have free time anytime soon. He sat down in front of the station, keyed in his password, and a video chat window opened automatically.
The woman on the other end of the stream was not pleased.
"Where were you, Multi?" she asked, in her patented 'I'm angry but I'm not going to sound angry or even hint that I am angry' voice. "I've been trying to reach you for hours..."
"My apologies, Ms. Bates..." he spoke, with an accompanying bow of the head. "I was taking care of some personal business."
"Mmm. Well, water under the bridge. Meet me at my personal dock, I have a press conference to attend tonight on Urbana and I'm not going without my head of security."
"At once, ma'am."
The video window closed, replaced by the standard logo of the Reality Prime Intranet.
The one known as Multi turned his swivel chair around slowly, taking in the sights of his unimpressive apartment.
Such a mundane existence, he pondered, a common thought for him. But soon it will be vivid. Once the competition is out of the way.
Very strange things have happened. Nobody is talking about them because nobody knows what happened and it's not very comfortable to think about, and it wouldn't help anything to worry so says Meiko so we are getting back to normal instead. I am focusing on my studying because my test is in one week's time. Maybe if I can be scared by the test I won't be scared about what happened. And I think Meiko cares about me, so that is a good thing at least from this. She was almost hurt but I think I saved her somehow.
I should go study now. Love your son, Mallory.
PS - Please please tell me if I had any twin brothers or anything, I don't think I did but you didn't tell me mom was Nipponese until recently and I'm worried I'm missing something here as well. Mail me asap. Love your son Mallory Heisenberg who is what I am.
estate copyright 2002 stefan gagne)
[unauthorized use is strictly prohibited]
Note: there is an actual company called RealityPrime, providing consulting in VR and game technology. It is not associated with Stefan Gagne and Unreal Estate.