Warm knees. Very warm knees. Legs warm too, but the knees especially; they were entrenched deeper under the fluffy quilted apron around the kotatsu.

'Kotatsu' was a new concept to Mallory, being a Nihongo term Eiko hadn't taught him yet. He was rapidly learning to appreciate this unusual twist; it was the hybrid bastard child of a quilt, a table, and a space heater. You stuck your legs underneath the quilted apron around the table, kneeling or stretching them out (kneeling was very big in Nippon, he had learned) and a heater kept you toasty warm. I's Land could get a bit chilly some nights, despite having a near perfect climate, and this was such a night... particularly with the House's power and water hookups having nothing to hook to on the 'docking' beach, and Meiko conserving power by flipping the heating system off.

And so, Mallory's warm knees contentedly rested underneath the surface of the Kotatsu. He had decided to try kneeling, since his mother was Nipponese and he had to learn this sort of thing. Also because he didn't want to risk accidentally kicking Meiko. She was already →← this close to kicking his head clean off his shoulders, after all.

"No, no, no, NO," she chastised, tapping the data pad with a finger on each 'no,' her teeth grinding together. "No! When the backup sync plug-ins fail, you're supposed to reinstall the plug-in manager. This is the third time we've gone over that! Even I remember, and I'm not the one taking the REC Test!"

Mallory squinted at the diagram, which either represented code package dependency in a Reality Engine's software systems or a move mapping strategy card from a championship Ping Pong round. "Uh... but.. this time we went over it from another direction? Or something..."

"There's no way to restore the corrupted data! The RealWare recommended method is to take blue cube number seven from your Reality Engineer Developer Kit and reinstall the entire system. In this situation, just rebooting the thing wouldn't work!"

"But that's always worked for me before..."

"The REC Test may be multiple choice, Mallory, but I seriously doubt option D will be 'Drop back fifty yards and punt the engine!'"

"Right right, but in this situation, why wouldn't the auto-repair systems put the plugins back in order?" Mallory asked, scrolling back up a few pages. "I mean, the systems are designed to try to catch themselves before they fail... all it would need is a little nudge, I think... ah! Yes yes, right here in case example #76a! I WAS right!"

Meiko seethed and sputtered an fumed and raged and looked and fidgeted and coughed and looked aside and nodded slowly.

"...right. Like I was saying. I mean... ah, forget it. Forget it!" she groaned, flopping backwards to lie down on her floor. Her hands went up to massage throbbing temples. "This is NOT working. How can I help you study for this test if I don't know anything about Reality Engineering myself?"

"I said I could study it myself, you know..."

Meiko peered at him at an angle from under her hands. "Do you honestly believe you have a chance at the test only 25% of all applicants manage to pass if I leave this to your capable hands?"


"Honesty, Mal."

"...I'm not honestly sure," he admitted, glancing at the obtuse, obscure and occasionally obfuscated information on the data pad. "But... I have to pass, right? You said so when you hired me, and Eiko wrote it in the contract. 'Must pass the REC Test within a month, or be terminated.' ...that just means fired, not killed, right? It sounds kinda scary..."

Pulling her weary self back up to sitting position, Meiko thumbed to the next page of questions. "For now, this is the best we can do... let's try to get through a few more pages of these before calling it a night. At worst, I'll learn enough about Reality Engineering to take that test instead and... then we can save cash by not paying your salary, I guess..."

"I know I'm not picking this up real fast. Sorry... uh, you know, it's funny, but—"

"I fail to see humor."

"Not funny ha-ha, more funny strange. Strange how I thought I'd pick this up real fast, what with my mother being an engineer herself, and being able to fix the Reality Engine back home each time it crashed... I guess I was pretty silly for thinking that, but... maybe you shouldn't have hired me. I mean, you really need an engineer, not just a cook. I hate being a bother..."

Meiko rolled her eyes and got a seven. "Now you're definitely sounding Nipponese. You haven't been a bother, Mallory. ...you've been pretty helpful, actually. With the I's Land thing, and looking after Eiko, and all your chores and such... and as for the engine, it hasn't crashed once since you got here, so no big whoop that you're not ready to properly fix it yet."

"You know, I was wondering about that... why do you need an engineer if it doesn't crash?"

"Oh, it crashes," Meiko replied, trying to find a soft question to lob at him from the datapad. "Luckily it hasn't crashed lately, but let's not forget when it dropped on your head... we're VERY lucky it didn't appear in the middle of a mountain or something. In fact... here's one. A mid-sized dock rated mobile home with Reality Engine for Mobiles always lands in docks upside down. What do you do?"

The hamster wheel of Mallory's mind squeaked along with furiousity."I... uh... wait wait, no hints, it's coming to me... err... ah! You... yoooouu... reinstall the operating system!"

Meiko's eyebrows raised in surprise. "Right on the nose. I think that's the first one you've gotten right tonight..."

"I guessed, actually!" Mallory admitted. "It just seems like the solution to half these problems is to completely reinstall the operating system..."

The datapad slid across the surface of the kotatsu, skidding to a halt perfectly aligned in front of Mallory.

"Let's move on a bit," Meiko suggested, stretching her arms over her head and stifling a yawn. She fetched a business magazine from the floor, opening it to the last article she read. "You study the next ten pages, then I'll quiz you. Then we stop for the night. I don't know how well this is working, but... I'll find a better way to do it in the morning, I guess. It's getting late..."

"I'm on this like rice on whites!" Mallory declared, eyes sliding across the jargon like a skier towards a ravine. "Give me this last week of studying, and I'll pass that test faster than you can say, 'Give me this last week of studying and I'll pass that test faster than you can say—'"

- - - -

"—done!" he declared, setting the pad down and trying to plug a mental cork in his brain to keep the lumpy goop of knowledge from draining out. "Hit me with that quiz, Meiko, I'm re... Meiko?"

Peering around the kotatsu, he spotted Meiko lying on her side, the magazine lying open beside her. Eyes closed, breathing softly in her sleep. Apparently plowing through the thick fields of knowledge and threshing madly with the scythe of understanding took longer than he predicted.

Briefly, very VERY briefly, he considered picking Meiko up and helping her over to her futon. Then he had a temporal flash forward to the kind of pain he'd experience if she woke up to THAT sort of surprise. As a compromise, he tugged the quilt off the futon, and tried to drape it over her as gently as possible...

It felt good.

There was dread over the upcoming test, yes. There was the worry of failing and being forced to leave the home he'd grown so accustomed to in such a short time... and there was the worry of letting her down, most of all. (And on the sidelines, a recent worry over recent events that he was recently trying to forget...) Doom and worry and fear and doubt were to the north and south and east and west of him respectively, that he knew for certain.

But still, it felt good... spending this time with her, even if most of it consisted of her wondering aloud why he was so dense. She was trying her hardest to help him, and he tried his hardest to get the questions right in return. Despite all the screw-ups and the worries, he felt quite pleased with the night's outcome.

Taking his datapad from the table, he quietly left her room, slowly closing the door behind him. Tomorrow would be another day to study; for now they both needed sleep.

"Oyasumi," he whispered before latching the door shut (and hoping he said the right word).

A minute after, Meiko tugged the blanket a little tighter around herself. Even if nobody was there to see, she smiled in her sleep.

unreal estate, episode 06: ihtfp

Of course, the higher you fly, the farther you plunge screaming towards the ground while on fire and spinning out of control after having your craft ventilated by heavy shell fragments and tracer fire.

Their new location was the shelling; what would happen later would act as tracer fire. But mixed military metaphors aside, without further ado, ladies and gentlemen... the shelling.

"We're in Nippon?" Mallory asked, staring in amazement at the buildings outside his window.

As was standard for the boy, first impressions out the kitchen window were the most lasting. The city outside his window was quite impressive indeed. Nippon was not quite Urbana, as it lacked the latter's level of high-pressure intensity—crowded, busy, but somehow more tranquil in a way he couldn't identify. The buildings were a different style as well (wooden sliding doors and whatnot)... and to further distance the place from the Known and Comfortable, neon signs (currently daytime/off) had been plastered all over the place surface-coated with incomprehensible scribbles...

Lorelei was just as disbelieving, but for her own reasons. "I thought we were laying low? And I thought we were strapped for cash?" she asked, ignoring the window. "Parking in the middle of one of the most active Realities out there is not lying low. And the docking fees in Nippon are ridiculous, even before you exchange points for En..."

"I considered the plusses and minuses of this move in detail," Meiko assured. "We're sticking our necks out for good reason. Mallory needs to study for his REC Test... and I'm not a good enough study partner. So I've enrolled him in the finest nighttime cram school in Nippon."

"Cram what?" Mallory asked, glancing away from the window.

"Cram facts into your brain with a shoehorn," Lorelei explained, flatly. "After all, knowing what you're actually doing is secondary to knowing the answers to the REC Test. I've heard of cram schools—they make the jungles of Tribal Alpha feel relaxing and safe. So we're fronting the cash for docking fees AND for a cram school? What's so bad about kicking back in I's Land, enjoying the surf, and letting Mallory study there?"

"Uh... yeah!" he spoke, deciding to speak out with his speaking voice for a change. "I mean, we were doing fine last night... right? I really thought we'd hit a groove or something, and, uh... I'd rather study with you than go to a graham school—"

"This is more efficient. Eiko?"

On cue, Eiko popped up with a small calculator.

"According to annual statistics for the REC Test issued by RealWare Nippon, cram school students achieve a 34% passing rate," she announced, reading off the numbers to five digit decimal precision. "Students who attempt to study on their own only achieve a 25% passing rate. Therefore, by going to cram school, Mallory has a greater chance of passing and staying with us and then we can play more! Yaaay! You're so smart, oneechan—I'm in favor of this plan!"

Lorelei made the 'feh' face of irritated annoyance. "You're in favor? Even considering how much money this will cost?"

"If you sneak money out of the house fund less often to go on expensive dates, we can compensate," Eiko pointed out oh so helpfully.

"This decision is final," Meiko spoke with Authority. "We'll be in Nippon for the duration. I considered having Mallory take Mellow Fellow's taxi back and forth... but we've freeloaded off I's Land and Mellow more than enough. It's not fair to them to mooch. Get used to another week of downtime—we're not taking a job until this test is over. Except for you, Mallory: your job is to study. To help you focus... we'll do most of your chores. Lorelei will do the laundry, Kisei will clean the house, and I'll do the cooking."

A weak, strangled cry escaped Lorelei's throat at the notion. "...I think I'll go find some guy to bum takeout food off of," she announced. "I'll be back tomorrow, Mei... good luck, Mallory. And I don't mean on the test."

Mallory's stomach sank deep enough to get the bends on the way back up. "Uh, Meiko, you really don't have to do that, I can handle studying and cooking—"

"I repeat: No distractions," she repeated. "And that means you can't bug him to play with you, Eiko."

The young Mirai sister's pigtails drooped. "Awwww..." she aww'd. "That's no fun at all. ...but it means more time to play with you, oneechan! We haven't played dolls or video games or stock analysis in a long time. Do you have any scheduled appointments today?"


If being an economist fell though, Eiko would have made an excellent pickpocket, as she had Meiko's Future Perfect open before the letter I could fully escape her lips.

"Hooray! F.P. says you're playing with me today!" Eiko announced, waving the pocket organizer around for all to see. When Meiko moved to grab it away, Eiko snagged her arm like a snare trap, bounding away towards the stairs. "Seeya, Mallory-oniichan! Oh, by the way, you have a message on the workstation account. Baibai!"

"...." Mallory replied, as all the girls vacated in various directions.

The happy thoughts he didn't fully realize he was entertaining of study time with Meiko evaporated like steam from a pot of boiling broth.

But where there's shelling, there's tracer fire...

He'd never received a RealNet message before. Figuring it'd be a pick-me-up, he wandered across the living room to the house workstation, went through the keyboard strokes required (Josef always said his mother always said real engineers unplugged their mice), and opened the letter...

Dear Mallory.

I've been enjoying the letters you send home tremendously. Admittedly you're having a more exciting time out there than I had when I left home -- my journey was downright mundane in comparison. Sorry I haven't replied lately, but things have been very busy, harvest season and all.

But what you sent last time, I have to tell you something that might worry you. I'd suggest you sit down, since there's no easy way to say it, and I promised that if you ever happened to ask, I wouldn't lie. I actually thought you would ask beforehand, after I let slip that your mother was from Nippon, and clearly you don't look even half Nipponese, but... you deserve honesty. So this is the honest truth.

You don't have any twin brothers that I know of. However, I'm sorry to say that the truth is that I'm not your biological father.

Shortly after returning from my multidimensional journey with my newly wed wife, we found you in the western corn field. You were a newborn, but had no baby clothes, no possessions, no identification at all. We checked around the village to see if any mothers had lost their child, or even abandoned it -- but nobody was pregnant at the time. There was no possible way someone from our home reality was your mother, but no outsiders were visiting at the time, either.

The Council, of course, wanted to offload this problem as fast as possible by having one of the outside traders deliver you to an orphanage at Urbana. Your mother, however, wouldn't hear anything of it; she had grown attached to you and would not give you up. It was a hard fight, but we worked together and won the right to call you our own -- as if the Council had a say in it, but it was important we make the peace for your sake. After that, your origin was rarely spoken of... but I'm afraid some of the isolation you felt from the other children was related to this. Suspicions never fully faded away from that day, and a small community like ours has a hard time forgetting things.

Mallory, I'm sorry I lied to you. I felt it was for the best, but I also promised when the time came, I'd make amends. Know that I've never seen you as anything other than my true son, and your mother loved you dearly as well. We are your parents in every sense of the word but one.

If you want to come home for a while and talk about this, I'll understand. I can't say I'm sorry enough. But I love you. Please write back soon, either way.

Love, your father, Josef Heisenberg.

PS - I hope you're getting along well with Meiko. She sounds a lot like your mother, really. Be careful about workplace romances, and I wish you the very best.


...read it one more time, just to make sure.

Maybe three times or five. Hard to say.

Slowly, his body began to ache from sitting hunched over. His eyes started to get very dry from being open.


He was...


Being talked to. Addressed.

"I know you're keen on studying for this stuff online, but if you don't get out of here soon you'll be late," Meiko was telling him. "Hello? You in there, Mallory?"

"Late?" he asked, picking up on one word.

"It's almost six o'clock, you've got to get to night class," she prompted. "Time is money here. I left a map on the kitchen table; most folks here only know Nipponese, so don't bother asking for directions. Get moving."

Some tiny part of his brain started wiring concepts together:

late to class → less education → being less prepared for test → failing test → letting Meiko down

Circuit completed, signal slammed through the connections until he was standing up and alert.

"R-Right!" he exclaimed. "I have to go study! I must pass my test! I won't let you down!! I will pass my test and I won't let you down so I have to go right now and everything else can just wait!"

"That's... a bit spooky, but okay, whatever," Meiko responded, backing away slowly. "So—"

The front door closed behind him with a slam.

- - - -

Nothing trumps a bewildered, slightly depressed mood like the kind of complete alienation Nippon gives to gaijin.

Gaijin was a word Eiko had taught him—it meant 'foreigner', but Mallory understood the concept that was lurking behind the word quite well. The same look of mistrust Nipponese folks gave him as he wandered the streets was the look he'd see on the Council's faces whenever outsiders dropped by Grünwald. He thought he was prepared to deal with that, that he could handle being treated like an outcast in this strange world... but after the odd mood his father's letter put him in, the strange looks only made him feel weirder and weirder.

Not really his father's son, but really his son; Mallory didn't doubt for a second how Josef felt about him. He didn't doubt for a second how his mother felt about him. But not his father, not his mother... simply found somewhere with no logical explanation of how he got there...

It took him a full city block of neon light scribble-signs before he realized he took a wrong turn. As Nippon was notoriously free of crime he did not run into a dramatically appropriate Wrong Side of the Tracks Gang; he simply backtracked, turned right instead of left, and continued on.

If he wanted to pass this test, if he wanted to avoid letting Meiko down, he couldn't focus on this mystery... although it was hard not to worry. A nagging hangnail just begging to be tugged at and dealt with, despite knowing it'll just make things worse to gnaw at it... ever since that day he'd been trying to balance between the immediate demands of his life (REC Test) and the distant demands (finding out what the hell was going on)...

But Meiko told him not to worry about it. Outright ordered him not to worry about it. And his father wouldn't want him to be upset... so with much effort, like trying to swallow an entire hot dog (volume of meat + insult to chefly honor), he pushed it down as he pushed open the doors to the cram school. He might get metaphorical stomach cramps later, but for now, he had a test to study for. The mysterious workings of the multiverse awaited his mighty comprehension!

- - - -

"You are not here to learn about the mysterious workings of the multiverse," the instructor instructed, as his assistant desperately worked on getting the RealNet Workstation to boot up the slideshow program. "This course is not designed to teach you Reality Engineering. If you want to learn that, there are four year courses available at most major universities, including Reality Prime's own RealUniversity. You are here instead to learn how to pass the REC Test. The REC Test has been issued four times a year, every year, for nearly two thousand years. Obviously, this means RealWare cannot generate 100% original tests for every quarter. The patterns used have been well documented; we will teach you common problem structures and word traps that give you the edge. Are there any questions?"

Every person in the room wearing a shirt with actual buttons did not raise their hands. Which meant the only person who raised a hand was Mallory.

"Mr. Heisenberg?" the instructor called, after glancing at Mal's 'Hello My Name Is' tag.

"Uh, what if I don't already know Reality Engineering?" he asked. "I mean, I've been studying it for a while now so I know the basics but I'm not sure if it's the same as a four-year course—"

"Then you're likely to fail. Any other questions?"

"Can I have an ink pen?"

Once someone found an actual ink-using pen for his use, while the RealWare RealSlides program was busy crashing for the third time that night, Mallory jotted down a note to himself on his left hand:


The rest of the class notes were jotted on his data pad using a simple plastic stylus, notes about answer patterns and analogy questions and such, but the only note that was really of use to him was the one seeping into his skin.

- - - -

The passage of time became a non-issue for Mallory after that; his view of the outside world was blocked by his datapad, filled with flowing prose and diagrams about the nature of reality. When he ate breakfast (cold cereal provided by Meiko's loving culinary talents) he frequently bumped his spoon against the edge of the pad.

It's a good thing he was distracted, because the way the house was getting filthier and more cluttered would offend his homemaking sensibilities. Eiko's toys had been scattered around the living room; other than stepping on a stray Bathing Beauty Biiko™ when he woke up in the morning, the rest slid gracefully into the blind spot.

As for the women of the house, they fit perfectly into the blind spot as well.

"Let's play, oniichan!" Eiko called out, bounding around him in a circle as he walked from one room to the other while reading about the fold properties of reality generation waves across a liquid surface. "Look, I got a new Attack Lawyer Larry™ with Appeals Court / Shark Tank Playset™! We can pretend we're overturning financial edicts from the Urbana Business Council!"

"Can't play, busy studying," he replied, and moved right along.

An hour later, a grumbling Lorelei wandered past him, dripping wet and completely naked.

"Something's wrong with the Onsen-of-the-Month," she complained. "The water's gone freezing cold. Mal, can you run down to Noyori Labs and ask Ryo-san to look into it?"

"Can't deliver message, busy studying," he replied.

"Right And before then, wanna go up to my room and have mad, passionate, screaming, nails-scraping-down-your-back sex for a minimum of eight hours?"

"Can't have sex, busy studying," he absently replied.

"Figured as much."

An hour later, he stopped wandering about the house.

So far he'd managed to at least skim over the screens of his data pad in a glaze of half comprehension... but this tangle of arrows and labels and mechanical diagrams was stumping him. Either it was a reality synchronization system or an ice cream maker. Instinctively, he decided to drop in on his study partner and see what she made of it.

He grasped the doorknob to Meiko's room while still looking at the diagram, and walked right in.

"Meiko, could you look at....... err..."

Not Meiko's room.

Although this room was familiar. It was just as dark in here as the last time he walked in, and was indeed occupied by the same person. One extremely angry military-type woman.

This time, he had caught her writing in some sort of pink notebook. In a hurry, she snapped it shut. "YOU. Again? How did you get in here? WHY did you come in here?!"

"I, err, um, I was just—"

But now Kisei was up and in his face and very very threatening-looking in her calm and icy sort of way that made Mallory feel warm and runny inside and hopefully not warm and runny down his left leg. Kisei took a moment to work a small lock on her pink notebook before she chewed him out.

"I specifically locked all seven locks on my door today," Kisei spoke... after glancing a split second to verify things. "That's five plus the two I installed after the last time you entered my room. Six have been unlocked—and unless I am delusional, the seventh is completely missing from my doorframe. Even if that oddity were overlooked, there is simply no possible way to unlock them from outside my door. I would like to know why you have invaded my privacy again, but before you give me such adequate reasons to cripple you, I would like to know HOW you managed this feat."

"Errmgmghhlll," Mallory whimpered incoherently.

"You don't know, do you?" Kisei asked, deciding to do Mallory's thinking for him. "This is like the miraculous escape we made in Antiparadisia, isn't it? You didn't know what happened then, either. How many bizarre coincidences have worked out in your favor, Mallory Heisenberg?"

of course a reality engine shouldn't be able to fix itself just by kicking it, that's silly, but for some reason it always worked every time→

would have been hit by the falling house, if not for the rare chance of having two hills on either side of him to support the thing, if not for knowing to drop to the ground and avoid being crushed→

mallory raised his paddle and ended up deflecting the ball in an accidentally perfect defensive maneuver that squeaked it over the net, off the table and right past meiko→

lorelei fell into step/sprint beside him, fine, fine, take all the fun outta my evening, how'd you throw your voice like that, anyway→

reality shall be determined by the last one standing, he spoke.
one single thought flashed across mallory's mind: Meiko.→

he → let → go

The speed at which Mallory evaded her wrath and slipped out her door was impressive. He even managed to squeeze in a mumbled apology during the process.

A puzzle, Kisei thought, anger easily leaving her now that the problem was out of sight.

After taking care to close her door and lock the remaining locks, she returned to her writing.

- - - -

Two days and two nights came and went like this.

They crashed to a halt when Meiko wandered downstairs in her bathrobe one morning to make breakfast, and found a zombie had beaten her to the punch.

Eiko gave her sister her a silent, well known 'Help Me' look, as she pointed to her bowl of Chocolate Frosted Chocolate Choco-Chunks Cereal, which had a fried egg floating in it.

The zombie shuffled its feet along the kitchen floor, making a scraping sound of two-day-old used socks on dirty floor as he moved. He deposited a plate of bacon and pancakes in front of Meiko, which were swimming lazily in a sea of 2% lowfat milk.

"Made... breakfast..." the dried-out husk wheezed.

"Mallory... how long have you been awake?" Meiko asked, slipping into her seat and lifting a strip of fried pork from its calcium-enriched swamp.

Mallory took a good twenty seconds to answer, eyes glancing upwards as he worked the problem over in his head. "Uhhh... about... forty-four hours. Studied. Went to class. Came home. Too busy studying. Can't sleep. Must pass test... the early bird catches... the thing with the... yak to water... something or other. Right. Who wants toast?"

Two freshly baked hamburgers popped out of the toaster.

"I'm scared, oneechan!" Eiko whispered.

Meiko crossed her arms, leaning back in the kitchen chair. "I suspect night school is not working out for you, then? Damn. Well... I didn't want to do this, but..."

"You're talking about 'that', aren't you?" Eiko asked. "That's what I suggested we do in the first place! Cram school is good, but it's more financially sound for Mallory to get help there. You know Ryo-san wouldn't mind!"

"I know, but... I really didn't wanna impose on him TWICE in one month," Meiko said, ignoring the undead creature who was trying to fry a pair of oven mitts. "We already asked him to take care of two fugitives on the lam, adding Reality Engineering tutoring on top of that..."

"We could have even parked the house in his corporate lot for free, you know..."

"Eiko, it's important not to take unfair advantage of generosity. Ryo-san shouldn't have to give up a docking slot and his free time just because we're in a bind, in the same way I's Land shouldn't be forced to take care of us well after we finished our work there. Even if they want to. I mean..."

"Eiko-chan suggests this is the only way we're gonna avoid being bankrupt AND keep Mallory-oniichan around!" her younger sister fiercely recommended. "And if we run out of money and Mallory has to leave Eiko-chan will CRY! So let's just ask Ryo-san to help us. ...okay? Please?"

Meiko bit her lip. "I don't know... I mean, Mallory could pull through okay—"

"We're out of butter," he spoke, while pouring ketchup into the toaster.

- - - -

One forced eight-hour nap later, and Meiko was marching him through the streets of Nippon towards Noyori Labs.

He'd marched through these streets before. Not these EXACT streets, but they all looked the same to him; neon lights, old brick and wood buildings, people everywhere looking at him funny. And like those times, he had a destination and a purpose and rubbernecked at a bare minimum. Unlike his arrival in Urbana... where stared at everyone and everything, but nobody stared back...

"How do they know?" he wondered aloud.

The one leading him around glanced over her shoulder. "Eh?"

"How can they tell I'm a gaijin?" he asked, pronouncing the word correctly. "I've never figured that out. Eiko told me that gaijin were treated with caution and stuff but never how people knew... back home, it was a small community so any outsiders would be obvious, but..."

Meiko shrugged. "A sixth sense, maybe? Although if you look closely... well, look..."

She paused in her walk, turning to face him... and point at her eyes with both hands. And get up close and tight with Mallory's personal space, causing him to take a step back...

"There's a slight tilt in the eyes if you're Nipponese," she explained, while pointing it out. "It's not much, but it's noticeable if you know what you're looking for. Really really REALLY old artwork has it more stylized, so maybe it was more obvious in ancient days... ...wait, your mother was Nipponese, right? Here I am up close, and I'm just seeing the same watery, wide-eyed globs I've always seen, no tilt at all..."

"Oh... yeah," Mallory said, brought uncomfortably back to one of his many Worries of the Week. He could parry it with a lie or just change topics, but... with her so close...

Meiko scratched her chin, the universal expression of confusion. "I didn't think it blended out THAT much in half-Nipponese—"

"I was an orphan, apparently," Mallory said quickly, to get it out fast.


"Isn't that the place?"

Meiko failed to shift to second gear. "Wha..?"

"Noyori Labs," Mallory spoke, pointing to the sign just twenty feet away... trying to smile, to reassure her. "We're here! East Edo Branch. C'mon, every minute I'm not studying is a minute I'm... not studying! Let's roll!"


"I'll show you the message I got later," he said, switching back for a moment. "Until then, don't worry about it... okay? Please? I'm fine. I'm fine, really. It's okay."

- - - -

"You sure you're okay?"

This drew Mallory's distracted eyes back to the display panel.


"Looked like you were drifting off into la-la land again," Ryo-san said, tapping his laser pointer in one hand. "C'mon, Mallory-kun, foooocus. It's getting late, and Meiko will kill me if you lose any more sleep..."

Here and now. Focus...

Here being Noyori Labs, East Edo Branch. The first room was a plush lobby with a receptionist and security guard who didn't want to let them in at first—not until Ryo stormed out of the elevator and greeted them with enough energy and good cheer to make Eiko jealous. The second room was... well, the elevator. Meiko got off on the fourth floor to do some RealNet skimming and chatting with Belle Pasadina, who was still a guest of Ryo's...

And then there was this place. Mallory had never been in a scientific research lab. Apparently, neither had Ryo, as it resembled a cobbled together mishmash of sterile chemical plants, robotics workstations, coffee makers, bookcases, stand-up video game cabinets, dartboards, barcaloungers, and more—all organized around a to-scale fully working model railroad set that simulated the Edo public transportation system.

'Not because I helped upgrade it a year ago, mostly because I like pushing the levers and going ALL ABOARD! at the top of my lungs,' he had explained earlier while showing plenty of teeth.

Mallory had never met a scientist before, and was betting he still hadn't. Other than the requisite white lab coat and name tag (with Ryo mugging and flashing a V for the camera much like Eiko enjoyed doing) he didn't fit the mold. He wore flower-print shorts, sandals, a T-shirt with ramen sauce stains... and hadn't shaved in a day or two. In other words, he looked more or less as unprofessional as he did the day they snuck Belle out through the Onsen-of-the-Month—

"MAL! YO!"


"You were spacing again," Ryo explained, waving his hand back and forth an inch away from Mallory's face. "C'mon, at least pretend you're interested in this stuff. I know I'm a pretty lousy sensei but I'd like to think I'm at least an entertaining one..."

"S-Sorry, sor... 'Goh men hah sai,'" he corrected, bowing slightly in his seat to show respect.

"Hey, not bad," Ryo commented, amused by it. "Eiko's been teaching you, then? I doubt Meiko has, she doesn't give much thought to her roots..."

"A little here and there, yeah. Um... so... where were we?"

"I was just explaining about the secondary failsafe systems," Ryo spoke, clicking his laser pointer back on, tracing underneath the floating diagram projection. "Do you remember what checksum bitdepth the Environmental Hazard failsafe uses for verification upon a potential Reality Engine crash...?"

Mallory tapped his stylus on his datapad. "Err.... no no, wait, it's coming to me... it's.... I've got this, I remember it from studying with Meiko, it's.... it's... I...... have no clue. Six? Four?"

"Four thousand and ninety-six," Ryo said, with a sigh of sensei-esque disappointment. "You were off by a nine and a zero. Mal, you haven't gotten a single question right tonight. Look, I may be a reasonably resourceful guy considering where I came from, but I can't claim to be a miracle worker. And it's looking to me like it'll take nothing short of a miracle for you to pass this test... why in blazes did you want to be a Reality Engineer, anyway? You took the job before you met Meiko, so I know that can't be it..."

Mallory defocused again, thinking back. "I... uh, originally it was because of my mother. She was a Reality Engineer, too, so I figured maybe I had the knack and not just the knock, but... but it turns out she's not my real mother."

"You lost me."

"It's nothing," he dismissed. "So, failsafes. ...where were we again?"

"Good question," Ryo said, dragging over a barstool (as his seating around the lab was quite eclectic). "Where WERE we? Where were you before? 'Turns out she's not my real mother' is a whopper of a 'turns out'. It's got you distracted, doesn't it? If I'm gonna stop losing you, well, let's blow some time and talk about it—"

"I don't have time to blow, I have to pass this test! ...if you don't mind," Mallory suffixed, not liking the sharp tone he just took. "It's just a worry. I can worry about it later, right..?"

"It's worrying you now. Spill it. Sensei demands this of you," Ryo spoke. "If you've been living with Lorelei, you should know I can be even more doggedly persistent than she can. Meiko's just as reluctant to share when she's worried, and I have to drag it out of her too. I won't teach you a lick of reality until you tell me the backstory here. So. Not your real mother because...?"

The message was still in the backlogs on the House workstation, but Mallory recalled it word for word. Each word told to the odd interrogator.

Then some more words about him and his dad, Josef, and his past. Why he went on the trip, how he saw it as a tornado, why he didn't want to leave the House, didn't want to let Meiko down... how he went to Antiparadisia, and the person he found there, and everything. Every detail.

It took 12 minutes. Mallory was good at compressing every thought he had in a tight babbled stream. And Ryo was good at analyzing data, so he only asked for repeats twice.

"...and now I really don't know what to think," Mallory said, once he managed to slow down. "I know how Dad feels. I feel the same, but... it's like I have this family somewhere and they're gone. And now I have this family at the House and if I fail, they'll be gone too, and... it's just all so confusing... and... and that's it. I think. That's all I can think of. ...I guess that was distracting, me, yeah, now that I think about it..."

Ryo's smile wasn't gone. It was merely set aside for the moment, as he leaned back in quiet contemplation. His brain contemplated at an overclocked speed, of course, so his reply was near instant.

"I was an orphan too," he noted.


"Meiko and I were at the same orphanage on Seven Lucky Gods Street," he continued, looking vaguely up at the ceiling as memory parsed itself for him. "'course, I'm five years older than her, so we didn't see each other much. They kept the young kids and the old kids apart. But we both had the same dream, so it was only natural that we talked whenever we could. We wanted to get out of there, of course. It wasn't a bad place, to be honest, but it wasn't what we wanted from life... we wanted to pave our own futures. We had plans. Destinies, I guess. I wanted to hone my science to help people wherever I could think to help, she wanted to provide a good home and comfortable future for Eiko. 'Course, success and prosperity and happiness is a bit hard when you're a poor orphan with nothing to claim as your own except your first name..."

His gaze strayed back down, to avoid losing himself. To focus on Mallory and his problem.

"It's a trick we both learned: we turn disadvantage to advantage," he said, his smile returning. "Disadvantage: Roots, or lack thereof. Advantage: We've got nothing to tie us down; we can make our own future, our own family. See, your dad is your dad not because of blood, but because of a bond stronger than that. He said so himself, in different words, I guess. It's a funny coincidence: everybody in your house has broken roots of one sort or another, but that makes you cling to each other."

"We... don't ALL get along," Mallory reluctantly noted. "Kisei seems to tolerate me at best, and I still don't understand what Lorelei is thinking... for a while she was dating me. I think."

"Yeah, well, in Lorelei's case, she sometimes literally clings to people," Ryo joked. "You know... sometimes I wish I was out and about with Meiko. Heck, I was going to take her up on the Reality Engineering post, but... there's just too many projects here at my company to track. I don't see transients as being better than sedentaries... I'd love to be a transient, if only I wasn't so settled in..."

"Really? I've been both... I'm not sure which I... well, no. I guess I'm enjoying being a transient more, even if it's infinitely more dangerous. I never really fit in back home... and now I guess I know why."

"You felt different from everyone else?" Ryo asked, curious.

"Kinda... yes. Kinda no. I did fairly well in Grünwald, in my studies, my cooking. My chores were fine. I was a productive worker, but... it was never really enough to help me feel like I fit with the others... and after Dad told me why, and after Antiparadisia, I don't even know what to think about.. stuff. Just stuff."

"Meiko told me about what happened."

"She did?" Mallory asked, surprised.

"She tells me a lot of things..." Ryo said... while glancing around his ramshackle laboratory, distracted by a thought. "I didn't wanna drag this up myself, Mallory, but... would you mind if we do a little test?"

"Whaaa?! But I'm already studying for one test! I can't do two—"

"No no, this would only take a minute. I'm just playing off a hunch... someone who came here once a year or two ago and was asking to use my facilities for a very odd test. He looked a lot like you, too..."

my face...

"Did.. did he wear sunglasses?" Mallory asked, a tiny wad of dread forming in his stomach. "Or a cloak? Or smile a lot?"

"Uh, no. Why?"

"N-Nothing. Well.. What do I do?"

"Chotto matte," Ryo bit off, before hopping to his feet and rummaging around on a table of gadgets. "Hmmm... koko wa... ah, here we go!"

He emerged with an entirely nonthreatening wandlike thingy with a curly thingy around the straight thingy which was glowing in a happy thingy sort of way.

"Just hold still ooooone second..." Ryo spoke, approaching slowly with the thingy...

Mallory started to sweat. "Err, is this going to hur—"

One wave of Ryo's hand later, and the thingy beeped quietly. The glowing bit turned bright green. Safe green.

"Okay, done," his teacher spoke, studying the light curiously.

"Err... done? Done what? What is that?"

"Page 238."


"It's on page 238 of your datapad," Ryo said, pointing to the datapad still clenched in Mallory's left hand. "This little baby is a harmonic wave scanner. A simple tool used to check if a Reality Engine is out of sync or not, good way to tell if it's about to crash..."

"Right. Right. Green is... good, right?"

"Oh, yes! Green is very good. No crash imminent!"

"That's a relief!" Mallory exclaimed, leaning back in his chair.

"Although technically it should stay white unless waved in front of a Reality Engine."

The pupil's chair continued to lean back until it was leaning against the floor.

"Go figure," Ryo said, ignoring Mallory's topsy turvy crisis. "Not that I wasn't expecting that. See, that guy who wanted to do this test a year ago, it showed green for him too..."

"WHAT?!" Mallory exclaimed, back on his feet and ready to bust out into a full-fledged panic attack.

Ryo finally took note of the boy's Defcon state. "Er... hey.. hey, don't panic, okay? Panic is bad for studying! Deep cleansing breaths, deep breaths, go to your happy place—"

"But I'm a Reality Engine! Or.. at least I seem like one to that thing! That's not normal! That's very very not normal!" Mallory exclaimed, unable to achieve his happy place. "What am I? What's going on?! Why's it green, why are there so many people who look like me, I'm just a normal guy, I don't WANT to be not-normal..!"

"Not normal isn't always a bad thing," Ryo deflected. "Not normal can be a good thing. But... this is gonna worry the hell out of you, isn't it?"

Mallory responded by hyperventilating.

With great speed, the scientist reached out and pressed a thumb against a shihatsu point on Mallory's body that forced him to tranquility. In an instant, his breathing went from a high-speed dance beat to a mellow earthy cycle.

"S'not healthy to carry on like that, you know," Ryo spoke... calming himself as well. "All this worry will give you ulcers..."

Despite feeling like a puddle of zen goo, Mallory managed to squeak out a nervous tone with his words. "...gotta worry about the test... no way around that. I gotta worry some, Ryo-san..."

"Yeah, you do... don't you. ...all right, Mallory, I'll make a deal with you," Ryo spoke, the final part of a brief decision making process. "You worry about your REC Test. As for this business with Antiparadisia... how about if I worry about it for you?"

"...you lost me."

"I'll look into the matter for you," Ryo continued, with his trademark smile tightly affixed. "Maybe try to find that guy who came in a year ago. This is something a little bigger than you can take on right now, so let me do the research, let me do the worrying—and you just get on with your life. You and Meiko are staying in Nippon for a while, right...?"

"Y... yeah. She didn't want to impose on I's Land any longer..."

"Okay, then! That works perfectly. I'll stay in close contact. Heck, I'll give you docking space, and Meiko is NOT gonna take no for an answer! As for you, put this whole thing out of your head—don't worry about it! I know I have room enough for my worries and Meiko's worries, I think I can manage to worry for all three of us..."

Mallory looked unsure. "Uh... I don't know, Ryo-san... I mean, not that I have the slightest idea what to do about any of this, but... I don't feel right dumping it on you, either—"

A finger with ramen sauce stains tapped against his datapad, cueing up a page.

"238," Ryo noted. "Harmonic wave scanners. Study from there on. And don't panic! I forbid you from doing so, in the same way Meiko isn't allowed to panic. Oh, and don't forget, the test is in two days!"

- - - -

And with that, he flew like an eagle.

Admittedly an eagle with one crippled wing and 37% of its feathers removed and/or burned off and partial blindness in one eye, but he somehow kept aloft.

Two days of studying slid by at high speed. He memorized everything he could, studied the case examples, tried to break down complicated concepts into little mixed metaphors... whatever he could do to consume the most knowledge at high speed. Two nights of studying with Ryo, who never mentioned Mallory's previous worries again...

Which was what let him fly, really. He was iffy on dumping all responsibility for recent problems on Ryo's head, especially since he was turning out to be one of the friendliest folks Mallory had met since leaving home. Still, being able to think to himself "I don't have to be concerned with it; it's someone else's problem" kept Mallory's head clear, his mind focused, his brain lively, his mental concept active verb.

The first night he stayed up a little too late studying; one brief scolding from Meiko later and he resumed an ordinary sleep schedule. Reality wave patterns and code installation packages danced in his head while he slept...

And finally, the time was upon him. The place was upon him. Not literally.

After a short taxi ride to the RealWare Nippon East Edo Branch and some hallway roaming, Mallory presented his triplicated signed forms to the testing proctor. He followed the helpful maps to his testing room. He assumed his seat. He performed a short meditative concentration exercise that Kisei had taught him the night before...

(...which was a bit odd, given she hadn't spoken to him since the day he barged in on her for a second time, but maybe Meiko had asked her to help...)

...and finally, the REC Test. In a small cubicle by himself, to ensure he didn't cheat off the hundreds of others taking the test today. No paper involved, simply a table-based touch screen, about to come alive with Reality Engineering questions in one minute's time. He tapped his stylus against the table, going over the acronyms and metaphors he'd used as learning aids. (WHAT? Wave Harmony Amplification Tester. HUH? Heuristic Ulterior Helper. I DON'T UNDERSTAND? Integrated Diagnostic Online NewType Uncompressed Negative Data Energy Recorder Standardized Tool And Neo-Debugger.)

He could do this. He could conquer. He would not let Meiko down. He would follow in his... mother's footsteps. He would become a Reality Engineer!

He would not notice the test had already started until his nervous stylus taps accidentally answered three questions for him.

Then he would frantically look for the 'back' button on the table to fix the answers and end up answering two more multiple choice questions with D.

Panic would set in next. In a fit of inspired madness he tried to remember the spot Ryo had poked to calm him down, and accidentally cut off the blood supply to his neck for two minutes.

Finally he got his act together, forced his lungs to return to normal operating procedures, and studied the question before him.

QUESTION 6: Reality Q has had fluctuations in the third demisphere of their nebulous reality bubble border definition file. Symptoms include massive hurricanes in the weather subsystems and the tendency for light to deflect towards the latter fifth of the spectrum, as well as water tasting like copper. If you only had your Heuristic Ulterior Helper on hand and the reality was already in Safe Mode (Variant #548, SubVariant C) which of the following dynamic allocation techniques would be most suitable for stabilizing the reality?

(A) Mixed Memory Allocation
(B) Self Optimizing Neural Net Syntax
(C) Floating Point Asynchronous Data Allocation and Address Bank Switching
(D) None, prepare self emotionally for fatal Nullspace accident

And he drew a blank. A big, fat blank. (If it were just a little skinny blank it would be less intimidating.)

I can guess on this one, he thought. It can't hurt to guess if I really don't know. There have to be questions in here that I DO know; until I get to them, guessing is all I can do...

He didn't know the Eeeny Meeny Miney Mo game, so he just closed his eyes and poked the stylus randomly against the table. Answer D blinked twice before the next question popped up.

Which he had to guess on.

As well as the next one.

And the next...





FINAL QUESTION: Taking into account all you know about Reality Engineering and safety protocols, what is the one thing which must never, ever, EVER under any circumstances be done to a Reality Engine?

(A) Install unauthorized third party software
(B) Replace fluid systems with tap water
(C) Allow a non-certified Reality Engineer to access the system
(D) Kick it

Slumped across the desk, eyes glazed over with Pure Doom, Mallory tapped A.

The desk returned to a neutral RealWare logo, with a tiny message stating that his results would be sent to him over RealNet in a few hours. Helpful maps illustrated the way out of the building.

The overhead light of the cubicle clicked off, to conserve power.

Eventually the janitor found him, and after verifying that he was simply catatonically depressed and not in fact deceased, security kindly ushered him to a taxi.

- - - -

There's a saying in Grünwald. One so critical to the core of their beliefs that even Mallory's scrambled brain couldn't breed it with other metaphors:

"You reap what you sow."

Which isn't always a nasty thing to say; after all, if you plant a good crop with dedication to good farming, you'll reap a wonderful harvest after the growing season. Hard work equals positive results. Lazy slack-ass attitude equals failure.

As Mallory lurched slowly along the sidewalk of the docking yard, he was still wondering why the metaphor broke. He worked hard. Possibly harder than he'd ever worked in his life, and he still failed. Failed everybody, himself, Meiko, the House, his father... he bit off more than he could chew and ended up choking on the sour grapes of wrath.

He'd been going over another set of words in his head as well, the ones he would say to Meiko to tell her the bad news. Those weren't coherent enough yet for practical use, but maybe that was for the best; there wasn't any easy way to say it. And now he was at the front door of the House, and there was no turning back...

Steeling himself to enter for the last time, he waved his house passkey in front of the doorknob, and walked in...

An explosion temporarily blinded him.

"Eiko, you shouldn't set those things off right in his face," Meiko chided softly.

"Gomen ne, oneechan!" Eiko apologized, stepping back a bit before setting off the next confetti-and-streamers pocket firecracker. With a cheerful *pop*! colored paper went flying into the air—joining similar explosions of fun set off by Lorelei and a very reluctant Kisei.

Mallory hadn't prepared words for this, so he simply stared.

"Hooray, oniichan!" Eiko cheered, now waving a pair of rising sun fans. "VICTOLY! CONGRATULATION!"

To make matters more bizarre, Lorelei pushed a beer into the boy's limp hand, and ushered him into the kitchen to join the others. "Yo, Mal, I KNEW you could do it! That's why I made sure not to buy the party goodies until after your test results came in. ...wait, I meant: I didn't know you could do it! So, hey, good job! Eiko, quit the puppy dog eyes, you're not getting a beer..."

"I will admit that I am... mildly impressed with your feat, Mallory Heisenberg," Kisei offered. "I was expecting crushing defeat, given the size of the task before you and your complete lack of previous experience. I credit most of your success to Noyori Ryo's formidable talents, of course—"

Mallory's beer rolled off the table and hit the floor. He stood quickly, and blurted out a half-mix of the words he was preparing.

"Failed! The test, I did!" he spouted. "I mean... I failed the test! So... so you shouldn't be celebrating. I—"

Meiko quirked one eyebrow. "Hel-lo? Were you listening? We got the test results, Mallory. You passed. In fact—"

Rather than being a party of five, it was now a party of six.

Deciding it was probably better to take this shock sitting down, Mallory sat, while staring at the newcomer.

"Sorry, but even executives with six-figure salaries have to use the smallest room," Mr. Tanner explained, after returning from the bathroom. "Congratulations, Mallory Heisenberg. I came personally to report the scores, as is standard procedure for such high marks: you scored a 99% on your test."

"...nine... ty ...nine?" Mallory asked, unbelieving.

"Yes, well... you did get the last question wrong. You're not supposed to kick engines. But otherwise, it's a very impressive score," Tanner continued. "I contacted Meiko with the results and informed her I'd be dropping in to report them to you in person, but it seems I missed you by a minute there... my apologies. Now, to business—"

"TO BUSINESS!" Lorelei shouted, clanking her can against Meiko's.

"...I meant that I had business to conduct."

"Oh. I thought you were proposing a toast..."

"No, actually, I'm here to offer Mallory a job."

The air in the kitchen dropped six degrees and sixty decibels.

Lorelei was the first to break the silence. "That's pretty lousy, man," she commended, keeping her eyes on the corporate type. "Headhunting is one thing, but trying to break in our turf and hire away Mallory is pretty low—"

"Please, hear me out," Tanner asked, holding up both hands in a peaceful gesture. "I'm simply making an offer; whether or not Mallory chooses to change employers is his decision. This is standard procedure for anyone who scores 97% or above on a REC Test. RealWare is always looking for the best and the brightest, and between this and the recipe Mallory crafted last month, we believe he has excellent potential. Now, you'd start with a standard RealWare entry-level salary of 50,000 points a month—"

"Waaah!" Eiko exclaimed. "That's lots and lots!"

"—but the benefits package is quite good, and your salary will increase as you establish yourself," Tanner finished. "I mean no disrespect to you by doing this, Miss Mirai... it's simply company policy to make the offer."

"Uh-huh," Lorelei spoke, letting each U and H drip with suspicion. "Y'know, Mallory already has a contract with Meiko. She's the one who technically makes this decision, and there's no way we're gonna let our beloved Houseboy get cherry picked like—"

"He should take the job."

This coming from the head of the Mirai household.

"...don't look at me like that, I'm serious," she spoke quietly... trying not to breathe any emotion into it, one way or the other. "It's... an excellent offer. The perfect starting point for a career in Reality Engineering. It's more than we could ever afford to pay him, and it's better job experience than playing... live-in grease monkey to a transient home. Mallory has to think about his future, you know, not just us—plan for where he wants to be in life. If he's going to prosper—"

"I'm staying," Mallory said.


"I'm staying," he repeated before Meiko repeated herself... and said it with a smile. "It's okay, Meiko. Don't worry; I am thinking of the future that I want. Tanner-san, it's a wonderful offer, but... I already have a job that I love. It's okay that it doesn't pay much—this is where I want to be. Uh, you're welcome to stay and party a bit if you want, but I'm afraid my answer's kinda final..."

Tanner nodded, going through the motions. "The offer is good for the next two days if you want to think it over... although I suspect final means final, yes?"

A nod from the Houseboy Reality Engineer.

"I'm afraid work calls, then," Tanner spoke, closing up his briefcase. "Have an enjoyable evening, Mr. Heisenberg, Miss Mirai. Good evening."

The defeated (but uncaring) suit exited stage right, closing the front door behind him.

"Well well WELL! Now we can really kick this party into high gear!" Lorelei exclaimed, getting back into her groove. "Eiko, cue up some music on the Workstation! Stuff with cheap rights fees, of course. More drinks! Bust out the chips! Who wants to play spin the bottle? Meiko, how about you?"

"Wha?" Meiko asked, still mildly stunned.

"I believe I shall retire to my room, now that my participation in this gathering has been adequately registered." Kisei announced. "Good evening, Mallory Heisenberg. Rest well."

Ignoring the others, Meiko turned to talk quieter to Mallory. "Mal... you're sure about this? I'd let you go if you wanted that job..."

"Oh, no no, it's okay," Mallory said, settling into his chair. "I'm just glad it's all over! And I'm happy here, working with you... this is the most fun I've had in years! And danger, too, but uh... it's the most fun I've had in years! Besides, I just answered questions randomly on the test and I think really bad things would happen if I tried to take a RealWare job with what I actually know. Hey, I know! Who wants me to make some party mix? I know a GREAT recipe for... baked... bagel bits...?"

Meiko's grip on the edge of the table threatened to bend it in half.

"You... answered... RANDOMLY?!" she hissed through gritted teeth.

"...ummm..." Mallory umm'd, wilting slightly under that gaze...

...until Meiko eased up, slumping into her chair. "...randomly. Of course. I shouldn't be surprised... but you passed. I GUESS that's all that matters... ugh. Geez, Mallory—"


Eiko waved one arm frantically towards a bright blinking red light coming from around the corner.

"The Reality Engine's crashing!" she exclaimed. "I just sorta bumped into it by accident when I was pulling out the chair at the Workstation and now it's saying it needs service and it's counting down from thirty to one backwards and I don't know what to do!!"

Like a bold heroic something or other... Mallory rose to his feet.

"Stand back," he stated in the most manly voice he could manage (not manly). "I'll handle this."

Meiko bit her lip, unsure. "Mallory..."

"Do you trust me?" he asked, looking to her.

"I... probably shouldn't," Meiko admitted. "It wouldn't make sense to... but, well..."

"Right, right," Mallory said, chuckling a little. "Okay. Here we go!"

- - - -

Dear dad!

I have (kind of) passed the REC TEST!!!! I am now a Reality Engineer just like Mother was and it feels very very good indeed!

Oh right, I read your mail and okay. I thought about it a lot and a new friend helped me think about it more and I know all the way down to my toes that you are my Father. I may look into who my biology father is too, since I'm curious now, but don't worry any about me being upset. I don't worry either about some of my problems because someone is worrying instead, and now that I have passed my test and I have my job officially and I'm getting along great with Meiko and the others I am feeling great!

Enclosed is some money I think. If it didn't work let me know, I haven't used the point transfer bank thing before.

Bright times look to be ahead. I feel like I'm home. Our house back in Grünwald will always be home too, but this is home as well. Home is wherever you're happy, I guess, not just where you were born. I have truly found paradise!!! or something like that

your son, Mallory.

PS - After two bad experiences with drinking I think I should be sticking to water from now on. I am writing this between large bad headaches the morning after my victory party.

And my foot hurts from kicking something a little too hard.

:episode complete

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

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