It's not just a reality, it's a reality of mind. Or a state of mind. Or both. It's difficult to think about which it is, given the mind-numbing boredom of the place. It's best not to even try; working up the mental effort through the haze of downpouring rain and crushing depression could entail personal injury.

People go here when they want to shut out the rest of the multiverse. Here, you can get away from it all, which means by definition that nothing ever happens here. The most excitement Restless had seen in a while was when Meiko and her crack team of troubleshooters-for-hire temporarily kidnapped a soap opera programmer on the lam here, weeks ago.

Now the House had returned. And stayed. For two weeks. Of staying put. And doing nothing.

Some activity was going on inside, but it wasn't anything worthy of anyone's interest. Lorelei was sitting on one side of the couch, re-coloring her toenails after deciding that maybe silver wasn't as good on her as cherry red after deciding yesterday that cherry red was boring and she needed a change of pace. The day before that she was busy pondering a change of hair color before deciding to keep things the way they are. Even the lively, can't-keep-me-down spirit of the House's resident party girl had been reduced to monotonous self-tuning.

On the other side of the couch, Mallory sat twiddling his thumbs while Meiko watched BusinessDay on the RealNet feeds. He paid half his attention to her, half to the droning voice of the announcer reading off today's corporate mergers and RealWare profit futures, and half on Lorelei's toenail activity. The extra half of attention was due to Mallory being so bored that he forgot you cannot have three halves of one attention.

Sitting on the floor in front of the couch was the youngest of the house, Eiko Mirai. She paid a proper half of attention to the business news and the other proper half to her dolls, which she listlessly nudged around on the floor, unable to work up enough imagination to do anything of interest with them. It was the sort of glum little aura of childhood funk that would make you go 'Awwww...' and want to give her one of those encouraging greeting cards with kittens hanging from branches.

To round out the House roster, Kisei was in her room doing who knows what, but it was likely very uninteresting indeed.

Matters continued to be uninteresting for seven minutes, until Lorelei finally cracked.

"Okay, this blows," she announced, in mid-toenail. "Meiko—"

"No," Meiko replied, without moving her eyes from the screen.


"No, you can't leave. We're staying put."

Lorelei sat back, folding her arms in petuant grumpydom. "Hmph. I bet if MALLORY said he wanted to go out, you'd let him..."

"ESPECIALLY not him," Meiko emphasized. "Lorelei, we're staying put for a good reason and you know it, Eiko knows it, Mallory knows it. Right, Mallory?"

"Uh... right," Mallory agreed, with a token amount of reluctance. "But... uh... I, uh... I kinda agree with Lorelei, too. Couldn't we just go out a little...?"


"Sorry for interrupting but I really think it'd be a good idea if we all stopped being under voluntary house arrest and stuff," Mallory apologized for interrupting. "It's been a while since we got that note from M and nothing's happened, right? I mean... we've been hiding and not a peep. So... well, we can't stay hiding forever, sooo..."

"So lift the lockdown and let us live our lives," Lorelei alliterated. "C'mon, Meiko! Mal's right, are you seriously thinking we'll play ostrich forever? We gotta get OUT! You're gonna stunt Eiko's emotional growth if all she has is her home schooling lessons and her toys, cooped up in here all day."

"Waaah, she's right!" Eiko exclaimed, bonking her dolls against her head. "I can feel my fragile psyche warping right now! It hurts, oneechan! It hurts!"

Meiko rolled her eyes. "Eiko, quit that or no dessert tonight. ...I wasn't honestly expecting us to hide forever, Lorelei. I just wanted to make sure the heat was off... Okay. Let me put it this way—I hired you as a bodyguard, to help defend us in bad situations. So, make a tactical bodyguard decision. Would you say we're in the clear?"

"Me? A professional tactical soldier whatsit? I'm more the type to shout 'HIYAH!' and cut them off at the knees—"

"You're also the one who wants to go out, so I figure you can decide if you're ready to put your skin on the line in the process," Meiko explained smoothly. "So... what's your professional opinion?"

Lorelei squinted a bit, trying to think hard about something when her instincts were more blunt. "All right. Okay... so... we got a note from M about that guy. He's on to us. But he hasn't FOUND us. He doesn't strike me as a very cunning sort, considering he acted all surprised to find us in Antiparadisia and according to Ryo, he didn't seek out where we were parked before leaving Nippon. Which means... he's got no clue where we are and it's perfectly safe for us to go out drinking and hitting on guys and getting into fights! So yes, let me out, dammit!"

"Yeah, let me out, dammit!" Eiko echoed cheerfully.

"Eiko, language," Meiko chided. "All right, I'm lifting the ban. I'll allow some QUIET, limited trips outside. And you all have to carry trackers, like the one Mallory has. Understood?"

Eiko's dolls went flying as she bounced to her feet with the energy of a spring that's been tightly coiled for two weeks. "HWEI! Freedom!! I know just where I go, and Mallory-oniichan, you're coming with me! Lemme go get your stuff and we'll be gone in a flash!" She bounced her way in leaps and strides to Mallory's storage closet, flinging open the door and rooting around...

"EIKO!" Meiko called, trying to get the energetic one's attention. "Wait, wait! Where are you going?—maybe the ban's lifted but Mallory's not going to some place like Urbana where he'd be easily spotted—"

"Not a problem!" Eiko replied, emerging with a bulky backpack. "There's a collector's convention right here in Restless, I saw an ad for it yesterday! I've got a great idea! Come on, oniichan, let's go let's go let's goooo!"

"W—" was as far as Mallory got before being sucked from the house by the whirlwind of childhood mania. The door slammed shut behind the two of them.

"Eiko, wait, you need a tracker..." Meiko trailed off, realizing the moment had come and gone. "...well, if Mallory's with her, I guess his will do for both of them—"

"Meiko Mirai."

"Wh—!?" Meiko didn't manage to say, snapping her focus back in front of her... and forcing calm quickly. "...Kisei. When did you get here? I didn't hear you come downstairs..."

"As the ban has been lifted... I request a mission," the stoic-looking ex-assassin spoke.

"A mission..?"

"Yes. I would like to request one. Any one will do."

Waving her confusion away with a mental hand, Meiko flipped open F.P. to consult her files. "I actually did have a potential offer called in directly yesterday, but... it's in Urbana, and I didn't think it would be appropriate to draw that much attention..."

With absolute seriousness, Kisei measured and cut her words precisely. "I will endeavor not to put the house at risk, Meiko Mirai. You can count on me. I will prove that to you as I support your efforts and ideals."

"...right," Meiko replied, not sure what to make of that. "Why the sudden interest..?"

"...I have my reasons. I need to reacquire my focus," she responded, less solid than before now that she was put to question. "Meiko Mirai... I rarely make requests of you and I apologize if the suddenness of this one offends—"

"No, no... it's okay, Kisei. Get your gear together and I'll dig up the details. It's a defensive bodyguarding mission, a simple one-night job."

"That would be very acceptable. Thank you," Kisei spoke, adding a small formal bow to the end of her sentence...

...and giving Lorelei a tiny, tiny look just to confirm that yes, Kisei was aware of the strange expression being thrown in her direction and she would offer no specific reply in return. Then, she was gone.

Meiko sat back. Waited for Kisei's return. And glanced to her right.

" were all gung ho about lifting the ban. Shouldn't you be running for the hills too?" Meiko asked.

"Me? Hey, I'm doing my nails, I'm not going anywhere yet," Lorelei answered, adding a few more brushstrokes of cherry red for emphasis. "Besides... daytime, you know. Not my thing. Night's where the action is. How about you? Going anywhere special, or waiting for your lover dear to get back first? I have noticed you've been cuddling a bit more... maybe keeping the ban in place so you can have him around and all to yourself...?"

"Oh, please," Meiko groaned, roll of the eyes, and so on as she opend her personal organizer. "I'm not that that childish. Hmm. I might as well head out for some lunch once Kisei's underway, since our 'houseboy' is probably going to be gone for the day... I'm sure F.P. saw ahead and made me reservations..."

"Your boyfriend's blood makes for a handy day planner, huh?"

"...gross, Lorelei."

Smirking it off as she was prone to do, Lorelei focused on her foot handiwork once more. And thought about things, a bit. Just what WOULD she do tonight...? It was obvious, actually: she'd probably get blitzed, meet a handsome stranger, dance a bit and go home. As usual.

As usual... same old same old, like cherry red.

She stopped before doing the last nail, frowning at the thought.

unreal estate / episode 12 / four simple things


[1] mint in box


It's not just a reality, it's a state of existence. Or of mind. Or something. It has hotels and motels mostly, the occasional restaurant so people could eat something other than plain room service, and a system of public transportation to get people from hotels to restaurants and vice versa.

People on these buses sit still and read their newspapers or data pads or whatever form of information display they have available. They do not talk energetically and bounce up and down in their seat unless their name happens to be Eiko Mirai.

"I got the idea when I was looking through your stuff without asking permission!" she explained without worry of reprisal, holding open the backpack full of packratted junk. "You've got so much neat stuff in there, cool toys and more—why don't you play with it?"

"Uh... honestly, I'd forgotten I'd stashed it all in that closet," Mallory explained, looking at his prized collection as if it was someone else's. "I used to collect this stuff back when I was in Grünwald... you know, own a piece of the multiverse, make it feel like I was really out there, but... I guess I lost track of it once I was actually IN the multiverse..."

"But it's such cool stuff! Like these 'Angst Boy' holographic comics—Pow! Bam! Zap! 'My soul is stretched over the abyss like taut chicken wire!' It's really neato," Eiko said, thumbing through an issue, past the photos of the owner's prized baseball and right to the bloodshed. "Oneechan would never let me buy cool stuff like this. Can I have them?"

"Uh... I'd rather not invoke your sister's wrath..."

"She wouldn't be all wrathy to you, she loves you! You can get away with anything. That's so cool!"

"But it's not even a complete run of the comic," Mallory protested. "I'm still missing issues 65, 34, and 3. It's no good unless it's complete..."

"Ahhh, but that's why I'm taking you with me!" Eiko said, waving a finger in Mallory's face. "We're going to a collector's convention that's in town. Then we can finish up these collections of yours! I'll negotiate you some good deals and we'll have a complete run of comics, of your Love & Hate glasses, and these cards—"

"Cards? Cards!" Mallory remembered, quickly digging through the backpack for them... "My 8-Bit Commandos! '256 digits of power'! Captain Muscular, Rattlemaster, Android Pi, Super Nippon, Pixie Splendid...! I'd totally forgotten about them; have you seen these? They're amazing!"

"They're just funny-looking super heroes on cards..." Eiko said, paying more attention to Angst Boy tearing open some bad guy from sternum to rectum.

"Yeah, but when you line them up edge to edge... hang on, let me pick out two good ones..." he continued, rooting around for another card. "When you put them together, they—"

The two cards interfaced along microscopic connections, and the tiny muscular super hero on the left flexed his pecs. 'My might is extremely mighty! How can you compare to such might?' he boasted... and the more lanky scientist on his right shrugged in his lab coat. 'The muscle that is the brain will triumph over brawn every time,' he replied.

"—they do that!" he finished. "You can combine any two cards and get a different response depending on which cards you use—even which one's on the left and which one's on the right! So, let me think, two hundred and fifty-six cards so it's like... two hundred thousand something possible interactions! And that's not even counting the 'alternate universe' set they released later, doubling the size, making for like FIVE hundred thousand interactions! I think."

"...really?" she replied, interest starting to shift from splatter to the sheer insanity of such a concept. "That's a lot..! Five hundred and twelve cards, though? How many do you have...?"

"Uh... almost all of them," Mallory said, slotting the two cards back into their respective decks. "The trader who I got them from had all of the cards except one. I'm missing The Treehugger from the Alternate Universe deck; he's the opposing card to Mr. Nuke... but that's because The Treehugger's REALLY rare. There were only sixteen of them ever made. There's no chance we could find it, even at some sort of collector's convention."

"Really, no chance...?" Eiko asked, getting a germ of an idea in her adorable little head. "Not a chance at all?"

"Uh, no. No chance."

"I LIKE those odds!"

- - - - -

Mallory hadn't been this overwhelmed since first stepping foot in Urbana, fresh from Mellow Fellow's taxi. Loud, smelly, packed with sights and sights upon sights...

Row after row of rickety card tables, decorated with junk from a thousand realities. Trading cards. Comics. Toys with some pieces missing. Dolls never removed from their boxes. T-shirts, posters, disks with old videos on them, bootleg music, games, puzzles, things, stuff, objects, trinkets, doodads, whatsimajiggers...

Row after row of people in a variety of colorful t-shirts, proudly declaring their fandom for something or another. Packed in tight like sardines, fighting for elbow room to peruse the wares on display, sometimes fighting with elbow strikes over a rare deal. Old people, young people, fat people, thin people, mostly fat people, men, women, mostly men, fans, crazy fans, crazier fans, PEOPLE...

Above it all, above the gigantic hotel room, a banner hung. WELCOME TO CONCON IV.

The parts of him that didn't want to run screaming back to the House where he was comfortable and safe were quite thrilled at the prospect of what lied ahead. What ratio those various parts existed in shifted from second to second, although any whiffs of unwashed fanboys that fluttered by generally shifted towards fleeing.

"Wow! ...eeee. Wow! Uh. Ooeeer. Wow! Um.," Mallory decided in the end. "This is amazing..! I didn't think such a thing existed! Except maybe in my darkest nightmares! Eiko, do you really think we can get that card in this mess... ... Eiko? EIKO—"

"PINPON!" a furry creature chirped, popping into his view.

"Wagh!" Mallory exclaimed, striking a defensive karate pose and nearly falling over.

"It's me, silly!" Eiko giggled, behind her whiskers. She flexed her brown furry ears a little. "Like it? I got cute little ears and a tail and things at an anime booth over there. Today, I'm the cunning fox, ready to trick people into giving us that Treehugger card! Don't worry, Mallory! Eiko-kitsune is on the job!"

After the shock passed, the pure adorableness of it consumed Mallory whole. He found himself patting the moppet on the head and making goofy smiley faces at her. "That's so 'kowaii', Eiko!"

"KAWAII," she corrected him. "Now, to business! I may be a cunning fox, but we're going to need a native guide in order to find our prey! So, I made a new friend. Hideaki-kun! Over here, over here!"

Following Eiko's beckoning paw, a wide Nipponese man with a shirt bearing a young girl in a school uniform with eyes as large as industrial-grade tires waddled towards them. He extended a meaty paw to grasp Mallory's hand and shake, the various wall scrolls in his backpack rattling around as his bulk shifted.

"Konnichi wa!" Hideaki greeted his new friends. "Eiko here tells me you believe that Mei-mei's character design was far superior in the SECOND series directed by Ano-san than the inferior first series directed by Ohto-san. Right...?"

"Uh... yes?" Mallory replied, spotting Eiko sneaking him a thumbs-up from behind the fanboy. "Oh, yes, definitely! Far superior. She was.. uh... much more kawaii in the second series!"

"Right, right! I keep telling people that and they just won't listen! Philistines, all of them," Hideaki minorly ranted. "Well! You're into trading cards, right? You're in luck, 'cause I know where you can get the BEST deals on trading cards. You into Sorcery: The Collecting? Or maybe Fighting Monster Fighters? Or perhaps Sailor Nothing?"

"No no, I'm into 8-Bit Commandos," Mallory explained.

"...oh, those," the fan said, wrinkling his nose in distaste. "Well, okay, I don't think I can help you find those. Not much call for such gaijin silliness. No offense, mind you."

"None taken, none taken..."

"Let's get moving, the crowds will get thicker once the lunch hour is over," Hideaki recommended, rotating himself towards the card section. "We'll need to clear the way. You wouldn't happen to have a bludgeoning weapon, would you? Truncheon? Morningstar +2?"

"Pluswhat? No, I don't... is that going to be a problem?"

"Eh, I can get us through. MOVE IT! Comin' though!" he boomed, starting to part the sea of collectors like a slowly moving freight train.

"Right, right. Eiko, better hold my hand so you don't get loswhoaa—"

"Onward we go, a journey into the west!" Eiko called forth, raising one hand and pointing from her perch on Mallory's shoulders, while the boy wobbled around a little. "Let's go, let's go! On the oniichan express!"

"...ugh... ooh... right... 'kay," Mallory replied, steadying himself. And smiling.

Because despite the bad craziness, the odor, the confusion, the bewildering assault on his senses and his sensibility... he was having fun. Finally let loose from her prison, Eiko's good cheer would not be denied, and tended to soak its way into all around her.

Bounding along behind the rolling boulder ahead of him, Mallory skipped about, as Eiko's tail twitched behind her.

- - - - -

Box after box after box in stacks upon stacks, which were only growing as the merchant continued to stack boxes on box stacks with a stacking-sort of motion.

"See, the problem with the GunRunner is that the plastic prongs on the front that represent the Ocean Wave Gun keep breaking off," he continued, not noticing the dull looks of drowsiness in his victim's eyes. "Considering you could set your watch by the Ocean Wave firing sequence in each episode, it's an important piece to have. Losing it lowers the value of the entire model! So what I do is I use a molecular adhesive—it's expensive, but the value it adds to the collectible offsets perfectly. I'm hoping to offload all fifty of these at this convention but if not, I guess I can dump them at OgenkiCon in Nippon next month..."

"Uh-huh," the normally sociable and pleasant Mallory mumbled out. "But about the card I want...?"

"Ohhh, right," the rotund merchant said, getting back on track after wandering several miles from it. He reached underneath his rickety card table and the paper tablecloth, withdrawing a battered rubberware box. Inside were miscellaneous 8-Bit Commandos cards, each lovingly sealed in temporary clear aluminum foil. "I've got a bunch of singles here, got 'em off some guy who really wanted my life-size inflatable Amiko doll... I don't have much need for them, so if the one you want is in there, I'll be willing to trade."

Eiko quickly stood on her tip toes, glad to be doing something other than sleeping on her feet, and rooted through the box... immediately frowning. "Awwww! They're all copies of the same card—some big purple thing with eggbeaters for hands..."

"Oh! Mr. Hard Boiled?" Mallory asked, pulling a card from the box himself. "These are pretty rare! But I already have one... uh, do you know where I could find other people with cards like these, sir?"

"The guy I got it from is at this con, actually. I saw him at the Sailor Fuku Forever Fan Circle table," the merchant said, squinting to try to find it amidst a sea of several hundred tables. "It's... uh..."

Like a faithful dog, Hideaki the Native Guide stepped in to save the day. "That way," he said, pointing straight and true to Row 4, Aisle L. "They've got a link to a site that has a link to our Kowaii Kaiju Circle. ...but you might want Eiko to stay behind."

"Eh? Why?"

- - - - -

Fandom is, at the core, neither good or bad. It simply is.

It is a way of bonding together strangers into friends, friends into closer friends. Through shared adoration of a particular cultural aspect, trust can be forged and secret tokens exchanged that allow the circle to feel as if they share something private from the rest of the world. This inward consumption of media, always appreciated in a unique way even if a similar grouping exists elsewhere, is the enabler of socialization through mutual cultural kinship.

Through that kinship, you can enrich your life by indulging in creative expressions of your fandom-love—creating unauthorized offshoot works, improving your art and writing skill by aping another's style. Such acts can even branch out into your own original work, so inspired by the material that you seek to achieve the same emotional high you get when basking in the glow of the parent intellectual property. Such expressions, shared amoung friends, can be a positive healing force as you integrate your own hopes and dreams and fears and phobias, working through issues and exploring the notion of 'self' as you explore your fandom. Truly, fandom can be a force of constructive goodness.

Or it can be an excuse for perverts to flock to a singal focal point, as it was with the Sailor Fuku Forever Fan Circle.

Eiko stayed quite hidden behind Mallory, only peeking out now and then to confirm the very weird looks the little kitsune girl was getting from the sweaty, bulbous twentysomethings behind the card table.

"Uh... so... I'm looking for this card," Mallory started, trying to get this over with. "8-Bit Commandos... the vehicle model salesman said you might have it...?"

"8-Bit? Yeah, I collect those," the least pleasant one of the bunch stated. "I started out when I got Pretty Polly, then I found Little Miss Can't Be Wrong... sorta expanded from there, figured what the heck? But when I went to our local doujinshi convention and found I didn't have enough money to complete my run of 'Uniform Cutie' I decided enough was enough."

"Right, right. Uh. I'm looking for 'The Treehugger,'" he continued, shuffling a bit to the right to continue blocking the view of some of the fan circle members leaning to their left to look around him. "Do you have that one?"

"Dunno... lemme check," the fan said, fetching a cardboard box from his backpack and leafing through some badly-kept cards with worn edges. "'course, even if I'm not interested in these anymore, it's not gonna be free. We prefer to trade, so I'll think of some—"

"Give us the child!!" a feral member of the circle wheezed, hands grasping at the air in front of him and drool collecting on his lower lip. Fortunately one of the more sensible (by a ±3% margin of error) members restrained him, but it was enough to send Eiko zipping across the aisle to hide under someone else's table.

"'ll have to forgive Kaiken, he ran out of pills an hour ago," the leader spoke. "And... I'm out of The Treehugger, if I ever had any of 'em. Sorry. Hey, can I interest you in our quarterly leaflet publication? It's sort of like a bird watcher's guide, only it's all about great spots to—"

"Uh, no. Do you know anyone else who might have 8-Bit cards?" he wisely interrupted.

- - - - -

"I'm in my happy place, I'm in my happy place..." Eiko chanted, still a little pale as Mallory interrogated the next dealer.

"But like, who REALLY collects those things anymore? They're so ten years ago, so retro," the girl in the cardboard power armor replied, careful not to knock over her stack of plastic figures as she shifted about in the costume. "I don't do retro. I live in the NOW. Only the newest, hottest stuff! Anything more than six months gets traded or junked, I mean, why would anybody keep old crap around? My dad's all like 'you should respect artifacts of shared cultural heritage as they are worthy of rememberance' but I'm all like, what-EVAR, you know? Who cares about stuff from a year ago or ten years or a thousand years?"

"Oh, I don't know, I think it's good to read about the past," Mallory spoke up, recalling distant memories of schooling back home. "I mean, if you don't learn about where you came from and how you got where you are, it's like you won't learn from the history that repeats itself—"

"You must be a country boy."

"Eeh? How'd you know?"

"Because only country boys from backward realities care about that," she chided. "Modern folks on the go don't care. Country people and maybe folks in that Nippon place, but that's it, you know? It's like that RealWare motto, 'Technology for Living in Today!' Living in today's all that matters. It's not like yesterday was any different from today, after all. Tomorrow'll be the same too. So why should it matter?"

"Doesn't that mean that, err... you just negated your whole argument that only keeping new things matters since it'd mean new things are the same as old things or things not yet new but soon to be new?"

The costumed girl squinted her eyes a little, trying to jump through the mental hoops afire set before her.

"Do you want my cards or not?" she asked, some part of her deciding it was best to ignore the question. She tossed her dusty card storage folder on the table, as if throwing down the three-ring gauntlet.

Eiko stepped up, and did a high-speed flip through the contents. "Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope... nopenopenope. No Treehugger in here, Mallory-kun..."

With a sigh, Mallory asked the question he realized he'd be asking quite a bit today. "Do you know anybody else who collects these...?"

"Only one. How about that guy selling those models with the Ocean Wave Gun on 'em?"

"We already checked with him..."

"Then you're out of luck," she said, retrieving her folder. "Now can ya move it along? I've got swappers lining up behind you waiting..."

"S-sorry, sorry," Mallory apologized, bowing out of the crowd.

- - - - -

What had begin in a frenzy of good cheer and energy had wound down to a puddle of gloom and absolute despair. Or as close to one as you could get when dealing with a realistically minor problem such as locating a trading card. It was not the end of the world, after all, even if the perspective was warped.

"Look, I really need to get going," Hideaki explained, as Mallory sat in a little slump of depression on a bench at the edge of the showroom. "I've got my own trading to get done today, and it's getting late..."

"Yeah... I guess it's a wash out," the country boy spoke. "Thanks for trying, Hideaki..."

As their native guide wandered off into the crowd, Eiko paced in a little oval in front of her taller charge. "It's not fair," she pouted, kitsune tail flicking behind her in frustration. "You deserve nice things like that card, and I want to get one for you! But I don't know enough about this sort of stuff to really help... and if nobody knows where we could look, where do we look...?"

"It's okay, Eiko. Really! I mean, it's just a card..."

"It's not a card! It's the final step of completing your collection!" she corrected, pointing a dramatic finger skyward and clenching a little first with her other hand. "Once you start something like this, you can't give up! You have to fight, and fight! For everlasting peace!"


"There's one last thing we can try," she decided, bopping that fist into her other hand, nodding with determination. "I wasn't gonna suggest it, since... uh... I wasn't sure how you'd feel about it, what with everything and stuff, but... it's worth a shot, right? Right...?"

She knelt down on the concrete floor of the showroom, pulling a map from Mallory's old backpack of collectable goodies. Unfolding it, she spread it out at Mallory's feet.

"This is a complete map of every table and every dealer," she explained. "One of them has to have the Treehugger. We don't know which one... but... if you use your power, you can find it!"

Mallory leaned forward, looking down at the map. "Uh... Eiko..."

"You can do neat things with your power, I know you can!" she said. "Nobody in the house really talks about it but I know and see all, for I am Eiko! And I know that you can just, I don't know, close your eyes and poke your finger at the map and that'll be where your card is! You said when we started out that there was no chance at finding it, but I LIKE those odds since they're really your kind of odds! Because... you're lucky. ...right? It works like that, right?"

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

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

"Live-in REALITY ENGINEER wanted..."

" doesn't work like that," he said, pushing the memory aside. "Eiko, I've tried, I can't just use my weird power whenever I want to. I can't do it. I've tried..."

"But you have to! Or else the con will be over, and your card will leave with it! It's your only chance at doing something you have no chance of doing," she pleaded. "Pleeease, Mallory-oniichan...? Just try it once, for me..?"

It's very hard to say 'no' to an adorable little girl with big round pleading eyes and her hands together as if praying to some distant savior.

With a sigh, Mallory nodded his head. "Okay..."

He closed his eyes, and reached down...

- - - - -

It was a miracle!

Who knew it was even possible? A million-to-one chance, the ultimate longshot, the last ditch effort which nobody really expected to succeed, and...

It didn't.

"Cards?" the dealer asked, confused. "I only sell t-shirts here, not cards. Don't you see the big sign marked 'CLOTHING, 1/2 OFF'? What made you think I'd have trading cards?"

Eiko bit her lip, as they walked away from the longshot last ditch chance. "I thought... I thought you could make it happen..."

"I'm sorry, Eiko," he consoled, resting a hand on her shoulder. "It's like I said—I can't just do it when I want to."

"What if we had it be some sort of accident? Like, I spill a drink, you slip and fall and whatever table on the map your index lands on—"

"That'd still be me wanting to make it happen. It'd be cheating—it didn't work when I asked M to throw a rock at me, either. You just can't engineer a coincidence..."

"But... but that's stupid! What good is a neat power if you can't actually USE it except by a complete accident?" she asked, getting a wee bit mad. "Ooooh...! This is annoying. But if it won't work, then... Mallory... do you really wanna give up? We could keep looking—!"

"There's no reason to, Eiko. It's getting late, and we should go home soon. Your sister'll be worried sick—"

"She always worries. That's her job," Eiko noted, but without cynicism. "It's okay, really, she means well so I stay out of trouble to keep her stress levels down. Or at least, any trouble she finds out about, which works the same way!"

"Oh. That's... very nice of you. ...I think..."

"Right. If we're leaving, can I go get some Important Courtroom Drama action figures first?" she asked, pointing a thumb behind herself to a nearby row of tables. "I saw some back there and I have a bit of allowance, so I figured I'd get a Stacy Stenographer to add to my playset..."

He peered around the less-teeming-as-the-day-went-on crowds, to make sure the ICD dealer was within spotting distance. "Okay, but don't take too long. We should get moving."

"I won't take long!" Eiko cheered, getting some of her high spirit back as her kitsune ears twitched. "Be right baaack!"

Benches were a-plenty on the nearby fringes of the room, so Mallory selected one within sight distance of Eiko, and rested his aching legs. He set the battered backpack next to him, one arm around it as his head rolled back and worries overtook his mind. They'd been doing that quite a bit since he found out about his so-called "power..."

He couldn't use it for anything useful. It had saved his bacon now and then (food metaphors feel good) but if he ever knowingly tried to use it to get his ham out of hock, the udder would instantly go dry. It was as useful as an old dog teaching a new trick to a pig in a poke.

Despite being utterly useless, they were the source of much of his misery. Someone hunting him down just because of the power... days of trying to train it, ending in dismal failure... living on the run, putting the people he cared for in danger. What was the big bonus to having a power like that? It had no upside whatsoever, just very nasty downsides... all because he couldn't actually USE IT...

Seeking a distraction, he jammed his hand into the backpack, fiddling around in his card storage box. Exploring all the card combinations, with their little animations, was always a nice way to kill time in a useless way. Why was his power useless? Why? Draw two cards, sit back, put them together...

The Questioning Questor, card #34, from the Bi-monthly Quisition Qomic. Angst Boy, Card #198, from his self-titled monthly series. Edge to edge, 34 on the left, 198 on the right, link them, the one second pause to load the data, the animations...

"Why do you angst so much, Angst Boy?" Questioning Questor asked, scratching his chin.

"You think I ever wanted to be a freak? I never asked for this, and I wish I didn't have these powers!" Angst Boy angsted, slumping his shoulders. "I wish they'd go away!"

Both thin rectangles tumbled to Mallory's lap, his hands still upraised as if holding ghosts of cards that were once there.

If you hate your powers and can't accept them, of course they aren't going to work, a combination of cards and stray ideas previously kept un-thought echoed inside his head. You don't want them, so you won't REALLY let yourself use them...

His eyes turned downward, to the now-static cards lying there.

So, if I WANT these cards to be in my hands instead of in my lap, if I really WANT them...

No, that won't work. You could just pick them up. You'd rather do that. You'd rather do that than do what you don't want to do...

Something thundered in Mallory's ears once, twice. Three times, before he recognized it as his heartbeat. Another loud nose came from his throat, as he swallowed.

That's the way it has to be, now that I know the truth—I have to need something. Absolutely need something. Something so strong that I can't avoid using it, I can't deny and wish it would go away. That's why it only works sometimes. I had to protect Meiko, I had to get everybody home before he killed her, killed them, I couldn't not do that, I had to—


"Had to—whaaa?" he thought aloud, focus snapping in an instant, fading away just as quickly as it had formed. "What? Who? Eiko...? What?"

"You okay? You were really weird-looking just now..."

"I was just... I was thinking about something, I think—"

He found himself face-to-face with The Treehugger.

"Eiko-chan comes through for you, Mallory!" Eiko announced. "I hereby declare VICTOLY in the search for the card! It was so weird, I was asking about the stenographer figure, and we were talking about Important Courtroom Drama, and I mentioned how I was here originally looking for this card, and he said 'Oh, do you mean this card?' and he said I could have it for nothing because I was so cute although that's not really a good exchange to keep a free market society afloat I decided what the heck and took him up on it and here you go!!"

Disbelieving, Mallory poked at the card representing a cheerful bead-wearing hippie woman a few times. It was solid enough.

"The last card..? We got it? We got it! ALRIGHT!" he shouted, springing to his feet (while Eiko fetched the two cards which promptly fell from his lap.) "Great work, Eiko! Thank you, thank you! It was crazy to think we could find it, but... I guess it was crazy like a fox!"

"Pinpon!" she agreed, ears twitching. "Okay! Let's get home, and we can see what this card does when put up next to the other cards. Um, how many combinations is that again...?"

"Uh... let's see, there's 256 normal cards, and 256 Alternate Universe ones... different sayings if it's on the left or the right..." he thought, trying to tally up large numbers in a medium-sized mind. "So... uh... a thousand or so."

"We'd better get started soon, then," Eiko decided. "The bus will get us back home. Let's go! And, ummm... oniichan?"


"What were you thinking about just now?"

"Oh, it's nothing," Mallory said, carefully packing away the (now) three loose cards.

Of course, he hadn't forgot. He just didn't want to think about it right now. Nothing to spoil this suddenly very nice mood. Nothing could spoil it now, not the endless rain of Restless, not the long bus ride, nothing. He'd completed an important puzzle, after all.

Maybe even two of them.


[2] r.s.v.i.p.

Meiko never liked rain.

Rain seemed to accompany her on all her bleaker days. It was there at her parents' funeral, first and foremost—after that it popped up now and then, whenever a business contract would fall through, whenever the bills would start stacking up, whenever she felt alone despite living in a house with three others (and now four). If given the choice between docking the house at a Reality with very little, very prescheduled rain or a place which allowed for the more fashionable random weather, she'd pick a dry climate every time. A nice sunny day, the kind of sunshine that can make even an impossible situation feel like she could deal with it...

Then there was the part of her that felt it was simply silly to put so much emotional weight on the weather. What did it matter if it was raining or not? It was all just a function of a Reality Engine, not some mystical synergy between her mood and the world around her. She had put such childish flights of fancy behind her long ago... when she decided to grow up as fast as she could in order to provide a real home for herself and Eiko...

Shaking her head to clear it, Meiko tried to focus on the here and now. Here, walking down a sidewalk of Restless with her tasteful grey umbrella. Now, lunchtime, as her stomach whined away hoping to be dealt with ASAP. Not the right time or place to let stray thoughts like that float around; she had business to attend to. That's better, much better. Walk along, heading for the restaurant, something you can focus on...

F.P. had indeed scheduled up a seat at a nice restaurant for her. Nothing too expensive, but nothing cheap either; the sort of place where you usually have to book a day in advance but not trendy enough to need to book a year in advance. Just right for her, classy surroundings that fit your budget. She'd been meaning to take Mallory out to a restaurant again, after having such a good time on their first official date—it counted as an official date through retroactive continuity, as she ignored her initial claims of non-datehood which were No Longer Applicable after what happened at 12:03 AM. would've been nice to bring him to this restaurant, if Eiko hadn't gotten to him first. Although technically Meiko had Mallory all to herself for the past week, talking, watching video streams, enjoying homecooked meals, spending time together...

Another distracting memory, as she nearly ran into someone leaving the Ma Maison Restaurant. Collapsing her umbrella and her current thoughts to a handy carrying size, she pushed through the door.

The restaurant was packed. Businessfolk of every phylum and subspecies were present, enjoying a good meal before setting off for afternoon seminars. Meiko pulled out F.P., glancing at her scheduler again and finding no information about what table she was supposed to head to... but that was easily dealt with.

She approached the Maître d', waving a hand to get his attention over the crowd.

"Excuse me, ah... do you have a table reserved under 'Mirai'?" she asked. "Meiko Mirai. My organizer called ahead to make the arrangements...?"

The bored looking fellow in a tuxedo glanced up boredly at her. "Mirai? Mir... M, M, M..." he mumbled to himself, thumbing through the data screen embedded in his podium. "No Mirai, sorry. I—oh, wait, I see. Yes, we have a table for you; it was reserved under the name of your companion. This way, please..."


A tiny bit of oddball dread seized Meiko. Had Mallory reserved them a table? But the travel ban was still on at the time he'd have had to place the reservation, unless... unless he worked with Lorelei to convince her to lift it, intending for this to be a surprise! Which meant it was wrecked, because Eiko had dragged him off and as usual, the houseboy didn't give a whimper of protest. Still, it was a romantic thought for the boy who usually had to achieve his romance through lucky coincidence...

That would've been a cute if slightly disappointing story suitable for a good flick on the video streams, if not for the fact that it was wholly wrong and Meiko's lunchdate was already waiting for her at the table.

The other woman flipped her green pocket organizer closed—but Meiko caught the tiny Noyori Labs logo embossed under the keys before the latch clicked.

"Ah, you're my companion, then?" Gillian Bates, CEO of RealWare Inc. asked, with a bright smile. "Have a seat, have a seat! I was just about to order salads."

- - - - -

People like Gillian Bates do exist. It's hard to know that for certain—REALLY know it, down to the core, because you never see them in person. They exist in a vague, fuzzy sense, as names in a press release or images on the evening news. Rather a lot like elected political officials, their only contact with you is minimal and abstracted through at least sixteen layers of votes, assistants, paperwork, and sheer socioeconomic distance.

When you're expecting a bit of pasta by yourself on an ordinary rainy day and suddenly you find yourself face-to-face with someone who didn't previously exist in your practical reality, it can throw you for a loop. If this were a business meeting, something where matters of great economic weight were being discussed, Meiko would've been calm and confident. As is, having floated in from the rain amidst a cloud of conflicting emotions and memories, she was completely off balance while her companion was not.

"It really is a handy little gadget, isn't it?" Gillian commented with a musical, sing-song little voice that sounded great when fed into a cluster of about 42 different microphones at a press conference. "Ryo mentioned that only three prototypes were made, and I was always wondering where the third one went... I like the clamshell case on yours better. Red's a very powerful color, even if my green shell is the traditional color of money. Yours speaks of passion for your business, mine simply says I have too much loose change to spend on toys... not that Ryo would have dreamt of charging me for it. I keep trying to woo him over to RealWare, he's quite a genius you know, but he's content with keeping relations friendly and friendly alone... ...I'm not boring you, am I?"

"Boring? What? No, no," Meiko said, remembering that her fork was still speared through a few bits of salad. "Sorry, I just... I had a lot on my mind today. And this is obviously a bit of a surprise..."

"All things happen for a reason, I believe. Who knows why we've been brought together?" Gillian asked hypothetically, as she folded her fingers in front of herself. "I for one am thrilled to get out of the ivory tower for a change."

"The ivory what?"

"It's an old saying, dear," the young woman noted. "Like 'cabin fever'. You know... being cooped up in one place? Cooped is a bit of an old word, too..."

"No, I understand... feeling a bit trapped and restless, right?"

"Very much so. Appropriate that I found myself taking a corporate condo over to Restless, then. I imagine you must not have similar problems, what with owning your own business you take on the road with you..."

"We've... been staying in one place for a while, actually," Meiko replied, trying to pick through her initial shock enough to avoid saying something dangerous. "Business reasons. We've been in Restless for a week now. My employees were feeling a bit of 'cabin fever' too, so I decided they could head out today for some R&R..."

"Oh, that's a good idea. Motivating your troops is always difficult during harsh economic climates, and physical ones as well! All this rain, I'm not sure how you can stand it, it'd drive me batty... as does being cooped up. Would you believe this is the first purely social meeting I've had with another human being in weeks? Just too much to do back at the office, and you can hardly call a board meeting a social event... it's so hard to simply connect with people on a purely personal level when you practically live at the office..."

Seeing her opportunity to take some control of the conversation, Meiko interjected with a charming smile and a personal anecdote. "Actually, I find it easiest to connect personally at the office. Since my office goes with me, and my.. boyfriend works with us, I can socialize all I like there. In fact, this week I've had some real quality time with him despite needing to stay inside... maybe because of it..."

...too close for comfort there, Meiko realized, trailing off. But too late—Gillian was the sort to latch onto the tiniest little detail, and she pounced.

"What could ever require you to stay in such an awful reality, though?" she asked, curious as a cat. "Most people leave Restless once their business here is concluded. You said you do troubleshooting, correct? I was under the impression from what I've read that freelancers rarely take a job which lasts so long if they can avoid it... the docking fees would just start stacking up, and Restless isn't THAT inexpensive a place to stay—"

"Ah, excuse me..."

The waitress. A perfect dodge, as Meiko picked up her menu, ready to place her order. "I'll have the pasta of the day, please, and a coffee... Mrs. Bates?"

"Please, please, call me Gillian. Mrs. Bates is too formal," she chided, before simply pointing to two items on her menu for the benefit of the waitress. "And it's definitely MISS Bates."

"Ah, sorry..."

"I know I have to maintain the Bates legacy, but traditional marriage simply isn't for me," Gillian spoke, to Meiko's relief as topics shifted. "Fortunately for the ridiculously rich, there are other options..."

"Options...?" Meiko egged on, to put distance between herself and their reasons for staying.

"I already said I had difficulty meeting people socially; going through the entire courtship process just to pass on the Gates lineage is a bit of an impossibility. I would so love to raise a family, mind you... a daughter, specifically, who I can raise to properly guide RealWare into the future. But until the time comes when I find the right DNA to make it happen, I'll have to wait."

"The right man, you mean."

"The right DNA," she corrected. "From someone with the proper traits and values and characteristics I approve of. Eugenics, see. It's all very complicated and I can't claim to be an expert on the subject, but if anybody would have access to such technology it'd be the richest corporation in history, yes...? Hmm. An odd look you're giving me, there."

"Oh, s-sorry—"

"Quite all right, quite all right. I'm used to it. I suppose living in the ivory tower makes me a little eccentric, but the rich are harmless eccentrics by definition," she joked with a chuckle (or at least, a joke to her). "Ask Ryo sometime, the technology was pioneered through a test case made by an old friend of his... but I digress. Have you any plans to have a child with your boyfriend, Ms. Mirai?"

"......uh.... not right now," Meiko spoke, having completely lost control of the conversation again. ('I wonder if this is what Mallory feels like all the time?' she wondered.) In an effort to get a grip again, she decided to take a bolder step... leaning forward a little. "Ms... ..Gillian. Can I ask you a question?"

"Of course, dear."

"Why are you telling me all this? Like you said, it's a bit eccentric. How do you know I won't run for the nearest gossip video stream and tell all about your social worries and family planning?"

"Simple. I don't," Gillian noted... her smile sliding to a more serious expression, for the time being. "But you don't seem the type to do that sort of thing. Or are you?"

"No, of course not... but I could be lying when I say that."

"But you aren't lying, are you? Meiko, as you no doubt know... to succeed in business, you MUST be able to size up the person across the table from you quickly. It's all a grand game of psychology, expensive clothes, and legalese—but psychology first and foremost. I feel confident enough in my own insight that I feel I can trust you. So... can I trust you?"

"Yes... of course," Meiko spoke honestly. "I don't break contracts, even informal unspoken ones. I won't betray your trust—I was just curious as to why you were trusting me, that's all."

"Well, then. I'm glad that's settled," Gillian said, back to smiles and cheer. "And now that I've told you my life, let's hear more about yours. Quid pro quo and all that. So, this boyfriend of yours..."

- - - - -

The pasta was quite good; steamed just right, juicy and tender without being too soft, a combination that rivalled what Mallory had served two days prior for dinner. And while Meiko could taste it and enjoy eating it, she had to preserve a tiny amount of tension—the little paranoia which said 'Don't tell her everything'...

Despite that fear, she found herself opening up quite a bit about how she felt, what she was thinking. Nothing that could tie into the danger they were in, but more than she would have to a total stranger.

"At this point, I'm just hoping I'm getting it right," she continued. "I've never done the romance thing before. Not even the usual failed attempts at it in your wild youth that are supposed to happen—I purposefully didn't have a wild youth. I'm not even in my twenties and there just wasn't enough room for that sort of stuff, even if Lorelei managed to cram a hell of a lot of it into a few years... so... I don't know. I hope I'm getting it right. Fortunately Mallory's never done this before so if either of us are making mistakes, the other won't realize... I'm just going by instinct, like I always have."

"Instincts which have worked out quite well," Gillian reinforced, her pasta long since eaten as she dined in rapt attention to Meiko's words. "There's nothing wrong with trying to take on an adult lifestyle at your age. I've had to do the same thing. It's working for you, yes? Playing by instinct?"

"Well, it has so far. I'm just not so sure when it comes to romance..."

"If you're only blind in one area, then you're already more successful than most who take our path, Meiko. You run a stable business despite the difficulties the transient lifestyle imposes, and you've done it all in a remarkably small span of time early in life. You should be proud."

"I am proud of what I've done! I just hope I didn't cripple my ability to do this sort of thing in the process, since... ...what am I saying?"

"What are you saying?" Gillian echoed, in one of those zen-wisdom sorts of ways rather than a mocking-ha-ha sort of way.

"I'm dumping all these things on you and your name isn't Ryo," she said aloud. "It's bizarre..."

"Does it matter why you're doing it? Clearly you want to share, or else you wouldn't be sharing. I may be charismatic and persuasive but I can't force someone to do something they absolutely don't want to do. ...would you like more businesslike advice about it, however?"

"I know, I shouldn't be readily offering up leverage to someone else. Goes against my debating instinct."

"Actually, I was going to suggest you talk to Mallory about this," Gillian noted. "Ryo's a sweetheart but he's not your boyfriend... Mallory is. You should confide in him. Call it an economic decision; you get more for your investment if you keep your emotional share in one fund."

"...that's a mixed metaphor worthy of Mallory."

"I study a lot of etymology in my spare time, so I tend to juggle words old and new. My point is that rather than divulging to a stranger—not that I find your relationship issues the least bit boring, dear, they're a refreshing change from board meetings—or divulging to an old friend, perhaps you have a better source closer to home..."

"Yeah... yeah, I know. I've talked to him about it briefly, now and then... but not really in depth..."

"No time like the present. Although we still have dessert to go through before you head home, so if you'd like to discuss something a little less personal..? I'm game for anything you feel comfortable with."

Meiko thought a moment.

"Business," she decided.

"Avoiding the personal, then..."

"No... no, it's not that. I don't mind telling you all that, even if it was a bit weird. ...but how often can someone claim to have a chance to sit Gillian Bates down for a talk? I'd be a fool to pass up the chance to talk about RealWare. To get a few answers."

"Seizing an opportunity, then," Gillian replied, enjoying the idea. "Very well; I'm in the hot seat and it's your dime."

"It's my what..?"

"It means ask away, dear. So, to business!"

- - - - -

Cheesecake. By far, Meiko's favorite thing ever to indulge in. A good cup of coffee was a close second, but cheesecake always won out when going head-to-head with the java—a fact she never told Mallory, for fear that he'd enthusiastically make her cheesecake every day, until she inflated like a balloon...

"It simply won't persevere," Gillian explained, between bites of her own cheesecake. "The Open Reality Movement is far too fragmented, too idealistic. Did you know there are fourteen different builds of the Open Engine, fourteen different splinter groups working on it? The one headed by Xyzzy, founder of the ORM, is only in the majority by a tiny fraction. Only two groups are bothering to shoot for a commercial end product, and what venture capitalist would throw their money behind a losing horse? Funding a competitor to RealWare is a sure-fire way to go bankrupt. That's not a threat, either, it's a simple fact established by hundreds of years on the stock markets."

"But—for the sake of argument—what if they consolidated?" Meiko asked. "Or if one build won in the end, and was marketed. You'd have a legitimate competitor, one which costs far less. Wouldn't the Open Engine outsell the RealWare Engine based on that alone?"

"It's not just cost, it's support. You know, Meiko, we have defeated a competitor like this before..."

"You have?"

"Eight hundred years ago, thieves stole a thousand blank engines and added their own hacks to sever their links to RealWare," Gillian explained. "Odds are you aren't aware of this; who bothers with history anymore? But those engines were sold at next to nothing, and were bought up in droves by daring reality pioneers... and two years later, they were gone. How? Strong-arming and aggressive PR. It didn't take much, really, since all we had to do was point out the lack of official support, blacklist a few REC-certified individuals who offered unofficial support to what was clearly an illegal product, and then offer amnesty to the thieves to 'upgrade' to a full engine. Problem solved, and in the end, all money comes to us."

"But that's different this time, isn't it? They've legitimately reverse-engineered your engines—"

"There's a bit of contention about that, but considering there's nobody available to sue nor an appropriate court to do it in, I'll concede the point..."

"And that means you can't stop them," Meiko concluded. "Open Reality is an idea, a bit of knowledge. Even if the groups working on it now don't get a product out the door that can compete commercially, the knowledge of how to build an alternative to RealWare will always be out there. How can you fight that?"

"The same way, of course. Strong-arming and aggressive PR. Flood the market with the things it least desires: fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Why take the gamble on Open Reality when RealWare has offered a stable product for thousands of years?"

"There's a bit of contention about how stable your product is, you know."

"Touché," Gillian noted. "But nevertheless, the weapons are there and we will use them. In business, any weapon in your arsenal is valid... except one. ...which my father never understood..."


"No... no," the CEO spoke, closing her views for the first time that day. "No, I won't go in that direction. Trust you I may, but some things I can't entrust regardless. My apologies. As for killing an IDEA... I'm confident. You underestimate the power of our monopoly, Meiko. The nature of it... it's like a rock. The rock of ages."

"You're saying RealWare is eternal, then? Invincible?"

"Oh, history crashes against it now and then," Gillian conceded. "But history settles back into a level sea in the end. RealWare is indeed eternal... that is, unless a true tsunami arises one day. That is the right word, correct? Tsunami?"

"A tidal wave...?"

"Yes... something so powerful, so alien, so sudden that even against our strongest defenses we cannot stand the storm. A true force capable of change, a dynamic entity which can pull the multiverse out of stagnation..."

"Stagnating?" Meiko asked, mildly puzzled by the shift from economics to philosophy. "Come on, Gillian, the multiverse seems lively enough to me..."

"Oh yes, very lively," Gillian agreed flatly. "Lively as it has been for centuries. Exactly as lively as it ever will be. Do you know the theory of evolution, Meiko?"

"Ah... I'm not immediately famil—"

"No, and why would you be? That's half of the problem right there! ...however. I shouldn't speak so strongly of such things; it's not for me to decide the future. My role is to defend my eternal castle to the absolute best of my ability until a true paradigm shift is capable of unseating me."

"That's... sort of optimistic and pessimistic at the same time, isn't it?"

"Oh yes," Gillian agreed, smiling a slightly mad smile. "Isn't it? Ah, but now we're out of cake, and out of time..."

Meiko glanced down at her empty plate. She didn't even remember eating the rest of her cake, but the satisfied feeling in her stomach suggested otherwise.

"Ah... we should exchange business cards before we leave," Meiko suggested. "It's traditional, after all..."

Nodding in agreement, Gillian opened her green F.P. and pressed a single button. A quiet chittering noise inside the plastic device sounded, and a business card was slowly printed out.

Meiko nearly dropped it in surprise when she accepted the flat paper rectangle. The moment her skin came in contact with it, a tiny hologram of Gillian Bates had appeared in the air over the fine print—a 100% realistic hologram, solid and animated, beyond the cheap technology used in toys like 8-Bit Commandos. The sort of technology that only the richest company in the world had, and usually kept to itself...

"How...?" she asked, curious.

"Trivial enough. I've had my F.P. modified quite a bit to suit my needs... that's one of the enhancements, a specialized business card printer," Gillian replied, slightly smug. "Like it? The paper is 'bone'. It has a watermark. And your card...?"

With a bit of shame, Meiko produced a slightly rumbled paper card with her name and RealNet address in large type. It did not glow, nor produce any amazing high-tech visuals.

"Tch... no no, that won't do at all," Gillian said, refusing to take the card... but not out of disgust, more with the air of one who saw opportunity. "Mmm... how would you like to have a card like mine? It's simple enough, I can have one of my engineers modify your F.P. to add a card printer. It's the same prototype mine is, I can assure you it would work..."

"I don't know..." Meiko said, unsure despite eyeing the RealWare card in her hand with envy. "How expensive would it be?"

"Expen..? Oh! Free, of course! I have more than enough money, Meiko. It's the least I can do for someone who's provided me so much lovely social contact! Let me get a photo of you to encode into the card... stand up, please. And step away from the table a bit."

Thankfully she had thought ahead enough to put on her next best businesswear, as she rose from the table and struck a poise of confidence and professionalism. The tiny yet intense flash of light from the green F.P. nearly blinded her, however.

"There, there..." her companion said, nodding in approval at the small image of Meiko appearing on her organizer's screen. "And one more sample to take—put your finger on this square here, next to the printer..."

"Huh? Why—"

Meiko jerked her hand back quickly, as if touching something very hot. She turned her finger around to see a tiny drop of blood forming...

"Biometric data security," Gillian explained, with a deep smile. "A nice feature, isn't it? It'll ensure nobody impersonates you with your new cards, and you'll be able to sign documents with DRM far better than a fingerprint!"

"Oh... all right," she agreed, shaking her finger a bit to get feeling back into it. "I'd best be going now... it's been an enjoyable lunch, Ms. Bates."

Gillian took Meiko's hand to shake it, but kissed the back of it instead.

"Charmed," she spoke as her goodbye, stepping around the confused woman and out the door of the restaurant. Business had concluded.

Once on the street, with her umbrella open, Gillian studied the stream of data flying across her F.P.'s screen more than she studied the passers-by on the sidewalk. Next to Meiko's picture, a long, long cluster of letters scrolled by; mostly G, A, T and C.

It had been a good day indeed, Gillian decided. A lovely social day.


[3] another night


She was used to restless nights; always keeping one ear open, even while sleeping, in case of enemy attack. Waking up to patrol the grounds. Being ready to jump into action at a moment's notice, twenty-four hours a day, light or dark... never quite getting a full night's sleep, not until they were high enough in the food chain to earn better quarters and less routine duties...

But these people... they were awake volunarily. Not to play 'Dee', not to keep an eye out, but because they genuinely wanted to be right here, right now. In the heat of the moment. In the thick of things. A crowd of bodies moving, but not in a fight to the quasi-death, but in a celebration of LIFE...

The beat. The haze. The lights. The SOUNDS...

"'s not really that big of a deal," her companion explained, trying to speak over the level of the music. "I mean, you've been to parties before. Your mom threw some real galas when she was trying to impress the higher ups... so what's so special about this?"

She stared at the girl to her left in awe. "You can't feel it?" she asked... slowly moving a hand through the air. "The intensity of it? I thought I knew what it'd be like, from the RealNet streams, but... but this is the real thing! A club, a real honest-to-goodness dance club! Music and drinks and partying and boys and maybe the occasional bar brawl, although I haven't seen one yet I'm sure there'll be one—"

"Lorelei, don't forget—"

"I know, I know, okay? But... you mean to tell me you can't feel this? It's amazing! It's everything I was hoping it'd be!"

"I was never much of a social butterfly, remember? I didn't have tons of boyfriends like you did, I didn't go to many parties..."

"But you're in one now! A party the likes of which we've never seen before...! Come on, get in the groove, it's hip and cool! ...those are the right words, right? It was an old flick on the stream I saw, but maybe it didn't go out of style..."

Her instincts told her two opponents were approaching from behind. She had to actively resist the urge to activate her double saber and take them out. That wasn't the right thing to do anymore...

"Hey, ladies!" one of the men called over, turning the charm to 11 (which meant it effectively wrapped around to 1 on a ten-number rotating dial, thus failing miserably). "You two look like you could use some company..."

Lorelei turned to give her opp—her prey—her... she'd need a better term for this, definitely... anyway, she looked at him. "Wow, they sure do grow 'em big out here in the multiverse," she commented more or less to herself.

Her companion shook her head... sliding off her bar stool in the process. "I think I'd better leave you alone with your new boy toy, Lore—"

"I'm with her," Lorelei noted, grabbing her companion's arm to stop her. "Not that you two aren't good company, but it's a girl thing, you know? Off you go, scoot, scoot. Good boys."

There were some funny looks, of course... before the pair decided to move along, spotting some more likely candidates at the end of the bar. Lorelei ignored their departure, flashing a grin in the other direction.

"You okay, Lorelei..?"

"I'm hanging out with you tonight, remember?" Lorelei noted. "The idea of you wandering off to play wallflower like you usually do... no way, no how. You said you'd show me how to live, how to REALLY be alive, right? Well, I'm doing the same for you. BARTENDER! Beers! And ignore our fake IDs, please! ...c'mon, have a seat. We're young and hot and we're finally free to LIVE our lives!"

"Well... okay," the other girl said, resuming her seat... and returning the smile. "You've got a point. We're free, we're alive, and we can enjoy our time! Uh... but you're going to have to teach me how to... you know, handle this sort of stuff. I'm not good with boys, for instance..."

"If you'd return their looks now and then, Rei-Lei, you'd do just fine," Lorelei noted. "You're a cutie yourself, you've just been too busy brawling away in Tribal Alpha to pay attention to that. And I've spent far too much of my life wasting away there with you... so let's drink together to the freedom of the night life!"

- - - - -

The freedom of the night life...

A magical art she'd perfected for years and years, even after they went their seperate ways. Every aspect of it just tickled her pink inside—or more accurately, a hot cherry red. You could go out every night of your life (not that she realistically had time or energy to do so) and not get bored... there was always a new bar, a new song, a new dress, or a new person to spend the night with. She was never bored...

At least, that was the theory. Why she had that stray thought this morning, that same-old, same-old phrase that skipped across her consciousness like a pebble across a pond... a mystery. It didn't make sense. She had been reviewing the elements of a good night jaunt ever since then, trying to figure out what about it could possibly be boring.

The prep phase, that wasn't boring. Granted she hadn't bought a new outfit in a while, so it was a matter of picking from her tried and true standbys; but picking out a good dress, mixing and matching a few accessories, getting just the right LOOK was always a fun time. Meiko dressed for success, trying to look like the all-powerful professional in control of the boardroom... Lorelei dressed to kill. Albeit in a different way than she had long ago.

Tonight's number was yellow. Cherry red was possibly what was boring her, given it was the color of toenail polish she was using when the pebble-thought hit her. So a strapless yellow number, matching shoes, a nice shawl (a bit like the one Kisei wore on the cabaret night, Lorelei had rather liked it) and a short white jacket to go over it for a bit of a retro feel. One look in the mirror was enough to confirm the 'Oh, yeah' factor. Definitely one of her better picks.

If not the prep, then what...?

Walking the city streets at night was certainly enjoyable. She'd taken a cab to Nippon—not Mellow Fellow; he was a dear but last time she tried to go somewhere with him, he was so giggly and spaced out that they had landed on top of a sloped restaurant roof in Suburbana instead of the endless clubscape of Nocturn. This cabbie took her right where she wanted to be... the streets of the Ibiza district, Edo, Nippon.

Neon lights hanging in the darkness, faceless masses of the young and seeking... a thousand and one popular songs floating out of a thousand and one glowing doorways. The occasional drunk singing away happily, the giggles of the girls who were either waiting for their boyfriends or looking for one with the right amount of points... the aura of it all, the tangible feel of the hot night was always a joy for her. She grew up in the jungles of Tribal Alpha, true, but she knew the moment she first set foot in a nocturnal urban jungle that THIS was her true home.

But if not the streets, then what...?

She had picked a club at random. All it had to be was some place she'd never visited; in this case, one of those hybrid karaoke, dancing, and pool-hall places that tried to cater to every market demographic they could. A wild atmosphere of people who might not usually mix, folks of every cut and creed; businessmen, schoolgirls with fake IDs (much like her old one, natch), street women, the down and outs, the deviants, the diehard club-crawlers. Good people. Good atmosphere.

Good drinks, too; she asked for a Blade Dancer's Bourbon and lo and behold, the bartender actually knew how to make that obscure Tribal Alpha specialty. She'd found a rare place indeed, somewhere she could really mix it up; if she got bored sitting around the bar, she could go hustle people at the pool tables, or terrify the innocents with her off-key singing. Every aspect just screamed "Come, have fun!" and Lorelei was eager to do just that.

But if not the club itself, then what...?

Dressing up, going out, picking a place, having a drink... all present and accounted for. As she sat on her stool, swirling her first drink of the night around in its glass, she pondered all long past and all up to now. She still loved her lifestyle. It had done her well.

So why was she so bored? Why had she only now realized that the only times she'd felt genuinely alive out here were that one crazy night 'dating' Mallory, and... hmm. That one night...

"Usually when someone's just sitting there, swirling around a drink and staring into space, it means one of two things..."

Lorelei turned her head towards the voice, continuing to swirl.

"It means either you're an alcoholic, or you're just quite lonely," the devastatingly handsome man on her left said, smiling warmly. "If the first, I'm a social worker and I can recommend a few groups... if the latter, I'm a bit lonely myself, so why not some group therapy of our own?"

"A respectable civil servant? Mother would be happy for me," Lorelei joked. "As for your observation... sorry, I've got a filtering implant for that and any bugs I might pick up after a night of partying. Picked it up three years ago in Antiparadisia. No, I'm afraid I'm just lost in really deep thoughts, that's all..."

"Deep thoughts? Any you'd care to share—perhaps over another drink? And I've heard that dancing's terrific for taking your mind off your worries..."

A good find indeed, she thought. Good muscle tone, nice cheekbones. A stylish 'hook' he can easily use when picking up girls, to be both charming and nice-guy thoughtful, providing a shoulder to lean on... and likely a body to lean against after...

It wouldn't be too different from other nights she'd gone seeking a good time. She certainly could do worse. Why not? Maybe it was just what—

When the would-be therapist leaned back a bit to wave for the bartender, Lorelei spotted the figure sitting by his lonesome at the far end of the bar.

"On second thought, I'm afraid I don't have the hundred points for an hour on your couch," she noted, getting to her feet. "Nothing personal, you understand—but I'm afraid something's come up."


"Good luck out there, okay? I'm sure you'll find someone vulnerable enough," Lorelei commented, walking right by the confused doctor... and to the far superior choice for her evening.

Her instinctive stealthy approach meant he didn't even see her coming until she was all over him. An arm around the shoulders, a kiss on the cheek, and THEN he looked up sharply...

"Heya, handsome!" Lorelei greeted, squeezing him a bit. "Remember me? A few weeks ago, at the grand opening of that cabaret? I had your tie around my head and we were belting out songs while belting down drinks?"

The hapless young businessman's jaw sagged a bit. "Lorelei...?"

"That's me! And you're Ishida, yeah?" she identified, without needing a moment to recall. "I had quite a few to drink that night, but I remembered your name! How could I forget the most satisfying night I've had in weeks? I tell you, I'm damn lucky to meet you tonight—I've been having the weirdest day, can't quite put my finger on it, but I know for a FACT that you and I can break out of that rut and have a good time! So, buy you a drink? Sapporo beer... right? ... Ishida? You okay?"

Boys with a slightly intimidated expression were quite common for Lorelei. She had a rather strong presence, after all. So she continued on.

"Hey now, I know you're happy to see me and all, but no need to explode with joy over it," she sarcastically poked (and literally poked, a finger to his side as she was hip to hip with him). "So, care for a sequel? Maybe this time I'll be able to remember some of it, too. I know people say sequels are never as good as the original, but I bet you and me could break that rule... ...right? Hey, work with me... or... am I interrupting anything? You weren't waiting for someone, were you?"

"Err, no—"

"Then it's settled! Let's party!"

"I'm gay!"

"Bartender! Make my date here a good Blade Dancer's Bwhaaaaaa...?"

He had to repeat himself twice.

- - - - -

An untouched Sapporo beer sat next to the equally untouched Blade Dancer's Bourbon, as Ishida finished his story.

"You couldn't remember how to get back to your place, so I figured I should let you crash at mine," he explained. "I led you there, you sat down on the couch mumbling something about the night still being young, and fell asleep. I made sure to get you a blanket so you wouldn't get cold, but... that's it."

Lorelei's stare hadn't ceased. "You're kidding me."

"It's the honest truth, cross my heart," Ishida spoke, making the motion with two fingers on his hand. "That's it. We had a good time singing karaoke, had a few really good drinks—even if they were kind of on the expensive side—and you fell asleep on my couch. We didn't, you know... do anything. Like I said, I'm not even interested in women like that."

Lorelei crossed her legs and propped her chin in her hand and started Hard Thinking.

"Err... if you have a problem with my being gay, you know—"

"No no, that's not it," she quickly said. "Not it at all. I mean, hey, who hasn't had their little experimental moments...? No, what I'm confused about is why I distinctly remember that night as being so... satisfying."

"Satisfying how?"

"That's what's odd. I don't know. I just remember feeling quite happy the next day, like I'd had the night of my life. The kind of feeling I used to have a lot when hitting the streets at night, but... lately I guess it hasn't felt that way. I hadn't even noticed until today..."

"All we did was sing."

"I know, I know. And I'm not THAT good of a singer, either... something's not clicking here. ...what were you doing in a cabaret full of girls trying to paw men, anyway?"

"Oh, believe me, I wouldn't have gone in there normally," Ishida explained, a little embarassed. "But... remember I was telling you about the problems I was having with my boss and the uptown office block project we're working on?"

"Yeah... I remember that," Lorelei said, recalling. "You said that you were just going to go home and sleep, and I suggested a little beer and karaoke would wash away your worries..."

"It's the karaoke, see. I'm a bit of an addict. I love to sing! And frankly... the few bars in Edo that try cater to folks like me, they've either got no karaoke or a lousy music selection," he said in distaste. "Always awful retro stuff, or 'special interest' oriented tunes. I like the current hits I hear on the radio; I'm a general interest sort of guy, you know? So if it means going to 'general interest' bars to get my fix, hey, what can you do? But it's no big deal, I'm a people person, I can get along with anyone."

"Yeah, me too. Social butterfly. But all we did was sing, and drink, and have a good time...?"

"I take it you haven't been having a lot of fun lately out here?" Ishida asked, curious. "Hmmm... maybe...—ah, listen, if I'm keeping you from finding some guy—"

"Ohhh, no. I'm staying with you tonight," she decided. "I want to find out why something as simple as wailing out the top forty and boozing left me on cloud nine. So like I said before... it's sequel time. You came here because it has karaoke, right? Well, let's go blow our lungs out! Interested? Two's company, after all..."

Ishida paused, before answering.

"Okay, but on one condition," he issued. "Let's avoid getting drunk this time. I want you to remember what made that night special. I think I have a good idea what it might've been, judging from what you told me that night..."

"What? What'd I tell you? Speak, speak!"

"Nooo... I think it'd be better if you figure it out yourself," Ishida said, starting to smile. "This could be fun. Count me in. I've been meaning to try out 'Rainy Day Sunday' by Izumi and Itami, you know... but it's a duet. Care to horribly mangle some Nihongo with me in front of a microphone..?"

- - - - -

standing lonely in rain fall down
umbrella unfortunate time of hour

love finding underneath roof
where has bear gone to?

lonely day time unshiny place
frying pan super second moment—

"Get off the stage already!" a heckler from the audience called. "You've been up there a half an hour!"

Of course, nobody FROM Nippon would be so rude as to shout like that. Which was largely how Lorelei and Ishida had dominated the mike from the last thirty minutes, since nobody wanted to challenge them—but the greasy, annoying businessman in the front row already on his third round of Benten beer wasn't quite as polite...

Lorelei, however, didn't miss a beat as the poorly translated love song rolled on. She simply adjusted the lyrics a little.

"Loudmouthed bastard in front roowww, so unfortunate...!" she sang perfectly in tune, even if the bouncy red ball on the video screen wasn't bouncing on those exact words. "Smelling of beer cheap and bad col-OOOGNe, silence golden some tiiiiime, you bet...!"

Adding a little bounce to her hips as she performed for the shocked crowd of soul-crushed businessmen, Lorelei rocked on stage, enjoying the way the drunk turned red and then purple with anger. This was a familiar song, indeed... and the final verse was her favorite, because it usually involved splintered furniture and chaos and—

Ishida's hand clamped on her wrist before she could draw the handle of her double saber from her purse.

"Awww, I can't have a little fun? I'd be quick, I promise," Lorelei whispered to him.

"But you weren't fighting that night," Ishida noted. "You told me that night that you liked a good bar room brawl, but you didn't get into one. That's not why you had fun. And I don't think you want to end your experiment-night in jail, right...?"

"You're assuming they'd catch me, dear."


"Fine, fine," she agreed, letting the handle drop, and taking a bow as the karaoke song rolled to a halt. "Let's adjourn, then..."

The pair left the stage, to the sound of light applause from the gathered persons. Whether it was because the obnoxious foreigner had finally left or because they genuinely appreciated her musical talent remained obfuscated behind a haze of proper social attitudes.

"You know, it's a shame you stopped me," Lorelei commented, as the resumed seating near the stage, next to their unattended (non-alcoholic) beverages. "I haven't had a chance to bust loose in a while, all cooped up at home. It's unhealthy to keep things bottled up like that. You know what they say, you can take the girl out of the fight, but you can't take the fight out of the girl..."

Ishida sipped at his lemonade. "Who said that..?"

"I did," Lorelei said. "It was my usual excuse when Rei-Lei had to bail me out after I rendered thousands of points of property damage to some unsuspecting schmuck's bar. And now I've got those competitive juices flowing and nothing to do with 'em! How about we go to some biker dive? Less classy than this, but more wild—"

"You weren't fighting that night, Lorelei..."

"So I wasn't fighting, I wasn't doing something else that starts with F, and now I'm not drinking," she summarized. "And you're SURE I had a good time on that mysterious evening? I'm having a hard time understanding why... you have an idea why, yes? You said I told you something, when I was drunk..."

"Well... yes, but... it's just one of those things you have to experience," Ishida explained. "Because if I told you NOW, you'd just laugh it off. It's no good unless you understand why, and the only way you can understand is to find out for yourself."

"I'm not the sort for a mystery, you know... the suspense and frustration are digging into me here."

"All right, all right... let's find something to do, then," Ishida suggested, thinking. "You said your competitive juices were flowing, right? Rather than a fistfight... how about another kind of fight? It'd be in keeping with what I'm trying to show you, I promise..."

- - - - -

Another bar. Another adventure...

Although it took four hours total to compete this adventure, the time slid by in a whirlwind of excitement. The minute details would be easily forgotten in the fray, but Lorelei wouldn't forget the memorable moments...

The Karaoke Competition made for a nice compromise between Ishida's hobbies and Lorelei's habits. Here, she could duke it out on the field of battle while he had a rocking good time... although with a twist he hadn't been expecting.

"I could've sworn the flyer said the duet competition was tonight," he apologized, as they reviewed the signs at the signup desk. "Maybe I got the name of the bar wrong, or something..."

"Hey hey, singles competition is fine," Lorelei replied, cracking her knuckles, grinning in anticipation. "You against me, mano-a-womano. Maybe I won't be fighting with blades and blasters, but it's still a fight!"


"A FRIENDLY fight," she noted. "Don't worry. I'm not unfamiliar with the idea of friendly rivalry, even if it took a few years to really set in. Let's just do our best and let the chips fall where they may—and may the best woman win. I've got room in my room for another trophy! So... how's it work?"

"From what I remember... you can pick any song, in Nihongo or not. They've got a costuming room back there so you can dress up for your performance, and the judges weigh in on your overall style and singing..."

Act after act went on before them. Good ones, too; pop acts, rock acts, rap acts. Some foreigners, some locals; the little competition Ishida had suggested was actually quite popular, it seemed. Neither of them had a chance, facing up against this kind of stiff competition... which suited Lorelei just fine. She'd faced worse odds than this, and putting a trophy on the line made it all the sweeter. Wailing away some awful song in front of a bunch of drinkers was amusing and all, but nothing tasted quite like the thrill of the hunt...

Ishida went first, somewhere in the first third of the show.

He had taken advantage of the costume room in the back, walking out in a slightly puffy and loose white shirt. Very much the poet archetype, with his hair fluffed out and the top two buttons undone to give it a casual sensuality... tight slacks, a contradiction in terms, rounded out the presentation of a quite handsome young man who normally hid away in ordinary clothes.

The song he sang was one of love. It was pop, pure pop—smooth and easy, designed to make the ladies swoon, especially when coupled with a 'bishounen' such as himself. Indeed, Lorelei observed a fair amount of swooning in the audience as he performed, and she had to admit to at least a one-fifth swoon herself, despite knowing the truth...

"It was neutral, see," he'd explain to her afterwards. "It's a love song, but it's absolutely gender neutral. There isn't a trace of a 'he' or a 'she' in there, just a 'you' and 'me'. I think that's why I like it so much; I try to sing it only on special occasions..."

She could appreciate that. This was a special occasion. It took a while to sink in, but once she really got into the acts being presented and the atmosphere of good clean fun, she could feel that vibe coming from her fellow competitors. A night for fun, a night for song, a night just for enjoying the night...

Her performance came up during the second third of the show. Ishida had tried to make a prediction well before she hit the stage.

"Let me guess; something dripping with sensuality, and likely you'll switch to a more revealing dress once you hit the costume room," was his soothsayer's fortune.

And because something felt different tonight, something intangible and pleasant, she decided to be different as well.

The costume she wore actually covered more skin than the dress she wore when she walked into the place. Jeans were involved, for starters; also a tank top, a vest, a feather boa, fingerless gloves. It wasn't femme fatale, it was fatal femme; pure punk...

And she didn't sing something oozing with saxophone and smoky piano. She rocked out. Energetic and wild, an anthem of the wild youth she used to be, a little something that was popular on Tribal Alpha back in her day. The closest it got to sensual romance was when she invited the audience to 'kiss this' as part of the third chorus, while flashing the finger. It was a song of rebellion and attitude and affirmation of self.

Although she switched back to her slinky yellow dress before resuming her seat in the audience, she kept that fire inside long after her performance. The smile it brought to her face never left—even when they heard the announcement from the judges.

Out of the twenty-five performances they'd seen that night, there were two winners. It was a tie. Against all odds, even against the odds that they were against previous, Lorelei and Ishida had both ended up victors.

The judges had suggested a 'sudden death singoff,' which might have appealed to her, but she found herself suggesting something else.

"We'll take the tie," she told them. And they ended up carrying off the single trophy together.

"So why'd you do that?" Ishida had asked, after they left the building. "I thought you liked to be number one in contests like that..."

"Maybe I'm just getting older," Lorelei explained, with a smirk. "Utter domination doesn't matter as much, as long as I had a ball doing it. I don't have to score teh 0wnage in everything... I can settle for half-0wnage."

- - - - -

Despite the heavy trophy wearing down her arms as they walked back to Ishida's apartment, Lorelei's spirits stayed nice and high. Conversation was both light and deep, as they walked down the dark-yet-safe streets of Edo...

"So you were just manipulating her," Ishida summarized. "Trying to spur her into jealousy and thus into Mallory's arms?"

"More or less," she explained. "It was amusing. And a good object lesson for her! Overall I'd call it a job well done on my behalf..."

"Were you ever serious, though? About being with him..."

"Well... he's a great guy," she admitted. "Honestly a great guy. The kind you don't find even if you look for a thousand years... and I guess I indulged a little more than I thought I would... but he's not mine, and I don't think he ever was. I didn't want to fall into that delusion, so I simply didn't. No problem at all."

"Don't you get lonely, though..?"

"...maybe," she also admitted, without thinking hard about how much she was opening up to him. "It's hard to tell through the haze of drinking and partying and fighting, naturally. But modern romance, the flowers and the dating and the courtship and the wedding bells... eh. It's really not my game, I know that for sure. I can't settle down, I can't get all lovey-dovey like Meiko and Mallory are trying to be. But what else is there to do with a Saturday night?"

Ishida kept a careful eye on her, as she continued. "What about what you did tonight?"

"What, singing?"

"No... going out on the town with a friend."

Lorelei almost dropped the trophy. But didn't. She also almost ground her stroll to an abrupt halt. And did.

"Eh?" she intelligently responded.

"Well... look at it like this. You'd call us friends now, right?"

"Oh... well, of course..."

"How's this sound to you, then: next weekend, we'll go out again! If you're not on assignment, we could see a movie or go shopping... right?"

"...that's it, isn't it?" Lorelei realized. "What you wanted me to see tonight, what you couldn't just say... damn. You're almost as manipulative as I am."

"I wasn't really trying to be manipulative, I just thought it'd help... and I had an alternate theory, too, based on what you told me. So I wasn't sure, figured I'd have to prove it... Uh. Sorry for being so mysterious..."

"Hey hey, it's okay. I get the idea," she said, smiling to him. "It's so silly I wouldn't have accepted it at face value... friendship, right? The reason I had such a great night when I first met you—"

"—is because we could just have a nice, friendly night together," Ishida filled in. "Exactly. That's what you told me when you were drunk—that you were thrilled I was gay, because it meant you weren't expected to do the usual. You could just relax and enjoy yourself with someone close to you instead of trying to hook up with a stranger, get drunk, or anything like that. It was like the time you spent with her..."

"Rei-Lei," she confirmed. "Heh. Well, I can be a pretty wise woman sometimes... if only I could remember that wisdom after the hangover. It's true—every night I can peel myself away from the house, and hook up with random schmucks looking for a little temporary companionship. But it's always the same, even if it's never the same person... it's same-old, same-old. It wasn't doing it for me anymore. I didn't really feel satisfied... not like I did with Rei-Lei."

"The only friend you ever had," Ishida noted. "You told me that, too. I figured the 'friend' was the key, unless—"

"Oh! Oh, hey, you know, I felt it the time I 'dated' Mallory, too!" Lorelei recalled. "I wasn't honestly trying to get anywhere with him, so I could just kick back and have some fun with the boy. Of all the affairs I've had in recent times, that's the only one I remember... damn. It's so simple, I could kick myself... especially since he's now Meiko's property, and that means I've only got one friend I can exercise this new theory with. That's you, buddy."

"You really don't have any other friends right now? I know you told me that when you were drunk, but I figured it was an exaggeration..."

"Well, I'm a mobile girl, you know?" she pointed out. "We're all over the place. I was never looking for anything that lasts because I knew it wouldn't. After Rei-Lei split to follow her own life, that was it. Other than my co-workers, there's nobody I can really consider a..."

"A..?" he egged on.

"Just a stray thought," she dismissed. "Hmm... Ishida, I think I'm callin' it a night. I had a blast and we've got to do it again sometime. Keep the trophy... I'm heading home for a long soak and a bit of thinking."

Ishida accepted the heavy trophy, hefting it a bit to adjust balance since he wasn't quite as strong as her. "All right. Uh... Lorelei, are you okay? You look kind of distant..."

"Oh, I'm great," she assured him, with a grin. "One of the best nights of my life. Just... got some thinking to do. I'll see you 'round..."

Humming her old, favorite rock song to herself, Lorelei pondered something as she wandered home. After all, for all the fighting, for all the bickering, for all the disagreements... she DID have one person she hadn't really thought of as a friend until now...


[4] honor and duty

Her duty was clear.

Exercising that duty was left to her own judgment. As she had monitored his progress, she noted the steady pattern; arrival, departure. He would be safe on his route home and would not need oversight. However, the intel opportunity here at this run-down bingo hall would be quite valuable if the one known as M ever turned on them.

For the past two meetings of their support group, she had stayed behind a few minutes after Mallory's departure, observing and noting anything she could about their powers and their personalities. All of them could be potential enemies or potential allies in a conflict, and these observations would prove invaluable if such a time came.

When the one known as Melvin introduced a new person to the support group, she took extreme notice from her hidden spot in the rafters of the bingo hall.

When she saw his purple-rimmed glasses, and he began killing them, she knew what had to be done.

Silently, she ejected the tranquilizer round from her sniper rifle. A simple bullet was slipped into its place. A simple instrument of killing, like the bullets she had fired countless times in her past, bullets that claimed countless lives. It was all part of her purpose. Taking the life of her enemy now would be no different...

Her finger did not squeeze the trigger, despite having the enemy within her sights. One tap behind the ear and it would be over...

Her finger did not squeeze the trigger, even as M screamed and exploded, taking the enemy's hand with him.

It did not squeeze the trigger after the stranger had vanished. There was no point then. She had missed the shot.

- - - - -

"Meiko Mirai."

Her instinctive stealth worked against her, as her employer turned in surprise towards her voice. "Wh—!?" Meiko blurted, before resuming her businesslike poise as best she could. (To put Meiko in such a position was not forgivable. To make her lose face in front of her employees was a mistake. To make a mistake in her name was—) "Kisei. When did you get here? I didn't hear you come downstairs..."

"As the ban has been lifted... I request a mission," Kisei spoke, measuring her words twice before speaking them.

"A mission..?"

"Yes. I would like to request one. Any one will do."

Her employer consulted F.P., as expected. "I actually did have a potential offer called in directly yesterday, but... it's in Urbana, and I didn't think it would be appropriate to draw that much attention..."

"I will endeavor not to put the house at risk, Meiko Mirai. You can count on me," Kisei spoke, desperate to put faith behind her words. "I will prove that to you as I support your efforts and ideals."

"...right. Why the sudden interest..?"

(To lie to your employer is an unforgivable act. To obfuscate is an unfortunate must in a situation such as this.)

"I have my reasons. I need to reacquire my focus," Kisei decided to say, telling half of the truth. "Meiko Mirai... I rarely make requests of you and I apologize if the suddenness of this one offends—"

"No, no... it's okay, Kisei. Get your gear together and I'll dig up the details..."

She made certain to leave the metal bullets out of her gear pack. She wouldn't make that mistake twice.

- - - - -

This journal can be very effective for working out my various problems. Father knew it would be instrumental in my development, growing into the human condition as I was. However, it has failed me in this matter.

I have had two weeks to fill multiple pages with my thoughts about what transpired on that night, and I still have not reached a satisfactory conclusion. Of course, matters of honor are rarely simple to resolve; it took me years to make my ultimate decision regarding what to do about my father's murder. I have chosen his path instead of the strict and self-destructive one I followed before... but even taking a flexible path in this case would not allievate the problem.

I had my enemy in my sights, and I did not take his life because to do so would be a dishonor... even if it meant he would continue to plague our existence, and likely attack us again. I have not yet formulated an adequate defense against that attack, and therefore it has a strong chance of success. In essence, by trying to uphold my employer's ideals, I may have condemned her to an early grave... and I cannot bring myself to tell her directly that I have done this.

Perhaps it would help to transcribe my memory of our first encounter.

I took the position of tactical expert and covert operations specialist with Mirai Consulting to aid my quest for my father's killer. A mobile Transient business would provide excellent cover and give me means to access other realities cheaply. I was quite surprised to find out that Meiko Mirai knew of me before I even showed up for my job interview, but I did not let her know it.

"You came highly recommended by Ryo, when I mentioned who was applying for this job," Meiko had told me. "He said he couldn't think of a better person for the role. But he also told me that previous to this point, you were an assassin for hire... which wasn't on your résumé."

"I did not feel it was applicable to the job in question, and thus irrelevant," I explained. (I had not lied to her; I simply felt it would not be appropriate to bring the matter up.)

"It's very relevant," Meiko warned, clearly sounding displeased. "I need someone familiar with combat tactics, covert espionage, technical defensive measures... things which would be helpful on troubleshooting missions, things to keep us safe while we're undergoing missions. But I don't need a killer."

"If my employer doesn't require my services as an assassin, I do not have to use them," I suggested. "It's simply another talent I have, and not mandatory. I did not expect to be asked to kill in the first place; I believe my other skills will be sufficent to serve your needs..."

"Good. Because one condition of hiring you is that you are not to take a life again while under my employ," she stated. "I put the same condition on Lorelei's contract—although for someone from Tribal Alpha, she's got a pretty good perspective on the value of human life... so. Ryo recommends you, you have the skills I need, and as long as you can adhere to that guideline I'm willing to give this a try. Acceptable?"

"I... must humbly request one condition in addition," I added, knowing what needed to be done. "I must be allowed to resign with twenty-four hours' notice, at any time. No questions asked."

Meiko looked unsure, as she should be. "Two weeks' notice is standard, Kisei..."

"I apologize for the burden this places on you, but I may have... family business arise," I noted. "If that day comes, I will need to leave with great speed. I will endeavor to avoid doing this during a critical time, but... I must make this request. If it negates my hiring, I will understand..."

It did not negate the hiring. Although she had misgivings, Meiko hired me, based on Ryo Noyori's faith in me.

I strove to validate that faith every day. I carried out assigned tasks with maximum efficency and skill. I worked with Duke of Duke's Munitions to adapt my rifle for non-lethal ammo types... tranquilizer rounds, beam weapons, and the like. I also employed rounds of mass destruction, but only for times when demolition or forced entry was required.

To date, I have not taken a single life while on Meiko's staff. I have kept my honor, and upheld my duty as outlined by my employer. Even in the brief time where I resigned to hunt my father's killer, no longer bound to her contract, I did not take his life...

But when my enemy, the Mallory-person who had attacked us in Antiparadisia was within my sights and prone to the swift strike of a true killing round, I did not pull the trigger. Because in doing so, I would break my contract and dishonor myself.

In doing this, I may have damned Meiko, Mallory, Lorelei, Eiko, and myself to a future death.

Was it a matter of fear? I cannot conceive that. I have killed before, hundreds of times. I was trained to do this. But if I have not killed in years since, perhaps my emotional center has indeed shifted... or my ethical center. Is this morality? Is this a matter of logic? Is it simply honor? No laws, no codes of life conduct seem to cover this situation properly... not even the code that my father lived and died by.

The flexible path my father followed would have suggested that taking this dishonor was an acceptable thing. Leniency in the face of strict discipline enabled you to do what was needed, even if it was illogical, even if it was 'wrong' on several levels. That leniency allowed me to live to see this day, as I decided I did not need to take my life for my failure to protect Father. But that leniency would have also suggested it was right to go ahead and kill the man.

Perhaps that leniency was right. Perhaps I have made a mistake. But in doing so, would I have alienated myself from those who live in this house? Lorelei, who lived for the thrill of the hunt and 'killed' thousands, has not taken a life despite her clear passion for battle. Meiko has never taken a job which required any of us to kill. By claiming a life, I would become seperated from them—akin to the video stream outlaw hero who saves a town from evil, but then must leave, as his tainted lifestyle of violence has no place in a growing community of life...

...and now I am repeating earlier journal entries, without progress. Much as I pointed out at the start of this entry.

I must take action.

I will wait until the ban on departure is lifted (a ban I helped put in place by not ending this threat). When that time comes, I will request a mission. And I will adhere to my employer's ideals. I will not let Meiko down—through my action or inaction. I must prove her faith in me is still justified.

- - - - -

It was possibly the least defensible place in the entire building.

The walls were glass, all four of them; as a perfect crystal cage, stylish it may be, it succeeded in trapping those within from free movement while simultaneously exposing them to any and all dangers surrounding. At least it was the top floor of the building; up here there would be little outside beyond a few cubicles... which, of course, were perfect for taking cover during a running firefight...

The occupant was the other half of the problem. A very unpleasant individual, who wasn't pleased with anything Kisei did and felt the need to express that displeasure at every available opportunity.

"I thought I made it very clear to that Mirai woman," he repeated for the third time while irritably tapping a pen on paper. "The death threat said I would be dying at one in the MORNING. Not one in the afternoon! Why are you here so early? I have work to do!"

"My apologies, sir," Kisei spoke with a small bow of repentance, because she wanted to be absolutely professional today. "But tactically, we can't assume the one hired to kill you will strike at the time he has predeclared. Relying on drama in this situation could lead to mission failure; therefore I must guard you for the duration of the day as well as the night."

"I have WORK to do during 'the duration of the day,' you know," he continued. "And I can't do work with you looming around! At the very least you can go wait by the door instead of here by my desk, yes?"

"If the client wishes me to stay by the door, I will. However, I should note that I will be less effective in my reaction time to threats by four seconds if—"


So Kisei stood by the door.

The curator refilled his coffee mug from a grimy, well-used pot. Time passed.

"Could you not look in this direction, please?" he asked.

So Kisei looked away.

"Could you not loom so much, please? Even from over there, I can feel you looming!"

"I can assure the client that I am making efforts not to loom—"

"I can't do this. Forget it. Just get out," the curator insisted, pointing to the door with his pen. "I will not have the tranquility of my office violated by some paramilitary commando! Even if it is one I hired myself. Go lay tripwire mines at the exits or something, but whatever you do, do it ELSEWHERE. Thank you."



- - - - -

Rather than lay tripwire mines at every exit, which would have been dishonorable AND overkill, she set up simple motion sensors at every exit. This took one hour.

She also patched into the security camera system of the museum, feeding the video streams into a multi-function pocket monitor she had brought with her. She didn't expect a skilled assassin to come within sight of any camera, but it was something to do, and it took another hour.

But eventually, she ran out of preparations to make. The musem already had decent security, and Kisei's enhancements raised the bar to more than adequate levels. All she could do now was wait for the killer to strike, which supposedly would be transpiring at one in the morning. The rest of the time she could sit and meditate, or...

Or browse the artwork.

A value judgement was required. Focusing on her duty was the entire point of this exercise, to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that she could support her employer's efforts with maximum effectiveness. But with maximum effectiveness already achieved through her preliminary work, she was left idle—and would it be dishonorable to enjoy the museum's cultural artifacts on the company dime..?

After all, she had decided in recent times to walk the path of her father once more. His path consisted of appreciating life, rather than sitting and waiting for it to go by in between missions, as she had been doing for years. To walk that path, she MUST appreciate the artwork. It was the only honorable thing to do. Unless honor didn't enter into it...

With a head full of conflicting ideals, and no clear answer on how to proceed, she made an opinionated judgement call rather than one of pure logic. Much as her father would, when given two equal opportunities. She would appreciate the artwork until her duty called that evening.

Decision made, she threw herself into the task with the same intensity she gave her official duties. But this wasn't a cold, mechanical undertaking—it could not be, in order to be truly an art appreciation. Painting by painting, sculpture by sculpture... she'd move from one to the next, trying to explore how each piece made her FEEL. Artwork was not simply pleasing to the eye or aesthetically clever, it was an expression of the artist's soul. Without giving it a full contemplation, from the eye to the mind to the heart to the soul, she could not uphold the artist's honor. This was her father's wisdom.

These hours passed much more quicklz than the motion tracker and security camera hours. Slowly, her mood of conflict and confusion faded... the issues of recent days pushed aside for now, her whole filled only with art. With the falling leaves of autumn oil paintings, with the subtle facial expressions of portraits, with the ivory purity of a fine sculpture... she embraced the rare feeling of truly losing yourself in a creative vision. The sensation she sometimes felt when writing her poetry, even in the dark years where she would let time slip away in the cold dark of her room...

Painting to painting, sculpture to sculpture...

To a man.

Perhaps because she was fully entrenched in an art-appreciation mindset, the first thing she did was evaluate his aesthetics. Handsome features, with a strange mix of feminine graces and masculine traits; eyes with a soft expression as they slid over the oil paintings, eyes that truly read the world around them instead of looking for the next means of fufilling one's needs, eyes of a deep green like the jade of an ancient empire...

If he had noticed her stare and returned it, if he had looked puzzled or disturbed to her, she might have turned around and pretended she wasn't looking. She might have walked away.

"Breathtaking, isn't it?" he asked, not looking in her direction, too wrapped in the painting of a cherry blossom field in spring.

Her appreciative stare shifted by reflex to the painting, and continued to evaluate.

"Every petal was crafted by one stroke of the brush," she explained, tracing the subtle texture with a finger (but not directly touching the painting, as that would be insulting to the artist and destructive to the art). "Thousands of cherry blossom petals, and every one was painted in a single gesture. None of them rushed, every one given the same tender care. Aside from the rest of the work's value, this alone makes it unique..."

He finally looked at her; but it was a side glance, out of the corner of his eye. Nothing that would disrupt the spell of the moment. "Are you familiar with the man's other works..? There are a few in the gallery on the third floor. He moved from nature scenes to portraits in the second half of his life. Some say his latter work was more sophisticated and mature, but I always enjoyed his love of nature's simple beauty more..."

"I... have been to the third floor," Kisei said, remembering the motion detectors she planted there—and the memory breaking her trance. "I have not visited that gallery yet, however. Perhaps I will; thank you for your suggestion. Excuse me."

"You're going now?" he asked. "Wait, I'll come with you... let me get my bag first, I left it by the benches—"

"You wish to come with me?"

"I'd love to discuss his work further," he explained. "Especially with one who understands art. Unless... you'd prefer to go alone?"

Yes, I would, Kisei thought. She had enough things on her mind today to add conversation with a complete stranger on top of it all...

Which is why it made absolutely no sense when she agreed to go with him.

- - - - -

For hours, they walked the museum. They explored, they examined the art... they spent time together so intense, so rich that Kisei felt she was running even as she walked, trying to keep up with what was happening to her...

His name was Gabriel, and he was a freelance photographer. A transient, much like herself; moving from reality to reality in his own cottage—which doubled as a dark room and development lab.

"The word 'photograph' derives from the ancient process of using light-sensitive chemical reactions to produce the picture," he explained to her, as the two sat at the museum's cafe, to take a rest break. (His heavy duffel bag, source of his momentary arm strain, was stored under the table.) "Even though modern cameras can capture directly to an image file which can be manipulated with ease, I've always appreciated the ancient ways of doing things. I don't think you can really consider a screen image 'art', when the process to make it involves so very little effort or thought..."

He talked a great deal, but it wasn't his fault. Kisei found herself not talking very much at all. She'd listen, she'd nod her head, she'd interject when he hit a subject she was knowledgable about... but mostly, she'd listen. His voice, his words, his poise as he discussed art with her... it was like appreciating a sculpture. Her mind was simply soaking it in, trying to contemplate it...

But coming to no answers, unfortunately. She wasn't sure why she'd let him accompany her. It served no purpose, and only served to wreck the silent, simple journey she was undertaking. Granted, when they approached a work of art, having his insight helped add to and refine her own... and even when not directly confronting the artwork, the empty time he'd fill with his words was almost art in and of itself... but why? Why break her solitude for someone she barely knew? (Even if 'barely knew' was more and more false as he talked away...)

She was about to call a halt to this strange experiment when he started asking her questions, rather than supplying answers to ones she had chosen not to voice herself.

"I really should apologize, I've probably been talking your ear off," he started. "I have a habit of doing that to avoid quiet moments. It's a personal flaw, I know. So, you know what I do for a living; what do you do?"

"Me..?" Kisei asked, mentally cursing herself for such an obvious, hypothetical prompting.

"Well, of course you... unless there's someone behind you?" he asked, pretending to lean around her, looking for a third party. "If you'd prefer not to talk, that's all right; I've been getting this feeling that you prefer not to..."

"...I am a troubleshooter," she responded, after a moment. "Freelance, much like yourself. I work for a firm which handles problems."

"Really? What kind of problems? Your uniform seems a bit, ah, military..."

"Sometimes military, but simply... problems in general," she explained, feeling self-conscious about her attire for the first time in years. "What I wear is simply an homage to my past, I suppose... it's not mandated by my employer. Although I have certain standards to adhere to, I am not honor-bound to a particular dress code."

"Honor-bound to a dress code? So if she asked you to wear a paper hat and rubber waders, you would?"

"If honor demanded it, of course," she asked, puzzled at why such a thing would be called into question at all. "However, my employer is... generally quite lenient on matters. And strict on others. is complicated, and probably of no interest to you."

"No no, it's quite interesting. And it's only fair, since I've unloaded half of my life on you..."

"So... this exchange of personal details must be reciprocated?" she asked, trying to puzzle through social customs she was not entirely familiar with.

"I wouldn't call it a matter of honor or anything like that," he noted, holding up his hands disarmingly. "It's okay. It's up to you. Just like I said, if you prefer not to..."

"It is not preference, I am simply... not used to such things. I admit to this, it has been many years since my social training..."

"Social training?"

"I had a very... we shall say 'unusual' upbringing," she decided to say. "Only recently have I begun to try and... hmm. This is complicated to explain... to you or to myself, for that matter. Let us just say I am socially awkward, and leave it at that."

Gabriel tapped his fingers on the cafe table. "If you want my advice... and as you've been receptive to anything else I've said, I might as well go ahead and offer it... 'leaving it at that' is the source of your problem. Not wanting to go in-depth, not wanting to share. But at the same time, you must want to share on some level, or you'd have told me (quite politely, I suspect) to take a hike hours ago..."

"I admit to being confused on that issue," she said, trying to be honest and open now that the challenge was laid down. "Although I would have been perfectly comfortable with browsing the museum alone, I decided to allow you to follow me. And I have listened to you. And yes, I have spoken up at this moment when you decided to press me... so..."

"So...?" he prompted, leaning forward.

The prompt went unrewarded, as Kisei's brow furrowed. Conflict arose again, conflict like her honor clash, conflict as she'd had to deal with over and over recently...

"Tea. You could use a cup of tea," Gabriel decided. "It's perfect for soothing the nerves. We'll have tea, and talk, and I think you'll find—"



"I'm afraid... I cannot," Kisei said, rising from her chair. "I am appreciative of what you are trying to do. Perhaps I have been in my shell for so long that coming out is difficult, but... this doesn't feel right."

"Let's explore that, then!" he suggested, trying to keep things rolling. "Why doesn't it feel right?"

"First of all, I do not know you. I know OF you, quite intensely after our brief but rich time together—but... I do not feel right discussing 'in depth' with you. This is too sudden... not yet, not now..."

"Perhaps another day?" Gabriel asked. "I wouldn't mind seeing you again. There's a wonderful museum in Nippon which I've been meaning to visit, if you get some time off and you're still interested after—"

"There is a second reason," Kisei interrupted. "And I cannot work around that. This is a matter of honor and duty, Gabriel. Not here, not yet. Not like this. I must go now and prepare for tonight..."

"Second reason? What do you mean? Kisei—"

Before the situation could grow more unpleasant for either of them, Kisei left. She did not run; she walked quickly. Very quickly, out of the cafe and to the spiral stairs up to the curator's office... back to her duty.

The conflict inside her raged on, but she knew that this was the right decision. More important matters had to be settled before she dared to work through that aspect of this puzzle...

She was truthful to him—although her actions could be read as dodging an uncomfortable emotion, there was more to her decision than that. This was a matter of honor and duty.

- - - - -

For the remaining time, she sat on a bench outside the glass walls of the curator's office, and meditated. Exactly as she had planned to do before getting involved in the art, and getting involved with him. Time sped along quickly, passing her by just as the museum patrons did...

Eventually the flow of patrons slowed to a trickle, and stopped. Closing time came and went. Light from external windows darkened. Midnight came, and went...

The assassin wouldn't strike until one in the morning. While it would be more intelligent to declare one time and strike at another, to catch your prey unaware, this particular killer would not do that. Beyond honor, there was a need there which Kisei could predict—a need to settle affairs.

At precisely 12:59am, Kisei walked into the curator's office. She loaded a tranquilizer round in her rifle, stopped at his desk, and turned to face the one who dropped from the ceiling in front of her.

Perhaps it was the calm, assured way in which she stood that made him pause. Perhaps it was the look, which said: I know. So even as the curator was in a coffee-fueled panic frenzy in the background, she filtered it out—focusing only on the assassin, as he slowly pulled off his mask.

"How did you know..?" he asked.

"When you asked if my employer had a dress code, you used 'she'," Kisei explained, keeping her rifle trained on him. "I never told you I was employed by a woman."

"You stayed with me after that," Gabriel noted, not bothering to raise the silencer-equipped pistol he held. "Why was that? Were you trying to learn more about your enemy?"

"That is the question I wanted to ask you. But I couldn't ask you until now; it wasn't the right place, it wasn't the right time. You persisted in talking to me, potentially blowing your cover, wanting to get 'in depth' with me... was it simply to learn more about your enemy? Or was it something more..?"

"It was something more," he confirmed, honesty at gunpoint as well as chosen honesty. "It was because you wouldn't talk to me. I could tell there was something there, and it intrigued me... I had to know more. I wanted to help you... that's all. It stopped being about investigating my enemy twenty seconds into it all."

"You said you wanted to go to a museum in Nippon, but you knew things would come to this," she continued, being the asker of questions instead of the source of answers for a change. "Why did you ask me to do that...? The one you knew was your enemy?"

"We're both professionals. We seperate our work from our personal lives," he said. "We could enjoy the artwork, we could enjoy time together, and still do what we had to do. Right..? I hope I'm right, Kisei. Because I can honestly say that I wasn't expecting to feel this way about you..."

"Even with as little social skills as I have, I know that moving this quickly in a potential relationship is untoward, Gabriel."

"I'm an intense person," he admitted. "I see something and I go after it with every fiber of my being. I apologize for moving a bit too quickly, but when I saw something that intrigued me so deeply... well, I had to do it. Perhaps that's what drew me to the work, that need to seize the moment..."

"I... am not certain I am ready for that sort of thing, Gabriel. But aside from that, if as you request, we are to be professional aside from personal—"

She squeezed the trigger. A tiny yellow dart embedded itself in Gabriel's neck.

"Then I must execute my professional duty before we can consider the personal desire," she concluded, lowering her weapon.

It would have been poetic, if he slowly fell, and she turned him in to the authorities. This one who seemed to care for her from first sight...

It would have been art.

Instead, he did not fall. He didn't even get drowsy.

"Immunity," he explained, raising his pistol to take aim at her, even as he pulled the useless dart from his neck. "I have implants that render me immune to most common knockout drugs and stun weapons. If you want to defend your client, you'll have to use deadly force, Kisei... because that's what I'm afraid I have to use to go through you."

Kisei's rifle wavered. She didn't have any steel bullets, not this time.

...but there was the explosive round she normally reserved for locked doors...

"I wish it hadn't come to this," Gabriel said, looking regretfully down the barrel of his gun at her. "I won't kill you while you're helpless, however. If you have a real round, I'll let you chamber it. Although... from what I researched about Mirai Consulting, they don't use deadly force, correct?"

" a matter of honor..." Kisei mumbled, hand twitching as she wanted to go for that explosive...

"A matter of honor," he recognized. "I saw a conflict behind your eyes all day. That's what it is, isn't it? A former assassin told not to kill... can you use that force against me? I don't want to have to kill you if you can't even defend yourself, but if I must..."

She spared the tiny, tiny fraction of a second it took to look at the reflection off the glass office walls. Just to make sure.

Kisei took a deep breath, and let it out with a sad sigh.

"As much as I wish to have resolution on that conflict... I regret that I will not be able to find the answer this evening," she said, lowering her rifle.

"Why is that, then?" Gabriel asked, keeping his pistol raised.

"Because in our self-involved moment, both of us have lost track of my client," Kisei explained. "And if you'll notice the open office door, and the strewn papers outside... you'll understand why."

Gabriel lowered his weapon. He knew Kisei wouldn't trick him, purposefully make him let his guard down. Both of them tracked the curator's progress together...

...where he fled the office in a panic while they were so wrapped up in exchanging words...

...where he lost his folder of paperwork, and one shoe...

...and where he tripped over a railing, plunging five stories down the central spiral staircase of the museum. Judging from the fact that he was still down there and not running away at high speed, it was safe to assume he wouldn't be moving under his own power ever again.

Gabriel scratched his temple with the tip of his gun, confused.

"Well, now... where exactly does that put us?" he asked.

"As distasteful as the stalemate is, I believe we have both fufilled our duty," Kisei explained, the logic of it falling into place. "My client is dead, even if it wasn't by your hand; your client will be satisfied. I protected him from you even if I couldn't protect him from his own stupidity; my employer will be satisfied."

"It's... a bit droll, isn't it?" Gabriel said, looking frustrated. "That completely destroys the tension we had earlier..."

"Of that, I am thankful. If that tension had persisted... I might have made a grave mistake."

"You would have shot me..?"

"I might have chosen poorly. And since I'm still not certain how to resolve my dilemma, any choice could have been poor," she clairified. Stepping away from the railing, she slung her rifle to her back. "I believe this is where we part ways, Gabriel..."

"Then... will you see me again?" he asked. "Personally, not professionally. I meant what I said, Kisei... and I know you want to open up to someone. I can sense it inside you—"

"You might be correct. Perhaps that is the next step in my father's path, to find myself again through others... but for now, it will not be with you," she said. "You are impatient, Gabriel. Intense and passionate. I am not. Perhaps another day..."

"I... can learn to wait. I'd do that for you, Kisei."

"If you truly mean the things you profess, then you will be able to wait," she agreed. "Farewell."

- - - - -

She had told one lie that day.

The tension inside her wasn't truly broken by the untimely and vaguely comedic death of her client. As she entered the house once more, she could still feel that tension wound up inside her... the sort that would cause problems with her sleep patterns, even this late at night. If she intended to face the next day with a clear head (which she would have to do, if she wanted to face Meiko and explain the debaucle), she would need to unwind.

After tiptoeing past the sleeping Mallory, after depositing her working gear and uniform in her room, she entered the one place she rarely visited—the Onsen-of-the-Month Club door.

With a towel snug around her body, she was fully prepared to let the warm water wash her cares away. It was the recommended method Lorelei always espoused, and thus had to be worth something...

Which also explained why Lorelei had beaten her to the punch.

"Pardon, I had assumed the onsen would be empty this late at night," Kisei explained, stopping at the door between the antechamber and the onsen proper. "I will retire to my chambers and not interrupt your meditation—"

"I'm soaking, not meditating, Kiss," Lorelei clarified, leaning back in the water and sipping from a tiny sake cup. She had, as usual, forsaken any covering towel. "It's not like you interrupted me scrawling down poetic ramblings..."

"I see. Either way, I shall—"

"I was just thinking, really," Lorelei continued, setting her sake cup down. "Pondering the day. Nothing huge."

...slowly, Kisei lowered herself into the water next to her housemate.

"I have been 'pondering' my day as well," she responded. "It has been an unusual one for me."

"You, have an unusual day? This I MUST hear! Tell, tell! Tell or I'll force it out of you—"

"There will be no need for that, Lorelei."

Because Kisei wanted to tell her.

She started out with the chance encounter with Multi. The indecision, the honor conflict, missing her shot.

She talked about the week she spent holed up in her room, turning it over and over, trying to find resolution and failing. She talked about her fears that she would have dishonored herself, her employer, perhaps even her father regardless of what decision she'd have made. How her personal diary was of little use, just the same words written over and over without any real progress...

And how she met someone very strange today, a man so keenly interested in her and interested in trying to help her. Someone who made her talk when she'd rather be quiet, assuming she really did wish to be quiet, which she was no longer certain of, especially since—

"—I am sitting here discussing these matters with you," she concluded. "Which is not something I would normally do. I trust you appreciate the level of trust I am confiding in you. I feel it is only appropriate, considering the trust you have confided in me from time to time."

"...who, me? What?" Lorelei asked, admittedly a bit dazed by the onslaught of Kisei Talking Aloud, which was a rare thing indeed.

"I recall the time you were unsure of how to proceed on Tribal Alpha, for example," Kisei exampled. "You were willing to explore that ethical puzzle with me. And in turn, I aided you in your quest to bring resolution to that reality. Which was slightly against Meiko's orders, although I feel in the end they supported her ideals... and I was satisfied with being an enabler of your own ideals."

"A what of my what?"

"I was happy to help," she summarized.

Lorelei leaned back in the water, taking it all in. She scratched one hand behind her head. "Damn, I... damn, Kiss. This is a hell of a lot you're laying on me."

"If you would prefer I do not speak of such things—"

"No no, it's okay, this is good," she said, getting into the swing of things. "All right. Well... so you figure you need to open up more, right? Hell, I could've told you that. Why do you think I keep goading you, pointing out when you act like some kind of robot—"

"—genetic root-human clone, actually, not an android."


"Go on."

"...ah... anyway, I keep teasing you for a reason, you know," Lorelei continued. "Just like I teased Mallory and Meiko back when both of them were acting like little kids, trying to ignore what was between them. Maybe it's not the most direct way of dealing with things, but hey, sometimes even I like to be indirect... point is, I'd LOVE to see you open up more. I'm all for it."

"And why would you love to see that?"

"Why? Well... jeez, Kiss, you're a friend, you know?" Lorelei said, figuring it was obvious. "I poke and I prod and I make fun of you now and then but that's just what I do. Sure, you frustrate the hell out of me sometimes, but lately you've gotten a lot better and keep getting better! So... what was my point again? Sorry, I'm a little drunk..."

"I believe I got your point prior to the moment when your rambling grew incoherent," Kisei teased in her dry sort of way.

"Right! That's the spirit!" Lorelei said, putting an arm around her shoulders. "All right, now. In the spirit of opening up, I order you to have a drink. And I'm gonna solve your little to-kill-or-not-to-kill dilemma in a way that's extremely stylish and simple and will have you kicking yourself repeatedly!"

Kisei poured herself a drink, while raising the One Questioning Eyebrow she traditionally gave Lorelei at times like this. "I have my doubts about your ability to do that, but I welcome the attempt..."

"Right! Oh, this is just gonna blow you away, I know it," Lorelei said, pumping a fist in glee. "Here's the answer. You ready?"

"Of course."

"Ask Meiko."

The pause indicated Kisei was waiting for her to continue. She held her sake cup steady, not wanting to sip until an appropriate time...

"No no, that's it," Lorelei responded to the implied hypothetical query. "Ask Meiko. I mean, the problem is you want to be honorable and obey Meiko's edicts, right? Okay, so you walk up to her, and you say 'What if Multi, the guy who we know wants us all dead and has been actively hunting us down and just wiped out a ton of Mallory's friends, happens to walk in front of my rifle and I happen to have a bullet ready?'"

"She... would instruct me not to kill, as she has in the past—"

"I think you're confusing her GENERAL ideals with PRACTICAL reality," Lorelei said—tipping Kisei's sake up upwards, so she could finally take that drink she was holding. "Look, right now, we're all in hot water. And I don't mean literally, okay? I mean Meiko might be willing to compromise her ideals in favor of not getting horribly killed by a psychotic freak. I bet you that when you ask her tomorrow, she'll agree with me—probably after making some faces and using words like 'begrudgingly' and stuff, but she knows what the score is. And once you have it clarified, well, you're not going to have to worry about what's honorable. You'll just... know."

Kisei opened her mouth to disagree, and closed it when she realized she didn't.

"...why had that not occured to me before?" she asked herself aloud.

"Well, duh. You weren't talking to anyone that week, remember? Not Meiko, not anyone. So busy sitting in your little hole trying to figure it out yourself, not askin' anyone for help..."

"Yes... yes, that would explain it. ...I thank you, Lorelei. This solution is indeed, as you previously declared, 'stylish and simple'. I will refrain from kicking myself, however, as it would serve no purpose."

"Right, then! Now, I will extract my payment for this advice..." Lorelei replied, looking sinister.


"See, I'VE been pondering my day too. And while I don't feel like going into intensive detail right now, I can tell you what I decided at the end of it all: I've really gotta party down with my friends more. I was figuring Meiko would be more receptive, despite being attached to Mallory at the hip... but now here you are, getting all cozy with me, so why not? In payment for my sagely wisdoms, you're hitting the town with me tomorrow night!"

"Ah. You are proposing that we engage freely in the nocturnal social activity."

"Bingo!" Lorelei cheered, setting the sake bottle down for now—she'd had enough, not wanting to get completely drunk. "It's settled. Tomrorow, we wear hot and slinky outfits and go club-crawling until we can't see straight!"

"I am not interested in sexually provocative dress or overindulgence of alcohol, Lorelei."

"Okay, okay, I admit that was hoping for too much. But what about the 'we' part..? What do you think?"

Kisei considered the offer briefly. "Assuming I am not assigned a mission by my employer at the time... I suppose I would be available for such an endeavor. Although it is not exactly my 'thing', I will warn you. I may not enjoy it and would require that we end it at any time."

"Ohhh, take it from a seasoned pro, you'll have some fun! Here's your chance to see that there's more to life than a dark and badly furnished little room with sixteen locks on the door! We'll start small, you know, little jazz club here, then a coffee bistro open mike poetry night there, and after a few dozen outings maybe I can finally get you laid and you can learn to relax a little!"

"That will not be required."


"I am not entirely without experience in the matters of which you are a self-proclaimed expert."

'Slack-jawed' summarized Lorelei's expression perfectly.


Rising from the water, Kisei held her towel in place with one hand, wringing out her hair with the other. "Good evening to you, Lorelei. I believe I will retire to my room now."

"Hey, wait! WAIT! What do you mean, not entirely not having experience of things which I'm proclaimed and so on?"

"I was under the impression that it is dishonorable to discuss such private matters—"

"You're not leaving until you give me all the juicy details!" Lorelei demanded, grabbing Kisei's towel and pulling.

An awkward tumble, a splash, and the battle was on.

[.] one last thing to do...

Technically, you couldn't call it comfort food—not legally. Krap Foods, Inc. had the term trademarked for their handy line of ice cream fudge cheesecake ripple sundaes. Still, the other girls in Meiko's orphanage had always called it comfort food, so comfort food it was.

A little milk and cookies were just the ticket for the young girl grown to be a young woman who was trying her best to be a mover and a shaker in the adult business world while maintaining her sanity and/or emotional stability. Unfortunately, when she quietly padded downstairs that night, she found someone else was already grinding his way through her stash of chocolate chip and 2% lowfat.

Like a kid caught with his hand in the jar which it actually was caught in for a non-metaphoric change, Mallory sheepishly offered the approaching Meiko the cookie he was retrieving. "Uh... sorry, but I woke up when I heard Kisei come home, then I got hungry and Eiko already ate the last of our snacks while we were playing with my cards so I kinda improvised and I forgot this was your jar until I was already through a couple of them, there's one or two left, though—"

"No no, it's okay," Meiko said, joining him to sit on the couch. "Go ahead. ...I'm actually glad you're awake, that's probably healthier for me... you have a minute to talk? Or were you going to go back to sleep right after..?"

"Mhrmm?" he asked, mouth filled with crumbs. (Waste not, want not.)

"Are you... you know... okay with how we're progressing here? Romantically, I mean."

"Err... progressing? What do you mean..?"

"Look, I don't know how to say this without sounding stupid," she warned. "But Gillian suggested I talk about it with you and I put it off all day, so... are you happy with where we are? We've spent some time together over the last two weeks, but nothing really, you know... really ROMANTIC, exactly... ...okay, what's with that look of relief?"

"Ah... heh, um... I was kinda going to ask you the same thing," he said, with the trademark hand rubbing behind his head that Meiko had once found irritating but now inexplicably found adorable. "Ask you, um, once I got around to it. Eventually, you know. Since I've never really had a girlfriend before—err, is that too kids-stuff? 'Girlfriend'? Should I be using 'lover' or 'life partner' or something—"

"So you're just as up a creek right now as I am, then," she concluded, sinking back into the couch in frustration.

"Up a what?"

"Up a creek. With no paddle."

"...oh! Meaning you can't go anywhere because... hey, that's a good one! I'll have to remember it."

"Wha? You, the master of mangling metaphors, never heard—wait, I'm getting sidetracked. MY POINT is that we're both really new at this. So... are you happy with where we are now? Am I doing anything wrong?"

Mallory finished off his milk, setting the empty glass and empty cookie jar on the coffee table. (It was always easier to think with a few calories in you, his father sagely advised.) "Well, considering everything and stuff... I think... we should do whatever we want without worrying about what kind of progress is involved in the doing of the thing that we're up to. 'cause that doesn't really matter as long as we're happy, right? So, um... yeah! I'm happy being with you. But, uh..."

"Yes? What? Anything I can do?"

"Can I kiss you again? Because, um, I really did like it that first time."

"First..? Wait, haven't we—? Not even once since the aquarium?" she asked, rapidly searching her memory and coming up with a big fat zero. "I could've sworn we had... I mean, I've been spending almost all my time with you!"

"Right, right, but we haven't kissed SINCE then," Mallory pointed out. "We've had a lot of fun, don't get me wrong, but we were always watching video streams or you were reading the news while I cleaned or we were baking muffins together like today and I swear the blueberries weren't really all THAT inedible, you did fine—"

Before the boy could finish summarizing their entire relationship to date, Meiko decided to grant that second kiss.

It turned out pretty well, so she moved right to the third one.

Somewhere along the way, she was surprised to find her fingers fumbling at the buttons to her pajama top...

The next few moments were very interesting.

- - - - -

One moment...

It was called 'Urbana Standard Time,' but she knew it was a Bates who originally handed down the standard centuries ago. The PR department had apparently decided that calling it 'RealWare Standard Time' would be too egotistical, and opted not to call a spade a spade.

So, around two in the morning Urbana Standard Time, Gillian Bates was sipping coffee and humming a jovial little corporate jingle. There wasn't much point in sleeping, not when she had so much work to do—work both professional and personal, as she offloaded her organizer's files to her mainframe...

Ahhh, she thought, reviewing the holographic photo which popped up on her viewer. A fine memory to have this night...

"Who is that..?"

"Oh, just someone I met today in Restless," Gillian replied, running a finger along the tiny image. "Meiko Mirai, of Mirai Consulting; a tiny independent business firm, not worth buying out. But she's quite a remarkable woman, isn't she? Intelligent, ethical, handsome, a good conversationalist... don't worry, Multi, she's not a threat to my personal secur..."

He wasn't there when she turned around.

Hmmm. That's curious, she mused. He didn't even use the door.

- - - - -

One moment...

From the way he was braced against the back of the couch, he saw the purple flash of light over her shoulder well before she did. But both of them felt it, the inrush of air, the wrong presence in the room...

Her arms tightened around him, as his own fear tightened inside his heart at the sight.

"Reality shall be determined by the last one standing," Multi recited with a smile, as the room temperature around the pair rose eighty degrees.

There was screaming, but Mallory wasn't listening; instead, he was repeating one phrase to himself, over and over. I need to do it to save her, I need to do it to save her...

And then there was nothing, save for a burned-out hole in the middle of the couch.

- - - - -

After the romping and teasing went nowhere, and after Lorelei gave up (but pledged to discover the truth at a later date) both of them fetched towels and headed back into the house.

Or rather, tried.

"I don't get it. Is the thing stuck?" Lorelei asked, as Kisei again attempted to slide the simple wood-and-paper framed door open.

"That is not possible, according to the operations manual..." Kisei replied, having memorized said document the day after being hired. (Always know every exit in and out of a building innately, especially ones which used experimental cross-reality technologies.) But just to be certain, and to hopefully allay her concerns, she pulled on the door handle with every ounce of strength she had in one focused burst...

....and the door snapped off its sliding hinges, revealing nothing save for a brick wall. Not a reality link back to the house.

"Oh, joy," Lorelei groaned. "So here we are, stuck in Noyori Lab's onsen-a-verse with a broken door and nothing but two towels. I swear, I'm gonna—"

"The only way the mechanism could have failed in this manner is if the door on the other side was completely destroyed," Kisei spoke, stepping away from the brick wall, and fetching a nearby bathhouse mop as a makeshift weapon. "Otherwise, it would have responded with an error message. Something has happened back at the house. It would not be inadvisable to assume it is under attack by a certain hostile party."

"What? Kisei, you can't mean—"

"Do you know where Ryo's back door is?" she asked. "I know he has access to all of the onsens for technical support reasons, but it may be our only means to leave this place now."

"—of course," Lorelei replied... fetching a mop of her own, more familiar with double-ended weapons. "But I really, really hope you're wrong..."

- - - - -

Multi was quite pleased with himself, as he stood outside the burning wreckage of Mirai Consulting's mobile home. The dock's fire-prevention systems had contained the blaze, but just as he burned his last remaining rival, the burst was intense enough to utterly destroy the structure in a single moment.

Normally he would have shunned such a flashy display of power, since maintaining a low profile was essential... but with the death of the only one who could have stopped him, why bother restraining himself? It was almost time to put the wheels in motion, and there was no sense in skulking about now.

Of course, there was one loose end...

He glanced down at the sleeping child in his arms.

As the only survivor of the explosion which wiped out her family, no doubt she wouldn't be happy when she woke up. But there was no reason to kill this one; after all, she posed no threat, and children WERE the future. The future was of monument importance to Multi. It was the reason he did what he had to do.

Humming a corporate jingle to himself, he walked through reality, heading for home.

"For quality reality products and technical support, there's only one real choice, RealWare..." he sang.


He'd have to change that, of course. But there was time now. There was time for everything that needed to be done.

:episode complete

(unreal estate copyright 2003 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.